British Trotskyist Charlie van Gelderen dies; Covered S. Africa news for Socialist Action

By TERRY CONWAY

 

Charlie van Gelderen, who for almost two decades wrote many articles for Socialist Action (mainly on political developments in South Africa), was the last survivor of those who attended the 1938 founding conference of the Fourth International in Paris.

Following is a shortened version of an article in the November 2001 issue of Socialist Outlook, the newspaper of Fourth Internationalists in Britain.

 

Charlie van Gelderen died peacefully at home in Cambridge, England, on Oct. 26 after a short illness at the age of 88. He was a member of the International Socialist Group (British section of the Fourth International).

Charlie was born in August 1913 in the small town of Wellington, 40 miles from Cape Town, South Africa. He became politically active as a young man, initially joining the Fabian Society, but in 1931 he became an enthusiastic supporter of the ideas of Leon Trotsky.

Together with his twin brother, Herman, he was instrumental in setting up the first Trotskyist organization in South Africa, the International Marxist League. Charlie was also involved in setting up the Commercial Workers Union in the Cape and for a time became its full-time secretary.

The South African Trotskyist movement split in 1932 in response to the “French turn,” the position put forward by Trotsky at the time urging his French supporters to enter the Socialist Party. Charlie supported Trotsky and was instrumental in founding a new organization, the Communist League, and edited its paper, Worker’s Voice.

In 1935 Charlie followed his comrade and future wife, Millie Mathews (who was to become mother of his daughters), to London. Once he arrived in Britain, Charlie linked up with the Marxist Group, whose best-known member was C.L.R. James.

By the time of the founding Conference of the Fourth International in 1938, the Marxist Group had disintegrated. Charlie was a member of the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL), which worked in the Labour Party as the Militant tendency, while James had gone on to found his own organization, which he represented at the FI conference.

The Fourth International was founded following the rise of Hitler in Germany, the defeat of the Spanish Republic, the Moscow trials, and under the clouds of impending world war. Charlie was convinced of the need for the new International under those conditions as an alternative to the betrayals of Stalinism.

During the Second World War Charlie joined the British Army Medical Corps and travelled first to Iraq and then to Italy. He openly organized Marxist educational classes among the troops. He went on to help form the first Trotskyist group in Italy, together with American comrades also stationed in the area and Italian comrades.

The importance of Charlie’s role in Italy was underlined by the fact that after the war, the leadership of the Fourth International tried to persuade him to return there and carry on that work. Charlie did not feel able to do this because he had a wife and child in England.

By the time Charlie returned to Britain, the RSL had come together with the Workers International League to form the Revolutionary Communist Party. Charlie became a prominent member of the leadership of this organization almost straight away.

The majority of the RCP was against entry into the Labour Party, but Gerry Healy had already formed a minority tendency fighting for entry. Charlie was himself in favor of entry but against a minority split on this basis.

The leadership of the Fourth International supported Healy and urged Charlie to do likewise. Soon Healy split and founded The Club, which would later became the Socialist Labour League (and subsequently the Workers’ Revolutionary Party). Charlie stayed in the RCP for a time, but then this organization decided to dissolve and go in with Healy.

Charlie remained a member of Healy’s organization throughout the period when the Fourth International split in 1953 in a debate over Stalinism and the role of mass Communist Parties; but he broke with Healy when he refused to re-join the reunified organization in 1963.

He then met up with Ken Coates and Pat Jordan, who by this time had launched The Week, and decided to join with them. Charlie was therefore a founder member of the International Marxist Group (IMG), which became the British section of the Fourth International. His main political activity was around South Africa solidarity.

Though Charlie had left South Africa as a young man he remained deeply committed to the political struggle there. He stayed in contact with comrades on the ground, and followed events closely. He was a long time member of the Anti-Apartheid Movement and served on its National Committee for some time.

In the early 1980s, the IMG changed its name to the Socialist League and then went through some serious political convulsions and divisions that finally led to its break up over undemocratic functioning. The continuity of the organization, the International Group, later fused with the Workers’ Socialist League, which itself had come out of the WRP, to form the International Socialist Group in 1987.

Charlie was a member of the Labour Party from September 1936 until March 2001. In many bitter debates in the Trotskyist movement, he argued that this was where revolutionaries should be active in order to win others to their political ideas.

However, the transformation of the party by Tony Blair led Charlie (along with many others) to feel that those days were now over. Thus he welcomed the formation of the Socialist Alliance and became a member of its Cambridge branch.

Charlie never lost his deep hatred of the capitalist system and the brutal misery it brings. His column for Socialist Outlook, which he kept up until illness struck in the summer, pulsated with his fury against the burden of debt, the scourge of HIV, the profits of the multinationals, and the hypocrisy of Blair’s new Labour.