A life for the class struggle: Rob Dawber, 1956-2001

Submitted by martin on 1 December, 2021 - 9:39 Author: Sean Matgamna
Injury to One is Injury to All

From the pamphlet An injury to one is an injury to all, 2001. Reprinted, abridged, in Solidarity 616, 1 December 2021


Of the large number of people in Britain who have declared themselves “revolutionary socialists” in the last 30 years, few have been called upon to pay any price higher than the expenditure of time and energy for that privilege.

Few British socialists have had to suffer imprisonment, or police harassment, or job loss, or any other form of persecution. Very few have lost their lives in the struggle.

Blair Peach was killed by a policeman’s illegally-leaded truncheon on an anti-fascist demonstration in east London in 1979. Kevin Gately died during an anti-Nazi march in central London, a few years earlier.

Rob Dawber died of a cancer which he developed as a result of exposure to asbestos. But his death was as directly related to his activity as a socialist militant as if he had been struck down by a policeman’s truncheon or a bourgeois soldier’s bullet.

He was exposed to asbestos because he had a job as a track worker on the railways. Rob, who had graduated from Leicester University, went to work there because he wanted to be part of the labour movement. Rob went on to be an active member of the RMT for over two decades, for many years secretary of his branch in Sheffield. But Rob did not get involved in these things in order to be a worthy citizen of the labour movement. Rob’s choice of work was a political act in the struggle to reforge a socialist labour movement.

Like others, Rob had gone to college with the idea of equipping himself to “get on” in the bourgeois world, but by the time he left, Rob was a Marxist, and a member of a revolutionary socialist organisation — the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. Rob was still an active member when he died.

This was a time when much of the left concerned itself mainly with cheering for nationalist-Stalinist movements in far away places. At home, much of the left defined itself in terms of the fight to drive the then very powerful fascist National Front off the streets, and by support for single-issue campaigns on the rights of women, of gays, of black people...

Rob knew that all these issues were tremendously important. He knew that the working class can never be properly united so long as bigotry, racism, sex inequality and intolerance are strong. He knew that a socialist movement that did not fight for equality and against exclusion and bigotry, in all of its many forms, would be a sham and a deceit — a living affront to its own stated ideals.

He took part in campaigns on all these questions. When he was becoming a Marxist, Leicester, because of its big contingent of Asian immigrants, was an important centre of fascist activity and the scene of many marches and clashes between socialists and the National Front.

Rob was active against the racists and the fascists. But he learned that socialists who do not put the working class and the working class movement at the centre of all their hopes and perspectives, are socialists who have lost the plot.

He believed, with Karl Marx, that “the emancipation of the working class is also the emancipation of all human beings without distinction of race and sex". He understood that without the emancipation of the working class from capitalism, the necessary sectional movements against aspects of life under capitalism — racism, sexism, etc. — could at best achieve only a partial and insecure victory.

He understood that the working class is the only force in capitalist society capable of remaking society into something more serviceable to human needs, and more tolerable to human ideals that aspire to a condition of life higher than the bestial war of all against all that characterises life under capitalism.

He knew that the great watchword of labour movements — solidarity! — expresses not only the guiding principle of immediate working class unity in action against the employers. That principle is expressed in the old saying — an injury to one is an injury to all. But solidarity can also mean more, the ideal of a world remade according to the high ethic of human solidarity — in its fully developed form, socialism.

Rob was a straightforward, down to earth man. Once he became convinced of these ideas, everything else followed. The socialist organisation to which Rob Dawber belonged encouraged ex-students to find jobs in industry so that they could participate in the economic class struggle and in the bedrock trade union movement. Rob, not long out of university, decided that it was his duty to put his life where his socialist convictions were.

He decided to be a working class militant — to work to remake the labour movement so that the labour movement can remake society: he decided to devote his time, energy, brains and guts — in other words, his life — to the struggle for socialism. In pursuit of that, he became a railwayman.

It was in the course of that work that he suffered the injury which, despite an outstandingly brave two-year battle against it, finally killed him.

His was an altogether more terrible death than policeman’s baton or soldier’s bullet might, in different conditions, have inflicted on him. And he met it with courage such as few victims of direct bourgeois violence have to find in themselves.

Rob Dawber was a victim of capitalist greed — one of many thousands of workers allowed to work with asbestos without proper protection long after it was known that asbestos is lethal.

Those responsible for his death were shown in court during Rob’s compensation case to have been perfectly aware of the risks Rob and other workers incurred on their behalf. They thought it too expensive to provide them with protection! Rob was a victim. But he was not a passive victim: he was there, on the railway, to fight the bastards. And he did, to the end.

Made redundant, he turned his hand to writing. Ken Loach has made a film, The Navigators — which Rob was able to view just before he died — of Rob’s script about railway privatisation. In this class war by other means, on a different front, Rob was still fighting the greedy, callous, inhuman brutes who killed him. (Image from ad for the film below.)

I knew Rob Dawber for 25 of his 45 years. When I heard that he had been given only months to live, I rang Rob and we talked for quite a while. I was myself ailing, and perhaps, so it seemed, seriously ill.

I listened to Rob, who knew that no one had ever survived the disease he had, but yet was full of fight and courage and plans to find a way to beat it. He was otherwise fit and healthy, he was in the prime of life, he had never poisoned himself with tobacco: maybe they could experiment on him, develop new drugs, perfect new techniques; there was a possible operation in America... I listened to Rob and felt ashamed of my own inner wimpishness.

Everybody else I know who had contact with Rob in the last period of his life experienced the same bracing backwash from the courage, even ebullience, with which he faced odds he couldn’t beat in a fight he could not win. A couple of weeks before he died he was still fighting to get himself selected as Socialist Alliance candidate to fight the incumbent Blairite in a Sheffield constituency...

In extremis people find in themselves courage and inner resources they didn’t know they had. Rob Dawber’s courage was, even so, special, indeed spectacular. Of course it was “personal” — the man Rob was. But there was, I suspect, a little bit more to it.

For his entire adult life, Rob felt himself to be part of something bigger and more important than himself — the labour movement in which he worked and which he sought to serve.

Rob was a fighter convinced that here and now he represented and promoted the ideals and methods of a better labour movement — the working class movement of the future, which he struggled to bring into existence.

Nonetheless, he was a citizen of the movement that exists here and now. He was of, for and with that movement, and — within it — of, for and with the socialist minority. That is what gave meaning to his life; it was the meaning he chose to give his life. And it is a meaning that transcends his life. He knew that, and he spent most of his life working to ensure that it would be so.

He knew that the labour movement goes on and that the socialist fight will go on — that it will go on as long as capitalism and capitalist exploitation go on.

Some, maybe only a little, but some, of Rob Dawber’s startling courage came from his sense of being part of something that transcends the individual lives of those, like Rob Dawber, who give it life — the struggle for the emancipation of the working class from capitalism, and thereby for the emancipation of humankind from class society.

Leon Trotsky says somewhere that we only die completely when we fail to take root in others. Rob Dawber did succeed in rooting himself in others. There is quite a lot of Rob Dawber left.

HIS pamphlet is about the class struggle with which Rob was involved. One central battle of Rob’s political life — he wrote about it in his film — was against rail privatisation. Through workplace bulletins and a national rank and file bulletin, Off The Rails, Rob tried to organise the fight against privatisation. Unfortunately the leadership of his union — the RMT — was not up to the fight. And so Rob, and others, were forced to organise the rank and file to fight in spite of their union leadership. The story is told here through extracts from articles Rob wrote.

The consequences of the railways being leached for profit through privatisation have been obscene. The workforce maintaining the track was cut by half. People paid with their lives at Paddington and Hatfield. Now Railtrack is in the hands of receivers there is an opportunity for the labour movement to debate the future of the railways. New Labour, which promised to renationalise while it was in opposition, is searching round for measures to “save the railways” that fall far short of this.

“Nationalisation of the railways” is our demand but we also have to bear in mind that working for railways under British Rail was no picnic. Rob suffered the consequences of poor working conditions under BR. Our demand for nationalisation of the rail industry has to go hand in hand with the idea of workers’ control. And it was this idea — of putting the needs of the workers, and passengers, at the centre of the organisation of industry — that Rob fought for all his life.

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