Why we wrote about Saklatvala

Submitted by AWL on 2 March, 2021 - 6:49 Author: Sacha Ismail
Shapurji Saklatvala

Our new pamphlet on 1920s revolutionary socialist MP Shapurji Saklatvala is out now and can be bought here (profits from the first print run go to the Sage care workers’ strike fund). Its author Sacha Ismail explains why he started reading about Saklatvala and we decided to produce the pamphlet.

When I first joined Workers’ Liberty, twenty years ago, I read an article about the history of the Labour Party. Written in 1996 by Sean Matgamna, it cited Saklatvala as an important figure, quoting Communist and Trotskyist veteran Harry Wicks – active in the Battersea labour movement at the same time – on the kind of working-class representative he was.

I was fascinated and thought we should look into Saklatvala more. But I didn’t quite get round to it, for many years.

The 1990s saw the publication of three biographies of Saklatvala – by Mike Squires, his daughter Sehri Saklatvala and Marc Wadsworth – but I never came across them. When I started writing in 2020 Wadsworth’s book was out of print and I see Squires’ is now out of print too. I don’t remember any more passing references either. I largely forgot about Saklatvala for a few years. Then in 2015 Jacobin carried a piece which I now know essentially summarises Wadsworth’s biography Comrade Sak, concluding with an attempted comparison of Saklatvala to Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn.

That reignited my interest, but not quite enough to get off my arse. In 2017 we did include Wicks’ recollections in our Corbyn-era reprint of How to Fight Elections, about the 1987 election in Wallasey.

Then, last year, the combination of the BLM protests and the surge of discussion about “BAME” politics, and having more time on my hands for reading and writing, pushed me a bit further. I started looking into what books were available. Finally, last summer, a comrade who’d got David Rosenberg’s Rebel Footprints book of radical walking tours took me round the one in Battersea, and I decided to start reading properly and see what I could write.

Saklatvala was an extremely significant figure in the history of the British labour movement, working-class socialist representation and anti-colonial struggles, particularly the Indian independence movement. Yet he is not at all widely known, particularly not among younger activists.

Few people have read any of the biographies (there is an earlier one, by Panchanan Saha, which I still haven’t got hold of, though some student comrades are working on it for me…) I only found out the second edition of Wadsworth’s Comrade Sak was coming out when I’d finished five of my six articles. It was very useful when I came to redrafting the articles into a pamphlet, and I included a review of it. I should also mention Priyamvada Gopal’s 2019 Insurgent Empire, which includes a chapter on Saklatvala.

Alongside these books, I hope the pamphlet and meetings and discussions around it will contribute to bringing Saklatvala’s story and struggles to a wider audience and inspiring a new wave of interest in him.

In the context of arguments about black and Asian struggles and representation, the future of the Labour Party, “decolonising” history, and the meaning of anti-imperialism today, Saklatvala and the movements he contributed to are essential knowledge.

The concluding section of the pamphlet tries to draw out important aspects of the story and frame some political lessons for today. As I put it right at the end:

“For socialists who want to use intervention in mainstream political life, including elections and Parliament, to help build up working-class organisation and struggles, transform our stagnant, nationalistic labour movement, and create a revolutionary force rooted in the working class, all this is full of inspiration and potential lessons. Particularly so in an ever more globally interconnected capitalist system and a UK whose working class is ever more diverse and ‘global’ – and where BAME and migrant workers are at the forefront of working-class struggle...

“In 2015, with the rise of ‘Corbynism’, there was a flurry of interest on the Labour left, quickly subsiding. Attempts to link him to Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn, whatever the merits of these figures, dramatically understate his radicalism and importance. Saklatvala is part of an alternative tradition, far more dangerous to those working to keep labour movements subordinated to national states and the interests of capitalism.”

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