A big loss to British labour movement

Marcus Barnett

Max Levitas was a towering figure of Britain’s labor movement. A hardened enemy of the Blackshirts in the years before World War II, the Irish-Jewish communist devoted nearly a century to fighting injustice. With the death of Max Levitas, who passed away on Friday, November 2 at the age of 103, Britain has lost one of its most beloved Communist figures. An adopted son of London, and the East End particularly, Max was a towering figure in his local community, widely respected for his staunch advocacy of working people against racism and oppression.
With his passing, the broader labor movement has also lost one of its last remaining links to the heroic struggles against fascism, mass unemployment, and treacherous living conditions waged by millions of ordinary people in the 1930s. Max was a prominent working-class militant who played a central role in many of London’s great labor upheavals over the course of many decades. Even after his sad passing, his lifelong commitment to the cause of labor is an outstanding example for future generations.
Max’s first years were marked by Ireland’s fight for freedom. As a baby he survived the Easter Rising of 1916, which was centrally organized by the socialist republican James Connolly, a one-time local council candidate who had printed election leaflets in Yiddish. Max later recalled how during the War of Independence his mother attempted to shield him and his siblings from the bullets sprayed into houses by the Black and Tans (British auxiliary units) by putting cushions on the windows.
His father Harry, who had been a comrade of Connolly’s, was a tailor by trade, and his activity in the International Pressers and Machinists Union (known locally as the “Jewish Union”) brought him into perpetual war with Dublin’s sweatshop bosses. Once Harry had been blacklisted by practically all of the Irish capital’s garment employers, the Levitas family moved to Glasgow, and then on to Stepney in the heart of London’s East End.
After beginning work as a tailor in 1929, Max threw himself headfirst into the labor movement, joining the Young Communist League (YCL). After running afoul of police on several demonstrations, he eventually found himself in real trouble in 1934 when, at the age of nineteen, he was arrested for painting antifascist slogans on Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. Accompanied by fellow YCL member Jack Clifford, Max climbed onto the column to daub the slogans: “All out on September 9th to fight fascism,” “down with fascism,” and “fight fascism.”
His spirit of purpose reflected an increasing desperation in the socialist movement of this period. From Berlin to Vienna and Paris, the international situation was bleak for the Left, and Communists in Britain were determined to take to the offensive. In June 1934, Communists disrupting a BUF meeting in Olympia, London were brutally beaten by fascist stewards, prompting even Conservative MPs like Geoffrey Lloyd to express their revulsion at the display of fascist violence.
Having learned the lessons of Olympia, the Communist movement then delivered a victory for antifascism at Hyde Park. To quote a Daily Worker headline, the more than one hundred thousand antifascists were successful in “drowning the Blackshirts in a sea of working class activity.” This event dampened the enthusiasm of Oswald Mosley’s men, who became increasingly wary of holding rallies in working-class cities.
As the branch secretary of the YCL in the Mile End area of Stepney, Max was already a young but well-known veteran of a growing movement. Indeed, he was even the recipient of a name-check by Mosley himself, dripping in antisemitic innuendo:
The growing tensions between fascists and antifascists reached new heights when the BUF announced they would be marching through the East End on October 4, 1936. The idea was that Mosley would march from Tower Hill, where he could strut provocatively against the “rats and vermin from the gutter of Whitechapel.” At the time, Max was working as a tailor’s presser on bustling Commercial Street. Upon hearing of the march, he thought that “if they did march, there would be deaths, because the people around here have had enough.” (IPA/To be continued)

Sunday, 18 November, 2018