Bob Purdie (1940-2014) wrote several autobiographical essays on his Facebook page. In his last few months he also started publishing his lectures and essays. Several essays deal with Purdie’s days in the Revolutionary Marxist Group (IMG).
The Black Dwarf was a success because it captured the élan of the 1968 revolutionary left. It was irreverent, polemical, internationalist and full of news that wasn’t in the mainstream press It also had an editor of genius in Tariq Ali. He knew what kind of paper he wanted, who could write the copy and who could design pages that exploded with life. Up until then the only models were the boring papers of the leftie sects, the cynical columns of Private Eye and the psychedelic Hippie papers like Oz and IT. Tariq put revolutionary politics into a paper that broke the stories the Establishment didn’t want us to read and had the innovative designs of the New Age counter culture.
The highest point for the paper was its debate with Tribune in January 1969. The Central Hall, Westminster, was packed with young people who were, overwhelmingly, on the side of the Dwarf. Tariq Ali and Bob Rowthorn were on one side, Michael Foot and Eric Heffer were on the other. Laurence Daly the Mineworkers’ Union leader, was in the chair. He began by returning to Tariq the shirt he had borrowed in Hanoi, when they were both on the Bertrand Russell War Crimes Tribunal.
The main speakers treated each other with respect and good humour but there were a number of venomous contributions from the floor. The sects were circling, trying to feed off this unprecedented upsurge of young people. They still thought that the best proof that they were right was to expose the errors of everyone else. It was a sign that less had changed on the revolutionary left than we had hoped.
The most dramatic contribution came from Robin Blackburn of the New Left Review. He came to the rostrum to announce that the students in the LSE, where he was a lecturer, had just taken sledgehammers to the internal gates put up by the authorities to prevent a repeat of the occupation the previous October. He declared that this was the way forward for the left – action not words. Of course he was sacked and no-one occupied in his support.
The debate showed that, while the Dwarf had supplied a sense of purpose and a common identity to the youthful left, it remained amorphous and could only be organised around particular events. But there wasn’t going to be a repeat of the October 27th mobilisation and an amorphous movement would inevitably dissipate. So, although Tribune lost the debate it survived, but the Black Dwarf didn’t. The IMG now supported the creation of a new paper, the Red Mole. It continue all the innovations of the Dwarf, but it would organise its readers, not just propagandise to them.
There was an ideological conflict of the Editorial Board of the Black Dwarf, in which Tariq and the other IMG members argued for a greater organisational commitment and the others wanted to it remain as a broad left paper. An IMG member, John Weal, had access to family money which he could use to start a business. He created a printing shop, with premises at 182 Pentonville Road which were used as offices for the press, for the IMG and, after a time, for the Red Mole. The IMG had already moved in, and I was working there as London Organiser, when Tariq rang to say that the Dwarf board had split and that the IMG members along with two supporters were leaving to establish the new paper.
The premises at 182 Pentonville Road consisted of a single storey front shop, with a basement and two floors of offices. It was owned by an off-the-shelf company called “Relgocrest”, of which I was a director. I learned about that later, when Tariq told me he had signed the forms on my behalf. The print shop was a commercial operation. It did jobs for local businesses and also printed other left wing publications – early editions of Gay News were printed there. It also printed Socialist Woman , and IMG pamphlets including my one Ireland Unfree.. One external job I remember was an edition of a pamphlet originally published in Dublin, with photographs of the Provisional IRA in action. Another one was a selection of quotations from Kim Il Sung, for which I believe we were paid quite a lot of money. Tariq fixed it up and the Tendency were outraged.
In the basement was a large room used for various activities, like making posters, organising for demos and etc. There was a storage room at the back which contained piles of back numbers of the Mole. There was also a small room which opened onto a back yard. This contained, in order of importance, a boiler and my desk as London Organiser of the IMG.
On the first floor was the editorial offices in which Tariq worked and where the camera ready copy for the Mole was prepared. The offset litho process required pasting up the typeset copy and illustrations onto sheets which were photographed as negatives onto metal plates and fixed to the machine. A lot of the art work for the early editions was done by jobbing designers who came in for a few hours. I remember working on the centre spread of a special supplement on Northern Ireland with Peter Till, later to be a regular Guardian artist. It was remarkable how quickly he turned a photograph of a riot in Derry into a dramatic and balanced composition.
Stored on that floor were copies of left wing and New Age publications, with which the Red Mole had an exchange arrangement. That was where I first saw Robert Crumb’s cartoons. Some of the Hippie newspapers and magazines from the USA were obscenely male chauvinist. It is a measure of the impact of the Feminist critique of pornography that this kind of material disappeared from the scene very quickly after the emergence of he Women’s Movement. On the top floor, there were offices for the printing business and the IMG.
With Tariq on the premises there was always lots of gossip and fun, practical jokes, insulting songs and parodies. Tariq’s office had a large psychedelic collage on one wall with cut out photographs of dead and living revolutionary heroes, the shape was a bit like a Native American Chief’s head. I suggested that we put a photo of it in the Mole and accuse the Black Dwarf of breaking in and committing an act of vandalism.
Visitors from overseas would drop in, I once opened the front door to Joseph Hanson whose face was frozen into a look of stern disapproval. But then he always had that expression. More welcome were French comrades such as Gerard (a party name – I never knew his real one). Small, thin and sallow he exuded humour – he got a great kick out of the name plate on the premises next door, it was an ex-army organisation known as the “Old Comrades Association.”
In that building I learned how to organise and I also learned how to write. And over the next few years what I wrote about mostly was Ireland. If you want to read some of what I wrote, and learn more about the Red Mole, then follow this link. http://redmolerising.wordpress.com/