Ian MacDonald: Class Warrior, Marxist-Humanist
Ian MacDonald, a leading contributor to The Hobgoblin, has died from cancer, aged 52. As Unison lead convenor for Surrey, Ian made a video for his trade union colleagues from his hospital bed, with solidarity greetings on the ongoing struggles in children’s services. “But at the moment,” he said “I’ve got my own fight; I wish you the utmost the very best and in yours.” Days later Ian lost the fight.
When, in 2004, Ian joined the London Corresponding Committee – the British Marxist-Humanist organization – he was no stranger to left-wing politics. Politically, during the final years of the old Cold War politics, Ian never saw any contradiction in opposing both Stalinism and capitalism; as a militant young shop steward in a west London engineering factory in the early 1980s, he caused consternation among Communist Party union officials by distributing Polish Solidarnosc badges to fellow workers. As a revolutionary socialist, he spent some years, first in the Socialist Workers Party, and then in the British affiliates of the Fourth International, finally leaving them (and the Blairised Labour Party) in 1996. In the changed world of post-communist globalisation Ian increasingly began to question the vanguardism of the Trotskyist left. At the turn of the century he was introduced to Marxist-Humanism by Chris Ford, one of the founding editors of The Hobgoblin (now with The Commune).
By the time Ian joined the Corresponding Committee he had been working as a social worker for some years at Surrey County Council, in the difficult field of child protection. In 2005, newly married to his beloved Carol and happily ensconced in leafy Horsham, Ian had decided he wanted to leave social work; partly because he found the job stressful, but also because he wanted to do more studying and political/philosophic work. As preparation for a change to part-time employment he retrained as an electrician (a previous profession of his) and passed his electrical exams. But when, in 2006, Surrey County Council decided to restructure services and sack elements of the workforce whilst increasing workloads for hundreds of staff, Ian decided there was a union struggle there to be fought which had to come first.
In early 2006 the Unison branch’s annual general meeting mandated officers to call a ballot for industrial action if job losses were threatened. But when it came to the crunch the branch union leadership ignored their mandate. In response Ian called a number of meetings to discuss the issues and organise a fight back. With staff in social services spontaneously organising against the cuts, Ian challenged the existing Unison leadership, who were duly voted out at a branch committee. The result was a new leadership, with Ian as branch secretary, elected on a platform of fighting against cuts and job losses.In an article for Hobgoblin Ian related his philosophic perspective to this particular struggle very concretely:
“The nature of union organisation was and is a combination of individual representation and collective action. The branch has discussed what are, in essence, philosophical and political questions; of how to fight back and involve staff as subjects, rather than objects. This has meant representing members’ individual concerns and linking them in practice toward collective action to defend members who are sacked. It also has a future perspective in planning for further attacks on staff and services by means of further cuts and outsourcing. Traditionally, the Left has had a rather negative stance towards casework. This has meant that the wishes of individuals cannot be addressed in the first place and therefore the link never made with the possibility of collective action. The dialectic between initial ‘selfish’ and then collective actions to meet both individual and collective need is never resolved. The leadership of the branch is not a vanguard leadership that has set itself the task of being consciously two steps in front of the workers and taking them through transitional steps so that their eyes can be opened. Instead, this is a leadership that involves elements of the class who are at different levels but spontaneously organising to defend themselves as individuals and as a class.”
After attending the Unison national conference in July 2007 Ian wrote:
“What is needed in Unison and across other public sector unions is a public sector alliance which is based on the struggles of rank and file members and integrated with a study of Marxist ideas that are concrete to the lives of workers who are being sacked on a daily basis, outsourced and having their real wages cut. It is vital that workers study Marxist ideas and learn from their own struggles and other struggles internationally, so that they can form a concept of a free socialist society and what the nature of that society would be. It is important that this can happen without pre-established ‘lines’ drawn up by vanguard organisations and that workers think for themselves by studying original texts and not just the summaries of any particular central committee member.”
In December 2008 government Ofsted inspectors, investigating the failure of Child Protection Services in the north London to borough of Haringey to protect an at-risk child (‘Baby Peter’), revealed that managers of Child Protection Services had been able to "hide behind" false data to earn themselves a good rating from inspectors just weeks after Peter’s death in 2007. Shortly afterwards Ian was contacted by the BBC Panorama production team who were researching childcare issues in Haringey, and in Surrey, where the Council had just received a miserable one-star rating with regard to its safeguarding of childrens’ services and the ability of its senior management to implement the necessary changes. Ian later appeared in the program along with four social workers who were interviewed anonymously.
“When I was interviewed by Panorama's Alison Holt, we started to discuss the general problem of doing good social work, whilst not being able to critically evaluate a potential grave risk to a child because of the pressure to do paperwork and go on to the next job. In essence I tried to put a broad-brush argument for quality versus quantity, which at last is being debated in a limited fashion in the national media.”
Ian made a number of points that didn’t get into the final edit.
“I made the point at the end of the interview that the real issue here is, ‘what type of society to we want?’ If we really want to protect children then we have to look seriously at the resource implications which show that funding for social care is minuscule compared to education funding and poses the question: does the present type of society really care about protecting children or does it care about being seen to be doing just enough and blaming hard-pressed staff when something goes wrong?”
Ian’s approach to radical politics combined realism and idealism in a unique way. He had no illusions about the awesome challenge of building a philosophically-based alternative to capitalism; and he fully believed in the power of ideas to overturn the world. For him, grappling with Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind and Raya Dunayevskaya’s Philosophy and Revolution, or fighting the machinations of management and right-wing union bureaucrats were part of the same struggle; he didn’t separate his personal philosophic development from building a new Left for the 21st century.
He fought managers and bureaucrats without rancour or personal vendetta. Within the Left he fought the battle of ideas in a comradely manner, with respect for his opponents, but without ever compromising his principles. He will be remembered by friend and foe alike. For his Marxist-Humanist comrades he remains unforgettable. We extend our deepest sympathy to Ian’s wife Carol, his family, colleagues and friends.
The London Corresponding Committee
24 November 2009
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COMMENTS AND MESSAGES
From Surrey County UNISON
Press release: For immediate use
SOCIAL WORKER. TRADE UNIONIST. MARXIST-HUMANIST.
It is with great sadness that Surrey County UNISON has to report that Ian MacDonald, a long-standing UNISON activist and our lead convenor for social care died on Sunday morning at 6am. Ian had been ill for some months and was diagnosed with cancer only a few weeks ago. Although Ian was a fighter, this was one fight too many.
Paul Couchman, Branch Secretary, said “Ian was one of a kind - an honest, hard working and committed trade unionist and socialist - who always put the needs of members first. Ian was never afraid to speak up for workers and spent his entire life organising and defending workers in Surrey, in Britain and Internationally. Many of the rights, terms and conditions we take for granted in Surrey would not exist if Ian had not been at the fore.
One of the last things Ian did was to make a short video message offering his solidarity to colleagues in children’s services, which was played to UNISON members at a meeting on Friday. This video is available on our website.
I knew Ian personally for thirty years. We met in the Labour Party Young Socialists (youth section of the Labour Party) in the early eighties. Like many, we both left the Labour Party when we felt it had turned on working people. Ian grew to be a comrade, a political confidant and a close personal friend. He will be sorely missed.
Many of you sent get well wishes when you heard that Ian was ill. We also have many donations towards a collection for him and his family. We will pass all of these on to his wife, Carol, and if any of you would like to send your condolences we will make sure all of these are also kept and given to Carol. Any donations should be sent to the UNISON office (cheques to Carol MacDonald). Details of the funeral are not finalised. If you would like to attend let us know and we will pass on this information when we get it.
At this stage, I do not know what else to say. UNISON will make sure that Ian's work and commitment is continued and built upon. This is the least we can do.”
Our thoughts are with Carol and with Ian's family and friends. Those who wish to send condolences are asked to send them to the Surrey County UNISON office either by post or email, and an online condolence book will soon be made available on our website for friends, comrades and colleagues of Ian to leave their comments.
We have some material on our branch website (www.surreycountyunison.org.uk including a video message of Ian which was made a week before he passed away - fittingly he was offering his solidarity to workers in Surrey Childrens' Services in their struggle, and an online condolence book - please do encourage your readers to sign it.
We have also made a point of highlighting Ian's politics. Everything he did was to help the working class acheive power and we know that his Marxist-Humanism was at the core of everything we did. As socialists ourselves, we recognise the driving force behind Ian's activity and his desire to help workers understand the ideas of Marx to achieve their liberation.
We are looking at getting a fitting tribute to Ian - though we realise that Ian would turn in his grave if we did something like a bench and a tree! We are looking to establish a memorial library of Marx's writings which would be accessable to workers in Surrey and beyond. We will naturally keep you updated on developments with this.
Thank you for your message of solidarity, and likewise, we offer our full solidarity with the comrades of Marxist-Humanism as we do indeed stare at a future without Ian fighting by our side.
From Kevin B Anderson (US Marxist-Humanists)
What awful, shocking news! A real loss to Marxist-Humanism and to each of us who had the pleasure of knowing this fine man, who has left the world the height of his intellectual powers.
From Peter Hudis ( US Marxist-Humanists)
We extend our deepest sympathies to the LCC, to Ian's wife Carol. and to all who knew this wonderful and inspiring friend, co-thinker, and comrade.
From Chris Ford (The Commune)
I am as you can imagine gutted and stunned. It does not seem real. Its a sad day for the movement, things just wont be the same without Mac.
From Anne Jaclard (Marxist-Humanist Initiative - US)
What a shock, and what a tragedy. It’s difficult to believe that someone so full of life and so dedicated to Marxist-Humanism is suddenly gone. I will always treasure the contributions he made to the U.S. movement through his proletarian perspective and his Left experience–and most of all, his passion for a new society.