Lindsey German writes a moving tribute for her friend and comrade, Chanie Rosenberg, a leading revolutionary socialist in Britain
The death of Chanie Rosenberg at the age of 99 marks not just the passing of a fine revolutionary socialist but also the end of that generation who built Trotskyist organisations in the very hard days of the 1930s and 40s against tremendous odds. Chanie was born in South Africa into a prosperous Jewish family of Lithuanian origins. She became political at a young age against a background of colonial rule and racism. She travelled to Palestine as a young ‘Trotskyist Zionist’ as she once described it, where she met Ygael Gluckstein (Tony Cliff). After the war and with the partition of Palestine looming they left to go to Europe and ended up in London. Cliff and Chanie were married for over 50 years and had a relationship based not just on love and mutual support but on a shared political commitment which they pursued with great enthusiasm all their lives.
Building a tiny group in Britain after the war was not easy and made harder by Cliff’s lack of immigration status and his forced domicile in Dublin for several years while she was in London. However Chanie managed to cope with caring for a young child during that time, as well as working as a teacher, and being politically active. The Socialist Review group in the 1950s had small numbers but high levels of political analysis and a constant relationship to activity – which allowed it to grow in the 60s and 70s to become the International Socialists and then the SWP. She had tremendous energy always – she was always active in campaigns and around issues from racism to strike solidarity. She described to me how she went on the CND Aldermaston marches in the late 1950s and walked 18 miles: ‘I couldn’t walk the last few miles because my legs gave in. I walked most of the way back over four days’.
It would be impossible to sum up the whole of her political activity because there was so much but there are a number of recurring themes. She was an important trade union militant in Hackney NUT and fought for a rank-and-file perspective at a time of growing militancy among teachers from the 1960s onwards. Very often at meetings she would start a contribution with ‘in my school’ and describe discussions, campaigns, disputes in great detail. Her activity in the union was constant during her working life, and she of course supported workers’ struggles everywhere – Grunwick, the miners’ strikes, Pentonville, but also many of the small and now forgotten disputes where she would stand on the picket line.
She was also a highly committed anti-racist. One of the first times I encountered Chanie was I think in 1974 during the GLC election where – incredibly as it seems now – school halls could be used for political meetings, including those of the fascist National Front. Living like her in Hackney I was mobilised along with many others to protest outside Haggerston School against one such meeting, only to suddenly find that we were breaking through the doors and into the hall itself which we occupied for several hours to prevent the fascists from gathering. She was key to defending the hall and keeping morale high. It was a good victory.
There were many battles like this throughout the 70s and east London was often a dangerous place – for black and Asian people but also for socialists and anti-racists. The level of racism in areas like Bethnal Green and South Hackney was high. Chanie fought against it from the late 1940s and again early 60s with Oswald Mosley trying to rebuild, in the 70s where we held many such demos, including helping defend the Brick Lane area from fascist attack and where too we held the huge Anti-Nazi League carnival in spring 1978. She was still campaigning in the Isle of Dogs and Welling in the 1990s, and still in this century right up until she was no longer able to demonstrate.
Chanie was a great internationalist and a committed anti-war campaigner. Someone once said to me that one of the reasons that the IS was so internationalist compared with some similar groups was because of the experience of Cliff and Chanie in Palestine during the British mandate, which gave them an understanding of British imperialism. Chanie recalled how she was shocked to see discrimination against Arabs there and how that made her an anti-Zionist, and she had of course ample experience of her own from South Africa. I think it had a profound and lifelong effect on her.
She was on protests over globalisation in Genoa, where she faced teargassing at the age of 79. She demonstrated against war – from CND to Greenham Common (she was very proud her niece Beeban Kidron made the film Carry Greenham Home) to the Stop the War Coalition, built solidarity with movements across the world from Vietnam to Portugal.
Chanie was at the centre of a large family, with four children, who she brought up in the middle of all this political activity. She was a great source of solidarity to Cliff, and he depended on her very much in all sorts of ways both politically and personally. She was – as well as all this – a talented artist and sculptor, a writer of a number of books and short stories and a great lover of the arts. I once did a meeting about Trotsky and art where I said that during revolution the masses embrace the best of bourgeois culture. She got up and said no, they embrace all such culture good and bad because they are so keen to enrich their experience and express themselves in artistic ways.
As a teacher and a socialist, she knew very well how many lives of working people are stunted and unfulfilled because of the class society in which we live. She fought against this all her life through her art, her political activity, and her comradeship and friendship to so many. I worked with Cliff closely for many years so I was often in the house in Allerton Road which was usually busy and chaotic. After threats from the NF it was decided to buy a guard dog to protect the house. George the dog as he was called became a less than fearsome but much loved part of the family. Chanie was very hospitable but also very active, driving off to meetings and picket lines in her car (she was without doubt the worst driver I have ever seen, but this never deterred her). After Cliff died, she still threw herself into activity of all sorts and I remember well her 80th birthday where she looked lovely in a new dress and we celebrated her life.
I regarded her as a friend and a comrade, whose work and dedication were an inspiration to each generation. Condolences to all her family and especially her children Elana, Donny, Danny and Anna, to her friends, and to her many comrades in Britain and across the world.
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As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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