An activist’s life

MIKE WADSWORTH reviews the recent biography of lifetime communist Edmund Frow, written by his wife.

Ruth Frow points out that this biography of Eddie Frow is largely anecdotal and is not the detached recital of a life that would have been produced by a biographer less closely involved with the subject. In this regard it is more akin to a memoir than a full-blown biography. With that proviso, this book is of interest to anyone who has an interest in labour history as it covers the life of someone who was active in the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), the trade union movement and who was the co-founder of the Working Class Movement Library in Salford.

Ruth Frow does provide some assessment of Eddie’s political development. She states that as a member of the CPGB during the late 1920s and early 1930s, Eddie Frow was as sectarian as the line of the CPGB at the time demanded. He also, like Ruth, remained in the CPGB after the invasion of Hungary in 1956 by the USSR, and after Khrushchev’s speech denouncing the excesses of Stalin.

Frow realised that he was defending something that was not particularly attractive within the USSR, but thought the only alternative to capitalism was socialism and therefore there needed to be an agent for social change. For him, this remained the CPGB throughout his life, until it transformed itself into the Democratic Left.

Frow was highly regarded as an activist and as a full-time official of the AEU. I suspect that much of this admiration was due to the fact that he spent much time working for the union, rather than pressing his political standpoint. He was much admired too by people working in the field of labour history, for preserving material that would otherwise have been lost, even if they did not agree with his political ideas.

Vivacious reader

Frow was born in Lincolnshire in 1906 where his family were tenant farmers. A vivacious reader, he came into contact with a wide range of ideas. His introduction to socialism came from attending an ILL meeting in Bradford; and from reading Lenin’s State and Revolution, followed later by the Communist Manifesto, Joseph McCabe’s From Nebula to Man, Engels’s Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Daniel de Leon’s Two pages form Roman History, and Bogdanov’s Short Course in Economic Science.

After leaving school he served an apprenticeship as an engineer. He took part in the general strike, for which he was sacked by his employer, but managed to finish his apprenticeship with another firm. He joined the CPGB in 1924. The 1929 Wall Street Crash left him unemployed for four years, a period during which he became active in the National Unemployed Workers Movement. He took part in the Battle of Bexley Square and was a model for one of the characters in Walter Greenwood’s novel Love on the Dole.

Once employed again Frow became an active shop steward, for which he was regularly victimised by his employers. It was said he left 21 jobs within the engineering industry, and he only left one of them voluntarily. He recruited workers into the trade unions (in one factory he recruited them into the TGWU as the AEU regarded them as unskilled and therefore ineligible) as well as remaining active in the CPGB.

Frow was elected secretary of the Manchester District of the AEU and remained so for the rest of his working life. When he retired he did not get a pension for the AEU – his employment with them was three months too short.

It was during this period as a trade union official, and after marriage to his second wife, Ruth, that the collection of books, pamphlets, banners and other material that was to become the Working Class Movement Library began to take shape. It grew, initially from their separate collections and soon expanded to such a size that every spare inch of their home in Old Trafford (including the toilet) was taken up with material related to the labour movement. Other people added their own collections to create an invaluable resource for all those interested in the study of labour history – and not just professional historians.

Eventually, the library was run by Salford City Council and was housed in Jubilee House. The Frows remained, however, helping the staff to catalogue the material and talking to groups and individuals who visited. After Ruth retired from teaching, the Frows produced several books, pamphlets, articles and lectures on topics such as Chartism in Manchester, Salford Trades Council and the early years of the CPGB in the area. These were very much joint efforts, with Eddie doing the research and Ruth doing the writing.

Eddie Frow died in 1997, of cancer. He has been described as one of the last generation of autodidacts. He was a worker-intellectual whose life story provides a way of examining the development of socialist politics in Britain in the 20th century. While Ruth Frow freely admits that such an in depth study is still to be written, this biography of her husband does give an idea of working life from the 1920s onwards. It is not a critical analysis of the problems caused by following the zigzagging policies of the CPGB.

A companion volume to Born With a Book in His Hand (edited by Michael Herbert and Eric Taplin), this is an affectionate tribute to someone who left us a major resource.

Edmund Frow (Eddie) 1906-1997: the making of an activist, is written by Ruth Frow.