Obituary: Frank Dawe

Obituary: Frank Dawe

Comrade Frank Dawe died in hospital after a short illness in which time I was only able to visit him once. He was 59 years of age.

Frank joined the Party in February, 1936, although he had “seen the light” four or five years previously. During that time he was with the Party not only in the spirit, but in the flesh. He came to the local branch, attended outdoor meetings, and sold literature. When he at length signed on the dotted line it was but the formality of the fait accompli. During that time he was often economically in the red, yet he was sensitive, over-sensitive perhaps, in the payment of dues. He would have hated to ask them to be waived and so his actual membership hung fire for that reason.

Frank Dawe was a stormy petrel, blazing a path wherever he went. In adolescence he was fiercely anti-war and although liable for call up at the end of the first world war he succeeded in not being roped in.

As a young man he took an active part in an engineers’ strike at his father’s works. It was to cost him not only his job, but the business. Later, he cracked that he at least escaped the fate of becoming a Capitalist.

Frank Dawe had grim experiences of the two slumps after the first world war. In the 1921 slump he became caught up in the activities of the National Unemployed Workers’ Committee Movement. They were days of mass meetings outside the local Labour Exchange and often their dispersal by the Cossacks (mounted police). Of the besieging of the local relief station by hordes of unemployed; of forced entries into it in futile attempts to demand from the then Board of Guardians a little extra on outdoor relief. The arrival of the “flatties” and the ejection of the demonstrators; of derelict buildings taken over to serve as the headquarters of local unemployed organisations and centres of social activity, each ironically proclaiming itself as Poverty Hall; of unemployed marches in efforts to reach Parliament via Westminster Bridge and baton charges and broken heads. All of this Frank could recount mordantly. For the Communists who exploited unemployed organisations for political ends he used his most trenchant invective. For the unfortunate, but misguided, rank and file he never lost his sympathy.

We first met at the local Labour Exchange in 1928. Many future S.P.G.B.ers first met there. For many of us it became a social, political and cultural centre. A university where admittance could be gained by possession of yellow signing-on card, and where Marxism might be learned the hard way.

We began as opponents and ended as friends. Into my youthful hot-air idealism he at least breathed an icy realism. After that we went places together. I joined the N.U.W.M. and became its London organiser. We also joined the Communist Party together and left together. We passed through its amorphous body and appendages like a dose of salts. Just over 18 months saw us out at the right end. For Frank the Communist Party, Russia and all that was never “the God that Failed.” Rather it soon became a graven image to be mocked at. He learned to mercilessly satirise the C.P.’s pseudo-revolutionism, their histrionics and crude political melodrama.

Then we tangled with the S.P.G.B., but got so badly mauled in the clinches that we at length decided that it might be better to fight for the Party than against it. I joined the Southwark branch and Frank gave it his moral support. To that branch we brought many converts, all unemployed. From the S.P.G.B. being a political expression in S.E. London we made it a political force to be reckoned with. Only a book could do justice to its political epics and varied personalities among them was Frank Dawe. Shortly after we brought about the formation of the Lewisham branch in which Frank took an active part. It was that branch he subsequently joined.

He also largely initiated the reforming of the Camberwell branch of which he was a consistently active member, playing as he said, the role of the elder statesman.

Frank Dawe cut his Socialist teeth in a whirling vortex of activity; on the streets at the Labour Exchange, public libraries and elsewhere; a formidable and rumbustious protagonist for Socialism. It was the hectic crisis days when, vide the C.P., Capitalism was collapsing and they thought if they did not hurry they would not be in time to take it over. It was into this seething frothy excitement, always turbulent, sometimes violent, that Frank Dawe flung himself, a number nine pamphlet in one pocket and a copy of Engel’s “The Revolutionary Act” in another.

It was a time when the reading room of the local library was taken over by us and the CPers as a political forum without, of the course the conventional procedure. And where librarians vainly exhorted us to keep politics out of literature.

It was also a time when the Labour Exchange was jam-packed with signers-on. Somewhere in the seething maelstrom was invariably Frank, close pressed by a small crowd inside a big one. Above the din and tumult could be heard snatches such as—the dictatorship of the proletariat, the class struggle, the Gotha Programme—and counter-revolutionaries. This often resulted in the complete disorganisation of Labour Exchange procedure and incensed officials sending for the police to eject us, that is, if in the confused mass we could be found.

Frank had a wide and sure grasp of the essentials of Marxism coupled with a considerable cultural background. He had a deep appreciation of both classic and modern French literature which he read in the original. He was a mine of information on classical music to which he introduced me. He often suppressed his many sided cultural attainments, believing that it might imply on his part, pretensions and snob values and thus provoke unfavourable reactions among those he came in contact with.

Frank spoke and at times wrote for the party. He was a good outdoor speaker with a facility for illustrating various aspects of the party’s case. He could be a veritable cartoonist in words, imaginatively delineating a situation with a few bold strokes.

The comic muse must have presided at his birth. He had a sublime sense of the ridiculous and a rich seam of riotous humour. He not only told a good story—what Frank told an American professor and an English bishop would not pass the censor—but the best ones he told against himself.

Yet under his bluff and at times boisterous exterior lay a shy and sensitive person often apologetic and deprecatory of his work for the Party. He was something of a perfectionist, underestimating what he to give to the Party. It was a pity for he had much to give.

His attachment to the Party was deep and abiding, his class loyalties, passionate and sincere. He will certainly be remembered. For me, his death will not only be a Party loss, but a personal loss as well.

To his wife and family we express our sympathy in their misfortune.


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