This recorded address was made for the memorial meeting held to honour the life and work of our departed Comrade Avtar Jouhl on 19 November 2022 in Birmingham.
When Comrade Avtar first came to Britain, says Harpal, racism in Britain was rampant and extremely overt. Non-white workers were insulted to their faces on a daily basis, facing discrimination at work, in housing and in wider social life.
From the moment of his arrival, Avtar was vigorous in organising his fellow workers against these discriminatory practices, helping to found a Birmingham branch of the Indian Workers Association (IWA). It is thanks in no small part to their fearless and tireless work that many of the the pubs which once refused to serve workers of Indian origin are now owned and run by British Indians.
Harpal points out that while Avtar has been rightly commended for his antiracism and trade union activities in many obituaries, this narrow focus presents a distorted and very limited picture of Avtar and his life’s work and political vision.
Avtar, along with fellow leaders of the IWA like Jagmohan Josh and Teja Sahota, was guided by three core principles in all the work he undertook:
1. The need to mobilise not only black but also white workers against discrimination and racism. In this, they recognised that the struggle against racism was not a question of humanitarianism, but was in essence a class question. Race was (and continues to be) used as a weapon by the British ruling class to divide workers and keep them impotent in their struggle against capitalist exploitation. Racism must be fought be all workers because it weakens their movement. This was Avtar’s message and the principle that guided his antiracism work.
2. The recognition that immigrants came to Britain not because of the warm welcome that was extended to them but because their homelands had been so ravaged by the depredations of colonial and imperialist looting that it was impossible for many of them to make a living if they stayed where they were. Understanding this, Avtar and his comrades struggled not only against racism but against imperialism itself, which is the root cause of all workers’ ills in the modern world. To that end, Avtar sought to join the struggle of workers in Britain with the struggle of the oppressed people’s abroad for liberation and self-determination, and their was not a single struggle for national-liberation that Avtar did not support, from Vietnam to Palestine to southern Africa and more.
3. The understanding that under the conditions of capitalism, no struggle for better rights, for trade union organisation, or for decent pay and conditions, will ultimately be successful in solving workers’ problems, since they stem from the system of capitalist production itself. Avtar was always and above everything a fighter for socialism and the salvation that only a planned economy can offer to the workers of the world.
Avtar never shrank from bring Marxism-Leninism to the working class. He never succumbed to the opportunist calls to abandon Marxist language because it might ‘put people off’. Recognising that British workers have historically been very backward in embracing theory, he stressed the importance of the achievements made by workers who had grasped this theory and made revolutions by implementing its powerful tenets. That is why he continued all his life to give vocal and firm support to the USSR, to people’s China, to Cuba, to north Korea, to Vietnam, and to the people’s democracies in eastern Europe. He supported the work of the Stalin Society and upheld the legacy of great builders of socialism like VI Lenin, Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong, among others.
Our party was proud to count Comrade Avtar as a member, one who despite health problems in his last years continued to support our work and to put his faith in humanity’s socialist future. In particular, he actively fundraised to help establish our independent press, which he so greatly valued.
Farewell to Comrade Avtar, brother, friend and comrade-in-arms. Long may your memory be cherished by all those who knew and worked with you. Long may your example remain as an inspiration to those who follow.