Reuben Falber

Key figure in British Communism

Wednesday 31 May 2006 00:00 BST

Reuben Falber, political activist: born 14 October 1914; Assistant General Secretary, Communist Party of Great Britain 1968-79; married; died 29 April 2006.

Reuben Falber was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain from the 1930s until the day the party's final congress decided to wind up the organisation at the beginning of the 1990s. He was the official responsible for most of the secret funding from the Soviet authorities; but it was also he who supervised the British party's decisive break with Moscow in 1968.

Outwardly modest, quiet, happier perhaps when behind the scenes, Falber was a key figure within the Communist Party's leadership for some three decades. If there were secrets the leadership did not want shared, he knew them better than anyone and protected them with a stubborn, sometimes ruthless, determination. As Assistant General Secretary from 1968 to 1979, he made sure that the party machine worked, that its businesses kept the budget on some sort of even keel, and that those outside the smallest of inner circles never knew the reality of where much of the money came from.

Not least of the secrets he guarded was that some of the oil greasing the party machinery lay in the loft of his Golders Green bungalow. Bags of used sterling notes had been transferred from the Soviet party coffers courtesy of KGB officers in the embassy in Kensington Palace Gardens. The fact of the funding and Falber's role in it only became public after Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika opened the books on the way the Soviet Union had been secretly funding Communist parties across Western Europe. In November 1991 The Sunday Times was able to find a Soviet Central Committee ledger entry detailing how a "Mr Falber" had received two payments of £14,000 and £15,000 in 1978.

The irony of this relationship was that, a decade before that entry, it had fallen to Falber to chair the meeting that unanimously voted to condemn the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 following the Prague Spring. Before that meeting, the party had only expressed "disagreement" with single actions by the Soviet leadership (the sacking of Khrushchev in 1964; the imprisonment of two prominent dissidents): "We were criticising the consequences of the system of rule, not the system itself," he said many years later.

Reuben Falber was born in 1914, the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants who worked as market traders. He left school at 14 and was apprenticed as a hairdresser as a result of family pressure to "learn a trade". In 1941 he was called up to the Royal Army Medical Corps but discharged after six weeks because of defective eyesight. He immediately became a full-time Communist Party official (having joined the organisation in 1937), first at Hendon in north London, and then running the party's work in the key industrial area of Yorkshire.

Falber remained a middle-level official until 1965 when he was elected to the party's executive committee with a brief to run its electoral work. In a rapid rise to the top, he became the Assistant Secretary in January 1968 at the same time as Alexander Dubcek took over the leadership of the Czechoslovak Communist Party and started dismantling the authoritarian regime sustained there since Stalin's time.

With John Gollan, the General Secretary, on holiday when the Soviet invasion took place late on 20 August, Falber organised the remaining members of the political committee the following morning. He recalled later: "We had no doubt what we should do. It was our responsibility to declare publicly our total opposition to the Soviet-led intervention." So the official who collected the Soviet money found himself on the steps of the party offices personally handing out the statement to the waiting reporters condemning the actions of his paymasters.

The secret funding had been started by the Soviet party in 1958, in the wake of Khrushchev's "secret speech" in 1956 denouncing Stalin's crimes and the huge haemorrhage of party memberships in Western Europe that followed. For the British party, the money mostly came in cash in shopping bags - for at least a decade handed to Falber at Barons Court tube station in west London.

During the 1960s, the annual totals reached £100,000. They fell off in the 1970s and ended, Falber stated, in 1979, at the request of the British side. As well as the danger of any withdrawal of the money, the Soviets were able to threaten the future of the daily paper, the Morning Star, by reducing the huge order for copies that were flown out each day from Heathrow.

The paper was not the only element in the network of party-related businesses that ranged from a book publisher, a travel company, a print works, a magazine distributor, and a special pension fund to a property company. It became Falber's job to manage the relationship between them, their finances, those of the party itself and the "fighting fund" of the Morning Star which raised large sums for the paper through small cash donations and provided a good route for laundering some of the Soviet money.

Using the money was not easy and long after the funding arrangement ended, Reuben still had cash available. In the 1980s, he funnelled some of the money left into new party ventures like the magazine Marxism Today and was able to offer a starting subsidy of £30,000 for a proposed weekly, 7Days, after the party and the Morning Star had separated.

This parallel financial arrangement to the published accounts of the party created considerable tension with the Treasurer, Denis Ellwand, who at the 1979 party congress made a determined but fruitless effort to get elected to the leading executive committee. Ten years later a group of younger members of the leadership pushed to have the financial arrangements of the party brought into the open but were as unsuccessful as Ellwand. Only at the very end of the 1980s was Falber's control of the network ended just before the vital foundation for it was exposed.

His comment when the exposure came was blunt: "For myself I can only say, like that great singer Edith Piaf, 'Non, je ne regrette rien' ".

That attitude made for a complex personality. When the party political committee met in the old headquarters in King Street, London, just beside Covent Garden fruit and veg market, Falber always took up position at the same corner of the square of tables, at the left of the General Secretary. For six years, as one of the editors of the Morning Star, I had the seat next to his. The persistent consistency with which he managed the secret of the Soviet money was displayed in the way he picked holes in our boxing reports, the daily starting point for his reading of the paper. Written at that time by Bobby Campbell, a Scot who went on to become deputy editor of The Scotsman, they were sometimes crafted in haste. Falber was a stickler for accuracy.

Perhaps the desire to free himself and the politics he was committed to from the constraint of secret Soviet patronage lay behind his determined attempt to persuade the editors of the Morning Star in the mid-1970s to drop the practice of having a correspondent in Moscow paid for out of the accounts of the Soviet party daily Pravda.

Once, I reported the fact that the paper was looking for a new correspondent to a meeting of the political committee, thinking this was only a matter of record so far as the rest of the members were concerned. But, this was a millstone around our neck, Reuben argued: it did the Communist movement in Britain nothing but harm, and left us in hock to the old guard in the Kremlin, unable to fully express the real sentiments of commitment to proper democracy that the party proclaimed in its programme.

Chris Myant

Chris Myant stresses that Reuben Falber kept his secrets well. He must have done so, because most of us didn't know anything about them, writes Peter Pink.

But Myant then claims to know that the People's Press Fighting Fund, which exists to collect money in order to ensure the continued existence of the Morning Star, "provided a good route for laundering some of the Soviet money".

It did not provide anything of the sort. I was the Organiser of the People's Press Fighting Fund from 1979 until I retired in 1994. I state categorically that all the gifts came through my hands. The overwhelming majority of the gifts arrived by post, delivered by the Post Office in the usual manner. Others came by standing order into the fund's bank account. A few, a very small number, were delivered directly by supporters visiting the Morning Star's offices. I also attended trade union and other labour movement gatherings, conferences mainly, and would personally bring collections back to the office. I also met groups of supporters and individual supporters who gave me gifts which I would take back to the office.

I did meet Reuben Falber from time to time, not surprisingly, since I joined the Young Communist League in 1945 and the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1947, But I never came across him other than casually and my area of work never crossed his.

Mary Rosser, the Organiser immediately prior to me, assures me that her experience matches mine.

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