Alex Callinicos pays tribute to an inspiring socialist campaigner who died last week
Julie Waterson, who died absurdly young at the age of 54 on Friday 16 November, was one of the most outstanding figures to have emerged from the Socialist Workers Party. Whether as organiser, party leader or activist, she inspired everyone who came into contact with her.
Julie came from Bathgate, West Lothian, and the close and loving ties binding her to her large family stayed with her in London, where she spent most of her adult life. She joined the SWP in 1978 while a student at Paisley Tech—she had been elected president of the student union there.
Julie moved to London in 1980 to work on the SWP magazine Women’s Voice. This was a time of intense discussion on the left about the relationship between Marxism and women’s liberation, and Julie threw herself into these debates.
She never lost a sense of the heavy burden of oppression borne by working class women like her, and saw the fight against it as central to the struggle for socialism. One of the first struggles she worked around was the 1981 occupation of the Lee Jeans factory in Greenock by 240 mainly women workers.
Julie worked full time for the SWP for 23 years. She was a local organiser in Edinburgh, east London and north London, party treasurer, journalist on Socialist Worker, and national industrial organiser. Between 1991 and 2003 Julie was a member of the SWP central committee, the party’s leading body.
To everything that she did, Julie brought a profound theoretical commitment to the revolutionary Marxist tradition, tremendous energy and attention to detail, great personal toughness—and overwhelming charm.
Physically tiny, she took people by storm with her directness, quick wit, and subversive sense of mischief and fun. The vast number of friends Julie made were for life.
They included the leading members of the Greek Socialist Workers Party, Panos Garganas and Maria Styllou, whom she met while covering Greece for Socialist Worker during the 1980s. I can bear personal witness to the love and support she gave her friends.
Julie’s greatest single political achievement was as national organiser of the Anti Nazi League (ANL) during the 1990s. It was her task to revive the ANL to deal with the new threat represented by the British National Party (BNP).
When French fascist leader Jean-Marie Le Pen visited London in 1991, Julie organised a picket and stormed his press conference. The message—that Nazis weren’t welcome in Britain—went round Europe.
The BNP’s noxious rise in the early 1990s was accompanied by a wave of racist attacks. Stephen Lawrence was murdered in April 1993 and in September the BNP’s Derek Beackon was elected as a councillor on the Isle of Dogs in east London.
Julie organised the Unity March that October, leading 60,000 people to demand the closure of the BNP headquarters in Welling, south east London. The result was a police riot in which Julie as chief steward was struck by batons. Undeterred, she appeared on TV the next day in the bloodstained white jacket she had worn on the demo.
At the same time as confronting the Nazis on the streets, Julie was careful to build a broad united front. She worked closely with Labour figures such as Peter Hain and Bernie Grant. Grant, then MP for Tottenham, and his wife Sharon gave her strong support over Welling.
Julie managed all this while working tirelessly in support of the six-month strike against a Thatcherite management by Timex workers in Dundee. She went on to mastermind the campaign in east London that drove Beackon out within a year of his election, and the ANL Rage Against Racism carnival that brought 180,000 to Brixton in May 1994.
Julie fearlessly confronted the Nazis in dozens of national and local protests, and helped to initiate Love Music Hate Racism in 2002. Along the way she found time to help socialists build in post-apartheid South Africa and led the party’s work in support of the long Liverpool dockers’ struggle in 1995-8.
Her role in leading the ANL drew Julie closer to Tony Cliff, the founder of the SWP, who greatly valued her political and organisational skills. She helped to move the party forward after Cliff’s death in 2000.
The first echo in Europe of the great movement against capitalist globalisation that began in Seattle in November 1999 came in Prague the following September. Demonstrators converged from all over Europe to protest at the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund.
In frightening and unfamiliar circumstances, Julie brilliantly commanded the large contingent of the International Socialist Tendency (IST), to which the SWP belongs. She also led the IST on another dangerous anti-capitalist protest in Gothenburg, Sweden, in June 2001, when the police shot a demonstrator.
In May 2003 Julie left full time work for the SWP. It was a difficult moment for her personally as well as politically. But she took in hand the necessary adjustment with characteristic courage and determination.
She became a lecturer at City and Islington College and—of course—an activist in the lecturers’ union. When the split in Respect in 2007 precipitated a serious crisis within the SWP, Julie played an important role in helping to set the party back on the right course.
Julie’s last three years were dogged by a succession of illnesses, culminating in the cancer that killed her. She confronted them all with courage, grace and humour.
By the time she left hospital after her last operation, she had won round all the staff, who would flee from her room giggling under Julie’s barrage of friendly abuse.
As it became clear that the operation had failed, a circle of friends and family closed round her, enveloping her in their love and support. They filled the room when she died.
It seems impossible that as vivid a personality as Julie’s no longer exists. But it is true. Alas, capitalism and fascism, the monsters she fought, are still with us. But Julie’s example can still inspire us in carrying on the struggle.
Julie Waterson’s funeral service will take place on Friday 30 November, 3pm, at Golders Green crematorium in north London. Assemble 2pm at Golders Green tube station for a march to the crematorium on Hoop Lane, London NW11 7NL
If you have condolence messages, tributes, memories or photos of Julie that you’d like to send to her friends and family, please email them to firstname.lastname@example.org