Ceri Evans, 1965 – 2002: An Obituary
Ed George, Darren Williams, Leanne Wood and Brendan Young
IT IS difficult to make an objective assessment of the life of someone who has only just died, especially when that someone was as close to us – as a friend and comrade – as was Ceri Evans, who took his own life at the beginning of August at the age of 36. Nevertheless, it is necessary to mark his passing.
Ceri was first drawn to revolutionary politics as a teenage activist in the anti-missiles movement of the early 1980s. He joined the International Marxist Group, British Section of the Fourth International, in 1981 – in the same month as his sixteenth birthday. From then until the day he died he remained a revolutionary socialist, an internationalist, a Marxist, and an irreconcilable atheist.
As a revolutionary socialist in Wales for over 20 years Ceri participated in a range of struggles. He played a prominent role in CND and Youth CND in the early 1980s. He was arrested on the picket line during the 1984-5 miners' strike. He worked full time for Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg. He acted as secretary of the Cardiff Miners' Support Group during the fight against pit closures in 1992. He was active in the struggle against the poll tax and against the Blair clique's rewrite of Clause Four.
For Ceri revolutionary socialism was nothing without internationalism. He was a consistent opponent of British imperialism's presence in Ireland, which led him to oppose the Good Friday Agreement. He was infuriated by the suffering inflicted on the Palestinian people. He recently came to the view that Palestine occupied the same place for the left today that Spain had in the 1930s and suggested the setting up of a Medical Aid for Palestine campaign in Wales.
But Ceri was not just an "activist", pursuing one "good cause" after another. He wrestled with Marxist theory and came to a deep understanding of its fundamentals. For Ceri, not only was it true that "without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary practice". But that Marxist theory, divorced and separated from practical living struggles, would only finish as meaningless dogma. The dialectical unity of theory and practice – the heart of the Leninist conception of revolutionary organisation – was at the core of his understanding of politics.
Ceri's foremost political contribution is in relation to the national question: both in general and specifically with regard to Wales. The IMG had taken – almost uniquely among the English-dominated revolutionary left in Wales – a serious and enquiring approach towards Welsh national identity, its history, and its consequences for revolutionary socialism.
Ceri built upon the work of the IMG and related it to the rise of national movements both in western Europe and in the former Soviet Union and East European "people's democracies". Aided by other comrades and by the work of the late Raymond Williams, he developed an understanding of how the struggle against national oppression lay at the heart of the struggle for socialist revolution.
Ceri favoured Welsh self government, expressed in the demand for a Constituent Welsh Assembly: an Assembly which would have full power to decide on all aspects of its functioning and its international relations, without being subject to a veto from London. His theoretical understanding was matched by a commitment to practical work. Ceri fought for a serious position on Welsh self-government within the Welsh Labour Party. He was a key instigator of Welsh Labour Action, a pressure group within the Labour Party set up to deepen policy on democratic accountability and representation, and on the powers that the Assembly would have. Ceri was also a key figure in the Socialists Say Yes campaign, and he campaigned hard in the 1997 referendum itself. Such was his role that figures within Welsh Labour Action, Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Labour Party – including First Minister Rhodri Morgan – have acknowledged that without Ceri's efforts, it is moot whether Wales would have an Assembly at all today.
But Ceri vigorously opposed the fake "regional" politics of the European Union with its meagre handouts and sham structures of representation. The united Europe that he fought for would be one in which there would be real democracy – with self-determination for the peoples of Europe guaranteed – and in which regional inequalities would be addressed on the basis of the needs of working people, not capital. To this end he was one of the central organisers of the demonstration held to counter the June 1998 EU Summit in Cardiff.
Ceri was not alone among socialists to be disappointed at the aftermath of the 1997 Assembly referendum – and especially with the way that the Labour left failed to use the positive result to consolidate a socialist politics in Wales. He decided that the Welsh Labour Party was no longer the best place for his energies. Last February he publicly broke with Labour and joined Plaid Cymru – with the intention of organising with the left in Plaid to advance working class and national struggles throughout Wales. (His letter of resignation from the Labour Party can be read at http://www.tribancoch.com.)
The degree to which the left in Plaid will build struggles – and the correctness of Ceri's decision – remain to be proven. But to characterise his move as some kind of "break from socialism" would be a travesty: a knee-jerk response based on a Greater British chauvinist economism which can only see in national struggles a diversion from the "pure" "class" struggle. Revolutionaries must make tactical decisions about which mass organisations they participate in, flowing from their assessment of how best to advance the class struggle in specific social and political conditions.
Ceri, who was Welsh-English bilingual, was brought up in Ynystawe and Swansea. He lived his adult life in Pontypridd and Cardiff, and briefly in the Rhondda. He worked as a researcher and lecturer in electronics at the University of Glamorgan. He was regarded as an expert in his field – control systems for gas turbines – and won prizes for his work in international academic competitions. Although he was no saint – he could be irascible in argument – he was also sensitive, witty, intelligent and engaging.
Ceri had been ill for over four years when he died. In 1998 he was diagnosed with Repetitive Strain Injury, which developed as an occupational injury – he couldn t get his department to give him a proper typing chair until it was too late. This was followed by the onset of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Over the past two years he suffered from depression possibly as a consequence of his other illnesses. From March to June of this year he suffered a severe manic episode and although depressed, he appeared to be recovering recently. On 2 August however, he killed himself. It appears from his last actions that this was a considered decision. A note he left says that what prompted his suicide was despair brought on by fear of a future that could be filled with physical and mental pain.
Such are the facts of his death. But his closest friends believe he was let down badly by the mental health system, which provided no follow-up after his breakdown in March. He was particularly let down by the specialist he went to for treatment of chronic fatigue. This man put him on a combination of anti-depressants, something regarded as dangerous in clinical psychiatry because of the risk of triggering a manic attack including by the so-called "safe" SSRI s (the Prozac-type drugs). But he would not take calls from Ceri s partner when he reacted badly to the doubling of a drug dose in February.
This negligence was exacerbated by the stigma attached to mental illness, which inhibits discussion of mental ill health, drug treatments and their associated risks. If we are to avoid similar tragedies in the future, the left must take up the fight for user-centred mental health services; and deal with mental illness if it arises in our own lives and the lives of our friends in an informed and candid way.
The mark of Ceri's contribution, and the deep respect and love with which he was held by friends and comrades alike, was evident at a memorial meeting held in Pontypridd just two weeks after his death. Close to 100 attended. Moving and often inspiring tributes were paid to his memory; and messages of condolence from all over the world were read out. A Ceri Evans Memorial Fund was launched, with a view to publishing a collection of his writings.
Where do we go from here? One of Ceri's closest comrades reminded us at the memorial of Trotsky's words, written shortly before his assassination in 1940, with which Ceri, even right at the end, would have agreed: "Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and violence, and enjoy it to the full."
Honouring Ceri's memory surely means taking this message to our hearts, and fighting to realise it.