Jack Gaster was one of the of the youngest of the thirteen children of the Rumanian-born Rabbi Moses Gaster, haham of the Spanish and Portuguese congregation in London and a leading member of the Jewish community in London.
Rabbi Gaster was a committed zionist, and Jack used to tell the tale that the Balfour Declaration had actually been composed on the massive scrubbed pine table he had somehow “inherited” and which now filled his own kitchen. As a communist, Jack’s own sentiments were otherwise; he argued with Palme Dutt that the Communist Party should favour a one-state solution for Palestine, with the Jews as a national minority.
A lawyer by training, Jack took articles in 1925, the year before the General Strike. It was the strike that focused Jack politically and led him to the Independent Labour Party (ILP), headed at the time by Jimmy Maxton, of whom Jack spoke with respect and affection to the very end of his life.
From 1931, Jack was as a leading voice in the ILP’s Revolutionary Policy Committee (RPC), advocating disaffiliation from the Labour Party. In 1934, Jack and most of the ILP went further and joined the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Jack did not wobble over Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968, but remained loyal to the Soviet Union and to the CPGB until they were dissolved. (If he had had his way, he would have taken the CPGB’s ‘successor organisation’, The Democratic Left, to court for the CPGB’s property.)
After the CPGB’s demise, Jack joined Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party (SLP) and, though by the very end of his life he was no longer a member of any party, Jack continued as an active supporter of the Morning Star (more because of what it had been and what he felt it could be again, than for what it actually is); while almost to the last, though he could no longer march, he could be seen in Trafalgar Square demonstrating against US and British imperialism’s latest outbreak of barbarism in Iraq.
Jack’s contribution was as a communist, a supporter of the Soviet Union; and it was as a member of the CPGB that he carried out his life’s work. As a lawyer fighting what are now called human rights cases, he defended untold numbers of tenants and workers, both individually and collectively, as well as famous figures of the left and ‘almost left’ from Joe Slovo to Tariq Ali.
Standing as a communist after the war, Jack was elected onto the London County Council where he immersed himself in bread-and-butter issues of housing, welfare and education. Internationally, perhaps Jack’s most notable contribution was his 1952 perilous (and illegal) journey to north Korea, when, with a group of communist and progressive lawyers (International Association of Democratic Lawyers-IADL), he investigated claims that the US and Britain were using biological weapons against the north Korean population. Finding the claims to be true, he returned to England to publicise IADL’s findings, which were far too uncomfortable to be taken up by the Labour-supporting trade-union movement. His pamphlets and articles on this issue and on many others merit a new audience and could very helpfully be reprinted for wider circulation.
Jack’s private life cannot go without comment. He was happy in his marriage to Maire Lynd, who he met in his early CPGB days. Maire was the daughter of Sylvia and Robert Lynd, prominent figures in early 20th century literary London, yet Robert was also a Sinn Fein member, friend of Roger Casement and editor of James Connolly’s works Labour in Ireland, Labour in Irish History and The Re-Conquest of Ireland.
Jack was also happy in his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. One of his greatest delights in his ultimate years was taking his great-grand-daughter to the ballet. In this he resembled no less a communist than Karl Marx himself, who also adored his family and loved to take his daughters to the theatre.
The death of a ninety-nine-year-old man cannot be said to be tragic. However, the death of Jack Gaster is the death of a rare man and a good comrade, and those that knew him cannot help but lament his passing even as we celebrate a life in struggle.