Many words come to mind when we think of our much-beloved Comrade Deborah: she was intelligent, charming and likeable; energetic, inspiring and self-reliant; warm and hospitable, witty and insightful. She applied a (capital c) Catholic moral sensibility to her (small c) catholic selection of interests and involvements, underpinned by an unswerving devotion to the cause of the working class.
If there was one adage that might be said to sum up Deborah’s approach to life, it was that we can’t keep doing the same thing if we want to achieve different results. Problems, to her, were there to be solved, whether in her personal life or in the life of society, and change was the only constant.
Whatever held her or others back (whether a job, a relationship or just an unhelpful habit) must be shed; whatever was worth having (family, community, knowledge, the party) must be fought for and protected.
Many times over during her life she took a leap into the unknown. At the tender age of 16, she travelled alone from Canada to London, taking up residence at the Soho Theatre Girls Club – a kind of boarding house for aspiring young actresses – to pursue a budding acting and modelling career. Jumping into marriage to an older man at the age of 18, she jumped out of it again a short time later having come to the conclusion that he wasn’t the man for her after all.
Whether living a laid-back hippie life on Ibiza with her second husband and their baby daughter, running a school of English for foreign students in Islington, or raising three children alone in New Cross while working as an English tutor, an actress and stand-up poet, a playwright, a historian and a theatrical agent, Deborah demonstrated a remarkable flexibility and pragmatism in adapting to new careers and life situations.
And she brought the same flexibility of approach combined with a singleness of purpose and a firmness of principle to the radical shifts in the economic, social and political life of the country – a life which she both engaged with enthusiastically and observed meticulously.
Her political life was characterised by staunch support for all anti-imperialist struggles, for the socialist countries, and especially for the USSR; by unwavering opposition to Labour party social democracy and Trotskyism; and by a consistent championing of the needs and aspirations of the British working class.
She was vehemently opposed to identity politics and to what she called the “green fascism” of Extinction Rebellion, and she warmly welcomed the founding of the Workers Party of Britain, believing it to have the potential to become a mass organisation giving real voice to the demands of working people.
Never stale or staid, her thirst for knowledge was something that brought her great satisfaction and enlivened her every conversation. When some area of knowledge caught her interest, she would dive deeply into it, exploring both widely and forensically. It was her belief that no home was complete without a good dictionary.
Her bookcases contained libraries within libraries. Most sections had overlapping connections with 19th-century British life and politics, and with Victorian London in particular.
Included on her shelves were (among other things) whole sections on the origins and development of modern medicine; on slavery; on prostitution; on vivisection; on the origins and development of modern policing and the secret service (the deep state); on the movement for women’s suffrage; on the roots and origins of secularism, free thought and Marxism; on the lives of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and their circle; on the Chartists, the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA, the First International) and the Paris Commune.
Equally passionate about history and social justice, an artist as well as a historian, Deborah wrote poems and plays, gave talks and lectures and researched endlessly. From her poem about the 1971 coup in Chile to her play about the organ trade and her researches into prostitution and slavery, Deborah’s interests had one unifying thread: her care for “all the forgotten people”.
A devoted mother and, later, grandmother, babies loomed large in Deborah’s life and conversation. A firm believer in the stabilising and fulfilling effect of a strong relationship and children, her first question to a young comrade arriving for a meeting in her Bloomsbury council flat would inevitably be: “Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife?”
Anyone answering ‘No’ was advised to get one without delay. Anyone answering ‘Yes’ would get the inescapable follow-up: “When are you going to have a baby?” Hanging about on either of these fronts was, in Deborah’s eyes, a shocking waste – nearly as shocking as having reactionary political views or betraying an uncivilised attitude towards the proper use of coasters and jugs.
Outspoken and opinionated on almost every topic, from the correct way to make tea to the correct interpretation of world-shaking events, she nevertheless had the ability to deliver a ruthless put-down so charmingly that the sting was entirely removed, although the message lingered long.
Bringing an unorthodox and outspoken mindset to many areas of life often put Deborah out of step with the mainstream of social and political convention. In fact, she turned out simply to be ahead of the curve on many crucial topics – her finger on a pulse that had not yet been picked up by many of us.
It was often only after several years that those around her would catch up and realise she had been right all along (just as she had assured them she was), all while they had been rolling their eyes and dismissing her more startling pronouncements as just “Deborah being Deborah”.
The first in our party to spot the insidious nature of the transgender movement and to recognise its pernicious ideology as a serious danger to the working class that would need to be addressed, she was joined in this particular fight by her youngest daughter Magdalen, who gained a large online following for her own forthright brand of radical feminism.
She was also a fierce critic of euthanasia under capitalism, pointing out that the power of life and death simply couldn’t be trusted in the hands of a hostile state whose interests in workers ultimately comes down to our ability to work and make profits for capitalists, not our needs as human beings.
A firm believer in the idea that everyone ought to be useful, Deborah gave to many causes outside of her home and family. She was active in tenants’ associations and a vocal advocate of the rights of the poor, particularly when it came to housing and the right to a secure family life.
She was involved in many historical societies and projects, curating five seasons of talks at Conway Hall and writing pamphlets and presentations for the Socialist History Society. She campaigned for a museum in Somers Town when she lived there in the 1990s and was co-writing a history of the Theatre Girls Club with Catherine Howe when she died.
Her magnum opus, and a thread that ran throughout her life and conversation for more than 20 years, was her fastidiously researched biography of Edward Aveling, “toxic” partner of Eleanor Marx, whom Deborah convincingly presented as a traitor in the heart of the socialist camp.
Acting on an initial hunch that something had been very much awry with the so-called ‘free-love’ union between Eleanor and Aveling, Deborah did a huge amount of original research, tracking down facts, connections and letters never previously connected or made public.
Her own innate modesty made her assume a level of knowledge in her listeners on a par with her own. Many a conversation would begin with: “Well, of course you know …” to which her listener would have to regretfully inform a surprised Deborah that, in fact, they didn’t know – about the rift between Charles Bradlaugh and Karl Marx, for example, or the controversies surrounding Annie Besant and the birth control movement.
For such an outgoing and talkative person, Deborah was surprisingly private. Episodes from her past were fleetingly hinted at, dismissed with a barbed one-liner or pithily summed up in terms of a lesson learned, but details of the whole were sketchy, even for her children and those who knew her best. Dwelling was not a habit that Deborah approved of or indulged in, nor was talking too much about oneself.
So what do we know? We know that Deborah was born Eileen Maurice Lavin in north Lambeth on 2 December 1951, the middle child of three to artist and dancer parents – Scottish father Michael and Mancunian mother Mary. Somewhere around the age of two, the young Eileen was rechristened ‘Deborah’ in the family, and Deborah she remained to everyone for the rest of her life.
While she was still young, the Lavins emigrated to Canada taking their three children with them, and it was in Toronto that Deborah and her brothers grew up and went to school.
At some point during her teenage years, the young Deborah began to act and do some modelling work. Clearly, she had talent: she moved across the world to pursue her career in London, arriving in Greek Street in the socially and politically tumultuous year of 1968, which she described as “a seminal year of student sit-ins and riots, an almost revolution in France, and huge worldwide demonstrations against the Vietnam war”.
Early in her twenties, Deborah developed a passion for Latin America. She became a Catholic, learned Spanish, moved to Portsmouth and enrolled in the polytechnic to study Latin-American history. Along the way, she met and married her Argentinian second husband Gustavo Berns and in 1976 gave birth to Elizabeth, the first of their three children.
A year later, the couple moved in with Gustavo’s paternal grandmother on the Spanish island of Ibiza, long known for its artistic subculture, raising their baby and selling jewellery to tourists on the hippie trail.
The young family returned to London in time for their son Richard to be born in January 1980, and for some time they ran the Islington School of English, teaching English to foreign students on Islington Green.
In 1983, following the birth of their daughter Magdalen, the family moved to a larger home in New Cross. Not long afterwards, the Berns’s marriage broke down and Gustavo disappeared. Deborah remained in New Cross with the children, working as many jobs as necessary to keep her family together.
What hardships she had to deal with during this time, she never discussed, but she became a vocal advocate for the right of working-class families to decent homes with access to properly maintained outside spaces as Britain’s social housing was slowly destroyed.
She understood the need for a secure source of income in an insecure world, and understood, too, the concerns of working-class mothers about paedophiles being rehoused in their estates – mothers whose children had nowhere else to play than in the communal areas around their flats.
Having managed to move her own family into a council flat in Hampstead in the 1990s, she never gave up her hard-won place on the Camden housing list, migrating gradually southward through the borough until she landed in her beloved Bloomsbury, and uprooting herself once again when she feared the bedroom-tax police would come for her in her penultimate Red Lion Square home.
To move at a time of her own choosing rather than wait nervously to be forced out was entirely in keeping with Deborah’s spirit of facing hard truths and remaining self-reliant.
Indeed, it was not until the last weeks of her life that Deborah accepted any kind of caring assistance. As late as this January, she was more likely to try and cook for a visitor than to accept any help from them.
Sometime in the 1990s, Deborah began to publish poetry and plays. Both excoriating and witty, her plays tackled important but often ignored social issues such as the black market trade in human organs. They were translated and put on in several countries, including Britain, Germany and Japan.
A born activist in all areas of life, Deborah’s introduction to Marxism came from her fondly-remembered Scottish grandfather, Patrick Michael Lavin (presumed to have been of Irish descent), who was a member of Britain’s then-revolutionary communist party, the original CPGB.
From Michael, she inherited her deep interest in all aspects of the revolutionary teachings and history of Marxism. Hearing our own Comrade Harpal Brar speak at a rally for Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party (SLP) in London, Deborah finally made the leap into organised political activism somewhere around 1996 or 97. Making up her mind in characteristic fashion that Comrade Harpal had “the right idea”, she signed up to join on the spot and never looked back.
Working with comrades who would later go on to found our own party, she threw herself into the task of building the SLP’s Camden branch, whose study classes rotated between her own family flat in St Pancras, Comrade Joti Brar’s flat in Camden Town and veteran communist Jack Gaster’s home in Belsize Park. Deb’s teenage daughter Magdalen was one of a large circle of interested young people who would drop into the branch’s regular Marxist discussion meetings.
For the following 23 years, her commitment first to the SLP and then to the CPGB-ML, which she helped to found in 2004, was unwavering. Despite all the vicissitudes of her own life, the needs of her family and beloved collie dog Jack, the health issues that dogged her later years, and the tragic illness and death of her daughter Magdalen, she remained a committed supporter of the party’s work and a firm believer in its future.
A long-serving stalwart of our party’s central committee, she participated not only in its monthly planning meetings, but also in weekly branch meetings in north or central London, and in demonstrations and leafleting sessions across the capital and the country.
When arthritis began to affect her hips and knees, she moved from marching to manning the stall, becoming a fixture in Trafalgar Square, where she would greet the May Day marchers as they arrived and set passers-by straight on any and every issue that arose in conversation.
Through a succession of operations, and despite her impeded mobility, Deborah continued to travel across London to central committee meetings and even to help with organising monthly meetings of the Stalin Society after its secretary Iris Cremer, another of our beloved founder comrades, passed away in 2014.
A brilliant communicator, informative writer and charismatic speaker, Deborah was always ready with advice or criticism for those producing the party’s materials, and contributed articles and talks herself from time to time that were infused with her own particular combination of wit, wisdom and interesting footnotes.
She faced her final battle with lung cancer with characteristic cheerfulness, assuring us all that she would be around for a good while yet and putting her faith in new immunotherapy treatments that she was sure were going to make all the difference.
Downplaying her own situation, she faced Magdalen’s simultaneous battle with brain cancer with clear-eyed determination, travelling up and down to Edinburgh on weekends and somehow keeping going as her daughter finally and tragically succumbed to the disease and she had to endure the ultimate heartbreak of losing a precious child before her time.
Right to the end of her life, Deborah was mentoring young comrades, hosting study classes in her book-lined living room, emailing must-read articles to party members, revelling in every sign of the weakness and division amongst the ruling class (from Trump to Brexit and beyond) and taking confidence and pleasure from every small gain in the international situation (advances in Syria; the gilet jaunes movement) and in our own party’s strength and reputation.
A staunch defender of the achievements of Soviet socialism and of Josef Stalin’s leadership, Deborah had the true Marxist’s deep conviction of both the necessity and the possibility of building a revolutionary movement and achieving socialism in Britain.
Her optimism was boundless. Her last words to comrades who visited her in the days before her death, when she was still able to display moments of lucidity, were: “Onwards and upwards!”
Deborah died peacefully in her sleep on 23 March, surrounded by family. She leaves behind two brothers, Michael and David, her daughter Elizabeth, son Richard, and three grandchildren, Kit, Lottie and George. Her biography of Edward Aveling will be published posthumously.