London ‘slave’ group went from figures of fun to tiny underground commune
Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tsetung Thought deplored Soviet ‘scum’ and regarded Britain as a fascist state.
The description in the February 1977 edition of the South London Workers’ Bulletin is dramatic and breathlessly rhetorical. A hard-working young mother is harassed by a government social security officer over her involvement in a Maoist group. The woman defends herself, and then her young daughter raises a fist and starts singing The Internationale. The story concludes: “Faced with this militant solidarity, the welfare woman ran out like a rat.”
The woman in question later cut her ties with the group, the south London-based Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tsetung Thought. Two others, however, did not – and seemingly lived with the group’s charismatic leader, Aravindan Balakrishnan, for 30 years in conditions police allege amounted to a form of domestic slavery, until they left last month with the aid of a charity.
The astonishing story of Aisha Wahab, now 69, and 57-year-old Josephine Herivel, along with a 30-year-old named in reports as Rosie Davies, has focused unexpected attention on a tiny, far-left group, which even those involved in Brixton’s radical scene of the time rarely recalled before last week.
Wahab has now been reunited with her sister, Kamar Mahtum, 73. Mahtum, who flew to London from Malaysia this week, met the 69-year-old at an undisclosed location. She told the Daily Telegraph: “It was a very emotional day, very revealing, but then I was contented. I got what I wanted, and I can bring home beautiful memories.
“I have a feeling that she still wants to come home, eventually. We’ll work hard to persuade her.”
A handful of the surviving pamphlets from Balakrishnan’s group uncovered by the Guardian present a view in which the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was “revisionist scum” for rolling back Stalin’s policies, and China’s “great, glorious and correct” communists were poised to liberate the world.
Balakrishnan’s group was seen as fringe even for the era, recalls Paul Flewers, a historian of far-left groups who was himself a follower of the Revolutionary Communist party.
He said: “In comparison to the rest of us, they were like a strange sect compared to a C of E vicar. We’d have our own paper sales in Brixton at the time, by the station. They’d turn up with their flyers with pictures of Mao on them, and we’d queue up to get them. After our sales were over, we’d go down to the pub and have a good laugh at them. It doesn’t seem so funny now.”
The pamphlets show a group that was almost as obsessed by leftist “revisionists” as by the government or the group’s perpetual nemesis, the police.
An issue from May 1976, emblazoned with a profile of Mao – who at that point was months away from death and thinking more of his own succession than plans to liberate Brixton – spends seven densely typed pages railing against Britain’s trade unions, or “agents of the fascist bourgeoisie within the working-class movement”.
Bob Nind, who as vicar of St Matthew’s in Brixton was in contact with many political and community groups, recalls a neighbourhood where unused buildings were common and every variety of organisation sprang up in cheap rented offices or squats.
He said: “Many collectives were just people who wanted to make some changes in society, and wanted to make all their decisions together, which was usually fatal in the end. Others were more idealist.
“The Workers Revolutionary party would meet in the crypt of St Matthew’s, where they seemed to be singing hymns most of the time. They weren’t hymns but they sounded like hymns if you didn’t hear the words. On one occasion, at the same time at the other end of the crypt was Chris Patten and the Conservatives. It was an interesting sort of time.”
In general, Nind remembers, the far-left groups tolerated each other, with resentment aimed at a police force, which mainly lived in barracks outside the area, tensions which soon led to riots in Brixton in 1981.
“The emphasis was very much more on the attitudes of the police towards the young black community. I think everybody was beginning to feel that.”
Balakrishnan’s group had links to Brixton’s West Indian community. The mother whose daughter sang The Internationale was an immigrant from St Lucia, while one of Balakrishnan’s closest lieutenants, Ekins Brome, was also a member of the Black Revolutionary Workers’ Movement.