John Saville (1916-2009)

Remembering John Saville (1916-2009)
Personal reminiscences of a great Socialist historian by Professor David Howell

“Why don’t you write to John Saville; he’d be interested in your work?” To a very new academic in the early seventies concerned about how his ideas could ever be presented in publishable form this suggestion from a colleague proved a lifeline. John responded suggesting that I submit some entries to the Dictionary of Labour Biography. When I did so I rapidly experienced a practical course in Marx’s insistence that “to leave error unrefuted is to encourage intellectual immorality”.

My carefully crafted pieces came back through the efficient agency of Joyce Bellamy decorated with John’s queries and scepticisms. I underwent a rapid induction into the rigours of scholarship that had been lacking in my three years as a doctoral student. Such was my initiation into the DLB.

John’s scholarship was outstanding. His early writings on Ernest Jones and Rural Depopulation and his much later books on 1848 and The Politics of Continuity 1945-6 demonstrate the effective co-habitation of a respect for sources and rigorous exposition. Entries by him in successive volumes of the DLB reconstruct with sensitivity the outlooks of those whose politics were far from his own. Yet his scholarly influence extended far beyond his own writing. It articulated his political values in that intellectual work should be expressed through the construction of solidarities.

Much academic life is blighted by individualism. John’s life as scholar and political activist emphatically rejected this mentality. His 22 years in the Communist Party from 1934 until his significant part in the exodus of 1956 remained a reference point. He never disowned those years, frequently referring to them with pride whilst seeking to come to terms with the dark side of that experience.

He retained the intellectual and organisational strengths of the tradition – careful preparation for discussion, intellectual self-discipline, egalitarianism, and a belief that intellectual life must not remain cramped within the discreet confines of the academy. The rigours of military service and of the Cold War gave him a toughness. He was no precious liberal who would shift his position if life became uncomfortable. His exemplar remained the Communist Party Historians’ Group. John’s belief that solidarity was a virtue central to intellectual work was expressed in the DLB, the Socialist Register, the Northern Marxist Historians’ Group and much else. John’s subsequent influence lacked the popular impact of Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm and E P Thompson but in the durability of its scholarship and its articulation of socialist values it has few equals.

John seems not to have minded the lack of a political home after 1956. He remained robustly sceptical about the Labour Party and he was not persuaded by any of the profusion of left groups. His most enduring commitment from 1964 was his editorship with Ralph Miliband of the Socialist Register. John’s many contributions could be read in Gramscian terms as an extended war of position. He explored the limitations of Labour politics and critiqued both Encounter and Marxism Today. When A J P Taylor published his English History 1914-1945 in 1965 most reviews were laudatory and students flocked to buy what was widely seen as a radical and iconoclastic text. John differed;
rather Taylor was a conservative historian whose use of sources was partial, whose exposition at critical points was vague and who reduced everything to the same minor key. Characteristically, a critical assessment of scholarship carried a political significance.

After I moved to York in 1995 I met John regularly for lunch in the Plough Inn at Allerthorpe, half way between York and Hull. Often John rehearsed what would eventually be published as his memoirs. Student politics at the London School of Economics, India, 1956, his memories of George Hardy and Philip Larkin were interwoven with critical comment on Ken Loach’s film on the Spanish Civil War, Land and Freedom. John even acknowledged some  enthusiasm for the imminent slaughter of the Tories in the 1997 election. A tolerant landlady allowed us to linger over coffee. When I remember John I hear his voice in that bar on those slow East Riding afternoons not just bringing alive a rich past, but with his blend of rigour and passion personifying what a socialist historian should be.

2 Responses to “John Saville (1916-2009)”

  1. 1 stella Hargreaves
    15 March 2010 at 9:48 pm

    Yes, the man was tough. I was a mature student in his dept from 1976-79. My ex husband was in the same department from 1975-78. I left school with 3 O levels, my Ex had never sat any kind of exam till he got into Barnsley Poly as a mature student. The Powers that were at Hull apparently kept John Saville waiting a very long time for a professorship, and that alone might have broken some people, those only intersted in acadameia, who hadn’t experienced other kinds of life and struggles. I recently re-watched a tape of the RAF strike in India in 1946, when the men wanted to go home and the attlee govt. wanted to keep em there to keep the Indians down. I’d quite forgotten that John was there and involved as a CP member in this victorious strike.

    I was afraid of John, even though he let me change to his dept in my 2nd year- I’d little sense of self-worth or entitlement, decided to try for university cos I couldn’t find a job in Hull, had gone to the wrong dept cos I thought it would be easier and leave lots of time for minding my kids – and though I didn’t know it then my thyroid was on the blink and so was my pituitary gland.

    John Saville oversaw my dissertation on the response of the Labour Movement to unemployment in the thirties. I only went to see him once, I was afraid. I blush now, every time I look at the dissertation, not because of my cowardice but because I didn’t even have the nous to buy a new ribbon for my rickety typewriter.

    When my ex was about to be thrown out in his 2nd year for twice failing an exam- (I think he’d fallen foul of the man running the course, who was v. Right wing and perhaps not as helpful as he might have been) John Saville fought to let him stay and get a pass degree. Only someone with John Saville’s breadth of experience of life and politics could have understood what disatrous consequences would have ensued if Peter had been thrown out with no degree. For this one act alone, I’m forever grateful to John Saville’s memory. My ex became an effective teacher of disadvataged kids. I wrote to John to thank him and gor a nice letter back.

    Later, he directed me to Joyce Bellamy, when I was trying to establish the venue of a picture of a relative at a pre-WW1 ILP function. Joyce was kind and helpful too.

    Thanks again, John Saville. Thanks from the kids the ex taught, you weeren’t wrong to fight for him, he understood where those children were coming from and was good at his job. Thank you for the best 2 years of my life in your department, thanks from my daughters, who probably got an easier entree into Higher ed. because Mum and Dad had degrees, sorry about the Milliband twins and any other disappointments you’ve endured. Now I must return to my attempts to stop this govt and their willing helpers from putting more nails in the coffin of Social Housing…. Stella Hargreaves

  2. 2 stella Hargreaves
    15 March 2010 at 9:52 pm

    PS Sorry about the typos, I can spell but can’t type…

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November 2009

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