Archive for the 'from the newsletter' Category

04
Jan
10

“the devil and mr casement” – talk by jordan goodman, 23/01/2010

SHS PUBLIC MEETING
Author and Historian Jordan Goodman speaks on “The Devil and Mr Casement: A Crime Against Humanity”

Saturday 23rd January 2010 at 2pm Marchmont Community Centre, 62 Marchmont St, London WC1 (Near Russell Square Tube).

In September 1910, Roger Casement arrived in the Amazon to investigate reports of widespread human rights abuses committed by a British registered company in the vast forests stretching along the Putumayo River. There, the Peruvian entrepreneur Julio César Arana ran an area the size of Belgium as his own private fiefdom, operating a systematic programme of torture, exploitation and mass murder against his employees.

Casement sought to expose the international collaboration that allowed these appalling atrocities to take place, tracing links all the way to the heart of the City of London and Stock Exchange.

Jordan Goodman, former honorary research fellow at the Wellcome Trust, will describe this courageous expose of British imperialism by the future Irish revolutionary Roger Casement.

The talk will be followed by discussion. All welcome. The meeting is supported by Verso, the publishers of Jordan Goodman’s new book, “The Devil and Mr Casement”

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04
Jan
10

Jonathan Carritt on Bill Carritt and Communist Party electoral strategy

I found an election poster in a cupboard recently. My father, Gabriel “Bill” Carritt, was flown home from the battle for Mandalay to take part in the 1945 general election. He had been in Burma since 1944 serving with the Welch Regiment, 19th Indian “Dagger” Division of the XIV “forgotten” Army.

He stood as the Communist Party candidate in the Westminster Abbey constituency and got 17.6% of the vote. He had contested the same constituency in a by-election in May 1939 as the candidate of a united front of Labour, Communist, Liberal and anti-Chamberlain Conservatives, campaigning on the single issue of collective security against appeasement and winning 33% of the vote. This by-election aroused national interest with even a couple of anti-Chamberlain ministers (probably including Churchill) secretly funding the campaign.

Jonathan Carritt, Chiswick

This kind of support may seem unlikely but at that time my father was secretary of the League of Nations Union Youth Movement and at some point in 1939 Churchill had invited the leaders of various British youth movements to lunch at Claridges to discuss opposition to fascism, collective security and the possibility of a united campaign. Those attending included John Gollan of  the YCL, Ted Willis, leader of the Labour League of Youth, Garner Evans of the Young Liberals, Gordan Cree, secretary of the Guild of Cooperative Youth, Timberlake representing the League of Nations Union Student Movement,  my father from the LNUYM, Mary Owen, a leftwinger from the YWCA, a representative of the YMCA and one from the Student Christian Movement. Churchill asked each guest in turn to speak on how to proceed in the current situation. The only one to be confrontational was Ted Willis. As a result of this meeting, money or a campaign was made available through Duncan Sandys, Churchill’s son-in-law.

In the local elections which were held later in 1945 my father, my mother Dr Joan Carritt and Joyce Allergant were all  elected as Communist councillors for the City of Westminster. They served until 1949 when they lost out to the growing Cold War hysteria. The figures quoted are taken from “Parliamentary Elections and the British Communist Party, a historical analysis 1920-1978”. Date of publication is given as June 1978. The author is not named but comments, criticisms and corrections were invited to “C. Ravden, 1 Bushberry Road, London E9”. This booklet is itself of some interest. It was produced “as one branch’s effort to raise money for the National Fund and as an attempt to look analytically at the party’s parliamentary elections. Hopefully it will help party members judge the electoral fight as well as providing a few pages of party history.”

Throughout the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s there was constant questioning of the wisdom of devoting a high proportion of the Communist Party’s resources and effort to contesting parliamentary elections in a first- past-the-post system. The sub-heading of the booklet “£68,000 well spent?” perhaps indicates that this was a particular branch’s way of diplomatically expressing its reservations. £68,000 was, it claimed, the amount handed to the Exchequer by the Communist Party in lost deposits at parliamentary elections. “It is also roughly the amount collected each year for the CP’s National Fund. it….amounts to little more than a £1,000 for each year of the party’s existence. However, it is a lot of money to spend without care.”

03
Jan
10

Lessons from the Diggers

SHS meeting on 19 November 2009: report by David Morgan

The Socialist History Society did Gerrard Winstanley proud when it hosted its celebratory anniversary meeting on 19th November; not only did the event fill the room at Conway Hall to capacity, with standing room only, the calibre of both the platform contributions and the discussion that followed made Winstanley and his ideas truly come alive again.

It emerged clearly that there is still a very keen interest today in the ambitious, highly original and subversive arguments first articulated by Winstanley four hundred years ago during the turmoil of the “English Revolution” when the Digger leader patiently reasoned in pamphlet after pamphlet for a new society where all members of the community would be free from exploitation one from another.

Debating in a Biblical language and using Biblical texts as supporting evidence for his revolutionary arguments because there was no other body of ideas around at the time, Gerrard Winstanley represents one of the first voices from the working population of this country, indeed any country, to put forward a plausible and sustained programme for what the speakers, Professors Ann Hughes and Tom Corns, both described as a “Socialist” form of social organisation.

He uncompromisingly challenged lordship, kingship, private ownership of land, the commercial system of “buying and selling”, living off unearned income and hired labour. No real matter that some assert that his ideas were more akin to anarchism and that in the days of Christopher Hill and A L Morton, who did so much to rescue the “True Levellers” for an earlier generation with their books like “The World Turned Upside Down” and “The World of the Ranters”, Winstanley would more likely have been regarded as a “forerunner of Communism”; or that he has even been hailed as a pioneer of the green movement; no, the really important fact is that people are keenly reading and debating Winstanley with all the passion as if he were writing about today. People, including the scholars who have now produced his complete works published by Oxford University Press, are taking him entirely seriously as an original philosopher who could more than hold his own when debating with the mighty and the privileged.

The meeting started with a highly spirited written contribution from Professor David Loewenstein, of Wisconsin, one of the joint editors of the new Winstanley edition, who for obvious reasons could not be present in London for the occasion. His message (see below) was read out by SHS Secretary David Morgan, who chaired the meeting. There is no need to explain Loewenstein’s arguments except to say that they proved extremely effective in setting the mood of wholehearted enthusiasm and full engagement with the ideas of a 17th Century toiler of the field. Loewenstein’s two fellow editors were the meeting’s distinguished speakers.

Professor Corns then delivered the first of two short talks, on the heretical ideas of Winstanley setting the development of his thought within the context of the growth of dissent during the revolutionary years. Professor Corns looked in detail at how Winstanley’s ideas, although rooted in his time in many ways, also diverged from his contemporaries in their materialism and secularism. His plan to start digging on the common land was on the face of it a simple gesture, but it was closely rooted in a highly original system of thought that he had been developing which was based on an egalitarian reading of the Christian teaching.

Corns explained Winstanley’s contention that his ideas came to him “in a trance” not as some spiritual awakening but as a metaphorical explanation by the writer of the fact that he had been able to use his reasoning to develop some compelling new ideas. It is not without relevance that Winstanley was prone to describing god as “the great creator reason” for it was through the power of reason rising up in all men and women that his new egalitarian commonwealth would be established. Similarly, when Winstanley speaks of Christ, he uses the term as a symbol of the benevolent power that resides within each individual on earth.

Professor Corns was followed by Professor Ann Hughes who spoke about the Diggers and the history of the English revolution. She explained the decision to set up the Digger communities in 1648 as born by a degree of desperation; the years 1648-49 saw one of the worst winters for years, starvation and business failures were grim realities that poorer people like Winstanley had to contend with. Winstanley had sided with the Republican cause and supported the execution of Charles I but he came to realise that it was not enough to dispose of one monarch; what needed removing was “kingly power” which he interpreted much more widely than the institution of kingship. It was every kind of human behaviour that led one person to rule over another, Professor Hughes explained.

In his second contribution, Professor Corns, a leading literary critic, subjected Winstanley’s prose and poetry to a close reading in order to establish him as one of the most original writers of his time. By doing so, the professor suggested that Winstanley could be read alongside Milton, Marvell and Bunyan as a key figure in the English literary tradition of radicalism and dissent.

The Socialist History Society can be extremely proud that it had organised the only meeting in London to mark the 400th anniversary of Gerrard Winstanley’s birth.

David Loewenstein

Making Winstanley Respectable

David Loewenstein, Professor of English, University of Wisconsin-Madison, prepared this message for the Socialist History Society’s meeting on 19th November. It was read out at the meeting and drew much applause.

I think it’s truly wonderful that the Socialist History Society has chosen to honour Gerrard Winstanley with this meeting. He remains the foremost radical socialist English thinker and activist of the early modern period and one of the significant radical social thinkers of any time. He’s also an English prose writer of exceptional power, vividness, and distinctiveness.

I regret deeply than I cannot be there to celebrate with you and with my outstanding fellow editors of the new edition of Winstanley’s works, Thomas Corns and Ann Hughes. Winstanley famously proclaimed that “if thou dost not act, though dost nothing”. For me “acting” during 2009 has necessarily been of a very limited academic sort: seeing the new massive 1000-page edition of Winstanley through the press. This new Oxford edition will, paradoxically, make Gerrard Winstanley respectable. For the first time his works will appear in a fully annotated edition published by a significant academic press.

But the point, of course, is that Winstanley the Digger and great visionary was not “respectable.” No other writer in the English language wrote so moving about class conflict and class inequalities. Few English radical writers have analyzed with such acuteness the abuses of institutions of political, religious, and economic power. Few English writers have dared to envision, with such conviction, a world completely transformed in political, religious, and economic terms—a world that would be a “common treasury” for all. We sadly still live in a world of great social inequality. My county, the United States, the wealthiest nation in the world, now has some 49 million people without adequate food (as reported recently in The New York Times); we have 47 million people with no health insurance at all; we enlarge and invest in a huge military machine, while neglecting our most basic social institutions and services—the institutions and services which help ordinary citizens. We live in a world where religion too often fuels culture wars, where Muslims and Christians engage in stereotyping, demonisation and mutual recrimination. It is a world where the major institutions and organisations of one of the great religions – Judaism (my religion) – align themselves with a state that mistreats and brutalises another people. Persecution and intolerance are not things of the past.

No, Winstanley is not “respectable” and for that we should treasure him all the more: he challenged and questioned orthodoxies and he challenged and questioned all kinds of institutions of power—ecclesiastical, political, and economic. And he did so in some of the most memorable prose in the English language. We need his deep mistrust of institutions of power and his insights into the multifarious ways that they can damage and constrain the lives of ordinary people. We also need his visionary idealism – his belief that the world can change and be a better place for all people – and his conviction that we must take concrete action to match our writings and words.

As Wordsworth famously addressed Milton, so I would address Winstanley: “thou should’st be living at this hour: England hath need of thee.” Here I would make only one crucial modification: Winstanley, it is “the world [that] hath need of thee.”

02
Nov
09

Women, War and Resistance in Iraq

Women, War and Resistance in Iraq

Report of SHS public meeting by David Morgan

Iraqi-born Haifa Zangana has long been known as a courageous and independent voice against the foreign occupation of her country. She has used her considerable talents as an activist and as a writer to make people aware of the unendurable suffering inflicted on the Iraqi people over decades of war, oppression, economic sanctions and occupation.

Haifa is justly and widely admired for her tenacity and outspokenness, qualities which were much in evidence when she spoke to the Socialist History Society on 16 September. The SHS organised the meeting at the Bishopsgate Institute in cooperation with Women for an Independent and Unified Iraq with Haifa speaking on the theme of “Iraqi Women’s Role in the Anti-colonial Resistance”. Khatchatur Pilikian, a SHS committee member who was also born in Iraq, chaired the meeting (we have taken the opportunity to include his spirited opening address in this newsletter).

A passionate advocate of the full participation of women in Iraqi and Muslim societies, Haifa chose the occasion to celebrate the role of women in the building of a modern Iraq, whose secular society and social gains for women she described as the most progressive in the Middle East in the sixties and seventies. Latterly, successive wars and the ongoing occupation of the country have proved a disaster for women in particular despite the fact that the American occupiers used the promotion of women’s rights as one of their main justifications for the US-led military intervention in 2003.

While passionate and angry about the terrible treatment of the Iraqi people today, Haifa was careful to situate the current resistance within the history of Iraq since the creation of the modern state in the 1920s. She cited numerous examples of heroic individuals and described the participation of women in progressive organisations such as the once highly influential Communist Party of Iraq. By means of this evidence, too often neglected by commentators on contemporary Iraq, she demonstrated that Iraqi women have had a long history of political activism and social participation throughout the 20th century and even before.

In Haifa’s perspective, the Iraqi women’s movement undeniably played an integral part in the construction of the modern identity of Iraq as a progressive secular state, an identity that she understands must continually be remembered and defended against the negative images of dictatorship and ethnic divisions that too often prevail today. The role of Iraqi intellectuals, many of whom were Marxists, had been crucial to the development of the progressive national movement including the women’s movement, she argued. As regards the Marxist influence in Iraq, Haifa told the meeting that the first Marxist study group was established in 1924, publishing the short-lived journal, As-Sahifa. Meanwhile, the first Iraqi women’s magazine, Layla, appeared in October 1923. A particular important role had been played by poets given that poetry in both its written and oral forms has traditionally had a special public place as a genre in Iraqi society. As an example, the woman poet Um Nazir, was a pioneer in calling for women’s liberation in Iraq as well as in the fight against colonial occupation and injustice.

Women had taken part in the struggle against colonial domination under British rule and were in the forefront of the fight for national unity, social justice and legal equality. The gains made by women’s struggles had eventually led to Iraqi women becoming among the most liberated in the region and their country’s social policies among the most progressive in the world. A key event was the 1958 Revolution, when Iraqi people for the first time won control of their own lives. Haifa saw this moment as one of jubilation for Iraqis, women especially, because the revolution ushered in a new constitution that established important legal rights for women. International Women’s Day on 8 March was celebrated as a public holiday as was International Workers’ Day on 1 May. The great tragedy of modern Iraq is that wars, conflict and outside intervention have led to a situation where the Iraqi people have lost many of the social gains that they once enjoyed. It is vitally important for Iraqis to remember their history in order to show that there is nothing inevitable about their present plight. Haifa Zangana provided an illuminating talk with much food for thought and a lively discussion followed.

For anyone who was unable to attend the meeting, many of the themes that she dealt with are treated in much more detail in her recent book, City of Widows: An Iraqi Woman’s Account of War and Resistance (Seven Stories Press, 2007).

Welcome address to Haifa Zangana

by Khatchatur Pilikian

I met Haifa for the first time in November 2006, at a Conference in the Friends House, Euston. In her end-of-Conference talk, she exposed the hypocritical nature of most of the so-named Non Governmental Organisations, NGOs, engaged in occupied Iraq. Her detailed analysis of the NGOs functioning, as she thought, as an “integral part of the US strategy in Iraq,” brought her to conclude that the NGOs “represent US colonial policy rather than the interests of Iraqi men and women.” The two quotations above are from Haifa’s latest book, The City of Widows, which includes her analysis of the mission of NGOs in Iraq.

Jumping the queue, I should mention that Haifa is scheduled to be in New York on Sept 22, to launch a new edition of her first book, Dreaming of Baghdad, for the Feminist Press NY. In the next couple of months, before the end of the year 2009, she will be presenting papers on the evolving role of colonial feminists in occupied Iraq, first on October 4-7, in Beirut, at Arab Feminisms: A Critical Perspective, then on December 9-12, in The Hague, Netherlands, at the Institute of Social Studies.

Haifa’s courage of her convictions reminds me of the phenomenal grandeur of miniature art in general, and in particular of the images of Sumerian, the ancient Iraqi-Mesopotamian art of the cylinder seals. Miniscule images notwithstanding, they essentially have monumental and impressive presence. As you all can witness, Haifa Zangana is a tiny little woman, but she has a monumental personality and an impressive talent to tell what really is happening in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, and particularly what is happening to the Iraqi women. But most fascinatingly, Haifa also tells us what the Iraqi women used to make happen to the Iraqi society and to their feminist, humane aspirations. They  waged, for decades, impressive anticolonial resistance for independence and persistent struggles for genuine democracy, not the latter-day imperialism’s camouflaged, nay deranged version of it that reflects the servile ethics of by-gone colonialism. As John Milton, the revolutionary republican poet, once declared in his Apology of 1648: “they who have put out the peoples eyes, reproach them of their blindness”. And yet, Haifa tells us how good the Iraqi women have seen and continue to see and grasp the reality, both the causes and the effects of their tragedy. Moreover, they continue to act upon it, thus refuting the masquerading of that reality by the occupying powers and their local junta, both still adamant to oblige their Grand Master’s dictating roar.

Once upon a time, well fifteen hundred years before the original Odyssey was written down by Homer, the king of Uruk in Sumeria, named Gilgamesh, “went on a long journey” and “brought us a tale of the days before the flood,” and, finally, he  “engraved on a stone the whole story. ” (N.K.Saunders. The Epic of Gilgamash. Prologue. Penguin Books 1972) That most archaic odyssey also tells us about a haunting predicament worth ‘lending our ears’ to, especially in our own turbulent times. Ishtar, the Queen of Heaven, asks the Heavenly father of Gods, Anu, the following: “Fill Gilgamesh, I say, with arrogance to his destruction.” Ishtar’s plea kindled a paradox, as she herself was arrogance incarnate. Ishtar knew herself well. Unlike Gilgamesh, her safety was secured by her ‘divine immortality’.

How true this quinto-millenial wisdom of Sumeria sounds today. Uttered in the land now an occupied Iraq, the arrogance of the most powerful military power the world has ever witnessed, is doing, it seems, its utmost to destroy itself, after having decimated the heritage of the land and its culture, annihilated over a million of its population and left behind nearly a million displaced children and close to five million Iraqi refugees roaming around both in neighbouring countries and in their own homeland too. And all, because of the occupying power’s “addiction to oil,” as confessed, not long time ago, by the arrogant, supreme commander of its awesome military conglomerate, the pre-Obama US President, now in the dustbin of history, so decreed by US voters. Arrogance is indeed a Hara-kiri power. Ishtar is proving to be right.

The City of Widows of 2009 is the odyssey not only of its author Haifa Zangana, but also and essentially of the Iraqi women and their resistance to the unjust war and occupation, not devoid of a graceful yet taciturn eulogy to their resilience and tenacity for survival. Perhaps tinged with wishful thinking, I could also read in between the lines, a compassionate, warning advice to the occupying powers to stop their indulgence in the brutal Hara-kiri arrogance. Would they ever believe they are not divinely immortal, unlike Ishtar? Inshallah! Otherwise, Bertold Brecht’s theatrical aphorism will continue to pinch our alter ego: “If sharks ruled the world they would teach the little fish that it is a great honour to swim into the mouth of a shark.” Let us welcome Haifa to tell us her tale.

02
Nov
09

discussion on 1989

A discussion has been underway in the pages of the SHS newsletter about the significance of the fall of the communist governments in the USSR and Eastern Europe 20 years ago. The contributions to which Tom Bailey is responding (see below) can be viewed here.

 

THEY WERE SOCIALIST

– Tom Bailey

I disagree with Mike Squires’ claim that the Eastern European states were not Socialist. Yes, there were major faults and shortcomings in these socialist countries, but fundamentally, they were still Socialist. Capitalist restoration in these countries should be seen dialectically, as a process. These countries took many quantitative steps towards capitalism, I believe, after the death of Joseph Stalin. Aside from negating 30 years of Socialism by denouncing Stalin, a number of ‘reforms’ were implemented. Most notable is Khrushchev’s “State of the whole people” and the “Party of the whole people”, replacing the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”, effectively ending the class struggle against bourgeois influence and ideas.

Another notable reform was the economic reforms of 1965, or the ‘Kosygin Reform’, making enterprise profit the guiding principle in investment decisions by planners, rather than putting politics into action. However, these were not qualitative changes. As Stalin explained in Historical and Dialectical Materialism: “Contrary to metaphysics, dialectics does not regard the process of development as a simple process of growth, where quantitative changes do not lead to qualitative changes, but as a development which passes from insignificant and imperceptible quantitative changes to open’ fundamental changes’ to qualitative changes; a development in which the qualitative changes occur not gradually, but rapidly and abruptly, taking the form of a leap from one state to another; they occur not accidentally but as the natural result of an accumulation of imperceptible and gradual quantitative changes.”

The “insignificant and imperceptible quantitative changes” being the post-Stalin reforms, and the “fundamental changes” being the events of 1989-1991. Concerning the class character of 1989-1991, yes the working class was the primary force on the streets demanding change; but what change were they demanding? In 1990, in the referendum asking people whether they wanted to dissolve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the overwhelming majority, 76% said “No”. In May 1991, an American poll found 54% of Russians wished to keep Socialism, 27% wished for a mixed economy and only 20% wanted a free market economy (Monthly Review 12/94). A similar poll, reported in the New York Times (12/1/89) found that 47% of Czechoslovakians wished for their economy to remain state controlled, 43% wanted a mix and 3% wanted majority private ownership.

It would appear, the working class in the socialist countries did not take to the streets demanding an end to Socialism. Rather, the protests, discontent and apathy to capitalist restoration was due to issues such as party corruption, comparatively low living standards and shortages in goods (exacerbated by market reforms in the late 80s). This popular discontent was exploited by a new bourgeois class, arising from within the Party and the explosion of the black market (in the case of the USSR) under Brezhnev. The roots of the black market are a result of policies such as Khrushchev’s mechanical levelling of wages, decreasing motivation (as “bourgeois right” was still existent), creating shortages. This problem was made worse by the large increases in wages, despite nothing to buy with them from the formal economy.

The extent of this problem can be seen in 1969 when Soviet citizens would save 70% of their income (Bahman Azad – Heroic Struggle, Bitter Defeat). A shortage of goods available, combined with large amounts of unspendable income created the conditions for a black market. This black market created a class whose interests lay in private property and free markets. It was this class and their intellectual and political representatives, many of who were in their respective Communist parties, that led the movements of 1989-91 and made the qualitative leap to Capitalism. I was born only one month before the lowering of the Hammer and Sickle in Moscow, so I do not know what affect this must have had on Communists and other progressive people over the world, but I can only imagine it was a disaster.

02
Nov
09

A L Morton Lecture 2009

It was the Peasants what done it

The major changes in Latin America examined – report by Willie Thompson

The Society’s 2009 A L Morton lecture was held in the Conway Hall on Saturday October 3, with the speaker being Dr Francisco Dominguez, member of the Venezuela Information Centre and head of the Latin American Studies Centre at Middlesex University.

His theme was an interpretation of the history of Latin America extending up to the present. In particular he emphasised the role played in it by the disregarded masses and, in the countries where they were numerically great, the descendants of the indigenous population.

The point from which he began was the independence revolutions of the nineteenth century. These, with Simon Bolivar as their principal inspirer, were led by enlightened middle class revolutionaries strongly influenced by continental Freemasonry (a very different creature from the British version) and opposed by the Creole aristocracies of the Spanish and Portuguese empires.

To win these revolutions the exploited masses had to be mobilised, but having fulfilled that role were expected to return to working in miserable conditions for landowners, mine-owners, traders and occasional manufacturers, and be content with a state independence which brought them little if any material benefit. In addition the ruling classes of the new republics were terrified of the example of the thoroughgoing slave revolution in Haiti as a warning of what could happen if the masses got out of hand.

At the same time, the masses, principally peasants and miners, had had their aspirations ignited by the independence revolutions. Bitterly conscious of the grotesque inequalities in wealth which prevailed throughout the continent, they were not disposed to accept their subordination, and Latin America became famous for its revolts and revolutions.

To stabilise this unstable equilibrium the Latin American elites turned to the great power in the north, the USA, which backed them up in their repressions and itself often intervened directly, sending in the Marines to secure a safe social and political environment for its overseas investors.

By the 1930s communist parties were being established throughout Latin America. However, Dr Dominguez, argued, their rather mechanistic concentration on the industrial working class and relative neglect of the peasant masses meant that they failed to become the force they might have been with a more effective political strategy. Cuban communists, for example, played little part in the revolution – though they certainly helped to ensure its survival.

Current developments, though, are probably the most encouraging anywhere in the world, particularly in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. Dr Dominguez explained the social strategies being adopted by the radical governments there to win mass support – and, most importantly, to keep it. These are countries with an especially high proportion of indigenous ethnicity and the development of indigenous traditions and values in new circumstances are a most important aspect of revolutionary success.

These complexities, both historical & contemporary were all explained by Dr Dominguez in a most clear and stimulating manner. The talk was followed by lively discussion which could have continued much longer had time been available.

02
Nov
09

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.




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