Saturday, 24 October 2009

John Saville

Obituary in LSHG Newsletter, Autumn 2009

John Saville, who has died aged 93, was a towering figure in the fields of Marxist and labour history and in the British labour movement and left for more than seven decades. His enduring legacy may well be the volumes of the Dictionary of Labour Biography that he edited, detailing the lives of many of the women and men that were active in the labour movement from the late eighteenth century.
He had joined the Communist Party in 1934 while studying at the LSE and was amongst anti-fascist students at the Battle of Cable Street. On graduation he worked for the CP as London student organiser and on two occasions took letters for the CP into Nazi Germany. He briefly took a job as an economist with British Home Stores but from 1940 he served in World War Two. As a Communist, but against the advice of the CP, he repeatedly refused to be a commissioned officer but still rose to the rank of Sergeant Major. He saw service in India from 1943-46 where he acted as a go -between with Indian Communists and the British CP. While in Bombay he led an intervention of CP soldiers in the Soldiers’ Parliament, causing an anti-imperialist motion to be passed and the closure of the Parliament by senior officers. A certain military bearing and booming voice never left him, although it may be that his intellectual confidence owed rather more to his LSE years.
He was a member of the CP Historians Group after the war. His first major work was an edited edition of some of the writings of the Chartist leader Ernest Jones, appearing as early as 1952. In 1954 it was Saville who edited a volume in honour of the effective founder of the group, Dona Torr, called Democracy and the Labour Movement.
In 1956 Saville, with EP Thompson, was one of the leaders of the opposition in the Communist Party following the Hungarian Revolution. The pair edited a journal, The Reasoner, later The New Reasoner. which was frowned upon and then banned by the CP. They left and became part of the founding group of the British New Left in the late 1950s.
Saville however did not participate significantly in founding New Left Review [1960]. Rather he edited an annual publication, The Socialist Register from 1964 with the Marxist theoretician Ralph Miliband. The Register, still published annually, became a forum for left-wing discussion and debate. He taught at Hull University for many years from 1947 when he was 31, and lived in the City. His friendly relationship with the University’s librarian, the poet Philip Larkin, led to Hull becoming an excellent resource for labour history.
Saville endeavoured to tutor activists who were participants in the labour movement, for example John Prescott. His academic output was not restricted to the ten volumes of the DLB he was associated with from 1972-2000. He wrote economic history, mostly focusing on nineteenth century Britain and Saville was one of the founders of the still continuing Society of Labour History in 1958. He was a Vice President at the time of his death. He edited with Asa Briggs three volumes of Essays in British Labour History [from 1960] and went on to publish books on the crisis of the British State [1987], and on the impact of imperialism on the foreign policy of the 1945 Labour Government [1993], amongst numerous other writings. He was a consistent anti-imperialist and opponent of British military adventures. For example he demonstrated that while the 1960s Labour Government of Harold Wilson did not join in the Vietnam War in fact it made British bases in the Far East available to US troops, thereby providing help in kind.
He was a great encourager of socialist historians, but a firm believer in friendly but robust and critical advice. I persuaded him on several occasions to speak at the Institute of Historical Research in London, on the subject, so I hoped, of the Communist Party Historians Group. Saville however, rightly, was always far more interested in what could be done to promote the practice of socialist history in the here and now, and that was indeed what he spoke about.
Keith Flett
(A full version of the above obituary appeared in the July
2009 issue of Socialist Review)

I first met John Saville in 1996, shortly after commencing my PhD, a study of post-war anti-fascism. Saville was one of a network of former historians and Communists who had been part of that movement. Our discussion soon turned problems of method and from there to political strategy. He quickly "spotted’ I was a member of the SWP and warned me of what he perceived was the narrowness of the Party's work. “The problem with you in the SWP,” he told me, “is that you are no good at working in campaigns you don't control”. Others had made the point to me before (and would make it since). I didn't mind the correction, on this occasion, because I saw in Saville an activist's spirit. The criticism wasn't intended as an excuse for inaction but was seriously meant. There is no hope for socialism unless people from different traditions can work together, and the danger with parties of the left is that we do often foreclose that process.
Over the next decade, I had plenty of opportunities to see Saville's activist spirit at work again: in the Northern Marxist Historians' Group which he nurtured as a sort of sisterorganisation to the LSHG and at events such as a seminar on Marxism and history organised by the Working Lives Institute at London Metropolitan University in 2003. At this latter event, Saville spoke with Dorothy Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm. There were invited as big names, wine was served, and the feel of the event could easily have encouraged the speakers into anecdotery.
Thompson used the occasion to explain that she no longer believed that Marxism had much to offer historians at all. Hobsbawm spoke with the perspective of an eagle, judging the twentieth century in all its longue durée. Saville told the audience that he had a script prepared to which he had intended to speak, but he was much more interested in the crisis of the present - above all Blair's war in Iraq - and he used the occasion to urge all of us to resist. Selflessness, humility and militancy are not the virtues usually associated with those who have spent thirty years of their life teaching in higher education - but these John had to spare. History will remember him for the part he played as editor of the Reasoner, the Socialist Register and the Dictionary of Labour Biography. For me, he was the best activist of all the CP historians - to the movement, his is the greatest loss.
David Renton

See also Remembering John Saville by David Howell.

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