Ray Challinor 1929-2011 by Stan Newens[edited speech from the June memorial meeting co-organised by the LSHG - see also here and John McIlroy's longer obituaty of Ray online here]
Ray Challinor, whose life we are here to commemorate, was a dedicated socialist, a long serving activist in the Labour movement and a brilliant historian.
Born in Stoke-on-Trent on the 9th July 1929, he was the son of two socialist teachers who were themselves deeply involved in the working class movement in North Staffordshire.
His father, Arthur Bertram Challinor, was the son of a celebrated musician and composer, Frederick Arthur Challinor, [1866-1952], who was of mining stock and left school at 10 years of age to make bricks.
By dint of hardwork, he somehow obtained a Doctorate of Music at Durham University and wrote more than 400 pieces of music, including “The Potters’ Song” for the National Society of Pottery Workers.
Ray’s father was a keen footballer and cricketer, as well as a successful teacher, and chaired Stoke City Labour Party for a period during the interwar years.
Ray’s mother, Leonora Margaretta Gertrude Gibson was the daughter of a Crewe cycle maker, bus entrepreneur and ironmonger, Walter Henry Gibson and his second wife who was of German origin. She became a teacher, a secretary of Longton WEA and a committed socialist of an ILP background who knew Lady Cynthia Mosley, MP for Stoke South [1929-1931]. She always maintained that Lady Cynthia was totally untouched by Sir Oswald Mosley’s Fascist ideas.
Sadly, Ray’s parents separated during his childhood, and Ray moved to Crewe with his mother, while his sister, Joan, stayed with their father. He briefly attended Crewe Grammar School but was then sent as a boarder to the Friends School at Lancaster at 12 years of age.
Deeply influenced by his mother’s ILP convictions, he decided to help Fenner Brockway when he contested the Lancaster By-Election in 1941 for the ILP against the Coalition Government candidate, Fitzroy Maclean (Con). He was permitted to do this by the Friends School Headmaster, although only 12, and long remembered the gibe, said to have been made by Communists, ‘A vote for Brockway is a vote for Hitler’.
In 1945 Ray was one of the youngest delegates at the ILP National Conferenc e and met Dan Smith (later Labour leader on Tyneside), Bill Hunter, Ted Grant and Jimmy Maxton. They and the Marxist historian Frank Ridley clearly influenced Ray’s intellectual development.
He left school without taking Higher School Certificate examinations and became a journalist on the Crewe Guardian.
Faced with conscription for military service at 18 years of age, he went before a tribunal and obtained exemption as a conscientious objector, on condition that he worked in agriculture for two years. He was a singularly unsuccessful agricultural employee, who amongst other things overloaded a boiler, causing it to explode. He was relieved to return to his mother’s home- now at Silverdale, Newcastle-under-Lyme, upon completion of his service, and returned to his job as a journalist at the Crewe Guardian.
By now he had become a Trotskyist who rejected the idea that the Soviet Union was socialist and he joined the Revolutionary Communist Party shortly before it dissolved in 1948.
He subsequently became active in Crewe Labour Party and then Newcastle-under-Lyne Labour Party where he got to know the Labour MP Stephen Swingler very well. He was, however, thinking deeply about politics and in June 1948 wrote an article arguing that Russia was not a degenerate workers’ state , as Trotskyists argued, but was state capitalist [“Left” June 1948].
Tony Cliff (Ygael Gluckstein) produced his RCP internal bulletin “The Nature of Stalinist Russia” in June 1948 also arguing,at much greater length, that Russia was state capitalist. Understandbly, then, Ray became a founder member of the group formed by Tony Cliff in 1950 which launched “The Socialist Review” and eventually evolved into the Socialist Workers Party.
In 1952, Ray obtained a place at the University of North Staffs at Keele to take a degree but he remained active in Newcastle-under-Lyme CLP and also became active in the University Socialist Society, where he clashed with fellow student, John Golding, later the right-wing Labour MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme.
It was at this stage that I first met Ray,initially at a Socialist Review meeting at Holloway Head Birmingham and later, when I began work as a miner in the North Staffs coalfield, as an opponent of the Korean War.
As a member of the Labour Party, I transferred my membership to Stoke and formed a Labour League of Youth branch in Stoke Central CLP,of which Ray became a member. It was here that he met his future wife, Mabel Brough.
For the following 4 years, Ray and I were active in the Labour Party all over the West Midlands. We also travelled through the Midlands and the north on my motorcycle to promote sales of Socialist Review, of which Ray became the editor. We gave NCLC lectures for the West Midlands organiser Alex Murie, and organised meetings like one for Joseph Murumbi Secretary of the Kenya African Union, in Newcastle-under-Lyme.
Ray stood for election as a Council candidate I 1954 and 1958 and was subsequently selected as the prospective Labour Parliamentary candidate for Nantwich, although he gave this position up before the 1964 General Election. This was after I returned to live in the south east.
After completing his degree course, Ray taught at North Staffs schools at one time with Jack Braddock, brother-in-law of Bessie Braddock MP, who was much more left wing than his sister-in-law. Later, however, he obtained a post at Wigan Mining and Technical College and moved with his wife, Mabel, to Hindley.
Throughout the 1950s, Ray either edited the Socialist Review or produced articles for it, but in the later 1950s, Ray, Bernard Dix, Wilf Albrighton and I became critics of Tony Cliff’s hard-line Bolshevism and were denounced as revisionists. Bernard and Wilf left the group first; I left in 1959 but Ray remained a member until 1973, I believe. He subsequently rejoined and only finally cut his ties in 1983, although he continued to defend the SWP when I criticised its policies long after this.
In Wigan, Ray became a well known figure on the left, which regularly congregated at the “Dove and Partridge” public house and he was regarded by Alan Fitch, the Labour MP, as an objectionable dissident. He supported CND, backed a strike at Courtaulds and was very active in support of the left in the Labour and Trade Union movement.
In Wigan, in 1965, Ray discovered, in the Library, a collection of the manuscript records of the Miners Association,which existed in the 1840s and had barely been consulted thereafter. In co-operation with Brian Ripley, he produced his first book, “The Miners Association: A Trade Union in the Age of the Chartists” (1968). He also wrote a pamphlet for the Communist History Society, “Alexander MacDonald”. In 1972, he published “The Lancashire and Cheshire Miners” and he wrote as a thesis for his PhD “Trade Unionism in the Coal Industry till 1910”.
These were brilliant original works, based on painstaking research which put the miners’ leader Alexander MacDonald and his close associates in a new light as compromisers rather than the heroic figures they were cast as elsewhere. Ray published a biography of the man he saw as the truly principled fighter for the miners:- “A Radical Lawyer in Victorian England: WP Roberts”.
Before this was published, Ray moved to Whitley Bay to take a post at Newcastle-upon-Tyne Polytechnic- later a University- where he eventually became the principal lecturer in history.
In addition to teaching and inspiring many of his students, Ray continued to write and produced “The Origins of British Bolshevism” (1977), “John S Clarke: Parliamentarian, Poet and Lion Tamer” (1977), and “The Struggle for Hearts and Minds: Essays on the Second World War” (1995). He also turned out numerous articles published in a range of different journals.
Ray joined the Society for the Study of Labour History in 1964 and was a keen participant in its activities. He served as President of the Society 1974-77 and thereafter as a Vice-President. When he moved to Whitley Bay, he also joined the North East Society for the Study of Labour History and became one of its key activists.
With Archie Potts, Labour Party activist and the biographer of Konni Zilliacus MP, he and Mabel launched Bewick Books which published a number of political, historical and cultural volumes on the north east.
Throughout his adult life Ray accumulated a magnificent library of socialist books, rare socialist journals and many literary gems. For example he possessed a run of the Johnson-Forrest publications produced by CLR James under the pseudonym “Johnson “ with Raya Dunayevskaya as “Forrest”. He also possessed many American works and other literary volumes.
He visited America to meet American socialists and thinkers. He kept up a correspondence with or invited socialists and others to stay with him. Harry McShane, Anne Swingler, Brian Manning, Edward Thompson were typical of his friends.
Although he left the Labour Party in disgust and fell out of the International Socialists-later the SWP-,he remained politically active. When Eddie Milne, Labour MP for Blyth, was deselected for making accusations of corruption in the Labour Party, Ray worked to help him retain his seat in 1974, though Eddie later lost it.
When a former boxer, Liddle Towers died in police custody in 1976, Ray campaigned locally to demand an investigation.
He remained active in CND. He continued to write letters and articles on contemporary as well as historical events. His voice was raised on many issues and only ill health in his final years ultimately silenced him.
In all his activities, Ray received devoted support from his wife Mabel, who attended to his every need. Both Ray and Mabel were deeply attached to their son, Russell, their daughter-in-law Rebecca and granddaughter, Claire. My family accompanied me on visits to see him over many years he was one of my very closest friends for 59 years.
In later life we were not in close political agreement. He retained what he regarded as his revolutionary politics while I retained my Labour Party membership and commitment to what he regarded as reformism.
He consistently mocked my abstemious attitude to alcohol and what he saw as a puritanical cast of mind. I was, he told me, the most conservative socialist he had ever known!
But in spite of this we were both committed to a socialist transformation of society and this cemented our friendship.
Ray lived a life dominated by continuing intellectual endeavours unceasing commitment to the cause of human emancipation, loyalty to his family and his friends and dedication to the aim of active progress towards the goal of international socialism. He led a positive and worthwhile life, which, through his writings and his example, will continue to enlighten and encourage others to strive for the ends which were central to his whole being.