Saville's Rows

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Review of 'Memoirs From the Left', John Saville, Merlin £14.95

John Saville will be familiar to many readers of Socialist Review as one of the post-1945 generation who put British Marxist history on the map. His memoirs deal with this aspect of his life but it also shows him to be a lifelong political activist, first from his time at the LSE in the 1930s with the Communist Party and then, after 1956, as founding figure, along with EP Thompson, of the New Left. As an afterword to the book makes clear, Saville, now in his late eighties, remains politically active today.

The book itself is a joy to read because Saville brings the perspective of the historian to it. It is genuinely a memoir, and where Saville cannot remember something he clearly says so. Elsewhere he makes plain what the precise source for various memories are - letters for example - or suggests a corrective to his views of long ago provided by fresh historical research.

The first chapter of the book deals with his student years at the LSE. The second is a fascinating account of his life in the army, where, refusing an officer's commission, he rose to sergeant major as a gunnery instructor. His scathing comments on the stupidity and idleness of the upper ranks of the British army and his account of how Communists worked within the army will be fascinating reading to those who opposed the war in Iraq.

After the war Saville took up an academic position at Hull University where he was to remain for the rest of his working life, eventually becoming a professor. He reveals how Harry Newton, later exposed as an MI5 spy, passed himself off as a family friend for a period and writes interestingly about his professional relations with the university librarian, the poet Philip Larkin.

But MI5 were not interested in Saville because of his efforts to improve the academic life of Hull University, or even his later and important work to defend and extend academic freedom. It was his political activism that was clearly their focus. Saville had become a dedicated anti-imperialist as a result of his Second World War experiences in India. Yet by the early 1950s he was having increasing doubts about Stalinism. In 1956 Saville, along with EP Thompson, led the opposition in the British Communist Party, demanding that after Khrushchev's secret speech an open recognition of what had taken place in Russia should be made. In effect Saville was forced out of the Communist Party, resigning his membership to continue publication with Thompson and others of a new journal, the Reasoner.

Its successor New Reasoner became part of the New Left Review in 1960. Saville disliked the narrowing of the project that took place when Perry Anderson took the editorial chair in 1962, and left. He then went on to found and co-edit, with Ralph Miliband, another journal of the New Left, the Socialist Register.

While he believed in party organisation Saville had no time for the lack of open political discussion that characterised the Communist Party, or, as an anti-imperialist, for Labour Party politics. Indeed, he was one of those who helped the independent socialist campaign of the miners' activist Lawrence Daly in Fife in 1959.

By the 1960s Saville became strongly identified with labour history, having been a member of the Communist Party Historians Group before 1956, and a founder of the Society for the Study of Labour History. He was, for ten volumes over a 40 year period, the co-editor with Joyce Bellamy of the Dictionary of Labour Biography. This impressive work of reference, whose publication is still in progress, Saville worked on mostly in the evenings.

Following his retirement from academic life in 1982 Saville remained politically active, while continuing to publish a number of important books and essays. Readers of Socialist Review may have some arguments with his political positions and assessments. But, although comparisons may be unfair, by contrast with Eric Hobsbawm's recently published memoirs, Saville's account shows someone who has not only remained on and contributed to the left, but has done so actively. He concludes the book by noting his opposition to war with Iraq and to US and British imperialism in general. It will repay reading by historians and activists alike.