Obituary: Angus Calder, 1942-2008

Issue section: 
(327)

The historian, poet and cultural critic Angus Calder has died in his adopted city of Edinburgh, at the tragically early age of 66.

Calder was in many ways a model of the type of engaged public intellectual that we more readily associate with New York in the 1930s and 1940s, rather than the Scottish capital, post-devolution.

Calder's work was always scholarly, but never academic in the narrow sense. He disdained the kind of narrow caste incomprehensibility designed to ensure professional advancement rather than audience communication. For this reason his preferred literary mode - out of the many in which he was proficient - was the essay, a form distant equally from both the refereed academic paper and the journalistic opinion piece.

In a British context one thinks of Alasdair MacIntyre, Edward Thompson or Perry Anderson as masters of this form, and Calder belongs in this company, as demonstrated by his three collections Revolving Culture (1994), Scotlands of the Mind (2002) and Disasters and Heroes (2004). I recommend the first of these in particular to readers unfamiliar with his work.

Calder was also hostile to notions of academic "objectivity" - a much misused term which usually means that academics want to avoid choosing between opposing positions: "If we become 'neutral' we are in effect avoiding our own freedom to choose now." And he argued that the reverse is also true: "The imagination which grasps the past must be nurtured by engagement with the present."

Essays apart, Calder's greatest contributions were his two major books, The People's War (1969) and Revolutionary Empire (1981), both of which are required reading for any socialist. So accustomed have we become to "debunking" in recent years that it can be difficult to appreciate how radical the former work was at the time, in its revisionist dismantling of many cherished myths about Britain during the Second World War.

But demythologising apart, this is one of the great early examples of left wing social history and - unlike many subsequent works of this sort - it never pretends that the social can be considered separately from the political and economic, or that the working class experience can be isolated from that of the other social classes.

Calder was particularly conscious of the imperial dimension to the conflict, writing that, "when Britain 'stood alone' in 1940, she stood on the shoulders of several million Asians". And without dismissing the suffering of British people in the war, he asked in the final sentence, in a reference to the Indian famine of 1943, "What had Jarrow been to Calcutta?"

The People's War drew on a wide range of primary sources. Revolutionary Empire, by contrast, was a work of synthesis. Announced as the first volume of a trilogy about the rise and fall of the British Empire, it was never completed, like all too many of Calder's projects. Nevertheless, the existing volume, which climaxes with the American Revolution, is an essential counterweight to more recent works by right wing apologists for empire like Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts.

The originality of the work is in the way Calder begins his history with internal expansion of England, treating the formation of the British state itself as an imperial project - again a position which at the time was not characteristic of imperial history. At the same time, he emphatically rejected the "pretence" that Scotland had been colonised by England, writing elsewhere that "the stark truth is that Scots were proud and eager collaborators in the colonisation and exploitation of lands overseas by the British Empire".

Calder's overall relationship to Marxism was agnostic, although some of his work would be unthinkable without it. In an early introduction to the work of Sir Walter Scott, co-written with his then wife Jenni, they analyse the author's work from a perspective influenced by Georg Luk√°cs (although with a rather more accurate grasp of Scottish history), but also show how aspects of Scott's approach to history in his novels came to influence historical materialism: "Only when we understand the difference between one style of life and another can we understand change; and only when we understand how life has changed in history can we understand how it might be changing in the present."

Politically, Calder described himself as holding "a view of Scotland which is emphatically not 'Unionist', but isn't 'Nationalist' either: I call myself a 'socialist home ruler'." As this suggests, he was not a revolutionary. Nevertheless, he ultimately despaired of the Labour Party and joined the SNP during the 1990s, before breaking to the left to join the Scottish Socialist Party and, finally, Solidarity.

Calder had a number of friends in the Socialist Workers Party and contributed several reviews to the International Socialism journal and a chapter to the Bookmarks collection, Scotland, Class and Nation (1999). He will be badly missed, not only on the Scottish literary scene, where he was an important figure for three decades, but in Africa and the Caribbean, where he did much to publicise and encourage writers like Ngugi Wa Thiong'o and Chinua Achebe when they were still unknown in the West.