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International Socialism, Winter 2005


Paul Blackledge

A life on the left


From International Socialism 2 : 105, Winter 2005.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


John Saville
Memoirs from the Left
Merlin Press, 2003, £14.95

John Saville was one of the outstanding intellectuals to come out of the British Communist Party Historians’ Group (CPHG) in the 1950s. It is enough to mention the names of a few of the other members of this group – Eric Hobsbawm, Edward and Dorothy Thompson, Christopher Hill, Victor Kiernan, George Rudé, Raphael Samuel and Rodney Hilton – to get a sense of the importance of this group as a nursery of first class Marxist historians. Generally, the members of the group had their formative influences during the 1930s and the Second World War, when they were instilled with a commitment to socialism and internationalism that informed their subsequent practice. Saville’s memoirs trace his experiences as a member of both the Communist Party and its historians’ group up to 1956; his key role in the formation of the British New Left after 1956; and his position as a co-editor with Ralph Miliband of The Socialist Register for the next quarter century. What the memoirs show is that throughout all of these years, and in the decades since his retirement, Saville has remained a dedicated and inspirational socialist historian and activist.

Saville joined the Communist Party in 1934 shortly after becoming a student at the London School of Economics. His own background was middle class, and as Ralph Miliband has commented, ‘there was nothing in his life until then which pointed to that destination’. [1] Saville explains his decision to join the party as a response to a combination of his empathy with those who were experiencing the worst effects of the economic depression; his disgust at the Labour Party’s actions in 1931 – when Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald cut the level of dole payments and formed a National Government with the Tories; and, most importantly, his fear of the growing menace of fascism. [2]

The importance of this context to Saville’s intellectual development cannot be overemphasised. For in the mid-1930s Stalin, with a view to forming alliances with Britain and France against Germany, pushed the parties of the Communist International to embrace what became known as the ‘popular front’ strategy. Politically, this strategy involved the Communists seeking alliances with all ‘progressive’ forces against fascism. While this policy sounded good on paper, in practice the Communist Parties could only maintain unity with liberals by reining-in workers’ struggles. It was as this policy was being formulated and implemented that Saville joined the party, and popular frontism has coloured his politics ever since.

Interestingly, the Comintern pressed its national sections to find historical justifications for this new line. So, with a view to showing that sections of the British, French and other bourgeoisies were progressive, Communist historians were entreated by Dimitrov, the leader of the Comintern, to challenge the national myths of the fascists with their own histories of national progressive struggles for democracy, so that they might ‘link up the present struggle with the people’s revolutionary traditions’.

Ironically, despite the unsavoury context in which it was formulated, this policy came back to haunt the Communist movement. For a contradiction grew between what the historians were being asked to write about – any and all democratic movements from below – and their own membership of an undemocratic party. Thus Leslie Morton’s A People’s History of England told the story ‘from below’ of the struggle for freedom made by the English from the earliest settlers through the revolts against feudalism and the revolution of 1649 to the modern struggles of the industrial age. [3] Similarly, the intellectual doyen of the CPHG, Dona Torr, in her classic study Tom Mann and his Times, located Mann as a late representative in a story of England’s long running ‘struggle for freedom’. [4]

Once Saville became a member of the party, he found that it provided an intensely intellectually stimulating environment, while simultaneously giving him a basis for political activity – the party offered a ‘sense of belonging to a world movement dedicated to an unyielding opposition to injustice and oppression’. [5] Among his earliest political experiences was his involvement both in the British anti-fascist movement and in the solidarity campaign with Republican Spain. Indeed, he learned a basic socialist internationalism in the 1930s which has never deserted him. Thus his memoirs end with a condemnation of Blair’s imperialist war in Iraq, while a few pages earlier he comments, in a matter of fact sort of way, that his excellent The Politics of Continuity (1993), which dissected the miserable foreign policy record of the 1945 Labour government, was delayed for publication by his activities in the antiwar movement in the early 1990s. [6]

The Politics of Continuity is interesting not just because it should be on the shelves of every anti-war activist – especially those who believe that the foreign policy of old Labour was any better than that of the present set of murderers – but also because of the way it illuminates Saville’s approach to writing history. He was just one of the many historians in the CPHG who found Dona Torr inspirational. Indeed, he wrote that Torr ‘taught us historical passion. She made us feel history in our pulses. History was not words on a page, not the goings-on of kings and prime ministers, nor mere events. History was the sweat, blood, tears and triumphs of the common people, our people.’ [7]

However, while he was inspired by Torr’s example, he has been a stern critic of the contemporary trend in labour and socialist history to reduce history from below to ‘antiquarianism’. [8] Indeed, the great strength of Saville’s historiography is that it tends to illuminate the class struggle as a two-sided process. Thus, in his excellent book on Chartism, 1848: The British State and the Chartist Movement (1987), he examined the role of the state in breaking the Chartist movement. Interestingly, he found that he could only make sense of this process by going beyond those interpretations of Chartism, such as that made by Gareth Stedman Jones, which concentrated on its formally moderate political demands. Saville argues that it was precisely because the demands for the People’s Charter were rooted in an underlying class struggle at the point of production that Chartism both had a mass working class base, and also generated such a popular and reactionary middle class response: ‘The outstanding feature of 1848 was the mass response to the call for special constables to assist the professional forces of state security. This was the significance of 1848: the closing of ranks among all those with a property stake in the country, however small the stake was.’ [9]

Saville’s ability to thus synthesise the movements of the various classes from below with the movement of the state and property owners from above marks his work out against the run of the mill labour historiography. One can only agree with him that, while the movement for history from below, reborn in Britain in the wake of Edward Thompson’s masterful The Making of the English Working Class (1963), has had an undoubtedly positive effect on historiography, the pressures of academic specialisation have also led to the production of an awful lot of dross. Saville has stood out against this tendency, and for that he is to be congratulated. Indeed, his background in both the Historians’ Group and the New Left seems to have left him incapable of following the traditional historians’ path of finding an archive and mining it for information irrespective of any meaning that might be attached to the published results. So, where contemporary historiography is torn by a debate between postmodernists and empiricists, Saville practises the kind of Marxist historiography that overcomes the opposition between theory and facts. Against the postmodernists, his work is steeped in a serious examination of primary evidence; against traditional empiricist history, his Marxism provides him with a vantage point from which he can justify his research method. Thus Saville always writes history which aims to inform contemporary struggles for freedom, and there is no sense of the antiquarian in anything that he has produced – even the Dictionary of Labour Biography, of which he co-edited ten volumes between 1971 and 2000, was meant to help socialists make the future by having a firmer sense of their past.

Since he retired as Professor of Economic History at the University of Hull in 1982, Saville has produced a number of important works that should be on the bookshelves of any socialist. I’ve mentioned two of these above; another, The Consolidation of the Capitalist State 1800–1850 (1994), was a short work that launched Pluto Press’s ill-fated Socialist History of Britain series. In this study Saville aimed to trace the patterns of class conflict and class compromise that shaped Britain in the 19th century. On the one hand, a compromise between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy emerged in the middle of the century on the basis of a shared goal of increased capital accumulation. However, while a compromise between property owners was a possibility, a similar compromise between these and the propertyless was not; and Saville shows how Britain was made safe for capital accumulation through the physical suppression of the workers’ movement in 1848. However, Saville also shows how, even after such a calamitous defeat at the hands of the British state, the workers’ movement, in Edward Thompson’s phrase, proceeded to ‘warren society from end to end’ in the second half of the 19th century. Indeed, it was through this process that the ideology of Labourism emerged, not as a set of ideas divorced from the production process, but as an ideology which was rooted in that process. [10]

Not that Saville’s explanation of the roots of Labourism is meant to excuse its history. Thus, in The Labour Movement in Britain (1988), he argued that while Labourism ‘encouraged working people to maintain their sense of class – it also involved the acceptance of a subordinate role in political society’. [11] In fact, a rejection of Labourism has remained a constant feature of Saville’s socialism since his days in the Communist Party. And when, in 1964, most of the now collapsing New Left found themselves cheering Harold Wilson, Saville, in an essay written with Ralph Miliband, was clear that Wilson’s government wouldn’t act in a radical direction. [12] In 1967 he was even more adamant that ‘Labourism has nothing to do with socialism: that the Labour Party has never been, nor is capable of becoming, a vehicle for socialist advance; and that the destruction of the illusions of Labourism is a necessary step before the emergence of a socialist movement of any size and influence becomes practicable.’ [13]

In fact, one of the key weaknesses of Labourism, of both the left and right wing varieties, was an illusory belief in the neutrality of the state. [14] Saville argues that it is only through a very different kind of political tradition that the transition to socialism can be realised: ‘Only a disciplined organisation can expect to offer the serious challenge to the powerful order of capitalist society that is so urgently required.’ [15] I can only agree with this sentiment. However, it is here that we come to the weakness with Saville’s interpretation of Marxism. We can get a sense of this from something he published in 1970. Commenting that a new socialist party was needed, and that International Socialism might possibly become such an organisation if it moved from being ‘a fairly open sect to something approaching a small party’, he concluded that such a party is ‘not yet even on the horizon’. [16]

Despite Saville’s pessimism, International Socialism did make the transition to become a small party in the 1970s, changing its name to the SWP along the way. Unfortunately, Saville neither joined the SWP nor any similar organisation, and the reasons for this are important. Ever since 1956 Saville has consistently argued that a new socialist party is necessary, but that the time is not yet ripe for building it. Half a century of such a self-denying ordinance needs to be explained, and to be countered, if the left is to move on to build a viable alternative to Labour.

The problem, as I see it, is that while Saville is clear about what he is against – imperialist wars and Labourism being at the top of his list – he is less clear about what he is for. Not, of course, that he doesn’t know if he is for socialism. Rather he doesn’t know what he means by a ‘disciplined socialist party’, and this can best be explained as a consequence of his failure to fully think through his break with Stalinism in 1956. [17] One of the strengths of his autobiography lies in Saville’s honesty regarding his past. Thus he seeks to explain how, at the height of the Moscow Show Trials, he could remain a loyal Communist. His answer is all too believable: as the threat from Hitler grew, the USSR appeared to be the last hope for civilisation. [18] In retrospect, Saville is obviously aware that the show trials were a ‘gigantic confidence trick’. [19] However, at no point in his memoirs does he address the relationship between the show trials – through which the last sparks of Russia’s revolutionary heritage were destroyed by Stalin – and the politics of the popular front, which Saville embraced in the 1930s and which continued to inform his practice for the next seven decades.

The problem with the popular front is that it is essentially a reformist strategy. In a sense then it was a perfect stablemate to the show trials, for both were used by Stalin to extinguish revolutionary ideology. [20] Now, to break with Stalin without rejecting the popular front might be seen as keeping hold of the baby when throwing out the bath-water. However, Lenin’s concept of a disciplined socialist party, which Saville seems to accept, is premised upon his argument that a revolution is necessary if capitalism is to be overcome. [21] If radical reform can be achieved without a revolution, then it makes little sense to build a revolutionary party. While it is unclear how a non-revolutionary socialist party would be much more than a reformed version of Labour, Saville’s rejection of both Labourism, and the strategy of reforming the Labour Party leaves him isolated. He is neither fish nor fowl, neither revolutionary nor reformist; and despite the undoubted power of his historiography, and of his inspirational commitment to socialist politics, this has meant that he has made himself politically isolated. Unfortunately, Saville has not been alone taking this stance – it was shared by those such as Ralph Miliband and Edward Thompson who were closest to him in the first New Left. Now, while this is certainly not bad company to keep, it is a tragedy that none of these activists and scholars could realise a need they felt to build a new socialist organisation in Britain. [22]


1. R. Miliband, John Saville: A Presentation in D.E. Martin and D. Rubinstein (eds.), Ideology and the Labour Movement: Essays Presented to John Saville (London 1979), p. 15.

2. J. Saville, Memoirs from the Left (London 2003), p. 8.

3. Morton’s book was first published in the 1930s. The Communist Party Historians’ Group first began to meet after the war to inform the argument of the second edition.

4. D. Torr, Tom Mann and his Times (London 1956), p. 98.

5. J. Saville, as above, p. 11.

6. As above, p. 181.

7. G. Thompson, M. Dobb, C. Hill and J. Saville, Foreword, in J. Saville (ed.), Democracy and the Labour Movement (London 1954), p. 8.

8. J. Saville, Memoirs, as above, p. 180.

9. J. Saville, 1848: The British State and The Chartist Movement (Cambridge 1987), pp. 224–227.

10. J. Saville, The Consolidation of the Capitalist State 1800–1850 (London 1994), p. 80.

11. J. Saville, The Labour Movement in Britain (London 1988), p. 21.

12. R. Miliband and J. Saville, Labour Policy and the Labour Left, in The Socialist Register 1964, p. 152.

13. J. Saville, Labourism and the Labour Government, The Socialist Register 1967, p. 68.

14. As above, pp. 53, 56.

15. J. Saville, Memoirs, as above, p. 165.

16. J. Saville, Prospects for the Seventies, The Socialist Register 1970, pp. 212, 208.

17. I have developed this argument at greater length elsewhere. P. Blackledge, Learning from Defeat: Reform, Revolution and the Problem of Organisation in the First New Left, Contemporary Politics, vol. 10, no. 1 (March 2004).

18. J. Saville, Memoirs, as above, p. 35.

19. J. Saville, The Labour Movement in Britain, as above, p. 65.

20. D. Hallas, The Comintern (London 1985), p. 141.

21. T. Cliff, Lenin: Building the Party (London 1986), p. 84.

22. See R. Miliband, Moving On, The Socialist Register 1976. Thompson made a similar comment to Tariq Ali in a TV documentary on his life and ideas that was aired just prior to his death in 1993.

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