Raphael Samuel, who died of cancer in December—in the old weaver’s house in Elder Street he loved so much, behind Spitalfield Market in the heart of what was once Jewish and Radical London—was one of the most outstanding, original intellectuals of his generation: a lifelong socialist of deep and complex persuasion, a passionate, creative and innovative social historian, and a man of unique personal qualities and distinction of mind and spirit. Those of us who were privileged to be amongst the great number whom, as a mark of personal affection, to the end, he addressed as ‘comrade’, find his untimely death an irreparable loss. Neither the ‘first’ New Left, which was born in the wake of 1956 (the year of the Anglo-French invasion of Suez and the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution—the two paradigmatic events which between them defined the political parameters of a generation, and of which this journal is a principal legatee), nor the History Workshop movement of the 1970s (which transformed the writing of popular working-class history) would have existed without his vision and gift for strategic intervention.
When I first encountered Raphael as an undergraduate at Oxford in the early 1950s, he was already a sort of legend—politically and intellectually precocious, steeped in the culture of the Communist Party to which he had been introduced by his mother, Minna (a gifted musician and, much later in life, a successful composer, as well as a committed Party activist) and his uncle, Chimen Abramsky, the distinguished Jewish historian of the First International, who remembers being quizzed by Raphael, aged eleven, as to who Hobbes was and what was Leviathan. Raphael was the central figure in the small group of young communist undergraduates, centered around Christopher Hill at Balliol, whose open political allegiance to the Party in one sense isolated and drew attention to them—this was the height (or depth?) of the Cold War, and the closer people were to ‘the Left’ politically, the more vigilant, in some ways, was their anti-communism. In another sense, they were a vital spark in Oxford undergraduate politics, lending to that scene of fiercely ambitious rivalries and carefully calibrated self-advancement the unusual whiff of an intense political seriousness. Raphael was simultaneously the pariah and the heart-and-soul of the Oxford political scene. Solid Labour Club supporters, advancing steadily towards their Front Bench careers, were guarded about being seen too closely in converse with ‘Ralph’ (as he was then known) or his alter-ego and ‘terrible twin’, Peter Sedgwick. (The physical contrast between them was remarkable: Raphael with his
By 1955, the political climate had begun to thaw—encouraged in part by the opening of the Khrushchev era, the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which brought the long-buried critique of Stalinism rising to the surface of political debate, as well as by the signs of a more radical and questioning political climate, especially on the cultural and intellectual Left, in Britain. This had its turbulent effects on Oxford politics, making possible a freer and more open dialogue between those of us on the independent Left who had never joined the Party and had been principled anti-Stalinists and those, like Raphael, Peter and others, whom the Khrushchev reforms released into a more open and searching political reassessment. One of the principal scenes where these debates and discussions were enacted was the Socialist Club, a moribund organizational shell left over from the old days of the Popular Front, which a number of us, including Raphael, occupied and revived (it had been kept alive financially by banker’s orders from fellow-travelling undergraduates of the 1930s, who had since become established luminaries and had either forgotten to cancel their contributions or were now too embarassed to do so. This was by no means the last occasion on which Raphael was to deploy political guilt in the service of his deeper stratagems.)
The idea of publishing a journal to focus and develop this radical debate, in Oxford and other universities, was already well advanced in Socialist Club circles, much encouraged by Raphael, when, in the late summer of 1956, our cosy world was shattered, first by the trumped-up Anglo-French-Israeli conspiracy which led to the invasion of the Suez Canal zone—which we saw as a sharp reminder that the age of imperiaism was not dead—and the use of Soviet tanks to roll over the workers and intellectual opposition of the Imre Nagy government in Hungary—which we saw as the apotheosis of the degeneration of Stalinism and Soviet communism. Actually, Raphael’s whole political world, as he had known it, had been blown apart, especially by the latter event, and its reverberations within the British Communist Party (which precipitated mass desertions and terminated in the expulsion of the internal opposition led by Edward and Dorothy Thompson, John Saville and others around the Reasoner faction).
Without quite understanding what exactly he would do after University, I am sure that up to that point Raphel had assumed—as we all did—that his future would be tied up with some leading intellectual role closely connected with Party work. Party intellectuals had strongly advised him to take a year out from political activism before sitting his Finals and he