With the death of Peter Gowan on 12 June 2009, the international left has lost one of its most astute political analysts, and New Left Review the most generous and steadfast of comrades. Peter was a socialist intellectual of the highest calibre, combining enormous energy and independence of mind with a truly collective spirit. A contributor to nlr from the 1970s, he joined the editorial committee in 1984; his interventions in the journal constitute a substantial body of analysis in their own right. His work was translated into many languages and he had readers on every continent; unlike some, he was incredibly patient in replying to their e-mails. He loved a good argument, although he was always extremely courteous to his critics.footnote1 For me the loss is also deeply personal. He was a close friend and comrade since we first met as activists in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign in 1967. There is little that we did not discuss over the last four decades.
Peter was born in 1946, three years after his sister Philippa. They were war babies in the classic sense: their father, a Canadian officer of Scottish ancestry stationed in wartime Glasgow, was already married. Their mother, Jean MacDonald, came from a well-off Glaswegian family who were stunned when she broke her engagement to a local and opted for her mysterious Canadian. The two children were born in her father’s house in Glasgow. When it was hurriedly sold after his death, she moved to Belfast and brought up the children as a single parent, with occasional ‘unofficial’ help from her brothers which paid for Peter’s education. Philippa and Peter were never to meet their father, something that undoubtedly left a deep mark on him; he discussed it with me at various times over the years. It was only with the arrival of his own children that the torment over his missing parent lessened, though it never quite disappeared. He himself was a wonderful father to his four sons and spent enormous amounts of time with them and their friends, discussing each and every problem with the same energy that he applied to questions of politics and theory and, in more relaxed moments, to gardening.
Young Gowan was sent to Orwell Park prep school and later to Haileybury College, an institution that had initially been set up in 1806 by the East India Company to educate civil servants destined for the colonies. After 1858 its doors were opened to all, and the school developed a reputation for liberal scholarship. Clement Attlee had been a pupil and a pride in the reforms of his government permeated the school in the 1950s. Peter became a committed supporter of the Labour Party while at Haileybury. It was primarily his sister’s influence that pushed him to the left: then a Christian socialist, she was active in cnd (led by Canon Collins) and the Anti-Apartheid movement (led by Bishop Ambrose Reeves). At the University of Southampton, as he explains in the interview below, one of his more inspirational lecturers was Miriam Daly, an independent-minded Irishwoman who radicalized him further.footnote2 She encouraged him to study the Russian Revolution and its legacy, which soon became an obsession. Peter was never satisfied until he had read everything he could possibly lay his hands on, and in this case the literature was enormous. He embarked on post-graduate work at the Centre for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Birmingham, where the staff included the formidable scholar R.W. Davies. But revolution was in the air and he did not finish his PhD; something I never heard him regret.
From 1968 until 1976, Peter was deeply involved as a militant in the International Marxist Group (img). What had attracted a number of us to this tiny group was both its considered anti-Stalinism and, more importantly, its intransigent internationalism: it was the British section of the Fourth International, which had activists in every continent, including many who functioned in conditions of clandestinity under the dictatorships of Latin America and Southern Europe, above all Portugal, Greece and Spain. Revolutionary politics was a full-time engagement; if the routines could be tedious, there was much in this existence that was rewarding. Above all, the world political situation demanded intervention: the Vietnamese resistance to the United States, the Cuban Revolution and Che Guevara’s odyssey, the eruption of the working class in France, Italy and Britain, with the huge miners’ strike that brought down the Conservative government in 1974, the same year that the Portuguese revolution toppled the dictatorship.
Party loyalties never impeded Peter’s independence of mind. In 1967 nlr inaugurated a debate on ‘Trotsky’s Marxism’ with a powerful critique by Nicolas Krassó, one of the left leaders of the Hungarian uprising of 1956, and a member of the nlr editorial committee. The de-Stalinization process in the Soviet Union had semi-rehabilitated Bukharin and other Old Bolsheviks; Trotsky alone remained anathema, and this was the first serious attempt to discuss his legacy within a broader left. Krassó was a former pupil of Lukács, well versed in both the theory and the practice of the official Communist movement. Ernest Mandel despatched a defensive reply. Krassó challenged him once again; Mandel’s second reply was more effective.footnote3 I remember well Peter’s first response to the initial exchange. ‘I agree with Krassó,’ he told me. ‘Ernest’s response is unconvincing.’ He forced me to re-read the Krassó text carefully and, while I could see he had a case, partiinost prevented me from admitting it to anyone except Peter. One outcome was a growing friendship with the Hungarian. In an interview conducted with him shortly before Krassó’s death, Peter asked how he would sum up the meaning of the Hungarian revolution. With characteristic wit and mordancy, Krassó replied:
I have often remembered the 19th Party Congress in the Soviet Union in 1952. Stalin kept silent throughout the Congress till the very end when he made a short speech that covers about two and a half printed pages. He said there were two banners that the progressive bourgeoisie had thrown away and which the working class should pick up—the banners of democracy and national independence. Certainly nobody could doubt that in 1956 the Hungarian workers raised these banners high.footnote4
In February 1968, a group of us in London had decided to launch a new radical newspaper. The poet Christopher Logue was despatched to the Reading Room of the old British Library to research names. He returned with detailed notes on a 19th-century paper, The Black Dwarf, whose editor Thomas Wooler had been imprisoned for his scathing attacks on the state perpetrators of the Peterloo Massacre. We decided to revive it on May 1st, 1968. A week later the barricades went up in Paris and one of our correspondents, Eric Hobsbawm, situated them in the continuum of French history. I offered Peter his first job as Distribution Manager of the new Black Dwarf. He moved to London immediately, found a squat, and took to his task with gusto, delivering copies of the paper to bookshops in a beat-up van. My fondest memory of him from that period is his returning to our Soho offices at 7 Carlisle Street (a floor below the New Left Review) one day and laughing with delight. That issue had carried an acerbic piece by Robin Blackburn defending Herbert Marcuse against Alasdair MacIntyre, who had written an ultra-critical political biography of the us-based German Marxist for Fontana Modern Masters. We found a photograph of Marcuse, his fist raised as he stood on a platform with Black Panther members. The piece was titled: ‘MacIntyre, The Game is Up’. Peter had just delivered the issue to Collets, the radical bookstore on Charing Cross Road that took a hundred Dwarfs each fortnight. As he was about to leave he saw the great philosopher stride through the door. MacIntyre went straight to the pile, lifted a copy and began to flick through until he came to the offending headline. Peter described watching him as he pored over Blackburn’s assault, turned puce, threw the paper back on the pile and walked out. We were thrilled. It was rare to witness the immediate impact of a text on its target.