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International Socialism

Dave Phillips

From: The October 2004 Commemoration

I am speaking as someone who was in International Socialism in the 1960’s and for whom Peter was a great inspiration and source of ideas….

I remember my first ever sighting of Peter Sedgwick in person – this would have been at the Annual Conference of the International Socialists in 1968 – which took place at Beaver Hall, which was this vast cavernous conference hall in a building in the heart of the City of London that was the location of the City’s former trading exchange in furs and animal pelts (now, of course, such a venue would be quite ‘environmentally incorrect’) – it’s now long demolished and replaced by a huge great financial edifice, I think it’s the National Bank of Canada or Newfoundland.

Anyway, the debate going on was I think about the position IS should adopt in relation to the then Labour Government under Harold Wilson and a future general election – Peter came charging down the steps of the auditorium to speak at the microphone, shedding papers and pushing his hair back, announcing as he went ‘Sedgwick, Liverpool branch’. He was arguing a ‘neither Tweedledum or Tweedledee’ line – in fact IS adopted a position of unconditional but critical support for Labour. Given the choice between Harold Wilson and Edward Heath in 1970, in retrospect Peter was probably right.

I was very interested to see who Peter was, having read and been excited by his articles in ISJ, and he looked exactly like I had pictured him – surprising because you can often form a picture in your mind of people whose books you read or who you see as significant influences on your own life and thinking and they often turn out to be rather disappointing (in my experience) when you get to actually see them live – but Peter definitely fitted my own picture of the radical democratic Marxist – shock of frizzy fair hair, glasses, Trotsky-like, wonderfully dishevelled appearance

– and, above all, this sense of a tremendous intellectual energy, of ideas rushing forth, a constant torrent of thought. A man racing to keep up with the rush of his own thoughts – he clearly found speech a hopelessly inadequate vehicle of expression for keeping up, he was so intellectually active and creative.

I myself didn’t know Peter particularly closely – he was someone I met intermittently during the late 60’s and early 70’s through IS, and mainly through Dave Widgery with whom I shared a flat in Chapel Market, and David and Peter developed a close and communicative relationship, seeing each other very much as kindred spirits.

Peter’s writings in the IS Journal were a tremendous influence and seemed to embody very much the spirit of that organisation at that time – very much a form of democratic Marxism, that was independent of orthodoxy, critically sharp, free-thinking, and which while working within the Marxist tradition had room for creativity, originality and independence of mind, a certain streak of anarchism – and Peter’s writing certainly embodied all those qualities.

His own writing displayed a luminescent intellect and sharpness and precision. He wrote with great acuity, authority, scholarship, and insight across a wide range of socialist territory, including Marxist theory, the Bolshevik revolution, Russian and European political history, contemporary British politics, theories of consciousness, philosophy, psychology, psychiatry and so on.

He described himself at one point (Penguin Laing & Anti-Psychiatry book, 1972) as "Ideologically … a libertarian Marxist (International Socialist) committed to both the experimental and psychoanalytic research traditions within modern psychology" – that’s quite a span, even leaving the Marxism aside!

He was never someone who could be easily pigeonholed in terms of Marxist positioning, a radical and a democrat with a great sprit of independence. Importantly, he was very much a

usurper and debunker of orthodoxies and received wisdom, and someone who could be critical of fashionable simplicities and especially what he saw as ‘mysticism’

And by debunker of fashionable ideas, his engagement with Laing and Anti-Psychiatry and Laing’s more mystical phases falls into that bracket. Interestingly, he was one of very few serious thinkers at that time engaged in trying to link together Marxist political ideas with psychoanalytic thought, the realm of the personal and theories of the self and consciousness.

Earlier, in his magisterial translation of Victor Serge’s ‘Memoirs of a Revolutionary’ (OUP 1963), Peter provides a description of Serge – "an anarchist, a Bolshevik, a Trotskyist, a revisionist-Marxist, and, on his own confession, a ‘personalist’", which though not accurate in every single detail perhaps could almost be a self-description of Peter himself. One senses a tremendous affinity between the two of them – for example Serge in exile in Mexico, clearly on an ‘up’, P says "he wrote without respite: novels, essays, poems, articles, biography and autobiography" … contrasting with a later period of difficulty (quoted by Peter in Victor Serge’s Early Bolshevism for HWJ) when VS confesses "whenever I did any writing, there was such a striking discrepancy between my sensibility and my rational thought that I could actually write nothing of value". One sees a parallel trajectory of course with Peter’s own writing and the intellectual project with which he struggled in later years, trying to unify political theory and psychoanalysis.

His translation of Serge’s ‘Memoirs of a Revolutionary’ – was probably one of the most influential books I ever read at that time about revolutionary politics – I’ve not come across a more vivid and illuminating account of what it meant to live through that period as a revolutionary from the Russian Revolution through the 1920,s 30, 40’s in Europe – you get a brilliant sense of someone grappling with the contradictions and the shifts and all the changes. Of seeking to defend the achievements of communism and a socialism won by workers while deeply opposed and critical of the totalitarianism that developed alongside it. It’s an inspiring book …and I think this owed a very great deal to Peter himself and his translation, which is a very, very impressive work of scholarship.

So for me he was one of those figures who defined that period and for me a very crucial stage in my own development, and he is one of those people who remain with you – through life – you occasionally find yourself thinking ‘Well I wonder what Sedgwick would have made of this, or what would he have thought of that?". So a definitive man for me and a very significant and engaging Marxist writer and thinker, the kind of socialist intellectual that you don’t find around much these days, we just don’t have a public discourse informed by those ideas at the present time….and he’s missed of course because of that.