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Obituary: The Times

Tim Mason

From: The Times September 20th 1983

Mr Peter Sedgwick, who was found dead near his home at Shipley, York, on September 8 was one of the most prolific, versatile and scholarly of this country’s socialist writers.

His training was in psychology, but he spent the past 15 years of his life as Lecturer in Politics at the Universities of York and Leeds. He was too imaginative to become the prisoner of any single academic discipline, but all of his writing (including his many interventions in political journalism) carried the authority of scholarly care and precision.

This quality is especially evident in his meticulous translations and editions of the works of Victor Serge: Memoirs of a Revolutionary, 1901-1941 is now in its fourth (revised) printing. Peter did much of the difficult research for this book while he was in full-time employment as an educational psychologist .

When he became a professional political scientist, he directed his energies more and more to the politics of his original discipline: PsychoPolitics, an extended and impassioned argument with the theories of Goffman, Laing, Foucault and Szasz, received most unusual critical acclaim when it was published last year. He campaigned at all levels for the humane and technically competent treatment of the mentally ill, and was horrified by the dilettantism of approaches to mental illness which became popular among his fellow socialists.

Peter Sedgwick was born in 1934, joined the Communist Party while studying at Oxford and left it in 1956. His work in the 1960s and 1970s lay just outside the mainstream developments of the New Left. He was a deeply unconventional thinker. Radically mistrustful of all consensuses and of all modishness in political and social theory. He went his own way with a small group, International Socialism, to whose journal he contributed many brilliant essays and reviews. This resolute independence of mind is most finely documented in his demolition (in 1966!) of Herbert Marcuse's One Dimensional Man. Like many of Peter's articles and essays, this philippic did not find as large and attentive a readership as it deserved. In it, Marcuse the prophet of 1968 was shown to be hopelessly confused.

But no less important than the substance of Peter’s critique was its tone and its literary form: at a time when the air of the New Left was heavy, thundery, laden with abstract nouns which were locked in desperately earnest conflict with each other, he went on writing with his characteristic calm reasonableness, factual precision, and, most exceptional of all, with light wit and humour. He combined firmness of intellectual and political purpose with a gentle manner and a dedication to lucidity and rational persuasion in his writing. His demolition of Marcuse was neither factional, nor vindictive nor triumphant.

The calm reasonableness and good humour of Peter’s writing was not the reflection of a quiet and secure private or inner life. He was moulded as a person by a series of tragedies and bitter adversities. He had much more to write He had almost completed a new study of Serge. Now his friends must go back to the essays and articles which he could complete and bring them together as a book.