John Saville pictured in his army days during World War II
the left was lost and won
by John Saville
Merlin Press, £14.95
cAN it be true? The Tory party is for the poor! Labour, according
to its new, unintelligible chairman, is the natural party of government.
Some of my old vehement left-wing colleagues at the Greater London
Council have been drained of their rich red blood, burnt their Marxist
textbooks and read from Tony Blair’s prayer book – as
the King of Siam said to Anna: “It’s a puzzlement.”
So, a warm welcome to John Saville’s memoirs. Here is a man
who maintained a belief in Socialism and has not evaded painful questioning
about theological certainty in the pre-1956 Stalinist British Communist
At 87, the former Professor of Economic History at Hull University
strikes a confident note as he looks backwards and forwards in a lively
and well-argued book which ends with the recent Iraqi war.
Born on April 2 1916, he was christened Orestes Stampatopoulis, the
son of an upper-class Greek father and a working-class Lincolnshire
mother. Father was called back to defend Greece and never returned,
Mother made her way to a housekeeping job in Romford and eventually
married her kindly employer, Mr Saville, a merchant tailor in that
John was soon a star of Romford Grammar School, took his stepfather’s
name and, blessed with high grade intelligence, arrived at the London
School of Economics in 1934. A dark decade had begun – Fascism
and appeasement and the Spanish Civil War were the dominant themes
of that “low, dishonest decade”.
The LSE’s greatest teacher, Harold Laski, excited John and a
generation awaited with certainty of the coming of a second world
war. Saville joined the Communist Party at the LSE and believed in
its integrity, organisational ability and, like so many others, in
the Soviet Union.
After the Phoney War of 1939/1940 he adapted quickly to service life,
but when Hitler turned nasty, he became a skilled anti-aircraft gunner
and warrant officer, ending up in India where he pursued contact with
the Indian Communist Party. If he had chosen he could easily have
obtained a commission, as quite a number of British communists became
After the tumultuous effect of the 1930s and the uncertain conduct
of the war he came back to a politically radicalised England. It was
soon dissipated as anti-Russian postures increased. Then the hardening
of attitudes in the Cold War, and the hot one in Korea, 1950-51.
In 1947 he had taken up an academic position in Hull and there he
stayed writing, teaching, organising, but then came the bombshell
in February 1956 at the 20th congress of the Soviet Communist Party.
Communists throughout the world were shattered by the revelations
of brutality, injustice and dominant paranoia outlined by Stalin’s
successor, Khruschev, in 26,000 bitter words.
The dream for many was over, while others retreated into depression,
isolation or religion, Saville, with E P Thompson, took up their pens,
out of which came The Reasoner, The New Reasoner and The New Left
Review, a flowering of history and hope in sharp analytical form.
The bewildered Left had found a focus for a while before being swallowed
up by the burgeoning mass movement of CND. As the extreme Left romanticised,
men like Ralph Miliband (whose son David is a Blairite education minister)
helped stop the panic. One nasty but not uncommon incident was the
planting of a spy in Saville’s household – Harry Newton,
had been bought or blackmailed.
After the expansion of universities under Harold Wilson’s government
in the 1960s Saville taught and was sought after as an accomplished
He rescued archives of working-class life and political struggle including
that of the National Council for Civil Liberties at King’s Cross
where current cabinet members Patricia Hewitt and Harriet Harman cut
their teeth. His energy was relentless, his faith unquenchable.
This is a biography with no spite or malice but one of hope, although
there is justifiable apprehension of the growing power of the American
far right in 2003. In great old age his favourite book is Simon Jenkins’
England’s Hundred Best Churches. His last word is: “If
I were a Christian not an atheist I would comfort my soul with it”.
Simon Jenkins of Primrose Hill may be surprised.
n Illtyd Harrington is the former deputy chairman of the Greater London