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John Saville is mainly remembered as an academic historian but was for many years from the start of his university days, and for the next 22 years, a Communist Party member.
Left: John Saville in his days as a Communist activist in the armed forces
He was born in a Lincolnshire village near Gainsborough on 2nd April 1916. His mother was Edith Vessey, a local girl from a working-class family, and Orestes Stamatopoulos, after whom he was precisely christened. Orestes was from the Greek upper-class and was an engineer by profession. But he was called back to defend Greece but died in the struggle.
Edith married for a second time, to a widowed merchant tailor in Romford, Essex, some years after the First World War. This also gave the now renamed John a more accessible surname as well. Edith had been a housekeeper to the man who now became Saville’s step-father.
Brought up in Romford, John Saville won a scholarship to Royal Liberty school in east London and was captain of soccer, swimming and athletics and, in the upper sixth, became captain of the school. Awarded a county scholarship and a bursary by the London School of
Economics, he studied there for three years.
Once he arrived at the London School of Economics in 1934 on a scholarship, he began to go to left-wing meetings and within two months had joined the Communist Party. The LSE’s greatest teacher then, the Labour Marxist, Harold Laski, was a big influence on John, who was amongst the student contingent at the battle of Cable Street. He worked for the Party on the numerous issues of the day, including support for the Spanish republic and the growing opposition to appeasement. Saville left the LSE in 1937 with a first, although this was a pretty remarkable achievement, since he had been frenetically busy organising political meetings and selling copies of the Daily Worker, before, like any good Communist, finally applying himself to his studies.
He was offered a prestigious research scholarship. Instead of setting himself up for an academic career, he puzzled his friends and family by getting a job as a courier for a travel agency. But this was no ordinary travel agency and much of his work was organised around smuggling messages into Germany to the underground anti-Nazi resistance.
As the decade drew to a close, he worked first for Dictaphone, which allowed him to engage in activity within the London District of the Communist Party. From early 1939, he was a as a research economist at British Home Stores.
Saville was called up into the armed services in 1940. He saw action early in the London blitz, and on the south coast, and was then stationed with an anti-aircraft battery in the docks of Liverpool during the winter of 1940-41. He was sent with his unit to the Shetland
Isles, crucial for contact with Norway and the Baltic, although this front had gone quiet by the time Saville was there. Repeatedly refusing promotions that would have taken him away from the intense danger such a role in anti-aircraft gunnery involved, he was eventually forced to accept the argument that he should leave his unit to take up the more important task of training new recruits in the skills involved.
He moved from anti-aircraft gunner to gunnery sergeant major instructor, then regimental sergeant major and warrant officer. If he had chosen he could easily have obtained a commission, as quite a number of British Communists became officers. Much retrospective comment has focused on how his reluctance to become a commissioned officer went against Party practice, no doubt in the light of his post-1956 history. Saville certainly wasn’t the only Communist not to prefer to stay with the `other’ ranks during the war, but he is one of the very few who did so who had themselves had a mixed class upbringing. The impulse is strong to conclude that he held a grudgingly perverse counter-class notion that to become a commissioned officer would be to accept the path both his natural and his adopted father would perhaps have had for him.
He married Constance Saunders in 1943, the year he was sent to India to serve. There, as earlier, he engaged in political work until demobilisation in 1946. In India, he had significant contact with the Communist Party of India.
Saville spent much of his free time at a commune run by the local Communist Party, where he wrote several pamphlets and gave many lectures to English-speakers. One of his pamphlets for the Communist Party of India in Mumbai was on British workers’ struggles.
At the base in Karachi, where he was stationed when he was on duty, Saville formed and led a Communist cell of twenty-five. When he was moved to Bombay in the aftermath of the war, he became a leader of one of the famous forces’ parliaments, formed by rank-and-file servicemen. After Saville helped get a motion condemning the killing of independence struggle demonstrators passed by the `Bombay parliament', the institution was forcibly shut down.
On his return, Saville joined the chief scientific division of the Ministry of Works. But he returned to academic life in 1947, when he began to teach economic history at the (then) University College of Hull, where he was to remain until retirement from the chair of economic and social history in 1982 and lived for the rest of his life.
He soon became involved in the Communist Party Historians' Group and was active in the Hull Communist Party, where – amongst many other things, his branch was intensively involved in housing campaigns.
Saville became engaged in much political activity, including Daily Worker bazaars and meetings on issues relating to the local port.
Saville, somewhat famously, linked up with E P Thompson as major critics inside the Communist Party, following the denunciation of Stalin in 1956. They launched the New Reasoner, which operated outside of democratic centralism. Both were suspended by the Party for the act but resigned after the events in Hungary.
Saville remained firmly committed to his interpretation of Marxism and was decidedly on the left politically for the rest of his days, although most of his activities focused on historical and political writing and research. Amongst historical arenas he worked on were: Chartism, agricultural change, rural migration, the state and the judiciary in politics, and the foreign policy of the 1945 Labour government.
He was a founder of the Society for the Study of Labour History in 1958. New Reasoner morphed by stages into New Left Review but, by 1963, Saville found himself ousted from the New Left Board and he never seemed comfortable in the milieu.
Thus, from 1964, most of his political writing was to be published in the Socialist Register, an annual volume he co-edited for some decades with Ralph Miliband, which might be dubbed a `broad left’ approach more firmly but sketchily linked to the more traditional left and labour movements. The two men would continue to co-edit the journal until Miliband's sudden death in 1994.
Socialist Register was a strand in the development of a critique of 1960’s social democracy. Little surprise then that, as was much later discovered, that during the 1960s, MI5 planted an agent inside Saville’s household in Hull. Harry Newton, a left-wing student, had passed himself off as a family friend. Newton was for some 30 years a paranoid anti-Communist who operated on the left circuit in the north of England. He later became close to Arthur Scargill and acted as a spy inside CND’s headquarters.
Saville was influential in the development of the Oral History Society, of which he became the first chairman in 1973. In the early 1970s, he co-founded and later chaired the Council for Academic Freedom. He also ran highly effective summer classes on public speaking in Hull for trade unionists. John Saville’s commitment to preserving working class history was profound; he rescued the archives of many a campaign, including those of the National Council for Civil Liberties at King’s Cross.
But his main academic – and partly practical - achievement was the Dictionary of Labour Biography (partly co-edited with Joyce Bellamy), of which he was able to complete the first 10 volumes (1972-2000), and the three volumes of Essays in Labour History (1960, 1971, 1977) co-edited with Asa Briggs (Lord Briggs).
He published a book of memoirs, Memoirs from the Left, in 2003.
Constance died in 2007 and John died on 13th June 2009 aged 93.
Right: John Saville pictured later in life
John Saville's books include:
Sources: Guardian 16th June 2009; The Lipman-Miliband Trust; etc…