Peter Sedgwick: the dissidents’ dissident

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“Peter is a Liverpudlian; his voice betrays the characteristic twang and he can turn on the full accent when he feels like it. He is an eclectic Christian but a member of the Church of England. His first terms are chiefly memorable for a grotesque beard and a gay parasol. He lost both absent-mindedly. In his first term he came to a talk on Communism to disprove Marx…”

This account of Peter Sedgwick comes from an article which appeared in Oxford’s student magazine Isis in February 1956, before the Communist Party went into crisis. This piece by Gabriel Pearson linked the fate of two young Marxists, Raphael Samuel (in this article still Ralph) and Sedgwick. Samuel had joined the Communist Party much earlier, as a schoolboy in London, and appeared at Balliol aged 17 in 1952. By 1956, Samuel had been Secretary of the Communist Club, and had edited the magazine Oxford Left, to some acclaim. He was already showing signs of a talent for nineteenth century history, his later career. “He has helped to make twenty recruits to the Communist Party”, Pearson recorded, “and some seven in Oxford”. Among these recruits was the argumentative Christian, Sedgwick:

Instead of persuading the Communists, Sedgwick was persuaded by them. His first political activities on the left were in defence of the Rosenbergs, and then the campaign for independence for Guiana. Following discussions with Raph Samuel, Sedgwick joined the Communist Party in spring 1954. He became Secretary of the Communist Club, a role he held for a year. He wrote for Oxford Left and Isis, and spoke at meetings of both the Communist and the Labour Club.

“Academically he is distinguished; he gained a First Classical Mods, with apparently no effort. The night before the examination he was found reading Das Kapital. Now he is reading P.P.P. [Psychology, Philosophy and Physiology], and he hopes to research on psychology after Schools.”

The concluding sections of Pearson’s article describe talents which would remain with Sedgwick all his life, “With some effort he has made himself a good speaker and always commands attention. An impish streak of humour endears him to his friends. He has a genius for mischievous and life-like cartoons.” (G. Pearson, ‘Red Idols: Ralph Samuel and Peter Sedgwick’, The Isis, 22 February 1956)

Sedgwick worked as a psychology demonstrator and then as an educational psychologist in Oxford before in his mid-30s beginning a career as a Lecturer in Politics at the Universities of York and Leeds, as a result of which he moved to Shipley near Bradford. The student beard returned; the fate of the umbrella is unknown.

Sedgwick’s name will always be remembered on the left not only for his activism (although that is important) but for the precious evening hours of his best years which he dedicated to translating the Memoirs of Victor Serge.

His friend David Widgery tells the story: “Having been introduced by Pierre Marteau, the French surrealist, to the 1951 Éditions du Seuil in Oxford in 1958, he devoted himself to the preparation of an English edition, teaching himself French to do so. As is well known, Serge was keen to have an English edition and had sent George Orwell a manuscript. And it was Isaac Deutscher (whose biography of Trotsky was the only easily accessible account of the period from an anti-Stalinist perspective) who supported Sedgwick’s proposal to OUP – of all people – to make his translation”

Sedgwick’s authorial introduction to the Memoirs made the case for his subject and for Serge’s unorthodox (I would say, dissident) Marxism:

“It is this continuous record of fundamental unorthodoxy that makes Victor Serge’s record so different from most other ex-Communist autobiographies. Through his personal tenacity and his intellectual pluralism Serge could mentally balance the various risks of political action, hedging, as it were, expectations which for others were staked upon a fanatic’s throw of all or none, and so insuring himself against the chances both of blind commitment and of stark disillusion. Harking back to the turbulent and frightful years of his youth, he could remark simply je ne regrette rien pour moi, and there is the same absence of personal remorse when he recounts his Bolshevik career. The vividness and immediacy of Serge’s recollections do not strike us as being artificially tinted by hindsight; and in fact the judgements he passes on Russian events are very often repeated identically in writings separated by decades, quoted back and forth with a touch of clairvoyant’s vanity.” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1963/xx/memoirs.htm)

Within IS, Sedgwick was (with Alasdair MacIntyre) one of a few recruits from the New Left milieu. Perhaps for this reason, or perhaps in the context of thinking towards his new job at York, he set out to demolish for IS Herbert Marcuse, subsequently the inspiration of the universities’ revolt. Sedgwick attacked Marcuse not (at the easiest point) for his politics, but where he seemed strongest, at his superficial commitment to a “scientific” Marxism:

“In the work of Herbert Marcuse, “matter”, and its institutional science, are held to have vanquished the critical spirit, and we are asked to bear witness to the final triumph of the inert. In the other wing of the disjunction (the modern “Critical School”), it is the spirit that presides in judgment over sullen, soggy matter. The material loop joining theory and practice, which evolution has reeved in the modelling, testing properties of human nervous tissue and its sensori-motor connections, is snapped and de-natured. Practice, now parted from its work of verification, becomes “praxis”, pure will-towards-action, which may be allotted the objective embodiment (e.g. in the party or an idealized class) which a post-Hegelian age requires. Marcuse has avoided the voluntarist path in his solution, only (as we have seen) to fall into a total and enervating determinism” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1966/xx/marcuse.htm)

Sedgwick was a pillar of IS branches in Liverpool, then Oxford, and then York. “Partly because his name was on the Editorial Board”, Ian Birchall recalls, “I subscribed to a new journal called International Socialism; one of the more fateful decisions of my life.”

Dave Phillips recalls the Sedgwick of the mid-1960s: “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.”

Sedgwick’s role in the IS internal debates of 1968-1971 was to prick the pomposity of anyone claiming the mantle of “Leadership”, whether in the Party or the Class. After one Chris Harman speech in support of Cliff’s Leninist turn, Sedgwick leafleted the IS conference with an account of a Bolshevik historian who had produced Lenin’s Collected Works on perforated paper, allowing any quotation to be produced, no matter how badly torn from its context.

Another article in the IS Internal Bulletin began: “I would err grievously in my revolutionary duty, not only to the Party comrades out also to the non-Party masses of the entire world, if I failed to reply to the arch-bureaucratic contribution of Comrade Trotsky in the latest Internal Bulletin…”

And Sedgwick took this same spirit of playful iconoclasm everywhere in the movement. “Once”, Widgery recalls, “when dubbed a ‘Cliffite lapdog’ during an intra-Trotskyist debate on Soviet industrial policy in Minneapolis, he snuffled round the platform on all fours and mimed pissing on his oppponents’ socks before returning to the podium to continue his elegant analysis of the New Economic Policy.”

A 1969 essay for the ISJ on George Orwell rescued that writer from the contempt of the Stalinists and the false praise of the liberals, showing Orwell’s debt to the libertarian Marxism to which Sedgwick saw himself and IS as loyal (http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1969/xx/orwell.htm)

Sedgwick’s surprisingly “Leninist” introduction to Dave Widgery’s collection The Left in Britain argues that around 1968 political conditions in Britain had changed requiring a turn to a daily political struggle, unlike the propaganda habits of the old IS. What enthused Sedgwick about Cliff’s turn to Lenin was not the Sovietology but the promise underlying it that the left could convert itself quickly from being a milieu of students, and become once more what it should always have been, a movement of the poor, of those whose lives were worst stymied by capitalism, and of the workers whose location in the heart of capital accumulation gave them the greatest power to resist:

“Workers are particularly suspicious of people from Marxist groups who show up only when there is some excitement at the factory in the form of a strike, and are nowhere to be seen during the many periods, some of them amounting to years, when the activity of the working class falls short of open strike action. Nor can one play the part of the adept servitor of trade unionism, the technician of facts and figures who just happens to have more time to do research for the shop floor. The Socialist must join the workers’ movement as a trade unionist in his own right, with card, rule-book and box of anti-management tricks, undergoing the same problems of skill and morale in leadership as those he is addressing. His politics must be open: not regurgitated by the yard into every resolution with a practical content but visible to everyone, displayed on his lapel rather than tucked away behind it.”

Within just a couple of years, the IS had converted itself to the SWP, the split with Higgins had taken place, and Labour’s in power had clamped down on unofficial strikes. Sedgwick acknowledged that Cliff’s wager on history had been misplaced. The 1970s and 1980s were not going to be an “Age of Majorities”, and the task facing the SWP was exactly the one that the IS had just spurned, the accumulation of cadres, with humility and humour and a historian’s sense of patience.

Sedgwick’s skewering of what he considered “the SWP fraud” was but the inevitable preliminary to his own departure:

“The case made for the SWP was partly an element in this ‘electoral strategy’. Otherwise there is no particular reason to start an SWP at this moment there is no particular reason, on the other hand, not to start an SWP. Since we cannot, in the present bad political climate, change class reality very much, the conclusion is drawn that we have to perform changes on the name of IS itself, in the delusion that this is some step towards the actual construction of a revolutionary socialist workers’ party. If the CC decided that we should walk around with our bottoms painted bright green, doubtless it would have a electrifying effect on the morale of our membership (for a short time at least). There might even be a case for some such publicity venture; joking apart, we can always do with fresh propaganda on party questions. But what would anyone think of a Party whose Central Committee produced its suggestions for Green Bottoms in a few badly argued paragraphs, circulated, without real District discussion, before a Party Council, got a resounding 99 per cent vote for the proposed face-lift from the Council with virtually no argument on this or the obvious points about the election, and proceed to give us six months to declare ourselves to the world in this new disguise. This is not a party, but a circus. it does not form the basis for a democratic workers party but for a bureaucratic charade, sanctioned by plebiscite without discussion.” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1976/12/fraud.htm)

Sedgwick’s book Psychopolitics (1982) was first of all an attack on “anti-psychiatry”, a mood common to the 1960s (Laing-inspired) and 1980s (postmodernist) lefts, which rejected the category of “mental illness” altogether. An understandable rhetorical device in response to the institution of the public asylum, Sedgwick insisted that the politics of anti-psychiatry was no more than this, a nihilistic and empty rhetorical gesture. “Cynics are, quite simply, people who have no hope and therefore have no capacity to express any demands for the future ….. and the cynic cannot really be a critic; the radical who is only a radical nihilist or a radical tragedian, is, for all practical purposes the most adamant of conservatives.”

Sedgwick’s alternative vision was of consistent demands upon the health services, which would transform and deepen (not negate) the principle of care.

One feature of his book which operates as a standing rebuke to the organisational politics of our recent crisis was Sedgwick’s insistence on translating and popularising the ideas of the writers with whom he disagreed most fiercely. If his readers wanted to know the errors of Foucault, he insisted, they should read and judge them for themselves. We are all familiar with the methods of potted summary, selective quotation and manipulation of positions away from what a person has actually said to “the logic of where they are going”. This was never Sedgwick’s approach. Even more than winning it, he was passionate first of all for actually having the argument.

Much of the book is revised versions of earlier published academic articles, many from the early 1970s (ie from Sedgwick’s “high” period of activism) in IS. That this wasn’t all his theory of psychiatry is apparent from a paper he presented at the Annual Meeting of the Royal College of Psychiatrist in London in July 1982.

Here he bemoaned the way in which: “the post-war consensus around matters of social welfare is being dissolved in favour of a new set of assumptions which emphasize the individual’s recourse to law or to legally-embodied appeal procedures, even at the expense of more collective rights which were  previously enshrined … in State-sponsored welfare provision … [There is] a serious and unmistakable competition, between the claims of a legally-inspired and individualistic approach and the aspirations of medicine and psychiatry which are grounded in the availability of collective provisions: collective in a double sense, as being both the product of politically organized popular demand and also the expression of structured interventions by the State and other social agencies aligned with the State. It is this dualism between medicine and law, or at a more rarefied level between an individualism founded on contractual civil relations and a collectivism rooted in the institutions of mass democracy and public spending, which I feel needs most justification…” (http://psychopolitics.net/3.html)

The tone of the paper is cautious, very far from Sedgwick’s old approach in which all problems in life could be pushed aside through the sheer motive power of class, humour and logic.

Through all his life, Sedgwick wrote in careful, measured tones. He had the patient dignity of an Atticus Finch. There was however a gap between the calmness of Sedgwick’s writing and the torrent of his life (and his speech). Stephen Lukes’s obituary in the New Statesman implies that over time it was the torrent which won, referring to Sedgwick’s “private tragedy, in which his mind became clouded, amid a sense of political collapse and personal isolation.” Sedgwick was found dead in unexplained circumstances in 1983.

This is how his friend David Widgery chose to remember him: “He dressed like a Basque beatnik, wrote footnotes to his own footnotes, typed (like Serge) in single, uncorrected spacing on flimsy paper, collected tins of mulligatawny … Almost uniquely among the many Marxist intellectuals of the 1956 vintage, [Sedgwick] didn’t just write about the left but made it, shaped it and served it…”

That notion of service is important. Set against the requirements of the contemporary university system for quantifiable output (“publications”, “research assessment”, “metrics”), Sedgwick’s record of just one book in two decades as a university lecturer would be reckoned a failure. But Sedgwick was never primarily an academic; he was first of all an activist.

The tasks he gave his time to – building IS branches, translating Serge, advocating for Cliff’s turns when they were healthy and against when they were not – could by definition have their fruits only in the products of others.

In the same way, Michael Kidron’s genius was reflected not merely in the theory of the Permanent Arms Economy, but in the brilliance of the old International Socialism journal, under his stewardship, and his encouragement of its contributors. And Duncan Hallas’ genius was in the confidence his speeches gave to others.

Sedgwick shared this focus on collective work; on the group. His departure from IS/SWP was a sign not of his weakening but of how far his comrades had travelled.

In his last years Sedgwick had returned to Serge, hoping to find in his first inspiration the explanation for what the left had got wrong and how it might be rescued. Mere fragments of this project survive. One, at least, was published posthumously, an article for History Workshop on Victor Serge, “The Unhappy Elitist”.

Here Sedgwick admitted that Serge had not always been the transparent critic that the left prefers to view him. In the early 1920s, he had kept quiet about acts of repression which had contributed, ultimately, to Stalinism. The fault, Sedgwick maintained, was not his Marxism, but the training provided to him by his early populism, which left him with a depoliticsed, heroic idea of a revolution, and an elitist conception of its leaders’ duties. Such ideas prevented him for several years from truly admitting what a perilous moral stage the revolution was in. The libertarian component to Serge’s personal marriage of Lenin and liberty was simultaneously the source of his initial blindness and his later vision,

“Having counted the costs of Bolshevism’s violence and administrative centralism, Serge makes it clear that they are, for him, acceptable: his judgments about particular facts and issues in the Soviet politics of the time are bent in line with that unswerving acceptance. Consequently, the quality of historical analysis in these early documents of his is crude, inconsistent and sometimes flagrantly deluded. All the same, his rationalizations are of a distinct sort which will shortly enable their transcendence. It is noticeable that Serge still takes the revolution as the object of an ethical scrutiny which is independent of the official justifications of the Leninist regime.” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1984/xx/serge.htm)

It is a brave critic who has the courage to admit that their heroes’ mistakes (and by extension their own) were the product of their very dissidence.

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7 responses »

  1. Dave forgive my repeated comments on your fascinating series on some of the leading personalities of the old IS organisation but all of them were comrades who I worked with and I knew personally very well. “Sedge” – as many of us called him – was a real ‘one off.’ You have brought out his idiosyncratic individualism and fearlessness very well. He was not always 100 per cent right in his judgments. He – and I – were badly mistaken when we were temporarily seduced into advocacy of opposition to British membership of the EU by the illusion that we would in that way increase our influence over militant – but frequently chauvinistic – Labour left and CP workers who were then a powerful force in the Labour movement. Worse still we persuaded Cliff and other IS leaders to follow us – against the warnings of Jim Higgins, Geoff Carlsson and others. I at least feel I have done penance since to make recompense.

    But Peter was more often spot on – particularly when it came to defence of democracy and intellectual honesty on the far left. You refer to his pioneering work in exposing the hugely dangerous influence of Laing, Cooper and others who advocated a mumbo jumbo school of psychiatry in which the mentally ill were presented as really the only sane ones. Peter – who knew about this world from personal family life as well as professional experience – destroyed that charade and helped restore debate on the left back where it belonged, to campaigning for a decent, free and people oriented NHS.

    By the way there were not just “a few recruits (to IS) from the New Left.” In the rapidly growing Young Socialist movement after 1959/60 it was not uncommon to find militants who would sell both NLR AND the early IS journal. Many of us were won over – as I mentioned elsewhere – in part by the case made by Kidron and MacIntyre in the New Left debates of that period. I last saw Peter in Brussels – where he was researching the Victor Serge archives – just a few months before his mysterious and utterly tragic death. He was as bright and bubbly as ever – if a little frailer – but more than determined to continue the fight for a democratic and liberating socialism.

  2. Quite a relief to hear John’s account of the SWP’s decision to back a “no” vote in the 1975 referendum on membership of the Common Market (now EU). I felt at the time our complex, silly argument (it’s a bosses’ union, we must fight it and THEN build internationalism) would be lost in the basic divide between nationalists and progressives. Which it was. Higgins says it was because SWP TU militants did not dare take on the chauvinism of the CP-dominated Broad Left. So even Sedgwick the Brilliant could make mistakes and hide internationalism under a bushel for strategic reasons. Interesting. Psycho-Politics remains, of course, a great polemic against trendy theory. I wish I’d had to hand when I was involved in Mad Pride; Pete Shaughnessy and Rob Dellar were inventing the same practical, class-defence politics …

  3. You missed out my favourite story: at the aggregate following the decision to change the name to the Socialist Workers Party, Peter denounced the decision as mistaken and undemocratic, and insisted that he was not leaving; he would continue to be an International Socialist, and the rest of us were leaving *him*. I don’t now remember if he actually called us ‘splitters’, but that was his logic. We all laughed, but sadly he was entirely serious.

    It was a loss both for us and for him. Leeds SWP aggregates were never again as much fun without him; but he lost something too. Some people work better outside organisations, but I think that Peter needed something to be dissident *from*.

    • Yes, I think Charlie is right. After years as an engineering worker I found myself via a victimisation as one of Peter’s undergraduates at Leeds. Although a friend and former comrade, he was no soft touch. Indeed he tended to be a bit harder on me- probably on the basis that as a trained revolutionary I should know better than to expect favours. rather
      Peter was a most rigorous and often merciless mentor but at times his almost anarchic and always eccentric humour seemed to give way to periods of saddness and uncertainty.
      Towards the end of my second year he married an Iranian emigre, who probably from her own experience of political persecution introduced a dimension of chaos into an already troubled life.
      Around the time of his death I had been successfully drumming up students for his ‘Politics of Fascism’ course that I had managed to persuade him to re-run. And although harassed and clearly rather down, the challenge of a re-run of a popular course had greatly enlivened him.
      News of his sudden death came as a blow to us all and for the first time in my life I discovered the real awfulness of hopeless grief.
      I felt terrible having declined that last pint over which a few more words might have made a difference. Peter left a gaping hole where comradely mischief had never been tainted with sarcasm. But maybe it was that missing opportunity to engage in dissent that permitted a darker side of the spectrum into his otherwise optimistic and quite joyful outlook.
      Probably along with that of Duncan Hallas, I miss the comradely humour and boundless humanism of Peter Sedgwick.
      In our present trials, in their quite distinctive ways, they still have much to tell us.

      Brian Parkin.

  4. Cant debate this now but just want to say that I didnt agree then, and still dont, with Peter Sedgwick’s attack on Laing, who was not a ‘fraud’, with a ‘mumbo-jumbo’ theory. I read and knew Laing and he did not say or believe that ‘the mentally ill were … really the only sane ones’. (John Palmer). This was a lazy media caricature.

  5. Thank you for your blog, which on this 30th anniversary of his death, is a wonderful tribute to Peter’s political life and published work.
    A couple of factual points:
    1. I doubt that Peter taught himself French to translate Serge (Widgery’s account). My recollection is of Peter in our kitchen in 1970,listening to German lessons on the radio so that he could translate Brecht for a student production of Die Massnahme.
    2.In regard to the last post, before he died Peter had met and had come to respect Laing.

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