Monday, 1 June 2015

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Farewell" to an old left wing polemicist called Michael Barratt Brown

Michael, who came from a long line of nonconformist and dissident champions of democracy and led a politically active and culturally productive life for sixty years in the twentieth century, has died at the age of 97.

What you possibly didn't know about Michael, that he :

* was born into a Quaker family in Birmingham, 
towards the end of the First World War in March 1918, the son of  Eileen and at the time his father, Alfred, worked as a lecturer at George Cadbury's 'Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre' and for the 'Workers' Educational Association' and in 1914, had refused to serve in the War on grounds of conscience and in 1916 joined on the 'National Committee of the No-Conscription Fellowship' along with Bertrand Russell (and stood to the left of him in the back row of on the far right in photo).

* before he was born, his father had been arrested for distributing an 'Anti-Conscription Act' leaflet, refused to pay his fine and had been sentenced to 61 days in Pentonville and when a month old, speaking in public around the country on the theme of 'Peace and Social Reconciliation', had his certificate of exemption from the Armed Forces withdrawn, was arrested, court-martialled and sentenced to 112 days hard labour.

* in 1921, at the age of three, moved with the family to Oxford with its strong Quaker culture when his father became Vice Principal then Principal of Ruskin College, with its strong ties to the 'Official Labour Movement' and  a centre for political and cultural debate and as a boy  met such family friends as the Anglican primate William Temple,  President of the Workers’ Educational Association  and  apparently  sat  on  Ghandi's  knee  on  his  visit  to  Britain  in  1931.

* in 1927 was introduced to the 55 year old Bertrand Russell, at his home in Surrey where he ran a primary school with his wife Dora and recalled : "My Father said to me, when I was nine. "This is the greatest philosopher in the world. This is the man who would do more to save the world from war and I want you to go and see him". "I went into a room and there was a little old men and he turned to me and he said "Now Michael, what is the biggest problem in your life ?" and I thought for a minute and I said "I am very small" and he said "It doesn't matter" and I saw that here was an old man with a very big head and a very little body and I thought 'well. I'm alright.'

* at the age of 11, was packed off the Bootham School, an independent, Quaker boarding school for boys in York, with the motto 'Membra sumus corporis magni', 'We are members of a great body' where A.J.P. Taylor had been a pupil during the War and Christopher Dow, the future economist and advisor to the Treasury was two years above him and Michael Rowntree, nephew of the chocolatier and social-reformer Joseph Rowntree, was in the year below him and was in the sixth form in 1930's when his father published 'The Machine and The Worker' dealing with the gains and losses connected with technological change.

* left school in 1936 and started his undergraduate degree in Classics at Corpus Christi College, Oxford and came under the wing of Sir Richard Livingstone, celebrated classicist and author of 'A Defence of Classical Education' and in these formative years coupled his Quakerism with its practices rooted in democracy with a secular humanism that he said he owed to the nineteenth Greek scholar and liberal, Gilbert Murray (left) and which he called 'Comtian Stoicism' fusing the ideas of the 19th-century French philosopher, Auguste Comte, with the ancient Greek Stoics’ belief in 'reason, high-mindedness and altruism' as a route to deterring conflict and promoting cooperation.

* after graduation and on the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, together with Paul Cadbury and Michael Rowntree, re-established the 'Friends Ambulance Unit' and was posted to Cairo, then Italy and in 1944, the refugee camps in Yugoslavia and played a key role in the Unit's organising Council, recalled by Howard Wiggins as : 'A short, well-built man, he was a brilliant, witty analyst of social and economic class differences, a rapid thinker and fluent talker. He was fun to work with and he was a great help to me in Cairo, a useful link between most of the British and American NGO's and the British Official Community. During the waiting period, it was his job to assist in planning for civilian reconstruction once the Continent became accessible.'

* having married Frances Lloyd in 1940, subsequently fathered their two sons, then met the Eleanor Singer in Sarajevo, a  beautiful, 45 year old doctor, who had joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1930's and was from a distinguished Jewish family with a grandfather who had known Karl Marx and father who had been Chairman of the London Stock Exchange, when he was working for the ' United Nations Relief  and Rehabilitation Administration'  and she was  leading the Medical Unit of 'Save the Children Fund' in the Balkans. 

* on his return to Britain at the age of 29 in 1947, divorced Frances and married Eleanor on her return the following year, renounced his pacifism, left the Quakers, joined her as a member of the Communist Party and moved to Essex where her work had taken her as an Assistant Medical Officer of Health, while he moved into teaching as a Adult Education evening class tutor for the Workers Educational Association and with her fathered a son and daughter.

* in 1956, with Eleanor, left the Communist Party after the Soviet Suppression of the Hungarian Uprising and together with Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson who developed the ideas, respectively, of a long 'cultural revolution' and 'political revolution' and set out his ideas for a long 'economic revolution' in what effectively became the corpus of  'The British New Left' and served on the Editorial Board of both the 'New Reasoner' and the 'Universities and Left Review' and was a key  founder of the 'New Left Review', formed when the two merged in 1960.

* in 1958 moved to Sheffield and joined the University as a full-time lecturer in the 'Extra-mural Department' and became involved in teaching industrial day release courses for workers sponsored by the Derbyshire Miners’ Union and the newly-nationalised National Coal Board, then during the 1960s, from steel and other  state owned industry and was also involved in founding,  then Chaired the 'Society of Industrial Tutors', a forum for adult  educators involved in trade union studies providing a platform for  debate about   politics  and  pedagogy.

* in 1959 travelled through four of the six republics in Jugoslavia visited mines, factories, power stations, farms, co-operatives, housing communities and committees and in 1960 published 'Yugoslavia Revisited' in the 'New Left Review'  and concluded that : 'The decentralised system of government as a whole which the Jugoslavs have forged depends entirely on the reality of participation at the base. In the present stage of transition the building of industry is the vital force. It is here that the best men are concentrated; and it is here in the experiment of workers councils that the new Jugoslavia is being born' but also took space to lament 'the tragedy' 'that the haunting peasant songs so beautifully sung in the mountains and on the coast are being insidiously eroded by the tin-pan rhythm of Elvis Presley and his like on the radio and in the cinemas' and was 'most unhappy' that this was defended 'in terms of giving the people what they want.'

* moved to Derbyshire with his family in the 1960s and lived on Robin Hood Farm, Eleanor working as Schools Officer for North Derbyshire and in 1963, joined the 'Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation' to promote peace, social justice and human rights with a specific focus on the dangers of nuclear war, highlighted by the Cuban Missile Crisis the previous year and became a contributor to its journal, 'The Spokesman'.

* published his first book, 'After Imperialism' at the age of 45 in 1963, reviewed in the 'New Left Review' by the revolutionary Dutch Marxist theorist, as : 'undoubtedly one of the most important economic works recently published in English – indeed probably the most important for socialist theory and practice. The author’s purpose is ambitious: to test Lenin’s definition of imperialism against the realities of the British Empire, from the eve of the industrial revolution up to the present day. In doing so, he provides a fascinating history of the British Empire’s rise and decline and describes the economic and social transformations both in Britain and in the colonial countries from which it sprang.'

* in 1968 joined the 'Institute for Workers' Control' founded by Ken Coates, leader of the 'International Marxist Group', which drew together shop stewards and militant workers to discuss workers' control of production with sponsorship from  trades union leaders, including Hugh Scanlon and contributed in the years that followed to its Pamphlet Series articles on 'Public Ownership and Democracy' and 'Accountability and Industrial Democracy.' 

* joined the 'Conference of Socialist Economists' in 1970, formed in the wake of disillusion with Harold Wilson's Labour Government and corresponding dissatisfaction with orthodox economic theory and in 1972 published 'From Labourism to Socialism' in which he discussed the nature, causes and consequences of the power wielded by multinational corporations and the implications of that for the pursuit of a socialist strategy.

* at the age of 60 in 1978, after unsuccessfully applying for the post of Principal of Newbattle Abbey, Scotland, became involved in lobbying for a residential adult college in the North of England and was instrumental in founding and was first Principal of  'Northern College' at Wentworth Castle, an old stately home and former teacher training college which became known as the ‘Ruskin of the North’ and was remembered by John Field, a tutor,  as 'an inspirational figure who was capable of haranguing the College staff – and students – when things didn’t go entirely to his liking. My first experience of Michael in rant mode was when the Deputy Principal, in Michael’s absence, declared the College closed during a snowy cold snap; Michael was furious, spluttering that if he could get in to the College then there was no reason to close it down. He then went out skiing.'

* was also remembered by John as being 'robust in his defence of the College and disarmingly charming with its critics,  capable of puncturing others’ self-importance, usually employing his sly sense of humour' and when chairing a disciplinary hearing involving two student activists in the Yorkshire Area of the National Union of Mineworkers, who had been involved in a fight, defused the situation by asking : “And what exactly is a pillock?” and supported students facing hardship with ‘loans’, rarely repaid, from his own pocket with some students pointing out that : 'he could well afford to be generous, though much of his wealth came from canny investments. I did once ask him about the ethics of a Quaker Marxist gambling on the stock market; his response, with a grin, was “Why be an economist if you don’t use it?”'

* after 'retiring' at 65 in 1983, worked for the Greater London Council led by Ken Livingstone and produced study materials on the issues addressed by its industrial sections and found it stimulated his interest in 'fair trade' and worked with Eleanor to create the charity 'Twin Trading' in 1985 with its aim : 'To increase fair and sustainable access to international markets for smallholder producers in the global south' and under his Chairmanship, developed 'Cafédirect' and saw the charity expand to work with over 50 farmer organisations in 18 countries representing an estimated 400,000 smallholder farmers and in 1993 published : 'Fair Trade: Reform and Realities in the International Trading System.'

* at the age of 78 in 1996, published 'The Yugoslav Tragedy - Lessons for Socialists' with his thesis : 'not to blame or acclaim any one of the nationalist forces which broke up Yugoslavia, but to condemn all forms of nationalism' and the West's responsibility for the war lying : 'first in the demand of the banks for debt repayment [from Yugoslavia], which as elsewhere led to rising inflation; and second, in Chancellor Kohl's recognition of the withdrawal from Yugoslavia of the two rich republics - Slovenia and then Croatia.'

* in 2013 published his autobiography, 'Seekers : A Twentieth Century Life : Memories of People and Places, 1918- 2013', setting his life within the framework of world events and recalling some of the people, family and friends with whom he had sought to find a way to lead a decent life and help others, 'from below and upwards', do the same to do the same through his work in adult education and Fair Trade.

* might best be remembered himself, by what he said of his childhood hero, Bertrand Russell :

"If you look at a photograph of him it has a smile with a twinkle. You can tell by his face, he's looking for the good things."   

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