From The Times, 11 December 1996
After the death of E.P.Thompson in 1993, that of Raphael Samuel is the gravest
loss to the profession of history - but to a special kind of history; rooted in
left-wing politics, and aiming to rediscover the lives of the millions overlooked
by historians of big names and big events.
Thompson and Samuel had much in common. Both learnt their trade in adult education,
not in the universities. Both left the Communist party in 1956 to devote themselves
to the New Left, which sought to free the spirit of socialism from the dark record
of Stalinism and also from the pragmatism of social democracy. in a speech in
1988, at a conference (or reunion) of "The New Left 30 Years On", Samuel recalled:
"We were all forward-looking and iconoclastic, breaking with age-old shibboleths".
He came from a Jewish family with roots in the East End of London, and spent
his boyhood a wartime evacuee in Buckinghamshire and then in Hampstead Garden
Suburb, where he went to the progressive King Alfred's School. After his parents
were divorced (his father was a solicitor), Raphael was brought up by his mother
Minna Keal, a gifted composer, with close links to his uncle, the historian Chimen
Abramsky. Minria Keal. Abramsky and Abramsky's wife were active and dedicated
communists and the boy was initiated into the faith - though that word is unjust
to the intellectual sophistication of scholarly Marxism.
Samuel was born to be an historian and was already in a Communist historians'
discussion group as a precocious schoolboy. He had the vital quality of living
at the same time in the past, the present and the future.
Everything interested him, from public health to colonial rebellion and from
street lighting to street fighting. Up to the end of his life he would argue as
fervently about the tactics of the Chartists as about the destruction of the Labour
Party (as he saw it) by Tony Blair.
At Balliol College, Oxford, Samuel's tutor was Christopher Hill, an authority
on 17th century revolutionary traditions and another Marxist (also to leave the
CP in 1956). He gained a first and began teaching at Ruskin College. He was the
founder, with Stuart Hall and others, of Universities and Left Review, a journal
born of the political turmoil caused by the simultaneous crises of Hungary and
Suez. It sponsored a crowded, excited meeting in London addressed by yet another
Marxist scholar, Isaac Deutscher.
Thompson had founded the New Reasoner and were was no room for two similar journals,
so they merged in 1960 as The New Left Review edited by Hall. The New Left was
now a movement, with hundreds of activists who trod the road to Aldermaston and
waved banners at demonstrations on all kinds of issues. Samuel was once arrested
and, rather than save his time by pleading guilty and paying the fine, went to
court to debate the right to remonstrate with the magistrate. He was fined anyway.
Inevitably, the atmosphere of the movement was, in a then popular phrase, one
of creative chaos. A Soho coffee house, called The Partisan, was started not just
as a rendezvous but as an enterprise, which, it was confidently believed, would
finance the movement and the journal. in the 1950s it was difficult to lose money
with a coffee house, but the New Left managed it.
Meanwhile, Samuel was rushing between London and Oxford, loyal to Ruskin, where
he went on teaching until the year of his death, despite opportunities to move
to more prestigious jobs. Around him a school of new historians grew up, some
in academia and so