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Some Memories of Raphael

Raphael with group at Elder Street, c1980From New Left Review, January/February 1997

My first memory of Raphael is at a history meeting at St Hilda's, Oxford in the early 60s. I think it may have been the Stubbs Society, anyway it was August and formal donnish and he was a dark, thin, extraordinary figure with a flop of hair which persistently fell over his eyes. His subject was the potato famine in Ireland in the 1840s - a topic about which I knew nothing at all, for it had been side-stepped by my school 'A' levels and the Oxford history curriculum. Both conspired to eschew subjects they deemed emotive.

Raphael's account of the human suffering of the Irish and the dogma of laissez-faire in London was consequently revelatory. It was also quite overwhelming. Raphael was in what I would later come to recognise as overkill. I can still see the great piles of paper on the desk before him. We watched like the crowd at Wimbledon, as one side on our right went down and the other on our left went up. He was intensely concentrated no doubt because he knew dons surrounded him with a sharp nose for sniffing our Marxism, which was far from fashionable in 1963. The evidence against the British ruling class might be piling up on the left, as they and their grotesque economic doctrine of the sanctity of the free market were being nailed, but he had some wily opponents there.

However, in 1963 no one was going to jump in to defend the iron laws of political economy. Lassez-faire was clearly a delusion. Or so it seemed. In retrospect, Raphael's account has assumed a sombre contemporary meaning. But how could we have imagined that laissez-faire could make its comeback irrevocably then. Impossible to imagine Thatcherism in the early sixties. I thought I had left the assumption and values of the Leeds small business world I had been brought up in where only money really counted behind me when I went to Oxford, with its learned people and Gothic grandeur. I assumed Capital Volume I was a historical document, for it seemed self-evident that twentieth-century welfare capitalism was a new phase entirely. Time has its way of twisting the obvious right round. But at nineteen, your sense of lived time is too short for such pondering.

Raphael spoke for a very long time indeed that night. He told a tragic story and made a devastating onslaught on ideology buttressing privilege. Yet he did it with considerable complexity and subtlety. Always quick on his feet intellectually, he did an intricate dance that night and presented us with genuine belief and opportunism so intertwined they were hard to prise apart. I glimpsed how difficult it is to untangle conviction and self-interest. I think he was communicating something else too - which I found a word to express a few years later when I read Gramsci - the power of the hegemonic hold of values and assumptions.

The papers were shifting faster and faster as the minutes ticked by. I suspect he had scuttled over some damning evidence. Yet, of course, there was more than enough - a pattern I was to come to recognise. Publishers waited for his books to be done, journal editors found they had a series when they commissioned an article, and I don't recall Raphael every giving a short talk. Was it, I wonder, a dislike for the boundaries of time which had led him towards the past? This was not one of those occasions, however, when you watch the transfer of paper hopefully craning to see how much writing is left on the untouched pages. It was an event, an occasion. It was riveting and memorable.

My attention was captured despite an a