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John Saville: Commitment and History

Ed David Howell, Dianne Kirby and Kevin Morgan
Lawrence and Wishart in association with the Socialist History Society London 2021 p/b pp224 ISBN 9781907103.

This book is dedicated to one of Britain’s leading Labour historians of the Twentieth Century, John Saville, Professor in Economic History at Hull University and founding editor of the ‘Dictionary of Labour Biography’.

John was a member of the post-war Communist Historians group but left the CPGB after 1956 and then became an active figure in the ‘New Left’ also becoming editor, with Ralph Miliband, of the ‘Socialist Register. He was also a strong supporter and friend of the Frows and the Working Class Movement Library.

This collection of essays written in his memory discusses both his own political actions and writings which form part one -‘Commitments- of the book.

The second part of this book, ‘Themes’, has several of chapters on topics of history that John Saville engaged with - Greece, the Cold War, India and Port Workers. The third section of the book, ‘Interventions’ looks at some of the key debates in Labour history that John Saville contributed to - 'Chartism and 1848’, ‘Labourism’ and finally ‘The Politics of Continuity’

Some of the chapters are by members of the Socialist History Society and the collection is a real tribute to John Saville and his legacy.

Kevin Morgan opens the collection with ‘The good old cause’ a reflection on John’s earlier life in the Communist Party and the contribution he made to the intellectual life of the party in the 1940s 50s. This was a time when academics who were members of the CP had great difficulty obtaining university posts because of their politics. Possibly this influences John’s decision to stay at Hull all his working life, a university where he was generally well liked even by its well-known Librarian, Philip Larkin. Kevin Morgan’s account ends with John leaving the CP and becoming a leading force in the ‘New Left’ often in collaboration with his university colleague, the sociologist Peter Worsley who were the leading figures on the left in Hull university in the 1950s and 1960s.

Two further chapters discuss John’s politics post 1956.

Part two of the collection includes two articles by John’s former PhD students, in addition to an article on Indian politics, a country in which John had served in the British army during World War 2. John, like R H Tawney, had refused to be an officer, preferring instead to serve in the ranks. The chapter in this section which, in my view, will be of particular interest to readers is Tony Adam’s article on the politics of dockers. This looks at the political attitude of dockers in Hull, London and Liverpool. John's life in Hull led to an enduring interest in the world of dockers, this is reflected in this chapter which discusses the different interpretations of the political traditions on the docks. This includes a discussion of the difficulties the Labour Party had before 1914 in making an impact, with the argument that the turning point came with World War 1.

The final section of the book discusses some of the interventions John made in historical debates, of particular significance is David Howell's chapter on Labourism, he discusses the concept and John Saville's development of the idea relating it to his role as editor of the Dictionary of Labour Biography before examining the relationship between Labour and Liberalism in the coalfields, especially Durham.

In my view this is a fine collection of essays keeping alive both the ideas and memory of one of Britain's finest Labour historians.

Alan Fowler

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