Ralph (aka Raphael) 'the Red Idol'
A striking image of two linchpins of the British New Left just before the New Left was born. This photo is from early 1956, and shows Raphael (then Ralph) Samuel with the pipe and Peter Sedgwick standing over him. This joint profile carries the title: 'Red Idols'.
The article appeared in February 1956 in Isis, which I should explains was an Oxford students' weekly magazine and not an advocate of global jihad. The author was himself something of a Red Idol, Gabriel Pearson was secretary of the Oxford students' Communist group - the CP in Oxford at this time was highly stratified with separate groups for students, dons and the 'town'.
Raphael Samuel (1934-1996) had at this time just turned 21; Peter Sedgwick (1934-1983), was a little older - within weeks of his 22nd birthday. They were both keen Communists and emerging as important intellectual voices on the left.
And this 'Ralph' thing? Well, there are several versions as to how Raphael adopted this different moniker. One is that when Raphael enlisted in the North London Young Communist League, he wanted to go by a name which was familiar to young working-class comrades. Certainly, Ralph fits nicely with the pipe!
There were two founding sites of the British New Left. One was among Yorkshire-based historians in the CP, Edward Thompson and John Saville, who established a dissident journal within the party, the Reasoner, in the summer of 1956. This was just after the revelations about Khrushchev's 'secret' speech denouncing Stalin's cult of personality.
The third and final issue of the Reasoner appeared in November 1956 in the wake of the invasions of both Suez (by the UK, France and Israel) and Hungary (by the Soviet Union). Thompson and Saville were part of an avalanche of intellectuals out of the CP and in the summer of 1957, they established the influential New Reasoner.
Parallel to this, four Oxford students came together in the spring of 1957 to establish Universities and Left Review, another advocate of socialist humanism and more lively and engaging than the New Reasoner. Two of these four - Raphael Samuel and Gabriel Pearson - had just come out of the CP; the other two were on the left but never attracted to the CP, and both had come to Oxford from overseas, Stuart Hall from Jamaica and Chuck Taylor from Canada.
The New Reasoner and Universities and Left Review combined at the start of 1960 to become New Left Review, initially edited by Stuart Hall - and taken over a couple of years later, amid what some still describe as a coup, by Perry Anderson.
Raphael Samuel went on to establish the History Workshop movement. Peter Sedgwick joined the International Socialists, and became an expert in the life and writings of the Russian revolutionary and polymath, Victor Serge.
Leafing though issues of Isis in 1956, you can trace the shadow of the implosion of the Oxford students' Communist group - above all in this letter from Gabriel Pearson (who sadly died earlier this year).
Gary Pearson (yes, he too adopted a more demotic first name) was a regular contributor of verse to Isis. In December 1956, Pearson himself was the subject of one of the magazine's profiles with the title: 'Poet Idol':
And if you've made it this far, here's a bonus - an interview I did on Zoom with Chuck Taylor, the last surviving founding editor of Universities and Left Review, posted on YouTube with his blessing.
Really interesting to hear about the pre-history of people I encountered so much later.. Thank you for the calm tone.
Thanks Jo - very good to hear from you, hope all's well.
Leave a Reply.
Andrew Whitehead's blog
Welcome - read - comment - throw stones - pick up threads - and tell me how to do this better!