Peter Gowan Obituary
16 July 2009
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Peter Gowan, a member of the editorial board of Debatte since the merger
with Labour Focus on Eastern Europe at the beginning of 2006, died on 12
June 2009 of mesothelioma. Peter was absolutely central to Labour Focus
over three decades, as a founder member of the Editorial Collective, as
managing editor for the first decade of the journal’s existence, from
1977 to 1986 and as a regular contributor and Editorial Board member
through the following two decades. He continued that commitment to
Debatte after the merger; advising, encouraging and speaking at Debatte
conferences, most recently at the April 2008 conference which we held on
Russia, which was enlivened by a typically engaging and stimulating talk
from Peter.

Peter attracted an enormous amount of respect and affection from a very
wide variety of different quarters; from all sections of the left and
from his colleagues and students at London Metropolitan University. The
respect arose from his tremendous energy and the quality and scope of
his writing, some of which is detailed below. More importantly however,
the affection stemmed from the kind of person he was. Peter was
absolutely without pretensions of any kind. From small political
gatherings in the back rooms of public houses or community centres to
large public lectures at high profile conferences he maintained the same
qualities that we saw in Editorial Board meetings; a combination of firm
statements of his own ideas with the utmost courtesy towards those
disagreeing with him, a genuine commitment to open debate and a strong
desire to use discussion and argument not to score points but to work in
a collaborative way towards a better understanding of the world. The
success of Labour Focus in attracting left activists from a variety of
different viewpoints and traditions to work together around a common
project was in large measure due to Peter?s personality and approach.

The first issue of Labour Focus on Eastern Europe appeared in March 1977
and at the same time Peter published a lengthy account of the Polish
strikes of 1976 and their aftermath in New Left Review using the
pseudonym of Peter Green [1]. This article still stands as a remarkable
analysis of competing political and economic trends both within the
ruling party and state and within opposition movements. Peter?s
concluding sentences in many ways provide a manifesto both for Labour
Focus and for Debatte as a successor journal:

“For the first time for many decades, the development of the workers?
movements in the two halves of Europe can be understood today
increasingly only within the framework of one single international
perspective. The fate of the Polish workers? struggle during the next
few years is likely to become as much a direct political factor in the
class struggle in Britain as the outcome of the political crises in
Spain or Portugal....It is urgently necessary for socialists in Britain
to make the problems of the Polish workers their own”

From 1977 to 1980 two of the main concerns of Labour Focus were the
developing opposition currents in Poland (both the beginnings of the
movement for free trade unions and the intellectuals grouped around KOR)
and the growth of Charter 77 and related organisations in
Czechoslovakia. Peter wrote a stream of analyses of both of these
developments for the journal, both under the name of Peter Green and of
Oliver MacDonald. He combined this with untiring organisation of
practical solidarity for oppositionists in those countries.

With the August 1980 strikes in Poland and the growth and later
suppression of Solidarity, Labour Focus moved from mainly being
concerned with reprinting documents from Central and Eastern Europe and
explaining their context, towards providing more in-depth analyses of
developments in the region. Peter’s analyses of regional Solidarity
organisations during 1981 were an important move in this direction and
these accounts provided much of the basis for another substantial
article in New Left Review dealing with this period in Poland [3]. During the first half of the 1980s Peter continued to provide detailed
analyses of changes in Poland for the journal, looking both at the
underground organisations and at the regime and the church [4].

From the middle of the 1980s onwards interest on the left with regard
to Central and Eastern Europe began to shift towards the nature of
perestroika and glasnost in the USSR and Peter provided a number of
important accounts of these developments, both examining them in general
terms and also highlighting the crucial (and initially rather neglected,
at least in Britain) issue of the national question within the old
Soviet Union [5]).

However, with the collapse of the Eastern European regimes in 1989 and
1990 and the break-up of the USSR in the autumn of 1991 Peter?s work on
the region increasingly focused not just on internal questions but on
the international context which in his view played a determining role in
shaping the transition which followed. With great prescience he was able
to grasp many of the essential characteristics of Western involvement in
the area and throughout the 1990s provided an unsparing critique of the
ways in which Central and East European countries had been consigned to
a peripheral and insecure future within the emerging structures of
international capitalism [6]. Part of this critique was a detailed
analysis of the role of the European Union (EU) and of the process of EU
enlargement to the East. Peter brought many of the different aspects of
his account of the peripheralisation of the East together in another
major article for New Left Review in 1995 [7], later reprinted in his
book The Global Gamble.

These writings dealt primarily with the“objective” characteristics of
the transition process in Central and Eastern Europe and of Western
involvement in that process. However, throughout the last three decades
Peter concerned himself equally with more `subjective“questions. Two of
these preoccupied him in particular. Firstly, there was the issue of the
strategies being pursued by the various elites involved in the reshaping
of the international order. Here Peter gave equal attention both to
nationally based groups (both governments and representatives of
capital) and those based in international and trans-national
organisations and structures (again both `public” and `private").
Secondly, Peter was fascinated by the ideological processes and
mechanisms which allowed those strategies to be legitimated even given
their damaging effects. The concern with elite strategies and the
operation of ideology provided much of the basis for Peter’s
contribution to the academic discipline of international relations,
where over the last two decades of his life he developed a reputation as
one of the most acute and far-sighted critics of neo-liberal globalisation.

An early example of Peter’s analysis of the struggle over ideas is his
historical description of the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms in the
nineteenth century British civil service(8). While in some ways atypical
of his writing, this account of the way in which the purported impact of
a set of policies can mask the operation of a very different set of
processes at a deeper, structural level was in many ways an indication
of the questions which he would pursue in later investigations. Some of
the same concerns were also highlighted in his critique of the language
of rights and its application by Western liberalism to the Gulf War of
1991 [8].

With regard to Europe in general and Central and Eastern Europe in
particular, Peter’s accounts of strategies and ideologies encompassed a
number of strands. Firstly he provided an account of the role of Germany
within the new European order, in part through a critique of the
approach of Timothy Garton-Ash to German Ostpolitik [9]. Secondly, he
undertook a critical analysis of various ideas which he saw as providing
a dangerous attraction for the left, notably certain conceptions of
`civil society? and `cosmopolitanism? (with the latter providing the
basis for leading the left to support military intervention) [10].
Thirdly, he assessed the strategies of the EU towards Central and
Eastern Europe, not just with regard to economic questions but also
examining the political-military and ideological aspects of such
strategies [11]. Fourthly, and most recently, he examined the
relationship of the EU and European states to the imperialist project of
the Bush presidency following the September 2001 attacks [12].

Each of the first three of these strands and also the relationship
between Europe and the USA, was incorporated in the most ambitious and
influential work done by Peter during the 1990s; his analysis of the
economic, political and military strategies of the US during the decade
following the break-up of the USSR. Two events dominated here; the Asian
economic crisis of 1997-98 and the war in Kosovo. Yet in neither case
did Peter analyse these in isolation; rather he traced back the origins
of the events of the late 1990s to the challenges to American hegemony
some three decades before and the US response to this challenge.

In the case of Kosovo Peter’s account filled an entire special issue of
Labour Focus and was then carried forward in a number of successor
articles [13]. Later events have sharply underlined the far-sighted
nature of his attempt to provide an analysis of the war which adequately
encompassed both its place in American plans for a new international
order and its political-economic causes while also highlighting the
ideological disorientation which accompanied these events on the
European left.

The concept which is most prevalently associated with Peter’s work,
however, arises from his discussion of US economic ambitions; namely the
“Dollar-Wall Street Regime” which provides the framework for his book
The Global Gamble, which won the Deutscher Memorial Prize for 1999 [14].
Here Peter provided a detailed overview of the re-establishment of
American power following the challenges associated with the collapse of
the Bretton-Woods system in the early 1970s; discussing both the
interpretation of contemporary events and prospects for the future. The
Global Gamble established Peter as a key analyst of contemporary
capitalism and through the following decade he engaged in wide-ranging
debates with figures such as Robert Brenner, David Harvey and Giovanni

The analysis of the foundations of and challenges to American political
and economic power continued to engage Peter through the following
decade and he produced important assessments of questions such as the
role of states in the international system [15], the role of the US in
the creation and development of the United Nations [16] and the
relationship between the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and US
international dominance [17]. In the last year of his life he produced a
detailed account of the current financial and economic crisis [18].

For more than three decades Peter was a vital voice on the left both in
Britain and internationally. The range of his writing was exceptional
and the publications listed here are full of important insights ?
insights which he also transmitted with characteristic generosity to his
political comrades, academic colleagues and to his students. The work he
leaves behind is a lasting legacy. Yet, sadly it is no substitute for
being able once more to see that sceptical, quizzical, almost impish
smile and to know that one more stimulating, provocative, maybe
outrageous argument would be on the way ? and would change the way you
saw things in the future.

Debatte will be discussing over the next months the best way in which we
can remember Peter, both at our conference this October and in the
following period. In addition to this Peter’s particular wish was to set
up a fund to be able to award a prize to a graduate student in
International Relations at London Metropolitan University where he
taught. This fund is being set up through the Lipman-Miliband Trust
which for the last 30 years has been dedicated to socialist education
and research. If you would like to contribute to the prize fund there
are several ways in which you can do this:

By Cheque

Make cheques payable to Lipman-Miliband Trust with reference on the back
of the cheque to Peter Gowan Prize Fund and post to: The Lipman-Miliband
Trust, PO Box 64726 London, United Kingdom, NW1 8EN

By Direct Transfer

Please credit the Lipman-Miliband Trust, CAF Bank Ltd, West Malling,
Kent, sort code 40-52-40, account number 00090866, reference P Gowan Prize.

By Foreign Direct Payment

If you would like to make a payment from abroad please send in the
following way:

Lipman-Miliband Trust registered charity No267288, Bank account no.
00090866, sort code 40-02-40, reference P Gowan Prize.

HSBC, Poultry and Princes St Branch, London

Swift Branch ID Code BIC MIDLGB 2141W

Favour CafBank Ltd

Sort Code/Acct No. 400530 72138549 IBAN No GB48MIDL4005307213 8549


[1] P Green `The Third Round in Poland" (New Left Review no.102
February-April 1977).

[2] Ibid p.108.

[3] O MacDonald `Building Solidarity in Szczecin“and `Building
Solidarity in Walbrzych: Problems of Working Class Unity” (Labour Focus
on Eastern Europe
Vol 4 Nos 4-6 Winter-Spring 1981). O MacDonald `The
Polish Vortex: Solidarity and Socialism“(New Left Review no.139
May-June 1983).

[4] O MacDonald”Normalisation-Will the Pope help?“(Labour Focus on
Eastern Europe
Vol 6 Nos 1-2 Summer 1983), O MacDonald”The Political
Struggle over Working Class Organisation" (Labour Focus on Eastern
Vol 7 No 2 Summer 1984).

[5] O MacDonald “Petrestroika enters Critical Stage” (Labour Focus on
Eastern Europe
Vol 9 No 2 July ?August 1987) O MacDonald `Stalinism, the
National Question and Separatism in the USSR" (Labour Focus on Eastern
No 2/1989).

[6] O MacDonald `Eastern Europe?s new Self-Determination Problem? (Labour
Focus on Eastern Europe
No 1/1990), P Gowan “Western Economic Diplomacy
and the New Eastern Europe” (New Left Review No.182 July-August 1990), P
Gowan `The European Community and East-Central Europe? (Labour Focus on
Eastern Europe
No.43 1992) P Gowan `The EC and its Eastern Neighbours“
(Labour Focus on Eastern Europe No.44 1993), P Gowan `The CIS and the
World Economy” (Labour Focus on Eastern Europe No.46 1993), P Gowan `The
Visegrad States and the EU? (Labour Focus on Eastern Europe No.50 Spring
1995), P Gowan `The Dynamics of European Enlargement? (Labour Focus on
Eastern Europe
No.56 Spring 1997) [Available on ESSF: Nato & EU: The Dynamics of European Enlargement, P Gowan `Enlargement: The
Uncertainties Remain“(Labour Focus on Eastern Europe No.59Spring 1998),
P Gowan `Peripheralisation of Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s?
(Labour Focus on Eastern Europe No.65 Spring 2000).

[7] P Gowan `Neo-Liberal Theory and Practice for Eastern Europe” (New
Left Review
No.213 September-October 1995).

[8] P Gowan `Origins of the Administrative Elite? (New Left Review No.162
March-April 1987).

[9] P Gowan `The Gulf War, Iraq and Western Liberalism“(New Left Review
No.187 May-June 1991).

[10] P Gowan `In the Name of Western Values” (Labour Focus on Eastern
No.47 Spring 1994), P Gowan `Germany’s New Role in Europe“
(Labour Focus on Eastern Europe No.48 Summer 1994).

[11] P Gowan `Liberals versus Neo-Liberals: A Critical Look at some
recent writings on Civil Society” (Labour Focus on Eastern Europe No.51
Summer 1995), P Gowan `The Dangers of Facade Cosmopolitanism? (Labour
Focus on Eastern Europe
No.58 Autumn 1997), P Gowan `Neoliberal
Cosmopolitanism“(New Left Review No.2:11 September-October 2001).

[12] P Gowan `The EU and the Unsettled Future of the East” (Labour Focus
on Eastern Europe
No.67 Autumn 2000), P Gowan `The EU’s Human Rights
Diplomacy: A Survey" (Labour Focus on Eastern Europe No.69 Summer 2001).

[13] P Gowan `Western Europe in the Face of the Bush Campaign“(Labour
Focus on Eastern Europe
No.71 Spring 2002), P Gowan `The Bush Strategy
and the Idea of Overstretch” (Labour Focus on Eastern Europe No.73/74
Autumn 2002/Spring 2003), P Gowan `Europe and the New Imperialism"
(Labour Focus on Eastern Europe No.75/76 Summer/Autumn 2003).

[14] P Gowan `The Twisted Road to Kosovo: The Political Origins of the
NATO Attack on Yugoslavia“(Labour Focus on Eastern Europe No.62 Spring
1999), P Gowan `Kosovo: The War and its Aftermath” (Labour Focus on
Eastern Europe Autumn 1999), P Gowan `The NATO Powers and the Balkan
Tragedy" (New Left Review No.234 March-April 1999).

[15] P Gowan (1999) The Global Gamble: Washington’s Faustian Bid for
World Dominance
, Verso, London.

[16] P Gowan `A Calculus of Power“(New Left Review No.2:16 July-August 2002).

[17] P Gowan `US:UN” (New Left Review No.2:24 November-December 2003). Availableon ESSF: US : UN – From World War Two to the Present

[18] P Gowan “Twilight of the NPT?” (New Left Review No.2:52 July-August
2008). P Gowan `Crisis in the Heartland" (New Left Review No.2:55
January-February 2009). Available onESS: Crisis in the Heartland – Consequences of the New Wall Street System

*By Andrew Klimister for August, 09, issue of Debatte: Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe.

* Andrew Kilmister teaches economics at Oxford Brooks university, is a member of the Debatte editorial board and a support of Socialist Resistance.

Online 17 July 2009
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