Death of a comrade – Peter Gowan: 1946–2009
1 September 2009
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With the death of Peter Gowan on 12 June 2009, the
international left has lost one of its most astute political
analysts, and New Left Review the most generous and
steadfast of comrades. Peter was a socialist intellectual
of the highest calibre, combining enormous energy and independence
of mind with a truly collective spirit. A contributor to NLR from the
1970s, he joined the editorial committee in 1984; his interventions in the
journal constitute a substantial body of analysis in their own right. His
work was translated into many languages and he had readers on every
continent; unlike some, he was incredibly patient in replying to their
e-mails. He loved a good argument, although he was always extremely
courteous to his critics. [1] For me the loss is also deeply personal. He was a close friend and comrade since we first met as activists in the Vietnam
Solidarity Campaign in 1967. There is little that we did not discuss over
the last four decades.

Peter was born in 1946, three years after his sister Philippa. They were
war babies in the classic sense: their father, a Canadian officer of Scottish
ancestry stationed in wartime London, was already married. Their mother,
Jean MacDonald, came from a well-off Glaswegian family who were
stunned when she broke her engagement to a local and opted for her
mysterious Canadian. The two children were born in her father’s house in
Glasgow. When it was hurriedly sold after his death, she moved to Belfast
and brought up the children as a single parent, with occasional ‘unof-
ficial’ help from her brothers which paid for Peter’s education. Philippa
and Peter were never to meet their father, something that undoubtedly
left a deep mark on him; he discussed it with me at various times over
the years. It was only with the arrival of his own children that the torment
over his missing parent lessened, though it never quite disappeared. He
himself was a wonderful father to his four sons and spent enormous
amounts of time with them and their friends, discussing each and every
problem with the same energy that he applied to questions of politics and
theory and, in more relaxed moments, to gardening.

Young Gowan was sent to Orwell Park prep school and later to Haileybury
College, an institution that had initially been set up in 1806 by the East
India Company to educate civil servants destined for the colonies. After
1858 its doors were opened to all, and the school developed a reputation
for liberal scholarship. Clement Attlee had been a pupil and a pride in
the reforms of his government permeated the school in the 1950s. Peter
became a committed supporter of the Labour Party while at Haileybury.
It was primarily his sister’s influence that pushed him to the left: then
a Christian socialist, she was active in CND (led by Canon Collins) and
the Anti-Apartheid movement (led by Bishop Ambrose Reeves). At the
University of Southampton, as he explains in the interview below, one
of his more inspirational lecturers was Miriam Daly, an independentminded
Irishwoman who radicalized him further. [2] She encouraged
him to study the Russian Revolution and its legacy, which soon became
an obsession. Peter was never satisfied until he had read everything he
could possibly lay his hands on, and in this case the literature was enormous.
He embarked on post-graduate work at the Centre for Russian and
East European Studies at the University of Birmingham, where the staff
included the formidable scholar R.W. Davies. But revolution was in the
air and he did not finish his PhD; something I never heard him regret.

From 1968 until 1976, Peter was deeply involved as a militant in the
International Marxist Group (IMG). What had attracted a number of
us to this tiny group was both its considered anti-Stalinism and, more
importantly, its intransigent internationalism: it was the British section
of the Fourth International, which had activists in every continent,
including many who functioned in conditions of clandestinity under the
dictatorships of Latin America and Southern Europe, above all Portugal,
Greece and Spain. Revolutionary politics was a full-time engagement;
if the routines could be tedious, there was much in this existence that
was rewarding. Above all, the world political situation demanded intervention:
the Vietnamese resistance to the United States, the Cuban
Revolution and Che Guevara’s odyssey, the eruption of the working class
in France, Italy and Britain, with the huge miners’ strike that brought
down the Conservative government in 1974, the same year that the
Portuguese revolution toppled the dictatorship.

Party loyalties never impeded Peter’s independence of mind. In 1967 NLR
inaugurated a debate on ‘Trotsky’s Marxism’ with a powerful critique by
Nicolas Krassó, one of the left leaders of the Hungarian uprising of 1956,
and a member of the NLR editorial committee. The de-Stalinization process
in the Soviet Union had semi-rehabilitated Bukharin and other Old
Bolsheviks; Trotsky alone remained anathema, and this was the first
serious attempt to discuss his legacy within a broader left. Krassó was
a former pupil of Lukács, well versed in both the theory and the practice
of the official Communist movement. Ernest Mandel despatched
a defensive reply. Krassó challenged him once again; Mandel’s second
reply was more effective. [3] I remember well Peter’s first response to the
initial exchange. ‘I agree with Krassó,’ he told me. ‘Ernest’s response is
unconvincing.’ He forced me to re-read the Krassó text carefully and,
while I could see he had a case, partiinost prevented me from admitting it
to anyone except Peter. One outcome was a growing friendship with the
Hungarian. In an interview conducted with him shortly before Krassó’s
death, Peter asked how he would sum up the meaning of the Hungarian
revolution. With characteristic wit and mordancy, Krassó replied:

“I have often remembered the 19th Party Congress in the Soviet Union in
1952. Stalin kept silent throughout the Congress till the very end when he
made a short speech that covers about two and a half printed pages. He said
there were two banners that the progressive bourgeoisie had thrown away
and which the working class should pick up—the banners of democracy
and national independence. Certainly nobody could doubt that in 1956 the
Hungarian workers raised these banners high.”

In February 1968, a group of us in London had decided to launch a new
radical newspaper. The poet Christopher Logue was despatched to the
Reading Room of the old British Library to research names. He returned
with detailed notes on a 19th-century paper, The Black Dwarf, whose editor
Thomas Wooler had been imprisoned for his scathing attacks on the
state perpetrators of the Peterloo Massacre. We decided to revive it on
May 1st, 1968. A week later the barricades went up in Paris and one of
our correspondents, Eric Hobsbawm, situated them in the continuum
of French history. I offered Peter his first job as Distribution Manager of
the new Black Dwarf. He moved to London immediately, found a squat,
and took to his task with gusto, delivering copies of the paper to bookshops
in a beat-up van. My fondest memory of him from that period is
his returning to our Soho offices at 7 Carlisle Street (a floor below the
New Left Review) one day and laughing with delight. That issue had carried
an acerbic piece by Robin Blackburn defending Herbert Marcuse
against Alasdair MacIntyre, who had written an ultra-critical political
biography of the us-based German Marxist for Fontana Modern Masters.
We found a photograph of Marcuse, his fist raised as he stood on a platform
with Black Panther members. The piece was titled: ‘MacIntyre,
The Game is Up’. Peter had just delivered the issue to Collets, the radical
bookstore on Charing Cross Road that took a hundred Dwarfs each
fortnight. As he was about to leave he saw the great philosopher stride
through the door. MacIntyre went straight to the pile, lifted a copy and
began to flick through until he came to the offending headline. Peter
described watching him as he pored over Blackburn’s assault, turned
puce, threw the paper back on the pile and walked out. We were thrilled.
It was rare to witness the immediate impact of a text on its target.

The end of the revolutionary wave that had begun with the Tet offensive
in Vietnam, early in 1968, came with the defeat of an ill-advised
ultra-left insurrectionary attempt in Portugal in November 1975. The
previous year a movement led by radical army officers, soldiers, workers
and peasants had toppled the senile Salazar dictatorship, using the
language of socialism and democracy. The attempt to radicalize the outcome
had little mass support and was easily suppressed by the Socialist
Party and its allies. The debacle in Lisbon ended all hopes for a revolutionary
opening in Europe, and the internal culture of the left soon
began to display all the classic symptoms of defeat and demoralization:
an unremitting fissiparousness. Peter mostly remained immune to such
pettiness. He had started teaching—first at Barking College, then moving
to the University of North London, which later metamorphosed into the
London Metropolitan—but had remained deeply engaged in solidarity
work with left dissidents in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, partly
through contacts with the Ukrainian socialist, Bohdan Kravchenko. It
was through this circle that he got to know Halya Kowalsky, whom he
married in 1973.

 Eastern Europe

From the mid-70s Peter was increasingly convinced that the West
European left should be intervening more effectively in the underground
debates that were taking place in the East. This was the starting point for
Labour Focus on Eastern Europe, a magazine launched in 1977 with the
support of broad sections of the left, including social-democratic and
euro-communist mps, and a talented editorial board including Patrick
Camiller, Günter Minnerup and Gus Fagan. Halya was an indispensable
part of the operation, both politically and technically: ‘her integrity,
sensitivity and generosity’, Peter wrote in The Global Gamble, ‘have been
an inspiration as well as a great support.’ Her no-nonsense approach
was often brought to bear when Peter let his imagination run away with
him. In the early days Halya used to lay out the whole magazine. I retain
a warm memory of her walking into theIMG headquarters in Upper
Street with her newborn son, Ivan, going straight down to the awful
basement where the print-shop was located, parking her baby on the
table and sitting down to typeset an entire issue of Labour Focus.

Over the next twenty years, the journal would publish texts from Jacek
Kuron´, Petr Uhl, Václav Havel, Rudolf Bahro, Roy and Zhores Medvedev,
Tamara Deutscher and others, along with documents, debates and analysis
from Charter 77, Soviet workers’ struggles, East European feminists
and greens and, in 1980, the whole run of Solidarnos´c´ Strike Bulletins.
While it included contributions by and about all trends of the opposition
in Eastern Europe, Labour Focus was, editorially and ideologically, a consciously
socialist journal—and a refutation of the notion that the Western
left was complicit in the authoritarian model. It was largely the failure
of those regimes to respect workers’ social and political rights that led
to their downfall, by blocking the possibility of any democratic renewal
of socialism. Peter edited it under the pseudonym Oliver MacDonald,
his mother’s maiden name. He wrote a number of important texts in
it during the 1980s—on Poland, Gorbachevism, Soviet secessionism—
and even more after America’s Cold War victory: on the eu and Eastern
Europe, the role of a united Germany and, in 1999, an entire special
issue on the nato war on Yugloslavia.

Labour Focus had tracked the hollowing out of the Soviet bloc regimes
without losing hope that more democratic forms might arise there, on
the basis of socialized economies. The transformation of Eastern Europe
into satellite states of Washington and the disintegration of the Soviet
Union, pushed into socio-economic free fall by American shock therapy,
represented a historic defeat for all those who had hoped that something
better might arise from the ashes. Unsurprisingly, a few of the team
around Labour Focus were unsettled. It was in this period that Peter’s
steadfastness won the day. We had many discussions on what the impact
on friends and colleagues would be. He predicted that the trauma would
go deep and many would fall by the wayside. This began to happen as
early as 1990, when the United States geared up for the attack on Iraq,
having first given Saddam Hussein the green light to go into Kuwait.

Some on the left chose to see the first Gulf War as the indication of a new
and refreshing cosmopolitanism: un-backed global justice prevailing
over a murderous regime, albeit one armed and equipped by the West
for the past ten years. More clear-sightedly, Peter saw the war, which
secured a huge new us military presence in the Gulf, as a drive to forward
imperial interests, wrapped in a liberal humanitarian flag.

 Balkan Wars

Soon after came the break-up of Yugoslavia: first the secession of Slovenia
and Croatia, urged on by Germany and Austria; then that of Bosnia,
with the encouragement of the United States, leading to the horrors of
a three-way civil war, with atrocities committed on all sides; and finally,
the nato war on what remained of the old Yugoslav state. A much larger
layer of new ‘cosmopolitans’ now rallied to the nato banner, arguing
that this was a war against ‘fascism’, ‘genocide’ and ‘tyranny’. [5] I have
rarely known Peter—an incredibly generous-spirited human being,
always ready to see the best in people, including a few who were walking
disasters—as angry as he was during the assault on Yugoslavia. He was
to write more on this single theme than any other conflict in the past or
present: in NLR, Socialist Register and his 140-page essay ‘The Twisted
Road to Kosovo’ in Labour Focus. While the Western media portrayed
the events in Yugoslavia as exclusively the outcome of internal forces,
‘inflamed nationalists’ pushing for disintegration, Gowan pointed to the
crucial role played by the Atlantic powers. In 1990, when the vast majority
of Yugoslavs opposed any break-up of the country, us policy had insisted
on the same ‘shock therapy’ austerity programme that was being meted
out to the ex-Comecon countries. The imf package implemented by the
Yugoslav prime minister Ante Markovic´, with Jeffrey Sachs’s assistance,
had been ‘a critical turning point in the tragedy’, plunging the country
into crisis and depriving the federal government of any substance. With
the state exchequer reduced to penury, an unpaid soldiery can become a
destabilizing factor, as Oliver Cromwell had understood.

Peter was sharply critical of the German initiatives that had exacerbated
the crisis and led directly to the declaration of Croatian independence. [6]
He saw the us drive—for the ‘self-determination’ of a ‘Bosnian nation’
that did not exist, politically or constitutionally, and which would inevitably
pit Bosnian Serbs and Croats against Bosnian Muslims—as aimed
at seizing the leadership of the Yugoslav crisis from Bonn. Rather than
protecting the population, Washington’s overriding pre-occupation was
to ensure that Western Europe remained subordinate to its direction—
not at all evident in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, with NATO
apparently redundant and a huge new German sphere of influence opening
up in Central Europe, potentially stretching from the Mediterranean
to the Baltic. He fiercely condemned a ‘system of Western power-politics’
which could ‘casually and costlessly make a major contribution to
plunging Yugoslavia into turmoil and wars, use these wars to further
their geopolitical ends, and then to seek to make political capital out
of war crimes tribunal judgements of perpetrators of atrocities, while
themselves refusing all responsibility.’ [7] A Western policy that put the
human security of the Balkan people first would have taken an entirely
different route: a development-oriented framework for the whole region.
In recent years he would talk of the squalid un protectorates that littered
the Balkans and compare them to what might have been. Instead, social
destruction on a massive scale had been the price of a historic political
victory for American leadership, with European public opinion won over
to the use of NATO as a ‘humanitarian’ force in us wars of choice and
to the legitimacy of bombarding non-aggressor states.


From 1990, Peter’s work focused increasingly on analysing the strategic
goals of the American and European elites as they collaborated to restructure
the post-Cold War world. His starting point, as always, was that,
since policy-making in state executives and multilateral institutions is
largely closed to public scrutiny, to understand how state power is being
wielded, and to what ends, requires delving into the detail of backstage
negotiations and ‘mapping back’ onto the cui bono of policy outcomes.
He insisted, too, on the highly political nature of financial and economic
institutions, and the statecraft they entailed. His 1999 book The Global
took issue with notions that ‘globalization’ was the outcome of
organic economic processes, and set out a compelling case for viewing
the transformation of the world economy in the 1990s as crucially driven
by the highly political moves of operatives of the ‘Dollar–Wall Street
Regime’ in Washington and New York. Talk of a ‘global financial market’
obscured the fact that, since the 1980s, the vast bulk of international
financial activity has been centred in Wall Street or its ‘satellite’, the City
of London. ‘Those who believe the adjective “American” is redundant’,
he argued, should ask themselves what difference it would make if the
international financial system were dominated by markets and operators
in China, let alone Iran.

The Global Gamble traced the origins of the Dollar–Wall Street Regime
to the restructuring of the international monetary system by the Nixon
administration in the 1970s, motivated by the onset of the ‘long downturn’
in the productive sector and a privileging of finance-capital interests. The
post-Bretton Woods switch from gold to dollar-based floating exchange
rates provided an immensely powerful mechanism through which
Washington and the us-led international financial institutions could
effect changes in the global economic environment. The crises created by
the resulting volatility in currency swings and capital flows were used in
turn by the imf to restructure other national economies along neoliberal
lines. For Gowan, ‘neoliberalism’ was not simply a free-market ideology
but a social engineering project. Externally, it involved opening a state’s
political economy to products and financial flows from the core countries,
under the name of globalization. Internally, it meant the remaking
of the state’s domestic social relations ‘in favour of creditor and rentier
interests, with the subordination of productive sectors to financial sectors,
and a drive to shift wealth, power and security away from the bulk of
the working population’. The trend of privileging ‘the interests of rentiers
and speculators over the functional requirements of productive investment’
led to a hypertrophied expansion of derivatives trading. Presciently,
he judged the ‘gamble of globalization’ as ‘destabilizing—and probably
economically unviable’, bringing ‘chronic financial instability’ and ‘locking
the economy’s fate into the performance of securities markets’. Yet
economic weakness was combined with ‘extraordinary political success’:
the United States had faced no significant threat or challenger. [8]

In contrast to the passive or subjectless formulations—‘war broke out’—
of mainstream analyses, Gowan’s writing always emphasized the role of
human agents: strategic policy elites, high state functionaries, military
planners, actively pursuing particular class or national interests. If his
approach runs the risk of overstating intentionality and understating
structure, as was sometimes suggested in nlr internal discussions,
in this depoliticized age the over-correction is an invaluable one. His
work was always addressed to an audience of potential activists, movers
and shakers in a project of world reform. He wrote to reveal—to
denaturalize—the workings of contemporary capitalist power, to help a
democratic public ‘exercise its responsibility to influence the behaviour
of states in which we are living’. He was an organic intellectual of the
left, in the classical Gramscian sense—though alas, functioning in a
locale where there was no mass socialist party.

Tall and broad-chested, with a full-bodied laugh, Peter was a strong man
who could have had another twenty years if he had not been struck down
at the age of 63 by mesothelioma, an asbestos-related cancer impossible
to detect before the final implosion (probably contracted in the
ramshackle postwar building that housed Barking Tech). On holiday in
Canada in the summer of 2008, the month before he was diagnosed, he
was running six miles a day. He faced up to his death with extraordinary
calm, good cheer and courage. His last essay, ‘Crisis in the Heartland’
in NLR 55, written after his first course of chemo, is a bravado analysis
of the 2008 meltdown, ending with a call for a public-utility credit
system. He retained his full intellectual powers to the end, and in the
final weeks recorded a long set of interviews with Michael Newman and
Marko Bojcun, his colleagues and friends at the London Metropolitan
University, from which we are proud to publish extracts below. A Leninist
to the last, he planned his funeral in meticulous detail with his family,
and went out to Country Joe’s Vietnam Song—‘Gimme an F!’

‘I’m so glad I’m a materialist,’ he told me, as he lay dying. No nonsense
to believe in. We all have to go sometime, and the only difference was
that he knew when. It was too soon—he had books to write and promises
to keep; but death held no fears. In the last phone conversation I had
with him we talked about Afghanistan, comparing the current war to its
equally appalling predecessors. I read him a verse from a Kipling poem,
reflecting the mood in the late 19th century when Winston Churchill
had been a young officer in the region:

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Just roll to your rifle, and blow out your brains.
And go to your God like a soldier.

Peter roared with delight. It is a sound I will treasure.


[1] See his debate with the staunch Blairite FT columnist John Lloyd in NLR 1/216, March–April 1996.

[2] Daly, whose own father had fought with Michael Collins in the civil war, later
returned to Ireland and joined a republican socialist group. She was shot dead by
Loyalists in 1980, with the collusion of British Intelligence, according to some.
Gowan wrote a moving obituary of her in Socialist Challenge.

[3] See Nicolas Krassó, ‘Trotsky’s Marxism’, NLR 1/44, July–Aug 1967; Mandel’s reply
in NLR 1/47, Jan–Feb 1968; Krassó’s response in NLR 1/48, Mar–Apr 1968; and
Mandel’s rejoinder in NLR 1/56, July–Aug 1969.

[4] ‘Hungary 1956: A Participant’s Account’, in Ali, ed., The Stalinist Legacy: Its Impact
on 20th-Century Politics
, Harmondsworth 1984.

[5] There were a few tragi-comic interludes, as one-time defenders of the uniqueness
of the Yugoslav state tired of using Lenin’s texts on national self-determination to
defend their own slide and sought comfort at soirées attended by Lady Thatcher—a
staunch supporter of bombing Serbia—before moving into the embrace of the us
security establishment. Quite a few were to support the war on Iraq in 2003.

[6] His view was confirmed by the SPD leader, Oskar Lafontaine at a May Day 1999
speech in Saarbrucken, a few weeks after he resigned as Finance Minister: ‘I often
hear it said that Germany shouldn’t go its own way, but I must remind you that
at the very beginning of all this, Germany did indeed go its own way in pushing
through the official recognition of the independence of Yugoslavia’s constituent
republics, against the resistance of Paris, London and Washington . . . Freedom and
self-determination are not compatible with national exclusion and ethnic exclusion.
Freedom and self-determination are only imaginable when they are linked to solidarity
and human fellowship. That’s why it was wrong to give recognition to this
small-state nonsense (Kleinstaaterei) based on ethnic differences. It was also a mistake
when NATO bombardment made it possible for Croatia to drive the Serbs from
Krajina’: Ali, ed., Masters of the Universe: NATO’s Balkan Crusade, London 2000.

[7] ‘The NATO Powers and the Balkan Tragedy’, NLR 1/234, March–April 1999.

[8] The Global Gamble: Washington’s Faustian Bid for World Dominance, London and
New York 1999, pp. vii–xi.

* From the New Left Review n° 59, September-October 2009.

Online 29 September 2009
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