➻ Royden J. Harrison [1927-2002]

por Teoría de la historia

1s8Royden Harrison, who has died aged 75, devoted his considerable intellectual resources to serving the labour movement in Britain. During the years when he was teaching, writing, lecturing and organising, there was a steady advance of working people in this country – through the Labour party, the unions, the cooperative societies, the Workers’ Educational Association, university extra-mural classes, adult residential colleges, the National Council of Labour Colleges and the Institute for Workers’ Control. In all these, Harrison played an important educational role. This was not a brief spell of activity. Starting with trade union education in the 1950s, it was an advance on many fronts. It was halted not by Labour’s electoral defeats in 1979 and the 1980s, but by the mass unemployment of that decade and Margaret Thatcher’s war on the unions. But its effects persist. Lifelong learning is a direct descendant, as David Blunkett, himself a student of Harrison’s, would readily concede. The confidence of working people, to which New Labour can appeal today, was created in those years. While New Labour has dismissed them as wasted years – and Harrison regarded them as a total betrayal – the challenge to elite rule and elite education was made then, and Harrison was a central figure in making that challenge. Born in London, and educated at King Alfred’s school, Hampstead, and at schools in Canada and Australia, he was brought up in a divided family, and developed a rebelliousness which did not make for an easy time during his national service. While studying philosophy, politics and economics at St Catherine’s College, Oxford, however, he blossomed, especially under the tutelage of GDH Cole, the influential socialist writer and thinker. At Oxford, too, he met Pauline Cowan, a molecular biologist, and entered into one of those wonderful marriages of the arts and sciences that fortune seems to smile upon. After taking their PhDs, they went to Sheffield, where Royden became a lecturer, and then senior lecturer, in the university extra-mural department. It was there that he founded, with Kenneth Alexander and John Hughes, the day-release courses for Derbyshire and Yorkshire mine workers that became a model of liberal education for trade unionists. Harrison’s links with trade unionists were not confined to education. For some years, in the 1960s, he represented the National Union of Public Employees on Sheffield trades and labour council, at a time when dustmen and other menial council workers stood much in need of skilled advocacy. He was an active member of his local Communist party branch until 1956, and thereafter of the local Labour party, which he represented several times at annual conference. His thinking was deeply influenced by Marx and remained so, but his libertarian instinct led him to reject the more determinist elements in Marxian thought. History was his guide to understanding current events, but only through recognition of what William Morris called “the change within the change”, a quotation he liked to employ. He approached history as a philosopher, which shows very clearly in his first book, Before The Socialists (1964), with its warm appreciation of the English positivists. Harrison also involved himself academically in the study of labour history. He was one of the founders, in 1960, of the Society for the Study of Labour History and was, for many years, an editor of its bulletin, which became the Labour History Journal. In 1965, he transferred from the extra-mural department to become a reader in politics at Sheffield, and, in 1970, he was appointed as the first professor and director of the centre for the study of social history at Warwick University, stepping into the shoes of his friend EP Thompson. At Warwick, Harrison’s postgraduate teaching was regarded as enthusiastically as his trade union classes had been. He greatly expanded the numbers of students, and applied a principle adapted from the natural sciences, which he learned from Pauline, herself by then a professor at Sheffield, of creating teams of MA and PhD students to work on different aspects of a large subject. A major result of his time at Warwick was the creation of the modern records centre, which houses the records of the TUC, the CBI and of many unions and companies. In a sabbatical year in 1964, Harrison had begun research for his official biography of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, and took early retirement in 1980 to complete this major task. The work, however, proceeded slowly: there were complications with other biographies and editions of source9780333968543_l_f material, letters and diaries; there were more urgent, political and educational tasks – articles for socialist journals, letters to the press, lectures to trade union students, papers for socialist conferences and lecture tours in the United States and Japan. His first book had to be revised for a new edition; there was a book to be made from lectures to celebrate the centenary of the Paris Commune, a new introduction to be written for Cole and Raymond Postgate’s The Common People, and contributions to collections of essays on labour history. There was also a whole new field of interest which had opened up from Harrison’s connection with Japanese labour historians. He visited the country three times, lecturing in several universities, and gave hospitality to a succession of visitors to the Japanese studies centre at Sheffield, where his daughter, Fiona, herself a Japanese scholar, was employed. There was, however, another reason for the delayed appearance of the Webbs’ biography. Harrison was a perfectionist. His thought was finely chiselled, his writing crisp and sharp, but rich with allusions, his facts meticulously researched, their interpretation deeply pondered and logically argued. Nothing that he said or wrote or did could ever be said to be sloppy or ill-considered. His lectures were most carefully prepared, seminars constructed never as a monologue, but as a dialogue involving the students’ own experience, tutorials conducted with the utmost conscientiousness. It was not unknown for his written comments on a student’s work to exceed in length the original essay. Such attention to detail was far removed from pedantry; it sprang rather from a profound sense of the seriousness of learning and the importance of a proper understanding of ideas and events. Nor was his teaching or lecturing ever dull, being spiced with humorous asides and an often devastating wit. Harrison’s last years were dogged by ill health, but the work on the Webbs was largely complete by the time of his death. The first volume, The Life And Times Of Sidney And Beatrice Webb, 1858-1905, was published in 1999. For the second volume, there is much material left to be assembled by his friends and, in the last months of his life, he devoted himself to this cooperative task. Harrison will be reckoned by hundreds, even thousands, of students, and by many colleagues and collaborators, as a formative influence on their lives. Of all my mentors, he, above all, taught me how to think. His generous friendship, his love for his three grandchildren, his tender consideration for foreign visitors, and the warm hospitality which he and Pauline offered in their Sheffield home will be long remembered and sorely missed. Pauline and his daughters Fiona and Sheila survive him.

[Michael BARRATT BROWN & John HALSTEAD. “Royden Harrison”, in The Guardian, 3 de julio de 2002]