Peter Cadogan (1921-2007)

Peter Cadogan, who has died at 86, was once called ‘the most expelled socialist in England’. He campaigned effectively on many fronts for peace, justice and human rights in print, on the streets and through teams of like-minded thinkers.

He moved from radical politics [Labour, Communist, Workers Revolutionary and Socialist Worker Parties] to radical spirituality as he came to the conclusion that William Blake, Gandhi and John MacMurray were his greatest mentors for living a compassionate life. He died a happy man.

Peter Cadogan was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1921 where he witnessed the poverty and humiliation of workers during the Depression. The images of war veterans and unemployed miners begging on street corners stayed with him and drove him all his life.

After working briefly as an insurance clerk, he went on to serve in the Air Sea Rescue Service from 1941 to 1946. This proved to be a profound experience. Desperate attempts to save lives, during which he found authentic friendship with the men under his command, were separated by long periods of inactivity in which he read Shaw, Wells, John MacMurray, Laski and, most importantly, Lenin’s State and Revolution. He realised much later that this book “was a lethal confidence-trick”.

On demobilisation, he immediately joined the Communist Party to which he gave 10 devoted years, thrilling to the ideas buzzing around the Historian’s Group of the CP with Christopher Hill, E. P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm and others. In the meantime, he studied history at Newcastle University, married, had a daughter and moved to Northampton and then Cambridge to teach history in Secondary Modern schools. He is still remembered in both as an inspiring teacher.

In 1956, Khruschev’s demolition of Stalin came as a blow and, when the USSR invaded Hungary, his sharp criticisms of the CP found their way into the national press. He was suspended and then quit, quickly joining the Labour Party. Two years later, he organised for them the first nuclear base demonstration against the American Thor missiles at Mepal, near Ely.

He became a founder member of the Socialist Labour League which later became the Workers Revolutionary Party and was expelled by the Cambridge Labour Party. Other joinings and expulsions of factions on the Left followed.

In 1960, Bertrand Russell proposed non-violent civil disobedience against nuclear weapons. Cadogan joined his Committee of 100 and their campaign climaxed in September 1961 with a vast but banned demonstration in Trafalgar Square. Russell was arrested along with 1300 others. Early in 1962, Russell sent him and others to the World Peace Council in Moscow where they “staged a free, unlicensed demonstration in Red Square against all Bombs including those of the Soviet Union. The police moved in immediately. It was the first free demo in that Square since the 1920s and made world headlines”.

Within days of the Biafran War starting in May 1968, Cadogan had set up the Save Biafra Campaign and worked vigorously for 18 months getting a lot of national coverage. All to no avail as the Foreign Office “was stuck with the Lugard doctrine of ‘one Nigeria’ and the Wilson Government, as usual, did what it was told. London supplied Lagos with all its arms, ammunition and military advisers. Moscow provided its Air Force and trained its pilots – an unholy alliance to end all such alliances”. About a million innocent people died of starvation.

From 1970 to 1981, he was the General Secretary of the South Place Ethical Society at Conway Hall, known as London’s ‘temple of dissent’. He saw his main task there as defending ‘the rational religious sentiment’, each individual’s ‘sense of the sacred’, and to this end conducted over 50 weddings and funerals. In 1975, he wrote “Direct Democracy: An Appeal to the Professional Classes, to the Politically Disenchanted and to the Deprived. The Case for An England of Sovereign Regional Republics, Extra-Parliamentary Democracy and a New Active Non-Violence of the Centre”, modelling his title on The Levellers and integrating his “revelatory discovery” of William Blake and Friedrich Nietzsche. In it, he pioneered the idea of the gift economy.

This led to him co-founding the organisation and journal Turning Point with economist James Robertson which was published for over 25 years. From 1981 until his retirement in 1993, Peter was Tutor in the History of Ideas in the Extra-Mural Department of London University and the Workers Education Association.

By 1987 he had become disillusioned with all forms of protest and put his energies into what he called positive and practical solutions. From 1993, he worked for The Gandhi Foundation, leading their project in Northern Ireland and advocating Non-Violent Direct Action. He set up Values and Vision and Save London Alliance in his home on the base of his conviction that authentic national democracy can only emerge from local democracies. He became well-known in Kilburn for saving a local park, for Xmas lights on the High Road, his letters to the press and his garden. Local kids called him ‘Mr. Peter’.

During the 1990s he became the subject of great interest to historians, pre-eminent amongst them Professor Kevin Morgan, Professor of Politics and Contemporary History at Manchester University, who interviewed Peter in depth, placed the recordings in the National Sound Archives and anthologised his papers on the CP.

Peter continued to e-mail and write articles and letters to the very end. Throughout 65 years of radical activism, he was never afraid to speak his mind, to challenge and question his own and other people’s thinking. This seemed at first to many as intolerance, even arrogance. In fact, all soon discovered that it was no more than his passion for accuracy and clear thinking in the overall pursuit of justice.

Like Gandhi, he became and remained friends with all his temporary enemies. Over 70 people, old comrades and new friends, came to his bedside in St Mary’s Paddington or sent him messages of love and respect. Peter had co-founded The Blake Society in 1985, was its President for the first four years before becoming Life Vice-President. So it was appropriate that his last days fell during the month of Blake’s 250th anniversary. He quoted Blake’s poems to those around his bed and told us that Blake’s “Jerusalem” ‘said it all’. His dying words were Blake’s moral imperative “Live differently”! Peter did just that, his integrity intact.
John Rowley

Instead of ending his copious and challenging notes, letters and writings “with all good wishes” or something, Peter would say “oxygen, peace, flowers”. I loved that ending: oxygen for the life we breathe in and out; peace, we all yearn for whether secretly or openly; flowers, symbolising nature which surrounds and nourishes. Peter first introduced me to the Northern Ireland Working Group in London which he and I represented within the GF. In the 1980s, we joined a group to visit Dublin to discover more about “the Troubles” from across the border. He was indefatigable in his work and writings, giving great support to those he believed had “got it right” in Northern Ireland. He was a warrior of the right kind and he leaves a gap behind him. Go ye well, Peter. It was rich knowing you.
Denise Moll

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