(1909–2000) John Archer
VETERAN British Trotskyist John Archer died aged 91 on 23 December 2000. We print here the personal tribute his son, Bob Archer, paid at the funeral. John left his own lively epitaph in the form of his speech to a 90th birthday meeting in London on 30 October 1999. That speech is published as a pamphlet entitled ‘John Archer: Events from my militant life in the working class’
My father, John Archer loved life enormously and packed a huge amount into the life that he led.
A young colleague at Hillcroft Comprehensive School in South London in the late 1960’s remembers the gusto with which he would approach lesson time — an enthusiasm that few teachers ever feel so keenly.
Dad was born in Walthamstow, then a leafy suburb to the East of London, in 1909. His parents had come from West Yorkshire and his father was an Inland Revenue official. Dad always felt a great attachment to West Yorkshire, and later more or less became an adopted Yorkshireman.
He was a very bright boy, and won a scholarship to the Merchant Taylors’ School in London. He was well liked by his teachers, and did very well at classics: Greek and Latin. He went on to win an open exhibition to Peterhouse College, Cambridge. However, his parents’ marriage was breaking up and Dad had a resounding fall-out with his father. The result was that no money was available to finance his studies.
I must emphasise here that there was nothing superficial or perfunctory about Dad’s love of the classics. They were very much part of his character. Where Horace in his odes praises ‘Justum et tenacem propositi virum’ — the just man who sticks to his principles in the face of frowning tyranny and the mob demanding bad things — Dad strove to be such a man.
This culture was very important indeed to Dad, but it was never a prison. For him it was a key to unlocking all knowledge. His curiosity was unquenchable, although it was never idle. He made himself an expert in a number of different fields. Remarkably, this grew rather than diminishing throughout his life. He never stopped learning, and never stopped taking a fresh look at old subjects from a new angle. He never stopped thinking and learning until his final illness.
His career was always subordinated to his politics. Indeed, he made a success of three careers. He taught himself geology and became a deputy chief technical officer in the Ministry of Agriculture. He left that job to become a tutor-organiser for the National Council of labour Colleges in Leeds. He became a successful secondary-schoolteacher and later a Principal Lecturer at the Polytechnic of Central London, finally achieving the rank of Doctor of Philosophy for his study of the history of the Labour Party in the 1930s.
In order to study as a young man, he had to work at Peter Jones’ department store in London. Meanwhile he studied part time at the London School of Economics (LSE) and gained the degree of Bachelor of Commerce.
While a student at LSE, John met my mother Mary and also Margaret Johns and Stuart Kirby, who introduced him to the Trotskyist movement. For the rest of his life, Dad was a convinced socialist and follower of Trotsky. He threw himself thoroughly and wholeheartedly into struggle and sacrifice to put these beliefs into practice.
This was consistent with his education and culture. Like Shelley, he saw a world where:
‘All things are sold: the very light of heaven
Is venal; earth’s unsparing gifts of love,
The smallest and most despicable things
That lurk in the abyss of the deep,
All objects of our love, even life itself,
And the poor pittance which the laws allow
Of liberty, the fellowship of man,
Those duties which his heart of human love
should urge him to perform instinctively,
Are bought and sold as in a public mart
Of undisguising selfishness.’
Dad stood in opposition to all of that. He stood up for:
‘The consciousness of good,
which neither gold,
Nor sordid fame, nor hope of heavenly bliss,
Can purchase: but a life of resolute good,
Unalterable will, quenchless desire
Of universal happiness.’
(Shelley, ‘Queen Mab’)
An old friend, Don Bateman, wrote to me when he heard that Dad had died that Dad embodied a quality of moral courage. Don showed physical courage in a public meeting in Leeds in 1939 when Dad challenged a Stalinist speaker and the heavy mob was moving in to silence him.
Although we rarely had two halfpennies to rub together, these qualities made Dad an excellent father. He taught us all the time about everything around us, but he never made learning a chore or a burden. Learning was a joy in his presence. Intellectual curiosity became a challenge and a way of life. Politicians talk a lot about life-long learning nowadays. Dad was a lifelong teacher and student quite naturally.
He taught us a love of literature and art. Even when relations between us were quite strained, he discovered that I was interested in music, and went out of his way to obtain good recordings and a good stereo system for me. For him it was part of being human.
And being human also meant physical exertion. He was exceptionally fit all his life. As a young man he swam and played rugby. Later he enjoyed walking, especially in the Yorkshire moors, which for him was a competitive sport, as many acquaintances found out to their cost. When he was in his late eighties he took me and his grand-daughter Rachel for a long walk around Denby which left us both gasping. He hardly broke into a sweat.
He brought a similar energy and enthusiasm to his lifelong commitment to the movement of the working class. Leon Trotsky’s papers are lodged at Harvard University, and among them is a letter from Dad in French. He had enclosed a number of press cutting from the Manchester Guardian so that ‘The Old Man’ could keep up with world events while in exile in Mexico. In his note, Dad wrote: ‘We are deeply involved in the mass organisations of the working class’. He meant the Labour Party and the trade unions.
While Dad was very welcome in these circles for the special gifts he brought, he often seemed a little eccentric for the very same reason. Quite a few of his close comrades could see both sides of this, and no doubt there will be many stories to tell over a drink afterwards. Whatever the stories, nobody ever doubted Dad’s intellectual strength or his sincerity.
Dad’s life was a life of struggle for a cause, with all the sacrifices and fierce joys such a commitment brings. All the sweeter, then, were his years of marriage to Winn. This was something that he enjoyed thoroughly, and he told me often that it was a love match. I know it made him very happy, and I know one of the really pleasing things about it was the circle of Winn’s friends and acquaintances to which he gained access. He deeply appreciated the friends he made in the PROBUS group and the creative writing group and the Huddersfield Labour Party, and they in turn rallied round tremendously to help the family during his last illness. Typically, he became the area’s oldest adult education student and enjoyed the contributions he was able to make to the group.
John Archer was a unique human being. We will all miss him very much.
Workers International Press February 2001