Obituary: Peter Gowan (1946-2009)

-Sushovan Dhar

Peter Gowan died of mesothelioma at 9am on Friday 12 June. The preceding Wednesday he had a severe breathing problem and was shifted to hospital, where he died two days later in his sleep with his family around him. He battled against cancer with great courage, strength and determination, without complaint until the very end. He maintained his good humour and ability to put people around him at ease.

He was born in Glasgow in January 15, 1946 and, then moved with his mother to Belfast. When he was nine the family settled in England,where he studied at Orwell Park prep school, in Suffolk, and Haileybury School, in Hertfordshire. He then studied history at Southampton University, became interested in radical politics, and focused his study on the legacy of the Russian revolution. Probably, the foremost Marxist authority on international relations, he wrote and spoke with an amazing grasp of the inter-relationship between economic, political and military power in the modern world. He was a former leader of the International Marxist Group (IMG) – the British section of the Fourth International and had a phenomenal capacity for work and an informal style that turned him into a supremely effective educator. From 2004, he was professor of international relations at London Metropolitan University. A member of the New Left Review editorial board from 1990, he was one of its towering intellectuals and became ever more prolific during the past decade.

Peter played a huge role in leading the IMG and later in guiding the International Marxist movement in understanding the fall of Stalinism,the development of the European Union, the growth of US dominance and the re-emergence of Russia under Putin. He was a regular contributor to the left, speaking regularly at conferences on Russia, Marxism andevents organised by ‘Historical Materialism’, ‘Socialist Register’,‘Debatte’, ‘Socialist Resistance’ and many other forums. He worked from 1978, with his wife, Halya Kowalsky, as co-founder of the highly influential journal Labour Focus on Eastern Europe, which supported socialist and democratic opposition movements including Solidarity inPoland, and Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia.

A life long champion for the unity of the radical left, Peter created an island of co-operation among the sea of factionalism that characterised the British left 1970s and 80s. His approach to politics offers a lesson to all of us. He persuaded members of the IMG and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) to put aside their arcane disagreement on the nature of the Soviet state and work collectively. He won over Labour party members disenchanted with their party’s tacit support to Eastern European neo-Stalinist regimes and created an eclectic group of British and émigré activists who provided concrete support foreastern bloc opposition groups.

He worked mostly on the issues international relations and political economy in the last couple of decades and in ‘The Global Gamble: America’s Faustian Bid for World Domination’, published in 1999, he began a penetrating study of what he called the “Dollar/Wall Street regime”. In the light of the events since September 11, his argument that the US is trying to establish absolute world domination seemed remarkably prophetic. He impressed audiences not only at home, but also around the world with his deep insight of the fundamental weaknesses of the neo-liberal model.

Peter Gowan inspired hundreds of people in many countries with the ideas of Marxism, applied to the central questions of our time. It is awful that we had to lose him prematurely. His wife Halya, who was his partner since 1973, survives him, along with their three sons, Ivan, Boris and Marko.

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