The socialist writer and activist Robert Fine died on 9 June 2018, at the age of 72. We publish tributes from Workers' Liberty people and from others who knew and worked with him. Photo: Robert Fine with Jean Lane (in the clearing in the middle of the photo, slightly right of centre, holding Workers' Action newspapers) at the anti-fascist march in Lewisham, 13 August 1977.
For some of the writings by Robert Fine on this website, and a review of his latest book, click here or scroll down.
I learned a great deal from Bob Fine (in those days he went by "Bob"; I think later he preferred "Robert") when I worked with him on anti-apartheid issues in the mid-late eighties. In particular, his criticism of the popular view which saw the liberation movement just as a kind of "elemental" resistance to oppression - as if it was all just kids throwing stones - had a big impact on me.
In fact there was, in South Africa at that time, one of the richest and most sophisticated debates about strategy, including socialist strategy, anywhere in the world. Bob was an expert on all of that, and in particular on the militant independent trade union movement which was playing such a vital role in the struggle. This rejection of stereotypical images of "resistance" stayed with me; his voice was constantly in my head, for example,during the "Arab Spring".
Bob"s "take" on the anti-apartheid struggle meant he was often at loggerheads with the dominant liberation movement, the African National Congress - defending others, in South Africa, who were at loggerheads with them, too, a stance which took considerable moral courage. This, too, I hope, has stayed with me as an example to emulate.
Bob was always deeply thoughtful, independently-minded, and insightful - about whatever he turned his mind to. Often he seemed to open up new ways of thinking about things, including things I thought I already knew about. It's some years since I last spent much time discussing with him - I ran into him a couple of times in the last few years, but we just chatted. But I'm very sad I won't get the chance again. He will be sorely missed.
Bob Fine did not just make important contributions to socialist writing and theory.
He was active in the Leamington Spa Anti-Racist Anti-Fascist Committee (LARAFC) in the late 1970s and early 1980s (1977-1981). The Committee began its activity in the wake of the activities of high-profile local fascist Robert Relf. LARAFC received the backing of the Indian Workers' Association, the Labour Party, the Trades Council, revolutionary groups, anarchists, and members of the Liberal Party.
Bob and his partner Jenny were at the time associated with the International-Communist League (I-CL)/Socialist Organiser. He strongly participated in the community activities of the group, which produced a regular newsletter of which between 500 to 1000 copies were sold around the town. We built support for anti-fascist and anti-racist demonstrations across the country, including those held by the Anti-Nazi League.
I shall never forget one LARAFC meeting when it was announced that Robert Relf had been taken to the police station and roughed up. Some people began to snigger. An angry Jenny stood up and said that human rights were for everybody and that even fascists like Relf should not be mistreated. Bob led the room in agreement.
Robert Fine was a good comrade, and a really decent human being.
I cannot remember when exactly I first met Bob Fine, but I do remember him at a meeting sometime in the early 1980s discussing anti apartheid activity.
We were both, at the time, supporters of Socialist Organiser and what would become the AWL. Bob was one of the cleverest people I’ve ever met and that obvious fact – combined with his suave manner and tall, handsome appearance - initially rather intimidated me. But it soon became apparent that he was a very approachable person of considerable warmth and humour who treated all comrades as equals. I was - and remain - proud to think of him as a friend as well as a comrade.
Bob’s extensive writing is not only a body of exemplary work in the Marxist tradition, but is always highly readable and accessible even to the non-academic. His most recent book "Antisemitism and the left" (Manchester University Press, 2017, co-writted with Philip Spencer) is essential reading on the vexed subject of left antisemitism. Bob has left us at a time we need his sharp mind and shrewd analysis more than ever.
One of the great things about Robert Fine's work is that it is serious and scholarly but also accessible. He wrote to engage people with important things, things that matter.
His book on left antisemitism, written with Philip Spencer, shows how what is constructed as "The Jewish Question" is always actually an antisemitism question; not "what do Jews do to make people hate them?" but "why are so many tempted to package all that is bad in with the Jews?" It is a defence of the Marxist and critical tradition against the "socialism of fools".
It is a fierce critique both of the idea that the left is essentially antisemitic and also of the denial the existence of a tradition of authentically left wing antisemitism. He excavates the left critique of antisemitism not out of academic interest but in order to understand it, to mobilize it and to keep it alive.
Fine's book "Cosmopolitanism" distils much of his view of the world into one paperback. He goes beyond labels to look at the complexity of things: how nationalism is a coming together against oppression but then a re-formulation of arbitrary exclusions; how internationalism began as universal equality but was vulnerable to perversion into Soviet nationalism, the mobilization of the rhetoric of the "universal class" into the interests not of humanity as a whole but of Stalinist totalitarianism.
Robert Fine's book on Hegel, Marx and Arendt, "Political Investigations", creates a framework for thinking about the critique of contemporary society which always keeps hold of the "critique of the critique"; how to think about making the world better while learning the lessons of how such projects have ended up making it much worse. Marx claimed to be turning Hegel on his head; Fine argues that Marx was more a follower of Hegel than he himself knew; that Marx's Capital should be read with Hegel's Philosophy of Right, not as a correction to it.
Before apartheid in South Africa was defeated, Robert wrote, with Dennis Davis, a critique of apartheid, a sociology of the anti-apartheid movement and also a critique of some of the more nationalist politics of the ANC. It was a specifically socialist take on the liberation movement, some of whose warnings are turning out to have been prescient.
And before that he wrote a classic, from which students are still taught Marx, "Democracy and the rule of law". It is a critique of liberal theories and practices of law and of capitalist exploitation; but the critique is meticulous in maintaining consistent opposition to a contempt for liberty. Democracy is not a bourgeois fiction to be treated as an obstacle to liberation but a first draft of human liberty, to be improved.
Robert would have loved people who didn't know his work to still start reading it now. He would have loved it more if his work remains influential in practical politics; both in the struggle against the existing structures of material injustice but simultaneously in vigilance against those who relentlessly fail to fear tearing everything down, as if there is nothing in the contemporary world worth anything, and as though liberty can be built from nothing, later, simply by an effort of the will. This last insight illustrates his despair about Brexit and populism more generally. European Union, he was sure, should be nurtured, enhanced and improved, not smashed up in self-infantilizing anger.
I first met Bob when I joined the International-Communist League [a forerunner of Workers' Liberty] in the late 1970s. He and other anti-apartheid activists helped me set up the anti-apartheid group in Lanchester Polytechnic. We held regular demonstrations outside Barclays Bank. I later moved into his house as a lodger and would quite often, when getting up for my early shift on the post, find a South African exile sleeping on the living room floor.
The house was full of discussion, debate, analysis of everything under the sun and lots and lots of laughter. My memory is of many arguments about the Stalinists in the ANC and in anti-apartheid and I had a first early grounding in the importance of class from those discussions. Bob drove me crazy and surprised me in equal measure because he very rarely got angry whatever the topic, he would just try to reason why someone thought or did what they did. It took the wind out of your sails when you got all het up. I had never really met people like this before.
I marched with Bob in Lewisham and in Brick Lane against the fascists, and picketed Grunwicks with him too. He was that rare thing that you don't see much of nowadays, a very active academic. Reason in revolt. We lost touch over more recent years, but you didn't need to be seeing him all the time to know his worth. What a loss.
Karl Marx played with his family a parlour game in which people specified what their favourite colour was, who in history they admired, and so on. A document with Marx's answers has survived.
His heroes, he wrote, were Spartacus and Kepler. Spartacus, the leader of the great revolt against the slave-masters of Rome. And Johannes Kepler, who struggled for many years to make sense of a mass of astronomical observations, his own and other people's, and prove that the Earth went round the Sun and not the Sun around the Earth.
Science and the revolt of the most oppressed class. Knowledge, and the cause of the slaves of class society, the wage-slaves as well as the chattel slaves. Reason and the proletariat.
An awful lot of licensed intellectuals pass through the Marxist movement, mere visitors, for a short or a longer stay. It is a movement of ideas and theories as well as of class struggle, and ideas are their trade. They can easily juggle with ideas and systems, drop them and pick others up.
Bob Fine was no mere visitor. He joined the predecessor of AWL some 42 years ago. He took sides in the class struggle, and stayed. He chose his academic work to help fight the class struggle in the battle of ideas. He was no mere academic, but a militant committed to the working-class movement for as long as it takes, for as long a time as he had left.
Such people are rarer than they should be. There aren't all that many Bob Fines. He is a great loss to us. We will miss him. We honour his memory.
I first met Bob when he joined Socialist Organiser. Strangely, given our rather different personalities we became friends. When I become his PhD student he was generous with time, hospitality and most importantly his ideas. He was always stimulating to talk to and I always valued discussions with him.
Alas, we lost touch with each other for many years, until quite by chance we met again some 18 months ago, picking up where we had left off. However this time our conversations were dominated by antisemitism. Bob wrote many important books and while his work on antisemitism will be part of the foundation of the body of work arming us all against left antisemitism. For me his most important contribution was "Democracy and the Rule of Law", if for no other reason than it provides one of the best expositions of Marxism that one can find.
At the end of 1958, I found my first term at school oppressive, frightening and unstimulating. Then, a new chap joined our class, quiet at first but, one day, he said or did something that annoyed our form master, "Jack" Train, who threw a Greek Primer at this new arrival, Robert Fine. Slowly, Bob picked up the book and, to all our amazement, hurled it straight back to Jack who just did not know what to do about it. Suddenly, I had a hero who did not give in to others and he became my great friend and inspiration for 60 years and, as luck would have it, lived only 200 yards from me in Primrose Hill. We became a part of a larger group of friends at school: James Fry, David Morris, Graham Shane and others.
Robert and I liked the same things, shared similar interests and beliefs, went out with girls together and grew to love Jazz. I can reveal that in the midst of our attraction to Coltrane, Davis, Monk, Ellington, Hayes etc, Robert had a secret passion for Buck Clayton. So much so that, one Saturday, we saw the trumpeter at the 100 Club play with Big Joe Turner and the Humphrey Lyttleton Band. Afterwards, counting up what money we had, we rushed over to Ronnie Scott's Club to see Ben Webster's last set of the night, when in walked in Messrs Clayton and Turner (with ladies hanging onto each of their respective arms) and sat behind us. Webster invited the two to join in with him on the bandstand which Turner did but Clayton declined as he didn't have his instrument with him. Upon which, Robert turned round and immediately remonstrated with him -"Why not?" - another Jack Train moment! Clayton and Fine exchanging each other's wonderful respective smiles.
For all his academic greatness, his outstanding status as a Social Theorist of our times, for me he is a true and remarkable friend. The smile lives on.
For almost four decades Robert Fine had been the best-known "public intellectual" of the broad current of thinking on the left in which Workers' Liberty is the chief activist element.
Robert aligned himself with the radical left in the late 1960s, particularly, as I understand it, when he was a graduate student at Columbia University in New York in 1967-71, and active there in the movement against the Vietnam war.
Returning to Britain in 1973, he became a lecturer in sociology at Warwick University. He worked there until retirement, by which time he was a professor and head of department.
He joined a forerunner organisation of Workers' Liberty in the mid-late 1970s. In an obituary tribute a few years ago to the comrade who recruited him, Dave Spencer, Robert wrote: [Dave] "almost blew it when he told me, a keen if naive anti-Vietnam-war activist, that the Vietcong was a Stalinist outfit. After this stuttering start, we had many thoroughly enjoyable as well as politically rich meetings in Dave's front room with some wonderful comrades he brought together..."
In the 1990s Robert edged out of day-to-day political activity. We still sometimes met in campaigns, for example the campaign in 2005 in what was then the Association of University Teachers against boycotting Israel. We were successful then, though defeated on that issue in later years. When I visited him to discuss that campaign, we also talked about his work on Hannah Arendt.
Uncharacteristically for a university professor, on his university web page he offered no distancing from his activist years. "I was active in Socialist Organiser, Workers' Liberty, anti-apartheid and other radical and antiracist organisations".
He was struck down with the affliction which has now killed him only days before he was going to speak at our July 2017 summer school, Ideas for Freedom. The previous year he had spoken at our event to mark 50 years of our tendency, and written a reflective and appreciative review of our book "The Two Trotskyisms Confront Stalinism".
About the book's editor, Sean Matgamna, he wrote of: "a political life’s work as the most original, critical and humane Trotskyist thinker of his age...
"Perhaps no-one of our generation has done more than him to scratch beneath formulae like 'nationalism of the oppressed' and 'nationalism of the oppressor' (in Ireland, Palestine, Latin America, the former Soviet Union, etc.), to uncover the human meaning hidden within these terms, to reach out for human solutions to the social, democratic and national questions they raise".
As he found his feet in Trotskyist politics in the late 70s, Robert became a quiet but acute critical voice among us. In the run-up to the Lancaster Gate talks of 1979, through which Britain negotiated legal procedures for the dismantling of the "unilaterally independent" white settler regime in Zimbabwe and the coming to power of Robert Mugabe, I wrote an article which posed the issues in simplistic terms, as if the best measure of anything was how "anti-imperialist" it was.
Robert took the article apart, gently but devastatingly.
He came into his own as, piecemeal over the 1980s, we went through a "revaluation of political values".
Typical of his contributions are two articles in Workers' Liberty 14, of July 1990. He documents the Trotskyists' debates in the 1930s on Palestine, showing that what "appears to have become an orthodoxy in the 1980s" reflected the thinking of the Stalinists in the 1930s and, back then, only "a relatively marginal deformation of a small section of the Marxist movement".
He revealed the "poverty" of an "anti-Stalinism" which criticised Stalinism too shallowly, in terms of its accommodations to capitalism.
"Marxists - the revolutionary wing of socialism - have turned themselves either into the extreme left wing of Stalinism, pushing for a quicker and yet more radical turn to the left, or to the democratic wing of Stalinism, pushing for a more humane, softer version of the same... Such has been the source of the Stalinisation of Marxism far beyond the confines of Stalinism itself..."
Robert wrote a lot about South Africa, and contributed a lot to shaping our politics on the fight against apartheid. Warwick University had a special programme for students from South Africa, which he was heavily involved with.
The conventional Trotskisant critique of the Communist Party of South Africa, which then as now played a big role in the ANC, was that it relegated its "maximum" (nominally socialist) programme to an indefinite future stage after the realisation of its "minimum" (democratic) programme. Robert showed that from a working-class democratic point of view, the "maximum" (Stalinist, though nominally "socialist") programme was a greater evil than the "minimum".
The new young activists coming forward from the Corbyn surge can no longer hear Robert himself explain and dissect issues. They can and should read his books, notably: Democracy and the Rule of Law (1984, new edition 2002); Policing the Miners' Strike (1985), Beyond Apartheid (1990), and Antisemitism and the Left (2017).
It is really hard to summarise all I know about a dear friend I have known for over 40 years as there is so much to think about alongside being with the painful feelings of loss at his death on the morning of Saturday 9 June 2018, three hours before I was going to visit him in hospital. We met in the late 70’s and strongly connected over our opposition to Apartheid which led us to write a pamphlet together in 1982 for the Socialist Forum for Southern African Solidarity.
The title “A Question of Solidarity” captures well our shared interests in exploring the challenge of bringing about change in a turbulent world. The fact that Robert’s father came from South Africa no doubt contributed to his commitment to this cause just as his Jewish background will have played a role in his confronting anti-semitism.
Robert was a lively, creative and thoughtful man with a powerful intellectual ability to enter into exploring the difficult issues of democracy and dialogue. He wrote profusely, producing many articles and at least 7 books as well as being politically active. He brought a sense of curiosity to complex issues, having a detailed understanding of a range of keys authors like Hegel, Marx and Arendt as well as the ability to critique their ideas and expand on them. Alongside this he was also very physically active, enjoying swimming, going for long walks and most years going on skiing holidays some of which I enjoyed with him.
I have to thank Robert for letting me know of the Psychotherapy MSc at Warwick University in 1986 leading to my development as a Cognitive Analytic Psychotherapist. He put me up on a weekly basis when I attended the training days, and this meant I was also very fortunate to see the early years of his lovely daughter Shoshana, who was born in 1986.
While Robert was engaging and enjoyed debates over many issues, he did, like us all, have challenging moments which probably contributed to the fact that he had several relationships. A recent example of his challenging side was a time when I visited him in hospital and he admonished me for making jokes, telling me to stop it.
I would like to finish with a quote from Robert’s book “Being Stalked” which I have just started reading and which I felt captured well his awareness of the complexities of being human:
“I am a socialist and should like to think that my socialism – though less active than it used to be, less wedded to any ‘ism’, even that of the social, and less sure that those who are injured in life will not simply injure back – is still able to recognise that social relations are not fixed and that the debilitating consequences of class inequality are not an inescapable part of the human condition.
"The fact that deprivation and a legitimate sense of injustice may sometimes lead to madness and malice rather than to enlightenment and emancipation, and the fact that socialists may not live up to their principles, seem to me to be no reason to abandon the house of socialism. Rather I should like to open it up to real human beings.” (Pg 8 Being Stalked: A Memoir Chattus & Windus 1997)
Writings on this website
It's a classic. I can't think of any other book like it. Necessary Marxist reading. RIP, comrade.