Peter Cadogan, who has died aged 86, returned to civilian life after the second world war determined to bring about radical change in Britain. He spent the next 50 years on a long quest of resistance to global injustices, bringing impassioned dissent to campaigns against nuclear weapons and the Biafran war before moving on to explore ideals of democracy.
Cadogan was in the tradition of English radicalism dating back to 17th-century movements such as the Levellers, but in his later years he identified himself most closely with the Gnostics, “the arch-rebels of Christian society from the 2nd to the 4th century” as he termed them, whose spirit and understanding he detected in later individuals and movements, most notably William Blake.
Born into a middle-class family in Newcastle upon Tyne, where his father was employed by a shipping company, he was educated at the King’s school in Tynemouth during the 1930s depression. After working as an insurance clerk, he joined RAF Air Sea Rescue in 1941. Demobbed in 1946, he joined the Communist party, drawing inspiration from its historians’ group, which included Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm and Edward (EP) Thompson. But he found the CP’s authoritarian style, and uncritical support of the Soviet Union, hard to stomach. He was suspended from the party for publicly criticising it in 1956 for its failure to denounce the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolution, and he then joined the Labour party. Meanwhile, he had studied history at Newcastle University, married Joyce Stones in 1949 and taken up teaching posts in Northampton and Cambridge.
Influenced by Trotskyist ideas, he took part in the 1959 founding conference of the Socialist Labour League (later to become the Workers Revolutionary Party) under the leadership of Gerry Healy. He was expelled from the Labour party when it added the SLL to its list of proscribed organisations in 1959, and expelled in turn from the SLL, whose leadership style he found to be no different from that of the CP. In 1960 he joined the editorial board of the Trotskyist publication International Socialism and contributed subsequently to its more populist paper Labour Worker – which, as Socialist Worker, is still extant as the paper of IS’s successor, the Socialist Workers Party – only to be expelled too from that group.
“So it was,” he stated in a 2001 interview, “that I qualified at the time as England’s most expelled socialist.” It could indeed be said of him, to improvise on Groucho Marx’s theme, that he never joined a party that was not willing to expel him from its membership.
After 1960 he found his home in the milieu of the direct action movement against nuclear weapons. Already in the summer of 1958 he had organised a demonstration by the Cambridge, Ely and Huntingdon Labour parties against the US Thor nuclear missile base at Mepal, near Ely. When the Committee of 100, committed to civil disobedience against nuclear weapons, was launched by Bertrand Russell and the Rev Michael Scott, Peter joined in its first demonstration in 1961, a sit-down outside the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall. He set up the East Anglian Committee of 100 in late 1961 and was centrally involved with the national committee from 1962 until its demise in 1968.
Peter’s style could be abrasive, delivering often controversial judgments in terse clipped phrases that appeared to brook no dissent. But he bore no grudges against those who disagreed with him and periodically reviewed his position – stating his new convictions with equal vigour.
He was no less courageous in acting on his beliefs. I have an abiding image of him, in December 1961, striding at the head of some 200 demonstrators to sit down outside the gates of the US base at Wethersfield in Essex, despite a warning by the then Conservative attorney general, Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller, of possible prosecution under the Official Secrets Act. In 1962 he was one of the organisers of a Committee of 100 demonstration against Soviet nuclear weapons in Red Square during one of Moscow’s peace jamborees, to which the committee had been invited. In 1968, during the Nigerian civil war he set up the Save Biafra Campaign and described later flying from Lisbon in a plane so overloaded with ammunition and crates of whisky that it had difficulty taking off. Though a champion of nonviolent direct action, he was never a pacifist.
From 1970 until 1981, when he lost a vote of confidence, he was chairman of Bloomsbury’s South Place Ethical Society. In June 1975 he refused, on the grounds of his belief in freedom of speech, to cancel an arrangement for the National Front to hold a meeting in the society’s Conway Hall premises. This was despite intense pressure from leftwing organisations and Peter’s abhorrence of the NF.
In 1987 he concluded that his focus had to move from protest towards positive alternatives. He devoted more and more time to thinking and writing about direct democracy and on building alliances of people at the grassroots, outside parties. His writings include a book on Direct Democracy (1974), and numerous pamphlets, monographs and contributions to newspapers and journals. From 1981 until 1983 he was a tutor in the history of ideas for the extra-mural department of London University (later part of Birkbeck College). He was a founder of New Consensus/New Dialogue in 1990, co-founder of Values and Vision, 1991, and chairman from 1998 of the London Alliance for Local Democracy. He was active with the Blake society – of which he had been chairman and president – up to his death.
During his last few days, the actor Roger Lloyd Pack went to see him in hospital and read him a number of Blake poems, including Holy Thursday, The Garden of Love, and London. Peter had seemed to be in a coma and had not spoken for some time, but as Roger was reading he opened his eyes and struggled to sit up. Almost at the point of death, Blake’s lines of passionate indignation and joyous affirmation could still inspire and arouse him.*
His marriage ended in divorce in 1968. He is survived by his daughter Claire, granddaughter Laura and brother Jack.
· Peter Cadogan, campaigner, born January 26 1921: died November 18 2007
* First published in The Guardian.