Tom Behan, who died on Monday of last week, made a lasting contribution to the left in two countries and in two languages. Born in London he was most at home in his adopted Italy, above all in his beloved Naples.
Here in Britain Tom was a quiet man, quite private but steadfast in his revolutionary beliefs. Transported to Italy Tom was transformed, hands flying as he spoke and speaking in a strong Neapolitan accent. As he himself joked, for Italians it must have been like meeting some obviously English looking man who, when he opened his mouth spoke with the equivalent of a strong Scouse accent.
Tom’s parents were Irish and growing up in west London he never lost the sense of being a rebel. The 1970s were difficult years if you were Irish in Britain and Special Branch raided the family home.
The reality of state repression in the north of Ireland and the media lies spun about it meant Tom could never accept anything without questioning it. His search for the truth about Ireland brought him to Socialist Worker. After reading the newspaper he joined the SWP’s Hammersmith branch a week after the police killing of Blair Peach in April 1979.
The following year Tom was part of the Right to Work march to the Tory Party conference and was given the job of editing the daily march bulletin, which he did with elan.
Having met a young Italian member of the SWP, Magda Foresti, he went with her when she took a job in Naples. This meant moving to the city with the highest unemployment and worst poverty in western Europe.
Naples shaped Tom in many ways. Shortly after he arrived he experienced the massive earthquake that devastated the city in 1980. That was frightening. But the fact that the aid that flowed in was diverted to organised crime and their client politicians was an eyeopener for Tom.
That anger at the deep collusion between the Neapolitan mafia, the Camorra, and the established parties and the state never left him.
More puzzling was the evident suspicion he met from the left in Naples. It took time for him to grasp that this was because he was a Trotskyist. The Italian far left, the strongest in Europe, had shattered in the mid-1970s and was a shadow of its former self, but it was largely Maoist in outlook.
It also faced an autonomist current, hostile to all parties, and pulled towards the Red Brigades, which were conducting an armed struggle against the Italian state.
The young west Londoner found himself on demonstrations where it was normal for someone to produce an automatic and to let off a volley of shots at the cops or a bank.
His frustration with the Italian left never disappeared. His love of Italy was of country of old resistance fighters, anti-mafia campaigners, those fighting for migrants' rights—those of that “other Italy” that had fought Benito Mussolini and resist the likes of Silvio Berlusconi.
Tom learnt Italian and loved his three years in Naples. But he told me one of the greatest things he learnt was how much he appreciated the SWP. In 1983 he returned to Britain to go to university in Reading and then to begin looking for an academic job in Italian studies.
That was to involve moving to Melbourne where he was a member of the SWP sister organisation, the International Socialist Organisation, and then Glasgow (so like Naples he told me but yet so different) before finally securing a post at the University of Kent where he later became a senior lecturer.
He made the most impact in the first decade of the new century. Beginning with the huge protests at the 2001 G8 summit in Genoa, Italy was at the centre of the global anti-capitalist and anti-war movement.
In Genoa Tom provided translation, advice and calmness as the city exploded and the cops rioted, killing a young protester, Carlo Giuliani. That night Tom translated at a dockside meeting where thousands decided on our response. Tom was central to the debates.
In Britain he helped make sense of Italian politics and ensured the British anti-capitalist movement made deep links with its Italian counterpart. Tom helped arrange for visits by key figures such as Fausto Bertinotti, leader of the main radical left party Rifondazione Comunista.
In 2002 Tom was part of the major British presence at the first European Social Forum in Florence, which issued the call for the February 2003 global demonstration against the invasion of Iraq.
At its end a million and a half people marched through the city. Tom was excited and moved. Up until 2005 the movement in Italy was on the rise but ultimately it failed to topple the right wing government of Berlusconi. That year both of us attended the congress of Rifondazione where Bertinotti succeeded in winning the party to entering a pact with the centre left, which meant a huge retreat rightwards.
Tom was always suspicious of the functionaries who dominated too much of Rifondazione’s internal life and could not resist telling all and sundry, “I told you so.”
After the left was elected he watched with horror as it presided over a disastrous term promoting neoliberal policies and as Rifondazione ceased to operate as an independent force. The result was a catastrophe, which saw Berlusconi return to office and the left shattered.
Once again he found much to be appreciated in the SWP and was an active member in Kent where he spent hours talking and developing a young and growing membership. Personally too he found lasting happiness with his partner, Barbara Rampoldi.
Tom was not a natural “party man”. He was too much of a rebel for that. But he was unflinching in his revolutionary beliefs and he often said that his intimate knowledge of the Italian left fortified him in his belief that a party like the SWP was vital.
Hw was not a natural academic either. Like many from a working class background he never felt fully accepted. The reality of university life in Italy (which protruded into Italian studies elsewhere) meant it was who you know that counted for more than what you wrote or delivered.
Nevertheless Tom produced a formidable number of books, particularly in his last decade. These included:
- The Italian Resistance. Fascists, Guerrillas and the Allies
- Defiance: The Untold Story of One Man Who Stood Up To The Sicilian Mafia
- The Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini
- See Naples and Die. The Camorra and Organised Crime
- Dario Fo: Revolutionary History
- The Long Awaited Moment. The Working Class and the Italian Communist Party in Milan, 1943-1948
- The Camorra
To his great pleasure See Naples and Die was also published in both Italy and France.
Most recently, his essay on the British Miners’ Strike, published in the Italian Journal Historia Magistra, gave Italian historians the first opportunity to read a comprehensive account of that struggle and appreciate its true scope and importance.
Tom had many more books in mind when illness finally stopped him working.
For nine months he fought cancer, though keeping that to himself and a small circle of friends. Just when we thought he’d won out it attacked with a vengeance and took Tom from us tragically young.
His partner Barbara was with him throughout providing support and loving care. A political figure in her own right, she will be cheated of moving to life in Italy as they had planned and hoped for.
Tom was a dear friend to myself and my partner Carmela and became a great success, to his surprise, as an “uncle” to our two sons.
When a conquering Roman emperor or general returned in triumph to the city there was a wee man whose job it was to whisper in his ear that the cheers would soon vanish.
Tom was no cynic. He was full of hope for revolutionary change, but he was very practical and down to earth and was always prepared to tell you what you did not want to hear.
Like many other friends and comrades in Britain, Australia and Italy I will miss him, will cherish fond memories, enjoy his books and miss swimming in Whitstable under the disapproving gaze of our Italian partners.
Tom Bramble, Australia
'I first met Tom Behan when he arrived in Melbourne in 1992 to teach Italian studies at La Trobe University where I was teaching and finishing my Phd at the time. I was immediately struck by his warm and friendly nature and also his evident intellectual and political talent.
Tom's major early contribution to what was to become a series of studies ruthlessly exposing the links between organised crime, business and the capitalist state in Italy was his book on the Camorra published in 1996 and written while he was in Melbourne.
Tom joined the International Socialist Organisation on arrival and was active in the university staff union in the days when the neoliberal agenda to wreck the university system was first unfolding.
It was sad to see Tom leave Melbourne for Glasgow after only two years in Australia, but his contribution to revolutionary socialism continued in the years that followed. It is only appropriate that on his last visit to Australia in 1998, Tom could be found on the picket line at Port Botany in Sydney after 1,400 dockers were sacked and replaced by scabs in a famous industrial dispute.'
Andrew Smith, South East London
I was shocked when I read that Tom Behan had died after a protracted battle with cancer. The obituary in Socialist Worker confirms that Tom was one of the unsung heroes of the revolutionary left.
Tom’s writing and involvement made an outstanding contribution to our cultural and political understanding of the modern Italian state and enabled us to build a relationship with the new left.
I came across him when he translated some of the Dario Fo plays that were performed at Marxism. Although I hardly knew him he always greeted me and urged me to get along to his meetings that rewarded me with his clear historical analysis alongside his penetrating insight into Italian working class life.
Chris Bambery in a poignant and personal tribute catches the roundedness and humanity of a comrade who will be truly missed by those close to him and also by those of us who recognise and treasure the unassuming but far from modest way in which he enhanced the revolutionary tradition.
Helen Rogers, Manchester
I was shocked and saddened to read that Tom Behan has died.
I know Tom because I was a student at the University of Kent when he first took up his post there.
To be honest, Tom used to get on my wick because he was always nagging me to do things that I didn’t want to do—like picking up the Socialist Workers from the train station.
I met a number of Tom’s students. They all spoke about him with great admiration.
I’m sure that Tom’s lectures were the ones that they looked forward to the most.
Although I hadn’t spoken to Tom for years, I know that he will be missed.
It is not only a sad loss for Tom’s friends and family and the Socialist Workers Party, but also for the University of Kent.
Having just read Tom's obit in The Times Higher I am still in a state of shock.
I knew Tom at Reading University where he led the Socialist Worker Student Organisation. We had some fabulous challenging discussions in the era of Maggie Thatcher and Norman Tebbit et al.
Occasionally I wondered what happened to him and suspected he would end up perusing an academic career. His work sounds amazing and will seek out some of his books.