Last week, like many others on the Left, we were shocked and saddened to hear that the longstanding socialist activist and historian Matthew Caygill had unexpectedly passed away.
Matthew was committed to helping students and young workers think through ideas—particularly the ideas of socialism—and was a much-loved, inspiring, generous and dedicated lecturer in history and politics at what is now Leeds Beckett University, where he was vice chair of the UCU union branch and regularly organised annual student trips to Berlin.
Born in Barton upon Humber in Lincolnshire, Matthew joined the Socialist Workers Party in Leeds in 1977 as a postgraduate student after getting involved in the Southern Africa Solidarity Campaign. This had been initiated by the SWP in response to the Soweto uprising to help build the wider anti-apartheid movement.
During the 1980s, while working as a lecturer, Matthew played a leading role in Leeds SWP and was notable as an engaging public speaker. He was renowned for the time he took with young people, particularly students, in their political development. He would spend hours talking, listening, suggesting material to read and of course challenging their ideas. Throughout the 1980s, and especially after the miners’ strike, Matthew was instrumental in helping turn a generation of Leeds students into revolutionary Marxists.
During the 1990s Matthew drifted out of party activism and—after disagreement with the party’s analysis of globalisation—also membership of the organisation. But he always remained something of a critical “fellow traveller”, ever passionate about arguing and debating socialist politics as well as supporting the anti-racist, anti-capitalist and anti-war movements of recent years.
As a very cultured and extremely well-read Marxist thinker, Matthew helped edit Historical Materialism journal for a period, and played a leading role in shaping local political, cultural and historical groups in Leeds like Taking Soundings and the Ford-Maguire Society.
Matthew certainly took Marx’s motto “Doubt everything” to heart, but despite his general readiness to gently question what he saw as Leninist orthodoxies, he remained a friendly and jovial presence on the Left in Leeds.
He understood the importance of political organisation in the struggle for socialism, and commanded respect from a wide layer of people for the seriousness with which he took the project of building a socialist alternative to New Labour in initiatives like the Socialist Alliance and lately Left Unity.
A great lover of cinema, opera and the theatre, in recent years, Matthew had begun research on the 1960s counter-culture and New Left, and it is to be hoped that at least some of this might be published posthumously in some form.
His death is a very sad loss, particularly as his commitment to always trying to build unity on the left against racism and austerity will be so important in the coming period ahead.
Despite occasionaldifferences, Matthew remained a dear comrade, mentor and great friend to many of us in the SWP.
He will long be fondly remembered for his dedication to education, his personal kindness and generosity, and for making a tremendous contribution to the local socialist movement in Leeds in many forms over very many years. Leeds SWP send our condolences to Matthew’s partner Juliet, and his family, friends and comrades.