Peter Cadogan: Peace campaigner and political activist described as 'the most expelled socialist in England'

Peter Cadogan, historian, political activist and peace campaigner: born Newcastle upon Tyne 26 January 1921, Secretary, National Committee of 100 1965-68; Founding Secretary, Save Biafra Campaign 1968-70; General Secretary, South Place Ethical Society 1970-81; Tutor in Adult Education, Birkbeck College, London University, and WEA 1981-93; Chairman, Blake Society 1988-94; Secretary, Northern Ireland Project, Gandhi Foundation 1988-2001; married 1949 Joyce Stones (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1969); died London 18 November 2007

Peter Cadogan, who campaigned effectively on many fronts for peace, justice and human rights, was once called "the most expelled socialist in England". He was Secretary of the Committee of 100 under Bertrand Russell, General Secretary of the South Place Ethical Society at Conway Hall and one of the first contributors to International Socialism. William Blake, Gandhi and the moral philosopher John Macmurray were his most important influences.

Cadogan was born in 1921 in Newcastle upon Tyne, where he witnessed the poverty and humiliation of workers during the Depression. The images of war veterans and unemployed miners begging on street corners stayed with him all his life. After working briefly as an insurance clerk, he went on to serve in the Air Sea Rescue Service from 1941 to 1946. Desperate attempts to save lives were separated by long periods of inactivity in which he read Shaw, Wells, Macmurray, Laski and, most importantly, Lenin's State and Revolution. Although he realised later that this "was a lethal confidence-trick of a book", he confessed that he "had been completely taken in by it".

On demobilisation, Cadogan immediately joined the Communist Party to which he gave 10 devoted years, thrilling to the ideas buzzing around the Historians Group of Christopher Hill, E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm and others. In the meantime, he studied history at Newcastle University, married, had a daughter, and moved to Northampton then Cambridge, where he taught history in secondary modern schools.

In 1956, Khrushchev's demolition of Stalin came as a blow and, when the Soviet Union invaded Hungary, Cadogan's sharp criticisms found their way into the national press. He was suspended from the Communist Party and then quit, quickly joining Labour.

He organised for the Labour Party, in 1958, the first nuclear-base demonstration in Britain, at the Thor missile base at Mepal, near Ely in Cambridgeshire. Still a liberal Marxist, he was recruited by Gerry Healy in time to become a founder member of the Socialist Labour League (SLL) in 1959. This later became the Workers Revolutionary Party. The Cambridge Labour Party was obliged to expel him, although they did so grudgingly only to readmit him shortly after, a decision that Labour Party HQ disagreed with. Cadogan was summoned to a special meeting in the House of Commons to be formally and finally cast out.

Soon discovering that the SLL was just as dogmatic as the CP, Cadogan formed the "Stamford faction" with Peter Fryer and Ken Coates and led the first serious split from within. Healy expelled the lot. He was then recruited by the "Luxemburgist" Tony Cliff, joined the editorial board of International Socialism and wrote a feature for the first issue in 1960. Later that year the Socialist Worker was born. Cadogan's belief in the freedom of speech soon led Cliff to eject him. It was then that he became known as England's most expelled socialist. Not an achievement, he stressed, but an invaluable learning experience about the tyranny of the ego.

In 1960, when Bertrand Russell proposed non-violent civil disobedience against nuclear weapons, Cadogan joined his Committee of 100; their campaign climaxed in September 1961 with a vast but banned demonstration in Trafalgar Square. Early in 1962, Russell sent Cadogan and others to the World Peace Council in Moscow where they "staged a free, unlicensed demonstration in Red Square against all bombs including those of the Soviet Union," Cadogan recalled. "The police moved in immediately. It was the first free demo in that square since the 1920s and made world headlines."

In May 1969, Cadogan set up the "Save Biafra Campaign" within days of the war starting, and campaigned vigorously for 18 months. Cadogan went out to Biafra, broadcast on Biafra Radio and was asked to appear on television but on the evening planned for the broadcast, the Nigerian army attacked and the whole population took to the road in the middle of the night. "I was offered a lift by the Brigadier in command of Biafra's Medical Corps. I may well owe him my life." The day he arrived back was the day the Russians crushed the Prague Spring. "We packed and blocked the street in front of the Soviet Embassy".

From 1970 to 1981, Cadogan was the General Secretary of the South Place Ethical Society at Conway Hall, known as London's "temple of dissent". He saw his main task as defending "the rational religious sentiment", the sense of the sacred, and to this end conducted over 50 weddings and funerals. In 1975 he wrote the pamphlet Direct Democracy: an appeal to the professional classes, to the politically disenchanted and to the deprived: the case for an England of sovereign regional regional republics, extra-parliamentary democracy and a new active non-violence of the centre, modelling his title on the Levellers and integrating his "revelatory discovery" of William Blake and Friedrich Nietzsche. In it, he advocated the idea of the gift economy. This led to him co-founding the group Turning Point with the economist James Robertson which ran for over 25 years.

From 1981 until his retirement in 1993 Cadogan was Tutor in the History of Ideas in the Extra-Mural Department of London University (later Birkbeck College) and at the WEA (Workers' Educational Association). By 1987, he had become disillusioned with all forms of protest and put his energies into what he called positive and practical solutions. From 1993, he worked for the Gandhi Foundation, leading their project in Northern Ireland. He set up the organisations "Values and Vision" and "Save London Alliance" in his home on the basis of his conviction that authentic national democracy can only emerge from local democracies. He became well known in Kilburn for saving a local park, for getting Christmas lights on the High Road, for his letters to the press and for his garden. Local kids called him "Mr Peter".

In the 1990s Cadogan became a subject of great interest to historians, pre-eminent among them Professor Kevin Morgan, Professor of Politics and Contemporary History at Manchester University, who interviewed him in depth, including for the National Sound Archive.

During 65 years of radical activism, Cadogan was never afraid to speak his mind, to question his own and other people's thinking. This could seem at first to be intolerance, even arrogance. In fact, it was no more than his passion for accuracy and clear thinking in the overall pursuit of justice.

Cadogan had co-founded the Blake Society in 1985, and was its president for four years before becoming life vice-president. So it was appropriate that his last days fell during the month of Blake's 250th anniversary. He quoted Blake's poems to those around his hospital bed and told us that Plate 99 of the Jerusalem series, with its message of universal reconciliation, "said it all". His dying words were Blake's moral imperative, "Live differently".

John Rowley