Pete Smith, teacher and lifelong socialist, died on 8 January 2007 from alcohol related liver failure. Compassion, conviction and wit animated his life in equal measure.
As well as his classroom charisma Pete was also a massive influence in the staffroom; he combined a very powerful personality with the exceptional erudition of one who was extremely well read; moreover he was often hilariously funny. One ex-student unable to attend the funeral wrote movingly of Pete's pivotal role in steering him away from prison to a more productive future. Others have remarked about the thousands of young people who benefited tremendously from his teaching. The students he taught in his prime remember him fondly, many remember him as the best teacher they ever had.
Pete had reached his white-collar professional status from a humble working class, Irish-Catholic background in West London. He had taken his A-levels in Kingston College and gone on to complete a BSc (Econ) degree at the London School of Economics. He later added an MSc from Birkbeck College. In between these two qualifications he went back to Kingston College in the 70s as a lecturer and remained there until ill health forced him into retirement in 2006.
In terms of politics, Pete, like the rest of us at that time, saw Thatcherism as a short-lived political phenomenon, and had faith that a social-democratic Labour party would soon be returned to power. To this end he was active both as a councillor in Hounslow from 1982-1990 and luminary in local government and CLP politics. He was selected to stand as the Labour candidate for Kingston in the 1983 election. This was not a good time to stand as a Labour MP anywhere let alone a Tory stronghold. In the ensuing khaki election Kingston CLP lost its deposit. Prior to this Pete had spent his political youth and formative years on the far left in the International Socialists (IS), forerunner to the Socialists Workers' Party.
From the period of the late 1980s until his death Pete had been an active editorial board member of Chartist. He wrote numerous articles and sold vast numbers of copies of each issue to Labour and trade union associates in the west London area. An eloquent public speaker and polemicist he could demolish an opposing view with intellectual finesse and wit.
His enormous range of interests mirrored his encyclopaedic knowledge of politics and history. One issue would find him writing a sympathetic critique of New Labour's 'law and order' policies while another would find him dissecting the politics of Harry Potter. As his initial enthusiasm for Tony Blair's first government began to fade his cultural political writing became more prominent. Be it the cult of celebrity epitomised by Big Brother or the perils of consumer capitalism he sought, in a lucid, jargon-free style, to uncover the nature of the ties that bound people to an exploitative system.
His love of science fiction and Philip K Dick in particular, helped inform his insights into our post-modern world. He was passionate about Jack Finney's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, having seen all four film versions several times over. He saw the idea of an alien occupation of human bodies while they slept as an allegory for the plight of the Labour Party.
For the last few years he had fought an ultimately losing battle with alcohol, which took an increasingly heavy toll on his health. But for all of this his mind remained (until the very last period) as sharp as ever. Being an intellectual eclectic Pete drew on sources as diverse as Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Eduard Bernstein, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, back to St Thomas Aquinas and Herodotus and on to Richard Sennett and Anthony Crosland today.
Pete was, in short, a total maverick; a first class mind, full of life, never took himself too seriously; intellectual, yet populist without any airs and graces; street-wise and book-wise. He was a rare man of independent mind and independent spirit; above all he was a close and long-standing friend. He is survived by his partner for over 20 years Fran Wylde, our website manager.
Mike Davis and Frank Lee
Read a selection Pete's writing here