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Sean Feeny: A Tribute



Sean Feeny, who died on 11 January 2024, was born on 8 November 1952 at Bromley in Kent. His father Max was a barrister engaged mainly on crime prosecution and licensing work; his mother June (née Camplin) had a B. Comm. in Sociology from Birmingham University, where she and Max first met.

 

When Sean was one year old, the family moved to Birkenhead and here, over the next twelve years, six more children were born: four girls and two boys. By the time Miranda, the youngest member of the family, arrived, Sean was already in secondary school. After taking A-levels at Birkenhead Technical College, he did a one-year foundation course at Laird School of Art before going to Trent Polytechnic (as it then was) to study Fine Arts. In his final year, he was elected to the executive committee of the Students' Union, and after completing his BA degree served for the next twelve months as student liaison officer. His involvement in student politics led him to join the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), of which he remained an active member until, following the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the dissolution of the USSR, the party voted to disband in 1991.

 

In 1976, Sean began a postgraduate course in publishing at the University of Essex. Two years later, having obtained his MA, he got his brother Mark to drive him and his belongings all the way from Colchester to Glasgow, where he settled down and became an adoptive Glaswegian, joining the Partick branch of the party and standing as a Communist candidate in both local and regional council elections during the 1980s. He subsequently moved to the south side of the city and started working as a graphic designer for Hampden Advertising Ltd, but when the owner died of cancer at a young age, he agreed to take over as director in order to save the business and the jobs of its employees. For some years, the owner's widow was, in effect, a sleeping partner until Sean was able to buy her out. Under his management, Hampdenad became the go-to printer for the labour and trade union movement, and in the early 2000s, moved to new premises at 70, Stanley Street, which had previously been the headquarters of the Scottish Socialist Party.

 

As an enthusiast for all things Italian, from the art of Piranesi and the Fiat Cinquecento to Gramsci's Prison Notebooks and the PCI (Partito Comunista Italiano), Sean became involved in the internecine conflict over the party's soul (and assets) between Eurocommunists and “Tankies” (traditional pro-Soviet Marxist-Leninists) that marked the party's final years. Accordingly, when the CPGB disbanded in 1991, he became a founding member of Democratic Left Scotland (DLS), the Scottish section of a UK-wide organisation that was neither a party nor a think-tank, but a network open to members of all parties and none.

 

The decision to adopt this loose organisational form signified a repudiation of 'class politics', whether in its 'Labourist' or Leninist mould. The positive mission of Democratic Left was to salvage whatever was worth preserving from the wreckage of twentieth-century socialism and to work for a coalescence of the socialist, feminist and green traditions of political thought and action. This was a project that had already made headway over the previous twenty years and might, it was hoped, eventually engender a new political formation. When DLS became independent of its UK parent-body in 1999 following the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament, it re-affirmed these general principles.

 

In 2002, DLS launched a quarterly magazine entitled Perspectives, with Sean as editor and Hampdenad as publisher. The title of the magazine was intended to encapsulate its purpose. Survivors of twentieth-century communism were only too conscious of the historical baggage they carried. Their predicament resembled that of thoughtful Christians in the decades after Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, struggling to reconcile the claims of religion with the evidence of science: they knew what they no longer believed, but were unsure what new stars to follow. The only certainty was that no single thinker, organisation or school of thought had a monopoly of wisdom and truth. It seemed best, therefore, to follow the advice of the English liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill and try to combine the partial truths and insights offered by diverse, or even divergent, world-views and theories, in the hope that each would correct the omissions, limitations and biases of the others.

 

Perspectives enjoyed modest success. Between 2002 and 2016, the trio responsible for producing it – Sean, Davie Laing and me – brought out 42 issues, an average of three a year. The magazine, which was modelled on the CP's monthly journal Marxism Today (1980s vintage), was always professionally produced, with smart, eye-catching covers and a layout that was easy on the eye. By around issue 20, we had expanded from 20-25 pages per issue to 30-40. Articles and reviews were generally thought-provoking and well-written, with guest-writers on the diary column and Tim Haigh's satirical pieces providing light relief from the more heavyweight, cerebral matter; we gradually moved from having to beg for copy to being offered it without asking; and we secured contributions from some of Scotland's leading intellectuals: Tom Nairn, James Robertson, James Mitchell, Michael Keating, Gerry Hassan, Lesley Riddoch and Alf Young.

 

The magazine's chief weakness was its failure to achieve a circulation commensurate with its quality. There were also unavoidable, but unfortunate production delays as Sean strove to edit and print Perspectives at the same time as running a business. Thanks to these problems, the revenue from subscriptions and sales never covered production costs and the magazine continued to be subsidised by DLS. The last issue appeared six weeks before the Brexit referendum in June 2016. After a gap of two years, Perspectives briefly returned to life as an on-line publication, but fell into abeyance during the Covid-19 pandemic. For the benefit of posterity, however, Sean deposited a complete run of the printed magazine in the National Library of Scotland (PDFs of Perspectives are also downloadable from this website's archive page).

 

Sean was a quiet, reserved man. But behind an unassuming exterior and not worn on his sleeve, beat a large and passionate heart. With his Irish heritage he might have winced at the comparison, but what Oliver Cromwell said of his soldiers was true of Sean: he knew what he loved, and he loved what he knew. If he was meticulous in his professional life, it was because, like William Morris, he drew a distinction between useful work and useless toil and aspired to an egalitarian, post-capitalist world in which, instead of working in order to live, people would live in order to work. He was a strict vegetarian and a discriminating aesthete: the immaculate flats he shared with his partner Joyce, first on Shields Road and later at Sutherland Close, were veritable galleries of modern art; and his sound system was the best that money could buy. His musical tastes ranged from punk-rock to Wagner's Ring Cycle, and when he finally retired, having sold Hampdenad as a going concern, he took up the piano and had already progressed to the easier works of Bach before Covid-19 and the need to care for Joyce in the last two years of her life forced him to stop having lessons. Sadly, in nursing and supporting her, he may have neglected his own health, for only weeks after her death last September, he was diagnosed with the bowel cancer that was to kill him three months later: a tragic end to a life well-lived.

 

David Purdy

 

I wish to thank Miranda Ryan and Stuart Fairweather for their help in writing this tribute.

 

 

High Jinks at King Street, by Douglas Chalmers

 

I first met Sean when I was elected onto the General Council of the YCL, becoming its National Organiser in 1981. At that time, Sean was the editor of the YCL's magazine Challenge, and had set about pulling it out of the doldrums and turning it into a really interesting publication. (Incidentally, copies of Challenge that he edited are available in the archives of Glasgow Caledonian University).

 

I was a bit in awe of Sean, as he'd been to Essex University and not only mixed academic knowledge with a grounding in youth culture, but was featuring both in the magazine at a time when punk-music was the sound track of youth rebellion.

 

The YCL offices were at the top of the old and historic CP headquarters in King Street, Covent Garden, and I remember one really sunny summer's afternoon, when someone suggested to the hard-working YCL officers – no, I won't say it was 'necessarily' Sean … though it might have been – that there was a way up on to the roof where, being rebellious youth, we could all sunbathe, without the CP grandees knowing that we were skiving from the cause of world revolution, at least for an afternoon.

 

So we found a ladder and went up through the skylight, which was near the YCL rooms at the top of the building. Unfortunately, once we were up there, someone – again I'm not particularly suggesting it was Sean – managed to let the hatch which led back down, close on itself and lock, leaving us stranded on the roof, unable to communicate with the occupants of the floors below, all of whom, no doubt, were engaged in serious revolutionary activity.

 

We couldn't, of course, summon help from passers-by in the busy Covent Garden streets: that would bring the party into disrepute. So – and this was Sean's idea – we had to catch the attention of the party officials below. It was no use shouting, so at his suggestion, the young men took off their shirts, tied them together and waved them in front of the nearest CP office window at the back of the building. That, unfortunately,  happened to be the office of the party's General Secretary, Gordon MacLennan, a man not known for his sense of humour, who soon noticed that something was amiss as a motley selection of knotted shirts danced into view.

 

I can still remember us, sheepishly climbing down the ladder, the hatch having been opened from below, and Gordon MacLennan's comment to Sean: “Well, perhaps that shouldn't feature on the front cover of the next issue of Challenge.”

 

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