Colin Barker obituary

Other lives: Advocate of solidarity and resistance in pursuit of a socialist society

In 1965 a labour sociologist arrived in Manchester, fresh from Oxford University, to conduct an ethnography of the lives of the mainly female workers in an engineering factory. Convivial and unpretentious, and an accomplished cook too, Colin Barker was “adopted” by the women amid huge amusement. When he left, one of them wrote him a letter saying they “missed him and his little dumplings”. He kept it pinned on his wall for years.

My friend Colin, who has died aged 79, was an academic, Marxist intellectual and activist. A creative thinker who delighted in questioning received orthodoxies, he published a series of books on social movement theory and popular democratic uprisings, including Revolutionary Rehearsals (1987) and Festival of the Oppressed: Solidarity, Reform and Revolution in Poland, 1980-81 (1995). He also set up, with Mike Tyldesley, the Alternative Futures and Popular Protest conference at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) in 1995; it is now in its 24th year.

Born in Ilford, Essex (now in Redbridge, east London), to Edith (nee Veitch), a housewife, and her husband, Fred Barker, a glass designer, Colin was educated at Bancroft’s independent school, Woodford Green, thanks to a local authority scholarship. At Pembroke College, Oxford, he studied English, and a career in theatre beckoned, but activism in CND and the International Socialists (IS) fuelled his interest in social sciences: a postgraduate diploma in public and social administration at Oxford and an MA in sociology at Manchester University followed. His first lecturing position was at Manchester University (1965-67), then Manchester College of Commerce (now MMU), where he remained until retiring in 2002.

In the 1960s and 70s Colin’s syndicalist-tinged socialism and generous and joky personality, always encouraging solidarity and resistance, brought him into close rapport with “militant minorities” across a series of shopfloor struggles – including among construction and engineering workers in London and Manchester. A world-shaking year for Colin was 1968, not only for the labour and black power movements, but because it was then that he met Ewa Widowson, a physicist, teacher and jeweller, at an IS conference. Two years later they were married.

Colin’s socialist activism also led him and Ewa to support the Anti-Nazi League and the Solidarność (Solidarity) uprising of 1980-81 in Poland.

In 1997 he presided as benevolent godfather at the birth of the journal Historical Materialism, encouraging, advising and contributing an essay for the first issue. His final years were dedicated to building the organisation rs21 – revolutionary socialism in the 21st century: writing for its website, organising and speaking at events.

With his keen intellect and evergreen interest in the ideas of fellow activists and scholars, as well as his infectiously funny and warm personality, he inspired many devoted friends and comrades around the world, including myself.

He is survived by Ewa, their daughters, Hannah and Nancy, and his siblings, Linda and Martin.

Gareth Dale

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Millie McCulloch obituary
Other lives: Activist and special educational needs teacher who was a fierce advocate of child-centred learning

John McCulloch

19, Sep, 2021 @4:27 PM

Article image
Brenda Christie obituary
Other lives: Teacher and political activist with an adventurous spirit

Stuart Christie

18, Jul, 2019 @4:08 PM

Article image
Ken Weller obituary
Other Lives: Libertarian socialist who was a member of the direct action group Spies for Peace

Chris Spannos

18, Feb, 2021 @6:10 PM

Article image
Susanna Mitchell obituary
Other lives: Secretary and army wife who became a Cambridge academic and political activist

Rachel Douglas

03, Oct, 2021 @11:08 AM

Article image
Reg Chrimes obituary
Other lives: Long-serving Labour councillor and committed educationist

Mike Chrimes

04, Oct, 2021 @3:32 PM

Article image
Ruth Walter obituary
Anti-nuclear activist dedicated to exposing the government’s plans for nuclear war in the 60s

Natasha Walter

14, Feb, 2018 @6:30 PM

Article image
David McReynolds obituary
US peace campaigner who encouraged conscientious objection and desertion during the Vietnam war

Michael Randle

03, Oct, 2018 @5:31 PM

Article image
Ray Forrest obituary
Other lives: urban studies professor with a global reputation for his research on east Asian housing

Gill Perry

13, Feb, 2020 @3:14 PM

Article image
Iona McGregor obituary
Other lives: Author and teacher who was a pioneering gay rights activist in the 1970s

Marsaili Cameron

11, May, 2021 @5:01 PM

Article image
David Held obituary
Other lives: Influential political theorist known for his work on democracy and globalisation

Daniele Archibugi

15, Mar, 2019 @11:51 AM