Obituary: Nina Fishman, 1946-2010

Written By: Tribune web editor
Published: January 28, 2010 Last modified: January 28, 2010

The death of Professor Nina Fishman who has died of cancer at the age of 63 has robbed the political left and academe of an outstanding social historian. Her special field was labour and trade union history, but her exceptional abilities as a teacher, lecturer and writer were spread across a wide area of labour history encompassing the British (and European) trade union movement, the Labour Party and the British Communist Party.

All this was combined within a vivaciously open personality that inspired generations of young – and older – students providing them with a background of historic awareness about the achievements – and errors – of Britain’s labour history unmatched among her university contemporaries.

It is a cruel fate that she died at the very moment when her qualities were about to be more widely appreciated by the publication of her monumental biography of the miners’ leader Arthur Horner, which she completed just before she died in December.

This book, to be published soon by Lawrence & Wishart, will come to rank as one of the classics of British labour and trade union history – a superb bequest to political posterity.

Nina Fishman grew up in the United States. She was born in San Francisco on March 26 1946, the daughter of Professor Leslie (Lazar) Fishman, a son of Jewish refugees from tsarist Russia who emigrated to Canada. Leslie’s family moved to California, where he graduated as an economist during the 1930s, when Franklin D Roosevelt was President, and joined the American Communist Party. He began teaching at Berkeley University in California, but was dismissed for his political views – despite having established a reputation as an outstanding, if unorthodox, academic economist. He was re-employed by Idaho State College and later at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where Nina attended the local high school.

In 1962, the family came to Britain – hounded from America by the McCarthy campaign. Leslie Fishman began lecturing at Cambridge then moved on to Warwick University and finally was appointed first chair of economics at Keele University. Nina, devoted to her father, followed his footsteps – albeit not as a member of the Communist Party. She studied economics at Sussex University graduating in 1968 and,as a radical socialist, was already absorbed in trade union politics – often in practical form on various picket lines.

But she moved away from academic economics toward history and took a history degree at Birkbeck College where she got a first and came under the observant eye of Eric Hobsbawm who became her mentor. He persuaded her to write a doctoral thesis, which resulted in an outstanding work, The British Communist Party and the Trade Unions 1933-45. In fact, it was a friendly landmark critique of Communist Party orthodoxy. Nina argued for a reformist argument about the “coming revolution” – more in tune with Eduard Bernstein than Lenin or Stalin.

In 1980 Nina taught shop stewards at Harrow College of Higher Education where she met Phil McManus, later her husband, who was then a shop steward at the local Kodak factory. Her increasing interest focused on developing workers’ control along the lines of the German mitbestimmung system, while also becoming a firm supporter of electoral reform as well as the Campaign for a Socialist Europe.

Her crowning academic achievement came when Hobsbawm persuaded her to read for a PhD, which eventually led to a professorship at the University of Westminster where she gained the chair of history. From there she moved in 2005 to Swansea as honorary professor in the history department at the University of Wales.

Her death, tragically early, is a huge loss to the labour movement.

Geoffrey Goodman