[Marxism] Harry Leslie Smith, ‘World’s Oldest Rebel,’ Is Dead at 95

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Dec 2 10:52:10 MST 2018

NY Times, Dec. 2, 2018
Harry Leslie Smith, ‘World’s Oldest Rebel,’ Is Dead at 95
By Katharine Q. Seelye

He called himself “the world’s oldest rebel.” And when he railed against 
the system, he came across as the voice of experience, even as he deftly 
managed the young media environments of Twitter and podcasts.

Harry Leslie Smith made himself from nothing. He survived the Great 
Depression in abject poverty. He fought the Nazis in World War II. He 
created a comfortable life for his family but suffered two painful 
personal losses. In 1999, his wife of 52 years, Friede, died of cancer. 
A decade later, his middle son, Peter, who was in his 50s, died of a 
lung disease.

His son’s death finally tipped him over the edge to start writing his 
memoirs, at 87. His first was a book called “1923,” the year of his 
birth, published in 2010. Other books and essays spilled forth. An 
Englishman who lived part time in Canada, he wanted to shake the world 
into appreciating what had been won in World War II.

He went on to write four more books and was working on a sixth, about 
the refugee crisis, when he died on Wednesday at 95 in a hospital in 

His passion had earned him a column in The Guardian. Gradually, his 
defenses of the poor, his pleas for social justice and the wisdom of his 
age — as expressed in his last book, “Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future” 
(2017) — made him a must read for a new generation.

Such was his stature that upon his death, encomiums emanated from both 
sides of the Atlantic.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada wrote on Twitter, “Throughout 
his life, Harry Leslie Smith fought and worked to make the world a 
better place for everyone.” In London, Jeremy Corbyn, the British Labour 
leader, tweeted that Mr. Smith was “one of the giants whose shoulders we 
stand on.” He included a video clip of Mr. Smith describing the 
importance of England’s National Health Service.

In his writings and on the lecture circuit, Mr. Smith argued for the 
preservation of the social safety net and against austerity programs in 
England, Canada and the United States. His blood boiled over the 2008 
global economic collapse, when the little people had to bail out the 
banks while the banks went unpunished.

And as his television screen filled with images of refugees around the 
world fleeing their homelands — reminding him of the hundreds of 
thousands of people displaced by World War II — he became their champion.

“For me, old age has been a renaissance despite the tragedies of losing 
my beloved wife and son,” he wrote last year in The Guardian. “It’s why 
the greatest error anyone can make is to assume that, because an elderly 
person is in a wheelchair or speaks with quiet deliberation, they have 
nothing important to contribute to society.”

“Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future,” Mr. Smith’s last book, was published 
in 2017. At his death, he was working on a book about the refugee crisis.

He added: “It’s equally important not to say to yourself if you are in 
the bloom of youth: ‘I’d rather be dead than live like that.’ As long as 
there is sentience and an ability to love and show love, there is 
purpose to existence.”

Born on Feb. 25, 1923, in Barnsley, England, Mr. Smith grew up in the 
slums of Yorkshire. His father, Albert, was a coal miner. His mother, 
Lillian (Dean) Smith, kept house for her husband and three children. The 
family, destitute once Albert lost his job after an injury, scrounged 
for scraps of food and was often on the move, a step ahead of the rent 

Harry started work at age 7 and quit school at 14 when he landed a job 
as a grocer’s assistant, his son John — who confirmed his death, from 
pneumonia — said in a telephone interview.

One of Mr. Smith’s two sisters, Marion, contracted spinal tuberculosis, 
a victim of the slum’s foul living conditions. As she wasted away, their 
parents pawned their best clothes to hire a horse-drawn cart to take her 
to a workhouse infirmary, where she awaited her death, according to a 
2017 profile of Mr. Smith in The Toronto Star. At 10, Marion was buried 
in an unmarked pauper’s grave.

Mr. Smith never forgot his family’s inability to pay for medical care 
for his sister. That led to his adamant support for the National Health 
Service, which was created in 1946 and started in 1948.

He and his wife, whom he married in 1947, moved to Canada in the 1950s. 
He made a successful living there in the Oriental carpet trade.

Over the next decades he grew angrier at the direction of the world, 
disgusted by everything from apartheid in South Africa to the 
austerities of the Reagan administration.

Only years later did he find his true calling. He blossomed into a 
polemicist and agitator, relaying to subsequent generations the values 
that had sustained postwar England. He spent his last years touring 
refugee camps in Europe and denouncing President Trump.

Adapting to the latest tools of communication, Mr. Smith posted 
frequently on Twitter, where he had more than 250,000 followers, and 
hosted a weekly podcast. His Guardian video essay on the refugee crisis 
has been viewed more than two million times.

In addition to his son John, Mr. Smith is survived by another son, 
Michael, and two grandchildren.

“Enjoy yourself,” he often said. “It’s later than you think.”

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