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