On Saturday, March 27, Kenny McGuigan died after six years of fighting Motor Neurone Disease. Kenny was a class fighter, a Marxist and a leading Scottish member of the International Marxist Tendency. We send our deepest condolences to Kate, Paula, Laura, Cara, and all the family, and will not forget our comrade as we continue the struggle he dedicated so much time and energy to.
With a heavy heart I learned of the death of comrade Kenny McGuigan following a long struggle against an increasingly debilitating illness. I received the news when I was about to leave the house to go to the annual Conference of Socialist Appeal. Four years earlier Kenny had attended the same Conference, where he delivered the financial appeal with his customary sense of humour. The appeal was a great success. But I think that very few comrades understood what Kenny meant when he announced that this would probably be the last time he would attend.
During my life I have met many brave people who fought against the odds and never gave up; men and women who were willing to endure the most terrible hardship, tortures and suffering. But never have I seen such courage as was shown by Kate and Kenny McGuigan. It is one thing to fight courageously against an enemy you can see, when you have a strong belief that you can triumph in the end, despite everything. It is another matter to fight on doggedly, when you know full well that you can never win.
Six years ago, when he was working on the buses, Kenny was diagnosed as suffering from a terrible and incurable illness: Motor Neurone Disease. This was the equivalent of a death sentence, with no appeal. For six long years Kenny battled with superhuman courage against a cruel and remorseless enemy. Last Saturday morning he was finally defeated. In the end he passed away peacefully, looking into the eyes of his wife, friend and constant companion, Kate, who has nursed him day and night and, like her husband, never stopped fighting.
Sense of humour
A lesser man would have been crushed by the unbearable weight of circumstances. But this was not just any man. This was Kenny McGuigan, and Kenny would never allow his fighting spirit to be crushed by anybody or anything. Living in London and constantly travelling, I was unfortunately unable to visit Kenny, as I would have liked to do, but I spoke to him as often as I could on the phone, and every time I put the phone down I was amazed to realize that instead of me encouraging Kenny, it was always Kenny who encouraged me.
In these conversations he never wanted to talk much about his state of health. Instead he would bombard me with questions about our work internationally, and always expressed tremendous enthusiasm for our advances. He used to follow the articles and reports on Marxist.com avidly. In all that time, I never once heard a single word of complaint. Not one. Instead, I heard the voice of a man full of life and hope, and, even more incredibly, a constant, irrepressible sense of humour.
How could a man in such a position find the inner strength to laugh? But laugh he did, and made others laugh with him. He wrote a series for Socialist Appeal under the title News from Caledonia, in the form of supposed letters by a lady called Mary Fairweather commenting on the political scene in Scotland. They show what a wonderful literary talent the man had. They were also extremely funny. These were real classics of political humour, in the style of Swift and Sterne. This was the healthy humour of the proletarian – and specifically the Scottish (especially the Glaswegian) proletarian. It did the heart good to read it.
A proletarian internationalist
Kenny was active in labour and trade union politics for 25 years – all his adult life. In the later years he took to writing and was a member of the National Union of Journalists. A talented writer, his work has been translated into many languages. He was a proud supporter of and regular contributor to the Marxist journal Socialist Appeal and www.socialist.net.
He joined the Militant in the 1980s and was active in the anti-poll tax movement in Glasgow. He played a leading role in the Scottish Anti-Poll Tax Union. Together with his wife Kate, he played an active part in the fight to prevent the bailiffs from seizing the possessions of people who refused to pay the poll tax.
After the 1992 split in Militant, Kenny, like many other honest comrades, went with the majority, believing that it was possible to reach more people if Militant worked outside the Labour Party and capitalised on the work done during the poll tax fight. But through experience he soon realised his mistake. He joined the Socialist Appeal and never looked back.
Kenny had a first class intellect and a profound grasp of Marxist politics. He made a tremendous contribution to our understanding of the national question in Scotland. Always an uncompromising internationalist, he wrote:
“I have often heard people say, ‘I love my country’, ‘I'm proud to be …’ This type of guff spouted by empty heads indicates a certain choice. Most of us had no say in the country of our birth. Against this, one can choose to love a person, love an art or a pastime - but it is without logic to say that you love a country. This is an area the SNP call patriotism. Money has no country, neither do the Ruling Classes.”
Here is the authentic voice of the Scottish proletarian: class conscious, militant, revolutionary and internationalist to the core. Let us never forget that it was the Shop Stewards Movement on Red Clydeside, along with the South Wales Miners, who affiliated to the Communist International almost immediately after it was formed. Lenin was full of praise for the internationalist stand of John Maclean, the Scottish Marxist, during the First World War.
Kenny as a writer
Kenny was a very talented writer. His most important work was probably John Maclean: A working class hero, The Story of Scotland's greatest Revolutionary figure, published in 2007 by Wellred Books. This work deserves to be studied by all who are interested in the national question, not only in Scotland. He also wrote a splendid pamphlet on the miners’ strike, which was highly praised by Tony Benn, who wrote a letter in which he describes this work as: “a truly formidable history of the miners’ strike interlaced with political analysis which provides a clear framework to help people understand what it was all about.”
I remember he wrote a piece called I’m still standing. That title says a lot about Kenny’s iron determination. A couple of years ago, when his condition was already deteriorating, he expressed a keen interest in writing a novel, and asked us if we would publish it. We agreed, but I do not know if he ever wrote it. If he did, I am sure it would be well worth reading. He had a natural flare both for speaking and writing. Even when he was laid low by his illness, he continued to write and campaign on the issue of stem cell research. He wrote a brilliant polemic called Why I support stem cell research, in which he condemns the reactionary role of religion in hindering the advance of science for spurious “moral” reasons:
“In the course of human history new discoveries and detections, particularly in the fields of science and medicine, have challenged established thought and pushed at the boundaries of perception. The human race has had to re-evaluate fixed ideas and positions many times in response to the questions thrown up. Sometimes, we are forced, kicking and screaming, to abandon old comfortable ways when confronted with rational thought and truth.”
Here we have the true voice of Kenny McGuigan, a fighter to the end. And what better cause for him to take up at the end of his life than the fight to overcome prejudice and defend the advance of science and human progress that could, if they were allowed to, solve many of the illnesses that are a scourge to countless millions?
“New information collides with the way we have been taught to think for generations. We face such a prospect at the present time and stand at a critical point in human history. The ongoing research into stem cell therapies as a treatment or even a cure for diseases that have blighted us for all our existence, and baffled doctors and scientists means we find ourselves as a society in a period of unparalleled medical, scientific, social and moral challenges. We are on the verge of eliminating Motor Neurone Disease, Parkinson's Disease, Alzheimer's Syndrome, Cystic Fibrosis, Muscular Dystrophy, Multiple Sclerosis, congenital heart defects, hereditary illness, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and many other medical conditions. The extirpation of these catastrophic illnesses through stem cell replacement should be a cause for celebration.”
Yes, indeed. All this, and much more, could be accomplished if society were freed from the oppressive chains that constrict it to the narrow aims of rent, interest and profit. That is the real meaning of Kenny’s all too short life, a life dedicated to the struggle to make this world a fit place for human beings to live in.
Faith in the future
Although the last period was accompanied by great suffering, Kenny wanted to live, to enjoy his family: his wife Kate, his daughters Paula and Laura, and above all his granddaughter, little Cara. I believe that Kenny was only troubled by one thing in this period. He was not concerned for himself, but only for his wife and family. He worried about the burden his illness was placing on them. But Kate never complained, despite the unbearable pressures on her, and remained constantly by his side till the very end. They really deserved each other.
Kenny McGuigan was well-known and universally respected and liked in the Labour Movement. He had many friends both in the SSP and the Labour Party. I don’t believe there was anybody that did not like him, because there was really nothing one could dislike, and so much to admire. When he spoke, people listened. His style was always quiet and modest. But behind this lay an absolute conviction in the final victory of socialism. Despite all the trials and tribulations, he never lost his faith in the working class and the socialist future of humankind. In one of his last articles, he wrote:
“The coming period will be one of tumultuous battles of a POLITICAL nature for the heart and soul of the LABOUR MOVEMENT. Blair is not the Labour movement! Blair is an opportunist interloper who is an accident of history. The period is now opening up when the working class will engage in a ferocious battle. This battle will not take place in any of the sects, but in the movement. The sects will be left with their mouths open, on the sidelines, as has always been the case. There will be victories and defeats, successes and setbacks. Theory, ideas, tradition and a solid programme must be the building blocks for this new period. Not faith in fallible individuals or big-heads who take political differences personally. This is the way.”
Today Kenny is no longer with us, and the world is a poorer place. We send our deepest condolences to Kate, Paula, Laura, Cara, and all the family. We will grieve his loss - an irreparable loss, not only for his family, but for the whole labour movement, nationally and internationally. But life and the class struggle will continue, and we will draw inspiration form the example of Kenny McGuigan: friend, comrade and fighter.
Farewell, Kenny. You will live on in our hearts. We will honour your memory and we will keep on fighting your fight to make this world a better place for all.
London, 30 March, 2010