Historian, journalist and author;

Born: August 18, 1921; Died: June 18, 2013.

Norman MacKenzie, who has died aged 91, was a true man o'pairts – a journalist, author, former communist-turned-social democrat, political historian and ultimately a visionary teacher and lecturer who helped found the breakthrough Open University, his proudest achievement. He was one of the first to see the potential of technology, multimedia and off-campus learning, now considered almost routine.

In between all that, MacKenzie also trained for guerrilla warfare during World War Two in case of a Nazi invasion, did a bit of espionage work and, during the 1956 Hungarian uprising, helped anti-Soviet dissidents get out of the country and the Soviet bloc. He was also one of the driving forces behind the peace movement that became known as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and his work as influential assistant editor of the current affairs magazine The New Statesman during and after the war led the famous anti-Stalinist writer George Orwell to put him on his notorious 1949 list of Stalinist sympathisers.

An avid reader from his schoolboy days, when he would spend hours at the library, MacKenzie went on to write or co-author several biographies and other books, some along with his first wife Jeanne, whom he met at the London School of Economics. These included biographies of Charles Dickens and HG Wells and their edited version (1982-85) of The Diaries of Beatrice Webb, social reformer and co-founder of the New Statesman. He was Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Sussex in Brighton when he died.

Norman Ian MacKenzie was born in Deptford, the son of a Scottish draper, a door-to-door clothing salesman and sometime talleyman or debt collector, whose family had moved south to seek a better living. His father made just enough to send him to the famous Haberdashers' Aske's school in London before he went on to gain a first class honours degree in Government from the LSE. There, he came under the intellectual and political influence of Professor Harold Laski, soon to become chairman of the Labour Party. He married fellow student Jeanne Sampson in 1945, joined the Labour Party and then, for a brief time, the Communist Party.

During the war, while at LSE, he enlisted for guerrilla warfare training at Osterley Park, west London, and was posted to a unit called Last Ditch, a clandestine organisation which would have backed up the Dad's Army troops of the Home Guard had Hitler pulled off his planned invasion of the British Isles. He also did clandestine work for the Political Warfare Executive, broadcasting anti-Nazi propaganda to Germany and Nazi-occupied countries.

MacKenzie stood twice as a Labour parliamentary candidate for Hemel Hempstead, north-west of London, in 1951 and 1955. Many years later, in 1981, he was one of the signatories of the Limehouse declaration that launched the Labour-breakaway Social Democratic Party (SDP).

After graduating from LSE, he joined the New Statesman, in its cluttered Dickensian offices in Lincoln's Inn Fields, central London, as assistant to editor Kingsley Martin, a post he would hold for almost 20 years and where he was once described as the rock on which the best of the New Statesman has been founded. In the post-war years, he travelled widely across the Soviet bloc, attracting the attention of Orwell.

When Hungarians rose up against their Soviet occupiers in 1956, MacKenzie became a shadowy figure, using his wartime experience, ingenuity and sang-froid to help dissidents get out of the country. At a school reunion in the post-war years, an old school pal reportedly told MacKenzie: "I thought I saw you in chains on Bucharest railway station, but I thought I'd better not say anything." MacKenzie was indeed being expelled from Romania after taking pictures of a prison camp housing anti-Soviet dissidents.

It was in the early 1960s that MacKenzie found perhaps his true calling. He was recruited as a lecturer in sociology at the new University of Sussex, based in Brighton, a dynamic institution which sought to move further education on beyond the staid cloisters of Oxbridge and out into an academic world being outpaced by technology and the spreading tentacles of multimedia.

Then, in 1966, came the start of what he described as the happiest time of his life. The Labour government published a white paper titled The University of the Air, partly influenced by MacKenzie's visionary ideas. The following year he became part of the planning committee for what he and colleagues would later name the Open University, based in the new overspill city of Milton Keynes but, with regional centres and modern technology, more of an ethereal idea than a building or campus.

MacKenzie served on the first council of the university, saw it "open its doors" in 1971, continued on its council until 1976 and was awarded an honorary degree there the following year for helping to create the institution. Norman MacKenzie's first wife Jeanne died in 1986. He is survived by his second wife Gillian (née Ford, whom he married in 1988), a daughter, Julie, from his first marriage and two grandchildren. Another daughter predeceased him.