Monday, 15 June 2020

London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 70 (Summer 2020) now online

LSHG Summer Term 2020 Update on seminars, newsletter & activities

The Institute of Historical Research is currently closed and we are not able to hold seminars at the moment. Apologies to those who were planning to attend the last seminar of the Spring Term on Monday 16 March, Rhys Williams on Tom Mann in Australia, which I cancelled at short notice but I think prudently so. We plan to re-arrange the seminar for the next time Rhys, who is based in Australia, is in the UK.

The summer term LSHG Newsletter is here - see this comment piece on Covid-19 and these two reviews of works relating to the Cato Street Conspiracy of 1820 and London during 1848 - perhaps a little later than usual as there are no seminars to publicise. It is hoped to resume seminars from October 2020 but obviously it is too early yet to be definite on that. We have a number of papers and speakers on a waiting list!

A range of virtual socialist history activities currently being undertaken and details of these are probably best checked by following the London Socialist Historians twitter account @LSHGofficial and by visiting our website, where every issue of the Newsletter back to 1997 is now on-line at our index

You will also find, sadly, a brief appreciation of Neil Davidson who died on 3rd February. Neil was associated with the LSHG for over 20 years: http://londonsocialisthistorians.blogspot.com/2020/05/neil-davidson.html

Finally there are some socialist history podcasts available on the IHR website. Below is a link to a seminar John Newsinger gave in November 2017 on Orwell and the left: https://www.history.ac.uk/podcasts/revolution-labourism-orwell-and-left

and a link to Kevin Morgan on The Left and the Cult of the Individual, an ever present source of discussion!
https://www.history.ac.uk/podcasts/left-and-cult-individual

There is plenty for socialists to be doing even in times like these but history remains a vital context to current events.

Keith Flett, LSHG Convenor

The Newsletter  - Letters, articles, criticisms and contributions to debate are most welcome. Deadline for the next issue is  1 September 2020 - please email Keith Flett on the address above for more info about contributing and the society.

Book Review: The Cato Street Conspiracy

[From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 70 (Summer 2020)]

Cato Street, The Making of the English Working Class and English Exceptionalism

The Cato Street Conspiracy
The Cato Street Conspiracy: Plotting, Counter-Intelligence and the Revolutionary Tradition in Britain and Ireland 
Edited by Professor Jason McElligott and Martin Conboy
Hardcover 216 pages
 ISBN 978-1526144980 Manchester University Press 2019

The 200th anniversary of the Cato Street Conspiracy was on 23 February 2020 and it sparked the publication of a volume of new research on it, which endeavours to rescue the conspiracy from the enormous condescension of posterity.

The phrase is appropriate because it reminds us that E P Thompson in his still-benchmark The Making of the English Working Class does write about Cato Street but sees it very much as in the shadow of Peterloo. For Thompson it was the mass peaceful protest of Manchester on 16 August 1819 rather than the attempt at armed revolt of London on 23 February 1820 that set the framework for how the working class political tradition developed.

Thompson may well have been right, but that doesn’t mean that the tradition of Cato Street didn’t exist. The Making is a book specifically about the English working class as the title says. There were good reasons for this. Thompson was meant to be writing a history that covered the period 1760 to 1960 and the Making, weighing in at around 1000 pages in the print edition, was the first chapter. Secondly Thompson’s research was focused on England, the West Riding and London in particular.

Thompson made the point specifically in the preface where he apologises to Scottish and Welsh readers and notes that he has dealt with Irish-only immigrants to England. Focusing specifically on Scotland he argues that ‘it is possible, at least until the 1820s, to regard the English and Scottish experiences as distinct, since trade union and political links were impermanent and immature’

Even if we allow this it remains, with the benefit of further historical research, a weakness and one that has become more evident in the fifty-plus years since the book was published. 

Thompson was no expert in the different but strongly related histories of the Scottish, Irish and Welsh working classes.

However, without adding in that history the importance of an event like Cato Street cannot properly be understood. Thompson does write briefly about the Scottish Rising of early 1820 which was very clearly related to Cato Street. He doesn’t provide detail on the various West Riding attempts at risings in March and April 1820, and doesn’t cover at all the far from insignificant impact of events in Ireland and the revolutionary tradition that had developed there from the 1790s.

We can say then, as perhaps we always should, that Thompson’s book, impressive though it was, represents work in progress and work that should still be in progress.

 Keith Flett

Book Review: A London Story: 1848

[From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 70 (Summer 2020)]

Rewriting the hidden revolutionary history of British working class politics

London Story 1848 by Catherine Howe | Waterstones

 A London Story: 1848
 By Catherine Howe
APS Books 2020
194 pp paperback
ISBN 978-1789960853

It is the 200th anniversary of the Cato Street Conspiracy. On 23 February 1820 a number of men met in a hayloft in Cato Street off Edgware Road in London. They planned to go to the house of Lord Harrowby in Grosvenor Square where they believed a cabinet dinner was taking place and murder those attending.

Following that they intended to announce a Provisional Government.

There never was a Cabinet dinner. The men had been misled and betrayed by a government agent, Edwards. The plotters were surprised by police and troops and one officer, Smithers was killed. Five of the conspirators including the leader Arthur Thistlewood were tried at the Old Bailey and hung on 1 May1820.

They are often portrayed as fantasists but while the method may seem extreme it is thought they had and expected considerable support if the plot had worked, not just in London but in the north of England and Scotland. Indeed March and April 1820 saw a series of attempted risings which the Government took very seriously.

Part of the London support were Irish labourers who were part of tradition of Irish political revolt dating back to the United Irishmen in 1798 and Colonel Despard who was hung for treason in 1803. Despard was a follower of Thomas Spence as were the Cato Street conspirators.

As E P Thompson noted in The Making of the English Working Class those who were possibly engaged in underground revolutionary activity did not leave much in the way of records of their activities, for understandable reasons.

Catherine Howe’s book is about London Chartism in 1848 not Cato Street but she puts a case forward for the same tradition.

While the book tells an historical story rather than representing research history it is solidly based in terms of references to primary and secondary sources.

The key point is what the author makes of those sources in terms of putting forward an understanding of the events of the first 8 months of 1848 in London Chartism.

February 1848 had seen a revolution in France and this began to spark large scale Chartist activity in March in Trafalgar Square and Camberwell in South London. The culmination of this phase of protest was the gathering on Kennington Common on Monday 10 April 1848.

There then followed a reorganisation of Chartism and a series of demonstrations in June 1848. The Chartist leader and friend of Marx and Engels Ernest Jones was arrested following a speech he made at Bishop Bonners Fields in East London.

The putative rising centred on Seven Dials in central London in August 1848 was the crescendo of the Chartist reaction to the French events earlier in the year. Historians have disputed whether William Cuffay, a leading black Chartist, was centrally involved as the authorities claimed he was. Howe’s account does place him firmly amongst the conspirators.

Again this is a matter of interpretation rather than specific evidence. Cuffay was the leader of London Chartism and the organiser on the day of the Kennington demonstration. Northern Star reports of the Chartist delegate meeting held around that event show Cuffay to be considerably more militant than the national leadership and he may well have been reflecting the temper of London Chartists in that respect.

David Goodway’s book on London Chartism in 1848 argues that the attempted rising at Seven Dials marked the conclusion to a conspiratorial radical politics dating back 50 years and more.

Catherine Howe adds a further dimension to the issue by looking at the activity of Irish radicals, central to British working class politics throughout the nineteenth century but often overlooked by historians. E P Thompson’s classic account of this period of course refers specifically to the ‘English working class’, but that included many Irish workers.

Some recent historical research, not least around Cato Street, has started to put back the Irish tradition of revolt into British radical politics and Howe is very much on that page.

Chartist attempts at revolution in 1848 ended in failure and as Howe notes, history is written by the victors. Yet it is important to understand that there was a revolutionary working-class tradition in Britain and one that the state took very seriously.

Keith Flett

Comment: From Hurricane Katrina to Covid-19

[From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 70 (Summer 2020)]

Like George W Bush with Katrina, Boris Johnson discovers ‘People we didn’t know exist’ 

 When Henry Mayhew started the series of social investigations into the London working-class in 1849 that was to become London Labour and the London Poor he laid out a prospectus in the Morning Chronicle. He wrote of investigating the ‘large and comparatively unknown body of people’ who comprised the labouring poor who lived in slum housing often in insanitary conditions with at best uncertain employment.

He set a pattern that has emerged at times of crisis since.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 revealing a government and president in George W Bush that was not only unprepared to deal with it but had reduced funding previously for measures that might have helped, the  Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Michael Brown said, "We're seeing people that we didn't know exist’.

The former Guardian journalist Gary Younge who reported from New Orleans at the time recently made the link to the situation now.

The pattern of Katrina has indeed been echoed in the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

Only after sustained pressure by a few media critics did the government agree to publish the daily totals of deaths in care homes. These were and remain sadly substantial. Some have argued that the residents of homes were not hospitalised when seriously ill but left and cut again, and housing conditions which are far from ideal as to die where they were to avoid the NHS being overwhelmed. An independent inquiry will need to examine that as well as the failure to provide adequate PPE for workers in the homes.

Yet, picking up on Younge’s point, another perspective might be that the government didn’t really know what the scale of the problem in care homes was and, based on its earlier herd immunity strategy, now changed, believed that numbers of the elderly and vulnerable would die anyway.

Reality has a way of intruding into right-wing ideological fantasy strategies, as George W Bush found out in 2005.

This came recently with the publication of details, broken down to local authority areas, by the Office of National Statistics of all COVID-19 deaths from 1 March to 17 April. This wasn’t some exercise in constructing a league table of deaths - important though it is to record every death and value every life. Rather it focused attention on where COVID-19 deaths had been particularly high and implicitly invited discussion of why this might be.

Of the 11 areas with the highest death rate everyone was in London The pattern of poverty, housing and health identified 171 years ago by Henry Mayhew in London’s poorest districts continues. The highest UK COVID-19 mortality rates per 100 000 population in the UK are in the  London Boroughs of Newham 144.3, Brent 141.5, Hackney 127.4, Tower Hamlets 122.9 and Haringey 119.3.

Philip Glanville, the Mayor of Hackney, quoted in the Financial Times on 2 May argued that “the links between inequality, poverty, ethnicity and health” were the key to his borough’s death rate of 127 per 100,000.

Indeed these are people, overwhelmingly poor, workingclass, many from ethnic minorities, who have suffered years of Tory austerity, of public services and the NHS cut the cost of homes in London has soared and Tory policies, meaning little council housing has been built. Yet these same people are those who keep the NHS going, who drive buses and tubes, who clean streets and work in supermarkets. They are low paid but as the last two months have underlined absolutely essential.

The Tories may not have known such people existed, but they do now, and political change is on the agenda.

Keith Flett

Monday, 8 June 2020

Black Lives Matter - Socialist Historians renew call for teaching of history of colonialism and the role of Empire in schools

Socialist Historians renew call for teaching of history of colonialism & the role of Empire in schools
The London Socialist Historians Group which organises the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London, Senate House has renewed its call for the history of colonialism and the role of Empire to be a key part of the school history curriculum.
As recently as November 2019 the Labour Party launched a Race and Faith Manifesto at the Bernie Grant Centre in Tottenham on 26th November (link below).
While Labour didn’t win the Election the ideas put forward remain highly relevant as Black Lives Matters protests demand justice on racism and discrimination
Part of the Manifesto called for ‘the creation of an Emancipation Educational Trust to ensure historical injustice, colonialism and role of the British empire is taught in the National Curriculum’
The historians say that while it is the case that Empire and colonialism may feature in some school history lessons today it is not done systematically or as part of the examined curriculum.
Britain’s imperial heritage from the slave trade, to its control of countries across the globe from the late nineteenth century, to the modern day descendants of those impacted on this who play such an essential role in Britain today is something that every school student needs to know about
LSHG Convenor Dr Keith Flett said, we’re just coming up to the 150th anniversary of the death of  William Cuffay in Tasmania in July 1870. Cuffay the black leader of London Chartism in 1848 fought for democracy and the vote. For his pains he was arrested and transported to Australia, where he continued fighting for democracy. Cuffay is not a figure who will be familiar to most school students but he should be. The proposals Labour brought forward in 2019 point to one way that this can start to be addressed.
Please contact Keith Flett at the address above for more information

Sunday, 3 May 2020

Neil Davidson

The London Socialist Historians Group was very sad to learn of the death of Neil Davidson (1957-2020), a socialist and trade union activist and Marxist historian and sociologist based in Edinburgh who worked at the University of Glasgow, whose work on the history of Scotland and Scottish nationalism, and wider theorisations and mediations on the nature of bourgeois revolution, the uneven and combined development of capitalism, neo-liberalism, the nature of the European Union, and the far right were thoughtful, important and powerful contributions to wider debates underway on the Left.  Our condolences to his family, friends, and comrades - RIP Neil.  
Comment by Keith Flett, LSHG Convenor
I was very sorry to learn of the death of Neil Davidson at 62. I’d known Neil for many years as a socialist and historian and its fair to say that he was amongst the earliest supporters and contributors to the work of the London Socialist Historians Group, albeit of course as one of our friends in the north.

He spoke at the 2010 conference on the vote. A synopsis is below and remains very relevant 10 years on. He also spoke at the 2006 conference on the 50th anniversary of the events of 1956 and indeed at the conference that led to the People’s History of Riots book (CSP).

It wasn’t just the writing though. He had a distinctive speaking style and presence that always made a paper by him an eagerly awaited occasion.

I had read his FB posts on being treated for a brain illness and one always hopes that matters will turn out well as treatment continues. Sadly this is far from always the case.

Neil leaves a substantial legacy as an inspiring speaker and an incisive historian as well as of course a great socialist and comrade.


Synopsis of paper given at the London Socialist Historians conference on the Vote: What Went Wrong? Held at the Institute of Historical Research on 27th February 2010

Neil Davidson ‘Social Neoliberalism, “Regimes of Consolidation” and the Assault on Representative Democracy, 1989-2008’

Neoliberals claim that the establishment of free market policies will automatically produce comparably beneficial effects in other areas of social life. Not only are these claims false, neoliberalism also exacerbates all the inherent evils which capitalism involves in all its incarnations. Consequently, so long as citizens are able to vote, and as long as they have political parties prepared to represent their interests, however inadequately, for which to vote, there is always the possibility that the neoliberal order might be undermined. Neoclassical solutions to this dilemma were twofold. The first was to ensure that only sympathetic politicians are in control of the state, if necessary by non-democratic means. The Chilean option is not however the preferred one, mainly because of the many inconveniences which military and still more fascist dictatorships tend to involve for bourgeoisies themselves. The recognition that formal democracy was desirable, but that substantive democracy was problematic, suggested a second solution, that economic activity should be removed as far as possible from the responsibility of politicians who might be expected to deploy it for electoral purposes. One of the key successes that neoliberalism has achieved for capital has therefore been to render inconceivable alternatives to the economic policies established by the initial regimes of reorientation–or at any rate, alternatives to their left. Debates now have the quality of a shadow play, an empty ritual in which trivial or superficial differences are emphasised in order to give an impression of real alternatives and justify the continuation of party competition. The increasing irrelevance of politics has given rise to several clear trends across the West, including increasing voter volatility and decreasing partisanship, indicating that many of those electors still involved casting their vote do so–appropriately enough–on a consumer model of political choice, where participation is informed by media-driven perceptions of which result will be to their immediate personal benefit. Unsurprisingly, the numbers prepared to carry out even this minimal level of activity are declining. Central to this shift were the “regimes of consolidation”, formally characterised by social or liberal democratic rhetoric, which were able to incorporate the rhetoric of social solidarity while maintaining and even extending the essential components of neoliberalism. This apparent supplementing of the naked laws of the market was originally marketed as a “third way” between traditional social democracy and neoliberalism, but is more accurately described as “social neo-liberalism”, since it involves not a synthesis of the two, but an adaptation of the former to the latter. Their capitulation represented the final stage in the normalisation of neoliberalism: the point at which it became accepted, not as a temporary aberration associated with the programme of a particular political party, but the framework within which politics would henceforth be conducted. It remains to be seen whether it can survive the renewed onset of economic crisis. (470 words)

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Jeremy Corbyn: the historical record. The most resilient of Labour Opposition leaders

Statement from the London Socialist Historians Group:
The UK General Election Gets Dirty – AN SIONNACH FIONN
The London Socialist Historians Group, which organises the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in central London has said that Jeremy Corbyn, who steps down as Labour leader on 4th April, has been the most resilient of opposition Labour leaders from Keir Hardie in 1906 onwards.
Labour has had 18 leaders of whom only six have been Prime Minister, Ramsay Macdonald, Clem Attlee, Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown of whom 4 were directly elected to Office.
The historians note that that the usual historical pattern has been for Tory Prime Ministers to remain in No.10 while Labour leaders come and go.
Corbyn faced three Tory leaders, David Cameron, Theresa May and finally Boris Johnson in his nearly 5 year stint at leader.
He was rivalled and some no doubt would argue surpassed by the Labour leader sometimes seen as his nemesis Tony Blair who as a Labour Prime Minister faced three Tory leaders himself, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard.
LSHG Convenor Dr Keith Flett said, of course you can sum up Labour leaders in various ways, including seats, votes and percentages of votes won at Elections and on the third of occasions when they have become Prime Minister their impact in Office. Tony Blair clearly has a place in the history books in these respects and perhaps for other reasons too, but Corbyn’s resilience in facing three Tory leaders in 5 years is also historically noteworthy.
For more info please contact Keith Flett at the address above.