Tuesday, 5 December 2017

LSHG Spring 2018 Seminar Programme

London Socialist Historians Seminars Spring 2018

Monday 22nd January - Steve Cushion, '“By Our Own Hands" - A People's History of the Grenadian Revolution'

Monday 5th February - Kevin Morgan, 'Communism and the Cult of the Individual: Leaders, Tribunes and Martyrs under Lenin and Stalin'

Monday 19th February - Marika Sherwood, ‘They were not communists they were independistas! The beginning of the Cold War in Ghana and Nigeria in 1948.’

Monday 5th March - Keith Flett, Monday 10th April '1848 revisited'

All at 5.30pm, Room 304, Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet St, London WC1. Free without ticket.  For more information please contact Keith Flett on the address above.  

Saturday, 2 December 2017

CfP: Workshop on the German Revolution and the Radical Democratic Imaginary

Call for Papers: Workshop on the German Revolution and the Radical Democratic

The University of Exeter, 24 May 2018

In the wake of the First World War, workers and soldiers across Europe
organised into democratic councils in order to challenge existing social
hierarchies and strive towards self-government and workers’ control over
production. During the 1918 German Revolution, a number of institutions and
practices were proposed from within the German council movements to create a
more participatory, democratic and worker-controlled society. Although there
was much disagreement over specific proposals, council delegates were
strongly in favour of deepening and extending existing forms of democracy
beyond the limits of the bourgeois liberal state. Yet a hundred years on and
political theory has drawn little from the discourses and practices of this
significant historical era. Our aim with this workshop is to rejuvenate
interest in political theorists and actors of the German Revolution and to
place them in dialogue with conversations in radical democratic theory. We
pose the question of how these political experiences should be theorised and
what significance they hold for political practices today.

The workshop will be an opportunity for scholars from a variety of
disciplines to form ongoing research networks based on shared areas of
interest. Through the workshop, we will organise a number of research groups
in which scholars will be asked to pre-circulate papers and provide feedback
to another member of their group. The idea of the conference is to cultivate
a space for in-depth discussion and collaborative research. We are open to
scholars engaging with the German Revolution from a variety of perspectives
including council communism, libertarian socialism, anarcho-syndicalism and
radical democracy, among others. Papers could also contribute to broader
debates in political theory on questions of democracy, agency, representation
and power. We welcome papers from both a theoretical and historical
perspective and anticipate the conference to spark discussion between
political theorists and historians.

A limited number of bursaries will be available for postgraduate students to
cover transportation costs. Please include a request with your abstract if
you are a postgraduate student who would like to apply for such a bursary.

Deadline for submission of abstracts for conference papers (up to 300 words):
5PM, 26 January 2018. Send abstracts to j.muldoon@exeter.ac.uk

Workshop Date: 9:30AM - 6:00PM, 24 May 2018.

Workshop website: germanrev2018.wordpress.com

Organised by James Muldoon and Martin Moorby, University of Exeter

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

The Kennington Chartist Project

The Kennington Chartist Project
Next year [2018] is the 170th anniversary of the Chartist rally on Kennington Common, now Kennington Park. A group of local residents, supported by the Friends of Kennington Park, are planning a project to raise awareness of this historical event and its impact, and to generate ideas for future events or memorials in the park. The aim is to represent a wide range of perspectives and to give as many people as possible the chance to contribute ideas. This survey is to see how much people already know about the history, and to ask which kind of activities people might be most interested in. Please share widely, many thanks,
The Kennington Chartist Project Steering Group

Please fill in the form below:


Monday, 9 October 2017

LSHG Newsletter 62 (Autumn 2017) now online

The latest newsletter of the London Socialist Historians Group is now online, with commentary on Marx's Capital at 150 years, and book reviews by Ian Birchall of Tom O' Lincoln's memoir, Keith Flett on Michael Rosen's memoir and Merilyn Moos on A Political Family by John Green. A reminder too of our upcoming seminar programme:


All seminars take place in Room 304 (third floor) at 5.30pm in the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU and entry is free although donations are welcome.

Monday 16 October John Rees 'The Leveller Revolution'

Monday 30 October Merilyn Moos 'Neglected Histories of the Diverse Victims of Nazism'

Monday 13 November Christian Høgsbjerg  '‘Every Cook can Govern’: C.L.R. James and the Russian Revolution'

Monday 27 November John Newsinger 'From Revolution to Labourism? Orwell and the Left'

Monday  11 December Dave Hill 'A History of London’s Housing Crisis'

The Newsletter
 Letters, articles, criticisms and contributions to debate are most welcome. Deadline for the next issue is 1 December 2017. For more information on the group and how to join please contact Keith Flett on the email address above.

Michael Rosen and History Workshop

From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 62 (Autumn 2017)
Image result for so they call you pisher michael rosen

 So They Call You Pisher!
A Memoir
ISBN 978-1786633965
2017 Verso 320pp

Michael Rosen is known as a poet, author, broadcaster and of course socialist activist. He also has a beard and supports Arsenal.
 His new memoir, So they call you Pisher!, is out from Verso and is of fascinating reading. At the London launch Rosen noted that much material had been edited out before publication and it  would indeed be interesting to see the author’s cut of the book as it were.
 One thing that Rosen is perhaps not particularly associated with is socialist history. However the book contains a fascinating vignette of the early period of History Workshop in Oxford, where Rosen was at college.
 Rosen was clearly far from happy with the stultified air and archaic content of some of the lectures he attended at Oxford but found History Workshop to be an exciting new development in the months before the May events in Paris in 1968. Rosen notes that some felt senior figures broadly associated with the movement such as E P Thompson, Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm were ‘infected’ by Stalinism, although this was not his view but that of Raphael Samuel, who ran the Workshop at Ruskin, had a base of working-class, trade union focused, students who were doing interesting research.
 Rosen writes that ‘conferences were packed with hundreds of people, crowded into the halls and corridors, listening, talking, arguing and writing.. this I thought was one of the most exciting things happening, and I wanted to be part of it’.
Keith Flett

Book Review - A Political Family

From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 62 (Autumn 2017)

A Political Family: The Kuczynskis, Fascism, Espionage and The Cold War (Paperback) book cover

A Political family
The Kuczynskis, Fascism, Espionage and the Cold War
By John Green ISBN 978-1138232327 
Routledge 2017 370pp

Most people, even socialists, when they think of exiles from Nazism, usually think of the thousands fleeing anti-Semitism (and the millions who did not manage to flee). But this happily is a book about a family who politically resisted the Nazis in their different ways and who all managed to escape to the UK. As John Green, the author says, the book isn’t about the victims; instead ‘all members of the family …rejected roles as passive extras on the stage of history and decided instead to become protagonists’.

The Kuczynskis were an extraordinary bourgeois assimilated Jewish German family. Robert, the paterfamilias was a famous statistician and demographer in both Germany and later, in the UK, and a renowned campaigner for social justice in pre 1933 Germany. Of his 6 children, five became Communists. 

Jürgen, his second child, who is one of the focuses of the book, and who joined the KPD in 1930, somehow managed to stay in Germany up till 1936, though the impression is that his forte was more in contacting the great and the good, rather than building an underground opposition.  Robert and family were wise enough to head to Britain. Why this was is not discussed.  

This is not where political refugees usually headed, certainly not in the first years from 1933 when the KPD leadership believed: ‘After them, us’ and wanted their comrades within easy reach of Germany: in Saarbrücken, Prague and Paris.  But then only about 1000 Communist exiles ever were accepted into Britain, a tiny number, given the tens of thousands of Communists who were hunted by the Gestapo or managed to get out.

We forget that the Nazis’ first targets were the Communists. Unlike some German refugees, the family all seem to have settled here successfully, four of the ‘children’ permanently. 

Jürgen became the coordinator for the German KPD exile group. But there is almost nothing in the book about the group itself. Special pleading here: my biography of my father, Siegi Moos, included a substantial section on the exile group, which Moos (my father) led till he either jumped or was pushed by Jürgen in 1937 (who had been instructed to take over).

Although the book emphasises the hostility of MI5 towards the Communist exiles as well as the British state’s prohibition of all political activity, I’d have liked to see more on the sense of isolation and fear of most of the exiled comrades who lived of their nerves and their temporary visas.

The book also does not focus on the change from the ‘Third Period’ (that’s the catastrophic ‘Social Democrats are social fascists’ and ‘no better than the Nazis’ line) to the ‘Popular Front’ in late 1934/1935 whose implications – to build and work within a broad progressive anti-Nazi alliance - split exile groups especially in France and Spain and redirected the political activity of the exiles here. Indeed, the book regrets the Third Period line in passing but does not highlight the implications in Germany of its lethal sectarianism.

The two main characters in the book: Jürgen and Ursula, could both be understood as spies, Jürgen for the USSR, Ursula (‘Sonya’) as a Communist agent in China and then for the USSR.

And herein lies one of the limitations of the book: if you are looking for a story of grass-roots resistance or working–class anti-Nazi activity, this is not your book.

One of its main themes is about spying and when is a spy a spy. Today we are not faced with such political niceties but here we find an argument that if one provides information for a country, the USSR, in which on believes and which is moreover an ally in the Allied fight to defeat Nazism, then the term ‘spy’ is inappropriate.

Rather it is a matter of ‘cooperation’. The book indeed does succeed in bringing out why a very few Communist exiles did ‘cooperate’ with the USSR in the 1930s and 1940s and how it was that many of the Communist exiles, including Jürgen and Ursula, returned to E. Germany and lived there during the Cold War, if not always happily. 

Jürgen, a professional economist, became a ‘loyal dissident’ in East Germany where he thankfully failed to become the finance minister but did advise the East German leadership and became their ‘most celebrated’ intellectual’ (and indeed influenced the resurgent West German left in the 1960s). (My understanding is that Jürgen was uneasy about 1956 and 1968!)

While Green is careful not to sound too pro East Germany, those of us who still essentially support a state capitalist position, may find his basic line: that bad socialism is better than good capitalism, interesting but irritating.

The penultimate chapter looks at what happened to the children of Jürgen and his five sisters: the second generation, and confirms that like so many refugees in Britain, even Communist ones, the parents did not talk that much to their children about their past experiences and beliefs, though the pattern for the children born in the GDR was more political. But all the children grew up knowing that their families had been active antifascists and that gave them a sense of identity and courage.

This book may not be everybody’s cup of tea but it tells the story of a remarkable family and through them, charts the political and personal upheavals of the twentieth century.

Merilyn Moos

Book Review - The Highway is for Gamblers

From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 62 (Autumn 2017)

The Politics of Patience
Image result for the highway is for gamblers - o lincoln

The Highway is for Gamblers
By Tom O’Lincoln
Interventions Inc,
(Carlton South, Vic., Australia),
2017 ISBN 9780994537829

Tom O’Lincoln will be known to many for his historical writings; his books on class struggle in Australia, and on the Second World War in the Pacific have been reviewed here: see Australia’s Pacific War, LSHG Newsletter No. 43 here , Years of Rage, LSHG Newsletter No. 51 - here and The Expropriators are Expropriated, LSHG Newsletter No. 59 here.

But Tom is also a lifelong political activist. Now, turning seventy  and facing health problems, he has written an autobiography. For some on the left, an autobiography is an opportunity for self-justification, for settling old scores. Tom’s account is self-critical and generous to comrades who have chosen a different path from his.

Born in the USA, Tom first became involved with politics during the famous Berkeley Free Speech Movement. Faced with the political ferment in US society produced by the Vietnam war, he found himself “sampling the political smorgasbord on offer in Berkeley” in 1968-69. Eventually he joined the International Socialists. Like so many of us around the world he was impressed by Hal Draper’s pamphlet The Two Souls of Socialism  with its advocacy of “socialism from below”.

After some travel in Europe, he moved to Australia, where he has spent the rest of his life. He has lived through a stormy half-century, and has been fortunate enough to travel to some of the most exciting locations. Portugal in 1975 was one of those brief moments when, in Orwell’s phrase “the working class was in the saddle”. He recalls: “The factory occupations were of course an attraction for us.  We international activists had the striking experience of chatting with insurgent Portuguese workers in board rooms.”   

Nicaragua in 1985,  after the fall of Somoza, offered a more problematic prospect. As Tom noted: “The government was in line with Western-style parliamentarism.  Unlike the 1917 Soviet regime, there were no workers’ councils through which the proletariat exercised power. This parliamentary system represented a huge step forward for people previously oppressed by a dictator. But it had no specifically socialist character.”  This is not gloating or boasting a superior analysis, simply observing processes which, sadly, ended in defeat.

Tom is not one of those – all too common on the English-speaking left – who says: “I am an intransigent internationalist, but I can’t be bothered getting this silly foreigner’s name right.” He is a remarkably gifted linguist and translator. In 1993 he was well past the age when the acquisition of languages is easy, but he observed that “things were happening politically” in Indonesia and decided to learn the language, using a regular tram journey for his initial practice. Eventually he was sufficiently proficient to be involved in launching “the first-ever Marxist website in the Indonesian language”.

But though he was able to observe some of the revolutionary high spots of his lifetime, Tom spent most of his time on the more mundane task of building a revolutionary organisation in Australia. With a handful of comrades Tom helped to set up the self-deprecatingly named Socialist Workers’ Action Group – SWAG, which grew into the Australian International Socialists.

By 1976 the organisation was big enough to play a significant role in the campaign to defend the Medibank health insurance scheme. When the union machine merely called for a four-hour strike, the IS “demanded a twenty-four hour stoppage , and called for weekly stoppages in every State as a move towards generalised national strike action.” 

Subsequently “the IS rushed out leaflets overnight to the doorsteps of key shop stewards – a network we had established through our ‘workers’ paper’ project. Partly because of this agitation, telephone calls began to pour into union offices. By the time the stoppage took place on 16 June, the left union leaders had recognised that they risked being outbid by the tiny forces of the revolutionary left. They made an abrupt left turn.”

But as elsewhere, the left soon had to face up to a “downturn” in struggle; by 1983 there was a “historic collapse of industrial militancy”. For the International Socialists the result, almost inevitably, was factional disputes and a split. The minutiae of the evolution of the Australian far left will be of interest only to a limited audience, but Tom has some interesting thoughts on what he calls the “politics of impatience”, which may have parallels in other countries.

Tom’s comrade Rick Kuhn summarised Tom’s analysis: “As the levels of social struggle declined, a majority of the leadership of the IS had become impatient with the group’s membership and the world outside. The result was voluntarism; attempts to substitute the organisation’s determination for the inadequacies of the real world: intolerance of internal disagreement and anything less than the very high level of activity expected of members, a sectarian attitude to serious movements and others involved in them; and a predilection for self-generated campaigns that drew in very few other people.” 

Tom sums up the paradox of impatience: “On the one hand, all of us need a healthy dose of it – we need to grasp the moment and do what we can, with whatever resources we have, to make the most of any opportunity. On the other hand, there is always a temptation to bridge by force of will the gap between the meagre forces of the revolutionary left and the ultimate end we desire.” 

Eventually Tom left the International Socialist Organisation and joined Socialist Alternative, of which he remains an active member. This beautifully produced book (described by editor Janey Stone as “a scrapbook – a collection of stories, vignettes, anecdotes, jottings, photos, ephemera”) is illustrated with photographs, leaflets and press cuttings, and is full of information and insights that will be rewarding even to those of us who know relatively little about Australia. This is not just the portrait of a remarkably interesting individual, it is the portrait of an age so many of us have lived through.

Ian Birchall