Wednesday, 20 March 2019

The End of the Spanish Civil War - Tom Sibley

[We have been sent this piece and asked to put it up on our blog - any comments or responses welcome - please contact Keith Flett on the address above - thanks]

THE END OF THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR – THE BETRAYAL OF MADRID - article for the Morning Star by Tom Sibley

This week we mark the eightieth anniversary of the end of the Spanish Civil War (SCW).  After nearly 3 years of heroic resistance the Republican forces succumbed, facing as they did the combined might of Franco’s Army supported as it was with copious supplies of armed and trained soldiery provided by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

Until the end of February 1939 Prime Minister Negrin and his only reliable allies, the Communists, were determined to fight on despite a series of crushing military defeats in Catalonia.  The Republicans still controlled a large area of Central Spain and had over 500,000 men under arms.  It was Negrin’s belief that if the Republican side could hold on for a few more months, it was just possible that the gathering war clouds over Europe would force the Western powers to take military and diplomatic action against Franco.  The alternative, an outright victory for Franco was unthinkable given Franco’s track record of revengeful violence and his total disregard for human rights, civil liberties and international law.  The following months and years were to prove that Negrin’s forebodings were well justified.

In early March under the leadership of Colonel Casado, appointed commander of the Republican Army of the Centre the previous year, a group of renegade republican military and political leaders, including well known socialists and anarchists, formed the Consejo National de Defensa (CND) with the intention of deposing the elected Popular Front Government.  The renegades’ actions were informed by virulent anti-communism as were Franco’s in 1936.  They justified their treachery by claiming that the Communist Party, backed by Negrin and  the Soviet Union, was about “to take control of all levers of power in the Republican Zone” and “that Spain was about to fall under a Stalinist dictatorship”.  Given that Franco’s victory was by that time inevitable these claims were absurd.

The CND began arresting Madrid communists and their supporters.  When these actions were forcibly resisted a civil war within the Civil War broke out.  For the first few days communists held the initiative and were on the verge of defeating Casado coalition troops.  But with a nod and a wink from Franco, the 14th Division of the Republic’s Popular Army, controlled by the anarchists and under the direction of General Mera, left an active front in the war against Franco to march on Madrid in order to confront the Republican loyalists.  Faced with insurmountable odds the Communists were forced to leave their strongholds and retreat.  Over a thousand communists and supporters were killed in their last ditch and failed attempt to save the Republic.  Some two weeks later Franco’s army marched unopposed into Madrid.  And all attempts to negotiate favourable peace terms came to nothing as Franco ruthlessly pressed home his military advantage.

At the time many saw Casado’s coup as a cowardly betrayal.  The Author of ‘Homage to Catalonia’ (H to C) George Orwell took a contrary view.  In a review of Casado’s memoirs published in January 1940 Orwell wrote in his usual omniscient style “Considering the actual military situation it is difficult not to feel that Casado was right”.  Yet those on the spot, or at least those who remained loyal to their Republican cause and saw the dangers inherent in a Fascist victory, thought otherwise.  Even Orwell came to recognise the error of welcoming Franco’s victory.  Less than a year after his original review he declared that Franco’s victory was a disaster for the Spanish people.

In the early 1940s, probably influenced by discussions with Negrin who was at the time in exile in Britain, Orwell had second thoughts.  He conceded that the war was not lost because of splits on the left and the suppression of POUM by Popular Unity Government forces. Rather, contra to ‘H to C’, he had come to the view that “the Trotskyist thesis that the war could have been won if the revolution had not been sabotaged was probably false.  The fascists won because they were stronger (militarily).  No political strategy could offset that.”  (“Looking back on the Spanish Civil War” [1943].)   But Orwell made little, if any, attempt to ensure that future editions of ‘H to C’ reflected his true views on POUM and the real reasons for the Republics’ defeat.  He and his publishers preferred to retain the anti- communist and anti-Soviet views expressed in the book knowing that these were in line with the Cold War positions which found favour in the late 1940s with the political establishment of both Britain and the United States.

Although the Republican side was defeated, the stand taken by democratic Spain showed that it was possible to confront the growing threat of expansionist Fascism.  Notwithstanding the adverse balance of military forces, the example of the Spanish Republican Army aided by the International Brigades and supported by the Soviet Union, was to inspire the resistance movement throughout Nazi occupied Europe.  In many respects the SCW was the first battle in the struggle to defeat Nazism.  That the second world war was won owes much to the stance taken by the Spanish people and the International Brigades who showed that it was necessary and possible to stand up to the fascist war machine thus showing up the futility of the appeasement strategy of the western powers before 1939.  But the fruits of this victory were not passed on to the Spanish people.  Over the next 35 years many thousands were to die in Franco’s prisons while the western democracies stood aside, seeing Franco as an important ally in the Cold War against the spread of socialism and national liberation.

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Book Review - When We Touched the Sky - The Anti Nazi League 1977-1981

[The post below is copied with thanks from Geoff Brown's blog and since we don't have it on our site and it seems timely it seemed worth reproducing here - if others have book reviews / essays etc from old LSHG Newsletters that are not currently archived on this site please get in touch] 

From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter (Autumn 2006) 

Dave Renton, “When We Touched the Sky” – The Anti Nazi League 1977-1981

We live in a time of revival for the left with new movements finding their way, not least against those who have buckled before Blair, often miserable, seeing it as impossible to win any serious fight, no matter how many are mobilised.

A good moment then to publish a history of the Anti Nazi League, a story of real political courage, of a mass movement that drew hundreds of thousands into activity and did achieve its goal, the destruction of the National Front (NF).  Indeed, with fascism once again a significant element in British politics as also in FranceItalyAustria and elsewhere, there is an obvious need for the left to be clear about what fascism is and how it can be stopped.

Here Renton’s book makes a very valuable contribution. In particular, he takes care to explain details that a younger generation has no memory of. At the same time, it must have taken some courage to write this book as many readers will have memories of their own involvement in the ANL. Rarely can a history have so many potential eye-witness critics!

The homework, however, has certainly been done with scores of participants interviewed. The narrative chapters in the book read well: the battle of Lewisham that triggered the founding of the ANL, the meteoric rise of the ANL in the following months, the giant carnivals of spring and summer 1978, the battle of Southall in April 199 where the police murdered Blair Peach.  Renton spells out how in the aftermath of Lewisham, the ANL was created as a single issue united front, committed to mobilising the largest possible numbers.  This it did, calling protests, large and small, wherever the NF showed its face.  In the process huge numbers were organised, in local groups, in the unions and in affinity groups, such as Skins against the Nazis, School Kids against the Nazis and so on.  Each group identified with its own badge, you couldn’t walk across any sizeable town in Britain without seeing people wearing ANL badges.  Establishing such a mass presence put relentless pressure on the fascists.

The chapter on Rock against Racism, founded a year before the ANL in response to racist remarks made by Eric Clapton, is penned with enthusiasm by Renton, not least as a serious fan of punk music. RAR had an anarchic quality, its impact spread in ways that are hard to trace, through many hundreds of gigs, with a vast array of musicians, some politically excellent, some far less so. With a big presence in the music pres, RAR made an impact on young people that was powerful and in some way new.  How exactly was and still is a constant source of argument  It was never going to be easy to write this chapter., not least as the old joke “If you can remember the 1960s, you weren’t there” works with RAR, only more so.  How music and politics relate is always going to be contested.  Nevertheless, Renton does get across clearly the scale of RAR’s impact as an anti-racist force. And, as Renton says, if you want more on RAR, there is always the spectacularly written and produced Beating Time by Dave Widgery.

On the key question of the united front, one which has lost none of its relevance, the arguments are explained well. The ANL was born of a clear understanding of two things. First, the need to prevent the NF having a political presence – on the streets, in public meetings, in the media – and being prepared, where necessary to use physical force to achieve this. Second, the importance of mobilising the largest possible number to stop the fascists. The mobilisations could take many forms: thousands of local people in Lewisham to stop a march, hundreds or more in pickets of NF meetings or a TV station when it allowed an NF speaker. And always looking to gain mass support in workplaces, colleges, unions etc. hence the millions of leaflets and bucket loads of badges. And so it was possible to have carnivals with numbers into the hundreds of thousands, the fullest expression of this commitment to mass mobilisation.

The narrative becomes less sure when looking at the political roots of the ANL. The ANL was a Socialist Workers Party initiative which could only work properly if the much larger Communist Party came on board. It did, despite the CP’s detestation of the SWP, because large chunks of the Labour left and trade union bureaucracy had already decided to support the ANL. To stay out would mean the CP risking political isolation.

Renton’s suggestion that

The Communist Party had the numbers to build the mass movement but many of its activists still believed rock music was a US weapon in the Cold War. The theory of state capitalism protected SWP members from the kind of knee jerk anti Americanism that the CP encouraged.

is off the mark. For one thing, the CP was rightly proud of its anti-racist traditions presented by American singers such as Paul Robeson. For another, more importantly, the difficulty the CP had in mobilising lay in its politics closer to home. It was desperate not to upset any of its friends in parliament and the TUC General Council. As Renton recounts, Michael Foot was only one of a number of leading lefts who denounced the SWP after Lewisham. The CP was increasingly losing its ability to mobilise on the ground, particularly among young people, very few of whom were in the CP.

Renton’s encouragement to those who were involved to record their own memories and add their own perspectives is welcome. There is more to be written. Not least an explanation of how the ANL could be successful at the same time as government and employers were relentlessly rolling back the victories won by workers against the Heath government.  In the big picture, this was the main battle. Renton attempts an explanation but is wrong on some points. He exaggerates the incorporation of radical shop stewards into the bureaucracy and is wrong to imply that the SWP subordinated the industrial struggle to building the ANL.  More importantly, in retrospect we can see that Wilson and Callaghan’s implementation of the IMF’s instructions in 1976 to cut government spending was the beginning of the neo-liberal offensive continued by Thatcher.  The results have decisively shaped the world we live in. We need to be clear about what went wrong.  History from below is not enough.  The context of the ANL’s success has to be got right.  To repeat, there is more to be written and if the lessons are to be learnt properly, it has to be the full picture.

Geoff Brown

ANL organiser, Greater Manchester, 1977-1979

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Historians call for action after second attack on Marx’s gravestone in Highgate

The London Socialist Historians Group which organises the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London, Senate House (currently suspended due to the IWGB boycott) has called for action to be taken after it was reported that a second attack on the gravestone of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery has taken place in a matter of weeks.

The historians say that while they see Marxism as a set of ways of understanding the world and a guide to action rather than something that is buried in a cemetery there is no question that the attacks on Marx’s gravestone are the sign of a resurgent far and fascist right who want to deny legitimacy to the ideas of the left.

The London Socialist Historians Group will back calls for a day of action to mark the importance of Marx’s work and political activity in London. There are also calls to raise funds to repair the damage and protect the gravestone in future.

LSHG Convenor Dr Keith Flett said, if these attacks had been made on a significant memorial of, for example, Winston Churchill, imagine the media furore and the police activity. As it is a second attack on Marx’s gravestone has taken place with very little being done. We have already seen efforts to disrupt Bookmarks, the flagship socialist bookshop in central London. The aim of these attacks is to silence the ideas of the left. We are determined to stop that.

For more information please contact Keith Flett on the address above

Statement from Bookmarks Bookshop:

Thursday, 7 February 2019

Historians regret decision to hold Hobsbawm book launch at University of London despite boycott

Press release - 7 February 2019

The London Socialist Historians Group, which has organised the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in central London for 25 years, says it regrets the decision by the Institute of Historical Research and Birkbeck's Department of History, Classics and Archaeology to proceed with a launch of Richard J Evans new biography of Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm at the University of London’s Senate House on Thursday.

Outsourced workers, members of the IWGB, who are in dispute with the University had asked the organisers to move the venue in support of a boycott of Senate House and related central University buildings which is supported by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell amongst many others.

The socialist history seminar at Senate House is suspended in support of the IWGB boycott.

The historians say that they hold Richard J Evans, who has spoken at socialist history seminars at Senate House in the past, in the highest regard and don’t doubt his biography of Eric Hobsbawm officially published on 7th February is both highly competent and very interesting on the historian’s life, work and politics. However they consider the decision not to move the book launch despite reasonable notice to be regrettable
LSHG Convenor Dr Keith Flett said: Eric Hobsbawm was one of the great post-1945 Marxist historians whose work focused on the labouring poor and their struggles against capital. To hold a launch of a biography of his life and work at a location that is the subject of a boycott by outsourced workers is not something any socialist should feel comfortable with.

For more information please contact Keith Flett on the address above.

Thursday, 31 January 2019

Peterloo 1819-2019

From the London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 66 (January 2019) 

[As most will know 2019 is the 200th anniversary of Peterloo, still relevant and still argued about, perhaps particularly after Mike Leigh’s film. There will be significant events to mark the occasion in Manchester and it is hoped to produce a special issue of the Newsletter to mark the anniversary. Details of this will be available shortly. This article appeared in the Morning Star, 12 November 2018]

Peterloo 1819-2019 - The People’s Revenge on the man who sent the Yeomanry in at Peterloo

Image result for william hulton

William Hulton (1787-1864) is not a name that features significantly in British history but the man who held it in the late Georgian and early Victorian periods deserves more recognition as does what eventually happened to the vast estate he owned on the edge of what is now Greater Manchester. It’s thought that the Hulton family may have held the land since as early as 989AD which made it until very recently the longest running instance of land held by a single family in UK history.

Hulton came into his inheritance in 1808 aged 21 and married Maria who bore him 13 children. He was active as a magistrate before Peterloo and in 1812 at Westhougton 2 miles from his ancestral seat at Hulton Hall, Luddites burnt down a new power loom factory. He despatched summary justice to some of those involved. He was the Magistrate who signed the order to send the Yeomanry in at Peterloo (and indeed the warrant for the arrest of Henry Hunt) on 16 August 1819.

He was a part of a Hulton dynasty (all the male heirs were called William except one, Henry Hulton 1665-1737). He appears briefly in Mike Leigh’s film Peterloo, accurately cast according to a contemporary picture (shown here) as a tall young man with sideburns. The Guardian, which was founded as a direct result of Peterloo, spent decades labelling him a ‘foolish country squire’. They were too kind. Hulton was a Tory before anything like the modern Tory Party existed. His mother owned a horse called ‘Church and King’. After the 1832 Reform Act, when the Tories did need to organise politically, he was one of the founders of the South East Lancashire Conservative Association. He was often touted as a potential Tory MP but never stood for Parliament.

There was a problem. Every time he appeared in public at an election the crowd shouted him down with cries of ‘Peterloo’. The Hulton Estate was for many centuries farming land and remained so (325 acres of it) but during the industrial revolution coal mining developed as a major industrial interest. After Hulton’s death the mines were transferred to the Hulton Colliery Ltd in 1868. Thanks to coal mining the Hulton Estate had some of the earliest railway tracks in the country with George Stephenson building a rail link to Bolton in 1826. Despite a wellknown mining disaster in 1910 that killed 344 people by 1947 the Hulton mines were the most significant in Lancashire. At that point they were nationalised. There was a family home, Hulton Hall, rebuilt on several occasions. It no longer stands and the last Hulton, Sir Geoffrey, died in the 1990s according to the BBC. The Estate was put up for sale in 2010 at a price of £8.5m and bought by property developers.

It is interesting to reflect on what happened to one of the great Tory dynasties in the north of England, undermined as it were, by the 1945-50 Labour Government’s nationalisations and ending altogether as Margaret Thatcher and John Major were in Office. The Hultons, who made their money out of coal mining were ultimately done for by working people voting for a Labour Government in 1945. The impact of the demand for the vote at Peterloo on 16 August 1819 took a long time to have effect on the family of the man who sent the Yeomanry in to disperse peaceful protesters, but the impact when it came was decisive.

Keith Flett

Book review - Bucking the Market

From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 66 (January 2019)

Karl Polanyi:A Life on the Left

By Gareth Dale
Columbia University Press, New York, 2018
978-0231176095 paperback

978-0231176088 hard cover

Gareth Dale's interesting biography of Karl Polanyi is now available as a paperback. The history of socialist thought is rich and complex. Polanyi was a reformist, but a significant and influential thinker. Wisely, Dale, despite his own Marxist sympathies, has not attempted to constantly measure his subject against some “correct” position, but rather to present his sometimes contradictory development for his readers to assess, simply adding a few concluding observations.

Polanyi's eventful life reflects the upheavals of the first half of the last century. Born into a prosperous Jewish family in Budapest, he frequented an intellectual milieu (“Bloomsbury-on-Danube”) that included the young Lukács. He saw front-line action in World War I and in 1919 took part in the shortlived Communist Revolution in Hungary, holding an official position in the People's Commissariat of Social Production. When the revolution was crushed, he moved to Vienna and lived there in the period of what was known as “Red Vienna”; the city was run by social democrats who took major initiatives in education and culture. With the rise of fascism he came to Britain. The snobbery of Oxford University denied him a job there, but he worked for the Workers' Educational Association, and lived in London during the bombing. The last two decades of his life were spent teaching and living in North America – USA and Canada - where he achieved recognition, though sometimes coming up against McCarthyism. (His brother, Michael, an avid supporter of the anti-Communist Congress for Cultural Freedom, was refused a US visa.) In his last years he was close to the British New Left.

Polanyi wrote prolifically on a range of topics in history, sociology and political philosophy, and he continues to exercise an influence. Perhaps his more important work was on the question of the market, which has been central to economic thought and to ideology more generally in modern capitalism. Thus he pointed to the “myths” inherent in the whole idea of the market which required to be repudiated: “that political gains, such as democracy and civil liberties, are bequeathed to humanity courtesy of the market system; that economic justice is only attainable at the cost of political freedom; and the mainstream understanding of economic behaviour as scarcity-induced choices made by individuals acting to maximise utility.” Hence he was concerned to see how the market could be reconciled with planning.

Finding a positive political alternative presented a more difficult problem. Though he was impressed by the Hungarian workers' councils of 1956, he was in no way a revolutionary. On occasion he expressed surprisingly uncritical support for Russia under Stalin and Khrushchev – though his own niece had been jailed under Stalin. But when discussing the Schuman plan for a European Coal and Steel Community and the possibility of pushing it in a socialist direction, he commented that the only instrument available “is - God help us – the Labour Party of Britain”. (If he had seen the hapless Corbyn twisting and turning as he tried to placate Blairites and Zionists, he would have realised that something much bigger than God would be required.) Dale concludes that the world of reformism to which Polanyi belonged “now appears marginal, even lost”, and that he “gravely underestimated the degree to which social democracy had …. hitched itself to the capitalist machine”. Nonetheless he believes that “it is in his defence of nonmarket utopia that Polanyi's legacy lies”.

Much of Polanyi's life was shared with his wife, Ilona. For what it is worth, I found her a much more attractive character than her husband, despite occasional Stalinist lapses. She was an activist; when Polanyi came to Britain she remained in Austria, working with the opposition and joining the clandestine Communist Party. In wartime Britain she attempted to join the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. In in the early sixties she objected to her husband working with Robert Maxwell, whom she described as a “scamp” - something of an understatement! And at one point she worked as a cook, whereas cooking remained a mystery for her husband, who once put an unopened tin of beans on the stove and left it there till it exploded. Perhaps Dale will give us a life of this fascinating woman.

 Ian Birchall

Book review - The aftermath of 1968

From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 66 (January 2019)

Tout! : Gauchisme, Contre-Culture et Presse Alternative dans L'Après-Mai 68 
By Manus McGrogan
Éditions L'Échappée,
Paris, 2018, €18
ISBN 978237309038

Manus McGrogan's fascinating account of the French revolutionary journal Tout! (Everything), based on his doctoral thesis, has been published in French translation. An English version would be greatly to be welcomed, but in its absence a brief review can draw out some points of interest for an  Anglophone readership.

Tout! was short-lived – sixteen issues in a little under a year from 1970 to 1971. It belonged to the frenetic student and lycée pupil milieu in the aftermath of the 1968 general strike, when, not unreasonably, many activists believed a revolutionary period was opening up. Organisations and publications of the far left were born, flourished and faded with alarming rapidity.

McGrogan's account is carefully documented on the basis of archives and many interviews with surviving participants, including Siné -  best known in Britain for his pictures of cats but also a virulent political cartoonist. While focussing on Tout!, McGrogan gives us much detail on the whole milieu of far left publishing, including HaraKiri, which later became the now sadly famous Charlie Hebdo.

Tout! originated from a political group called Vive la Révolution (Long Live the Revolution). They were, in a sense, Maoists – but not the sort of Maoists who believed all problems could be solved by a quotation from the Great Helmsman.  They were inspired by what they believed was happening in the Chinese Cultural Revolution – which was probably extremely remote from what was actually going on. There was considerable stress on spontaneity – hence they were often given the nickname “mao-spontex”.  They were influenced not only by China, but by Lotta Continua in Italy and the Black Panthers and yippies  in the USA. One of their slogans was the need to “change life”  (changer la vie) - so they focussed not only on economic and political demands, but
on questions of culture and everyday life.

In August 1970 Tout! was launched. (The title came from the slogan “What we want - Everything”.) The aim was to get away from the style of the traditional left publication, with its slabs of print presenting the “correct line” - a genre unfortunately still with us today, though its sales are diminishing. Tout! sought originality not only in content but in design and lay-out - in particular it made use of colour  (colour was still relatively little used even in the mainstream press). Use of a technique called split fountain printing meant that no two copies were identical.

Politically Tout! sought to develop militant opposition to the post-Gaullist regime which was establishing itself in France. It wrote not only of the student milieu but of the working class; there were detailed accounts of working conditions in factories and on the railways, combined with an ultra-left rejection of trade unions. It gave particular attention to the situation of immigrant workers – thus it told the story of a Pakistani worker who starved to death while waiting for a British visa. The aim was to give a voice to the voiceless. But factory-gate sales never really took off.

It campaigned against the imprisonment of Maoist leader Alain Geismar, while being critical of the way he was glorified by the Maoist press - “Let's free Geismar, including from the roles in which he has been trapped.”  Tout! supporters  were involved in physically confronting Ordre Nouveau, one of the forerunners of the Front National.

It also dealt with the cultural milieu. It embraced rock culture, but rejected its commercialisation -  the 1970 Isle of Wight festival was denounced as a “psychedelic concentration camp”. Tout! supporters helped to organise the mass invasion of rock concerts without payment.  But the description of Joan Baez as a “slut” (salope) was clearly a very stupid piece of sexist ultra-leftism.

The emergence of sexual politics was central to the development of Tout!. Women's oppression had not been an issue in 1968; the – mostly male – student leaders were often aggressively macho. But their assertiveness soon provoked female – and gay – assertion. The orthodox far left had little time for this – Lutte ouvrière dismissed the emerging gay movement as “socialism in one bed” - but Tout! was much more positive. And the imaginative style, often transgressing the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, was  taken up. At a lecture by an antiabortionist professor a woman hurled a calf's liver onto the table and shouted “I've just had an abortion, professor!”

Internal contradictions and tensions were too strong for Tout! to survive long, but its heritage survived in other sections of the left press, including Libération, which became a mainstream daily. In its ultra-leftism Tout! never mentioned Mitterrand, who was already beginning his political ascent during Tout!'s brief life. But in 1972 Mitterrand's Socialist Party stole Tout!'s slogan “Change life”.

Ian Birchall