Saturday, 24 November 2018

CfP: Work - Recording change in working lives

The Oral History Society (in association with Llafur and Britain at
Work) will be holding its 2019 annual conference at Swansea University
on the subject of 'Oral History @ Work: Recording Change in Working
Lives'. The conference will take place on 5-6 July 2019.

We are currently seeking proposals for conference papers (closes on 14
December 2018) and would appreciate it if you could forward this email
to friends, colleagues and mailing lists who may be interested.

Note on proposals

The deadline for submission of proposals is 14 December 2018. Each
proposal should include: a title, an abstract of between 250-300 words,
your name (and the names of any co-presenters, panellists, etc), your
institution or organisation, your email address, and a note of any
particular requirements. Most importantly your abstract should
demonstrate the use of oral history or personal testimony and be
directly related to the conference theme. Proposals that include audio
playback are strongly encouraged. Proposals should be emailed to the
Oral History @ Work conference Administrator, Polly Owen, at They will be assessed anonymously by the
conference organisers, and presenters will be contacted in
January/February 2019.

Further information on the conference can be found here:

Friday, 16 November 2018

Telling the Mayflower story

Launch of the Socialist History Society publication: "Telling the Mayflower Story, Thanksgiving or Land Grabbing, Massacres & Slavery?" by Danny Reilly and Steve Cushion.

Fri 30 November 2018
UCL Institute of the Americas
51 Gordon Square

In the autumn of 1620 the ship Mayflower, with 102 passengers, landed in North America and started the colonisation of the area that became known as New England. The Mayflower had landed in a region where the Sachem of the local Wampanoag Nation was Massasoit, who subsequently helped them survive. In the autumn of 1676, following the defeat of a war of rebellion led by Massasoit’s son Metacomet (King Philip), the ship Seaflower set sail from New England with a ‘cargo’ of Indigenous American slaves bound for the English Caribbean colonies.

The creation of the New England colonies by thousands of English colonists in the seventeenth century involved the rapid decline in the indigenous population, the violent seizure of territory and slavery. However, the 400-year anniversary commemorations in the UK seem to be overlooking this. 

The Mayflower journey was part of Early English Colonialism:
• The invasions of Virginia, New England and the Caribbean were accompanied by land seizure wars against the Indigenous peoples of North America
• The economic success of New England depended on trade with the slave colonies of the Caribbean, and included the trafficking of slaves
• The colonists established a pattern of ‘extravagant’ violence in the wars they conducted against Indigenous Nations that was continued for 300 years
• The establishment of a tradition of sanitizing the story of English colonialism in the Americas that has lasted 400 years

Danny Reilly is a support tutor working in higher education and a volunteer ESOL teacher who has worked in a voluntary capacity for several refugee support groups. He has been an anti-racist activist for many years, a founder of the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism and worked at the Institute of Race Relations from 1977 to 1993 as information officer.

Steve Cushion is author of "The Hidden History of the Cuban Revolution: How the Working Class Shaped the Guerrillas’ Victory", "Killing Communists in Havana: The Start of the Cold War in Latin America" and "Up Down Turn Around: The Political Economy of Slavery and the Socialist case for Reparations". He is joint author, with Dennis Bartholomew, of "By Our Own Hands: A People’s History of the Grenadian Revolution". His current research is on German and Italian volunteers who fought in the French Resistance.
Attendance to this event is free of charge but registration is required- use link below

Monday, 29 October 2018

Victorian blogging - writing wrongs

Conway Hall Ethical Society presents:

Victorian Blogging – Writing Wrongs

Wednesday 31st October @ 7:00 pm - Wednesday 5th December
A series of Wednesday evening talks commencing 31 October and running until 5 December.
These talks are free. Please register for talks by clicking on the links below. 
Speakers: Prof. Joad Raymond, Dr Joseph Kelly, Dr Gregory Claeys, Prof. David Nash, Deborah Lavin & Viv Regan
Presented by Conway Hall Ethical Society and curated by Deborah Lavin.
This series of talks is part of the Heritage Lottery-funded project Victorian Blogging that will see our collection of over 1,300 nineteenth-century pamphlets digitised and made freely available online.
Forgotten at the back of dusty desk drawers, foxed in crumbling box-files on library shelves, these pamphlets disguise themselves as insubstantial ephemera of little consequence, but their flimsy pages and the words they contain have proved to be quite the opposite — the catalyst igniting revolutions, overthrowing governments, and altering the course of history. These talks reflect some of the myriad issues covered in our pamphlet collection including women’s rights, slavery, socialism, blasphemy laws and the parallels between these Victorian pamphleteers and contemporary bloggers.
Wednesdays, 31 October–5 December 2018, 19:00–20:30
31 October | Brockway Room 
Prof. Joad Raymond charts the rise of the pamphlet as a method to communicate alternative political ideas and challenge power in early modern Britain.
7 November | Brockway Room
Dr Joseph Kelly examines the problems faced by the slavery abolition movement in Britain after the 1830s in their efforts to eliminate slavery from the face of the earth.
14 November | Library* 
Dr Gregory Claeys considers whether, despite Marxism’s well-known rejection of earlier utopian socialism, Karl Marx might be termed a utopian thinker, and how some of his ideas were adapted but also built upon by the English socialist William Morris.
21 November | Brockway Room
Prof. David Nash traces the long battle to abolish the Blasphemy Laws in England, from the seventeenth century to their abolition in 2008 and how the concept of blasphemy affects us all today.
28 November | Library*
Deborah Lavin reveals how whilst opposition to contraception may have been blinkered and bigoted, it was also often liberal, radical, socialist and feminist.
5 December | Brockway Room
Viv Regan of Spiked will explore the threats to open debate and blogging online and discuss what has happened to the lost promise of internet freedom.
Deborah Lavin is an independent historian particularly interested in the conflicts between radicals and socialists in the nineteeth century. At Conway Hall, she has given various talks, mostly on issues connected to Charles Bradlaugh, Annie Besant and Karl Marx; she has also curated several talks series, most recently The British Business of Slavery and Stop the First World War.

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Seminar - Workers in the Cuban Revolution

Register for free here

For the full programme of events in the social history of revolutions series please see here

Friday, 5 October 2018

London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 65 (Autumn 2018) now online

The latest issue of the LSHG Newsletter is now online, featuring Keith Flett on 1968, John Newsinger reviewing a work on evangelical Christians in Trump's America and a review of Martin Empson's popular work 'Kill All the Gentlemen'.  There is also notice of a new book edited by Michael Rosen, Workers' Tales.   Letters, articles, criticisms and contributions to debate are most welcome. The deadline for the next issue is 1 December 2018 - please contact Keith Flett on the address above.  The LSHG receive no official funding and rely entirely on supporters for money for our activities. To become a member of the LSHG (cost £10) - please again contact Keith.  A reminder of our seminar programme is below.

LSHG SEMINARS Autumn 2018 

 All seminars will 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 without ticket although donations are welcome.

Monday 8 October Rupa Huq MP: from lecture room to Parliament: ‘From theory to practice : the difficulties of transitioning from teaching society and politics in the lecture hall/seminar to “doing “ it in Parliament.”

Monday 22 October Marika Sherwood: The beginning of the Cold War in Ghana (Gold Coast) in 1948

Monday 5 November John Newsinger: The Other Spirit of '45: War, Empire and the Attlee Governments

Monday 19 November Daryl Leeworthy Labour Country: Social Democracy's Roots and Possibilities.

Monday 3 December Keith Flett. 50 years since the Pelican paperback of The Making of the English Working Class. Still relevant?

New Book: Workers' Tales

Workers' Tales:  Socialist Fairy Tales, Fables, and Allegories from Great Britain (Oddly Modern Fairy Tales)
Michael Rosen  (Author), Jack Zipes (Author)
 Princeton University Press 
Paperback – 16 Oct 2018 
ISBN 978-0691175348 

Publishers's note: 

A collection of political tales—first published in British workers’ magazines—selected and introduced by acclaimed critic and author Michael Rosen

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, unique tales inspired by traditional literary forms appeared frequently in socialist-leaning British periodicals, such as the Clarion, Labour Leader, and Social Democrat. Based on familiar genres—the fairy tale, fable, allegory, parable, and moral tale—and penned by a range of lesser-known and celebrated authors, including Schalom Asch, Charles Allen Clarke, Frederick James Gould, and William Morris, these stories were meant to entertain readers of all ages—and some challenged the conventional values promoted in children’s literature for the middle class. In Workers’ Tales, acclaimed critic and author Michael Rosen brings together more than forty of the best and most enduring examples of these stories in one beautiful volume.

Throughout, the tales in this collection exemplify themes and ideas related to work and the class system, sometimes in wish-fulfilling ways. In “Tom Hickathrift,” a little, poor person gets the better of a gigantic, wealthy one. In “The Man Without a Heart,” a man learns about the value of basic labor after testing out more privileged lives. And in “The Political Economist and the Flowers,” two contrasting gardeners highlight the cold heart of Darwinian competition. Rosen’s informative introduction describes how such tales advocated for contemporary progressive causes and countered the dominant celebration of Britain’s imperial values. The book includes archival illustrations, biographical notes about the writers, and details about the periodicals where the tales first appeared.

Provocative and enlightening, Workers’ Tales presents voices of resistance that are more relevant than ever before.

Land and Freedom

Book Review from the London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 65 (Autumn 2018)

‘Kill all the Gentlemen’ Class struggle and change in the English countryside 
By Martin Empson
Paperback, 314 pages
Bookmarks, 2018
ISBN: 9781910885697

Martin Empson is well known as a socialist campaigner against climate change, and writes with deep passion about how ‘under capitalism, everything from land and water to plants and animals is turned into a commodity’ and ‘capitalism transformed everything about rural life and agriculture’.

For some activists in the environmental movement, and others, the solution to present day environmental destruction is either to try and go back to some preindustrial mythical idyll, or at the very least to simply romanticise more pastoral agrarian societies that existed before the rise of capitalism.

A warning about where such backward looking thinking can potentially lead might be seen from the intellectual evolution of environmental campaigning writer Paul Kingsnorth – who over the past fifteen years has gone from celebrating the global anti-capitalist movement (see his 2003 work One No, Many Yeses) to an essentially reactionary obsession with a search for ‘Real England’ and a call for a ‘patriotic’, ‘benevolent green [English] nationalism’ as ‘to tie our ecological identity in with our cultural identity’.

As a Marxist, Empson’s history of ‘class struggle and change in the English countryside’ is therefore a timely and welcome antidote to any such backward-looking thinking that national ‘cultural identity’ is something essentially static or timeless, and not forever in flux and evolution.  Empson’s work is not about a mythical lost ‘Merrie England’ but rather takes as its focus rural class struggles from below, and provides a superb synthesis of a mass of material across the best part of a millennium.

Empson notes that ‘the struggles of the rural population did not begin with the development of capitalism’, for ‘the rights and traditions that the English peasantry had were rooted in much earlier battles’, indeed he begins with a detailed discussion of ‘the first great mass rebellion of ordinary people against the feudal system’, the Peasants’ Revolt’ of 1381.

Empson’s work fuses the spirit and analysis of classic socialist and Marxist historiography on the Peasants’ Revolt by the likes of Reg Groves, Phillip Lindsey and Rodney Hilton with more recent scholarship by Juliet Barker and others to give a detailed and thoughtful overview of this famous uprising – and its brutal, bloody crushing by the feudal overlords.  ‘The ruling class never forgot the few weeks when the peasant masses managed to capture some of their most important towns and cities and killed many senior figures’, Empson writes.

There are detailed character sketches of the key rebel leaders like John Ball, Jack Straw and Wat Tyler, while personally as someone who was born in Bury St Edmunds - today a fairly sleepy market town marketed as ‘the Jewel of Suffolk’ by the local tourist board – it was thrilling to read Empson’s account of the local revolt led by former priest John Wrawe during 1381.   

Indeed, after reading Empson’s book one cannot help but be reminded that every sleepy English village or market town one might pass through today would have seen some kind of ‘now open, now hidden’ class struggle over land and freedom at some point.  

In these early revolts, inevitably those who rebelled went wider than just the very poorest in society, and ‘on occasion even members of the gentry, such as Sir Roger Bacon, joined in’ the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. This was a factor even more emphasised in Jack Cade’s revolt of 1450 with its epicentre in and around Kent, and which saw a rebel army form and put forward ‘a series of radical demands by a cross section of the population that wanted an end to the abuses and corruption of Henry VI’s reign’.   Yet as Empson notes, the emergence of a middling sort as a social group in opposition to the rich and powerful ‘could not and would not have stormed London and forced the king to flee without the involvement of thousands of men and women who had their own fears and dreams’ based around ideas of common ownership, and ‘who continued to rise and resist the king’ even after the Cade rebellion had been defeated.

But by the time of the Pilgrimage of Grace, part of the wider Lincolnshire rebellion beginning in 1536 got going, it was not long before ‘the gentry had taken leading roles in the uprising’, with the consent of ‘the commons’.   Yet the gentry in this struggle had a different strategy to that of the commons – to play for time and encourage the king to issue a pardon – and as Empson notes, ‘They wrote to the king’s commander “claiming that their strategy was to divert the commons’ energy into petitioning and waiting for an answer at Lincoln rather than marching further south”.’

And so ‘despite a large army – 10,000 marched to Lincoln … the gentry were able to eventually make the rebels return home’.  As the risings spread over the next few months more nationally, and new leaders emerged, such as Robert Aske in York, Empson notes ‘the commons failed to develop their own leadership which would have allowed the rank and file to push forward where the gentry hesitated’.

Though defeated for the time being, many in the commons began to understand  now clearly how ‘the gentlemen’ would tend to betray their often mass and impressive struggles.   

This is where the title of Empson’s book now emerges from, as the slogan ‘Kill the Gentlemen’ first appeared in the Lincolnshire rising of 1536 – and popped up repeatedly in subsequent revolts in the Tudor period.  As a bill posted in Leeds in 1537 put it, summing up the lessons of the class struggle to that date, ‘Commons, keep well your harness.  Trust you no gentlemen.  Rise all at once’.

It might have been interesting if Empson had expanded a little more on the ideas and ideology of the early rebels – from what was meant by the ideas of ‘the commons’, which pops up repeatedly in the slogans of these early revolts – critically engaging perhaps with the work of Peter Linebaugh – to other ideas around what Christopher Hill called the ‘myth of the Norman Yoke’, the myths and legends around Robin Hood, and what this character came to symbolise for the rural poor in the face of enclosure, injustice and oppression.  

One gentleman who seems to have bucked the general trend in terms of betrayal, the exception who proves the rule perhaps, was Robert Kett, leader of what became known as Kett’s Rebellion in 1549 in and around Norwich, part of a wider year of peasant rebellion and ‘commotion time’ which also saw the more religious ‘Prayer Book Rebellion’ around Exeter.  However this period began to see the rise of capitalist agriculture with the English Civil War,  the development of more individualistic minded yeoman farmers amid the ‘liquidation of the peasantry’ through enclosure of the common land for the benefit of landowners.  Empson introduces both the debate among Marxists around ‘the transition from feudalism to capitalism’ as well as more critically pointing out the human cost of this transition – as he notes, this form of enclosure ‘broke people from their traditional use of the land, destroyed communities and forced people off the land, turning them into wage labourers’.   

Between 1793 to 1815, almost 9 percent of England was enclosed by Act of Parliament – part of the British ruling class’s ‘civilising mission’ to ‘modernise’ just as much as its colonial expansion overseas.  And like the British Empire faced colonial resistance and revolt, so ‘the development of capitalist agriculture and capitalist relations in the countryside was fought ever step of the way’ in Britain, with riots over customary rights and the production and control of food.

Indeed, General Thomas Maitland had been part of the British Empire’s doomed attempt to recolonise and reimpose slavery on revolutionary Saint-Domingue in the 1790s during the Haitian Revolution – and then was in overall command of repressing the Luddite rebellion in the North of England in 1812, before going on to be a colonial governor in Malta and what is now Sri Lanka.   

Empson details famous movements such as Luddism, Swing, and the Tolpuddle Martyrs amid the general ‘rise of the rural proletariat’ and then the long, patient, struggle for agricultural workers’ trade unionism in the latter half of the nineteenth century – often waged initially by liberals like Joseph Arch.  As Empson tellingly notes, the popular commemoration of the Tolpuddle Martyrs by the wider trade union movement ‘contrasts almost completely with the way that the victims of the repression that followed Captain Swing a few years before have been forgotten’.

Empson’s work – impressive in its mastery of so many different struggles over so many centuries and in many ways reminiscent of classic works such as A L Morton’s A People’s History of England and the more recent A Radical History of Britain by Ted Vallance – will hopefully inspire further research and recovery of other ‘forgotten fighters’ for land and liberty in the English countryside.  

Christian Høgsbjerg