Monday, 12 October 2020

The early British Communist leaders

The foundation of the British Communist Party as a section of the Comintern in 1920 promised progress for international socialism. If that promise went unfulfilled, its centenary merits critical commemoration. In that context, the article below may be of interest. It analyses the foundation cadre; discusses some of the party’s leading architects, frequently forgotten or briefly referred to in existing accounts; and explores in human terms the difficulties of creating a revolutionary leadership in Britain in the early 1920s.

John McIlroy and Alan Campbell, ‘The early British Communist leaders: a prosopographical exploration’, Labor History at: https://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/DAMMVDTIMTIICD4XW7I6/full?target=10.1080/0023656X.2020.1818711

Monday, 21 September 2020

London Socialist Historians Group seminars Autumn 2020

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London Socialist Historians Group

Autumn Term 2020 Seminars

Revisiting some key issues & figures in socialist history


Oct 12th Rhys Williams, Tom Mann and Australia: 1902 to 1909


Book (free) at the link below. Once the short form is filled in & submitted you will be e-mailed a link to the meeting details:

https://www.history.ac.uk/events/tom-mann-and-australia-1902-1909


Nov 9th Mark Hailwood, ‘Between 5 and 6 of the clock': Time-telling, Time-use and Time-discipline in Pre-industrial England'


Dec 7th Keith Flett, 150 years since the death of William Cuffay black leader of London Chartism in 1848. Has he been ignored by socialist historians?


All Seminars start at 5.30pm via Zoom

Registration details will be provided ahead of each seminar


The Autumn LSHG newsletter will appear during October. Contributions, complaints, letters and notices are all welcome preferably by early October - please contact Keith Flett at the address above for more info thanks 

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

David Starkey's 'apology' not accepted


The London Socialist Historians Group, which organises the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in central London has said that David Starkey’s apology for comments he made about slavery and Black Lives Matter doesn’t go far enough
The comments were made in a  widely publicised YouTube interview on Thursday July 2nd when Starkey made a number of bigoted comments about the Black Lives Matters movement. The interviewer Darren Grimes has since apologised himself for not picking up Starkey up at the time.
The historians say that while Starkey has apologised ‘unreservedly’ for his most recent outburst his record of making racist comments stretches back a good number of years. The BBC received many complaints when Starkey offered a qualified defence of Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech on Newsnight in 2011.
Moreover he needs to accept that simply rubbishing the idea of black Tudor history is not appropriate. In the interview he suggested that Dr Miranda Kaufman’s book on the Black Tudors consisted of chapters that were half in italics because there was little historical evidence. In fact the first paragraph of each chapter is italicised and the remainder is copiously footnoted
London Socialist Historians convenor Dr Keith Flett said, David Starkey’s apology mostly about the impact on himself. The media need to stop using him as a ‘go to’ historian on matters about which he has no specialist knowledge. He needs to acknowledge that it is not what his remarks have ‘cost’ him but their impact in reinforcing racist ideas. A period of silence from Dr Starkey while he returns to the archives to review the evidence for black Tudor history would be very welcome.
For more please contact Keith Flett at the address above.  

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