Tuesday, 25 July 2017

SHS meeting - Thomas Spence and the Land Question

Thomas Spence and the Land Question
Speaker Professor Malcolm Chase
2pm, Saturday 29th July 2017
Venue: Marx Memorial Library, 37a Clerkenwell Green, London EC1R 0DU
Malcolm is Professor of Social History at the University of Leeds. He has written extensively on Thomas Spence, including a recent article ‘The real rights of man: Thomas Spence,Paine and Chartism’ and his first book The People’s Farm: English Radical Agrarianism, 1775-1840 (1988), of which a new edition was recently published. His other books include The Chartists: perspectives and legacies (2015) and Chartism: A New History (2007).
 He is Vice-President of the Society for the Study of Labour History and a member of the SHS.
Admission free, retiring collection, all welcome


Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The Battle of Lewisham 1977 - Forty years on

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 Darcus Howe at the Battle of Lewisham, August 1977

 The Battle of Lewisham - Reunion - How we stopped the Nazi NF

Fb event:  https://en-gb.facebook.com/events/133868593825540/
  • Saturday 12 August at 13:0016:30 UTC+01

  • Clifton Rise, London, SE14 6, United Kingdom
Forty years ago this August, thousands of anti fascists and locals from South East London stopped the fascists of the National Front from marching.  The National Front hoped that by demonstrating in Lewisham – an area with a high proportion of Afro Caribbeans – they would further intimidate minorities. The fascists, however, were to receive a rude awakening. The victory was critical in beating back the rise in racism and fascism. Saturday 13th August, 1977 helped set back the fascists for a generation.
The far right had become, pre Lewisham, mainstream in the media, in political life and often, in popular culture. In 1977, the National Front received over 100,000 votes in London elections.
The historic day in Lewisham, itself, saw trades unionists, socialists, Labour Party members, and crucially, many people from Lewisham itself, come together to say enough is enough.
Up to 10,000 people joined in to oppose the NF. All the fascists possible routes were continually blocked, NF banners were burned, and Bob Marley was played. The counter demo became a great example of black and white unity.
Nazi organizations such as the NF, believed that they could build a mass movement based upon racial prejudices and racist violence. They were wrong, and they were defeated.
Ted Parker who took part in the battle, mentions, “Thereafter the NF never again posed a serious political threat. Lewisham led directly to the formation of the Anti Nazi League (ANL) which, together with Rock Against Racism (RAR), and nowadays Love Music Hate Racism mobilised hundreds of thousands in collective expressions of solidarity between those of differing cultures and ethnic backgrounds. Organised racism was marginalised for the next quarter of a century”

Come and march and meet with some of the key individuals, who alongside many others, helped beat back the rise in racism and the fascists who fed off such poison.
People who played a critical role at Lewisham and some who helped form the Anti Nazi League (ANL), will recall the day the Nazis were stopped from marching and why it matters today. We'll assemble at Clifton Rise, a key location on the day.
The united front of socialists, trades unionists, Labour members... anyone against the Nazis, that was the ANL, was inspired from Lewisham. Alongside Rock Against Racism, the ANL was crucial in undercutting the then growing NF.
The ANL combined physically confronting the Nazis wherever they raised their ugly heads with powerful propaganda exposing the little Hitlers. It was a mass movement, that faced with the challenges posed by Le Pen, Golden Dawn and Jobbik, still reasonates. Please share this event, invite your friends, let's celebrate the victory and ensure today's fascists are defeated.

Hosted by Unite Against Fascism

See also the commemorations being organised by Goldsmiths College - here: 

Remobilising militant pasts: Histories of Protest, Unrest and Insurrection in Politics and Culture

Remobilising militant pasts: Histories of Protest, Unrest and Insurrection in Politics and Culture

Kings College London - 31 August - 1 September 2017

For programme and registration details please see here:


Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Must Britain Travel the Moscow Road? The British Left and the Russian Revolution

 As well as Marxism 2017, in central London from 6-9 July, tickets are now on sale for ‘Must Britain Travel the Moscow Road? The British Left and the Russian Revolution’, taking place on Monday 10th July at the British Library. More information, including the programme of the day is available at: https://www.bl.uk/events/must-britain-travel-the-moscow-road-the-british-left-and-the-russian-revolution

What did H G Wells and Sylvia Pankhurst find on their visits to the first Communist state? What was it like being brought up in a Communist family in Britain following the events of 1917? Join writer and broadcaster David Aaronovitch alongside historians and archivists to uncover the effect of the Revolution on British socialists.

The Russian Revolution and the birth of the Soviet state had a deep and enduring impact on the British Left, which continues to shape socialist politics to this day. Socialists in Britain watched the unexpected events of 1917 with amazement and confusion, and struggled to draw lessons for themselves. The Bolsheviks, meanwhile, saw the nations of the British Empire as key targets through which their revolt could spread, hoping to spark a world-wide revolution. At this packed day of talks, historians and archivists uncover stories and records of their responses at home, and visits made to witness the new state at first hand.  Writer and broadcaster David Aaronovitch concludes the day with an account of his upbringing in a loyal Communist family in Britain.

09.00 - Registration and coffee                 

09.30 – 10.15  - Dr Jonathan Davis (Anglia Ruskin University) opening keynote: ‘A new star of hope has arisen over Europe’: British Labour and the Russian Revolutions

10.15 – 11.00 - Dr Billy Kenefick (University of Dundee): The Scottish Radical Left and the impact of the Russian Revolution

11.00 – 11.20 - Coffee/tea break

11.20 – 13.00 - Dr John S. Partington (University of Reading): One Russia, Two Reflexions: H. G. Wells and Clara Zetkin on the Soviet Experiment, 1917-1934
Professor Mary Davis (Visiting Professor of Labour History, Royal Holloway, University of London): Sylvia Pankhurst and the Russian Revolution; Pioneering Solidarity

13.00- 14.15 - Lunch (not included)

14.15 – 15.30 - Short introductions to British Left archives and resources with Ralph Gibson (Society for Co-operation in Russian and Soviet Studies), Jeff Howarth (TUC Library), Meirian Jump (Marx Memorial Library) and Katya Rogatchevskaia (British Library)

15.30 – 15.50 - Coffee/tea break 

15.50 – 16.30 - David Aaronovitch concludes the day with an account of his upbringing in a loyal Communist family in Britain – a life filled with picket lines, militant trade unions, solidarity rallies for foreign Communists, the Red Army Choir, copies of the Daily Worker, all underpinned by a quiet love of the Soviet Union. He is the author of the recent autobiography Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists.

A temporary display The Russian Revolution and its impact on the course and outcome of WWI will be available to view at this event. This Heritage Lottery funded exhibition on the impact of the Russian Revolution 1917-22 looks at the two revolutions of 1917, their effect on WW1, the ensuing Wars of Intervention and Labour Movement responses in Britain and elsewhere in Europe.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

LSHG Newsletter #61 (Summer 2017) now online

The Summer 2017 edition of the London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter #61 is now online, and for some reason - possibly related to an upcoming general election - it has more of a distinctly anti-Tory feel to it than usual.

It leads with Keith Flett recalling the 1997 General Election on its twentieth anniversary, and noting that a new exhibition about the election is on at People's History Museum in Manchester. Last month saw the 40th anniversary of 'The Battle of Wood Green' when anti-fascists including then local councillor Jeremy Corbyn (whatever happened to him?) mobilised against the Nazi National Front and Flett also registers this anniversary and muses on the issues arising from recording such events for the historical record - see here.

Ian Birchall also contributes a memoir about his experiences of attending a grammar school in Bradford in light of Theresa May's love for them - see here, while also reviewing two books relating to timely and urgent themes of anti-racism, anti-fascism and French history - The Last Days of New Paris by China Mieville and The Disappearances of Emile Zola by Michael Rosen. Letters, articles, criticisms and contributions to debate are most welcome - the deadline for the next issue of the LSHG Newsletter is 1 September 2017.

 Some upcoming Events / Seminars

The Annual Levellers Day will take place in Burford, Oxfordshire on Saturday 20 May. See here

Monday May 22nd - LSHG Summer Seminar - The Making of the Russian Revolution (why Lenin should have said ‘I’m not a Leninist') - Neil Faulkner - held at the Institute of Historical Research IHR Seminar Room 304, Third Floor, IHR, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU All welcome - no need to book in advance - email Keith Flett at the address above for more info Time: 5.30pm

Marxism 2017 - 6-9 July, central London - provisional programme now available to download - see here - highlights for socialist historians include plenty of meetings of interest, including lots on the legacy of the Russian Revolution on its centenary including Dave Sherry on his new book - Russia 1917: Workers’ Revolution and the Festival of the Oppressed, Sean Sayers on Marx and teleology and John Newsinger on his new book - One Big Union of All the Workers: Solidarity and the Fighting Industrial Workers of the World

Book Review - The Disappearance of Émile Zola

[From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter #61 Summer 2017]


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The Disappearance of Émile Zola 
by Michael Rosen
Faber & Faber, London, 2017
£16.99, 302pp ISBN 978-0-571-31201-6

The low points of journalism are all too familiar, the Guardian’s vile vendetta against Jeremy Corbyn being just one more instance. But political journalism has its high points too, and one of the finest examples, still remembered and cited more than a hundred years later, is Émile Zola’s J’Accuse of 1898, a passionate polemic against army corruption and anti-Semitism and in defence of the wrongfully imprisoned Alfred Dreyfus.

Much has been written on the Dreyfus case (and this book contains a valuable bibliography) but Michael Rosen’s new book offers an interesting perspective by giving an account of the time Zola spent in England. After being found guilty of libel, Zola was advised by friends to evade prison by escaping to England where he spent ten and a half months living incognito. Rosen has reconstructed this period of exile using a range of sources, including Zola’s correspondence and accounts by his daughter and his friend and translator Ernest Vizetelly.

In many ways Zola found his stay disconcerting; he did not think much of English food. He had to deal with a complicated family life. For many years he had been married to Alexandrine, but their union had been childless. More recently he had embarked on a relationship with Jeanne Rozerot, with whom he had two children.

Though Zola was an enlightened and progressive thinker, he did not escape the assumptions of his time about gender, as shown by his comments on the children: as he wrote to Jeanne: “I really want my little Denise not to do much at all and that later she will be happy to be a good little wife. But I would be very sad if our Jacques was just lazy and ignorant.”

Zola was a remarkably prolific writer and he did not allow exile to disrupt his productivity. He had a rule of writing five pages every day. During his time in England he produced some 1006 handwritten pages, which became a 751-page novel. This was Fécondité (Fertility), the first volume of his final novel cycle, entitled without undue modesty The Four Gospels. This strange and little read volume is a prolonged polemic against abortion, sterilisation, birth control and all attempts to limit population. As Rosen points out, this had clear implications of colonialism; if everyone were to turn out children at the rate Zola advocated, then the French population would have to spill over into the rest of the world. And as Rosen also notes, Zola was working in exactly the opposite direction to some of his British contemporaries like Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, who were campaigning in favour of birth control.

Some of the most interesting fruits of Rosen’s research are quotations from the British left press of the time, showing the support given to Dreyfus by the labour movement. He quotes an article from the periodical of the Social Democratic Federation, contrasting Zola and the defenders of Dreyfus to the absence of opposition to the Boer War; Fabian News commended both Zola’s literary work and his intervention in the Dreyfus case. He has also looked at the often ephemeral Yiddish-language socialist press. Thus the Yiddisher Express analysed Zola’s role as leader of the defence of Dreyfus. And in 1902 a leaflet in Yiddish issued by the East London Jewish branch of the Social Democratic Federation urged Jews in Dublin to support James Connolly in an election; it invoked Dreyfus in support of the proposition that “The Socialists are the only ones who stand always and everywhere against every national oppression”.

The significance of Zola’s intervention in the Dreyfus case must be understood in the context of the initial failure of the French left to take up the issue. French socialists and syndicalists were not free of anti-Semitism, and often lapsed into a crude class analysis which argued that Dreyfus did not merit support because he was a wealthy army officer. Rosen traces the rather slow evolution of leading Socialist Jean Jaurès – often treated as a near saint – who initially claimed that Dreyfus escaped the death penalty thanks to the “prodigious deployment of Jewish power”, before becoming one of Dreyfus's most persuasive supporters.

Rosen believes the defence of Dreyfus helped to create “a new kind of politics … combining ideas that were internationalist, against poverty, against injustice and against what we now call racial discrimination”. But perhaps he is too optimistic. The formation of a broad united front in support of Dreyfus was undoubtedly positive, if somewhat belated. But support for Dreyfus did not necessarily imply a commitment to the broader struggle for social justice. Clemenceau, whom Rosen quite correctly presents as being a strong supporter of Zola and Dreyfus, became Minister of the Interior in 1906, and was responsible for sending troops who fired on winegrowers in Southern France. Zola (by then dead), who had depicted the use of soldiers against striking miners in Germinal, would scarcely have approved.

Rosen recognises that Zola could be “egotistical” and “irritating”, but nonetheless sees him as a “hero in my eyes”. Above all Rosen’s account is written with passionate support for Zola’s opposition to anti-Semitism, and there are various references to Rosen’s own family history, including a dedication to relatives who perished in the Holocaust. For Dreyfus was only an episode – Dreyfus’s enemies suffered a temporary defeat but they took their revenge during the German Occupation in 1940-44, when they were among Hitler’s very willing helpers. And though under some mild constraints, their descendants are undoubtedly present in the ranks of Marine Le Pen’s Front National.

Rosen’s book is a powerful account of what a principled and courageous journalist could achieve. It should be compulsory reading for staff at the Guardian.

Ian Birchall

Book Review - The Last Days of New Paris

 [From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter #61 Summer 2017]


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The Last Days of New Paris
By China Miéville
Picador, London, 2016, £12.99, 207pp
ISBN 978-1-4472-9657-7

That historical novels can offer insights and perspectives to historians is widely recognised. The case of China Miéville is a bit more complex. Miéville has a deserved reputation as a writer of fantasy or “weird fiction” – he is also a political activist, now associated with the journal Salvage. His latest work, a short novel – novella – presents an alternative history set in the mid-twentieth century.

It is 1950, but Paris is still occupied by the Germans and violent, vicious warfare persists between the occupiers and the forces of the Resistance. But the Resistance have mobilised what are described as “manifs”, weapons based on Surrealist artworks. Miéville’s narrative powerfully evokes the strange world of wartorn Paris, with sentences like: “As Thibaut cowered and watched the wings beat down on them and they gasped and tried to run she had said something else and made a caterpillar longer and fatter than a horse with the head of wicked bird, and it rippled after the eagle over the shattered brick.” The book is full of what Miéville calls “living art” and even “artflesh”. By presenting an
alternative history, Miéville insists that history is not fixed, but that there are alternatives ahead of us; his central character, Thibaut, concludes that he has a “mission” : “Start from scratch, redo history, make it mine”.

Miéville’s account is presented on the basis of a detailed map of Paris, complete with street names. But some features are changed. The Sacré-Coeur, built to celebrate the crushing of the Paris Commune, is (following a suggestion by André Breton), painted black and turned into a tram depot. Doubtless it would be possible to read this book, as the cover blurb suggests, simply as a “thriller”. But Miéville repeatedly reminds us of a historical fact – that the Surrealists were not just an artistic movement, but that they had a deep political commitment; they saw themselves as a political as well as an artistic movement (and they had more splits and expulsions than most Trotskyist organisations).

Miéville makes his intentions clear with a detailed appendix (amounting to a tenth of the total length of the book) in which he gives references to the various artworks featured in the narrative. This is a work of considerable erudition. (I found only one error, which I report with due humility since I have made the same mistake myself – the Cuban painter Wifredo Lam is misnamed as Wilfredo.)

To take just one example, the novel features the “wolf table” designed by the Romanian Surrealist painter Victor Brauner, in which a table acquires the head, tail and testicles of a wolf. It is a great pity that Miéville was not able to produce an illustrated edition of his story, but virtually all the images referred to in the book can be seen in a fascinating collection by Nicky Martin available here. The wolf-table is here. The only picture in the volume is of the “exquisite corpse” – a Surrealist visual version of “Consequences” in which various elements are combined at random to make a fantastic body. (See here )

There is a secondary narrative, set in Marseille in 1941. Southern France was not yet occupied by the Germans, and various anti-fascists, including Surrealists like André Breton, as well as others like Victor Serge (who gets a couple of name-checks in the story) had gathered there in the hope of getting a boat to the American continent. (Eventually Breton, Serge and Claude Lévi-Strauss all escaped on the same boat.)

Miéville introduces the historical figure of Varian Fry, a heroic individual who did so much to enable European intellectuals to escape death at the hands of the Nazis. Yet, with an eye to our present world, Miéville also points to the limitations of Fry’s project: “His Emergency Rescue Committee focused, not without shame, on artists and intellectuals. As if the baker, the sewage worker, the nursery teacher didn’t deserve help, too, Fry thought, many times.”

Miéville reminds us several times of Surrealism’s links with Trotsky (Breton visited Trotsky in Mexico in 1938 and subsequently the International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Artists was founded) and refers to the “redoubtable Trotskyist Benjamin Péret”. Yet in describing the warfare he constantly equates Germans and “Nazis”. But most German soldiers were not Nazis – they too were victims of Hitler, and came from a country which less than a generation earlier had been on the brink of socialist revolution. Hence the Trotskyist strategy of trying to fraternise with German workers in uniform. But there is no place for this in Miéville’s narrative. Only in the appendix does he remind us of the Surrealists Claude Cahun and Suzanne Malherbe in Jersey, who distributed “flyers and coins painted with anti-Hitler slogans into soldiers’ pockets and through their car windows” in the hope of encouraging “a spirit of mutiny” among the German forces.

But if Miéville’s book encourages a greater interest in the politics of Surrealism and the complex undercurrents of resistance to fascism, it will have served its purpose.

Ian Birchall