Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival 2012
The tiny Dorset village has been a place of pilgrimage for trade unionists and socialists ever since the Martyrs' came home in triumph. The festival is a popular mix of political discussion and speeches, great music to suit all tastes, entertainment for all the family and the traditional procession of banners, wreath laying and Methodist service.
There is also a Radical History School in Tolpuddle - 'Paths of Protest', from 12-14 July.
Past Pixels have produced a series of five greetings cards featuring images of leading Chartists.
The five Chartists featured are Feargus O’Connor, John Frost, Ernest Jones, William Cuffay and Bronterre O’Brien.
The cards are in memory of Dorothy Thompson [1923- 2011] the leading historian of Chartism who also published a book of Chartist images.
The pictures are all officially sourced and are printed by unionised labour using vegetable based inks. One might argue that with the price of stamps being hiked the demand for such cards is likely to be limited but this is rather missing the point.
Many will wish to collect rather than send the five cards and there remains a considerable market for labour movement memorabilia, cards, plates and badges which dates back to the Chartist period itself. Without wishing to transgress into the area of art history, the images of the Chartist leaders do tell us a fair bit historically about what kind of people these were.
The picture of Ernest Jones shows him to be every bit the lawyer and gentleman leader. The same is true of the card depicting Feargus O’Connor. Cuffay’s portrait is the well known picture of him from the National Portrait Gallery, indicating a well dressed man in a prison cell after his 1848 conviction.
The cards represent a very useful way of taking our history off the printed page and reinforcing it as a series of images. In age which like the Chartist period itself is increasingly visual, that represents valuable work.
Review: Bradlaugh contra Marx:Radicalism and Socialism in the First International By Deborah Lavin Socialist History Society Occasional Publication No 28, London 2011, 86 pages paperback £4 ISBN 9780955513848
The National Secular Society and the politics of atheism constitute a feature of modern British society, thanks to the work of Richard Dawkins and others. The NSS was founded by Charles Bradlaugh in 1866, yet he remains a relatively obscure historical figure in the early twenty-first century.
Deborah Lavin has produced some important new research on Bradlaugh’s role in late Victorian politics and Marx’s successful battle to keep him off the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association.
Lavin’s book is a work of historical recovery and I won’t spoil it for readers by providing a blow by blow account. Suffice to say she traces Bradlaugh’s progress from a rising young radical in the 1850s, through his early job as a clerk for a dodgy solicitor, to his position as probably the most charismatic radical platform speaker of the day and eventually Liberal MP for Northampton.
Lavin argues that at every turn his actual activities were far less honourable and radical than it appeared to his audience of artisans and craft workers. She notes that while he risked jail with Annie Besant for publishing James Knowlton’s book on contraception The Fruits of Philosophy, in reality he was a neo-
Malthusian not an advocate of the rights of working class women. Further he was reasonably sure, as turned out to be the case, that he would not actually serve a jail term.
When it comes to Bradlaugh’s long battle not to swear an oath on the Bible as an MP but affirm, Lavin does not deny his tenacity but points out that from the first, he was prepared when it came to it, to swear on the Bible.
In short, Bradlaugh’s radical image was rather different from his actual practice. It was his politics that drew the attention of Marx. In the 1850s a young Bradlaugh and Marx shared some political positions, for example around the Sunday Trading riots.
Bradlaugh did not fully articulate his anti-socialist and pro-individualist politics until his debates with H.M. Hyndman in the 1880s. In between he became perhaps the leading opponent of socialist politics in the radical and working class movement.
Marx clashed with Bradlaugh, particularly concerning the Paris Commune of which Marx was a prominent defender, while Bradlaugh was a leading opponent and supporter of the French Government.
This clash is at the centre of Lavin’s work. Bradlaugh was a very well known figure in late nineteenth Victorian politics. Marx, by contrast, was largely unknown. As Lavin points out, it was more or less impossible for a radical worker to get access to any writings of Marx in English in this period. Marx was known to the English authorities but not to a working class audience.
Yet in the International Working Men’s Association Marx had built the leading organisation for radical working class political sentiment. If Bradlaugh was to cement his position as the leading figure of Victorian radical working-class politics he needed to play a role in it.
Lavin shows that Marx went to great efforts to block Bradlaugh and his supporters from the IWMA, an endeavour in which he was successful. This is a work of historical re-discovery, as neither the Collected Works of Marx nor books on him make much play of the dispute between the two men.
In general Lavin makes a good argument for the existence of the dispute and its importance, although on occasions she strays over into polemic in favour of Marx’s position against Bradlaugh. I don’t have an issue about that but it doesn’t really strengthen the historical points being made.
In fact Lavin’s case may well have been strengthened by arguing a case for the importance of Bradlaugh. The National Secular Society may well have been the leading proletarian organisation in London in the later 1860s and 1870s. The fact that the majority of its supporters held ideas which were opposed to those of Marx, underlines why he was so interested in Bradlaugh and vice versa.
Even so this is an important piece of research that deserves a wide audience.
Britain’s entry into the 1914-18 war and the role of individuals: A response to Neil Faulkner by Harry Ratner From LSHG Newsletter #45 (Summer 2012)
[In the Spring 2009 LSHG Newsletter Neil Faulkner responded critically to my article ‘1914 and the Role of the Individual’ dealing with Britain’s entry into World War I and the role of Lloyd George and the British cabinet. My excuse/ explanation for my tardiness in responding to his critique is that for some reason I must have not received or mislaid and forgotten the newsletter issue containing Neil’s article and only read it a few weeks ago. But better late than never, so here goes!]
Neil completely misconstrues the purpose of my article. He writes Harry’s approach involves, at various points, an uncoupling of things that are dialectically linked, for instance, by distinguishing sharply between approaches which stress the 'determinist’ element in history (‘the unfolding of objective laws’) and those which stress the ’voluntarist’ (‘the importance of the individual’.)
In fact, I argued just the opposite: One of the problems facing socialist historians – particularly Marxist historians – is what weight to give to the two strands in Marxism, the determinist and the voluntarist; and how to reconcile the two.
I drew attention to the paradox that thousands of Marxists who accepted the Marxist view that communism is historically determined by the objective laws of history to become the next stage of society should have given their lives, risked torture and imprisonment for something that would come about anyway, irrespective of their subjective desires because it was determined by objective laws – why not just opt out of the struggle and enjoy life as the revolution would succeed anyway?
If, according to Plekhanov, the presence or absence of even great men like Robespierre and Napoleon (and by implication Lenin and Trotsky) could not fundamentally alter the course of history but only its details why should Harry Ratner or Neil Faulkner bother themselves with trying to understand and influence events? My dropping out of the Trotskyist movement and lapsing into inactivity years ago was prompted by such a ‘determinist’ interpretation of Marxism.
Since then I realised I was wrong and now accept that the actions of even the lowliest individual CAN have an effect – how big or small an effect depends largely on the overall objective conditions and the individual’s place in society. Since then I have tried to fit in this understanding of the role of the individual into an overall view of history — in other words, how the actions of individuals fit in or mesh with the action of large-scale social forces. This was the purpose of my article.
I stated that I believe it is possible to reconcile the determinist and voluntarist strands. I will look at the factors leading to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 and, particularly Britain’s entry into the war to argue that a holistic view of history is better than a strictly economic reductionist one or a purely voluntarist one.
There are two ways of describing historical events. One is to concentrate on large scale social forces and entities – capitalism, nationalism, religious and ethnic conflicts etc. and in the process try to work out objective laws that govern developments. The other way is to concentrate on the actions of individuals (the ‘great men’ approach) One can describe these different approaches as the determinist and voluntarist approaches or the bird’s eye view and the worm’s eye view. Both are valid approaches. The problem is how they mesh and this is the problem I have been trying to grapple with.
Both approaches are incomplete on their own. To explain the 1914 war (or any other event) purely in terms of impersonal socio-economic forces is incomplete. The guns didn’t go off by themselves – persons had to fire them and other persons had to order them to fire; armies did not assemble themselves and march off to the fronts unless ordered to do so. And these orders came eventually from governments via a chain of command.
And these governments were made up of conscious, thinking human beings. A film or theatrical producer making a film or putting on a play describing the outbreak of war would need a cast of characters; these would portray actual people, politicians, generals, monarchs, soldiers etc. S/he would not have characters called ‘capitalism’, ‘nationalism’ etc. striding the stage and issuing commands – unless, of course, he was writing an allegorical play. But then everyone would know that this was an incomplete and one-sided explanation.
Let me reassure Neil again; I am not denying that socio-economic factors are major factors in causing wars or determining when and how they break out. But we must never forget that these factors act through human beings. In other words, the actions of individuals and groups of individuals, organised in governments and armies, are necessary links in the network of causes and effects that constitutes history.
It is also necessary to remember that so-called impersonal forces, capitalism, market forces, etc are not physical entities in themselves but ways in which human beings react with each other and the laws that govern their inter-relations. For example take the laws of the market, the laws that determine exchange value. On the one hand it is absolutely correct to argue that the price of a commodity is determined in general and in the long run by its cost of production, whether this is measured according to Marx by the socially necessary labour needed to produce it, or according to bourgeois economists by other factors. On the other hand it is also a fact that in each individual case the price at which a commodity is bought and sold is dependent on the buyer and seller mutually agreeing the price.The transaction depends on the conscious actions of individuals who are also influenced by secondary, non economic factors.
THE ACTIONS OF HUMAN BEINGS ARE NECESSARY LINKS IN THE NETWORKS OF CAUSE AND EFFECT. And because flesh and blood human beings are not purely rational economic units, but have emotions and desires and not always accurate perceptions of their real interests, their actions are influenced by a mix of economic and non-economic factors and often irrational fears. You have merely to look at the erratic fluctuation of share prices, or the price of oil due to often unfounded rumours and then the denial of these rumours. Or for example how shares on the stock exchange plunged one day at the prospect of Tony Blair’s election in 1997 and then recovered the next day when nothing had changed.
It is only in the long run, over large aggregates of units and long periods of time that economic trends can be discerned and objective laws that govern them be discerned. There is always the constant possibility of the working out of these objective laws being distorted by the (often irrational) decisions of key individuals. Perhaps it might be more accurate to say that the effect of individuals’ actions must be included in the factors determining these objective laws.
Having digressed on to economics let us return to the question of war – and as a case in point the 1914 war – the subject of the article Neil is criticising. Let me repeat what I have argued above. Both the determinist and voluntarist approaches are valid but incomplete in themselves – the problem is to reconcile them in what I called in my article a holistic approach. What I attempted in my article was to do this but it seems from Neil’s critique not clearly enough nor do I claim to have fully answered all the problems such an attempt poses.
For example, on the question of Britain’s entry into World War I there is the problem of relating the decisions and motives of Lloyd George and other cabinet members to the nature of the war. Surely their motives must have helped determine the nature of the war – whether and how far it was a war over markets etc and how far it was driven by purely military, political and geopolitical considerations. Did these cabinet ministers, as they pondered their decisions ask themselves ‘What is in the interests of British capitalism?’
And did the members of the French government, the Kaiser and his advisers, the Tsar and his ministers think in that way? If they had done so then we could have said with certainty that the war was fought for capitalist aims – that it was a capitalist war. But they were not Marxists, and did not think as Marxists, I cannot claim to know what their thought processes were but it is extremely unlikely that they though in Marxist terms.
Their world-view, their perceptions were determined by the ideas imbued in them by their education and upbringing. It is likely that these politicians thought in terms of the ‘national interest’ which, of course included what was good for business but also many other considerations – political and military, questions of prestige etc.
In so far as they were influenced by the desires of British businesses and bankers, the evidence, as I pointed out, did not indicate an overwhelming desire for war on Germany. On the contrary there was a lot of fear of its consequences. Do these subjective thoughts in the minds of the actors not have an effect on how one should explain the nature of the result of their actions?
I may be wrong but it is for Neil to demonstrate that the British cabinet was driven by the desire of the City, the bankers and industrialists for war expressed in clear terms to the government. And that a decision to go to war driven, in part at least by a mixture of motives hasn’t a mixed character reflecting these motives.
If in the case of Britain and France economic motives were mixed up with geopolitical ones in the minds of the decision makers how much more so was it in the case of monarchical Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary? Surely, as I pointed out, the decisions were mainly driven by pre-bourgeois or non-bourgeois conceptions of national, dynastic, balance of power considerations. The interests of the national economy were a factor but not the only factor.
Even if it were true that drives of imperialist expansion resulting in rivalries for colonies, markets, sources of raw material etc on a finite planet made war inevitable, the actual timing of its outbreak and the alignment of nations one with another were not inevitable and depended on the decisions of a few individuals in positions of power.
I repeat - the actions and decisions of individuals are an integral component and determinant of the so-called objective laws of history. The immediate causes of historical events (unless they are acts of nature such floods, volcanoes and earthquakes – and even some of these are influenced by human actions) are the actions of people and these actions are dependent on their conscious decisions.
These in turn are determined by emotions and perceived needs. Objective laws of history are the outcome of the inter-related actions of millions of individual people. It is also true – and here Neil and I are in agreement - that the actions of people are constrained and determined by the material and social conditions in which they have to act, by the objective conditions in which they find themselves and which are the result of previous actions and events. All I was trying to do is argue against an over-determinist and mechanical approach and downgrading of the importance of the individual common among many Marxists.
A possible argument Neil might put is that the subjective views and ideas held by people do express objective class interests but in a hidden way; that the fact that Lloyd George, the Kaiser, the Tsar and their advisers thought in terms of patriotism or dynastic, geopolitical interests did not alter the objectively capitalist and economic nature of the war.
In the same way the religious conflicts of the 16th and 17th centuries are seen by Marxists as objectively class struggles between the emerging bourgeoisie and feudalism, the material aims of the bourgeoisie being expressed in religious terms. Even if true does this really mean that the subjective beliefs of the protagonists were not embedded causal factors in the whole network of cause and effect and not part of the story?
Were the protestant and catholic martyrs burnt at the stake motivated only by a subconscious desire to defend class interests – a real motivation transformed by subconscious psychological mechanism into religious belief? Do not the subjective motivations for an action help determine its nature?
When a person moves from Bradford to Manchester in order to start a business or get a better-paid job that makes the move an economic one. But when the same person moves to be able to care for elderly parents it is no longer driven by economic considerations (although it might also have economic consequences).
All this supports my argument against economic reductionism; against either the completely determinist or completely voluntarist approaches but for a holistic one giving due weight to large-scale material and social factors and the subjective ideas and decisions of individuals and seeking a causal relation between the two.
Incidentally, a worthwhile subject for research and discussion is exactly how and through what mechanism is a subconscious desire to pursue material self or class interest transformed into a conscious religious or political motivation. This is a problem for the psychologists as much as for historians.
I agree with several points made by Neil, points on which he thinks we disagree but on which we do actually agree. For example on so-called bourgeois revolutions I agree with Neil that ‘traditional elites and new capitalist elites are rarely divided by irreconcilable class antagonisms’. In other articles I have also described how capitalism evolved in Germany under the rule of Bismarck and a landowning Junker class.
Further on Neil writes: It is not a matter of either/or. Capitalist (i.e. economic) competition and great-power (i.e. geopolitical) competition fused in the crisis of 1914.
Precisely what I was trying to point out – only adding that subjective decisions of key groups of individuals were also among the causal factors.
Further on Neil agrees with me that of course they [the British cabinet] could have decided otherwise, and that had they done so, the effect on 20th century history would have been immense and that individuals can make a huge difference.
Neil, at the end of his critique seems concerned that my approach seems to absolve British capitalism specifically, and world capitalism more generally, of responsibility for the carnage and chaos of 1914-1918.
If this is the main reason for his critique let me reassure him. I still think that the socialists who opposed the 1914 war were absolutely justified, and that nothing I have written contradicts my complete opposition to the latest wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the threatened war against Iran.
From LSHG Newsletter #45, (Summer 2012) Book Review: Revolutionary Communist at Work: A Political Biography of Bert Ramelson By Roger Seifert & Tom Sibley ISBN 978-1907103414 Lawrence & Wishart, London, 2012, £25.00
The period from 1966 to 1974 saw the highest level of industrial struggle in Britain since the General Strike. The Communist Party was the largest organised body of militant trade-unionists, and its industrial organiser, Bert Ramelson, was frequently vilified for his alleged role in fomenting unrest. So this first biography of Ramelson is of considerable interest.
The authors, a Professor of Industrial Relations [Seifert] and a former trade-union full-timer who knew Ramelson well [Sibley], provide a formidable combination of expertise. Their sources include Communist Party archives, Ramelson’s personal papers, taped interviews with Ramelson by Rodney Bickerstaffe, and interviews with a number of those who knew and worked with Ramelson.
The authors’ general sympathy with Ramelson’s political stance [though they are not wholly uncritical] is not in itself a problem, whatever the reader’s own position. For biographers to feel empathy with their subject is generally a good thing, as it enables us to get a grasp of the protagonist’s motivations. The author’s treatment of Stalinism is in fact somewhat mealy-mouthed; recognition of Stalin’s crimes is constantly balanced by reminders of the overall “progressive” role of the Soviet Union. We learn that by the end of his life Ramelson [whose sister spent years in a Stalinist labour camp] had come to believe that Russia “was not socialism at all”. 
Unfortunately Seifert-Sibley have, at least in part, squandered their opportunity, for the book is marred by some quite appalling errors. Thus we read : “Writing after the 1958 Labour Party Conference, at which Hugh Gaitskell won a majority to overturn the previous year’s vote in support of unilateral nuclear disarmament, Ramelson gave most attention to the failures of the left.”
As anyone with a nodding acquaintance with the politics of the period knows, the Labour Party conference resolutions in support of unilateral nuclear disarmament were carried in 1960, and Gaitskell’s reversal [aided by the CIA and by the left’s ineptitude] came in 1961. Was Ramelson’s prescience, based on a solid grasp of the dialectical method, sufficient to enable him to foresee all this three years in advance?
Sadly no. The article footnoted did indeed appear in World News in October 1958. [The authors attribute it to World News and Views, though the periodical had changed its name – abandoning “views” - some years earlier.] But its subject-matter was quite different from what is claimed.
Ramelson was lamenting the Labour left’s “obsession with unilateralism” in the period when this was still a growing current in the party, building up to a success two years later. Ramelson, however, would have preferred efforts to be focussed on the call for “Summit Talks”.
Now even the most conscientious historian can get a date wrong now and then. This is something quite different. The authorial duo are discussing and commending an article when it is quite clear that they have no idea what it is about or what context it was written in. If I were malicious I would suggest that they might have done this deliberately to gloss over the fact that the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was opposed by the Communist Party for the first two years of its existence, and that the CP only jumped on the bandwagon in 1960 when CND had become a mass movement. This rather goes against the authors’ main thesis that all progressive developments on the left were inspired and influenced by the CP. [See Raymond Challinor, “Zigzag: The Communist Party and the Bomb” ]
But I shall be charitable and assume pure incompetence. One such mistake may be regarded as carelessness; two look like symptoms. So we read  extracts from a letter by Ramelson concerning the imprisonment of Shrewsbury building worker Des Warren. [The authors tell us they have quoted the letter “at length” because it tells us “much about the Party’s strategy and approach”]. In the final sentence quoted Ramelson writes: “Indeed the mass campaigning through Des’s imprisonment, which was probably the longest campaign in the Party’s history, laid the foundations for the campaign which led to the demand for and declaration of a 1 day General Strike by the General Council compelling the release of the Pentonville Five.”
In fact the Pentonville Five were imprisoned, and released, in 1972, while the Shrewsbury pickets were not sentenced till December 1973. Now Ramelson wrote this letter some years later, when he was an old man [even older than the present reviewer] and such confusion is no big deal. But for the authors to quote and extol the letter without comment will leave many readers wondering just how far the authors can be trusted – and perhaps enquiring just how you get to be a professor nowadays.
These errors are not merely shameful in themselves, they are indicative of a more general problem with the book. The central section of the book, by far the biggest, deals with Ramelson’s twelve years as Industrial Organiser of the CPGB. But the organisation of material is, to say the least, confusing. The important industrial struggles of the period are not presented chronologically, but in an order that often seems random.
This is disconcerting to those of us whom lived through the period and must be bewildering for younger readers. So even when events are correctly dated, the connections of events are often lost. Thus the 1972 miners’ strike is discussed some fifteen pages after the movement to free the Pentonville Five. Yet without the confidence engendered by the Saltley picket it is unlikely that the movement would have responded so vigorously to the jailing of the dockers. Likewise the Con-Mech dispute is discussed without any mention of the fact that when the fine on the engineering union was paid by anonymous businessmen to avert a threatened strike, a Labour government had just been elected. If the Tories had still been in power events might have taken a very different course. By omitting this fact the authors contrive to present this as an example of “Ramelson at his most effective”. 
This leaves the general thesis of the book, the substantial influence of the CP in general and of Ramelson in particular, a little battered. If events are torn out of context and sequence, establishing influence and causality becomes a lot more difficult.
Obviously we all come to a situation with our own perspectives and our own assumptions. I was a rank-andfile trade unionist of no particular status throughout this period [a branch and regional activist in ATTI/NATFHE, president of a trades council and active in solidarity with the major industrial disputes]. When I read Seifert-Sibley’s account of events, it seems very different to the history I lived through.
The authors claim the growing influence of the CP in the early 1970s on the basis of the large number of Communists elected to trade-union positions; “by 1974 10 per cent of union full-time officials were estimated to be in the CP”. But that success brought problems with it. Communists holding trade-union positions had contradictory loyalties and were subject to competing pressures. My own recollection is of a party that was increasingly divided and undisciplined, with different members voting different ways and supporting different positions. The tensions that finally destroyed the party were already very visible from at least 1968 onwards. [For an analysis of this see Chris Harman, ''Communist Party in Decline'' ]
Seifert-Sibley make great claims for the role of the CP in the strike movement that freed the Pentonville Five. But if it is undoubtedly true that many CP members played an important rôle, it is less clear that the CP centrally – let alone its trade union front, the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions [described as “the most powerful rank-and-file movement in the history of the British trade union movement ] - was anything like as important as they claim. The crucial turning-point was the fact that dockers persuaded Fleet Street printworkers to stop work. There is no evidence that this was a specifically Communist initiative.
[See recollections of several participants here ]
Ramelson’s personal influence is repeatedly stressed. He is said to have had the original idea of sending Yorkshire miners to picket Grunwick.  If so, well done. Apparently Arthur Scargill was his protégé. But when the authors write that “Ramelson … had been the key political figure in bringing about the transformation of the NUM [National Union of Mineworkers] of these years [up to 1974]”, I suspect Ramelson himself would not have claimed as much – certainly not if Scargill was in the room.
Much is made of the large number of pamphlets written by Ramelson and their claimed influence. I must admit to having read only one - Productivity Agreements [London, 1970]. I found it slight, with little documentation and no reference to concrete workers’ experience; the style was abstract and there was no strategy for negotiation. There is praise for Ramelson’s theoretical grasp, but we are given little by way of concrete examples. His position is summed up as the rejection of “notions which effectively sidelined the need for revolution, based on the working class and its allies taking state power”.  This is a position which it is hard to say much about, since it is so abstract as to have little meaning. The claims of CP influence in the 1970s are pushed so hard that the disintegration of the CP in the 1980s [to Ramelson’s great chagrin] seems hard to understand. But Seifert-Sibley give us little explanation, beyond a few lines about the rôle of Labour’s Social Contract. A great deal of the blame is placed on the pernicious influence of what are described as “neo-Gramscians” – apparently the more usual term, Eurocommunists, is regarded as politically incorrect.
Seifert-Sibley do recognise the growth of what they disparagingly refer to as the “ultra-left”, and there are various side-swipes at the CP’s critics, but no serious analysis. Thus they respond to some rather intemperate remarks made by Des Warren when he was a member of the Workers Revolutionary Party , but there is no mention of the much more serious critique developed in Dave Harker’s book The Flying Pickets .
The authors respond with indignation to Chris Harman’s claim that Ramelson was involved in shooting anarchists and Trotskyists in Spain, pointing out that he was still in a training camp at the time . But from their other comments on Spain it is quite clear that if Ramelson [who hated the ultra-left on the basis of his Spanish experiences  ] had been told to do so, he would quite willingly have taken part in the repression.
There is a good deal of useful information in the book, providing the reader is careful and checks dates. The opening section, taking Ramelson from Ukraine to Canada, Palestine and Spain, is of some interest. There is also one good joke. When Ramelson [himself an anti-Zionist Jew] stood in an election in a Jewish area of Leeds against Labour MP Alice Bacon, he suggested the slogan: “Don’t vote for Bacon –Vote Kosher – Vote Ramelson”.
In his preface Rodney Bickerstaffe states that the book will be useful because Ramelson “helped to develop a mass movement based on organised workers that was strong enough to block anti-union legislation and protect workers’ rights. We badly need another such movement today… Much can be learnt about how to build this movement from studying Bert’s life”.
There are lessons to be learned here – but not those that the authors intended.
From LSHG Newsletter, # 45 (Summer 2012).
Charles Dickens had a fine beard, wrote many best selling volumes and was not a Tory. 2012 is the bicentenary of his birth.
I’m afraid however that any attempt to claim Dickens for the left will fail, and do so quite badly.
Certainly, and Claire Tomalin’s recent biography makes the point again, Dickens had sympathy for the poor and disadvantaged in the early years of Victorian England. Such people were numerous and the developing market capitalist society had yet to do much in the way of addressing the matter beyond the 1834 Poor Law. That Act, a Liberal measure, gave us the workhouse.
Dickens did not just have sympathy for the least well off in society because he read or heard about their conditions. Rather, he walked the streets of central London, often at night, and gathered direct experience of the conditions they found themselves in. Further, Dickens’s childhood experiences had done much to impress on him how precarious a reasonable existence in Victorian England actually was.
Yet Dickens sympathies were personal ones based on individual cases. They were not solidarity with the most disadvantaged sections of the working class. Dickens was a Liberal [broadly, think many of the Guardian’s Editorials today]. His concerns about the unequal nature of society did not lead him to support organised class opposition to it, either in terms of trade unions or politics.
Possibly the clearest exposition of this is to be found in his book about the 1854 Preston Lock-Out, Hard Times. Dickens made a point of supporting neither the mill owners nor the locked out workers. His description of utilitarian capitalism in the figure of Thomas Gradgrind, a man obsessed by empirical facts, has entered the language as a term for relentless, grinding capitalists.
Dickens was hardly more sympathetic to the politics of the leaders of those locked out and their Chartist views. He portrayed them as often untrustworthy and violent men.
Yet if it is not possible to claim Dickens in any serious sense for the left, his literary works remain, I would argue, of great use to socialist historians. They capture something of the essence of mid-Victorian society, its class divisions and hypocrisies. Whether it is the figure of Gradgrind or the endless legal dispute of Jarndyce v Jarndyce, Dickens describes a capitalist society in the process of forming its key institutions and ways of working.
Most importantly in many respects these are things that remain with us today 140-odd years after Dickens’s death. So for the historian Dickens’s books provide an excellent way into understanding the landscape of mid-Victorian society, its attitudes and dilemmas.
Some of the issues facing the less well off can also be traced albeit through a refracted sense of them as individual tragedies. Michael Rosen makes the point about A Christmas Carol and Scrooge. Dickens had thought about writing an essay but instead focused on telling the story of individuals in the context of a developing capitalist society. The use of ghosts in the book, a particular Dickens obsession [see the current exhibition in the British Library] was mirrored in another register: Marx’s usage of spectres and hobgoblins. In all cases they represented the presence of another, alternative, non-marketised society. Keith Flett
1. Charles Dickens: A Life [Hardcover] Viking 2011 576 pages ISBN 978-0670917679
On 17 May 1649, three soldiers were executed on Oliver Cromwell's
orders in Burford churchyard, Oxfordshire. They belonged to a movement popularly
known as the Levellers, with beliefs in civil rights and religious tolerance.
During the Civil War, the Levellers fought on Parliament's side,
they had at first seen Cromwell as a liberator, but now saw him as a dictator.
They were prepared to fight against him for their ideals and he was determined
to crush them. Over 300 of them were captured by Cromwell's troops and locked up
in Burford church. Three were led out into the churchyard to be shot as
In 1975, members of the WEA Oxford Industrial Branch went to
Burford to reclaim a piece of history that seemed to be missing from the school
books. They held a meeting in remembrance of the Leveller soldiers. The
following year, Tony Benn came and read in the church and in each succeeding
year, people have come to Burford on the Saturday nearest to 17 May, debated,
held a procession, listened to music and remembered the Levellers and the
importance of holding on to ideals of justice and democracy.
BOOK LAUNCH Merlin Press presents: ‘May ’68 and the Rise of Anti-Racism in France’ with Daniel A. Gordon
Wednesday 2nd May, 7pm, Housman's Bookshop, London
Entry £3, redeemable against any purchase
Daniel A Gordon’s new book ‘Immigrants and Intellectuals: May ’68 and the Rise of Anti-racism in France’ tells for the first time the full story of the rise and fall of a cycle of protest movements for the rights of migrant workers from 1961 to 1983. Based on more than a decade of research in France, including special access to normally closed police archives, it reveals an encounter between two worlds, the immigrant and the intellectual. Highlighting links to international struggles from Portugal to Senegal, this book considers reactions to the massacre of Algerians in Paris in 1961; uncovers the hidden history of migrant worker participation in the general strike of 1968; shows how activists built crèches for immigrants' children and asks: how did immigrants view the New Left militants who sought to politicize them? It recounts how a hunger strike by a Tunisian activist leader in 1972 sparked a movement which mobilized some of France's best-known thinkers from Sartre to Foucault, and brought this civil rights campaign into mainstream politics. After showing how the dreams of '68 were buried and recycled, Gordon concludes with the legacy of this story for the politics of migration and the politics of protest today in France and beyond.
About the author Daniel A. Gordon was awarded the Alistair Fellowship at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, to write this book. He is Senior Lecturer in European History at Edge Hill University and a former Entente Cordiale Scholar.
Book information ‘Immigrants and Intellectuals: May ’68 and the Rise of Anti-racism in France’ Paperback: 256 pages Publisher: The Merlin Press Ltd (27 Feb 2012) Language: English ISBN-13: 978-0850366648
Please see the draft programme for the Huddersfield Luddites200 Festival on April 27th -29th (see here). As you'll see we have a terrific line-up and a very varied programme, with something for everybody, including children. Please help us make the festival as successful as possible by forwarding this message to friends, colleagues and groups that will be interested.
Highlights of the festival include:
SHOWS Amongst Those Dark Satanic Mills, The Noisy Frame
MUSIC Folk Song Session at The Albert Hotel, Evening Gig - Red Sky Coven (book now, tickets are going fast)
DAVE DOUGLAS & THEO SIMON on Were the Luddites Right?
POETRY Open Mic & Competition Awards Ceremony hosted by Andy Croft
FILMS The Luddites and New Technology, Whose Progress?
DEBATES on Computers and the Internet: are they hurtful to Commonality?; Synthetic Biology & Geoengineering; Industrialism & Environmental Crisis.
Saturday afternoon will climax with a spectacular Luddite reenactment including frame smashing. There will also be exhibitions, hands-on spinning and weaving workshops, stalls and a guided walk on Sunday. We look forward to seeing you there.
On the same weekend there will be events at the Colne Valley Museum, including re-enactments and demonstrations of spinning and weaving. See www.colnevalleymuseum.org.uk for more details.
Venue: Bishopsgate Institute, 230 Bishopsgate, London EC2. Admission free, all welcome
David Goodway, who is based in Leeds, is a social and cultural historian who wrote his doctoral thesis on ‘Chartism in London’ under the supervision of Eric Hobsbawm. It was published as London Chartism, 1838-1848 (CUP, 1982; paperback, 2002). David has retained a specialist interest in the Chartist movement ever since. He has more recently written widely about literary figures such as Herbert Read, John Cowper Powys, William Morris and their connections with anarchist and socialist thought. He is a member of the SHS.
Paul Burnham speaks on The Squatters' Movement of 1946.
5th April, Time 7.00 p.m.
Venue: Bishopsgate Institute, 230 Bishopsgate, London EC2.
Socialist History Society
Public meeting and discussion
'Freemasonry and Communism
The tortured relationship between the Communist Parties and freemasonry'
Speaker Ron Heisler
2pm Saturday 12th May
Ron Heisler, who describes himself as a “delinquent historian”, has written widely on the history of freemasonry and freethought. Among his many published articles are 'Freemasonry and Elizabethan Literature', 'Shakespeare and the Ethos of the Rosicrucians', 'John Dee and the Secret Societies', 'The Forgotten English Roots of Rosicrucianism' and 'Walking Stewart: A Forgotten Great Freethinker'.
Bishopsgate Institute, Liverpool St
SHS AGM will be held at 12.30pm