Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Dave Gibson Labour History Lecture

The First Annual Dave Gibson Labour History Lecture
Organised by Barnsley TUC and Barnsley College UCU

'Orwell and the Workers'
With Prof John Newsinger (Bath Spa University) and author of 'Hope Lies In the Proles': George Orwell and the Left

Saturday 16 June 1pm The Civic, Hanson Street, Barnsley, S70 2HZ

The first annual Dave Gibson labour history lecture will focus on George Orwell. Orwell visited Barnsley while researching ʻThe Road to Wigan Pierʼ and his collected works contain shocking details about the state of housing in Barnsley at the time of his visit. Dave Gibson used this information in his contribution to a Workers Educational Association course on labour history in Barnsley and Graham Mustin will give a short presentation based on Dave's lecture notes.
The main talk, entitled ʻOrwell and the Workersʼ will be by John Newsinger, professor of history at Bath Spa University and an acknowledged expert on Orwell. John has written the highly acclaimed ʻOrwell's Politicsʼ and most recently ʻOrwell and the Proles: George Orwell and the Leftʼ a critical account of Orwell's politics exploring his anti-fascism, criticism of the USSR and enduring commitment to socialism.

Email: | Mobile: 07985 02800

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Tuesday, 1 May 2018

London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter #64 (Summer 2018)

The latest issue of the London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter is now online - featuring a comment piece by Keith Flett on the Peterloo massacre in the light of the current massacres of Palestinians by the Israeli state in Gaza, a review of Communist Insurgent: Blanqui's Politics of Revolution by Doug Enaa Greene and an extended second part of a review of The Origins of Collective Decision Making by Andy Blunden. The deadline for the next issue of the Bulletin is 1 September 2018. Letters, articles, criticisms and contributions to debate are most welcome.

Upcoming LSHG seminars and events 

Saturday 19 May - London Socialist Historians’ Group Workshop
Treason: Internationalist Renegades and Traitors
Saturday 19th May, 12 – 5pm Wolfson Room, Institute of Historical Research Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU.
Entry is free without ticket although there will be a collection to cover expenses, but please register via the eventbrite link here if possible

The Levellers who refused to support Cromwell’s war in Ireland, the Polish troops who rebelled against Napoleon and sided with the Haitian Revolution, the Irish-American “St Patrick’s Battalion” who rejected American imperialism to fight with the Mexicans, the British people who joined the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the Confederate deserters who opposed slavery, the German anti-Nazis who deserted and joined the Red Army or fought with the French Resistance and the French anti-colonialists who sided with the independence fighters in Algeria and Vietnam. There have been some rare but truly inspiring and heroic examples of internationalism throughout modern history, when those being drafted into fighting for unjust wars rebelled to side and fight against imperialist oppression. This workshop will try to recover the lives and often hidden histories of these true ‘citizens of the world’, as well as considering moments in history where the potential for anti-imperialist internationalism did not materialise. 

12 - registration
12.15 Welcome / Introduction
12.20-1pm - Rebel Warriors (chair Christian Høgsbjerg]
Soldiers of Misfortune: Napoleon's Polish Deserters in the West Indies - Jonathan North [with a contribution from Christian Høgsbjerg]
 The Saint Patrick's Battalion - David Rovics [recorded]
-1pm - Break -
1.30-2.30 - Anti-Fascism (chair: Keith Flett)
 Organised Resistance to the Nazis from within the German Workers’ Movement from 1933-1945 - Merilyn Moos
Italians and Germans in the French Resistance - Steve Cushion
3pm-4pm Anti-Imperialism (chair Keith Flett)
The India and Burma Empire: Michael Carritt and Arthur Attwood - Richard Saville
Betraying the Moribund Empire: France 1946-1962 - Ian Birchall
4pm Opening the Debate - Steve Cushion (chair: Christian Høgsbjerg)

Monday 19th June, Keith Flett - 'The Chartist Challenge in 1848. Could it have won?'
 Room 304 (third floor) at 5.30pm in the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU

Entry to our seminars is free without ticket although donations are welcome. We also have seminars pencilled in with agreed speakers on the 60th anniversary of CND, the school history curriculum and the history of Womens Voice for the Autumn Term 2018.   For more information on any of the above please contact Keith Flett at the address above.

Other events coming up -

Marxism 2018 - a festival of socialist ideas - 5-8 July - central London -

Blanqui - rescued from the enormous condescension of posterity

[From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter #64 (Summer 2018)]


Communist Insurgent: Blanqui's Politics of Revolution 
by Doug Enaa Greene 
Paperback, 292 pages 
ISBN: 9781608464722 
Haymarket 2017 

If you are of a certain age on the left your reaction to the name Blanqui is probably ‘WRONG’ and that is pretty much it. If you are younger the more likely thought is ‘WHO?’ since the name of the nineteenth century French revolutionary has perhaps not featured a great deal in recent discussions on the left.

Doug Enaa Greene and Haymarket Books have therefore done a valuable service in rescuing Blanqui from the enormous condescension of posterity. Indeed Greene makes a good case for why Blanqui deserves to be rescued.

He had a remarkably long life (1805-1881) given various attempts at revolution, spells of imprisonment often in poor conditions, and ill health. He also had a magnificent beard. Over such a long life there is inevitably a lot of detail and for that a read of the book is required. Here I will flag up a few points of perhaps key interest.

Blanqui’s view was that revolution was needed, always, but this would not come from the masses. Rather it required a dedicated band of organised revolutionaries, usually operating secretly and conspiratorially to avoid interruption by the forces of the existing order.

The conspiratorial model of revolution was the dominant one where the question arose around the world certainly up to 1848. It was used for example by the Chartists in the summer of that year with the usual unfortunate results. The problem with conspiracy as a political method is of course that it invites spies and Blanqui was plagued by accusations that he knew of such people or indeed was one.

That said, after the French Revolution on 25 February 1848, Blanqui did organise openly and tried to push the revolution further, albeit unsuccessfully.

Marx and Engels did not agree with Blanqui’s politics and often said so. They were for an open mass workers organisation. Where they did reach general agreement with Blanqui was on the principle of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.

Greene argues that Marx and Engels invariably stood by Blanqui as a shining and obvious example of someone who believed in revolutionary ends even if they did not agree about the means. Greene also notes that Blanqui was thought to be a useful bulwark against Bakunin’s supporters on the First International.

Blanqui supported the Paris Commune and his supporters had a key role in it while not seeing it as a prototype model for workers’ control as Marx and Engels did. His influence continued to an extent after his death.

Some of his supporters turned to interventions in electoral politics supporting the campaign of General Georges Boulanger hoping it would lead to a coup against the Government. It did not and Greene notes that in a subsequent split the majority of Blanqui’s remaining followers aligned themselves with a nationalistic and antiSemitic political trend and disappeared into obscurity.

Blanqui had always been against all religion but his views to modern eyes would be seen as antiSemitic according to Greene. A minority of his followers did not follow that path and by 1905 found themselves part of the French Socialist Party.

It had been quite a political journey.

Greene’s biography deserves to be read not just as history, but also as an important exploration of political paths and methods which are not in the main taken by the modern left, but without question still find attraction for some.

Keith Flett 

Comment: Blaming the protesters

[From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter #64 (Summer 2018)] 

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From Peterloo 1819 to Gaza 2019 

The author and beard wearer Michael Rosen has commented on social media that when it comes to protests when the authorities injure or kill protesters, they invariably claim that the protesters are to blame. Certainly that seems to be the official reaction to deaths and injuries of Palestinian protesters at the Gaza border on 30 March 2018. We should be cautious about historical comparisons because we can’t be sure we are really comparing like with like. Each situation has its own specificity yet even so Rosen’s general point has validity.
When the Manchester Yeomanry cut down and killed and injured protesters for the vote at Peterloo in central Manchester on 16 August 1819, the authorities blamed this on fleeing protesters. Still, that was a long time ago. This is what E.P. Thompson wrote in The Making of the English Working Class about protest and justice at Peterloo:

If the Government was unprepared for the news of Peterloo, no authorities have ever acted so vigorously to make themselves accomplices after the fact. Within a fortnight the congratulations of Sidmouth (Home Secretary - KF) and the thanks of the Prince Regent were communicated to the magistrates and the military ‘for their prompt, decisive and efficient measures for the preservation of the public peace’. Demands for a parliamentary enquiry were resolutely rejected. Attorney and Solicitor-Generals were ‘fully satisfied’ as to the legality of the magistrates’ actions. The Lord Chancellor (Eldon) was of the ‘clear opinion’ that the meeting was an ‘overt act of treason’.. State prosecutions were commenced, not against the perpetrators, but against the victims of the day- Hunt, Saxton, Bamford and others- and the first intention of charging them with high treason was only abandoned with reluctance. If the Manchester magistrates initiated the policy of repression, the Government endorsed it with every resource at its disposal.. Hay, the clerical magistrate prominent on the Peterloo bench, was rewarded with the £2,000 living of Rochdale.' 

Interestingly on the 150th anniversary of Peterloo in 1969 the Sunday Telegraph repeated the point. Even at that distance the reality of the massacre had to be denied. The Mandrake column (20 July 1969) was headed ‘The massacre that never was’.

Reviewing a new book, Robert Walmsley’s Peterloo: the case reopened (MUP) it noted ‘most of the day’s comparatively few casualties were caused were caused by a trampling panic amongst the crowd’. That is a reassuring explanation, and even if not a factual one, a reminder about how to spin unfortunate events in the present day perhaps….

Keith Flett 

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Socialist historians defend David Rosenberg after Daily Mail smear story

London Socialist Historians Group
5th April
Media Release

Image result for rebel footprints rosenberg

Socialist Historians defend David Rosenberg after Daily Mail smear story

The London Socialist Historians Group, a collective of research historians who organise the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, has defended radical historian David Rosenberg after the Daily Mail ran a smear story about him on 5th April.

The story was typical of the Mail genre. It did not include any evidence that Mr Rosenberg was associated with supposed and alleged anti-Semitic views. Rather it was concerned that he had sat next to Jeremy Corbyn at a recent event and was not an enthusiast for the current Israeli Government.

The historians say that Mr Rosenberg is a well-known Jewish socialist historian with an impressive record of recovering the working-class history of the radical East End of London. Some of this is detailed in his book Rebel Footprints (Pluto 2015).

LSHG Convenor Keith Flett said, 'the Mail story is beneath contempt, although that is hardly news, For a paper with a track record of anti-Semitism in the 1930s to attempt to smear a distinguished Jewish socialist historian such as David Rosenberg is the journalism of the gutter. We hope Mr Rosenberg will speak at a future socialist history seminar on the radical East End of London. It is a history that still speaks to us today'

Review of  Rebel Footprints in the Guardian

Guardian article by David Rosenberg on Cable Street

Contact: Dr Keith Flett 07803 167266 Twitter @LSHGofficial. Website:

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

London Socialist Historians Group Summer Term seminars

London Socialist Historians Summer Term seminars 2018 & supporting UCU strike action on pensions

2ND April

Apologies for the late publication of the summer term 2018 socialist history seminar programme at the Institute of Historical Research.
However we have been in some difficulty. The routine difficulties which we encounter every year are that two of our seminar dates in May are Bank Holidays and with the summer term so heavily focused on exams and marking (industrial action notwithstanding) organising seminars in June, while technically unproblematic, can often see low turn-outs.
This year however we have the additional issue of continuing UCU industrial action on pensions. Our position is clear. As socialist historians we support the UCU action and we will not run a seminar on any day of strike action. We cancelled one on 1848 in early March for that reason.
At the moment it remains unclear what the strike dates will be in the summer term, if the dispute remains unresolved, as it currently is.

We are going ahead with a research workshop on Saturday May 19th which focuses on Treason, internationalist renegades & traitors:

We also plan to go ahead, the above notwithstanding for three other seminars:

Monday 23rd April 5.30pm Room 304, Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet Street London. '40 years on from the Rock Against Racism Carnival in Victoria Park'. Roger Huddle and others

Monday 19th June 'The Chartist Challenge in 1848. Could it have won?' Keith Flett
5.30pm Room 304, Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet Street London

We also have seminars pencilled in with agreed speakers on the 60th anniversary of CND, the school history curriculum and the history of Womens' Voice for the Autumn Term 2018.

Contact: Dr Keith Flett 07803 167266
Twitter @LSHGofficial.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Finding Albert - Graphic novel crowdfunder appeal

Dear London Socialist Historians Group,

I am writing for your support - I am crowdfunding the production of a graphic novel telling the story of my great-grandfathers life in the first half of the twentieth century. He was German Communist Historian who had to flee Nazi Germany. He was involved in the November Revolution of Germany in 1918, a founding member of the Spartacus League, leading member of the Rote Frontkämpferbund and Chief of Staff for one of the International Brigades in Spain. His daughter came to England as a refugee before World War II where she remained, becoming a Labour Councillor in Harlow New Town until her death in 1998.

Although a personal research project his life touches on themes that I think are very relevant to contemporary politics and social history. 

Funding for the campaign is going well and been mostly promoted through my own networks on Twitter and Facebook. However, I am hoping now to expand this to other interest groups. This is where I hope you can help.

I was wondering whether you would be able to share this campaign with your membership and/or support the campaign by tweeting or posting on Facebook a link to the campaign itself.

More information on the campaign can be found on Kickstarter at 

I have also have created a short, shareable URL for the project at

Additionally, I have prepared some pictures and promotional material which can be downloaded from Dropbox at 

I look forward to hearing from you and hope you can help in some small way to promoting and supporting the project.

With all best wishes,

Cole Henley


LSHG Workshop - Treason: Internationalist renegades and traitors

London Socialist Historians’ Group Workshop on 
Treason: Internationalist Renegades and Traitors
Saturday 19th May, 12 – 5pm
Wolfson Room, Institute of Historical Research
Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU.  
Entry is free without ticket although there will be a collection to cover expenses, but please register via the eventbrite link here if possible
The Levellers who refused to support Cromwell’s war in Ireland, the Polish troops who rebelled against Napoleon and sided with the Haitian Revolution, the Irish-American “St Patrick’s Battalion” who rejected American imperialism to fight with the Mexicans, the British people who joined the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the Confederate deserters who opposed slavery, the German anti-Nazis who deserted and joined the Red Army or fought with the French Resistance and the French anti-colonialists who sided with the independence fighters in Algeria and Vietnam. There have been some rare but truly inspiring and heroic examples of internationalism throughout modern history, when those being drafted into fighting for unjust wars rebelled to side and fight against imperialist oppression. This workshop will try to recover the lives and often hidden histories of these true ‘citizens of the world’, as well as considering moments in history where the potential for anti-imperialist internationalism did not materialise.
12 - registration
12.15 Welcome / Introduction
12.20-1pm - Rebel Warriors (chair Christian Høgsbjerg]
Soldiers of Misfortune: Napoleon's Polish Deserters in the West Indies - Jonathan North [with a contribution from Christian Høgsbjerg]
 The Saint Patrick's Battalion - David Rovics [recorded]
-1pm - Break -
1.30-2.30 - Anti-Fascism (chair: Keith Flett)
 Organised Resistance to the Nazis from within the German Workers’ Movement from 1933-1945 - Merilyn Moos
Italians and Germans in the French Resistance - Steve Cushion
3pm-4pm Anti-Imperialism (chair Keith Flett)
The India and Burma Empire: Michael Carritt and Arthur Attwood - Richard Saville
Betraying the Moribund Empire: France 1946-1962 - Ian Birchall
4pm Opening the Debate - Steve Cushion (chair: Christian Høgsbjerg)
For more information please contact Keith Flett at the address above.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

LSHG seminar on 1848 cancelled in solidarity with UCU strike

The next LSHG seminar was due to take place on Monday 5 March and discuss the anniversary of the revolutionary year of 1848 - this has now been cancelled out of solidarity with the UCU strike taking place that day and will be rescheduled for later in the year - for more details see here

Monday, 26 February 2018

History Acts on Strike - how to win?

History Acts on Strike: How to Win?

Can history help us win this dispute? Can we link our struggle over pensions to the struggles against casualisation of teaching and outsourcing of university staff? In an emergency History Acts teach-out, historians of trade unionism discuss strategies and tactics with union officials and activists.

Wednesday 7th March, 6pm to 8pm
MayDay Rooms, 88 Fleet Street, London EC4Y 1DH

Free entry. No need to book in advance. For information contact Steffan Blayney or Guy Beckett

History Acts workshops are led by activists, who give a short talk or presentation about their work. Historians working on a relevant topic will then respond, before opening it up to group discussion.

Our panel


Mike Berlin is joint-President of Birkbeck UCU and a historian specialising in the social history of early modern London. UCU members are currently on strike to defend their right to a fair pension.

Catherine Oakley is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Leeds and co-founder of The Academic Precariat (TAP), a new activist platform for research and teaching academics, and other categories of staff in the Higher Education sector united by the material and psychological conditions of precarity.

Dr Laura Schwartz is Associate Professor in Modern British History at the University of Warwick. Her main research interests are the history of feminism and radical movements in Britain, and she is completing her third monograph on ‘Feminism and the Servant Problem: Class Conflict and Domestic Labour in the British Women’s Suffrage Movement’.

Dr Jack Saunders is a historian of work and workplace culture in post-war Britain. Having previously worked on workplace culture and labour militancy in the British motor industry, he is now a Research Fellow on the University of Warwicks’s ‘Cultural History of the NHS project’. His current research looks at how working for the NHS has shaped the cultural values of health workers, particularly their attitudes towards work, efficiency and productivity.

Both Laura and Jack have been involved with Fighting Against Casualisation in Education (FACE), a network aiming to bring together casualised academic workers involved in struggles around the country, to organise for better labour conditions.
Twitter: @HistoryActs

Saturday, 24 February 2018

1968-2018 A Celebration of 50 years of Resistance, Campaigning and Alternatives for A Better World

1968-2018: A Celebration of 50 years of Resistance, Campaigning and Alternatives for A Better World

- despite 50 years of police opposition, spying and repression
Sat 7th / Sun 8th July 2018  

Sat 7th: Anniversary Roll Call / Commemoration / Celebration in Grosvenor Square, London W1 @ 1pm - 3pm

Sun 8th: London Gathering and Exhibition

1st to 8th July  -  week of local events and activities around the UK 

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Next planning meeting for the above
Sunday 11th March, 5pm @ Housmans, 5 Caledonian Road, N1 9DX

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *    
In 1968, following demonstrations against the Vietnam War in London's Grosvenor Square, the police set up a Special Demonstration Squad (SDS). Since that time, 50 years ago, over 1,000 groups campaigning in the UK for a better world have been spied on, infiltrated and targeted by political policing. Their protests and demonstrations are also subjected to ongoing police opposition and control to try to limit their effectiveness.
This targeting has included groups campaigning for equality, justice, the environment and international solidarity, for rights for women, LGBTQ, workers and for animals, for community empowerment, and those campaigning against war, racism, sexism, corporate power, legal repression and police oppression and brutality. Such groups have represented many millions of people throughout the UK who want to make the world a better, fairer and more sustainable place for everyone.

Yet almost any group of any kind that stood up to make a positive difference has been or could have potentially been a target for secret political policing.
We now know this because of campaigners' recent efforts to expose and challenge the SDS and other similar secret units, and their shocking and unacceptable tactics. Individuals within those campaign groups have been spied on, subjected to intrusions in their personal lives, been victims of miscarriages of justice, and many deceived into intimate and abusive relationships with secret police, ie people that who were not who they said they were. In July 2015 we succeeded in forcing Theresa May (now Prime Minister) to set up the current Undercover Policing Public Inquiry, which was tasked with getting to the truth by July 2018, and insisting on action to prevent police wrong-doing in future. Now, 3 years on, the public inquiry has achieved very little due to police obstruction.
When the SDS was formed they stated that they would 'shut down' the movements they were spying on. But despite disgusting police tactics, movements for positive change are still here and growing, and have had many successes on the way.


This planned two-day event in London, backed up by a call for a week of actions all around the UK, is in support of those campaigning for full exposure and effective action at the Undercover Policing Inquiry, and against police attempts to delay and undermine it. We aim to encourage more groups to find out about the Inquiry and how they can get involved and support each other, and to unite the many different groups and organisations who have been victims of our police state because of their efforts to improve society. 

 Backed by the Campaign to Oppose Police Surveillance [C.O.P.S.] -

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

No Platform Book Project - appeal for sources

From Evan Smith over at Hatful of History -  I am very excited that my book project on the history of the NUS policy of no platform in the UK is moving forward. At the moment, I am on the lookout for further primary sources from no platform campaigns from the 1970s to the present (particularly from the 1980s and 1990s). So if anyone has any material relating to specific campaigns, please send an email to  I am especially interested in any material relating to campaigns to prevent Enoch Powell and representatives of the apartheid regime in South Africa from speaking on university campuses in the mid-to-late 1980s.

Monday, 15 January 2018

London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter #63 (Spring 2018) online

The latest issue of the London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter #63 is now online, with a comment piece by Keith Flett on the royal wedding, and a book review of Origins of Collective Decision Making by Andy Blunden which discusses the Chartists' view of democracy.  Other pieces include an obituary of William Pelz, and book reviews by Ian Birchall and Merilyn Moos.  With respect to the LSHG Newsletter, letters, articles, criticisms and contributions to debate are most welcome - please contact Keith Flett on the address above for more info, and on how to be a member of the LSHG. The deadline for the next issue of the Newsletter is 12 March 2018. The LSHG Spring seminar programme is listed below:


All seminars 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 22 January
Steve Cushion
‘By Our Own Hands’: A People’s History of the Grenadian Revolution

 Monday 5 February
Kevin Morgan
Communism and the Cult of the Individual: Leaders, Tribunes and Martyrs under Lenin and Stalin

Monday 19 February
 Marika Sherwood
 ‘They were not Communists they were Independistas!’ The Beginning of the Cold War in Ghana and Nigeria in 1948

The seminar originally scheduled for Monday 5 March with Keith Flett on 1848 Revisited has now been cancelled in solidarity with the UCU strike and will take place at a later date.

Book Review - The Origins of Collective Decision Making

From LSHG Newsletter #63 (Spring 2018) and #64 (Summer 2018) 

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The Origins of Collective Decision Making 
(Studies in Critical Social Sciences) 
By Andy Blunden 
Haymarket 2017
 ISBN 978-1608468046 

Part 1 (from LSHG Newsletter #63 (Spring 2018)

The Chartists and Democracy 

Andy Blunden’s chapter on the Chartists in this book gives a decent summary of how the movement worked, at least up until 1848 (after which he is on less certain ground). He rightly notes the importance of the 1834 Poor Law Act in mobilising activity and particularly that of women. The Chartists contended for universal male suffrage, but women were active in Chartism, except at the level of leadership.

The Chartists focused on political democracy, a vote in Parliamentary elections and representation in Parliament, and as Blunden notes, the three Chartist petitions were central to this. They were able in a few cases to elect Chartist MPs - Feargus O’Connor sat for Nottingham - under the very limited democracy introduced by the 1832 Reform Act. As Blunden also notes the Chartists used various means, familiar in the modern labour movement, to organise and mobilise activity. The Chartist weekly paper the Northern Star was the key organiser and had the largest sale of any paper in the 1840s. The early trade unions were also engaged and many were sympathetic to Chartism. The National Charter Association formed in 1841 was the world’s first working class party based, as Blunden notes, on the kind of local organisation used by the Methodists.

This was the model available to the Chartists. Delegate conferences were held based on majority voting and Blunden points out that meant that the views of middle class reformers like Joseph Sturge were marginalised. Neither on the one side the influence of money (the Chartists had power of numbers), nor on the other the idea of a block vote of affiliated interests, was yet present.

Where Blunden doesn’t quite capture the essence of Chartism and democracy is looking beyond the upfront policy of petitioning for Parliamentary representation, although he clearly references the much wider range of tactics and strategies the Chartists used. They had no model of workers’ democracy to look to, hence the focus on an expanded and popular Parliamentary democracy.

However as Trotsky noted in Where is Britain Going, the Chartists laid down the original template for what was to follow, pursuing every angle from the petition to an armed rising (in Newport in 1839) and a General Strike (in 1842). As the leading Chartist J R Stephens expressed the Chartist strategy to win the vote ‘peacably if we can, forcibly if we must’.

There was still an element of old style conspiratorial politics about Chartism up to the summer of 1848, as David Goodway’s London Chartism underlines. After that, with the failure of the petition in that year, Chartism moved decisively away from conspiratorial politics and adopted the social democratic programme The Charter and Something More.

The 1850s saw the development of forms of Chartist democracy familiar to this day. A Labour Parliament was held in 1854 but in practice Ernest Jones became a one-person Chartist leadership. Blunden makes the point that after 1848 George Julian Harney and Ernest Jones established ‘secret societies’ rather than engaging with democratic working-class politics.

This is a misunderstanding of what took place. Harney and Jones were involved with groups of political refugees from the defeat of the European 1848 and no doubt there was an element of secrecy about at least some of this.

The significant change to democratic practice in the 1850s and beyond however was the rise of organised labour in the form of trade unions, which while encouraging mass activity, such as that which led to the 1867 Reform Bill, were also concerned to put in place a much more formal democratic framework around their activities which many have seen as the beginnings of the development of a bureaucracy.

Blunden’s book which ranges across a much wider range of example in the context of consensus and majority voting decision making methods, provides a very useful and insightful comparative historical tool.


Part two of the review (from LSHG Newsletter #64 Summer 2018) 

How decisions are made, and in particular how they are made democratically and in a way that can give a reasonable prospect of them being carried through, has concerned the left since something recognisably associated with that label has existed.

A concern in the English Civil War and perhaps particularly after Cromwell replaced Charles I in 1649 was how to make sure that decisions in Parliament reflected the interests of the poorest as well as the richest members of society.

The mid-seventeenth century was a precursor to the democratic age which, broadly, was ushered in by the French Revolution in 1789. It was in the wake of this in the 1790s that the London Corresponding Society decided to open its doors in principle to ‘members unlimited’ something that was then, and for much of the first half of the nineteenth century of doubtful general legality.

Andy Blunden’s book seeks to put the debates about democracy that have arisen, perhaps particularly at times of upheaval in society, into wider framework. So for example he places the democracy of the 1640s and 1650s in a ‘consensus’ category and that of the 1790s in the majority category.

Anyone familiar with the left and the labour movement today will recognise these ways of reaching decisions as alternatives that are still very much current. Understanding their history is therefore of particular importance to activists today as well as to historians.

Blunden is critical, at least of his own experiences of consensus decision making on the left, in the sense that it was difficult to reach consensus and even more difficult to get a decision carried out.

One might argue that the template for consensus was the Putney Debates during the English Civil War, where what to do was extensively discussed, some agreement reached and some things at least were implemented. The issue, as the book makes clear, was that the bottom of line of consensus was the status quo, which did not reflect the demand of the Levellers for male suffrage.

Consensus however covers a broad spectrum of actual perspectives on democracy, as Blunden underlines in the book. A common issue, as evidenced by Cromwell’s refusal to carry through much of what was agreed at Putney in 1647 is that whoever are actually charged with implementing decisions tend to do so in ways that suit themselves. Collective responsibility then becomes an issue of accountability of leadership.

It is unfortunate in this respect that Blunden does not explore the intent behind and the impact of the Clyde Workers Committee view on leaders in 1917. Blunden’s conclusion notes that neither majority or consensual methods of democratic decision making are automatic routes to getting things done that have apparently been agreed.

He also notes a third way of reaching a decision: counsel. That is when whoever is charged with making a decision takes ‘soundings’ from those concerned or involved and then makes a decision on that basis. A good deal of this comes down to what E.P. Thompson called the ‘legitimizing notion’ for action to take place. If people are agreed that something that needs to be done and broadly what that might be, then it will happen, in some form, come what may.

Blunden also argues correctly that decision making is best done from the bottom-up. In summary those who are most likely to be expected to carry out a decision and/or be impacted by what it is have a key say in the process. That is still far too rare an occurrence. Blunden’s though provoking book deserves to be read by anyone involved in trying to change the world for the better.

Keith Flett

Book Review - KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps

From LSHG Newsletter #63 (Spring 2018)

When the Nazis came for the Left 

Image result for KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps

KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps 
By Nikolaus Wachsmann 
ISBN 978-0349118666 
Abacus 2016 

Wachsmann, in this extraordinary minutely researched tome, addresses many of the myths and misconceptions that have grown up over who were the victims of Nazism as well as the contradictory and shifting impulses behind Concentration Camps (CCs). This review will focus on these narratives, rather than the minute and distressing details of how the CCs operated. This book provides us with a warning from history.

What is regularly forgotten is that the SA and SS’s first enemies were socialists. Himmler was obsessed with the left. On the night of the Reichstag fire in February 1933, many leading Communists were detained. Within 3 days of the ‘election’ in March, 1933, 5,000 Communists were arrested; in March- April alone, 40-50,000 political opponents were taken into ‘protective custody’. The SA/SS trashed ‘town halls, publishing houses and party and union offices and hunted down political and personal enemies’.

The focal point was ‘Red Berlin’ but the SA/SS did not just come for the leading revolutionaries: the KPD had built close local links with sports clubs, artistic circles, humanist groups etc. All were seen as ‘terrorists’. ‘Up to 200,000 political prisoners were detained…in 1933.’ Indeed the first camps were constructed for Communist prisoners where hundreds lost their lives in 1933.

The hatred of the Nazis towards Communists was so overwhelming that, as revealed in a footnote, Soviet POWs were the only nationality in the camps where Jews were not separately listed. Although many of the early political prisoners were eventually released (though those who didn’t get out of Germany, were picked up again first in 1938 and, if still alive, again in 1944 with deadly consequences), Communists still accounted for about 80% of camp inmates in 1934 and were the main focus for the sweeps of 1935. In 1936, 3,694 of all the 4,761 concentration camp inmates were political prisoners. Even by mid-1938, the majority of inmates were classified as political prisoners.

Other groups were also targeted, for example some Christians, in particular Jehovah Witnesses with their ‘passive resistance’, ’homosexuals’ and later ‘roma'. Significantly, despite serious harassment, in the early years, German Jews only constituted about 5% of those detained. The group whose fate is particularly illuminating and who are rarely acknowledged are the ‘asocials’: the ‘degenerates’.

The Nazi’s treatment of Communists provided the model. By the end of 1938, ‘asocials’ made up 70% of the entire prisoner population, forming the largest group in the camps up till the beginning of the war. From 1938, their death toll in CCs rocketed ( not to ignore the continuing use of sterilisation and the later deadly T4/euthanasia programme). There was a ‘reason’ for the Nazi’s repression of the ‘asocials’.

What Wachsmann brings out is the increasingly economic- as opposed to ideological - imperative of Nazi decision making. The camps were expanding in number and size and increasingly under the control of the SS. ‘Asocials’ were seen as workshy: non-productive. This proved their death warrant. The camps were increasingly seen as contributing to the SS economy, using forced or slave labour. No room to go into detail here but between 1938 and 1945, CC inmates were used in many of Germany’s commanding industries and in the last couple of years in the war were used extensively in preparing for and creating armaments. Indeed, though Wachsmann does not provide figures presumably because none are available, millions died because of hard labour -and starvation, maybe more than were deliberately exterminated. It was prisoners’ workability which drove the decisions about who was to live, whom to die.

We are all familiar with how people in one of the queues at the camps were going to be sent straight to their deaths. But this is an even more telling than we recognise. Prisoners were seen as potential slaves: if the work killed them, which it usually did, there was always another consignment of prisoners being delivered. Indeed, the original supply were the tens of thousands of Russian POWs - and as Slavs as well as Communists, they were doubly ‘sub-humans’.

But as the war turned against Germany and the Russian prisoners had almost all been worked to death, it was the ‘sub-human’ Jews who were seen as their natural replacement and who were put onto convoys from the ghettoes and prisons across Europe to the camps. (Even by 1943, most European Jews were still in ghettoes, not camps.) Wachsmann suggests that one reason for the Jewish inmates’ exceptionally high death toll was that so few were accustomed to physical labour.

While Nazi policy towards Jews has been heatedly debated, Wachsmann highlights that before 1938, few Jews were taken to the camps and of those who were, most survived. But after the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, there was mass incarceration of Jews, firstly from Austria, although many, if not most, were subsequently released. The Nazi policy at this point was not extermination but expulsion: Jews were encouraged to leave eg to Palestine, although Wachsmann suggests, this was as much to get hold of their property as for more ideological reasons. Only when that failed, was the policy to push them East and incarcerate them in ghettoes.

Even when war first broke out, in theory, ‘productive’ Jews were exempt from imprisonment. As Wachsmann explains, ‘Nazi Germany did not follow a preordained path to extreme terror’. The death camps were not an inevitability. But from 1939, the camps changed drastically: the level of violence and terror increased as did the number of camps. The language had irrevocably shifted. Communist agitators were singled out for ‘eradication’.

 Political prisoners were again one of the first groups of prisoners to be chosen for special punishment, particularly those picked up in France who had fought in the Spanish Civil War. It was Germany’s takeover of Poland, the first of their ‘racial’ wars, which pushed racial/genetic stereotypes up the agenda. Many Poles were sent to the camps where they were regularly executed and subjected to extreme labour, especially in Auschwitz.

A figure which deserves more attention is that about 6 million Poles perished under the Nazis, almost all civilians, about half of whom were Jewish. Massacres were becoming commonplace. Jews in the camps were now becoming a prime target. But mass gassing was yet to come. Victims were in their dozens, not even hundreds. The transition to systematic mass extermination did not occur till late 1941/early 1942, when thousands started to be gassed.

The first large scale gassing was of course of Soviet POWs in Auschwitz. Auschwitz is the camp we most associate with the Holocaust and the mass killing of Jews, deported from much of E. Europe, especially Poland, accelerating in 1942. But Auschwitz was not just about murdering Jews. Many ‘non-Jewish’ Poles were also sent there, especially oppositionists, as well as Soviet POWs.

 But Auschwitz was also the hub of the SS forced labour programme, the SS’s desperate attempt to boost war production, increasingly stressed as Germany’s position deteriorated from late 1942. The plan was to produce armaments, including the V2s, and repair war damage. In January 1943, Himmler ordered the police to deliver some 50,000 prisoners to the camps for slave labour, in particular Jews to Auschwitz.

This led to a rapid rise in the camp population from 1943. Many were already weak or sick and over half died ‘naturally’. But the contribution of camp labour to the war economy remained marginal. Yet these manhunts continued till the very end of the war. It is terrifying that the number of CC inmates was at its highest point in January 1945, when everybody knew Germany had lost.

So Auschwitz represents one of the contradictions at the heart of Nazism; between the ideological goal of destroying the untermensch - and using those fit enough to work to further Germany’s economic interests. But Wachsmann argues that for Nazi hardliners, the goals were not inconsistent: economics and extermination were two sides of one coin as it was ‘only’ people not fit to work who were exterminated.

But the increase in camp numbers in 1944 and 1945 cannot be reduced to Himmler’s drive for slave labourers. As defeat loomed and especially after the unsuccessful attempt on Hitler’s life, ‘Operation Thunderstorm’ first dragged in any remaining leftie and foreign resistance fighters. But it was from this point, in 1944, that more Jews – from France, Holland, Slovakia, Greece and Italy and of course later from Hungary - were sent to the camps than ever before.

This is not the place to explain that tragic escalation, which Wachsmann anyway only suggests. He considers many factors, none sufficient: the switch of line at the time of the Wannsee conference, the shifts in the Nazi policy, the role of the T4 doctors, the need to ‘top-up’ the SS’s ‘work to win’ slave programme, the lethal ‘hysteria’ of some camp commandants and leading Nazis faced with defeat: Himmler stated in April 1945 ‘No prisoner must fall alive into enemy hands.’

Today, we need to learn from the Nazi catastrophe. The rhetoric of the right today is racist and xenophobic. But, but have no doubts, if a ‘neo-Nazi’ government holds power, we will be the first of many of its victims.

Never again!

Merilyn Moos 

Obituary - William A. "Bill" Pelz

From LSHG Newsletter #63 (Spring 2018). 

William A. “Bill” Pelz 

Image result for bill pelz history

A brief obituary by Patrick Quinn and Eric Schuster

Bill Pelz, a well-known socialist activist and prolific scholar in the field of European and comparative Labor History died at the age of 66 in Chicago on Sunday, 10 December, 2017, following a heart attack.

Bill was born into a working class family on the South Side of Chicago. After graduation from high school he became a bus driver, "but later lowered my expectations and became an academic historian". An SDS member for a brief time before its demise, he joined the Chicago branch of the International Socialists (IS) at the beginning of the 1970s and soon became one of the best known leaders of the Left in Chicago. He was an early member of the Red Rose Collective, along with historians Mark Lause and David Roediger, and later a long-time member of the New World Resource Center. Both were radical Chicago book shops and important local organizing and information centers. He helped organize Chicago's first Rock Against Racism concert, and later joined Solidarity, served as International Secretary for the Socialist Party USA, and was the Chicago Political Education Office for the Democratic Socialists of American (DSA).

Bill became s Chicago-based academic scholar and professor of history and political science, first at Roosevelt University; then DePaul University, where he was Director of Social Science Programs; and for the last 20 years a popular and award-winning faculty member at Elgin Community College. He received a history PhD from Northern Illinois University, where he studied with Marxist Historians Meg and C.H. George, completing a dissertation on the German Revolution and the Spartakusbund. He founded and led the Institute of Working Class History, co-founded the International Association for the Study of Strikes and Social Conflicts, and helped edit the Encyclopedia of the European Left. Bill also served on the board of the Illinois Labor History Society, which oversees the Haymarket Memorial and the Haymarket Martyrs’ Monument.

As a scholar Bill produced many books and articles, including A People's History of Modern Europe (2016), Karl Marx: A World To Win (2011), Against Capitalism: the European Left on the March (2007), The Spartakusbund and the German Working Class Movement (1989), and Wilhelm Liebknecht and Germany Social Democracy: A Documentary History (2016). Also of note, Bill edited the Eugene V. Debs Reader (2000) (2007), with an introduction by Howard Zinn. For many years Bill published film reviews in Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies. At the time of his death A People's History of the German Revolution had been completed for Pluto Press. He also served on the editorial board for The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, and co-edited a forthcoming volume in that series.

Generations of workers, students, and leftists in Chicago looked to Bill for inspiration, good humor, generous friendship, and political curiosity. The international academic community widely admired his commitment to revolutionary principles, and in that milieu he was known as a careful, serious, and rigorous historian. He will be sorely missed. He is survived by his wife, Dr. Adrienne Butler. A memorial service for Bill will be held in Chicago in January 2018.

 A version of this obituary will be also be published in Against the Current. 

Edited to add: A Memorial for Bill Pelz will be held in Chicago on 28 January 2018.  

Obituaries may be also read here:
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If you would like to submit a brief note to be read aloud at the Memorial,
please submit it by January 21 to this email: 

Book Review: Cat-Gut Jim the Fiddler

From LSHG Newsletter #63 (Spring 2018)

“But now the masters grasp at all” 

Cat-Gut Jim the Fiddler: Ned Corvan’s Life & Songs 
By Dave Harker 
Wisecrack Publications, 
2017, £20.00 
ISBN 978-0995741812 

The mid-nineteenth century is both very near and very remote, as we realise in this study of Ned Corvan (sometimes spelt Corven). The society depicted here is only two lifespans away – my grandmother (who went into the mill aged eight – factory at 6.00 a.m., school in the afternoon) was born into the world of Corvan’s children. Yet the differences, in physical experience and in ways of thinking, are immense.

Dave Harker, who regrets that “today most north-east children have to follow the ‘National Curriculum’ and focus on the history and culture of London”, has rescued from oblivion a remarkable figure. Ned Corvan was a singer, comedian and artist. Born in 1827, he died aged only 37 – largely as a result of his excessive use of alcohol and tobacco – but having established a substantial reputation.

Dave Harker will be known to many for his work on Robert Tressell and the Shrewsbury pickets, as well as his study of the origins of Bolshevism but he has also written a number of books on the history of popular music, for example his study of George Ridley reviewed here.

 The book is based on an immense labour of research, and is beautifully illustrated with reproductions of original documents. Harker presents his material in a somewhat disconcertingly staccato style, confronting his readers with a mass of information that builds up a picture of Corvan’s life and its material context.

Life for working people was miserable. There were diseases like cholera, pit disasters like that at Hartley Colliery in 1862 when 204 died, and above all grinding poverty – when miners struck in 1844 they were turned out of their homes and had to live in tents. But there was resilience, and then as at many times that resilience took the form of laughing and singing – comedy and music, the two themes of this book. Corvan lived before even the most primitive forms of recording device described in Harker’s penultimate chapter. He could scarcely have imagined the world of today, when half the population walk the streets with what we used to call gramophones on the top of their heads.

If people wanted to hear music they went to the theatre. The Tyne Concert Hall held 2840 people; at Nelson Street Music Hall “Ladies and Gentlemen” paid sixpence and “the Working Classes and Children” paid threepence. He also recreates aspects of the music industry. Thus he quotes a letter about performers who “write to distant managers for situations at extravagant terms …. arrive, make their first appearance to an astonished public and petrified manager, who discovers, when too late, that he has been made the dupe of a miserable trickster” - the Stranglers were doing much the same thing a century and more later. Modern readers will wince at some of the language used to describe black musicians – and at the occasional references to Jews. But we also read of the Alabama Minstrels, advertised as the “only Troupe of Real Blacks in England”, and it is clear that black musicians exercised an important influence on English popular music. The milieu was against slavery and sympathetic to radical figures like Garibaldi.

Corvan’s act combined songs of his own composition, violin-playing, comic monologues often inserted within the songs – and visual art. One account describes how “the accomplished entertainer swept in a masterly style the strings of his violin, which responded in the grand chorus of Paganini’s pièce de résistance. Ere the thunderous plaudits of the delighted assembly had died away, he produced from his pocket a piece of chalk, with which he drew in rapid succession the most lifelike portraits of then living celebrities, including the late Emperor of the French, Mazzini, Kossuth and others.”

He combined humour and pathos. Comedy depends very much on context – imagine someone in a hundred years’ time reading Private Eye and needing footnotes to explain who Boris Johnson was. Lines like “When a chap begins ti tawk aboot eatin’ cats, it’s a sign he’s gannin’ ti the dogs” may be a bit flat on paper, but we are assured that audiences were “never tired” and some were “convulsed” with laughter. The North-East dialect rendered phonetically is a bit of an obstacle but is easily got used to. Corvan’s songs confronted some of the major questions of the day. He was an anti-militarist; his song He wad be a noodle mocks a young man who wants to be a soldier, but in a shooting competition “He fired reet past the target an’ kill’d an aud cow”.

Taxes were the theme in Gladstone’s Budget [Gladstone was then Chancellor of the Exchequer]:

“Oh! Curse the budget, aw’d hang each thunerin’ thief, For raisin’ rum and whisky, wine, brandy, bread, and beef.”

Corvan was no Marxist:

“With a fair day’s wage for fair day’s work, we’ll ask for nothing more.”

But he condemned greedy employers:

“But now the masters grasp at all, working men they still oppress, And while making fortunes for themselves, they make our wages less.”

So in Carpenters’ Strike he praised Sunderland shipwrights who had won a strike:

“Aws glad they’ve got raised, lads, it’s truth aw noo speak, For they’ll flock to see me on maw benefit neet.”

When Queen Victoria came to Newcastle to open the station, Corvan wrote The Queen’s Second Visit. While he did not openly criticise the monarchy, there was an element of irony, recalling that the population paid for royalty:

 “Beyth rich and poor from a’ pairts flock’d for ivery yen was keen, To hev a look at them they keep, Prince Albert and the Queen.”

And he pointed out that the monarch could have shown more generosity:

“Or had she opened oot her purse,she might dune warse,aw’m sure,sir, And left a hundred pound or se to help to feed the poor sirs.”

And beyond the satire there was an aspiration to a better world in the future. In the Funny Time Comin’ he looked forward to the day when

“We’ll hae no shippin maisters then
We’ll mayke them work like other men
I’ the funny time comin’.”

Corvan now lies in an unmarked grave beneath crumbling tarmac. But Harker has brought back to life his combative spirit.

Ian Birchall