Sunday, 17 February 2019

Historians call for action after second attack on Marx’s gravestone in Highgate



The London Socialist Historians Group which organises the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London, Senate House (currently suspended due to the IWGB boycott) has called for action to be taken after it was reported that a second attack on the gravestone of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery has taken place in a matter of weeks.

The historians say that while they see Marxism as a set of ways of understanding the world and a guide to action rather than something that is buried in a cemetery there is no question that the attacks on Marx’s gravestone are the sign of a resurgent far and fascist right who want to deny legitimacy to the ideas of the left.

The London Socialist Historians Group will back calls for a day of action to mark the importance of Marx’s work and political activity in London. There are also calls to raise funds to repair the damage and protect the gravestone in future.

LSHG Convenor Dr Keith Flett said, if these attacks had been made on a significant memorial of, for example, Winston Churchill, imagine the media furore and the police activity. As it is a second attack on Marx’s gravestone has taken place with very little being done. We have already seen efforts to disrupt Bookmarks, the flagship socialist bookshop in central London. The aim of these attacks is to silence the ideas of the left. We are determined to stop that.

For more information please contact Keith Flett on the address above https://kmflett.wordpress.com/2019/02/16/historians-call-for-action-after-second-attack-on-marxs-gravestone-in-highgate/

Statement from Bookmarks Bookshop: https://www.facebook.com/bookmarks.bookshop/posts/2093697404052336

Thursday, 7 February 2019

Historians regret decision to hold Hobsbawm book launch at University of London despite boycott

Press release - 7 February 2019


The London Socialist Historians Group, which has organised the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in central London for 25 years, says it regrets the decision by the Institute of Historical Research and Birkbeck's Department of History, Classics and Archaeology to proceed with a launch of Richard J Evans new biography of Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm at the University of London’s Senate House on Thursday.

Outsourced workers, members of the IWGB, who are in dispute with the University had asked the organisers to move the venue in support of a boycott of Senate House and related central University buildings which is supported by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell amongst many others.

The socialist history seminar at Senate House is suspended in support of the IWGB boycott.

The historians say that they hold Richard J Evans, who has spoken at socialist history seminars at Senate House in the past, in the highest regard and don’t doubt his biography of Eric Hobsbawm officially published on 7th February is both highly competent and very interesting on the historian’s life, work and politics. However they consider the decision not to move the book launch despite reasonable notice to be regrettable
LSHG Convenor Dr Keith Flett said: Eric Hobsbawm was one of the great post-1945 Marxist historians whose work focused on the labouring poor and their struggles against capital. To hold a launch of a biography of his life and work at a location that is the subject of a boycott by outsourced workers is not something any socialist should feel comfortable with.

For more information please contact Keith Flett on the address above.


Thursday, 31 January 2019

Peterloo 1819-2019





From the London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 66 (January 2019) 

[As most will know 2019 is the 200th anniversary of Peterloo, still relevant and still argued about, perhaps particularly after Mike Leigh’s film. There will be significant events to mark the occasion in Manchester and it is hoped to produce a special issue of the Newsletter to mark the anniversary. Details of this will be available shortly. This article appeared in the Morning Star, 12 November 2018]

Peterloo 1819-2019 - The People’s Revenge on the man who sent the Yeomanry in at Peterloo







Image result for william hulton

William Hulton (1787-1864) is not a name that features significantly in British history but the man who held it in the late Georgian and early Victorian periods deserves more recognition as does what eventually happened to the vast estate he owned on the edge of what is now Greater Manchester. It’s thought that the Hulton family may have held the land since as early as 989AD which made it until very recently the longest running instance of land held by a single family in UK history.

Hulton came into his inheritance in 1808 aged 21 and married Maria who bore him 13 children. He was active as a magistrate before Peterloo and in 1812 at Westhougton 2 miles from his ancestral seat at Hulton Hall, Luddites burnt down a new power loom factory. He despatched summary justice to some of those involved. He was the Magistrate who signed the order to send the Yeomanry in at Peterloo (and indeed the warrant for the arrest of Henry Hunt) on 16 August 1819.

He was a part of a Hulton dynasty (all the male heirs were called William except one, Henry Hulton 1665-1737). He appears briefly in Mike Leigh’s film Peterloo, accurately cast according to a contemporary picture (shown here) as a tall young man with sideburns. The Guardian, which was founded as a direct result of Peterloo, spent decades labelling him a ‘foolish country squire’. They were too kind. Hulton was a Tory before anything like the modern Tory Party existed. His mother owned a horse called ‘Church and King’. After the 1832 Reform Act, when the Tories did need to organise politically, he was one of the founders of the South East Lancashire Conservative Association. He was often touted as a potential Tory MP but never stood for Parliament.

There was a problem. Every time he appeared in public at an election the crowd shouted him down with cries of ‘Peterloo’. The Hulton Estate was for many centuries farming land and remained so (325 acres of it) but during the industrial revolution coal mining developed as a major industrial interest. After Hulton’s death the mines were transferred to the Hulton Colliery Ltd in 1868. Thanks to coal mining the Hulton Estate had some of the earliest railway tracks in the country with George Stephenson building a rail link to Bolton in 1826. Despite a wellknown mining disaster in 1910 that killed 344 people by 1947 the Hulton mines were the most significant in Lancashire. At that point they were nationalised. There was a family home, Hulton Hall, rebuilt on several occasions. It no longer stands and the last Hulton, Sir Geoffrey, died in the 1990s according to the BBC. The Estate was put up for sale in 2010 at a price of £8.5m and bought by property developers.

It is interesting to reflect on what happened to one of the great Tory dynasties in the north of England, undermined as it were, by the 1945-50 Labour Government’s nationalisations and ending altogether as Margaret Thatcher and John Major were in Office. The Hultons, who made their money out of coal mining were ultimately done for by working people voting for a Labour Government in 1945. The impact of the demand for the vote at Peterloo on 16 August 1819 took a long time to have effect on the family of the man who sent the Yeomanry in to disperse peaceful protesters, but the impact when it came was decisive.

Keith Flett

Book review - Bucking the Market

From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 66 (January 2019)














Karl Polanyi:A Life on the Left









By Gareth Dale
Columbia University Press, New York, 2018
978-0231176095 paperback

978-0231176088 hard cover

Gareth Dale's interesting biography of Karl Polanyi is now available as a paperback. The history of socialist thought is rich and complex. Polanyi was a reformist, but a significant and influential thinker. Wisely, Dale, despite his own Marxist sympathies, has not attempted to constantly measure his subject against some “correct” position, but rather to present his sometimes contradictory development for his readers to assess, simply adding a few concluding observations.


Polanyi's eventful life reflects the upheavals of the first half of the last century. Born into a prosperous Jewish family in Budapest, he frequented an intellectual milieu (“Bloomsbury-on-Danube”) that included the young Lukács. He saw front-line action in World War I and in 1919 took part in the shortlived Communist Revolution in Hungary, holding an official position in the People's Commissariat of Social Production. When the revolution was crushed, he moved to Vienna and lived there in the period of what was known as “Red Vienna”; the city was run by social democrats who took major initiatives in education and culture. With the rise of fascism he came to Britain. The snobbery of Oxford University denied him a job there, but he worked for the Workers' Educational Association, and lived in London during the bombing. The last two decades of his life were spent teaching and living in North America – USA and Canada - where he achieved recognition, though sometimes coming up against McCarthyism. (His brother, Michael, an avid supporter of the anti-Communist Congress for Cultural Freedom, was refused a US visa.) In his last years he was close to the British New Left.


Polanyi wrote prolifically on a range of topics in history, sociology and political philosophy, and he continues to exercise an influence. Perhaps his more important work was on the question of the market, which has been central to economic thought and to ideology more generally in modern capitalism. Thus he pointed to the “myths” inherent in the whole idea of the market which required to be repudiated: “that political gains, such as democracy and civil liberties, are bequeathed to humanity courtesy of the market system; that economic justice is only attainable at the cost of political freedom; and the mainstream understanding of economic behaviour as scarcity-induced choices made by individuals acting to maximise utility.” Hence he was concerned to see how the market could be reconciled with planning.

Finding a positive political alternative presented a more difficult problem. Though he was impressed by the Hungarian workers' councils of 1956, he was in no way a revolutionary. On occasion he expressed surprisingly uncritical support for Russia under Stalin and Khrushchev – though his own niece had been jailed under Stalin. But when discussing the Schuman plan for a European Coal and Steel Community and the possibility of pushing it in a socialist direction, he commented that the only instrument available “is - God help us – the Labour Party of Britain”. (If he had seen the hapless Corbyn twisting and turning as he tried to placate Blairites and Zionists, he would have realised that something much bigger than God would be required.) Dale concludes that the world of reformism to which Polanyi belonged “now appears marginal, even lost”, and that he “gravely underestimated the degree to which social democracy had …. hitched itself to the capitalist machine”. Nonetheless he believes that “it is in his defence of nonmarket utopia that Polanyi's legacy lies”.

Much of Polanyi's life was shared with his wife, Ilona. For what it is worth, I found her a much more attractive character than her husband, despite occasional Stalinist lapses. She was an activist; when Polanyi came to Britain she remained in Austria, working with the opposition and joining the clandestine Communist Party. In wartime Britain she attempted to join the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. In in the early sixties she objected to her husband working with Robert Maxwell, whom she described as a “scamp” - something of an understatement! And at one point she worked as a cook, whereas cooking remained a mystery for her husband, who once put an unopened tin of beans on the stove and left it there till it exploded. Perhaps Dale will give us a life of this fascinating woman.

 Ian Birchall

Book review - The aftermath of 1968

From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 66 (January 2019)




Tout! : Gauchisme, Contre-Culture et Presse Alternative dans L'Après-Mai 68 
By Manus McGrogan
Éditions L'Échappée,
Paris, 2018, €18
ISBN 978237309038

Manus McGrogan's fascinating account of the French revolutionary journal Tout! (Everything), based on his doctoral thesis, has been published in French translation. An English version would be greatly to be welcomed, but in its absence a brief review can draw out some points of interest for an  Anglophone readership.

Tout! was short-lived – sixteen issues in a little under a year from 1970 to 1971. It belonged to the frenetic student and lycée pupil milieu in the aftermath of the 1968 general strike, when, not unreasonably, many activists believed a revolutionary period was opening up. Organisations and publications of the far left were born, flourished and faded with alarming rapidity.

McGrogan's account is carefully documented on the basis of archives and many interviews with surviving participants, including Siné -  best known in Britain for his pictures of cats but also a virulent political cartoonist. While focussing on Tout!, McGrogan gives us much detail on the whole milieu of far left publishing, including HaraKiri, which later became the now sadly famous Charlie Hebdo.

Tout! originated from a political group called Vive la Révolution (Long Live the Revolution). They were, in a sense, Maoists – but not the sort of Maoists who believed all problems could be solved by a quotation from the Great Helmsman.  They were inspired by what they believed was happening in the Chinese Cultural Revolution – which was probably extremely remote from what was actually going on. There was considerable stress on spontaneity – hence they were often given the nickname “mao-spontex”.  They were influenced not only by China, but by Lotta Continua in Italy and the Black Panthers and yippies  in the USA. One of their slogans was the need to “change life”  (changer la vie) - so they focussed not only on economic and political demands, but
on questions of culture and everyday life.

In August 1970 Tout! was launched. (The title came from the slogan “What we want - Everything”.) The aim was to get away from the style of the traditional left publication, with its slabs of print presenting the “correct line” - a genre unfortunately still with us today, though its sales are diminishing. Tout! sought originality not only in content but in design and lay-out - in particular it made use of colour  (colour was still relatively little used even in the mainstream press). Use of a technique called split fountain printing meant that no two copies were identical.

Politically Tout! sought to develop militant opposition to the post-Gaullist regime which was establishing itself in France. It wrote not only of the student milieu but of the working class; there were detailed accounts of working conditions in factories and on the railways, combined with an ultra-left rejection of trade unions. It gave particular attention to the situation of immigrant workers – thus it told the story of a Pakistani worker who starved to death while waiting for a British visa. The aim was to give a voice to the voiceless. But factory-gate sales never really took off.

It campaigned against the imprisonment of Maoist leader Alain Geismar, while being critical of the way he was glorified by the Maoist press - “Let's free Geismar, including from the roles in which he has been trapped.”  Tout! supporters  were involved in physically confronting Ordre Nouveau, one of the forerunners of the Front National.

It also dealt with the cultural milieu. It embraced rock culture, but rejected its commercialisation -  the 1970 Isle of Wight festival was denounced as a “psychedelic concentration camp”. Tout! supporters helped to organise the mass invasion of rock concerts without payment.  But the description of Joan Baez as a “slut” (salope) was clearly a very stupid piece of sexist ultra-leftism.

The emergence of sexual politics was central to the development of Tout!. Women's oppression had not been an issue in 1968; the – mostly male – student leaders were often aggressively macho. But their assertiveness soon provoked female – and gay – assertion. The orthodox far left had little time for this – Lutte ouvrière dismissed the emerging gay movement as “socialism in one bed” - but Tout! was much more positive. And the imaginative style, often transgressing the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, was  taken up. At a lecture by an antiabortionist professor a woman hurled a calf's liver onto the table and shouted “I've just had an abortion, professor!”

Internal contradictions and tensions were too strong for Tout! to survive long, but its heritage survived in other sections of the left press, including Libération, which became a mainstream daily. In its ultra-leftism Tout! never mentioned Mitterrand, who was already beginning his political ascent during Tout!'s brief life. But in 1972 Mitterrand's Socialist Party stole Tout!'s slogan “Change life”.

Ian Birchall

Socialist History in 2019 - Protest and Survive

Comment from London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 66 (January 2019)

Socialist History in 2019: PROTEST AND SURVIVE 



With the continuing dispute at Senate House over outsourcing of support workers (see our statement here) the immediate future of the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research is under review.

However the London Socialist Historians Group will, of course, continue and will be looking to run events during the year whether at Senate House or elsewhere.

The original aim of the LSHG was not just to be socialist historians within the academy but to be activists outside it too. We have kept broadly to that perspective but I think in 2019 we do need to look at renewing the link.

Those with long memories, or access to appropriate archives, will recall that some years ago the LSHG used to have a banner. Made by the pre-eminent maker of labour movement banners, Ed Hall, it depicted the fight for women’s suffrage. It featured in several banner exhibitions as well as being a regular presence on demonstrations.

I have to report that its current whereabouts are, at best, unknown. For that reason I think it’s more than time that a new London Socialist Historians banner was commissioned. The first question of course is what should be depicted on it. Watch out for details about how this will be decided shortly! (We will obviously seek to canvass opinion widely).

Once decided, I hope we can get it done by early summer. It will be not just to gaze at but to actually carry on demonstrations and protests as well.

Given the number of those who attend the seminars at the IHR that I have seen in 2018 on demonstrations such as that against Trump in the summer and the Stand Up to Racism protests against Stephen Yaxley Lennon and Co. later in the year I’m hoping this will not be a problem.

As E.P. Thompson had it in the 1980s: PROTEST AND SURVIVE.

Keith Flett

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

LSHG support IWGB action on outsourcing at the University of London, Senate House

The London Socialist Historians Group which organises the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, now in its 25th year, has reiterated its support for workers involved in a long running dispute at the University of London’s Senate House in Bloomsbury over the outsourcing of support staff (those who actually keep the place running).
After industrial action and protests by the IWGB trade union who organise many of the workers involved the University agreed to bring outsourced work back in-house. However it has delayed the timescale originally proposed for this. As a result the IWGB have called for a boycott of Senate House.
The LSHG has always supported the workers in dispute and indeed has cancelled seminars at Senate House on days when action has been taking place in solidarity.
We are supporting the boycott. We have three seminars scheduled at the Institute of Historical Research for late January and February 2019.
We are consulting with speakers about whether to take these forward in some form or postpone until a later date. The first seminar on 28th January has been postponed.
That also means we are scheduling no more seminars at Senate House after the end of February for the time being in support of the IWGB members in dispute.
LSHG Convenor Dr Keith Flett said we believe that it is absolutely right that a socialist history seminar should stand in solidarity with Senate House workers and we are pleased to see that a growing number of other IHR seminars are also supporting the dispute.
Details of the dispute are here: