Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Race, Class, 1619 and 1620

[From LSHG Newsletter No. 69 Spring 2020]

Race,  Class,  1619 and 1620

It has been little discussed in the UK but the New York Times 1619 project about the origins of modern America has sparked a massive debate in the US.

A summary is at the link below but there is a lot more to be said. Issues of race, racism, class and patriotism, progressive or not have been at the centre of the debate with well known radical and socialist historians critical of the project.

In the UK there is an important counterpoint around 1620 and the sailing of the Mayflower where issues of race and racism are also to the fore. The link is below

https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/arch ive/2019/12/historians-clash-1619project/604093/ http://www.socialisthistorysociety.co.uk /?p=707

We hope to organise a roundtable discussion on the issues and the history later in 2020.

Black History in 2020

[From LSHG Newsletter No. 69 Spring 2020] 

Black History in 2020 

2020 is the 150th anniversary of the death of William Cuffay, the black leader of London Chartism in 1848. He was transported to Tasmania after a rigged trial but continued to be a labour movement activist in Australia to his death.

The LSHG plan to mark the anniversary and encourage others to do so.

Below is a letter that appeared in The Guardian (13 January 2020) from Marika Sherwood, who the LSHG have worked with regularly over many years. In the age of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump and a rising acceptability of racism black history is more important than ever.

The Black and Asian Studies Association began campaigning about this missing history almost 30 years ago (Black British history syllabus devised for diversity in schools, 9 January). We even met the then education minister, whose ignorance of this history was as profound as that of 99% of teachers. If we want to understand our “nation” we have to look at how multicultural/ethnic it has always been. Africans, as far as we know, arrived in large numbers as a regiment in the conquering Roman armies. Some settled here, and undoubtedly some would have fathered children by native women. Two fairly recent books on black people in Tudor Britain tell us about the increase in the black population. This, of course, grew as the trade in enslaved Africans increased, and again when freedom was granted to the enslaved in the colonies in 1833.

So we should be teaching about Africa prior to the arrival of Europeans, about the wars encouraged by the Europeans to obtain prisoners of war, who were declared slaves and sold to the Europeans, and about Africans here – their treatment, work, protests about slavery and contributions to society for so many years.

It is not only the school curriculum that has to be changed, but the training of teachers. And inservice training should be provided for all existing teachers as their ignorance, one could argue, is one reason why many black pupils do badly as school. Peter Fryer’s book Staying Power, still the best on this history, should be available in all school libraries.

Marika Sherwood
Research fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London

Comment: Labour leaders and labour history

[From LSHG Newsletter No. 69 Spring 2020] 

Labour leaders and labour history 

The current Labour leadership contest has highlighted an issue that is not brought up that much - Labour leaders and their knowledge of labour history.

Rebecca Long Bailey raised the far from uncontroversial idea of progressive patriotism, something that has been discussed on the left since at least the Falklands War. She did give an historical example of the American Civil War but the history of British workers’ attitudes to it is not a simple one.

Keir Starmer wrote a piece for the Guardian about making a case for moral socialism without managing even a nod to Harold Wilson’s phrase that Labour is a moral crusade or it is nothing (associated with the origins of War on Want). Starmer however also managed to tweet on the 165th anniversary of the birth of Eleanor Marx (16 January). His background makes it difficult to call his knowledge of labour history.
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/j an/15/labour-socialism-values-election-economicmodel.

While Jeremy Corbyn, like Tony Benn, has an abiding interest in history he is not by any means an historian. One Labour leader who was definitely in that category was Tony Blair. A university librarian once told me that, before he was leader, Blair had to give a speech involving a mention of the Webbs. He had no idea who they were and turned up to borrow a book on them.

Blair however was the anti-history leader. If New Labour was to be really ‘new’ it could by definition keep on banging on about the past. Blair did go as far  though as to unveil the statue of Harold Wilson outside Huddersfield station.

Wilson himself operated in the framework of a slightly different Labour politics. He was not one to miss a Durham Miners’ Gala, or to call out Communists, or those like trade unionist John Prescott, who he thought were.

As a socialist historian I think its useful for Labour leaders to know something of Labour and labour history. Perhaps being leader should require a test on the matter. It’s probably too much to hope they’d learn from it but certainly a critical awareness of recent labour history and the way Labour has reacted to and handled electoral defeats in the past 50 years would not go amiss.

Keith Flett

Sunday, 9 February 2020

LSHG Seminar - Martin Hoyles on Ira Aldridge - 17 February

Dear Comrades,

We are resuming our seminar series at the Institute of Historical Research.

Details of the first seminar are here:

London Socialist Historians Seminar

Martin Hoyles, 'Ira Aldridge, black actor in Victorian London'. 

Monday 17th February, 5.30pm, Room 304, Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet St, London WC1. 

Free without ticket. Details contact Keith Flett on address above

Comrades may recall a previous seminar from Martin Hoyles on William Cuffay, the black leader of London Chartism in 1848.

Friday, 7 February 2020

The Christopher Hill Memorial Lecture 2020

The Christopher Hill Memorial Lecture in London will take place on the evening of Thursday 27 February at the Swedenborg Hall, 20-21 Bloomsbury Way, Holborn, WC1A 2TH at 6pm. I do hope you can join us. The evening will be chaired by Professor Penny Corfield
and the lecture will be given by Norah Carlin on the subject of her new book,
Regicide or Revolution, What Petitioners Wanted September 1648-February 1649
. The book is a fascinating examination of popular politics as the revolution reached its decisive moment.

Monday, 27 January 2020

Ruth Frow - obituary (2008)

Ruth Frow 1922-2008
Written By: Maggie Cohen
Date: April 2008
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 31: Summer 2008  

Ruth Frow died unexpectedly aged 85 on 11 January. Ruth was the co‑founder with her long time partner Eddie Frow, who died in 1997, of the Working Class Movement Library in Salford.

The library has grown from the 1960s to be a major resource for British labour history with books, pamphlets and other memorabilia.

Frow, a teacher by profession, shared a passion with her husband for touring the country picking up second hand books. The experience is documented in ‘Travels with a Caravan’, an article in a 1976 issue of History Workshop Journal.

Despite referring to their bibliophilia as more of a disease than a hobby, the Frows’ perspective was not of archaeology but of political activism. Ruth Frow had joined the Communist Party (CP) in Sandwich, Kent, in 1945 and stayed a member when moving to Manchester. She met Eddie Frow at a CP day school on labour history in 1953 and their engagement present was a book on William Morris.
Ruth, again in collaboration with Eddie, produced an extensive series of pamphlets and books on labour history ranging from struggles in the engineering union to the history of militant women.

In Manchester Ruth was a NUT teachers’ union rep and, from the later 1950s, a leading figure in the peace movement. She was co-founder and first chair of CND in Manchester. Taking early retirement in 1980 she was able to devote herself full time to the library. As befitted someone who had been a deputy head teacher of one of Manchester’s largest comprehensive schools, Ruth was a formidable figure but a great encourager of people researching labour history.

After Eddie’s death she continued to be associated with the library and kept it focused not just on preserving the past but also engaging with the future.

The Trustees, Friends and staff of the Working Class Movement Library invite you A Celebration of Ruth Frow's Life on Saturday 5th April at 2pm at Peel Hall, University of Salford, The Crescent, Salford. Tea, coffee and biscuits will be available. (Peel Hall is virtually opposite the Library - but please use the crossing lower down as the road is lethal!).

The most effective way we can commemorate Ruth is to ensure that the library she and Eddie founded to rescue and make available the history of working class people and their struggles for justice, equality and a better life continues, flourishes and reaches out more widely. We know that Ruth would have wholeheartedly approved that we ask for donations in her memory to be made to the Library.

Please extend this invitation to colleagues and friends. We hope to see you on 5th April but know that if you are not able to attend you will be with us in spirit.

On behalf of the staff, volunteers and trustees,
Maggie Cohen, Chair of Trustees

Working Class Movement Library
51 The Crescent, Salford M5 4WX
Tel: 0161 736 3601 Fax: 0161 737 4115
Web: www.wcml.org.uk Email: enquiries@wcml.org.uk

A version of this obituary first appeared in Socialist Worker.
See also Kevin Morgan’s obituary in The Guardian at http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2008/feb/01/labour.uk

Book Review - 60 Years of Struggle

A world we have lost?
Written By: Keith Flett
Date: April 2008
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 31: Summer 2008 

60 Years of Struggle: History of Betteshanger Colliery By Di Parkin Pub: Betteshanger Social Welfare Scheme 2007 166 pp Paperback ISBN: 978-0955755002

Someone who was 16 in 1985 at the end of the last great British miners strike is now approaching 30, and in the intervening period most of the British mining industry has disappeared. There are only a few thousand miners left in Britain.

So mining and miners, a hugely significant part of Britain’s industrial past, are now moving from the current into history.

Di Parkin has produced a history of Betteshanger pit in the Kent Coalfield which closed in 1989.

The book is produced as a memoir for the many ex-miners and ex-miners’ union activists who are still around and will find a ready readership there. It provides some quite detailed labour-process and industrial history of the Kent mines and of union struggles based on this that will be hugely interesting to those who were involved. Dave Harker’s new book on the Shrewsbury pickets [to be reviewed next issue] is in a similar vein.

But the test for both books is whether they reach beyond their core readership and engage with younger generations who have little memory of mining or miners.

Here Parkin’s book raises wider issues that should ensure that.

The Kent Coalfield was the last major UK one to open in the 1920s with Betteshanger operational from 1928 and was significant because it was the only source of coal south of the Thames — potentially vital for the London market. It attracted to it miners from all over the UK who had been victimised during the General Strike. It started with a tradition of political militancy and that’s how it continued and ended up as well.

It also seems to have attracted, on Parkin’s account, a breed of exceptionally hard nosed pit managers as well so class struggle was guaranteed virtually from day one.

The militant reputation of Betteshanger is explained by Parkin in two phrases ‘sod it’ and ‘rag up’. When miners had had enough of a dictatorial pit manager they simply walked off the job.
Parkin hints that while these walk outs were usually sanctioned by the union the real power was amongst rank and file miners rather than the union machine.

Hence Betteshanger was a rich source of new industrial tactics. There were two stay down strikes in its history when miners refused to leave the mine and the pit also lays claim to being one of those that launched the flying pickets during the 1972 miners strike when miners successfully picketed power stations and oil refineries.

Most startlingly for the modern reader many of these strikes actually won.

Perhaps the most famous strike of the lot was the one in 1942 again over bullying pit managers. As this was war-time the strike was actually illegal and the strikers were taken to Court, fined, and in the case of the NUM officials at Betteshanger, jailed.

It did not work. The miners did not return to work and in due course the Government had to intervene, cancel all the fines and release the jailed officials. The bullying pit managers were stood down.

It was a magnificent episode in British labour history but it also raised a significant question. The NUM branch at Betteshanger was run by the Communist Party, or at least by those who had CP politics. A little more on who these men were and what their background was in the book would have been useful in terms of their relationship to the CP.

Even so of course, the CP in 1942 was backing the war and increased production. Yet it did not condemn the Betteshanger strike. Parkin suggests that the CP in order to be elected as NUM officials could not afford to oppose the action of miners whatever the CP line was.

However there was a tension between the industrial and political lines of the CP that might have been explored a little further.

Parkin’s book is a compelling read — I finished it on a single train journey — and one that deserves a wide audience, both old and young.