Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Clara Zetkin in Britain

Appeal for information

Dear Friends

I'm researching Clara Zetkin's reception and influence in British politics (1886-1933), and would be pleased to learn of any references to her (positive or negative) in any biographies, memoirs, diaries, correspondence, etc., of British figures.

She was involved with the Second and Third Internationals, and founded the International Socialist Women's Movement; she communicated with the SDF, the BSP, the Women's Labour League and the ILP, and was in contact with Eleanor Marx-Aveling, Dora Montefiore, Margaret MacDonald, Fenner Brockway, J. T. Murphy, Margaret Bondfield, Marion Phillips and Mary Longman. I'd be interested in references to Zetkin's contact with these people and groups - but also any additional contacts with Britons (or emigres living in Britain, such as Friedrich Engels, Karl Kautsky, Eduard Bernstein, etc.).

Anything - no matter how minor - would be a great help. Email me on H_G_W_@hotmail.com with your leads. Ta.

Dr John S. Partington

Monday, 14 December 2009

Donald Sassoon remembers Nina Fishman

Nina Fishman (1946-2009), 'Historian, political activist and outstanding character of the British left'. Condolences from the LSHG to Nina Fishman's family and friends. For a review of one of her works, The British Communist Party and the Trade Unions, 1933-45, see here

Monday, 7 December 2009

The William Morris Hall

A centenary celebration for a building
The William Morris Hall
Somers Road E17

Tuppence a brick (old money)

On 13 December 1909 artist and socialist Walter Crane opened the William Morris Hall: bringing to joyous conclusion six years of fundraising, preparation and hard voluntary labour.

In 1903 the brothers Ben and Charles Buck started the idea of a home for the socialist, radical and trade union people of Walthamstow. Funded by workers buying a brick for 2d (old money), sponsored bike rides and social events, the collective organisations of the Social Democratic Federation, Walthamstow Socialist League, the William Morris Club, the Clarion Cyclists, the trades council, anarchists, suffragettes and many more, the hall was built by volunteer craftsmen on Sunday mornings on squatted land.

The William Morris Hall for the 30 years was the centre of political and cultural life in the town. Amongst the many speakers who came over the years were: dock worker’s leader, Ben Tillet, the Countess of Warwick, H M Hyndman, Will Thorne, new Labour MP for West Ham South (1906), Sylvia Pankhurst, George Bernard Shaw, Victor Grayson, lion tamer, adventurer, folk hero, firebrand independent socialist MP and Walthamstow’s own Val McEntee. From day one it housed the Socialist Sunday School, where over a hundred children each week come together in secular fellowship to learn the socialist 10 commandments.

In the early 1920s the William Morris Brass Band and the William Morris Orchestra were formed. One for street marching and open air meetings, the other for concerts and dancing. The Hall had its own choir. In 1923 Charles Buck started a theatre group; performing plays by Ibsen and Shaw.

The building is a now home to the Limes Community and Children’s Centre. The inside has changed but most of the bricks are the same. I want to celebrate it’s 100 years with words and music. The pioneers who campaigned for a fairer, different world did it with verse and song, as well as marches and struggle. Let’s celebrate the building, the Buck brothers and countless others, but most of all let’s celebrate our past into the future.

Please bring banners

Sunday 13 December
William Morris Hall, Somers Road Walthamstow E17
Assemble at 2 pm
Music and words, then walk to Ye Olde Rose and Crown for more celebration

Please contact Roger Huddle if you want to be involved: roger.huddle@ntlworld.com

LSHG Seminars Spring Term 2010

LSHG Seminars Spring Term 2010

Monday February 15th
Ian Goodyer: 'Crisis Music The Cultural Politics of Rock Against Racism in the 1970s'

Saturday February 27th
LSHG Conference: 'The Vote- What Went Wrong?'
Speakers include Owen Ashton, Logie Barrow, Ian Bullock, Neil Davidson, Keith Flett, Mike Haynes

Monday March 15th
John Charlton 'Don’t You Hear the H Bombs Thunder; Youth & Politics on Tyneside in the late 1950s and early 1960s'

All seminars are at 5.30pm Pollard Room, Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet St London, WC1. Free and open to all without ticket. For more details email Keith Flett at keith1917@btinternet.com

Sunday, 29 November 2009

LSHG Newsletter Spring 2010

London Socialist Historians Newsletter Spring 2010

I am just putting together the next issue of the LSHG newsletter and so a reminder that brief articles, letters, comments and notices are very welcome to keith1917@btinternet.com; but sooner rather than later please. The official deadline is 1st December so the later your contrbution appears after that the less chance there is of being able to fit it in the next issue

Keith Flett, Editor, LSHG Newsletter

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Phil Vasili on Walter Tull

Phil Vasili, author of Walter Tull, (1888-1918), Officer, Footballer will be speaking at Bookmarks - the socialist bookshop - in London on Tuesday 1st December at 6:30pm. Walter Tull was the second ever black footballer in Britain, and the first black army officer. Respected by some, ridiculed by others, this is his amazing story.

This event is free, but please phone
020 76371848 or email events@bookmarks.uk.com

Friday, 27 November 2009

Frederick Douglass Commemoration Project in Leeds

From the Frederick Douglass Commemoration Project in Leeds

There will be a series of lunch time and evening talks and events taking place from 30 November to 4 December 2009, to commemorate the visit of Frederick Douglass to Leeds in 1859.

Frederick Douglass, the anti-slavery activist visited Britain on a number of occasions to promote the cause of abolition. As an enslaved African who successfully liberated himself, he became a key figure in the Abolitionist movement. The week of activities commemorates his visit to Leeds 150 years ago and the inspirational speech he gave at the Music Hall on Albion Street.

"No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck."

Frederick Douglass

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Reminder: CFP for Conference on The Vote

A quick reminder that the deadline for the call for papers for next February's LSHG Conference on The Vote - What Went Wrong? is 1 December.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Study with Pete Alexander

Honours, Masters, Doctoral and Post-Doctoral Study with the South African Research Chair in Social Change

UJ's Professor Peter Alexander has been awarded the South African Research Chair in Social Change (funded by the Department of Science and Technology and administered by the National Research Foundation). This prestigious chair will enable him to support: three post-doctoral fellows, three doctoral students, three masters students and two honours students. Applications are invited for all of these positions.

The study of social change is extensive in its spatial and temporal horizons, it is diverse in its concerns, and it works across disciplinary boundaries to grapple with inter-relationships between different dynamics. The Chair will begin to address this complexity by focussing on social change in contemporary South Africa, undertaking this in a way that recognises the importance of cross-national and historically grounded research. It has a particular interest in class and its intersections; comparative labour history; immigration, xenophobia and super-diversity; civil society, protest and democracy; and the sociology of the state.

PDFs and doctoral and masters students will be supervised or co-supervised by Prof. Alexander and honours students will be employed as research assistants. If students are not yet registered on an appropriate programme, registration will be facilitated by the Chair. Stipends for full-time students (including support from UJ and Faculty of Humanities)* are as follows:

Post-doctoral fellows: R180,000 p.a. Doctoral students: R95,000 p.a. Masters students: R55,000 p.a. Honours students: R31,000 p.a.

Students may also apply for a UJ New Generation Scholarship (applications close on 30 November) and for a Humanities Faculty Merit Bursary. All PDFs and doctoral and MA students will be provided with a lap-top and other hardware, financial support for research and conference attendance, and office space.

To apply, send your cv, the names of three academic referees and a letter of motivation to csr@uj.ac.za. The closing date is 30 November 2009. For further information, call Ms Annelize Naidoo on 011 559 4250 or email her on csr@uj.ac.za.

*Terms and conditions apply

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Radical thinkers and the arts since 1909

Don't look Back
Radical thinkers and the arts since 1909

Thursday 26 November 2009, 18.30–20.00

On the 100th anniversary of the Futurism Manifesto, join critical thinkers Terry Eagleton, Simon Critchley, Kate Soper, Eyal Weizman, and chair Alberto Toscano in exploring a century of radical thinking and the arts - and debating what lies ahead. The recent Futurism exhibition at Tate Modern reminds us of an age when politics and aesthetics were densely interwoven in an explosive rejection of the past. This distinguished panel will assess the legacy of modernism to ask how today's radical thinkers might understand the role of the arts at the dawn of the twenty first century and beyond.


Terry Eagleton is Professor of English Literature at the University of Lancaster and author of Literary Theory: An Introduction, The Illusions of Postmodernism and Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate.

Simon Critchley is Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York and author of The Book of Dead Philosophers, On Humour and Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction.

Kate Soper is a Professor in the Department of Humanities, Arts and Languages at London Metropolitan University and author of To Relish the Sublime: Culture and Self-realisation in Postmodern Times and What Is Nature?: Culture, Politics and the Non-Human.

Eyal Weizman is an architect and Director of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths College, University of London and author of Hollow Land: Israel's Architecture of Occupation.

Chair: Alberto Toscano, editor of Historical Materialism, lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths College, University of London and author of The Theatre of Production: Philosophy and Individuation Between Kant and Deleuze.

In collaboration with Verso to coincide with the of launch of Set 4 of Verso's Radical Thinkers series.

Supported by
New Statesman

Tate Britain Auditorium
£8 (£6 concessions), booking recommended
For tickets book online
or call 020 7887 8888.

Debate on the American Empire

Organised by the Department of Development Studies School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) University of London Convenor: Prof. Gilbert Achcar
2009-2010 This event is cosponsored by Historical Materialism Conference 2009 (27-29 November)

Wednesday 25 November, 6:30pm SOAS, Brunei Gallery Lecture Theatre

Alex Callinicos was born in Zimbabwe. After teaching political philosophy for many years at the University of York, he is now Professor of European Studies at King’s College London. His most recent books are The Resources of Critique and Imperialism and Global Political Economy. His next book Bonfire of Illusions: The Twin Crises of the Liberal World will appear early next year.

Leo Panitch is the Senior Canada Research Chair in Comparative Political Economy and Distinguished Research Professor of Political Science at York University, Toronto, and the co-editor of The Socialist Register. His most recent books are American Empire and the Political Economy of Global Finance, and Renewing Socialism: Transforming Democracy, Strategy and Imagination.

Radical History Walk in Manchester

Panic on the Streets of Manchester...A Walk into Manchester's Rebellious and Revolutionary History...

This walk will take place on Saturday 28th November, beginning at 10.45am and will last 2 hours
The assembly point is the Robert Owen statue, outside the Co-operative Bank, Corporation Street.

The walk will cost £6 waged, £3 students, free to unwaged.
All proceeds from the walk will be donated to the Manchester Committee to Defend Asylum Seekers, which offers solidarity and support to asylum seekers.

We will visit places in the city centre connected with Manchester's rebellious and revolutionary past, running across Marx and Engels, Mary and Lizzie Burns, Jacobites and Jacobins, Suffragists and Suffragettes, Chartists and Clarionettes and others...

The walk will be led by Michael Herbert , who has been leading history walks in Manchester for more than 20 years. He is a Trustee of the Working Class Movement Library and former editor of the North West Labour History Journal. He has written two books on Manchester's history; Never Counted Out! The Story Of Len Johnson, Boxer and Communist and The Wearing of the Green; a Political History of the Irish in Manchester. He is a regular contributor to the Manchester Radical History website. http://radicalmanchester.wordpress.com/

more information : mossley@phonecoop.coop

It would helpful if this could be forwarded to anyone you think might like to attend

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Chris Harman

From Socialist Worker

Chris Harman 1942-2009

Supporters and readers of Socialist Worker as well as socialists from around the world will be sad to hear the tragic news that Chris Harman died last night in Cairo where he was speaking.

Our condolences go out to Talat, his partner, his children and all his family and friends.

Chris Harman was a towering figure on the left in Britain and he made an immense theoretical and personal contribution to the Socialist Workers Party. He was editor of International Socialism Journal and was previously the editor of Socialist Worker for over two decades.

He was also an influential and highly respected figure on the international left.

He was greatly loved and will be sorely missed. We will let comrades know about the funeral as soon as we know any details.

There will be a full obituary in the next issue of Socialist Worker.

If you would like to send any messages of condolences please send them to martins@swp.org.uk and we will make sure they are forwarded to Talat and his family.

In comradeship

The SWP Central Committee

Keith Flett adds:

As a member of the IS and SWP from 1974 I heard Chris Harman, whose untimely death has been announced, speak on many occasions, but few would claim that it was his power of oratory that made him an outstanding figure on the left internationally.

Rather it was the combination of activism and a towering Marxist intellect that attracted people to his meetings and to read his articles and books.

Most of Chris Harman’s prodigious output was related to matters other than history, but not all.

His book The Fire Last Time is a masterly history of the events of 1968 and what happened afterwards from the perspective of an active revolutionary socialist. Likewise his book on Germany, the Lost Revolution looks at the reasons for the failure of revolution to spread internationally after 1917.

In the last 10 years the London Socialist Historians Group had a closer engagement with Chris particularly in the period when he became Editor of the theoretical journal International Socialism.

Chris was a keynote speaker at our conference in 2000 which attempted to draw a very preliminary balance sheet of the twentieth century and was frequently to be seen at LSHG conferences, often making incisive contributions.

More recently the LSHG hosted, at the Institute of Historical Research, a London launch for the new edition of what may be seen as Chris’s masterwork, the People’s History of the World. It is a work which demonstrates an immense breadth of knowledge and an incisive Marxist analysis of history. It has been well received critically but still deserves many more readers.

On a personal note I have also been working for some years now, along with the great cartoonist Tim Saunders, on a cartoon version of this book which appears monthly in the Socialist Review. Cartoons of course do not work as lengthy slabs of Marxist text so translating the book into the cartoon format has been a challenge, not least because, quite rightly, Chris’s work is not big on laughs, which is something a cartoon sometimes demands to engage a wider readership.

I often came across Chris in the British Library in central London and we would exchange notes on what we were researching, underlining that his quest for ideas and knowledge was very much an on-going affair.

His work on the current crisis of capitalism and his exposition of a Marxist understanding of crisis has been essential reading and listening in the last couple of years but historians will remember him as someone whose work not only informed and inspired but also provoked political activity.

We have lost one of the great socialist theorists and activists of the last 50 years but the impact of Chris’s work will certainly continue.

Keith Flett, LSHG, 7th November 2009

Edited to add: Chris Harman’s funeral will be on Thursday 26th November. It will be held at 4pm at Golders Green Crematorium.

Friday, 6 November 2009

LSHG Seminars reminder

Monday 9 November
Terry Ward - 'Class struggle in Shakespearian England'

Monday 7 December
Gareth Dale - 'Class & Revolution 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall'

All seminars are at 5.30pm Pollard Room, Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet St WC1. Free and open to all without ticket. For more details email Keith Flett at keith1917@btinternet.com

Thursday, 5 November 2009

CFP: Social Movements Conference

abstracts due by Monday 22nd February 2010

From 1995 to 2009, Manchester Metropolitan University hosted a series of very successful annual international conferences on 'ALTERNATIVE FUTURES and POPULAR PROTEST'.

We're very happy to announce that the Fifteenth AF&PP Conference will be held, between Monday 29th March and Wednesday 31st March 2010.

The Conference rubric remains as in previous years. The aim is to explore the dynamics of popular movements, along with the ideas which animate their activists and supporters and which contribute to shaping their fate.

Reflecting the inherent cross-disciplinary nature of the issues, previous participants (from over 50 countries) have come from such specialisms as sociology, politics, cultural studies, social psychology, economics, history and geography. The Manchester conferences have also been notable for discovering a fruitful and friendly meeting ground between activism and academia.


We invite offers of papers relevant to the conference themes. Papers should address such matters as:
* contemporary and historical social movements and popular protests
* social movement theory
* utopias and experiments
* ideologies of collective action
* etc.
To offer a paper, please contact either of the conference convenors with a brief abstract:

EITHER Colin Barker, Dept. of Sociology
OR Mike Tyldesley, Dept. of Politics and Philosophy
Manchester Metropolitan University
Geoffrey Manton Building, Rosamond Street West
Manchester M15 6LL, England
email: c.barker@mmu.ac.uk
email: m.tyldesley@mmu.ac.uk

Public Meeting on Mulk Raj Anand Postponed

TALAT AHMED's meeting for the Socialist History Society on Mulk Raj Anand and the All-India Progressive Writers Association, 1935-37 has been postponed until the new year.

Dr Talat Ahmed teaches in the Department of History, Goldsmiths College, University of London. She is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society and a member of the British Association for South Asian Studies. She is the author of Literature and Politics in the Age of Nationalism: the Progressive Episode in South Asia, 1932-56 (Routledge 2009). Her current research is focused on intellectual and cultural history of modern South Asia and radical literary and cultural projects in twentieth-century South Asia.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Debate: The Future of Capitalism

A Public Debate Hosted by KCL Capital Reading Group and KCL Business Society
Supported by the Centre for European Studies, King's College London


ALEX CALLINICOS, Professor of European Studies, King's College London, and author of The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx
MARTIN WOLF, Chief Economics Commentator, Financial Times, and author of Fixing Global Finance


for more information contact KCLreadingCapital@gmail.com

Edited to add: Watch the debate here

Celebrating Gerrard Winstanley

400th Anniversary since the birth of the Digger Leader

7pm, Thursday 19th November 2009,
Speakers: Thomas Corns, University of Bangor, co-author of a
biography of John Milton, and Ann Hughes, University of Keele,
author of “The Causes of the English Civil War” (1998)
Venue: Russell Room, Conway Hall, Red Lion Square,
London WC1 (Tube: Holborn).
Organised by the Socialist History Society in association with the South Place Ethical Society (SPECS).

Gerrard Winstanley, who was born in 1609, was one of the foremost activists of the
English Revolution. His uncompromising reinterpretation of the Christian message
in response to the political and economic crises of the mid-17th Century took religious thought in an egalitarian and Communistic direction and through his many
writings we can still hear a unique voice expressing ideas that were well ahead of
his times. The Complete Works of Gerrard Winstanley, due out in December,
comes in two volumes at a combined 1,000 pages. This is the first comprehensive
edition of the Digger leader’s writings and aims to establish Winstanley’s
distinctive contribution to political and ethical ideas. Tom Corns and Ann Hughes, two of the editors of this new volume, will address Winstanley’s ideas and their relevance for today. The event is entirely free and refreshments will be provided courtesy of SPECS.
For further information see here

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Lecture: Making the Human Gesture

The Raphael Samuel Memorial Lecture 2009
Making the Human Gesture: History, Sexuality and Social Justice

Bishopsgate Institute, 27 November 2009, 6,30pm
Free, no advance booking required

The 1970s saw the rise of new social movements engaged with issues of sexuality. Historians inspired by these movements began writing histories of sexual life. This talk traces the development of these histories since the 1970s and considers what they show us about changing attitudes to human rights and social justice in western society. Speaker Jeffrey Weeks will discuss the importance of sexual history to contemporary thought and ask what a history rooted in the sexual radicalism of the late 20th century can teach us about life in the 21st.

Jeffrey Weeks is a leading historian and sociologist of sexuality. His 1977 book Coming Out was hugely influential, and he has since published many other landmark works, including Sexuality and Its Discontents, Making Sexual History and The World We Have Won: the Remaking of Erotic and Intimate Life. Jeffrey Weeks is now Emeritus Professor at London South Bank University.

Reproduced from Socialist History News

Seminar: A Social Approach to Politics

The Working Lives Research Institute and the Black and Asian Studies Association (BASA) present:
A Social Approach to Politics: Aspects of Communism in India and Britain
Seminar by Dr Ritwika Biswas
(University of Calcutta’s History Department)


The Working Lives Research Institute is hosting the visit of Dr Ritwika Biswas of the University of Calcutta’s History Department while she is on a visit to original archive research supported by a Charles Wallace Fellowship for her work on the interaction between the British and Indian Communist Parties, 1920-60. Professor Mary Davis of WLRI is acting as Dr Biswas’s academic host.

BASA’s interest lies in the inter-action between the two Parties, which will form a major theme of discussion after Dr Biswas’s talk.
Please make every effort to attend and forward onto anyone you know will be interested.
There will be a short 20 minute tour of this fascinating Library, with its unique Labour Movement collections, at 3pm, before the seminar commences.
The Working Lives Research Institute: www.workinglives.org
BASA, www.blackandasianstudies.org
Marx Memorial Library, www.marx-memorial-library.org

Access by public transport:
Underground: Farringdon on Circle, Hammersmith & Metropolitan lines
British Rail: Thameslink, Farringdon
Buses: 55, 63, 243, 259

Fliers available on request to sean.creighton(at)btinternet.com

Reproduced from Socialist History News.

Sixth Historical Materialism Annual Conference

Sixth Historical Materialism Annual Conference
‘Another World is Necessary:Crisis, Struggle and Political Alternatives’
27–29 November 2008
at the School of Oriental and African Studies and Birkbeck College, London, WC1
In association with Socialist Register and the Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize Committee.

CFP: LSHG Conference: The Vote - What Went Wrong?

Conference and Call for Papers:
The Vote — What went wrong?
Saturday 27th February 2010 at 9.30am
Institute of Historical Research

The recent scandal over Parliamentary expenses has
raised major questions about Parliamentary
democracy and its relationship to the labour movement
and the left.
Historically the left has fought for democracy and the
vote from the Chartists to the Suffragettes to those
who campaigned around the disenfranchisement of
black voters in the US and Catholics in the North of
Ireland in the 1960s.
Papers are invited from historians working on struggles
for democracy and the vote but the conference will
also look at wider historical contexts.
There has been since at least the 1960s in the UK a
link between social democracy and corruption, but the
same has also applied elsewhere, for example in Italy.
Has the attempt to democratise Parliamentary
institutions led simply to a replication of the old corrupt
practices of the past?
Finally the conference will examine alternative
strategies for democracy on the left, not least the
Soviets and workers councils that have appeared at
moments in the last 140 years or so from the Paris
Commune onwards.
Proposals of no more than 500 words should be
emailed to keith1917@btinternet.com by 1 December.

From the LSHG Newsletter Editor

From LSHG Newsletter, Autumn 2009

This academic year marks the 15th anniversary of the
London Socialist Historians Group, and the seminar series
at the Institute of Historical Research and a number of
events in Spring 2010 will mark the occasion.
The economic crisis has dominated much commentary in
the bourgeois media in the last year but historical input to
the debate, particularly from the left, has been somewhat
lacking. Niall Ferguson from the right has written pieces in
the Financial Times, and International Socialism and
Historical Materialism amongst others have held important
meetings of left and Marxist economists which have had
some historical perspective.
But discussion on how, for example, workers fought back,
or sometimes did not, in the 1930s recession has
been largely absent. Here I must admit that my piece on
the London busworkers actions of 1932/3 for the Morning
Star remains outstanding(!) Much discussion has been
focused on the history of factory occupations, from UCS to
Visteon and Vesta, and quite rightly. But that still hasn't
amounted to that much debate.
Needless to say , contributions to the newsletter around
these and related points would be very welcome indeed.
Keith Flett

Letters, articles, criticisms and contributions to
debate are most welcome. The deadline for the next
issue of the LSHG Newsletter is 1 December 2009.

Radical History Network Programme

Radical History Network [NE L] c/o, LS, PO Box 45155 , London , N 15 4WR
”celebrate our history, avoid repeating our mistakes”

PROGRAMME 2009 – 2010

We meet on the second Wednesday of the month at 8 pm at the
Postmen’s Building, North London Community House, 22
Moorefield Road, N17. This is the old PO Sorting Office, next to
Bruce Grove BR station, just off Tottenham High Road

21 Oct: Janine Booth speaks on her book “Guilty and Proud of
it” about the Labour rebel councillors of Poplar,
East London, 1921

24 Oct: Anarchist Bookfair, RaHN stall.

11 Nov: Albert Beale gives the story of Housman’s Bookshop
5 Caledonian Rd, Kings Cross, N1, which opened 50 years ago.

9 Dec: Liz Willis celebrates Mary Wollstonecraft’s anniversary;
a pioneering writer for women’s liberation

13 Jan 2010: Paul Burnham talks on the war veterans’
organisation after WW1

25 Jan 2010: Burns Night Supper – we celebrate the Scottish
socialist poet in the Tollgate, at Turnpike Lane [ by the tube ].

10 Feb 2010: New style debate-attitudes to WW1,
Supporters put the views for, and against, using the political
writings of that time.

Book Review: Rock Against Racism Revisited

From LSHG Newsletter, Autumn 2009

Crisis Music:
The cultural politics of Rock Against Racism
By Ian Goodyer, 176 pages hardcover
Manchester University Press 2009
ISBN 978-0719079245

RAR Revisited

Rock Against Racism (RAR) was a campaign launched in 1976 to oppose racism in the music industry. Its inspiration was an August 1976 gig at which Eric Clapton launched into a drunken diatribe in support of Enoch Powell. Over time RAR evolved into something different and more interesting, a campaign of music fans against racism assisted by the support of high profile black and white musicians.
In this book Ian Goodyer cites interviewees to the effect that there were 70 RAR groups across the country in 1979 (p. 12), that RAR's magazine Temporary Hoarding had a circulation of 12,000 in the same year (p. 90), and that RAR sold a total of 1.5 million badges (p. 61). But RAR's great achievements were its Carnivals against the National Front (NF) held in alliance with the Anti-Nazi League (ANL). They include Carnivals of 80,000 and 100,000 people in London in spring and autumn 1978, and between them a Manchester Carnival attended by 35,000.
Participants in the movement describe a constant trickle of former NF supporters coming to tell organisers that this event had broken them from the far right. Goodyer is well-placed to tell the story of RAR, for two reasons in particular. First, he was a participant in the movement, and states in his footnotes for example that he thinks RAR was in reality biased towards a limited number of musical forms (p. 18), or that the SWP ‘punk paper’ of 1978 was a mistake (p. 71). A historian relying on the literature produced by a campaign and upbeat interviews with movement participants will always find it harder to make calls of that sort.
Second, although this is obscured by the brief biography which appears on the back cover, Goodyer was for many years a graphic designer for Socialist Worker. This enables him to see something which most historians of RAR miss, that the true inner core of the group were not musicians at all (as is most often assumed), but a group of designers working in the SWP printshop: Roger Huddle, Ruth Gregory and Syd Shelton to which we can add the Socialist Worker photographer Red Saunders and in due course the occasional writer for Socialist Worker Dave Widgery.
On pages 119-20, Goodyer catches in a few well-chosen sentences the stylistic innovations of the RAR paper, Temporary Hoarding.
The most interesting parts of RAR's history to my mind are the questions of how and why a relatively small group of people was able to bind round itself two further groups: enough musicians to make the gigs and Carnivals and work, and then enough supporters and participants to make the combined movement a success.

Goodyer's book is written in a ‘cultural studies’ idiom, comparable to, for example, Alex Callinicos' books of philosophy, so every question has to be addressed sideways through a critique of what other authorities have written. The immediate genesis of RAR is largely ignored (although an implied answer is given – the deep
cultural modernism of the designers enabled them to relate to other people who came from an artistic background), while the question of why RAR grew gets much more detail.
In so far as Goodyer has an explanation, it is derived from Red Saunders, i.e. that the organisers' trick was to allow groups anywhere in the country to host bands, show films or run music clubs, more or less however they pleased. Goodyer terms this organising method "semiimprovisational" (p. 65) and when repeating the phrase out loud, the emphasis should probably be on "semi" rather than "improvisational" .
Now it is a familiar reality that most left-wing campaigns fail, and a semi-improvisational organisational strategy is in the last resort no better guarantee of ultimate success than its more often-encountered counterpart: the wholly nonimprovisational strategy that activists usually term ‘Stalinist’.
If anything is missing in Goodyer's book it is an historical analysis that the reason why the campaign worked is that while many long-time historical trends (including the decline of those industrial patterns of employment under which rank-and-file trade unionism had flourished) were going to make the job of the anti-fascists harder, they had so far proceeded only up to a certain point; and in 1976-9 they were balanced by other historical trends (including a growing contempt of young white people for racism, which was drawn on and pushed further by RAR and the ANL), so that although history was against, it was not too far against. If all that seems too elaborate an analysis, this idea of historical opportunity is best expressed in the brilliantly succinct two-word title of Dave Widgery's history of RAR: Beating Time.
Against that omission, there is much to praise in Crisis Music. There is a good range of interviews including contrite former NF supporters, Colin Fancy (who doggedly insists that the design of Temporary Hoarding was all wrong), and more than a couple of contributors to this newsletter. The book is well-written; and although ‘cultural studies’ does lend itself to a style of textual polemic, Goodyer can be forgiven for writing in this wretched genre because the focus of his polemics is well directed, ‘no’ to Paul Gilroy's There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack and ‘yes’ to Dave Widgery. Goodyer's book is pricey for its audience at £60. Buy it or, just as good, order a copy for a library. It deserves to be a widely-read paperback.
Dave Renton

Book Review: Popular Revisited

From LSHG Newsletter, Autumn 2009

Poplar's Rebel Councillors and Guardians 1919-25
By Janine Booth: 216 pages Paperback
The Merlin Press Ltd 2009
ISBN 978-0850366945

Poplar revisited: When Old Labour fought

The crisis of capitalism, that is the latest one we are currently in, has led to bailouts of bankers and banks
and a consensus amongst the three main parties, and if Ireland is anything to go by, the Greens as well, that
there is no alternative to cuts in public spending. This will bring huge pressure to bear on local councils to cut public services which will wallop the most poor and disadvantaged in society. Many local councillors seeing themselves as managers of the local State will go along with this. Some may oppose it and they will certainly be joined by trade unions, community groups and tenants associations.
The last time there was a serious fight around such issues was against Thatcherite rate capping in the mid- 1980s but for those who can remember that far back — aged around 40 and above — it was not a successful fight. The surcharging of Lambeth Councillors and the vicious attacks on Militant in Liverpool underline the point. That is not to say the fight was not worthwhile or without impact but it did not, unfortunately, lead to positive results for working people.
Before that there was, in the early 1970s, the fight of the Clay Cross Councillors against rent rises for council tenants. That had more success but the Councillors were victimised.
And before that we had the struggle of Poplar Councillors in London’s East End for equalisation of the rates and hence for decent and affordable public services.
Janine Booth, a leading activist in the RM T union has written a new history of the Poplar struggle. The
timing, given the above, could hardly be better. There is a standard history written by Noreen Branson and published by Lawrence and Wishart, and more recently Preston socialist Councillor Michael Lavalette
produced a pamphlet on the same theme.
Booth’s book, aside from a final chapter which draws some wider political conclusions, focuses very strictly
on the period of the struggle in Popular itself, broadly the early 1920s. That means as a narrative it is an excellent introduction to what went on. The Poplar Councillors’ fight was for decent public services and decent public employment practices paid for out of the rates. To achieve that they demanded that the rates should be equalised across London so that the richer areas paid in more than the poorer ones like Poplar. It was of course resisted and the Councillors were pursued and jailed for refusing to compromise and cut services and jobs.
Unlike today in many cases Labour members in Poplar in the 1920s were solidly working class, trade union
based, and rooted in their community. Their campaign had mass support and eventually the Government had to be back down and provide more funds.
There remain historical questions that could do with some further research here. The role of the early Communist Party in these events is one. Branson does not have a great deal to say about it, and since this was a period when dual membership of the CP and Labour Party was allowed, disentangling exactly what
went on is no easy matter.
Then there is the question of the left opposition around Sylvia Pankhurst. Booth criticises Pankhurst for
ducking out of an electoral struggle that very clearly got results for working people in Poplar. But Pankhurst and others actually mobilised a significant movement of the unemployed in the 1920s and the pressure of that must have had an impact both on the Councillors and the Government. Unfortunately it also remains an obscure episode.
However, Booth should not be criticised for not writing a book she did not claim to be writing, as it were. She holds up the Poplar struggle as an example of what Labour can achieve when it is rooted and militant.
One might look at New Labour and suggest this seems quite distant, and I suspect Booth might suggest that
the possibility of raising a similar struggle outside its ranks looks equally difficult.
But the point is Poplar took place and it should be an historical inspiration to a new generation of people determined to fight cuts in public services today. That anyway was the conclusion of a Guardian journalist in
2000 whom Booth quotes. His name? Alan Rusbridger, the current Editor of the paper…

John Saville

Obituary in LSHG Newsletter, Autumn 2009

John Saville, who has died aged 93, was a towering figure in the fields of Marxist and labour history and in the British labour movement and left for more than seven decades. His enduring legacy may well be the volumes of the Dictionary of Labour Biography that he edited, detailing the lives of many of the women and men that were active in the labour movement from the late eighteenth century.
He had joined the Communist Party in 1934 while studying at the LSE and was amongst anti-fascist students at the Battle of Cable Street. On graduation he worked for the CP as London student organiser and on two occasions took letters for the CP into Nazi Germany. He briefly took a job as an economist with British Home Stores but from 1940 he served in World War Two. As a Communist, but against the advice of the CP, he repeatedly refused to be a commissioned officer but still rose to the rank of Sergeant Major. He saw service in India from 1943-46 where he acted as a go -between with Indian Communists and the British CP. While in Bombay he led an intervention of CP soldiers in the Soldiers’ Parliament, causing an anti-imperialist motion to be passed and the closure of the Parliament by senior officers. A certain military bearing and booming voice never left him, although it may be that his intellectual confidence owed rather more to his LSE years.
He was a member of the CP Historians Group after the war. His first major work was an edited edition of some of the writings of the Chartist leader Ernest Jones, appearing as early as 1952. In 1954 it was Saville who edited a volume in honour of the effective founder of the group, Dona Torr, called Democracy and the Labour Movement.
In 1956 Saville, with EP Thompson, was one of the leaders of the opposition in the Communist Party following the Hungarian Revolution. The pair edited a journal, The Reasoner, later The New Reasoner. which was frowned upon and then banned by the CP. They left and became part of the founding group of the British New Left in the late 1950s.
Saville however did not participate significantly in founding New Left Review [1960]. Rather he edited an annual publication, The Socialist Register from 1964 with the Marxist theoretician Ralph Miliband. The Register, still published annually, became a forum for left-wing discussion and debate. He taught at Hull University for many years from 1947 when he was 31, and lived in the City. His friendly relationship with the University’s librarian, the poet Philip Larkin, led to Hull becoming an excellent resource for labour history.
Saville endeavoured to tutor activists who were participants in the labour movement, for example John Prescott. His academic output was not restricted to the ten volumes of the DLB he was associated with from 1972-2000. He wrote economic history, mostly focusing on nineteenth century Britain and Saville was one of the founders of the still continuing Society of Labour History in 1958. He was a Vice President at the time of his death. He edited with Asa Briggs three volumes of Essays in British Labour History [from 1960] and went on to publish books on the crisis of the British State [1987], and on the impact of imperialism on the foreign policy of the 1945 Labour Government [1993], amongst numerous other writings. He was a consistent anti-imperialist and opponent of British military adventures. For example he demonstrated that while the 1960s Labour Government of Harold Wilson did not join in the Vietnam War in fact it made British bases in the Far East available to US troops, thereby providing help in kind.
He was a great encourager of socialist historians, but a firm believer in friendly but robust and critical advice. I persuaded him on several occasions to speak at the Institute of Historical Research in London, on the subject, so I hoped, of the Communist Party Historians Group. Saville however, rightly, was always far more interested in what could be done to promote the practice of socialist history in the here and now, and that was indeed what he spoke about.
Keith Flett
(A full version of the above obituary appeared in the July
2009 issue of Socialist Review)

I first met John Saville in 1996, shortly after commencing my PhD, a study of post-war anti-fascism. Saville was one of a network of former historians and Communists who had been part of that movement. Our discussion soon turned problems of method and from there to political strategy. He quickly "spotted’ I was a member of the SWP and warned me of what he perceived was the narrowness of the Party's work. “The problem with you in the SWP,” he told me, “is that you are no good at working in campaigns you don't control”. Others had made the point to me before (and would make it since). I didn't mind the correction, on this occasion, because I saw in Saville an activist's spirit. The criticism wasn't intended as an excuse for inaction but was seriously meant. There is no hope for socialism unless people from different traditions can work together, and the danger with parties of the left is that we do often foreclose that process.
Over the next decade, I had plenty of opportunities to see Saville's activist spirit at work again: in the Northern Marxist Historians' Group which he nurtured as a sort of sisterorganisation to the LSHG and at events such as a seminar on Marxism and history organised by the Working Lives Institute at London Metropolitan University in 2003. At this latter event, Saville spoke with Dorothy Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm. There were invited as big names, wine was served, and the feel of the event could easily have encouraged the speakers into anecdotery.
Thompson used the occasion to explain that she no longer believed that Marxism had much to offer historians at all. Hobsbawm spoke with the perspective of an eagle, judging the twentieth century in all its longue durée. Saville told the audience that he had a script prepared to which he had intended to speak, but he was much more interested in the crisis of the present - above all Blair's war in Iraq - and he used the occasion to urge all of us to resist. Selflessness, humility and militancy are not the virtues usually associated with those who have spent thirty years of their life teaching in higher education - but these John had to spare. History will remember him for the part he played as editor of the Reasoner, the Socialist Register and the Dictionary of Labour Biography. For me, he was the best activist of all the CP historians - to the movement, his is the greatest loss.
David Renton

See also Remembering John Saville by David Howell.

Hungary 1930: In Search of the Missing Plaque

By Bob Dent - From LSHG Newsletter, Autumn 2009

Soon after I moved to Budapest in 1986 I got a contract to write the very first Blue Guide Hungary. I
tried write in a style somewhat more lively than the then rather dry approach characterising Blue Guides.
Occasionally I also tried to inject a little labour or social history into the work, something which hardly
ever appears in any kind of guidebook. I included a mention, for example, of a wall plaque on the façade of the Hall of Exhibitions, a huge neo-Classical building in Heroes’ Square, one of the largest and most striking public spaces in Budapest.
The square is filled with statuary depicting Hungary’s ‘great and the good’ — mainly kings and princes who ruled in past centuries. The plaque, however, recalled a workers’ demonstration which, under the slogan ‘Work and bread!’ had taken place, partly in the square, on 1 September 1930. It was the largest such manifestation of inter-war Hungary, involving around 100,000 participants. There were clashes with the police who fired into the crowd, seriously injuring many and killing one person.
When my next Blue Guide — this one just about Budapest — appeared in 1996 it contained no mention of the plaque. Some time in the early 1990s the plaque had disappeared from the façade of the Hall of Exhibitions.
Next year, 2010, will see the 80th anniversary of the demonstration, so I thought it might be a good opportunity to try to get something published about the event. My first step was to investigate what has already been written about the subject. I delved into many books about Hungarian history, written in
English and Hungarian, which had been published since the political changes of 1989-90. Occasionally
there would be a mention of the big demonstration of 1930, but not much more than that. Like the plaque on the wall, the history of the demonstration seems to have ‘disappeared’.
No doubt there is a connection. After 1948-49 in Hungary (as elsewhere in Eastern Europe) the ruling party — let’s call it the Communist Party, though that wasn’t its official name — tried to appropriate for itself all of the country’s twentieth-century labour history, as if the history of the Hungarian Communist Party was just another term for the history of the working class movement in Hungary. This nonsense became part of the official discourse and, in a way, it still is, given that many people continue to conflate the two. Hence it is perhaps not surprising that the ‘memory’ of a 1930 workers’ demonstration should have been forgotten – symbolised by the disappearance of the memorial plaque. (If it was ‘communist’, it was obviously something to be junked.)
The plaque, incidentally, is nowhere to be found. I have spent hours trying find out what happened to it. Nobody knows. The consensus is that it probably went missing during large-scale renovation of the Hall of
Exhibitions in the early 1990s, but no one admits to knowing who made the decision, exactly when and why. It is a little bit easier to find out what happened in Budapest on 1 September 1930, if only in the (limited) sense that daily newspapers from the time can still be found in libraries. They all gave the demonstration massive coverage on the following day. Luckily, you can still find copies of Népszava, the daily paper of the Social Democratic Party of Hungary, which, together with its affiliated trade unions, had organised the event. What I have done is compare its sympathetic coverage with that of two other, commercial newspapers.
I have also taken a look at how the Communist Party press treated the anniversaries of the demonstration
in 1950, 1955, 1960, 1970 and 1980. On each occasion much coverage was devoted to the anniversary (something which didn’t happen in the media in 1990 or 2000). Reading the Party press of the 1950s, you would think that the Communist Party had organised the 1930 demonstration, which is pure nonsense. At the time the Party was minute. It was the Social Democrats who represented the majority of affiliated
workers and who played the main role in 1930. At the time the CP denounced the Social Democrats as
‘social fascists’, following the then line of the Comintern. This was the view still being put forward by the Hungarian Party press in the 1950s (which is ironic given that the ‘official’ line had changed in the
mid-1930s with the adoption of the Popular Front policy). Thus the Social Democrats could not be credited with anything positive in connection with the 1930 demonstration. Predictably the man who was shot and killed by the police during the events was touted as an “enthusiastic Party member” — more pure nonsense.
All this began to change from 1960 on. The ‘social fascist’ label was dropped in connection with the
Social Democrats and slowly their role became recognised. By 1980 and the 50th anniversary, Népszabadság, the Party’s central daily was giving a reasonably balanced account of the great
demonstration. This is an interesting reflection of broader changes underway in Hungary. Crudely
speaking, we can say that pre-1956 Hungary was characteristically Stalinist with police-state elements being prominent. After 1956, despite the crushing of the uprising, almost everything changed, albeit slowly.
Hungary became, again crudely speaking, one of the most liberal societies in the Eastern Bloc. Changes in
the ‘official’ view of 1930 seem to reflect that. I have also tried to examine why the 1930
demonstration happened, or at least how it came about. Why, in the sense of what it was all about, is fairly clear. It was a demonstration for work and bread, meaning against unemployment and for
benefits for the jobless. Why it was so big a demonstration and why or how it involved — very interestingly — both employed and unemployed workers is another question.
I have traced labour movement developments for the 12-month period prior to 1 September 1930. What
took place was a series of increasingly militant demonstrations about work issues and growing unemployment as the international economic crisis took hold of Hungary.
The Social Democratic Party and trade union leadership were in some ways forced to adopt a more
militant stance due to pressure from below, but also because their representations to the government (not fascist but very conservative) were producing no results. On 1 May 1930 the trade unions organised a demonstration. It was the first such May Day event witnessed in Hungary for 11 years, since the suppression of the 1919 Hungarian Council Republic.
Several thousand workers took part. It added to the growing militant atmosphere, but was only one of
many public manifestations throughout the year, many of which led to clashes with the police. As the first day of September approached, official panic increased. A few days prior to the event the police banned the demonstration but it was too late and the union leaders had already gone too far to call it off. However, what made the protest march so large was, in my opinion, a completely unintentional result of another development – just prior to 1 September the Federation of Industrial Employers declared that the large factories belonging to its members would be closed on the day. The idea seems to have been to preempt what was in effect going to be a massive strike on the day of the demonstration. In the event, what happened was that workers who might have continued working on the day had no work to go to. People assembled in front of the factory gates early in the morning, but the gates were closed. It was relatively easy, therefore, for political agitators as well as union representatives to persuade more people to attend the demonstration. What was there to lose? And as things began there was a ‘holiday’ atmosphere anyway.
What I have also tried to do is approach the history of this singular event from a so-called post-modern perspective, namely I mix in a lot a comments and comparisons with other demonstrations in other countries at other times (even, for example, the recent G20 demo in London where one person also lost his life after a police attack). I address the question as to why I am personally interested in the subject (it’s got a lot to do with having been born and brought up in the north of England) and I make investigations concerning how the demonstration featured in some poetic, artistic and literary productions at the time and in later years. I have also tried to track down the grave of the demonstrator killed by the police, as well as uncover who he was and the circumstances of his death. The last chapter explores the question-cum slogan ‘What about the workers?’ – in other words, asking why the labour movement has become hidden from mainstream history and what should/could be done about that. (I’m going to enquire if that plaque can be returned, too!)
Apart from books about Hungary appearing in the UK and USA, I have had works published in Hungary itself, in both Hungarian and English (on 1956, on the statues of Budapest and a personal memoir). My Hungarian publisher, however, has turned down my proposal for this book focussing, if not exclusively, on the 1 September 1930 demonstration. The reason given: ‘It’s too political’. I’m looking for another publisher, maybe one in the UK or US. Any suggestions?
Bob Dent (Budapest)

Bob Dent’s book Budapest 1956 – Locations of Drama was published in 2006 by Europa Konyvkiado
ISBN 9789630780339

Book Review: Plebs - The lost legacy of independent working class education

From LSHG Newsletter, Summer 2009

PLEBS - The lost legacy of independent working class education by Colin Waugh
[2009, 24pp] £3 from Post 16 Educator,
221 Firth Park Road, Sheffield, S5 6WW
[0114 243 1999]

The nuts and bolts of this short booklet are examined below but first I want to comment on how pleasant it is to look again at events in Britain before the shadow of Leninist tactics enveloped left wing politics. This period before WW1 has been called the "Great Unrest", when the emerging libertarian politics were challenging the dominant Labour Party and trade union leaders’ obsession with the whole parliamentary road, and the author describes one episode in this conflict.
The subject was trade union education and the issue was the control exercised by the university authorities over it. We need to remember that In those years, the unions in this country were extending their activities beyond the realm of skilled workers and seeking to ensure a proper adult education for those leading this movement - who by and large missed out on secondary schooling. Many of those with high ability wanted university style education as befitted their capacities, in order to take part in the further expansion of unions in workplaces but this corner of union education was being dominated by university authorities. They tried to extend conventional education which directed working class students away from the labour movement .
The few dozen workers-students at Oxford University resisted the takeover move in 1909. They used the traditional methods and went on strike, making the issue a national one. After a few months, when the academics did not back down, the students established the Labour Colleges system. In the end, a Central Labour College was supplemented by classes run in numerous cities, correspondence courses were soon set up and the adult education system divided down the middle as the conventional teachers kept to their intentions.
This conflict continued with the middle-of-the road Workers Education Association being the bitter rival of what was to become the National Council of Labour Colleges, with its own college in Tillicoulty, Scotland.
The more committed unions, especially the miners, called on their financial and political resources. They sent full time students to the CLC and their members received correspondence sheets and others materials.
A radical Aneurin Bevan was one of these. The CLC lasted until 1929 in Earls Court, London, but by then other forces were at work beyond the remit of Waugh. In brief the 1920s saw the General Strike and the months-long miners’ strike - backed by the CLC movement while the WEA stood by Labour – and the sectarian attitude of the Communist Party of Great Britain who abruptly set up their own education structure. The NCLC staggered on right up to 1964, when the TUC took over the residue.
Of course the national shop stewards movement had been reborn during WW2 but the CPGB's new reformism - on Moscow's orders - would have nothing to do with a revolutionary perspective. The CPGB's degeneration has been analysed repeatedly but the trade union education dimension remains hidden.
When strands of this did emerge, one around the dockers’ alienation from the officialdom of the TGWU to set up a vibrant series of annual summer schools, another around engineering workplace representatives in the Midlands factories who negotiated substantial courses for themselves, either on-site or college based, it owed nothing to reformist communism.
Perversely, the impetus for a national system of shop stewards’ education came from the Donovan Report’s tactics of incorporating the stewards into the union. This was a blatant subversion of the independence of the workplace reps, taken up enthusiastically by union leaders traditionally pushed into the background. From 1970 onwards, capitalism saw the solution to the militant stewards, unofficial workplace strikes and the rest of the irritating structures, in the "education and training" courses. There were some of us organising and teaching the courses who were intent on subverting the subversion, both in the WEA and in the colleges. We may have helped some shop stewards in a way quite unintended by the union leaders, TUC, Labour Party and of course British capitalism but the tale remains untold for now.
Waugh has started off with a perceptive account of the first years. He added to the story when he spoke recently at the Radical History Network of NE London. The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class by Jonathan Rose [2002] gives a fuller account. For the history of the rest of the events J. P. M. Millar's The Labour Colleges Movement [1979], written by John Lowe but credited to the veteran administrator, gives a conventional outline of the main events but we await a real history of the real events.
Alan Woodward

Book Review: Life on the Track

From LSHG Newsletter, Summer 2009

Frank Henderson,
Life on the Track: Memoirs of a Socialist Worker
Bookmarks, London, 2009
ISBN 978-1905192465, £7.99

Frank Henderson has been a socialist activist for almost seventy years. This short autobiography is
based on interviews with Matt Perry, who has also contributed footnotes and a useful afterword giving
a historical overview of the period. It is a valuable historical document because it brings out just how
extraordinary and just how ordinary Frank was. Extraordinary because there can have been few who
shared Frank’s commitment and sheer persistence for such a long time. But ordinary because this is not the story of a political or trade-union leader. Frank spent most of his working life at the Longbridge car
factory in Birmingham, and apart from a brief period as full-time steward he shared the conditions and the exploitation of his fellow-workers.
Frank’s political activity began in World War II, when he joined, first the ILP, then the Trotskyist
Workers’ International League. He has some interesting comments on working-class attitudes
during the war. On the “Dunkirk spirit" he recalls that “we never noticed it much”. Workers remained
strongly anti-Tory but had a “genuine hatred” for fascism. Churchill was not liked, but many felt that
in time of war a warmonger might be the best leader. They dropped him promptly in 1945.
He also tells of the scandalous conduct of the Communist Party, who physically attacked WIL
paper sales. They put a leaflet round the factory where Frank worked, denouncing the Trotskyists as
“Hitler’s agents”, stamping Frank’s name on it as “Hitler’s local agent”. He was just sixteen at the time.
Military service took him to Italy, Greece and Palestine. While he was in Gaza a boatload of holocaust survivors approached the coast; Frank and his fellow soldiers were instructed to shoot anyone trying to swim ashore. They responded “Bugger Off”, and were pulled out of the area.
In the fifties Frank spent nine years as a Labour councillor. He regards this largely as wasted time,
observing how the old right-wing who had real working-class roots were replaced by a new  generation of Labour Party careerists. On one occasion, however, when, as acting chair of the council transport committee, he was representing the employers’ side in a meeting with the unions, he found himself urging busworkers to take strike action.
In 1970 Frank joined the International Socialists, forerunners of the Socialist Workers Party. He describes the ups and downs of the industrial struggle over the next twenty years. He was at Saltley, when twenty thousand engineers helped the miners close the coke depot.

But he also had to face the aftermath of the IRA bombings in Birmingham in 1974 when workers
were making banners saying “Sack all the Irish bastards”. Frank and a couple of his mates resisted the pressure, argued for the withdrawal of British troops, and succeeded in calming the worst anti-Irish racism.
Frank also has some revealing comments on the Communist Party convenor at Longbridge, Derek
Robinson (“Red Robbo”) who was victimised in 1979. Contrary to the press myths, Frank argues that Robinson had “blunted the edge of militancy”, paving the way for his own dismissal.
I hate uncritical reviews and have been trying hard to find something negative to say about this book. But apart from some nit-picking about the footnotes (James Burnham did not have a “theory of state capitalism” and it was John Saville, not Christopher Hill, who founded the New Reasoner with Edward Thompson) I couldn’t think of anything.
There are many, many books that one could wish a lot shorter; this is one of the few that could have been expanded to twice the length without losing its appeal to the reader. Anyone interested in the history of the British working class (and that should be everyone) ought to read this book.
Ian Birchall

Archive: 'To awaken Robespierre is to awaken democracy'

From LSHG Newsletter, Summer 2009

Following the very successful LSHG conference on the execution of Charles I, I was interested to receive the following document from Amis de Gracchus Babeuf ( http://amisgracchusbabeuf.monsite.wanadoo.fr ). It is the text of a speech delivered by the
President of the Association, Michel Aurigny, on 31 May 2008, on the 211th anniversary of the execution of Babeuf, lamenting current attitudes in France to the Revolution of 1789. There are points on which some might disagree with Aurigny; there is a legitimate left critique of Robespierre,
as for example developed in Daniel Guérin’s Class Struggle in the First French Republic, and Babeuf himself was on occasion sharply critical of Robespierre. But there can be no doubt that socialist historians have a responsibility to defend all that was best and progressive in the great bourgeois revolutions.
Translation and notes by IH Birchall

2008 is not the first but the 15th time since it was founded in 1993 that the Association of the Friends of Gracchus Babeuf has delivered a speech in this square1 to honour his memory. For us this is not a ritual.
2008 is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robespierre. But it is with consternation that we observe:
1. the significant absence of statements or commemorations on the occasion of this anniversary
2. and this is even more serious – the fact that the only work today that is devoted to the French revolution and which is publicised through the media is The Black Book of the Revolution,2 which is inspired, in content and in method, by the counter-revolutionary attack of the unfortunately famous Black Book of Communism3 by Stéphane Courtois. A work in which, we may recall, the only figure from the French Revolution who is mentioned is Gracchus Babeuf; and where the Conspiracy of the Equals is presented as the origin, not only of the October Revolution, but also of all the crimes committed in its name.
To come back to the Black Book of the Revolution, can we say that is part of the historical debate? Not in any sense, for the historical method is not respected: there is no contextualisation, no comparison of positions, no critical examination.
And what distresses us greatly, the voice of those who should be defending the French Revolution is not being heard. May there be victory (or defeat, according to your point of view) for lack of people prepared to fight? We don’t think so. The last word has not been spoken.
But as we note this fact, we must note another one. At present there is an official exhibition, held in the name of the Republic, taking place at the Grand Palais,4 it is devoted (in every sense of the term) to Marie-Antoinette. That the Coppola family should celebrate another dynasty via its own,5 that is its concern.

But that the Republic should think of celebrating someone who organised everything, did everything, planned everything possible to crush the French nation, including treason and espionage, leaves us, to say the least, perplexed. Is Rome no longer in Rome?6 Is the Republic no longer republican? Our protest – however modest it may be – is raised against this state of affairs. Tomorrow shall we have to celebrate Boulanger, Doriot and Laval?7
In wartime, it is the practice of all armies and all states – whatever one may think of wars and armies – to shoot spies and traitors, not to celebrate them. A republic celebrating one who sought its death is on the same level as the victim of murder glorifying his killer. Let the current authorities do so, we shall have no part of it. The exaltation of Marie-Antoinette and the erasing of Robespierre are part of the same attempt to bury the French Revolution 1758-2008: so who was Robespierre?
For us, the friends of Gracchus Babeuf, he was the founder of the one indivisible Republic. Even before the Revolution, Babeuf had recognised Robespierre as “the advocate of the poor”. At the time of the Conspiracy of the Equals, Babeuf, in his role as leader of the Conspiracy, said “to awaken Robespierre is to awaken democracy”. This statement is not simply the manifestation of our attachment to the Revolution, to Robespierre, and to Gracchus Babeuf. Nor is it simply the expression of our hatred of a world where the “great” of the CAC 408 live in luxury while the poor are condemned to live out of dustbins.
It is based on the conviction - and this is what we are appealing for - that 2009 shall not be a silent, sullen, stifled 220th anniversary of the French revolution.
National sovereignty was proclaimed in 1789. From this moment, as the Association of the Friends of Gracchus Babeuf, we declare that we shall take part in any initiative which aims not only to commemorate  and celebrate it, but to act for its complete fulfilment.

1The Place Gracchus Babeuf at Saint-Quentin, Babeuf’s birthplace.
2P Chaunu et al, Le livre noir de la Révolution Française, Editions du Cerf, Paris, 2008.
3S Courtois et al, The Black Book of Communism, London/Cambridge Mass., 1999. See the devastating
review by Paul Flewers in Revolutionary History 7/4 (2000), p. 221
4 A major exhibition centre in Paris, just off the Champs-Elysées.
5The reference is to the 2006 movie Marie-Antoinette, directed by Sofia Coppola, daughter of Francis Ford
Coppola, who was one of the film’s producers.
6 Reference to a line from the tragedian Corneille.
7Boulanger: a right-wing general who briefly threatened to overthrow the Republic in 1889; Doriot: Communist who ended up as a pro-Nazi in World War II; Laval: Prime Minister of the Vichy government.
8 A French stock market index.

Comment: British Jobs, British Workers and Labour History

From LSHG Newsletter, Summer 2009

The recent industrial disputes which in part took the slogan ‘British jobs for British workers’ caused a lot
of debate on the left. Many felt that the way was opened for fascists to intervene in the labour
movement or that at the least the strikes were reactionary. Others on intervening found the situation much more complicated with a battle for ideas and strategies very much there to be joined.
An historical view was noticeably absent and might have provided some clarification as to why the
demands arose in the way that they did. It is difficult to argue that a dispute that has ‘British jobs’ and ‘British workers’ at its centre can really have anything to do with one of the basic principles of socialism - internationalism. But historically while internationalism in the British labour movement has never been in short supply from the Hands Off Russia campaign of 1918 to the Anti-Apartheid Movement, it has co-existed with less happy trends.
These might reasonably be labelled nationalistic or social-chauvinist trends. It is important to
understand that while such attitudes sit easily with the right of the labour movement much of the driving force for them has come from sections of the left.
Once we begin to understand that historically we can understand some of the complexities of the
recent strikes, organised not by fascists but by trade union shop stewards with many ideas of the left in
their heads, but some less progressive ideas as well.
Social-chauvinist attitudes can be linked to Britian’s imperial role from the 1850s and it is possible to find strong racist trends in the labour movement from this period, along with other trends that were internationalist and anything but racist. The two mixed in an uneasy combination in parts of the Social Democratic Federation but are best seen in the work of Robert Blatchford. It would be easy to say that Blatchford ended his political career as someone who supported the First World War and became a Tory. But he was over 60 at that point and had spent decades inspiring people with socialist ideas before then. Even so a reading of
some of his better known works such as Merrie England reveals a very partial view of socialism
compared for example to a contemporary comparison such as Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered
Philanthropists. It is very difficult indeed to find a discussion of internationalism in Blatchford in the sense of a socialist principle of workers’ solidarity. Blatchford’s Britain for the British [1902] talks of
‘Britain for the many not the few’ which has a curiously contemporary ring and supports a policy of protectionism against foreign trade which he sees as being something maintained for the profit of the rich. One can find references to ‘niggers’ and ‘coolies’ as examples of foreign labour not to be solidarised with but to warn as an example of where British workers might head. In Blatchford’s better known Merrie England there is not one mention of internationalism. Blatchford was not on the right of the labour movement however- he was explicitly a socialist.
That echo is to be found later. For example the programme of the Communist Party from 1951 The
British Road to Socialism while clearly internationalist, also had the focus on specifically British conditions.
It is a separate discussion and there may have been good reasons for doing this - for example to emphasise the point that the Russian experience of 1917 could not just be replicated exactly in Britain - it also allowed space for nationalism and for later campaigns, in the 1974 Referendum, against the European Economic Community not just because it was a bosses’ club but also because it undermined British sovereignty.
Keith Flett

Understanding the history of the miners' strike

From LSHG Newsletter, Summer 2009

I doubt there is any Star reader who is unaware that it is 25 years since the start of the great miners’ strike of
1984-5. Many will have memories, as I do, of active solidarity work.
Looking at the strike historically requires a capturing of those memories and experiences but also analysis
and understanding of what they meant and mean in the broader sweep of labour history. At this juncture
the 1984/5 strike remains a pivotal event in post-1945 labour history, but this judgement may be better
confirmed in 2034 at the 50th anniversary.
The strike took place before the age of the internet and mobile phone and there is considerable original documentation relating to it, although a lot of history has still to be written,
The London Socialist Historians Group ran a conference to mark the 20th anniversary of the strike and some of the discussions, for example on the internal politics and tensions within the NUM before and during the strike, are not yet matters of public historical record and may well not be, for perfectly understandable
reasons, for some years to come.
There remains very little on the history of the huge range of miners support groups beyond accounts published at the end of the strike and a brief summary which I wrote which can be found at
There is much scope for more here. For example Di Parkin recently published an excellent study of mining
at Betteshanger Colliery in Kent. It may now be possible to look at the writings and words of the other side without simply losing your temper. Ian Macgregor was Thatcher’s head of the National Coal Board at the time and he wrote a memoir covering the strike. He complains that Arthur Scargill was politically
motivated. He also notes that he knew when the strike would take place some months before. About this
matter he did nothing, because while he claims there was not a hit list of pits to be closed one gets the impression that he planned to reduce coal production and didn’t really care much which pits actually closed.
Even worse but still worth a look are the speeches of Margaret Thatcher on the miners’ strike which are at the Thatcher Foundation site at http://www.margaretthatcher.org/speeches/results.asp?w=mine rs&btn=Search
Less easy to find is what New Labour has to say about 1984/5. It has long refused to recognise that there is such a thing as labour history. Also the history of New Labour itself is centrally tied up with the defeat of the
miners. Some of this is covered in John O’Farrell’s memoir Things can only get better. O’Farrell’s central point is that by 1997 Labour activists were so fed up with losing, the miners’ strike being the central motif of such a strategy, that they wanted to win at any cost. The cost was Blair.
For those with time to look at archives, the South Wales miners’ papers at Swansea provide a more focused historical perspective. New Labour MP Kim Howells was an NUM official at the time and in the archive can be found papers from the mid-1980s which rather accurately sketch out some of the policies of class collaboration as opposed to class struggle that were and are New Labour’s hallmark.
There is also the issue of the secret state and the strike. It will no doubt be many years before Government papers detailing the dirty war against the miners are released.
However Seamus Milne’s The Enemy Within provides a very useful account of what went on, particularly for
those who are too young to have been there at the time. The new book by Francis Beckett and David Hencke on the strike has proved controversial. It brings forward some new evidence together with some rather old views about the nature of the strike and its outcome.
The general impact has been to reinforce the views of those like Neil Kinnock who did not support the strike at the time and to attack the fight that Arthur Scargill and the NUM made to protect jobs and communities.
Both Seamus Milne and Andrew Murray have attacked the book and Beckett in particular has defended the new evidence that has been uncovered such as the diaries of print union leader Bill Keys.
For socialist historians the issue is not that the new material is not valuable but the context that it is discussed in. Here the conference held by the LSHG five years ago seems a better format for the moment
than the book of Beckett and Hencke. For original material on the 1984-5 strike see Norman
Strike’s strike blog http://normanstrike.wordpress.com/
Keith Flett
This article first appeared in the Morning Star

Tolpuddle in the archives

From LSHG Newsletter, Summer 2009

Research historians are forever arguing that it is best to return to original documents, which used to be found exclusively in dusty archives. These days some of these can be found online. There is plenty of scope for putting a lot more original material on-line about Tolpuddle. For example, why not the accounts and flyer of the London Central Dorchester Committee which are in the British Library?

But one fascinating document readily available to all is the Parliamentary debate on Tolpuddle that appears in
Hansard for June 9th 1835. A more interesting discussion of where the interests of the ruling class lay in respect of the rise of the early labour movement would be difficult to find. The debate was notable for contributions from two MPs: William Ponsonby, who had sat on the Jury that found the Martyrs guilty and Steward Wilde, who had overseen the trial for the State. There is no need to believe in conspiracy here.
Also illuminating is the repeated view of the Home Secretary Lord John Russell that of the six Martyrs the Lovelesses had been the ring leaders and ought to be singled out for special treatment. Russell, it should be
noted, was not a Tory but a leading Liberal politician.

The MP who spoke for the Martyrs was Thomas Wakley, a radical who is perhaps better known as the founder of the Lancet. His battles with the medical establishment had conditioned him to fight his causes
with great tenacity. He revealed that the Tolpuddle labourers, facing a reduction in wages, had communicated with activists in London as to what measures they might take to address this. The response had been that they should form a Union. Unions operated without legal challenge from the Government in London, no doubt because they were too large to do anything about. To address Russell’s point about the Lovelesses he pointed out that they were the best educated and most well read people in Tolpuddle. They were schooled of course not in Marxism - this being 1834 - but Methodism. Russell countered that it was their undoubted intelligence that made them more culpable.
They should have known better. It is an argument that the authorities deploy against radicals to this day. Wakley went on that over 800,000 people had signed petitions in support of the Martyrs. [The population at
this time was less than ten million.] His view was that the Martyrs, all of them, should have a total pardon
and be returned to England. Russell at this stage was not prepared to go that far. His view was that they had broken the law but could be pardoned since they had honourable motives. They would be free men in Van Diemen’s Land where their wives could join them.
Wakley’s call for a total pardon was lost in the Parliamentary vote in June 1835, but the debate had a
strong flavour of the ruling class trying to determine what course of action it should take. Ideally it would
like to suppress trade unions. But if the result would be labour unrest - and it clearly would - then maybe
concessions would be needed. The Parliamentary debate was the beginning of that process. The vote meant nothing against the continued power of the early labour movement. Before long all the Martyrs were pardoned and back in England. And that is where Chartism came in.
Keith Flett

Book Review: Engels Today

From LSHG Newsletter, Autumn 2009

A Revolutionary Life: Biography of Friedrich Engels
by John Green
Hardcover: 347 pages, Artery Publications 2008
ISBN 978-0955822803
The Frock-coated Communist:
The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels
by Tristram Hunt
Hardcover: 464 pages, Allen Lane 2009
ISBN 978-0713998528

Engels Today
In the last few months two new biographies of Engels have been published by John Green and Tristram Hunt.
Both are serviceable accounts, neither marked by an anti- Marxist approach, and perhaps not adding substantively or significantly to Gustav Mayer’s 1936 biography. I am reviewing the books elsewhere, so here I flag what is rather bad practice to do in a review and look at the books the authors might have written rather than the ones they did.
The biggest challenge to Engels in modern historiography comes from the former New Left Reviewer Gareth
Stedman Jones, who at one stage was himself working on a biography of Engels.
Stedman Jones is an historian whose work always merits serious consideration but in recent times his political conclusions have raised questions for the left. Stedman Jones understands that a number of the ideas of Marx and Engels about the working class, reform and revolution were based on Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England, primarily about 1844 Manchester.
If this account can be shown to be rather more than a social survey but with fundamental flaws then it follows that theories based on it must also be open to question. Stedman Jones has made two points. Firstly, that Engels’ framework for understanding Manchester in 1844 was based on the ideas of the ‘true’, or abstract, socialist Hess. This led him to draw as bleak a picture of Manchester as possible in order to emphasise the possibilities and the need for working class liberation from it.
Secondly, that what Engels is writing about is not primarily the rise of new conditions of exploitation that
need to be challenged, but the impact of urban society and cities on people’s lives. This can be challenged too, of course, but that does not represent a specific issue in the relations between labour and capital.
Neither biographer touches on these very important issues and understandably so, since they are engaged in
writing biographies not historiographies. Hunt in his conclusion does emphasise the importance of Engels’
work for understanding modern urban societies such as China but there is no reason to think that he is particularly following a Stedman Jones ‘line’ in doing so. To answer Stedman Jones requires serious historical research. Did Engels exaggerate conditions in Manchester in the 1840s? To an extent this must be a matter of
perception, but we do know that the Chartist leader Harney wrote to Engels in December 1850 noting that
Manchester was a filthy hole and that he would rather be hanged in London than die a natural death in Manchester. Then again, Harney was a Londoner.
In terms of whether Engels misunderstood what he was seeing in Manchester in the 1840s mistaking urban squalor for exploitation Stedman Jones’ key point is that the housing conditions that Engels describes refer to inner Manchester not to the outer areas where the mills were and where mill workers lived. Hence while the dreadful housing can’t be denied it did not impact on the proletariat who were central to matters at the time; they had rather better conditions.
Here Engels himself provided an answer that Stedman Jones does not touch upon. He wrote in The Condition:
I am far from asserting that all London working people live in such want as the foregoing three families. I know very well that ten are somewhat better off, where one is so totally trodden under foot by society…every proletarian, everyone without exception is exposed to a similar fate without any fault of his own.. The working man is constrained to occupy such ruinous dwellings because he cannot pay for others and because
there are no others in the vicinity of his mill; perhaps too because they belong to an employer who engages
him only on condition of his taking such a cottage.
Engels is quite clear. He is not arguing that every worker lives in dreadful conditions but rather that this is the fate of potentially, by chance, anyone. When it comes to mill workers in Manchester he has very obviously seen their poor housing and explained how it came about — it was a condition of employment. That links housing not just to urbanisation but to exploitation as well.
Hopefully historians reading the new biographies of Engels will feel motivated to do some further research into some of the key issues raised here. There is much scope for it.
Keith Flett

Polemic: Britain, the outbreak of the First World War, and the role of the individual in history

From LSHG Newsletter, Spring 2009. Neil Faulkner replies here to Harry Ratner’s article '1914 and the Role of the Individual', which we published in LSHG Newsletter issue 31.

Britain, the outbreak of the First World War, and the role of the individual in history

By Neil Faulkner

I am replying to Harry’s article because it is directly relevant to my own research, and he has made several related points with which I disagree. Since I am currently writing on precisely these matters, I am keen to garner wider opinions. (See note at end)
I want to discuss four areas of disagreement.
1. Uncoupling social reality
In a general sense, I think Harry’s approach involves, at various points, an uncoupling of things that are dialectically linked. He opens, 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’). What is crucial, however, is that choices (‘voluntarism’) are constrained and facilitated by social structures and processes (‘determinism’). Because of this, the dichotomy at the heart of his discourse is not, in my view, helpful. To underline the point, let me offer two further examples of the same tendency to uncouple aspects of social reality that are in fact best understood dialectically – that is, as part and parcel of a single whole. I will then explore these further as important points in their own right. First, I would cite the sharp distinction he draws between Britain and France – ‘fully
capitalist nations’ – and Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary – where the capitalist class did not ‘control the state machine’ but were subordinate to ‘a landed-military class headed by an hereditary emperor’. Second, I would cite the sharp distinction he makes between ‘capitalist war …inspired … mainly by the struggle for markets and outlets for the investment of capital’ and wars motivated by ‘pre-capitalist considerations of military strength’. These two points are closely linked, in that he implies that the ‘fully capitalist nations’ of Britain and France engaged in the former, and the ‘autocracies’ of Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary in the latter.
2. Denying the bourgeois revolution
History is messier than Harry allows. The classic bourgeois revolutions are the exception, not the rule. Indeed, the bourgeois revolution from below is an ‘ideal type’ rather than a lived reality. Even in France, which produced the classic of the classics in 1789-1794, there was much unfinished business still to be worked out in 1830, 1848, and even 1870-1871 – just as Britain has 1688, and the US 1861-1865. More importantly, however, one has to grasp that the bourgeois revolution was global, such that a breakthrough in one part of the world system bestowed such competitive advantages that other ruling classes were put under enormous pressure to create unitary states and to reform and modernise. Thus we have ‘bourgeois revolutions’ from above. Surely the classic example of this is Bismarck’s creation of the German Empire? By 1914, Germany had overtaken Britain to become the greatest industrial power in Europe. The fact that the German state was a hybrid, mixing elements of autocracy and constitutionalism, and that the German ruling class included disproportionate numbers of traditional military-aristocrats, does not alter the fact that Germany was essentially a capitalist-imperialist state.

Is Harry aware of the implications of arguing otherwise? It would mean rejecting the approach of all the leading contemporary Marxists – notably Lenin in Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism, and Bukharin in Imperialism and World Economy – who argued that the First World War was an imperialist war. Does he really wish to do that? He is also at odds with Lenin on the class nature of Russia. Central to Lenin’s analysis in The Development of Capitalism in Russia is the idea that capitalism was developing rapidly as a result of the impact of the world market, of competitive pressures, and of various reforms from above. And the essential accuracy of Lenin’s account was then proved, of course, by the 1905 and 1917 revolutions.
Even Austria-Hungary was industrialising rapidly – such that she could mobilise and deploy over 3 million men within months of the outbreak of war, and sustain four years of modern attritional warfare.
It is perhaps worth adding that, were it not the case that we can have bourgeois revolutions from above – in which capitalism develops to a considerable extent under the leadership of traditional elites and state structures – Trotsky’s theories of ‘combined and uneven development’ and of ‘permanent revolution’ would be unhinged, and along with them, our ability to make sense of much of the history of the 20th century.
There should be no great surprise in all this. Traditional elites and new capitalist elites are rarely divided by irreconcilable class antagonisms. Both are property-owning classes, and, while there may be much conflict between them, especially during periods of transition, a deal can usually be cut. In Bismarck’s Germany, the Prussian aristocracy survived and evolved as a class of big farmer-landowners, army officers, and civil servants – at the same time as the German bankers and industrialists became the most powerful national group of capitalists in Europe.
3. Denying the imperialist character of the war
This brings me to the necessary corollary of Harry’s argument: denying that the First World War was first and foremost an imperialist war rooted in the development of competitive capital accumulation. Thus, because of the supposedly precapitalist character of the Russian, German, and Austro- Hungarian states, ‘the main and proximate causes of war were not primarily and directly economic competition between capitalists, but the old-fashioned military-strategic considerations which pre-dated the establishment of purely bourgeois regimes’.
I think this perspective is a multi-layered muddle. First, there is the point already made, that capitalist interests were powerful elements within the ruling class and therefore part of ‘the national interest’ in Russia, Austria-Hungary, and especially Germany. Second, there is confusion between two levels of analysis: the way in which competitive capital accumulation underlay colonial rivalry, diplomatic tensions, the arms race, and the outbreak of war; and the immediate expression of these contradictions in great power confrontation in 1914. 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. The result was a military confrontation – the first modern industrialised war of attrition – without precedent in human history. The First World War, in other words, was not like the limited wars of the 18th and 19th centuries precisely because it was a war between modern capitalist states – i.e. a war between both states and the opposing blocs of capital that those states represented.
Third, there is the assumption that because certain powerful capitalist interests – like the City of London – were not pushing for war in 1914, this negates the argument that the First World War was an imperialist war: ‘there was a large body of opinion in business and financial circles which did not welcome the prospect of war as it disrupted trade and created uncertainty’.
This argument has a long lineage. It was the argument of Bernsteinian revisionism before the First World War. It faces two compelling objections. First, it is a reductionist argument that implies that general capitalist class interests can be read directly from the contemporary statements of groups of bankers and industrialists. Of course City bankers did not want a war in July 1914: they saw it as a threat to normal business and profit-making. That is not the same as it being in the interests of British capital to allow German domination of the Continent. It was not, and once the threat was clear, and the politicians who represented them had made their decision, the City bankers, along with the rest of the British capitalist class, did support the war.
But there is a second, yet more important counter-argument. Harry simply has not got a handle on the degree to which the ruling classes of Europe had lost control of the situation. 1914 is a supreme example of ‘alienation’ and ‘reification’ – of the products of human labour being turned into a monstrous mechanism of destruction with its own logic and momentum – into something capable of plunging humanity into an abyss of death, destruction, and waste, without anyone being able to stop it. It is a measure of the madness of capitalism – of a world divided into competing blocs of capital and competing nation-states – that this can happen. In fact, hardly anyone wanted any sort of war in 1914, and no-one, positively no-one, wanted the war they actually got. The ruling classes of Europe found themselves locked into certain courses of action by the international treaties and mobilisation timetables on which their security had come to depend. And that nexus of interlocking political and military responses had, of course, been forged by the pressure of mounting capitalist and geopolitical competition in the years leading up to the war.
4. Decontextualising the individual
My final point concerns Harry’s detailed argument about the role of the 19 members of the Liberal Cabinet in determining Britain’s entry into the First World War – with all its manifold implications. The nub of his argument, of course, is that they could have decided otherwise, and that had they done so, the effect on 20th century history would have been immense. Let me say at the outset that I think individuals can make a
huge difference. That is sometimes true in a ‘great man’ sense: I suspect that the October Revolution would not have happened but for the role of Lenin in building and leading the Bolshevik Party. It is more often true in the less obvious sense that many individuals, organised and educated in specific ways, can become a decisive historical force: an example might be the way in which several thousand Bolshevik Party members in Petrograd in July 1917, because of their organisational discipline, political understanding, and rootedness inside the working class movement, prevented mass demonstrations in the city from turning into a premature
and potentially disastrous uprising. (The contrast is, perhaps, with the Spartakus Rising of January 1919, when a young, inexperienced, weakly-rooted party failed to prevent the decapitation of the revolutionary movement in Germany.)
But the Liberal Cabinet of 1914? Is Harry really arguing that the ‘radical-pacificism’ of a handful of ruling class politicians might have yielded a different decision at this moment of supreme crisis for British capitalism? Had there been a mass movement against the war, had the labour and trade union leaders come out unequivocally against it, the Cabinet might have split and the Government fallen. But this was not the case: the British ruling class was allowed to make its own decision. And it chose war because war was in its class interest.
It was not an accident that the British political decision revolved around Belgium. Domination of the Continent by a single power, and control by that power of the Channel Ports, constituted a direct and immediate threat to British national security, British control of the seas, and British communications with its empire. The British had fought major wars against Philip II in the late 16th century, against Louis XIV in the early 18th century, and against Napoleon in the early 19th century, precisely to prevent a single power dominating the Continent and controlling the Channel Ports. Britain faced that threat again in 1914 (and, of course, in 1940). This time the sense of peril was heightened by the fact that German capitalism had overtaken British capitalism and was continuing to grow much faster; a peril reflected most tangibly in the pre-war Anglo-German naval arms-race. Both traditional geopolitical interests and new capitalist interests were at stake.
Can I finish by recommending an interesting primary source on this? The first volume of Churchill’s The World Crisis, 1911- 1918 is highly instructive. From this it is clear that Churchill and other leading members of the Liberal Government regarded Germany as Britain’s principal European rival for at least a decade before 1914; and that this became a definite sense that war was highly possible, even likely, from the time of the 1911 Agadir Crisis. Churchill, appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in the wake of this crisis, immediately put the Navy on a pre-war footing: ‘I intended to prepare for an attack by Germany as if it might come next day. I intended to raise the Fleet to the highest possible strength and secure that all that strength was immediately ready.’
The British ruling class had long been preparing for war when the crisis of July 1914 broke. It made a carefully considered decision in line with its national class interests. Only a massive working class revolt from below could have stopped it. British involvement in the First World War was not an accident of history: it was structured by the realities of geopolitical and imperialist competition at the beginning of the 20th century.
Harry’s approach, on the other hand, seems to absolve British capitalism specifically, and world capitalism more generally,of responsibility for the carnage and chaos of 1914-1918.
Neil Faulkner

The project I am engaged in was flagged up in Newsletter 28 (Autumn 2006). I am beginning to write a grand narrative, provisionally entitled War and Revolution, 1914-1923, that will attempt an integrated history of the entire world crisis, giving equal coverage to the imperialist world war and the global revolutionary wave which ended it. Negotiations with a publisher appear to be approaching a conclusion.
The project was conceived initially as a joint one with Pete Glatter. His untimely death has deprived me of a wonderful friend and colleague with whom I was very much looking forward to working. The project will not, perforce, be very different. That it will nonetheless happen in some form I know he would want. In making a success of it, I will be even more dependent on the criticism of fellow Marxist historians than would have been the case had Pete and I been working together. I hope the LSHG will offer me the opportunity to present the occasional paper over the next four years as the research proceeds and the book is drafted.

Edited to add: A reply to this article by Harry Ratner, summer 2012