Sunday, 31 January 2010

Report of LSHG Activity

Keith Flett, editor of the LSHG Newsletter, writes the following
report in the new edition (No. 37, January 2010)

We have had an interesting series of seminars in the Autumn term.
Roger Seifert kicked off with discussion of his biography of Bert
Ramelson the industrial organiser of the Communist Party in the
1960s and 1970s. He brought a fascinating picture taken by MI5 of
Ramelson having a beer with miners leader Lawrence Daly in a
central London pub. Quite how they got the photo in the era before
camera phones I’m still not sure. Needless to say, the seminar was
undecided as to whether Ramelson’s activities were consistant with
Marxism or were a Stalinist distortion of it, but it represented
interesting new research. We hope to run some more sessions of
labour and union activists from this era, pending on negotiation
with some quite well known speakers.
Next up was Terry Ward’s delayed [by an IHR fire alarm on an
earlier occasion] seminar on class struggle in Shakespearan
England. A well-researched paper, but I can’t comment on the
discussion as I had to head off to BBC TV news to discuss whether
there was still such a thing as socialist history.
Finally, Gareth Dale spoke on 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall
and what this meant for the left and class struggle. Gareth was in the
old East Germany in 1989 and spoke with first hand knowledge of the
events prismed through an acute Marxist understanding of what it
meant. Again a very useful discussion was sparked.
This Spring term we at last get John Charlton to the IHR for his
much awaited paper on the left in Tyneside in the late 1950s. His
book is now out from Merlin. Equally much awaited is Ian Goodyer’s
paper on his recent book on the history of Rock Against Racism.
Looking forward to the Summer term, an old friend of the LSHG
Satnam Virdee returns to discuss a new research project on racism
he is involved with.

Spring Term 2010
Monday 15th February
Ian Goodyer: CRISIS MUSIC The Cultural Politics of
Rock Against Racism in the 1970s

Saturday 27th February

Monday 15th March
Youth & Politics on Tyneside in the late
1950s and early 1960s

All seminars will be held at 5.30pm in the
Pollard Room at the
Institute of Historical Research
Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1

The LSHG Newsletter
Letters, articles, criticisms and contributions to debate are most
welcome. Deadline for the next issue is 1 April 2010

The London Socialist Historians Group
We receive no official funding and rely entirely on supporters for
money for our activities. To become a member of the LSHG, send
£10 (cheque payable to ‘London Socialist Historians Group’).
Contact us:
LSHG c/o Keith Flett, 38 Mitchley Road, London N17 9HG

British Library Exhibition: Points of View

From LSHG Newsletter, No. 37, (January 2010)

Points of View: Capturing the 19th century in photographs
British Library
96 Euston Road, London, NW1 2DB until 7th March 2010

Most of the exhibitions run at the British Library are free and many of them are of some interest to socialist
historians. The current major exhibition brings together items from the Library’s extensive photographic archives and is perhaps particularly relevant at a time when we read media reports of increased police harassment of photographers on the grounds that they could be terrorists taking pictures of potential targets. (Being police officers they will never have heard of Google Earth that allows the terrorist to do this from the safety of their hide out.)
The BL exhibition has the hallmark of one of the ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions that run at this and similar national institutions in that it is clearly constructed around the materials that the Museum has - which are obviously huge - and the ‘take’ that particular specialists and archivists have on their particular area.
In that sense the exhibition is uneven, designed to appeal to a wide range of visitors and telling a number of different stories rather than focusing on a tightly drawn theme, which some of the smaller BL exhibitions, for example the recent one on 1968, have done.
The general narrative is around how the development of photography from the mid-Victorian period both mirrored the developing capitalist world and helped to shape it.
The exhibition captures the battle for the commercial exploitation of the photo from the 1850s, which can be
summed up by the explosion in personal portraits used as mementoes of visits and calling cards. The underlying commercial mechanism and motive at work remains with us today but the photograph was the first technological development to exploit it, a sort of Victorian version of the society of the spectacle. As one might guess the point is implied rather than explicit in the exhibition itself.
The sections on the imperial gaze and how colonial authorities [mainly British] used photography to classify
and control populations are particularly sharply drawn. The exhibition shows how by photographing and recording things the imperial authority could also in some senses demonstrate power over it. That applied not only to keeping records of geographical locations but also of course of people. In this latter case the imperial idea was to keep a photographic record of ethnic groups which were allegedly in decline, a sort of worldwide Cecil Sharp. The whole thing is ideologically loaded but fascinating for the
Much of the rest of the exhibition shows how photography recorded the developing world and social relations of Victorian capitalism - a world both distant but still at root instantly familiar to us today.

There are sections which reflect the development of industry and of urban environments, but also
interesting sections reflecting the development of photographic techniques. The history of the panorama  is documented as are experiments in how successive  still images could lead to the illusion of movement.

The exhibition provides a fascinating source for historical reflection in a society that is dominated by the image. One issue that might engage socialist historians is the relationship of Marx and Engels to the development of photography and its commercial exploitation. It is not covered in the exhibition but Eleanor Marx noted of her father:

When, after the death of his wife, Marx undertook a long, sad journey to recover his health -- for he wanted to complete his work -- he always had with him the photograph of his father, an old photograph of my mother on glass (in a case) and one of my sister -- Jenny. We found them after his death in his breast pocket. Engels laid them in his coffin.

Work in Progress: Tony Cliff: Biography

Work in Progress: Ian Birchall on writing Tony Cliff's Biography
From LSHG Newsletter, No. 37, January 2010

Many comrades and friends have enquired after the progress of my biography of Tony Cliff. Without
wishing to commit myself too firmly, I am hoping to have a first draft completed within the next six months. While I recognise that I have taken an inordinately long time on the job, I can only plead that Cliff lived a very long life and that he was remarkably active. A whole number of people have told me that at various phases of their lives Cliff used to telephone them every single day. If the British authorities should make available the tapes of Cliff’s phone calls, it would add another five years to my task.
Moreover Cliff’s life is tied up with a number of historical topics – Palestinian Trotskyism, the crisis of the revolutionary left in the aftermath of World War II, industrial militancy in Britain in the early 1970s etc.
I have conducted over a hundred interviews with people who knew Cliff at various times in his life. These include a number of former members of the SWP and its predecessor organisations who have in some cases moved quite a long way politically, including three former MPs and a member of the House of Lords. While the interviews focus on memories of Cliff, of necessity many of those interviewed also talk about their own personal evolution, so the material (much of which will not be used in the book) will be of value to researchers on the history of the British left.

For example, I recorded a two-hour interview with Chris Harman shortly before his untimely death, in which he spoke of his own first political involvement in an independent left youth group formed after the 1959 election in Watford (and loosely connected with  the similar group in Newcastle described in John Charlton’s recent book Don’t you hear the H-bomb’s Thunder?). While there may be problems about making this material public in the immediate future, I hope it will  eventually be archived and available to researchers. I have also found some fascinating material in the Modern Records Centre at Warwick University. Cliff’s own papers include two unpublished  books – one on the Middle East, the other on the collectivisation of agriculture. Hopefully at some point they can be scanned and placed on the Marxist Internet Archive. We also have the booklet which constitutes Cliff’s Certificate of Registration with the Irish authorities during the period he was resident in Dublin, and which gives the exact dates of his visits to England during the period of the foundation of the Socialist Review Group.

The Ken Tarbuck archive contains minutes and correspondence from the early years of the Socialist Review Group, including a letter to Natalia Trotsky inviting her to write for Socialist Review -  this apparently never received a reply. The Steve Jefferys archive contains some fascinating material about the dispute about Socialist Worker (the so-called  “punk paper”) in 1978.

Other curiosities are a report of a day-school held by Shoreditch Labour Party Youth Section in 1958, where Cliff lectured on “Sex and socialism” – as far as I know the only time he spoke on this subject. I think the book will contain quite a bit that is new even for those who, like myself, knew Cliff from the 1960s onwards. For younger readers I hope it will recreate at least some aspects of one of the most remarkable characters in the history of the socialist movement.
Ian Birchall

The Noughties: Making Our History Count

Keith Flett on the Noughties: Making our history count
From LSHG Newsletter, No. 37 (January 2010)

No doubt many readers of this Newsletter have been busy in recent months, as I have myself, sorting out solidarity with the CWU, opposing the BNP and campaigning to get troops out of Afghanistan. Busy or not, time moves on and that means that history is being written all the time.
Of course assessments of the last few months, or even of 2009, are journalism not history, but as the first decade of the twenty-first century, the Noughties, draws to a close, the initial very provisional attempts to write its history will be made.
Any judgements on the last decade cannot be anything but the very first drafts of history that will need to be reviewed as memoirs and official records become available in decades to come.
Nevertheless judgements made now may set the tone for later understandings and that means the battle as to how we understand the past ten years is already being joined.
For example, can you remember what you were doing on  Saturday 15th February 2003? As historians we should be acutely aware of how useless it is to rely on one’s  personal memory which is invariably partial and defective. Even so, I can recall well that on that Saturday I,  along with two million others, were on the largest march  ever in British history, organised by the Stop the War  Coalition, against the war in Iraq. At the time it could  not be ignored and it is still widely recalled. Recently  I had a casual discussion with a union official about  someone we had both met on that demo as a youngster who  by 2009 had become a socialist activist. That was a  heartening story. So clearly any historical account  of the Noughties will need to have the 15th February  2003 as one of its key events.

Or at least that’s what you might think. But on 17th October  the Guardian published a whole issue of its Weekend magazine covering the Noughties without any mention of the demo.  Nor did it carry any comment on its omission the following week.  On that basis I think we may be fairly sure that some, although  certainly not all, editorial voices at the Guardian would  prefer not to recall 15th February 2003. It was a huge demo  and it was anti-war, both subjects that they find difficult. It goes wider than that. From the first demonstration  against war in Afghanistan in autumn 2001 through to the protests against the Iraq war and now Afghanistan again,  not forgetting the huge protests around Gaza earlier this year and Lebanon in 2006, anti-war activities have been  a consistent theme of the Noughties.
We are set to be deluged with histories of the Noughties so there is a task for socialist historians this winter.
You may see a review of the decade published that does not  mention the efforts of the Stop the War Coalition, or, as  likely, simply chunters on about the ‘War on Terror’ and  how fighting illegal wars is absolutely necessary to the  security of the UK without suggesting in any way that not  everyone has agreed. If so, then write or e-mail in and complain.

We have a chance now to shape how the history of the past decade is written and we owe it to future generationsto make sure that history includes the cold but  inspiring Saturday in Hyde Park in 2003 and the impact the Stop the War Coalition has had here and internationally in the last ten years.Of course it is far too soon to say what the historical impact of the anti-war  movement will be, but the first task is to make sure that
is on the historical agenda in the first place.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Reassessing Gerrard Winstanley

Reassessing Gerrard Winstanley
Keele University 5-6 February 2010
Speakers include Chris Rowland, Nigel Smith, John Gurney, Ariel Hessayon, Ann Hughes, Tom Corns.

The conference will discuss Winstanley as political thinker and activist, as radical theologian, and as prose stylist. It is held in connection with the publication for the first time of a complete edition of Winstanley’s writings, and marks the 400th anniversary of his birth. Plenary lecture admission free (Friday); conference registration £25 to include lunch on Saturday. Accommodation available.

For further details contact Ann Hughes:

Howard Zinn (1922-2010)

Howard Zinn, legendary people's historian of the United States, has died. This is indeed a sad day for socialist and radical historians internationally - condolences to those who were close to him from the LSHG.

Monday, 25 January 2010

LSHG Conference: The Vote - What Went Wrong?

The Vote- What Went Wrong?
Saturday 27th February
Institute of Historical Research
Senate House, London WC1

Some recommended reading on the subject

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 against the disenfranchisement of black voters in
the US and Catholics in the North of Ireland in the 1960s.
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.

Conference Papers [alpha order]

Owen Ashton - 'W E Adams, Chartism and Republicanism'

Logie Barrow - 'Enfranchisement and Stupefaction: vaccination and the vote'

Ian Bullock - 'Gulfs, fissures and cracks. Democracy and the British Left in the early 20th Century'

Neil Davidson - 'Social Neoliberalism, "Regimes of Consolidation" and the Assault on Representative Democracy, 1989-2008'

Keith Flett - 'The origins of the electoral impulse in the British working class'

Mike Haynes - 'Parliament: The Return of Old Corruption'

Advance Registration is encouraged:-
Send cash or cheque [made payable to Keith Flett] for £10 [£5 concs] to LSHG, 38 Mitchley Rd, London N17 9HG

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Haiti: Pawn in their Game

After the devastation of the recent earthquake in Haiti, readers might like to know that Chris Harman's concise introduction to Haitian history (from about 1786-1986) is online here. For more on the Haitian Revolution itself, readers should consult C.L.R. James's classic history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins - which even Christopher Hitchens still has the audacity to describe as 'essential' reading while simulaneously praising US efforts to recolonise Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake - despite of course James's own stress in The Black Jacobins that there is more 'decency, gratitude, justice and humanity in a cage of starving tigers than in the councils of imperialism'. For the period after the Duvaliers and on Aristide, see Peter Hallward's Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment.

Edited to add: Five upcoming academic conferences on Haiti/the Caribbean

(1)Haiti and the Politics of the Universal, The Centre for Modern Thought at the University of Aberdeen (Scotland)
Friday and Saturday, March 12-13, 2010


Senate House, London, WC1E 7HU
21ST – 22ND JUNE 2010

(3) Caribbean Enlightenment conference,
An Interdisciplinary Caribbean Studies Conference
8th to 10th April 2010, University of Glasgow

(4) Afromodernisms 1: Re-encounters with the French and Anglo-Atlantic Worlds, 1907–61.
Symposium: University of Liverpool, UK. Thursday 15th April - Saturday 17th April.

(5) Caribbean Globalizations: Histories, Cultures and Genres, 1493 to the Present Day
University of Oxford, 27-29 September 2010

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Universal History

Anthropologies of The Present
Susan Buck-Morss: Universal History

Tuesday 19 January 18.30 ˆ 20.00
Tate Britain, Clore Auditorium

Tracing the sources of globalisation without the boundaries of nation
or civilisation resurrects the project of universal history on new
ground. In this talk Susan Buck-Morss argues it is to be excavated not
across collective boundaries, but without them. The richest finds are
on the edge of culture.

Susan Buck-Morss is Professor of Political Philosophy and Social
Theory in the Department of Government at Cornell University, New York

Her latest book is Hegel, Haiti and Universal History (2009).

Book now
Tickets £8 (£6 concessions)
Price includes drinks afterwards

To book visit
or call 020 7887 8888

Susan Buck-Morss will also be speaking at the conference Haiti and the Politics of the Universal in March at the University of Aberdeen

Remembering Daniel Bensaïd

Daniel Bensaid (1946-2010)

From the obituary in the Guardian by Tariq Ali

The French philosopher Daniel Bensaïd, who has died aged 63 of cancer, was one of the most gifted Marxist intellectuals of his generation. In 1968, together with Daniel Cohn-Bendit, he helped to form the Mouvement du 22 Mars (the 22 March Movement), the organisation that helped to detonate the uprising that shook France in May and June of that year. Bensaïd was at his best explaining ideas to large crowds of students and workers. He could hold an audience spellbound, as I witnessed in his native Toulouse in 1969, when we shared a platform at a rally of 10,000 people to support Alain Krivine, one of the leaders of the uprising, in his presidential campaign, standing for the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR).

Bensaïd's penetrating analysis was never presented in a patronising way, whatever the composition of the audience. His ideas derived from classical Marxism – Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, as was typical in those days – but his way of looking at and presenting them was his own. His philosophical and political writings have a lyrical ring – at particularly tedious central committee meetings, he could often be seen immersed in Proust – and resist easy translation into English.

As a leader of the LCR and the Fourth International, to which it was affiliated, Bensaïd travelled a great deal to South America, especially Brazil, and played an important part in helping to organise the Workers party (PT) currently in power there under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. An imprudent sexual encounter shortened Bensaïd's life. He contracted Aids and, for the last 16 years, was dependent on the drugs that kept him going, with fatal side-effects: a cancer that finally killed him.

Physically, he became a shadow of his former self, but the intellect was not affected and he produced more than a dozen books on politics and philosophy. He wrote of his Jewishness and that of many other comrades and how this had never led him, or most of them, to follow the path of a blind and unthinking Zionism. He disliked identity politics and his last two books – Fragments Mécréants (An Unbeliever's Discourse, 2005) and Eloge de la Politique Profane (In Praise of Secular Politics, 2008) – explained how this had become a substitute for serious critical thought.

He was France's leading Marxist public intellectual, much in demand on talkshows and writing essays and reviews in Le Monde and Libération. At a time when a large section of the French intelligentsia had shifted its terrain and embraced neoliberalism, Bensaïd remained steadfast, but without a trace of dogma. Even in the 1960s he had avoided leftwing cliches and thought creatively, often questioning the verities of the far left.

He was schooled at the lycées Bellevue and Fermat in Toulouse, but the formative influence was that of his parents and their milieu. His father, Haim Bensaïd, was a Sephardic Jew from a poor family in Algeria and moved from Mascara to Oran, where he got a job as a waiter in a cafe, but soon discovered his real vocation. He trained as a boxer, becoming the welterweight champion of north Africa.

Daniel's mother, Marthe Starck, was a strong and energetic Frenchwoman from a working-class family in Blois, central France. At 18 she moved to Oran. She met the boxer and fell in love. The French colons were shocked and tried hard to persuade her not to marry a Jew. She was bound to get VD and have abnormal children, they said.

With France occupied by the Germans and a bulk of the country's elite in collaborationist mode with its capital at Vichy, the French colonial administration fell into line. As a Jew, Daniel's father was arrested, but he managed to escape from the PoW camp, and rashly decided to go to Toulouse, where Marthe helped him obtain false papers. Armed with a new identity, he bought a bistro, Le Bar des Amis. Unlike his two brothers, who were killed during the occupation, he survived, thanks largely to his wife, who had an official Vichy certificate stating her "non-membership of the Jewish race".

In his affecting memoir, Une Lente Impatience (2004), Daniel noted that these barbarities had taken place on French soil only a few decades prior to 1968. Le Bar des Amis, he wrote, was a cosmopolitan location frequented by Spanish refugees, Italian antifascists, former resistance fighters and a variety of workers, with the local Communist party branch holding its meetings there too. Given his mother's fierce republican and Jacobin views (when a relative, after a French television programme on the British monarchy, expressed doubts about the guillotining of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Marthe did not speak to her for 10 years), it would have been odd if young Bensaïd had become a monarchist.

Angered by the massacre of Algerians at the Métro Charonne in 1961 (ordered by Maurice Papon, chief of police and a former Nazi collaborator), he joined the Union of Communist Students, but soon became irritated by party orthodoxy and joined a left opposition within the union organised by Henri Weber (currently a Socialist party senator in the upper house) and Alain Krivine. The Cuban revolution and Che Guevara's odyssey did the rest. The dissidents were expelled from the party in 1966.

That same year, Bensaïd was admitted to the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Saint-Cloud and moved to Paris. Here he helped found the Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire (JCR), young dissidents inspired by Guevara and Trotsky, which later morphed into the LCR.

The last time I met him, a few years ago, in his favourite cafe in Paris's Latin Quarter, he was in full flow. The disease had not sapped his will to live or to think. Politics was his lifeblood. We talked about social unrest in France and whether it would be enough to bring about serious change. He shrugged his shoulders. "Perhaps not in our lifetimes, but we carry on fighting. What else is there to do?"

• Daniel Bensaïd, philosopher, born 25 March 1946; died 12 January 2010

London Memorial Meeting

Activist-academics Gilbert Achcar, Stathis Kouvelakis and Alex
Callinicos are among the speakers invited to address the memorial
meeting for Daniel Bensaïd. The gathering on Tuesday 9 February will
celebrate the life of France’s most famous Marxist intellectual, who
played a global role in leading the Fourth International and
influencing a wide range of other Marxists. The meeting will start at
7.30pm in the University of London Union on Malet Street, WC1H.

For more information about the memorial meetings, or to send messages
to them, please email

Paris meeting
Tribute in the Mutalité in Paris on Sunday 24th January from 2.30pm to

Saturday, 2 January 2010

The LSHG in 2010

London Socialist Historians in 2010

The Spring issue of the LSHG newsletter is with our long suffering designer & printer and should be with you in a couple of weeks or so.

We have seminars this term from Ian Goodyear on Rock Against Racism in February and John Charlton on the left in the north-east of England 50 years ago. Several more interesting seminar speakers are in prospect.

The conference on 'The Vote - What Went Wrong' is on Saturday 27th February at the Institute of Historical Research. Registration is £10, £5 unwaged cheques payable to Keith Flett. Send your e-mail and registration fee to 38 Mitchley Rd London N17 9HG. Summaries of conference papers etc will be pre-circulated to those who pre-register.

Speakers include Toby Abse, Owen Ashton, Logie Barrow, Ian Bullock, Neil Davidson and Mike Haynes