Saturday, 31 December 2011

The Battle of Saltley Gate remembered

A new website has been set up to publicise the 40th anniversary of 'The Battle of Saltley Gate' in Birmingham:

In February 1972 some 30,000 Birmingham engineers walked out on strike in solidarity with striking miners who were fighting against austerity pay deals. Up to 15,000 then marched to join miners who were picketing Saltley coke depot. The blockade forced the police, who had kept the depot open all week, to surrender and close the gates.

Militant picketing involving tens of thousands of miners had shut down power stations, docks and coal depots. But the victory at Saltley, won through solidarity strikes, was the turning point for the miners. Within seven weeks the government was defeated.

Today, working people face a similar assault on their living conditions. November 2011 saw millions of workers strike in Britain in the biggest show of united action in generations. Forty years on the Battle of Saltley Gate carries powerful lessons for a working class that is once again stirring.

This website is an attempt to produce a list of articles on Saltley Gate. Click here for article links and click here to read articles on this site.
There will hopefully be celebration events in Birmingham in 2012. These will be publicised here.

If you have articles or pictures you would like linked, or hosted, on this site please email

A commemorative pamphlet, Close the Gates - the 1972 miners strike, Saltley Gate and the defeat of the Tories has also been written for the anniversary by Pete Jackson:

Monday, 19 December 2011

Worcester TUC publications

Worcester Trades Union Council

All funds raised are used in to support WTUC campaign for the continuing campaign against the cuts in the city & county.

Class Words 100 Years of Struggle (Limited copies available)
Class Words contains many poems and words from the history of the working class. The booklet celebrates the history of the struggle by workers, a must for all trade unionists. £4

Worcester Trades Union Council 120 Years Commemorative Booklet
A Short History highlighting some episodes of the activities of the WTUC during the last 120 years. £5

Their Glorious Fight
In 1922 the National Union of Teachers in Worcestershire took strike action as part of their struggle to achieve the nationally agreed Burnham Scale. This Booklet details the fight that the Teachers with the reactionary forces in Worcestershire County Council. £5

To obtain a copy of any of the above please complete the form below and enclose a Cheque made payable to John Stevenson for the appropriate amount.

Title Number of Copies

Class Words ................

WTUC 120 Years Commemorative Booklet ................

Their Glorious Fight ................

I enclosed a cheque for ....................

Name ……………………………………………………………
Address ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..
Postcode ……………………………………………………..

Worcester Trades Union Council
67 Mayfield Road

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Aspects of Popular Protest seminars

Aspects of Popular Protest
- seminars organised by the Socialist History Society

Prof Jerry White - 'Riots and the Law in 18th Century London'
7pm 22 February 2012

Prof David Goodway 'The Real History of Chartism'
7pm 19 April 2012

Venue for both:
Bishopsgate Institute, London
Free entry, all welcome,
retiring collection.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

LSHG Spring term seminars 2012

London Socialist Historians Seminars Spring Term 2012

9th January Ian Birchall 'The Missing founders. The early years of the French Communist Party'

23rd January Nicole Ulrich {University of the Witwatersrand] 'Direct Action and Colonial Rule in Eighteenth-Century Southern Africa: a survey of underclass protest'.

6th February Merilyn Moos 'From the personal to the political: Researching the KPD 1929-37'

20th February Manus McGrogan 'The revolutionary left press after 1968'

5th March Lucian van der Walt [University of Witwatersrand] 'Adding Red to the Black Atlantic: the Industrial Workers of Africa and International Socialist League’s black revolutionary syndicalists and the South Africa Native National Congress's 1917-1920 radicalisation'

19th March Roberta Wedge 'Mary Wollstonecraft: journalist, socialist, or somewhere else on the political spectrum?'

All seminars at 5.30pm
Gordon Room,
Ground Floor
Senate House
South Block
Institute of Historical Research

Edited to add:
14th December, 6pm King's College London, Strand Campus, Room S-3.18 Jairus Banaji (SOAS) ''Retotalizing Fascism: reading Arthur Rosenberg through Sartre's ‘Critique’''

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Bert Ramelson

'Revolutionary Communist at work'

A tribute to Bert Ramelson will be held at the Marx Memorial Library on Saturday 5th May 2012 from 12 noon to 6 PM admission free. If you would like to speak at this event or attend please contact Terry McCarthy at,
Revolutionary Communist at work a political biography of Bert Ramelson by Roger Seifert and Tom Sibley
Special offer to receive this 350 page book at £15, five pounds goes to the morning Star - see

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Reminder - Keith Flett on William Cuffay

Keith Flett on 'William Cuffay, Black Chartist and Londoner'
Seminar - Mon 12th December
Institute of Historical Research, Gordon Room G34, Ground Floor South Block Senate House 5.30pm - all welcome

Thursday, 24 November 2011

CFP: Unofficial Histories

Unofficial Histories
Saturday 19th May 2012 at Bishopsgate Institute, London

A free public conference to discuss how society produces, presents, and consumes history beyond official and elite versions of the past.

Call for Papers

The “unofficial histories” conference seeks to bring together those who work in the academic, community and cultural fields to consider the value and purpose of historical engagements and understandings that take place within, on the edges of, or outside “official” sites and channels for the communication of historical ideas. Taking its cue from the assumption that history is, as Raphael Samuel put it, “a social form of knowledge; the work, in any given instance of a thousand different hands”, the conference aims to open up to examination the ways in which historians, curators, writers, journalists, artists, film makers, activists and others, seek to represent the past in the public realm, and in the spheres of popular culture and everyday life.

What kinds of subjects, ideas and themes are presented? What styles and mediums are used to construct history? How is this history produced, transmitted and consumed?

We hope to sharpen the awareness of the different sites and forms of historical production and consider how they impact public perceptions and consciousness of history. We are also concerned to understand the interactions between competing (and corresponding) impulses in the processes of formation: the scholarly and the political; the academic and the everyday; the imperatives of funding, ethics and access.

Finally, we would like to consider whether or not such “unofficial histories” have political effects that might serve democratic and emancipatory goals, and/or can be seen as sources of dissent and resistance against conventional, privileged models of historical knowledge.

Presentations of between 10 and 20 minutes (different approaches to communication are encouraged) are welcomed on any aspect of the above, which may include:

• People’s History and the History of Everyday Life
• Consuming History: History as Commodity
• TV, Radio and Internet
• Literature, Poetry and Folksong
• Museums, Heritage, Archives, and Education
• Feminist and Women’s History
• Historical Re-enactment and Living History
• Memory, Myth and Folklore
• Oral History, Testimony, and Biography
• Local, Regional and Community History
• Family History and Genealogy
• Art, Drama and Theatre
• The Role of the Historian in the Public Sphere

Please submit abstracts of 250-300 words by 31st January 2012 to Fiona Cosson,

For more information and to register for the conference, please see our website at

Sunday, 13 November 2011

LSHG Forthcoming events

London Socialist Historians
Seminar Reminder
Monday 14th November
John Charlton: THE 1815 SEAMAN’S STRIKE ON THE NORTH-EAST COAST OF ENGLAND 5.30pm in the Bloomsbury Room [room 35] South Block Institute of Historical Research Senate House, Malet St WC1

Forthcoming events
Monday 12th December 5.30pm Room G34 South Block Institute of Historical Research
Keith Flett: William Cuffay, Black Chartist and Londoner

Saturday 25th February 2012
Midday Chancellor’s Hall Institute of Historical Research
One day event: A history of riots. Speakers include Neil Davidson on 'From riots in Glasgow & Edinburgh in 1706 to riots in the Global South in 2011'

Marx Memorial Library events

From: Marx Memorial Library
Subject: MML Lectures - Winter Series

Dearest member,
Having finalised the winter series of lectures here at the Library I thought you may be interested to learn of the topics and speakers in the hope that you can make it!

Listed below are the two forthcoming lectures, which have been kindly arranged by David Margolies. Entrance for both is just £2.50 or £1 concessions, and both will begin at 6.30pm on their respective dates.

On the 21st November we will be hosting a lecture by Mike Brown entitled “The effects of the Spanish Civil War on Britain in World War II” – details of which can be found on our Facebook page at

And on the 12th December we will be hosting a lecture by Andy Brockman entitled “Hear voices from a far distance”: The news, Ninos Vascos, and Brigadistas in southeast London – details of which can be found at

We do hope to see you at either or both!
With very best regards,
Jesse Bela Sullivan
Library Administrator
Marx Memorial Library
37a Clerkenwell Green
020 7253 1485

Monday, 7 November 2011

A seminar for David Starkey perhaps?

Institute of Commonwealth Studies, in conjunction with the Black & Asian Studies Association present 'Black and Asian Britain seminars' at Senate House, University of London, Russell Square, London WC1 6 to 7.30 pm,
Everyone is welcome. You do not have to pre-book/register. (Contact:
15 November (STB8, Stewart House Basement) Michael Ohajuru, ‘An Introduction to the Black Presence in Renaissance Europe’ as exemplified by the Black Magus's image found on a 16th Century Rood Screen from Devon. (Now in the Victoria & Albert Museum's Collection (W.54-1928). How did the image reach Devon and what might it have meant at the time?

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Stan Newens on Ray Challinor

Ray Challinor 1929-2011 by Stan Newens[edited speech from the June memorial meeting co-organised by the LSHG - see also here and John McIlroy's longer obituaty of Ray online here]
Ray Challinor, whose life we are here to commemorate, was a dedicated socialist, a long serving activist in the Labour movement and a brilliant historian.
Born in Stoke-on-Trent on the 9th July 1929, he was the son of two socialist teachers who were themselves deeply involved in the working class movement in North Staffordshire.
His father, Arthur Bertram Challinor, was the son of a celebrated musician and composer, Frederick Arthur Challinor, [1866-1952], who was of mining stock and left school at 10 years of age to make bricks.
By dint of hardwork, he somehow obtained a Doctorate of Music at Durham University and wrote more than 400 pieces of music, including “The Potters’ Song” for the National Society of Pottery Workers.
Ray’s father was a keen footballer and cricketer, as well as a successful teacher, and chaired Stoke City Labour Party for a period during the interwar years.
Ray’s mother, Leonora Margaretta Gertrude Gibson was the daughter of a Crewe cycle maker, bus entrepreneur and ironmonger, Walter Henry Gibson and his second wife who was of German origin. She became a teacher, a secretary of Longton WEA and a committed socialist of an ILP background who knew Lady Cynthia Mosley, MP for Stoke South [1929-1931]. She always maintained that Lady Cynthia was totally untouched by Sir Oswald Mosley’s Fascist ideas.
Sadly, Ray’s parents separated during his childhood, and Ray moved to Crewe with his mother, while his sister, Joan, stayed with their father. He briefly attended Crewe Grammar School but was then sent as a boarder to the Friends School at Lancaster at 12 years of age.
Deeply influenced by his mother’s ILP convictions, he decided to help Fenner Brockway when he contested the Lancaster By-Election in 1941 for the ILP against the Coalition Government candidate, Fitzroy Maclean (Con). He was permitted to do this by the Friends School Headmaster, although only 12, and long remembered the gibe, said to have been made by Communists, ‘A vote for Brockway is a vote for Hitler’.
In 1945 Ray was one of the youngest delegates at the ILP National Conferenc e and met Dan Smith (later Labour leader on Tyneside), Bill Hunter, Ted Grant and Jimmy Maxton. They and the Marxist historian Frank Ridley clearly influenced Ray’s intellectual development.
He left school without taking Higher School Certificate examinations and became a journalist on the Crewe Guardian.
Faced with conscription for military service at 18 years of age, he went before a tribunal and obtained exemption as a conscientious objector, on condition that he worked in agriculture for two years. He was a singularly unsuccessful agricultural employee, who amongst other things overloaded a boiler, causing it to explode. He was relieved to return to his mother’s home- now at Silverdale, Newcastle-under-Lyme, upon completion of his service, and returned to his job as a journalist at the Crewe Guardian.
By now he had become a Trotskyist who rejected the idea that the Soviet Union was socialist and he joined the Revolutionary Communist Party shortly before it dissolved in 1948.
He subsequently became active in Crewe Labour Party and then Newcastle-under-Lyne Labour Party where he got to know the Labour MP Stephen Swingler very well. He was, however, thinking deeply about politics and in June 1948 wrote an article arguing that Russia was not a degenerate workers’ state , as Trotskyists argued, but was state capitalist [“Left” June 1948].
Tony Cliff (Ygael Gluckstein) produced his RCP internal bulletin “The Nature of Stalinist Russia” in June 1948 also arguing,at much greater length, that Russia was state capitalist. Understandbly, then, Ray became a founder member of the group formed by Tony Cliff in 1950 which launched “The Socialist Review” and eventually evolved into the Socialist Workers Party.
In 1952, Ray obtained a place at the University of North Staffs at Keele to take a degree but he remained active in Newcastle-under-Lyme CLP and also became active in the University Socialist Society, where he clashed with fellow student, John Golding, later the right-wing Labour MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme.
It was at this stage that I first met Ray,initially at a Socialist Review meeting at Holloway Head Birmingham and later, when I began work as a miner in the North Staffs coalfield, as an opponent of the Korean War.
As a member of the Labour Party, I transferred my membership to Stoke and formed a Labour League of Youth branch in Stoke Central CLP,of which Ray became a member. It was here that he met his future wife, Mabel Brough.
For the following 4 years, Ray and I were active in the Labour Party all over the West Midlands. We also travelled through the Midlands and the north on my motorcycle to promote sales of Socialist Review, of which Ray became the editor. We gave NCLC lectures for the West Midlands organiser Alex Murie, and organised meetings like one for Joseph Murumbi Secretary of the Kenya African Union, in Newcastle-under-Lyme.
Ray stood for election as a Council candidate I 1954 and 1958 and was subsequently selected as the prospective Labour Parliamentary candidate for Nantwich, although he gave this position up before the 1964 General Election. This was after I returned to live in the south east.
After completing his degree course, Ray taught at North Staffs schools at one time with Jack Braddock, brother-in-law of Bessie Braddock MP, who was much more left wing than his sister-in-law. Later, however, he obtained a post at Wigan Mining and Technical College and moved with his wife, Mabel, to Hindley.
Throughout the 1950s, Ray either edited the Socialist Review or produced articles for it, but in the later 1950s, Ray, Bernard Dix, Wilf Albrighton and I became critics of Tony Cliff’s hard-line Bolshevism and were denounced as revisionists. Bernard and Wilf left the group first; I left in 1959 but Ray remained a member until 1973, I believe. He subsequently rejoined and only finally cut his ties in 1983, although he continued to defend the SWP when I criticised its policies long after this.
In Wigan, Ray became a well known figure on the left, which regularly congregated at the “Dove and Partridge” public house and he was regarded by Alan Fitch, the Labour MP, as an objectionable dissident. He supported CND, backed a strike at Courtaulds and was very active in support of the left in the Labour and Trade Union movement.
In Wigan, in 1965, Ray discovered, in the Library, a collection of the manuscript records of the Miners Association,which existed in the 1840s and had barely been consulted thereafter. In co-operation with Brian Ripley, he produced his first book, “The Miners Association: A Trade Union in the Age of the Chartists” (1968). He also wrote a pamphlet for the Communist History Society, “Alexander MacDonald”. In 1972, he published “The Lancashire and Cheshire Miners” and he wrote as a thesis for his PhD “Trade Unionism in the Coal Industry till 1910”.
These were brilliant original works, based on painstaking research which put the miners’ leader Alexander MacDonald and his close associates in a new light as compromisers rather than the heroic figures they were cast as elsewhere. Ray published a biography of the man he saw as the truly principled fighter for the miners:- “A Radical Lawyer in Victorian England: WP Roberts”.
Before this was published, Ray moved to Whitley Bay to take a post at Newcastle-upon-Tyne Polytechnic- later a University- where he eventually became the principal lecturer in history.
In addition to teaching and inspiring many of his students, Ray continued to write and produced “The Origins of British Bolshevism” (1977), “John S Clarke: Parliamentarian, Poet and Lion Tamer” (1977), and “The Struggle for Hearts and Minds: Essays on the Second World War” (1995). He also turned out numerous articles published in a range of different journals.
Ray joined the Society for the Study of Labour History in 1964 and was a keen participant in its activities. He served as President of the Society 1974-77 and thereafter as a Vice-President. When he moved to Whitley Bay, he also joined the North East Society for the Study of Labour History and became one of its key activists.
With Archie Potts, Labour Party activist and the biographer of Konni Zilliacus MP, he and Mabel launched Bewick Books which published a number of political, historical and cultural volumes on the north east.
Throughout his adult life Ray accumulated a magnificent library of socialist books, rare socialist journals and many literary gems. For example he possessed a run of the Johnson-Forrest publications produced by CLR James under the pseudonym “Johnson “ with Raya Dunayevskaya as “Forrest”. He also possessed many American works and other literary volumes.
He visited America to meet American socialists and thinkers. He kept up a correspondence with or invited socialists and others to stay with him. Harry McShane, Anne Swingler, Brian Manning, Edward Thompson were typical of his friends.
Although he left the Labour Party in disgust and fell out of the International Socialists-later the SWP-,he remained politically active. When Eddie Milne, Labour MP for Blyth, was deselected for making accusations of corruption in the Labour Party, Ray worked to help him retain his seat in 1974, though Eddie later lost it.
When a former boxer, Liddle Towers died in police custody in 1976, Ray campaigned locally to demand an investigation.
He remained active in CND. He continued to write letters and articles on contemporary as well as historical events. His voice was raised on many issues and only ill health in his final years ultimately silenced him.
In all his activities, Ray received devoted support from his wife Mabel, who attended to his every need. Both Ray and Mabel were deeply attached to their son, Russell, their daughter-in-law Rebecca and granddaughter, Claire. My family accompanied me on visits to see him over many years he was one of my very closest friends for 59 years.
In later life we were not in close political agreement. He retained what he regarded as his revolutionary politics while I retained my Labour Party membership and commitment to what he regarded as reformism.
He consistently mocked my abstemious attitude to alcohol and what he saw as a puritanical cast of mind. I was, he told me, the most conservative socialist he had ever known!
But in spite of this we were both committed to a socialist transformation of society and this cemented our friendship.
Ray lived a life dominated by continuing intellectual endeavours unceasing commitment to the cause of human emancipation, loyalty to his family and his friends and dedication to the aim of active progress towards the goal of international socialism. He led a positive and worthwhile life, which, through his writings and his example, will continue to enlighten and encourage others to strive for the ends which were central to his whole being.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Next LSHG seminar - John Charlton on the 1815 Seamen's Strike

Monday 14th November
5.30pm in the Bloomsbury Room [room 35] South Block Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet St WC1
Entry is free, without ticket

On the subject of seamen's strikes, see this call for papers for a conference on The Many-Headed Hydra: 10 years on.

Kanaval: A People's History of Haiti

You are warmly invited to the following seminar on Weds 9 November hosted by the Institute for the Study of the Americas and the Institute of Commonwealth Studies:
Kanaval: A People’s History of Haiti
Leah Gordon, film-maker and photographer
Date: 9th November 2011
Time: 5pm
Venue: Room 103, Senate House, first floor, Malet St, London WC1E 7HU

Abstract: For the last 15 years Leah Gordon has been documenting a carnival in Jacmel, Southern Haiti using photography and the collection of oral histories. This work has recently been published in the book Kanaval: Vodou, Politics and Revolution on the Streets of Haiti (Soul Jazz Publishing, 2010). Each year, Jacmel holds pre-Lenten Mardi Gras festivities. Troupes of performers act out mythological and political tales in a whorish theatre of the absurd that courses the streets, rarely shackled by traditional parade. Whatever the Carnival lacks in glitz and spectacle, it makes up for in home-grown surrealism and poetic metaphor. The characters and costume partially betray their roots in medieval European carnival, but the Jacmellien masquerades are also a fusion of clandestine Vodou, ancestral memory, political satire and personal revelation. The lives of the indigenous Taino Indians, the slaves’ revolt and more recently state corruption are all played out using drama and costume on Jacmel’s streets. This is people taking history into their own hands and moulding it into whatever they decide. So within this Historical retelling we find mask after mask, but rather than concealing, they are revealing, story after story, through disguise, gesture and roadside pantomime. A selection from over 150 photographs will play on a loop whilst Leah discusses the importance of documenting the carnival, the role of folk history in Haiti and the many different mediums used by Haitian people to retell history, the implicit complexities of the visual representation of Haiti (in terms of two centuries of post-revolution Western demonisation), the on-going struggle between spectacle and narrative in a photographic project, the role of oral histories in restoring narrative to the visual and the link between the technical process, analogue photography and historic narrative. Leah will finish by reading one or two of the oral histories.

Biography: Leah Gordon is from the UK and has worked as a photographer, film-maker and curator. She visited Haiti for the first time in 1991, and has continued to have a relationship with the country to this day. As a reportage photographer Gordon covered the coup in the early nineties and then began to make work inspired more by the culture and religion than the politics. In 2006 she commissioned the Grand Rue Sculptors from Haiti to make 'Freedom Sculpture', a permanent exhibit for the International Museum of Slavery in Liverpool. In 2008 she completed a film about the artists called Atis-Rezistans: the Sculptors of Grand Rue. Continuing her relationship with the Grand Rue artists, Gordon organized and co-curated the Ghetto Biennale in Port-au-Prince in December 2009. She has recently been involved in a range of projects as film-maker and photographer including a film documenting the colonial legacy and the museum in Maputo and a meditation on the Slave Trade and the River Thames; her photography book Kanaval: Vodou, Politics and Revolution on the Streets of Haiti was published in June 2010. Gordon is currently on the curatorial teams for the first Haitian Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale (2011), 'In Extremis' at the Fowler Museum, UCLA, Los Angeles (2012) and co-curator, with Alex Farquharson of an exhibition based on the Haitian Revolution at the Nottingham Contemporary (2012). Leah Gordon is represented by Riflemaker Gallery and is film tutor on the BA in Digital, Film and Screen Arts at University of the Creative Arts, Farnham.

György Lukács Library project: assistance sought

György Lukács was a fundamental figure in the development of twentieth- century Marxist philosophy, theory of culture, and literary criticism. His works have inspired radical Marxist thinkers from Ernst Bloch and Walter Benjamin to Agnes Heller and Fredric Jameson. Moreover, his critical and historical writings on the literary realism played a crucial role in European literary politics from the 1930s to the 1960s. He was already a key figure in Central European and German cultural life prior to his turn to Marxism in 1919, a leader in the 1919 Hungarian Commune, a communist organizer, cultural politician, ideologist, and scholar of renown. Subject to a persecutory "Lukács debate" during the Stalinist dictatorship in Hungary in the early 1950s, he participated in the 1956 uprising and, following his arrest and eventual return from Romania, was restricted in Hungary for the remaining decade of his life to conducting his scholarship with a limited circle of students and collaborators, despite his continuing international influence and prestige. Throughout his extraordinary six decades of intellectual, political, and cultural life, Lukács wrote constantly, both in German and Hungarian, in forms ranging from reviews, lectures, and polemics to major essays to full-scale studies, including his monumental late aesthetics and ontology. Although some of Lukács's major works--such as History and Class Consciousness and Theory of the Novel--have been long translated and widely read, other of the major works have never seen translation into English. This is true of a large number of major essays in German as well, and of the Hungarian essays, few have even appeared in German, much less English. There are well over 10,000 pages of Lukács's work that have never appeared in English translation; the already- translated portion is thus only a fraction, which represents at best a partial view of his thought and life work. Lukács's constant correspondence, speaking, and writing as he moved between Budapest, Vienna, Berlin, and Moscow over the course of his adventurous life also means that a substantial amount of his work was disseminated in difficult-to-find periodicals, pamphlets, or books. Nor are even existing English translations easy to access. Many of the earlier translations of Lukács into English from the 1940s to the 1970s remain out of print or mostly out of reach in limited distribution journals.

A project is underway to collect and bring out in English a large amount of previously untranslated writing by Lukács, a "Lukács library," in the Historical Materialism book series at Brill Publishers. The first volume, The Culture of People's Democracy: Hungarian Essays on Literature, Art, and Democratic Transition will appear in 2012, and the translation of the first volume of The Particularity of the Aesthetic has been initiated. Although we are exploring grant and other funding, we presently have no financial backing.

Therefore we are seeking two kinds of assistance:
• Suggestions about how we might obtain funds for the project : Are there cultural institutions, university translation offices, government funded academic research programs or philanphropic institutions which we could tap into, either on our own as project editors or through your assistance and collaboration in the project?
• We would also like to solicit qualified translators who are prepared to donate their efforts to the project. The translations will be from German (the majority), Hungarian (a sizeable minority), and Russian (a limited number) into English. The contribution of translations of individual, shorter works as well as longer texts would be appreciated. All translators will be acknowledged for their contributions.We would particularly like to hear from individual translators or a small group of collaborators who would commit to realizing one of the project volumes of the Lukács Library.

I will be serving as series editor and in many case also editing the individual volumes, providing historical and critical introductions, annotations, and other apparatus. However, if anyone would like to participate in an editorial or co-editorial role as well, I am open to discussing the possibility of editorial collaboration on particular volumes. We are interested in getting several volumes into print at the earliest date possible, to help gain institutional support for the project and to make an impact on current discussions with an influx of previously unavailable Lukács writings. If you are interested in assisting with this project, please get in touch with me. In solidarity,Tyrus
P.S.: If you are attending the Historical Materialism conference in London, following the "For Lukács" session at 12-13:45 on Sunday, November 13, 2011, please join me for lunch afterwards to discuss collaborations and translations for the Lukács Library.
Tyrus Miller
Vice Provost and Dean of Graduate StudiesUniversity of California at Santa Cruz

Shipbuilding and Ship Repair Workers

In the Same Boat?
Shipbuilding and ship repair workers: a global labour history

The project intends to study shipbuilding labour around the world from
World War II until the present from a global history perspective. We
will track the relocation of production and analyse its consequences
to workforces in Europe, North and South America, and in East Asia
from the 1980s onwards.
See also the call for papers.
The project is coordinated by Elise van Nederveen Meerkerken, Marcel
van der Linden, and Raquel Varela.

London Socialist Film Co-op

AT THE RENOIR CINEMA, Brunswick Square, London WC1
Nearest London Tube: Russell Square
Buses: 7, 17, 45, 46, 59, 68, 91, 168, 188

10.30 FOR 11AM SUNDAY 13 NOVEMBER 2011

First UK screening of two documentary films:

DEADLY DUST (TODESSTAUB), Frieder Wagner, Germany 2006, 93 mins
This science-based documentary explores the effects of depleted
uranium ammunition used in Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia, though banned by
the Hague and Geneva Conventions. The surge in post-war birth defects
indicates that an epidemic of reproductive abnormalities is likely to
have been caused by the residue of these munitions.

WITH THE LINCOLN BRIGADE IN SPAIN, Henri Cartier-Bresson/Herbert
Kline, US 1938, 18mins
The internationally acclaimed photographer Cartier-Bresson filmed the
Brigade. Its members were drawn from all walks of life and it is
thought to be the first military unit commanded by a black officer.
The volunteers trained alongside Spanish troops and became know for
their bravery. In 2010 the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archive
discovered, restored and re-released this cinema treasure.

DISCUSSION LED BY Rae Street, CND Council member and active in the
International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons, John Green, former
documentary filmmaker, and Helen Graham, Professor of Modern European
History at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Radical to Revolutionary Women in the 19th Century

Socialist History Society
Public Meeting
Radical to Revolutionary Women in the 19th Century
Another look at Harriet Law, Annie Besant and Eleanor Marx

7pm, 9th November 2011
Dr Laura Schwartz on Harriet Law
Deborah Lavin on Eleanor Marx
Marie Terrier on Annie Besant
Seminar consists of three short talks presenting new views of the subjects followed by discussion.
Venue: Bishopsgate Institute, Liverpool Street
Entry free; all welcome; retiring collection

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Ralph Miliband and Parliamentary Socialism

Friday 25th November 2011, London School of Economics
This conference marks the 50th anniversary of Ralph Miliband’s Parliamentary Socialism – a critique of the Labour Party that shaped a generation of scholars and activists. The book argues that Labour’s belief in the centrality of parliamentary politics often undermined the very movements that were needed to bring about real change. With protest on the rise, and Labour seeking a new way forward, the conference aims to reassess Miliband’s arguments and their contemporary relevance.

Speakers include Tariq Ali, Robin Blackburn, Hilary Wainwright and Leo Panitch

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

A Cartoon People's History of the World

The excellent series - a collaboration between Tim Sanders and Keith Flett, that initally began in Socialist Review and was inspired by this work is now online here.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Dylan Riley on Tony Judt

Further to Ian Birchall's reflections on the late Tony Judt, the latest issue of New Left Review carries an article by Dylan Riley entitled 'Tony Judt: A Cooler Look', which reinforces the basic thrust of Birchall's argument. Riley's article concludes as follows:

How do the accolades for Judt as a ‘great historian’, ‘fearless critic’ and ‘brilliant political commentator’ stand up against a cool examination of his work? As historiography, even his earliest, most substantial scholarly works on France—Reconstruction of the Socialist Party and Socialism in Provence—were weakened by the aggressive tendentiousness of his approach. Marxism and the French Left and Past Imperfect were avowedly selective and polemical. Judt lacked the most basic requirement for any student of intellectual history: the ability to grasp and reconstruct an idea with philological precision. His lack of interest in ideas is borne out in extenso throughout his copious writings on intellectuals: there were never any serious attempts to reconstruct a thinker’s position, so as to probe and question it. Even summaries of figures to whom he was well-disposed were slapdash; writers to whom he was hostile were regularly excoriated for views they did not hold. Judged as an intellectual historian, the verdict on Judt must be negative. His magnum opus, Postwar, is regularly listed for undergraduate European History courses. But its 900 pages produced little new by way of evidence or interpretation—a weakness underlined by the absence of even the most minimal scholarly apparatus, beyond a ‘general bibliography’ available from NYU.

Judt himself confessed in his final interview that at school he had been considered ‘better at literature than history’; also bragging, ‘I was—and knew I was—among the best speakers and writers of my age cohort. I don’t mean I was the best historian’. In effect, it was his talent, limited but real, as a polemicist and a pamphleteer that disqualified Judt as a historian of ideas, much as he liked to claim the loftier calling. His range as a polemicist was relatively narrow: there is a limit to what can be got from attacking the French left or lauding fellow defenders of the Free World. His negative judgements on political leaders—Thatcher, Bush, Clinton, Blair—carried little analytical heft; his belated criticism of Israel’s West Bank settlements never explained at what point the Zionist project had gone wrong. Nevertheless, judged as a polemicist, the verdict can be more favourable, exonerating Judt of the heedless inconsistencies, both conceptual and analytic, that marred his work as historian of Europe and latter-day champion of neo-social democracy. A pamphleteer may be allowed—even expected—to change his views more or less at the drop of a hat. If the eu is now a moral beacon to the world, now a sad example of failed leadership; or the welfare state now the legacy of organized labour, now the common sense of capitalist politicians—so what? All grist to the mill. A historian will be held to different standards.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

London Historical Materialism conference 2011

Spaces of Capital, Moments of Struggle
Eighth Annual Historical Materialism Conference Central London 10–13 November 2011

Registration is now open and a provisional programme is now online

The ongoing popular uprisings in the Arab world, alongside intimations of a resurgence in workers' struggles against 'austerity' in the North and myriad forms of resistance against exploitation and dispossession across the globe make it imperative for Marxists and leftists to reflect critically on the meaning of collective anticapitalist action in the present.

Over the past decade, many Marxist concepts and debates have come in from the cold. The anticapitalist movement generated a widely circulating critique of capitalist modes of international 'development'. More recently, the economic crisis that began in 2008 has led to mainstream-recognition of Marx as an analyst of capital. In philosophy and political theory, communism is no longer merely a term of condemnation. Likewise, artistic and cultural practices have also registered a notable upturn in the fortunes of activism, critical utopianism and the effort to capture aesthetically the workings of the capitalist system.

The eighth annual Historical Materialism conference will strive to take stock of these shifts in the intellectual landscape of the Left in the context of the social and political struggles of the present. Rather than resting content with the compartmentalisation and specialisation of various 'left turns' in theory and practice, we envisage the conference as a space for the collective, if necessary, agonistic but comradely, reconstitution of a strategic conception of the mediations between socio-economic transformations and emancipatory politics.

For such a critical theoretical, strategic and organisational reflection to have traction in the present, it must take stock of both the commonalities and the specificities of different struggles for emancipation, as they confront particular strategies of accumulation, political authorities and relations of force. Just as the crisis that began in 2008 is by no means a homogeneous affair, so we cannot simply posit a unity of purpose in contemporary revolutions, struggles around the commons and battles against austerity.

In consideration of the participation of David Harvey, winner of the Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize, at this year's conference, we would particularly wish to emphasise the historical and geographical dimensions of capital, class and struggle. We specifically encourage paper submissions and suggested panel-themes that tackle the global nature of capitalist accumulation, the significance of anticapitalist resistance in the South, and questions of race, migration and ecology as key components of both the contemporary crisis and the struggle to move beyond capitalism.

There will also be a strong presence of workshops on the historiography of the early communist movement, particularly focusing on the first four congresses of the Communist International.

The conference will aim to combine rigorous and grounded investigations of socio-economic realities with focused theoretical reflections on what emancipation means today, and to explore – in light of cultural, historical and ideological analyses – the forms taken by current and coming struggles.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Dave Renton on the Battle of Cable Street

The Battle of Cable Street: 75 years on

On 4 October 1936, 1,900 supporters of Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists (BUF) attempted to march from the City of London through London's East End only to find their way was blocked by a crowd of more than 100,000 anti-fascists at Gardiner's Corner, the main route into east London.

Up to 6,000 police officers tried to violently disperse the anti-fascists. When their attempt to force a way through for the fascists failed, the police tried to find an alternative route for them through narrow residential streets, only to find that these were blocked by barricades including an overturned lorry. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Philip Game told Mosley, "You must call it off." Mosley was forced to lead his supporters through the Sunday streets, finally dispersing near Charing Cross.

Cable Street was the second of the two key moments in the anti-fascist struggle of the 1930s. The first had taken place at Olympia in 1934. For two years prior to Olympia, Mosley had set out to win the support of disgruntled Tories. Mosley's best-known backer was the press baron Lord Rothermere, whose Daily Mail printed pro-BUF headlines ("Hurrah for the Blackshirts!") and publicised Mosley's meetings.

By the summer of 1934 the BUF had reached its peak membership of 50,000. Most of its members were middle or upper class. The aim at Olympia was to put this organisation on show in a mass rally of tens of thousands of Blackshirts. Anti-fascists who disrupted the Olympia rally by attempting to heckle Mosley were picked out with electric lights and beaten by the BUF stewards. Yet the violence of Olympia deterred Mosley's passive supporters. Rothermere himself initially applauded Mosley for Olympia, before one month later ending his support for the BUF. BUF membership collapsed. Mosley then turned to seek working class support in the East End, targeting workers in declining trades such as clothes production or furniture making, some of whom were in direct competition with Jewish labourers working in the same industries.

The fascist plans for Cable Street were announced just a week beforehand. The London District of the Communist Party had intended for some time that on the 4 October there should be a youth rally in Trafalgar Square in solidarity with anti-fascist struggle in Spain. The London Communists still insisted that their event should go ahead as planned. But Communists in Stepney had other plans. The "official" Communist leaflets continued to circulate, but now overstamped with instructions calling upon activists to assemble not in Trafalgar Square but in the East End.

Before Cable Street began the Labour Party opposed the protest. In its immediate aftermath, Labour sought to claim the credit for its success. Soon afterwards Labour's message was again that it had been the work of troublemakers, with Labour shadow home secretary Herbert Morrison denouncing both left and right, and calling for a ban on political uniforms. With Labour's support, parliament passed the Public Order Act giving the police the power to ban all marches, not just racist or fascist ones. The act was first used in June 1937 to ban demonstrations in the East End. The first event to be cancelled was a recruiting march for Bethnal Green Trades Council.

The most far-sighted of the Communists could see that defeating the BUF would require far more than just physical confrontation. The BUF had to be challenged in the areas where it claimed the greatest support. The Communists targeted estates seen as no-go areas for the left. In June 1937 Communists living at Paragon Mansions in Mile End heard of the threatened eviction of two families who turned out to be members of the BUF. The Communists agreed to support them against eviction. The tenants barricaded the block against the bailiffs, who were held off for two weeks. The two families ripped up their BUF membership cards. This kind of political struggle, as much as the physical victory a year earlier, isolated the BUF.

Defeating the fascists politically was slow work. The BUF's national membership grew in the aftermath of Cable Street by 2,000, with most of the recruits being picked up in London. This fascist revival continued until local elections in spring 1937, when BUF candidates won 19 percent of the vote in North East Bethnal Green, Stepney and Shoreditch. Yet this result needs to be placed alongside derisory BUF votes in the same elections in such former fascist strongholds as Leeds, Manchester and Southampton, and reports of BUF branches ceasing to exist all over southern England, outside London.

Two processes appear to have been at work. First, the BUF's increasing notoriety as the "anti-Jew" party won it some recruits in the East End while demoralising members elsewhere. Second, the fascists were cannibalising their own organisation in order to mask the scale of their defeat, pulling in members from all over England to shore up the East End organisation. In doing so, they were weakening their party everywhere else. After Cable Street, British fascism was never as strong again.

The lesson of Cable Street is that despite the press and the police, fascism can always be beaten. But that requires our side to get organised.
By Dave Renton, from this month's Socialist Review

Keith Flett on William Cuffay, Medway Victorian Radical

William Cuffay was born in Medway in 1788, the son of an English woman from Gillingham and a former slave from St. Kitts who worked as a naval cook. He was brought up in Gillingham, training as a tailor
then moving to London to pursue his trade in the 1830s. Initially conservative in outlook he became a leading figure in the Chartist movement and organised the Chartist protest for the vote on Kennington Common in 1848, considered by the authorities a revolutionary plot for which he was transported to Tasmania. The talk will focus on Cuffay’s early life in the Medway Towns and how this shaped his political activism, as well as discussing significant new evidence of his activity in London and in Tasmania.

William Cuffay
with Keith Flett, Chartist historian

Wednesday 19 October, 8pm, tickets £3.75
Wigmore Library

208 Fairview Avenue
Wigmore, Gillingham
Kent ME8 0PX
Advanced booking essential:
Call 01634 338319

LSHG Newsletter 43 (Autumn 2011) and seminar notes

The latest LSHG Newsletter (no. 43, Autumn 2011) is now online - highlights include a debate about David Starkey, an article on the Liverpool General Transport Strike of 1911, and a book review of Tom O'Lincoln's Australia's Pacific War.


The autumn 2011 term sees some changes to where we hold seminars at the Institute of Historical Research. The apparently never ending refurbishment of London University’s Senate House has now reached the North Block where we have been based since 1994. The building will be refurbished and there will be a re-arrangement of space between the IHR and London University. The whole process is estimated to take two years. We shall see.

In the meantime seminars and the core operations of the IHR are being moved across the entrance lobby of Senate House to the South Block. Opposite are details of the precise room allocations for our seminars in Autumn 2011. It is unclear as yet whether there will be a space large enough to run a 2012 conference. However there is considerable interest in running an event on the history of riots. I will be pursuing this idea both in terms of speakers and a venue. Updates will be posted on the LSHG website.

During the summer term we held a well attended memorial meeting for Ray Challinor the socialist activist and historian. One of the speakers, Stan Newens, has kindly provided a transcript of his speech and this should be available on the LSHG website shortly.
Keith Flett
Wednesday 12 October
Robin Blackburn and Richard Gott speak on their new books

Monday 17th October

Monday 31st October
Marika writes:
Malcolm Little, the son of a Grenada-born mother and African-American Garveyist father, was murdered in New York on February 21, 1965, after he had spent almost the whole of the previous year in Africa and the UK. After his father had been murdered by a Ku Klux Klan type organisation, his mother could not cope. Malcolm did not complete school, became a petty criminal and ended up in prison in 1946. He read every book in the library and joined the proselytising and supportive Nation of Islam.

On his release in 1952 he dropped the name ‘Little’ as being a ‘slave name’ and called himself ‘X’. He became the Nation’s best orator/presenter, developing a very powerful speaking style. He recruited tens of thousands to the Nation and was interviewed and asked to give lectures all over the USA. One phrase he used often which is recalled by everyone is ‘by any means necessary’: he used this when arguing that African Americans had to defend themselves by any means necessary against the racial violence in the USA; and again, to use any means necessary to achieve equality.

Malcolm became a very controversial figure during these years of the civil rights struggle. A hugely successful recruiter for the Nation, he began to meet some more orthodox Muslims as well as some Africans representing their nations at the UN. Malcolm began to question the philosophies  and behaviour of Elijah Muhammad, the Nation’s founder. In March 1963 he left the Nation and went to study Islam in Egypt, and to Mecca to perform the Hajj.

Remarkably, Malcolm was given permission to address the OAU (today’s African Union) in Cairo. From there he travelled to many East and West African countries, meeting presidents and political activists. These were the early years of independence when the policies of most leaders included the word ‘socialist’. It was at the OAU meeting that he began to speak about American ‘dollarism’.

Malcolm visited England a number of times, speaking at universities, Muslim forums and other venues in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Oxford and Sheffield. He also walked around Smethwick where at the recent elections a Conservative had won, campaigning on the slogan ‘if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour’. Again he met political activists, Black, Indian and White.

Why was Malcolm murdered shortly after his return to New York from the UK? Because the Nation could not accept his criticisms? Or because of his world-wide criticism of America’s ‘dollarism’? We shall probably never know. But most certainly the people he met on his visits were leading him into new political and philosophical directions, as he acknowledged.

This book is taken mainly from Malcolm’s travel notebooks, augmented by the newspaper coverage of his visits, and some interviews with the people whom he met.Malcolm X: Visits Abroad , Tsehai Publishers 2011, ISBN: 978-1599070506
Copies of the book will be available at the seminar.

Monday 14th November

Except 12th October, all seminars at 5.30pm in the Bloomsbury Room [room 35] South Block Institute of Historical Research Senate House, Malet St WC1
Entry is free, without ticket
The Newsletter
Letters, articles, criticisms and contributions to debate are most welcome.
Deadline for the next issue is 1 December 2011.

The 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 ‘Keith Flett’).
Contact us LSHG c/o Keith Flett, 38 Mitchley Road, London N17 9HG

Book Review: Australia's Pacific War

Imperialist War in the Pacific
From LSHG Newsletter # 43, (Autumn 2011).

Tom O’Lincoln

Australia’s Pacific War: Challenging a National Myth
Interventions Publishers
ISBN 978-0646-55353-5
Available from Bookmarks, 1 Bloomsbury Street, London WC1B 3QE
020 7637 1848

The Second World War is still contested ground. As O’Lincoln points out in his introduction, it is constantly mobilised to justify new conflicts, as with the illiterate description of Saddam Hussein as a “new Hitler” – something socialist historians should be quick to challenge. So it is always good to welcome works like this one which tell the real story of that much mythologised war.

In global terms the Australian part in World War II was small, and will be relatively unknown to British readers. But for O’Lincoln, a longstanding veteran of the Australian left, the main enemy is at home, and his concern in this short book is to tell the story of Australian imperialism, whose pursuit of its interests in the Pacific region brought it into direct conflict with Japanese expansionism.

Mobilisation for the war was achieved by the alleged threat of Japanese invasion, but Australia’s rulers in fact knew such an invasion was highly improbable. They also claimed the war was to protect the “rights of free people in the whole Pacific”, but there were few, if any, free Asian nations. The official ideology was often overtly racist – politicians openly advocated the continuation of white rule in the Pacific, and the Japanese were depicted as being savage and subhuman.

O’Lincoln shows that Australia was guilty of its fair share of atrocities in the course of the war. Often prisoners were simply killed, shot or bayonetted to death after they surrendered. For the natives of disputed territories there was not much to choose between Japanese and Australian rule; in East Timor there was a “common saying that when it came to punishment the Japanese were very cruel, but in matters of justice Australian interrogators were worse”.

O’Lincoln is well aware that such arguments will leave him open to the accusation of being a supporter of Japanese aggression. In fact he shows Japanese brutality quite clearly. But he also shows that, contrary to the dehumanising myths propagated by the Australian state, Japanese society was divided by class and politics, and that there was significant dissent from the regime’s policies. In a fascinating couple of pages on kamikaze pilots, he shows they were generally not fanatical “happy suicides”, but were often dragooned into accepting their role.

He also shows that Australia at war was still a profoundly class-divided society. Strikes continued throughout the war, and though they fell to a low level in 1942 when there seemed to be a threat of invasion, the figures rose sharply before the end of the war. There was also considerable dissent in the army, not just in the form of open mutinies and strikes, but of continual attitudes of non-co-operation. As he points out, if the Australian Communist Party had not adopted a position of whole-hearted support for the war, the opposition could have been much greater.

The war transformed the situation of women in Australian society. Their labour was needed for the war effort, but there were attempts to make them do unpaid voluntary work, something that was vigorously resisted. The war encouraged the demand for equal pay, and in the post-war period there were a number of strikes on this question; in particular there were instances of men striking for equal pay for women.

The war had a major impact on social and sexual attitudes. O’Lincoln notes that with war wages women could afford to get divorced. When families invited black US servicemen to their homes, the US authorities “declared these houses brothels, and off-limits to Negro soldiers”. Gay clubs sprang up but were shut down by the police.

The book is clearly written and full of concrete detail and anecdote. It creates a vivid picture of wartime Australia and undermines many myths and stereotypes. It is an excellent introduction to the history of the Australian working class in this period.

At only 160 pages one might well have wished for more detail and more analysis. The only section that is superfluous is the discussion of Hiroshima, in which Australia was only indirectly involved, and which covers well-worn ground adding little new. An index would have been useful, and for non-Australian readers so would a list of acronyms.

But these are minor quibbles about a book that is well worth reading. There are more details and an article on the role of the Australian Communist Party during the war on Tom O’Lincoln’s website.

Ian Birchall

The Liverpool General Transport Strike of 1911

LSHG Newsletter, 43 (Autumn, 2011)
I was privileged to attend an event commemorating the 1911 industrial action in Liverpool and the attacks on
workers by Churchill’s police and army. It was held at the Eldonian Village hall only yards from the spot on Vauxhall Road where two workers, John Sutcliffe and Michael Prendergast, were shot dead by soldiers on Tuesday 15 August 1911. These were tumultuous events which have virtually disappeared from the awareness of today’s generation.

Dockers, seamen, railway workers, tram workers and other sections were united in a mighty movement to secure improvements in wages, working conditions and trade union recognition which employers, particularly the ship owners, were determined to resist with all means at their disposal.

The organisers saw particular importance in recalling this moment in history in view of today’s relentless attack on workers’ services, wages, conditions and pensions by the ConDem millionaire ruling elite. It was through courageous leadership by Tom Mann and the strike committee that success was achieved in the teeth of outrageous Press headlines, and police batons and army rifles, backed by the threat of a gunboat despatched to the Mersey by home secretary Winston Churchill.

Speakers explained that workers’ action in 1911 stands as an example as to how to inspire and show leadership to working families under attack. The main initiators of this important event, Ron Noon, Sam Davies, Eddie Roberts and a number of dedicated supporters deserve to be congratulated on assembling detailed historical evidence, presenting it in a concise focused way, and providing irrefutable evidence as to the brutal injustice meted out to workers fighting for conditions which subsequent generations have taken for granted.

Today’s trade union and Labour leaders have a responsibility to fight to protect the achievements of those workers who struggled and died in 1911.

Tony Mulhearn
August 2011
Published in the Liverpool Daily Post and Liverpool Echo

[The following piece was produced by Ron Noon and Sam Davies for the North West TUC - see here: -  and is slightly abridged for publication here].
Half a century ago Harold Hikins, an eminent local librarian and historian analysed the “complicated and tremendous movement which convulsed Merseyside” in June, July and August of 1911, “an interwoven complex of several strikes involving at one time or another every section of transport workers in the port and culminating in a general strike of all sections”.[1]

In this brief introduction to the most seminal year in Liverpool trade union and labour history, the intention is not to detail the chronology and causes of that unrest, but to highlight this comprehensive fact. Seamen, ships’ stewards, catering staff, dock labourers, carters, tugboatmen, coalheavers, cold storage men, boiler scalers, railwaymen, tramwaymen, electric power station workers and scavengers were all involved in actions that placed class solidarities above sectional and indeed sectarian loyalties. Women as well were involved – women workers at Mayfield sugar works, tailoresses, workers at the rubber works in Walton that was to become Dunlops, all went on strike in 1911, and the National Union of Women Workers succeeded in
organising increasing numbers of women throughout the year.

It would be distressing to think that in a year indelibly stained by government obsession with Comprehensive Spending Reviews and reducing the deficit through cuts in public expenditure, that no major efforts are made by public historians and labour activists to interrogate and publicise the many lessons in worker solidarity that made 1911 a coruscating example of how “The Union makes us strong”.

It was a year of industrial conflagration which according to the journalist Phillip Gibbs saw “Liverpool as near to a revolution as anything I had seen in England”. As Eric Taplin brings to light in a book bearing that title, the efforts of the Strike Committee set up in June and chaired by the eloquent socialist Tom Mann, but inspired by rank and file activism and spontaneity, were an undeniable success and “all except the tramwaymen secured concessions, some of a significant nature”.[2]

It was not simply major increases in union membership that resulted, but also the extent to which they registered amongst the previously unorganised and unrecognised. This chagrined the hard nosed shipping employers who hitherto preferred the lockout and the strategically positioned “depot ships” full of scabs, to defeat the seamens’ and dockers’ efforts to improve work conditions and pay. The latter two groups were the heart and soul of the Liverpool working class and Margaret Simey’s comment that “this was a port, a great port, and ominously nothing but a port” made Liverpool such a particular place in its culture and ethos, as well as its employment statistics. Tony Lane suggests this was “almost as true in it had been in 1901”, stressing a recurring theme of “Liverpool exceptionalism” and a far from parochial labour and trade union history.

Liverpool’s merchandise was never just about commodities and the contents of ships’ holds, but about people and ideas, about music and movement and the cosmopolitan exchange of cultures as well as things. Fifty years ago when Hikins was himself looking back half a century to Liverpool’s waterfront struggles, the links with the sea and “other places” were very much part of our city’s “social character mask”, a fact that “four mop tops” were keenly aware of in forging their own groundbreaking musicality, a year before the release of Love me Do!

Invariably there has been a national and international dimension to Liverpool history and what happened in 1911 was one of the most serious and prolonged disputes of Britain’s pre-First World war labour unrest,
provoking the civil authorities to bring in police reinforcements and for the Home Secretary Winston Churchill to send in troops and position the gunboat HMS Antrim in the Mersey! Although this strike action was part of a national wave of unrest in the transport industry, the degree of bitterness and the intensity of the conflict especially after August 13th and “Bloody Sunday”, was without parallel elsewhere.

A remarkable socialist stonemason and poet, Fred Bower, had his autobiography published in 1936, (a remarkable achievement in itself), providing an excellent contemporary view of what really happened on Sunday August 13th 1911 on St George’s Plateau, when the police baton-charged a mass union meeting.
It also contained an enigmatic chapter entitled “The Secret in the Foundation Stone” which is no secret anymore and which we argue resonates loudly not only in relation to a growing sense of resentment amongst
working people because of the ostentation and conspicuous consumption of the rich in the Edwardian period, but also in today’s world of generalised insecurity for the havenots and largesse for the haves who are getting richer faster than the poor are getting less poor! Regrettably, there are too many people going around the streets and bars of our former European Capital of Culture, fully conscious of the legacy of the Beatles but deeply unconscious of the inspirational stories of 1911 and of what Fred Bower buried under the massive Anglican Cathedral’s foundation stone in June 1904. It was a time capsule and in it he articulated socialist hopes and ambitions for a better tomorrow. Fred and his pal Jim Larkin, (earlier, in their “infantile ignorance” they had tried to kill each other over religion), were aware that “no more than a stone’s throw away” from the cathedral site were slums “not fit for swine” and decided to conduct their own covert ceremony three weeks before the King and Queen and 7,000 other Liverpool dignitaries orchestrated the official foundation stone ceremony. They placed a letter addressed to a future socialist society, (signed “A wage slave”), along with copies of the Clarion and Labour Leader in a biscuit tin, “bent over the ends and edges to make it as air tight as possible” and then positioned it “between two courses of bricks”. Fred laid it in the foundations on June 27th, and two days later he “sailed from Liverpool on the White Star liner Baltic on her first trip across the Atlantic, and on July 19th 1904, King Edward VII duly did his bit, and laid the foundation stone over my documents”.

In reconstructing Bower’s life and times, (born in Boston Massachusetts in 1871 but reared in Liverpool), the essential context is of two parallel worlds reflecting polarised inequalities of income and wealth, a tale of
two Liverpools, the famous metropolis described as “the New York of Europe”, spawning more millionaires than any other city outside of London, and the tarnished former Slave city, that contained slums and underground dwellings, more like Gateways to Hell for the brutalised and casualised poor that inhabited them. On top of that, religious sectarianism and “intra-class conflict” was more bitter and chronic than anywhere else except Belfast.

So it was unsurprising that Liverpool was described by a union official as “an organiser’s graveyard” and bouts of underemployment and unemployment were structured into the very fabric of work and community life. The blight of casualism and hiring and firing practices that treated men like sheep, was rife here because Port employers secured only “marginal advantages from regularity, reliability, sobriety, or other virtues of work discipline”, precisely the kind of advantages, regular and constant employment made obtainable in the great rival city of Manchester. A cheap and elastic supply of unskilled labour had its obvious advantages to Liverpool employers with their strong anti-trade union sentiments, but long standing grievances of low pay and irregular work make it easy to understand how the passion of workers was so aroused by 1911. (Flexible or “contingent” labour are the euphemistic terms used today to camouflage the fact that the blight of low quality irregular employment persists.)

That passion and resentment was first manifested by seamen in June when both of their hitherto very weak unions, Havelock Wilson’s National Sailors and Fireman’s Union and Joe Cotter’s Union of Ships’ Stewards, Cooks, Bakers and Butchers, acted in concert, and with the sympathetic support of dockers and other port workers, helped bloody the Shipping Federation’s nose. Dockers followed their lead in the battle for recognition of Jim Sexton’s National Union of Dock Labour and by early August not only had the two seafarers unions been recognised and wages enhanced but so too had the NUDL, helped by sympathy strikes of seamen.

There was a national context of unrest on the railways but it was the railwaymen of Liverpool, inspired by the successes of the waterfront workers, who took the initiative in pursuit of national demands for increased wages and reduced hours. Their strike on 7th August was given added clout by co-option onto the local strike committee and the commitment made that all transport workers would lend their support to them. The Liverpool virus of sympathetic action was alarming to the authorities both locally and nationally and when Tom Mann’s strike committee planned a monster demonstration at St George’s Plateau in support of the
railwaymen, troops and extra police were rapidly drafted into the city. Although it was a peaceful sunny day in a very hot summer, the ratcheting up of worker resentment to the police, particularly those drafted in from Birmingham and Leeds, was potentially explosive.

This is what Fred reports from “my wagon, facing the great St George’s Hall”:

August 13th, 1911 was an eventful day in the history of Liverpool…On this Sunday…as the gaily decked banners, carried aloft by brawny arms, led each contingent of workers from the outskirts of the city, with their union buttons up and headed by their local officials with music, it seemed good to be alive…From Orange Garston, Everton and Toxteth Park, from Roman Catholic Bootle and the Scotland Road area, they came. Forgotten were their religious feuds, disregarded the dictum of some of their clericals on both sides who affirmed the strike was an atheist stunt. The Garston band had walked five miles and their drum-major proudly whirled his sceptre twined with orange and green ribbons as he led his contingent band, half out of the Roman Catholic, half out of the local Orange band…What matter to them that all the railway stations in the town showed boarded up gates? What matter to them, that from the windows and roof of St George’s Hall opposite, could now and again be seen the caps of a British Tommy? Never in the history of this or any other country had the majority and might of the humble toiler been so displayed. A wonderful spirit of humour and friendliness permeated the atmosphere. It was glorious weather…All was going well, no signs of trouble, when a well organized mass…ranged round the Plateau and surrounding approaches, all in their Sunday best, and many of them with their women folk with them, were set upon and brutally battered.

186 people were hospitalised as a result of the police charge, and 95 were arrested in the disturbances that followed on the streets of north Liverpool that night. Fred’s eye witness account is all the more important
because police brutality and overreaction to what had been planned as a peaceful protest was brushed under the carpet by deliberate censorship and excision of records:

At one end of the Plateau during the meeting the Pathe picture people had set up a machine and the operator was busy taking a moving picture of the monster demonstration. When the police started the bother and the crowd were hurrying to escape the batons, the operator kept on working. When the crowd dispersed he got
away with his negatives. Had they been publicly exposed there would have been an outcry of indignation throughout the land at the brutality displayed. The Plateau resembled a battlefield, disabled and wounded men, women and children, lying singly and in heaps over a vast area. The picture was privately shown to a few of the prominent Labour leaders and speakers but the Liverpool authorities and the Government warned the Pathe people that they were not to show the picture in public, ‘or else’.

In the week following Bloody Sunday, Liverpool and the whole of Britain was poised on the edge of catastrophe. The railway strike, which had been started by rank and file action in Liverpool, had been declared official by four of the five railway unions, the first national railway strike in history (the Railway Clerks Association had an official no-strike policy at the time, but its members still refused to cover any work of the strikers). The docks had been closed after the employers had declared a lock-out. Movement of goods across the country was almost impossible without police or military intervention. Even within cities,
goods could not be moved as carters went on strike, and permits issued by Strike Committees were the only guarantee of the peaceful movement of food and other essential supplies.

The government response was to pledge unprecedented police and military reinforcements in support of the rail owners, to try and keep the rail system moving. More than 50,000 troops were mobilised across the country, and police were despatched wherever the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, thought they were most needed. Brutal force was employed. In Liverpool, troops opened fire on civilians in Great Homer Street after rioting spread through the north end of the city on the evening of Bloody Sunday. Similar shootings took place the following night, and then on Tuesday, August 15th, the most tragic events occurred.

That Tuesday evening, a convoy of vans, containing prisoners who had been arrested on Bloody Sunday, was despatched to Walton Gaol. It was accompanied by thirty-two soldiers of the 18th Hussars, on horseback and fully armed with rifles (loaded with live ammunition), bayonets, pistols and sabres, as well as a magistrate carrying a copy of the Riot Act, and a number of mounted police. A disturbance occurred on Vauxhall Road and, before the Riot Act had even been read, the troops opened fire, injuring five civilians, two fatally. John W. Sutcliffe, a twenty year old Catholic carter, was shot twice in the head virtually on his own doorstep, on the corner of Hopwood Street. Michael Prendergast, a twenty-nine year old Catholic docker, was shot twice in the chest a short time later, on the corner of Lamb Street.

This might aptly be described as Liverpool’s “Bloody Tuesday”. Five days later, on Saturday 19th August, two more unarmed civilians were shot by troops in Llanelli. These are the last occasions in history when British soldiers have killed civilians on the streets of mainland Britain. As with the events of Bloody Sunday, there was a determined effort by Churchill and the government to whitewash these events. No public enquiry was held, despite widespread calls for one from people in Liverpool and Llanelli, and from the TUC and the wider labour movement. Parliament adjourned on the 22nd of August, despite the protests of Labour MPs, so further questions could not be raised there while the events were still fresh in everyone’s mind. Churchill himself personally ensured, as Home Office files reveal, that minimum publicity was given to the court-martial of one soldier in Llanelli who had refused to open fire on the civilian crowd and had deserted on the spot. Very little attention has been given since to these outrageous state-sponsored killings, and one of the aims of the centenary events is to redress this injustice.

It is also worth noting how critical the situation had become by the end of that bloody week in August 1911. The police and military forces were stretched to the limit, not only in Liverpool but across the country. The Birmingham policemen who had earlier been despatched to Liverpool, for instance, were now urgently required in their home town as the strike intensified there. With the ports closed and the railways severely curtailed, it was getting increasingly hard to move soldiers or policemen around the country.

When troops arrived in Birmingham, they had been forced to march 40 miles to get to a train that could move them into the city. Aside from the fatal shootings, rioting broke out across the country as police and troops tried to move goods, in Chesterfield, Lincoln, Stafford, Sheffield and many other towns. When soldiers were beginning to desert rather than shooting their fellow-workers, the government’s control of the situation was truly shaken. Churchill himself, in parliament on August 22nd, stated that “a continuation of the railway strike would have produced a swift and certain degeneration of all the means, of all the structure, social and economic, on which the life of the people depend.”

 It was in the context of this growing crisis, “near to revolution” indeed, that Lloyd George persuaded Churchill and the Prime Minister, Asquith, to do an abrupt about-face and call in the railway owners to force them to come to a swift settlement with the railway unions. Finally, one of the lessons for 2011 and hopefully a way of redressing the historical amnesia referred to earlier would be to take a fresh look around St Georges Hall, the Parthenon of Northern Europe, and let our historical imaginations run free. It was after all, here on this site in 1911 that the events described by Fred Bower happened and people like you and I lived and breathed. Just like today they had their own grievances, dreams and ambitions and to paraphrase a famous nineteenth-century historian, once on that very familiar Plateau “walked other men and women as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone like ghosts at cockcrow”. Early dawn is a while away for many of us, so why not allow our North West TUC festival and celebration of 1911 Liverpool, to open up a portal to a world that is not lost and which can plug lessons in solidarity and struggle back into the present?

Why not act out the sage advice of the American writer William Faulkner, who defiantly declared that “the past is not dead, it is not even past”! As long as there are extraordinary ordinary lives and stories to
uncover, like that of Fred Bower whose secret in the stone is no secret anymore, or those of John Sutcliffe and Michael Prendergast, whose deaths will no longer be forgotten, the dead live on and we can at least preserve the inspirational story of those men and women who not only built the trade union and labour movement in this city but shaped and patterned our edgy and quirky culture.

1 H.R.Hikins, “The Liverpool General Transport Strike 1911”, Historic Society of Lancashire & Cheshire, Vol: 113, p.169
2 Eric Taplin, Near to Revolution: The Liverpool General Transport Strike of 1911 (1994)


The chronology of the strike is complex but Eric Taplin gives a clear outline:

June 14 to August 4 – the seamen came out on strike followed by catering staff and stewards. That unity amongst the two seamens’ unions National Seaman’s and Fireman’s Union (NSFU) and the union formed in 1909, the National Union of Ships’ Stewards, Cooks, Bakers and Butchers to represent the stewards, was impressive. (The throwing away of that “sectionalism” was even commented upon in the Daily Post.)
Hitherto stewards had been inclined to draw a certain social distinction between themselves and the men at work on the deck and in the stokehold...This condition of things has, however, been revolutionised in twenty four hours, and for the first time in the history of the Port of Liverpool, yesterday saw ‘all hands’ throwing sectionalism to the winds and joining hand in hand for the furtherance of a common cause. It was a remarkable - even an historic – event in trade union progress.

A strike committee was formed chaired by Tom Mann, consisting of representatives of the unions involved and of the Liverpool Trades Council. The North End non-union dockers now demanded recognition of the NUDL and union rates of pay and conditions. They flocked to join up and the coalheavers who had their
own unions followed suit. To help overcome the Shipping Companies reluctance the seafarers struck again in sympathy with the dockers. Employees were permitted to wear union badges and a conference was arranged to hammer out a permanent settlement with the union culminating with the publication of the White Book Agreement on 4th August. It was a major victory for the union and “the dockers union - and the two searfarers’ unions – were fully recognised and wages were enhanced”. The “victory” in respect of dockers and seamen was a little different in that the latter’s was less complete, but “the stranglehold exercised by the Shipping Federation was broken and some of its more objectionable practices abandoned”. The sting in the tail for the dockers was the NUDL now having to agree continuity of work while any dispute was being resolved.

August 7-25 This next phase had a great deal to do with the railwaymen of Liverpool who struck on August 7th demanding reduced hours and increased wages. There was of course a national context of unrest on the railways but now locally railwaymen were coopted onto the strike committee and it was agreed that all transport workers would support them through sympathetic action. This was when the shipping employers lost all patience with the dockers, especially only a few days after the White Book agreement had been signed and consequently they demanded that its terms be honoured and that union members would remain at work. If not all cargo operations in the Port of Liverpool would cease on August the 14th and the men would be locked out. Matters were brought to a head on August 13th when a monster demonstration took place at St George’s Plateau, organised by the strike committee in support of the railwaymen. Up until then violence had been minimal which given the huge numbers of workers involved and numbers of police was impressive, but from this Bloody Sunday onwards, after the authorities had panicked and allowed police to baton charge the crowds to clear the Plateau, attitudes hardened and the relationship between the police and public deteriorated.

Bloody Sunday was “a symbol of the intolerance of an apprehensive civil authority towards peaceful mass demonstrations”. No one had been killed but 350 people were treated in hospital and the resentment towards the imported police from Leeds and Birmingham was considerable. The growing tension had already resulted in the movement of soldiers of the 2nd Warwickshire Regiment to Seaforth Barracks. So after Bloody Sunday Liverpool came to a standstill, two thousand more troops were rushed to the city and the shipowners carried out their threat to close down cargo operations. That affected 15000 men and the strike committee called for a General Strike. According to the Daily Post and Mercury (15th August) some 66,000 workers responded. From this time on goods could only be transported under heavy military escort and it was the strike committee that decided on the carriage of goods by the issue of permits. A national railwaymens’ strike began on the 17th and lasted three days before the railway companies were persuaded to meet union representatives to discuss grievances. Also on August 17th the tramwaymen struck work followed by Corporation electric power station workers and scavengers. That said, it was the resolution of the railwaymen’s dispute at national level that heralded the end of the local transport strike and the dockers finally returned to work on the 25th following negotiations between the NUDL and the shipping companies. The tramwaymen had been dismissed for striking and it was only when the strike committee threatened to bring out all transport workers again that the Corporation Tramways Committee agreed to reinstatement. That tardy process was not finally completed until December.

Fred’s account of his letter to a better world:

I visited my pal, the long, raw-boned boy, now a man, Jim Larkin at his house. We who wanted to kill each other in our infantile ignorance had both joined the local Socialist Party and were the best of comrades. He got a piece of tin and compressed a copy each of the Clarion and the Labour Leader of June 24th, 1904, into it. I wrote the following short hurried note:

To the Finders, Hail!
We, the wage slaves employed on the erection of this cathedral, to be dedicated to the worship of the unemployed Jewish carpenter, hail ye! Within a stone’s throw from here, human beings are housed in
slums not fit for swine. This message, written on trust-produced paper with trustproduced ink, is to tell ye how we of today are at the mercy of the trusts. Building fabrics, clothing, food, fuel, transport, areall in the hands of money mad soul destroying trusts. We can only sell our labour power, as wage slaves, on their terms. The money trusts today own us. In your own day, you will, thanks to the efforts of past and present agitators for economic freedom, own the trusts. Yours will indeed, compared to ours of today, be a happier existence. See to it, therefore, that ye, too, work for the betterment of all , and so justify your existence by leaving the world the better for your having lived in it. Thus and thus only shall come about the Kingdom of “God” or “Good” on Earth.
Hail, Comrades, and – Farewell.
Yours sincerely,
‘A Wage Slave’

“You may say he’s a dreamer” but he was not the only one then, and he’s not the only one, now, as this comment from Paul Mason makes very clear:

That message still lies where it was buried. It was addressed to the kids in combat trousers protesting outside a Nike store in Seattle, to the rake-thin teenagers sewing trainers in Cambodian sweatshops and to
migrant cleaners resting their exhausted heads against bus windows as dawn breaks in London. Few of us can imagine what that message cost to write, in terms of hardship and self-sacrifice. Or the joy experienced on those rare days when the downtrodden people of the world were allowed to stand up and breathe free.
[Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class went Global (2008) p.xv.]

Fred’s autobiography Rolling Stonemason (1936) vividly illustrates Fred’s fascinating encounter on the SS Baltic with a banker who was the owner of one of the biggest ‘money trusts’ of the day, a man who formed the United States Steel Corporation, the first billion dollar company in the world. The baggage of John Pierpont Morgan was in different quarters to Fred’s, who relished the opportunity to elaborate on a “Ragged
Trousered Philanthropists” theme!

On the 14th of June 1911, at the North End docks in Liverpool, 500 firemen refused to ‘sign on’ for the Canadian Pacific Railway (C.P.R.) boat Empress of Ireland, and the White Star’s Teutonic and Baltic. [Harold Hikin p.172] 27 years after the Baltic’s first crossing to New York, there was a headline in the Liverpool Daily Post. “STAMPEDE FOR WORK: 2,000 men for 500 jobs at Mersey Dock”
More than 2000 workers stampeded for work at the Gladstone dock yesterday when the White Star liner Baltic was the first big liner with a huge cargo to arrive for more than a week, and the prospect that additional overtime would be required to enable the vessel to make a quick turn around so that she would be able to leave on Saturday attracted a record number of dockers. The men began to form up before the vessel reached the landing stage and by one o’clock about 2,000 dockers waited to be picked up for duty. Only about 500 were required, however, and when the foreman appeared and called out certain men, the crowd stampeded. Police reinforcements were called and the stand was reformed while a further batch of men was chosen, but the ranks broke again and the foremen postponed the signing on till later in the day when the men were taken on and the work proceeded.

The playwright Dennis Potter suggested that the trouble with words is that “you will not always know whose mouths they have been in before”! What ought we to make of a modern variation on “the blight of casualism”, Flexible labour? To paraphrase an academic expert on Globalisation, Zygmunt Bauman, “The idea of ‘flexible labour’ denies in practice what it asserts in theory...In order to implement what it recommends it must deprive workers and their unions of that agility and versatility which it exhorts them to acquire, so as to raise the enterprise’s profits and productivity”. People are made subaltern to profit and “Employer flexibility” often means “rigidity” for workers and their families. In this era of public expenditure cuts, downsizing, outsourcing, leveraged buyouts, and contingent or flexible employment, workers and their unions must never relinquish “the power to be truly ‘flexible’” in pursuit of our own collective and solidaristic goals. That is the real lesson and inspiration of 1911 when masses of workers stood up proud and breathed free “for the betterment of all”.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Debate: David Starkey, Newsnight and the Responsibilities of Historians

David Starkey currently earns £75,000 per hour for his TV shows

From LSHG Newsletter, 43 (Autumn, 2011)

Keith Flett:
David Starkey [1945-] is a Tudor historian who has made the leap from being an academic to one of a small group of ‘TV historians’ who popularise history for a wider audience. He has caused outrage by appearing on a BBC Newsnight programme about the August riots in England and stating that Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech was right to argue that Britain was heading for civil unrest. He did qualify this by noting that Powell had been wrong to argue that this would be racially motivated.

Even so, for someone, perhaps particularly a professional historian, to claim on a mainstream news programme that part of Powell’s far right and racist political agenda had turned out to be correct is something entirely worthy of the storm of protest that it has caused. I have had the dubious pleasure of meeting Starkey and there is no doubt that he is, or at least was, a genuine research historian of the Tudor period. He can talk engagingly and interestingly about his subject in a way that one wishes more historians working on their latest monographs could.

Even so the fact remains that historians have their ‘periods’. I am, for example, a nineteenth and twentieth British labour historian — a not over populated branch line of the profession. I have a sound grounding in historical method and research techniques but even so if you find me opining on an historical issue outside of my ‘period’ it would be as well not to take it all that seriously.

Starkey has in recent decades made a name for himself as a right-wing ‘Kings and Queens’ historian of the sixteenth century in England. Left-wing historians tend to be more interested in the next century, the seventeenth, which saw the English Civil War, so there is no effective counter authority to Starkey on the left.

Because historians know their stuff their views are treated with respect. That doesn’t mean however that their views on everything and perhaps particularly current politics are worthy of particular respect. Eric Hobsbawm, the veteran marxist historian, is currently the leading living UK practitioner of the subject and rightly so. That does not mean, for example, that works like his 1979 The Forward March of Labour Halted, which was a political intervention, need to be treated as historical gospel. They are simply political opinion, albeit historically informed.

Starkey seems intent on making a second career as a right-wing controversialist. He spoke on Andrew Neil’s weekly politics programme about the history of riots in London after the student protests. Starkey clearly had a view but equally clearly it was not a view that had been informed by any visits to an historical archive. We get here to the nub of the problem. In the seminars I run at the Institute of Historical Research in central London I make it absolutely clear that while politics is of course not banned the gatherings are historical research sessions. Wider political discussion can occur in the bar afterwards.

If we are to understand history, we can certainly argue about the interpretation of it, but we also need to have a certain level of agreed ‘facts’. The 1832 Reform Act for example was in that year and came before the 1867 Reform Act. Muddling personal opinion with verifiable historical data is poor practice to put it mildly. By appearing with the authority of a historian on Newsnight, talking of politics and saying Enoch Powell was right about something, Starkey raises an extremely dangerous political agenda.

He also brings the the historical profession into disrepute.
Keith Flett

Reply by Ian Birchall:
Keith Flett is quite right to condemn the ill-informed and reactionary views expressed by David Starkey. But I think some of the arguments he uses are misleading and may give hostages to fortune.

Keith complains about Starkey using the “authority of a historian” to put forward his obnoxious views. Actually I think Starkey gets on Newsnight and Question Time because he is a television personality rather than because of his academic research. But does Keith really object to intellectuals departing from their specialisms? Would he complain that Edward Thompson should have stuck to the nineteenth century, and that his views on nuclear disarmament should not have been taken “all that seriously”? Surely we should welcome the appearance of “public intellectuals”; it would be good to have more Bertrand Russells, Sartres and Chomskys, instead of academics burying themselves in their own tiny specialisms.

Starkey’s crime is what he said, not the fact that he commented on a contemporary issue. [I know nothing of Starkey’s work on his specialist “period”; it is quite conceivable that his right-wing standpoint gives him useful insights, just as Engels argued that Balzac’s reactionary views made him a valuable interpreter of early nineteenth-century France.] Keith tells us that “the fact remains that historians have their ‘periods’.” Indeed, but this fact is a necessary evil, like the division of labour in general. We have to specialise because none of us have enough time or enough brain cells to know everything. But “periods” are an arbitrary division; human history is a total process with no natural boundaries.

Keith tells us that he is a “nineteenth and twentieth century British labour historian”. Doubtless he would refuse to pronounce at length about the American Civil War or the Paris Commune. But he must know something about those events, which had a vital impact on the development of the British working-class movement.  Likewise any historian of the early modern period has to confront the argument about the transition from feudalism to capitalism and therefore needs to know quite a bit about the previous medieval “period”.

In general, I think Keith is far too deferential towards academic historians. Unlike Keith, I spent the best years of my life working in higher education, and I can assure him there are all too many professional academics [historians and others] who not only know nothing of the world outside their subject, but precious little about their own specialisms. Some years ago a now long-forgotten historian called JH Hexter wrote an article called “The Historian and his Day” [in Reappraisals in History, 1961] in which he boasted that he knew more about his academic “period” than he did about the world he lived in. I see no reason to show “respect” to such a historian.

The LSHG Newsletter has recently published critiques [written by someone who is not a “professional historian”] of the work of Robert Service and Tony Judt, showing that these esteemed experts were guilty of gross errors in their own special fields. And reality is often a bit messy for the artificial divisions of historians. Service may be thoroughly acquainted with the archives, but he is hardly competent to comment on Trotsky’s cultural views if he thinks André Breton was a painter.

The example of Eric Hobsbawm is a particularly bad one for Keith’s case. Any analysis of Hobsbawm’s work would have great difficulty is drawing a line between “history” and “politics”. [See Gregory Elliott’s aptly named Hobsbawm: History and Politics, Pluto, 2010 and here. In fact it is rather hard to argue that “The Forward March of Labour Halted” is not part of the “period” of the author of Age of Extremes. Of course Hobsbawm’s arguments were open to challenge and required an informed and evidence based response. [For example this written by someone with a degree in chemistry.] But Hobsbawm’s politics were inextricably entwined with his historical work. That was his strength and his weakness. His strength because his work relates to real questions and not mere antiquarianism; his weakness because his Stalinist and later reformist views distorted his judgments.

And what, I wonder, does Keith make of the work of Chris Harman? Harman’s magnificent A People's History of the World could only have been written by someone with a complete contempt for the constraints of “periods”. I doubt if a professional historian would have dared to write it. [Harman’s degree was in sociology.] Of course Harman drew on the work of specialists, and doubtless specialists can identify detailed errors in his work. But it is an invaluable contribution. Perhaps it should be compulsory reading for academic historians before they select their “periods”.

I hope then that our concern to condemn Starkey will not lead us to abandon important principles about how we regard history; in particular I think socialist historians should be very wary of showing excessive deference towards professional academics.

Clemenceau said that war was too serious to be left to the generals. Perhaps history is too serious to be left to the historians.
Ian Birchall