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

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

CFP:The Many-Headed Hydra: 10 years on

The Many Headed Hydra 10 Years On

Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s The Many Headed Hydra (2000) argued that during the colonial and commercial expansion in the Atlantic Ocean between c. 1640 and 1830 a revolutionary proletariat emerged. Waves of commodification in the Atlantic system – of land, goods and people – created a mobile, multi-ethnic workforce. Authorities attempted to control them, only to provoke new forms of resistance. Atlantic proletarians played their own distinct part in the Age of Revolutions and the abolition of slavery; they created their own forms of equality and freedom. A decade after the publication of that highly suggestive study, how does the thesis stand up?

At this conference to be held at Birkbeck, University of London in Thursday 12 April 2012, we will hope to explore the book’s central themes in the light of new research, as well as taking it into new areas. The book concentrated on the English-speaking Atlantic and we would particularly encourage papers dealing with the non-English Atlantic or similar developments in the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and Pacific. We would hope papers pay attention to the intersections between class, gender and race. All sub-disciplinary perspectives – economic, social, cultural, political – are welcome.

Themes for papers could include:

· The politics and ideology of the proletariat: abolitionism, revolutions and revolts, popular egalitarianism and democracy, radical religion.

· Types of work and workers; changing work processes; migration and labour markets; industrial relations; work cultures.

Sites of struggle: the commons, the plantation, ships, factories. How did they structure workers’ experiences? Are particular types of resistance associated with them? Were there others?

· Material and economic pathways: the role of oceanic trade routes, commodities, natural resources, technologies etc

· Role of institutions (e.g. trading companies, guilds), States and Empires in creating and regulating the workforce; criminal justice and law; army and naval recruitment; taxation.

· Comparative perspectives between different Atlantic Empires or with the Mediterranean, Indian and Pacific Oceans.

· Long-term perspectives; sources & methodology; theory.

Call for papers deadline: January 1st 2012


Organisers: William Farrell, School of History, Birkbeck, Univ. of London.


Stephen Duane Dean Jr, Department of History, Kings College London.


Tuesday, 4 October 2011

CFP: Social Movements Conference in Manchester


abstracts due by Monday 27th February 2012

From 1995 to 2011, Manchester Metropolitan University hosted a series of very successful annual international conferences on 'ALTERNATIVE FUTURES and POPULAR PROTEST'.

We're very happy to announce that the Seventeenth AF&PP Conference will be held, between Monday 2nd April and Wednesday 4th April 2012.

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

Reflecting the inherent cross-disciplinary nature of the issues, previous participants (from over 60 countries) have come from such specialisms as sociology, politics, cultural studies, social psychology, economics, history and geography. The Manchester conferences have also been notable for discovering a fruitful and friendly meeting ground between activism and academia.


We invite offers of papers relevant to the conference themes. Papers should address such matters as:

* contemporary and historical social movements and popular protests
* social movement theory
* utopias and experiments
* ideologies of collective action
* etc.

To offer a paper, please contact either of the conference convenors with a brief abstract:

EITHER Colin Barker, Dept. of Sociology
OR Mike Tyldesley, Dept. of Politics and Philosophy
Manchester Metropolitan University
Geoffrey Manton Building, Rosamond Street West
Manchester M15 6LL, England

Tel: M. Tyldesley 0161 247 3460

Fax: 0161 247 6769 (+44 161 247 6769)

(Wherever possible, please use email, especially as Colin Barker is a retired gent. Surface mail and faxes should only be addressed to Mike Tyldesley)


Those giving papers are asked to supply them in advance, for inclusion on a CD of the complete papers which will be available from the conference opening.
* Preferred method: send the paper to Colin Barker as an email attachment in MS Word. Any separate illustrations etc. should be placed at the end of the paper, in .jpg format.
* if this is impossible, post a copy of the text to Mike Tyldesley on a CD disk in MS Word format
* Final date for receipt of abstracts: Monday 27th February 2012
* Final date for receipt of actual papers: Monday 12th March 2012

More on the 1911 Liverpool Transport Strike Centenary Conference

The 1911 Liverpool General Transport Strike Centenary Conference

**Tickets £5 waged / £3 unwaged from News From Nowhere bookshop, Bold St, L1 4HY** or email:

This history is your history...

Mass Strike, syndicalist firebrands, running battles with police and troops, middle class citizens militias, a gunboat sent up the Mersey and two strikers shot dead...
This was Liverpool in 1911. On the brink of revolution? A mythical or pivotal moment in the rise of a radical city? What 'lessons' are to be drawn from 1911 as we face the current crisis in 2011? This is history is your history... Speakers include... Bob Crow (RMT), John McDonnell MP, Eric Taplin (author of 'Near to Revolution'), Richard Hyman (LSE), Sam Davies (LJMU), Tony Mulhearn (ex-Liverpool 47 councillor), Charlie Kimber (SWP), Karen Hunt (Keele University)... and more.

The 1911 Liverpool General Transport Strike was the most significant episode in the stormy period of the 1910-14 Great Unrest when Edwardian Britain was shaken by mass strikes and open working class revolt. This revolt prepared the ground for mass trade unionism among workers. The history of 1911 is still relevant today as working people and their families face the greatest assault on living standards and public services since the 1930s.

Dear friend,

The programme for the 1911 centenary conference is now available, detailing the timings of the conference and the room allocations so you can plan your day and chose which sessions to attend. With less than a week to go we hope you are as excited as we are to commemorate such an inspiring and pivotal chapter in our history. Don't forget to book your tickets from News From Nowhere bookshop, Bold St, L1 4HY, or reserve them by replying to this email.

We look forward to seeing you this weekend...

In solidarity,
The team, 1911 @ 68 Hope St
For the programme, Email:

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Follow the blog: '1911: gunboats on the Mersey'

Monday, 3 October 2011

London seminars on contemporary Marxist theory


The global economic and financial crisis has witnessed a deepening of interest in different forms of critical and radical thought and practice. Following a successful series in 2010/11, the London Seminar on Contemporary Marxist Theory in 2011/12 will continue to explore the new perspectives that have been opened up by Marxist interventions in this political and theoretical conjuncture. It involves collaboration among Marxist scholars based in several London universities, including Brunel University, King’s College London, and the School of Oriental and African Studies. Guest speakers – from both Britain and abroad – will include a wide range of thinkers engaging with many different elements of the various Marxist traditions, as well as with diverse problems and topics. The aim of the seminar is to promote fruitful debate and to contribute to the development of more robust Marxist analysis. It is open to all.

2011/12 Seminar Series

12th October,
6pm King's College London, Strand Campus, Room S-3.18
Alex Callinicos (King’s College, London) 'Slavoj Zizek and the Critique of Political Economy'

9th November,
6pm King's College London, Strand Campus, Room S-3.18
David McNally (York University, Toronto) 'Monsters of the Market. Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism'

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’'

The schedule for 2012 will be made available at a later date. Speakers will include Susan Marks (LSE)

For further information, please contact:
Alex Callinicos, European Studies, King's: alex.callinicos [at] Stathis Kouvelakis, European Studies, King's: stathis.kouvelakis [at]
Costas Lapavitsas, Economics, SOAS: cl5 [at]
Peter Thomas, Politics and History, Brunel: PeterD.Thomas [at]