Monday, 28 January 2013

Vive La Revolution!

Victor Hugo and the Politics of  Les Misérables

With George Paizis
Tuesday 19th February, 6.30pm, £2
 Bookmarks, 1 Bloomsbury Street

First published in 1862, Les Misérables has been hugely successful as a novel, a musical and is now on the big screen. Over 60 million people have seen it in the theatre alone.
When Hugo died, over two million people lined the streets of Paris. Louise Michel, the revolutionary who led the Paris Commune, called herself Enjolras after the student leader of the revolution at the heart of the novel.
150 years later it still inspires audiences around the world to sing of revolution, barricades and a better world.
George Paizis will look at the politics of Victor Hugo and the way these have been portrayed on page, stage and screen. Join us for an evening of debate on revolution and barricades.
To register see here

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Brunel seminar series

Brunel Social and Political Thought Research Group Seminar Series 2013

The Revolutionary Foundations of Modern Political Thought

This seminar series aims to explore the ways in which revolutionary politics, movements and events, and responses to them, have shaped and transformed the vocabulary of modern political thought. Brunel, national and international scholars will explore these themes in thinkers and movements ranging from the early modern period to contemporary radical political thought, in political and social theory, philosophy, film and literature.

Thursday 7th February 2013, 3pm, Howell Room 002
Matthijs Krul (Brunel University) 'The Value of Value: On the Significance of Concepts of Value for Economic History'

Wednesday 20th February 2013, 3pm, Gaskell Building Room 266
Andrea Bardin (Brunel University) 'From Man to Matter: Marx after Simondon'

Wednesday 27th February 2013, 4pm, Howell Room 002
Alex Callinicos (King’s College London) 'Deciphering Capital'

Thursday 7th March 2013, 3pm, Howell Room 002
Neil Davidson (University of Strathclyde) 'Political and Social Revolutions in Historical Perspective: from the Dutch Revolt to the Arab Spring'

Wednesday 13th March 2013, 1pm, Lecture Centre Room 264 (Co-sponsored by Politics and History Departmental Seminar)
Nathaniel Boyd (Brunel University) “Who Thinks Concretely?” Hegel’s Critique of Political Abstraction

Thursday 14th March 2013, 3pm, Howell Room 002
Alex Demirovic (University of Basel and Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung) 'Marxism and Foucault'

Wednesday 20th March 2013, 3pm, Lecture Centre Room 008
Chiara Bottici (The New School) 'Democracy and the Spectacle. On Rousseau’s Homeopathic Method'

29th-31st May, 2013, Brunel University, International Conference
(Organised by Filippo del Lucchese)
Machiavelli’s The Prince: Five Centuries of History, Conflict, and Politics
Speakers include Antonio Negri, Etienne Balibar, John McCormick, John Najemy and Warren Montag

All seminars take place at Brunel University. Directions to the campus can be found here:

For further information, please contact:

Peter Thomas <>

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Registration for Beyond a Boundary conference now open

Registration for the CLR James's Beyond a Boundary: 50th Anniversary conference from 9-11 May at the University of Glasgow is now open - please see here for details.
Edited to add: The programme is now online too. 

IWCE seminar and website launch

Launching the Website
Saturday 2nd Feb 2013.
10- 4pm
 Millman Street Resource Centre,
50 Millman St., London, WC1N 3EW (entrance at rear of building)
book your place email
£6.00 includes lunch. Pay on the day.
IWCE Network tries to :
* develop a diverse range of education materials and approaches for trade union and other working class and progressive movement groups
* respect the role of the working class in making history, and making  future .
10.00 Introduction(s): Aims of IWCE. Key questions:
10.30 Science, Technology and Class Struggle: Dave King, Bruce Robinson and Hank Roberts then
Dave Chapple on Solidarity, Joel Lazarus on Free Education Network political economic literacy then
Louise Raw on The Matchwomen’s struggle: what can we learn for today? And Sheila Cohen   on The main trade union branch at Fords, Dagenham
14.30     Launching the Website/Advisory Panel.
15.45     Final Plenary and Plans
Next session in Salford Nick Pollard 'We Only Want the Earth@. Helen Ford Working class education holdings at Modern Records Centre, Warwick University

Friday, 18 January 2013

50 Years of EP Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class

A day conference organised by the People’s History Museum and the Working Class Movement Library
Saturday 13 April 2013, People's History Museum, Manchester
The Making of the English Working Class by E P Thompson
Time 10:00 - 16:45
Duration 6 hours 45 minutes
Cost £10/£5 unwaged
Edward Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class appeared in 1963 and has become one of the most influential history texts of the 20th century.  It is still in print 50 years on, having survived challenges from Marxist, feminist and postmodern historians.  This day conference celebrates Thompson’s classic, and considers its reception, its critics, and why it endures.
Speakers will include the broadcaster Stuart Maconie, the former union leader Rodney Bickerstaffe, and Professor Adrian Randall from the University of Birmingham.

The conference will also include displays from the Working Class Movement Library and the Labour History Archive & Study Centre at the People’s History Museum.

Booking Requirements: Booking required, please contact 0161 838 9190 or

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Holocaust Memorial Day event at Bookmarks

Bookmarks presents a Holocaust Memorial Day special event:

Persecution & Resistance with Michael Rosen and John Rose
Saturday 26th January 1.30pm (booking advised), £2*

Michael Rosen
The acclaimed author, poet and former Children’s Laureate recounts his search to uncover the story of his family during the Holocaust.  Drawing on years of original research, Rosen presents a moving and personal story of exile and escape in a story that ends in the horrors of Auschwitz .

John Rose
The author and academic brings to life the story of Marek Edelman, leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. Edelman is perhaps the most remarkable figure in what was the most significant act of self-defence by the Jews against the Nazi Holocaust. His story is a heroic cry for solidarity against racism and anti-Semitism.

Venue: Bookmarks Bookshop, 1 Bloomsbury Street , London , WC1B 3QE
Please book your place by contacting us at: 020 7637 1848
Nearest tubes Tottenham Court Road and Holborn

*redeemable against any book purchase on the day

Monday, 14 January 2013

(Still) The Enemy Within: a film about the great miners' strike, 1984-85

(Still) The Enemy Within: The story of the Great 1984-85 Miners' Strike as told by the people who made it happen

(Still) The Enemy Within will tell the story of the 1984-85 miners’ strike through the voices of the miners that made it happen.

 "Although it feels like a life time away, the miners’ strike has never really left us behind, the ones who directly lived through it – who experienced the highs and the lows of fighting for the right to work. Realistically it’s never left the consciousness of this country. That is why it’s so important the right stories are told, the right voices are heard." 
  Louise Harrison, daughter of Keith Harrison, Askern Colliery NUM

 (Still) The Enemy Within will tell the story of the 1984-85 miners’ strike through the voices of some of the tens of thousands of young miners who followed their union president Arthur Scargill through a year of unprecedented struggle. It will describe the experiences of ordinary people – striking miners, their families and supporters across the country – who had no choice but to step on to the stage of history in one of the biggest industrial disputes Britain has ever seen.

Why did the miners fight? What was gained? What was lost? How did they change personally? What has happened to the communities and areas that were the battlegrounds for nearly a year? Finally, what has happened to those described as by Thatcher as `The Enemy Within' ?

We want to share a unique and compelling story, introducing the amazing and brave characters who played such a massive role in British history. We want to create an archive, we want to ensure that those who lost in strike do not lose their place in history. We want to create a tool, for all those who wish to engage with current social and political struggles, to learn from one of the greatest social and political struggles ever fought.

 To make this film needs money - please support their financial appeal

Sunday, 13 January 2013

LSHG Newsletter #48 and forthcoming seminars

The latest issue of the LSHG Newsletter is now online, and includes a comment piece on the importance of archives, the continuation of debates around the Second World War with a contribution by Steve Cushion, a reply by Ian Birchall to his critics on the subject of Bert Ramelson and Harry Ratner once again on the critical role of human agency in history.  There are also book reviews relating to militant anti-fascism in Britain and the life and work of Gerrard Winstanley, as well as a reminder of the forthcoming LSHG conference on the centenary of the Dublin Lock-Out of 1913.  To contribute to future Newsletters please contact Keith Flett, while upcoming Spring LSHG seminars are below:

Spring 2013
All seminars on Mondays at 5.30pm
Entry is free, without ticket
Institute of Historical Research
Senate House, Malet Street London WC1WC1

Monday 21 January, Gordon Room G34
Sue Bruley: 'Socialist Women and Women's Liberation 1968-1982: An Oral History Approach'

Monday 11 February, Holden Room R103
Peter Dwyer: 'African Struggles Today - Social Movements since Independence'

Monday 18 February, Gordon Room G34
Martin Hoyles: 'William Cuffay - Life and Times of a Chartist Leader'

Monday 18 March Gordon Room G34
Terry Ward: 'The Rehabilitation of Red Daisy, Countess of Warwick'

Edited to add: The LSHG will be holding a conference to mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War at the Institute of Historical Research on Saturday 25 January 2014.  Further details to follow.

CfP: LSHG Roundtable on the Dublin Lock-Out of 1913

LSHG Conference from Midday, Saturday 2 March
Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, London.

The Dublin Lock-Out from August 1913 to January 1914 is one of the most momentous events in Irish and British Labour History. The 100th anniversary is being widely marked in Ireland and with some events in the UK.

The London Socialist Historians Group is holding an afternoon event at the centre of UK research history, the Institute of Historical Research in London, to both recall the Lock-Out one hundred years on and to review the current state of historical research on it.

Several keynote speakers will present papers including John Newsinger [Bath] and Terry McCarthy but there is space for several shorter [20 25mins] papers on the agenda from those currently working in the area.

Areas covered might include:
􀂃 The role of James Larkin and James Connolly in the Lock-Out
􀂃 The importance and impact of the ideas of revolutionary
􀂃 The formation of the Irish TGWU and the Irish Labour Party
􀂃 Links between socialists in Ireland and the UK and the role of
the British TUC
􀂃 The successful organisation of impoverished and unskilled
Dublin workers in trade unions
􀂃 The short and longer term impacts of the end of the Lock-

Brief Summaries of papers should be sent to Keith Flett
[] no later than 31 January 2013
Conference from Midday, Saturday 2 March
Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, London.

Edited to add> Details of another centenary conference in Salford in October

Struggle, Solidarity and Defeat:
1913 Dublin Lockout Centenary Conference
Saturday 19 October 2013
 Old Fire Station, The Crescent, University of Salford, Salford M5 4WT
 (next to the Salford Working Class Movement Library)
Organised by the University of Salford and Salford Working Class Movement Library sponsored by the Society for the Study of Labour History, Irish Labour History Society, North West Labour History Society, Historical Studies in Industrial Relations journal and North West Trades Union Congress (TUC)

9.45am-10.30am: Registration and Coffee

10.30am- 10.45am:Welcome and Introduction

10.45am-11.45am: The Dublin Lockout

Speaker: PadraigYeates, former IrishTimes industry and

employment correspondent; author of Lockout: Dublin 1913;

projectmanager of the Irish 1913 Committee

11.45am-12.45pm: The IrishTransport andGeneralWorkersUnion

Speaker: Francy Devine, author of Organising History: A Centenary

of SIPTU; 1909-2009, former President of Irish Labour History

Society and editor of journal Saothar; ex-tutor in the SIPTU

Education andTraining Department

12.45pm-2.00pm: Lunch,Music and Exhibition Display

2.00pm-3.00pm: JimLarkin

Speaker: EmmetO’Connor, senior lecturer in History,Magee

College, University of Ulster; author of James Larkin and

Syndicalism in Ireland

3.00pm-4.00pm: Solidarity and Defeat

Speaker: Ralph Darlington, Professor of Employment Relations,

University of Salford; author of The PoliticalTrajectory of J.T. Murphy

and Syndicalism and theTransition to Communism: An International

Comparative Analysis

Conference Registration:

£15 waged and £5 unwaged, with lunch provided

£5 donation requested

To reserve your place in advance please email
Edited to add: For other events around 1913, see here

Book Review: Gerrard Winstanley

Gerrard Winstanley: The Digger's Life and Legacy
By John Gurney
Paperback: 176 pages
Pluto Press 2012
ISBN: 9780745331836

The 50th anniversary of EP Thompson's Making of the English Working Class will be marked in 2013. It remains a landmark volume but several obstacles exist to getting new generations to read it. For one thing it is, in the age of 140 characters, very long. Secondly, of necessity given its subject matter, it contains a large number of religious references.

To Thompson, born in 1924 and writing in the early 1960s, the language of various strands of Christian religion was still a commonplace. 50 years on religious doctrine is certainly still discussed but it is a minority not a mainstream pursuit.

A new book on Gerrard Winstanley, the leading Digger of the 1640s and 1650s faces the same issue but more so. Winstanley was a deeply religious man who expressed himself in religious language. Yet he was also a millenarian and a communist, prefiguring, in the revolutionary upheavals of the English civil war, many of the most advanced ideas of later centuries. Fortunately the precise formulation of Winstanley's religious thought is well handled in the book and the development of his ideas is set firmly in the context of the turmoil of the period from 1649 to 1653.

Winstanley was born in Wigan and had a business there which fell apart during the Civil War of the 1640s. He came south to Cobham in Surrey and it was here that he, amongst others, started the Diggers movement. Winstanley held the idea that the land was a common treasury for all — readers may be familiar with the Leon Rosselson song The World Turned Upside Down — and on that basis he and a small group of associates began to farm the largely barren land on St George's Hill in the summer of 1649.

They were by no means unsuccessful but the area was common land and concern and opposition came from two areas. Locally the concern was that the Diggers would undermine the livelihoods of others in the area small landowners. Politically the worry was that holding land in common might take the events of 1649 well beyond where Cromwell wanted to go.

Winstanley met the army leader Fairfax to reassure him and early Digger writings date from this period. Eventually, following violent attacks by thugs hired by local landowners and some soldiers the Diggers had to move to Cobham but could not sustain the movement. It was a powerful symbol of how the world could be differently organised however and did spark similar experiments around the country.

The book is as good at charting Winstanley’s life post the Digger period as it is on the tumultuous time after 1649. Winstanley to some extent made his peace with the system — certainly the impact of the Restoration in 1660 does not appear to have been significant for him. He also came to terms to some degree with the Established Church, becoming a Church Warden.

The book is no hagiography. It underlines that perhaps not all of Winstanley’s ideas were either coherent or progressive and also highlights that he did not always practice what he preached. At one point he became involved, in effect, in the collection of tithes, something he had called for the abolition of.

Arguably the book’s key strength is the historiographical context it places Winstanley in. His thought was lost until rediscovered by Edward Bernstein in the late nineteenth century. Marx and Engels were unaware of his writings as were the Chartists and William Morris.

Even so, after 1917 Winstanley’s name was one of those inscribed on a statue to past revolutionary thinkers in Moscow. In more recent times Winstanley’s writings have inspired a wide range of socialist and anarchist thought and activity. The book serves as a timely and well written reminder as to why that is so.

Keith Flett
From LSHG Newsletter # 48 (January 2013)

Book Review: Physical Resistance

Physical Resistance
A Hundred Years of Anti Fascism
By Dave Hann
Paperback: 416 pages
Zero Books January 2013
ISBN: 978-1780991771

Dave Hann’s history of physical force anti-fascism distinguishes itself in two ways from previous anti-fascist histories; the first is its method, the second is its perspective. As to method, Hann was a plasterer by trade and taught himself history. The style, particularly in later sections, is reminiscent of the early History Workshop. There are long quotations from anti-fascist activists, interspersed with a narrative of key events. The voices speak for themselves, providing both anecdote and analysis. As to perspective, Hann was briefly in the mid-1980s the publicity officer for Red Action (RA). Unlike most of the group’s leadership, he had never been a member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), and he appears to have attached himself to Red Action and its offspring Anti-Fascist Action (AFA) in a spirit of unsectarian commitment to whatever anti-fascism there was going at the time.

The book gives a vivid sense of Hann’s personality and his lifelong commitment to anti-fascism. It begins with the 1920s, finding all sorts of minor skirmishes between fascist and anti-fascist which academic historians, lacking Hann’s patience in searching through obscure labour movement sources, have missed. The history of the 1930s has a good pace, and gets the difficult balance right between telling the story of fascism and anti-fascism, and integrating the key London episodes (Olympia and Cable Street) into a wider narrative which involved clashes in almost every British city of any size at all.

The chapter in the 1940s is a little over reliant on an interview with Morris Beckman (whose account of the 43 Group underplays the role of the Communist Party members within that Group). The material on the early 1960s is the best account in print that I know of that organisation which is often mentioned but rarely analysed.

David Hann celebrates the Battle of Lewisham and the launch of the Anti-Nazi League (ANL), treating both as positive moves by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), their instigator. However the success of the ANL, he argues, brought the SWP leadership into alliance with political forces to its right, opening up a chasm between the SWP and a generation of young activists, attracted by the prospect of physical confrontation with the National Front (NF) and British Movement (BM).

At times, his account seems a little self-serving. Almost all the interviews
are with early “squaddists”, the generation of activists from within which the future leaders of Red Action were selected. But Hann defends the ANL against squaddist criticisms, pointing out for example that the SWP encouraged its members to take on NF paper sellers in East London, long after the Second Rock Against Racism Carnival, which was often (and exaggeratedly) portrayed by AFA as a fatal error.

Hann writes well about the death of Blair Peach, and ends his chapter on the ANL with a number of non-ANL voices commending the ANL for its success. His chapter on the 1980s again derives its force from interviews with squaddists, but in marked contrast to AFA’s official history, Sean Birchall’s Beating the Fascists, there is a considerable sense of some of the ironies of a pure physical force approach to fighting fascism. Not all battles, according to Hann’s sources, were won.

Fighting with skinheads at punk gigs ended at times in bruises for Rock Against Racism supporters (casualties of what you might call “Red on Red” friendly fire). At times, waiting to attack fascists, Hann admits, was deathly dull. His account is the first I have come across to acknowledge the changing character of Red Action (most of whose early members left very quickly) and to begin the story of Anti-Fascist Action’s demise (Birchall’s book stops at the 1992 Battle of Waterloo, AFA’s “Cable Street”, without beginning to explain how quickly the organisation decayed thereafter).

The book then has a relatively lengthy coda describing UAF and “Antifa” clashes with the English Defence League The account is at times underanalytical. Hann lacks the party-xenophobe’s keen sense of the virtues (or the limitations) of pure physical force anti-fascism. It is clear in retrospect that groups like the 43 Group (who specialised in sending Jewish former servicemen to knock over fascist platforms) had a different political approach to either the mid- 1930s or the late-1930s Communist Party, experimenting as it was with different positions on the United Front / Popular Front spectrum.

That said, the book’s relative eclecticism is also a strength; the author barely has an unkind word for anyone and should offend none of his left-wing readers. Hann died in September 2009, leaving just £30 in his will. I had read his first book No Retreat (2003) which is more autobiographical but never met him. Reading Physical Resistance leaves me with a strong sense of his basic generosity of spirit. I regret never having had the chance to share a pint with him.

Dave Renton
From LHSG Newsletter # 48 (January 2013)

Debate: Harry Ratner on the laws of history and human agency

Debate: The laws of history and human agency by Harry Ratner
From LSHG Newsletter # 48 (January 2013)

Recent issues of the London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter have carried a discussion between Neil Faulkner and myself. The starting point was an article by me in issue 31 on Britain’s Entry into the First World War in 1914 and the role of the individual in history [not currently online]. In the Spring 2009 Newsletter Neil Faulkner replied; criticising me for ‘uncoupling things that are dialectically linked […] by distinguishing sharply between approaches which stress the ‘determinist element in history’ (‘the unfolding of objective laws’) and those which stress the 'voluntarist’ (‘the importance of the individual’). I replied that in fact my intention was not to separate but to reconcile these two aspects and further exchange of views by email ensued.

Looking again at these discussions I feel that the apparent differences
between Neil and myself may have been due to lack of clarity on my part. In trying to rescue the role of individuals and the possible profound effect of their actions I might have given the impression that I wanted to ignore or play down the importance of the objective situation in which individuals operate. This further contribution is an attempt to correct any misunderstanding and further clarify my own ideas.

Both objective laws and the actions of individuals are part of the network of cause and effect that determine history. Although I am not too fond of the word ‘dialectical’ (which is often overused and misused) I would not disagree with Neil that they are indeed dialectically linked. The question is ‘how’ and how much emphasis is to be put on each in various contexts. It is perhaps here that there is a difference between Neil Faulkner and me.

I wish to put forward the following propositions:

1. Objective laws of human history (not of course of natural physical and chemical events) depend for their actualisation on human actions. So-called impersonal social forces are nothing but the cumulative result of human actions in their interaction. The actions of individuals are a necessary ingredient of objective laws.

Take the most seemingly impersonal laws of economics. It is an objective law that capital flows are determined by the pursuit of profit maximisation. But money in one bank account does not mysteriously transfer itself to another account. Some human(s) somewhere have to decide to move it.  The immediate and proximate cause of any movement of money is the conscious decision by one investor or a group of investors. The reason the objective economic law exists is that in given circumstances owners of capital tend to act in a similar fashion; they buy assets when they think they are going up and sell when they are going down. This results over a large number of transactions over a period of time in a general and fairly predictable pattern of capital movements.

But for the patterns to occur and an objective law to arise it is first necessary for actual people to make decisions and be motivated to increase their wealth. It is because in given circumstances human beings and groups of human beings tend to act in similar fashion that objective economic laws – and other historical laws – arise. And these ‘objective laws’ are statistical laws – the average of a multitude of separate decisions. The human decisions - ‘voluntarism’ - are the immediate causes – the prime causes - and the objective laws are the result of the totality of separate decisions.

So-called impersonal factors and laws are nothing but the totality and cumulative result of the decisions and actions of large aggregates of people. Having said ‘nothing but’ I must add that each decision by each individual is constrained and influenced by the overall condition in which these individuals are embedded.

The same applies to all other ‘objective laws’ of history mentioned by Marx and Engels. – for example that the level of development of the productive forces determines the economic relations between people based on the ownership or control of the means of production. This economic base, in turn, determines the political, cultural and ideological super-structure of society – in particular the division of society into conflicting classes. Another objective law, according to Marx, is that as the productive forces develop they come into conflict with the existing superstructure which becomes a fetter on the development of these productive forces. ‘The fetter is burst asunder’ and social revolution occurs etc, etc.

Marxists write as if the productive forces have an inbuilt drive to expand - an automatic and inevitable process independent of human actions. They are imbued, it would seem, by some supernatural urge to develop. But the steam engine and the computer did not invent themselves. At some point they had to be invented and designed by human beings. Again the ‘objective law’ arises postfactum because it is in the nature of human beings that in given circumstances they will be impelled by a multitude of desires and decisions to create more efficient ways of producing objects. And because of the objective circumstances in which they find themselves (including the relations into which they enter between themselves which in turn are influenced by their ownership/ control of land and things) certain regularities and sequences of events develop that are called objective laws.

2. Regularities and ‘laws’ at the ‘macro level’ (the behaviour of large aggregates of things or people) are the outcome of the totality of actions/events at the ‘micro’ individual level. At the same time single actions/ events at this level are determined or constrained by the macro level – the ‘objective situation in which they find themselves. There is a reciprocal reaction.

A good example of this in the natural world is the behaviour of gasses.
According to the kinetic theory of gasses the pressure and temperature of a volume of gas is the result of the movements and collisions of millions of molecules. The heat of the gas at the macro level is the result of the kinetic energy of the molecules. The pressure on the sides of the container is the result of the bombardment by millions of molecules of the sides of the container. If the movements of the molecules are random, in absence of external events, this randomness results in the pressure and temperature being evenly distributed. This results in the well-known ‘laws of gases’ at the macro level – that the pressure of a
constant volume of gas varies in proportion to its temperature and that the volume varies inversely with the pressure at constant temperature. Conversely if external influences are present – for example if the molecules are electrically charged and an electromagnetic field applied the general motion of the molecules will cease to be random and the molecules will go in one direction.

One can immediately see how this relationship between individual behaviour of individual units in a large aggregate and behaviour of the large aggregate (considered as a whole) explains the behaviour of crowds, traffic flows etc. All the individuals have their own individual reasons for their motions. But the overall distribution of the locations of their homes relative to their places of work, the hours of work etc, result in predictable flows of traffic, times of congestion, patterns of accidents etc. But this is also the summation of the thousands of individual journeys. Without individuals deciding to get in their cars there would be no traffic patterns. Further conclusions emerge from all the above.

3. All general patterns of events – ‘objective laws’ – in history, economics and politics, traffic flows, population movements are the summation and interaction of millions of decisions and actions by millions of individuals. The fact that these separate decisions result
in predictable patterns of events is due to the fact that individuals are similar to each other and share common needs and desires and therefore tend to act in similar ways in certain situations. Without individual actions/ decisions no patterns at the mass level would emerge. No voluntarism, no objective laws.

4. The fact that general laws are the total cumulative result of ‘voluntarist’ actions; and are the overall result of this voluntarism, means that their actualisation depends on the actions of individuals. And this
introduces an element of indeterminacy; they can be modified by the actions of individuals. The detailed way in which objective laws are actualised depends very much on the actions of individuals.

Applying the above to the First World War and the role of key individuals like Lloyd George and the British cabinet, the Kaiser, the Tsar etc., let us examine the relationship between objective laws and conditions and human decisions.

First, I agree with Neil Faulkner that the actions and choices of all
these individuals were limited and constrained by the objective conditions in which they were embedded. These were the whole of preceding history, the development of capitalism and competing imperialist powers, the whole economic and political world situation. All this limited and determined the range of choices available to all these individuals. (The objective situation in which each of these individuals found himself included the actions and positions of all the other
individuals – the objective situation in which Lloyd George had to operate included the actions of the Kaiser and also of his own cabinet colleagues – and this applied to all the other actors).

So we can agree that the development of capitalism and imperialism made world war extremely probable, if not eventually inevitable. In that sense we can agree that World War I was an imperialist war driven by economic forces. But we then have to immediately admit that all sorts of other factors, geo-political, individuals’ characters, etc, influenced the time and details of its outbreak, duration and consequences.

The objective probability of war could only become a fact through the decisions and activities of the individuals mentioned. As I argued
earlier, the guns did not go off by themselves and the troops only entrained for the front according to railway time tables and mobilisation plans when the orders were given – themselves triggered by conscious decisions.

I argued above that the detailed way in which objective laws are actualised depends very much on the actions of individuals. The fact that the war started as it actually did in 1914 and not 1915 or 1916 and even the line up of alliances and the initial drive through Belgium rather than elsewhere was not determined by the general objective law but by
other factors, such as the railway time tables and rigid mobilisation plans mentioned by Faulkner in his account.

Faulkner argues that only if mass movement against the war had developed ‘the cabinet might have split and the government fallen.’ He continues ‘But this was not the case: the British ruling class was allowed to make its own decision. And it chose war because war was in its class interest.’ He asks ‘Is Harry Ratner really arguing that the radical pacifism of a handful of ruling class politicians might have yielded a different decision?’ My answer is still yes. Faulkner is saying that the cabinet acted as it did because it was in the interests of British capitalism. But the point is that the members of the cabinet had varying and changing views on what they believed was the ‘national interest (which included the interests of British capitalism). The cabinet could have split even in the absence of mass anti-war movement. The majority, at first did believe it was in that interest to keep out of the conflict. It was only after intense disagreement and discussion – and crucially Lloyd George’s change of mind – that a different decision was made.  Among the factors influencing the minds of the cabinet were not only rational and pragmatic opinions as to the best way to defend interests but all sorts of extraneous factors – personal ambitions, personal antagonisms, worldviews and ideologies including religious beliefs.

Let me stress that the fact that the immediate and proximate causes of any historical event is a decision made by individuals and that these decisions flow from those persons’ subjective thoughts and emotions (not always rational ones) introduces an element of uncertainty. Elsewhere Faulkner recognises that the nub of my argument is, of
course, that they could have decided otherwise with an immense effect on 20th century history’. He continues ‘Let me say at the outset hat I think individuals can make a huge difference.’ If this was true in 1914 how much truer has it today with the ability to unleash nuclear war in the power of handfuls of individuals including fundamentalist Christian American presidents whose wives consult astrologists as to the best date to take decisions, believers in Armageddon and the Second
Coming, Islamic zealots inspired by the Koran and Israeli leaders who believe God allocated the whole of Palestine to the Jews.

So what are Neil and I arguing about? Neil, in his history mentions all the factors I have also mentioned, railway time tables, personal decisions, geopolitical factors as well as economic ones etc. Is it a question of semantics? Whether we describe the 1914-18 war as purely capitalist or a mix of capitalist and geopolitical?

Let me repeat. Objective laws are large-scale generalisations. They describe tendencies and probabilities and contain within themselves the possibility of large variations. These variations can be directly attributable to the decisions of individuals. Plekhanov admitted that individuals can alter the details of history but not its general trend. He referred to these as “accidents” of history. The shortening of the slaughter by nearly four years, the saving of millions of lives, the possible nonappearance of a Hitler or a Stalin – some accident!!

It is necessary to replace both an over-reductionist Marxist interpretation of history and a purely voluntarist one concentration only on the actions of “great men” with a holistic one combining objective laws and human agency.

Harry Ratner

Debate: Ian Birchall responds on Bert Ramelson

From LSHG Newsletter # 48 (January 2013).

Polemical exchanges rapidly become wearisome, but I should like to respond briefly to comrade Sibley’s letter about my review of the biography of Bert Ramelson by himself and Roger Seifert. (LSHG Newsletter # 47)

I cannot but agree with Ramelson’sremarks quoted in his letter about “overrating our expectations of the speed with which socialism would spread its influence”. The hopes we all had in the 1968-75 period were not fulfilled, and we need to look critically at both the achievements and the mistakes of those years. Obviously an account of Ramelson’s life could be of great value in such a process; my concern was that the Sibley/Seifert book does not give a sufficiently critical analysis of the period.

In particular I felt Ramelson’s “interventions” were often described without an adequate presentation of the historical context and the dynamic of class struggle in which they were made. And while Seifert/Sibley certainly discuss the factors leading to the decline of the CP under Thatcher, my own view is that the crisis and ultimate liquidation of the CP had their roots somewhat earlier, from at least 1968, in both international (Czechoslovakia) and national (relations with the trade-union bureaucracy) factors.

Let me just refer to two specific points. Firstly, the role of the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions in the struggle to free the Pentonville Five. I don’t doubt the existence of the letter referred to by Lyddon and Darlington (and I have communicated to Lyddon and Darlington my disagreement of their interpretation of its significance). The LCDTU may well have sent “a formal letter to affiliated bodies”. But given the structure of most labour movement bodies (monthly meetings) and the fact that the events took place in the summer holiday period, I wonder how many affiliated bodies received the letter in time to act on it - the dockers were released less than a week after their arrest. I was a delegate to the 10 June conference and I have no recollection of either myself or my branch receiving any communication from the LCDTU.

Nobody would wish to deny the very positive role played by Communist Party members in the campaign to free the Pentonville Five. But to describe the campaign as “a communist-led movement”  (Seifert/Sibley p. 183) does not relate to the reality of what occurred. And it is worth recalling that in the aftermath of the events the CP branch in the London docks collapsed; some leading activists like Michael Fenn and Eddie Prevost joined the International Socialists. (J McIlroy, “Notes on the Communist Party and Industrial Politics”, in J McIlroy, N Fishman & A Campbell, British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics: Volume II , Aldershot, 1999.)

Secondly, the question of the CP and CND. This was only an aside in my original review, but I have now checked the records and find that the position is rather more complex than I had believed. World News (15 March 1958) carried a long article by George Matthews entitled “unilateralism and the fight for Peace”. While the conclusion did note that those associated with CND were making “valuable contributions to the fight for peace”, the main thrust was to attack the demand for unilateral disarmament, which was the central distinctive policy of CND.

It is also true that on 7 and 8 April 1958 the front-page leads of the Daily Worker were highly favourable reports of the first Aldermaston March. However these reports made no reference to unilateralism and on 8 April the Daily Worker urged workers to support “the movement for nuclear disarmament and Summit talks”. Thus the CP supported CND – but not its central and defining demand. It is this context, of course, which gives meaning to Ramelson’s 1958 article cited by Seifert/Sibley on p. 58, in which he attacked the left’s “obsession with unilateralism”.

Whatever position one takes on the question, Ramelson’s article was a serious contribution to debate, so it is a great pity that Seifert/Sibley so totally mistook its context. How such a fundamental misunderstanding can be described as “an unfortunate proof-reading error” is beyond me.

And the statement that “the CP was the backbone of CND marches in 1958, 1959 and 1960” is a sectarian claim and quite simply false. (I was not on the 1958 and 1959 marches but I have talked to participants.) To minimise the contribution of the emerging “New Left” (which contained many ex-Communists), of the Labour Party Young Socialists and of the very many student CND groups is a gross distortion of the facts.

The rebuilding of a militant rank-and-file within the labour movement is an increasingly urgent task. Let us hope there will be maximum cooperation between different currents of the left. But romanticising the role of the British Communist Party between the 1950s and the 1970s will not help us.

Ian Birchall

Debate: WW2 and anti-fascism in France

Debate piece by Steve Cushion.
From LSHG Newsletter, #48 January 2013

As a contribution to the debate on the Second World War, it may be useful to look in some detail at the situation in Northern France following the German invasion. This area formed part of a "Forbidden Zone", run directly by the German authorities in Brussels and effectively cut off from the rest of France, allowing the resistance to develop with greater independence. In particular the Communist Party in the mining basin of the Pas-de-Calais entered into active resistance much earlier than the national organisation, many believing that the war would end in a revolution similar to 1917.

While the PCF leadership in Paris was attempting to negotiate the legal appearance of l’Humanité, on the strength of their support for the Hitler-Stalin pact, their comrades in the North were gathering as much of the weaponry abandoned by the fleeing French soldiers as they could.

A group of communist miners succeeded in organising a mass strike against increased workloads in June 1941, involving 100 000 miners, 85% of the workforce in the region. They held out impressively for 10 days, but eventually the sheer weight of German Army repression forced a return to work. In organising a strike to resist the employers' offensive in the mines, rather as they might have done in times of peace, but coming up against the reality of the Nazi occupation, the local communists concluded that the defeat of the occupying forces was an essential prerequisite for any social progress and that this required armed action.

Although they were unhappy with the national line of the party, which at the time accepted the German occupation, they had tried to ignore the problem as far as possible. Being so forcibly confronted with the German Army, they realised that they could not duck the issue and so, as the strike went on, one can see that the link between opposition to the occupation and social liberation becoming more evident in their propaganda.

The employers of the region collaborated completely with the Germans and their attitude may be summed up by a letter from a Lille factory owner to his trade newspaper: I would rather see my country occupied by the Germans than my factory occupied by the workers. The mine owners gave the police the names of those they considered to be ringleaders. As a result, 450 arrests were made, of whom 270 were deported to concentration camps in Germany and 130 never returned.

The repression led many other militants to go into hiding. Emboldened and politically radicalised by the strike, many of these began a campaign of sabotage with the aim of encouraging the local population and sapping the moral of the occupying forces and their collaborationist allies. These militants armed themselves, initially for self-defence, and, from their base of support in the mining communities, started blowing up electricity pylons, derailing trains etc.

This led to a need for more explosives and these were obtained by raids on the dynamite stores in the mines, which in turn produced violent confrontations with the security forces. In the North of France, the first attacks on individual German soldiers were in large part motivated by the need to obtain more weapons. The first two attacks in the North turned to farce when the old pistols misfired and the assassination attempts degenerated into fist fights. This inexperience could only be overcome by practice and demonstrates a major practical problem with attentism; when the time comes to fight, political correctness is no substitute for experience.

The main political outcome of the strike was to provide the French Resistance with its most solid base. The traditional solidarity of the close knit mining communities and the anti-German, anti-Vichy and anti-employer sentiments generated by the strike enabled these urban guerrillas an unparalleled freedom of movement and support networks.

In 1942 and 1943 over half the armed attacks and sabotage in France happened in the Nord/Pasde-Calais. When the employers are seen as traitors, the class struggle appears patriotic. Overcoming this contradiction requires skilful political work by socialists, stressing the class nature of resistance. In France the reverse happened, as the tactic of the Popular Front played down the class struggle to ensure collaboration with Anglo-American imperialism.

By the end of 1942, all of the original leaders of the 1941 miners' strike were either dead, in prison awaiting execution or had fled to remote parts where they were not known. This allowed the national leadership of the PCF to impose its class collaborationist, nationalist policies on newly emerging, inexperienced militants.

A major objection to attacks on German soldiers is that this would hinder the appeal to mutiny or desertion. This argument ignores the fact that mutinous situations and collaboration with erstwhile enemies rarely come when their army is victorious: Russia 1917, Germany 1918, the US in Vietnam. The largest group of German soldiers who changed sides in WW2 were recruited into the Red Army after the battle of Stalingrad. While German soldiers could treat France as a holiday camp, there was little incentive to rebel or even think about it. The insecurity caused by attacks on German soldiers was more likely to produce an atmosphere receptive to antifascist propaganda than when they were living the high life in the "City of Light".

In the North of France, the tactic of individual assassinations became largely replaced by the derailing of troop trains; why kill or injure one when you can get them 500 at a time? The most famous transfer of allegiance was that of the Paris Police, who had loyally carried out the commands of their Fascist hierarchy, including being responsible for rounding up the Jews of Paris. However, in 1944, with German and Vichy France facing defeat, they saved their bacon by joining the uprising. Less well known, 300 German soldiers also joined the Paris uprising.

The Trotskyists were not the only people to spread propaganda amongst German soldiers. German-speaking communists in the MOI, an immigrant workers' organisation, published a paper called Soldat im Westen, at the same time as other immigrant communists were engaged in armed resistance. The two tactics, the carrot and the stick, were, I would argue, correctly seen as complementary; the real problem with the MOI approach was the Popular Front politics of their propaganda.

When seen from the perspective of the MOI, armed attacks on German soldiers take on a different perspective. Many were refugees from the Spanish Civil War, both Spanish Republicans and International Brigade volunteers. Others were Jews who had watched their families and neighbours being deported. During 1942 and the first half of 1943, they provided the only active armed groups in Paris, treated as expendable by the PCF leadership. It is unlikely that these fighters risked their lives for "la France"; a socialist explanation of their motivation is much more plausible and is consistent with the surviving evidence.

It is worth noting that André Calvès, a Trotskyist who himself had been engaged in spreading propaganda amongst the German soldiers and sailors in Brest, joined the communist-led armed resistance group, the FTP, long before the half-hearted recognition by the European Secretariat of the Fourth International of the importance of the resistance as a mass movement, as contained in the 1943 "resolution on the partisan movement". This resolution is effectively "attentiste", despite its revolutionary rhetoric.

Had the French Trotskyists armed themselves earlier, they would have been in a much better position to implement a united front policy with other resistance groups, as well as to defend themselves from Stalinist sectarian aggression. Donny Gluckstein's formulation of "Imperialist War" and "People's War" is a step forward in the analysis of the Second World War. We do not expect the state to defeat the EDL on the streets of Walthamstow, neither should workers have relied on the Anglo- Americans to defeat Fascism in the 1940s. The Allies fought the
war in such a way as to ensure that there would not be a revolutionary situation at the end, as there had been at the end of the previous war.  Mass aerial bombardment, the massacre of the Greek resistance and the insistence on unconditional surrender are examples of this approach. "Neither Washington nor Berlin" seems to be the correct approach to this element of the conflict.

On the other hand, describing the resistance to imperialism as a "People's War" is useful. It indicates that it was a rebellion seeking social improvements, but recognises that it was a cross class movement involving workers, peasants and elements of the petite-bourgeoisie. Had there been a greater number of armed workers under revolutionary leadership and experienced in the use of those arms, Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill may not have found it so easy to shape the post war world in favour of imperialist interests.

Steve Cushion

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Comment: In Defence of Archives

 From LSHG Newsletter, # 48 (January 2013).

I haven’t researched this, but I think it’s a reasonable assumption that in a society where many are happy to get their knowledge on something from Wikipedia [an excellent source provided it is checked] and communication is often via 24 hour rolling news and Twitter [I use both] the idea of visiting the archives to discover [or perhaps not discover] some information may seem anachronistic.

Yet, as people consistently find out, checking assumptions and making sure facts are correct are important things even in an ‘instant’ society. It is in this context that the concerns over the archives at Ruskin College have arisen. At one level Ruskin has perhaps attracted unfair attention because it is well known. Many labour movement organisations do not look after historical records that they have and are quite often to be found chucking them out without concern for their value for future generations. That indicates the scale of the task historians still face.

At one point I had in my garage some of the original Plebs publications dating back to the 1910s which had been rescued from a skip to give just one example. Even so, the spotlight has been on Ruskin not only because it has been destroying records that are valuable as historical documents to historians but also because its reasons for doing so, both stated and presumed, suggest a state of the art approach to historical archives.

Firstly, when it comes to records of individual students Ruskin claims to be concerned about data protection issues. If the students are still alive there may be an issue here but a moment’s thought can see a solution. No historian would refer to the detail of such records without trying to check with the individual first if it was OK to use it. A bottom line would obviously be that if they did not and published something that turned out
to be incorrect or damaging they could face legal action or, rather more likely, their book being pulped by the publisher.

Secondly Ruskin are apparently in the process of moving some operations to a new site. Storing archives takes up valuable space and is costly. Why bother to preserve them only for the odd, perhaps very odd, historian to pitch up once every few years to look at them?

Concern about archives and their fate is not new. The Society for the Study of Labour History has been working away at the preservation of and access to historical records for the last 50 years and more. Even so as commercial pressures on space grow and as we move more and more to an electronic society where paper copies are an anachronism the danger of important historical documents ending up on that skip is growing.

What is to be done? The concern and campaign around the Ruskin archives has been immensely helpful in publicising the issue. In another register, the work of the British Library in trying to archive websites that may disappear as individuals cease to update them — or pay the subscription — is hugely important. It is arguable however that there is a need for a positive legal duty for organisations to preserve and deposit at lease core archives with an appropriate national institution such as the British Library.

Of course that will cost money and we live in times when all the main parties support the idea, in one way or another, of cutting expenditure. Even so there is no point in banging on about what a great history Britain has and how important that history is if at the same time the archives that will allow future generations to understand what it is are being chucked out.

Keith Flett

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Socialist History podcasts

Some recent LSHG seminars are available as podcasts here:

CfP: Unofficial Histories

UH logo
Saturday 15th June & Sunday 16th June 2013- Manchester, UK
- Call for Participation -
The Unofficial Histories conference seeks to bring together those who wish 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.
After a successful first conference at Bishopsgate Institute, London, in May 2012, Unofficial Histories moves north to Manchester, and this time we’re making a weekend of it:
  • Saturday 15th June 2013 will be a day of papers, presentations and debate at Manchester Metropolitan University, Oxford Road, Manchester.
  • Sunday 16th June 2013 will be a relaxed day of informal activities (details TBC).
We now invite presentation proposals for the meeting on Saturday 15th June 2013 to be held at Manchester Metropolitan University.
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, 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? Who is producing history, and who is consuming it and why?
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 history-making: the scholarly and the political; the academic and the everyday; the imperatives of funding, sustainability, 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 20 minutes (different approaches to communication are encouraged) are welcomed on any aspect of the above, which may include:
  • People’s History & the History of Everyday Life
  • TV, Radio and Internet
  • Literature, Poetry, Music and Folksong
  • Museums, Heritage and Archives
  • Feminist , Women’s and Gender History
  • Historical Re-enactment and Living History
  • Memory, Myth and Folklore
  • Class, Culture and Ethnicities
  • Art, Drama and Theatre
  • Family History and Genealogy
  • Oral History, Testimony, and Biography
  • Local, Regional and Community History
  • The Role of the Historian
  • Teaching, Education and Curriculums
  • Uses and Abuses of History
Please submit abstracts of 250-300 words by Wednesday 20th February 2013 to Fiona Cosson, email . For more information, please see

CfP: 'Public' History in Perspective

First call for papers


Conference title: Whose history is it anyway? ‘Public’ history in perspective


Date: 5-6 September 2013


Location: University of Central Lancashire, Preston, UK


Keynote address: Hilda Kean


This is a multi-disciplinary conference aimed at a wide range of history and heritage practitioners making no distinction between professionals and non-professionals. Papers are thus invited from academic historians, those working or volunteering in the museum, heritage and archives sectors, those working in the media,film makers, funding bodies, policy makers, publishers, along with family, local and community historians.

The discipline of history is at an important juncture in its long-term development. The public financing of archives, museums and higher education history teaching and research are under threat both in the UK and beyond, yet history within the school curriculumlooks set to become a growth area in years to come. History exists within ‘institutionalised’ frameworks: archival holdings, museum collections, listed buildings and conservation areas, protected landscapes, academic teaching and research. Each of these forms of history is dependent upon professionals whose training and expertise allow them to lay claim to be custodians of historical knowledge, or curators of the physical remnants of the past. This professionalized discipline is largely dependent upon public or charitable funding and concerns over public engagement and notions of ‘history from below’ have caused a significant shift in recent decades towards a more open, accessible, egalitarian history that professes to be non-elitist.

Beyond the ‘institutionalised’ forms of the discipline, history is probably more popular than ever: family history, local history and military history in particular are hobbies for millions of non-professional historians, and such large numbers of followers can render this big business indeed. These are joined by unknown thousands enthusiastically engaged in industrial archaeology, historical collecting, metal detection, running voluntary museums or local societies, and historical re-enactment. History exists regardless of the presence of the mediating and curatorial professionals and many ‘amateur’ historians have little direct contact with such professionals.

This conference will explore issues of public engagement in history, the role of professionals in mediating knowledge of history, the role of institutions in interpreting and communicating knowledge and perspectives, and the role that society and the public have in preserving, mediating, creating and communicating their own histories. It is also concerned to explore issues of policy and funding for history research, education, conservation and dissemination.

Alongside general thematic papers, papers exploring issues through specific and focussed case studies are also welcome. Suggested themes include:


Family/community history and heritage

·       Public history and personal identity

·       Self as history

·       Family history

·       Online historical communities


Institutionalised history and heritage

·       Institutionalised and non-institutionalised history

·       History and the documentary record: accessions and archival challenges

·       History, artefacts and collections: museums and heritage as public history


History, heritage, politics and funding

·       The politics of public history

·       Public policy and public history

·       Volunteering, charities and public history


History, heritage and class

·       Public history, commemoration and class

·       History and cultural legacies

·       History and popular culture, popular culture as history (religion, sport, music, film etc.)


Public History and social inclusion:

·       Migration histories

·       Commemorating Black histories

·       History, heritage and gender


Presenting history and heritage

·       The mediation of history

·       Public history online and on television

·       History, heritage and visual culture


Proposals are invited for single papers or panels. For a single paper please submit up to 250 words along with a short biographical note, your organisation (if any) and contact details. Prospective panel organisers should submit up to 500 words along with a short biographical note and contact details for each speaker. Work may subsequently be considered for publication.

The deadline for the submission of proposals is 31st January, 2013. Proposals, or enquiries relating to these, should be sent to the following email address:

BASA Seminar on Frederick Douglass in Britain

Institute of Commonwealth Studies, in conjunction with the Black & Asian Studies Association
Black and Asian Britain seminars
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.
15 January, 2013 (room G26, ground floor)
Hannah Murray
“A Wall of Anti-Slavery Fire" - Frederick Douglass in Britain.
Former African American slave Frederick Douglass visited Britain in the1840's, popularising anti-slavery, creating a sensation across the country and enhancing the transatlantic connections between abolitionists.

SHS Public Meeting on the Byzantium Empire and women

Socialist History Society Public Meeting
Professor Judith Herrin will speak on
Byzantium and What We Can Learn from the Empire
with a particular focus on the role of women
7.00pm, Friday 8th February 2013
Venue: Bishopsgate Institute, Liverpool Street
Free to attend; all welcome
About the Speaker:
Judith Herrin is Emeritus Professor of Late Antique and Byzantine Studies at King's College London. She has long been associated with Past and Present and is currently the Vice Chairman of the journal's Editorial Board. She is one of the world's leading authorities on Byzantine history, culture archaeology. Her specific research interests include women in Byzantium and Byzantium in relation to Islam and Europe. Professor Herrin is the author of The Formation of Christendom; Women in Purple: Rulers of Medieval Byzantium; and most recently Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire.
About the Talk:
Professor Herrin argues for a contemporary appreciation of Byzantium which stresses its civilisation of quality, intelligence and success, and sees aspects of its society as a kind of positive model from which modern civilisation can learn. In her work, she challenges the old stereotype of Byzantium, whose very name is an insult. She sees the core strength of Byzantium as coming from its "inner Greek fire", with its unique combination of Pagan energy, Greek education, Roman law and administration, and Christian faith. "When the capital city was inaugurated in 330," Herrin writes, "all these elements were present and the society that resulted, with its extraordinary self-belief, was "born old". This was the cultural background to its capacity to play the long game when necessary. It also gave it immense self-confidence and flexibility, permitting innovation and invention, from the unprecedented domed structure of Hagia Sophia to the secret of Greek fire itself. It was quite capable of delivering ruthless and crushing defeats as well as developing the arts, techniques and insignia of diplomacy."