Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Revolutionary Jews

Revolutionary Jews, an illustrated talk by Daniel Randall
A Jewish Socialists' Group public meeting
Wednesday 18th June at 7.30
Wesley Hotel and Conference Centre (formerly MIC), 81-103 Euston Street, NW1 2EZ
Free, all welcome
The talk considers the question of why so many Jews have been attracted to revolutionary politics, and looks at the movements and traditions they animated. It focuses on European and American Jews, from the mid-19th century
Daniel Randall is a London Underground worker and an activist in the RMT union, and a member of Workers' Liberty. He also performs hip-hop and spoken-word poetry as The Ruby Kid.
For further information: jsg@jewishsocialist.org.uk

From: Ross Bradshaw
Five Leaves Publications and Bookshop
14a Long Row
Office number: 0115 8373097
Out of office: 0115 9693597
info@fiveleaves.co.uk, bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk
www.fiveleaves.co.uk, www.fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk

Friday, 16 May 2014

Labour Leaders



Who was the most successful Labour party leader of all time? And who was the worst? If we were to just count general election victories Harold Wilson comes top with four victories. But does this tell the whole story?
The University of East Anglia, Queen Mary University of London and the PSA Political Leadership group are hosting an event to address these questions. The conference will involve leading biographers and experts on each of the Labour party leaders speaking at an event held at the University of East Anglia’s London Campus near Liverpool Street on Saturday 28th June 2014.
 To kick-off the discussion Toby James will give an introductory talk setting out a framework for evaluating leaders. Rt. Hon Charles Clarke has undertaken a simple statistical analysis of general election performance of the Labour leaders since Keir Hardie and he will present the conclusions in the form of a ‘league table’. Baroness Patricia Hollis will chair some of the sessions and provide the closing remarks for the day. The author of the biography of each Labour Leader to have fought a general election will then present their analysis.


  Gordon Brown - Steve Richards. Columnist for The Independent, presenter of BBC’s Week in Westminster and author of Whatever it takes The definitive account of New Labour’s rise and fall.
  Tony Blair - John Rentoul. Chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday, visiting fellow at Queen Mary, University of London, and author of Tony Blair: Prime Minister.
Neil Kinnock - Martin Westlake. Visiting Fellow, European Institute, London School of Economics and author of Kinnock.
Michael Foot - Ken Morgan. Historian and broadcaster. Author of Michael Foot: A Life.
Jim Callaghan - Peter Kellner. President of YouGov and co-author of Callaghan: The Road to Number Ten.
Harold Wilson - Thomas Hennessy. Professor of Modern British and Irish History at Canterbury Christ Church University, and author of Optimist in a Raincoat: Harold Wilson, 1964-70.
Hugh Gaitskell - Brian Brivati. Professor of contemporary history at Kingston University and author of Hugh Gaitskell.
Clement Attlee - Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds. Author of Attlee: A Life in Politics.
Arthur Henderson – Chris Wrigley. Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Nottingham and author of Arthur Henderson.
  Ramsay MacDonald – David Howell. Professor of Politics at the University of York and author of MacDonald’s Party.
John Clynes - Phil Woolas. Former Home Office Minister, MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, and author of J.R. Clynes in The Prime Ministers that Never Were.
  William Adamson - Bill Knox. Senior Lecturer, University of St. Andrews and author of many works including Scottish Labour Leaders 1918-1939.
  George Barnes - Bill Knox. Senior Lecturer, University of St. Andrews and author of many works including Scottish Labour Leaders 1918-1939.
Keir Hardie - Ken Morgan. Historian and broadcaster. Author of Keir Hardie: Radical and Socialist.


Book your place here: http://politicalleadership.org/events/labour-party-leaders/. Registration costs £40, with a discounted rate of £25 for students/unwaged (plus booking fee). This includes a light buffet lunch, refreshments during the day and a drinks reception. Registration will begin at 9.00 and the event at 9.30. The event will close at 6.00pm and will be followed by a drinks reception.

 A second event on Conservative Leaders will follow later in the year

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Child soldiers

Coming out of Monday's LSHG seminar with Stephen Mann, here is a link to some Child Soldiers info on Child recruitment to British Armed Forces: http://www.child-soldiers.org/research_report_reader.php?id=650

Sunday, 4 May 2014

LSHG Newsletter 52 now online

Featuring Keith Flett on Tony Benn,  The Lawn Road Flats by David Burke and a memoir by Stephen Mann, Sheila Cohen on Tony Cliff, Ian Birchall on Workers' Internationalism and mutinies in the British Army during the First World War.  Also remember our summer series of seminars, which now include Evan Smith and Matt Worley launching their new co-edited book on the British far-Left since 1956 - Against the Grain on 23 June.

Book Review (part 1): Tony Cliff: A Marxist for his time

From LSHG Newsletter 52 (Summer 2014)

A Marxist for his time
By Ian Birchall
Bookmarks 2011
Paperback 552pp
ISBN 9781905192809

Cliff’s story, which of course is the story of the International Socialist group/Socialist Workers’ Party (IS/SWP), reveals two fundamental tendencies endemic in the “revolutionary” left: prediction, and “the line”. Both, of course, are the product of the centralist non-democracy which, in some only too faithful version of Michels’ Iron Law, continues to dominate today’s innumerable “small mass parties”.

In writing this response to Birchall’s favourable biography, my concern is to locate what went wrong with what - briefly - looked like a revolutionary group which was actually taking the working class seriously. As such it is also the story of my own disillusionment – and that of many others – in what we might call the “initialled” revolutionary left(i).

To borrow an analogy from Christopher Phelps’ contribution to the 1997 Socialist Register commemoration of the Communist Manifesto, leafing through the pages of Birchall’s biography is rather like surfing through a familiar classic – (Christopher’s example is Casablanca). In other words, the story from the earliest days of the pre-IS Socialist Review Group follows a tantalisingly promising path evoking hope of a happy ending until the beginning of the end in the mid 1970s – the period Cliff was to retrospectively classify as his famous “downturn”.

Such glib definitions and predictions were a long way off when the youthful Ygal Gluckstein began his revolutionary career in Palestine. Having read Capital at the age of 15 (“he later recalled how he had enjoyed the sections on the ‘transformation problem’ and differential rent…” in Volume Three), Ygal quickly grew tired of the “reformist milieu” of the Israeli organisation Mapai(ii) and joined the Marxist Circles in Haifa. As Birchall notes, Ygal thus “became involved in forms of activity which would characterise the groups led by Cliff [until] the end of the century.” As an example, “Firstly there was paper-selling.” On a healthier note, the strike support work Ygal also became involved in featured “frequent examples of Arab and Jewish workers coming together in mixed workplaces and [attempting] to build joint unions” (pp22-3).

Ygal’s development as a Marxist in Palestine depended on “no existing body of tradition and theoretical analysis…they had to begin the task of theoretical analysis themselves…while holding firm to the fundamentals of Marxism, [Cliff] could develop new analyses of a changing reality…” (p27). By 1938, this independent approach began to bear more sophisticated fruit; at 21 the young theorist, now calling himself “L. Rock”, produced two seminal articles which argued for an integrated approach on the Arab-Jewish question based on “understand[ing] the position of the Jews in Palestine in class terms” as opposed to the crass CP approach of regarding Jews as “an integral part of the imperialist camp” (p43). As Birchall comments, “The great strength of the Rock articles is the way they put class at the centre of the analysis [and] advocate[ed] unity of Jewish and Arab workers” (p49).

Yet by the late 1940s Ygal was becoming increasingly frustrated; the failure of a general strike in 1946 had put paid to any immediate hopes of joint action by Arab and Jewish workers, and European Trotskyist exiles in Palestine were drifting back to their homeland. In the late summer of that year Cliff moved to London with his life partner Chanie, who had a British passport. They immediately joined the Trotskyist RCP, then “largely working class”, but fixated on questions of “entryism” into the Labour Party rather than noting and building on existing working-class struggles.

The early contributions of our hero, who was “rapidly welcomed into the party and…promptly invited to attend meetings of the political bureau”, focussed on the Middle East and the colonies, particularly India. More germane to at least some of Cliff’s later activity was the task allocated to him of defending the RCP’s economic perspectives against those of the Fourth International, specifically as expressed by Mandel under the pseudonym E. Germain. However, Cliff was very shortly to depart from such mundane preoccupations to get stuck into the real deal: “The question which dominated Cliff’s thinking in 1947, and which would become his major contribution to Marxist theory, was the class nature of Russia” (p97). Yet it was from our hero’s then highly controversial analysis of “state capitalism” that the first signs of his later, disastrous addition to Building The Party emerged.

Although the American Trotskyists Raya Dunayevskaya and C.L.R. James provided welcome support for Cliff on this question, they parted company from him on this question – or rather Cliff parted company with them. As Dunayevskaya later recalled, “Opposition to the ‘party to lead’ was the very first topic I fought with Cliff on…[when] I asked for his help…[h]e refused on the basis that my ‘giving up’ the theory of vanguard party permitted no ground for our collaboration” (letter quoted on p106). This is ironic in view of the fact that for many years Cliff, at least in practice, also repudiated the “vanguard party”.

Yet at this stage Cliff continued to display many aspects of political (if not emotional) intelligence. Attacked by monster sectarian Gerry Healey, Cliff argued against Healey’s insistence that “the confrontation between workers’ states and capitalism was now the primary form of class struggle in the world”. As Birchall records, Cliff’s response was that “the struggle between workers and those who exploited them remained primary, whether in the East or the West. This insistence would orient his politics over the coming decades” (p131).

Soon afterwards, in late 1950, a small (inevitably) but promising group was formed on the basis of opposition to “Healyism” and support for Cliff’s position on Russia; its first issue contained a major article by our hero on the two “world imperialisms” of Russia and America. The conclusion previewed the slogan which would later adorn each issue of Socialist Worker: “The battle-cry of the…genuine socialists today must be: Neither Washington nor Moscow, but International Socialism” (p136). Yet the boast of this initially minute group was “Our grouping…is the nucleus of [the] new Marxist party…” Furthermore “[that party] can be built firmly ONLY on the acceptance of party discipline in the tradition of Bolshevism under Lenin’s leadership”(iii). It was not a promising start.

Yet Cliff’s first book, Stalinist Russia; A Marxist Analysis, was notable, according to Birchall, for a “focus on working class agency” – itself to be bourne out very shortly by the dramatic workers’ uprising in Hungary. Birchall quotes the censored Daily Worker correspondent Peter Fryer as noting that the Hungarian workers’ councils showed “a striking resemblance” to Soviets in 1905 and 1917 Russia(iv). And Cliff was equally enraptured by this workers’ uprising, staying up “practically every night listening to the radio” (p156).

As is well known, “Neither Washington nor Moscow” was not the only slogan to be associated with what would later become IS. The next policy innovation was the theory of the Permanent Arms Economy, developed by staunch Cliffite Michael Kidron. As Birchall points out, Cliff himself wrote little more on this question, while even Kidron came to see the theory as “inadequate” by the 1970s. However, Birchall notes (correctly) that “it was not so much the technical details of the theory as its general thrust” that was strategically important for the group: firstly “it established that the boom was real and likely to last…” and secondly – an equally valid point – that “capitalism was still a contradictory system prone to crisis” (pp166-7). Top marks to Cliff.

These – for the Trotskyist movement – exceptionally subtle insights were linked in a new contribution on the key issue of reformism. Addressing Lenin’s labour aristocracy theory, Cliff argued that in the postwar period “the whole of the working class [had] benefited from increased living standards”, lessening the differences between skilled and unskilled workers, and that, as Birchall puts it in rather circular fashion, “It was this ability of capitalism to grant reforms…that made reformism possible.” This argument could hardly be challenged in the mid-20th century – an era which had provided, in addition to higher wages, substantial educational and health improvements for the mass of workers under western capitalism.

Yet Cliff’s analysis went little further in examining the complexand contradictory dialectic between capitalist concessions and workers’ continuing struggles around the effort-reward relationship and beyond. The related – and crucial - question of trade union bureaucracy is subsumed under the same rubric: “as a result, a reformist bureaucracy came into existence which saw its aim as mediating between workers and bosses…” (p168). As I hope I have managed to showv, the question of worker representation and bureaucratisation is both more complex and more strategically significant than this.

But never mind the theory, feel the organisation…The still modestly-sized SRG was impressed when in November 1958 the Healey group organised a rank-and-file conference attended by over 500 “mainly shop-floor workers” (p172). The numbers show the potential of the period - even the miniature SRG was able to attract workers, and “by the early 1960s there was a small group of experienced trade unionists” around Cliff, including engineering worker Geoff Carlson, who stood against the Amalgamated Engineering Union’s far-right general secretary. Carlsson attracted a “respectable vote” despite competing with the much better-known CP candidate Reg Birch (p181).

At this point, marked by “growing theoretical ferment and the growth of a Marxist milieu outside the CP”, the SRG decided it was time to launch a theoretical journal; the first issue of International Socialism appeared in September 1958. More importantly for our purposes, however, was the publication in 1959 of Cliff’s Rosa Luxemburg(vi). With this began a far more promising questioning of conventional “Leninism” by the budding organisation, and with it a scepticism over SLL-style party-building which was to characterise the group for over a decade.

As Birchall points out, Cliff “had previously had little to say about the question of the revolutionary party”, despite being busy founding one for the last decade or so. Perhaps this freshness of approach was responsible for Cliff’s dismissal of the orthodox adherence to What Is To Be Done as “fitt[ing]…all times and places” and his argument that “forms of organisation must be understood in their historical and political contexts” (p185). Given the very different conditions in Germany, Cliff was able to recognise that “Luxemburg had a much earlier and clearer view of the role of the labour bureaucracy than Lenin or Trotsky” and thus that “For Marxists in advanced industrial countries Lenin’s original position can serve much less as a guide than Rosa Luxemburg’s” (p186).

As Birchall points out, Cliff’s assent to Luxemburg’s formulation, “Mistakes committed by a genuine revolutionary movement are much more fruitful…than the infallibility of the very best Central Committee” was “a phrase that stuck in the memory of many of his audience…when Cliff himself was a Central Committee member” (p186). But all that was far in the future; in one of two perspectives documents Cliff wrote to mark the dawning of the 1960s, he noted that “The question of inner democracy is absolutely central to the Marxist movement…Unity in action [must be] combined with freedom in discussion…” (p191).

The burgeoning radicalism of the early 1960s, signalled by the growth of the New Left and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), was reflected in “small but significant progress” in recruiting to the SRG; an “important addition” was Jim Higgins, later to be a vocal critic of the IS leadership(vii). In 1960 International Socialism was relaunched as a quarterly and featured an impressively non-sectarian approach, with its Editorial Board drawn from “almost all the Trotskyist-derived currents except the SLL” (p200). The SRG was renamed the International Socialism group (IS) in December 1962, but this did not signal a turn to SLL-style sectarianism; rather, the group’s structure “remained loose and lacking in formalism”. Meanwhile, the Labour Party’s founding of a youth wing, the Young Socialists (YS), opened up the political scene; IS established a youth paper, Rebel (p202), and “new recruits were soon made”.

In fact, the growth and class composition of the revolutionary groups during this period appears today almost miraculous; a merger between Rebel and another youth paper, Rally, “drew in a group of apprentices in Glasgow” who had been politicised by their strike in 1960 and had joined YS. In fact, the working-class bastion of Glasgow became a stronghold for the budding IS, leading to an interesting early critique of Cliff’s already burgeoning obsession with membership numbers; one new recruit prophetically noted that Cliff “had a messianic element [sic] similar to Gerry Healey…” (p210). Yet he and other Glasgow members established “a solidly working class group”; one shop steward member was able to sell 100 copies of Labour Worker at his workplace, the historic Singer factory.

At about this time the new organisation launched a new paper “aimed specifically at trade union activists”. The new publication, at first far from successful, consisted mainly of industrial reports but “became increasingly oriented to entry work in the Labour Party” (p221). Yet in the meantime Cliff was busy producing more promising theoretical analysis, publishing a series of influential articles in the early 1960s which included an interesting analysis emphasising Trotsky’s pre-1917 critique of substitutionism.

Although Birchall concedes that “critics might counterpose some of its formulations to Cliff’s later practice in the leadership of a revolutionary organisation” he insists that it “stands as a statement of how [Cliff then] conceived of revolutionary organisation” (p223). In fact, in the following two pages we find a positively stellar analysis of the relationship between revolutionary organisation and class vanguard. In support of the statement “Cliff…was contemptuous of the pretensions of small groups to claim to be the vanguard of the class”, Birchall produces a number of quotes: “…it is clear that little groups cannot…substitute for the mass revolutionary party, not to say for the mass of the working class’ ”; “The party…should…put as its first duty to learn from the experience of the mass movement and then generalise from it”, and “all the party’s issues of policy are those of the class, and they should therefore be thrashed out in the open, in its presence” (pp224-5). Quite a contrast…

In late 1960, a general strike in Belgium spurred more thoughts of working-class self-activity and the impact of struggle on consciousness; Cliff noted that the logic of the action pointed to crucial questions of class unity and dual power. At the time British workers were seen as relatively passive; yet Cliff again rejected Lenin’s conception of a reactionary labour aristocracy, and also criticised those who reiterated Trotsky’s Transitional Programme, commenting “Parrots never made a revolution” (p229). Even more astonishingly for today’s SWP observers, he commented, “Marxists should not set themselves up as a party or embryo of a party of their own…” (p230).

As we know now, a significant upsurge in class struggle was not long in the future; according to Birchall, Cliff had predicted these developments, although he provides little evidence for this. In any case, “[T]he IS group’s roots in the labour movement were…rather limited” at this point; even “the handful of older industrial militants” were becoming less active. Yet one of those, the faithful Geoff Carlsson, was able to build a group of stewards and activists around him, and in 1966 “an ENV workplace branch was set up, the first…in the history of the organisation” (257).

In January 1966, ENV convenor Geoff Mitchell set up a Shop Stewards Defence Committee (SSDC) to protect activists from the kinds of attacks often aimed at militants by the more conservative elements of the labour movement. Impressively, “the committee was an attempt at a united front”. There was plenty of scope for defending stewards from attacks by both trade union bureaucracy and the Labour government, which imposed a total wage freeze in autumn that year.

The CP’s intervention via its own newly-established front organisation, the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LCDTU) overpowered the SSDC; yet the committee had already published the highly influential pamphlet “Incomes Policy, Legislation and Shop Stewards”, co-authored by Cliff and Colin Barker. Birchall’s throwaway remark that “This was a major turning point for Cliff…He had written little on the British labour movement” (p259) illustrates the central paradox typifying so many “revolutionaries”; that the class, and the society, closest (at least potentially) to their own daily experience appears as the least significant. Like the US SWP member disseminating pro-Cuban propaganda in the aisles of an assembly plant, the more exotic and less relevant the more worthy of concentrated “revolutionary” effort.

In fact the pamphlet was a raging success within Britain’s insurgent shopfloor movement, selling well over 7000 copies. Its theoretical arguments, including the dubious notion that “unofficial strikes were symptoms of an aspiration for workers’ control” (Birchall’s words, p261) were probably less of an attraction for its audience than the detailed and concrete analysis of the threat posed by the government’s policy. In fact the short sharp “wildcats” now erupting across the movement were concerned more with effort vs reward than with the grandiose theoretical aspirations now becoming common among middle-class socialists(viii).

Predictably, the authors did not resist the temptation to predict: “Out of the shop stewards’ organisation will rise a new socialist movement, much mightier than ever before…” More concretely, “The pamphlet reoriented the whole strategy of the IS group for the coming years.” IS had, it seems, discovered the working class. Yet logistical problems stood in the way of ambition; Cliff and Barker “were noticeably vague about how the shop stewards’ struggle would develop into a socialist movement.”

Although “Cliff was now rethinking his 1962 position that revolutionaries should remain within the Labour Party…” Birchall notes that “what form of organisation would be required was still unclear” (pp262-4). In fact the question began to be answered by the nature of the group’s activity around this intrinsically workplace-oriented publication. “[M]embers were sent off to visit shop stewards…and persuade them to buy a copy…The book was taken to stewards, who were asked if they knew of other people who might want it.” In other words, the basic link-up activity characteristic of the Labor Notes project.

Yet Birchall’s biography now departs from this exciting potential; in fact he emphasises the “weaknesses” of shop steward organisation at the time (would that we had such weaknesses today). The account digresses from the workplace to other important working-class struggles such as council tenants’ rent strikes and, inevitably, the ongoing conflict between leftists and Labour Party. In fact, the increased activism of the group alerted Cliff to new “dangers”; at an IS aggregate in April 1967 he argued that “we [have] moved into much more activism and there’ll be a danger that we’ll become mindless militants” (p271). Becoming mindful militants was clearly not an option. Nevertheless, Cliff recognised that “the organisation was in a transitional phase” although “what it was in transition to was not yet apparent” (p271).

By this time the Vietnam war was causing almost as much opposition in Britain as in the US, sparking largely student-based mass demonstrations. Although “IS activity around shop stewards and tenants left little time for campaigning on Vietnam”, by 1967 Chris Harman, then a student at LSE, “helped reorient the IS towards a greater involvement with the Vietnam question.” Cliff himself “was adamant in insisting that the IS should become involved in the VSC [Vietnam Solidarity Campaign]” and in fact was to admit years later that if not for the anti-war movement “the IS might never have moved beyond being a tiny propaganda group” (p275).

In fact Cliff was now “devot[ing] great attention to the small growingpoints of the organisation, some of which at least appeared to exist in significant sections of industry; one long-time member, Sabby Sagall, was encouraged to “get involved with activity around Ford in Dagenham, and when Sabby organised a small group…Cliff travelled to Dagenham every week to speak to them…he didn’t hector workers but listened to them.” As Sagall recalled, “He used to say ‘We learn from the class and we teach the class’ ” (p283)(ix).

While IS of course continued to mobilise in the anti-war movement, “It strove to recruit on the basis of linking the anti-war activity to the struggle at home”, issuing a leaflet which argued in part “In the factories workers are fighting against the wage freeze…If we are to help the Vietnamese we must go on from Grosvenor Square to fight these struggles.” The group also intervened - non-censoriously - amongst dockers who had marched in support of Enoch Powell’s racist “rivers of blood” speech, distributing a worker-friendly leaflet written by the talented journalist Paul Foot. The development sparked an appeal for left unity in the face of what was described as the “urgent challenge of fascism”. Yet, as always, any meaningful cooperation between the sects was impossible.

Interestingly, that same year – 1968 – IS overtook the “inherently sectarian” SLL in numbers (this may have been partly explained by Cliff’s remorseless approach to recruiting, a portent of his later obsession with numbers; Tariq Ali recalled that on one occasion when he paid a visit to Cliff’s house, the IS leader “locked the kitchen door and said he would not let Tariq leave till he joined IS” (p287). The events of May 1968 in France “surprised everyone”, but of course the left “responded with delight”. Perhaps few of his revolutionary counterparts would have jumped to the conclusion Cliff expressed to a student audience that “capitalism and trade unions could no longer coexist” (p289). This somewhat overblown analysis may have been behind what Birchall describes as “a distinct shift towards voluntarism” at this point; at any rate, June that year saw not only a change of name for IS’ paper from Labour Worker to Socialist Worker but – “more controversially” - the proposal that the organisation should adopt a democratic centralist structure” (p290).

For the moment, the “most controversial” aspect of this was the requirement for much tighter internal discipline, with conference and Executive Committee decisions binding on all IS members. Cliff’s next move, a pamphlet written jointly with Birchall himself on the French May events(x), is described here as having the “main aim [of] argu[ing] for an immediate strategy of building a revolutionary party, a sharp shift in the orientation of the organisation” (p296). This comes as a surprise to the present reviewer, who joined IS in 1970 but understood it then as being very far from a “vanguard”-style organisation.

Cliff did get one prediction right – that “within less than six years industrial action would bring down a Tory government”. Another optimistic slogan – “France today, Britain tomorrow!” was less accurate. Yet Cliff was now throwing himself full tilt into the well-worn task of Building the Revolutionary Party. The pamphlet on the French events was used to develop his thinking on the nature of such an organisation; however, he argued the case here for IS becoming “an open revolutionary organisation, committed to turning itself into a party” rather than emerging instantaneously as The Revolutionary Party itself.

In any case, however, Cliff had a hard time convincing his membershup of even this “party lite” approach; persuading them to accept a new constitution based on democratic centralist principles was tough enough to “panic” the normally ebullient leader. Heated internal debate followed, creating a number of “factions and platforms” in the process, in sharp contrast to IS’s unforgiving attitude to factions less than five years later. During this time Duncan Hallas, “a powerful speaker and prodigious writer”, was recruited to the leadership; IS “moved ahead of its rivals on the far left”, the sectarian SLL and the student-oriented International Marxist Group (p302).

Yet it was in that promising year that Cliff has been accused of “switch[ing] from Luxemburgism to Leninism”. This, avows Birchall, “is a misleading oversimplification” (p302). For one thing, both Leninism and Luxemburgism are, as he rightly states, “slippery concepts”; Cliff’s own interpretation of Lenin was “far from conventional” in bending the stick (one of Cliff’s favourite sayings) towards the “democratic” rather than “centralist” wing of the dialectic. On the Luxemburg side of the equation, “Cliff did not make a dichotemy between spontaneity and organisation”, an important nod towards dialectical thinking.

The next chapter, “Years of Hope”, neatly covers the period 1969-74 when Cliff moved from the conception of a relatively open, non-sectarian and non-party building grouping to his insistence on founding the SWP. This began with a document, “On Perspectives”, in which Cliff was prescient in noting the “deep alienation of workers from traditional organisations”, although at a time when trade union membership was reaching its highest historic levels this seems premature. 1969 was, however, a year when the working class was showing its dissatisfaction in no uncertain terms with Labour’s first postwar attempts to bring in anti-strike legislation; it was also the period when workplace organisation was at its liveliest and most combative; in fact, it was in many ways a potentially revolutionary period(xi).

IS membership was if anything becoming less working class than before, yet it was at this point that “the main priority…became…the turn to the class”. In the same year, The Employers’ Offensive: Productivity Deals and How to Fight Them appeared (p311); even more than the incomes policy pamphlet, this was a publication of direct use and relevance to industrial workers, based on a detailed examination of over 100 productivity deals, with concrete examples of deals affecting bus workers, miners, steel workers, car workers and print workers among many others. Productivity Deals “did much to establish the credibility of the IS within the established labour movement…the organisation began to draw around it more industrial militants and other activists” (pp317-8). The results were jawdropping; shortly after one “legendary militant” in Teesside joined IS after hearing Cliff speaking on the pamphlet, “the Teesside district of the IS had 27 stewards in the steel industry”.

At this point, in fact, sectariana was beginning to be swept aside by something much more powerful – working class struggle. In early 1972 a series of dramatic industrial dramas was set in train, from Scargill’s “Saltley Gates” struggle to the triumph of the imprisoned “Pentonville Five” dockers against the Tories’ Industrial Relations Act(xii). Cliff assessed the dockers’ victory in an article which “[w]hile continuing to stress the importance of building a revolutionary party…underlined the importance of a rank and file strategy” (p333). Defining this in terms of a “cog wheel” between revolutionaries and the working class, he proposed “the organisation of militants in different unions and industries who work together around specific issues…wider than those affecting a small group of workers in one place of work [but] not going as far as to aim at a complete emancipation of the working class…” Common sense at last.

The prototype for this organising was not, as with Labor Notes, one movement-wide publication and (eventually) organisation but a range of separate rank-and-file papers built on the model pioneered by IS members in the National Union of Teachers – a separate rank-and-file and group for each industry. One “model” for a class-wide grassroots network was the CP’s Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LCDTU), also built at around the same time, but since this provided a master-class in sectarian exclusiveness the smaller but livelier IS was in a good position to attract the growing layer of activists disillusioned by this chicanery.

Yet the beginning of the end of this relatively healthy period was by now in sight. At the 1973 IS conference Cliff informed delegates that “history was knocking” at IS’ door, generating tasks among which “rapid recruitment” was to the fore; “In meetings all over the country, Cliff urged that time was short and that it was necessary to build rapidly” (p337). The obsession with numbers derided by Jim Higgins – “Never mind the quality, feel the width” xiii - was beginning to dominate (not that it had ever been far in the background). But the growth was impressive in qualitative terms; 49 per cent of new recruits that year were manual workers, and “[f]or the first time we are recruiting more TGWU and AEFxiv members [than teachers]” (p338).

Another positive development was the building of factory branches; within months of the 1973 conference “about 40 were established”. Cliff wrote a short pamphlet on this form of organisation, which counterintuitively (but rightly) warned against over-rapid recruitment: “Think ‘small’, don’t overreach and risk demoralisation.” The pamphlet “raised the argument about party and class to a new level” by pointing out that only a minority of workers would be principled class activists. Yet, astoundingly for students of present day left activity in “the unions”, Cliff also recognised that (in Birchall’s words) “the central question was [raising] consciousness…This was far more important than passing particular resolutions or winning particular elections” – both activities apparently central for 21st-century socialists.

It was at more or less this point, however, that the canker began to develop within the rose. The question of “how to take the rank and file movement forward” prompted the call for a national rank and file conference. But, in Birchall’s words, “There was also an argument about recruitment. The organisation was growing rapidly. Would the building of a rank and file conference…contradict the aim of recruiting as widely as possible while favourable circumstances lasted?” (p349). This, of course, was the central “obstacle”; and it was at this point that IS began to depart from its relatively healthy, non-sectarian and workplace-oriented approach, and begin to become what we see today.

Sheila Cohen

Part 2 of this extended review will be published in the next issue. 

Sheila Cohen is an academic and labour movement activist currently based at the University of Hertfordshire.

i To which Solidarity is an honourable exception.
ii Mifleget Poalei Eretz Israel – the Party of the Workers of the Land of Israel (Birchall pp21-2).
iii Of course, as a number of studies have now shown, Lenin’s position on ‘democratic centralism’ was considerably more complex than had been assumed.
iv Cf Sheila Cohen “The Red Mole: Workers’ Councils as a Means of Revolutionary Transformation” in Ness and Azzellini (eds) Ours to Master and to Own: Workers’ Control from the Commune to the Present Haymarket 2011, Chicago.
v Sheila Cohen, Ramparts of Resistance: Why Workers Lost Their Power and How to Get It Back, Pluto Press 2006, especially Chapter Seven.
vi As Birchall stresses, “in 1959 Luxemburg was not a well-known figure.”
vii Jim Higgins’ More Years for the Locust (IS Group 1997) is an indispensable (and hilarious) read on the rights and wrongs of revolutionary organisation. See also Sheila Cohen “Left Agency and Class Action: The Paradox of Workplace Radicalism”, Capital and Class 2011.
viii The Institute for Workers’ Control, founded in 1969 by Ken Coates and Tony Topham, exemplified these conceptions.
ix Here I must declare an interest; I have recently completed a history of the main trade union branch at Dagenham (Notoriously Militant: The Story of a Union Branch Merlin 2013).
x Tony Cliff and Ian Birchall, France: The Struggle Goes On. Birchall notes that “all the theroretical analysis” in this pamphlet “was Cliff’s”.
xi Leaving aside the obvious exemplars of the French May events and the Portuguese Revolution, other signposts can be seen in the title of Tariq Ali’s 1972 book The Coming British Revolution and the fears of the British ruling class, symbolised in a coup based in the military which brought down “left-wing” Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
xii Descriptions of both these events can be found in Ramparts and in Ralph Darlington and Dave Lyddon, Glorious Summer: Class Struggle in Britain 1972, Bookmarks 2001.
xiii See More Years of The Locust for a blow-by-blow account.
xiv Transport and General Workers’ Union and Amalgamated Engineering Federation.

Conference Report: Workers' Internationalism before 1914

From LSHG Newsletter 52 (Summer 2014)

Workers’ Internationalism before 1914
International Conference hosted by the University of East Anglia in conjunction with Socialist History journal and the Institute of Working Class History (Chicago), February 2014.

Everyone knows that this year marks the centenary of the First World War, but Michael Gove is unlikely to demand that schoolkids commemorate 150 years since the founding of the First International. But the Socialist History Society had the interesting idea of combining the two anniversaries by holding a conference on workers’ internationalism before 1914, exploring both the strengths of internationalist sentiment and organisation, and the underlying weaknesses that led to defeat in 1914. Sixteen historians from Britain, USA, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and Austria presented papers.

Internationalism was not just an abstract idea — it grew from the practical experiences of the working class movement. Jürgen Schmidt spoke of the experiences of travelling journeymen, of foreign workers in
Switzerland, and of German workers in the French and British labour movements. Ad Knotter looked at the specific experiences of cigar makers, who were often travelling workers. He looked at the international nature of cigar makers’ strikes and the effectiveness of international solidarity.

William Pelz looked at the achievements of the International Working Men’s Association’s role in promoting internationalism. He pointed out that “unlike the Socialist International, it never became a handmaiden to the war machine nor, like the Comintern, did it become the brutal instrument of one nation’s foreign policy”. He looked at the IWMA’s successes in preventing wage-cutting. Thus “in the autumn of 1866, Belgian basket makers were brought to London to undercut wage levels in the trade. Members of the IWMA went straight to the workplace and ‘pointed out to the Belgians the injury they were inflicting on the English . . . getting two of them to come out [of work] to have a glass of drink.’ Within a day, all the Belgian workers in the shop had quit and were on their way back to the continent.” This provoked considerable discussion with some participants considering that perhaps this came a little too close to “British jobs for British workers”.

But the basic drive towards internationalism in workers’ experience was complemented by the initiatives of individuals and organisations in promoting internationalism. Thomas Davies described Robert Owen’s efforts to promote international action for workers’ welfare in the post- Napoleonic period, and claimed that there were continuities between Owen’s internationalism and later Marxist organisations. Mark Lause described Garibaldi’s role in the successful defence of Dijon at the time of the Franco-Prussian War. James Owen discussed the theory and practice of the Social- Democratic Federation and the roles of John Burns and Tom Mann.

Several papers looked at the developing international organisations of the later nineteenth century. Robert Brier examined the centrality of the Polish question in nineteenth century politics and discussed the complex interaction between nationalism and internationalism. Axel Fair-Schulz considered East and West German debates on the labour movement in imperial Germany, while Reiner Tosstorff looked at the pre-1914 origins, growth and limits of the International Federation of Trade Unions. While the later criticism by the Comintern that it was a mere “letter-box” was inadequate, it was however “true … that the IFTU principally was an addition of national organisations and ….had no international field of action.”

A variety of approaches were used to examine the complex development of the Second International. Jamie Melrose applied an approach based on Foucault to the study of Social Democratic Marxism, while Deborah Lavin gave a vivid account of the circumstances surrounding the two separate inaugural Second International Congresses in 1889, stressing the role of individuals, notably Annie Besant and Paul Lafargue.

The socialist press played an important role in transmitting internationalist ideas to workers. Alice Pate gave a
fascinating account of the socialist press in Russia, 1906-1914, showing how articles conveyed aspects of Western experience to Russian readers. My own paper dealt with La Vie Ouvrière, the French revolutionary syndicalist fortnightly which developed a concept of internationalism which enabled its nucleus to resist support for the war in 1914.

Finally, while understandably the conference largely focussed on European experience, three papers looked at developments in other continents. Steven Parfitt described the impact of the Knights of Labor outside the USA, and in particular their influence in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. Ramin Taghian looked at the early Iranian Socialist Movement (1906-1911) and the links between Iran and the Russian workers’ movement. Tim Wätzold looked at the influence of European immigration on the Latin American labour movement and at social struggles in early twentieth century Latin America.

It was generally agreed that the conference had been a useful and rewarding experience; it is hoped a number of the papers will be published in Socialist History.

Ian Birchall

Book Review: The Lawn Road Flats

From LSHG Newsletter 52 (Summer 2014)

The Lawn Road Flats 
Spies, Writers and Artists
By David Burke
 Boydell Press 2014
Hardcover 309pp
ISBN 9781843837831

David Burke writes books about spies, and The Lawn Road Flats is in the same genre. While I find the books of John Le Carré interesting as social history, and very readable, I am no expert in spy fiction or the intelligence services. However, Burke’s book, about the occupants of what is perhaps more often known as the listed Isokon building in London’s Belsize Park before, during and after World War Two is really as much about the left, or at any rate the substantial part of it that was sympathetic to the Soviet Union and various Communist Parties, than anything else.

Certainly the building housed a large number of people who at least the British Government would have regarded as spies, including Arnold Deutsch, the controller of the Cambridge spies, the most famous group of double agents in UK history to date. Also to be found there were some of the people who controlled various Communist agents dedicated to antifascist work and undermining the Nazis, and a range of scientists, literary figures and artists probably broadly sympathetic to Communism, but no more than that. These people included the sculptor Henry Moore, the writer Agatha Christie and the historian of the ancient world V Gordon Childe, who became one of the UK’s earliest TV personalities on the Animal, Vegetable, Mineral programme. Other occupants included Philip Harben, the first UK TV chef, a distant forerunner to MasterChef. Raymond Postgate, who founded the Good Food Guide, was also a visitor. The building had a social club in the basement, the Isobar, and Burke relates that it was often packed with the occupants who enjoyed good food and wine at economical prices. Also available was rare and unusual beer from the 1930s equivalents of what are now called micro-breweries.

The Times review of the book notes that Burke spends much time going into detail about the relationship of the various occupants to the Communist Party and the history of the time which throws little direct light on what was going on in the Isobar. Burke has researched meticulously (with the help of some Government papers and other archival material) what is known about what did actually go on in the building, but inevitably we can’t really be entirely sure what they talked about or who they talked to. One assumes the talk in the Isobar was on the left but unfortunately we don’t seem to have any details through memoirs or, indeed, intelligence accounts. Presumably at some level both the British and the Soviet Government knew well enough how many spies were housed in the building — Burke does not indicate any action was ever taken — but whether the individuals themselves knew if others were spies is unclear.

What the book does establish beyond doubt was that the mainstream British left was at the forefront of founding the forerunners of the kind of organisations there are today to promote good food, wine and beer. It is perhaps something not always associated with the image of the British Communist Party or for that matter Soviet spies. As often on the left the generation that produced the kind of people who occupied flats in the Isocon did not reproduce itself and in the late 1960s the building was sold as an investment to the New Statesman. In turn the magazine, in the early 1970s, sold it to Camden Council and it has become affordable housing for priority public sector workers. Burke’s book contains much to fascinate, not least that Agatha Christie wrote her only spy novel in a building that was substantially occupied by spies. It provides a fascinating glimpse into a world that we have mostly, in various ways, lost.

Keith Flett

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Ian Birchall on the British Army in World War One

From LSHG Newsletter 52 (Summer 2014)

The Unknown Army

In LSHG Newsletter 51, Keith Flett, discussing the commemoration of World War I, wrote: “The hope is that the voices of the poor bloody infantry, those who died in the trenches and those who tried to stop war may also get some kind of hearing amidst all the pomp and ceremony.”

Many books have attempted to give such a hearing. One, now largely forgotten, is The Unknown Army, by Douglas Gill and Gloden Dallas, published by Verso in 1985. Gill had been editor of Black Dwarf and contributed to New Left Review; Dallas, a pioneer of women’s history, died at the age of 40 before the book was published. The book is based on carefully researched archival material, but also uses letters from survivors of the war, which are quoted in the text. The book is long out of print, with only a few copies available in libraries or at high prices on Amazon. It may therefore be useful to give a summary of this fascinating book, highlighting some of the material contained in it.

The authors begin by examining the British army before 1914. They note that the army made little attempt to recruit from the working class, preferring “country lads” who would be more submissive to discipline. There was also great antipathy to the army among urban workers. All this changed in 1914, when half a million men volunteered in the first six weeks, “men breaking with tradition by leaving factory, pit and mill”. By 1918 nearly five million industrial workers entered the army. The new recruits had no experience of war, and received rudimentary training. There was also a shortage of competent officers.

Despite the initial enthusiasm of volunteers, class relations had not changed. Workers had not forgotten that in the pre-war years the army had been used against striking workers. And traditionally, according to Sir John Fortescue, the army “feared the sharp wits of the manufacturing hands, if that class were too widely present in its ranks; it also feared the ‘agitators’ to which that class was prey”. The army’s answer was brutal discipline, with liberal use of the death penalty. British soldiers “could be condemned to death … by a handful of captains and lieutenants, gathered perfunctorily in a tent, for brief desertion or for an act of simple insubordination”. One man was shot merely for refusing to put on his cap. The authors list a number of cases of execution for brief periods of desertion.

But trade-union habits died hard. A letter from a participant describes events in May 1915 in a battalion made up of Welsh miners:

One of the young soldiers was struck on a very sore arm by one of these Sergeant-Majors with a heavy stick which they always carried. The boy sank to the ground in great pain, his comrades went to his assistance and loudly expressed their anger, actually threatening the offender. After parade, meetings were held and it was decided to refuse to “Fall In” the next morning. This was 100% successful, there was to beno further parades until the instructors were sent away. The 3rd Battalion Welsh regt. were sent to Porthcawl from Cardiff to “persuade” us to parade, they failed in their mission. We remained in our billets for four days,we were fed as usual by our civilian landlords. We were then informed that the instructors were transferred elsewhere and accordingly resumed our training…. 

Despite the pressure to volunteer, the army remained distrustful of working-class recruits. Proposals to set up units of Irish resident in Great Britain were rejected; General Parsons dismissed them as “Liverpool, and Glasgow, and Cardiff Irish, who are slum-birds that we don’t want. I want to see the clean, fine, strong, temperate, hurley-playing country fellows such as we used to get in the Munsters, Royal Irish, Connaught Rangers.”

There were particular problems with Irish troops, especially after the Easter Rising:

The garrison at Tipperary, composed of wounded soldiers from all fronts and from many different Irish regiments, was impelled by minor irritants during Christmas 1916 to refuse parade. English 
reinforcements were brought in to arrest the mutineers. A participant recalled: “Orders were given by our NCOs to strip the bed irons and charge the magazine and capture the guns and ammo, and prepare for attack.” The army chose conciliation. “During the day, the GOC arrived and we were invited to come out.He gave the usual speech and informed us all leave would be opened and any man who wanted could have his Xmas leave granted.” The same garrison had to draw rifles from locked stores when mounting guards, and to return them after duty.” 

The centrepiece of the book is an account of the mutiny at the Etaples Base, one of the base camps through which troops passed on their way to the front. It was the site of the notorious “Bull Ring” training ground, where training was so brutal that some men with unhealed wounds preferred to return to the front than stay there. Discipline was harsh and the officers were of poor quality. In September 1917 simmering discontent exploded. Police arrested and assaulted a New Zealand gunner for no apparent reason. A crowd gathered which was soon “of threatening proportions”, with four thousand men present. A participant describes the developments:

By this time hundreds had gathered and the Red Caps [military police] were having a tough time at their littlehuts on the Rly embankment being stoned by those who never missed an opportunity to get at them with a free hand to really enjoy it. The mob was angry and the Assistant Provo’ Marshal soon turned on his horse when the stones started in his direction. 

Another witness recalls that a Staff Captain

…attempted to stop the men crossing the bridge by lining up a lot of officers from the camp about six deep but the men swept them aside. They swarmed into town, raided the office of the Base Commandant, pulled him out of his chair and carried him on their shoulders through the town. 

By the following day “groups of men broke through the picquets on the bridge and held meetings in the town. One witness recalls that a committee was elected, of perhaps six men chaired by a corporal of the Northumberland Fusiliers.”

The disturbances at Etaples presented serious problems for the army authorities; discipline was breaking down:

For three days …. Brigadier-General Graham Thomson, the Etaples Base Commander, had no troops available on whom he could rely. On the first day, his police were driven off, and every attempt to use infantrymen from one or other of the less affected depots, to use New Zealanders against a Scottish crowd, and so on, was thwarted by the unwillingness of the troops concerned to stop the demonstrations. 

It was not till the fifth day that cavalry and other loyal troops were sent in.

Although the Etaples events were unprecedented, they were not an isolated occurrence. As Gill and Dallas note: “Riots, more or less destructive, were fairly common in the army, particularly in the closing period of the war, and strikes – refusals of duty in support of specific objects – became quite popular”. And 1917 was a period of crisis for all the contending armies: the French had been damaged by mutinies in the spring, the Austro-Hungarian forces were beginning to disintegrate, and Russia, between two revolutions, was experiencing mass desertions.

Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, had a clear class analysis of the roots of the revolt: “Men of this stamp are not satisfied with remaining quiet, they come from a class which like to air real or fancied grievances, and their teaching in this respect is a regrettable antidote to the spirit of devotion and duty of earlier troops.”

But the action produced positive results. As the authors note, after the Etaples mutiny “The generals had lost
confidence in their hold upon the troops … they were no longer certain that their men would still obey.” Reforms were made to the administration of the Etaples base, and the Bull Ring was largely closed. Indeed, concessions spread wider than Etaples; as one veteran recalled: it was “the belief of thousands …. that it changed the whole phase of routine and “Bull” from Base to Front Line”. 1914 was a long way away; in July 1918, Sir Henry Wilson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, recognised that “all enthusiasm for the war is dead”.

Once the war was over, insubordination spread rapidly. Soldiers working in base areas in France struck for shorter hours and speedier demobilisation. This was not simply spontaneous; as one participant recalled, there had been organisation:

… we had a real hard-core of trade unionists and Socialists and … we had built up a mass circulation of the Weekly Herald. … We had, over the preceding months while the war was still in progress, raised the circulation from a few copies per week to a total of 500 in the Valdelievre camp alone. 

By the end of January some 20,000 men were on strike in Calais; as a participant recalled, this involved the vigorous use of flying pickets:

On Tuesday morning parties of picked men were sent out to visit the different camps in the area, help them to put their strike organization in order and supply picquets if necessary (but it wasn’t). I was with one of these parties and visited several small camps and found them all solid. We then split into small groups and scoured the nooks and crannies of the dock area. …. Myself, a solitary party of one, I found a group of five or six NCOs doing some clerical work. Myself: “What are you doing here? Don’t you know there’s a strike on?” NCOs swinging round on their office chairs – “sickly grin”. Myself: Question repeated with expletive and still no answer. “I’ve no time to waste arguing with you, come on now, out of it.” Result: All troop out, myself bringing up the rear. 

Meanwhile in Folkestone troops on leave and due to return to France demonstrated against the slow pace of demobilisation:

The Mayor addressed the troops, who greeted him with cheers. He had been in touch with a senior officer, he said, and if they returned to camp they would receive good news. “To this the large crowd replied by singing Tell me the old, old story.” 

The following day:

Ten thousand marched ten abreast through the streets of Folkestone, and the procession, reaching the Town Hall, spread out until the open space and the streets near-by were “absolutely packed” with men in khaki. 

The strikes and demonstrations posed real problems; as Gill and Dallas note “it was doubtful whether the army had sufficient loyal troops in England to put the demonstrations down.” The various strikes won real gains, better pay and an improved demobilisation process. But the Labour Party kept its distance – the Herald scarcely mentioned the wave of mutinies. We on the left have to acknowledge, and explain, the real enthusiasm initially felt for the war among many workers. But when Michael Gove insists that “those who fought were not dupes”, we have to recall the assorted revolts in the latter stages of the war and at its end, and reply – “Indeed they were not”.

Ian Birchall 

Ian Birchall will be speaking about the First World War at Marxism 2014

Book Review: Street Fighting Mann

From LSHG Newsletter 52 (Summer 2014)

Sadism, Songs and Stolen Liberty 
By Stephen Mann
Createspace Independent Publishing Platform
Paperback 300pp
ISBN 978-1497404434

Steve Mann’s memoir of his youth in the Royal  Navy it that unusual thing, a book about politics  that is also a compelling and enjoyable read.

A North Londoner, Steve signed up for the Royal  Navy in the first half of the 1960s for the minimum term of 12 years.

He quickly came to realise that it was not a pleasant place to be. It might be argued that the petty rules and discipline could be found elsewhere too in the 1960s, but obviously in the armed forces it was taken as a given fact of life.

Steve quite quickly realised that a career in the Royal Navy wasn’t for him, but he was contractually bound to stay. Unlike other jobs you could not just walk out and resign. That would be desertion. As it turned out he did get what appears to have been a good training as a chef and remains, so his trade union colleagues tell me, an excellent cook to this day. Whether this was quite what he had in mind when he signed up is less clear. Certainly he seems to have seen a lot more of land-bound training ships than he did the sea or particularly interesting overseas locations.

The book recounts his political awakening as he contacts the Communist Party in North London [they did not allow members of the services to join] and the old TGWU [likewise]. He reads the Morning Star and Socialist Worker and ends up writing pieces for both papers.

His left-wing leanings clearly aroused the interest of the security services who kept a fairly close watch on both his activities — attending anti-Vietnam war demonstrations for example — and whom he spoke to.

Steve eventually decided to try and buy himself out of the Navy and did pioneering work with the National Council for Civil Liberties [now Liberty] to see if the law that bound people into the services for long periods could be challenged and changed.

He had made his opposition to the Vietnam War clear and told the Navy that, were Britain to become involved, he could not fight — in effect becoming a conscientious objector. His statement was not taken at face value. He had to undergo a lengthy discussion with a Navy padre to prove the point.

In due course the Navy did allow him to buy himself out, for far more money than he had. Socialists in Hornsey had a fundraising Party to Free Steve Mann, which eventually they in fact did.

The book is also a record of North London working class life in the 1960s, the cafés and pubs, the music of the day [there is a list of favourite records at the end] and, the major downside of the book, the support for Arsenal.

If you were around in the 1960s you’ll love the book and even if you weren’t you’ll find it a very engaging piece of working class autobiography. It is an important contribution to our understanding of how people became part of ‘the left’ and what it meant.

Keith Flett

Stephen Mann will be talking about his autobiography on Monday 12 May at 5.30 in the Bloomsbury room G35 in the Institute of Historical Research as part of the LSHG summer seminar series

Tony Benn: Keeping his historical legacy for the future

From LSHG Newsletter 52 (Summer 2014)
With the funeral of Tony Benn he sadly himself starts to become part of history rather than an historical actor.
His Diaries will be an important historical resource. The eleven published volumes represent a fraction of his total archive. It is to be hoped that just as the papers of Mrs Thatcher are being deposited in an academic archive and made available on-line by the Thatcher Foundation, so Benn’s equally if not more important- not least for its longevity- documentation can be made accessible to the public in its entirety.
However Tony Benn was a rarity amongst modern politicians in that he also had a sense of history and specifically labour and democratic history.
Media commentary after his death suggested that he did not have a grasp of historical perspective when was a Labour Minister in the 1960s. Rather his experience of power led him to reflect on lessons that might be learnt from a study of the past.
Benn was not an historian, and nor did he claim to be.
He did not spend his time researching matters in archives or wondering if a study of history might throw up distinctly awkward questions for present practice.
He did understand the historical context he which he operated.
I’m grateful to Professor Owen Ashton, the Editor of the invaluable Merlin Press Chartist Studies series, for reminding me how much Benn focused on the Chartist movement.
Ashton argues that Benn was in the tradition of dissenting ‘Gentleman Leaders; who were radical ‘Friends of the People’. In the nineteenth century one might look to figures like Henry Hunt who spoke at Waterloo, William Cobbett and the great Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor who became MP for Nottingham, as broadly comparable figures.
Benn himself saw the Chartists in the context of a broad democratic heritage including the Peasants Revolt the English Revolution of the 1640s and the Suffragettes of the early years of the twentieth century. It was an historical list he often spoke about and recounted in a 1999 article for History Today
He became he a regular attender at the TUC’s Tolpuddle Festivals in July- he attended in 2013- and that was very much part of his awareness of labour history. He was also to be found often at the Durham miner’s gala for the same reason
His Diaries also contains several references to the Chartists. He wrote in 1981 about Paul Foot’s book Red Shelley and argued that Shelley’s influence on Chartism and the working class movement had been all but hidden.
More poignantly in his General Election defeat in Bristol in 1983, on changed constituency boundaries, he nevertheless paid tribute in his after poll speech to the Chartists and the suffragettes, who had fought for the democracy that had allowed him to stand.
Of course historians can argue that Benn’s understanding was too uncritical perhaps even to a degree hagiographic. Yet that itself misses the times in which Benn was active as a leader of the labour movement.
Very few other Labour MPs or Union leaders knew much if anything about labour history and even fewer made any reference to it when they spoke in public.
The importance of Tony Benn as an educator of the labour movement should not be overlooked. When he spoke at large public meetings and rallies about the Chartists or the Levellers he inspired numbers to go away and find out more about who those people were.
That is why it is so important that his papers are preserved and publicly accessible.
Keith Flett 

John Merriman on the Paris Commune and the French Anarchists



Tuesday, 6 May 2014, 17.00-19.00
RHB 137, Goldsmiths, University of London

In this talk, Professor Merriman will examine the influence of the Paris Commune on the anarchist movement in Paris in the 1880s and especially the 1890s, focusing on the centre-periphery dynamic, elite fears of the margins of Parisian life and the memories of the ‘Bloody Week’ which ended the Commune in May 1871.

Professor Merriman is a distinguished professor of French and European history. Among his many publications are: A History of Modern Europe since the Renaissance, Volumes One and Two (W.W. Norton, 3rd edition, 2009); Dynamite Club: How a Bombing in Fin-de-Siècle Paris Ignited the Age of Mass Terrorism (Houghton Miflin Harcourt Co, 2009); Police Stories: Building the French State, 1815-51 (Oxford University Press, 2006); The Stone of Balazuc: A French Village in Time (W.W. Norton and Co., 2002).
Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune will be published by Basic Books this autumn.


As for the tube strike: you can get here via bus/Natl Rail and/or Overground (none of which involves getting close to crossing a picket line).