Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Marxism 2015: Ideas for Revolution

The timetable for Marxism 2015 in London from 9-13 July is now available online - there are so many critical meetings on offer on a wide range of subjects, but some highlights for socialist historians include:

Laura Miles - A Marxist history of gender and sexuality

Richard Bradbury - The Levellers, Diggers and Ranters - part of our revolutionary history (Richard is also helping organise an evening of drama based around the English Revolution, Not Such a Tory Land)

Donny Gluckstein, Mark Kilian and Frank Renton - Book Launch: Fighting on All Fronts: Popular Resistance in WWII

John Newsinger - Book Launch: Them and Us: Fighting the Class War 1910-1939

Alex Callinicos - The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx

Paul Rees - The Three Degrees: The Men who changed British football forever

John Molyneux - Rubens and Rembrandt - art and revolution

Siobhan Brown - A Rebel's Guide to Eleanor Marx

Megan Trudell - Historical Materialism

Darcus Howe, Robin Bunce and Paul Field - Book Launch: A Political Life 

Ian Birchall - Algerian Independence and the French Left

Michael Lavalette - A history of school student strikes

Nicola Field - The story behind Pride - Lesbians and Gays support the Miners

Alan Gibson - Dusty Springfield, sex, art and the Sixties

Matt Foot - 800 years since Magna Carta - a history of the fight for justice in Britain

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Socialist History Society AGM

Saturday 30 May 2015

SHS AGM. Time: 1.30 p.m. PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS TIME HAS CHANGED. Venue: Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London WC1, followed directly by:-
Saturday 30 May 2015
Jane Bernal speaks on Margot Heinemann: Change is their memorial who have changed the world. A look at the fascinating life of Communist writer, activist, novelist, LRD researcher, historian and literary critic, Margot Heinemann, author of The Adventurers, 1962; Britain in the 1930s (with Noreen Branson), 1971; Puritanism and Theatre, 1982; The Wages Front, 1947; and Britain’s Coal: A Study of the Mining Crisis, 1944. Time: 2.30 p.m. PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS TIME HAS CHANGED. Venue: Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London WC1.
Best wishes
Mike Squires

Sunday, 10 May 2015

The Liberty Tree

Depressed by the election results? Fed up? Deflated? Dispirited! You need a tonic like The Liberty Tree a rebellious, feel-good, jukebox musical for anyone sick of being overworked, underpaid and powerless!

It’s a fantastic show for all lefties, radicals, socialists, anarchists, trade unionists and fellow travellers that will rekindle your fighting spirit.
It's playing at the Bath Spa University Theatre on Thursday May 21st, Friday May 22nd and Saturday May 23rd and tickets are on sale here.
It's also playing at The Cockpit in London Wed 24th – Saturday 27th June.
The cast will include students from the university and young trade unionists and activists from the Bath/Bristol area.

If you feel inspired by the idea of the show you can also support the Liberty Tree through crowd-funding at Kickstarter here.
Or direct to our bank account via Paypal.
Cash or cheques can be sent to Kerry Irvine, Bath Spa University, Newton Park, Newton St Loe, Bath. BA2 9BN.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Victor Serge, Anarchism and Translation

“To Pose the Human Question”: Victor Serge, Anarchism and Translation

 May 15 @ 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm at the May Day Rooms MDR Reading Room 1st floor, 88 Fleet street, London, EC4Y 1DH

Please join the Brooklyn-based translator Mitchell Abidor at MayDay Rooms on Friday May 15th. Mitch will prime a conversation about Victor Serge, and issues arising from the work of translation for Anarchists Never Surrender, an anthology that provides a complete picture of Serge’s relationship to anarchism.

Mitch Abidor is the principal French translator for the Marxists Internet Archive and has published two collections of his translations, The Great Anger: Ultra-Revolutionary Writing in France from the Atheist Priest to the Bonnot Gang and Communards: The Story of the Paris Commune of 1871 as Told by Those Who Fought for It.

 Anarchists Never Surrender contains writings going back to Serge’s teenage years in Brussels. At the heart of the anthology are key articles written soon after his arrival in Paris in 1909, when he became editor of the newspaper L’Anarchie. In these articles Serge develops and debates his own radical thoughts, arguing the futility of mass action and embracing “illegalism.” Serge’s involvement with the notorious French group of anarchist armed robbers, the Bonnot Gang, landed him in prison for the first time in 1912. Anarchists Never Surrender includes not only his prison correspondence with his anarchist comrade Émile Armand and articles written immediately after his release, but also material written by Serge after he had left anarchism behind and joined the Russian Bolsheviks in 1919. Here Serge analyzed anarchism and the ways in which he hoped anarchism would leaven the harshness and dictatorial tendencies of Bolshevism. Included here are writings on anarchist theory and history, Bakunin, the Spanish revolution, and the Kronstadt uprising.

 Victor Serge was born in 1890 to Russian anti-Tsarist exiles living in Brussels. As a young anarchist firebrand, he was sentenced to five years in a French penitentiary in 1912. In 1919, Serge joined the Bolsheviks. An outspoken critic of Stalin, Serge was expelled from the Party and arrested in 1929. Nonetheless, he managed to complete three novels (Men in Prison, Birth of Our Power and Conquered City) and a history (Year One of the Russian Revolution), published in Paris. Arrested again in Russia and deported to Central Asia in 1933, he was allowed to leave the USSR in 1936 after international protests by militants and prominent writers like André Gide and Romain Rolland. Hounded by Stalinist agents, Serge lived in precarious exile in Brussels, Paris, Vichy France, and Mexico City, where he died in 1947.

Monday, 4 May 2015

CfP: Radical Americas symposium

Radical Americas Symposium 2015 - UCL Institute of the Americas - 14-15 September

“Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral"
Paulo Freire

We are delighted to announce a call for papers and panels for our third symposium to be held at the UCL Institute of the Americas on the 14-15 September 2015. The aim of the event is to bring a range of disciplinary and geographical perspectives to bear on radicalism throughout the Americas. Our definition of “radicalism” is a broad one, encompassing both political radicalism as an object of study, and radical analytical approaches to the societies and cultures of the Americas. We welcome proposals that deal with any aspect of radicalism, from the democratic and republican radicalisms of the nineteenth century; to the socialist, anarchist, communist, and populist radicalisms of the twentieth century; as well as contemporary identity politics, social movements, and twenty-first century radicalisms.

 For more info see here:

Sunday, 3 May 2015

LSHG Summer term seminars

London Socialist Historians Summer term seminars 2015

 All seminars are held in Room 102, Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet St WC1 and start at 5.30pm

 Monday May 18th - Mitch Abidor, 'Jean Jaures, The Last Jacobin'

 Monday June 1st - Parmjit Dhanda, 'My Political Race'

 Monday June 15th - Launch of 'A History of Riots' (Cambridge Scholars Publishing); Keith Flett and others

 Monday June 30th tbc

 For more information please contact Keith Flett at the address above.

Book Review: The Dignity of Chartism

Book Review from LSHG Newsletter #55 (Summer 2015)

The Dignity of Chartism
Dorothy Thompson 
Verso 2015 
Paperback ISBN 9781781688496 
Hardback ISBN 9781781688489

 It is reasonably well known that the key reason E.P. Thompson wrote on the English working class in the first and third quarters of the nineteenth century but said very little about the second quarter was that his long time partner Dorothy Thompson was working on the Chartists. She published a series of well regarded and in some cases definitive volumes on Chartism. Yet until now there has been no collection of Dorothy Thompson’s writings in the area beyond the books.

Verso and the book’s editor, Chartist historian Stephen Roberts, have done a considerable service in bringing some at least of Dorothy Thompson’s lesser known work on Chartism together in a new book, The Dignity of Chartism. It is a book which deserves to be read at the very least by the considerable worldwide group of those who work in the traditions of E.P. Thompson. It demonstrates some of the ways that the two historians worked together, sharing ideas and sources, which may have been previously less than clear.  Roberts in a useful introduction, for example, notes that Edward Thompson mined Dorothy Thompson’s research notes for some parts of The Making of the English Working Class.

The book contains a number of hard to find pieces by Dorothy Thompson which will nevertheless probably be familiar to some historians and researchers. However the longest piece here is an unpublished essay written jointly by Dorothy and Edward Thompson on Halifax Chartism. It was commissioned for Asa Briggs’ 1959 volume Chartist Studies but was never published. There is also an interesting web published piece on women and Chartism where Dorothy Thompson while taking a feminist perspective defends Chartism as a class based movement and the way in which women were active in it. The final piece in the book Reflections on Marxist Teleology reflects a speech Dorothy Thompson gave at the launch of the memoirs of John Saville and reviews what in her view is relevant and not relevant in the relationship between Marxism and historical research.

If there is one criticism it is that it would have been useful to have had a bibliography of Dorothy Thompson’s published work. I didn’t know for example that Dorothy Thompson wrote some reviews for the Times Literary Supplement. Some extracts are included here but I’m not clear if there are others.

 However the key point remains. The Dignity of Chartism reminds us of Dorothy Thompson’s place as a major post-1945 socialist and feminist historian. It also provides some fascinating insights into her collaboration with EP Thompson and suggests that her reputation should be regarded in the same perspective as his.

Keith Flett

Obituary: Jim Cronin 1942-2014

Obituary from LSHG Newsletter #55 (Summer 2015)

A Working-Class Intellectual:  

Jim Cronin, 1942-2014

I first met Jim on 4 September 1964, at a meeting of the Tottenham International Socialists (IS - forerunner of the SWP) at Tottenham Trades Hall at Bruce Grove. I’d just arrived in London, and it was my first IS meeting. Jim also had just arrived in Tottenham where he was living with Alan and Maureen Woodward and their two young children. Also at that meeting were Alan Woodward, who died a couple of years ago [see ] and Alan Watts, who is here today. Others here today who may not have been at that particular meeting, but whom Jim and I knew at that time are Mel and Gerry Norris and Fergus Nicol.

If anyone wonders why so many of us have kept  a political commitment over half a century, the answer is in two words – Tony Cliff. Cliff, the founder and chief inspiration of the International Socialists, was a remarkable figure who changed many lives, Jim’s among them. A few years ago when I was working on my biography of Cliff [ ]   I interviewed Jim about his early experiences.

Jim had grown up in a Catholic family and seems to have got little or nothing out of his formal schooling. But by the age of nineteen he had become heavily involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and the Labour Party Young Socialists (YS) in the North Islington area where he lived. He had also broken with his religion and was becoming an atheist; his family tried to send him to the Jesuits to be sorted out, but he declined the offer. He was in general very distrustful of adults and kept clear of the adult CND and Labour Party.

His Youth CND group used to hold regular weekly meetings which took the form of a political discussion group. The various members would put forward their views. Then Alan Woodward, whom Jim knew through CND and the YS suggested that they might invite a speaker on capitalism and the bomb. The next week Cliff turned up and spoke - his argument fitted ideas Jim had already been thinking about. Over forty years later Jim recalled that he had been “bowled over”.

A few weeks later Jim went to a YS meeting in East Islington where Cliff was again the speaker. Jim and a couple of other YS members got talking to Cliff after the meeting, and Cliff invited them back to his house. They sat up right through the night talking about a wide range of political questions. One issue Jim remembered arguing about was the question of what socialists should do in a workplace where there was a racist strike. If they failed to win the argument, should they join the strike or should they cross picket lines? At the time it may have seemed a rather abstract argument – at this time Jim was scarcely involved in trade-union activity – but it was a question which would acquire burning relevance a few years later when London dockers struck in support of Enoch Powell’s famous anti-immigrant “rivers of blood” speech.

Jim remembered this as a “fantastic experience”.  At around this time Cliff used to give a series of twelve lectures on various aspects of Marxism. Jim followed Cliff around and heard the lectures half a dozen times in various parts of London. He was deeply impressed, not just by Cliff’s intellectual analysis but above all by what he saw as Cliff’s “humanity”; Cliff seemed very different to the other adults he had known. He rapidly joined the International Socialists, at this time still a very tiny organisation; Jim may have been the hundredth member.

Cliff recognised Jim’s enthusiasm and took Jim under his wing. Once he had established that Jim was reliable and would return books, it was agreed that Jim was allowed to borrow any books from Cliff’s huge collection that Cliff was not using at the time. This began to satisfy Jim’s thirst for knowledge and to make up for the education that his school had failed to give him.

When in 1963 Cliff left London for several weeks to visit his family in Israel, Jim was allowed access to his house to borrow books while Cliff was away. Cliff obviously regarded Jim as having great potential to encourage him in this way. But there was no flattery. Jim had a Lenin-style beard, and Cliff would tell him: “Jim, you look like Lenin …. But that’s as far as it goes”.

The International Socialists in the early sixties was an exciting place to be. Although the group numbered only a couple of hundred, it contained, as well as Cliff, Michael Kidron, Alasdair MacIntyre, Nigel Harris, Paul Foot and John Palmer. It was the ideas that Jim acquired in this milieu that sustained him through the coming decades of political activity.

Over those years he was involved in a great deal of activity that was not particularly exciting or glamorous – notably Labour Party meetings in the sixties, and later activity on two Trades Councils - but which was absolutely necessary to maintain socialist organisation and animate local struggles.  It is unlikely that he would have found the energy and enthusiasm for this activity if he had not had a broader socialist vision and a sense of the historical process.

From Cliff and the International Socialists Jim got a view of the world that had two important characteristics. Firstly, it offered a radical alternative to the dominant ideology transmitted by the schools, media, churches etc., a view that permitted a radical critique of all the institutions and practices of capitalist society. But as well as being radical it was also realistic. It recognised that capitalism was a tough old system, that reformism had very deep roots. Jim never believed that the achievement of socialism would be quick or easy, or that there were any short-cuts available.

Over the next thirty years Jim was involved in a whole number of campaigns in support of workers in struggle and in opposition to racism and the far right. Let me give just one example. Everybody knows about the Fords Dagenham women’s strike for equal pay in 1968; it’s become the subject of a movie and now a musical.
But the struggle for equal pay was a long one, and Dagenham wasn’t the only strike. In 1976 women at the Trico windscreen wiper factory in Brentford, West London, struck for twenty-one weeks before achieving equal pay.  The Lea Valley was then still one of the major industrial areas in London. Jim played a major role in organising to bring strikers over to North-East London, and to take them round factories and workplaces in order to raise money.

Many other activities could be listed. When I first knew him he was chair of Wood Green Young Socialists; later he was active in promoting and selling Tony Cliff’s two books on Incomes Policy and Productivity Deals. He was also involved in the campaign against council rent increases in Haringey.

In the mid-seventies he was active in building the Right to Work Campaign, and joined the pickets during the long-running Grunwick strike. In 1977 the National Front, then on the rise, organised a march from Duckett’s Common at Turnpike Lane. Jim was very much involved in the counter-demonstration which successfully challenged the NF and was an important prelude to the big demonstration at Lewisham later that year which turned the tide against the NF. On the back of this activity the Anti-Nazi League was founded, and again Jim played an active role.

On a more mundane level Jim and I were involved, not with any great success, in working in Enfield Trades Council and trying to turn it into a more effective interventionist organisation. A little later came the great miners’ strike of 1984-85, and once again Jim was heavily involved in solidarity work. Doubtless there are many more activities I have forgotten.

Besides this Jim was always involved with building the local organisations of the Socialist Workers Party, as IS had become. Many, many hours were spent on building and maintaining branch and district organisation, sustaining and encouraging comrades, and sorting out often debilitating internal disputes.

Two more things that Jim owed to Cliff. Soon after Jim joined the Islington branch of the IS, Cliff arranged for him to become chair of the branch, which gave him experience and confidence in chairing. I must have attended many dozens of meetings chaired by Jim, but on thinking about it, I cannot recall anything of them. That was because Jim realised that the job of a chair is to facilitate discussion in the meeting and not to obtrude him- or herself.

And Jim always remembered the way that Cliff had acted as a mentor to him when he was a young recruit to the organisation. Jim often tried to play the same role for new members, encouraging them to read and assisting with their political development. One particular example was Andy Strouthous, a young recruit in the 1970s, for whom Jim was a guide and mentor, who later became a Central Committee member, and who was a lifelong friend of Jim’s.

Two final observations on Jim. Firstly Jim was, above all, a rank-and-file activist. Back in the seventies we used to talk a lot about the rank-and-file, and Jim exemplified all that was best in the meaning of the term. As far as I know, Jim never served, nor aspired to serve, on any national body of the SWP; he was never on the Central Committee, National Committee or any other national body.

With the exception of his involvement in the rank-and-file engineers’ paper Engineers Charter, all his activity was confined to North London, at various times in the boroughs of Islington, Haringey, Enfield and Barnet. That was his patch; that was where he made his contribution. Without activists like Jim building on the ground, national organisations would be completely meaningless.

And secondly Jim was very much a working-class intellectual. He loved books, and was fascinated by ideas. His genuine enthusiasm for knowledge stood in sharp contrast to all too many who have the privilege of working in the academic world but are quite cynical in their attitude to ideas and knowledge. He was particularly interested in the revolutionary process, in the dynamics of the Russian Revolution and also of the French Revolution of 1789.

With the rapid expansion of higher education in the 1960s and after, many of the generation who got their first intellectual stimulus in the Young Socialists later, at various stages of their lives, entered higher education as mature students. The Tottenham IS, which never had much more than a dozen members, produced two (I think) PhDs, an MA and a few BAs.

Jim, however, never entered any formal academic study. (Perhaps his recollection of his unhappy schooldays deterred him.) For Jim the revolutionary socialist organisation was his university, and it gave him a better education than he could have acquired in an academic institution.

In his later years, when health problems were making him cut back on political activity, Jim, along with his friend Andy Strouthous, was a regular attender at seminars of the London Socialist Historians Group, and was always keen to participate in the discussions. While he did not tolerate pretentiousness, he was always keen to expand his knowledge and understanding of the historical process.

But while it was revolutionary politics that had awakened Jim’s thirst for ideas, he was never narrowly political in his concerns. His great pride in his three daughters, his abilities as a photographer and his love of Arsenal all testify to the breadth of his interests.

He was a remarkable individual and it was a privilege to have known him.

Ian Birchall

This a slightly expanded version of my contribution at Jim’s Memorial Meeting

Historians and Coalition Governments

From LSHG Newsletter #55 (Summer 2015)

Not Behind Closed Doors: Historians and Coalition Governments 

Image result for Coalition, written by James Graham

On Saturday 28 March on Channel 4 aired a play, Coalition, written by James Graham, about how the 2010 Government was formed in May of that year.

While I wouldn’t go quite as far as Adam Ramsay  ( ) in suggesting that the Tory media has been prepared for a May ‘coup’ where Cameron is installed in No.10 one way or another even if Labour has more seats, statements such as that by Danny Alexander that whether there is another Tory-LibDem Coalition is in the hands of electors do need to be questioned. Coalition is not an option either on the ballot paper or something any party is campaigning for.

It’s too soon for historians to form a judgement on the impact of the last five years of Government, not least because it will still be several decades yet before a range of official papers is available. Recent years have seen a range of measures around data protection and freedom of information that have provided some kind of framework on how information is held about people, what is held and how people can access this. As Graham underlined in an article about his play in the London Evening Standard (23 March) very little is ever likely to be officially known about the five days of discussions in May 2010 that led to the Tory-LibDem Coalition.

Graham writes ‘what happened in those rooms was not recorded. No minutes were taken. The civil servants were sent out of the room’. He goes on ‘if we ever want a truly accurate record of what happened, it’s not the official archive that will do it, we’ll need to be rounding up BlackBerries’.

Historians rely on archives for much primary research, but of course they are not the only source. Participants in the 2010 talks have written accounts of them and some have clearly talked to Graham as he was writing
the play. Official records are usually a note of key points and decisions rather than blow by blow accounts but even so their absence removes an important part of the research framework for a modern political historian seeking to establish the realities of political power in early twenty-first century Britain.

The disdain for keeping official records has been underlined since by stories that Ministers such as Michael Gove used private e-mail addresses for official exchanges precisely to avoid these being captured as part of the record. Of course one can overplay the importance of this. In the days before e-mail that same exchange might have been had face to face (with no witnesses) or perhaps over the telephone where it was possibly less likely to be captured. One might ask why Governments ever kept records. It was certainly not so that future generations of socialist historians could find out what they had been up to!

The answer is that the ruling class relies not just on the memory of individual figures but on a bureaucratic structure that keeps records of events and decisions. So, for example, if the issue of a Coalition does arise again in May, Civil Servants should have been able to check back for the framework of how this was done in 2010.

The experience of 2010 does suggest that for the purposes of historical research and so that our successors can get to find out what went on in Government, there does need to be some further measure to ensure appropriate records are kept. Perhaps there needs to be an official Government history department, overseen by elected MPs, specifically charged with making sure that a proper record is kept of all meetings and events.

It sounds tedious but aside from its historical value, it is also about democratic transparency and accountability. In an open society the process of Government should not be going on behind closed doors.

Keith Flett

A version of this post appeared in the Morning Star on 7 April