Friday, 30 October 2015

LSHG Seminar: Chris Jury on Politics, Theatre and History

Dear Comrade

the next seminar in the autumn term 2015 series is on Monday November 9th at 5.30pm in Room 304, Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet St, London WC1.

Chris Jury will speak on politics, theatre and history. Chris is a well known actor and director (including over 40 episodes of Eastenders..)

You may also be interested to know that the two most recent LSHG seminars are now available as podcasts here:


Keith Flett

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

SHS: Campaigns for Decent Housing Past and Present

Socialist History Society Meeting
Campaigns for Decent Housing Past and Present
Speaker Duncan Bowie

2pm, 21st November 2015

Venue Marx Memorial Library, Clerkenwell Green

Duncan Bowie will give a talk on radical and socialist campaigns for decent housing, land nationalisation and town planning in the 19th century and seek to relate them to the current housing crisis and contemporary struggles.

Duncan's book, The Radical and Socialist Tradition in British Planning: From Puritan Colonies to Garden Cities is to be published by Ashgate later this year.

Duncan is a member of the Socialist History Society committee and of the committee of the London Labour Housing Group. He is a lecturer at the University of Westminster. He is the author of SHS OP No 34, Roots of the British Socialist Movement.

Monday, 19 October 2015

LSHG seminar: John Newsinger on British Counter-Insurgency

Dear Comrade

a reminder about the next London Socialist Historians seminar.  Please note the room and start time.  

On Monday 26th October at 5.30pm in Room 304 Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet St, WC1. Room 304 (third floor)

British Counter Insurgency. A history
John Newsinger
John, a noted authority in this area, will speak on new research he has done.

I hope to see you there


keith Flett

Sunday, 11 October 2015

New LSHG Newsletter now online

The Autumn 2015 issue of the LSHG Newsletter is now online, featuring book reviews, discussions of Keir Hardie and Jeremy Corbyn and an obituary of Bel Druce.  Letters, articles, criticisms and contributions to ndebate are most welcome.

The deadline for the next issue is 1 December 2015 - please contact Keith Flett at the usual address.  A reminder of our upcoming seminars below:

London Socialist Historians Seminar Autumn 2015

All seminars start at 5.30pm in Room 304 Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet St, London WC1. Free without ticket

12th Oct: Merilyn Moos: 'Generations: the impact of the personal and political on children born in Britain to refugees from Nazism'

26th Oct: John Newsinger: 'British Counter Insurgency. A history'

9th Nov: Chris Jury: 'Politics, theatre and history'

23rd Nov:  Sue Jones: 'My longing desire to go to sea': wanderlust and wayward youth in early modern England​

7th Dec: Roundtable, Keith Flett & others:  'How to remember the 1926 General Strike, 90 years on'


Keir Hardie, 100 years on

From LSHG Newsletter #56 (Autumn 2015)

Keir Hardie, 100 years on

Before the current Labour leader the last one with a beard was Keir Hardie, who led the Party from 1906-8. He died 100 years ago on September 26 1915. The centenary has been marked by at least one academic conference pondering Hardie’s political impact and a Radio 4 programme by Gordon Brown who is a Scottish labour historian by profession.

There is much scope for discussion and debate about Hardie and hopefully the centenary will provide some all too rare reflections on British labour history in the crucial period around the formation of the Labour Party in 1900. My thoughts here touch, and only briefly, on a few enduring aspects of Hardie’s political legacy.

Hardie’s original base, from the late 1870s, was amongst first the Lanarkshire and then the Ayrshire miners in Scotland. He was a trade unionist, a full time organiser, with a Lib-Lab (that is a trade unionist within the Liberal Party) perspective on the world that focused strongly on issues of respectability such as temperance and religious observance.

Hardie stood as an independent labour candidate election in Lanark in April 1888 and in August of the same year he became the first secretary of the new Scottish Labour Party. A career in Scottish politics surely beckoned. Except that it didn’t because that wasn’t quite how Hardie saw the world.

In 1892 he travelled to the East End of London, another centre of a newly organising working class, to stand, without Liberal opposition, as a small ‘l’ labour candidate for Westminster. Hardie won and in August 1892 took his seat as an MP.

Questions were asked about where Hardie’s campaign funds came from. While Hardie presented himself as moving beyond his trade union background, as Caroline Benn’s definitive biography underlines, unemployment was even more of an issue in West Ham than it was in Ayrshire. The Scottish miners understood the link well enough and certainly gave some of the money for Hardie’s election. The following year he was one of those who formed the Independent Labour Party.

When it came to the 1900 General Election Hardie, in era when it was possible to stand in more than one seat, was nominated in both Preston and Merthyr in South Wales. Preston was never likely at this point, on a still restricted franchise, to return a labour MP. Hardie’s chances in Merthyr weren’t thought to be too good either. After all he was a Scot who had held a seat in London’s East End and was largely unknown in the area.

Hardie however had two things going for him. Firstly he had been a miner and a miner’s union official. Merthyr was a mining seat, but one which remained firmly Lib-Lab. This however was the period when the new Trades Councils were being formed in the area, and they were often a bedrock of support for independent labour politics.

In a two-member seat Hardie was elected MP and in the 1906 General Election was re-elected with an increased majority. During his period as MP for West Ham and Merthyr when not representing his constituents in London, Hardie continued to live in Cumnock in Scotland where he had been based as a union official.

Hardie’s politics remained as they had developed from his background. A pacifist, he opposed war, and the First World War on that basis, not that of anti-imperialism. He was a determined advocate of an independent labour politics (although one that did deals early on with the Liberals) and a supporter of women’s suffrage which at that time placed him on the left of the labour movement. On the left, but certainly no revolutionary as Victor Grayson the MP for the Colne Valley was.

The central historical point is that Hardie’s trajectory as a union and labour activist demonstrates that while issues of national independence are important ones, class politics transcends boundaries.

The spectre of united working class internationalism that Hardie, and his beard, in a way personified, continues to not only haunt the right but be of great relevance for the labour movement.

Keith Flett

Obituary: Bel Druce

From LSHG Newsletter #56 (Autumn 2015)

Obituary: BEL DRUCE (1940-2015)

Those who attend seminars at the IHR may well Bel Druce who until recently was a regular presence. She sadly died over the summer and this piece by Ian Birchall serves to remind us of the life of an activist

My friend Bel Druce, who died in August as a result of a heart attack and cancer, had been a regular participant in LSHG seminars for the last few years. Like many LSHG members she was not a professional historian by training, but brought to the group insights derived from her own experience and commitments.

Bel was born in 1940. Her father was a Scottish traindriver and, quite naturally at that time, a trade unionist. Her mother was Swiss. I don’t know the exact circumstances, but just after the end of the War her mother took her to live in Switzerland, for a year, perhaps longer. She returned to England and continued her schooling. She enjoyed learning, and even studied ancient Greek for a year. She would have liked to stay on at school and go on to higher education, but her mother was opposed to this.

In her twenties she married and gave birth to three children. As the children grew older she decided to get the education she had missed out on earlier. She enrolled at the LSE as a mature student and did a degree in anthropology. She followed this up with an MA in Librarianship at University College London. She then considered doing a PhD on the subject – “Language and perception in a multicultural society”. This was based on the principle that the language we use shapes the way in which we perceive the world we live in. Bel wanted to examine this principle in terms of the various versions of English spoken in different ethnic communities in Britain. It would have been a fascinating piece of work, but sadly it never materialised.

For much of her life Bel worked as a librarian, becoming a Senior Librarian in Barnet. She was active in her trade union, NALGO – later UNISON - where she was a popular and effective activist. She was one of the two million who marched against war in Iraq in February 2003 – though later she would worry as to whether the demonstration had achieved anything. She was fiercely anti-racist.

Retirement gave her more scope to pursue her intellectual activities. She became a volunteer worker in the anthropology section of the British Museum. She also started attending evening classes on topics such as political theory. At times she would get into heated arguments with her fellow-students, notably about the Middle East. This was the Bel Druce I met in 2010.

The two most striking things about her were her intellectual curiosity and her capacity for friendship. She had an insatiable thirst for knowledge, and was constantly asking questions, never willing to accept the received orthodoxy about anything. Bel had been an active trade unionist, supported various left-wing causes and subscribed to Red Pepper. But she had never been a member of a political organisation.

Knowing her intellectual curiosity and her fondness for evening classes, I suggested going to various meetings and seminars which might interest her. We started attending meetings of the London Socialist Historians Group. Initially I think she was a bit intimidated by the atmosphere, which could on occasion be a little cliquish, but soon she began to participate in the discussions, and she loved meeting up with other participants for a drink  after the seminars. I introduced her to Keith Flett’s website, which intrigued and amused her. In the summer of 2011, after attending Marxism, she decided to join the SWP. She felt that at last, now, in her seventies, she had found her “political home”. In 2014 she joined RS21. At the same time she became involved in Left Unity in Barnet, where she took on various jobs and responsibilities. She was still working her way towards that “political home” she longed for.

For some time she had been suffering from a problem with her left knee which made it impossible for her to walk any distance. In the summer of 2014 she was outraged by the Israeli bombardment of Gaza but was unable to take part in any of the massive demonstrations in Central London. She did, however, hobble her way up from Turnpike Lane to Haringey Civic Centre on a local demonstration.

In March this year she took part in what was to be her last demonstration; very fittingly it was UN Anti-Racism Day. She wasn’t able to march the full distance, but she joined us at Piccadilly Circus to walk the last few hundred yards to Trafalgar Square. Then we went to a café. I went to get her a cup of coffee; when I returned to the table I found her, typically, deep in political discussion with an anti-nuclear campaigner who had also been on the march.

Bel’s last political involvement was with the election campaign of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition [TUSC]. She wasn’t able to do much campaigning, but she had no less than three window bills for the TUSC candidate in Tottenham, Jenny Sutton, in her front window, and, as she reported, it got her into a number of political discussions with neighbours and passers-by. The very last meeting she attended was Jenny Sutton’s final election rally.

At the beginning of June she was taken into the North Middlesex Hospital. Bel very much appreciated the high standard of care she received and she was able to spend her last weeks in dignity and relatively free from pain. It was easy to see that she was trying to make friends with those who were caring for her, but when one of the staff expressed approval of Jeremy Hunt she immediately started an argument.

Bel’s attitude to history was aptly summed up by Brecht’s poem:

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?

The books are filled with names of kings.

Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?

And Babylon, so many times destroyed.

Who built the city up each time?

Ian Birchall

For a fuller account of Bel’s life go to

Book Review: Breaking the Silence

From LSHG Newsletter #56 (Autumn 2015)
Breaking the Silence: Voices of the British Children of Refugees from Nazism

Merilyn Moos

Rowman & Littlefield 2015

358pp ISBN 978-1783482962

The author writes:

About 70-80,000 people fled Nazism to Britain, mostly because of anti-Semitism but a significant minority because of their opposition to the Nazis. My book looks at how that ‘second generation’, although born in Britain, continue to feel displaced and feel a sense of ‘otherness’. But there are differences within the British second generation as well as similarities. The children of the political refugees appear to be less likely to see themselves or their parents as victims. At the heart of the book are the stories that members of the second generation told me: ‘breaking the silence’. Although not the book’s focus, in the current period with hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers (the so-called ‘hordes’ of ‘immigrants’) desperately seeking sanctuary, the effects of exile on subsequent generations is especially pertinent.’

Below is Bob Cant’s review for Scottish Review, 15 September 2015

Breaking the Silence is an exploratory research study which contextualises and analyses the experiences of people of the second generation and is primarily based around a series of testimonials by people from that group. Central to their narratives are questions about belonging. Some of the most powerful stories are from people talking about the ways they faced up to topics-which-could-notbe- discussed during their everyday lives as children.’ She [Moos] shares the concern of Judith Butler that the focus on 'trauma’ can actually demean the suffering of the survivors and can result in 're-enacting the past as the present’. She found this individualistic approach to trauma and victimhood ahistorical and disempowering; she welcomed signs of resilience in some of her informants.” The indicators of distress that she identifies among the second generation of refugees from nazism will prove invaluable for those studying and seeking to promote the wellbeing of people who have survived any of the catastrophes of our age.

LSHG Conference - The Irish Easter Rising - Saturday 30 April

LSHG Forum - Saturday 30 April  - One Hundred Years On: The Irish Easter Rising

Institute of Historical Research, Malet St, London, WC1E 7HU
 - midday

Image result for irish easter rising

A number of speakers will address the significance of the Rising
on its 100th anniversary. Here John Newsinger sets the scene.

On 24 April 1916, Easter Monday, a force of some 900 Irish Volunteers and Citizen Army members seized control of the centre of Dublin and proclaimed the Irish Republic. They held out against the British army until the deployment of artillery forced their unconditional surrender on the 29th. By this time 64 rebel fighters had been killed, together with 132 soldiers and police and some 250 civilians, many shot out of hand by the troops. In the context of the horrors of the First World War, this was a minor episode, the death of some 450 people at a time when hundreds of thousands were being slaughtered on the

Western Front. Indeed, there were at the time considerably more Irishmen fighting for the British in France than took part in the Rising. Nevertheless, the Rising had an impact out of all proportion to the numbers involved, the damage suffered and the casualties inflicted. It prepared the way for the triumph of Sinn Fein in 1918 and for the War of Independence and the Civil War that followed. A hundred years later, the rebels are generally celebrated as heroes but important questions remain. Did the they believe they had a realistic chance of success in the face of apparently overwhelming odds or was their rebellion a self-conscious blood sacrifice intended to keep the spirit of republicanism alive? How much popular support did the Rising have at the time? How significant was their alliance with Imperial Germany? What was the attitude of the British left, both revolutionary and reformist, to the Rising? Did Labour MPs really cheer the news of the execution of the rebel leadership in the Commons? What part did women play in the Rising? And what of James Connolly? Was his participation, indeed his leadership role, in the Rising, the fulfilment of his socialist politics or an abandonment of them? What was the significance of his membership of the Irish Republican Brotherhood? Did Connolly really argue that the British would not use artillery because of the damage it would cause to capitalist property? Did he tell the Citizen Army men and women to hold onto their rifles because they were out for social freedom and not just political freedom or is this just a myth invented years later? What became of Connolly’s socialism after his death? Why was the socialist presence in the War of Independence so easily contained, indeed marginalised? For Sean O’Casey, Connolly had forsaken his socialist commitment in favour of republicanism and the only genuine socialist martyr of Easter Week was Francis Sheehy-Skeffington. What was the impact of Sheehy-Skeffington’s murder at the hands of British troops on opinion in Britain? How important was Catholicism to the rebel fighters? Even Connolly was reconciled with the Church before his execution and privately urged his Protestant wife to convert as a dying wish. And the only Protestant in the rebel leadership, Constance Markiewicz herself subsequently converted. There are a host of questions still to be explored and debated while at the same time honouring the memory of those who died fighting the British Empire.

Book Review: Young Lives on the Left

From LSHG Newsletter #56 (Autumn 2015)


YOUNG LIVES ON THE LEFT: Sixties Activism and the Liberation of the Self
Celia Hughes
Manchester University Press 2015
320pp £70.00 ISBN 978-0719091940

How do individuals become revolutionary socialists? One might imagine that the organisations of the far Left, ever eager for recruits, would have devoted much thought to the question. But they have had little to say. Perhaps they are afraid of straying from politics into psychology. Or perhaps they think all the 99% are equally open to socialist persuasion, and all the Left needs to do is sell more papers, more vigorously. So Celia Hughes’ new book opens up some interesting new perspectives. Relatively little has been written on the subject, apart from Cold War diatribes seeking to show that all leftists are “psychologically disturbed”. (For a brief but devastating critique see

This is not the sort of history of the far Left that explains why the ABC split from the DEF, or why comrade G was expelled. Instead Hughes has conducted in-depth interviews with a group of activists from the 1960s, showing how they became involved in far Left politics and what problems they encountered when they did so. (Here I must declare an interest – I was one of those interviewed and quoted in the book.) Those interviewed were involved mainly in the International Socialists [IS] (forerunner of the SWP), the International Marxist Group [IMG] (Fourth International), the Maoist-influenced Camden Movement for People’s Power and the looser organisation of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Hughes makes no claim for typicality – those interviewed were those whom she could trace and who were willing to be interviewed. Only very tentatively does she point to possible patterns. (It is a pity that nobody from the Socialist Labour League was interviewed, and that it gets only a few negative mentions from those explaining why they didn’t join it. Until 1968 the SLL was the Largest organisation of the British far Left, and whatever criticisms can be made of its sectarian politics and organisational style, it undoubtedly had some talented and dedicated comrades; it would have been good to hear of their experiences.) Oral history has its Limitations, as Hughes is well aware. In particular interviewees tend to omit things of which they are ashamed or which might discredit them. (I certainly did.) But she has managed to coax some surprisingly frank and self-critical accounts out of her interviewees, which give us a real sense of what it meant to be a revolutionary socialist in the period stretching from the high point of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament to the great industrial confrontations of the early seventies.

In so doing Hughes draws out two very important points about the development of revolutionaries. Firstly, as she shows, people do not become revolutionaries for revolutionary reasons. Their commitment is rooted in experiences that dated from before the time they became revolutionaries. Some, Like Alan Woodward, grew up in deep poverty, which shaped their anger against a social system that permitted it. Others came from more comfortable backgrounds, but were outraged at the spectacle of exploitation and oppression at home or abroad (South Africa was very important here). Some came from Labour or Communist homes, others from an unpolitical or openly conservative background. Hughes gives full attention to school, family and religion, as well as the general context of the post-war welfare state (the generation that got free milk and orange juice). So the road to revolutionary politics was often complex and tortuous. Mike McGrath became an active and respected trade-union militant, but his first act of rebellion was refusing to kneel for prayers at Dulwich College. A recurring term in Hughes’ narratives is “contradiction”. Young people saw that the official ideology spoke of freedom and equality, but in practice the system suppressed these values. Parents preached values which they did not put into practice. Schools and colleges spoke of rights and freedom, but imposed petty regulations. Women were told they were equal, but soon discovered the limits to that equality. The Bible promised that the rich would burn in Hell, but organised Christianity endorsed the existing unequal social order. And even inside left organisations there was often a discrepancy between professed principles and the way comrades actually behaved.

Secondly, Hughes illustrates a crucial truth. People who set out to change the world change themselves in the process. It is true of social revolutions, where the oppressed classes transform their values and views of the world, often very rapidly, in the course of attacking the old order. But it is also true of individuals who become involved in a political movement, and who find that their personal lives are totally transformed. This transformation has many aspects. For some it was a question of developing a self-confidence they had previously not had, realising that they could stand up and speak in a meeting, or write articles for the party paper. Young workers like Alan Watts, Roger Cox or Bob Light did not go into the factory or the docks for political reasons; they went to earn their living. But when they became politically involved they had to become militants, agitators, paper-sellers – which in turn deeply affected their relations to their fellow-workers. Personal relations were profoundly affected and Hughes looks at the experience of various couples (unfortunately no gay couple is studied). The problems of child care and attitudes towards the rearing of children are examined. Some experimented with forms of collective Living. The rise of women’s liberation was a central feature of the period studied, and Hughes gives us much material about how it was experienced by both women and men. It was a complex and difficult process. Sexist attitudes were deeply rooted, and after thousands of years of male domination men did not simply roll over and surrender the first time they were called a male chauvinist pig. Hughes presents the difficult and painful experiences of many women in this period. But she also draws attention to an aspect that is frequently neglected: for many men the rise of the women’s movement was a deeply alarming and frightening experience, something that seemed to threaten all their assumptions about the world.

So Hughes has written a valuable book which will undoubtedly provoke debate and further research. Nonetheless I have a few reservations about her approach. The subtitle of the book refers to “Liberation of the self”. But if many of us discovered personal liberation, it was not our main aim; we were setting out to change the world, not just to change ourselves, and Hughes often seems to underestimate the importance of the political ideas that inspired us. She reminds us of the sixties slogan: “The personal is political, the political is personal”. It was a formulation that contained a powerful truth – but it could also lead to a neglect of the importance of political motivation. Firstly, Hughes seems to underestimate the truly dramatic nature of the period that stretched from 1968 (when France saw the biggest general strike in human history) to 1974 (when industrial action by miners brought down a Tory government). The events are alluded to, but not discussed in any detail. Yet they provided the essential context to our commitment. Maybe we were naïve, maybe we overestimated the possibilities. But we did believe that we could change the world, and that belief was an absolutely essential foundation for all we did.

Secondly, Hughes is often remarkably thin in dealing with political ideas. There are many references to ideas, to arguments, to reading; but there is very little on content. John Charlton is quoted as saying he was “seeking for an explanation for the world he lived in”, but there is nothing about what he thought needed to be explained, or what explanations he discovered. Phil Hearse, as a student at York, organised a meeting addressed by Ernest Mandel which attracted an audience of a thousand. Mandel was a formidable orator and a powerful analyst of contemporary society – but we are told nothing about what he said. A couple of interviewees refer to Michael Kidron and his theory of the “permanent arms economy” as a way of connecting opposition to nuclear weapons to fighting the capitalist system as a whole. But there is no account of the theory, nor even a reference to the many texts available on the Marxists Internet Archive dealing with it (Kidron does not figure in Hughes’ extensive bibliography). Now it was a complex theory, and few of us grasped all the technical details. But as an explanation of the post-war boom it showed that full employment (which greatly strengthened the working class) was real, but that it had two downsides – it wasn’t going to last and it entailed the danger of nuclear war. Such ideas were important to us, and Hughes’ preoccupation with “striving for self-change” and “sense of self-discovery” tends to underplay this.

And thirdly, a great deal of what we did was not particularly “liberating” – for example standing at a factory gate at 7.00 a.m. failing to sell papers, or taking the minutes of a dreary Trades Council meeting. We did it because we had a view of history and a belief that certain forms of practice could help to shape history. Maybe we were wrong or misguided, but our lives, private and public, cannot be understood without that vision. Finally a great many of those interviewed (of those known personally to me a reasonable proportion) remain politically active, half a century on. Some are still with their original organisational choice, others have found new forms of practice in a vastly changed world, yet have not abandoned the basic values that inspired them. Perhaps Hughes should consider a sequel, “Old Lives on the Left”, that might try to explain how commitment was sustained through defeats and setbacks. But despite these reservations the book is well worth reading. For us old-timers it is not just a nostalgia trip, but a chance to re-examine our past. Younger readers can study our achievements, such as they were, and perhaps learn to avoid our mistakes. At £70.00 it is expensive, but those in a position to do so should order it for libraries. And a good deal of the material is contained in Hughes’ PhD thesis, available at

Ian Birchall

Book Review: Angela Remembered

From LSHG Newsletter #56 (Autumn 2015)

Reviews: Angela Remembered

The Life of Angela Gradwell Tuckett
Rosie MacGregor
Watermarx Media, 2015 96pp
ISBN 978-0957072633

The work of the Dictionary of Labour Biography has done a good deal to detail the lives of labour movement and socialist activists in the UK, but there are many who remain undocumented. Rosie MacGregor’s memoir of the life of Angela Gradwell Tuckett provides a fascinating insight into one such activist.

Tuckett was born in Bristol in 1906 and died after a life of activism in 1994. She was Bristol’s first articled female solicitor and her legal training led her to work as the lawyer for the National Council for Civil Liberties in the early 1940s and then for the Daily Worker (Morning Star) ending her working life on Labour Monthly. In between all that she qualified as a pilot and played hockey for England until she was blacklisted for failing to take part in diplomatic niceties on an England hockey team tour of Nazi Germany. She joined the Communist Party in the late 1920s and stayed a member, on the Morning Star side of things, until her death. She was also a noted and knowledgeable folk musician, although MacGregor notes that her concertina playing was to put it mildly not to the taste of all, or sometimes in an appropriate key.

There is much more fascinating detail in the book, including that of her personal relations. Her politics, which would be labelled ‘Stalinist’ by many, won’t be to the taste of all readers. MacGregor makes clear the tensions they sometimes called and some might be tempted to see Tuckett as a Communist Party activist following a party line. MacGregor however provides a much more rounded picture of Tuckett’s life and reminds us that labelling people simplifies and distorts what they were really like and what they actually did. Her support for feminist causes, or, late in life, the 1984/5 miners strike, was something shared across the left, although no doubt Tuckett had a particular ‘take’ on them. Tuckett was also the author of several books on theatre and trade unions underlining that while she was not a Marxist theoretician she had a good grasp of the history of the movement. She also notes that Tuckett could seem quite an awkward, single minded person. One might reflect however that if she had not been she might well not have continued with political activism over so many decades. At the same time, the activism may have made an impact on her personality in return. This book is a really interesting study of the life of an activist, and it also poses important questions about activism.

Keith Flett

Comment: Jeremy Corbyn

From LSHG Newsletter #56 (Autumn 2015)

Jeremy Corbyn -Reviving some of the best traditions of the labour movement

There is a link between newly elected Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and the world’s first working class party, the Chartists. Both are closely connected with ideas of political democracy. Much of the rhetoric used by the Chartists, frequently Biblical in origin, would easily be enough to provoke a condemnatory Guardian editorial, never mind the Telegraph or Mail. It is not the kind of language that Corbyn uses to describe the ills of capitalism. He tends to be quite a bit lower key. That of course has not stopped an almost uniform media attack on Corbyn’s leadership.

There is another link, perhaps less obvious. Many Chartist meetings were held in the open air. It was not a movement with money to hire meeting halls, even if they had existed and been open to the Chartists using them. Moreover Chartist meetings were often huge and not easily contained in a hall anyway. These practical considerations aside there was also a political strategy known as the mass platform at work. The idea of the mass platform was to push political democracy to its limits — thanks to the efforts of the labour movement in the intervening 175 years the limits are now quite a bit wider — and to challenge capital by mass and militant gatherings. The state was far from happy at this idea and waves of repression and jailings took place, often for the use of inflammatory language as the authorities saw it. By the 1860s the authorities had managed to begin to curtail the use of the mass platform. The new police forces developing from the late 1830s harassed outdoor gatherings in some places. In addition areas of open space were enclosed and meetings prevented from taking place.

Meetings moved to indoor halls and attendance was controlled by ticketing them. This was certainly a device used by the newly formed Liberal Party (formed 1858) but it was also adopted in part by the early post-Chartist, labour and radical movements. Open air mass meetings and demonstrations did not go away but the balance of democratic practice shifted away from them. On 7th August this year Corbyn did hold a large open air rally in Bradford. Purposefully designed or not, it was a reminder of some of the earliest and best traditions of the labour movement. Pictures show a large number of people gathered to hear Corbyn address them in a field, much as they would have come together to hear Chartist leaders 175 years ago. There was an element of the Corbyn campaign reminiscent of a time before the age of machine politics, which started as early as the 1860s in Britain. It is about enthusiasm and an open politics where people themselves as much as politicians are the important thing. That could be seen too at the fund raising rally held at the Union Chapel in Islington on 21st August. Speakers like Owen Jones, music from Robb Johnson and Thee Faction and magic from Ian Saville was an echo of when the labour movement spoke to people’s lives with dinners and celebrations, not just speakers in suits. The event was packed with the best part of a thousand people. When Corbyn addressed the crowd after 10pm on a Friday night prior to a singing of the Red Flag it was a reminder of traditions lost that can be regained. The practice of the mass platform and large open air political meetings (albeit unlike the Chartist ones, with amplified sound so people can actually hear the speaker) is one well worth reviving, as is that of events beyond just talking heads. Keith Flett

Saturday, 10 October 2015

LSHG Seminar with Merilyn Moos

Reminder - the first London Socialist Historians seminar of the academic year is on Monday 12th October:

Generations: the impact of the personal and political on children born in Britain to refugees from Nazism
Merilyn Moos
We have moved rooms this year and will  now meet at 5.30pm in Room 304, 3rd floor Institute of Historical Research.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

The British Business of Slavery

The British Business of Slavery

A series of Tuesday evening talks starting on 6 October, running to 8 December 2015. Presented by Conway Hall Ethical Society and curated by Deborah Lavin. Supported by the Socialist History
Society and the Freethought History Research Group.

Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, Holborn
London WC1R 4RL
All talks start at 7.00pm
Individual tickets £5, participating society members £3.
Series ticket £30, participating society members £21.

Tuesday 6 October
Freedom’s Debt, the Politics of the Atlantic Slave Trade (1672- 1752)
Dr William Pettigrew,
University of Kent

Tuesday 13 October
First Prime Minister of the London Empire, William Beckford, Jamaican
Planter & Lord Mayor of London (1709 – 1770)
Dr Perry Gauci,
University of Oxford

Tuesday 20 October
The Law’s Ambiguous Struggle with Slavery
Prof Satvinder Juss,
King’s College London

Tuesday 27 October
George Hibbert M.P. (1757-1837) and the Defence of British Slavery
Dr Katie Donington,
University of Nottingham

Tuesday 3 November
The Unfortunate Colonel Despard, “Govenor of Belize”, Anti-racist,
Democrat, Executed as a Traitor 1803
Mike Jay, author

Tuesday 24 November
Slavery and the Shaping of British Culture
James Walvin,
Professor Emeritus, University of York

Tuesday 1 December
A British-Owned Congo, Roger Casement’s Battle with Slavery in Peru (1910-1914)
Prof Jordan Goodman,
University College London

Tuesday 8 December Identifying Unfinished Business, the UK Modern Slavery Act (2015)
Prof Gary Craig,
Durham University & University of Hull