Tuesday, 16 May 2017

LSHG Newsletter #61 (Summer 2017) now online

The Summer 2017 edition of the London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter #61 is now online, and for some reason - possibly related to an upcoming general election - it has more of a distinctly anti-Tory feel to it than usual.

It leads with Keith Flett recalling the 1997 General Election on its twentieth anniversary, and noting that a new exhibition about the election is on at People's History Museum in Manchester. Last month saw the 40th anniversary of 'The Battle of Wood Green' when anti-fascists including then local councillor Jeremy Corbyn (whatever happened to him?) mobilised against the Nazi National Front and Flett also registers this anniversary and muses on the issues arising from recording such events for the historical record - see here.

Ian Birchall also contributes a memoir about his experiences of attending a grammar school in Bradford in light of Theresa May's love for them - see here, while also reviewing two books relating to timely and urgent themes of anti-racism, anti-fascism and French history - The Last Days of New Paris by China Mieville and The Disappearances of Emile Zola by Michael Rosen. Letters, articles, criticisms and contributions to debate are most welcome - the deadline for the next issue of the LSHG Newsletter is 1 September 2017.

 Some upcoming Events / Seminars

The Annual Levellers Day will take place in Burford, Oxfordshire on Saturday 20 May. See here

Monday May 22nd - LSHG Summer Seminar - The Making of the Russian Revolution (why Lenin should have said ‘I’m not a Leninist') - Neil Faulkner - held at the Institute of Historical Research IHR Seminar Room 304, Third Floor, IHR, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU All welcome - no need to book in advance - email Keith Flett at the address above for more info Time: 5.30pm

Marxism 2017 - 6-9 July, central London - provisional programme now available to download - see here - highlights for socialist historians include plenty of meetings of interest, including lots on the legacy of the Russian Revolution on its centenary including Dave Sherry on his new book - Russia 1917: Workers’ Revolution and the Festival of the Oppressed, Sean Sayers on Marx and teleology and John Newsinger on his new book - One Big Union of All the Workers: Solidarity and the Fighting Industrial Workers of the World

Book Review - The Disappearance of Émile Zola

[From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter #61 Summer 2017]


 Image result for the disappearance of emile zola

The Disappearance of Émile Zola 
by Michael Rosen
Faber & Faber, London, 2017
£16.99, 302pp ISBN 978-0-571-31201-6

The low points of journalism are all too familiar, the Guardian’s vile vendetta against Jeremy Corbyn being just one more instance. But political journalism has its high points too, and one of the finest examples, still remembered and cited more than a hundred years later, is Émile Zola’s J’Accuse of 1898, a passionate polemic against army corruption and anti-Semitism and in defence of the wrongfully imprisoned Alfred Dreyfus.

Much has been written on the Dreyfus case (and this book contains a valuable bibliography) but Michael Rosen’s new book offers an interesting perspective by giving an account of the time Zola spent in England. After being found guilty of libel, Zola was advised by friends to evade prison by escaping to England where he spent ten and a half months living incognito. Rosen has reconstructed this period of exile using a range of sources, including Zola’s correspondence and accounts by his daughter and his friend and translator Ernest Vizetelly.

In many ways Zola found his stay disconcerting; he did not think much of English food. He had to deal with a complicated family life. For many years he had been married to Alexandrine, but their union had been childless. More recently he had embarked on a relationship with Jeanne Rozerot, with whom he had two children.

Though Zola was an enlightened and progressive thinker, he did not escape the assumptions of his time about gender, as shown by his comments on the children: as he wrote to Jeanne: “I really want my little Denise not to do much at all and that later she will be happy to be a good little wife. But I would be very sad if our Jacques was just lazy and ignorant.”

Zola was a remarkably prolific writer and he did not allow exile to disrupt his productivity. He had a rule of writing five pages every day. During his time in England he produced some 1006 handwritten pages, which became a 751-page novel. This was Fécondité (Fertility), the first volume of his final novel cycle, entitled without undue modesty The Four Gospels. This strange and little read volume is a prolonged polemic against abortion, sterilisation, birth control and all attempts to limit population. As Rosen points out, this had clear implications of colonialism; if everyone were to turn out children at the rate Zola advocated, then the French population would have to spill over into the rest of the world. And as Rosen also notes, Zola was working in exactly the opposite direction to some of his British contemporaries like Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, who were campaigning in favour of birth control.

Some of the most interesting fruits of Rosen’s research are quotations from the British left press of the time, showing the support given to Dreyfus by the labour movement. He quotes an article from the periodical of the Social Democratic Federation, contrasting Zola and the defenders of Dreyfus to the absence of opposition to the Boer War; Fabian News commended both Zola’s literary work and his intervention in the Dreyfus case. He has also looked at the often ephemeral Yiddish-language socialist press. Thus the Yiddisher Express analysed Zola’s role as leader of the defence of Dreyfus. And in 1902 a leaflet in Yiddish issued by the East London Jewish branch of the Social Democratic Federation urged Jews in Dublin to support James Connolly in an election; it invoked Dreyfus in support of the proposition that “The Socialists are the only ones who stand always and everywhere against every national oppression”.

The significance of Zola’s intervention in the Dreyfus case must be understood in the context of the initial failure of the French left to take up the issue. French socialists and syndicalists were not free of anti-Semitism, and often lapsed into a crude class analysis which argued that Dreyfus did not merit support because he was a wealthy army officer. Rosen traces the rather slow evolution of leading Socialist Jean Jaurès – often treated as a near saint – who initially claimed that Dreyfus escaped the death penalty thanks to the “prodigious deployment of Jewish power”, before becoming one of Dreyfus's most persuasive supporters.

Rosen believes the defence of Dreyfus helped to create “a new kind of politics … combining ideas that were internationalist, against poverty, against injustice and against what we now call racial discrimination”. But perhaps he is too optimistic. The formation of a broad united front in support of Dreyfus was undoubtedly positive, if somewhat belated. But support for Dreyfus did not necessarily imply a commitment to the broader struggle for social justice. Clemenceau, whom Rosen quite correctly presents as being a strong supporter of Zola and Dreyfus, became Minister of the Interior in 1906, and was responsible for sending troops who fired on winegrowers in Southern France. Zola (by then dead), who had depicted the use of soldiers against striking miners in Germinal, would scarcely have approved.

Rosen recognises that Zola could be “egotistical” and “irritating”, but nonetheless sees him as a “hero in my eyes”. Above all Rosen’s account is written with passionate support for Zola’s opposition to anti-Semitism, and there are various references to Rosen’s own family history, including a dedication to relatives who perished in the Holocaust. For Dreyfus was only an episode – Dreyfus’s enemies suffered a temporary defeat but they took their revenge during the German Occupation in 1940-44, when they were among Hitler’s very willing helpers. And though under some mild constraints, their descendants are undoubtedly present in the ranks of Marine Le Pen’s Front National.

Rosen’s book is a powerful account of what a principled and courageous journalist could achieve. It should be compulsory reading for staff at the Guardian.

Ian Birchall

Book Review - The Last Days of New Paris

 [From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter #61 Summer 2017]


 Image result for the last days of new paris

The Last Days of New Paris
By China Miéville
Picador, London, 2016, £12.99, 207pp
ISBN 978-1-4472-9657-7

That historical novels can offer insights and perspectives to historians is widely recognised. The case of China Miéville is a bit more complex. Miéville has a deserved reputation as a writer of fantasy or “weird fiction” – he is also a political activist, now associated with the journal Salvage. His latest work, a short novel – novella – presents an alternative history set in the mid-twentieth century.

It is 1950, but Paris is still occupied by the Germans and violent, vicious warfare persists between the occupiers and the forces of the Resistance. But the Resistance have mobilised what are described as “manifs”, weapons based on Surrealist artworks. Miéville’s narrative powerfully evokes the strange world of wartorn Paris, with sentences like: “As Thibaut cowered and watched the wings beat down on them and they gasped and tried to run she had said something else and made a caterpillar longer and fatter than a horse with the head of wicked bird, and it rippled after the eagle over the shattered brick.” The book is full of what Miéville calls “living art” and even “artflesh”. By presenting an
alternative history, Miéville insists that history is not fixed, but that there are alternatives ahead of us; his central character, Thibaut, concludes that he has a “mission” : “Start from scratch, redo history, make it mine”.

Miéville’s account is presented on the basis of a detailed map of Paris, complete with street names. But some features are changed. The Sacré-Coeur, built to celebrate the crushing of the Paris Commune, is (following a suggestion by André Breton), painted black and turned into a tram depot. Doubtless it would be possible to read this book, as the cover blurb suggests, simply as a “thriller”. But Miéville repeatedly reminds us of a historical fact – that the Surrealists were not just an artistic movement, but that they had a deep political commitment; they saw themselves as a political as well as an artistic movement (and they had more splits and expulsions than most Trotskyist organisations).

Miéville makes his intentions clear with a detailed appendix (amounting to a tenth of the total length of the book) in which he gives references to the various artworks featured in the narrative. This is a work of considerable erudition. (I found only one error, which I report with due humility since I have made the same mistake myself – the Cuban painter Wifredo Lam is misnamed as Wilfredo.)

To take just one example, the novel features the “wolf table” designed by the Romanian Surrealist painter Victor Brauner, in which a table acquires the head, tail and testicles of a wolf. It is a great pity that Miéville was not able to produce an illustrated edition of his story, but virtually all the images referred to in the book can be seen in a fascinating collection by Nicky Martin available here. The wolf-table is here. The only picture in the volume is of the “exquisite corpse” – a Surrealist visual version of “Consequences” in which various elements are combined at random to make a fantastic body. (See here )

There is a secondary narrative, set in Marseille in 1941. Southern France was not yet occupied by the Germans, and various anti-fascists, including Surrealists like André Breton, as well as others like Victor Serge (who gets a couple of name-checks in the story) had gathered there in the hope of getting a boat to the American continent. (Eventually Breton, Serge and Claude Lévi-Strauss all escaped on the same boat.)

Miéville introduces the historical figure of Varian Fry, a heroic individual who did so much to enable European intellectuals to escape death at the hands of the Nazis. Yet, with an eye to our present world, Miéville also points to the limitations of Fry’s project: “His Emergency Rescue Committee focused, not without shame, on artists and intellectuals. As if the baker, the sewage worker, the nursery teacher didn’t deserve help, too, Fry thought, many times.”

Miéville reminds us several times of Surrealism’s links with Trotsky (Breton visited Trotsky in Mexico in 1938 and subsequently the International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Artists was founded) and refers to the “redoubtable Trotskyist Benjamin Péret”. Yet in describing the warfare he constantly equates Germans and “Nazis”. But most German soldiers were not Nazis – they too were victims of Hitler, and came from a country which less than a generation earlier had been on the brink of socialist revolution. Hence the Trotskyist strategy of trying to fraternise with German workers in uniform. But there is no place for this in Miéville’s narrative. Only in the appendix does he remind us of the Surrealists Claude Cahun and Suzanne Malherbe in Jersey, who distributed “flyers and coins painted with anti-Hitler slogans into soldiers’ pockets and through their car windows” in the hope of encouraging “a spirit of mutiny” among the German forces.

But if Miéville’s book encourages a greater interest in the politics of Surrealism and the complex undercurrents of resistance to fascism, it will have served its purpose.

Ian Birchall

Remembering the Battle of Wood Green - 23 April 1977

[From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter #61 Summer 2017]

The Battle of Wood Green, 23 April 1977: A question of history

The Battle of Wood Green took place on Saturday 23 1977 when a 1300 strong National Front march left Ducketts Common (Turnpike Lane N8) to march down Wood Green High Rd. They were opposed by 3,000 anti-fascists and large numbers of Saturday shoppers. Not all of the march made it to the final rally at Arnos School.

An event on 23 April 2017 to mark the 40th anniversary and linked the united effort then to oppose fascism with racism with the continuing fight today. About 500 people took part, including many of the original participants. 23 April was also the date of the first round of the French Presidential election…

 Jeremy Corbyn speaking at the event to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Wood Green

Part of that event was a re-publication of the pamphlet published in 2007 jointly by the London Socialist Historians Group and Haringey TUC and jointly authored by Ian Birchall, David Renton and myself.

Aside from providing political analysis of what the events of 40 years ago meant, we attempted to gather memories of what had taken place (at that time) 30 years ago. It is an issue that is increasingly preoccupying the discussion at London Socialist Historians seminars at the Institute of Historical Research. The national history of the left, radical and labour movements since the 1960s is to a degree recorded in official papers, minute books, memoirs etc. When it comes to local activities or activities in particular workplaces the historical record is very patchy indeed. Local record offices often hold little or nothing often because documents are not deposited (but often thrown away) and there is not the resource to go and collect them.

When it comes to 23 April 1977 we have captured the memories of some participants. The day, as such occasions often were and are, was somewhat chaotic so what is recalled can be contradictory (and memory, not least mine, is far from always reliable). We do have the coverage of the the local paper the Hornsey Journal. What has not been done is to see if there are official papers, police files or Council paperwork, which can add to our understanding of the day.

I was privileged to speak along with Dave Morris at the Bruce Castle (Tottenham) local history event on 18th February on the Battle of Wood Green. There was an impressive audience of around 100 people some of who had been there 40 years ago. New memories, previously uncaptured, are still appearing not least about the role of a local Haringey Councillor called Jeremy who it appears went on to become rather better known, and who spoke at the commemoration.

If you have memories of the Battle of Wood Green (or any photos or documents) do get in touch.
Keith Flett
See also the twitter feed - Battle Of Wood Green (@BattleOfWoodGrn

Grammar School Memories - a memoir by Ian Birchall

[From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter #61 - Summer 2017]


One Monday morning,
Found out I'd made the grade
Started me thinking,
Had she done the same?
(The Hollies, Jennifer Eccles)

Theresa May’s enthusiasm for grammar schools gives socialist historians a new task – to discover the reality of grammar schools – for those they educated and for those they excluded. As Keith Flett shows in his valuable Morning Star article, major steps towards comprehensivisation were taken in the 1960s, so it is the age group who were at school in the 1950s – now fast dying off – who experienced the grammar school system in its pure form. As a small contribution to the discussion, I should like to provide a few personal memories of the grammar school system.

In the 1950s I was a pupil at Bradford Grammar School. This aspired to represent an elite within an elitist system. It was a direct grant school which had both fee-paying pupils and those sent by their local authority. Its openly avowed purpose in life was to win scholarships to Oxford and Cambridge, emulating its more successful rival, Manchester Grammar School. I have only the vaguest memories of the “eleven plus” examination; I recall some IQ-test type problems with geometrical shapes. Nothing seemed very relevant to my future studies. But by good luck I won a place.

I don’t want to be wholly negative about the education I got there. Most of the teachers were good and encouraging. (Most, not all. I still blame my weakness in geography on the fact that my teacher was a bully who enjoyed humiliating pupils.) I learned to acquire scholarly rigour, and was encouraged to read widely. And it gained me a university place (far rarer then than nowadays) which provided me with a meal ticket that enabled me to get a reasonably well-paid job.

Denis Healey, who was at the school some twenty years before me, says it was characterised by “hard work” and “was proud of its reputation”.[1] True, as far as it goes – but what this meant in practice was selection, streaming, specialisation … and snobbery. One year on from the 11-plus – at age twelve – we were streamed on the basis of academic ability. The form names indicated the hierarchy – A, B, X and Y – a symbolic representation of the “great gulf” [2] fixed between us. But the gap was not merely symbolic – the X and Y streams did not do Latin, and at that time Oxford and Cambridge and most other universities required Latin from entrants. (Ironically, the most successful of my contemporaries, David Hockney, was in an X form; but the Royal College of Art could hardly compare with Oxford or Cambridge.)

And streaming also implied specialisation. After all the aim was A-level grades and university entrance, so no point in acquiring knowledge that would not be used for these purposes. After two years – age thirteen – I dropped all science subjects in order to study two foreign languages (as well as Latin). Such specialisation was facilitated by the ending of the old School Certificate (which required a balanced basket of subjects) in favour of O-levels. Everything was subordinated to examination success. (Until quite recently I still had nightmares about examinations.) Thus as a sixth former I was advised to attend classical music concerts – not because I might gain pleasure or broaden my horizons, but because it would be a good thing to mention in my Oxford interview.

Since I had verbal skills – reading, writing, foreign languages – I was being groomed for success. But there were other things I was not so good at – art, singing, sport – and here I found out how “failures” were treated. I enjoyed painting and cricket, but was not good at them. But it was made clear to me that there was no point wasting my time on things I might take pleasure in, but where I could not achieve competitive success. I thus saw something of the discouragement that my less academically successful contemporaries experienced.

The obsession with success easily spilled over into cheap snobbery. If one of us won a scholarship to Oxford or Cambridge, our name was read out at morning assembly and everyone clapped. Places at other universities gained no applause. The school winter game was rugby, which meant we didn’t play against any of the other grammar schools in Bradford (which played soccer), but against more prestigious schools from other towns. Those were the days of free school milk – it was available, but the ethos among most boys that we didn’t participate in such “welfare state” practices.

We wore school caps, and if we encountered a teacher, even at a weekend, we had to raise our caps as a mark of respect. The teaching – though open-minded enough to enable us to write “controversial” essays for our Oxford examinations – reflected the dominant ideology of the period, when Britain still believed it had an imperial role (I was in the sixth form at the time of Suez but it was too soon to see the full implications). Our history syllabus was totally Anglocentric – we studied English history chronologically from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century; it was terminally boring. Only in my O-level year did I do a course in European history and discovered that some interesting things – notably the French Revolution – had happened. A visiting lecturer solemnly informed us that “other countries” had great writers, but only ancient Greece and England had “great literatures”. (I wonder how many languages he knew.)

We were, of course, a single-sex school, and a male-dominated view of the world was transmitted by implication rather than conscious argument. This reflected the general view of the world at the time – virtually all the writers we studied were men. I remember a teacher warning us that we should never get into a railway compartment (train coaches were then divided into compartments with a corridor, rather than open plan as nowadays) if the only other occupant was a solitary woman, because she might falsely accuse us of rape. I don’t recall anyone else telling us about rape or indicating that it was wrong. Homosexuality was simply never mentioned (except once when we warned against certain practices in such convoluted terms it was difficult to know what they might be). All we knew was from press reports of the notorious Lord Montagu trial, which soon became the topic of innumerable smutty jokes. All this, however, doubtless reflected the prevailing values of the time.
And although there was a growing West Indian population in Bradford, there was not a single black pupil in the school.

Religion was treated in a reasonably liberal fashion as something open to discussion – a number of my contemporaries became atheists well before I did. But the formalities of religion – each school day began with a hymn, prayer and bible reading – were observed and no disrespect was tolerated. Such was the education system of the 1950s, and to us the strict divide between grammar and secondary modern seemed part of the order of nature. “Comprehensive” was a word we might read in The Observer, but it was no part of life in 1950s Bradford.

It was only later on, as a teacher in a polytechnic in the 1970s and 1980s, that I encountered some of the results of the old system – I had many very able “mature students” (who still under Thatcher got reasonably generous grants) who had failed (or more accurately, had been failed by) the 11- plus system. Of course, technically nobody failed the 11-plus – they were simply allocated to the most appropriate type of school. “Separate but equal”, as the South Africans used to call it.

But all ideologies have their contradictions – that would be a topic for another article, but very briefly I think there was a contradiction between the naked elitism of the system as it functioned and the more generous and egalitarian values embodied both in ostensible Christianity and in many of the writers we studied. In any case, by the time I left school I was already a socialist of sorts, and in 1962 another former pupil of Bradford Grammar School recruited me to a Marxist organisation.

Of course Theresa May cannot turn the clock back. It is unlikely there will be any revival of Latin. But grammar schools in any form will embody the cult of success. And success for some necessarily means failure imposed on others.

[1] D Healey, The Time of My Life, London, 1989, p. 12.
[2] Luke 16:26.

Ian Birchall

People's History Museum Exhibition - The 1997 General election


The 1997 General Election
25 March 2017 to 4 June 2017
Open10:00 - 17:00
People's History Museum, Left Bank, Spinningfields, Manchester M3 3ER

The 1997 general election was a unique moment in Britain’s modern democratic history. It saw a rebranded ‘New’ Labour Party end 18 years of Conservative government. With a 179 seat majority in the House of Commons, the election laid the foundations for an unprecedented 13 years in office for the party.

Yet in 1992 experts said Britain had become a one-party state: after losing four elections in a row Labour was finished as a party of power. Within five years however, Tony Blair proved them wrong and led the party to office on the back of one of its biggest ever victories. Such was the optimism of the time, when Blair asked on the morning of 2 May 1997 when the scale of Labour’s victory was fully apparent, ‘A new dawn has broken, has it not?’, many believed a New Britain was really about to be built.

Blair claimed this would be a Britain based on fairness but also economic efficiency, one fully consistent with Labour’s ideals. Critics however argued that the price of this reversal of electoral fortunes was Blair’s abandonment of the party’s basic tenets, such as Clause Four of its constitution. He had, they claimed, transformed Labour into a pale echo of the Conservatives. That was certainly the view of Jeremy Corbyn, then a backbench MP.

The exhibition will explore this vital but controversial moment in Britain’s democratic history, helping visitors reflect on the issues it raises and explore an election that feels much further away than just two decades in the past.

Friday 19 May, 1.00pm – 3.00pm: Have Your Say! discussion event, linking to the 20 year anniversary of ‘New Labour’ winning the 1997 general election

Saturday 3 June, 11.00am – 4.00pm: Conference: New Dawn? The 1997 General Election

Follow @newdawn1997 on Twitter – a project in conjunction with the exhibition by The School of Politics & International Relations at the University of Nottingham

[From LSHG Newsletter #61 Summer 2017]