Monday, 9 October 2017

LSHG Newsletter 62 (Autumn 2017) now online

The latest newsletter of the London Socialist Historians Group is now online, with commentary on Marx's Capital at 150 years, and book reviews by Ian Birchall of Tom O' Lincoln's memoir, Keith Flett on Michael Rosen's memoir and Merilyn Moos on A Political Family by John Green. A reminder too of our upcoming seminar programme:


All seminars take place in Room 304 (third floor) at 5.30pm in the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU and entry is free although donations are welcome.

Monday 16 October John Rees 'The Leveller Revolution'

Monday 30 October Merilyn Moos 'Neglected Histories of the Diverse Victims of Nazism'

Monday 13 November Christian Høgsbjerg  '‘Every Cook can Govern’: C.L.R. James and the Russian Revolution'

Monday 27 November John Newsinger 'From Revolution to Labourism? Orwell and the Left'

Monday  11 December Dave Hill 'A History of London’s Housing Crisis'

The Newsletter
 Letters, articles, criticisms and contributions to debate are most welcome. Deadline for the next issue is 1 December 2017. For more information on the group and how to join please contact Keith Flett on the email address above.

Michael Rosen and History Workshop

From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 62 (Autumn 2017)
Image result for so they call you pisher michael rosen

 So They Call You Pisher!
A Memoir
ISBN 978-1786633965
2017 Verso 320pp

Michael Rosen is known as a poet, author, broadcaster and of course socialist activist. He also has a beard and supports Arsenal.
 His new memoir, So they call you Pisher!, is out from Verso and is of fascinating reading. At the London launch Rosen noted that much material had been edited out before publication and it  would indeed be interesting to see the author’s cut of the book as it were.
 One thing that Rosen is perhaps not particularly associated with is socialist history. However the book contains a fascinating vignette of the early period of History Workshop in Oxford, where Rosen was at college.
 Rosen was clearly far from happy with the stultified air and archaic content of some of the lectures he attended at Oxford but found History Workshop to be an exciting new development in the months before the May events in Paris in 1968. Rosen notes that some felt senior figures broadly associated with the movement such as E P Thompson, Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm were ‘infected’ by Stalinism, although this was not his view but that of Raphael Samuel, who ran the Workshop at Ruskin, had a base of working-class, trade union focused, students who were doing interesting research.
 Rosen writes that ‘conferences were packed with hundreds of people, crowded into the halls and corridors, listening, talking, arguing and writing.. this I thought was one of the most exciting things happening, and I wanted to be part of it’.
Keith Flett

Book Review - A Political Family

From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 62 (Autumn 2017)

A Political Family: The Kuczynskis, Fascism, Espionage and The Cold War (Paperback) book cover

A Political family
The Kuczynskis, Fascism, Espionage and the Cold War
By John Green ISBN 978-1138232327 
Routledge 2017 370pp

Most people, even socialists, when they think of exiles from Nazism, usually think of the thousands fleeing anti-Semitism (and the millions who did not manage to flee). But this happily is a book about a family who politically resisted the Nazis in their different ways and who all managed to escape to the UK. As John Green, the author says, the book isn’t about the victims; instead ‘all members of the family …rejected roles as passive extras on the stage of history and decided instead to become protagonists’.

The Kuczynskis were an extraordinary bourgeois assimilated Jewish German family. Robert, the paterfamilias was a famous statistician and demographer in both Germany and later, in the UK, and a renowned campaigner for social justice in pre 1933 Germany. Of his 6 children, five became Communists. 

Jürgen, his second child, who is one of the focuses of the book, and who joined the KPD in 1930, somehow managed to stay in Germany up till 1936, though the impression is that his forte was more in contacting the great and the good, rather than building an underground opposition.  Robert and family were wise enough to head to Britain. Why this was is not discussed.  

This is not where political refugees usually headed, certainly not in the first years from 1933 when the KPD leadership believed: ‘After them, us’ and wanted their comrades within easy reach of Germany: in Saarbrücken, Prague and Paris.  But then only about 1000 Communist exiles ever were accepted into Britain, a tiny number, given the tens of thousands of Communists who were hunted by the Gestapo or managed to get out.

We forget that the Nazis’ first targets were the Communists. Unlike some German refugees, the family all seem to have settled here successfully, four of the ‘children’ permanently. 

Jürgen became the coordinator for the German KPD exile group. But there is almost nothing in the book about the group itself. Special pleading here: my biography of my father, Siegi Moos, included a substantial section on the exile group, which Moos (my father) led till he either jumped or was pushed by Jürgen in 1937 (who had been instructed to take over).

Although the book emphasises the hostility of MI5 towards the Communist exiles as well as the British state’s prohibition of all political activity, I’d have liked to see more on the sense of isolation and fear of most of the exiled comrades who lived of their nerves and their temporary visas.

The book also does not focus on the change from the ‘Third Period’ (that’s the catastrophic ‘Social Democrats are social fascists’ and ‘no better than the Nazis’ line) to the ‘Popular Front’ in late 1934/1935 whose implications – to build and work within a broad progressive anti-Nazi alliance - split exile groups especially in France and Spain and redirected the political activity of the exiles here. Indeed, the book regrets the Third Period line in passing but does not highlight the implications in Germany of its lethal sectarianism.

The two main characters in the book: Jürgen and Ursula, could both be understood as spies, Jürgen for the USSR, Ursula (‘Sonya’) as a Communist agent in China and then for the USSR.

And herein lies one of the limitations of the book: if you are looking for a story of grass-roots resistance or working–class anti-Nazi activity, this is not your book.

One of its main themes is about spying and when is a spy a spy. Today we are not faced with such political niceties but here we find an argument that if one provides information for a country, the USSR, in which on believes and which is moreover an ally in the Allied fight to defeat Nazism, then the term ‘spy’ is inappropriate.

Rather it is a matter of ‘cooperation’. The book indeed does succeed in bringing out why a very few Communist exiles did ‘cooperate’ with the USSR in the 1930s and 1940s and how it was that many of the Communist exiles, including Jürgen and Ursula, returned to E. Germany and lived there during the Cold War, if not always happily. 

Jürgen, a professional economist, became a ‘loyal dissident’ in East Germany where he thankfully failed to become the finance minister but did advise the East German leadership and became their ‘most celebrated’ intellectual’ (and indeed influenced the resurgent West German left in the 1960s). (My understanding is that Jürgen was uneasy about 1956 and 1968!)

While Green is careful not to sound too pro East Germany, those of us who still essentially support a state capitalist position, may find his basic line: that bad socialism is better than good capitalism, interesting but irritating.

The penultimate chapter looks at what happened to the children of Jürgen and his five sisters: the second generation, and confirms that like so many refugees in Britain, even Communist ones, the parents did not talk that much to their children about their past experiences and beliefs, though the pattern for the children born in the GDR was more political. But all the children grew up knowing that their families had been active antifascists and that gave them a sense of identity and courage.

This book may not be everybody’s cup of tea but it tells the story of a remarkable family and through them, charts the political and personal upheavals of the twentieth century.

Merilyn Moos

Book Review - The Highway is for Gamblers

From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 62 (Autumn 2017)

The Politics of Patience
Image result for the highway is for gamblers - o lincoln

The Highway is for Gamblers
By Tom O’Lincoln
Interventions Inc,
(Carlton South, Vic., Australia),
2017 ISBN 9780994537829

Tom O’Lincoln will be known to many for his historical writings; his books on class struggle in Australia, and on the Second World War in the Pacific have been reviewed here: see Australia’s Pacific War, LSHG Newsletter No. 43 here , Years of Rage, LSHG Newsletter No. 51 - here and The Expropriators are Expropriated, LSHG Newsletter No. 59 here.

But Tom is also a lifelong political activist. Now, turning seventy  and facing health problems, he has written an autobiography. For some on the left, an autobiography is an opportunity for self-justification, for settling old scores. Tom’s account is self-critical and generous to comrades who have chosen a different path from his.

Born in the USA, Tom first became involved with politics during the famous Berkeley Free Speech Movement. Faced with the political ferment in US society produced by the Vietnam war, he found himself “sampling the political smorgasbord on offer in Berkeley” in 1968-69. Eventually he joined the International Socialists. Like so many of us around the world he was impressed by Hal Draper’s pamphlet The Two Souls of Socialism  with its advocacy of “socialism from below”.

After some travel in Europe, he moved to Australia, where he has spent the rest of his life. He has lived through a stormy half-century, and has been fortunate enough to travel to some of the most exciting locations. Portugal in 1975 was one of those brief moments when, in Orwell’s phrase “the working class was in the saddle”. He recalls: “The factory occupations were of course an attraction for us.  We international activists had the striking experience of chatting with insurgent Portuguese workers in board rooms.”   

Nicaragua in 1985,  after the fall of Somoza, offered a more problematic prospect. As Tom noted: “The government was in line with Western-style parliamentarism.  Unlike the 1917 Soviet regime, there were no workers’ councils through which the proletariat exercised power. This parliamentary system represented a huge step forward for people previously oppressed by a dictator. But it had no specifically socialist character.”  This is not gloating or boasting a superior analysis, simply observing processes which, sadly, ended in defeat.

Tom is not one of those – all too common on the English-speaking left – who says: “I am an intransigent internationalist, but I can’t be bothered getting this silly foreigner’s name right.” He is a remarkably gifted linguist and translator. In 1993 he was well past the age when the acquisition of languages is easy, but he observed that “things were happening politically” in Indonesia and decided to learn the language, using a regular tram journey for his initial practice. Eventually he was sufficiently proficient to be involved in launching “the first-ever Marxist website in the Indonesian language”.

But though he was able to observe some of the revolutionary high spots of his lifetime, Tom spent most of his time on the more mundane task of building a revolutionary organisation in Australia. With a handful of comrades Tom helped to set up the self-deprecatingly named Socialist Workers’ Action Group – SWAG, which grew into the Australian International Socialists.

By 1976 the organisation was big enough to play a significant role in the campaign to defend the Medibank health insurance scheme. When the union machine merely called for a four-hour strike, the IS “demanded a twenty-four hour stoppage , and called for weekly stoppages in every State as a move towards generalised national strike action.” 

Subsequently “the IS rushed out leaflets overnight to the doorsteps of key shop stewards – a network we had established through our ‘workers’ paper’ project. Partly because of this agitation, telephone calls began to pour into union offices. By the time the stoppage took place on 16 June, the left union leaders had recognised that they risked being outbid by the tiny forces of the revolutionary left. They made an abrupt left turn.”

But as elsewhere, the left soon had to face up to a “downturn” in struggle; by 1983 there was a “historic collapse of industrial militancy”. For the International Socialists the result, almost inevitably, was factional disputes and a split. The minutiae of the evolution of the Australian far left will be of interest only to a limited audience, but Tom has some interesting thoughts on what he calls the “politics of impatience”, which may have parallels in other countries.

Tom’s comrade Rick Kuhn summarised Tom’s analysis: “As the levels of social struggle declined, a majority of the leadership of the IS had become impatient with the group’s membership and the world outside. The result was voluntarism; attempts to substitute the organisation’s determination for the inadequacies of the real world: intolerance of internal disagreement and anything less than the very high level of activity expected of members, a sectarian attitude to serious movements and others involved in them; and a predilection for self-generated campaigns that drew in very few other people.” 

Tom sums up the paradox of impatience: “On the one hand, all of us need a healthy dose of it – we need to grasp the moment and do what we can, with whatever resources we have, to make the most of any opportunity. On the other hand, there is always a temptation to bridge by force of will the gap between the meagre forces of the revolutionary left and the ultimate end we desire.” 

Eventually Tom left the International Socialist Organisation and joined Socialist Alternative, of which he remains an active member. This beautifully produced book (described by editor Janey Stone as “a scrapbook – a collection of stories, vignettes, anecdotes, jottings, photos, ephemera”) is illustrated with photographs, leaflets and press cuttings, and is full of information and insights that will be rewarding even to those of us who know relatively little about Australia. This is not just the portrait of a remarkably interesting individual, it is the portrait of an age so many of us have lived through.

Ian Birchall

150 years of Capital

From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 62 (Autumn 2017)

Image result for marx capital

150 years of Capital 

It is 150 years since the publication of Marx’s Capital Volume 1, the only part to appear in his lifetime.

It did not appear in English but initially in German and then French, so its initial impact on the British labour movement in 1867 was apparently insignificant. Against that we might balance the reality that the impact of its author and his ideas in this period on the same audience was far from negligible.

Capital is of course a book about how capitalism works, or does not actually work. It also contains, and indeed the theory is underwritten by, a good deal of history, much of it relating to examples from contemporary British working-class activity that Marx reviewed in the British Museum and through his links in particular with the London labour movement.

Most of the discussion on the 150th anniversary has focused on the economic structure of the book and how valid it remains. The historical framework however remains important.

There is little existing work (that I’m aware of - the literature on Capital is vast and worldwide) that looks at the interplay between Marx’s daily life in the late 1850s and early 1860s, the political situation and the structure of Capital.

Roman Rosdolsky’s The Making of Marx’s Capital ponders in detail the structure of Volume 1 and why it was changed, but offers little specifically on how the changes related to wider economic and political contexts  beyond, importantly, suggesting changes in Marx’s thinking.

More to the area and contexts I’m looking at is in Marcello Musto’s collection Karl Marx’s Grundrisse, in particular Musto’s own chapter on Marx’s life at the time of the Grundrisse in 1857-8. The Grundrisse was the precursor of Capital so Marcello Musto’s analysis still has relevance for it although a period of 10 years elapsed between the two.

Musto identifies several factors that influenced Marx’s writing. Illness which certainly persisted in the 1860s often interrupted Marx’s writing as did, perhaps to a lesser extent, the need to make sure that he had enough money to actually live on while writing. Marx wrote regular journalism in the late 1850s and that certainly informed how he both saw and analysed the world.

In a letter to Engels on 15 March 1862 Marx noted that while he was still writing articles for the New York Tribune he didn’t expect this to continue. He had however been unable to work on Critique of Political Economy as ‘work is often checked, i.e. suspended, for weeks on end by domestic disturbances. Little Jenny is still by no means as well as she should be’

Certainly Marx lived from the mid-1850s to 1864 at the same address, 9 Grafton Terrace, Kentish Town, then on the periphery of central London.

Not long after this period Marx stopped writing Capital altogether for a period to write Herr Vogt, exposing a long-time opponent. Whether this was a good idea has been debated but it underlines the importance Marx gave to contemporary political matters.

While few if any in the British working-class movement were aware of the detail of Capital in the 1860s, Wages, Price and Profit, which was given as a speech to the First International in 1865, offered an important insight into Marx’s thinking and in particular the points he felt were important to get across to key trade unionists and socialists. It was primarily an answer to the arguments of Owenite socialist Weston.

We might argue that it was Marx’s political practice, informed by the research that went into Capital Volume 1, that had the key impact on the British labour movement. But that in itself raises many questions, not least what exactly that impact was.

Keith Flett

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Socialist History Society publication on 1917

1917 - The Russian Revolution, Reactions and Impact
New publication
Socialist History Society, Occasional Publication 41, price £6.00.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 changed the world forever. For once, it appeared that the oppressed workers were within grasp of the levers of state power and for a while the prospect of permanently ending exploitation seemed a real possibility. The revolutionary mood swept across continents and its impact was felt far beyond the parties of the left and the organised labour movement. The revolution inspired writers, poets, intellectuals and philosophers as much as it did workers and activists. With this special Occasional Publication the Socialist History Society commemorates these momentous events of one hundred years ago with a series of specially written articles that examine the reactions to the revolution and its impact in different areas.

Evaluating the lessons of October, including their British resonance
by Willie Thompson
Against ‘vacillation, lies and rottenness’: the Russian revolution and the rift in world socialism
by Francis King
1917’s Several Lenins
by Mike Makin-Waite
‘What they can do in Russia, so can we’: the impact of the Russian Revolutions of 1917 in Germany by Helen Boak
Italy and the Russian Revolution of 1917
by Tobias Abse
Clara Zetkin on the Soviet Experiment, 1917-1934
by John S Partington
Secular Ecstasies and the Revolutionary Women Poets in 1917
by Greta Sykes
Psychoanalysis and Revolution: Sigmund Freud and his circle from fin-de-siècle Vienna to revolutionary Russia
by David Morgan

Edited by David Morgan
Available from the SHS

Book Launch -
On Saturday 21st October
Venue: Marx Memorial Library, Clerkenwell Green, London EC1R,
Start time 2.00pm.
Free to attend, all welcome.
Speakers will include
Tobias Abse, Willie Thompson, David Morgan, Greta Sykes, Francis King and John Partington