Sunday, 8 November 2020

LSHG Newsletter 71 (Autumn 2020) now online

The Autumn 2020 issue of the London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter (71) is now online, with pieces on the 'patriotic' visions of history of Donald Trump and the Tory government of 'Britain's Trump' Boris Johnson, as well a discussion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Stop The Seventy Tour's victory against the 'sportswashing' of apartheid South Africa in the field of cricket in the light of the Black Lives Matter - and a book review of a new book on black Victorian actor Ira Aldridge.

Just a reminder too about our forthcoming seminars: 

Autumn Term 2020 Seminars

Revisiting some key issues & figures in socialist history

Monday Dec 7th Keith Flett, 150 years since the death of William Cuffay black leader of London Chartism in 1848. Has he been ignored by socialist historians?

Please book in advance here:

All Seminars start at 5.30pm via Zoom

Registration details will be provided ahead of each seminar

The deadline for contributions to the next LSHG newsletter is 15 December 2020 - Contributions, complaints, letters and notices are all welcome  - please contact Keith Flett at the address above for more info thanks 

Imperialism, racism, the Tories and education

From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 71 (Autumn 2020)

Imperialism, racism, the Tories and education

 The Morning Star (27 September 2020) cites the new UK Department for Education Plan for teaching which instructs schools to ‘not under any circumstances use resources by organisations’ whose publicly stated desire is ‘to abolish or overthrow democracy, capitalism, or to end free and fair elections’. And further, and equally alarming, this covers all resources and is to be enforced ‘even if the material itself is not extreme, as the use of it could imply endorsement or support of the organisation’. 

Of course, the variants and viciousness of capitalism are part and parcel of every colonial and national history, every part of social being, from disease and health to education, to workplace and the criminal law, and much in between. We know a lot about every stage of suffering, at home and in the former colonies due to liberal writers, Quakers, the left and the Communist, publishing extensive details, together ‘modern’ with the sordid and brutal; Cheddi Jagan, for instance, on British Guiana, C.L.R. James on Haiti, H.N. Brailsford and Rajani Palme Dutt on the Indian empire; I want others to read Wadia & Merchant (Bombay 1945), the older literature from South Africa and the empire and in recent times the appalling developments in capitalist plus military regimes: Indonesia, the Philippines, the history of Latin America, the oil producing middle east. 

Publishers, and not only those on left, offer an open door to those who write on ex-colonial and capitalist issues: questions which are upsetting to read; torture, detention of children, illegal rendition, brutal labour contracts, as well as standard works on the need to modify and replace capitalism, not just the dreadful forms of old colonial times, but those right now causing mis-treatment and damage to the environment, the seas, the forests, and to people. These texts make us think. 

Literature for much of the world carries politics and provides balance to everyday life.  Is the Tory Plan to block reading literature which is unsettling about capitalism ? Well, here be a vast library: Doris Lessing on Rhodesia, a Communist who in late 1956 wrote to John Gollan that she now thought of herself as a non-Party Bolshevik: is she included ? How about Stella Jackson, and her father T. A Jackson, with his work Ireland Her Own ? Can I prescribe Leonard Cassini, Music in Rumania ? Anything by Len Doherty who wrote regularly for World News ? E P Thompson’s work on William Morris came out whilst he was still in the Communist Party ? Jack Lindsay whose output straddled the middle years of last century ? Should we include on the allowed literature Ilya Ehrenburg The Thaw, who was not only a Soviet Party member, the early translation was edited by Jack Lindsay ? And while we are considering literature, should the Communist literature published in the Soviet Union be banned ? That’s a lot of novels on the list. 

For school students with relatives in old colonies this Tory Plan restricts access to books likely to encourage interest in how their countries suffered under colonialism. Teenagers want to know about their historical past. Why did the British take over their country ? What were the benefits for conquest: landowning (such as the white highlands), gold (South Africa) silver (the opium trade) trade in general, building railways and ports, tea plantations, labour relations (indentured servants in Trinidad). When the British announced ‘independence’ what form did it take ? Who got the keys to government house ? Palme-Dutt has really basic, easy to read, books on the Indian empire ? Are reprints banned ? This Tory Plan clamps a veil on Asian, Chinese, Indian, Irish and Caribbean studies, impeding knowledge, and banning whole shelves as dangerous. 

School students will also ask about violence. The massacres that took place in the Indian empire, even as late at March 1946 in Bombay, with the Indian navy revolt, and the subsequent shootings, even as far away as Bihar. We also know about fascism, the propensity of capitalists to call in the law and the military. The reach for the gun by settlers in Kenya, Malaya, Ireland; it’s a long list whose omissions would significantly damage the education of our children.

 [Is Keith Flett to be banned, and the London Socialist historians ?] 

Richard Vessey Saville

Book Review: Ira Aldridge - Famous Speeches

 Book Review from London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 71 (Autumn 2020)

Ira Aldridge: Famous Speeches 

By Martin Hoyles 

Hansib Publications 2019 

ISBN 978-1912662029 

Paperback 280pp 

I was pleased to welcome Martin Hoyles back to speak to the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research on 17 February. Martin had previously spoken to the seminar on his book on the black Chartist William Cuffay, the 150th anniversary of whose death is being marked in 2020. On this occasion he came to speak on his most recent book on the Victorian black actor and activist Ira Aldridge. My review has been due or overdue for some months but I felt it would be more interesting all round to wait for the seminar and I think that it was indeed useful in being able to focus on the key focus and impact of the book. That is not just in terms of Ira Aldridge himself but also some wider points on historical research and what it can tell us. 

Ira Aldridge (1807-1867) was born in New York and learnt his trade as an actor in the early 1820s. However, fed up with racism and discrimination he managed to get to England and by October 1825 he had progressed to playing the lead role in a production at the Royal Coburg Theatre in London. The same theatre is still in use as the Old Vic. Aldridge played a variety of roles, often Shakespearian, throughout a lengthy career in both Britain and the rest of Europe and became an internationally acclaimed actor. Having played on over 250 stages he was certainly the most famous actor of the early Victorian period. He played the black roles of Othello and the Moor in Titus Adronicus. He also whited up to play Macbeth, King Lear and Richard III but did not whiten his hands. He played both male and female roles and in 20 years of touring England and Ireland had a considerable influence on nineteenth century acting. 

Martin Hoyles has researched Aldridge’s numerous stage appearances, who he played, where and when, and brought the information together in the book. The book is important for anyone interested in the history of theatre and particularly black theatre. But its interest lies much wider than that. Hoyles makes the historical links between Aldridge, progressive politics in the Victorian era and the impact of Aldridge’s legacy as one of the first internationally prominent black actors. While there is no evidence that Aldridge was connected with the Chartist movement between 1830 and 1861 he sent money back to the US to help free slaves and during the Civil War he donated 50% of his earnings to the fight against slavery. His role as a black actor playing Othello in 1833 was an influence on Parliamentary legislation to end slavery in British colonies. 

One of the first black actors to play Othello after Aldridge was Paul Robeson. Aldridge’s daughter Amanda gave voice training to Robeson before he played Othello in a production also featuring Peggy Ashcroft in 1930. CLR James, who also played Othello, saw Aldridge as an inspirational figure. A plaque to Aldridge was put up at the Old Vic in 2004 but, as Martin Hoyles points out, the battle to make his example and relevance to 2020 known continues, hence the importance of this new book. 

Keith Flett 

Remembering an Anti-Racist Victory in Britain

 From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 71 (Autumn 2020). 

Remembering an Anti-Racist Victory in Britain - The Stop The Seventy Tour campaign and Black Lives Matter today

Thousands of anti-apartheid supporters set out from Cardiff Civic Centre to march to Cardiff Arms Park in protest at the Springboks v Cardiff rugby match, 13 December 1969 (pic from AAM Archives)

The year 2020 marks the fiftieth anniversary of a remarkable anti-racist victory in Britain.  In May 1970, after a string of mass protests and non-violent civil disobedience organised by the Stop The Seventy Tour (STST) campaign and the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) against the visiting Springbok rugby side from apartheid South African in the autumn of 1969 and the spring 1970, the all-white South African cricket tour of England was cancelled.  After 1970, the South African cricket team wouldn’t play England for another twenty-two years until apartheid itself had fallen. 

The anniversary of this anti-racist victory has however inevitably been little noted due to the Covid-19 crisis.  A few books have been published from various perspectives relating to the stopping of the 1970 cricket tour this year so far, including Rugby behind Barbed Wire by Chris Schoeman, Barbed Wire and Cucumber Sandwiches by Colin Shindler, Apartheid: A Point to Cover by Arunabha  Sengupta,  Tour de Farce by Mark Rowe, and a little work by Geoff Brown and myself, Apartheid is Not a Game.  Yet it is a sign of the times that the book which is likely to be the most valuable and important of all of these - by Peter Hain – one of the founders of the STST – and the historian Andre Odendaal, Pitch Battles: Protest, Prejudice and Play has had its publication delayed due to Covid-19, though it is currently due out in December 2020. 

For Colin Shindler, the obvious parallel between what he calls ‘the controversial South African tour of 1970’ and today relates to ‘Brexit’, and he makes much of the generational and cultural differences between two visions of ‘Britishness’ as they went into battle, with the conservative reactionary cricket establishment on one side against a younger more progressive and internationalist-minded generation.  The parallel gives us some sense of how uncompromising both the cricket establishment and the anti-apartheid protesters were back in 1970, which does have some parallels with the how polarised matters became between the hardcore of ‘Brexiteers’ and ‘Remainers’ recently.   Yet the attempt to make a parallel between ‘Brexit’ and the 1970 tour ultimately fails to explain anything, for the critical issue dividing matters in 1970 related to whether or not it was right to take a stand against racism.  In 2016, both the official ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ campaigns played the race card, while principled anti-racists could be found on both sides of the Brexit divide.   

If one is looking for some far more meaningful and relevant parallels between the STST and AAM protest movement in 1970 and events today in Britain, then they surely lie with the magnificent contemporary ‘Black Lives Matter’ (BLM) movement.  The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020 has re-ignited the Black Lives Matter movement and transformed it into a mass anti-racist movement on a global scale that is much bigger even than that which followed the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968.  And just as the STST and AAM  won a rare victory for anti-racism by stopping the 1970 tour, so the BLM movement in Britain has won victories which would have seemed impossible at the start of 2020, with the statues of slave traders like Edward Colston being toppled and with Rhodes in the process of falling at Oxford. 

The STST was perhaps the first mass movement on a national scale against racism in post-war Britain.  As Peter Hain later wrote of the STST, ‘the most important factor in its development and amazing depth of support and commitment was that it gave expression to a deep and almost enraged opposition to racialism amongst many people in Britain’.  Its success helped inspire further anti-racist and anti-fascist activism in Britain, such as the short-lived Action Committee Against Racialism in 1970 and the Anti-Nazi League in 1977.  Indeed, as Hain, who would go onto play a key role in the ANL himself, put it in 1971, at a time when ‘Powellite racialism is rampant in Britain’, ‘the stopping of the Seventy tour should be viewed, not as an end in itself, but as a beginning of a new and dynamic drive against racialism as a whole’. 

 Like BLM today, the campaign against the Springboks rugby team in 1969-70 developed into a truly mass movement.  As Christabel Gurney, a leading AAM activist has recalled,


'The demonstrations against the rugby Springboks were remarkable in a number of ways. They involved a wide range of organisations taking a lead in different places, under the dual umbrella of the AAM and STST. They combined mass protest with direct action. They maintained their momentum for over three months – from 30 October [1969] to 2 February [1970]– and covered 22 venues all over Britain, from Exeter in south-west England to Aberdeen in north-east Scotland, and in Ireland. The AAM sent posters and altogether 200,000 leaflets to local anti-apartheid groups and sympathetic organisations in every town where a match was scheduled… Altogether it has been estimated that more than 50,000 people took part in protests against the tour.'


Up to 100,000 were expected to protest outside Lord’s for the first match if the 1970 cricket tour had gone ahead, with also talk by the West Indian Campaign Against Apartheid in Cricket of organising a one-day strike on London transport by black West Indian workers.

The STST and AAM protests were about international solidarity, essentially saying ‘black lives matter’ in relation to the barbaric murderous white supremacist regime in apartheid South Africa.  Yet the campaign also implicitly raised wider questions relating to institutional racist discrimination – ‘the colour bar’ – in Britain, and systemic racism more generally.   The movement was multiracial, drawing support from black British campaigners, both veterans of the ‘British civil rights movement’ like the great West Indian cricketer Sir Learie Constantine, but also a younger generation whose growing militancy in the late 1960s around ideas of ‘Black Power’ fed into the movement.

The STST movement was led by young radical students, and deployed militant tactics of civil disobedience.  They didn’t bring down racist statues and throw them in the river, but they did do pitch invasions, which were something new – at least for major sporting fixtures.   They found this created mass media attention – dominating not only the back pages of newspapers where sport usually resides, but also taking a spot on the front pages - ever since the first time these tactics were used in January 1968 by students protesting against the Shimlas, a white south African university touring rugby team.  Such militant tactics of non-violent direct action and symbolic stunts created a national debate around questions of race and racism. 

The STST and AAM protests were inherently intimately tied up with questions of murderous police brutality, given the nature of the apartheid regime.  Protesters effectively utilised images of the South African police terrorising peaceful protesters for propaganda, with the famous AAM poster ‘If you could see their national sport, you might be less keen to see their cricket’ encouraging people to boycott the South African tours.  Issues of police violence and brutality emerged in Britain as the protests developed in intensity and scale.  The police, after initially finding pitch invasions quite harmless and amusing when used against visiting university rugby teams, took a different line once they were effectively being used to disrupt international sporting occasions such as the visiting Springbok rugby team.  The STST and AAM protests witnessed a new level of violent policing deployed against them, with many peaceful protesters arrested, beaten up, badly injured and nearly killed while protesting at matches – with police brutality at Leicester, Swansea and Manchester particularly vicious – forcing Home Secretary James Callaghan to call a special conference of chief constables to try and calm things down.     

Just as todays BLM protests ‘take the knee’ - a symbolic act most associated with the black sports star Colin Kaepernick - so an individual black sports figure, Basil D’Oliveira found himself in the eye of the storm back in 1969-70.   D’Oliveira was a South African-born cricketer whose skin colour meant he couldn’t play cricket for the national South African team, so he instead chose to move to play for England.  The famous controversy arose when the apartheid government refused to accept an English touring side in South Africa with D’Oliveira in it.  Though not as courageous in a sense as Kaepernick – D’Oliveira didn’t explicitly stand up to racism, he just wanted to play cricket – he still became a symbolic figure who by just wanting to ‘play the game’ vividly highlighted the racist nature of apartheid South Africa to millions of English sports fans. 

Like the BLM movement today, STST protesters faced often violent racist intimidation and a more generalised backlash from the far right – but then as now with the BLM, the general momentum and swell of public opinion increasingly sided with the protesters rather than the fascists.  Ironically one thing the anti-apartheid protesters did do inside the stadiums in 1969-70 was ‘mock Nazi salutes’ at the visiting Springboks, to highlight the historic support of leaders of the apartheid regime for Nazi Germany.  Protesters also told the Springbok players to ‘go back to where they came from’, usually a slogan thrown by racists.

The STST and AAM movement, by protesting apartheid, also inevitably has parallels with today’s Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in solidarity with Palestine and against settler-colonialist Israeli occupation.   Like the Palestine solidarity movement today, for years in the 1950s and early 1960s the movement for ‘boycott, sanctions and divestment’ in relation to apartheid South Africa was at a quite low ebb.   In terms of activism in the field of sports, as well as giving a brief history of the STST based in part on oral interviews with those on the frontline of the protests, Geoff Brown and myself in our book Apartheid is Not a Game try and recover the history of earlier more liberal campaigns like the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination in Sports (CARDS).  We show how over the course of the 1960s developments in the wider world, from the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 to the rise of black sports campaigns against racism in South Africa itself led by figures like Dennis Brutus, against a backdrop of decolonisation in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, saw things begin to shift.   

Such processes and protests led to the steady isolation of apartheid south Africa from many sports but also the steady growth in the numbers willing to protest apartheid in Britain, as a new generation radicalised politically through becoming conscious of the barbaric nature of the apartheid system.  Throughout the 1960s, rising student protest, rising black British militancy and then the new revolutionary spirit of 1968 – captured by black American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos taking a stand at the Mexico Olympic games with fists held aloft – all fed into the launch of the STST campaign in 1969.  Stuart Hall and his co-authors of Policing the Crisis (1978) wrote about the ‘tactically brilliant’ STST campaign, noting it was part of ‘the transmission of the spark of student politics to a wider constituency and field of contestation - the “politics of the street”’ underway at the time.   For Hall et al, the STST campaign ‘exhibited all the concentrated force of a single-issue campaign, limited in scope, but wide enough to involve young liberal people.’  In turn, that movement helped critically to strike blows against the apartheid state which gave inspiration to those on the frontline of fighting apartheid in South Africa itself.  Imprisoned freedom fighters and fighters in the bush both heard about the Stop The Seventy Tour protests – protests which helped ultimately pave the way for the rise of the multiracial South African rugby which won the Rugby World Cup last year.  Those fighting to make sure Black Lives Matter - as well as those campaigning for justice for the Palestinians – might also draw inspiration from the history of STST and AAM for their struggles today. 

Christian Høgsbjerg

Comment - Trump and 'Patriotic History'

From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 71 (Autumn 2020)

Trump speaks on 'Patriotic History'

UK reporting of Donald Trump tends to focus on certain aspects of his, at best, erratic behaviour, so his recent pronouncements on US history did not receive as much attention as they might merit. While Boris Johnson has not, as far as I know, demanded an official patriotic update of Our Island Story a fair amount of Tory culture wars are in this area. I doubt Johnson has ever heard of E P Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class which was the model for Howard Zinn’s work referenced below. That said the history of working class struggle for civil rights, democracy and justice is hardly the matter of every day discourse in 2020, sadly. Johnson told the 2020 Tory conference that he wants to make sure that all of British history is told. That includes the history of racism and imperialism and the fight against it. Inconvenient for Johnson that may be but socialist historians need to continue to make sure it is unavoidable. 

Trump wants history to be taught as a celebration of the United States and its achievements, and wants it taught in such a way as to erase the achievements of popular movements, including unions and civil rights organizations. He singled out for condemnation Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Trump and the people around him who wrote his speech, white nationalists like Stephen Miller, want to turn the clock back to a time when they imagine historians only wrote the history of white presidents and other elite actors, and when they did so with gushing praise. There never really was such a time. Professional historians have always been sceptical and the very tools of their profession are seditious, because history teaches us that things could have been different (contingency) and can still be different. 

Keith Flett

Monday, 12 October 2020

The early British Communist leaders

The foundation of the British Communist Party as a section of the Comintern in 1920 promised progress for international socialism. If that promise went unfulfilled, its centenary merits critical commemoration. In that context, the article below may be of interest. It analyses the foundation cadre; discusses some of the party’s leading architects, frequently forgotten or briefly referred to in existing accounts; and explores in human terms the difficulties of creating a revolutionary leadership in Britain in the early 1920s.

John McIlroy and Alan Campbell, ‘The early British Communist leaders: a prosopographical exploration’, Labor History at:

Monday, 21 September 2020

London Socialist Historians Group seminars Autumn 2020


London Socialist Historians Group

Autumn Term 2020 Seminars

Revisiting some key issues & figures in socialist history

Oct 12th Rhys Williams, Tom Mann and Australia: 1902 to 1909

Book (free) at the link below. Once the short form is filled in & submitted you will be e-mailed a link to the meeting details:

Nov 9th Mark Hailwood, ‘Between 5 and 6 of the clock': Time-telling, Time-use and Time-discipline in Pre-industrial England'

Book (free) at the link below. Once the short form is filled in & submitted you will be e-mailed a link to the meeting details:

Dec 7th Keith Flett, 150 years since the death of William Cuffay black leader of London Chartism in 1848. Has he been ignored by socialist historians?

All Seminars start at 5.30pm via Zoom

Registration details will be provided ahead of each seminar

The Autumn LSHG newsletter will appear during October. Contributions, complaints, letters and notices are all welcome preferably by early October - please contact Keith Flett at the address above for more info thanks 

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

David Starkey's 'apology' not accepted

The London Socialist Historians Group, which organises the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in central London has said that David Starkey’s apology for comments he made about slavery and Black Lives Matter doesn’t go far enough
The comments were made in a  widely publicised YouTube interview on Thursday July 2nd when Starkey made a number of bigoted comments about the Black Lives Matters movement. The interviewer Darren Grimes has since apologised himself for not picking up Starkey up at the time.
The historians say that while Starkey has apologised ‘unreservedly’ for his most recent outburst his record of making racist comments stretches back a good number of years. The BBC received many complaints when Starkey offered a qualified defence of Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech on Newsnight in 2011.
Moreover he needs to accept that simply rubbishing the idea of black Tudor history is not appropriate. In the interview he suggested that Dr Miranda Kaufman’s book on the Black Tudors consisted of chapters that were half in italics because there was little historical evidence. In fact the first paragraph of each chapter is italicised and the remainder is copiously footnoted
London Socialist Historians convenor Dr Keith Flett said, David Starkey’s apology mostly about the impact on himself. The media need to stop using him as a ‘go to’ historian on matters about which he has no specialist knowledge. He needs to acknowledge that it is not what his remarks have ‘cost’ him but their impact in reinforcing racist ideas. A period of silence from Dr Starkey while he returns to the archives to review the evidence for black Tudor history would be very welcome.
For more please contact Keith Flett at the address above.  

Monday, 15 June 2020

London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 70 (Summer 2020) now online

LSHG Summer Term 2020 Update on seminars, newsletter & activities

The Institute of Historical Research is currently closed and we are not able to hold seminars at the moment. Apologies to those who were planning to attend the last seminar of the Spring Term on Monday 16 March, Rhys Williams on Tom Mann in Australia, which I cancelled at short notice but I think prudently so. We plan to re-arrange the seminar for the next time Rhys, who is based in Australia, is in the UK.

The summer term LSHG Newsletter is here - see this comment piece on Covid-19 and these two reviews of works relating to the Cato Street Conspiracy of 1820 and London during 1848 - perhaps a little later than usual as there are no seminars to publicise. It is hoped to resume seminars from October 2020 but obviously it is too early yet to be definite on that. We have a number of papers and speakers on a waiting list!

A range of virtual socialist history activities currently being undertaken and details of these are probably best checked by following the London Socialist Historians twitter account @LSHGofficial and by visiting our website, where every issue of the Newsletter back to 1997 is now on-line at our index

You will also find, sadly, a brief appreciation of Neil Davidson who died on 3rd February. Neil was associated with the LSHG for over 20 years:

Finally there are some socialist history podcasts available on the IHR website. Below is a link to a seminar John Newsinger gave in November 2017 on Orwell and the left:

and a link to Kevin Morgan on The Left and the Cult of the Individual, an ever present source of discussion!

There is plenty for socialists to be doing even in times like these but history remains a vital context to current events.

Keith Flett, LSHG Convenor

The Newsletter  - Letters, articles, criticisms and contributions to debate are most welcome. Deadline for the next issue is  1 September 2020 - please email Keith Flett on the address above for more info about contributing and the society.

Book Review: The Cato Street Conspiracy

[From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 70 (Summer 2020)]

Cato Street, The Making of the English Working Class and English Exceptionalism

The Cato Street Conspiracy
The Cato Street Conspiracy: Plotting, Counter-Intelligence and the Revolutionary Tradition in Britain and Ireland 
Edited by Professor Jason McElligott and Martin Conboy
Hardcover 216 pages
 ISBN 978-1526144980 Manchester University Press 2019

The 200th anniversary of the Cato Street Conspiracy was on 23 February 2020 and it sparked the publication of a volume of new research on it, which endeavours to rescue the conspiracy from the enormous condescension of posterity.

The phrase is appropriate because it reminds us that E P Thompson in his still-benchmark The Making of the English Working Class does write about Cato Street but sees it very much as in the shadow of Peterloo. For Thompson it was the mass peaceful protest of Manchester on 16 August 1819 rather than the attempt at armed revolt of London on 23 February 1820 that set the framework for how the working class political tradition developed.

Thompson may well have been right, but that doesn’t mean that the tradition of Cato Street didn’t exist. The Making is a book specifically about the English working class as the title says. There were good reasons for this. Thompson was meant to be writing a history that covered the period 1760 to 1960 and the Making, weighing in at around 1000 pages in the print edition, was the first chapter. Secondly Thompson’s research was focused on England, the West Riding and London in particular.

Thompson made the point specifically in the preface where he apologises to Scottish and Welsh readers and notes that he has dealt with Irish-only immigrants to England. Focusing specifically on Scotland he argues that ‘it is possible, at least until the 1820s, to regard the English and Scottish experiences as distinct, since trade union and political links were impermanent and immature’

Even if we allow this it remains, with the benefit of further historical research, a weakness and one that has become more evident in the fifty-plus years since the book was published. 

Thompson was no expert in the different but strongly related histories of the Scottish, Irish and Welsh working classes.

However, without adding in that history the importance of an event like Cato Street cannot properly be understood. Thompson does write briefly about the Scottish Rising of early 1820 which was very clearly related to Cato Street. He doesn’t provide detail on the various West Riding attempts at risings in March and April 1820, and doesn’t cover at all the far from insignificant impact of events in Ireland and the revolutionary tradition that had developed there from the 1790s.

We can say then, as perhaps we always should, that Thompson’s book, impressive though it was, represents work in progress and work that should still be in progress.

 Keith Flett

Book Review: A London Story: 1848

[From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 70 (Summer 2020)]

Rewriting the hidden revolutionary history of British working class politics

London Story 1848 by Catherine Howe | Waterstones

 A London Story: 1848
 By Catherine Howe
APS Books 2020
194 pp paperback
ISBN 978-1789960853

It is the 200th anniversary of the Cato Street Conspiracy. On 23 February 1820 a number of men met in a hayloft in Cato Street off Edgware Road in London. They planned to go to the house of Lord Harrowby in Grosvenor Square where they believed a cabinet dinner was taking place and murder those attending.

Following that they intended to announce a Provisional Government.

There never was a Cabinet dinner. The men had been misled and betrayed by a government agent, Edwards. The plotters were surprised by police and troops and one officer, Smithers was killed. Five of the conspirators including the leader Arthur Thistlewood were tried at the Old Bailey and hung on 1 May1820.

They are often portrayed as fantasists but while the method may seem extreme it is thought they had and expected considerable support if the plot had worked, not just in London but in the north of England and Scotland. Indeed March and April 1820 saw a series of attempted risings which the Government took very seriously.

Part of the London support were Irish labourers who were part of tradition of Irish political revolt dating back to the United Irishmen in 1798 and Colonel Despard who was hung for treason in 1803. Despard was a follower of Thomas Spence as were the Cato Street conspirators.

As E P Thompson noted in The Making of the English Working Class those who were possibly engaged in underground revolutionary activity did not leave much in the way of records of their activities, for understandable reasons.

Catherine Howe’s book is about London Chartism in 1848 not Cato Street but she puts a case forward for the same tradition.

While the book tells an historical story rather than representing research history it is solidly based in terms of references to primary and secondary sources.

The key point is what the author makes of those sources in terms of putting forward an understanding of the events of the first 8 months of 1848 in London Chartism.

February 1848 had seen a revolution in France and this began to spark large scale Chartist activity in March in Trafalgar Square and Camberwell in South London. The culmination of this phase of protest was the gathering on Kennington Common on Monday 10 April 1848.

There then followed a reorganisation of Chartism and a series of demonstrations in June 1848. The Chartist leader and friend of Marx and Engels Ernest Jones was arrested following a speech he made at Bishop Bonners Fields in East London.

The putative rising centred on Seven Dials in central London in August 1848 was the crescendo of the Chartist reaction to the French events earlier in the year. Historians have disputed whether William Cuffay, a leading black Chartist, was centrally involved as the authorities claimed he was. Howe’s account does place him firmly amongst the conspirators.

Again this is a matter of interpretation rather than specific evidence. Cuffay was the leader of London Chartism and the organiser on the day of the Kennington demonstration. Northern Star reports of the Chartist delegate meeting held around that event show Cuffay to be considerably more militant than the national leadership and he may well have been reflecting the temper of London Chartists in that respect.

David Goodway’s book on London Chartism in 1848 argues that the attempted rising at Seven Dials marked the conclusion to a conspiratorial radical politics dating back 50 years and more.

Catherine Howe adds a further dimension to the issue by looking at the activity of Irish radicals, central to British working class politics throughout the nineteenth century but often overlooked by historians. E P Thompson’s classic account of this period of course refers specifically to the ‘English working class’, but that included many Irish workers.

Some recent historical research, not least around Cato Street, has started to put back the Irish tradition of revolt into British radical politics and Howe is very much on that page.

Chartist attempts at revolution in 1848 ended in failure and as Howe notes, history is written by the victors. Yet it is important to understand that there was a revolutionary working-class tradition in Britain and one that the state took very seriously.

Keith Flett

Comment: From Hurricane Katrina to Covid-19

[From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 70 (Summer 2020)]

Like George W Bush with Katrina, Boris Johnson discovers ‘People we didn’t know exist’ 

 When Henry Mayhew started the series of social investigations into the London working-class in 1849 that was to become London Labour and the London Poor he laid out a prospectus in the Morning Chronicle. He wrote of investigating the ‘large and comparatively unknown body of people’ who comprised the labouring poor who lived in slum housing often in insanitary conditions with at best uncertain employment.

He set a pattern that has emerged at times of crisis since.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 revealing a government and president in George W Bush that was not only unprepared to deal with it but had reduced funding previously for measures that might have helped, the  Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Michael Brown said, "We're seeing people that we didn't know exist’.

The former Guardian journalist Gary Younge who reported from New Orleans at the time recently made the link to the situation now.

The pattern of Katrina has indeed been echoed in the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

Only after sustained pressure by a few media critics did the government agree to publish the daily totals of deaths in care homes. These were and remain sadly substantial. Some have argued that the residents of homes were not hospitalised when seriously ill but left and cut again, and housing conditions which are far from ideal as to die where they were to avoid the NHS being overwhelmed. An independent inquiry will need to examine that as well as the failure to provide adequate PPE for workers in the homes.

Yet, picking up on Younge’s point, another perspective might be that the government didn’t really know what the scale of the problem in care homes was and, based on its earlier herd immunity strategy, now changed, believed that numbers of the elderly and vulnerable would die anyway.

Reality has a way of intruding into right-wing ideological fantasy strategies, as George W Bush found out in 2005.

This came recently with the publication of details, broken down to local authority areas, by the Office of National Statistics of all COVID-19 deaths from 1 March to 17 April. This wasn’t some exercise in constructing a league table of deaths - important though it is to record every death and value every life. Rather it focused attention on where COVID-19 deaths had been particularly high and implicitly invited discussion of why this might be.

Of the 11 areas with the highest death rate everyone was in London The pattern of poverty, housing and health identified 171 years ago by Henry Mayhew in London’s poorest districts continues. The highest UK COVID-19 mortality rates per 100 000 population in the UK are in the  London Boroughs of Newham 144.3, Brent 141.5, Hackney 127.4, Tower Hamlets 122.9 and Haringey 119.3.

Philip Glanville, the Mayor of Hackney, quoted in the Financial Times on 2 May argued that “the links between inequality, poverty, ethnicity and health” were the key to his borough’s death rate of 127 per 100,000.

Indeed these are people, overwhelmingly poor, workingclass, many from ethnic minorities, who have suffered years of Tory austerity, of public services and the NHS cut the cost of homes in London has soared and Tory policies, meaning little council housing has been built. Yet these same people are those who keep the NHS going, who drive buses and tubes, who clean streets and work in supermarkets. They are low paid but as the last two months have underlined absolutely essential.

The Tories may not have known such people existed, but they do now, and political change is on the agenda.

Keith Flett

Monday, 8 June 2020

Black Lives Matter - Socialist Historians renew call for teaching of history of colonialism and the role of Empire in schools

Socialist Historians renew call for teaching of history of colonialism & the role of Empire in schools
The London Socialist Historians Group which organises the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London, Senate House has renewed its call for the history of colonialism and the role of Empire to be a key part of the school history curriculum.
As recently as November 2019 the Labour Party launched a Race and Faith Manifesto at the Bernie Grant Centre in Tottenham on 26th November (link below).
While Labour didn’t win the Election the ideas put forward remain highly relevant as Black Lives Matters protests demand justice on racism and discrimination
Part of the Manifesto called for ‘the creation of an Emancipation Educational Trust to ensure historical injustice, colonialism and role of the British empire is taught in the National Curriculum’
The historians say that while it is the case that Empire and colonialism may feature in some school history lessons today it is not done systematically or as part of the examined curriculum.
Britain’s imperial heritage from the slave trade, to its control of countries across the globe from the late nineteenth century, to the modern day descendants of those impacted on this who play such an essential role in Britain today is something that every school student needs to know about
LSHG Convenor Dr Keith Flett said, we’re just coming up to the 150th anniversary of the death of  William Cuffay in Tasmania in July 1870. Cuffay the black leader of London Chartism in 1848 fought for democracy and the vote. For his pains he was arrested and transported to Australia, where he continued fighting for democracy. Cuffay is not a figure who will be familiar to most school students but he should be. The proposals Labour brought forward in 2019 point to one way that this can start to be addressed.
Please contact Keith Flett at the address above for more information

Sunday, 3 May 2020

Neil Davidson

The London Socialist Historians Group was very sad to learn of the death of Neil Davidson (1957-2020), a socialist and trade union activist and Marxist historian and sociologist based in Edinburgh who worked at the University of Glasgow, whose work on the history of Scotland and Scottish nationalism, and wider theorisations and mediations on the nature of bourgeois revolution, the uneven and combined development of capitalism, neo-liberalism, the nature of the European Union, and the far right were thoughtful, important and powerful contributions to wider debates underway on the Left.  Our condolences to his family, friends, and comrades - RIP Neil.  
Comment by Keith Flett, LSHG Convenor
I was very sorry to learn of the death of Neil Davidson at 62. I’d known Neil for many years as a socialist and historian and its fair to say that he was amongst the earliest supporters and contributors to the work of the London Socialist Historians Group, albeit of course as one of our friends in the north.

He spoke at the 2010 conference on the vote. A synopsis is below and remains very relevant 10 years on. He also spoke at the 2006 conference on the 50th anniversary of the events of 1956 and indeed at the conference that led to the People’s History of Riots book (CSP).

It wasn’t just the writing though. He had a distinctive speaking style and presence that always made a paper by him an eagerly awaited occasion.

I had read his FB posts on being treated for a brain illness and one always hopes that matters will turn out well as treatment continues. Sadly this is far from always the case.

Neil leaves a substantial legacy as an inspiring speaker and an incisive historian as well as of course a great socialist and comrade.

Synopsis of paper given at the London Socialist Historians conference on the Vote: What Went Wrong? Held at the Institute of Historical Research on 27th February 2010

Neil Davidson ‘Social Neoliberalism, “Regimes of Consolidation” and the Assault on Representative Democracy, 1989-2008’

Neoliberals claim that the establishment of free market policies will automatically produce comparably beneficial effects in other areas of social life. Not only are these claims false, neoliberalism also exacerbates all the inherent evils which capitalism involves in all its incarnations. Consequently, so long as citizens are able to vote, and as long as they have political parties prepared to represent their interests, however inadequately, for which to vote, there is always the possibility that the neoliberal order might be undermined. Neoclassical solutions to this dilemma were twofold. The first was to ensure that only sympathetic politicians are in control of the state, if necessary by non-democratic means. The Chilean option is not however the preferred one, mainly because of the many inconveniences which military and still more fascist dictatorships tend to involve for bourgeoisies themselves. The recognition that formal democracy was desirable, but that substantive democracy was problematic, suggested a second solution, that economic activity should be removed as far as possible from the responsibility of politicians who might be expected to deploy it for electoral purposes. One of the key successes that neoliberalism has achieved for capital has therefore been to render inconceivable alternatives to the economic policies established by the initial regimes of reorientation–or at any rate, alternatives to their left. Debates now have the quality of a shadow play, an empty ritual in which trivial or superficial differences are emphasised in order to give an impression of real alternatives and justify the continuation of party competition. The increasing irrelevance of politics has given rise to several clear trends across the West, including increasing voter volatility and decreasing partisanship, indicating that many of those electors still involved casting their vote do so–appropriately enough–on a consumer model of political choice, where participation is informed by media-driven perceptions of which result will be to their immediate personal benefit. Unsurprisingly, the numbers prepared to carry out even this minimal level of activity are declining. Central to this shift were the “regimes of consolidation”, formally characterised by social or liberal democratic rhetoric, which were able to incorporate the rhetoric of social solidarity while maintaining and even extending the essential components of neoliberalism. This apparent supplementing of the naked laws of the market was originally marketed as a “third way” between traditional social democracy and neoliberalism, but is more accurately described as “social neo-liberalism”, since it involves not a synthesis of the two, but an adaptation of the former to the latter. Their capitulation represented the final stage in the normalisation of neoliberalism: the point at which it became accepted, not as a temporary aberration associated with the programme of a particular political party, but the framework within which politics would henceforth be conducted. It remains to be seen whether it can survive the renewed onset of economic crisis. (470 words)

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Jeremy Corbyn: the historical record. The most resilient of Labour Opposition leaders

Statement from the London Socialist Historians Group:
The UK General Election Gets Dirty – AN SIONNACH FIONN
The London Socialist Historians Group, which organises the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in central London has said that Jeremy Corbyn, who steps down as Labour leader on 4th April, has been the most resilient of opposition Labour leaders from Keir Hardie in 1906 onwards.
Labour has had 18 leaders of whom only six have been Prime Minister, Ramsay Macdonald, Clem Attlee, Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown of whom 4 were directly elected to Office.
The historians note that that the usual historical pattern has been for Tory Prime Ministers to remain in No.10 while Labour leaders come and go.
Corbyn faced three Tory leaders, David Cameron, Theresa May and finally Boris Johnson in his nearly 5 year stint at leader.
He was rivalled and some no doubt would argue surpassed by the Labour leader sometimes seen as his nemesis Tony Blair who as a Labour Prime Minister faced three Tory leaders himself, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard.
LSHG Convenor Dr Keith Flett said, of course you can sum up Labour leaders in various ways, including seats, votes and percentages of votes won at Elections and on the third of occasions when they have become Prime Minister their impact in Office. Tony Blair clearly has a place in the history books in these respects and perhaps for other reasons too, but Corbyn’s resilience in facing three Tory leaders in 5 years is also historically noteworthy.
For more info please contact Keith Flett at the address above.