Monday, 27 January 2020

Book Review - New Approaches to Socialist History (2003)

Keith Flett and David Renton (eds), New Approaches to Socialist History (New Clarion Press, 2003)
Written By: Roger Darlington
Date: September 2003
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 19: Autumn 2003 

When we were at school, most of us were taught history in terms of battles and treaties secured by great soldiers and statesmen. So it a refreshing change to read New Approaches To Socialist History, a set of essays that looks at history through the prism of working class movements, their struggles and strikes, and their trade union and political leaders.

The ten well-researched and well-argued chapters in this fascinating if sometimes controversial book were originally delivered as papers at a conference organised by the London Socialist Historians Group in May 2000. They have been edited for this collection by Keith Flett (Connect activist and BT Committee member) and David Renton (academic at Sunderland University).

The editors point out, in an introduction, that: “Labour history became a deeply unfashionable subject during the Tory years 1979 to 1997 and it has made an uncertain return since”. The reasons are obvious: the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites, the decline of trade union membership and strength, and the triumphalism of the neo-liberal agenda. Yet, as at least one contributor points out, the current anti-globalisation movement shows that rank and file protest is far from dead and, in developing such movements in the future, maybe there are some lessons to learn from the past.
The ten pieces are quite eclectic.

Some are biographical: a critical assessment of post-war Labour Chancellor Stafford Cripps’ trajectory from “radical insider” to “custodian of orthodoxy”; a sympathetic view of French labour leader Alfred Rosmer (“a dissident among dissidents”); and a supportive profile of the “flawed but worthy hero” American labour leader Terence Powderly.

Other chapters are more chronological: the Scottish General Strike of 1820; the rise of Chartism in the mid 19th century and the New Unionism movement of the late 1880s; strikes in Bradford in 1891 & 1910; and the British strike wave of 1972 (a critique of the Communist Party “emphasis on getting left officials elected” taking “precedence over sustaining rank and file activity”).

Still other chapters address issues arising out of the American civil war, the 1952 Free Officers’ coup in Egypt, and the role of post-war Italian communist leader Palmiro Togliatti.

As my brother (a co-author of one of these essays) would testify from our frequent debates, I do not share the political position of most of the contributors to this collection, but I recognise it as a thoughtful and stimulating contribution to a frequently neglected labour history.

(This review first appeared in the monthly journal of the trade union Connect and is reproduced with permission.)

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