Monday, 27 January 2020

Book Review- New Approaches to Socialist History (2008)

Writing Socialist History
Written By: Gerd-Rainer Horn
Date: January 2008
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 30: Lent 2008  

New Approaches to Socialist History Edited by Keith Flett and David Renton (Cheltenham, New Clarion Press, 2003) pp. viii, 175 Paperback ISBN: 978-1873797419 Hard cover ISBN: 978-1873797426

This volume contains ten individual contributions that were first presented at a conference held in London in May of 2000. The authors belong to a network of academic and “barefoot” historians founded in 1993: The London Socialist Historians Group (LSHG). The LSHG sees itself as an organization standing in the tradition of the British History Workshop movement. Launched in 1966, the History Workshop gave voice to new topics, themes, and approaches to the practice of history, revitalized by the energies and determination of the 1960s New Left. Whether the LSHG will be able to reach the prominence and public presence of the History Workshop remains to be seen.

This anthology is a purposefully diverse assembly of articles addressing topics in a wide variety of national contexts between 1820 and 1972. Showcasing the LSHG’s view of “socialism” as a mix of mutually interacting influences—including, most notably, individuals, political parties, social movements, and contingency and social class the articles should be read as detailed case studies. They exemplify the interplay of historical forces that, singly or combined, create the multiplicity of specific historical contexts that, although geographically specific, can ultimately be compared.

A brief presentation of individual topics in chronological order makes clear that there is no specific thematic link uniting the various articles. Neil Davidson draws attention to the law of uneven and combined development behind the first “regional general strike in the history of capitalism,” the 1820 industrial action in southwest Scotland. Andrew Dawson untangles the various influences affecting Philadelphia workshop owners faced with the issues surrounding the US Civil War.

Craig Phelan elucidates the realities and the myths behind the U.S. Knights of Labor and their charismatic leader, Terence Powderly. Paul Grist points to some important birth defects at the cradle of the British (Independent) Labour Party, with the example of Bradford, West Yorkshire. Ian Birchall investigates the early history of the Red Trade Union International, focusing on the role of Alfred Rosmer. David Renton clarifies some issues surrounding the strange political career of Sir Stafford Cripps, and Tobias Abse casts important doubts over the democratic credentials of the icon of Eurocommunism: Palmiro Togliatti. Anne Alexander sheds light on the uneasy relationship between nationalism and communism in immediate post-World War II Egypt. Finally, Dave Lyddon and Ralph Darlington summarize their findings on a pivotal moment in recent British labour movement history, first published as Glorious Summer: Class Struggle in Britain 1972.

These individual pieces of research are usually well presented, mostly devoid of “movement” jargon, and, for the most part, without an unnecessarily polemical edge. The sole piece that attempts to do too much is the opening chapter, in which the author purports to draw lessons from two centuries of social movement action in less than ten pages. All the other articles can be read with great profit.
This reviewer wishes the LSHG an increased public (and even commercial) success.

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