Tuesday, 30 March 2021

London Socialist Historians Group online seminars - Summer term 2021

Socialist History Seminars Summer Term 2021 

Organised by the London Socialist Historians Group with the support of the Institute for Historical Research in London

Monday 26 April 5.30pm Stella Dadzie: 'A Kick in the Belly: Women, Slavery and Resistance' [book launch] - register here: 


Monday 24 May 5.30pm Simon Hannah: 'A Parliament for Workers! The Labour Parliament of 1854'

Register here for free - https://www.history.ac.uk/node/5666

 Seminars are currently held on Zoom - please check our twitter @LSHGofficial for updates

The latest issue of the London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter, 72 (Spring 2021) is now online - for the next issue, letters, articles, criticisms and contributions to debate are most welcome. The deadline for the next issue is 1 May 2021 - please contact Keith Flett at the address above for more information. 

Comment - Time to end Tory Culture Wars on History

[From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter, 72 (Spring 2021)]


The Tory culture war on history and those who challenge particular narratives of British history is not only continuing but expanding. Jacob Rees-Mogg has criticised the London mayor Sadiq Khan’s plans to review statues and street names in the capital in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement. He told hard right Tory backbencher Andrew Rosindell that British history should be celebrated. That would include of course the slave trade and numerous imperial conquests. 

Meanwhile education secretary Gavin Williamson, finding the task of providing safe education in a pandemic beyond him, has turned his attention instead to ‘free speech’. A 34-page policy paper has been issued which may lead to legislation.

It would be fair to say that the paper is not all Gavin’s own work but that of civil servants who are rather more professional in their approach than the education secretary. It has the temerity to refer to groups who have struggled to get free speech in the past, such as those fighting for gay rights. It doesn’t mention that the fight was in part necessary because of the Tories’ Clause 28 in the 1980s which sought to restrict discussion of such matters. 

In general though it appears to be a defence of the values of a liberal education, until one absorbs the detail. Its actual thrust is to make sure that assorted racists, Islamophobes and reactionaries can speak without protest in public settings. 

The problem Williamson has is that they already can - as the left knows all too well. The Times, which generally supports Tory culture wars, surveyed thousands of speaking events at universities and found issues with just six. Most were reportedly related to problems with organisation - missing paperwork and so on. One was a Jeremy Corbyn meeting that had to be cancelled and re-arranged because the venue was too small to hold numbers attending. 

Williamson’s ministerial colleague Oliver Dowden has also been active on the matter. The lines below relate to a communication the culture secretary Oliver Dowden has had with the ‘Commonsense’ group of hard right Tory MPs. They are the motor for the Tory culture wars. 

"History is ridden with moral complexity, and interpreting Britain's past should not be an excuse to tell an overly-simplistic version of our national story, in which we damn the faults of previous generations whilst forgetting their many great achievements. Purging uncomfortable elements of our past does nothing but damage our understanding of it." 

Dowden’s comments have drawn criticisms from many historians with the biographer of Eric Hobsbawm, Richard Evans, calling for an end to the Tory war on history. 

The point is that Dowden’s words reflect a lack of understanding of what history is, just as Williamson’s supposed defence of an abstract ‘free speech’ does. What is understood by history and what is seen as important and relevant in it varies over time. 

In particular it is informed by historical research that uncovers new historical details and suggests fresh ways of understanding our past. Recently for example I, along with others, have been wondering if the black presence in the Chartist movement was not rather greater than has been previously thought, given that Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century had quite large numbers of black working class residents, mainly sailors or ex-sailors. 

Until more research is done the answer is that we simply don’t know. If we followed Oliver Dowden’s perspective, that British history is an unchanging thing written on tablets of stone, we wouldn’t even bother to find out. 

That doesn’t seem much like freedom of thought and speech. 

Keith Flett

Plagues, Vaccines and Revolutionaries

[From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 72 (Spring 2021)]

Plagues, Vaccines and Revolutionaries

When Waldemar Haffkine met Shapurji Saklatvala in Colonial Bombay 

    Waldemar Haffkine (1860-1930) inoculating a community against cholera in Calcutta, March 1894    

From May 1896, Bombay (now Mumbai) in colonial India was hit by the world’s third great outbreak of bubonic plague, which had arrived in the port from China. 

Though the British authorities were determined to keep the port open regardless of the mounting death toll, by October 1896 it became impossible for them to just carry on denying the presence of the plague any longer, after doing their best to ignore the reports being sent their way by health officials and local doctors. 

As Alex Benham has noted, building on the scholarship of David Arnold in his Colonizing the Body: State Medicine and Epidemic Disease in Nineteenth-century India (1993), the British Raj responded to this outbreak in four ways which have eerie parallels to the disastrous way our Tory government has responded over the last year. 

Firstly, when they finally faced up to the reality of the outbreak they denied its seriousness - the official announcement stressed the disease was merely of a ‘mild’ type, even though they were soon recording a thousand plague deaths a month. 

Secondly, Benham notes there was ‘a constant prioritising of the economy over the lives of racialised, colonised people. The British were committed to preserving the function of the city’s textile mills and its vast port, and were willing to accept deaths as an unavoidable cost of doing business’. Indeed, ‘it was only when France threatened a total ban on Indian trade and passengers and its ports that Britain conceded to the necessity to act … quickly enacting a domestic quarantine on Bombay sea traffic, and then passing the Epidemic Diseases Act in early 1897.’ 

Thirdly, they blamed the people who were dying for the spread of the plague and what the British regime which all its characteristic colonial racism regarded as the ‘innate filthiness’ of their houses - rather than their own failure as authorities to either provide decent housing for its subjects, or act against the plague earlier.

Finally, when those among the working population of Bombay either fled for their lives, or resorted to riots after their houses were demolished, the British Empire resorted to detentions and executions – rather than trying to protect and help those suffering, Benham writes of the Raj’s ‘constant recourse to coercion’.[1]  

Yet amid the horrors of the plague emerged an unlikely hero – the Russian-born bacteriologist Waldemar Haffkine, hailed by Joel Gunter and Vikas Pandey recently on the BBC website as ‘the vaccine pioneer the world forgot’. 

Born Vladimir Aaronovich Mordecai Wolf Chavkin in 1860, the son of a Jewish schoolteacher, Haffkine grew up amid the virulent antisemitism of Tsarist Russia, but despite poverty made it to the University of Odessa.

 As the BBC report, ‘when Haffkine graduated in zoology from the University of Odessa in 1884, his reward was to be barred from taking up a professorship there because he was a Jew. He had already run into political trouble five years earlier, amid pogroms, when as a member of a local defence league he fought to stop Russian army cadets destroying a Jewish man's home. Haffkine was beaten and arrested but eventually released’.[2]  What the BBC don’t mention is that Haffkine’s politics were somewhat more radical than this – according to one writer, Haffkine 

soon saw the injustices of the Tsarist regime, which interfered constantly with the freedom of the university, and he joined the revolutionary underground movement known as the Narodnaya Volya Party [People’s Will], an illegal organisation set up in 1879. Some of its members resorted to acts of terrorism in their fight against the tyranny of the monarchy. In 1882 Haffkine was expelled from the university for sending a letter to the Rector in support of Professor Mechnikov, who was in disgrace with the authorities. In 1881 he was arrested and served a jail sentence, and he was under police surveillance in Odessa for eight years, and three times endured the extremely harsh conditions of imprisonment under the Tsarist regime.[3] 

According to another writer, in 1882, Haffkine took part in the successful assassination of Tsarist general Major General Vasily Strelnikov.[4]  After spending time in Paris to get away from the heat on him as a revolutionary in Tsarist Russia, Haffkine had a breakthrough – he developed a pioneering vaccine against cholera. This success soon led him to be appointed State Bacteriologist of the British Crown. Sent to India as a good place to test his new vaccine in 1894, Haffkine won the trust of local people to launch a mass vaccination programme firstly by working with Indian doctors and secondly by publicly injecting himself to show it was safe. In 1896, Haffkine was called to Bombay and charged with the task of developing a vaccine against the plague, something which, against the odds, he successfully achieved. 

As one writer notes, ‘There was great antagonism to the system, and many people were terrified that it would actually give them the disease rather than protect them from it. Professor Haffkine insisted always that vaccination should be voluntary; then, as now, the rights of the individual were sometimes protected. Perhaps, though, had it been compulsory, it might not have taken six years for the plague to be brought under control’.[5]  

As Gunter and Pandey note, ‘inside a year, hundreds of thousands of people had been inoculated using Haffkine's vaccine, saving untold numbers of lives. He was knighted by Queen Victoria, and in December 1901 he was appointed director-in-chief of the Plague Research Laboratory at Government House in Parel, Bombay, with new facilities and a staff of 53 … Between 1897 and 1925, 26 million doses of Haffkine’s anti-plague vaccine were sent out from Bombay. Tests of the vaccine's efficacy showed between a 50% and 85% reduction in mortality’, saving countless lives.[6] 

 This is not the place to go into the subsequent life and work of Haffkine, and why in 1903 he (unfairly, and almost certainly in part as the result of British antisemitism) fell from grace and into subsequent obscurity and neglect outside of India itself before his death in 1930 in Paris. Rather it is to record the fact that while working in Bombay amid the plague this Russian revolutionary scientist met and quite possibly influenced a young Bombay-born Parsi student, Shapurji Saklatvala, who despite his privileges in life had volunteered to help those suffering most during the plague. 

                                                   Shapurji Saklatvala

Saklatvala would later become an important anti-imperialist and the Communist MP for Battersea North in London.  In a speech in 1927 he recalled that the racism of British India meant it was difficult enough to even arrange to meet Haffkine. 

'In 1902 a plague was having a devastating effect all over India. It was to be taken in hand not merely as a grave problem, but as something to save human lives. There was a Professor Haffkine in those days, who was the first man who, with some measure of success, gave out an anti-plague serum for inoculation. His experiments were being conducted on a large scale. I was then associated as secretary with an important committee of welfare workers. The Governor of Bombay, who was then himself staying out of Bombay, immediately sent a telegram to Professor Haffkine to go to him with certain facts and figures because the matter was becoming of vital importance. 

Professor Haffkine asked me to go and assist him. I gave up my work in the office, and I went to the place where he was staying, and that was his European club. People talk about untouchability! Although I had facts and figures at my disposal which were the result of months of study, and the Professor had only four or five hours at his disposal, I was actually prevented from entering the white man’s club. 

Yet a representative of that race today talks nonsense about untouchability among the Hindus. Ultimately, when it could not be helped, the messenger of the club, after telephoning to various government officials, took me to the back yard of the club, led me through the kitchen and an underground passage to a basement room, where the Professor was asked to see me because I was not a white man.'[7] 

According to Sehri Saklatvala, whose chapter on ‘The Plague Years’ in the biography she wrote of her father The Fifth Commandment gives the greatest detail about the relationship between Saklatvala and Haffkine, ‘what a blessing’ Haffkine’s ‘presence in India was to prove to be, not only for India but for the whole of mankind’.

'And incidentally to this great cause, circumstances were to bring this Russian revolutionary, this brilliant and dedicated scientist and humanitarian, into contact with Shapurji Saklatvala. Was it perhaps Haffkine who sowed the seed of revolution in the fertile garden of Shapurji’s compassionate nature? It seems to me to be highly likely, for Shapurji was to work with the professor for six plague-ridden years … Of course, in the situation in which he was now working, Professor Haffkine had neither time nor energy for politics and devoted himself entirely to his scientific research and his unceasing efforts to inoculate as many of the population as possible. But it is surely likely that he talked to Shapurji about his experiences when the two of them met.

It is, I think, safe to assume that, when Shapurji was sent to a basement room in the European club and Professor Haffkine had to join him there, that some comment of the situation must have been made. It is recorded that the Professor was very critical of the British imperialist authorities, noting as he did the abject poverty, overcrowding and insanitary housing in which the majority of the Indians lived; he saw that the victims of the plague were to be found mostly among the poor, and scarcely any in the European or wealthier quarters of the city. When Shapurji presented him with the statistics, it is inconceivable that no comments were made and that no discussions took place between the two men. Their outlooks had much in common; and no doubt this close association between the older idealist and scientist and the young, compassionate student, must have helped to form and to crystallise the convictions of Shapurji.' [8]  

If we can be forgiven one final quote from Sehri Saklatvala, she reflects on the impact seeing the devastation of the plague in Bombay from 1896-1902 must have left on her father, who subsequently

'spent his whole life thereafter struggling to better the lot of those masses of people living in destitution, want and humiliation. What he saw in those years of the bubonic plague must have remained always in his mind. It was to those victims of circumstance that he dedicated his life. The charitable and benevolent community of Parsis, to which he belonged, always sought to alleviate the distress of the poor. This was not enough for Shapurji. He sought not to alleviate but to eliminate poverty entirely; and not only in India, but all over the world. The 1917 revolution in Russia and the events following upon it led him to believe implicitly that communism could end abject poverty; it was for this reason and this reason alone, that he devoted the rest of his life to the propagation of world communism.'[9] 

 Many have noted how comparatively well the early Soviet Republic responded to the global pandemic of not just influenza and cholera but also typhus in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution.[10] 

Here it seems we have another inspiring example of how one individual Russian revolutionary scientist rose to the challenge of defeating the bubonic plague a couple of decades before – but also how the experience of witnessing the devastation the plague left in its wake inspired another figure to dedicate their lives with sincerity and self-sacrifice to the cause of revolutionary socialism, in order that such barbaric catastrophes might one day become a thing of the past. 

Christian Høgsbjerg                                                            

[1]  Alex Benham, ‘Another Nightingale: Coronavirus, Plague and the Colonial Violence of British Neglect’, New Socialist, 25 August 2020, https://newsocialist.org.uk/another-nightingalecoronavirus-plague-and-colonial-violence-british-neglect/ There is a brief discussion of the plague in Bombay in Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World (London: Verso, 2001), pp. 172- 175. 

[2]  Joel Gunter and Vikas Pandey, ‘Waldemar Haffkine: The vaccine pioneer the world forgot’, BBC website, 11 December 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-55050012 

[3]  Sehri Saklatvala, The Fifth Commandment: A Biography of Shapurji Saklatvala and Memoir by his Daughter, Originally published by Miranda Press, July 1991, First digital edition, July 2012, p. 23. 

[4] David Markish, ‘Dr. Waldemar Haffkine. The Savior Mankind Never Knew’, https://mahatmahaffkine.com/en?l=1#history 

[5]  Saklatvala, The Fifth Commandment, pp. 26-27. 

[6]  Gunter and Pandey, ‘Waldemar Haffkine’. 

[7]  Saklatvala, The Fifth Commandment, p.21. For more on Saklatvala, see Mike Squires, Saklatvala: A Political Biography (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990) and Marc Wadsworth, Comrade Sak: A Political Biography (Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 1998). 

[8]  Saklatvala, The Fifth Commandment, pp. 26-27. 

[9]  Saklatvala, The Fifth Commandment, p. 30. 

[10] Vijay Prashad, ‘Either socialism will defeat the louse or the louse will defeat socialism’, 24 April 2020, republished on Monthly Review online, https://mronline.org/2020/04/24/eithersocialism-will-defeat-the-louse-or-the-louse-will-defeatsocialism/ and Charlie Kimber, ‘Russia 1917 - how a revolution beat back a pandemic’, Socialist Worker, 8 May 2020, https://socialistworker.co.uk/art/50023/Russia+1917+++how+a +revolution+beat+back+a+pandemic

From Cinderloo 1821 to Shrewsbury Pickets 1972 - Keith Flett

[From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 72 (Spring 2021)]

From Cinderloo 1821 to Shrewsbury Pickets 1972: Employers and the law in North Wales and Shropshire 

The first week of February 2021 saw a couple of labour movement occasions which were centred on Shropshire and North Wales. 

It was the 200th anniversary of the event known as Cinderloo, where miners protesting about wage cuts were attacked by the Shropshire Yeomanry. Several were killed and others put on trial at Shrewsbury.

 Over two days in the same week the long overdue appeal by building workers convicted as part of the 1972 national building strike, where the matters at issue also took place in the Shrewsbury area, took place.

The events of February 1821 whose anniversary was marked with a range of virtual activities took place at Cinderhill near Telford. Local ironmasters had been engaged in an attempt to cut the wages of workers. Fearing that the same would happen to them, miners called a protest which took place over two days on 1st and 2nd February 1821. The occasion was known as Cinderloo as a conscious echo of Peterloo in 1819. On both occasions local Yeomanry, armed men on horseback, were deployed and attacked protesters.

Several of the key figures in the Shropshire Yeomanry were ironmasters. A 2017 article by local historian Neil Clarke underlined this. The Yeomanry had been formed at a meeting in a Shrewsbury pub in 1785 by the then mayor, William Cludde. His son Edward Cludde was in charge at Cinderloo in 1821. They were landowners as were numbers of other members. Local ironmasters Henry Williams and Joseph Reynolds were also part of the armed troop as was wine merchant Thomas Jukes Collier. In short the Yeomanry were the armed force of the local ruling class. They were last used in the 1842 General Strike before the policing framework we know today developed. 

If we fast forward to the Shrewsbury Pickets’ arrests in 1972, which occurred in the same area of the country, we find some interesting parallels. Of course the local ruling class was no longer required to ride around armed on horseback cutting down any working class protests they found. They still maintained however a key interest in defending their wealth and using the law and its agents to do it. 

In 1972 it was the well-known construction family the McAlpines who exercised great influence in the area as the Shrewsbury 24 campaign website underlines. 

The website notes that McAlpines were the main contractor at the Brookside building site in Shrewsbury which was a focus of charges against pickets. The McAlpine family were a cornerstone of ruling class politics in North Wales. Prior to the events of 1972 the post of the most senior law officer in the area, the High Sheriff, had been held by members of the McAlpine family on nine consecutive occasions. Even when the succession was broken in 1974 the occupant, Peter Bell, was in fact a director of McAlpines and the son-in-law of Sir Alfred McAlpine. 

As the Shrewsbury pickets’ appeal underlined, there was probably more at play in the case than the McAlpines, with the direct influence of the security service and Heath’s Tory government suspected.

 Political influence also existed at Cinderloo with the home secretary, who had found nothing problematic about the Peterloo Massacre, Lord Sidmouth, writing to the Lord Lieutenant of Shropshire praising the ’exemplary forbearance’ of the Yeomanry. 

E P Thompson noted in The Making of the English Working Class that the state learnt from Peterloo that it could never use armed force against protesters again, but that the same did not apply to industrial disputes. Cinderloo underlined that and Orgreave in 1984 reminds us that it remains true. 

Keith Flett

Book Review - Before Windrush - West Indians in Britain

Before Windrush 

Asher & Martin Hoyles 

Hansib publications 2020 

156 pp ISBN 978-1912662296 

Black and Ethnic Minority people have been part of the British population since before the country was Britain (1707) yet traditional histories of the ‘our island story’ genre completely overlooked the point. Boris Johnson may not be quite on that page but he certainly is not keen on recognising the imperial and colonial framework that has made Britain what it is today. 

In recent times a good deal of work has been done to make sure that British histories are more inclusive, Peter Fryer’s Staying Power being one of the landmark volumes. It is though a work in perpetual progress. Black British history is there but it often requires significant research in the archives to review sources that others have looked at and never asked the question as to whether BAME people feature. 

This new book by Asher and Martin Hoyles adds to the history we do now have, and does so in interesting and innovative ways. Labour and socialist historians, aware that those who organised and represented working people are also often hidden from history, have in the post - 1945 period carried out significant research, a good deal of which can be found in successive volumes of the Dictionary of Labour Biography. No such resource for BAME people yet exists but the Hoyles’s book may be seen as a contribution towards it. 

Before Windrush focuses on immigrants of Caribbean origin to the UK reaching back to the eighteenth century - in other words the beginnings of modern society. It’s divided into various sections: slaves and servants, doctors and nurses, political activists, sportsmen and so on. Each section is proceeded by some lines of poetry from Asher and then gives succinct details of a range of people, some perhaps quite well known now, others less so. There are also pictures and photographs of some of those featured. This I think works well in bringing some of those covered to a more-than-one-dimensional existence on the written page, and of course such pictorial representations are very rarely seen. A figure who appears across the various sections of the book is the political activist, historian and cricketer CLR James, someone who made a major contribution to British life in the twentieth century, yet aside from a library named after him in Dalston remains comparatively unheralded. That in itself tells us why a book like Before Windrush is necessary and worth reading. 

Keith Flett

[From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 72 Spring 2021]

Ken Weller (1935-2021) and the socialist movement in Finsbury Park at the end of World War I

[From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 72 (Spring 2021)]

Ken Weller (1935-2021) and the socialist movement in Finsbury Park at the end of World War One

The libertarian socialist, activist and historian Ken Weller has died aged 85. An obituary is here .  It appears a collection of his writings will appear from PM Press, which will be welcome. One of his works is available online covering the anti-war network (1914-1918) in North London - see here 

 This brief extract on the socialist movement in Finsbury Park as World War One ended gives a flavour of this well researched and fascinating piece of socialist history 

“The scene at Finsbury Park after the War reflected the changed situation. Where previously the venue had been dominated by the Herald League, with the coming of peace out came all the groups and parties which had kept a low profile during the War. I. Renson, who was a teenager in that period, remembers Sunday mornings in the park: There were numerous platforms, sometimes up to 20 if one included the religious ones. I remember seeing the Herald League, the BSP, the National Socialist Party. the ILP and the Socialist Party of Great Britain. There was also the Labour Party and quite a few small organisations which folded up in a few years' time. some of them getting absorbed into other groups and parties like the Communist Party. Trade Unions also had platforms there.” 

I spoke with Ken Weller at his East London home on several occasions over the years about his historical researches. He was an activist writing above all histories of activism from below. Putting together such writing from fragmented sources requires a lot of work but also a deep understanding of how the left and its networks operated. It appears that Ken may have been another victim of the scourge of COVID, but his writings and life as an activist provide an admirable legacy. 

Keith Flett

Hywel Francis 1946-2021 - Socialist historian who chronicled the making of the twentieth century Welsh working class

[From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 72 (Spring 2021)]

Hywel Francis 1946-2021

Socialist historian who chronicled the making of the twentieth century Welsh working class. 

The historian and former Labour MP Hywel Francis has died at the age of 74. Wikipedia gives some idea of his life and works here

I didn’t know Hywel, although I heard him speak on occasion, and I, after all, convene the London Socialist Historians Group and the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research at London University. On the other hand I have lived partly in central Cardiff for over 25 years now. There is no doubt that Hywel Francis did a huge amount to chronicle the making of the Twentieth Century Welsh working class. Of course, its traditions and organisation were not hugely different to elsewhere in the UK. Wales-based landowners and businessmen made money out of the slave trade and imperialism, as their counterparts in England did. But on our side, to give one example, the great miners’ leader in the 1926 General Strike A.J. Cook, who was a Welsh miner, came from Somerset. 

My concern is how the history of the working class in Wales has been written or not. Both Eric Hobsbawm and E.P. Thompson had holiday homes in Wales but it was quite deliberately The Making of the English Working Class. It has fallen to others to write the history on (as the English see it) the far side of the Severn. Gwyn A. Williams wrote and spoke marvellously and invariably idiosyncratically on Welsh history, but when it came to the history of Welsh workers Hywel Francis was central. His book (with Dai Smith) The Fed: The History of the South Wales Miners in the Twentieth Century, is a fascinating piece of labour history and stands out as such. Likewise his Miners Against Fascism: Wales and the Spanish Civil War brought to life the input that Wales had to the International Brigades. 

Francis was key to setting up the South Wales Miners’ Library at Swansea University which is a great resource for historians. I researched there myself looking at the impact of the 1984/5 miners strike and its defeat. Somewhere in that one can find some of the seeds of what became New Labour (I making the point historically not as a political judgement) and Hywel Francis became a Labour MP from 2001-2015. I’m sure if you delve far enough you’ll find occasional chunterings from myself that he would do much more important work focusing on the history. However clearly he did a good deal in this time that was appreciated, although not support for the Iraq War. 

The Welsh working class of 2021 is not employed in mines (or in most cases steel works)but in quite different occupations from which develop different attitudes and traditions and ways of grappling with capital. At the same time the history remains a live presence and ideas of solidarity and working class organisation are just as important now as they were in 1926, 1948 and 1984. Hywel Francis did a huge amount to help our understanding of that.

Keith Flett

Thursday, 4 March 2021

Stan Newens (1930-2021) - a socialist with a sense of internationalism and history

Stan Newens with Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King, and Fenner Brockway, 1970

The London Socialist Historians Group was saddened to hear about the passing of the former socialist, internationalist and Labour MP and MEP Stan Newens who has died at the age of 91 - and our condolences go to his friends, family and comrades.  He had a long and varied life on the left and in his later years did much work on labour and socialist history - and was President of the Socialist History Society in his later years - and also spoke at events organised by the London Socialist Historians Group around 1956 - a memorable year about which he wrote an essay about fifty years on - and at a memorial meeting to his long standing friend and comrade Ray Challinor - who Newens recalled 'consistently mocked my abstemious attitude to alcohol and what he saw as a puritanical cast of mind. I was, he told me, the most conservative socialist he had ever known!'

There is a Guardian obituary here - which sadly if unsurprisingly has little sympathy for Newens's politics, particularly his anti-imperialism - Newens was a critical figure in the Movement for Colonial Freedom (later Liberation) and there is a nice tribute by his comrade on the Labour left Jeremy Corbyn in Tribune here.  Neither piece incidentally mention Newens's early membership of the Socialist Review Group around the revolutionary Marxist Tony Cliff in the 1950s (a group which at the time was inside the Labour Party, but in 1962 became the International Socialists and later the SWP outside of Labour) - and how Newens would travel around in the 1950s on a motorbike delivering copies of Socialist Review.  

Newens published his autobiography In Quest of a Fairer Society in 2013 - which Ian Birchall reviewed at the time for Review31.  The blurb to the autobiography gives a useful summary of his life and work.  RIP Stan. 

'In Quest of a Fairer Society: My Life and Politics' is the autobiography of Arthur Stanley Newens. Now in his eighties, Stan Newens was a Labour MP from 1964 to 1970, and again from 1974 to 1983. Subsequently he was for fifteen years a Member of the European Parliament. His aim has always been ‘to persuade the Labour Party to adopt socialist policies’. Beginning with his working-class upbringing in Bethnal Green, Stan Newens describes his education at state schools and University College London where he obtained a history degree. After working as a coal-miner for four years in lieu of national service he has spent his life in public service, as a teacher and parliamentarian. He describes his time in Parliament with a perceptive political commentary, recounting his relationships and views. He was always seen as a left-winger and was a founder member of the Tribune Group of Labour MPs. In 1956 he was active in the campaign against the Suez expedition and, in the House of Commons, he opposed supporting US involvement in Vietnam. Throughout his career he supported innumerable international causes and strongly opposed Soviet intervention in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. "In Quest of a Fairer Society" is the account of a life dedicated to a cause but characterised by loyalty and commitment to family, friends and the community in general.