Saturday, 24 January 2015

Jim Cronin - 1942-2014

Members of the LSHG will be sorry to have heard of the passing of Jim Cronin, a longstanding socialist who supported the work of the LSHG.  A celebration of his life has been organised:

Saturday 7 February 2015, 3pm,
Jacksons Lane Theatre,
Studio One,
269a Archway Road,
London N6 5AA
(100 yards from Highgate tube. 43, 134 and 263 buses stop outside)
If you can make it, let us know!

Friday, 23 January 2015

Book launch: George Padmore and Decolonisation from Below

George Padmore and Decolonisation from Below 

Tuesday 3 February 2015, 6.30 - 8.00pm, room B.13, 32 Lincoln's Inn Fields
Speaker: Dr Leslie James; Discussants: Professor Richard Drayton, Professor Bill Schwarz; Chair: Professor Arne Westad

The British Empire is now seen as a ‘patchwork’ of connections negotiated in precise contexts over time, rather than an integrated imperial structure shaped by a unified vision. Concurrently, the rising tide of anti-colonial activity after the First and Second World Wars is often described as part of a changing ‘mood’, where anti-racism and human rights held greater currency and where diplomacy was redefined and relocated outside sovereign state structures as part of a crucial ‘moment’ where new futures were imagined. But if the British Empire was not a hegemonic structure but a loose system, what implications did this have for anti-colonial organisers?

From his base in London, the Trinidad-born Marxist, George Padmore, directed a constantly evolving strategy to end British imperial rule across Africa and the Caribbean. In this public talk, Leslie James will discuss her new bookGeorge Padmore and Decolonization From Below: Pan-Africanism, the Cold War, and the End of Empire, which will be launched at the event.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Reminder: Upcoming LSHG Seminars and Conference

London Socialist Historians Seminars Spring Term 2015

Monday January 19 - Marika Sherwood, 'Black Soldiers in World War One'

Monday February 2 - Matthew Burnett-Stewart, 'Arming both sides. The Armaments industry in World War One'.

Monday February 16 - Deborah Lavin, 'Anti-Socialist Working Class Radicalism in the Second Half of the 19th Century'

Saturday February 28 - '70 years since the 1945 Attlee Government': Francis Beckett, Ian Birchall, John Newsinger and others From 11.30am - [LSHG Conference]

Monday March 16 - Launch of A History of Riots (CSP) Keith Flett and others

All seminars take place in Room 102 at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet St, WC1 and start at 5.30pm with the exception of February 28th - all welcome. For more information please contact Keith Flett at the email address above

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Keith Flett on William Cuffay and the Medway By-Election

From LSHG Newsletter # 54 (January 2015)

 In October 2011 I spoke to an audience of around 100 people in Medway on a labour history related topic. Considering that getting into double rather than treble figures for any meeting touching on working class history can be an achievement, the turnout was excellent. I doubt it was my oratorical skills, such as they are, that packed them in, however.

Rather it was because the talk was about the black Chartist William Cuffay a local Medway radical in whom there is a lot of interest. The biography of Cuffay makes interesting reading given that on 20 November 2014 in the Rochester and Strood by-election, the UKIP candidate took the seat [which until then he held as a Tory].

  The life of William Cuffay is now quite well known. Indeed his Wikipedia entry is tolerably accurate. He was born in Chatham. His father was from St Kitts and a cook on a British navy ship. He was apprenticed as a tailor, moved to London around 1819 and by the 1830s he was an active trade unionist and Chartist.

 Cuffay became a leading figure in London Chartism in the 1840s. He was tried and convicted for his part in a revolutionary conspiracy in August 1848. Transported to Australia, Cuffay remained politically active until his death in 1870, aged 82.

 Cuffay left no papers and wrote no autobiography so what we can recover of his life comes from newspaper reports and a few official records. Mark Gregory has done excellent work, reported in a Morning Star article, about Cuffay’s activities in Tasmania and there is a new biography by Martin Hoyles that provides some interesting new perspectives, for example Cuffay’s theatrical talents.

How we can make sense of Cuffay’s life? There are two key issues. Firstly to see Cuffay in the context of the ‘Black Atlantic’ a concept developed by historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker in their book The Many Headed Hydra. The point is that there is an imperial link between the Americas, the Caribbean and the UK in the nineteenth century. That link is slavery, slave ships and the British navy, which in the 1790s was around one quarter black. Cuffay, the son of a black sailor on a British ship, was born in one of the central points of the British naval empire — Chatham.

He found his way to the very centre of that empire in London, where he organised as a Chartist to try and bring it down. Frustrated by the state in that endeavour, he found himself shipped to another part of the Empire — Tasmania, where he continued to be active.

These are uncomfortable points indeed for a party like UKIP and not something Tories are likely to be much keener on.

 The second point, something pointed out to me by Lord Bill Morris, is that Cuffay was the organiser of London Chartism, the man behind the great demonstration of 10 April 1848. Perhaps Cuffay’s imperial background uniquely fitted him for that role. It may explain why he continued to be active into old age when others did not.

 With the Medway by-election focussed on immigration it is worth remembering William Cuffay, a notable figure in British history, the son of a slave, born in Chatham, because of the importance of British imperial power but someone who fought all his life for the rights of ordinary working people. Empire and imperialism provide some of the framework for Medway today but not in the way UKIP would have it. 

This piece originally appeared in the Morning Star - see here:

Book Review: Fighting Slavery in the Eighteenth Century

Cugoano Against Slavery
By Martin Hoyles
216pp paperback
Hansib 2015

Martin Hoyles is that relatively rare thing, someone who produces solidly researched books with appropriate academic apparatus but ones that can be read with profit by a general reader too. References are included in the text rather than foot or end noted and there is a comprehensive bibliography.

His latest book is about one of the leading but also one of the least well known black figures in eighteenth century England. It looks further into work he focused on with his last volume on the black Chartist leader William Cuffay, around the history of black Britons, the fight against slavery and for equality.

Ottobah Cugoano was born in 1757, sold into slavery when he was 13 in 1770 and gained his freedom when he came to England in 1772. We know of Cugoano primarly because he wrote and published an anti-slavery book, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species in 1787. He produced an edited version in 1791 after which nothing further is known of his life.

Hoyles has an important  take on the fight against slavery and the slave trade. He argues that ‘it is important to remove Wilberforce from centre stage’. He suggests that two other men, Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson, were more important but the key was the mass movement which led to a national campaign against slavery.

The campaign organised a boycott of sugar, a key element of the slave trade, which Hoyles notes was
supported by hundreds of thousands of people.

However, Hoyles emphasises that black resistance to the slave trade, both in places like Grenada, where Cugoano was set to work after being kidnapped and on slave ships themselves, where poor conditions often led the deaths of slaves, and indeed ordinary sailors too, was central to motivating the campaign.

While William Cuffay’s father had come to Britain as a cook on a British Navy ship, Cugoano found a different route to freedom. In Grenada he came to ‘work’ for an English bourgeois, Alexander Campbell, as his personal slave. Campbell took Cugoano to England as his personal servant.  A legal victory (the Mansfield ruling) won by Sharp meant that, in effect, Cugoano was not a slave once on English soil.

Cugoano’s book is based partly on his own personal experiences in Grenada and partly on the arguments then current in the anti-slavery movement. Hoyles suggests that Equiano helped in the editing of the book.

Cugoano was a Christian. He had been baptised at St James’s Church, Piccadilly by the Rev. Thomas Skinner.  The arguments of the Bible influenced his thought but along with Equiano he was also an activist in London dealing with practical issues of the slave trade and the anti-slavery campaign.

Hoyles writes of Cuguano’s involvement in an attempt, partially successful, to set up a settlement for former slaves, Freetown in Sierra Leone. It was far from unproblematic but there is some evidence that it did work to some extent.

It was perhaps however the strength of Cuguano’s anti-slavery writing that had the most impact. As Hoyles notes he was almost alone in calling not just for action on the slave trade but also for the total abolition of slavery. That of course is something that still has to be campaigned for now.

The book concludes that Cuguano has remained very largely hidden from British history. When Lambeth Council named some buildings after prominent black figures in 1985 it provoked the Daily Mail to question who exactly Cuguano might be.

As Hoyles notes both Cuguano’s writings and the cause he fought for remain very much current questions in 2015. The book contains many interesting pictures and maps and is an important volume for anyone seeking to find out the realities of British history, beyond what ‘great and good’ white men did or often, did not, do.

Keith Flett
From LSHG Newsletter #54 (January 2015) 

Book Review: Campaigning for Socialism


Eugene V Debs Reader
Edited by William A Pelz
Merlin, London, 2014, £14.95

In the US presidential elections of 1912 and 1920 Eugene Debs got close on a million votes, standing as a Socialist opposed to “the corrupt Republican Party and the corrupt Democratic Party – the gold-dust lackeys of the ruling class.” (Making allowance for limitations to the franchise and increase in population, that would be equivalent to around seven million votes today. Compare the under three million that Nader got in 2000, running on a less radical programme.)

Debs was no theoretician, but he was a superb propagandist, able to condense the arguments for socialism into brief and memorable phrases: “As a rule hogs are only raised where they have good health and grow fat. Any old place will do to raise human beings.”

So it is very welcome that William Pelz, of the Institute of Working Class History in Chicago, has produced this useful anthology of Debs’s articles and speeches. (To see Pelz talking about Debs go to )

Lenin famously argued that the working class, by its own efforts, developed only trade union consciousness, but that socialism grew out of theories elaborated by intellectuals. Debs is almost a text-book example of this development. Working as a locomotive foreman, he became deeply involved in trade unionism, and helped to found the American Railroad Union. As he tells in his article “How I Became a Socialist”, “up to this time I had heard but little of Socialism”. But as a result of the 1894 Pullman strike he found himself in Cook County jail in Chicago. Here he tells us, “books and pamphlets and letters from Socialists came by every mail”. (One can see why the Tories have been keen to ban prisoners from receiving books.)

He read Blatchford and Bellamy’s Looking Backward (which provoked Morris’s News From Nowhere), and also Kautsky, who introduced him to Marxist theory. Perhaps not the ideal reading list one might have chosen, but it transformed Debs into a Socialist campaigner and propagandist.

At the same time his trade-union experience had shown Debs that craft unionism was obsolete and needed to be replaced by industrial unionism. This meant in his own occupation “organizing, not the firemen merely, but the brakemen, switchmen, telegraphers, shop men, track hands, all of them in fact”.  But it was also a question as to whether trade unions should simply bargain within the existing order, or seek to overthrow it:

“While the craft unionist still talks about a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, implying that the economic interests of the capitalist and the worker can be harmonized upon a basis of equal justice to both, the Industrial Worker says, “I want all I produce by my labor.”

Debs was thus sympathetic to the Industrial Workers of the World when it was founded in 1905; but he was hostile to sabotage and “direct action”, and preferred to direct his energies to the Socialist Party. He certainly did not share the hostility to women sometimes attributed to syndicalists; he insisted on “the absolute equality of the sexes”.

Likewise he was well ahead of his time in stressing the importance of total opposition to racial discrimination:
“The race question as we come to understand it, resolves itself into a class question. At bottom it is a class question. The capitalist cares no more about the white worker than about the black worker. What he wants is labour power – cheap labour power; he does not care whether it is wrapped up in a white skin or a black skin.”

Syndicalism was also often marked by a distrust of intellectuals in the labour movement. On this question too Debs’s position was clear. He did not believe intellectuals should play a leading role in the movement. “I believe that as a rule party officials and representatives, and candidates for public office, should be chosen from the ranks of the workers. The intellectuals in office should be the exceptions, as they are in the rank and file.”

But he was scathing about any possibility that legitimate caution about intellectuals should spread into anti-intellectualism in the movement:

“The increasing cry …. that only the proletariat is revolutionary and that ‘intellectuals’ are middle class reactionaries is an insult to the movement, many of whose staunchest supporters are of the latter type. Moreover, it would imply by its sneering allusion to the ‘intellectuals’ that the proletariat are a brainless rabble, revelling in their base degeneracy and scorning intellectual enlightenment.”

Debs opposed World War I, and directed his passionate contempt towards its apologists. Notably he condemned the role of the churches in backing the war:

“The army chaplain is one of the interesting by-products of war. He is a shining example of Christian patriotism – praying for war, shouting for war, thirsting for blood and “ministering” to the soldier boy with his legs shot off, being careful always to keep his own legs out of the shrapnel zone.

“How many army chaplains were killed in the late world war? There was an army of them, but if any had their eyes shot out I have not heard of them.”

Not surprisingly Debs welcomed the Russian Revolution, declaring: “From the crown of my head to the soles of my feet I am Bolshevik, and proud of it.”

What impresses above all in Debs is not just the insights, but the passion and sheer hatred with which those insights are expressed.  He dismissed with contempt the claim that capitalists have “superior brains”:

“It is true that they have the brains that indicates the cunning of the fox, the wolf, but as for brains denoting real intelligence and the measure of intellectual capacity they are the most woefully ignorant people on earth. Give me a hundred capitalists and let me ask them a dozen simple questions about the history of their own country and I will prove to you that they are as ignorant and unlettered as any you may find in the so-called lower class.”

If a shadow cabinet member used such language today they would be promptly sacked. But all the same Debs was right.

Ian Birchall

From LSHG Newsletter #54 (January 2015).