Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Reading Capitalism Politically

There are a number of upcoming Marxist conferences in London this year, while the Marxist economist and geographer David Harvey is also speaking about his new book The Enigma of Capital at the end of April. However, this post is just to bring to people's attention another research course and a ReD Reading group in the North East being organised by a group around May Day Politics and Books. The next meeting is at Gateshead Civic Centre, the Saltwell room, on the 26th of April. For more info, email: dr_trevorbark [at]
There is also a 'working class bookfair' organised for May 8th in Sunderland.

Reading Capitalism Politically

READING – we are seeking to learn
CAPITALISM – we need to understand it
POLITICALLY – It is not enough to accept what we are told by the authorities, we must discover for ourselves

A short course for those interested in the economic and political issues of our time. The approximately monthly meetings are to allow time between meeting to read, reflect upon issues and develop our knowledge.

Whom the course is for?

It is for women, young adults, the disabled, workers, trade unionists, the retired and pensioners, and anybody who wants to know more about the world around them. It is especially for those engaged with the political economic system in Britain, and who are involved (or have been) in struggles. This course attempts to provide a totalisation of previous experience to encourage the development of improved working class politics for our time.

You will get more out of the course if you can use the internet. 2 hour sessions are proposed, with a 5/10 minute break, to take place on Thursdays. The first on Monday 22nd March in Gateshead.

Session 1 – Origins of the present political economic crisis – Economic, Political, and Cultural;
Feudalism – what it was, the English Civil War and Cromwell, the first British Republic. The economic, social, and legal changes towards industrial capitalism, and the new social structure. The transition debate, from Feudalism to Capitalism – Brenner et al, the industrial revolution. What was necessary for capitalism to change from feudalism? The Making of the English Working Class. Foundations and development of Trade Unions and Cooperatives. The institutions of working class advance, oddfellows, death clubs, Working mens clubs and institutes, Durham Mechanics, from the Tommy shops to Cooperatives. Origins of the Labour Party; LRC and the ILP, William Morris, SDF. 1887 and the foundation of Mayday as an International Workers Day. Syndicalism and the Theory of the Party. Anarchists were excluded from the London TUC in the late 1890s, a split that was significant and still is today. Marxism as a philosophy of political economy that attempts to solve the crucial questions of the time.

This session is to lay the groundwork for the major part of this course, which seeks to rethink the Working Class and Marxist traditions.

Suggested further reading

McLellan – Karl Marx
E.P. Thompson. “The Peculiarities of the English”
M. Shoard - “A Right to Roam”.
C. Hill “From Reformation to Industrial Revolution”
C. Hill “The World Turned Upside Down”
Marx- Capital Vol. 1– Chapters on Primitive acuumulation
Rodney Hilton (ed) The Transition from feudalism to Capitalism
“The Rich at Play” www.redstarresearch
Hobsbawm “The Invention of tradition”
E.P. Thompson “Whigs and Hunters”
John Rule (ed) “Albion’s Fatal Tree”
E.P. Thompson “Threatening Letters” in “Albion’s Fatal Tree”
Linebaugh “The London Hanged”
Linebaugh and Rediker “The Many Headed Hydra”
“William Wallace – Freedom Fighter”

Session 2 – What is Marxism?

Marx – the method, by approaching Marxism as a method of research and practice it is possible to begin again. Totality, what is dialectics, different categories and the theoretical tools.

Lenin famously said Marxism was the synthesis of 3 component parts; “The Marxist doctrine is omnipotent because it is true. It is comprehensive and harmonious, and provides men with an integral world outlook irreconcilable with any form of superstition, reaction, or defence of bourgeois oppression. It is the legitimate successor to the best that man produced in the nineteenth century, as represented by German philosophy, English political economy and French socialism.” We do not agree with all Lenin wrote, especially the claim to a final truth, ultimately that lead to the abuse of power, but there are many things that Lenin did contribute that should be understood and superseded;

“The first public reaction to the idea of reactualizing Lenin is, of course, an outburst of sarcastic laughter: Marx is OK, even on Wall Street, there are people who love him today — Marx the poet of commodities, who provided perfect descriptions of the capitalist dynamics, Marx of the Cultural Studies, who portrayed the alienation and reification of our daily lives -, but Lenin, no, you can’t be serious! The working class movement, revolutionary Party, and similar zombie-concepts? Doesn’t Lenin stand precisely for the FAILURE to put Marxism into practice, for the big catastrophe which left its mark on the entire XXth century world politics, for the Real Socialist experiment which culminated in an economically inefficient dictatorship? So, in the contemporary academic politics, the idea to deal with Lenin is accompanied by two qualifications: yes, why not, we live in a liberal democracy, there is freedom of thought... however, one should treat Lenin in an “objective critical and scientific way,” not in an attitude of nostalgic idolatry, and, furthermore, from the perspective firmly rooted in the democratic political order, within the horizon of human rights” Zizek.

This course will try to look at the best of Rethinking Marxism from previous attempts, and perhaps add new parts for a 21st century political synthesis.

Marx and Engels – “The Communist Manifesto”

Recent International Marxist Tendency (Militant, Socialist Party) website

Repeating Lenin - Slavoj Zizek

Session 3 – Rethinking Marxism 1 – Gramsci

The Russian revolution (1917), Lenin, and the effect on the working class left in the UK, and abroad. Marxism’s first Crisis, Italian Fascism & 1922, and Gramscis’ attempt to Rethink Marxism. Also Luxembourg’s differences with Lenin and the failed German revolution of 1919. The emergence of the Ultra left and Council communism.

As the Second International decayed at the beginning of World War I, socialists who opposed nationalism and supported proletarian internationalism regrouped. In Germany, two major communist trends emerged. First, the Spartacus League was created by the radical socialist Rosa Luxemburg. The second trend emerged amongst the German rank-and-file trade unionists who opposed their unions and organized increasingly radical strikes towards the end of 1917 and the beginning of 1918. This second trend created the German Left Communist movement that would become the KAPD after the abortive German revolution of 1918-1919. Politically of interest are the anarchists who fought the Red Army, the Macknovists, who were later to write the ‘Platform of Libertarian Communism’ as a result of the Russian experience. The anarchist equivalent of democratic centralism, a modernist piece of propaganda and action.

In Britain the period was characterised by; Henry Ford 1910 & Speedy Taylor, higher wages faster work via production line, 1916 Easter Rising, Mutinies, Syndicalism, the Miners Next Step and the land question. Pub opening hours symbolic of Fordism, The miners view of welfare to the grave socialism, housing and leisure. Pensions for all.1922 partition in Ireland. Foundation of the CP, and class against class. The general strike, the Means test, the mining diaspora, 1931 Invergordon Naval Mutiny and £ off the Gold Standard. Working class resistance to Oswald Moseley and the B.U.F, the Popular Front and the United Front. The drift to War – The Spanish Revolution 1936-39, King Edward invites Chamberlain onto the Palace balcony with his appeasement paper – ‘peace in our time’. Churchill. The Communist Party was the opposition, syndicalist influences after 1926 were marginal.

Ash Amin “Fordism”
Gramsci “Prison Notebooks”
Reed “10 Days that shook the World”
Orlando Figes
Trotsky – The Russian Revolution
Nestor Mhakno, Ida Mett, Piotr
Archinov, Valevsky, Linsky
The Organisational Platform of the Libertarian Communists
Dielo Trouda (Workers' Cause) 1926 Workers Solidarity
Movement Feb 2001 PDF edition
Fraser - “The Battle for Spain”
Nigel Todd “In Excited Times”
John Benson (2003) “The Working Class in Britain 1850-1939”

Session 4 - Rethinking Marxism 2 – The Frankfurt School

The German experience – The Frankfurt School; The rise to power of the Nazi party was fought politically and on the streets by the German Communist Party. However, after Italian Fascism the new Nazi phenomana entailed a rethinking of Marxism by Marcuse, Adorno and others because at the heart of World Industrial Capitalism (Western Europe) a proletarian revolution had not broken out and instead the dark days of fascism had risen.

These are among the earliest and most famous of the Marxists who recognised the crucial work of the early 19th century philosopher Georg Hegel (August 27, 1770 – November 14, 1831) who was a German philosopher. He was one of the creators of German Idealism, and along with Immanuel Kant, one of the most influential philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment. Hegelian Marxists are those who recognise the major influence of the features of Hegelian philosophy in the ideas of Karl Marx. These include; Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Erich Fromm, Jürgen Habermas, Axel Honneth, Max Horkheimer, Siegfried Kracauer, Otto Kirchheimer, Leo Löwenthal, Herbert Marcuse, Oskar Negt, Franz L. Neumann, Franz Oppenheimer, Friedrich Pollock, Alfred Schmidt, Alfred Sohn-Rethel, & Karl A. Wittfogel. Lukacs in 1923 had observed “For the revival of Hegel’s dialectics struck a blow at the revisionist tradition… For anyone wishing to return to the revolutionary traditions of Marxism the revival of the Hegelian traditions was obligatory”.

Lukacs, Gyorgy. 1971. History and class consciousness: studies in Marxist dialectics. London: Merlin Press.
Marcuse – ‘One dimensional Man’

Session 5 – Rethinking Marxism 3 – The New Left and Humanist Marxism

Dunayevskya, and others in America (Weathermen, Black Panthers etc), and in Britain a large wave of prominent intellectuals left the Communist party in 1956 to form this new thinking and human Left, away from authoritarianism and towards liberation struggles. E.P. Thompson, Perry Anderson and others were prominent in the ‘1968 generation’. This was an international New Left with Marxist Humanism playing a leading role.

Context – WW2 and the most socialist economy ever, rationing and the black market. Beveridge, education for all. The election of a Labour Government, 1,012,000 miners in 1947. The Keynesian welfare state and the highpoint of modernism, mass production for mass consumption, full employment. 1947 Royal marriage and flouting of rationing laws. NHS – healthcare for all. The highpoint of working class incorporation into capitalism and the state. The bomb and the end of WW2, the Iron Curtain, Hungary and The New Left, Committee of 100, E.P. Thompson et al.

Suggested Further Reading

Raya Dunayevskaya, “Philosophy and Revolution: From Hegel to Sartre and from Marx to Mao”, 1982, Harvester press.
Lukacs, Gyorgy. 1971. History and class consciousness: studies in Marxist dialectics. London: Merlin Press.
Universities and Left Review
Kenny “The New Left”
George Orwell “1984”
Huxley “Brave New World”
Ralph Miliband “The State in Capitalist Society”

Session 6 – Rethinking Marxism 4 - Situationism and Autonomism. New currents of Libertarian Marxism.

The other prominent part of the ’68 movement was the Situationists in France, and the contribution in theory and practice of the opponents of the society of the spectacle will be outlined. Situationist ideas came from the European organisation the Situationist International, formed in 1957. While it lasted only 15 years, its ideas were deeply influential, and have been a part of Western society - and radical movements - ever since. For Situationists, their cultural ideas are important, particularly in relation to detournement (subverting elements of popular culture) and the development of punk, but the roots of Situationist ideas are in Marxism. Libertarian Marxism, closer to anarchism than authoritarian strands of traditional Marxism, with the central idea that workers are systematically exploited in capitalism and that they should organise and take control of the means of production and organise society on the basis of democratic workers' councils.

Italy, whose 1968 moment was to last 10 years, including the Years of Lead, gave birth to Operaismo, which translates literally as "workerism" - first appeared in Italy in the early 1960s and was later to become Autonomia Operaia (Workers Autonomy). This movement has had a close relationship with Autonomist Marxism in America (Cleaver) and also with British Marxism, influencing; sociology, criminology, history (the British Marxist Historians) and geography as well as economics. The participants in the ‘Years of Lead’ are still active today, and Toni Negri, together with Michael Hardt, has written some key contributions to globalisation debates recently.

On the poverty of student life, 1966
The revolution of everyday life, 1967 - Raoul Vaneigem
Society of the Spectacle, 1967 – Debord
Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. 2000. Empire. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press.
Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. 2004. Multitude; War and democracy in the age of empire. New York: Penguin.
Negri, Antonio. 2005. Books for Burning; Between Civil War and Democracy in 1970s Italy. London: Verso.
Steve Wright, Storming Heaven. Class composition and struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism (Pluto Press 2002).
Texas archives of Autonomist Marxism;

Session 7 – Different Marxist outlooks – An Overview

A recap of the different currents of Marxism, and a discussion of the different political groups in Britain today. Who has learned what about the history of Marxism, and does it influence their politics today? What are the characteristics of our period, and do previous attempts to solve political issues have anything to teach us now?

Context which forms class consciousness; the attrition of industry, closing mines, shipyards, steelworks etc. Industry ships to the developing world such as China and India. 1979 Winter of Discontent and Thatcherism, riots of 1981, police landrover kills lad in Liverpool. The road to the Miners Strike 1984-85 and beyond – the Ridley report, New anti trade union legislation, Thatcher in 1981 lowest ever in Polls, tells Friedmann can’t be done in UK. Then Falklands, 1983, Maggie re-elected. Higher wages and more police, new public order legislation. The Battle of the Beanfield and travellers, Globalisation, the 1987 big bang and Info Tech revolution, Wapping, Poll tax and the demise of Margaret Thatcher. Major, Kinnock and 1992 election.

A. Sivanandan (1990) “Communities of resistance”, London: Verso.
Huw Beynon (1985) “Digging Deeper: Issues in the Miners Strike”, London: Verso.
Tony Bunyan “The Political Police in Britain”
E.P. Thompson “The Poverty of Theory”
E.P. Thompson (1978) “Writing by Candlelight”
A. Sivanandan (1982) “A Different Hunger: Writings on Black Resistance”, London: Pluto Press.

Session 8 – The New Social Movements and the Anarchist contribution.

Which political philosophy has an outlook most adapted to new conditions in the 21st century?

The crisis in political representation has been apparent for years already, however, the recent expenses scandal has made it critical. How have different social groups attempted to solve the crisis in representation? What are the new forms of political engagement? What has been the anarchist contribution to the globalisation debate in theory and practice?

"Crowned heads, wealth and privilege may well tremble should ever
again the Black and Red unite!"
Otto Von Bismarck, upon hearing of the split in the First International

Context; Globalisation, New International Division of Labour, IMF and structural adjustment, Thatcherism & the post Tory political era - 1997 & Blairism, Neo liberalism, welfare – New Deal, Sure Start, Education, war, inclusion to exclusion, the war on terror, civil liberties, the technology of political control, new colonialism, Palestine and Israel, Genoa 2001, criminal justice policy and building prisons, more crime, informal economy? Foxhunting banned? Climate change and coal. The Credit Crunch. The time of now, of particular and contingent possibilities, and the history which brought them into being.

Q. What would a 21st century Marxist synthesis involve for working class politics today?

Ian Bone “Decade of Disorder”
Ian Bone (2006) “Bash the Rich”
Dave Douglass (1998) “All Power to the Imagination”
Naomi Klein “No Logo”
Naomi Klein “The Shock Doctrine”
Mike Davis “Planet of Slums”
Mike Davis “City of Quartz”
“Blood money – Corporate greed in Iraq”

Course requirements
An Enthusiasm

The “Enthusiasm” is a short contribution (as long as you want to make it, but no more than 15 minutes) about what you are particularly interested in or want to say, what you appreciate the most, your involvement in historical and political events, and/or what best describes your experience or view of the world. This can focus on one of the session topics listed. You could do a book review, or a review of 2 or more books. This will be arranged with the tutor. If you feel unable to contribute an enthusiasm, that is OK too.

Course outcomes – a comprehensive overview of the crisis facing the economy and society will give participants many transferable ways to think about what they do (next). It encourages practical research and thinking skills. It will provide confidence and help people reassess their life and life chances, and suggest further practical engagement with the world around us. It provides an introduction to important thinkers and topics, and the context in which these ideas were generated.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Spring lectures at the Marx Memorial Library

Marx Memorial Library
Spring 2010

All lectures start at 6.30pm. Entrance £1 (50p Concessions)

Monday 29th March 2010:
Pushkin, the Russian Autocracy and Rebellion

Professor Robert Chandler, the author of a recent book on the greatest of Russian poets, looks at the politics of Pushkin. In particular, he examines the Decembrist movement which led to Russia’s first revolution and the interplay between the intelligentsia, the army and wider society in the thrall of tsardom. The poet Robert Chandler is the translator of Pushkin's highly vaunted miniature "Dubrovsky”, and the brilliant melodrama, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”. He is also a leading figure in the SCRSS.

Monday 19th April:
Ghost Dancers - The Last Generation of Miners: Lecture and Book Launch

David Douglass launches his new book “Ghost Dancers – The Last Generation of Miners” is a definitive history of the great coal strike of 1984/5 that explodes prevailing myths around that epoch period, and corrects the inaccuracies of dozens of books previously penned by academics and journalists. Ghost Dancers is inspired by the last stand of the Native American Indians in their efforts to retain their culture and dignity, and the Durham Miners Gala as a mining equivalent of that same endeavour. This book records the last stand of the last generation of pitmen and their communities.
David Douglass is a long-standing well-known, member of the NUM in the Durham and Doncaster coalfield , a coalminer for 40-plus years and a branch official of the union for 25 years as well as a member of Yorkshire Executive during its most testing and dynamic period. He is a full member of the NUM and is still active in the internal affairs of the union, a published author and historian of the coal communities, as well as being one of its more public and well known representatives.

Marx Memorial Library
TEL #44(0) 207 253 1485.
FAX #44(0) 207 251 6039

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Labour's greatest hero? Bob Holman on Keir Hardie

Bob Holman, author of a new biography of Labour founder Keir Hardie, Labour's Greatest Hero?, is interviewed about the book here

Syndicalism: lessons for today?

A Public Meeting organised jointly by the London Socialist Historians and the Socialist History Society
Monday 17th May at 6.00pm
in the Pollard Room, the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1

Syndicalism, one big union for all workers, was a popular trend within the labour movement until the advent of the Russian revolution. Its adherents in Britain and Ireland included Tom Mann, James Connolly, Jim Larkin, A J Cook, and Noah Ablett. The latter was one of the contributors to the ground-breaking pamphlet, The Miners’ Next Step — a reform programme for South Wales miners that argued for workers’ control. In the USA, Joe Hill and the Industrial Workers of the World organised workers irrespective of colour and their actions left their mark on US labour history. It was popular in parts of Europe, and in Spain it survived until the time of the Civil War. This seminar looks at Syndicalism's origins and developments and asks what lessons can be learned today.

Dr Ralph Darlington will speak on 'The History of Syndicalism'
Dr. Darlington is Professor of Employment Relations at Salford
Business School, part of the University of Salford. His books include, The Dynamics of Workplace Unionism, The Political Trajectory of J.T. Murphy, Glorious Summer, Syndicalism and the Transition to Communism: An International Comparative Analysis , and What's the Point of Industrial Relations?

Dr Keith Flett will speak on 'Syndicalism in the UK, 1910/11'
Dr Flett is convener of the London Socialist Historians
Group and is President of the Haringey Trades Council. He has
written and edited a number of history books. These include, Chartism
after 1848: The Working Class and the Politics of Radical Education
The Twentieth Century: A Century of Wars and Revolutions (ed.
with David Renton), Approaches to Socialist History (ed. with David
Renton), 1956 and All That (editor).

See: :

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Seminar: Racism in Britain Today

International Socialism Journal Seminar on 'Racism in Britain today'

Richard Seymour, author of The Liberal Defence of Murder and the ‘lenin’s tomb’ blog presents the latest in our series of seminars.

The electoral success of the fascist British National Party and the emergence of the English Defence League has forced activists in Britain to look again at the issue of racism. Cultural racism and Islamophobia seem to supplant traditional racist ideas based on biology—but what is behind this shift and just how novel is it? Richard Seymour argues that the rise in racism in Britain is driven to a considerable extent by government policies and media reaction, both liberal and conservative.

6.30pm, Friday 26 March, School of Oriental and African Studies, Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, WC1H 0GX
(Room FG06, Russell Square Campus— Map:

This seminar is free to attend and open to all. For more information email

Some of Richard’s earlier articles on racism can be found at the ‘lenin’s tomb’ blog, available online here

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Logie Barrow on Vaccination and the vote

By Logie Barrow
Conference paper given at The Vote: What Went Wrong?

"The liberty of the late times" the Marquis of Halifax sighed during the 1670s "gave men so much light, and diffused it so universally among the people, that they are not now to be dealt with as they might have been in an age of less inquiry." True, even His Grace still dared hope "good, resolute nonsense, backed with authority, may yet prevail." But, sadly, "men" were "grown less humble than in former times." His pessimism is or should be a classic quotation{As for me since the mid-1960s, with the discreditable result that I cannot source it from Bremen; but see in, e.g., John Scott: England's Troubles: 17th-century English Political Instability in European Context, Cambridge U.P., 2000} for all those on any kind of left who still see reactionary ideas as (to use a secularists' sneer-word of a century ago) "dope", peddled by "sky pilots" and other conspirators.

But our "Trimming" Marquis was at least not sneering at the intellectual competence of his social inferiors, any more than Lord Chancellor Bacon had earlier in their century. The contrast with opponents of the 19th century's three Reform Bills is striking: "If you want venality," we can imagine Robert Lowe turning puce during March 1866, "if you want ignorance, if you want drunkenness and facility for being intimidated; … if you want impulsive, unreflecting and violent people, where do you look for them … ? Do you go to the top or to the bottom?" {Hansard, 13.3.66., v 182, c 251-2}. A day earlier, the first speaker to jump up after the Bill had been read had "agreed with the late Lord Macaulay, that where we saw the best houses we saw the most intelligent people." {H, 12.3.66, v 182, c 62} This nicely named Mr MH.Marsh was not thinking of the servants.

But his memory of the classic Whig historian can remind us that worries about "intelligence" were no monopoly of numbskulls or embittered last-ditchers. During the Reform crisis of 1830-2, TB.Macaulay had denounced these as the true destructives: better to let the more intelligent of the unenfranchised into the pale of the constitution, the better to defend it. During 1866-7, this role was proposed for, in effect, those male workers classified as "skilled", and there was no shortage of employers and others (such as Crossley of carpets or the brewer Hanbury {H, same day and later, same volume, respectively columns 70-1, 1404-7 and 75, 1274}) to recommend them for it. But most would have agreed with another anti-Reformer "that there is an irreconcilable enmity between democracy and freedom" {Mr Horsman, H, 12.3.66., v 182, c112}, and nearly all would have agreed that there was only one definition of intelligence. But not all. Against this monopolistic definition, one Liberal and social-reforming philosopher offered what we could call one pluralist alternative: "We all of us", J.S.Mill reminded his fellow-MPs, "know that we hold erroneous opinions, but we do not know which of our opinions these are, for if we did they would not be our opinions. … Every class knows some things that are not so well known to other people, and every class has interests. … I claim the benefit of these principles for the working classes."{H, 13.4.66., v182, c1259}.

The latter phrase had usually become singular by the 20th century, unlike in Mill's lifetime. And this underlines that he was not seeking domination by the working-class majority of adults. Indeed, his advocacy of systems more complex than one-adult-one-vote was motivated, not merely by abstract concepts of fairness, but mainly by his central priority. For him, we might anachronistically say, reality was no two-dimensional painting but an Alexander Calder mobile whose definition presupposed a maximum number of perspectives. The aim of franchise-reform was thus to maximise that number, and precisely not to permit one perspective or, at an extreme, even a majority one to out-focus all the others.

To an extent, he was anything but alone. Franchise-discussions had politicians of every persuasion competing to define ideal balances of actual or potential voters, treated as if homogeneous: landed and urban; market towns and manufacturing cities; centres and suburbs; interests; professions; and even qualities, such as radical or small-c conservative: amid mists of arithmetic that were seldom more than algebra, politicians were attempting to redesign their own collective mind.

Mill would have agreed with Liberal manufacturers such as W.E.Forster that enfranchising the skilled would divert them from making their trade unions into political machines {H, 16.4.66., v 182, c 1387-95, particularly 1393}, a nightmare which Lowe had predicted would follow any further enfranchisement at all. Mill himself talked as if the shock of fresh perspectives would galvanise older ones. He congratulated "the governing classes of this country" for "the good sense and feeling" which had "made [them] … capable of thus far advancing with the times . … Their reward is that they are not hated as other privileged classes have been. … But is this all that the Legislature of a country like ours can offer to its people? … Are there not all the miseries of an old and overcrowded society waiting to be dealt with – the curse of ignorance, the curse of pauperism, the curse of disease, the curse of a whole population born and nurtured in crime? All these things we are just … touching with the tips of our fingers: and by the time two or three more generations are dead and gone, we may perhaps have discovered how to keep them [sic] alive, and how to make their lives worth having. I … think … we should get on much faster with all this, … if those who are the chief sufferers … had representatives among us to stir our zeal; [and] … to inform us by their experience. Of all great public objects, the one which would be most furthered by the presence of working men's representatives in this House is the one in which we flatter ourselves we have done most – popular education." {H, 13.4.66., v 182, c 1262}.

That last remark of his underlines that Mill was an epistemologist, not merely in the normal philosophical sense of worrying about how anyone can know that they know anything, but also in mine: aware that individuals and, more important, groups can impute to each other an ability or inability to think about whatever one currently defines as crucial. His phrase about education suggests also some awareness that one of the resources of the still barely enfranchised classes was what I have long dubbed a plebeian autodidact culture and that they were mostly among those most opposed to any religious minority, particularly the "Established" Church of England, dominating the provision of education. This was what the Education Act, with which Forster would make his name in 1870, would be about: pluralising the politics of education, even to the extent of allowing minorities to secure over-representation via an electoral device known as "plumping". In 1902, this would also be precisely why the Tories would repeal 1870: if, into the 1950s, the C of E was frequently spoken of as "the Tory party at prayer", the same party was to some extent that Establishment on the hustings.

Here, the ironies are, first, that the very MPs whom we have glimpsed agonising for so long over the franchise, tightened vaccinal compulsion against smallpox, in some senses to a degree of intrusiveness barely known on the "unfree" Continent, during 1867 in debates conspicuous for impatience and empty benches in both Houses.

Our second irony is the contrast between 1902 and 1898. In 1902, a Tory government's repeal of 1870 outraged tens of thousands of consciences and triggered a movement of passive resistance which helped to landslide it out of power at the ensuing Election. Epistemologically, nothing could be more monopolistic than religious sectarianism. Politically, though, the government breathed new life into it. Yet in 1898, when the same government had already enjoyed a comfy Commons majority, one impending by-election defeat panicked it into allowing conscience some scope in matters vaccinal: a parent (usually the father) could attempt to prove his "conscientious objection" to vaccination before two part-time magistrates or one stipendiary.

As luck would ordain, the main task of apprising disgusted Tories about political realities, in effect about how the 1880s franchise-extensions had already hollowed compulsion in Poor-law union after Poor-law union during the nineties, fell to A.J.Balfour in the Commons and, in the Lords, to his Prime Minister, Salisbury. In the latter, we have the very Lord Cranborne who, in 1866-7 when holding merely the junior Cecil title and thus gracing the Commons, had agreed with Mr Horsman in "den[ying] that democracy had been favourable to freedom", identified the key question as "how are we to prevent [it] from gaining ground" and argued so bitingly {H, 13.3.66., v 182, c 227-36}against the second enfranchisement -- far narrower than the one which in the late eighties he would (with County Councils, etc) further – as to nettle even his party leader and soon Tory democrat premier, Disraeli.

So, politically, Balfour (who was already actively plotting what was to be the 1902 Education Act) and Salisbury led a retreat in the direction of vaccinal flexibility.

We will now see that, epistemologically, they budged not one inch. Here, their position had been underlined by their caricaturally landed-Tory President of the Local Government Board, Henry Chaplin: bane of the strongest horse in any hunting-stable over much of England, and (if epistemological jokes are still kosher) a man of more bottom than brain. "Intelligent people", he had blurted to the Commons a mere few days before suddenly announcing the concession to conscience, "desire to promote vaccination … and the whole … clamour against it comes … from want of intelligence." {H, 19.7.98., v 62, c 332}. Unusually in British history, both his Premier and Deputy Premier were intellectuals. For them, Chaplin might be spouting a self-evident truism, but thereby proved himself a most impolitic politician (whom Salisbury would drop after the 1900 Election). Here, Salisbury confined himself to the strategic idiocy of threatening to coerce by now thousands of Poor-law guardians and hundreds of thousands of fathers, however wrong-headed they might all be. Apparently, medicine was a more sensitive area of parenthood than education:- "Under certain circumstances, and in the presence of certain delusions, the action of power does not tend to obedience, but to resistance." He felt distressed that "some" of His Lordships "seem … to imagine that we live in an ideal state of things, where it is only necessary for Parliament to enact something, and it will at once be listened to, where there are pliant guardians and obedient magistrates, and a submissive peasantry only listening for the word of wisdom to be uttered at Westminster in order to throw themselves down before it and obey." {H, 4.8.98., v 64, c 54}. One may wonder, relevantly or not, where he would be while the 1902 Education Act was being passed. The answer is, he would be terminally ill.

But Balfour's dialectic could outshine anyone's on any stage. And in this context it was epistemological: "Some gentlemen", he pleaded to the Commons, "would put [the hardening of public opinion against vaccination] down to the fault of the doctors, and undoubtedly there have been some changes in medical opinion. … But I don't admit that the medical profession and scientific opinion are to blame. After all, if science is anything, science is progressive, and you cannot have progress without the modification of [previously] accepted truths." He admitted that "doctors" had "made [even] enormous mistakes in the past, and are predestined to make enormous mistakes in the future; but … , however ignorant the doctor may be, he knows at least more than the anti-vaccinationist."{H, 19.7.98., v62, c405-7.}. Balfour was, of course, swatting 'antis' with a then, as now, familiar elitist epistemology: in this world (for him, a vital limitation) no one would ever securely know anything; but doctors' incomplete knowledge was by definition always preferable to anybody else's. Doctors could therefore retain a licence to "make … mistakes" with other people's health.

This was pretty rich after, say, millennia of suspicion or cynicism and, perhaps particularly in the 19th, of exchanges of mutual contempt between democratic and elitist epistemologists, after two or three generations of medical, often also social, polarisation over orthodoxy and, above all, after a long generation of crescendoing conflict over compulsory vaccination. To try and nutshell about 620,000 words, many factors carved and sped the nearly century-long flight of the vaccinal boomerang from the start of compulsion in 1853. Among these, first, the fines for being unable to produce a certificate that one's child had been (as judged by a registered medical practitioner) "successfully" vaccinated were equivalent to a good week's wages for an unskilled labourer; the alternative was a fortnight in jail. Martyrdoms, second, fed an 'anti' movement. This drew further strength, thirdly from the, by international standards, very low maximum age for the child to be punctured: three months. Scottish and Irish parents had six {Here see Deborah Brunton: The Politics of Vaccination: Practice and Policy in England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland, 1800-74, 2008, University of Rochester Press}; continental ones had years. Fourth, public vaccination – not the sole method available even to the poorest, but the sole cost-free one – was, till 1898, done at "public vaccination stations". Though in theory the free operation did not "pauperise" in the Poor-law sense, the "stations" were often Poor-law buildings and their staff were Poor-law employees (though with an element of Whitehall jurisdiction which guaranteed legal squabbles, once any Board of Guardians began voting against enforcing the whole system). Above all, the atmosphere tended to reek, not merely of the Poor-law, but also of medical impatience. Most public vaccinators were hurried part-timers, buffeted by often contradictory pressures from guardians and Whitehall. To all too many parents, they seemed to view babies as extensions of arms, assembled together for the reproduction of vaccine via arm-to-arm operations: chickens backgrounded by eggs. Fifth, politicians' and Whitehall's concern to spread primary vaccination fed their slowness to acknowledge the necessity of periodic revaccination. Unrepeated and perhaps anyway often bad operations were bound to heap on to primary vaccination a discredit hardly lightened by some specialists' proliferation of jargon for describing vaccinal marks.

Sixth, by the time the need for re-vaccination was being acknowledged, the strength of the 'anti' movement was making even primary operations rarer. Though the 1898 compromise led to some recovery in vaccination figures, these were starting to wobble by 1907, when a Liberal government cut much of the palaver involved in obtaining a certificate of conscientious objection. By 1910, these were plunging and, from 1914, fluctuating around 50% ; in the interwar years they were mostly even lower.

After taxes (mostly indirect and thus regressive), vaccination was the earliest compulsion to be laid systematically on a whole British population. The vaccination-struggle was not the sole epistemological one in its time: the intellectually Great and condescending might be portrayed as using many devices, including alcohol or Church schools to stupefy, objectify and frighten the socially and intellectually humble but no longer meek. These and other 'anti' movements – one of which, that against the Contagious Diseases Acts, had needed no longer than two decades to triumph -- overlapped, not only in their activists and tropes but also epistemologically.

The epistemological dimension sometimes turns out to be fundamental to the political. At your most negative, you are hardly likely to demand equality if you think most of the oppressed are irretrievably idiotic. Politically, the overlap was with any "free-born" discourse: at worst, the "free" could hardly be seen as stupid. In the early 19th century, radicals of every kind had been best at this rhetoric; in the late, Liberals. In the early 20th, the "Vaccination Inquirer" plausibly claimed all forty Labour M.P.s for the 'antis' in the first parliament of 1910. "It is difficult to exaggerate the significance of this unanimity of the most democratic members of the … Commons", the "Inquirer" crowed: "they speak with the authority of personal knowledge of the popular hostility to the Vaccination Acts." {V.I., 1.3.10., p.260} Syndicalists and left socialists were no laggards either. That former teenage Gladstonian George Lansbury found time during 1911, of all tumultuous years, to star at the Annual Meeting of the National Anti-Vaccination League, where he was greeted as a "son of the people" who had "been prosecuted for refusing to have his children vaccinated." Here he warned his fellow-'antis' (some of them, as fanatical laissez-faire enthusiasts, at the other extreme of the libertarian spectrum from him) how the authorities' shift to indirect pressures for vaccination (from employers, school authorities, etc), now that the 1907 Act had so weakened direct compulsion, symbolised "the power of the permanent official in the land." They should "take the bureaucrats at [sic] Whitehall and stop their salaries until they stop the persecution of the poor up and down the country. (Cheers)." {V.I., 1.5.11., p.46-8; neither Lansbury's autobiography nor any of his biographies mention his anti-vaccinal dimension}.

In 1945, an M.P. asked his Minister of Health to consider abolishing "the compulsory powers of [sic] the Vaccination Acts", given "that there are a larger number of claims for exemption … than those submitting to the operation." Nye Bevan replied that this was under consideration {Peter Freeman, H, 25.10.45., v 414, c 2179}. Two years later, one of the shortest clauses in the National Health Act duly enacted abolition.

This was after nearly four decades in which millions of parents had not necessarily even bothered to apply for exemption, and after generations which had seen some changes in medical attitudes towards patients. "When he was a young man", the leading surgeon Sir Michael Foster (born in 1836 and now also M.P. for the University of London) told an audience of Hospital students during 1900, "putting a thermometer into a patient's mouth or axilla was spoken of as worrying the patient." {At St George's Hospital Medical School: BMJ, 1900, II, p.1385}. On the other hand, it is a commonplace of medical history that, into the mid-19th century, much of such medical intervention that did occur was drastic and dangerous: "heroic", say medical historians, meaning the medics, not the patients. Vaccination, too, was often more drastically done than later on, sometimes to parents' consternation, even at the time. The point here is, that antisepsis, even though unevenly practised into the 20th century, magnified old tropes about surgical triumph.

Against this, vaccination's political and, at bottom, epistemological defeat jarred all the more. Supporters and practitioners of the operation – let us lump them all as 'vaccinists' – issued at least hundreds of their direst warnings about pandemics to come. Sometimes their apparent imminence boosted their rhetorical power. On the other hand, the later they arrived, the worse they might be: educationally, the worse the better. Many jeremiads were as public as possible; others seem to have been spread by local Medical Officers of Health in Council corridors and committee-rooms. Some vaccinists became so repetitive as to suffer what we can dub 'doom fatigue'.

Sooner or later, humour became indispensable. The trouble was that sick jokes do not necessarily make for healthy careers, so had to be left to more prominent professionals in safe surroundings. However, though parts of Sir James Crichton-Browne's 1908 after-dinner oration to the Association of Public Vaccinators had triggered "(Laughter)", no such is recorded for his "broad evolutionary view … that it is for the good ultimately of the human race if those persons who, by mental defect, or … blind prejudice, are incapable of availing themselves of this great advantage in the struggle for existence, should be weeded out, and therefore it may be that vaccination and smallpox are working together for the survival of the fittest."{The Jennerian, January 1909, p.555}.

Or at least, we might add, of the medically meek. This is because vaccinists, with for a long time extremely rare exceptions, allowed no other choice: their contempt for those anti- or non-vaccinators who brought themselves and their children queueing for the operation during epidemics was almost deeper than for those who consistently stayed away. Apathy, egoism and panic were the most frequent slurs. The idea that many parents might intricately balance the risks to their babies and to others was as if unthinkable. Technical possibilities for producing and storing vaccines had been improving, if often controversially, since the late 19th century. But nearly all vaccinists reacted to defeat as if stuck in the age when successive governments had been redoubling enforcement of arm-to-arm methods in England, unlike on the Continent or in those in some ways semi-'continental' countries of Scotland and Ireland. "Nearly" all: for much of the first half of the 20th century, the best-known exception was the vaccinally orthodox but epidemiologically politic MOH for the notoriously 'anti' borough of Leicester, Charles Killick Millard, who makes a story in himself.

For other vaccinists, a further consolation – analogous to recent or anticipated sightings of the Virgin while Holy Church reels from exposures of child-abuse – was triumphant medical rhetoric. Within a decade of Sir Michael's flashback to his medical-student days during the late 1850s, Professor Sir Almroth Wright was recommending "vaccination" and or serum-inoculation (the jargon remained unstable) against more and more diseases and conditions, as preventive and/or as cure. True, an unprecedentedly lengthy discussion on "Vaccine Therapy" in a 1910 number of the 'Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine' {Volume III, 3, General Reports, p.1-216; "unprecedentedly": previous if unrelated discussions seem not to have exceeded 110 pages. For a positive biography, see Zachary Cope: Almroth Wright, Founder of Modern Vaccine-Therapy, London: Nelson, 1996; for greater balance, see Michael Worboys's entry on him in the ODNB}suggests that some fellow-medics thought his predictions optimistic: maybe they were more irritated than they could express at Wright's prediction that bacteriology would replace most other specialisms. But, at less august levels, many a public and private vaccinator would surely have derived comfort from being a drop in the wave of the future, whatever the short-term counter-currents.

We can only fantasise as to how deeply our early-20th-century vaccinists would have envied their circum-2000 successors' panic over fluctuations in MMR–uptake around 85%. Explanations for this difference are legion. One is to do with the whole range of developments in doctor-patient relationships; another with technical improvements and expectations; a third in the at best ambiguous role of drug companies in vaccine research and information, production and marketing. Another lies in developments in interrelations between media, governments and medical hierarchies.

But another lies partly on the left. So let me conclude with my 25-year-old ragbag of reasons as to why "plebeian autodidacts are still … with us, a plebeian autodidact culture is not." {L.Barrow in Labour History Review, 1985; same: Independent Spirits: Spiritualism and English Plebeians, 1850-1910, Routledge, 1986, p.146-212, and particularly p.272-9} Such a culture had been a vital if sometimes vestigial resource, tapped by virtually all radical would-be mass movements since the early 19th century, possibly since the mid-17th and just conceivably since underground coteries of materialist and thus hardly Wycliffite, i.e. proto-Protestant, "Lollards" in the 15th.

My argument has long been that any such culture suffered body-blows from interwar social and economic changes, but also from other. By the late 1930s, what was available to a plebeian autodidact or potential autodidact? Arguably nothing, except for the Left Book Club. Quite aside from the crucial question as to whether many or any of its branches were habitable for more than the odd stray manual worker of any kind, the Club was important for strengthening, far beyond its formal membership, what one might dub an HG.-Wellsian view of science as – the nearer we approached the full Stalinist version of heaven on earth – an unproblematic liberator. Admittedly, "strengthening" anything is not the same as originating it. But specifically, the Club's book or books of every month were selected by a tiny group of Stalinists and fellow-travellers. Science – like politics and ideology in the Leninist party – was now something thrashed out for working people (and, increasingly, blessed in the Kremlin), not thought through partly by them, let alone as part of their self-empowerment. Worse, anything like a Leninist party prioritised the daily political and economic struggle over any wider interests. Such prioritisation could, of course, hardly have been more plausible during the interwar years, and sometimes later. But the love-affair of some older British working-class Marxists with the German artisan-philosopher, Joseph Dietzgen, was a sterile exception that all too neatly proved the politicist rule.

And yet, and yet, the widespread excitement among 1930s-50s British left-wingers about alleged Lysenkoite breakthroughs may be a sign, among much else, of some nostalgia for a more participatory and even democratic way of doing science – as allegedly among Lysenkoite "peasant scientists". In the long run, as we know, a trend has seldom been so strengthened by an exception – a syndrome repeated for smaller knots of Maoists by disillusionment at the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution: that quadruped reincarnation of Napoleon's three-footed quip at the Holy Roman Empire.

No doubt, some of those Labour M.P.s who vaguely shared in Lysenkoite excitements were also among those impressed by the apparent scientificity of I.Q.-testing. Perhaps science could somehow reconcile the expensive choice between education as a blessing for all or a ladder for the few, such as perhaps their ex-working-class selves.

Nonetheless, Lysenkoites chose their main enemy cleverly. If they parodied a democratic epistemology (something which Maoists were to do far more), eugenics can always be mobilised as an apparently excellent foundation for an elitist one. This, however, varies between the latent and the explicit, according to the ideological situation. Let alone the scientific. Ideologically, Sir Keith Joseph aborted his career as a possible Tory leader by forgetting this in 1975: wartime radicalisation, rounded off by the 'discovery' of Nazi death-camps and no less than three decades of relatively very full employment had helped de-legitimise eugenics. On the way, it helped make the 1943-9 Royal Commission on Population into the lengthiest and most voluminous waffle-shop since … its Vaccinal predecessor during 1889-96. Scientifically, though, eugenics enthusiasts are presumably welcoming recent developments in genetics, however many geneticists may still beg to differ.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

New book: Occupy!

Occupy! A Short History Of Workers' Occupations
by Dave Sherry.
Published/Distributed by Bookmarks.
ISBN-13 No: 9781905192625
ISBN-10 No: 1905192622

Workplace occupations are back. Groups of workers have seized control of their factories to fight closures and job losses in the face of the economic crisis. Occupations, more than strikes or demonstrations, raise the question of who controls the workplace.

Today's movement can learn from a century of experience. Dave Sherry looks at this rich history, including Italy in 1920, the US Flint car workers' sit-in during the Great Depression, and France 1968. He illuminates a little known strand of Britain's radical tradition - the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders' work-in, the women of Lee Jeans and the Caterpillar workers' giant "pink panther".

For reviews, see here and here


Public Meeting on Syndicalism organised jointly by the London Socialist Historians Group and the Socialist History Society

Dr. Ralph Darlington: 'The History of Syndicalism'
Dr. Keith Flett: 'Syndicalism in the UK, 1910-11

Monday 17 May, 6pm, Pollard Room, Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet St, London

Edward Upward

Admirers of the socialist novelist Edward Upward might be interested to know there is a new website devoted to his work here.

Edward Upward was a writer of novels and short stories from the 1920s until into the present century. His literary associates included Christopher Isherwood, W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender. Upward's early and late stories often involve a fantastical element, whilst his trilogy of novels The Spiral Ascent recalls the events and atmosphere of his overlapping literary, political and educational worlds. The question of how art should relate to real life and, more specifically, how a socialist can combine artistic creativity with political commitment, is central to his mature work

The site includes an electronic edition of his long-unavailable trilogy The Spiral Ascent (comprising In the Thirties, The Rotten Elements and No Home But the Struggle), and some of his other writings.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

New Book: Grasshoppers, Stonkers and Straight Eights

From Socialist Worker:

Grasshoppers, Stonkers and Straight Eights: George Massey and Bristol Post Office Workers 1930-1976

A new book uses one person’s life to look at aspects of working class history in the last 80 years.

Dave Chapple, a well known activist in the CWU union and the National Shop Stewards Network, focuses on the life of George Massey.

George, who has just turned 94, has been a working class activist for decades.

His experiences cover being a Post Office messenger boy from 1930, then a sorting clerk and telegraphist.

He also served in the RAF during the Second World War and held office in the postal workers’ union at local and national level in the 1950s.

As a militant socialist George joined the Communist Party in 1935, only to become disillusioned with Stalinism. He was pushed out of the party in 1938.

He later rejoined, only to clash with the party again over the Russian invasion of Hungary. But he never ceased to be a socialist.

The book is titled Grasshoppers, Stonkers and Straight Eights. A grasshopper is a type of postal worker, a stonker is a telegram boy’s difficult duty—and a straight eight is an extra eight hour shift after the end of a normal eight hour shift.

George and a handful of others were active as Communists in the post.

They formed the “Rosa Luxemburg Group”, which helped initiate a rank and file group in Bristol’s Small Street sorting office in 1935.

The group’s minute book records that, “The new rank and file movement of the Union of Post Office Workers (UPW) is being inaugurated with the object of rejuvenating the leadership of the UPW and to rally the staff into a militant and progressive trade union movement.”

The group faced criticism that it was “too political”. Tom Lewis, a member, replied, “What is the use of getting a 40 hour week, better working conditions and higher wages if all these achievements were going to be blown sky-high by war and fascism?”

The group became a powerful force, bringing together work issues and more general politics. But it broke up after some of its members won election to branch office.

The book also features fascinating material on the unions and the Spanish Civil War, the response to mechanisation and more. It will be of particular interest to postal workers, but also to a much wider audience.

Grasshoppers, Stonkers and Straight Eights: George Massey and Bristol post office workers 1930–76, by Dave Chapple, £10. Special rates for union branches and trades councils. Email

Available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. See also Charlie Pottins

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Reminder - LSHG Seminar 15 March

Next LSHG seminar:
Monday 15th March, 5.30 p.m.
Institute of Historical Research (Senate House, London University)

Youth & Politics on Tyneside in the late
1950s and early 1960s

'In many ways the 50s was a deadly decade. Yet, at its end there was a resurgence of militant political activity political activity especially among young people touching art, poetry and music. In a new book John Charlton has charted this movement's genesis in the north east of England through multiple interviews with its activists. It's a story of interest to any one who wants to understand the roots of heady days of the late sixties.'Don't you hear the H Bomb's thunder?', published by Merlin Press, at £14.95 will be available at the meeting at a special price.'

John is also involved with the North East Labour History Society

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Michael Foot (1913-2010)

From Llalfur, the Welsh People's History Society

We are very sorry to announce the death of Michael Foot, one of Llafur’s Vice-Presidents. This is not the place to write about his political life (see Kenneth Morgan’s fine recent biography for that) but we can mark his contribution to Llafur. Michael was, of course, a historian and literary scholar as well as a politician. He spoke about the second volume of his biography of Nye Bevan in what was evidently and an electric atmosphere in Swansea in 1973 – introduced by Gwyn Alf Williams. Fortunately a transcript of the evening’s discussion was published in an early issue of Llafur. He also spoke at one of the weekend schools at Pontypridd, participated in the London branch of Llafur and gave the Arthur Horner memorial Lecture in Maerdy. He was one of the great public speakers of his era and we were fortunate that he was willing to give the society some of his valuable time.
See: here

Siân Williams (on behalf of the Llafur Committee)
Llafur Secretary