Thursday, 29 July 2010

Reviving working class history in Wales

Those interested in Tim Evan's earlier piece on commemorating the centenary of the the Great Unrest in Llanelli in 1911, miht be interested in his recent piece for the Guardian, Remembering the working-class martyrs of Llanelli. On the subject of remembering (and for one person forgetting) the martyrs of the British working class movement, readers may also be interested in the Tolpuddle Martyrs Tour guides strike, which it is safe to say the LSHG fully supports.

Edited to add: On the subject of the Great Unrest, see also this call for a London History Workshop

Monday, 26 July 2010

Socialist Historians Up North Autumn Day School

Socialist Historians Up North Autumn Day School
Saturday October 16th 2010
All interested socialist historians (or if you are just keen on the topics we are discussing), are welcome to come along. It is to be held at the People's History Museum, Left Bank Spinningfields, Manchester, Greater Manchester M3 3ER

09.45: Tea and Coffee available in the Museum
10.00 to 12.15: The Great Unrest, Labour and Syndicalism 1900-1914 (Edd Mustill presenting)
12.15 to 1.15pm: Lunch (bring your own, but tea and coffee will be provided)
1.15 to 3.30pm: 'Social Democratic Trajectories in Modern Europe: one or many families?’ (Professor Stefan Berger, Manchester University, presenting)
3.30pm-4.00pm: Planning and Organising the Socialist Historians; future meetings, where do we go from here

Coming Along?
If you think you might be coming along, please let us know by e-mail, so we can make arrangements for tea, coffee and room size. Note that lunch is not provided, so bring your own. To cover costs of room hire, the fee to attend the day-school, is £7 waged, £5 unwaged),
Further Details see:
Contact: Ed Doveton:

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

New Capital Reading Group in London

From Sam []:

I have been meaning to get a capital (volume one) reading group going for a while now. Finally got it sorted; the first session will be on Tuesday the 17th of August (352 Malet Street, Birkbeck, nr Russell Square) at 6 to 7.30-ish-pm, covering the first two chapters - 'The Commodity' and 'The Process of Exchange'...

In my text, the Penguin edition (pictured) translated by Ben Fowkes, that is pages 125 - 188. I don't know whether it is the best translation or not.

The structure the groups will run parallel to the David Harvey Structure. So, for the first session the introductory and the first lecture is appropriate

We will abandon his structure if it later turns out to be problematic.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Forthcoming SHS events

Socialist History Society
Public Meetings

Gramsci in the 21st Century -
A talk by Anne Showstack Sassoon, followed by discussion.
Thursday 19th August 2010 at 7pm
Professor emeritus of politics, Kingston University and senior visiting research fellow at Birkbeck College, Anne is one of the world’s leading authorities on the work and ideas of Antonio Gramsci. Her various publications include Approaches to Gramsci (1981), Gramsci’s Politics (1988), Gramsci and Contemporary Politics, (2000) and Women and the State (1987).
Venue: Bishopsgate Institute, 230 Bishopsgate, London EC2 (opposite Liverpool Street Station)

‘Dora Montefiore, Why Forgotten?

A talk by Ted Crawford
Tuesday 2nd November 2010 at 7pm
Venue: Bishopsgate Institute, Liverpool Street, London
Ted Crawford, the editor of Revolutionary History and a member of the Socialist History Society, looks at the long and active political career of Dora Montefiore (1851-1933), variously a Suffragist, Socialist and Communist who was active in Britain and Australia, but who is today largely forgotten.
Talk followed by discussion.
Admittance free. All welcome. Retiring collection.

Love in the Time of Communism: Sexuality and Private Life in East Germany -
A talk by Josie McLellan, Senior Lecturer in Modern European History, Bristol University.
Saturday 13th November 2010 at 2pm
A specialist in the social and cultural history of the German Democratic Republic, Josie’s publications include Antifascism and Memory in East Germany: Remembering the International Brigades 1945-1989(2004) and 'Visual dangers and delights: nude photography in East Germany', (Past and Present, August 2009).
Time: 2.00 p.m. Venue: Bishopsgate Institute, 230 Bishopsgate, London EC2 (opposite Liverpool Street Station).
Admission £1.50. All welcome.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Forthcoming LSHG Conference: Making the Tories History

One Day Conference: Making the Tories History

Saturday 26th February 2011
Institute of Historical Research
Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1

The decision of the neo-liberal ‘Con-Dem’ coalition
government to appoint Niall Ferguson, an arch-Tory champion
of Western imperial power, to advise them on re-designing the
national curriculum for history in British schools reveals
something of the viciousness of the new administration.
Ferguson wants to introduce an openly Eurocentric ‘grand
narrative’ of history celebrating the ‘rise of the West to world
domination over the past 500 years’. The Tories seem to want
a return to the kind of ‘traditional history’ taught in schools
decades ago, designed primarily to inspire loyalty to the
British Empire. This kind of ‘history’ was effectively satirised
in W.C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman’s anti-imperialist classic,
1066 and All That, which began by stressing that the only
‘memorable history’ was the “self-sacrificing
determination…of the…Great British People…to become Top
Nation” and concluded by noting that now “America was thus
clearly Top Nation and history came to a .” The only
difference is that while traditionally, the British elite saw the
rise of the American Empire as a ‘Bad Thing’, Ferguson today
wants us to celebrate it as a ‘Good Thing’.

Yet the weakness of this new Conservative-led government is
epitomised by the fact that the Tories also have a quite
‘memorable history’ of their own as the political party of
choice of not only many notorious reactionaries but of the
British ruling class as a whole–while there is also a
‘memorable history’ of working class resistance to them. The
Tories have subsequently long been detested and distrusted
by the organised British working class movement but also
wider swathes of society.

At the same time there are other sides to Toryism. George
Orwell said that when you meet a clever Conservative it is
time to count your change and check your wallet. The Tory
Party has not survived for two hundred years simply by being
vicious; it has shown a remarkable capacity for adaptation.
Disraeli is the archetypal Tory thinker, but the Conference
will also look at ‘left Tories’ like Harold Macmillan in the
1930s and the way the Tory Party adapted to the post-World
War II world (as studied in Nigel Harris’s Competition and the
Corporate Society: British Conservatives, the State and
Industry, 1945-1964, Methuen, London, 1971 and
1973.). Finally the question of ‘compassionate
conservatism’/ Red Toryism will be reviewed. Is it
hypocritical froth or does it have a more serious ideological

This conference, ‘Making the Tories History’, organised by
the London Socialist Historians Group aims to discuss some
of the parts of the Tories’ own history as a political party
that they would prefer people either forgot or knew
nothing at all about. Developing ‘a socialist history of the
Tories’ can help act as a weapon in the wider struggle
against the Con-Dem cuts and their relentless attacks on
working class people, as well as rally the resistance of
those concerned in defending history from pro-imperialist
propagandists like Niall Ferguson.

If you interested in participating in the conference
please call Keith Flett on 07803 167266 or send a précis
of your proposed paper to

LSHG Seminars Autumn Term 2010

LSHG SEMINARS Autumn Term 2010

Monday 18th October

Monday 15th November
Steve Cushion
(Institute for the Study of the Americas, University of London)

All seminars at 5.30pm. Entry is free without ticket
Pollard Room, First Floor,
Institute of Historical Reserch,
Senate House, Malet Street London WC1
Others to be announced.

Book Review: Hitch-22

Hitch-22:A Memoir by Christopher Hitchens
Atlantic Books, 2010
352 pages Hardcover ISBN: 978-1843549215

From LSHG Newsletter #39 (July 2010)

Christopher Hitchens will be known to many readers of this Newsletter as a socialist who turned
warmonger and became a vociferous defender of the Iraq War and an Islamophobe. He is part of a
group of formerly left leaning British intellectuals such as Martin Amis and Ian McEwan who have made
something of the same journey, although no doubtnot holding identical views.
Hitchens’ book has already been much reviewed— for example see Terry Eagleton’s view in the New Statesman — and it is not the intention here toprovide another general comment on it. Rather it is
to ask what, if anything, it can tell historians as a memoir.
After all, Hitchens was a leading left wing figure during some of the more momentous periods of recent history and Hitch 22 does provide some comment on this.
The first thing to be said is that the book is most definitely a partial memoir not a biography and
certainly not scholarly. There are no end notes or references, although there are some discursive
pieces, for example on suicide [in relation to his mother Yvonne] and on the process whereby someone abandons left wing politics.
The opening chapters on Hitchens’ upbringing, schooling and parents do provide an interesting
context to the man, although very obviously in a framework that he himself has set. His background was petit-bourgeois — his father a naval officer, subsequently retired and finding employment as an
accountant; his mother an aspiring ‘society’ woman whose aspiration it was to get the young Hitchens to
boarding school and to university so that he could get on in the world.
The thought occurs certainly to this comprehensive, polytechnic and university-educated reviewer that
Hitchens would have been amongst the last generation that would need to take this specific route. With the arrival of the new universities post- Robbins and the comprehensive schools post Circular 10-65 it was no longer entirely necessary to have money to ‘get on’ in the world in educational terms.
Hitchens claims that his family had little money, but however we judge these things working class or
lower middle class they were not. At Oxford Hitchens became involved in left wing
politics around the International Socialists and he provides some accounts of his various arrests and
demonstrations that he went on, complete with photographs.
Historically we don’t learn a great deal, although there is an interesting and inaccurate reference to the young Michael Rosen [p84]. Indeed, historians looking for original material would do much better to consult David Widgery’s The Left in Britain 1956- 68 [1976].
To his credit, Hitchens disavows neither his politics of the time, nor the arrests or the demos. He
merely notes that what might have appeared to have been the new flowering of a revolutionary politics was in fact its swansong. Though Hitchens is not very specific, it would appear that his break with IS came over the
Portuguese Revolution of 1974/5 where he seems to have felt that the revolutionary prospects were less
than suggested. Certainly there is a photograph in the book of his membership card for Islington Labour Party from 1977. It may be that he ultimately left IS with the Workers League split at the end of 1976, though he doesn’t mention this. Indeed, for historians looking for any real insights into the history of IS or its leading figures Hitchens here provides no clues.
Hitchens’ move to the right is well known enough, and it is the earlier chapters of the book that
provide material of interest for the socialist historian. Even so, a couple of incidental pieces entertain. He tells us that he was at Oxford with Clinton [and when Christopher Hill was Master at his college, Balliol] and points out that the to-be US President did not inhale cannabis because he preferred eating it in dope cakes. Later Hitchens gives an account of his own drinking, where he claims to have cut down intake to a whiskey before lunch and half a bottle of wine with lunch and dinner, or perhaps a bit more, certainly not less, and that apparently is it.
Keith Flett

Tim Evans on Llanelli 1911

“A dim spectre of revolution hung over Britain”
Llanelli 1911: The Great Unrest in a Welsh Town

By Tim Evans
From LSHG Newsletter #39 (July 2010)

“Until lately, the news of industrial violence on the Continent has affected the British public much as the howling of the storm outside affects a man comfortably sitting by his own fireside. Any fear that the dangerous forms assumed by labour revolts abroad might be imitated at home has been tranquilised by the belief that our trade union system and the traditional common sense of the nation would be a sufficient protection against industrial revolution. The outbreak this summer (1911) has dispelled this confidence, and has shown that here, as elsewhere, the never-ending conflict between Capital and Labour has entered upon a new and alarming phase which menaces the prosperity of trade and the social institutions of the country.” 1
- Sir Arthur Clay, 'Public Opinion and Industrial Unrest'

Sir Arthur Clay’s ruminations expressed cogently the alarm of the British ruling class at the wave of industrial insurgency that began to gather force in 1910 and by the summer of 1911 was sweeping the country. George Askwith, a conciliator with the Board of Trade, wrote, “One ship owner in Hull spoke of revolution, and so it was. I heard one town councillor remark that he had been in Paris during the Commune but had never known anything like this.” 2
In August 1911 the militancy of the general transport strike in Liverpool impelled the lord mayor to ring Lord Derby at the War Office to say: “This is no ordinary strike riot — a revolution is in progress.” The government rushed two warships to the Mersey, their guns trained on the centre of Liverpool. King George V sent a message to Winston Churchill the Liberal Home Secretary:

 “Accounts from Liverpool show that the situation there is more like revolution than strike. Trust that the Government, while inducing strike leaders to come to terms, will take proper steps...(Troops) should not be called upon except as a last resource, but if called upon, they should be given a free hand and the mob should be made to fear them.” 3

This was not just the hyperbole of a rattled ruling class. Professional revolutionaries saw Britain in 1911 as in a potentially pre-revolutionary situation. Lenin wrote at the time: “... the railway strike of 1911 displayed the ‘new spirit’ of the British workers...In Britain a change has taken place in the relation of social forces, a change which cannot be expressed in figures, but which everyone feels"4 "...the British proletariat is no longer the same. The workers have learned to fight. They have discovered the path that will lead them to victory. They have become aware of their power.” 5

Leon Trotsky, writing in 1924-5, said: “1911 to 1913 were years of unparalleled class battles by miners, railwaymen and other transport workers. In August 1911 a national, in other words, a general strike developed on the railways. During those days a dim spectre of revolution hung over Britain.” 6

The journalist and historian George Dangerfield, although no revolutionary, in his 1935 study of the collapse of Liberal hegemony in Britain, observed that: “The workers of England (sic), united neither in their politics nor in their grievances, with no single desire for solidarity, yet contrived to project a movement which took a revolutionary course and might have reached a revolutionary is this to be explained?” 7

While the rail and transport strikes of 1911 saw several major near-insurrectionary challenges develop between workers and the forces of the State, notably in Liverpool and Hull, the bitterest and most protracted confrontation took place in Llanelli, a largely Welsh-speaking industrial town in the far reaches of south west Wales, where the shooting dead of two men by troops provoked a general uprising. While soldiers, bayonets fixed, struggled to clear the streets, strikers and their supporters fought back, torching the wagons and trucks of the Great Western Railway Company, laying siege to a police station where a scab was being held and attacking and looting the shops of the magistrates who had called in the troops. A soldier refused to fire on the crowd, was taken into military custody, escaped and went on the run, the charges against him being eventually commuted from ‘desertion whilst in aid of the civil power’ to the much less serious ‘absent without leave’ for fear of class reaction to a punitive sentence.

A very British insurgency

Sir Arthur Clay believed that in British society the fear of continental-style revolutions had been “tranquilised by the belief that our trade union system and the traditional common sense of the nation would be a sufficient protection against industrial revolution”. Yet during the period from 1910 to 1913 these comforting beliefs were found to be wholly illusory. The great wave of industrial insurgency had far-reaching effects: Dangerfield and others identify it as a major precipitating factor in the ongoing breakdown of the liberal consensus and the rise of Labourism. As Cliff and Gluckstein put it:

“Labour’s final emergence from the cocoon of liberalism owed nothing to its own efforts, or even to those of the left. It arose from the second, and far more serious alternative to Labourism, the ‘Labour Unrest’ of 1910-1914...(in which) the working class returned to the stage of history with a ferocity which terrified the Labour Party as much as the ruling class.”8

‘Ferocity’ was indeed a feature of this period of heightened class conflict. In his study of British syndicalism, Bob Holton contrasts the features of earlier periods of working class militancy, such as the ‘explosions’ of 1871-73 and the ‘new unionism’ of 1889- 91, with 1910-1914.

“There is...a vivid contrast between the London dock strike of 1889, when dockers marched peacefully through the City of London to gain public sympathy, and the 1910 Welsh miners’ strike when miners clashed violently with civil power at Tonypandy and elsewhere...what Eric Hobsbawm called ‘the evangelistic organising campaigns of the dock strike period’ as against the ‘mass rebellions’ of the later explosion... what most disturbed middle class interests about the ‘labour unrest’ was undoubtedly its violent, unofficial and insurgent character,” characterised by “the apparent failure of the trade union movement to channel industrial grievances through the increasingly acceptable institutions of collective bargaining and conciliation...The spirit of compromise fostered within collective bargaining mechanisms was being replaced by direct action.” 9

This new spirit was much in evidence in Llanelli in August 1911, where militant action led to violent confrontations with the forces of the state. The combativity of workers during this period does much to undermine the myth, current during periods of low struggle, of the docile,
passive British worker who has bought into the system and will not fight. Phases of high or low class struggle are not determined by such ‘national characteristics’ as Sir Arthur Clay’s “traditional common sense of the nation”, but by the material factors which comprise the balance of class forces at any given historical moment, shaping the prominence, form and intensity of class conflict.

Key to the whole question is the pressure of economic factors, although there is no simple, mechanical or
automatic relationship between economic conditions and the level of working class resistance. What has been the impact of past defeats or victories? What is the relative strength of the trade union bureaucracy as opposed to rank and file organisation? What is the state of development of the trade unions and the mass reformist parties? What is the influence, if any, of revolutionary and left groups, and what is their relationship to the trade unions? Factors such as the historical traditions of the class, the degree of consciousness and organisation, and the quality of its leadership all have their effect.

The industrial uprisings came about from a constellation of factors, both economic and political, some of which might sound familiar. Real wages were declining. A new government strategy of incorporation was being exercised in an attempt to meet the challenge of growing trade union membership and militancy. A layer of trade union bureaucrats was being formed and cultivated by the government and employers in order to defuse the strike wave. The emergent Labour Party was already disappointing its working class supporters with its studied lack of militancy and huge appetite for political incorporation.

Direct action of the kind called for by the syndicalists showed a way out of this impasse. By being present at the point of production at a moment of rising struggle, the syndicalists punched above their weight,
having more of an effect than their numbers would warrant. For some years, despite their clear political weaknesses, their arguments about workers’ control and the general strike absolutely cut with the grain with a significant number of workers.

Although there were no named syndicalists in Llanelli itself at the time of the strike, there were in other parts of south Wales. Ben Tillett, transport union militant sympathetic to syndicalism and close associate of the syndicalist Tom Mann, was the star speaker at a huge demonstration in Llanelli to protest against the
shootings. Events there are evidence, says Holton, of “a proto-syndicalist mood of direct action and solidarity ... Joint action by railwaymen and tin-plate workers at Llanelly was paralleled by cases of solidarity (elsewhere)... The deep impact of the strike within working-class communities was also reflected in the unprecedented wave of schoolchildren’s strikes ... in at least 62 towns throughout Britain.” 10

In Llanelli in August 1911 what was remarkable was not that governments sent in troops to break strikes but that the strikers and their supporters refused to be cowed by bayonets and bullets. What is really worthy of note is the courage of the nameless ones who, living on poverty wages, shook off what Edward Thompson called “the condescension of history” and had the temerity to come out on the streets and fight back. I shall attempt in the next issue of the London Socialist Historians Newsletter to see why this happened at the time that it did.

Although the syndicalists and other militants failed in their ultimate aims, what remains is still an important contribution to the development of anti-capitalist revolt.

“The working class militants of the ‘labour unrest’ deserve to be remembered and honoured by posterity for their persistent aggression against the centres of capitalist power, and the sheer vitality and sense of
creative purpose brought to bear in conflict with employers, politicians, the judiciary, the police and the armed forces.” 11

It is in this spirit that in Llanelli we are organising a commemoration for the centenary of the strike: five days of meetings, with music, theatre, film and poetry. We are also planning a statue for the town centre and calling for an official apology from the Home Office for the killings. It is worth noting that in other parts of the country — notably Liverpool and Hull — similar events took place, and similar events could be organised.

1 A. Clay, 'Public Opinion and Industrial Unrest', Nineteenth
, vol LXX, December 1911, p1005, quoted in Bob Holton
British Syndicalism 1900‐1914 Pluto Press 1976 p 73
2 G.R. Askwith Industrial Problems and Disputes 1920, quoted in
John Edwards Remembrance of a Riot Llanelli Borough Council
1988 p24
3 Home Office documents, quoted in Edwards p25/218
4 V.I.Lenin On Britain Progress Publishers 1973 p151‐2
5 Lenin p 151 and 154
6 Leon Trotsky Collected writings and speeches on Britain Vol 2
New Park Publications 1974 p8
7 George Dangerfield The Strange Death of Liberal England
Paladin 1935 p 196
8 Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein The Labour Party – a Marxist
Bookmarks 1988 p 47
9 Bob Holton British Syndicalism 1900‐1914 Pluto Press 1976 p
10 Holton p106
11 Holton p212

Our Martyred Dead

From LSHG Newsletter #39 (July 2010)

Our rulers have had a variety of ways to deal with resistance and demands for change in the last 200 years
or so, but when all else fails brute force has always been an option.
When the Israeli Defence Force murdered 10 activists and injured many more on a flotilla trying to get aid to Gaza on May 31st it was, historically, another episode in a history of massacres by those with power against those without.
At Burford in May 1649 Cromwell’s troops cut down radical soldiers who wanted to be paid off rather than go to Ireland and participate in the massacres that he had planned there. So began a long history of protest, revoltand repression.
In central Manchester in 16 August 1819 when the Yeomanry, troops on horseback, cut down with sabres
unarmed demonstrators for the vote. Thousands had marched from surrounding towns and villages to the City to demand their democratic rights. At least 13 were killed in what was dubbed Peterloo. An official memorial to those who protested and died for democratic rights is still awaited.
That, perhaps, is the key point. The authorities hope that a blunt and murderous show of force will squash protest flat. Initially of course it may. Not many go on a demonstration with the thought they could get murdered. Indeed, the historical point is that protesters are invariably peaceful. The violence comes from the forces of the State.
Father Gapon, for example, had no intention of sparking the 1905 Russian Revolution. It was the reaction of the Tsarist Government to a peaceful protest that set matters in train.
But even in the short term, there are the funerals of those who were killed and the accounts of those who escaped. These are mobilising points. In the longer term the memory of those who fought and died for a cause brings new generations onto the field of struggle.
In more recent times killings of those demanding a better world have become more common. Capitalism allows murder on an industrial scale and hugely well armed State forces sometimes confront unarmed protesters with predictable results.
While most demonstrations pass off peacefully enough, the instances of those where State violence leads to death and injury are now substantial enough to fill a book. South Africa under apartheid saw two key massacres of those fighting for the kind of democratic society that now exists in that country — Sharpeville on 21 March 1960 when 69 were killed and Soweto on 16 June 1976 when 23 were killed.
From Hungary in 1956 to Prague in 1968 and Tiananmen Square in 1989 Governments that pretended to stand in the name of workers but did not cut down those who wanted a genuine socialist society.
Closer to home again the British State sent paratroopers to shoot down 13 protesters for civil rights in Derry on the 30th of January 1972. They tried to claim they were terrorists. Later they agreed that was a lie, but the latest inquiry into what took place is only now set to report almost 30 years on.
We should also remember situations where individual protesters have died—Kevin Gately in 1974 at Red Lion Square and Blair Peach at Southall in 1979, both fighting the National Front, and Ian Tomlinson in the 2009 City of London G20 protests — though he was not even actually a protester. More might well have died on each occasion. That they did not was a matter of luck.
Again there are historical antecedents for individual deaths on demonstrations. The original Bloody Sunday was on 20 November 1887 when police killed a young clerk Alfred Linnell demonstrating in central London about Government policy on Ireland. The result was more and larger demonstrations and a significant growth in influence of Marxist groups like the Social Democratic Federation.
As the words of the Red Flag note:
‘Come dungeons dark or gallows grim this song shall be our parting hymn’.
In other words: do mourn, but in doing so also mobilise.
Or perhaps as the framed and executed organiser for the US Industrial Workers of the World Joe Hill had it
‘don’t waste time in mourning ... organise’.
Keith Flett