Friday, 24 May 2013

CfP: Race and Popular Culture

Race and Popular Culture
Second Annual Symposium of the Ethnicity, Race and Racism Research Group, Edge Hill University, Tuesday 11 June 2013
Call for Papers

Proposals are invited for 20-25 minute papers on any aspect of Race and Popular Culture. They should be around 250 words in length, including a provisional title. Postgraduate researchers are very welcome to submit proposals and/or attend the symposium. The closing date for submission is Friday 31 May 2013 (Please note revised deadline).

Proposals/enquiries about the symposium should be sent to Professor Kevern Verney, Associate Dean, Faculty of Arts and Sciences:

Attendance at the symposium is free.

The day will conclude with a live performance documentary by Professor Will Kaufman (UCLAN) from 6.00-7.30 pm on ‘Woody Guthrie: The Long Road to Peekskill’, which presents the story of Woody Guthrie’s personal transformation from a youth Oklahoma racist to an ardent anti-racist. Conventionally known for his championing of poor white Dust Bowl migrants, Guthrie also left an extensive body of songs condemning Jim Crow segregation, lynching and race hatred.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Levellers Day 2013 - Learning the Lessons of History

Saturday 18 May, Burford, Oxfordshire

10.00 Doors open, Warwick Hall, Burfodrd.
10.30 Commemoration ceremony, speakers lay posies under the Levellers plaque in the
church wall, dedication by Revd Prof Mark Chapman outside the churchyard gate
11.00 In the garden:
Chair’s welcome from Megan Dobney, Regional Secretary, SERTUC
Dr Nick Mansfield, University of Central Lancashire: Celebrating and recording our radical history
Professor Mary Davis, Aston University: How will we educate a new generation of
John Hendy QC: The Levellers legacy and relevance to the struggles for democracy today
11.35 Questions from the audience
Assemble for procession, Church Green
Procession departs with speakers, banners, and all who’d like to join ...
13.10 Outside Warwick Hall, on return of the procession: The Sea Green Singers - the Internationale
13.30 Cry Havoc morris
14.00 In Warwick Hall garden:
Rob Evans, Chipping Norton Councillor
The Chipping Norton Bliss Tweed Mill strike of 1913: The Ascott Martyrs, 1873
14.30 Workshops in Warwick Hall:
Workers Educational Association (WEA): What’s happened to adult education?
Ruskin College: Radical Women in history
Woodcraft Folk craft workshop
16.00 Ends

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Fifty Years of EP Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class

Queen Mary University of London
Tuesday 25th June 2013
Co sponsors: PSA Communism Specialist group and PSA Labour Movements Group
E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class is undoubtedly one of the most widely read and cited works of British history of the entire twentieth century. Though best known for its key role in the development of the ‘new social history’ and ‘history from below’ of the 1960s and 1970s, the book, perhaps more than any comparable work of history, transcends the particularities of its specialism both in its conception and in its subsequent influence. This conference addresses the interdisciplinary influences and impact of the text as a twentieth century classic, and includes contributions from across the disciplines of history, political theory, literature and sociology.

Speakers include Bryan Palmer (Trent), Jon Lawrence (Cambridge), Mike Kenny (QM), Kevin Morgan (Manchester) Barbara Taylor (QM), David Howell (York), Karen Buckley (Manchester), Nick Stevenson (Nottingham), Stuart Middleton (Cambridge), Christos Efstathiou (Birkbeck), Madeleine Davis (QM).
For more details and to register, please visit the website

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Socialist History Society Talk on Sylvia Pankhurst

Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire
A Socialist History Society Talk Given at Bishopsgate Institute by Katherine Connelly

Examining Sylvia Pankhurst's life of activism from her teens as a member of the Independent Labour Party, to her time as a leading suffragette before the First World War, through to her socialist, anti-fascist and anti-imperialist campaigns.

Katherine Connelly is the author of a new biography of Sylvia Pankhurst, Suffragette, Socialist, Internationalist. Katherine is currently researching at Queen Mary College on 'Karl Marx and Parisian popular culture in the 1840s'.

 Talk held at the library Bishopsgate Institute
230 Bishopsgate, London, EC2M 4QH
7pm Wednesday 15th May 2013
Tickets £2.00
Advance booking 020 7392 9200

Monday, 6 May 2013

May 2013 LSHG Newsletter online

The new LSHG Newsletter (#49, May 2013) is now online and leads with a comment piece by Keith Flett on Michael Gove's new planned school history curriculum, a curriculum which will not see any place for example for the likes of British working class history as for example outlined in Ian Birchall's review of a study of Blaydon Races, nor the Black British Rebels brought to life in a work by Hassan Mahamdallie - let alone Haitian revolutionaries such as Toussaint Louverture, the subject of a rediscovered play by the Trinidadian historian C.L.R. James which is reviewed by Gaverne Bennett. School students will I am sure however be hearing a lot about the wonders of British parliamentary democracy, so Brian Roper's recent Marxist interpretation of the rise of democracy - also reviewed in the Newsletter - is timely. The LSHG has organised two seminars in the Spring term so far - details here. LSHG members will also be gathering at the London Radical Bookfair on 11 May, and also at Marxism 2013 from 11-15 July in London. For more info about the LSHG or to join, please email Keith Flett at the address above.

Book Review: Toussaint Louverture by C.L.R. James

From LSHG Newsletter # 49 (May 2013)
Toussaint Louverture: The story of the only successful slave revolt in history; A Play in Three Acts
by C.L.R. James
Edited and introduced by Christian Høgsbjerg with a foreword by Laurent Dubois
Duke University Press 2013 240pp
ISBN 978-0822353140

How do you dramatise one of the most dramatic events in human history? The events in Saint Domingue between 1791-1804 were a lot more than a slave revolt and no less than a full blown revolution.
This is a revolution that blew apart the intellectual and economic foundations of theAtlantic slave trade/slavery,establishing the first black republic in the Western hemisphere. How do youcondense this kaleidoscope ofevents so rich in outstanding characters into 3 acts? How does one give literary life to characters that, though they really existed, seem mythical in their capacity to make history incircumstances definitely not of their choosing? This is the task CLR James set himself in writing and staging his play Toussaint Louverture in London in 1936.
James’ outstanding history of Haitian revolution, The Black Jacobins, published in 1938, is of course far better known.  However, it is clear from reading this 1936 play that it helped to suffuse The Black Jacobins with the literary aroma that seems to drench whole passages in it. This play was performed by the foremost actor of his day in the lead role, Paul Robeson.
The worry is that with a plays like this is that the dialogue can be as wooden as the beams the actors walk upon as ‘making the political’ trumps drama. However, as I read the play I marvelled at just how well it manages to tell both a dramatic and touching story.
Using the dramatic medium James shows the Haitian masses at their fighting finest; cleverly inserts the actual minutes of the 1794 French convention meeting that abolished slavery; shows the genius of Toussaint Louverture, Dessalines, and others in action; and how social conflicts can seemingly look like individual conflicts and vice versa. 
James’ Toussaint Louverture is not a great play on paper but is a brilliant play nevertheless. However, this is not where the brilliance of this particular book ends. For its editor, Christian Høgsbjerg, has done us all a great service by the materials he has collected that accompany the play in the book. We are given a fantastic insight into the highly compressed, explosive circumstances surrounding the creation of this play.
He explains how James arrives in England in 1932, literary accomplishments under his belt, but being confronted by the great depression, the rise of Hitler, the invasion of Ethiopia by fascist Italy, the Spanish civil war, and growing independence movements in Africa and the Caribbean. We have a sense that though this play is about the struggles of the 1790s it was itself a weapon aimed in the struggles of the 1930s.
One need only read the table of contents to see that you have much more than a play here. It includes reviews and other critical information that deepens your appreciation of the play. This is an example how a chance discovery of a lost manuscript can be turned into something that opens the door to a relevant world.
This play is a must-read for anyone who has read and loved The Black Jacobins as you can see much of the lyricism of that great work prefigured in its lines.
Tragically, it has not been performed for over 20 years. As this play will probably be restaged soon it would be good idea to read it now.
We all owe much to the expert salvage operation Christian Høgsbjerg has performed here.  As long as the world wilts with oppression, is awash with crisis, and punctuated by resistance this play, its subject matter, and now this book, will have to be read, watched and pondered on over and over again.
Gaverne Bennett

Edited to add:
Monday 24 June
Roundtable discussion on 'CLR James: From Toussaint Louverture to Beyond a Boundary'
with Tayo Aluko (writer, performer and producer, Call Mr Robeson), Luke Daniels (President, Caribbean Labour Solidarity), Keith Flett and Christian Høgsbjerg.
Chair: Marika Sherwood (a friend of CLR James's and author of World War II: Colonies and Colonials)
6pm, Room G34 South Block, Institute of Historical Research, London, WC1. Free, all welcome.
Organised by the London Socialist Historians Group and the Black and Asian Studies Association

Book Review: The History of Democracy

From LSHG Newsletter 49 (May 2013)

The History of Democracy: A Marxist Interpretation
by Brian S. Roper
Pluto 2013 328pp Paperback
ISBN 978-0745331898

In his new book on the history of democracy Brian Roper cites two key motivating factors in writing it. Firstly the rhetoric of democracy used in the Bush (and Blair) period to justify the invasion of Iraq and elsewhere. The Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell parodied Bush speak, as in ‘freeman moxy’. Secondly the more recent Arab Spring which saw revolutionary upheavals in Tunisia and Eqypt overthrow corrupt and undemocratic Governments in both countries.

He might have mentioned some other frameworks. Firstly that of Churchill who noted that democracy was the worst possible way of governing a country except for all the others. Secondly a perspective suggested by Eric Hobsbawm which echoes the first point about the Iraq War. Namely that Western liberal democracy was not particularly something uppermost in the minds of many in other parts of the world who tended to think that things like water and bread had more importance.

Roper seeks to distinguish between various kinds of democracy. The classic Athenian model, the more recent liberal one and a socialist or marxist view of democracy. In doing so he notes that liberal democracy tends to try and assimilate earlier democratic practices into its own model even though they were distinct and time specific. Roper’s point is that Athenian democracy remains the model for popular workers democracy from below whereas Roman democracy is the one favoured by those who see democracy, in more limited and controlled form handed down from above. The 1688 Revolution in England is an example suggested.

The book is clearly divided chronologically and in this sense is an excellent text for anyone seeking to understand a socialist perspective on democracy, historically rooted, and then read on further. There are suggestions for more in depth reading at the end of each chapter. Roper proceeds from Athens, via the transition from feudalism to capitalism on to capitalist democracy itself and concludes with two examples of socialist democracy in practice — the Paris Commune and the first years of the Russian Revolution from 1917. The majority of the text is a well written summary of a Marxist perspective on the particular period under discussion followed by a brief and usually incisive commentary on it.

Inevitably with such a vast amount of ground to cover readers will feel that more could have been written on this or that point. For example the experience of the Chartist movement, hardly mentioned in the book, is of importance because the Chartists were the first workers’ movement grappling with the world’s first liberal Parliamentary democracy, albeit a far from complete one, even after the1832 Reform Act. The Six Points of the People’s Charter are plebeian democratic demands but after the defeat of the 1848 Revolutions, the Chartists moved left. The 1851 Manifesto, the Charter and Something More, contained demands not just for political democracy but for economic and social democracy as well.

I broadly agree with the Marxist perspectives of Roper that underwrite the book but it should provoke discussion about currents on the left that have had different views. In that sense Roper’s occasional use of the word ‘only’ to suggest that there was no alternative to the course that was followed is overly didactic. To conclude with but one example. Edward Thompson argued, particularly in his collection Writing By Candlelight, that given the experience of Stalinism, civil liberties and hard won democratic freedoms were not something to be dismissed as simply bourgeois but rather important safeguards for the citizen that would need to be the cornerstone of a socialist democracy not replaced by it. Discussions on democracy and what it means to the left are timely and Roper’s book is a useful guide to the context in which they can take place.

Keith Flett

Book Review: Black British Rebels

From LSHG Newsletter # 49 (May 2013) 

hassan mahamdallie
Black British Rebels: Figures from Working Class History
by Hassan Mahamdallie
Bookmarks London 2012 40pp £3
ISBN 978 1 9051 9297 7
In the aftermath of the riots that rocked British cities in the summer of 1981, the veteran Trinidadian Marxist historian C.L.R. James was asked to comment on their historic significance. James pointed to the leading role played within them by the young black British working class:

‘British capitalism went to Africa and bought slaves chiefly to work on sugar plantations. Then, after many years, the British economy needed some labour to do special work in Britain. So British capitalism went to the Caribbean and brought workers to Britain. Capitalism creates its own gravediggers. Now there are two or three millions of them in Britain, and the recent upheaval in this country shows that they are a tremendous force in the struggles against this society.’

James added that ‘the method by which I work emphasises those connections’. Hassan Mahamdallie’s recent pamphlet, Black British Rebels, coming as it does in the aftermath of the riots that rocked England in the summer of 2011, attempts to build on the method pioneered by figures like James to discuss what he eloquently calls the ‘unique and rich phenomenon – the black radicals that led British workers into the struggle for freedom, justice and a better world’.

Taking ‘black’ in its broader political meaning to include South Asian activists alongside those whose ethnicities are Black African or Black Caribbean, the pamphlet consists of biographical portraits of six of the perhaps most well-known but doubtless critical figures in the tradition of ‘black British radicalism’, the African abolitionist Olaudah Equiano, the mixed heritage Jamaican agitator Robert Wedderburn, the black London Chartist leader William Cuffay, the Indian Communist Shapurji Saklatvala who was elected MP for North Battersea in 1924 and was imprisoned during the British General Strike, the Trinidadian Communist and founder of the Notting Hill Carnival Claudia Jones, and Grunwick strike leader Jayaben Desai, who hailed from northern India but led a critical and inspirational class struggle in north London during the 1970s. ‘All of them combined the fight to end racism with the wider fights of the working class movement’, Mahamdallie notes. ‘All of them understood that the two arenas were not different forks in the road, they were the same road that had to be travelled by all. Quite simply, while one soul is in bondage, none of us can be free’.

Mahamdallie clearly illuminates some of the potentialities and possibilities for black and white unity in modern British history, though there are a number of weaknesses that some scholars might with justification level at such a brief popular pamphlet as this. The research undertaken for this seems distinctly dated in places, and overall the pamphlet is overly reliant on older accounts presented in general histories of the black experience in Britain by the likes of Ron Ramdin. Scholars of black British radicalism may therefore be a little disappointed that there is not more evidence of engagement with recent findings and important work relating to these six inspiring figures that has appeared over the last decade or so.

A number of minor errors aside from the inevitable other limitations and weaknesses also creep in. For example, the Haitian Revolution lasted from 1791-1804 (not 1791-1794 as claimed on page 4). According to Marcus Rediker’s fine 2007 work The Slave Ship (which is sadly not cited despite the fact it contains a finediscussion of Equiano’s experiences), approximately 14 million men, womenand children were transported from Africa to the slave plantations of America and the West Indies, with only 9 million surviving the crossing to the New World – a far cry from the ‘as many as 30 million transported’ suggested here (page 5).

Nonetheless, such criticisms notwithstanding, this work could not be more timely, given David Cameron’s attacks on ‘multiculturalism’ (and for that matter Ed Miliband’s recent disgraceful attack on migrant workers). Though it could have perhaps done with a conclusion summing up the historical experience, making the links with struggles today –perhaps highlighting the 2011 riots - and pointing towards some possible future political directions for ‘black British radicalism’, overall Black British Rebels fulfils its aim and purpose as an introductory pamphlet admirably.

Much of the content originated from a series of clearly and powerfully-written articles dating from the 1990s while the author worked as a journalist on Socialist Worker and personally I can still remember reading one such article on Wedderburn years ago with a sense of wonder at both the revelatory contentand the clarity and passion of the writing.

The pamphlet’s value as an educational resource also owes much to the fact that it is attractively designed, with each biographical sketch accompanied by photographs and other relevant images (often highlighting the racism faced by these activists), and it includes a guide for further reading. If the 2011 riots –together with the role played by black trade unionists in the recent campaign against austerity and the Tories great pension’s robbery - signified that a new generation of ‘black British rebels’ is in the process of emerging amidst the greatest capitalist crisis since the 1930s, this pamphlet couldfill a useful vacuum in pointing some of these activists towards the rich and inspiring ‘hidden history’ of struggle led by those who came before them.
Christian Høgsbjerg

[A version of this review first appeared in the Black and Asian Studies Association Newsletter #63, July 2012]

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Book Review: Blaydon Races: A song and its writer

From LSHG Newsletter #49 (May 2013).

Blaydon Races by William Irving (1903)

Gannin’ to Blaydon Races:
The Life and Times of George Ridley

By Dave Harker
Tyne Bridge Publishing, Newcastle, 2011
ISBN 978-1857952117

Radio killed the music hall just as inexorably as video subsequently killed the radio star. But traces survive.

Those of us who listened to Two-Way Family Favourites in the late fifties recall that alongside Tommy Steele and Marty Wilde there would be requests for older songs, like Blaydon Races, sung perhaps by Owen Brannigan or the Five Smith Brothers. Today Blaydon Races is recognised as the “national anthem” of Tyneside and is a popular football song.

Now Dave Harker had written a fascinating little book about the history of the song and its composer, George Ridley. Harker will be best known to most LSHG supporters for his books on Robert Tressell and the Shrewsbury pickets, but he has also written extensively about folk song and other forms of music.

This is a short book – 150 pages of text – but its 486 footnotes are testimony to Harker’s remorseless labour of research, his accumulation of detail, biography and anecdote. It is beautifully illustrated with photographs and reproductions of documents.

Life was cruel for working people in nineteenth-century Britain. Harker does not spare us the horrors – overcrowded and insanitary housing, cholera and dangerous conditions down the pit. But there was also resilience – expressed particularly in various forms of working-class amusement. There was sport – as well as the racing at Blaydon, Harker mentions rowing and even quoits.

There were popular sportsmen, like the oarsman Robert Chambers, who aroused enthusiasm among workers without becoming overpaid and estranged from their roots like today’s footballers. And above all there was music. Harker describes the various places of entertainment on Tyneside, notably Balmbra's Concert Room, which offered "moral, instructive and rational amusement" and aimed to “promote virtue and truth".

Irish music was one important influence – Ridley was engaged as an “Irish comic vocalist” - despite the foul anti-Irish racism that was widespread. And though “blacked-up” minstrels now seem deeply  distasteful, this was one of the ways that African-American music first became known in Britain.

Politics as such plays only a small part in the narrative, though it is fascinating to learn that Joseph Cowen, who hired musicians for Blaydon Mechanics’ Institute, probably financed an attempt to assassinate Emperor Napoleon III of France.

The life of George Ridley, composer of Blaydon Races and Cushie Butterfield, sums up the contradictions of the age. Born in 1835, he went to work down the pit at the age of eight. Later he suffered a serious accident at work. He became a professional entertainer and song-writer, but died before reaching his thirtieth birthday. He symbolises both the enormous creativity present within the working class, and the way it was systematically crushed. Harker reproduces the lyrics of many of Ridley’s songs. The Tyneside dialect and eccentric spelling often makes these difficult for a (Yorkshire) foreigner to read. Music hall songs sometimes had complex and hidden meanings. (It was only a recent article in the London Review of Books that alerted me to the profoundly obscene message of Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow-Wow).

Harker does not discuss sexual innuendo, but he does draw attention to the antiauthoritarian references that occur in the songs. In one song Ridley derided the police:

A bobby’s the canniest job in the world,
He gets all his drink for nowt.

Another song explicitly approved a cabman cheating rich customers:

And when aw gets a swell in drunk that leeves
up West Parade,
Aw charge him a bob when he gets in and swear
he’s niver paid.

There is also some fascinating material on the impact and development of recording technology. Harker describes the working day of singer Charles Catcheside, who performed in Liverpool in the evening, returned to London by sleeper, sang forty songs in a recording studio (one every six minutes) and returned to Liverpool for the next evening performance. Closer to the lifestyle of a factory-worker than that of Elton John.

The nineteenth-century working class had a rich and complex history, far more many-sided than the mere chronicle of Chartist debates. Dave Harker is to be warmly thanked for uncovering a small part of the picture.

[Blaydon Races by Owen Brannigan is at
and by Jimmy Nail, Tim Healy and Inspector Lewis is at ]

Ian Birchall

Comment: Gove and the History Curriculum

Memoirs of a history teacher
LSHG Newsletter #49 (May 2013)

Education Secretary Gove has published details of a new history curriculum. It has been a while in
the construction and has been the subject of some controversy in the process. Suffice it to say that Gove failed in his apparent plan to purge Mary Seacole and others from school history teaching. The Gove curriculum is of course right-wing, albeit perhaps not exactly our island story. Indeed rightwing historian Niall Ferguson has complained in the Guardian that Gove has failed to implement some of his suggestions and that the curriculum is not British enough.

That said, Ferguson’s argument that it could do with more about things like the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 is hardly likely to find much criticism from the left. Many years ago I used to be a history teacher. It was so long ago that it was (just about) before the Government got the idea that there must be a prescribed history curriculum. There must be a few people out there wandering around with rather more knowledge of the history of the Russian Revolution than Gove’s curriculum allows for. Indeed I was once rejected for a teaching job in Slough (thankfully) because I mentioned that it might not do any harm for the youth of that place to know something of the events of 1917.

My views on what a history curriculum might contain in 2013 may be controversial to Gove and his friends, but hardly, I suspect, on the left. There needs to be more about slavery and the imperial angle to the modern
development of British society and there needs to be more about how women fought for their rights. Neither is entirely ignored now. It is a matter of balance. Were the balance to be corrected it would not provide a socialist history curriculum, but just a decent liberal education, something that didn’t used to be a couple of dirty words but seems to be now.

More broadly a curriculum needs some sense of chronology. No doubt in Gove’s ideal world this would be dealt with by learning the Dates of Kings and Queens. I could live with an understanding that the Tudor period came before the Georgian and Victorian with some idea of what each meant historically. That is quite insular though and a grasp of what the Middle Ages meant across Europe and beyond, and when capitalist society developed and how, would be just as good. When I studied history at school in Muswell Hill in the 1970s it was my history teachers (members of the Communist Party) suggesting I read volumes by Christopher Hill and E.J. Hobsbawm that did just that.

But there is something else that Gove would hate above all this. It is the point that whatever school history
teaches it should aim to give students both a sense of history and an interest and enthusiasm for it. The History Workshop ideas of getting students to look at original historical documents, or to visit historical sites, seem to me as valid as ever though no doubt deeply unfashionable with those currently shaping school history.

Keith Flett

Edited to add: Next LSHG Seminar
Monday 13 May at 5.30pm
Andrew Stone on 'Gove's Island Story: Why History Teachers are up in arms'

Entry is free without ticket, all welcome
Seminar in Room G34, South Block, Senate House, Malet Street London WC1

Friday, 3 May 2013

Black and Asian Britain seminars

 Institute of Commonwealth Studies, in conjunction with the Black & Asian Studies Association

Black and Asian Britain seminars

Senate House, University of London, Russell Square, London WC1 
6 to 7.30 pm,
Everyone is welcome. You do not have to pre-book/register.

Friday May 10, room G37 (Ground Floor)
Hakim Adi (University of Chichester) , Pan-Africanism and Communism: The Communist International, Africa and the Diaspora, 1919-1939
Dr Adi will discuss his forthcoming book, which examines how and why a Pan-Africanist approach was adopted by the Comintern in relation to Africa and the African Diaspora, and highlights the agency of African, African American and Caribbean activists in determining and implementing this approach.

Tuesday, June 11, room  Room G37 (Ground Floor)
Charles Foy (Eastern Illinois University) , Black seamen in the 18th century
My Black Mariner Database of 23,000 18th century Black seamen working on European, American and African vessels demonstrates that freedom in the Black Atlantic was fluid, depending upon location and time.