Friday, 29 January 2016

Ellen Meiksins Wood (1942-2016)

Members of the LSHG were saddened to hear of the passing of Ellen Meiksins Wood who made important contributions to Marxist history and theory - there is a good round up of her writings over at the Verso blog while this is a piece by her on Christopher Hill and the recovery of history.  Our condolences to her friends and comrades. Edited to add: Marxism loses a passionate champion - an obituary in Socialist Review by Alex Callinicos.

Friday, 22 January 2016

David Goodway on GDH Cole

Saturday 23 January 2016 
G.D.H. Cole: A Libertarian Trapped in the Labour Party 
David Goodway 
New venue: MayDay Rooms. 88 Fleet Street, London EC4Y 1DH, 2.00 – 4.30 pm 
Meeting organised by the New Anarchist Research Group 

From the 1920s until his death in 1959 Cole was the pre-eminent Labour intellectual, surpassing Harold Laski and R.H. Tawney in the proliferation of his publications and general omnipresence. The paradox is that he was an extremely restive, critical member of the Labour Party, going so far as say towards the end of his life that he was ‘neither a Communist nor a Social Democrat in the ordinary sense, but something, not betwixt and between these two, but essentially different from both’. ‘I was’, he said, ‘– and I remain – a Guild Socialist.’ 

 David Goodway taught sociology, history and Victorian studies to mainly adult students from 1969 until the University of Leeds closed its School of Continuing Education in 2005. For twenty-five years he has written principally on anarchism and libertarian socialism, publishing collections of the writings of Alex Comfort, Herbert Read, ‘Maurice Brinton’ and Nicolas Walter and of the correspondence between John Cowper Powys and Emma Goldman; Talking Anarchy with Colin Ward (2nd edition, 2014); as well as Anarchist Seeds beneath the Snow: Left-Libertarian Thought and British Writers from William Morris to Colin Ward (2nd edition, 2012). But his first book was London Chartism 1838-1848 (1982); and he has recently published The Real History of Chartism (2013) and an edition of George Julian Harney’s late journalism, The Chartists Were Right (2014).
He was the convenor of the original Anarchist Research Group.

Friday, 8 January 2016

The LSHG in 2016

The LSHG in 2016

We are into the third decade of socialist history seminars at the Institute of Historical Research (we started in 1994) and I’m pleased to say that there remains no shortage of new socialist historical research to put on in these seminars. In the spring of 2015 the proceedings from our 2011 conference on a History of Riots were published by CSP. During the first part of 2016 a book from our 2013 conference to mark the 50th anniversary of EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class should be out, also from CSP. For 2016 we are planning on 30 April an event to mark the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising. A few weeks later in May 2016 we will be running an event to mark the 90th anniversary of the 1926 British General Strike. Both should be a showcase for new research in these areas.

It would be fair to say that this is not being done elsewhere, although as our website underlines there is a welcome level of activity in the general area of socialist history. I’m hoping that we can expand the newsletter to facilitate more discussion, debate and critical comment during 2016.

Contributions are genuinely welcome and as with the seminar, the LSHG Newsletter is now one of the longest running such bulletins currently active. The election of Jeremy Corbyn, a long standing supporter of the LSHG, as Labour leader might hopefully lead to a Labour Party that is rather less agnostic about labour and working class history than it has been, at least from the arrival of the New Labour era. But just in case we plan to continue holding the (red) flag for socialist history and most importantly new research into it.

 Keith Flett, LSHG Convenor, December 2015

 LSHG SEMINARS Spring 2016 

All seminars start at 5.30pm on Mondays in Room 304, Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet St London WC1. Free without ticket.

Monday 25 January Rosie MacGregor: The Life of Angela Gradwell Tuckett [Tuckett was the first female solicitor in Bristol, a pilot, England hockey player and Communist Party activist.]

Monday 8 February Katrina Navickas: The Politics of Public Space in Nineteenth Century England

Monday 22 February David Drake: Paris at War, 1939-1944

Monday 7 March Ben Lewis: Clara Zetkin, Letters & Writings

 The Newsletter 

 Letters, articles, criticisms and contributions to debate are most welcome. Deadline for the next issue is 1 April 2016

The Group

 We receive no official funding and rely entirely on supporters for money for our activities. To become a member of the LSHG, send £10. (cheque payable to ‘Keith Flett’) Contact us Email:

Book Review: Images of the General Strike

From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter #57 (January 2016)

  Images of the General Strike

Writing the 1926 General Strike: Literature, Culture, Politics Charles Ferrall & Dougal McNeill Cambridge Univwersity Press 2015 £55.00 ISBN 978-1107100039

 The interconnection between politics and literature is a fascinating subject. If politics is about more than exit polls and focus groups, if it concerns a total transformation of the human condition, then literary representations can enhance our understanding. And if politics can inspire commitment, sacrifice and celebration, then it is surely a worthy subject of literature. Yet all too often works that aspire to link the two fall short of their aim. As Ferrall and McNeill note, the division of labour imposed by academic “disciplines” all too often produces inadequate works: “the bulk of criticism under-reads the complexity of political thought, and … most ‘political’ readings of literature under-read its literary quality.” And since it is often easier to stay within the cosy confines of a discipline, some subjects are avoided altogether. Thus, the authors claim, “no book on the General Strike and literature has ever been written”.

McNeill and Ferrall have risen above the academic demarcation lines. They seem equally at home with pentameters and picket lines, with synecdoche and syndicalism. In a short but dense and thoroughly documented account they cover a wide range of material, from books entirely devoted to the Strike to others where it appears only as an episode or is an indirect influence. They cover both well-known canonical authors and lesser-known figures, long forgotten conservative playwrights and equally neglected worker writers. Their eight chapters move across a broad spectrum from right to left; the first part, entitled “Writing from the Outside In” covers writers not directly involved in the Strike, but affected by it, while the second part, “Writing from the Inside Out” looks at those more directly involved.

They begin with a number of conservative accounts of the strike, from Noel Coward’s deflation of socialist politics to Evelyn Waugh’s “anarchic form of reactionary conservatism”. They note HG Wells’s élitism, leading him to envisage the idea of “Fascists of the Light”, while Arnold Bennett saw the Strike as “a political crime that must be paid for …. a pathetic attempt of the underdogs who hadn’t a chance when the overdogs really set themselves to win”. After these various right-wing failures to understand what the Strike was all about, there are two very interesting chapters showing the impact of the Strike on well-known novelists.

Virginia Woolf was actually in the middle of writing To the Lighthouse during the Strike. She had no overt sympathy for the action, calling it “this horror”. But by a careful examination of her various revisions to the text, the authors argue that the impact of the Strike can be found in the novel, not explicitly, but in the evolution towards a more sympathetic treatment of Charles Tansley, the one character who is both lower class and a political activist. The next chapter deals with DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, of which we have three different drafts. The authors argue for the impact of the Strike on Lawrence’s outlook, and claim that while “the direct political references …. largely disappear …. in a broader or more general sense its politics are intensified”. This despite the fact that Lawrence’s first draft made the gamekeeper a Communist Party branch secretary.

 I remain not wholly convinced. There are rather slimmer pickings in a chapter on the “Auden gang”, whose politics come across as fairly superficial. Most of Auden’s mates at Oxford went off to be strike-breakers. Auden, out of “sheer contrariness”, volunteered to drive a car for the TUC. When he mentioned this on a visit to his cousin, he was thrown out of the house. Auden noted sourly: “It had never occurred to me that anybody took the General Strike seriously.”

 For the writers in the second section the strike was indeed serious. They were activists, working-class or closely linked to the labour movement. First there is a chapter comparing two well-known Scottish writers, Hugh MacDiarmid, author of the poem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, and Lewis Grassic Gibbon, author of the novel trilogy A Scots Quair. It is difficult for a non-Scot to evaluate the poetic virtues of the “synthetic Scots” language in which MacDiarmid wrote. He was an activist, first in the Independent Labour Party and later in the Communist Party. But Ferrall and McNeill have unearthed some damning evidence of his political élitism. He considered that most ordinary people were “precious poor specimens …. and utterly destitute of any integrity or worthy purpose in life.” His “Leninism” gave a bizarre interpretation of the Bolshevik party: “Lenin “knew that the mass of people were of no use for his purposes – he was going to effect a revolution so he had to get storm-troopers.” So they unambiguously side with Grassic Gibbon against MacDiarmid: “MacDiarmid offers an explanation for the Strike’s failure; Gibbon incorporates the strike into his story in order to allow competing accounts and explanations to play out in the narrative discourse.” They conclude, damningly: “MacDiarmid was a Communist who was never a Marxist. Gibbon was a Marxist who was never a Communist.”

 The next chapter deals with a number of English novels; one of them, Clash, by Ellen Wilkinson, later a minister in the Attlee government, used the form of romantic fiction. Joan Craig, an activist during the Strike, has to choose between two lovers – Tony, a middle-class representative of Bloomsbury, who wants her to abandon her union activity, and the less thrilling Gerry, who wants to share in her activism.

The final section is devoted to Welsh novels about the strike. Particular importance is given to the role of women in the mining villages. The authors also note that many of the villages were closed communities. Often there were no scabs, and no representatives of the enemy class.

 There is much more fascinating information in this book, and it deserves to be widely read. The price is probably out of the reach of most of those reading this review, but if possible it should be ordered for libraries, in the hope that there will be a paperback edition. If I have one reservation, it is that while in most of the book the exposition is clear and accessible, from time to time the authors lapse into an academic jargon which could easily be an obstacle to readers whom the book ought to attract.

 I am left with a final question, which the authors might address in some future work. A strike – and especially a general strike – points to one of the most fundamental features of the human condition: human civilisation is founded on human labour, and if that labour is withdrawn, then the civilisation itself is called into question. Yet how many widely read novels take the rhythms and complex interactions of a strike as their main subject? Zola’s Germinal, Ousmane Sembène’s God’s Bits of Wood – and how many more? All too often, even in this excellent study, the Strike is merely tangential to the literary work. Let us hope that in the future more writers will address this question - and that the labour movement will provide them with more raw material.

 Ian Birchall

Book Review: Clara Zetkin: Letters and Writing

From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter #57 (January 2016)  


Revolutionary History: New Series No. 1: Clara Zetkin – Letters and Writings Edited by Mike Jones and Ben Lewis Socialist Platform/Merlin Press 2015 Paperback £20.00 ISBN
978-0-85036-720-1 See

All too often studies of the early years of the international Communist movement focus on Lenin and Trotsky at the expense of a number of other remarkable figures who made an important contribution but have largely disappeared from the historical record. One such is Clara Zetkin, who, if she is mentioned at all, is remembered for her contribution to the women’s movement – she was one of the initiators of International Women’s Day.

But as this new collection produced by Revolutionary History shows, she was a complex figure involved in many fields of struggle. The collection contains some examples of her work on women’s oppression. But though she vigorously defended women’s rights, she always saw class as more important than gender.

The very first item is an article on the emergence of a servant girls’ movement in Berlin, which got little sympathy from the “elegant parlour ladies” who dominated the bourgeois feminist movement. And as the “Guidelines for the Communist Women’s Movement” she wrote for the Second Congress of the Communist International show, she was against making “women’s work” a ghetto for female comrades; the crucial task of recruiting and politically educating women workers was a job for the whole party, male and female: “There must be a committee for agitation amongst women in every local party organisation, to which male comrades can also belong.”

 Zetkin opposed the First World War from the outset (despite an initial tactical disagreement with Luxemburg), arguing that workers should “struggle for peace, in order to liberate the forces of the proletariat once more for the international class struggle.” In March 1915 she convened a socialist women’s anti-war conference in Switzerland, six months before Zimmerwald. Her activities earned her twenty-two months in jail. In 1919 she was devastated by the murder of her close friends Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, but despite this and her declining health, she flung herself into building the newly founded German Communist Party (KPD) and the Communist International.

She was on friendly terms with Lenin, and the volume contains a number of the letters she sent him. She admired Lenin, but was not deferential, and if she believed things were going wrong in the International, she did not hesitate to point this out. Thus she warned him to be distrustful of the Comintern Executive representatives, and not to see the world through their spectacles, which “are coloured and give a distorted view”.

 In the spring of 1921 the KPD launched the notorious March Action, an insurrectionary general strike without preparation or mass support. The result was repression and a massive loss of members. The situation was aggravated by the fact that former party leader Paul Levi publicly attacked the party and was expelled. Here Zetkin was at her best. Essentially she agreed with Levi’s criticisms, but she stayed to fight, arguing her case at the Third Congress (of which we now have the complete minutes - ) and trying, in discussion with Lenin and in correspondence with Levi, to find some way Levi could be brought back into the party.

 In 1923 she presented a detailed report on fascism to the Comintern Executive. It was one of the earliest attempts to make a Marxist analysis of fascism, and to understand what was new about it. Mussolini was triumphant in Italy, and fascism was a real threat elsewhere in Europe, notably in Germany. Zetkin analysed the social crisis which had given rise to fascism, and showed how it had “a programme which proved to be extremely attractive to the broad masses”, since workers and other sections of the oppressed were disillusioned by reformist betrayals and the inadequacies of the Communist parties. She argued Communists had been wrong when they “considered fascism merely as a military-style phenomenon and overlooked its ideological and political aspects”. Above all she argued the united front was essential for proletarian self-defence. While she pointed to the contradictions at the heart of fascism which meant that it was ideologically and politically bankrupt, she also argued that its collapse was not imminent: “A monster is often still capable of dealing destructive blows in its death agony.”

 Zetkin never broke with the Communist International. But as several of the items here make clear, she was deeply unhappy with the way the International was developing as Stalin rose to power. She was equally unhappy about developments in the KPD, seeing it as declining into “clique-politics, group- and faction-building, group- and faction-warfare, narrow-minded bureaucratisation instead of ideological politicisation of party life”. In a letter to Bukharin she wrote that KPD leader Thälmann “is clueless and theoretically uneducated, has grown into self-deception and self-delusion which borders on megalomania”. By 1931 she described the KPD as “justification of the line at the top, and intimidation, expulsions below …. A damn shame!” When the KPD developed the dangerous and destructive theory that Social Democrats were “social fascists” she did not follow the line but continued to call for a united front.  This is clear from the final piece in the collection - Zetkin’s address to the Reichstag in August 1932, when she got to make the opening speech as the oldest member. Though the Nazis were now the largest party in the parliament, she vigorously denounced Nazis as murderers, advocated the overthrow of the government, and again called for the united front.

Hopefully this volume will serve to arouse greater interest in Zetkin, and lead to further translations of her work. The volume also contains a reviews and obituaries section, including among other things a brief biography of veteran Trotskyist Sam Bornstein, an obituary of the Indian Trotskyist Raj Narayan Arya which touches on the problems of entrism in India, and an extended analysis of an anthology of Irish poetry.

Ian Birchall

Polemic: Histories of the Present

From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter # 57 (January 2016)

 Histories of the present

Eric Hobsbawm talked of Marxist historians becoming ‘historians of the present too’ in the 1950s. For those who enthused about ‘actually existing socialism’ in Eastern Europe that was difficult not least because the line about what the history was often changed. More recently the late John Saville advocated a total history approach arguing that you can't understand the world just by studying the working class and the labour movement. There is a need to understand what the other side, the ruling class, is up to and how it interacts with organised labour and the left. His book on 1848 is something of a model for this approach. Below is a much more modest attempt to look at a very recent period of ruling class history and the impact this had on the class struggle.

 Mark Clarke and the Trade Union Reform Campaign: How union activists were bullied

  Tory candidate for Tooting at the 2010 Election Mark Clarke has been excluded from the Tory Party for life following allegations of bullying and the unfortunate death of a Tory activist in September 2015. Mr Clarke has denied the allegations but stories across the media from the Daily Mail to the Guardian continue. Former Tory chair Grant Shapps has been forced resign his Ministerial post for failing to follow up earlier complaints about Clarke. Clarke’s most recent role in the Tory Party was to run the campaign bus in the 2015 Election. The media’s obsession with Jeremy Corbyn has meant that Clarke’s wider background has gone unremarked.

After his failure to win Tooting (Labour’s Sadiq Khan is the MP) Clarke was soon involved in another role. The Trade Union Reform Campaign was launched in late 2011. Clarke was the Chief Executive. Former Tory MP Aidan Burley was briefly associated with it before he got caught up in a story about hiring a Nazi uniform for a stag party. Other Tory MPs were involved, including crucially Tory leader David Cameron. Also in the TURC circle, although not it appears on board with all its ideas, was Harlow MP Robert Halfon, who has featured in the current Clarke media story too. A further TURC officer was Harry Cole, now the Sun’s Westminster correspondent. Some of these were matters were clearly laid out by journalist and union activist Tim Lezard at the time.

The TURC did not play a significant role in the discussion around union rights and the law which culminated in the current Trade Union Bill. Indeed as far as can be seen it has done nothing at all since the autumn of 2013. The date probably relates to the appointment of a QC, Bruce Carr, to lead a review of union activity and the law. The supposed motivation for that was the ‘scandal’ about Unite members and the Labour Party in Falkirk. It may well be that the TURC felt its work was done, or it may be that leading players like Clarke determined that with a General Election coming up their political energies were required elsewhere. In the event, while Carr did produce a report in 2014 he refused to make any recommendations because by this time details of the current TU Bill had been revealed, and he felt his efforts had been undermined it seems.

That might be that, except for one issue. Clarke in particular was obsessed by trade union facility time. His view was that in the public sector union activists should not get any paid time off for union work and that any such activity should be paid for by the trade unions concerned. It is a view which suggests a complete ignorance of how the world of work actually works. Even so Clarke used his media contacts which included Paul Staines who runs the right-wing Guido Fawkes operation to focus on trade union reps with facility time. This was not just a general political campaign. It focused on individuals. Clarke called reps ‘pilgrims’ because his original focus had been a union activist he had come across in Tooting called Jane Pilgrim. The numbers of reps who were focused on was probably quite small but those who were unfortunate enough to come to the attention of Clarke and the TURC might well find themselves the subject of critical articles in papers like the Sun and the Daily Mail. Given the current allegations about Clarke it is perhaps no surprise that the TURC stooped to such unpleasant tactics.

This piece appeared in the Morning Star on 2 December 2015.

Keith Flett

One Hundred Years On: The Irish Easter Rising

London Socialist Historians Group Forum - Saturday 30 April  - midday

One Hundred Years On: The Irish Easter Rising

Institute of Historical Research, Malet St, London, WC1E 7HU 

Image result for irish easter rising

A number of speakers will address the significance of the Rising on its 100th anniversary.

On 24 April 1916, Easter Monday, a force of some 900 Irish Volunteers and Citizen Army members seized control of the centre of Dublin and proclaimed the Irish Republic. They held out against the British army until the deployment of artillery forced their unconditional surrender on the 29th. By this time 64 rebel fighters had been killed, together with 132 soldiers and police and some 250 civilians, many shot out of hand by the troops. In the context of the horrors of the First World War, this was a minor episode, the death of some 450 people at a time when hundreds of thousands were being slaughtered on the

Western Front. Indeed, there were at the time considerably more Irishmen fighting for the British in France than took part in the Rising. Nevertheless, the Rising had an impact out of all proportion to the numbers involved, the damage suffered and the casualties inflicted. It prepared the way for the triumph of Sinn Fein in 1918 and for the War of Independence and the Civil War that followed. A hundred years later, the rebels are generally celebrated as heroes but important questions remain. Did the they believe they had a realistic chance of success in the face of apparently overwhelming odds or was their rebellion a self-conscious blood sacrifice intended to keep the spirit of republicanism alive? How much popular support did the Rising have at the time? How significant was their alliance with Imperial Germany? What was the attitude of the British left, both revolutionary and reformist, to the Rising? Did Labour MPs really cheer the news of the execution of the rebel leadership in the Commons? What part did women play in the Rising? And what of James Connolly? Was his participation, indeed his leadership role, in the Rising, the fulfilment of his socialist politics or an abandonment of them? What was the significance of his membership of the Irish Republican Brotherhood? Did Connolly really argue that the British would not use artillery because of the damage it would cause to capitalist property? Did he tell the Citizen Army men and women to hold onto their rifles because they were out for social freedom and not just political freedom or is this just a myth invented years later? What became of Connolly’s socialism after his death? Why was the socialist presence in the War of Independence so easily contained, indeed marginalised? For Sean O’Casey, Connolly had forsaken his socialist commitment in favour of republicanism and the only genuine socialist martyr of Easter Week was Francis Sheehy-Skeffington. What was the impact of Sheehy-Skeffington’s murder at the hands of British troops on opinion in Britain? How important was Catholicism to the rebel fighters? Even Connolly was reconciled with the Church before his execution and privately urged his Protestant wife to convert as a dying wish. And the only Protestant in the rebel leadership, Constance Markiewicz herself subsequently converted. There are a host of questions still to be explored and debated while at the same time honouring the memory of those who died fighting the British Empire. 

For more information please contact Keith Flett

Comment: Conscription: The Centenary

From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter #57 (January 2016)

Conscription:The Centenary

It is one hundred years since the introduction of conscription of single or widowed adult males aged from 18 to 41 into the British Army. It came into operation on 2 March 1916.

Heavy losses during the first 12 months of the war had caused both a significant depletion of available British manpower and a much reduced level of volunteering. To put it bluntly, if you volunteered to fight it could hardly be clearer by the autumn of 1915 that you stood an excellent chance of never coming back. It was one thing in the summer of 1914 to volunteer to fight to escape from what may have been a humdrum or worse existence for many working men and the offer of foreign travel and excitement was there, but the reality of what this meant soon filtered through.

Hence an official debate and inquiry was launched in the last months of 1915 to see if conscription would be a practical option and one that could be achieved politically. In conjunction with this a register of adults up to 65 was created in order to establish who might be eligible to serve. Most had thought the introduction of conscription to be unlikely, not least because it indicated a hitherto unacceptable extension of the state’s activities into the affairs of ordinary people.

Much of the left opposed the idea from the start. Fenner Brockway and others had set up the No-Conscription Fellowship in the autumn of 1914. Not a huge amount happened for the first year but by the autumn of the following year the matter was becoming one of some urgency. As Paxman’s recent history of the war underlines, most of those who became eligible to be conscripted from early 1916 in fact took the hint and signed up on a voluntary basis. Even so such was the scale of the continuing slaughter that by the summer of 1916 married men had also been included and eventually all men who were able under the age of 51 became eligible to be called up.

Those who either refused to fight or appealed to the Military Tribunal against conscription fell into three groups. First were those small businessmen who (or those who their employers claimed) were engaged in vital occupations. Most of these had to go. Second were conscientious objectors on moral or religious grounds. Many of these either did other war work or served in ambulance corps. Third were the hard core: pacifists and political objectors to war. Many of these were Quakers or ILP members. The profile possibly wasn’t that different to those who supported CND in the early 1960s. They refused to fight, to go to the front, to wear military uniform or accept military orders.

 As Fenner Brockway himself noted they were treated brutally by the British state. They were not on the whole physically manhandled. Rather they were locked up in solitary confinement for most of the day, sentenced to hard labour (sewing mail bags) and often had to endure bread and water diets. The aim was to break their spirit and sometimes the state succeeded. A small number died in jail. A few were marched out to the front line in France with a view, from the military’s perspective, of shooting them for refusing orders on active service. Thanks to the work of the No-Conscription Fellowship political intervention stopped that at the last moment.

It wasn’t just those who directly refused to fight who attracted the Government’s interest. They were also keen to prevent anti-war agitation, down to seizing printing presses and arresting printers. There was something like a surveillance state in operation for those who actively opposed war. In short, as many soldiers recognised at the time, those who refused to serve and were subjected to State punishment as a result were as much heroes as those on the military frontline.  

Keith Flett

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Annual Labour History Review postgraduate essay prize

Annual LHR postgraduate essay prize

Postgraduates are encouraged to submit articles for consideration for the 2015 essay prize to the editors of LHR. This annual prize awards £250 for the best essay which will be printed in the LHRThe deadline for the 2015 prize is the 29 February 2016
For details see here: