Monthly Archives: September 2014
Far Left Book Competition
(As a fellow contributor to Evan’s collection – my chapter is on anti-fascism in Britain post 1997 – I thought I should share details of this competition. Send answers to him, not me: by my reckoning, I would get just 4 out of 10…)
Reposted from Hatful of History
As regular readers of [that] blog are probably aware, our edited collection Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 will be published by Manchester University Press next month. To publicise the book, I [ie Evan who runs HoH] am running a competition through this blog (and hopefully cross-posted with a few others) to win a copy of the book (to be posted anywhere in the world). Below are ten questions on the history of the British far left (ranging from 1949 to 1987), which all have answers that can be found on the internet. Please email your answers to email@example.com. I will hold the competition open until 11:59PM on Monday 6th October (Adelaide time or +9.30 GMT). All of those who get 10 out of 10 for the answers will have their name put in a hat and one winner will be drawn on Tuesday 7 October. The answers and the winner will be posted on this blog once the winner is notified via email. The outcome of this draw will be considered final and no negotiations over answers will be entered into. Sorry, but contributors to the collection cannot enter the competition.
So here are the questions:
- What electoral district did Harry Pollitt contest for the Communist Party in a 1949 by-election?
- Stuart Hall and Ralph Samuel were both on the editors of which new left journal?
- Gerry Healy’s The Club was transformed into the Socialist Labour League in which year?
- What was the name of the anti-Vietnam War organisation that the CPGB initially supported, in rivalry with the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign?
- The first issue of the modern version of Black Dwarf appeared in 1968 (the ‘We Shall Fight, We Shall Win’ edition). What was its volume and issue number?
- In 1972, Peter Doyle, as a member of the Militant Tendency, acquired which position on the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee?
- What was the name of the SWP’s black activist newspaper?
- Which factional journal first appeared as a ‘Communist Theoretical Journal’ in the winter of 1981/82?
- In July 1985, Anti-Fascist Action was established by Red Action, Searchlight, the Newham Monitoring Project and several other groups in which London building?
- Who was the first Conservative MP to be interviewed in Marxism Today?
Once again, please email your answers by Monday 6th October to firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you aren’t lucky enough to win a copy of the book, you can purchase a copy (for a slightly discounted price) here.
Always start on Red
A review of Merilyn Moos, Beaten but not Defeated (Chronos Books, £17.99)
Siegi Moos (1904-1988) lived through extraordinary events, A teenage observer of the Bavarian Soviet, then at the end of the 1920s a Berlin Communist, he was a prominent figure in some of the least well-known organisations of the KPD milieu (the Red Front Alliance for Struggle or RFB, the Berlin Proletarian Freethinkers, the Red Sport movement,and agit-prop theatre). On exile to Britain from 1934, he was temporarily one of the leaders of the KPD exile organisation in London, before for 30 years after 1938 voluntarily exiling himself from the political left.
His daughter, Merilyn Moos, has written a generous and candid biography of Siegi, which does not hesitate to address episodes about which her parents never spoke. One of the most significant is her mother Lotte’s decision in 1934, a year after having married Siegi, to fall for a second activist Brian Goold Verschoyles, and then in 1936 to leave for the USSR to be with him. Brian was some kind of Soviet spy, while Lotte was critical of leaders of the Soviet Union, and Brian’s punishment for the treachery of a relationship with a “Trotskyist” was to be sent to the war in Spain (a sanction which may have appealed to him, opening up at least the possibility of escape over the Pyrennees). When she continued to correspond with Brian in Spain about the fate of the POUM, Brian was captured by his Soviet handlers and killed. Although Lotte and Siegi were reconciled, right up until her own death seventy years later, Lotte kept mementoes of Brian close to her.
For many readers, the most striking parts of the book will be those in which Merilyn Moos locates Siegi within the German revolution, which most of us know through only the books published by Broué and Harman. Siegi was in the Berlin leadership of the Freethinkers, a group campaigning for divorce and abortion rights, which had shifted towards the KPD after a long period as one of the SPD’s many workers’ clubs. By around 1930 he was the editor and chief theorist of a Berlin magazine, Arbeiterbühne und Film, which was the publication of an organisation of several hundred agit-prop theatre groups, including 30 in Berlin alone. He wrote lyrics for the Red Sport movement, several of which were set to music by the composer Stefan Wolpe, including a musical All out for the Red Start, performed to about 4,000 people in Berlin in February 1932.
Siegi is at times a slightly distant presence. Moos argues that because of his background in Bavarian circles he took anti-fascism more seriously than others of his comrades, and did not share the language of the Third Period or the KPD’s attacks on the SPD as “Social Fascists”. Beyond this, she struggle to get beyond the silence of her parents (neither of whom talked about their youth, and both of whom were dead before this book was finished) to the ups and downs that Siegi must have experienced within a Communist Party that a week before its dissolution in 1933 was the third largest party in Parliament with 17% of the vote. In particular, I would have liked to have seen more about the RFB – the KPD-allied but in large part-independent movement of anti-fascists within which Siegi and the freethinkers and agit group groups moved.
Siege’s journey is much better documented during exile. The domestic catastrophe of Lotte’s affair with Brian was interwoven with a series of political defeats, including emigration, having to learn a new language, marginalisation within the KPD London group, and a period of internment as a suspected enemy alien. These setbacks provide the book’s title, while Siege’s redemption is established in the series of steps he took from the late 1960s onwards to re-establish a practical relationship with the ideas of his youth: buying Labour Worker, reading pamphlets produced by the Solidarity group, writing about the betrayal of the German revolution of 1919, supporting his daughter against an attempted witch-hunt within her own union NATFHE, joining the Hackney Writers’ Workshop run by Ken Worpole, and publishing poems of the struggle.
The book ends with an account of Siege’s death in Homerton Hospital, wiggling his toes to the beat as his daughter sang him the Internationale, and with Lotte at Siege’s memorial service reading – aptly – from William Morris’ Dream of John Ball:
“I pondered all these things, and how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name…”
In place of a review (II)
To recap: during 2013, the Socialist Workers Party had three conferences. Their real business was to do decide how the party should respond to complaints of rape and sexual harassment that had been made against Martin Smith, until recently the National Secretary of the SWP.
During that year, the SWP leadership faced a central difficulty that it had no decent explanation of what Smith had done, or why a group of present and previous co-workers with Smith, had exculpated him of the rape complaint, when on everything that the members of the SWP were told about his conduct, it seemed overwhelmingly clear that his behaviour was – at the very best – far below anything you would expect in a member, or still less a leader, of a socialist party.
In order to deal with the difficulty of a lack of explanation, Alex Callinicos, the main propagandist of the leadership of the SWP, tried with all his power to change the subject – insisting in a series of articles within the SWP’s magazine Socialist Review, that the SWP’s leadership’s critics were motivated by a secret and perhaps unconscious vice of “movementism”.
The SWP would be saved, he insisted, not by addressing the problem of its leader’s vile sexual conduct, but by him writing about capitalism. In an article entitled ‘Is Leninism Finished?’, he made this strategy explicit:
“What does continuing a tradition mean? There are plenty of sects, Stalinist as well as Trotskyist, who think this involves the mindless repetition of a few sacred formulas. But genuinely carrying on a tradition requires its continuous creative renewal. Marxism is about the unity of theory and practice so this process of renewal has both intellectual and political dimensions.”
He concluded: “The theoretical development of Marxism requires above all deepening and updating Marx’s critique of political economy.”
The book he was writing a year ago has now been published,
It has modest strengths – these can be found elsewhere on the web.
It has deeper weaknesses – first, for anyone versed in the events of the past 2 years, it is impossible to read the book without being conscious of its purpose to keep on keeping on changing the subject away from the leadership’s complicity and cover up of sexual violence. Those of us who were there will read the book, as Brecht once suggested we should read the ruins of Thebes’s seven gates, conscious of the bodies which lie buried beneath its every page.
Second, the argument is developed not through a reading of world historical events, still less through a statement of or analysis of Marx’s theory, but at a continuous third hand, along the lines of “Zizek suggest that Marx argued X, but Harvey interprets these same passages as meaning Y instead”.
This is not to reunite theory and practice, rather it is to express in a hyper-theoretical form the world of Plato’s cave, inhabited now by a whole tribe of day-blinded scholars, among whom Callinicos proceeds to allocate praise or blame, reserving for a few friends the highest praise of being “scholarly”.
Third – and simplifying for brevity – the book is based around an “Althusserian” approach to Marx, i.e. an idea that the purpose of criticism is to iron all the contradictions within Marx’s argument, to show that it is a seamless and perfect totality.
When Callinicos writes, for example, about Marx’s theory of crisis, he does repeatedly from the perspective of establishing that Marx had such a theory, that it was consistent, that the seeming contrasts between its expression at different stages of its development can be solved by understanding the logic and successive development of Marx’s argument.
In this approach – whether in its original, Althusserian expression, or in Callinicos’ updating – there is barely any interest at all in the economy as it is inhabited by people. In marked contrast to a previous generation of SWP’s economists, such as Chris Harman, for whom the final ascent from abstraction to reality was precious; there is no meaningful attempt to join the facts of the last 6 years’ crisis to the theory which is being expounded.
The point of theory is not to explain the world, but to explain someone else’s explanation of it.
That method may call itself Marxist. But if so, it was the method of exactly half of Marx – it was not the method of the Manifesto, the Eighteenth Brumaire, or The Civil War in France. It is a method without class, without agency, and without the breathing fire of struggle.
Walter Benjamin once wrote: “There has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism.” Few books illustrate the point better than this one.
The Picture of Jacob Rees-Mogg
In Wilde’s Dorian Gray, the protagonist sells his soul for the promise of eternal beauty. His outward looks are preserved, through a life of selfishness and egotism, only the painting of the protagonist as a youth reveals his true nature. The painting “held the secret of his life, and told his story”. Gray hides it behind a large screen; only to view and review it repeatedly in secret afterwards. “The most magical of mirrors”. It is placed in a locked-up schoolroom, hidden beneath a purple satin coverlet, behind a locked door to which Gray keeps the only key.
One modern equivalent of the purple coverlet is a withdrawal of permission and insistence on copyright. This was the fate of the photograph of David Cameron among his Bullingdon Club friends which was once a staple of the Mirror and the Guardian. In 2007, the photographers Gillman and Soame, who make a living from selling to middle-class parents the images of their Oxford-educated progeny, announced that they would no longer authorise the reproduction of the image, and since then (outside some dark corners of the internet), the image has hardly been seen.
The painting of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Conservative MP for North East Somerset, is almost as hard to track down. Previously on display at the National Portrait Gallery, there is no longer any record of it on the Gallery’s website (although the Gallery retains four images of his Times-editing father); even the artist Paul Brason has taken down its original page on his website.
Few 18 year olds have the money or the fortune to be painted by an artist. Nor was this the evening or weekend commission of a struggling painter earning a few pounds on the side. When he painted Rees-Mogg, Brason himself was fast approaching middle age and others of his pictures had already been displayed in the National Portrait Gallery. Ten years later, he was elected President of the Society of Portrait Painters, a position he still holds. Brason has painted business leaders, intellectuals, and even Prince Philip. Why should anyone have found a need to waste an artist of this quality on the painting of a schoolboy?
In his 40s, Rees-Mogg is seen as a curiosity: the man who once canvassed for the Tories in Fife with his nanny. He is a Euro-scpetic, an admirer of Farage, and recently a speaker at the AGM of the Traditional Britain Group, a meeting place of former and not-so-former fascists with Tories nostalgic for a landed, rural capitalism. He takes so seriously the Conservative vision that Thatcherism still speaks for the people, that he has exiled himself far from urban life to Gournay Court, a red sandstone 57-bed stately home in Somerset, large enough to have once been a hospital, into which no members of the Great British public could ever enter save as servants or tradespeople, and for which he and his wife paid the bargain price of just £2.9 million four years ago.
To hear Rees-Mogg speak is to be reminded of a world prior to the emergence of the working class a political actor, where (as in 1901, for example) there were 1.5 million domestic servants: three times more than the number of miners, five times more than the number of rail workers, and fifteen times more than worked on the docks. In much of that world, deference to the rich was a mere matter of survival, and the Rees-Mogg ancestors and their class could happily believe the myths they told one another about their own moral and genetic superiority – there being few enough people in any sort of position to point out their absurdity.
Rees-Mogg is often interviewed about the painting, and he always speaks of it as if – like Dorian Gray’s – it contains some permanent essence of his true personality. But it is not a flattering image. The most basic convention of private portraiture is that the sitter is allowed to bring to the image possessions which manifest their status in the world. To take an elevated example, when Sir Thomas More was painted by Hans Holbein the Younger, he was painted in a livery collar showing the Tudor rose of the King; the point being that More was Henry VII’s Chancellor, in the whole of England only the King was more important than him. In general, Brason has followed the convention, painting military figures in their uniforms, Thatcher with her ministers, university administrators within the colleges where they taught, etc.
Eton is like the army; it dishes out countless visual awards (coloured waistcoats, raised collars, bow ties…) to pupils who can establish anything more than mediocrity, Rees-Mogg is painted without any of these accomplishments. Either he never earned any of them, or the artist has chosen to paint him in the dress of the most junior boy.
More importantly, Rees-Mogg is painted without any visual prop at all (a musical instrument, a football, a pen…), nothing to suggest that in five years of the school he had acquired any personality at all. There is no sign of his father’s position (a Tory journalist who had had visions of becoming an MP), nor even of the props the child Rees-Mogg had already acquired as a reactionary in waiting (a suitcase, the FT). He is painted alone, without friends or any context at all – save for a dark and empty background and a closed window through which he does not look.
Without anything other than a school uniform (and this is a leaving photo: the uniform is one he was about to give up), Rees-Mogg looks insecure and unhappy. He has, or will have nothing – no possessions, no friends, nothing – to take into the world.
If this is his essence captured, then it is in fact a lonely and a rather depressing one: an image of dependence without reward.
At the start of this year, a scandal temporarily filled the papers: it transpired that our MPs, the people who had so shamed themselves with the expenses scandal, had spent a further £250,000 of public money on portraits of several of their number. Rees-Mogg (although he had not been painted on that particular occasion, he is notorious for this painting from his youth) was the only politician who would be quoted on the affair. In passing, he revealed the fate of his old picture: which had been housed in the school’s art collection. His answer depicts the same awkwardness, isolation and abasement with which his 18 year old sense once viewed the world: “It is flattering to know that I shall be in the Eton collection for as long as the school survives.”
Turning back time
Friends ask why I have written less this year than I managed a year ago. Some of the explanation is that I have given more time to running that any stage in my life since I gave up proper, competitive running 24 years ago. For the first three years after I began running again, I found myself scarcely able to run two full weeks in a row without injuring myself. I suffered recurring achilles and calf injuries, and my body felt tired and broken. Then, as I have explained before, I began broke this cycle around 9 months ago, with the result that I have found myself running further and faster than at any time since my teens. Most days I run in the morning before work; on a good day I manage a full hour.
In July this year, I ran my adult PBs for 400 metres (66 seconds), 1500 metres (5:18.4), and 5k (19:53). In the last two weeks, I’ve tried at longer distances, including a 10k in 42:30 and on Sunday a half marathon in 1 hr 39. On the plus side, my times this year at 400, 800 and 1500 put me in the top 200 runners of my age in Britain. Less pleasingly, there appear to have been only 60 runners of my age who are known have run 1500 metres slower than I have, 50 at 800 metres, and 40 at 400 metres…
Sunday’s race was the Richmond half marathon, run in an autumn sunshine, my feet trying to fix on a Thames towpath disturbed by yesterday’s rain. I feel that my body held together, maintaining a more or less constant speed. Only one mile was difficult, the last one, through which I ran desperately willing the finishing line to come closer. Whoever had designed the course had paid little thought to the mile markers which were a disturbingly-wide spread of distances apart, sometimes a kilometre, sometimes a mile and a half. (Either that or I was running some miles in under 5 minutes and some in over 10). And so when I came to the last mile marker I could not be sure that it was nearly the end, nor was it easy to readjust when I realised that indeed it wasn’t. Still, my time at the finish was a pleasing two minutes faster than my previous pb for the distance – run 10 years ago.
The past as armour; the past as inspiration
A review of Neil Davidson, Holding Fast to an Image of the Past (Haymarket, £15.99)
This is the first of two books to be published by Haymarket bringing together a number of Neil Davidson’s longer articles. The second volume will contain pieces on nations, states and revolution, this first volume collects everything else: a note on Marx and Engels on the Highland clearances, a political reckoning with Deutscher’s Trotsky, careful engagements with Eric Hobsbawm, Walter Benjmain and Benedict Anderson, a study of the uses of Antonio Gramsci in Scotland. Davidson has even included (I should acknowledge) a friendly review of an book I once published on the Anti-Nazi League. The richest essays are three intellectual biographies of Scottish radicals – Adam Smith, Tom Nairn and Alasdair Macintyre.
Adam Smith was frequently cited in the recent referendum; not least by Alex Salmond, who used Smith’s Scottishness as a way of deflecting criticism from the Yes campaign’s economic programme. How dare they tell the people of Adam Smith’s country, he would ask rhetorically, that they do not know how to run an economy? Here, not for the first time, Smith was being cited rather than read. With his chapter on Smith, Davidson has no grander purpose than to remind Marxists that this intellectual mascot of the neo-liberal right was in fact a rather more interesting and sympathetic figure than today’s Smithians. Smith held that the labor necessary to produce a commodity was also the objective measure of its value; and his commitment to this theory has put him at odds with the mainstream of market economics for at least the last century. His vision was of a market of an artisanal society of owner-managed enterprises, located in the communities where owners resided, sharing in the community’s values and with a personal stake in the future. He was championed by Robert Burns, and taken up by an early generation of socialist economists beginning with William Spence.
Tom Nairn’s name played less of a part in the referendum, although a Scotsman piece described him weeks before the vote as one of Scotland’s greatest thinkers. Nairn is best known for a series of articles in New Left Review, at first dismissing nationalism as an archaic nonsense, before seeking to combine Marxism with sympathy for Scottish nationalism, before shifting again to placing nations above class or its theories. Davidson has little time for contemporary Nairnism, which he dismisses as a vision “for the endless subdivision of the world into competing nation-states”. But as so often it is the journey which interests more than the destination. Davidson coms through lesser known Nairn pieces: for example, an article in NLR in 1974, in which Nairn (in historical mood) asked why it was that Scotland had played no part in the nationalist movements of the late nineteenth century, a question he answered on the basis of the terms of the Act of Union, which had preserved for Scotland a role as an exploiter state. Davidson analyses, with care but with less warmth Nairn’s subsquent adoption of programmatic nationalism, a trend which he analyses as a product of declining faith in working-class rebellion from about 1975 onwards.
Finally, the chapter on Alasdair Macintyre is an extended and substantially rewritten version of the biography of the philosopher which appears at the start of Davidson and Paul Blackledge’s book on Macintyre’s Engagement with Marxism. Among the many insights developed in the piece, Davidson shifts Macintyre’s contribution a few years earlier from the essays which were at the heart of his and Blackledge’s book – relocating Macintyre’s greatness from the period of his collaboration with Tony Cliff and Mike Kidron (congenial though that must be to socialists raised in the IS or SWP) to the pieces belonging to the period of Macintyre’s time in the New Left and his membership of and break with Gerry Healy’s SLL.
Davidson makes the case in particular for Macintyre’s essay ‘Breaking the Chains of Reason’, and for three insights to be found in it. First, Macintyre’s defence of Marxism against the criticism that it was historicist – assuming, in circular fashion, the outcome of history and then guiding action towards goals that were already assumed to be correct. Nonsense, Macintyre argued, Marx’s theories were always contingent, and assumed nothing, the world he imagined was one poised rather between (activist inspired) revolution or reform and catastrophe. Second, the piece contains a defence of the method of treating groups of people (classes) as historical agents rather than reducing all actions to the motives of individuals. Third, Davidson notes, Macintyre developed a theory of moral agency which neither prioritised means nor ends, but so both as bound together. This made it a more compelling way of thinking than the theorists of the Labour right with which than he was engaging, but also Macintyre’s fellow activists in the New Left, for the majority of whom a methodological anti-Communism could be founded on an intense belief in morality from which a sense of history had too often been lost.
Having recently reread some of Peter Sedgwick’s papers, it is striking how quickly so many of the former Communists reverted (in private as in public) to a language of morality which had lost a Marxist grounding. And at a time when the left (for our own reasons) is still relearning a praxis of integrity, it is pleasant to be reminded of its best grounding.
In place of a review (I): Deciphering Casaubon
The first shell landed at 3pm precisely. Casaubon was at his desk, working on the manuscript, and was aware of the ground rocking to one side and back beneath his feet. A second explosion shook the wall to his left and detached a shelf covered in papers. It and they fell, and the room was temporarily covered in a fine dust. A lesser man might have attempted to estimate the distance of the shell’s landing from his present position, or have distinguished from the sounds of the shells the nature of the artillery from which they had been fired. Casaubon being utterly above such trifles was aware only of the threat they represented to his own person.
Being a man of (he modestly accepted) no little courage, Casaubon settled on the first plan that came to him. He would insist that Charles, the department’s Boy, and in charge of the Department’s administrative affairs for the past two decades, announce that Casaubon’s early evening lecture was cancelled.
With a firm step and real purpose, Casaubon walked towards the plastic telephone situated at the back of the room. He lifted the receiver; the wire had been cut.
Opening the door and looking out into the corridor, Casaubon noted that Grace, the department’s Secretary, had also absented herself. Where he would expect to encounter noise, there was silence. Someone must have warned the others.
Shrunken, Casaubon retreated to his room and to his desk. The shelling appeared to have stopped, only to be replaced by the sound of small arms fire which, most troublingly, was getting progressively closer. He had by now realised that however this ordeal would end, it was unlikely to pass quickly
Casaubon founding himself staring at the other – right – side of his room, where he had placed a decade ago his certificate from the Royal Society, awarded for his service to the Philosophy of Warfare.
The document was printed on heavy, embossed paper. Among the many features which endeared it to Casaubon was the precise language of the dedication. An unwise academic at another University, on making Casaubon aware of the proposed content of the award, had foolishly suggested that he should be honoured for his services to History. Casaubon had cut him dead at three consecutive conferences, and allowed it to be known to the unfortunate man’s successor within the Society that he would accept this modest honour only if all reference to History was excised.
Casaubon was a committed champion of his position within the academic hierarchy: the most distinguished contemporary theorist of the idea of military combat.
Lesser figures liked to imagine that Thucydides that been interested in a particular conflict, had busied himself with a certain war. Casaubon had demonstrated that they were wrong, that Thucydides was writing rather about War in general, all wars, had never felt a need to descend from the abstract to the concrete, and was just as correct and absolutely true if one swapped sixth century Syria for fifth century Sparta, Algeria for Athens, or the middle ages for the ancient world.
The gunfire was getting closer.
Greatness, Casaubon had earned by a series of studies which had proved that Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War was a total analysis of all conflict, a complete and perfect system of analysis, marked by no significant ambiguities or contradictions: a circle as perfect as a pure zero.
The present manuscript was intended not merely to preserve the name of Casaubon for the indefinite future but also to do something to lift the cloud that hung over the Department.
Casaubon had advertised the book’s intended arrival in an attempt to rally his supporters during a recent, ill-tempered, staff meeting called to discuss the defection of the majority of the University’s postgraduate students. In his present state of personal magnanimity even he would acknowledge the pleasure it had given him to use the book to cast scorn at any number of his critics.
He walked to the wall and carefully removed the certificate.
When they found him, he was on the floor of his room, tears dripping from his face. The certificate was still clutched to his chest.
Race and Class joined from the beginning
A review of Satnam Virdee, Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider (Macmillan, 2014, £26.99)
When activists on the left have talked or written about race and class, we have most commonly adopted an imaginary scheme in which there were two groups of people, the workers, and a black or migrant community, whether of Cardiff in 1919, the East End in 1936, Southall in 1979, Bradford in the early 1980s, or wherever else today. Many of us have enthused in those moments when the two groups have seen that they had the same enemies and the same interests. But in so doing we have treated race and class as two parallel streams, sometimes bearing together, sometimes pulling apart. When we have thought of the members of the working class we have assumed them to be white, just as we have assumed them to be male, straight, and not disabled. And when historians have written about race or class, they too have written about them separately, with race at the edges of EP Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class, and class present but pushed away from the centre of Rozina Visram’s Asians in Britain or Peter Fryer’s Staying Power.
Satnam Virdee’s book tells the history of the working class and the radical left in Britain through the past two centuries, focussing on the workers and their allies, and showing how their socialism, and their class projects, had a continuous racial content. His book begins at the end of the Napoleonic wars, showing the centrality to Peterloo-era London radicalism of Robert Wedderburn, the child and grand-child of black slaves, and a champion of the link between English poor and the victims of the slave trade. Wedderburn is thus the first of a series of figures, Virdee’s “racialised outsiders”, whose experiences and background made them alive to the complex situation of the British working-class, right at the heart of an empire based on the oppression and murder of countless black people, and who used the support of the left, repeatedly, to travel from the margins to the centre of working-class campaigns.
The English working class which gave birth to Chartism, Virdee shows, was a class composed in part of hundreds of thousands of recent Irish migrants. Feargus O’Connor, the champion of physical force Chartism spoke to his mixed Catholic and Protestant, English and Irish audiences of the scabs and sores suffered by the Irish poor, and warned them that their fate would be the same unless they rose.
With the decay of Chartism and in the forty years of defeats that followed, Virdee accepts, Orange and anti-Catholic campaigns struck roots within the class (there were countervailing tendencies among the London Chartists, and in the North East, where Joseph Cowan was able to sustain a mass following); only to be pushed back again with the unemployed agitation of the early 1880s and New Unionism. Among the cadres of the latter were a series of racialised outsiders, among the best known of which were the second generation Irish and Jewish immigrants Will Thorne and Eleanor Marx, who opposed among their contemporaries’ anti-Catholic and then anti-Jewish racism.
To insist that the left and the working class had racial identities is not (for a second) to assume that the left or the working class were consistent champions of equality. Among the less attractive figures of Virdee’s narrative are individuals such as HM Hyndman (the intellectual leader of Britain’s first socialist party, the SDF), who slipped easily into a language of British imperialism and anti-Chinese and anti-Jewish racism. Virdee points to the opposition to Hyndman within the SDF’s East End branches and Jewish members. He could perhaps have taken the point further: the latter were ultimately to defeat Hyndman, who was deposed as leader, and the anti-Hyndman majority of the SDF (by now renamed the British Socialist Party) formed the core of the Communist Party of Great Britain on its foundation in 1919-1920.
Ben Tillett appears twice in Virdee’s text: as one of the Irish Catholic migrants who were in the leadership of the 1889 dock strike, later as an opponent of Jewish migration to the East End. There were several similar episodes in Tillett’s later career, including admiration for the proto-fascist Bottomley and the actual fascist Mosley. (Havelock Wilson, leader of the Seamen’s union, had a similar trajectory) Yet, the same background and experiences (the SDF, the dock strike) also shaped Will Thorne who writes in his memoir about the unbearable working conditions in the Beckton Gas Works, which he went on to organise, “These incidents made me understand the full significance of the term ‘wage slave’”, a sentence which suggests that Wedderburn’s sixty-year old arguments for the similarity of slavery and industrial work had not been entirely forgotten.
Virdee’s account of the 1919 riots shows the role of Manny Shinwell, normally presented as one of the ILP and then Labour’s left heroes, as a key instigator of the racist riots in Glasgow. But, he insists, into the 1920s, such ideas were pushed back thanks in part to the work of early Communists such as Rajani and Clemens Palme Dutt, Shapurji Saklatvala, Zelda Kahan and Arthur Macmanus (Saklatvala, later Britain’s first Communist MP deserves rather more credit for this than Dutt who was not in Britain between 1924 and 1936).
A key moment for Virdee was the decay of a certain way of doing race at the end of the postwar boom. This began with the dockers’ march for Powell; in the middle of what was supposed to the revolutionary year of 1968 it was quite apparent than even one of the best organised and most militant sections of the working class was willing to support overt racism. The generation who experienced Powellism with the greatest shock (Widgery, Fenn) were – as Virdee documents – later central to the later success of Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League, and the winning of an argument for equality within the political left.
There is another book to be written which would take further Virdee’s approach, in which class is seen still through the individual biographies of many hundreds of left-wing activists, further down, into the values and behaviour of the people who sat at the back of the hall during union, left or tenants meetings. And in that total history there is, I think, a little more to be said about gender – whether of the women who led the Glasgow rent strike and achieved for 70 years the partial nationalisation of Britain’s housing stock (arguably the most successful single campaign in the long history of the British working class), or of the men and women whose relationships fuelled in turn the mid-twentieth century anxieties about miscegenation which appear as a consistent, recurring theme of racist campaigns from 1919 to 1979.
That said, the point where Virdee is gloriously right is to break apart the starting assumption that there was ever something as simple as “class” from which race was absent. It is for this reason that his book deserves the widest reading. There has been a lot of talk about intersectionality on the left in the last year; Virdee relocates the first meeting point of race and class from outside to within the class and shows that race, racism and anti-racism were present within the British working class from its first making.
You Are The #IndyRef
Below, my immediate thoughts on the referendum, posted on the Review 31 website. The point I try to argue is that we are in a midway stage within a very long, slow cycle of working class structual de- and re-composition. The Yes vote benefited from a breakdown of certain old ways of doing class, and points to some new ones, but they are not yet so entrenched so that the yes side was simply able to shrug off a determined counter-offensive. The “You” of the title is aimed at the majority of my readers – like me, non-Scots, but located in societies at an essentially similar conjuncture. Friends have suggested certain bridgeheads which could be added to my list (jobs and regions dependent on oil, banking). Finally, when I quote Macintyre on the need for a party, I mean “party” in the way he did – an organisation of hundreds of thousands of people
The temptation, in the short period immediately following the referendum, will be to be focus on the final breadth of the No victory and to assume that the result was always a forgone conclusion. The Yes vote began the poll with the support of 35% of Scots, during the campaign it had to increase this figure by 15%. Reaching 45%, it achieved two-thirds of the swing it needed for victory.
Among the wealthy and those who identify most strongly with them, there is clearly a feeling of resentment that their representatives were obliged to make concessions to the independence campaign, in order to placate those key groups of voters – workers, women, the young – who in the penultimate week of the campaign appeared to be swinging decisively from No to Yes. It will be said in public by Tory MPs, and privately, by the classes of people they represent, that the concessions were unnecessary, and any promises can now be withdrawn. We should expect threats of Tory rebellions against any legislation for devolution. There will be plans to draw those rebels off, by (for example) mixing up devolution with steps to reduce the powers of Scottish MPs in Westminster. Trident will remain as will the detention centre at Dungavel. It is most likely that the issue of independence will not sink away but will be revived, starting with the general election next year.
Why did Yes lose? Yes had a narrow majority among men; No had a bigger majority among women. For about 30 years in Britain, the right in all its forms has been better at aiming propaganda at women than the left. The left has had no counterpart of the success of the Daily Mail in working a message of women’s subordination into a total analysis of every aspect of politics and daily life, and of selling this message – targeted and superficially attractive, but disempowering – to millions of readers.
And mine is worth reading alongside Pete Cannell’s piece here.