Archive for August, 2009

26
Aug
09

Randall Swingler, leading Communist poet and victim of the Cold War in Britain

By David Morgan. From SHS Newsletter August 2009
Andy Croft, prolific poet, former lecturer and author of over 70 books on everything from Communism to football, delivered a fascinating talk on one of his self-styled heroes, the poet and editor Randall Swingler, at our May meeting.
Croft was at once deeply moving and inspiring as he used the latest archival research to describe in tremendous detail the remarkable life and career of this now sadly neglected writer, a towering figure in both literary and political circles in the 1930s and ‘40s. Croft is the author of Swingler’s biography but since that was written in 2003 much new material has emerged following the release of documents of the British security services. For M15 had Swingler tailed, bugged, generally harassed and monitored for years and this has left a legacy of thousands of secret files about Swingler covering the years from 1938 to 1955; those after 1955 have still not been released and many others have been “lost”. All in all it is something of a treasure trove.
All his meetings as a Communist speaker, his private telephone conversations and letters were held by M15 along with accounts of visitors and guests to his home. Croft told his surprised audience that even the pictures hanging on Swingler’s wall and his visits to the pub were recorded, as well as the length of his hair and his style of dress (he had the “appearance of a Communist”, one spy writes). The contents of his suitcases were noted whenever he travelled abroad. All this information is now available to the researcher, but at such cost to the man.
The inspiring talk, one of the best that the SHS has held in a long time, was far more than a celebration of a forgotten writer. Swingler was the leading Communist poet of the thirties, an editor of some innovative progressive journals such as Our Time and Left Review and a godson of the Archbishop of Canterbury to boot; but Croft also intended to open up a wider discussion about the politics of culture and public memory. He sought to examine the mechanisms by which some authors are remembered and others are cast into oblivion. Political considerations play a major part in how both individuals and historical episodes are understood. Authors can become neglected because they are not very good or because their work goes out of fashion, but Croft established quite clearly that Swingler had been quite deliberately even callously neglected; he was a good writer, poet, librettist and editor and, while his status in his time was equal to that of contemporaries such as Cyril Connolly and George Orwell, his name now hardly warrants a footnote in studies of 20th century English letters.
Rarely is he even referred to in biographies of fellow writers of the left who most certainly knew him. At random I looked at three recent biographies of writers who were Swingler’s contemporaries, Storm Jameson, Elizabeth Taylor and C Day Lewis; not one mention of him, which is exactly as Croft suggested. A victim of the Cold War when many avenues for employment became closed off to him, Swingler later became a victim of the literary convention which prefers to ignore what does not easily fit into the prevailing stereotypes. And while every single popular history of the 1930s and ‘40s dwells on Connolly’s Horizon, none ever mention Swingler’s Our Time; this important part of left history has simply been erased from the records, Croft stressed.
Swingler was forced to write under as pseudonym in the late ‘40s and suffered poverty because he could not get paid work. His career is important in itself, but it is also important because his treatment illustrates that the impact of the Cold War in Britain was as unpleasant as what happened elsewhere, Croft insisted, citing other celebrated writers and artists who were equally to become casualties of Cold War: the composer Alan Bush, who when he won a major prize for one of his compositions was ignored when the organisers realised that he remained an unrepentant Communists; the folklorist Hamish Henderson, who was expelled from Italy following pressure from the US Embassy; the novelist Jack Lindsay, whose work Byzantium was extensively attacked in the Times because it argued that Russia had a European culture.
Croft can be applauded not only for leading this highly entertaining and topical discussion, but for his courageous work in recovering the lost histories of important figures like Randall Swingler who are now far too easily neglected. If one key lesson was learned from the talk it is that writers like Swingler can still speak to us and inspire us today.

26
Aug
09

SHS AGM 2009 report

by David Morgan. From SHS Newsletter August 2009
The Socialist History Society’s Annual General Meeting of 2009 took place in the impressive and spacious library of the Bishopsgate Institute, a historic building located in the heart of London virtually opposite Liverpool St Station. We thank committee member, Stefan Dickers, for arranging this for us. Members were fortunate to be able to enjoy the special atmosphere of this venue seated beneath its stained glass domed roof and surrounded by volumes of radical history, as they took part in the proceedings.
The items of business will be familiar to any members who have attended our AGMs on previous occasions; there was little of controversy to report. Unfortunately, the AGM failed to draw a large crowd, but the turnout improved slightly for the talk by Andy Croft that followed.
As Willie Thompson, chairing the meeting, indicated, our Secretary, Professor Nina Fishman, was recovering from an operation and had said that she was unlikely to be active for a while. To cover until Nina is fully recovered, a proposal was made and endorsed by the AGM that Nina and David Morgan act as joint secretaries.
Other changes to SHS officers agreed by the AGM can be noted: Gidon Cohen, the editor of Socialist History, stepped down and was thanked for all his work in making a success of the journal especially in catching up with the publishing schedule, which had been erratic due to problems at the publishers. It was agreed that Andy Flinn, a member of the committee and editorial team, would become the new editor.
Eddie Dare was warmly thanked for his work in establishing the Newsletter as an essential read for news about the society and for adding a degree of professionalism to the editorial content. Sid Kaufman, who has assisted Eddie on the design and layout was also thanked for his work, and he indicated that he would be happy to continue doing this. The AGM agreed that Mike Squires and David Morgan would work with Sid on the Newsletter in future.
As far as members and finances of the society are concerned, Treasurer Francis King reported a total membership of 267, but stressed that we had still not been recruiting sufficient new members to ensure our long-term solvency and viability. Another 60 members were needed to achieve that, he estimated.
In terms of Occasional Papers, Francis reported that the latest title, Union Bread, concerning the Jewish Bakers’ Union, had been well received. It had been jointly published with the Jewish Socialists’ Group. The AGM agreed to a proposal that would give the society greater flexibility in publishing OPs in future, which meant that we would not be strictly bound to bringing out two issues a year.
Finally, with regard the SHS website, the AGM heard of plans to develop its content, in particular to include a section devoted to activists’ memoirs and other manuscripts that the society is not able to publish.
The existing committee was re-elected along with the officers, taking account of the changes mentioned. One additional member, Dr Laura Miller, was welcomed onto the committee.

21
Aug
09

Public lecture: “What is European History?”

Professor Richard J Evans speaks on “What is European History?” at a public lecture to mark 40 years of publication of European History Quarterly. Thursday 17 September 2009, 6.00 p.m. Venue: Clore Management Centre, Birkbeck, Torrington Place, London WC1. For further details contact ehq.his (at) uea.ac.uk or see http://www.uk.sagepub.com/repository/binaries/pdf/ehq_poster.pdf

19
Aug
09

Why we should remember Winstanley and the Diggers

David Morgan. From the SHS Newsletter, August 2009

This year marks the quatercentenary of the birth of Gerrard Winstanley, who became the main spokesman of the “Diggers” or True Levellers. For just a few months in 1649 groups of people led by Winstanley and other veterans from the Civil War took over common lands to establish self-governing rural co-operatives on St George’s Hill in Surrey, and elsewhere in Buckinghamshire, Kent and Northamptonshire.

Winstanley defended the communes arguing that the land was a “common treasury” gifted by the creator to all. Their ultimately futile action met with fierce resistance from land owners but was later interpreted as a precursor of Communism inspiring many Utopian thinkers and Socialists. Winstanley’s substantial body of writings was rediscovered by a larger audience in the 1970s when Christopher Hill published “The World Turned Upside Down”, which described the various radical groups that emerged amidst the chaos of the 17th Century revolution; Leon Rosselson wrote a popular song with the same title in 1975.

Hill also edited a selection of Winstanley’s pamphlets, “The Law of Freedom and Other Writings”, which has long been out of print. The 70s also saw a powerful film, “Winstanley” by Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo, with Christopher Hill as adviser, which was recently released on DVD by the British Film Institute.

Our Society is pleased to be organising, in cooperation with the South Place Ethical Society, a seminar on the abiding significance of the life and work of Gerrard Winstanley to be held at the Conway Hall on 19th November 2009. The event will see contributions from Professor Thomas Corns and Professor Ann Hughes, who are two of the editors, along with David Loewenstein, of the first complete and fully annotated edition of Winstanley’s works. The authors regard Gerrard Winstanley as the foremost radical thinker and activist of the English Revolution and maintain that his writings still have strong contemporary relevance. The meeting follows on from a successful Milton anniversary meeting held last year by the SHS at the same venue when Professor Corns spoke about the radicalism of the poet John Milton.

19
Aug
09

Discussion: twenty years on from 1989

    Mike Squires: Why did what happened, happen?

(from SHS Newsletter, April 2009)

Twenty years ago the world changed. For some, dreams and hopes were shattered, while for others a promising new world had dawned. It was 1989, the year the Berlin Wall came down, the year when, throughout eastern Europe what were termed as socialist countries collapsed one by one.

The socialist world, or at least its European hard core led by its founder the USSR, fell like so many dominoes. These profound changes heralded a new world order where capitalism was literally the only game in town. The left, certainly throughout Europe, could no longer point to some kind of economic alternative, a different way of doing things to that offered by the proponents of the free market. State planning and controlled production were now passe and it was back to the days of the free for all.

Communists in particular were rudderless. For years they had looked to the socialist countries of Europe as an example of a possible blueprint for a new society. The USSR since 1917 was hailed by communists, not only as the world’s first socialist state, but as the bulwark of the world’s progressive forces, and a beacon in the struggle against war, colonialism, and injustice.

Now all that was gone. Without getting into a protracted debate about the merits or otherwise of those countries that were described by communists as ‘real existing socialism’- one issue that is worth looking at is why did they collapse so quickly, and why was there no organised resistance to this change back to capitalism?

For Marxists, one of the defining features of society is which class owns and controls the means of production. Under capitalism it is the capitalist class, under socialism it is the working class and its allies. Another important tenet of Marxism is that ‘no ruling class gives up power without a struggle’. If any ruling class is threatened it will use whatever means at its disposal to hang on to power. So, what are we to make of what happened twenty years ago and how does it equate with Marxist theory?

If the countries of Eastern Europe, where communists were in power were socialist, then by definition the working class must have owned and controlled the means of production. Why did the working class relinquish this ownership and control so quickly? Why did they hand over their factories, offices, distribution networks, transport, raw materials etc. so readily to the rising class of entrepreneurs?

And why, if the working class was the ruling class, was there no resistance to this wholesale transfer of property from one class to another? Why were there no factory occupations, no armed rebellions, or protests against a return to the old ways? In short, what does it tell us about the Marxist maxim that no ruling class gives up without a fight?

There is only one possible answer to these interlocking questions. It may be heretical to say so, but for this writer, the only solution seems to be that the countries of Eastern Europe, however they started, out could no longer be described as socialist. If they were, then the basic tenets of Marxism would have been undermined.

    Francis King: It depends what you mean by Socialism

(from SHS Newsletter, August 2009)

Mike Squires raised several important questions in his piece on 1989 in the last newsletter, including: “were the East European states socialist?” The simple answer has to be: “it all depends on what you mean by socialism”.

We need to remember that the terms “capitalism” and “socialism” do not have equal scientific validity. Capitalism was developing as an economic order long before anyone named it or attempted to analyse it. Our understanding of capitalism is derived from actual observation of an existing economic system in operation.

Socialism, on the other hand, was at the outset an imagined system – a utopia. It existed as an ideology, an economic critique of capitalism and as a vision of how things could and should be, long before any serious attempt could be made to realise it in practice. Socialists identified certain social ills in capitalism, and imagined an alternative system without those defects. So, for example, instead of crises, there would be planning; instead of competition, there would be co-operation and solidarity; instead of bosses giving orders, the workers would rule; instead of oppression, there would be freedom and democracy; security would replace insecurity; equality would replace inequality, a rational economy and society could eliminate poverty, boost labour productivity, and increase leisure, etc. etc.

But there has never been any unanimity amongst socialists as to which of these features are the most important, and, moreover, the fact that a social order is imaginable does not necessarily make it possible in practice. Some of its components might be quite incompatible with one another. Conversely, parts of the programme may be perfectly feasible on their own. Overall, there is not, and cannot be, one single gold standard of “socialism”, against which all claimants can be assessed. It is a very elastic term.

The communist parties that used to rule the USSR and Eastern Europe all claimed to be building “socialism”, en route to “communism” – the full and final realisation of the maximum socialist programme. Socialist ideas – at least, certain socialist ideas – were clearly very important in shaping those regimes and societies. Capitalist economic relations, along with the capitalist class, were largely suppressed there. Most productive resources were allocated by the state, according to politically-defined criteria that had little to do with profit and loss. The residual private capitalist sector was generally small. Their state-run economies, in theory at least, operated in accordance with a plan, and they all provided a considerable measure of (basic) social welfare. On the other hand, those states’ strictly hierarchical political structure, closed borders, censorship and powerful secret police, together with backward technology and low labour productivity rendered much of the talk of working class power, democracy and economic rationality meaningless.

Was this socio-economic system nonetheless “socialist”? Those of us who were communists use to think so (although many other socialists never accepted that view). But, having decided that these states were “socialist”, we then tended to
ascribe to them – on very slender evidence – all the features of the traditional socialist utopia, such as working-class power, economic rationality and so forth.

Although some of us recognised that there were serious deficiencies in those countries, we almost all believed that their fundamentally healthy, historically progressive, socialist basis would enable all these problems to be overcome in time. Rather than looking dispassionately at those societies and their institutions and then deciding how best to characterise them, we had started with the designation “socialist”, and had then tended to assume that they operated in accordance with our understanding of socialism. The events of 1989-1991 exposed the rather basic error of that approach.

    John Manning: “People in High Places Serving Themselves”

(from SHS Newsletter August 2009)

Mike Squires asks – on the 20th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall – why ‘real existing socialism’ collapsed as it did, undefended by those it claimed to represent. And whether the cause lay in there being in the end no ‘socialism’ left to defend.

While inner-GDR debate accepted the role of the state and nationalisation, it also talked of the market, competition, individual enterprise and ways to mobilise the productivity and innovation needed by socialism. This produced the GDR’s single real economic success phase (early 1960s). Protected by the newly built Wall, it in some ways echoed Lenin’s 1920s NEP. It brought economic dynamism, and with that a cultural upsurge. However, some saw in this a challenge to the ‘leading role of the Party’. So it slowed down, and was over by the ’70s.

Which raises wider questions. If socialism had its source in the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, with democracy and the rule of law, why did it end as command/voluntarist economics, part-suspension of the rule of law and centralist control? Francis King’s fine piece on Bazarov (Socialist History 34) quotes him (1928!) criticising the way a too rapid ‘socialisation’ could weaken the ‘growth of productive forces’ (p.31). Is that perhaps also why GDR productivity lagged behind the West?

Another part of the same problem: Why was the Jacobin phase of the French Revolution so idealised by some on the Left, ignoring the damage it did? GDR paranoia was due to West Germany’s place in US hegemonic plans – an implicit threat, which in part explains why the GDR, in its response, became so much associated with dictatorship and repression. But the hyper-control was counter-productive.
In the end many lost faith. The GDR had idealism and a lot going for it. Yet in the end many lost faith. People won’t endlessly accept centralised bureaucracy as a way of life. And closer home, without suggesting direct similarities, are there not at least distant echoes audible in today’s UK? For instance, economics which don’t add up; people in high places serving themselves, not the community; a massive distrust towards the leadership; and to cap it, sundry bits of the ‘secret state’ keeping watch on it all. George Orwell would have smiled!




August 2009
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