If a website entitled ‘Socialist History News’ did not pay any kind of tribute to the great American radical historian, playwright and activist Howard Zinn, who sadly died last week, something would be amiss. Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980) – which no doubt owed something in inspiration to A.L. Morton’s classic A People’s History of England (1938) – will long remain a superb introduction to everything the American ruling class do not want people to know anything about. Howard Zinn was truly an inspiration to many socialists, radicals and democrats internationally, while his writing has surely long won itself a place on any self-respecting dissident historian’s bookshelf and will remain a resource of hope for everyone who wants to see a better world. Condolences to those closest to him from the SHS.
Archive for January, 2010
A London memorial meeting for Nina Fishman will take place on Sunday 31st January 12-3pm at the TUC, Congress House, Great Russell Street, London WC1. Please come along to join in remembering and celebrating Nina’s life. All welcome.
SHS PUBLIC MEETING
Author and Historian Jordan Goodman speaks on “The Devil and Mr Casement: A Crime Against Humanity”
Saturday 23rd January 2010 at 2pm Marchmont Community Centre, 62 Marchmont St, London WC1 (Near Russell Square Tube).
In September 1910, Roger Casement arrived in the Amazon to investigate reports of widespread human rights abuses committed by a British registered company in the vast forests stretching along the Putumayo River. There, the Peruvian entrepreneur Julio César Arana ran an area the size of Belgium as his own private fiefdom, operating a systematic programme of torture, exploitation and mass murder against his employees.
Casement sought to expose the international collaboration that allowed these appalling atrocities to take place, tracing links all the way to the heart of the City of London and Stock Exchange.
Jordan Goodman, former honorary research fellow at the Wellcome Trust, will describe this courageous expose of British imperialism by the future Irish revolutionary Roger Casement.
The talk will be followed by discussion. All welcome. The meeting is supported by Verso, the publishers of Jordan Goodman’s new book, “The Devil and Mr Casement”
I found an election poster in a cupboard recently. My father, Gabriel “Bill” Carritt, was flown home from the battle for Mandalay to take part in the 1945 general election. He had been in Burma since 1944 serving with the Welch Regiment, 19th Indian “Dagger” Division of the XIV “forgotten” Army.
He stood as the Communist Party candidate in the Westminster Abbey constituency and got 17.6% of the vote. He had contested the same constituency in a by-election in May 1939 as the candidate of a united front of Labour, Communist, Liberal and anti-Chamberlain Conservatives, campaigning on the single issue of collective security against appeasement and winning 33% of the vote. This by-election aroused national interest with even a couple of anti-Chamberlain ministers (probably including Churchill) secretly funding the campaign.
Jonathan Carritt, Chiswick
This kind of support may seem unlikely but at that time my father was secretary of the League of Nations Union Youth Movement and at some point in 1939 Churchill had invited the leaders of various British youth movements to lunch at Claridges to discuss opposition to fascism, collective security and the possibility of a united campaign. Those attending included John Gollan of the YCL, Ted Willis, leader of the Labour League of Youth, Garner Evans of the Young Liberals, Gordan Cree, secretary of the Guild of Cooperative Youth, Timberlake representing the League of Nations Union Student Movement, my father from the LNUYM, Mary Owen, a leftwinger from the YWCA, a representative of the YMCA and one from the Student Christian Movement. Churchill asked each guest in turn to speak on how to proceed in the current situation. The only one to be confrontational was Ted Willis. As a result of this meeting, money or a campaign was made available through Duncan Sandys, Churchill’s son-in-law.
In the local elections which were held later in 1945 my father, my mother Dr Joan Carritt and Joyce Allergant were all elected as Communist councillors for the City of Westminster. They served until 1949 when they lost out to the growing Cold War hysteria. The figures quoted are taken from “Parliamentary Elections and the British Communist Party, a historical analysis 1920-1978”. Date of publication is given as June 1978. The author is not named but comments, criticisms and corrections were invited to “C. Ravden, 1 Bushberry Road, London E9”. This booklet is itself of some interest. It was produced “as one branch’s effort to raise money for the National Fund and as an attempt to look analytically at the party’s parliamentary elections. Hopefully it will help party members judge the electoral fight as well as providing a few pages of party history.”
Throughout the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s there was constant questioning of the wisdom of devoting a high proportion of the Communist Party’s resources and effort to contesting parliamentary elections in a first- past-the-post system. The sub-heading of the booklet “£68,000 well spent?” perhaps indicates that this was a particular branch’s way of diplomatically expressing its reservations. £68,000 was, it claimed, the amount handed to the Exchequer by the Communist Party in lost deposits at parliamentary elections. “It is also roughly the amount collected each year for the CP’s National Fund. it….amounts to little more than a £1,000 for each year of the party’s existence. However, it is a lot of money to spend without care.”
60 Years On – The Legacy of Mao Zedong
Sixty years ago the Chinese Communist Party came to power, creating the People’s Republic of China, with Mao Zedong proclaiming “The Chinese People have stood up”. The 60 years of rule by the CCP have seen great triumphs and achievements for the people of China, as well as great tragedy and loss; the biggest of which being the Great Leap Forward.
The attempt at the great tasks and goals of the Great Leap nevertheless should be viewed in their historical context. The 1950s had been a decade of many victories for China, with successes in the growth of industry, collectivisation of farms, increased grain yields, and the defeat of US troops in the Korean War. What had seemed impossible had become possible under the new collective system.
Unfortunately the same was not true for the Great Leap Forward, “catching up with Britain” overnight was not possible. However, the impact of the weather in causing the famine and failure of the Great Leap Forward should not be forgotten. For example, in June 1958, a rainstorm with a precipitation of 249mm caused over 20 rivers to overflow and wrecked nearly 70 dams and reservoirs. In June the following year there was also freak weather conditions in some parts of the country as heavy rain caused considerable damage to crops. In July 1960, a hurricane ravaged the whole county ruining nearly much of the harvest.
Although the famine caused an unacceptable number of deaths, and this should not be ignored, the number of deaths should be put in perspective. The crude death rate in China in 1958 was 11.98 deaths per 1000. The famine then caused this rate to rise to 14.59 in 1959 then peaking at 25.43 in 1960, then declining to 14.24 in 1961. The great rise in death rates is surely a stain on the CCP’s record and on Mao’s too; however, it should be noted that in 1936 the crude death rate per 1000 was 28 – a number that not even the worst year of the Great Leap Forward famine reached.
Although in 1936 the Nationalist government was in a civil war with the Communist guerillas, as Minqi Li notes in his The Rise of China, the Nationalist Government, “Probably only surveyed and reported data from areas under its own control, which were comparatively peaceful and better-off”. Even so, in 1960 a normal year in India, a country that won its independence at a similar time as the PRC, yet had not been ravaged by as much war and civil war as China, the crude death rate was 24.6 per 1000, only 0.8 lower.
SHS meeting on 19 November 2009: report by David Morgan
The Socialist History Society did Gerrard Winstanley proud when it hosted its celebratory anniversary meeting on 19th November; not only did the event fill the room at Conway Hall to capacity, with standing room only, the calibre of both the platform contributions and the discussion that followed made Winstanley and his ideas truly come alive again.
It emerged clearly that there is still a very keen interest today in the ambitious, highly original and subversive arguments first articulated by Winstanley four hundred years ago during the turmoil of the “English Revolution” when the Digger leader patiently reasoned in pamphlet after pamphlet for a new society where all members of the community would be free from exploitation one from another.
Debating in a Biblical language and using Biblical texts as supporting evidence for his revolutionary arguments because there was no other body of ideas around at the time, Gerrard Winstanley represents one of the first voices from the working population of this country, indeed any country, to put forward a plausible and sustained programme for what the speakers, Professors Ann Hughes and Tom Corns, both described as a “Socialist” form of social organisation.
He uncompromisingly challenged lordship, kingship, private ownership of land, the commercial system of “buying and selling”, living off unearned income and hired labour. No real matter that some assert that his ideas were more akin to anarchism and that in the days of Christopher Hill and A L Morton, who did so much to rescue the “True Levellers” for an earlier generation with their books like “The World Turned Upside Down” and “The World of the Ranters”, Winstanley would more likely have been regarded as a “forerunner of Communism”; or that he has even been hailed as a pioneer of the green movement; no, the really important fact is that people are keenly reading and debating Winstanley with all the passion as if he were writing about today. People, including the scholars who have now produced his complete works published by Oxford University Press, are taking him entirely seriously as an original philosopher who could more than hold his own when debating with the mighty and the privileged.
The meeting started with a highly spirited written contribution from Professor David Loewenstein, of Wisconsin, one of the joint editors of the new Winstanley edition, who for obvious reasons could not be present in London for the occasion. His message (see below) was read out by SHS Secretary David Morgan, who chaired the meeting. There is no need to explain Loewenstein’s arguments except to say that they proved extremely effective in setting the mood of wholehearted enthusiasm and full engagement with the ideas of a 17th Century toiler of the field. Loewenstein’s two fellow editors were the meeting’s distinguished speakers.
Professor Corns then delivered the first of two short talks, on the heretical ideas of Winstanley setting the development of his thought within the context of the growth of dissent during the revolutionary years. Professor Corns looked in detail at how Winstanley’s ideas, although rooted in his time in many ways, also diverged from his contemporaries in their materialism and secularism. His plan to start digging on the common land was on the face of it a simple gesture, but it was closely rooted in a highly original system of thought that he had been developing which was based on an egalitarian reading of the Christian teaching.
Corns explained Winstanley’s contention that his ideas came to him “in a trance” not as some spiritual awakening but as a metaphorical explanation by the writer of the fact that he had been able to use his reasoning to develop some compelling new ideas. It is not without relevance that Winstanley was prone to describing god as “the great creator reason” for it was through the power of reason rising up in all men and women that his new egalitarian commonwealth would be established. Similarly, when Winstanley speaks of Christ, he uses the term as a symbol of the benevolent power that resides within each individual on earth.
Professor Corns was followed by Professor Ann Hughes who spoke about the Diggers and the history of the English revolution. She explained the decision to set up the Digger communities in 1648 as born by a degree of desperation; the years 1648-49 saw one of the worst winters for years, starvation and business failures were grim realities that poorer people like Winstanley had to contend with. Winstanley had sided with the Republican cause and supported the execution of Charles I but he came to realise that it was not enough to dispose of one monarch; what needed removing was “kingly power” which he interpreted much more widely than the institution of kingship. It was every kind of human behaviour that led one person to rule over another, Professor Hughes explained.
In his second contribution, Professor Corns, a leading literary critic, subjected Winstanley’s prose and poetry to a close reading in order to establish him as one of the most original writers of his time. By doing so, the professor suggested that Winstanley could be read alongside Milton, Marvell and Bunyan as a key figure in the English literary tradition of radicalism and dissent.
The Socialist History Society can be extremely proud that it had organised the only meeting in London to mark the 400th anniversary of Gerrard Winstanley’s birth.
Making Winstanley Respectable
David Loewenstein, Professor of English, University of Wisconsin-Madison, prepared this message for the Socialist History Society’s meeting on 19th November. It was read out at the meeting and drew much applause.
I think it’s truly wonderful that the Socialist History Society has chosen to honour Gerrard Winstanley with this meeting. He remains the foremost radical socialist English thinker and activist of the early modern period and one of the significant radical social thinkers of any time. He’s also an English prose writer of exceptional power, vividness, and distinctiveness.
I regret deeply than I cannot be there to celebrate with you and with my outstanding fellow editors of the new edition of Winstanley’s works, Thomas Corns and Ann Hughes. Winstanley famously proclaimed that “if thou dost not act, though dost nothing”. For me “acting” during 2009 has necessarily been of a very limited academic sort: seeing the new massive 1000-page edition of Winstanley through the press. This new Oxford edition will, paradoxically, make Gerrard Winstanley respectable. For the first time his works will appear in a fully annotated edition published by a significant academic press.
But the point, of course, is that Winstanley the Digger and great visionary was not “respectable.” No other writer in the English language wrote so moving about class conflict and class inequalities. Few English radical writers have analyzed with such acuteness the abuses of institutions of political, religious, and economic power. Few English writers have dared to envision, with such conviction, a world completely transformed in political, religious, and economic terms—a world that would be a “common treasury” for all. We sadly still live in a world of great social inequality. My county, the United States, the wealthiest nation in the world, now has some 49 million people without adequate food (as reported recently in The New York Times); we have 47 million people with no health insurance at all; we enlarge and invest in a huge military machine, while neglecting our most basic social institutions and services—the institutions and services which help ordinary citizens. We live in a world where religion too often fuels culture wars, where Muslims and Christians engage in stereotyping, demonisation and mutual recrimination. It is a world where the major institutions and organisations of one of the great religions – Judaism (my religion) – align themselves with a state that mistreats and brutalises another people. Persecution and intolerance are not things of the past.
No, Winstanley is not “respectable” and for that we should treasure him all the more: he challenged and questioned orthodoxies and he challenged and questioned all kinds of institutions of power—ecclesiastical, political, and economic. And he did so in some of the most memorable prose in the English language. We need his deep mistrust of institutions of power and his insights into the multifarious ways that they can damage and constrain the lives of ordinary people. We also need his visionary idealism – his belief that the world can change and be a better place for all people – and his conviction that we must take concrete action to match our writings and words.
As Wordsworth famously addressed Milton, so I would address Winstanley: “thou should’st be living at this hour: England hath need of thee.” Here I would make only one crucial modification: Winstanley, it is “the world [that] hath need of thee.”
I’m researching Clara Zetkin’s reception and influence in British politics (1886-1933), and would be pleased to learn of any references to her (positive or negative) in any biographies, memoirs, diaries, correspondence, etc., of British figures.
She was involved with the Second and Third Internationals, and founded the International Socialist Women’s Movement; she communicated with the SDF, the BSP, the Women’s Labour League and the ILP, and was in contact with Eleanor Marx-Aveling, Dora Montefiore, Margaret MacDonald, Fenner Brockway, J. T. Murphy, Margaret Bondfield, Marion Phillips and Mary Longman, amongst others. I’d be interested in references to Zetkin’s contact with these people and groups – but more crucially any additional contacts with Britons (or emigres living in Britain, such as Friedrich Engels, Karl Kautsky, Eduard Bernstein, etc.).
Anything – no matter how minor – would be a great help. Email me on H_G_W_(at)hotmail.com with your leads. Ta.
Dr John S. Partington