Archive for December, 2011


London Socialist Historians Seminars Spring Term 2011

London Socialist Historians Seminars Spring Term 2011
9th January Ian Birchall The Missing founders. The early years of the French Communist Party
23rd January Nicole Ulrich {University of the Witwatersrand] Direct Action and Colonial Rule in Eighteenth-Century Southern Africa: a survey of underclass protest.
6th February Merilyn Moos From the personal to the political. Researching the German KPD 1929-37
20th February Manus McGrogan The revolutionary left press after 1968
5th March Lucian van der Walt [University of Witwatersrand] Adding Red to the Black Atlantic: the Industrial Workers of Africa and International Socialist League’s black revolutionary syndicalists and the South Africa Native National Congress’s 1917-1920 radicalisation
19th March Roberta Wedge Mary Wollstonecraft: from journalist, socialist, to somewhere else on the political spectrum?
All seminars at 5.30pm Gordon Room, Ground Floor Senate House South Block Institute of Historical Research


Marxist Historians Map Out an Agenda for Today

Marxist Historians Map Out an Agenda for Today
If the evidence of the successes of recent events is anything to go by, interest in the socialist approach to history is on the increase, which is probably no surprise given the turbulent and uncertain times in which we currently live.
The launch of the political biography of Bert Ramelson, Revolutionary Communist at Work, at the London offices of the trade union Unite on 8 December was an inspiring occasion; there was a receptive and large audience for the message delivered by the speakers who were all agreed on the urgency and relevance of the struggles and campaigns that Bert Ramelson, the late industrial organiser of the Communist Party, had dealt with during his lifetime for the politics of today.
It is not only that history is all around us and we cannot escape it if we tried; we are faced with a deeply sectarian view of British history insidiously promoted by Education Secretary Michael Gove as part of his nationalistic ideological crusade to revamp the popular image British Empire; which indicates the importance that the ruling class attaches to getting history taught the right way for its own narrow interests.
History, as we know, is a battleground and knowledge of what actually happened in the past gives us guidance on how to respond to the vital issues of concern to workers and the labour movement today. The new biography of Ramelson, who was born in the Ukraine but spent most of his adult life in Britain, mainly in Yorkshire, is a model is this respect and the authors Tom Sibley and Roger Seifert can be congratulated for producing what should prove to be an important guide for modern trade union activists.
Attendance at the annual Historical Materialism conferences has expanded continuously over successive years and this represents another indication of the widespread and growing interest in Marxist studies and history in particular. It was also greatly encouraging that a seminar on the Marxist view of history held during a two-day conference on 21st Century Marxism at the Bishopsgate Institute recently attracted a large number of people of various ages all keenly aware of the need to know the history of the left and the labour movement. There was great interest in the works of the Communist Party historians such as Christopher Hill, George Rude, Rodney Hilton, Eric Hobsbawm and others, as well as in the materialist interpretation of history developed by Marx and Engels.
In this regard, a new study of the contributions of Christopher Hill, Maurice Dobb and George Thomson published by the Socialist History Society and written by Willie Thompson is extremely timely. In Setting An Agenda, Willie Thompson re-examines three path-breaking works by these historians, namely Studies in the Development of Capitalism (by Dobb) , The English Revolution 1940 (Hill) and Aeschylus and Athens (Thomson), in order to assess the continued readability and relevance of these classic works for the understanding of history.
Thompson reminds his readers of the major contribution to historical studies made by this relatively small group of scholars who were all exceptionally talented and highly motivated. Their membership of the Communist Party was perhaps the single most significant factor of their formative development as professional historians.
That they produced such important works while they were active as Communists is an important point that Thompson’s study stresses as it is sometimes erroneously alleged that they only produced scholarship of lasting worth once they had left the Party as several of them of course later did. Setting An Agenda shows conclusively, however, that it was their encounter with Marxism that was their principle inspiration and that this was a fundamental position from which they never departed.
Setting An Agenda, the latest in the Socialist History Society’s Occasional Publications series, is well worth reading as an introduction to these still highly relevant historians and it could inspire further research and discussion on historical issues that remain urgently topical.
The SHS has been publishing original pieces of historical research for nearly twenty years now; the very first Occasional Paper was Ben Bradley: Fighter for India’s Freedom by Jean Jones, which concerned the career of the British Communist trade unionist who went to help organise workers in India. Setting An Agenda is issue number 29 and follows an interesting study of the rivalry between Karl Marx and the Secularist leader Charles Bradlaugh in Deborah Lavin’s Bradlaugh Contra Marx: Radicalism versus Socialism in the First International.
A key aim of the SHS’s publications is to popularise aspects of socialist and labour history and to achieve this the papers are always written in a clear and readable style avoiding academic jargon, which makes them particularly attractive for a wider non-academic readership. I think these titles should be more widely known.
David Morgan


Aspects of Popular Protest

Aspects of Popular

Jerry White
Riots and the Law in
18th Century London
7pm 22 February 2012

David Goodway
The Real History of
7pm 19 April 2012
Venue for both:
Bishopsgate Institute
Free entry, all welcome,
retiring collection.


Book Review The Autobiography of Chris Birch

A Wonderful Life
Chris Birch, My Life, St Christopher Press, 2010, £15.00 pb
This fascinating autobiography by the veteran Communist Chris Birch starts with a few famous quotes which, I suppose, are meant to sum up the author’s personal credo and view of the good life: “No man is an island, entire of itself” (John Donne); “Only connect” (E M Forster) and “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful” (Mae West).
If there is such a thing as a typical Communist then quite different quotes might well have been expected; but Chris is certainly no typical comrade, although he has remained a dedicated activist all his life and continues in his 83rd year to do his bit for the “good old cause” in his own inimitable way. He is a persistent practitioner of the dying art of letter writing and a person who, when he takes up a particular cause, sees it right through to the finish. The writer of this review briefly worked with Chris on the subs desk of The Morning Star in the mid-1980s and recalls his wry wit and dogged determination.
At 230 pages the book is the length of a novel and is easy to read and well written just like a good novel. Chris has lived life to the full and packs his personal history with anecdotes and incidents from his years as a Communist, when he worked variously as national treasurer of the Young Communist League in the 1950s and as a Morning Star journalist. He describes his work as a campaigner on a range of issues dear to his heart such as nuclear disarmament and support for those “killed by HIV”, which is how Chris refers to his friend Mark Ashton, a Communist who was struck down when only 26 years old and about whom Chris devotes a whole chapter of his book.
Born on the Caribbean island of St Kitts, Chris and his family later moved to Trinidad and then Barbados. He first came to England a year after the end of the Second World War and went to study at Bristol University. Chris became secretary of the student branch of the Communist Party. But his student days weren’t all politics and study. He has lived a happily married life with Betty for over sixty years and describes their first romantic encounter on the first day of the university’s autumn term in 1948 when he sold his future wife a copy of The Daily Worker; Betty later joined the party as well and “consequently we saw a lot of each other in the following months,” Chris comments ruefully.
Chris has a sharp memory and eye for detail which he puts to good use in conveying his various experiences, such as his very first encounter with snow during his first winter in England. The book is not without its humour; for example, while at university he began reading the Marxist classics voraciously and describes himself “complaining that Marx, Engels and Lenin wrote very badly, but Stalin wrote well”. Chris doesn’t define what he means by writing well, but attributes the blame to the translators in this instance. Inspired by reading the Red Dean of Canterbury Hewlett Johnson’s book, The Socialist Sixth of the World, Chris decided that he wanted to visit the USSR. Finding no easy way to get a visa, he describes how he ended up writing to Stalin personally “asking him if he could use his influence to get a visa. He did not reply…” This level of naivety seems quite improbable but we are assured that the anecdote is perfectly true. Chris eventually did get to Moscow in 1956, but by that time he had already travelled to Communist cities such as Prague, Warsaw and Budapest about which he also describes vividly.
The book contains a huge number of fascinating vignettes of the characters with whom Chris has worked or come into contact with over the decades, such as the then Communist Val Sherman who later reinvented himself as the speech writer for Sir Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher and became Sir Alfred Sherman.
The book is extremely well produced, with a clear typeface and a generous selection of colour and black and white photographs. Who could have expected anything less from someone with such a long career in print journalism? Chris has also been a skilled designer and one of his claims to fame is to have designed the Communist Party membership card which was in use in the 1980s. Chris Birch has produced a very readable and entertaining book and it is to be highly recommended.
David Morgan

December 2011