Author Archive for
I discovered these books in 2015 and they might interest readers of this blog.
Enlightenment – History of an Idea by Vicenzo Ferrone
THE INVENTION OF IMPROVEMENT: Information and material progress in seventeenth-century England by Paul Slack
Greek Popular Morality: In the Time of Plato and Aristotle by Kenneth Dover
Sacred Violence: African Christians and Sectarian Hatred in the Age of Augustine by Brent D Shaw
Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector
Magic, Reason and Experience: Studies in the Development of Greek Science by G E R Lloyd
The Reformation of the Landscape: Religion, Identity, and Memory in Early Modern Britain and Ireland by Alexandra Walsham
Charlotte Brontë: A Life by Claire Harman
Myths of Mighty Women: their application of psychoanalytic psychotherapy by Arlene Kramer Richards
Marginal Comment: A Memoir by Kenneth Dover
Meetings Round Up
In the latter part of 2015 the Society was involved in organising public meetings on the themes of slavery and public housing policy.
The series on the business of slavery which ran throughout the autumn and concluded on 8 December proved to be very successful.
With an emphasis on the British business of this atrocious trade, the series endeavoured to highlight the commercial structures and networks of individuals who made slavery into an extremely lucrative and enduring enterprise.
Deliberately deciding to probe far deeper than the traditional Tory narrative of Britain’s laudable role in abolishing the Transatlantic trade in slaves, the programme established convincingly that a large part of this country’s economic strength had been founded on slave labour.
The series, which was a Conway Hall event supported by the SHS, also pointed to the rich body of research being carried out in this field.
The value of business history to the left was another issue that was highlighted. There is always a need to know who owned what and the stimulating talks proved much that was new, at least to me.
Speakers included respected veteran experts such as James Walvin and younger researchers like Katie Donington and Perry Gauci.
Each methodically exposed all the intricate links between modern corporations in the City of London and old companies that derived much of their wealth from slave plantation labour. Much of these business connections are only now being brought to public attention by historians who are combing the vast archives held in London and in places like Jamaica.
The series managed to attract a large audience including many young people and provoked lively debate. One key concern that recurred each week was the topic of reparations for the victims of slavery. The practicalities of how to pay, how much, to whom and who actually should pay, were brought out in the discussions.
I especially applaud the way that this series didn’t avoid the continued existence of slavery in various parts of the modern world. As consumers of cheap products we are all to an extent responsible whether knowingly or not for the slave conditions that prevail in sweatshops where our designer clothes are produced. This important point was raised in the talk by Aidan McQuade, Director of Anti-Slavery International.
SHS committee member Deborah Lavin curated this series for the Ethical Society with some valuable input from other members of the SHS.
Finally, another meeting that should not be forgotten was the talk for the SHS at Marx House (21 November 2015) given by Duncan Bowie on the history of labour and socialist inspired housing campaigns. The subject of housing is an urgent issue in contemporary society with no credible solution in sight.
Bowie, a leading expert within the labour movement on housing policy and planning, shared his insights into the contributions of progressive political activists to the development of social housing and urban planning over the last century. He has a new book out on the same subject.
Duncan’s talk was chaired by Stan Newens, who as an MP was closely involved in the post-war growth of new town in Harlow.
Public Service Broadcasting is Worth Defending
David Attenborough recently expressed his fears for the future survival of the BBC.
An important national institution, the BBC’s model of public service broadcasting funded by the license fee gives it a notional independence from the state and allows it to operate at arm’s length from government.
While this editorial independence might not stand up to detailed scrutiny as in many essential matters it adopts a perspective that’s oriented towards supporting free market liberalism and Cold War foreign policy (there is clear continuity, for example, in its fierce anti-Soviet and anti-Russian posturing), the existence of the BBC is still worth defending.
The concept of a broadcasting system not totally dominated by market forces is valuable in that it gives programme makers the freedom to experiment and take risks that is simply not available to the ratings-driven commercial sector.
The presence of the BBC, it can be argued, acts as a benchmark and standard for the entire broadcasting industry forcing the commercial channels to emulate the quality and diversity of the schedules and programmes that are made.
While the left rightly deplores the pronounced political bias of flagship news programmes such as Newsnight and Today, which became all too blatant in the negative reporting of the new Labour leadership of Corbyn and McDonnell, we should not forget the progressive and innovative role played by the BBC in many areas. The major contribution of the BBC to culture over the post-war period has been particularly impressive.
It is well worth reminding ourselves of the nature and range of some of the best BBC’s innovative programmes in the fields of drama, music and documentary.
Take contemporary drama produced in the ’60s and ’70s when a platform was given equally to new writers and original writing from more established writers in The Wednesday Play and Play for Today series.
These series gave opportunities to a seemingly endless list of top writers such as David Mercer, Dennis Potter, Harold Pinter, David Hare, Howard Brenton, Mike Leigh, David Rudkin and Alan Bennett. The themes that were covered in their plays were often provocative, contemporary and rarely less than highly political.
Some of the authors who began their careers in television are still active today but more often found writing for the stage and screen, while others have been largely forgotten. Most of David Mercer’s original scripts, for example, were performed on television and as such have not been revived or staged in the theatre, but his body of work was outstanding covering changing social morality and historical themes of the 20th century.
Leading directors such as Alan Bridges, Ken Loach, Stephen Frears and Alan Clark, were also given the resources to develop their personal styles by working on these BBC drama productions.
Many of their gritty realistic dramas while now over 30 or 40 years old still retain their freshness and make much modern television appear very tame and formulaic by comparison. Fortunately many of these plays can be found on YouTube or have been released on dvd, so are available to the wider public if they want to find them.
The impact of the BBC is shaping musical tastes and opening up broadcasting to new music should not be underestimated. In the area of popular music such as rock and alternative, the late John Peel show, which aired in Radio One for about 30 years, was immensely influential in assisting the careers of many British musicians and allowing them to break through.
The role of Radio Three is broadcasting often quite obscure classical music and giving airtime to “new music” should also be recognised.
With regards to documentaries, the BBC has been an important innovator, with programmes on the natural world and science fronted by presenters like Attenborough, John Berger, Jonathan Miller, the late James Burke and many others. Historical documentaries from classics such as Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man to more recent series with Michael Wood, Terry Jones and Jonathan Meades have performed a vital educational role for a mass audience. The common feature of all the examples of the programmes cited here is that they have never sought to patronise the viewer but succeeded in putting across complex ideas in a highly popular and compelling format. The reason that these broadcasters have been able to innovate and succeed in producing such important high quality programmes is a direct consequence of the existence of public service broadcasting. The Tories, who disapprove of the masses having free access to knowledge at all, must not be allowed to destroy the BBC. For all its flaws, it is worth preserving.
The Legacy of 1945 and its Lessons for Today
Stan Newens, SHS President and former Labour MP, delivered an inspiring talk to the society on 19 September when he spoke about the record of the 1945 Labour government headed by Clement Attlee.
Combining factual description and analysis with personal memories and anecdotes, Stan convincingly argued that the proud record of the post-war Labour government was a victory for socialist advance and a tremendous gain for working people. The victory was a political earthquake and its legacy improved people’s lives enormously for generations to come.
Tony Blair titled his autobiography, A Journey. Blair took the party far away from the fine ideals that guided the reforming Labour government of Clement Attlee which was swept to power on a wave of enthusiasm for social change in the immediate aftermath of the defeat of Nazi Germany.
As Stan recalled people were determined not to repeat the mistake of the previous war when Lloyd George’s promise of “Homes Fit for Heroes” went unfulfilled.
The journey taken by Attlee and his colleagues was to take the country in a completely different destination to the cruel neo-liberalism that drives Blair and the Blairites today.
Stan totally repudiated the Blairite insistence that the 1945 manifesto had been a “moderate programme”, by which they sought to reinterpret Attlee’s inspirational victory as support for a “realistic” pro-business agenda.
He vividly described exactly how radical the ‘45 administration actually was and pointed out that it fulfilled many of its promises to the people in terms of housing, education, social welfare and better healthcare.
The party had defied predictions to defeat war hero Winston Churchill, who had badly misjudged the popular mood by alleging during the election that Labour was intent upon establishing a “gestapo” in Britain; an utterly ludicrous suggestion given the reputation of the mild-mannered Attlee.
The principle of state intervention in the economy, shown to be successful during wartime, was essential in the period of post-war reconstruction. It was not a gestapo tactic but common sense.
Stan’s criticisms of Labour’s record concerned its controversial foreign policy which was increasingly dictated by cold war anti-Soviet ideology and embodied in the figure of the pugnacious Ernest Bevin. His cold war rhetoric was never very popular and Stan recalled attending a debate in 1948 during which backbench Labour MP Konni Zilliacus demolished Bevin’s attack on the USSR.
The mood of the public had been well ahead of the views of many Labour leaders who remained cautious of their possible victory right up to the last moment. Herbert Morrison, for instance, believed that Labour would lose the election if it was too radical.
But the policies that Labour was to implement were not at all “moderate” in modern Blairite terms. Stan listed the range of ambitious achievements such as the extensive nationalisation, the creation of a national investment bank, repeal of the Trades Disputes Act, the new towns, the NHS, education reform and granting freedom to India. The welfare state and full employment led to a real rise in the standard of living of ordinary people. Many of those who moved into new council housing experienced running water for very first time. Previously they had outside toilets, drawing water from a pump and tin baths in front of the fireplace. Labour had created an entirely different world and it was a significant step on the way towards building a socialist future.
Stan compared the excitement of Labour’s victory 70 years ago to the enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign to become Labour leader in September 2015. The Tories had lost 181 seats and it was a fantastic feeling, Stan recalled. He remembered how church bells were rung in celebration at the first news of Labour’s triumph.
In conclusion, Stan insisted that the 1945 Attlee government initiated the greatest social transformation of the 20th century and its record needed to be studied and lessons needed to be learned from it. The achievements could still inspire people today to aspire for a better future.
It seems clear now that the West wants to defeat Russia in Syria at all costs. This latest protracted confrontation in the Middle East can be understood as a proxy war of the US and NATO against Putin’s resurgent Russia. But Syria is just one zone of engagement in a much wider war against Russia that has been taking place since Putin started to stand up to the West. The same confrontation also occurs in Ukraine and formerly in Georgia, where Russia successfully halted, albeit temporarily, the Western advance. This amounts to a new Cold War or an undeclared war where East and West are once more in global confrontation.
To date the policy to unseat Assad has failed miserably despite the West’s imposition of punishing economic sanctions, its bombing of the country and the sponsoring, financing and training of what are little more than terrorist mercenaries. It is virtually impossible to distinguish the moderate rebels from the Islamist fanatics of ISIS (Islamic State).
read on here
Jack Goody: An Appreciation
Jack Goody, who died on 16 July age 95, was a social anthropologist whose influences were Marx, Weber and Freud among others. He was from the generation of left-wing scholars whose experiences in the 1930s and the Second World War were to shape their approach to academic research and influence their entire outlook on the world.
Goody had a very fertile mind and, like his contemporaries Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm, he was very productive. He was to author over 30 highly original books on subjects as diverse as the growth of literacy, writing and the organisation of society, the development of the family, inheritance and kinship, the culture of flowers and food, cooking and class and modes of production.
Again like Hill and Hobsbawm, Goody always wrote in a clear style with the minimum of jargon.
Born in 1919 to a Scottish mother and English father, Goody grew up in St Albans. He won a scholarship to read English literature at St John’s, Cambridge, in 1938, where he came into contact with Hobsbawm and other scholars who were attracted to the left.
In his ambitious last book, Metals, Culture and Capitalism (published in 2012), Goody writes about Europe and the Near East from the Bronze Age onwards, but he begins on a personal reflection stating that “my life has been much influenced by the Hunger Marches of the miners of my youth, by my serving in a regiment of Nottinghamshire miners in the war, by friends as Bevin Boys on my return, by the work of the Tavistock Institute in the coalfields after the war, of political activity of workers in the Fife coalfields, and by the attempts of Arthur Scargill and others to fight to keep the industry in this country.”
On the outbreak of war in 1939, Goody immediately joined the army and was to fight against Rommel in North Africa. Captured by the Germans during the fall of Tobruk in June 1942, Goody was to spend nearly three years as a prisoner of war in Italy and Germany.
During his time in the POW camps, Goody discovered two volumes that were to have a decisive impact on his future, JG Frazer’s The Golden Bough and V Gordon Childe’s, What Happened in History?
After the war, he returned to Cambridge to complete his studies and later carried out fieldwork in Ghana. Goody began producing pioneering comparative studies of the cultures, societies and economic development of Europe, Africa and Asia. In what is perhaps his most famous book, The Domestication of the Savage Mind (1977), Goody challenges the division between so-called “primitive” and “advanced” societies.
He was especially interested in challenging notions of Europe’s supremacy and uniqueness which he saw was related to the growth of imperialism and colonialism.
Jack Goody’s work shares some affinities with that of Victor Kiernan, Edward Said and Martin Bernal in uncovering the influences of the East on the West and vice versa.
His historical critique of “Eurocentrism” can be found in books such as The East in the West (1996) and The Theft of History (2007).
In Renaissances (2010), Goody takes a new look at the concept of the European Renaissance and argues that it was only one of many similar “renaissances” that can be found in the histories of China, India, Judaism and Islam over the course of many centuries.
In this volume, Goody dismisses traditional histories of European medicine which trace its foundations to Greece and Rome to the exclusion of the Arab, Jewish and Asian contributions; this is a “notion that displayed some of the features of what it is not entirely wrong to describe as racist thinking,” he says.
In all his books Goody is concerned with “big picture” issues in historical perspective such as inequality, which is what makes his work so deeply stimulating and readable.
While his approach was clearly influenced by Marx, Goody did not describe himself as a “Marxist” – as far as I am aware – but he did say that he was “not a non-Marxist”.
He remained strongly associated with the left, writing occasional articles for New Left Review and sitting on the editorial board of Past and Present journal. Jack Goody also gave a talk to the SHS at Marx House.
An extended interview with Goody conducted by Eric Hobsbawm can be found here: