Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Bradlaugh contra Marx

Book Review by Nick Matthews

Bradlaugh contra Marx, Radicalism versus Socialism in the First International.

Published by the Socialist History Society, Occasional Publication No 28.
86 pages £4.00

This is a short quite delightful monograph published by the Socialist History Society (the successor organisation to the Communist History Group) and written by playwright and society member Deborah Lavin. It is a well researched paper about the tussles between Karl Marx and Charles Bradlaugh in the workings of the International Working Mens Association. She seems to have discovered details of this interesting tussle whilst working on her biography of Dr Edward Aveling the partner of Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor.

The journey through the exile organisations of late nineteenth century politics are reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent or of in the case of Bradlaugh, who she virtually accuses of being an agent provocateur, G.K. Chesterton’s the Man who was Thursday.

In Lavin’s hands neither Marx nor Bradlaugh come out of this episode very well. Marx comes across as an arrogant, sectarian whilst Bradlaugh comes across as an opportunist, charlatan. In one critical episode, what she describes as the oaths question, she argues Bradlaughs battle over taking the Parliamentary oath, was not a matter of principal but merely a misunderstanding.

The six year struggle ending in the “Tories oaths Act of 1888 is generally credited as a Civil Rights victory for Bradlaugh, but as he only got entangled in the oaths question by accident, and the moment he was allowed, Bradluagh willingly swore allegiance to Queen Victoria on the Bible.”
She says that it is “quite erroneous to see Bradlaugh as playing the part of the heroic man of principle”. Equally to give Bradlaugh some credit, however, he was an extraordinarily good public speaker, something Marx could never be accused of, and was also an extremely tenacious campaigner.

Lavin is clearly more sympathetic to Marx and he was clearly successful in keeping the mere Liberal Bradlaugh out of the IWMA but ultimately he kept everyone else out of it too by moving its HQ to New York ostensibly to escape the anarchist Michael Bakunin.

Bradlaughs attempts to recreate a version of the IWMA under a new name the International Labour Union also failed. Bradlaughs effort to court the newly rising working class however does show their emerging importance in Liberal politics.

There is much in this wonderful monograph, very rich in references, that would repay careful reading but it does highlight two obvious things. Firstly there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. How any of the organisations portrayed in this paper could have lasted more than a second or had any lasting influence is astonishing. And secondly it does not pay to look too closely at ones heroes as their feet are undoubtedly made of clay as they too are mere flesh and blood and subject to the same vanities and needs as the rest of us.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Histories of Labour

Histories of Labour, National and International Perspectives, Edited by John McIlroy, Alan Campbell & Joan Allen, Merlin Press, 2010, ISBN 978085036677.

a review by Nick Matthews

I greatly enjoyed this book although I would not recommend reading it in a single sitting. There is a lot to take in and numerous changes in perspective to accommodate. When I was young I could never understand why people kept writing new books about the same period in history. Now I am a bit like the person in the Bob Dylan song who was “so much older then” but is “younger than that now”!

It requires perspective and some distance to understand the real significance of events and this collection of essays does that in spades. Interestingly the event it both commemorates and celebrates is the birth of the Society for the Study of Labour History. The editors say, “Histories of Labour, which documents the development of the subject in a variety of countries around the world, is published to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Society for the Study of Labour History (SSLH), its organised expression in Britain”.

In the introduction Eric Hobsbawm explains how this seminal event occurred and how the idea of the Society “came from the collective of friends formed in the Communist Party Historians’ Group.” At the height of the cold war even Hobsbawn was finding it hard to get published, difficult to believe now given his status as a ‘national treasure’ and the Order of Merit.

The man chosen to front this new Society was Asa Briggs then easily the most established academic historian with a record of work in the field. What exactly this field is over fifty years and numerous changes in historiography I found more difficult to pin down. The best definition occurs in the final essay of the book by Marcel van der Linden, Research Director of the International Institute of Social History and Professor of Social Movement History at the University of Amsterdam;

“The term ‘labour history’ has a dual meaning. Strictly speaking the concept refers to the history of the labour movement: parties, trade unions, cooperatives, strikes and related phenomena. More broadly interpreted, the concept denotes the history of the working classes: the development of labour relations, family life, mentalities, culture. This ambiguity seems characteristic of the term in English. In many other languages labour movement history and working-class history cannot be summed up in a single term.”

By the time I got to this final chapter having worried at this ambiguity throughout the book I was glad to see it confirmed. Van der Linden, continues that both this ‘broad’ and ‘narrow’ Labour History have their origins in the North Atlantic region so it is good to see the impact that this school of thought, if that is not too strong a term, has had internationally.

There are fascinating essays in this book from India and Japan, where both labour history and Labour History have taken significantly different turns. Although there appear to be two threads that echo across the world, the first is the enormous impact of Edward Thompsons the making of the English Working Class. Van der Linden again,

“In the 1960’s we see the beginnings of the so called ‘new labour history’, with E.P.Thomson’s The Making of the English Working Class as a landmark publication. This great book, by emphasizing culture and consciousness, integrated broad and narrow labour history, once its message was assimilated.”

Of course this transition can be exaggerated but I do not think it would be inaccurate to argue that almost all Labour History since has been a dialogue with this great work. Who, having read it, can forget that wonderful preface written in Halifax in 1962 and Thompsons hope that he was,

“seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott from the enormous condescension of posterity.”

He did something else too I think and that is break the almost Whiggish nature of much so called Marxist writing of Labour History which saw the continuous march of organised labour to state power as inevitable. Whilst nothing could have been more literally English about Thomson’s work it had a huge international impact which is reflected in this book.

In his essay, Organised Labour History in Britain, John McIlroy, points out that;

“It was said of Thompson that he ‘opened new ways of enquiring into the past in India and Latin America,[…] He has influenced Chinese labour historians and inspired the feminist scholar of Arab texts, Fatima Mernissi.’ He lectured in Canada and the USA and maintained his family’s links with India. His influence marked the developments in labour history in all three countries.”

This canonisation of Thompson is not to diminish the work of other scholars but it does point up the huge contribution to both broad and narrow Labour History from those outside the academy and the fact that institutionalised university history has never been quite sure what to do with the history of the lower orders.

The second thread is that well before the forward march of labour was halted in Eric Hobsbawms immortal phrase the subject matter had begun to fragment with new dimensions to the central ambiguity. Some of these especially the interest of feminists has been very welcome others like the so called ‘linguistic turn’ less so.

Hobsbawm suspects that what made British Labour history influential however, apart from the sheer size of the community and the high quality of some of the work produced was “its function as a catalyst of political rethinking on the British left”.

“Neither E.P. Thompson’s Making or Raph Samuels initiatives, the ‘History Workshop’ movement , nor my Primitive Rebels , can be fully understood accept as an attempt to find a way forward in left politics through historical reflection.”

Anyone interested in Labour History will find terrific value in this book I found references to works that I was not familiar with that I will now seek out to fill gaps in my understanding and readers will gain huge benefits from the references and bibliography. I particularly welcome the opportunity to look at Labour History through the prism of the Indian, Japanese and German experience which these international essays give us.

If I have one disappointment it is that although Van der Lindon mentions co-operation in his definition (and as a co-operator) I found only one reference in the index to Co-operation and that is in the context of the Canadian Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. Clearly there is work still to be done and I hope the next fifty years of organised labour history are as rich as the first fifty and we will continue to look for ways forward in left thinking with active historical reflection.

Nick Matthews is the Chair of the UK Society for Co-operative Studies


I was surprised when Tory rhetoric went from “No such thing as Society” to the “Big Society” and even more surprised about their new found passion for co-operatives and mutual’s. Well we can all now see that it was purely cosmetic. The coalition has fallen at the very first fence. The first chance the Coalition gets to turn the rhetoric into action about creating co-ops and new mutual’s and they sell Northern Rock to of all people Richard Branson.

As Ed Mayo general secretary of Co-operatives UK said “The government had a real chance to show the strength of its commitment to co-operatives and mutuals….it passed it up”. The winner is the people’s capitalist and self publicist par excellence Richard Branson.

This is the man who made his first pile from the Exorcist. A film that like the Coalition was pretty scary. Every time we went towards that room we heard the music of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. Released as single in America on the Virgin label it became a top ten hit. The success of the film drove the sales of the album, until then an underground success, and made it the first hit on Branson’s Virgin records – a hit that made a fortune for Oldfield and for Branson.

Tom Bower wrote a wonderful biography of Branson, a book which had this glowing endorsement from its subject, “What I have read has offended me on every single level ... it is a foul, foul piece of work from the first words to the last - really rotten, nasty stuff.” In the book Bower points out that, “Virgin Music - started amid a sophisticated purchase-tax fraud that Branson admitted in 1971 - was sold in 1992 for a record £560m”. The money was used to found an airline Virgin Atlantic (which is now 49% owned by Singapore airlines) created when the government stripped BA of landing slots at Heathrow.

Since then Branson has been lending his Virgin brand name to various enterprises to give what are a set of fairly mediocre business a bit of hippy radical gloss as customers using any thing carrying the Virgin brand will tell you.

Most of the things he has launched in competitive markets have failed, Virgin, condoms, cola or vodka anyone and what happened to Virgin stores?

And there are Virgin trains (49% owned by Stagecoach) currently operating the West Coast franchise who used to be much bigger until they lost the cross-country franchise after lumbering it with the worst modern train fleet in Britain. Trains that are noisy, uncomfortable and unable to cope if passengers dare to turn up with luggage.

As with Virgin phones, Branson operates in protected markets. As Aditya Chakrabortty said in the Guardian, “the Virgin boss keeps himself in homes in Holland Park and Necker Island by taking taxpayers subsidies and operating in heavily protected businesses.”

Now he has written a book, called ‘Screw Business as Usual’ needless to say published by Virgin Books in it he talks about the “new capitalism”. He says that he has a new name for it, “Capitalism 24902” apparently because the circumference of the earth is 24,902 miles. Then you read in the Financial Times Branson’s chief investor in Northern Rock, American Financier Wilbur Ross saying, “We would hope to sell out a few years down the road.”

This sounds like business as usual to me. It is not the business that is being screwed it is the taxpayer. The Northern Counties Building Society founded in 1850 and the Rock Building Society in 1865 they survived two world wars and the great depression before merging in 1965 to form Northern Rock. Then it floated as a mortgage bank on 1st October 1997. Less than ten years later it in 2008 it was spectacularly bust!

Many commentators have pointed out that the £747 million price Branson is paying for Northern Rock means that every taxpayer in Britain is paying Branson £13 to take Northern Rock away. But this is not the full story. Branson is only buying the good part of Northern Rock. So far the Coalition has no plans to sell Northern Rock Asset Management or the so called Bad Bank.

In October 2010 Northern Rock (Asset Management) plc and that other busted bank and former building society Bradford & Bingley were integrated under a single holding company, UK Asset Resolution which has a plan that hopes to wind down the institutions in a way that repays a combined debt to the taxpayer of around £50billion.

There is no reason to think that this tiny mortgage bank can survive on its own with just 75 branches and investors would be wise to get out as soon as practically possible. None of the converted Building Societies have survived as Mortgage Banks because the model simply does not work.

That is why many people campaigned for the Rock to be remutualised to return to its roots as a provider of mortgages based on savers deposits. But no George Osborne has decided to make his own horror movie and once again the Virgin label is providing the soundtrack.