Working Class Movement Library

A blog from the Working Class Movement Library in Salford

Archive for August, 2012

Book review ‘After the party: reflections on life since the CPGB’

Posted by wcmlibrary on August 24, 2012

After the party:  reflections on life since the CPGB , edited by  Andy Croft. Lawrence & Wishart, 2012   ISBN 978-1-907103-47-6

It is twenty years since the demise of the Communist Party, a party which  the editor Andy Croft says  “was unlike any other in British politics. No other party enjoyed so much influence in the trade union movement, or in British intellectual and cultural life. At its peak the party had 60,000 members and during its life-time serveral hundred Communist councillors and 5 Members of Parliament were elected”.

In this book he,  and seven other former communists, reflect on the reasons why they joined the party and how it changed their lives.  It is a fascinating book,  not just because it is interesting to see why some people become politically active and  what it  meant to be in the CP but also, now  that the party is over, to learn where those people then chose to put their energies and commitment.

Mark Perryman, now of Philosophy Football, joined the CP in 1979. Like me he was at Hull University but, unlike me, chose the CP over the Trotskyists. He was particularly inspired by their political education at the annual summer Communist University of London. “One event I will never forget was a debate between Eric Hobsbawn and miners’ leader Mick McGahey…it felt like the arguments and the people taking part really mattered…a recognition that the need to listen to each other was far more important than the issuing of the “line” for others to follow.” Academics like Hobsbawn are now few on the ground and it would be hard to find a trade union leader with the grit and intellectualism of McGahey, much less to get them to engage with the reality of people’s lives today.

Alistair Findley,  who was involved in the Scottish CP,  recalls  one of the distinct features of the CP:  putting the  involvement of working class people  at the heart of its politics. “In 1971-73 to hear Mick McGahey and Jimmy Reid’s brilliant oratory at mass public demos…eloquent, funny, pugnacious, intelligent, unkind to Tory governments. ..the public face of Scottish marxism…just working class auto-dictats, informed, combatative, no prisoners taken.”

Dave Cope echoes the lack of snobbery in the CP  towards working class members. “Membership of the CP, with its encouragement of discussion, reading, debate and attention to cultural affairs was an education of a life-enhancing nature for many working class activists.”

Many of the contributors in the book comment on the internationalism of the party.  When Lorna Reith  joined she was offered the choice of  either the role of Morning Star organiser or of Chile Solidarity campaign representative. After choosing the latter, she  travelled to Chile in 1986. “Being part of an international movement was always part and parcel of being in the CP. Branch discussions would almost always include updates and views on what was happening elsewhere in the world”.

But by 1991 the Party was in decline and its membership had fallen to fewer than 7,000.  Any hopes of a reformed  communism were  too late,  as Mark Perryman explains, “With the Berlin Wall crashing around our Communist ears, the horrors of the Chinese Tiananmen Square massacre in the summer and…the ousting of Rumania’s brutal Ceausescu.”

Dave Cope feels  by that time the party was out of touch with politics on many levels. “The constitution had become unreal, its medium term programme utopian, class was no longer the sole defining function in politics, Lenin was seen as irrelevant and the party did not advocate any existing model of socialism.”

Since 1991 it is as if the CP never existed and their successes are  ignored or deleted from the history of the 20th century. As Andy Croft comments, “The 1936 Jarrow March is remembered but not the six much larger Hunger Marches organised by the CP-led National Union of Unemployed Workers.”

Some of the contributors  who seem the most distressed by the end of the Party are now in the Labour Party  which, rebranded as  New Labour,  became  the antithesis of what the CP stood for. Ironically  Lorna Reith’s chaper is titled We will rebuild our country ten times more beautiful. She is now the Deputy Leader of  Haringey borough in London and is in the process of making Haringey a much uglier place by making millions of pounds of cuts.

I was never a member of the CP  but through my friendship with Ruth and Eddie Frow from 1981 I saw the uniqueness of its political culture and  the value put upon its working class and international roots, while  the genuine humanity of many of its comrades was impressive.

After the Party reflects the good and the bad in the CP and is an important contribution to the debate as to why its existence and history has been ignored or forgotten.  It also asks important questions about why working class people are now so disengaged with the political  process, and what we, as socialist  activists, are  going to do about it.

Bernadette Hyland, WCML volunteer

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Invisible Histories Project is Underway!

Posted by wcmlibrary on August 23, 2012

ImageIt is only my 5th day as new team member at the WCML and I’ve had a lot to take in!  I’m fantastically excited about this project and it has real potential to be the beginning of something wonderful for the Library and for the community.  For those who are not yet aware we are now working on our Invisible Histories – Salford’s Working Lives Project which is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.  There is a brief intro on our website: http://www.wcml.org.uk/wcml/en/about-us/invisible-histories-project-needs-you/

I have a background in oral history projects but more importantly I love capturing memories and snippets of information that might otherwise go unheard or undocumented.  So-called ‘ordinary’ working lives are more often than not really quite extraordinary.  This project will be recording memories and using existing collections to breathe life back into some of Salford’s lost workplaces and hopefully will make younger generations more aware of Salford’s industrial heritage.  Focusing on Richard Haworth’s Mill, Ward and Goldstone and the Agecroft Colliery we will, over the next 17 months, be creating podcasts and a touring exhibition.

We are recruiting interviewees who wish to share their memories and experiences as well as volunteer interviewers.  For those interested in becoming a volunteer please do contact me at the Library (carrie.gough@wcml.org.uk).  Oral history training through the Oral History Society will be delivered and it is hoped that this training will then lead to further projects and become an ongoing activity which the library will be able to build on in the future.

At the moment I am in the process of researching our collection to see what can be used and made more accessible as part of this project and I have had lots of help from staff and volunteers already.  I am also arranging the first round of training and compiling lists of interested volunteers and I am going to be researching the next object of the month display.  I’ll be posting regular updates on our progress so keep an eye out.

Carrie

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Miners against fascism – book review

Posted by wcmlibrary on August 22, 2012

Miners against fascism – Wales and the Spanish civil war by Hwyel Francis. Lawrence & Wishart, 2012. ISBN 978-1-907103-51-3

Lawrence and Wishart have reprinted this book, first published in 1984 with a second edition in 2004. It is a work that gives great insight into the effects of the General Strike of 1926 on the mining community in South Wales and it combines this with accounts of experiences of the Welsh Volunteers, and others, in Spain during the conflict there in 1936 when the election of a popular front government was the signal for an invasion by right-wing army units based in North Africa. Once General Franco and his force had been transported across the Mediterranean, with the help of the Italian navy, a “fifth column” of his supporters took to the streets in support.

The first section of the book is based on Francis’s Ph.D. thesis of 1977. It contains a mass of well-documented information on the multifarious organisations that operated in South Wales in the 1920s and 1930s.

There can be no question that the prolonged lockout of miners, following the General Strike of nine days, was a turning point in industrial relations as well as a turning point in British politics. Consequences of the defeat of the miners included victimisation of workers, widescale unemployment, and a deliberate policy of immiseration of the working class in those areas which had shown Leftist tendencies in the years following the revolution in Russia. Any upward trend in living conditions was halted, even reversed, with some suffering more than others.

Francis has dealt with the crisis objectively. There is no attempt to dramatise the extent of misery at that time as a result of which the mining communities in South Wales became politically radicalised. As Francis himself puts it “A political ‘community’ consciousness (was) forged in 1926 during the General Strike and miners’ lock-out ”.  He credits the South Wales Miners Federation and the Communist Party with being the driving forces in this direction. Defending the lawfully elected government in Spain was just one way of expressing abhorrence of the growing trend towards Fascism in Europe.

Francis points out that the line taken by the British and French governments at the time was reprehensible. Their declaration of non-involvement was hypocritical. They did not stand idly by. Instead they went to extremes in their efforts to prevent voluntary aid of any sort reaching the Republican side. No effort was spared to hinder the Republican government as much as possible while giving a free hand to the other side. An Act of 1871 was resurrected to threaten the Volunteers with prison if they tried to leave the country. “Better dead than red” became a slogan of the Right and that says much more about contemporary official philosophy than does a policy of appeasement. Only when driven to the wall, following the “Phoney War” of 1940, were the Fascist aggressors opposed and even then others remained aloof.  Yet the Soviet Union was prepared to incur the ire of Hitler and Mussolini by offering official support.

The second part of the book relates some of the experiences of the men who went off to Spain and ends with an examination of their legacy. To date Francis has been able to trace 206 Volunteers. He is still searching for anyone whose name was omitted from the original number of 174 identified for his thesis. Fatalities amounted to 33, a casualty rate of about 20% indicating the heavy losses suffered by the International Brigade. That was a consequence of non-intervention. The Fascists were well provided for in terms of arms from outside while the “neutral” states imposed an arms embargo on the Republicans.

The conflict in Spain was just one source of discontent in the country. After 1926 increasing unemployment meant a consequent increase in welfare expenditure. Naturally this was unacceptable to government and there was a constant effort to restrict benefits. Matters reached a climax in the mid-1930s with the passing of the Unemployment Insurance Act. This, combined with the continuation of the Means Test, “unified the whole South Wales mining community, and was fully expressed in the greatest volcano of socio-political protest ever experienced in the region”.

The legacy of the struggle had more than one aspect partly because the Volunteers were on the losing side. Some who returned lapsed back to inactivity; some returned to pacifism only to be victimised again; perhaps surprisingly one became a Catholic. Others looked on the World War as a continuation of the struggle. The vast majority continued with their efforts to present the arguments of the neglected side in ways such as lecturing and creating memorials to those who had given their lives.

It is a sobering experience to read this work today when a similar depression has again gripped the country along with all the familiar trappings of wage freezes, reduction in real wages this time caused by high inflation, increasing unemployment, attempts to reduce welfare payments etc.

Those who have read previous editions will undoubtedly seek this one out with its additional material. New readers will find plenty of food for thought.

by Kevin McPhillips, WCML volunteer

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‘Socialism with a northern accent’ book review

Posted by wcmlibrary on August 3, 2012

Book review: Socialism with a northern accent: radical traditions for modern times by Paul Salveson.  Lawrence & Wishart, 2012 ISBN 978-1-907103-39-1

In 1998 at the Brit Awards the anarcho-punk band Chumbawamba attempted to throw a bucket of water over John Prescott and Cherie Blair/Booth. They said at the time:  “If John Prescott has the nerve to turn up at events like the BRIT Awards in a vain attempt to make Labour seem cool and trendy, then he deserves all we can throw at him”. John Prescott (and Cherie B/B) epitomise the worst in terms of working class people who have gained money and power and then peddle a stereotyped view of what it means to be working class.

In his introduction Prescott, or rather Lord Prescott, plays on his long forgotten (and ditched) working class background to extol the virtues of the last Labour government, whilst forgetting to mention that many of the policies that the Con/Dem coalition are following were originally New Labour policies. He may hope that he can use the past to rescue the Labour Party at the next election, but the voters will not be so easily conned.

Paul Salveson, Labour party councillor and Member of the British Empire, is quite clear about his agenda for this book. “Socialists – be they Labour Party members, Greens or non-aligned radicals – should have an awareness of their heritage that can help inspire campaigning today”.  He says the book “draws on examples of radical politics and culture in the North over the last two hundred years that are, to a greater or lesser degree, distinctive to the region, and have lessons for us today.”

Salveson concentrates on the north because, he argues, “Labour needs to cultivate a patchwork of regional and national identities, both political and cultural, as part of a wider “Britishness” celebrating a diverse, confident and progressive Britain of regions and nations.” For northern he means North West, Yorkshire and the Humber and the North East. And that word “socialism” again, only this time with a “northern accent”.

He traces the struggle for democracy within movements such as Peterloo and Chartism and places it within the distinctive history of the north. He introduces characters such as Thomas Newbiggin, a radical Liberal and shows how in the 1880s there was a radical Liberal political culture. It’s hard to believe this when the present day Lib Dems find it easy to get into power with the Conservatives.

Salveson explores the growth of the trade unions and alongside it progressive organisations such as the Social Democratic Federation, the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and the Labour Party.

A large chunk of the book extols, quite rightly, the important role that the ILP played in improving the lives of working class people. It was founded in 1893 in Bradford and “the achievements of scores of ILP councillors at the municipal level were considerable – free school milk, improved sanitation, municipal lighting, council run tramways,”fair wages’ clauses in council contracts and council housing”.

The ILP was not just a political party, it was a way of life with socialist education, journalism, music and art. However, by 1932 the Labour Party had changed from a community, grassroots organisation to an electoral machine and the ILP severed all links with the party.

It’s the template of the ILP that Salveson sees as the future for the Labour Party. “Can Labour recapture some of the radicalism and passion which informed the early years of the ILP and the Clarion Movement?”. This book is essentially about how they, the Labour Party, can re-fashion themselves for the next general election. However, he fails to address the reason why they lost 5 million voters between 1997 and 2010. One has only to look at the early days of the New Labour Government and their harsh treatment of single parents on benefits, the use of ASBOs against largely poor working class young people, the privatisation of elderly social care…I could go on. It was not just that they looked down upon their own voters but that in power they flaunted their wealth and power with their celebrity mates.

This is very much a nostalgia fest as Salveson returns to Bradford and the ILP birthplace as a good model of a Labour council. Clearly, he did not really know what was going on there as shortly after he published this book George Galloway and the Respect Party swept the Labour Party aside to grab power at a national and local level.

It is interesting that Salveson MBE and Lord Prescott still consider themselves to be socialists and believe that there are socialists still in the Labour Party. But it is clear that the people that he lauds in the book would be horrified if they saw what the Labour Party had done in their 13 years of government and would quite rightly line themselves up with everyone outside of the Labour Party.

One of the reasons that Labour faces an uphill struggle to regain its working class roots is that people are so disengaged with the political process and in particular young voters.  Many young people are active in social movements such as UK Uncut and Occupy where there is no hierachy of old men to tell them what to do. They have created their own communities, some of which have similarities to the radical culture of the ILP, but they see power in a completely different way from electoral politics. They are the ones, not the Labour Party, who to quote the subtitle of this book have “radical traditions for modern times”.

Bernadette Hyland, Library volunteer

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