Working Class Movement Library

A blog from the Working Class Movement Library in Salford

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RH Tawney and the intellectual development of the Labour Party – book review

Posted by wcmlibrary on February 24, 2015

A new biography of R. H. Tawney (The Life of R. H. Tawney: Socialism and History by Lawrence Goldman) might not appear to be either topical or of any major significance. He is perhaps dimly remembered as a figure on the Right of the Labour Party and as an intellectual who wrote works only relevant in the context of their times. His name also emerged when the short-lived Social Democratic Party tried to name their ‘think tank’ the Tawney Society in 1982.

Media of The Life of R. H. Tawney

However, Tawney cannot be sidelined quite as easily as he exerted an important influence upon the development of the Labour Party and had an impressive hinterland, the degree of which is explored in this biography. It is necessary also to challenge the perception of Tawney as a figure of the Right by noting that he remained in favour of both nationalisation and the retention of Clause IV. He was also very clear as to the damage that would be done to the Labour Party by figures such as Ramsay Macdonald and Philip Snowden and, indeed, their heirs and successors. His terse rejection of the offer of a peerage by Macdonald (‘What harm have I ever done to the Labour Party?’) was complemented by his assertion that Labour politicians ‘sit up, like poodles in a drawing room, wag their tails when patted, and lick their lips at the social sugarplums tossed them by their masters.’

Yet, a figure of the Right? Tawney qualified for this categorisation in that he was a quietly committed Christian who saw being a Socialist as an essentially moral act. As such he followed on from Ruskin, William Morris and Blatchford in attempting to show the need for a Socialist Commonwealth or the creation of a just society based on personal conversion to socialism. The works Equality (1931) and The Acquisitive Society (1930) were both powerful tomes but strangely lacking in real political content. The weakness of Tawney’s position lay in the fact that Capitalism had 200 years of moral condemnation and remained largely impervious. It was not shamed by the creation of unfair societies and if wounded by the moral and Christian arguments advanced by Tawney then has found plenty of clergy who will defend it by stating that Socialists have misunderstood Biblical teachings. Tawney does not grasp the contradictions of Capitalism or the degradation of both resources and people which is integral to how it operates.

Yet, many people (and not just Roy Hattersley) credit Tawney with their conversion to Socialism. It is interesting that the political range of those on the Left influenced by Tawney is quite broad. One could cite Michael Foot’s My Kind of Socialism or Tony Benn’s Arguments for Socialism as being very much in the Tawney tradition. The attraction of an Ethical Socialism or a broadly Christian approach lies in the very lack of specific or concrete analysis. Tawney was appalled at the behaviour of the 1929 Labour Government but it is not clear whether Tawney considered that Macdonald and the others betrayed the Labour Party by not being ethical enough, or that they simply had no effective means of dealing with a Capitalist crisis.

Lawrence Goldman is a good historian to explore the life and works of R H Tawney in that he is able to give equal weight to all the aspects of his life. Tawney was severely wounded on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, shot in the act of walking steadily towards German lines. He very largely created the tutorial structure of the WEA, having undertaken important work in Rochdale and the Potteries. This formative experience was the beginning of an association with the WEA over 50 years. He was influential in arguing for the nationalisation of the mining industry on the Stanley Commission after the First World War. He had a profound influence on the development of University education. He did much to create the discipline of Economic History. He argued (in the 1920s) for the idea of the Living Wage.

He was, above all, a reasonable man who was confident that through improved working class education and through the power of democracy British society would be transformed into a socialist one. In supporting nationalisation as a strategy he posed the question that the real issue was who controlled the State rather than who controlled the industry. Tawney knew that the transition to socialism would be difficult – he had travelled to China, the Soviet Union and the United States and had an international perspective. But, in the end the extent of his theoretical input was that reasonableness would triumph and Capitalism was amenable to effective and humane management. It is worth noting that recent commentators such as Will Hutton have expanded upon this theme by putting forward the idea of a long term and responsible stakeholder capitalism. Tellingly, this modest proposal was rejected by the last Labour Government as being too ‘anti-business.’ (1)

Therefore, this biography is timely and Tawney is a figure worth studying, as are a number of those who offered ideological input into the development of the Labour movement. The contemporaries of Tawney – the Webbs, Harold Laski and G.D.H. Cole – need to be actively studied again because it is necessary to further understand the intellectual development of the Labour Party. The recent work by Peter Hain – Back to the Future of Socialism – is a new look at Anthony Crosland’s Future of Socialism which was in turn influenced by Tawney. Clearly, this long line of argument in the Labour Party – ‘How to make Capitalism humane when it doesn’t really care?’ – is an enduring theme in Labour Party history and this well-written and well-researched biography of R H Tawney is a welcome contribution to any deeper understanding of the real meaning of the 2015 General Election campaign.

The Life of R.H. Tawney: Socialism and History by Lawrence Goldman was published by Bloomsbury in 2014.

(1) The Observer 22 February 2015. Left, right and the state we’re in. A review by John Kampfner of recent works by Will Hutton, Peter Hain and Geary & Pabst.

The Working Class Movement Library has a wide range of lectures and pamphlets written by Tawney, as well as material on the WEA and education policy generally. We also hold his major works – Equality, Religion & the Rise of Capitalism and The Acquisitive Society – and a number of earlier biographies and works which place Tawney in the context of the history of Socialist thought.  Search the Library catalogue here.

D W Hargreaves, Library volunteer

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Ethel Carnie Holdsworth, ‘Breaking the bonds of capitalism’

Posted by wcmlibrary on January 28, 2015

Ethel Carnie Holdsworth portrait

Ethel Carnie Holdsworth

We’ve just received from the author Roger Smalley a copy of his new book about Ethel Carnie Holdsworth, Breaking the bonds of capitalism: the political vision of a Lancashire mill girl (North West Regional Studies, Lancaster University, 2014).  We’ve written before in the blog about Ethel, the author of one of the first novels published by a British woman of working class background, and about our holdings of her books.

We also hold a decent run of The Woman Worker, the journal for which Ethel wrote after Robert Blatchford offered her a job in 1908.  This is the focus of a chapter in the new book.

In addition, we have in our collection two issues (Nos 8 and 12, Jan and May 1924) of the now very rare journal The Clear Light, published by Ethel and her husband Alfred, which is written about in detail in a further chapter in the book.    The May 1924 issue reported concerns about fascism in Britain and in October that year the Holdsworths turned The Clear Light into the organ of The National Union for Combating Fascism.

Ethel, in Roger Smalley’s words, ‘wrote poetry, novels, short stories and journalism in the cause of socialist unity, women’s rights, conscientious objection and the fight against capitalism and fascism. Much of her work was widely read, yet she died in poverty and obscurity’.  It is good to have this book in stock to bring together in detail Ethel’s many facets and remind the world of this early 20th century working class woman’s place in the tradition of British political dissent.


Come and have a read of the book, of Ethel’s novels, and of the many sources quoted in the book which we hold here in the Library.



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The Cato Street conspirators – a little bit of extra history hidden in the Library

Posted by wcmlibrary on February 3, 2014

The Library has a great collection of material relating to trials of the last 200 years, from suffragettes to the Shrewsbury pickets, from Meerut to Hone.  There are 205 items on our catalogue with the subject term ‘trials’ – have a browse!

Some of our most rare material dates from the early 19th century and concerns radicals accused of crimes from seditious libel to treason.   One such item is a two-volume account of the trial of the Cato Street conspirators.  A group of men involved in radical politics plotted to kill government ministers dining at Lord Harrowby’s house on 23 February 1820. The conspirators assembled in a hayloft in Cato Street, near Grosvenor Square in London.  However, the ministers were not at the house and it was a trap. George Edwards, a member of the group, was in fact an agent provocateur working for the government.

The trials of Arthur Thistlewood, James Ings, John Thomas Brunt, Richard Tidd, William Davidson, and others, for high treason, at the Sessions House in the Old Bailey, … 17-28th April, 1820, with the antecedent proceedings: in two volumes was published shortly after the trial from the verbatim shorthand notes of William Brodie Gurney.   Interesting indeed.  But the Library’s copy of volume 2 has a few even more exciting pages bound in at the back.  They show printed specimen handwriting from the accused men.  According to our founders Ruth and Eddie Frow a few copies of the book were printed with these pages, after the Counsel for the prisoners asked each of them to write something.

William Davidson, one of the accused, was born in the 1780s in Jamaica. He answered the request by writing the following:

He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is a folly and a shame upon him.
Thou shalt not oppress a stranger in a strange land.
Thou shalt not pervert the judgement of a stranger.
W Davidson

On 28 April 1820, William Davidson, James Ings, Richard Tidd, Arthur Thistlewood and John Brunt were found guilty of high treason. They were hanged outside Newgate Prison on 1 May 1820.

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An exciting new Russian Revolution acquisition

Posted by wcmlibrary on October 23, 2013

We’re finding some brilliant nuggets amongst papers and pamphlets of labour historian and former Trustee of the Library John Smethurst, which his widow Alice has kindly donated to us.

Here for instance is a page from ‘What happened at Leeds’, a report by the Council of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Delegates.

What happened at Leeds

The Leeds Convention of June 1917 has been described as perhaps the most remarkable gathering of the period, with contributions from across the breadth of the Labour movement.  There was eager debate, sparked by events in Russia, by 1,150 delegates including Tom Mann, Ben Tillett, Sylvia Pankhurst, Bertrand Russell, Dora Montefiore and Philip Snowden.

The first resolution, moved by Ramsay MacDonald, hails the Russian Revolution.   This fourth resolution calls on delegates to ‘work strenuously for a peace made by the peoples of the various countries, and for the complete political and economic emancipation of international labour’.

To find out more, come and read the whole pamphlet here at the Library.  Thanks Alice – and of course the much-missed John – for such an excellent addition to our Library.


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News of some lovely recent donations – there’s always something new to exclaim about at the Library!

Posted by wcmlibrary on September 9, 2013

Some fantastic donations of books and booklets to the Library in the past week.

* From Elisabeth Morris, daughter of the late Alderman Wright Robinson, items from amongst his papers relating to public health in Manchester.  One is ‘The human side of slum clearance’, written in 1935 by three social workers relating to rehousing in Hulme.  Although it is a formal ‘independent enquiry’ it is written in a style that’s a far cry from the official-ese in which such documents are often presented today:

‘The children like it. They are naughtier, we were told, they run wild, and they climb trees. The only thing that seems surprising is that in the short space of a few months they can recover from the constrictions of the crowded streets and learn to climb trees’.

‘One old lady said that she had not expected to live amongst green trees until she was taken in the Southern Cemetery and that she would not go back if she was offered the Town Hall clock’.

* And from Roger Smalley, who attended the Ethel Carnie Holdsworth workshop here on Saturday, a fantastic bag full of books by Ethel which are new to us – including a first edition of Miss Nobody, widely believed to be one of the first novels published by a British woman of working class background, and the centenary of the publication of which was the starting point for the event.  Also the catalogue of the Great Harwood Co-operative Society Library – lovely enough as it is, but this was actually Ethel’s copy.


See for Elinor Taylor’s write-up of the celebration.

And thanks to Elisabeth and Roger for their generous gifts.

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Hope and action – anti-apartheid campaigners join the myriad stories of activist lives here in the Library

Posted by wcmlibrary on May 10, 2013

We’re just cataloguing a donation from Eddie Adams – a Merlin Press book edited by Ken Keable, ‘London recruits: the secret war against apartheid’.  It tells the story of anti-apartheid activists in the UK in the ’60s and ’70s.

The foreword states: ‘They were drawn from different backgrounds and political formations on the left. What they shared was a readiness to risk life and limb in the struggle of another country. Working in self-contained cells that were unaware of each other, under the guidance of a small unit operating out of London, these dedicated women and men helped the liberation movement to rebuild its capacity inside South Africa at a time when repression had all but extinguished the embers of resistance’.

Interesting in itself, of course. But made into proper ‘history from below’ by the signatures on the title page, garnered by Eddie, of many of those activists –

London RecruitsAs one of the attendees at Owen Jones’s Frow lecture last Saturday tweeted, ‘Hope + Action. I’m in’.  Cheers to Eddie and all the signatories.


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A heartening story for National Libraries Day – trade unionist honoured with a memorial library

Posted by wcmlibrary on February 8, 2013

Here’s a touching library story, ahead of tomorrow’s National Libraries Day. It was sent in to us by Surrey County Unison, who are Friends of the Library:

Ian McDonald, who passed away in 2009, has received a special national award for his outstanding social work, from UNISON, the UK’s largest union.

Ian’s branch, Surrey County UNISON, voted unanimously for him to be nominated for the award after his 12 years of service.  Ian, who died suddenly from cancer two years ago, was described by his colleagues as a powerful force in social work. On the application for this award, his colleagues said he was ‘loved and respected by his peers, his managers, his clients and his UNISON colleagues’.

In addition, a memorial trade union and socialist education library has now been opened in Ian’s memory, housed in one of the county’s main libraries in Guildford. It is funded by donations from UNISON branches, and the collection by family and friends at his funeral. This collection is now home to a wide variety of books from Karl Marx’s Capital to The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, and includes hundreds of books useful to today’s trade unionists.

Paul Couchman, Surrey County UNISON Branch Secretary, said: ‘It took well over eighteen months of negotiating and planning to establish this unique, permanent, workers’ library in one of the most Tory councils in England but we did it. Ian would be proud’.



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Best wishes to all @Freedom_Paper

Posted by wcmlibrary on February 4, 2013

We’re horrified to hear about what police are treating as an arson attack on the Freedom Press bookshop in east London early on Friday morning.  Photos of the damage and details of how people can respond are on their Web site here.  Heartening to hear that the bookshop has re-opened today, after an extensive collective clear-up operation over the weekend.

Freedom Press, which comprises
» Freedom newspaper
» Freedom Bookshop
» Freedom publishing
is a longstanding anarchist publisher based in Whitechapel.

To quote from the history page on their Web site:

The first Freedom emerged from the British socialist movement in the early 1880s. At that time there were several overlapping organisations with associated periodicals – the Social Democratic Federation with Justice and Today, the Fabian Society with the Practical Socialist and Our Corner, the Socialist League with the Commonweal, and so on.  Anarchists were active in all these, but there were no separate anarchist initiatives in the country until the formation of a “circle of English anarchists” in May 1885.  This group included both Continental émigrés (Such a Nikola Chaikovski and Severio Merlino) and native British anarchists; among the latter the leading member was Charlotte Wilson, who was both well educated and well off, and who was an active writer and speaker advocating anarchism in socialist organisations and publications from 1884.

When Peter Kropotkin, the best-known figure in the international anarchist movement, was released from prison in France in January 1886, Charlotte Wilson was responsible for the group inviting him to come to Britain to join them.  He settled in England in March 1886, and the group decided to produce a new anarchist paper after their separation from the English Anarchist Circle and The Anarchist edited by Henry Seymour. In addition to Freedom, the group eventually set up Freedom Press, the main publisher of anarchist literature in England. This was the origin of Freedom and the Freedom Press’.

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Two things of beauty to cheer you on a cold day

Posted by wcmlibrary on January 15, 2013

Cover to 'The Seed She Sowed' by Emma Leslie

Before I put it back on the shelf, I thought I should share the lovely cover of a book which has just been used by a reader who’s researching dock strikes, the background setting to this novel.

And here is the Library’s camellia in all its amazing January glory:_IGP3810










Come and admire our plants and read our books. We’ve just had the 16 out of our 70 radiators which weren’t working fixed (thanks Salford Council!) so it’s warm here too…


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Book review – ‘Special Category: the IRA in English Prisons’

Posted by wcmlibrary on January 4, 2013

Special Category: the IRA in English Prisons Vol.1: 1968-1978 by Ruan O’Donnell. Irish Academic Press, ISBN 978 0 7165 3141 8

It will come as a surprise to many people in this country that there have been political prisoners in English jails and in this book Ruan provides a comprehensive account of who they were, why they were there and what both the British  government  and the prisoners themselves felt about the situation.

We are,  of course,  talking about Irish prisoners who were in English jails because of Britain’s occupation of the Six Counties of Ireland (otherwise known as Northern Ireland) and the unresolved political situation which affected both sides of the Irish border and had an international dimension.

What is amazing about this book is the way in which Ruan has used an array of sources. He has interviewed many participants – including prisoners and  their families –  as well as using private collections of correspondence and papers, state archives, declassified documents, and  official records of parliamentary business. His attention to detail is incredible: in one chapter there are over 300 footnotes!

Cover of the bookThere have been Irish prisoners in British jails going back to the United Irishmen in the 1790s. In this book Ruan looks at a ten year period beginning with the new phase of the Troubles from 1968 onwards. After 1968 the numbers of Irish Republicans jailed increased and the tactics of the British Government towards these prisoners changed. And whilst the numbers of prisoners  increased,  it was more difficult for them to organise against a harsh prison regime:

“It was no coincidence that the first two fatal hunger strikes of the modern Troubles occurred in England and that events within the Dispersal System resonated, often powerfully, on Irish soil over three decades”.

In the 1970s I went to a predominantly Irish secondary school in the heart of the Irish community in Manchester and, whilst the main agenda for the hierarchy of this Catholic school was to deliver law-abiding British children, there were Irish teachers who were Republican minded.  I remember vividly one Irish nun telling us about interned Irish prisoners in the Six Counties and their harsh conditions.  She did not mention the growing number of Republican and innocent Irish prisoners in British jails  (including the Birmingham Six) who were now part of this harsh regime.

The Irish community in Britain has always played a significant role in opposing Britain’s occupation of Ireland but,  as the war intensified and the IRA brought its actions to England,  it was the community who took the backlash.  The British Government rushed through the Prevention of Terrorism Act in 1974 after the Birmingham pub bombings which, whilst not stopping IRA activity,  did severely curtail democratic debate in this country about the war going on in Northern Ireland. From 1974 to the early 1980s very few Irish people, and even fewer English people,  wanted to be seen taking part in any public opposition to the eroding of civil and human rights  of Irish people on both sides of the Irish Sea.

Ruan puts this into context and weaves together some of the campaigning work done by outstanding people such as Sister Sarah Clarke on behalf of prisoners and their families.  She had been active from the 70s  but,  after 1973,  was barred from visiting prisoners.  She only found out in 1985 that she had been stopped from being an approved visitor on the grounds of security. You would have to meet Sister Sarah to realise how ridiculous this was.

Whilst IRA prisoners in English jails asserted their Republican political views,  for those individuals such as the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four, Maguire Seven and others who were victims of miscarriages of justice, in effect convicted of being Irish in the wrong place at the wrong time,  it is heartbreaking to read the accounts of their unjust treatment by all  levels of the police, courts and prison system. As Ruan says about the Maguire family, “Their case was arguably the single worst incidence of judicial abuse perpetrated under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and indicated that any Irish person, regardless of age, gender or political orientation, was liable to face imprisonment if elements of the British Establishment so desired.”

As republican prisoners increased in number they took part in a variety of strategies to seek their freedom. These included escapes, riots and  legal challenges. They became important in Republican strategy for resolving the political situation in the Six Counties and,  as we saw in the negotiations in the 1990s leading to the Good Friday Agreement,  the prisoners had a major influence in the settlement. Ruan’s book covers just part one of this story, up to 1978.  It is a fascinating and important history of the Irish struggle, and makes one look forward to the next volume.

Bernadette Hyland

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