Socialist History - Notes
This page contains various bits of information which have been
circulated around the Socialist Historians group - mostly related
to the meetings. It`s all shovelled in & a bit chaotic
at the moment but I hope to knock it into shape in due
2014 marked the 30th anniversary of the year-long Miners`Strike.
This has already been a major focus of attention, and will
continue to be so into 2015 and indeed beyond.
For the 10th anniversary in 1994, Richard Clarkson (late lamented
member of this club) put together an exhibition of photographs,
which led to publication of a book "Striking Memories".
We hope sometime to get this into a digital format which can be
Miners` Strike - the prelude
How did the strike come about in the first place ?
First of all, it should be emphasised that Thatcher and her
philosophy didn't "spring on to the world new-minted" in the 70s.
As a strand of conservative thinking it can be traced back at
least until 1957 when Chancellor Peter Thorneycroft, vexed about
public expenditure, quit MacMillan's government along with two
others. Even then there was talk of the need to control the money
supply and leave things to the market. And even then there was
impatience on the Tory right with MacMillan's patrician ways - and
in particular with his apparent appeasement of the unions (Beckett
Roll on to the Thatcher years though. 1979 was clearly a
watershed. Thatcher wanted to do away with Attlee's post war
settlement. She wanted to privatise and to de-regulate.
Yet in her early days in Downing Street Thatcher had been
cautious. The "Wets" still predominated in the Cabinet and one
early attempt to confront the miners had backfired. Energy
Minister David Howell had tried to force the hand of the
relatively moderate NCB Chief Derek Ezra. The cash limits within
which the NCB had to operate were cut so that even Ezra had to
propose closures. It led to mass walkouts in February 1981. The
Government, knowing coal stocks were low, backed down. Closure
plans were withdrawn with the Government assuring the NUM that it
would stick to the normal colliery review procedure.
But the Government was merely biding its time. Thatcher regrouped.
She set up a secret Cabinet committee "MISC7" to prepare for any
future confrontation. More money was allocated for the stockpiling
of coal. There was an expansion of dual oil and coal fired power
stations. Anti-strike laws were strengthened and the Scotland Yard
National Reporting Centre (NRC) - which would deal with flying
pickets - was also revived.
Thatcher's final ploy was to appoint Ian Macgregor, who'd
butchered British Steel, as head of the NCB. The stage was set for
On 1 March 1984 George Hayes - then South Yorkshire Coal Director
- told local NUM leaders that Cortonwood would close in five weeks
time on 6 April 1984. It was a bolt out of the blue for the 839
miners, 80 of whom had been transferred from Elsecar on the
proviso that the pit had a rosy future. The miners were shocked
and felt betrayed. Soon they were picketing the NUM offices in
Barnsley where the Yorkshire Area Council was about to meet. And
then on 6 March Macgregor told the NUM nationally of plans to cut
4 million tonnes of capacity and make 20,000 miners redundant. The
1984-85 Miners' Strike was about to begin.
THE IMPORTANCE OF IMAGES
(a view from the Republican Socialist Alliance Google group
I remember reading about the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 when many
people were killed and injured by a cavalry charge, soldiers
wielding swords that could cut a person in half. I put it
down to the primitive early nineteenth-century thinking where the
forces of law thought they had the right to put down any rebellion
or opposition by force. It was therefore a shock to see that
in 1984, a modern age that was proud of having greater maturity,
an age that had seen the consequences of war on a world scale, and
an age that knew there was a better way based of love and peace, a
cavalry charge was launched against working people because they
had chosen to go on strike.
This was a cavalry charge that differed only in that the
horsemen had batons not swords. This photo, which is quite famous,
shows a policeman with baton bearing down on a protester. It is
believed he missed the protester and she was ok, but the point of
the image is that it is exactly like an eighteenth-century cavalry
charge. A throw back to the past. One only has to imagine the
baton being replaced by a sword to realise how violent this charge
was and how primitive was the thinking behind it. We need rid of
primitive politicians who authorise such attacks or who think
hitting people is the answer to anything.
This is a poignant episode in local radical history. The group
organised a walk around some of the locations where these events
In 1905 the whole of Britain became aware of the conditions faced by
miners living in colliery owned housing. In Kinsley, West
Yorkshire over 100 families were evicted from their homes during a
protracted pay dispute between miners and coal owners. The
Labour movement - then in its' infancy - rallied in support.
Keir Hardie and the Independent Labour Party in particular backed
their cause. Clarion Vans arrived. A tented village was
set up on the common to shelter those evicted. And local
children were accommodated in the ballroom of the Kinsley Hotel.
In the summer of 1893 Yorkshire mine owners - faced with a fall in
the price of coal - demanded that miners accept a 25% reduction in
The miners resisted and on 28th July they were locked out.
The dispute dragged on and after seven weeks money was increasingly
tight. Miners knew they needed to step up their action so they
began to stop the movement of coal.
On 6th September the manager of Featherstone's Ackton Hall colliery,
a Mr Holiday, arrived at the pit to find a large picket of
miners demanding that the loading of smudge for sale be
stopped. Holiday eventually agreed.
But the next day miners discovered wagons with Bradford destination
tickets being loaded with smudge. The miners felt they had
been conned, so they toppled the wagons over.
Holiday, fearing widespread unrest, called for help and the military
- in the form of the South Staffordshire Regiment - were soon sent
However the troops and the magistrate Bernard Hartley JP were
confronted by a large crowd in Green Lane. The magistrate read
the Riot Act but when the crowd didn't disperse live rounds were
One man, James Gibb, was shot through the right breast. He
died in a local surgery the following day.
Another man, James Duggan, also died in Clayton Hospital, Wakefield
after surgeons were unable to stop bleeding in his leg.
Many more people were also wounded.
Jurors at Duggan's inquest were instructed to return a verdict of
"justifiable homicide". Jurors at Gibb's inquest refused to
acquiesce in this way and expressed regret at the "extreme measures"
taken on the night in question.
The Bowen Commission later set up to inquire into events was a
complete whitewash. The Home Secretary, H.H. Asquith, did
agree to pay £100 to each of the deceased families but still didn't
admit any culpability. Henceforth Asquith was known as
I do not have any material from the event on this subject, but there
is an interesting cross-reference to the Luddites in the
contribution on Tolpuddle (below)
2014 marked the centenary of the outbreak of World War 1.
This was essentially an imperialist war and, as expected, we are
experiencing a heavy bombardment of imperialist history. However,
there is an alternative story to be told from a working class point
The group devoted a meeting to this subject on 01/11/14.
The First Word War was the first truly global conflict. Some
10 million were killed and 10 million more seriously injured in the
"war to end all wars." And all too often it was young working
class conscripts who bore the brunt of these losses.
The speakers were:
*Stephen Wood.......Stephen is a trade unionist and socialist
who works in local government. He runs a socialist readers group in
Leeds. He has spoken on this subject to the Alliance for Workers
Liberty's "Ideas for Freedom" event.
*Dave Sherry....Dave is very active in UNITE's Scottish Federation
of Housing Association's Branch. He is author of "Empire and
Revolution: A Socialist History of the First World War" and "John
Maclean: Red Clydesider."
Bob Mitchell has spoken to me about the possibility of some sort of
socialist poetry event? I think it's an interesting idea but want to
get feedback...it does also prompt me to ask, "Where stands
The Left in the past -including the CP- had cultural journals and
events. There have been socialist poets..Burns, Dylan Thomas,
Hugh MacDiarmid. The Morning Star still has a poetry
column. But what about the rest of the Left?
Would it be an idea to have an event inviting people either to read
their own poetry, read their favourite poems or talk about their
favourite radical/socialist poets?
Look forward to your comments...
Report to local press 07/12/14
Twenty eight people attended a Wakefield Socialist History Group
meeting at the Red Shed last Saturday on "Eco-Socialism: Green
Socialist Ideas Past and Present."
The first speaker was Adrian Cruden. Adrian is an
eco-socialist and blogger. He stood for the Green Party in
Dewsbury at the last election. Adrian pointed out that 98% of
scientists agree that climate change is the result of human
The second speaker, Mike Davies, is National Chair of the Alliance
for Green Socialism. Mike said the environment is the biggest
issue facing humanity. He also said we need to question the
need for economic growth.
After the break Garth Frankland from Left Unity spoke. He made
clear that we can't regulate capitalism. We need to destroy
it. Capitalism is in contradiction with the environment.
The final speaker was Brian Else. Brian is Chair of the
Wakefield Green Party. He spoke about the history of
Eco-socialist ideas including the thinker Peter Kropotkin.
GLASGOW RENT STRIKES 1915
Industrial capitalism changed the relationship of people to
housing. Workers - many of whom who'd been forced off the land
anyway - were recruited from the countryside and had to rent poor
quality, poorly maintained, overcrowded dwellings from rapacious
The home then became, Renton (2012) says, the "primary place of
social production where workers rested between shifts, where meals
were prepared and where adults cared for the young.
There were a few Victorian and Edwardian examples of good workers'
housing. The best known were at Saltaire, Bournville and Port
Sunlight. However those schemes were run by philanthropic,
liberal non-conformists who were also autocratic and hostile to
For workers themselves to fight - on their own behalf - for decent
housing was difficult. Renton (2012) notes that factories
brought thousands of workers together at the point of
production. So factories were "obvious locations of common
struggle". Housing by contrast was a battle which "had to be
fought each time afresh against individual landlords".
Yet a real breakthrough came in Glasgow in 1915. Munitions
factories were desperate to recruit additional workers.
Landlords took advantage of subsequent pressures on housing, hiking
rents by up to 25%.
Outraged tenants organised rent strikes with women to the
fore. Non-payers were taken to court but following a
demonstration of 30,000 the sheriff adjourned the cases.
The Government also caved in, pushing through the Increase of Rent
and Mortgage Interest (War Restrictions Act) 1915, capping rents to
1914 levels. Tenants were also given more security of tenure.
Other legislation soon followed. The Housing and Town Planning
Act (1919) required local authorities to assess and plan for housing
needs in their areas. The Housing (Financial Provisions) Act
1924 also guaranteed central government funding for local authority
Working class housing was now firmly on the political agenda.
1960s - NORMANTON RENT STRIKE
A woman in Normanton wrote a letter to the Saturday issue of the
Yorkshire Evening Post complaining about the Normanton Council
increasing the rent.
Protests spread and many resolved not to pay the rise. A
Tenants' Association was founded, a public meeting of a thousand
plus was held and there was a mass picket outside Normanton Town
Hall whilst the council was in session (Harding 2005)
Normanton was then part of a strong mining area. Activists in
the local NUM were on the Tenants' Association Committee and NUM
branches prepared for industrial action to back the tenants'
The threat of strike action helped resolve the issue. The
council caved in. The rent issues were scrapped and those that
had paid got a refund.
The rent strike had proved a success!
2015 - NOTTINGHAM
On Friday 23 January a crowd of 500 gathered to stop the eviction of
63 year old Tom Crawford from his Nottingham home.
Tom - who is suffering from cancer - was due to be evicted by
bailiffs acting on behalf of the Bradford and Bingley Building
Tom had put a video on Youtube saying he would give a cup of tea to
anyone who came to help him avoid eviction. His plea struck a
cord; hundreds turned up to offer support.
Statement of support
We, the undersigned, join local members of the National Union of
Journalists in condemning the decision by Johnston Press
Yorkshire to make staff photographers on its weekly newspapers
redundant and to cut up to 19 more editorial posts.
photographers employed made a valuable contribution to the
print and online news and sports coverage published by the
Yorkshire Weekly Newspaper Group’s titles: Batley and Birstall
News, Dewsbury Reporter, Hemsworth and South Elmsall Express,
Mirfield Reporter, Morley Observer and Advertiser, Pontefract
and Castleford Express, Spenborough Guardian, and Wakefield
The four highly-skilled photographers made redundant - Jake
Oakley, Diane Allen, Andrew Bellis and John Clifton - had given
a total of more than 40 years’ loyal service to the company.
Without them, the quality of the titles they work for and their
standing in the communities they serve will be irreparably
In the past four years,
the company has shut seven of its eight district offices, with
the remaining Wakefield office closed to the public. An
endless cycle of voluntary redundancy schemes, restructuring
and non-replacement of roles has seen the number of editorial
staff on the eight papers cut from 52 in November 2010 to 23
once the last of the photographers leaves.
Not only is this taking jobs directly from the communities the
papers serve, but it is undermining the ability of those left to
provide comprehensive, quality coverage that is vital to local
democracy and which readers deserve.
We are alarmed that this
pattern is set to continue with up to 19 jobs to be cut from
titles across Yorkshire by the end of March, despite the
continued profitability of the company.
Who will cover local elections, council meetings and the courts
if this constant stripping away of resources continues? Who will
be left to run campaigns like the Wakefield Express’ fight to
get Kirkgate train station refurbished and staffed; the Reporter
Series’ Dignity in Care campaign; the Morley Observer’s Shop
Local campaign, or the Fair Share drive by the Pontefract and
Castleford Express and Hemsworth and South Elmsall Express to
get more investment in the areas surrounding Wakefield?
While regional managers
are tasked with cutting yet more jobs, Johnston Press chief
executive Ashley Highfield could earn a bonus of up to 180 per
cent of his £400,000 basic salary in 2014 and chief financial
officer David King could earn up to 150 per cent of his
£250,000 basic salary in 2014. This would amount to almost
£1.1m - enough to pay the annual salaries of around 65 junior
reporters, 52 senior reporters or 43 news editors on weekly
titles like those at YWNG.
We join NUJ members at Yorkshire Weekly Newspaper Group in
calling on Mr Highfield and Mr King to forgo any bonus in 2014
and instead allow that money to be invested in improving staff
in struggling newsrooms.
We also urge Johnston
Press Yorkshire to work with the NUJ and all editorial staff
to find an alternative to yet more job cuts and to ensure that
our communities continue to have papers of which they can be
Don Mort, who is a NUJ "Chapel Rep" for the Yorkshire Weekly
Newspaper Group, will speak at the
Wakefield Socialist History Group meeting on
DEMOCRACY AND THE MEDIA: STRUGGLES FOR MEDIA PLURALISM PAST AND
on Saturday 18 April 2015 at the Red Shed, Vicarage Street,
Don won the "02 Media Award" in 2014 for Yorkshire's best weekly
newspaper reporter. This award was in recognition for his
The other speaker, Granville Williams, is a member of the National
Council of the CAMPAIGN FOR PRESS AND BROADCASTING FREEDOM and UK
Co-ordinator of the EUROPEAN INITIATIVE FOR MEDIA PLURALISM.
He is also the editor of a new book, BIG MEDIA AND INTERNET TITANS.
We will also be showing Lindsay Anderson's great 1952 documentary
Lindsay Anderson was a British feature film, theatre and documentary
He developed a philosophy of the cinema which in the late 50's
became known as the "Free Cinema movement."
"Wakefield Express" was commissioned by the paper in 1952 to
celebrate its anniversary. It was meant to be a film showing
how the paper was printed.
But at Anderson's behest - as director - it became a much more
personal study of the communal life of a group of towns in
the West Riding area as the local reporters travelled around
the area in search of newsworthy events.
News release to Wakefield Express for possible inclusion in
Wakefield Socialist History Group
Thirty three people attended a meeting on DEMOCRACY AND THE MEDIA
held by the Wakefield Socialist History Group at the Red Shed on
Saturday 18th April 2015.
Granville Williams from the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting
Freedom introduced the Manifesto for Media Reform which calls for
limits to the concentration of media ownership. He pointed out that
four newspaper groups have a 75% market share of UK national
Don Mort from the National Union of Journalists spoke about their
"Local News Matters" campaign which calls for local papers to be
classed as community assets. He insisted that democracy and
the media are intertwined - you cannot have one without the other!
Finally Pete Lazenby from the Morning Star spoke passionately
about his role as Northern Correspondent with Britain's
daily socialist newspaper.
Lindsay Anderson's fascinating 1952 documentary "Wakefield Express"
was also shown.
Below is short piece I did for CARN magazine on ILP
leader James Maxton.
It is 130 years since the birth of James Maxton.
James Maxton was born on 22 June 1885 in Pollokshaws. Both his
parents were schoolteachers and his father in particular was a Tory
Maxton was educated at Grahamston Public School in Barrhead and at
the age of 12 won a scholarship to Hutcheson's Grammar School.
He was "matriculated" at Glasgow University in 1903. His stay
there was protracted because of exam failures. He passed
English at the tenth attempt and never did obtain a pass in moral
philosophy. However he did eventually graduate with an MA in
1909 and the setbacks were said to be because he'd neglected his
studies by throwing himself into both sport and politics.
Certainly Maxton was questioning his inherited unionism and,
influenced by various socialist texts, he joined the Independent
Labour Party (ILP).
After University, like his parents, he went into teaching. And
together with John Maclean he taught evening classes to rank and
He and Maclean were firm friends and both denounced the First World
War. Indeed Maxton's dogged opposition to conscription cost
him his teaching job and in May 1916 - found guilty of sedition - he
was sentenced to a year in Calton jail.
After World War One he stood for Parliament. At first he was
unsuccessful and he returned to University between 1920 and 1922 to
take classes in Political Economy, Forensic Medicine and Public
International Law. The feeling was that he intended to
complete a law degree.
However in 1922 he won Bridgeton for Labour and went to
Westminster. There he espoused the cause of genuine Home
Rule. "We could do more in five years in a Scottish Parliament
than could be produced by 25 or 30 years heartbreaking working in
the British House of Commons", he said.
Maxton played an important role in the General Strike alongside the
Miners' A.J. Cook. And it was Labour's lack of support for the
miners that in part led him to side with the ILP when it went its
own way in the 1930s.
Maxton died on 23 July 1946. Interestingly, Winston Churchill
would describe him as the "greatest parliamentarian of his day."
News release to Wakefield Express.
Wakefield Socialist History Group
Twenty two people attended a meeting on Saturday 9th May 2015 at the
Red Shed to discuss
"The Story of the Independent Labour Party - and lessons for
The first speaker was Iain Dalton from the Socialist Party.
Iain highlighted how the ILP was founded in Bradford and argued that
it was the "product of struggles that took place in West Yorkshire"
beforehand such as the strike at Manningham Mills.
The second speaker was Barry Winter from Independent Labour
Publications. Barry spoke in particular about the life and
contribution of Keir Hardie. This year sees the centenary of
The Group's next event is a guided walk around Radical Bradford on
Saturday 13th June.
Twenty two people attended a forum on EUROPE AND THE LEFT
held at on Saturday 21 November by Wakefield Socialist History
Group. The aim was to debate "How socialists should vote in
There were four speakers covering a range of positions.
Paul Bennett from the Socialist Party of Great Britain argued that
"in and out of the EU" are "exactly the same."
It would make no difference to the life of the working class. Any
differences would be "fairly marginal."
He advocated writing "socialism" or "world socialism" on the ballot
paper. The real choice we should be interested in was
between capitalism or socialism.
John Westmoreland from "Counterfire" said he was for "Brexit" and
for a "left campaign to get out of the EU."
The EU is a "neo-liberal dictatorship" not a democracy. The EU and
NATO are wedded together.
We need to "come out and build a real internationalism."
Kevin Taylor from the Communist Workers' Organisation stated that he
was against the division of workers along national and
trans-national lines. The IWO stood for a global socialist
society where production is for need not profit.
Where the EU referendum was concerned his advice was "don't vote,
The final speaker, John Tummon, a member of the Republican Socialist
Alliance, said he was for critical but unambiguous support for
staying in. He backed Jeremy Corbyn's position. We need to
defend the rights of migrants and the right to free movement.
(Click here to see John`s
presentation in detail)
There then followed a lively question and discussion session which
focused on various aspects of social protection and union/disability
We were circulated detail
of a one day conference
"EU developments : has social Europe disintegrated ?"
organised by the Institute of
Employment Rights (a think tank for the labour movement) on
9th March 2016.
on the day`s proceedings contain a lot of information that you
will never see amongst the trivia dished up by the mass media.
This is an important contribution to the debate on the EU
While EU employment laws and the human rights convention offer some
protection to UK workers - particularly under a government that aims
to minimise workers’ rights where it can - many are concerned the
dream of Social Europe has been corrupted and replaced with a
EU economic policy emphasises austerity and incentivises
governments to provide cheap labour over high-quality jobs;
landmark cases such as those of Viking and Laval have found in favour
of corporations’ right to search the globe for cheap labour over
the right of workers to fair pay and conditions; and now TTIP
threatens to give corporations enormous power over national
policymaking. Indeed, leading EU expert Michael
Bowsher QC warned that the trade deal poses a “real and serious risk” to the government’s
ability to freely make decisions regarding the NHS.
On Saturday 13 February 2016, the Wakefield Socialist History
Group held an event,
THE LEVELLERS AND THE DIGGERS
at the Red Shed, which attracted 41 people.
The Levellers were 17th century radicals who advocated a broader
franchise, legal reforms, religious tolerance and the abolition of
tithes. They found strong support in the army (1647-9) and
particularly at the Putney Debates.
The Diggers were radicals who established colonies in waste land at
St George's Hill, Surrey and elsewhere (1649-50).
The Surrey Diggers were led by Gerrard Winstanley who advocated
communal cultivation of common land and later wrote, "The Law of
Ian Brooke (author of "England's Forgotten Revolution;
1641-1663" and author also of a history of Huddersfield Trades
Council; Ian spoke at the 2015 Wigan Diggers Festival)
Shaun Cohen (Shaun is a member of our sister
organisation, the Ford Maguire Society, in Leeds; Shaun has
previously spoken to us about the Chartists and about the
Steve Freeman (Steve is a member of the Republican
Socialist Alliance and stood in the general election in Bermondsey
and Old Southwark).
"Freeborn John" - one of the most prominent Levellers
John Lilburne was born in Sunderland, the third son of Richard
Lilburne, a minor country gentleman. His mother was daughter
of Thomas Hixon, master of the King's Wardrobe at Greenwich Palace.
He was educated in Newcastle (probably at the Royal Free Grammar
School) and educated also in Bishop Auckland.
In the 1630's he was apprenticed in London to Thomas Hewson, a
wholesale clothier and Puritan. Through him he got to know
John Bostwick, a campaigner against Episcopacy.
Soon Lilburne was himself involved in the printing and distribution
of unlicensed Puritan books and pamphlets. It led to him being
arrested in December 1637 and being taken before the Court of Star
He was sentenced on 13 February 1638. In addition to being
fined £500 he was also to be whipped at cart-tail from Fleet Prison
to New Palace Yard, Westminster. There he was to stand in
pillory. Then he would be imprisoned until he "conformed and
admitted his guilt."
Languishing in prison, he wrote the first of many pamphlets
publicising the injustices against him. And when King Charles
reluctantly summoned the Long Parliament in 1640 Oliver Cromwell MP
seized the opportunity to highlight Lilburne's case.
Parliament duly ordered his release.
When the first Civil War broke out Lilburne enlisted as captain in
Lord Brooke's regiment of foot and fought at the battle of Edgehill.
He resigned his commission in April 1645 however and was imprisoned
that summer for having denounced MPs who lived in comfort whilst
common soldiers fought and died for Parliament.
In July 1646 he was in trouble again. He was sent to the Tower
for having denounced his former commander Earl of Manchester as a
traitor and Royalist sympathiser. There he continued to write
pamphlets -smuggled out and published by friends and supporters-
that drew attention to examples of hypocrisy, corruption and
profiteering in high places.
Lilburne wanted a new form of accountable government and whilst
still in prison was associated with the drafting of the "Leveller
Manifesto: An Agreement of the People."
Released on bail, he hurried to support Leveller mutineers at
Corkbush field and then went to London to try build up Leveller
He and other Leveller leaders were arrested however in March
1649. He'd already attacked the new republican government in
"England's New Chains Discovered." But he was still found not
guilty of high treason and of inciting mutinies.
Lilburne died in 1657. As highlighted, Lilburne had faced
along series of trials throughout his life and became known as
"Freeborn John" because of his defence of rights such as that to
hear the accusation, face one's accusers and not to incriminate
oneself. Indeed he is seen as having inspired the 5th
Amendment to the American Constitution and is cited by many
constitutional jurists and scholars.
By: Alan Stewart
William Morris - his road to socialism
William Morris was born on 24 March 1834 at Clay Hill, Walthamstow -
a place he described as then being a "pleasant suburban village on
the edge of Epping Forest." Six years later the family moved
to Woodford Hall, a Palladian mansion stood in 50 acres of parkland
with adjacent farmland. Only a fence separated it from Epping
Forest and it was - Henderson (1967) reflects - "very much the
squire's house" with the garden gate opening on to the local
The move to Woodford Hall had been made possible by a precipitate
rise in the price of copper shares. William Morris's father
was a businessman in the city and had 272 shares in a Devonshire
copper mine. They were originally valued at one pound but were
now changing hands for £800. His holding therefore was now
worth about £200,000.
At the age of nine Morris was sent to prep school in Walthamstow. He
got there each day - 2 miles - by pony.
Then in the autumn of 1847 - his father having passed away - Morris
was sent off to Marlborough, one of the public schools founded for
sons of the middle classes. It was described as a "new and
very rough school." Life there wasn't very regimented.
Indeed he would later say he learned next to nothing "for indeed
next to nothing was taught." But it suited Morris. He
was able to go to Savernake forest, the stone circles of Avebury and
the pre-Celtic long barrows on the ridges above Pewsey Vale.
Plus he was able to peruse literature in the school library - it was
well stocked with books on archaeology and medieval
Marlborough was in ferment however. It culminated in a
"rebellion of the whole school" in November 1851. Morris's
family brought him home and got him a private tutor to prepare him
In June 1852 he sat for the matriculation exam in the hall of Exeter
College, Oxford. Sat next to him was Edward Burne-Jones.
They would become lifelong friends. He went up to Oxford
the following year. There he fell under the influence of the
HIgh Church or Puseyite School. He and Burne-Jones both seemed
destined for ecclesiastical careers.
Yet Morris was also exposed to, and inspired by, the arguments of
those critical of the prevalent materialism of the age. He
heard Carlyle's denunciations of the "dehumanising effects of the
cash nexus." And he read Ruskin`s postulate that art is a
"public concern." It is a "measure of a nation's wellbeing
rather than a hobby for the elite."
Morris himself was now writing poetry and whilst still a student he
set up a literary publication, "The Oxford and Cambridge
Magazine." When he finished studies he was briefly articled to
G.E. Street, the architect, but soon embarked - Leopold (2003) says
- on a career combining "decorative art and creative writing."
His firm - Morris and Co. - would go on to do pivotal work with
stained glass, embroidery and painted furniture. Plus the
first of his distinctive wallpaper designs were registered in
His active involvement in politics dates from 1876. Disraeli
had sanctioned an alliance with the Turks to wage war on Russia
despite Turkish atrocities committed on the Balkan people.
Morris became Treasurer of the Eastern Question Association and in
April 1877 addressed his pamphlet, "Unjust War" to "the working men
By 1880 he saw that the Liberals were just as bad. Gladstone had
reneged on promises of radical reform at home. Plus abroad his
coercion of the Irish was appalling too. Morris, who'd read
Marx's CAPITAL, in French, was being increasingly drawn to socialist
Twenty three people attended a discussion -
WILLIAM MORRIS: REVOLUTIONARY SOCIALIST OR UTOPIAN DREAMER ? -
at the Red Shed, Wakefield on Saturday 27 February.
The speakers were Colin Waugh (Independent Working Class Education
Network), Brian Else (Wakefield Green Party) and Bill Martin
(Socialist Party of Great Britain). The chair was Yvonne
After the speeches there was a lively discussion about Morris's
attitude towards anarchism and about whether he was in fact a
Marxist. One contributor from the floor emphasised the need
not to "pigeon hole" Morris but rather to concentrate on and
appreciate his contribution to art and to political thought.
The Yorkshire Rebellion of 1820 was planned by working
class radicals. It occurred just as those arrested during
the Peterloo Massacre and at other reform demonstrations in 1819
were coming to trial.
The desire for universal suffrage, annual elections and an end
to the Corn Laws were the main motivation.
Come along and hear Shaun Cohen from the Ford Maguire Society
speak about this important event.
The chair will be Adrian Cruden from the Green Party.
The meeting organised by Wakefield Socialist History Group is on
Saturday 25 June, 1pm at the Red Shed (Wakefield Labour Club)
Tolpuddle and the GNCTU
David Brandon (2008) looks at the case of the
Tolpuddle Martyrs very much in terms of the rise (and subsequent
fall) of the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union.
The GNCTU (1834) was founded a decade after the Combination Act
(1824) which apparently established the legality of workers
organising in unions. Part of the GNCTU's programme was to
push for a "great national holiday" - effectively a general strike -
after which a "co-operative commonwealth" would be inaugurated.
It is in this context that we should look at the Tolpuddle
Martyrs. They were agricultural labourers who, faced with wage
cuts, decided to form a branch of the GNCTU. And at the time -
given the readiness of the state to use spies/informers - it was
customary for GNCTU branches to initiate members using ceremonially
And it was under 1797 legislation - passed in the aftermath of naval
mutinies - that the Tolpuddle Men were charged with "administering
They first appeared in Dorchester before magistrates who were their
"sworn enemies" - i.e. labourers and farmers. But the
magistrates had been in touch with London and it was decided that a
High Court judge be dispatched to try the men. The jury was
handpicked - one man found to be a Methodist and potentially
sympathetic to the workers was quickly discharged. The judge
himself made clear that he thought the purpose of unions was to
"destroy property" and that the defendants must be "made an example
Tolpuddle was about therefore "bashing" the nascent trade union
movement and in particular the GNCTU. The punishment they got
- seven years in an Australian penal colony - was the maximum
available. In due course, following a massive campaign, the
men were pardoned. In the meantime however the GNCTU had
buckled and faded away.
Unfortunately we had to cancel the meeting on Saturday 16 July
2016 but this is the text of one of the contributions from Adam
Buick of the Socialist Party of Great Britain.
TOLPUDDLE..AND THE FIGHT FOR TRADE UNION RIGHTS TODAY,
I am not going to say too much about the Tolpuddle Martyrs – their
story is well enough known – but want to concentrate on the
situation of trade unionism in the early 1830s. Of course we are
talking about a period nearly 200 years ago. Things have changed a
lot since then but the strategic choice facing trade unions as to
what to struggle for has not – except perhaps that trade unions
today don’t realise that they do have a strategic choice.
Trade unions – as organisations of workers in the same (apprenticed)
trade – first appeared in Britain in the 18th century. However, in
the panic sparked by the continuing war with revolutionary France,
laws known as the Combination Acts were passed in 1799 and 1800
which outlawed workers joining together to discuss and take action
about their pay and conditions of work. Ironically,
bourgeois-revolutionary France had already had such a law since
The law proved unenforceable and, though illegal, unions continued
to exist. It is perhaps significant that the trade union movement
celebrates no martyrs from this period which ended in 1824 when the
Combination Laws were repealed. In 1825 a further Act legalised
trade unions and strikes, but came down hard on widely defined
“intimidation” and there was no protection for trade union funds.
This is what made the prosecution in 1834 of the six Dorsetshire
agricultural labourers from Tolpuddle exceptional. They were not
radical revolutionaries (one of them was a Methodist lay preacher)
but non-political workers who had formed a ‘Friendly Society of
Agricultural Labourers’ to resist cuts in their wages. It was not
for this (which was legal) that they were prosecuted nor for
“intimidation” but for administering an “unlawful oath” under a law
passed to deal with mutinies in the Royal Navy. They were convicted
and sentenced to the maximum sentence of 7 years transportation to
There was an immediate outcry as the prosecution and conviction was
generally seen as vindictive and unfair with the Grand Jury which
indicted them including relatives and associates of the local
landlord who was imposing the wage cuts. Even the Times declared:
“The crimes which called for punishment were not proved – the crime
brought to the prisoners did not justify the sentence.”
The trade unions and pro-working class pressure groups organised a
huge protest demonstration in London and in 1835 they were granted a
conditional pardon and in 1836 a full pardon. They returned to
England but all but one of them eventually moved to Canada where
they became farmers and where they died.
I am not sure why their memory lived on. In fact I am not sure that
it did. The trade union movement adopted it later, probably as a
result of the events being described by the Webbs in their History
of Trade Unionism that came out in 1894. In any event, they were
worthy martyrs to the cause of basic trade unionism – workers
organising to try to protect and improve their wages and working
One Big Union
One of the organisations behind the big London demonstration was the
Grand National Consolidation Trades Union of Great Britain and
Ireland, “instituted”, in its own words, “for the purpose of the
more effectually enabling the working classes to secure, protect,
and establish the rights of industry.” This was the latest in a
series of attempts to form not just a trade union – a union of
workers in a particular trade – but a trades union – a union of
workers in different trades. A union of trade unions, if you like.
It had been formed in January 1834, with the support in particular
of artisans and Lancashire cotton spinners, and had hundreds of
thousands of supporters throughout the country. Its basic aim was to
coordinate trade union action by solidarity action as well as
authorising its sections to strike. But it also had a wider
implication, Rule XLVI (46), the penultimate one, declaring:
“Although the design of the Union is, in the first instance, to
raise the wages of the workmen, or prevent any further reduction
therein, and to diminish the hours of labour, the great and ultimate
object of it must be to establish the paramount rights of Industry
and Humanity, by instituting such measures as shall effectively
prevent the ignorant, idle and useless part of Society from having
that undue control of the fruits of our toil, which, through the
agency of a vicious money system, they at present possess; and that,
consequently, the Unionists should lose no opportunity of mutually
encouraging and assisting each other in bringing about A DIFFERENT
ORDER OF THINGS, in which the really useful and intelligent part of
society only shall have the direction of affairs, and in which
well-directed industry and virtue shall meet their just distinction
and reward, and vicious idleness its merited contempt and
This wording was influenced by Robert Owen who presided over the
demonstration in London against the conviction of the Tolpuddle
Martyrs. Labour historians have called the founders of the GNCTU
“Owenites” for what of a better term. But they were more than this.
They were active trade unionists who held that trade unions played
an essential role in protecting workers in the day-to-day struggle
over wages and working conditions (while Owen did not). It is true
that the “different order of things” envisaged in Rule 46 was that
of Owen – the replacement of working for wages for an employer by
cooperative production. EP Thompson, in Making of the English
Working Class, quotes a member of the Builders Union writing in the
Poor Man’s Guardian in December 1833:
“The trade unions will not only strike for less work and more wages
but they will ultimately ABOLISH WAGES, become their own masters,
and work for each other, labour and capital will no longer be
separate but they will be indissolubly joined together in the hands
of the work men and work-women.”
This was an explicit call to abolish the wages system. It would have
found an echo amongst many workers at the time as this – working for
an employer for wages on the employer’s premises – was new and
unwelcome to them. There had of course been wage-workers before but
these were domestic servants and day- labourers. Working for wages
was seen as a lowly social situation. In fact, the Levellers in the
middle of the 17th century had excluded servants and wage workers
from the extended franchise they were demanding. This, on the
grounds that people in this position were not free individuals and
were not capable, because of their dependent position, of making a
The two sections of the producing – or “industrious” – classes who
were most affected were spinners, weavers and others who owned their
own machines and worked from their homes, and artisans who owned
their own tools and worked as independent producers (or, as we would
say today, were “self-employed”). Both sold the product of their
labour rather than their ability to work (their labour power). But
they reacted differently to the threat of being reduced to working
for an employer for wages.
The home workers reacted to the threat that factory production
presented to their way of working by smashing machines and burning
factories, so-called Luddism. The Tory Richard Oastler, who was
prominent in the West Riding of Yorkshire in the campaign for
Factory Laws to limit the working day, referred to factory work as
“wage slavery”. This seems to have been the origin of the term and
was coined to liken working for wages in a factory to chattel
slavery which several factory owners were campaigning to abolish. In
1833 in fact both the first (weak) Factory Act and the abolition of
chattel slavery in the British colonies were passed. The term was
later taken up at the end of the 1830s and popularised by the
Chartist writer and agitator, Bronterre O’Brien, who consistently
referred to the working class as “wage slaves”. During the period
we’re talking about O’Brien was the editor of the Poor Man’s
The reaction of the skilled artisans to the threat of being reduced
to life-time wage workers was different. They thought in terms of
forming cooperatives to produce and sell or exchange their products
and were open to Robert Owen’s views on the subject. In 1832 a
National Equitable Labour Exchange had been set up on London at
which goods produced by artisans were to be exchanged at their
“labour value”. The experiment failed and skilled artisans became
prominent in calling for and setting up the GNCTU.
They looked to replacing the wages system by what was later called
“the Cooperative Commonwealth” and, later still, “Socialism”. The
word “socialism” was coined in this period but as the name of a
doctrine (as opposed to that of “individualism”) rather than one for
the GNCTU’s “different order of things”. A decade later, in the
1840s, the Owenites were calling themselves “Socialists”.
The same building worker who had looked forward to wages being
abolished went on to suggest that a parliament of the industrious
classes should be formed by delegates directly elected from
workshops and mills to local assemblies, who in turn would elect
delegates to district and a national assembly. The idea was
elaborated on in an article in Pioneer, the GNCTU’s official organ,
in May 1834 which proposed that the country should be run “according
to the will of the trades which composed associations of the
industry” – a House of Trades instead of by the House of Commons.
Combined with the old Radical and future Chartist William Benbow’s
call in a pamphlet published in 1832, under the title Grand National
Holiday and Congress of the Productive Classes,for this to be
achieved by a “national holiday”, i.e. in effect a general strike,
we have all the elements of what was later called “syndicalism”,
when the spread of the wages system to artisans in France 60 years
later led to the same reaction.
The GNCTU collapsed after a year or so as it was overwhelmed by the
demands on its support in strikes against wage reductions. But its
ideas lived on and were reflected in the views of some of those
involved in the British section of the IWMA in 1864 and in the
Democratic Federation in 1881 which in 1884 became the Social
'A Fair Day's Wage'
In the meantime, and in the decades that followed, the trade unions
continued to organise workers locally and, where possible,
nationally, to protect wages and working conditions. Calls for the
“abolition of the wages system” or to end “wage slavery” disappeared
in favour of the more prosaic and immediately practicable demand for
“A fair day’s a fair day’s work”. In fact, this very slogan was
invoked by Thomas Attwood, an MP who supported the Chartists, when
he presented the petition for the People's Charter to the House of
Commons in June 1839.
Historically, in the competition between the two slogans “Abolish
the Wages System” and “A Fair Day's Wage for a Fair Day's Work” the
latter won hands down. This was due in large part to the fact that
from the 1850s on the trade unions were composed of workers who had
never known what it was not to have been a wage worker and so
couldn’t easily conceive of what the abolition of the wage system
might involve or mean. This is still the case today of course.
Marx and Engels were among those who tried to keep the idea alive.
There is the conclusion of Marx’s now well-known lecture to the
General Council of the IWMA in London in June 1865 at which most of
those attending were prominent London trade unionists. This was not
published till 1898 by his daughter Eleanor, 15 years after he had
died under the title Value, Price and Profit. Marx ended his talk by
urging the working class:
“Instead of the conservativemotto: 'A fair day's wage for a fair
day's work!' they ought to inscribe on their banner the
revolutionary watchword: 'Abolition of the wages system!'“
And proposing a resolution which stated that trade unions
“work well as centres of resistance against the encroachments of
capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of their power.
They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerilla war
against the effects of the existing system, instead of
simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organised
forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class
that is to say the ultimate abolition of the wages system. “
In 1881 Engels wrote a series of unsigned articles for the Labour
Standard, the paper of the London Trades Council. In these articles
he criticised the slogan of “A Fair Day’s Wages for a Fair Day’s
Work”; set out what the wages system was and how it meant that
workers had been reduced to wage slaves; described the role of trade
unions, their limitations as well as their usefulness; and urged
workers to aim at the abolition of the wages system.
In one article he wrote, showing his knowledge of working class
history in Britain:
“The working class remains what it was, and what our Chartist
forefathers were not afraid to call it, a class of wages slaves. Is
this to be the final result of all this labour, self-sacrifice, and
suffering? Is this to remain for ever the highest aim of British
workmen? Or is the working class of this country at last to attempt
breaking through this vicious circle, and to find an issue out of it
in a movement for the ABOLITION OF THE WAGES SYSTEM ALTOGETHER?”
Engels went into more detail than Marx had done in his talk as to
how the wages system could be abolished and what it involved,
writing that the old motto of a “Fair Day’s Wage” should be buried
and replaced by another:
“Possession of the means of work – raw material, factories,
machinery – by the working people themselves.”
“there is no real redemption for the working class until it becomes
owner of all the means of work -- land, raw material, machinery,
etc. -- and thereby also the owner of THE WHOLE OF THE PRODUCE OF
ITS OWN LABOUR. “
In short, by what was also at this time coming to be called
“Socialism” – the common ownership and democratic control of the
means of production – which would result in the disappearance of the
So, this is the heritage of the 1830s – the time of the Tolpuddle
Martyrs – and which I suggest is still relevant today. By all means,
the unions should fight against anti-union laws which hamper their
effectiveness to protect and improve the wages and working
conditions of their members, but they also ought to realise that
this running to stand still is not enough and that (in the words of
Engels) “it is not the lowness of wages which forms the fundamental
evil, but the wages system itself.”
I’ll finish on a more general, perhaps polemical point. I suggest
that the ferment of ideas amongst sections of the working class in
Britain in the early 1830s shows that Kautsky was wrong when he said
that socialist ideas had had to be brought to workers by “bourgeois
intellectuals” and that Lenin was wrong to argue that left to
themselves workers can develop only a trade union consciousness.
In the 1830s some workers did develop beyond the mere trade union
consciousness of “a fair day’s wage” and did call for the abolition
of the wages system through the establishment of “a different order
of things” to be achieved by the action of the workers themselves.
In fact, this is where the “bourgeois intellectuals” Marx and Engels
got the idea from as well as from similar ideas they encountered in
Paris in the mid-1840s.
James Connolly : his early life
James Connolly was born on 5 June 1868 at 107 Cowgate,
Edinburgh. He was the third son of John Connolly, a manure
carter and Mary McGinn, a domestic servant. Both his parents
came from Ireland and Cowgate and the surrounding area, housing
many other Irish migrants in cramped conditions, was widely known
as "Little Ireland" (Armstrong 2015).
By the age of 10 James was employed as a "printer's devil" at
the Edinburgh Evening News on Fleshmarket Close. Part of the
job entailed clambering under the printing machines to clean the
Factory inspectors visited however and Connolly was dismissed
on account of him being underage. He then worked first in a
bakery, then at W.Hawley & Son's mosaic tile shop at 27
Then in 1882 - despite again being underage - he went to
England and enlisted with the King's Liverpool Regiment. He
saw service in Ireland but discharged himself early in 1889 when
he heard his father was ill. He returned to Scotland, first
to Perth, then to Dundee and then to Edinburgh itself.
He and his new wife Lillie Reynolds lived at five addresses in
the capital over the course of the next six years.
Connolly subsequently lost his council job as a carter after
standing as a socialist in the St Giles ward. He then tried
his hand as a cobbler. The shop, at 73 Buccleugh Street,
didn't pay. Now at his wit's end he even contemplated
emigrating to Chile. But in 1896 he got offered a job as a
socialist organiser in Dublin instead. He jumped at the
JAMES CONNOLLY IN AMERICA
In 1902 James Connolly had toured the United States. There
he had lectured on political philosophy and on a range of trade
union topics. In 1903 he returned to Dublin. However
he had a wife and six children to support. His income was
simply not sufficient to make ends meet. So he decided to seek
work in America. He duly set off travelling ahead of his
family. His wife Lillie stayed behind for a time to prepare
their children for the voyage. it was around this time,
tragically, that their eldest daughter died in an accident.
On his arrival Connolly moved to Troy, New York (where there is
now a statue of him). He worked for the Metropolitan
Insurance Company as a salesman until the recession caused the
firm to falter. He then went to Newark, New Jersey where he
got a job with the Singer Sewing Machine Company.
By this time Connolly's family had joined him and he was heavily
involved politically both as a member of the Socialist Labour
Party and as an organiser for the Industrial Workers of the World
(IWW). The IWW - or the "Wobblies" as they were known - had
originally appeared in the Western States, winning recruits
amongst "unorganised, semi nomadic lumbermen and miners."
They were, Diggin (1973) says, "tough, boisterous and
defiant." And what they stood for was syndicalism - the
belief that completely autonomous unions could lead the masses to
socialism. Connolly did go through a syndicalist phase.
Certainly syndicalist sentiments are to the fore in two of his
pamphlets, "The Axe to the Root" and "Socialism Made Easy."
His time with the Socialist Labour Party was coming to an end
however. He would in fact leave the SLP after clashing with
its leader, the gifted but volatile Marxist Daniel De Leon.
Instead Connolly joined the Socialist Party of America. It
was led by Eugene Debs who would go on to win 900,000 votes as
Presidential candidate in 1912. The Socialist Party was
certainly a growing force. Between 1902 and 1912 its
membership jumped from 10,000 to 118,000. It would, in due
course, boast a congressman, 56 mayors, 160 councilmen and 145
aldermen. These were indeed the "golden years" for socialism
in the US.
Connolly was still keeping in touch with events in Ireland
however. The Socialist Party of Ireland had been formed and
activists told Connolly they wanted him to come back and be their
full time organiser.
*Connolly spoke with an Edinburgh accent to the end of his
*He was also a staunch Hibs fan; as a boy he used to ferry the
player's kit down to the old Hibernian park in Bothwell Street for
The Wakefield Socialist History Group is holding an event,
JAMES CONNOLLY AND THE EASTER RISING, on Saturday 3 September,
1-4pm at the Red Shed, Vicarage Street, Wakefield WF1.
Allan Armstrong is one of the speakers along with Bernie
McAdam (Red Flag) and Robin Stocks (author of "The Hidden Heroes
of Easter Week").
Remembering women who took part in the Easter Rising
Dr Kathleen Lynn was born in Mullafarry near Killala in Co.
Mayo in 1874, the daughter of a Church of Ireland clergyman.
As a young woman she decided on a medical career and - despite many
obstacles - managed eventually to set up in General Practice in
Dublin in 1904. Kathleen Lynn was radicalised however by the
struggle for womens' suffrage and by the 1913 Dublin Lock Out.
Her radicalism was inspired in particular by the likes of Helena
Moloney, Constance Markievicz and by James Connolly. It was Connolly
himself who, early in 1916, promoted her to the rank of Captain and
to be Chief Medical Officer of the Citizen Army.
Connolly, in "The Reconquest of Ireland" (1915), had spoken out on
womens' rights asking what use "the re-establishment of any form of
Irish state" would be if "it does not embody the emancipation of
womanhood." On Easter Monday Kathleen Lynn tended to the first
republican casualty Sean Connolly.
Her involvement led to imprisonment but after being released she
resumed political activity. In October 1917 Sinn Fein had adopted a
republican constitution and Kathleen Lynn was one of four women
elected to the executive -
the others were Markievicz, Kathleen Clarke and Grace Gifford
Plunkett. She was present at the first meeting of the First Dail
Eireann and part of the underground civil government of the
republic. She opposed the Treaty and when she was elected republican
TD in the 1923 General Election for the Dublin County Constituency
she refused to take her seat in the partitionist Free State
She did serve however on Rathmines Urban Council until 1930.
Kathleen Lynn - who died in 1955 - continued with pioneering work at
St Ultan's Hospital with infants and with promoting health provision
for the poor.
Her partner, Madeleine ffrench-Mullen, was also an Irish
revolutionary and labour activist.
Antonio Gramsci a Socialist ?
(1891-1937) was an Italian political activist who was imprisoned
by Mussolini’s Fascist regime in 1926 and died while still a
captive 10 years later from a combination of illnesses. He
was an undoubtedly courageous figure who fought difficult family
circumstances when young to educate himself and became a prolific
writer and editor for the emerging left-wing press in Italy in the
second and third decade of the 20th century. He wrote
intensively of the need for both workers’ rights and workers’
revolution and actively involved himself in the political action
he advocated. He was a leading member of the foremost
left-wing movement, the Italian Socialist Party, until, after the
1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia, his disenchantment with what
he saw as their over-timid approach led him to become, in 1921,
one of the co-founders of the Italian Communist Party, which
pledged allegiance to Lenin and the Bolshevik regime. Then,
in 1922-23, he spent a significant period in Russia as delegate to
the Communist International (Comintern) and, on his return to
Italy, was elected to the Chamber of Deputies and served until his
arrest and imprisonment. Sentenced to 20 years for
subversion, he was however able to continue writing in prison,
where access to books and the extensive knowledge of history and
politics he had accumulated during his years of political activity
led him to produce a mass of notes, observations and essays on an
astonishingly broad spread of topics, later ordered into what were
called the Prison Notebooks. It is largely on these and on the
collection of letters he wrote from prison – mainly to family
members – that his reputation as a social and political theorist
said, in the Prison Notebooks, to have developed a new and
original kind of Marxist sociology, which, over the last half
century or so, has engendered a vast range of debate,
interpretation and controversy by academics and others - the
so-called ‘Gramsci industry’. One of the key matters debated
has been his concept of ‘hegemony’ (‘egemonia’). This was
the term Gramsci used to describe what he saw as the prerequisite
for a successful revolution: the building of an ideological
consensus throughout all the institutions of society spread by
intellectuals who saw the need for revolution and used their
ability to persuade and proselytise workers to carry through that
revolution. Only when that process was sufficiently
widespread, would successful revolutionary action be
possible. So hegemony was what might be called the social
penetration of revolutionary ideas.
outlook is very different from the fervour with which in earlier
years Gramsci had greeted the Russian revolution and advocated
similar uprisings in other countries. By the second half of
the 1920s, with Italy ruled by a Fascist dictatorship and
opposition leaders exiled or imprisoned, Gramsci came to see
revolution as a longer-term prospect which would depend on the
conditions existing in individual countries.
is this ‘long-term’ idea of revolutionary change that has been
interpreted in very many different ways according to the
standpoint or political position of the individual
commentator. One way it could be read would seem to tie in
closely with the Socialist Party’s view that only through
widespread political consciousness on the part of workers and
majority consent for social revolution can a society based on the
satisfaction of human needs rather than on the profit imperative
be established. In this light Gramsci’s hegemony could be
seen to have the profoundly democratic implications of insisting
on a widespread and well informed desire among the majority of
workers for socialist revolution before such a revolution can come
about. Indeed it is clear that Gramsci was not unaware of
Marx’s ‘majoritarian’ view of socialism (or communism – they were
interchangeable for Marx) as a stateless, leaderless world where
the wages system is abolished and a system of ‘from each according
to ability to each according to need’ operates. In an
article written in 1920, for example, Gramsci refers to ‘communist
society’ as ‘the International of nations without states’, and
later from prison he writes about ‘the disappearance of the state,
the absorption of political society into civil society’.
However, though he referred to himself as using ‘the Marxist
method’, such reflections on the nature of the society he wished
to see established are few and far between and cannot reasonably
be said to characterise the mainstream of his thought.
looked at closely in fact, Gramsci’s thought is overwhelmingly
marked by what may be called the coercive element of his Leninist
political background. So, while undoubtedly in his later
writings he came to see the Soviet model as inapplicable to other
Western societies, he nevertheless continued to conceive of
revolution as the taking of power via the leadership of a minority
group, even if in different circumstances from those experienced
by Lenin in Russia. The most important pointer to this lies
in Gramsci’s view of the state. Hardly ever does he view
socialism other than as a form of state. The overwhelming
thrust of his analysis and his recommendations for political
action point not to doing away with states and the class divisions
that go with them but to establishing new kinds of states.
In 1919, enthused by the Bolshevik takeover in Russia, Gramsci
wrote: ‘Society cannot live without a state: the state is the
concrete act of will which guards against the will of the
individual, faction, disorder and individual indiscipline
....communism is not against the state, in fact it is implacably
opposed to the enemies of the state.’ Later too, in his
prison writings, arguing now for a ‘long-term strategy’, he
continued to declare the need for states and state organisation,
for leaders and led, for governors and governed in the conduct of
human affairs – underlined by his frequent use of three terms in
particular: ‘direzione’ (leadership), ‘disciplina’ (discipline)
and ‘coercizione’ (coercion).
despite what Gramsci himself recognised as changed times and
circumstances compared with Russia in 1917, he continued to be
profoundly influenced by Lenin’s view that ‘if socialism can only
be realised when the intellectual development of all the people
permits it, then we shall not see Socialism for at least 500
years’ – inother words that genuine majority social consciousness
was unachieavable. And in line with this, when looked at
closely his ‘hegemony’, far from eschewing the idea of a
revolutionary vanguard, sees an intellectual leadership taking the
masses with them. In other words the ‘consent’ that his
hegemony, his long-term penetration of ideas, proposes is not the
informed consent of a convinced socialist majority but an
awakening of what, at one point he refers to as ‘popular
passions’, a spontaneous spilling over of revolutionary enthusiasm
which enables the leadership to take the masses with them and then
govern in the way they think best.
lack of confidence by Gramsci in the ability of a majority to
self-organise is a factor little commented on but particularly
significant – and that is his view of what may be called ‘human
nature’. In writing explicitly about human nature, which
Gramsci does on a number of occasions, he expresses agreement with
Marx’s view that human nature is not something innate, fixed and
unchanging, not something homogeneous for all people in all times
but something that changes historically and is inseparable from
ideas in society at a given time. This view of humanity is
in fact described by Gramsci as ‘the great innovation of Marxism’
and he contrasts it favourably with other widely held early 20th
century views such as the Catholic dogma of original sin and the
‘idealist’ position that human nature was identical at all times
and undeveloping. But despite Gramsci’s stated ‘theoretical’
view on this topic, scrutiny of his writings in places where
‘human nature’ is not raised explicitly but is rather present in
an implicit way points his thought in a different more pessimistic
direction. When he writes about education, for example, his
pronouncements about the need for ‘coercion’ indicate little
confidence in the ability of human beings to behave fundamentally
differently or adaptably change their ‘nature’ in a different
social environment. In corresponding with his wife about the
education of their children, in response to her view that, if
children are left to interact with the environment and the
environment is non-oppressive, they will develop co-operative
forms of behaviour, he states ‘I think that man is a historical
formation but one obtained through coercion’ and implies that
without coercion undesirable behaviour will result. Then, in
the Prison Notebooks, on a similar topic he writes: ‘Education is
a struggle against the instincts which are tied to our elementary
biological functions, it is a struggle against nature
itself.’ What surfaces here as in other places, even if not
stated explicitly, is a view of human nature not as the exclusive
product of history but as characterised by some kind of inherent
propensity towards anti-social forms of behaviour which needs to
be coerced, to be tamed.
in this light, Gramsci’s vision of post-revolutionary society as a
place where human beings will continue to need leadership and
coercion should not be seen either as being in contradiction with
his theory of ideological penetration (‘hegemony’) or as
inconsistent with the views that emerge about human nature when
his writings do not explicitly focus on that subject. So we
should not be surprised that Gramsci’s vision for the future is
not a society of free access and democratic control where people
organise themselves freely and collectively as a majority but
rather a change from one form of minority authority to another – a
change from a system of the few manifestly governing in their own
interests to the few claiming to govern in the interests of the
evidence of Gramsci’s writings therefore suggests that the
revolution he envisages is not one in which democracy in the sense
of each participating with equal understanding and equal authority
prevails. Crucially, the leadership function is not
abolished. The hegemonisers will essentially be in charge,
since they will be the ones with the necessary understanding to
run the society they have conceived. What this society might
be like he does not go on to say in any detail. But it would
clearly not be a socialist world of free access and democratic
control that rejects authority from above together with its
political expression, the state. For Gramsci any such
considerations were at best peripheral to the thrust of his
thought and his social vision. And though he did have a
revolutionary project, it is not a socialist one in the terms that
socialism is correctly understood.
Contemporary radical poetry is alive and well – and it is great
to have Neil Fulwood here today.
And there is a great tradition of radical poetry and Bob Mitchell is
going to talk in particular about Irish poets.
In terms of radical poets who have inspired myself I think of T.E.
Nicholas, the people’s poet. Brought up on a Pembrokeshire
Hill Farm. He was a Minister. He was in the ILP (he
spoke at Hardie’s funeral). The he joined the CP. And he said
he saw no clash between the teachings of the Gospel and those of
I think of R.S. Thomas, a vicar in rural Wales…a Welsh
republican who upset Fleet Street by defending the Sons of Glendwr
and saying what is the burning of a few holiday cottages against the
destruction of the welsh language, culture and nation….His poem
“Eighteenth Birthday” is perhaps my favourite poem.
I think of the pugnacious Hugh MacDiarmid…someone who could
start a fight in an empty Glasgow phone box……a socialist who backed
Scottish independence..and about the only person to join rather than
leave the CP in 1956 …read his epic poem A DRUNK MAN LOOKS AT THE
Of Langston Hughes in the U.S. Part of the Harlem Renissance.
Poems that portrayed the lives of working class black people in a
deeply racist America.
And of Adrian Mitchell, the poet of the anti-nuclear movement, here
in England. Made shadow poet laureate by Red Pepper magazine.
And today in Scotland we have a Scots Makar – our own poet laureate
- Liz Lockhead.
But of course Wednesday was Burns Night….it goes without saying that
Burns is a key inspiration for myself as a republican
socialist. And what I want to do is talk about and seek to
reclaim the real Burns..the radical Burns.. the republican Burns.
But first a little – the bare essentials - about the life of Robert
Burns himself in a sort of chronological order…
Robert Burns was born on 25 January 1759 in a cottage built by his
father William Burness, a gardener turned farmer, in the village of
Alloway, a couple miles from Ayr.
Robert’s first schooling was at Alloway Mill. Later his father
combined with a few neighbours to have a tutor, a Mr Murdoch, teach
Robert and a few other children.
Bear in mind that compulsory school education was not introduced
until 1876. Schooling wasn’t free until 1891, so it could be
said that Burns had a much better education than most lads.
And certainly Burns appreciated this…early on he developed a keen
interest in reading.
In 1776 the family moved from Alloway to a farm at Mount Oliphant..a
few miles south east. There they faced years of unending toil
and enduring poverty.
This got worse when the landlord died.
As Geddes put it in his book, the family now found themselves “under
the tyranny of a scoundrel factor.”
Eventually in 1777 they broke free of his clutches and moved onto a
larger farm. It was at Lochlea near Tarbolton. It had
130 acres and it appeared more promising. However Geddes says
the farm itself was bleak and bare.
Robert Burns was at least able – at this juncture - to enjoy himself
at the Batchelors Club. He and his brother Gilbert helped
found it in Tarbolton in 1870.
There members met, Geddes says, to forget their cares in “myth and
diversion.” The chief diversion appears to have been debate,
something Burns particularly enjoyed.
Now Burns did move to Irvine for a while in 1781. He intended
to be a “flax-dresser.” However the premises he was going to
be based in caught fire.
Burns returned to Lochlea to find his father on his death bed.
(His father was subsequently buried back in Alloway Kirk)
Robert, Gilbert and their widowed mother moved to a farm at Mossgiel
near Mauchline. The rent was £90 a year. Less than
Lochlea. The first year however Burns bought bad seed.
The second year there was a late harvest. Geddes says he lost
half his crops.
Burns was now at a low ebb. Really low. He even
contemplated emigrating to the West Indies!
Why didn’t he go in the end? What changed his mind?
What changed his mind was the publication of his first collection of
poems..POEMS CHIEFLY IN THE SCOTTISH DIALECT.
It appeared in 1786. It was known as the Kilmarnock Edition.
It included poems such as “To A Mouse” and “The Cottar’s Saturday
It was an immediate success and Burns spent some time in Edinburgh
enjoying the acclaim.
On his return from the capital he married Jean Armour and took on
the tenancy of Ellisland Farm, 6 miles north of Dumfries.
He hoped to use the latest agricultural methods to make a better
living. And he hoped to provide for his growing family.
During his stay at Ellisland he wrote over a hundred poems and
songs…including “Ye Banks and Braes o’ Bonnie Doon and “Auld Lang
Syne.” He also trained as an exciseman as a back up if the
He described is a “a poet’s choice of farm.” He found
But again it was stony, infertile and badly drained.
He switched from arable to dairy farming.
But when he secured an exciseman’s post he decided to dispose of the
farm altogether and move to Dumfries.
His first home there, until 1793, was in Wee Vennell. They
then relocated to a house in Mill Vennell, now known as Burns
Street, at the south end of the High Street.
His literary output remained prodigious.
Tam O’Shanter/My Nannie’s Awa/Ae Fond Kiss…
But there were troubles also.
*Rumours abounded about his drinking –he was said to frequent places
like the Globe Tavern and the delightfully named Hole in the Wall
*And he was in trouble also for his political views. It led to
an official enquiry by the Board of Excise and for a time it looked
like he might lose his job ---more of that in a minute.
*And then there was his declining health. Years of toil and
poor conditions had taken their toll. He even tried sea
bathing as a recommended cure for his poor health. But he
tragically died in 1796 from endocartis, the effects of rheumatism
on the heart.
*He is buried in Dumfries..in St Michael’s Churchyard.
These then are the essentials of Burns’ life.
But I want to talk for a few minutes about the economic
context. The social context. And I want to talk above
all about the political Burns, the radical Burns, the republican
Burns about which we hear so little.
First there is the economic context. And I am aware that Bob is
going to speak of this in an Irish context – with regard to radical
The point here is that Burns and his family tried unsuccessfully to
make a living out of a series of unprofitable holdings. But in
his article – in the AWL paper Solidarity - Burton notes that this
was an age of rural change. Peasants were finding themselves
unable to maintain their debt bondage to landowners. Many
farms were failing and peasants were being squeezed out.
So there was an Agricultural Revolution. But Burton notes that
the poetry of Burns was the product of Scottish Enlightenment in an
age of political revolutions. Those two main political
revolutions were first the American and then the French
The American Revolution of 1776-83 had been closely followed by the
Scottish public. It read coverage in a booming popular press.
And when Britain was eventually defeated in 1783 the Scots came to
see the newly emerging United States – for all its faults - as an
example of how a more socially progressive society could be built.
And Burns’ A Man’s a Man for a’ that’ would encapsulated in verse
the ideas that one English born American Revolutionary Thomas Paine
had articulated in his Rights of Man.
….And see his “Ode to George Washington’s Birthday” with its call to
Caledonia to emulate Columbia! Burns apparently sought to
toast Washington at an event saying he was a “greater and better man
*Then of course there was the French Revolution of 1789. It
demonstrated that the status quo could be challenged and
changed. More people could share in power. And
Constitutions – in France as in America - could be drawn up by men
rather than, as was previously claimed, handed down by God.
Radicals in Scotland were again inspired by all this. Liberty
Trees, a French revolutionary symbol, were planted across Scotland
on market crosses.
The Friends of the People – radical reformers - called a Conference
in Edinburgh. Burns sympathised with their aims and he
published “Scots Wha Hae” anonymously to coincide with the
subsequent trial of the Friends of the People leader Thomas Muir.
“Scots Wha Hae” was also full of references to the French
Revolution. The last line “let us do or die” comes for
instance from the famous Tennis Court Oath made during the
SO TO CONCLUDE..
There can be little doubt that Burns was a radical republican.
Interestingly Professor Robert Crawford of St Andrews University
produced a new biography of Burns. He had unearthed a private
journal of a certain James McDonald….a friend and contemporary of
Burns in Dumfries. McDonald wrote in the journal of both Burns
and himself being “staunch republicans.”
There is other evidence.
*Burns was accused of having joined in a rendition of a French
Revolutionary song Ca Ira in a Dumfries Theatre.
*He wrote approvingly of the “deserved fate” of Louis XVI and Marie
*He tried to send four carronades to the French Assembly. He’d
bought them at a sale of the smugglers ship, the Rosamond, that he’d
helped seize in his role as an exciseman. He nearly got the
sack for all this, but he was let off and told to be “silent and
obedient in future.”
What Burns did instead was link up with underground publishing
networks and get his poems and articles published anonymously in
Edinburgh and London.
SCOTS WHA HAE…full of radical codewords.
A SCOTIAN MUSE..a poem about the injustice of the sentences handed
out to Thomas Muir and Thomas Palmer
A MAN’S A MAN FOR A’ THAT…a poem that had sentiments the state could
see as seditious.
Its coming yet for a’ that
That man to man the world o’er
Shall brithers be for a’ that
…..Lines from the poem..
Also the last words said by Karl Liebknecht, the German
revolutionary before he was shot…
And of course there are other political poems.
HOLY WILLIE’S PRAYER attacks Calvinist ideas and religious cant.
IN ADDRESS TO BEELZEBUB deals with the Highland Clearances.
WHY SHOULDNA POOR FOLK Mo was written against the background of a
national seamen’s strike.
After Burns died the ruling class, the state, the
establishment, the church..continued to demonise him.
When that failed they tried to sanitise his work.
Then they tried to distort his ideas and to put them to the service
of the Empire.
I will finish by saying..
Today let’s reclaim and remember the true Burns..
Burns the radical, Burns the revolutionary, Burns the republican!
Links to other working class history
- A sister organisation in Leeds. Some of their members have
spoken at our events in Wakefield.
Class Education Network
This page last updated : 26th Feb. 2017
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