Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Hammersmith and Islington

Just posted on the unofficial Socialist Standard page on MySpace is a double book review from the September 1985 Socialist Standard of a couple of excellent books published in the old Journeymen Press series :

  • William Morris's Socialist Diary, edited and annotated by Florence Boos; "Don't Be A Soldier!" – the Radical Anti-War Movement in North London 1914-1918 by Ken Weller
  • If I remember rightly, The Journeymen Press - in association with the History Workshop Journal - published a series of monographed pamphlets in the early eighties focusing on working class history. I only know of the four books in the series that were once on my bookshelf:

  • "Don't Be A Soldier!" – the Radical Anti-War Movement in North London 1914-1918 by Ken Weller (1985)
  • William Morris's Socialist Diary, edited and annotated by Florence Boos (1982)
  • Club Life and Socialism in Mid-Victorian London by Stan Shipley (1983)
  • Women's work in nineteenth-century London : a study of the years 1820-50 by Sally Alexander (1983)
  • I'd love to know if there were others in the series, but the internet doesn't really help me out. The good news is that Morris's diary, with Florence Boos introduction and footnotes is available online via the Marxist Internet Archive. I've never been on the Morrisonian wing of the SPGB, but I agree with the reviewer that it's humbling to read that as brilliant a man and socialist that Morris was, he still had the doubts, depressions and the political down days that the rest of mere mortals have in the here and now.

    Of the two books under review in the Standard, I especially recommend Ken Weller's book if you can get a hold of it. Weller was one of the driving forces behind the old libertarian socialist group, Solidarity, and as the Socialist Standard writer acknowledges in his review, the subject of the book was obviously a real labour of love for Weller, shining a light on a corner of radical working class history that has been hidden from view all too well down the years.

    I'm ready to be corrected but what was also refreshing about such a specialised labour history work is that I don't think it started out as a PhD thesis, and thus is very readable for those of us who aren't schooled in ploughing through the usual academese. (If I'm wrong, I apologise but Weller's prose doesn't read like someone trying to get a doctorate. It reads like someone trying to pass on ideas to the rest of us half-educated eejits.)

    I take the reviewer's point about the strange position of the SPGB within the text - to paraphrase Trotsky, we've been 'consigned to the footnote of history' - but as I remember it there are enough references in the text to members and ex-members of the SPGB during the period under discussion to bring out two important points from the book:

    1) That despite the best attempts of our political opponents on the left in the capacity of their day jobs as historians and wannabe academics, the SPGB was not marginalised from either radical working class politics or the fabled 'official labour movement' from its foundation. It's there in the pages of Weller's book that the SPGB had a voice and made an impact of sorts in that tumultuous time of working class politics. It was one of those periods in its history - and there have been others - when the SPGB punched well above its weight;

    2) and following on from the mention of it being tumultuous times, Weller, by focusing on one part of North London, was able to bring to the modern day reader the sense of fluidity and vibrancy of radical politics during that time. (And as a consequence explains inadvertently better than most why the SPGB took on the curmudgeonly 'personality' that it did, which has been misunderstood and understood all too well in equal measure ever since.) Granted, the text starts from a low point for radical politics in that period; covering a time that begins with the capitulation of the major parties of the Second International to a defencism and nationalism that they previously asserted that they would never be sucked into, but Weller was able to rescue from the margins and - yep - the footnotes those few workers who stood against the tide of patriotism and our masters' interests.


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