Issue 208 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1997 Copyright Socialist Review


Was a London commune possible...?

Mark O'Brien's review of John Charlton's book The Chartists (April SR) was mostly a mixture of old fashioned analysis and some factual inaccuracies. He concentrated on 1848 and I hope your readers will forgive me if I set out the problems in somewhat staccato form.

i) The demonstration on 10 April, as Charlton very properly indicates, was not intended by the Chartist leadership as a major confrontation with the authorities. Otherwise they would certainly not have chosen an area south of the river, the bridge crossings being very easily defended by the police and troops. 10 April was built up into a crisis point by the government and the press, and the mobilisation of troops, police and special constables was intended to give heart to the owners of property all over the country.

ii) The failure of 10 April had remarkably little impact in the rest of the country and the London movement recovered after a few weeks. The militancy of the Chartists came in the summer months when the rapprochement between the Chartists and the Irish began. But it was a militancy that was limited to certain quite specific areas. When O'Brien writes that, 'Workers from many of the industrial districts were willing to fight...' he should have noted that the regions of previous confrontation South Wales in 1839-40; the Midlands, Birmingham, and the Potteries in 1842 were mostly, not entirely but mostly, not involved in physical force demonstrations.

iii) O'Brien writes that there were reports of dissent among the troops in 1848 and that there was a 'softness' among the constables. It would be helpful to have the evidence quoted for the alleged dissent among the troops. My own research experience does not confirm it. As for the 'softness' among the specials, that was always a problem and there are many examples for the previous years.

But except in the very early days in Liverpool, 1848 was remarkable for the steadiness of the special constables and this was due to the much more efficient crowd control by the police and the very close liaison between police, specials and the troops. It must be emphasised that there had been violent confrontations for a decade before 1848 and the local and national usage of the coercive forces of the state had become much more efficient as the years went by.

iv) John Charlton very rightly emphasises the two crucial factors in 1848: one was the failure of leadership and this was not least due to the strength, confidence and physical power of the governing elites of the state. Ernest Jones was the first leading figure in the movement to be arrested, in early June, and many followed.

I regret to have to say that O'Brien's comment that, 'if the Paris Commune could occur 23 years later with a relatively undeveloped working class, then why not the London Commune of 1848 in Britain with its much higher state of industrialisation?' can only be described as absurd.

John Saville


No reason why not

Mark O'Brien's review (April SR) of John Charlton's important new history of Chartism raises a key question about what Chartism might have achieved in 1848. Not only is this question of theoretical interest for socialists, it will no doubt be much argued over the next year which, of course, is the 150th anniversary of the year of revolutions.

Mark suggests that there was no reason why Chartism could not have taken power in 1848, as the Communards did less than 25 years later. In a sense he is right. Historians have so far missed that the core component of all the important London Chartist demonstrations of 1848 were organised workers, usually marching behind their trade union banners. The Special Constables mobilised by the state to prevent revolution would have been no match for these people had they moved.

John Saville has suggested that the Chartists did not attempt to take power in 1848 precisely because, while the authorities were absolutely confident in their ability to retain state power, the Chartists were much less sure about their ability to capture it.

Had the Chartists, nevertheless, captured power in 1848 they would probably have created a plebeian rather than a social democratic state. It was only in pondering the missed opportunities of 1848, in 1851, that Chartism turned left and adopted the programme of the Charter and Something More in essence socialism. The same argument surely applies to the Communards. A workers' state was not established in Paris after the revolution of 1848. It was the lesson of this experience that led workers further in 1871.

Keith Flett


1848: a damp squib

In a very comradely review of my book on Chartism (April SR) Mark O'Brien takes me to task in my account of the events of 1848 for putting too much stress on the power of the authorities and being uncritical of the Chartist leadership. It is true that I do consider the state powers to have been pretty effective but also say that , 'the biggest problem for the Chartists was not the power of the state, formidable though that certainly was, but the strategic uncertainties of the leadership...[using]...a strategy based on a mixture of...the mass platform, petition and armed insurrection.' The industrial power of the working class, demonstrated in the mass strike of 1842, had not been appreciated by most of the Chartist leadership and this most certainly handicapped the movement in 1848.

However, I am now inclined to think my account actually underplays the unevenness and weakness of the movement in 1848. The spearhead of the 1848 movement was London where a factory based urban working class was least developed. In 1842 there had been relatively little activity there. The four leading areas of 1842, Lancashire, West Yorkshire, the West Midlands and Central Scotland made only a modest response in 1848. In the wake of the mass strike the ruling class had wreaked vengeance on the movement. Hundreds of local working class activists were imprisoned in just those areas, contributing to a long downturn, almost certainly affecting their mobilisation in 1848.

The events of 1848 need to be seen in relationship to those of 1842. The potential 'Manchester Commune of 1842' is a more real comparison with Paris in 1871 than Mark's 'London Commune' in 1848, for in the earlier year we have a sense of a burgeoning national mass movement. By comparison 1848 was much more of a damp squib.

John Charlton


The code that broke the Nazis

I think that more could be added to your review of Andrew Hodges' book Alan Turing: the Enigma (April SR).

Hodges reveals the conflict at the top of society between the representatives in the armed forces of the British ruling class, unprepared for the war with Nazi Germany, and the 'New Men'. These were left leaning intellectuals responsible for many of the scientific developments made during the war, the 'boffins' of wartime mythology. This was a battle between the old patrician Tories and a new scientific meritocratic generation.

Turing's work on breaking the German Enigma codes enabled the decoding centre at Bletchley to supply the authorities with information on an industrial scale about the deployment of Nazi forces. This highly successful work was organised on a production line basis employing up to 10,000 operatives.

This success contrasted with the rest of the British war effort at that point the British Expeditionary Force forced to retreat and to be evacuated at Dunkirk, the Royal Navy unable to prevent the loss of thousands of tons of shipping to the Nazi U-boats. The navy's problem was that the Nazis had cracked the British merchant marine codes, not by great scientific effort but as a result of British mistakes of the most elementary kind, that went uncorrected until 1942.

Turing and the new brooms found that they had to sweep away much of the old compartmentalised and hierarchical system of work that the military was familiar with to complete their scientific tasks. Even then there was no guarantee that this work would be used to advantage by the military brass hats.

The considerable advance in electronics and applied mathematics that people like Turing achieved were never in themselves able to win the war. The turning point in the war came not with radar, the cracking of the Enigma codes or any 'Battle of Britain' but with the US's entry into the war and the defeat of the Wehrmacht by the Red Army at Stalingrad.

The 'New Men', for the most part Oxbridge educated and followers of the economic ideas of Maynard Keynes, were to become the intellectual backbone of the new political consensus after the war, believing in state planning and intervention. They felt that the new scientific methods should be used in the running of society. The desire of intellectuals like Turing was to modernise the system that could then use their talents.

This, combined with the wish of millions of working people and demobbed soldiers never to return to the conditions of unemployment and hardship that they had endured before the war, led to the landslide victory of Labour after the war, sweeping out those responsible for both the prewar economic ills and the lack of success early in the war.

David Gilchrist

North London

Hidden states

Though I do not disagree with the main thrust of Alex Callincos's article,'Where does political power lie?' (March SR), I think he omits to mention a crucial aspect of the problem. Vital sections of state functions lie beyond the purview, let alone control, of either the government or parliament.

Take, for instance, the first Labour government. Ramsay MacDonald, the prime minister, asked to see his own personal security files. This would have given him some idea of the type of information collected by the intelligence services and its accuracy. Yet, despite him formally being their head, MI5 and MI6 denied MacDonald access.

The fatal consequence of this lack of control came a few months later. The intelligence services forged the Zinoviev letter, a document that purported to show the Labour government was in cahoots with the Communist International. The Tories gleefully seized on the document, filling newspapers with red scare stories. Thanks to the Zinoviev letter, the Labour Party suffered a crashing defeat at the general election.

Similarly, in 1974 a disaffected section of the intelligence services devised the Wilson plot, an attempt to overthrow the duly elected government of the country. They stirred up trouble in Northern Ireland, including the Orangemen's strike, and fed the media character assassinations and innuendoes about Labour politicians.

While their conduct was completely unconstitutional, no action was taken against them. Had it not been intelligence officers but some other kind of state employees say, civil servants or teachers do you think the whole affair would have been just quietly overlooked?

But there are other privileged groups whose actions sometimes remain hidden and beyond critical scrutiny.

Quite naturally, after the Second World War almost everybody in Britain was intensely anti-Nazi and specially loathed those who had committed wartime atrocities. Yet this did not prevent the top brass of the military and foreign office arranging secret 'ratlines', the means whereby the Klaus Barbies and Eichmanns were spirited away to avoid retribution.

Ante Pavelic, leader of the Croatian Ustashi, who fought against Tito and the partisans in Yugoslavia, had personal habits that were hardly nice: by his office desk he liked to keep a wastepaper basket full of the eyeballs of anti-fascists he had tortured and killed. However, after 1945, despite the Yugoslav authorities giving the street and number of the house in Innsbruck, part of the British occupation zone, where Pavelic lived, the British army refused to hand him over.

In the same way, without any sanction from cabinet or parliament, let alone public debate, Anglo-American undercover agents took over supporting and supplying resistance movements that had previously fought alongside the German army. In the Baltic States and the Ukraine they sustained the armed struggle against the Red Army till at least 1952. Surely people in this country would not have backed this provocative behaviour had they known it was taking place.

In 1957 an Oxford undergraduate wrote an article in the student magazine, Isis in which he told how, while doing national service, he discovered British submarines were secretly landing saboteurs on the Latvian coast and sending fast motorboats into Leningrad harbour to test its radar defences. For revealing these acts of subversion by the British state, he was prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act.

High ranking officials, aware that 'knowledge is power', are often economical with the truth. Reformist politicians are not merely hamstrung, as Alex Callinicos points out, because of the way they divide political and economic issues, but also because they do not possess the full facts upon which to make policy decisions.

Tony Benn admitted as much. When he was minister of energy in the Wilson government, top level civil servants were careful not to inform him about a nuclear disaster that had occurred in Siberia, 1,000 miles from Sverdlovsk, which had strewn a huge amount of radioactive contamination over a wide area. Had he known this, Benn says he would not have sanctioned the construction of the nuclear power station at Hartlepool, a project that destroyed 7,000 miners' jobs.

If the establishment will conceal relevant information on the comparatively piddling issue of building a nuclear power station, we can be sure it will use much more energy and ingenuity in concealing information on the gargantuan issue of destroying capitalism and building socialism. Any politician who thinks otherwise is blind and will lead only those with similar visual impairment.

Raymond Challinor

Tyne and Wear

Tip of the iceberg

I am writing in response to the article on British Justice (April SR).

It was a great victory to see the Bridgewater Three freed earlier this year but sadly this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are still hundreds of innocent people imprisoned for crimes they didn't commit, among them Winston Silcott, Michael Davis and Raphael Rowe, who has recently been on hunger strike in an attempt to highlight his case. It takes no time at all to write letters of support to these people, to let them know that there are people fighting for them on the outside.

Raphael Rowe, MP3660, and Winston Silcott, B74053, HMP Maidstone, 36 County Road, Maidstone, Kent ME14 1UZ

Michael Davis, MP3661, HMP Swaleside, Brabalon Road, Sheerness, Kent ME12 4D2.

Eve R Light


Coming up trumps

I felt that David Beecham's article on the uprising in Albania (April SR) captured quite accurately the reasons why this country has fallen into chaos. However, I think that the article could have been more thoroughly researched. He claims that Fatos Nano is the new prime minister. This is incorrect. Bashkim Fino is in fact the new prime minister.

I have a close personal friend who comes from Albania and we have often discussed the political crises in her country. According to her Nano is a respectable socialist who does not wish to become leader of his country but is willing to play an active role on a central political council. He has spent the last five years in prison due to charges trumped up by the despised President Berisha.

I believe that the future of Albania is a lot brighter because of the uprising. Change had to happen and ordinary people and not politicians were responsible.

Matthew Hampson

Thornton Heath

I don't get no, satisfaction

In the article 'Red professors' by John Parrington (March SR) it is concluded that the prospects of scientists today turning to socialism are good due to the increasing pressure on pay, working conditions and job security to which I would add scientific independence, since we do more and more what we are told to do. I am a physicist. I got my PhD in Portugal, then worked in Germany and now in England. I also had shorter stays (a few months) in labs in Belgium and Switzerland.

Basically, I disagree with John Parrington. What I see among my colleagues, here and elsewhere, is the normal lack of political conscience and reflection about what we in fact do. In the last century, and up into this century, technological progress has been seen as just 'progress', something positive on its own. We made machines to go faster from place to place, we cured a lot of diseases, etc. Nowadays, it is an essential part of capitalism's move to global control of the world. Without technological progress there would be no new products, that is, no new better computers: so we wouldn't buy a new one. No better TVs or safer faster cars, so we'd buy one only when the one we have is really old. More important: to have global domination, control, you need to have a monopoly, for which technological innovation is the answer when you develop a new product, you have three to six months during which nobody else is able to do it, so in fact you have a temporary monopoly. Then the other companies do it also, then Taiwan does it, then companies in underdeveloped countries (those that buy machines from the West to make products, or machines to make machines). Then the multinational comes up with a new and better product and keeps its temporary monopoly, thus making it permanent.

Technological progress serves almost no good purpose any more. It is in fact, most of it, done only so that a few companies can have power on a global scale. It is not necessary any more. We do not do what should be done, what needs to be done, but what is good for the multinationals. I am part of it, of course. I do 'materials science', that's the first step I research materials that may eventually be used in the new technologies. A few will work out. Maybe in my whole life I can never get to any material that will in fact be used, but that's not the point. The point is that I am in fact an objective instrument of capitalism. The money for research comes sometimes directly from industries, most times from the governments, but the governments decide to fund what they think is useful for 'progress', that is, for the companies.

My personal problem is that I like what I do I am trained for it, I am good at it, and it gives me personal satisfaction. And, at least on the surface, I do what I want. Further, all over Europe there is a surplus of PhD students and postdocs in the physical and engineering sciences ie we won't all get jobs in academia or industry. Most of us, even if not thinking about this, are aware of what is said above: that we are here to serve progress, and progress is identified with what is good for the companies that will give us a job if we work hard enough, since there is a lot of competition. There is indeed some dissatisfaction with the low pay and job security etc, but that is not reflected in a political change of mind among scientists: if we get better pay etc, most of us will then be perfectly happy doing what we're told to do.

Finally, if I want to keep on doing what I like to do, what I'm good at and what gives me personal satisfaction, I'll have to stay in research. Under this system, that indeed means working for the multinationals. Under Russian totalitarism, that meant mostly doing arms research. Under a socialist system I might do something useful, but most scientists I know would be likely to resist that.

Nuno Pessoa Barradas


Something in the air?

The astounding thing about the election coverage in the so called quality press was how tedious it made the election. The only thing that Tony Blair excited me about was his talk of the need for change, but the press managed to make that boring. Somehow it's as though we haven't had 18 years of Tory rule. Two generations have no real recollection of life before the Tories. When the Tories pointed out what they were going to do about the NHS, education, pensions etc, why did no one point out that they're the ones who got us into this mess? New Labour is so keen to appeal to the likes of Terence Conran and Anita Roddick (who doesn't allow trade unions to organise in her business) that they've ignored the millions of ordinary people who would benefit from a 4.26 minimum wage.

What a difference it would have made if Labour had gone for the jugular and made some real commitment for change. In the NHS alone everyone knows that a two tier system is operating. If your GP is a fundholder, then at the end of the financial year you are higher up the queue than those patients whose GP is a non-fundholder. Labour could stop this inequality.

What a breath of fresh air it would have been if Gorden Brown had emulated Denis Healey in 1974 and said, 'We're going to squeeze the rich till the pips squeak!' That's the sort of change we'd like to see.

Jacqui Sprague


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