Issue 223 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review
It is said that bistro, the French word for a type of small café comes from the Allied occupation of France after the defeat of Napoleon. Russian
officers would shout in their own language 'Bistra! Bistra!, '(Faster! Faster!)
to chivvy the waiters of Paris. Whether this was the distinctively Russian
contribution to the fast food culture of the early 19th century remains
uncertain. One thing is sure: the Parisian waiters had the last laugh. For
among the Russian officers who returned home there were those who took
with them the ideas of the French Revolution. The Decembrist revolt of
1825 was inspired by such ideas. It was an ill conceived, clumsily executed
attempt at an officer led mutiny against Tsar Nicholas I, easily suppressed
and brutally repressed with hangings and exile. But it marked the beginning
of the revolutionary movement in Russia and electrified a generation of
idealistic young aristocrats. Among them was a 13 year old boy called
Alexander Herzen, who swore a secret oath with a friend to dedicate his life
to the ideals for which the Decembrists had suffered. This book, written by
one of the most eminent historians of modern Russia and first published in
1933, is about Herzen and his friends and the ideals they tried to live by.
Herzen was a contemporary of Karl Marx and drew on similar sources of inspiration. The rising waves of revolutionary struggle in the 1820s, 1830s and 1840s held out the promise of a glittering new world which seemed almost within reach. The ideas of the German philosopher Hegel, in which the statics of appearance are belied by the dialectics of change, were taken by both men to constitute, in Herzen's useful phrase, 'the algebra of revolution'. Both men spent much of their lives in exile, Marx in grinding poverty, Herzen flitting restlessly with his entourage around the cultural and leisure centres of Europe. Unlike Marx, Herzen proved incapable of progressing beyond the romantic idealism of youth. Romanticism in those days was closely bound up with the ideological legacy of the French Revolution: the essential nobility of the human spirit and the freeing from the shackles of tradition of its highest emotions--passion for justice, sympathy with the oppressed, altruism in love. Noble sentiments, but vague and impractical. Expectations were disappointed. The revolutions of 1848 did not usher in the promised land (though defeated, they nevertheless prompted a renewed surge of capitalist development). The religion of love foundered on the rocks of petty self interest, dishonesty, unfaithfulness and egotistical self indulgence. The young romantic went to his grave an embittered sceptic. Only one material achievement remained to Herzen at the end: the enhancement of the considerable fortune he had inherited from his father.
Herzen's own legacy to the Russian revolutionary movement was the idealisation of the peasantry as a force which could bring about a uniquely Russian kind of socialism without having to suffer the trials of industrialisation. This became known as Russian Populism or Narodnikism, from the word narod--the people term which could be used in a mystical or semi-mystical way. Apart from a brief period during the 1917 revolution, Narodnikism was never as popular among the peasants it espoused as it was among the middle classes, including the lesser gentry landowners. This might seem strange to us now. But it must be remembered that a working class only began to take shape in Russia towards the end of the 19th century and that it was still a minority of the population when it took power in October 1917 at the head of the insurgent peasantry. The middle classes had their own grievances against tsarism but they were too small and insignificant to be able to apply much pressure on their own. As Trotsky put it so graphically in the case of the writer Tolstoy: 'From the landlord's manor there runs a short and narrow path straight to the hut of the peasant.' The aristocratic Tolstoy saw the peasant as the agent of spiritual salvation, the aristocratic Herzen as the raw material of political change.
Built into Narodnikism was the wavering uncertainty of the middle class psyche, resentful of its masters, yet dependent on them for its relative privilege, and not averse to posing as the champion of the dark masses which it nevertheless feared enough to seek the protection of the local barracks commander. Herzen himself had something of a predisposition to throwing himself at the feet of the commander of all the barracks in Russia. What EH Carr calls the culminating point of Herzen's public career came in 1861, when one of the key reforms for which he had been struggling, the emancipation of the serfs, was enacted by the new tsar, Alexander II (serfdom was a kind of rural slavery in which the peasants were tied to the land and could be sold with it; emancipation came at the cost of huge redemption payments which were only cancelled more than 40 years later as a result of the 1905 Revolution). Carr continues the story: 'Alexander II had nobly justified the hopes which they had rested on him. Herzen was filled with joy and pride; and when, after some delay, the text of the proclamation reached London, he was determined to hold a monster fête, at Orsett House, to celebrate this cardinal event in the history of his country... Herzen had nourished the secret intention of drinking to the health of the tsar at the dinner--a gesture of reconciliation which would, he felt, make a sensation throughout the Russian world. A few minutes before the guests arrived, tragic news was brought in. A riot had broken out in Warsaw, and the Russian troops were firing on the Polish mob... an atmosphere of gloom descended on the festival... the occasion remained in Herzen's memory as an embarrassing blend of jollification and mourning.'
This is, in fact, one of the relatively few occasions on which Carr releases the reader from a claustrophobically minute examination of the personal lives of Herzen and his circle. We get a blow by blow account of how Herzen's wife deceived him--and herself--with the poet Georg Herwegh. Of Herzen's political ideas, career as a publicist, activities as the editor of the influential paper The Bell, there are only glimpses.
It is not Herzen's human failings which make him so attractive to Carr. It is his political frailty. Herzen ultimately gave way to the prevailing mood of demoralisation and pessimism, surrendered himself, gave in, gave up. Isaiah Berlin, who, like Carr, was an admirer of Herzen and an unsympathetic biographer of Marx (Carr's own work is subtitled A 'Study in Fanaticism') remarked on Marx's unusual ability to keep going in the face of triumphant reaction throughout Europe. Berlin makes it clear that this was due to Marx's narrow mindedness and emotional insensitivity.
So Herzen, the tasteful, stylish failure, makes a more interesting historical subject for Carr than Marx, with his political stamina.
Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951
Ross McKibbin Oxford University Press £25
The past dozen years have
witnessed a terrible retreat on the
part of socialist historians. Key
insights have been relegated or
dropped. In their place we are told
that the purpose of left wing
history is simply to address
issues of identity, women's
history, the stories of culture,
race or sexuality. These are all
important tasks, but what has
been lost includes the notions that
the world is a totality, that class
matters or that society can be
Against the rightward drifting stream, Ross McKibbin is one of the few historians who still treats class as a living reality. His last book, ideologies of Class, was profoundly sympathetic to the concerns of ordinary people. It opened up new ways of looking at aspects of working class life such as gambling and unemployment. McKibbin himself has also gone on record with his strong criticism of the rightward drift of Blair's New Labour.
His new book, Classes and Cultures, attempts to be a total history of British society in the years 1918-51. As the author makes clear in his introduction, this is not a book about parliament of the governing elites, but 'about the social and ideological foundations of English politics'. To some extent, then, Ross McKibbin accepts the Marxist argument that it was changes in society which shaped changes in its politics, and it was the changing character of British society which decided how it was ruled.
As with any book of its kind, the quality here is in the detail. There is a fascinating account of the growth of contraception, which took place despite the hostility of the churches and the double standards of the ruling class. Classes and Cultures is very good at describing the changing institutions of working class social life, the growth of cafés in the 1920s, promenading, dances and the cinema. It also vividly captures the dislocation that the Second World War brought to young London workers forced to live in the countryside: 'I missed Sunday marches with the Communist Party and will miss the May Day celebrations in Hyde Park next year... I miss the buses and the heavy lorries which passed my house at home... I miss the careful driving of the buses and cars in London, they are reckless and dangerous here. I have had accidents in Cambridge which I did not have in London...'
The chapters of the book are thematic and not chronological, there is no single argument or story that holds the book together. Instead, there are sections on the aristocracy, the middle class, workers, education, religion, sexuality and morality, sport, music, cinema and language. Many readers of Socialist Review will be pleased to read an academic history which openly describes the capitalists as 'the ruling class' and which also accepts that for most people work was not necessarily a positive experience.
Despite the many strengths of Classes and Cultures, there are weaknesses in its method. It is noticeable that the sections on middle or ruling class life are based on accounts written by members of these classes, while the sections on workers are based on sources written by social observers, sociologists, philanthropists and other middle class figures.
While bosses are allowed to speak for themselves, workers speak through the voice of others. As a result, the book's description of class itself is sometimes static. Classes are agreed to exist, but the point is not made that they are based on relationships of exploitation, and as a result there is little sense of the relationship between different groups. McKibbin notes that members of the ruling class spent the early 1920s in fear of working class revolt, but he never describes the revolt itself, the strikes which made it up, or the impact of the Russian Revolution, which helped to give the strikes their force.
Despite these misgivings, I would say that this remains a detailed, thorough, well written and full account, which treats its subject fairly, and is well worth reading for anyone interested in the recent history of British culture and society.
André Brink Secker & Warburg £15.99
At first this novel appears to be
simply a weird fantasy. A 59 year
old burned out hack of a
journalist in South Africa, Flip
Lochner, descends into Devil's
Valley, where a community has
lived in isolation for
generations. Every previous
attempt by outsiders to infiltrate
the valley has ended in their
death or disappearance. Flip's
aim is to fulfil his lifelong
ambition to record the history of
From the moment he reaches the edge of the valley, Flip is confronted by magic and mystical appearances. An old man greets him. 'I been sitting here, waiting for you,' he says. Flip is surprised as no one knew of his plans, and completely flabbergasted when it turns out that the man (the community's founder) has been dead for over 100 years.
The community Flip discovers is strange indeed. Generations of inbreeding by the original settlers has produced a multitude of distorted bodies and minds. Some, such as the beautiful nymph-like girl with four breasts, appear and then disappear like mirages. Was she real, or just a figment of Flip's overactive sexual imagination? Later, as with many other apparently magical phenomena, he discovers at least the possibility of a rational explanation.
The people of the valley have created their own history based on myths and orthodox Christianity. The community is presented to Flip as an ideal commune, based on equality (there are no black servants) and high moral principles, and uncorrupted by modern life. As Flip digs deeper, however, he finds a much more sinister world.
The Christianity is used to terrorise and punish by painful death all those who transgress the strict codes. The racial purity is maintained by infanticide of babies who are 'throwbacks' to the 'black blood' introduced by the founding father whose second wife was black (a secret not known by most of the community). Women suffer physical and mental torture as a result of the fanatically patriarchal system.
The more Flip discovers, the more it seems to throw the community into crisis, as if the truth once spoken or recognised must destroy the evil. The distintegration is symbolised by a drought, which as each day passes increasingly threatens the survival of the people. At a crisis prayer meeting, the crumbling ideology of the people is summed up in a sermon by Holy Lermiet: 'It pleased God our Almighty Father more than a century and a half ago to lead a handful of whites from the wilderness of the outside world to this haven. Under his guidance we have laboured to maintain the purity of Christianity and civilisation in the face of all onslaughts. Today we find ourselves before an ordeal which may bring about our end. Because where can we turn to? We have taken root in this place, we have bought this small tract of earth with the sweat of our brows and the blood of our bodies, and here we shall die if we must. For it is better to perish in the land the Lord has granted us than to live abroad among the fleshpots of Egypt.'
As the old certainties evaporate, the community begins to implode. People start questioning the myths, and the women in particular start rebelling. When Jurg Water, one of the community's most respected men, batters his son to death for disobedience and tells his wife that she will learn from her suffering, she shouts back: What do you know about it? The only thing that suffering has taught me is the uselessness of suffering. And now I've had enough.'
By this point it has long become clear that the novel is much more than just a phantasmagorical tale. It is a powerful metaphor for apartheid South Africa, in particular the more neanderthal elements who fought for white supremacy to the end.
The style of magic realism, mastered by modern South American writers such as Marquez, is a difficult art and André Brink is pretty good at it. There are some flaws in this book, such as the unnecessary overuse of expletives and repetitive descriptions of sexual fantasies/experiences. In some places there is also just a bit too much magic. But overall, Devil's Valley is a wonderful read and an imaginative indictment of apartheid, fundamental religion and women's oppression.
The Contract of Mutual Indifference
Norman Geras Verso £15
'The road to Auschwitz was built
by hate but paved with
This is the terrifying proposition at the heart of this book. Geras argues that this indifference is deeply rooted in our society. There is a kind of undeclared and morally unacceptable 'contract' between people, which gives his book its title. Individuals care far too little for one another. Postwar liberal political philosophy has failed to recognise this. We need a new kind of social and moral contract to overcome this defect and Marxists need to recognise what he calls the 'transhistorical' emotional roots of the defect. The 'passive bystander' in history *surely testifies to a remarkable capacity in members of our species to live comfortably with the sufferings of others'.
Now there are obviously problems with these arguments, but a word of warning. What gives his book some force is knowledge of a vast Holocaust literature (and the book is worth reading for this alone). So peculiar and unique is the horror of the Holocaust that perhaps the author is entitled, on behalf of its victims, to ask the left not be complacent about its assumptions. To take one example: Primo Levi was one of the Holocaust's most eloquent survivors, yet a cause of his suicide, half a century later, may have been his despair that humanity had refused to learn its lessons. But our response must be to sharpen our arguments and find the politics which mean that 'Never Again!' is more than just a slogan.
One of the most evocative images in the Holocaust literature concerns a children's merry-go- round just outside the Warsaw Ghetto. It spins around as the Ghetto burns and the uprising is crushed. The children laugh, the carousel music goes on playing. Polish mothers smile. The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz used this image to great effect. His poem has become one of the great reference points for some of the Polish intelligentsia who want to take responsibility for Poland's failure to do more for its Jews. Now there is nothing wrong with this, but the story is incomplete.
Here is another witness as the Ghetto burned, but one who does not appear in this book: 'Even though the simple Pole tended to be anti-Semitic, what was happening in the ghetto aroused extraordinary respect... with my own eyes I saw Poles crying, masses of Poles, without a trace of spiteful malice.'
The author of these lines is Antek Zukerman, so appalled at European anti-Semitism that it had turned him into an ardent Zionist (but does this not make his witness statement more credible?), and the Ghetto's chief liaison with the Polish Underground. He was on the Polish side of the wall as the Ghetto burned. He has more to tell us: 'the "Polish street" was spontaneous and could go either way. But it was the (Underground) leadership who decided in cold blood not to help.'
Why did the Polish Underground leadership behave like this? Why was it dominated by the prewar nationalist right when antiNazi underground movements elsewhere in Europe were led by the Communists? Why did many Poles fear Stalin as much as Hitler? To understand the Polish 'passive bystander' you have to answer these questions.
This raises a deeper question entirely missing from this book. The most important single event in the 20th century is the failure of the Russian Revolution. More important than the Holocaust? Yes, at least in the sense that its failure helps explain the Holocaust. Barbarism replaced socialism. Norman Geras, in his last essay, directs us to the one person who can help us here.
He begins a fascinating discussion about why Leon Trotsky alone was able to predict, as well as understand, the Holocaust. He argues that Trotsky had an intuitive grasp of those 'transhistorical' emotions which, under the wrong social conditions, can degenerate into hateful and monstrous drives. In support, he quotes passages from Trotsky's 1905 describing the mob, 'drunk on the smell of blood', in an anti- Semitic pogrom. It's a pity, though, that he didn't complete Trotsky's analysis and counterpose the actions of the Petrograd workers' soviet, which sent out armed detachments to challenge the mob. The dynamic of the workers' movement released deep emotional pressures for solidarity with the oppressed. In a more optimistic mood, Norman Geras once recognised in a previous book on Marx and human nature that socialism would free our natures from their alienation. We would find our common humanity. Among other things, the power lust would dissolve in a classless society. He no longer seems so sure.
Between Reform and Revolution
Ed: David E Barclay and Eric D Waitz Berghahn £55
Revolutionary song writer Franz
Josef Degenhardt describes the
course of German history like this:
'A street in one city, in less than a
century, has been renamed: Sedan
Street, Kaiser Wilhelm Street, Town
Hall Street, Adolf Hitler Street,
Main Street, Street of the 17 June
1953, John F. Kennedy Street.
What a history! What a country!'
Any history of German socialism must ground itself firmly in this turbulent framework. The extent to which this collection of 23 essays, edited by David Barclay and Eric Weitz, fails to do so is impressive. In the closing essay calling for a 'new new left', Weitz himself makes clear how much he detests mass self activity from below: 'Both centuries of the modern era have had their moments of madness when popular protests and popular movements completely unexpectedly break through the confines of every day politics.'
Accordingly madness is systematically removed from history. Hanna Schisslier, for example, in an otherwise interesting contribution, accredits all achievements in women's lives to the SPD's changed politics under Willy Brandt, not mentioning 1968 and the women's movement of the 1970s.
William Mathews in 'The Rise and Fall of Red Saxony' describes the mass terror of the pre-fascist Freikorps which killed 30,000 revolutionary workers and was backed by an SPD led government: 'Responsible for law, order, and the public welfare in despairing times of defeat, hunger and unemployment, the Saxon SPD confronted force with force in an effort to stabilise the political and economic disturbances unleashed in the November Revolution of 1918.'
On more than 500 pages practically everything socialists may find inspiring in German history is either pushed to the sidelines or omitted.
This fate is shared by every person and theory connected to these events. In Between Reform and Revolution you find neither a systematic discussion of the revisionism debate in the SPD nor a mention of Rosa Luxemburg's work, Social Reform or Revolution. Where a few sentences are devoted to this issue, Ralf Roth manages not to mention Luxemburg, who was the intellectual winner of this debate! Here we have the construction of a compact analysis of German socialism from a Blairite standpoint.
Nevertheless, reading this book is extremely useful and highly recommended for Marxists familiar with German history, for two reasons.
The first is that the book fails to achieve its aim. For instance, David Barclay's attempt to show the lasting importance of SPD economist Rudolf Hilferding's theories amounts to a convincing proof of the opposite.
Secondly, most of the authors are honest historians. They try to reach their ends by a one sided interpretation and selection of historical facts but despite this they contain well researched, extremely interesting historical information, albeit followed by right wing conclusions.
A few essays lack the annoying Blairite characteristic of the majority of the book. Beatrix Herlemann, author of a very instructive study on the KPD's municipal policy in the Ruhr region, contributes a brilliant analysis of Communist resistance in the Third Reich. Donna Harsch's look at the 'Iron Front', the Social Democrats' military wing in the final Weimar years, is tremendously exciting as it shows how the pressure of fascist terror pushed the SPD to more militant forms of organisation.
The best essay is Norman Naimark's on the first years of Soviet occupation. The KPD old guard coming out of the prisons and camps didn't understand at all why the working class shouldn't take power immediately: 'Even when told by Soviet commandants that they were not allowed to establish "Soviet power" or the "dictatorship of the proletariat--the Communists answered, "Okay, fine, we won't call it Soviet power, but it will be Soviet power in any case, it can't be anything else.'
Read the book critically, integrate the information into the full story of German socialism, and it will be of great use and a good training for debates with right wing social democrats.
Russell Banks Secker & Warburg £16.99
Cloudsplitter is a fictional
autobiography of the famous
American campaigner for the
abolition of slavery, John Brown. It
is narrated by Owen Brown, his son
and constant companion. Banks
gives us the story of political
events that marked John Brown's
life and also, through Owen, a
personal insight into his state of
Brown lived in 19th century America, a time when slavery was rife and backed by the federal government. Brown's life was dedicated to fighting a war against slavery and the rich Southern slave owners. He is shown as a man of action who persistently condemned the wealthy Northern abolitionists, who were all talk and no action.
The name of the book comes from Brown's favourite mountain, which overlooked the underground railway, established to help slaves escape from the South to Canada. This was the first of many ventures by Brown who fought to make Kansas a slave free state and who ultimately wanted a slave insurrection.
His final battle in the war against slavery was his attempt to take over Harper's Ferry the federal arms reserve. He called on his black abolitionist comrades to organise a slave army which he would arm. This army would liberate by force every slave in the South and force the slave owners, through economic necessity, to hire people. The attempt was a brave one, but doomed from the beginning. The black abolitionists had respect for Brown but thought the plan lunacy.
The truth is that Brown had no concept of class forces. His obsession with the Old Testament and his dogged belief in 'natural justice' led to defeat and execution. Brown trusted very few people in his fight against slavery and counted on the individual morality and character of fellow abolitionists. Throughout the book Owen portrays his father's mistrust of the majority of people. He felt sympathy for the Irish immigrants working for a pittance, and saw wage slavery and slavery both stemming from an immoral source, however he never saw those working people as being able to confront prejudice and fight against slavery.
Brown's views and obsessions became his family's. Owen recounts throughout the book the pressure he felt from his father's all consuming character. The struggle between the personal and political was a source of great conflict for them both, however Owen finds this the hardest. His struggle with his own conscience, and the fact that he was the only survivor of the Harper's Ferry battle, is the constant backdrop to the story of John Brown. This makes for hard reading sometimes, but overall the book encompasses a complex array of human emotions with the story of a real fighter. It's well worth a read.
West Africans in Britain. 1900-1960
Hakim Adi Lawrence & Wishart £13.99
The British Empire often faced
resistance to its rule and as such
sought to incorporate some of its
colonial subjects into the lower
echelons of its administrative
machine, using them as a buffer
between the rulers and the ruled. A
handpicked few came to Britain
from West Africa to study. They
were expected to show gratitude
and become fervent loyalists of
empire. From the turn of the
century, those students formed
their own organisations to promote
their interests and welfare as well
as to discuss the politics of the
colonies. The colonisers' plan
Those who came to Britain expected to find an enlightened society. Instead they found widespread discrimination and distrust and a colour bar which prevented them finding accommodation, work and an environment where they could socialise and relax. The Colonial Office, whose responsibility the students were, sometimes sympathised but mostly shrugged its shoulders. This remained the case until the 1930s, when it became clear that there were other organisations in Britain who were prepared to champion the rights of black people--organisations that the Colonial Office characterised as subversive. Instead of coming to Britain and returning to West Africa as colonial loyalists many instead came under the influence of Marxism.
By the Second World War many students supported organisations which demanded some form of home rule and were deeply critical of British colonial policy. Nevertheless, most saw fascism in Europe as so serious a threat to Africans that they were prepared to back those who called for war. This was especially true following the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. Millions of troops from the colonies fought in a war which was supposedly fought for 'freedom' and 'democracy'--the very things the British denied to them.
During this time Labour MPs such as Reginald Sorensen were the best weapons that the Colonial Office had in its fight against Communist influence. The MPs sympathised with the students who pointed to the hypocrisy at the centre of the war and said that only parliamentary socialism, not Marxism, could win redress. This would be proved when their day came.
Labour's day did come. Sorensen became an undersecretary in the Colonial Office and was soon doing some very quick back-pedalling. The new foreign secretary declared that there would be 'no mucking about with the British Empire'.
The disillusionment with Labour, which failed both to grant any of the growing independence movement's demands and at the same time felt unable to pass laws to outlaw the colour bar, fed the appetite of the students for radical politics.
Many of those who had been students in Britain had turned so far away from the 'mother country' that they now led resistance to British rule in Africa and would go on to be ministers in the first postindependence governments.
Perhaps the best example of this is Kwame Nkrumah who came to study in Britain in 1945 just as a general strike broke out in Nigeria. The strike, which stemmed from economic demands, quickly assumed an anti-colonial character. Nkrumah threw himself into a propaganda campaign in support of a strike which lasted for almost two months and involved at least 200,000 workers. In 1948 unarmed African ex-servicemen led a demonstration in the Gold Coast against economic insecurity. The police fired on the marchers, killing 26 and injuring over 200. Nkrumah was among those who were arrested for organising this resistance. But nothing could stop the wave of protest. By 1951 Nkrumah headed the government of the newly independent Gold Coast.
Adi does not provide a thorough political analysis of nationalism, nor of how the Communist Party's attitude to the colonial question shifted according to the needs of Russian foreign policy. Another weakness is the lack of an explanation as to why the newly independent nations of Africa, whose leaders often described themselves as Marxists, eventually failed the workers who were central to the fight against the British. Nevertheless, he has shed light on a fascinating period in the twilight years of empire.
Britain on the Breadline
Keith Laybourn Sutton £14.99
The years between the two world
wars were among the toughest
this century for millions of
workers in Britain and around the
world. They also saw massive
political upheavals, from a wave
of revolutions to the barbarous
reaction of fascism.
Given the potential for workers to draw inspiration from those battles, a number of historians have attempted to show that the poverty and unemployment was exaggerated out of all proportion. 'Crisis, what crisis!' they cry, arguing that wages and conditions were steadily improving.
Keith Laybourn's book aims to challenge those writers by showing a more complicated picture. He argues that unemployment and poverty dominated British politics, and only the threat of fascism in Europe in the mid to late 1930s pushed those concerns off the top of the agenda.
He concedes that life was getting better for many workers, like those in new car factories based in the south and the Midlands, but shows the cruel contrast with areas, particularly in the north, Wales and Scotland, where heavy industries were already in decline.
The response of governments, was not to relieve poverty but to balance budgets and put the country back on the gold standard, which linked money supplies to bullion reserves. The 1929-31 Labour chancellor, Philip Snowden, was accused of having an almost ghoulish enthusiasm for this, a stance that has obvious echoes in New Labour.
Laybourn charts fightbacks like the hunger marches and activities of the Communist influenced National Unemployed Workers' Movement. Whilst criticising government inaction, the book argues that the influence of the NUWM was marginal and restricted, held at arm's length as it was by Labour and the TUC because of its Communist links.
On the 1926 General Strike, when the TUC called workers out to support miners against cuts, the book argues that despite the TUC's capitulation and way the miners were starved back to work, the effect on the union movement was not disastrous. It claims that the strike put down a marker to employers that unions were determined to resist wage cuts.
Where the book really falls down is in its underestimation of the threat posed by Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists. Laybourn believes Labour was right to ignore a 'political fringe group' so as not to exaggerate its importance. Even leaving aside the alarming thought that there were 350 members at the time in Sheffield alone, 50 of them in uniform, Laybourn does not understand as Trotsky (or Hitler, for that matter) did, that we cannot wait complacently until the Nazis become a formidable force before we fight them.
The book undermines its argument by reporting that the invasion by 500 Communists of a BUF mass meeting in Olympia London, in 1934 and the horrific beatings they took from the Blackshirt thugs exposed the BUF to public outrage. Even the Daily Mail was forced to retreat from its 'Hurrah for the Blackshirts' position as a result.
Another chapter charts the working class response to the Spanish Civil War by attacking the writer George Orwell's bitter assessment that 'for two and a half years they watched their comrades in Spain slowly strangled, and never aided even with a single strike.'
The book recalls the outpouring of sympathy for the Republican government fighting off Franco's forces, providing money to buy many shiploads of humanitarian aid. Laybourn says the Labour Party's response was firmly limited to raising aid and that the party was confused about the issue, slow to change and hostile to any united action with anti- fascist groups, particularly the Communist Party.
This book contains a wealth of information on poverty in the interwar years. It also seeks to rebut those revisionist historians who attempt to deny that Britain was a class ridden society beset by social ills with a great deal of success.