Issue 233 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review

REVIEWS

BOOKS

Too hot to handle?

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations
David Landes
Little Brown £10.99

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations

This book has received considerable publicity since it came out in hardback. It attempts to deal with an important topic--the enormous disparities between output per head in the advanced industrial countries and the Third World. It provides a mass of empirical material about developments in technology over the centuries.
Landes explains the disparities in terms of geographical location and the impetus which different 'cultures' provide to technical innovation. His arguments on both accounts fail.
His main geographic explanation is that 'the rich countries lie in the temperate zones, the poor countries in the tropics and semitropics'. Hot climates, he claims, discourage people from exerting themselves voluntarily, so that high levels of productivity are only likely where 'slavery makes other people do the hard work. It is no accident that slave labour has historically been associated with tropical and semi-tropical climates.'
His claims are full of holes. There are many economically impoverished regions with temperate climates: the valleys of Mexico or inland Peru and Ecuador are considerably more 'temperate' than some economically more advanced regions elsewhere in the world. Today there are enormous, if localised, centres of industry in sweltering cities like Bombay and Calcutta. if you go back only 1,000 years the 'advanced' regions of the world were in relatively hot areas like Mesopotamia, the Nile Valley, southern China and Yucatan, while north western Europe was poor, backward and almost cityless. The argument on slavery does not fit either. It was central to the economies of temperate Greece and Rome, but marginal to the economies of hotter Egypt or Mesopotamia.
The argument about 'cultures' is equally flawed. Of course, some cultures have placed more stress upon the expansion of economic activity than others. Landes is quite right to note that the Counter-reformation Catholic orthodoxy in late 16th century southern Europe or neo-Confucian orthodoxy in 11th century China discouraged technical innovation and economic expansion. But that leaves completely unexplained where those orthodoxies came from and why they became dominant in some places and not others.
Both faced challenges in a way that Landes virtually ignores. The Counter-reformation in southern Europe was the other side of the stagnation of the Spanish and Italian economies in the 16th century: the bourgeoisie simply was not strong enough to establish a new social and ideological order, as in Holland and England, or even to gain an institutionalised base for itself inside the existing order, as in absolutist France.
In the Chinese case there had been massive economic growth, large scale spread of market relations and more technical innovation than anywhere else in the world from the 8th to the 11th centuries. There was also a tendency for the merchant and artisan classes to adopt values very different to those of the neo-Confucianism of the state bureaucrats and landed gentry, and even for the new values to influence sections of the ruling class. The economic advance came to a halt because the merchant and artisan classes were not able to mount a successful challenge to the old order. The parasitism of the landowning classes then damaged the rural economy and a weakened empire was conquered piecemeal by non-Chinese peoples from the north. The intrinsic nature of Chinese culture had little to do with the matter.
The 'culturism' of Landes' approach slides easily into the view that there is something about western culture, going right back to supposed ancient Greek and Judaic origins, that makes it intrinsically superior to any other. This fails to see that what we call 'western culture' today is very different from the multitude of European cultures that existed a few hundred years ago and is, in fact, a product of the development of capitalism over the last 300 years. This development has now encompassed the whole world and changed values everywhere, so that there is little that is specifically 'western' about the values that surround us today. Nor is it true that the origins of these values are to be found only in the west. The seeds of capitalist ideology were to be found in the 9th century Baghdad of the Arabian Nights, the great trading and manufacturing centres of 10th century Sung or 16th century Ming China, even if it was only in 17th and 18th century Holland and Britain that they were first able to grow fully.
Landes' narrow and unhistorical view leads him to attack anyone who disagrees with his judgements as suffering from 'political correctness'. This approach also enables Landes to virtually ignore the way in which the development of certain national capitalisms has cramped the development of others. You would not think from his book that the English ruling class, having developed industry and agriculture that was marginally more advanced than that of, say, Ireland or India by the beginning of the 18th century, then used that advance to smash and subordinate such economies to its dictates, bringing about impoverishment and deindustrialisation.
Landes is critical of parts of the dominant neoclassical economic orthodoxy, like the theory of comparative advantage. But despite useful chapters, his own book ends up as apologia for the present world system as it is.
Chris Harman


Worker by hand and brain

Labour and Monopoly Capital
Harry Braverman
Monthly Review Press £18.95

If you are stressed out at work and sick to death of the crap about partnership, teamwork, empowerment and the rest of the management Orwellian newspeak, do yourself a favour and join the thousands of socialists who have read and delighted in Harry Braverman's brilliant analysis of work under capitalism. It is 25 years since this brilliant Marxist classic was first published, and yet it still comes across as a fiery, angry and insightful analysis of why work is such a nightmare.
Braverman himself was no obscure academic scribbling away in an ivory tower. He started off serving a four year apprenticeship as a coppersmith, but also did pipefitting and sheet metalwork. This background in skilled trades had an important effect on his analysis of capitalism. Later on he was a journalist on a socialist newspaper and then formed an association with the Monthly Review which lasted to his death in 1976. Crucially though, Harry Braverman was a Marxist.
Labour and Monopoly Capital is about work and the changing nature and experience of the working class. Furthermore, it is about how management attempts to control the working class and turn the potential to work into actual profitable work itself. Braverman argued that the nature of capitalism had changed and with it the working class, and Marxists needed to understand the nature of these changes.
The major focus of Labour and Monopoly Capital is management's constant struggle to seize control of the labour process from workers. For Braverman, in the early days of capitalism, skilled workers may not have owned the means of production but they controlled knowledge of the work process. Braverman argues therefore that the 'general law of the capitalist division of labour' is that all special knowledge and training must be removed from the working class and be seized by management. There are three principles involved: the disassociation of the labour process from the skills of workers, the separation of conception from execution, and managerial monopoly of knowledge to control each step of the labour process.
Thus the major drive of capitalism in its unceasing search for productivity and profits is to deskill and divide the working class. For Braverman, hand and brain become not just separated, but divided and hostile, and this is the single most important step in the capitalist division of labour. Herein lies the first problem. The most important characteristic of capitalism is not deskilling, but reducing workers to the status of commodities to be bought and sold like so many tins of beans. Deskilling is important, but not the fundamental drive. Braverman came from a craft tradition at a time when that tradition was under attack and he generalised too much from a particular experience.
Braverman argues that it was only when capitalism had reached the monopoly capitalist phase (in the early years of the 20th century) that the ruling class could afford the extra layers of management whose sole task would be the relentless hunt to increase the productivity of labour. And the way that they would do this would be by adopting the ideas of 'Scientific management' promoted, primarily, by Frederick 'Speedy' Taylor. Using time and motion studies, Taylor broke jobs down into their minutest elements and then provided detailed instructions concerning the way that each task was to be carried out. Crucially, Taylor then pushed workers to the limits of their physical capabilities in carrying out these now mindless tasks.
Braverman argues that, alongside Taylorism, new technologies play a vital role in raising productivity and attacking workers' control of the labour process. Developing a class analysis of new technologies he argues that capitalists ideally would like to replace workers altogether but they cannot. However, in working on new technologies workers work every day 'to build for themselves more "modern", more "scientific", more dehumanised prisons of labour'. Anyone working in a call centre knows exactly what Braverman is talking about.
But here lies the major problem with Braverman's analysis. As he says himself, this is a book about the working class in itself, not for itself. In other words, workers' struggles and resistance don't appear. This leaves us with a picture of capitalism being like US style major corporations driven simply by the desire to increase productivity by deskilling labour.
These criticisms apart, we should celebrate this 25th anniversary edition. Braverman reminds us that class structure is not fixed and unchanging. The working class changes and develops as long as capitalism itself does.
Al Rainnie


Cold War culture

Who Paid the Piper?
Frances Stonor Saunders
Granta £20

Who Paid the Piper?

Richard Crossman, a minor player in this story, is supposed to have said that 'the way to carry out good propaganda is never to appear to be carrying it out at all.' That was certainly the approach of the US ruling class during the Cold War. Who Paid the Piper? is a startling expose of the extent of CIA involvement in funding and attempting to manipulate Western intellectuals, artists and entertainers after the Second World War.
The US state was terrified of the spread of Communist ideas in Europe at the end of the war. President Truman stressed the importance of the fight on the cultural front--but state propaganda for Western values of free expression and individual liberty posed a problem. The CIA's solution was to use private and corporate foundations as fronts to pump money into concerts, magazines and exhibitions organised round a network of 'Congresses for Cultural Freedom'.
The US ruling class happily backed the project--by the 1960s almost half of overseas grants from US foundations involved CIA funding. Some of the exploits recounted in Stonor Saunders' book are bizarre. The CIA actually commissioned a translation of the The Four Quartets, a difficult book of poems by T S Eliot, and had copies airdropped into Russia! One CIA operative was employed to ensure the Fodor travel guides to Europe 'reflected Western values' and another went to great lengths to ensure that Hollywood started using some black extras to counter 'Communist propaganda' about racism in the US.
But what is striking is the scale of CIA intervention and influence. Time, Life and CBS organised CIA briefings with their journalists and had CIA agents on their books in the 1950s. The governors of the Museum of Modern Art in New York cooperated fully in the CIA's plans to use new American art to champion the American way in Europe. Congresses for Cultural Freedom were set up all round the world, and scores of intellectual journals--most famously, Encounter--were set up using CIA money.
The list of intellectuals who benefited at one time or another from CIA money is staggering. The poet Stephen Spender, the philosopher Isiah Berlin, ex-Communists Arthur Koestler and Ignazio Silone, and ex-Trotskyists Paul Burnham and J T Farrell all played organisational roles in this. Hundreds of others attended conferences, accepted grants or contributed to journals. Many have since claimed not to know where the money was coming from. Maybe so. But bitter comments from the few intellectuals, like Jean Paul Sartre and Norman Mailer, who come out of this book with credit suggest otherwise.
Two connected questions strike you as you plough through the depressing lists of liberals and ex-socialists involved in one way or another. First, how did the CIA pull it off? And second, was it worth it?
Part of the answer is that the CIA's programme operated at many levels--funding a tour by Duke Ellington or an exhibition of Jackson Pollock's paintings to prove the vibrancy of American culture is a bit different from setting up and editorially controlling an intellectual magazine. But the fact that so many ex-socialists and liberals did flock to the cause of implicitly pro-US anti-Communism suggests that the CIA was pushing at an open door, at least in the US.
Prewar leftist intellectuals there proved fickle friends of the working class anyway. The postwar boom and the rotten politics of the Stalinists did a lot of the CIA's work for it. Rather than tackling the difficult job of building a socialist alternative to Stalinism, many were all too ready to accept the 'lesser of two evils' theory and throw their lot in with the West. The CIA fronts no doubt helped to lubricate this shift to the right and gave the intellectuals a bridgehead into Europe, but they hardly helped generate much new material. And despite the scale of the operation, its impact on Europe seems limited. Key figures in the book are quoted complaining about popular anti-Americanism right through the period. The influence of the Communist Parties in southern Europe remained huge. It wasn't until the 1970s that there was a real shift to the right amongst the French intelligentsia. Even in Britain, while the CIA found plenty of allies in the right wing of the Labour Party, it found most of the left hostile. The Hungarian uprising of 1956 was a big test for the policy and it exposed the fact that the US had few ideological allies on the ground, and later the mass radicalisation in the 1960s drove some of the leading lights of the Congress for Cultural Freedom to despair.
Who Paid the Piper? gives a fascinating glimpse of how seriously the state takes the ideological struggle. It shows what a farce claims of freedom of expression are in the media, in academia, and in arts and entertainment.
Chris Nineham


Why the party had to stop

Under the Red Flag
Keith Laybourn and Dylan Murphy
Sutton Publishing £25

Under the Red Flag

The Communist Party of Great Britain was never greater than 50,000 members, but it punched well above its weight in terms of its impact on the labour movement. This is despite the fact that even at its height it could only secure the election of two MPs. Today the Communist Party has gone--shattered into a myriad of small, competing groups. But its influence still has reverberations both within the trade union movement and New Labour.
Today it is difficult to describe the impact of the Communist Party even just two and a half decades ago. When I became a socialist in Edinburgh in the early 1970s the party controlled the local trades council, the Scottish region of the National Union of Mineworkers with its head office in the city, and the Scottish TUC. At Edinburgh University there was a vibrant Communist Society. In some ways the influence of the Communist Party on the left of the Labour Party was more important. The Labour left was very much under the ideological sway of the Communist Party.
Going round the miners' welfares in the Lothians or selling papers outside the trades council, two things were instantly apparent about the Communist Party. Firstly, it had recruited the cream of the working class (though by the late 1960s and 70s that was no longer true in the way it had been in the 1930s, 40s and 50s). Whole networks of shop stewards and union activists followed the party's lead. But secondly, this was a Stalinist party which took its lead from Moscow and had gone through a frightening array of somersaults, Again this was beginning to change, but in 1972 it was still largely true.
If today the Communist Party has gone, it has left behind a vacuum to the left of the Labour Party. As unrest with New Labour grows it is important that socialists today grasp the successes and limitations of the Communist Party. Keith Laybourn and Dylan Murphy's Under the Red Flag provides a good basic introductory history of the party. It does not pull its punches about the control exerted on the party by Moscow, which has been a fault in a number of recent books written by former party sympathisers. This was a party which could enter the Second World War committed to fully supporting the British state against Germany, but its position changed completely after the arrival of a party member from Moscow crying, 'All change!' Then when Hitler invaded Russia in 1941 its position changed from one opposing an imperialist war to one supporting the Churchill government to the point of opposing strikes and urging greater productivity on the factory floor.
Where the book fails is in giving readers a taste of what it was like to be a party member on, say, the London buses in the 1930s organising a powerful rank and file movement across the capital's garages, or the party's role in the 1937 pit strike in Harworth which broke the control of the scab Spencer union in the Nottingham coalfield. And, if anything, the book downplays the role of the party in opposing Mosley's British Union of Fascists in the 1930s.
Of course, of the two elements which characterised the Communist Party--its ability to attract many of the best working class activists and its Stalinist nature--the latter was always, in the last analysis, the crucial one. But any history of the party has to explain and describe each of these two elements.
Chris Bambery


The monarchy and the military

The Last Days of Charles I
Graham Edwards
Sutton Publishing £19.99

Oliver Cromwell
Roy Sherwood
Sutton Publishing £18.99

The Last Days of Charles I

These two books, beautifully printed and lavishly illustrated, are designed (I hope) for people without a serious interest in the English Revolution. It is true that Charles I and Oliver Cromwell were fairly important characters in the revolution, but, with the subject being narrowed in the first book to a day by day narrative of the final weeks in the king's life, and in the second to the ceremonial of the Protector's court, almost all connection with the revolution is lost.
Roy Sherwood's book is the more scholarly and does demonstrate that Cromwell as Protector was surrounded increasingly with traditional regal ceremonial. There is some mildly interesting information on the iconography of the Protectorate and some tedious details about costumes worn on state occasions. But the reader should not look here for information about the policies of Cromwell's rule, or his treatment of Ireland and Scotland.
Graham Edwards does introduce his subject with some desultory chapters on the period from the defeat of the royalists to the death of the king, but his account is superficial, sometimes chronologically confusing, and often marred by factual errors. Both these books, however, do allow thoughts to be raised about one of the central concerns in the revolution--kingship.
The public trial and execution of Charles I was intended to establish that kings were responsible to those over whom they ruled rather than only to god. The king himself in his speech from the scaffold showed clearly enough what was the issue: 'For the people, truly I desire their liberty and freedom as much as anybody whatsoever; but I must tell you that their liberty and their freedom consists in having government, those laws by which their lives and their goods may be most their own. It is not their having a share in government; that is nothing appertaining unto them. A subject and a sovereign are clean different things.'
Charles was a hereditary monarch. Sherwood shows that Cromwell became a 'king in all but name', but he does not consider that before the civil war, despite his aristocratic connections and his status as a 'gentleman', his economic position, as John Morrill shows in The Nature of the English Revolution, 'was essentially that of a yeoman, a working farmer': 'Cromwell's economic status was much closer to that of the "middling sort" and urban merchants than to that of the county gentry and governors. He always lived in towns, not in a country manor house; and he worked for his living. He held no important local offices and had no tenants or others dependent upon him beyond a few household servants'.
His rise to being in effect a king was a supreme example of 'the world turned upside down', the phrase which during the revolution summed up what the ruling class feared and what some of the lower classes hoped.
Cromwell was well placed to lead the most dynamic element in the parliamentarian party--the radical section of the 'middling sort'. Poised uneasily between the old ruling class and the aspiring 'middling sort', Cromwell could move from association with radical forces in the 1640s to identification with conservative elements in the 1650s, compassing the transition in the revolution from demolition to consolidation. Few then or since deny that he rose by virtue of his talents. As against the men who had power only because they inherited high social status and great wealth, Cromwell epitomised the radical notion of power being earned by ability and merit (the latter included religious zeal). The trial and execution of the king and the elevation of Cromwell both happened because there was a revolution: they were consequences, not causes, of that revolution.
Karl Kautsky pointed out that the role of 'great men' in history should be related to the group or class which they represented or symbolised. In the English Civil War Charles I defended aristocracy and episcopacy, and his strength came from his party. Sherwood should have asked who made Cromwell 'king in all but name'. He should have considered the power hungry politicians, the seedy financiers, and the sycophantic journalists who pushed him forward and, more broadly, the lords of manors who rightly trusted him to defend their rank and property, the clergy who successfully pressed him not to abolish their tithes (the tax which supported them), and the lawyers who managed to keep him from reforms of the legal system that would have reduced their profits.
Cromwell's power in the last resort, however, rested on the army. A consistent theme in his career was that when by persuasion, intimidation and bribery he could not manipulate the soldiers, he gave way to them, though often then seeking to evade or circumvent the consequences. It was the soldiers who pushed him into accepting the purge of parliament and the execution of the king, and it was the soldiers who prevented him from accepting the crown offered by parliament in 1657.
As many had predicted when civil war broke out in 1642, power lay with the victorious army and its commander. But it was not the commander in chief, Sir Thomas Fairfax, who came out on top, but the second in command, Oliver Cromwell, and as Engels observed, if it had not been Cromwell, it would have been another general. It was not Cromwell who was the decisive influence, it was military power, which itself arose from the revolutionary struggles.
Brian Manning


A monument to money

Gotham
Edwin G Burrows and Mike Wallace
Oxford University Press £30

Gotham

Burrows and Wallace's book is a comprehensive history of New York and its predecessors.
Academic social science has been writing about the city for 100 years. For right wing authors the city is portrayed as a dark place of disorder, crime, unruliness, fear, hate and the ever present, uncontrollable 'mob'. This is the bleak 'Gotham' of the Batman movies, of the relentless struggle against evil and decay. For those on the left, the city is much more contradictory. It is the site of the most extreme inequalities and oppressions that dominate the modern world. It's a place of extravagance, opulence and abundance and, at the same time, the most desperate and biting poverty. The city reflects aspects of collective culture, solidarity and activity but at the same time it can contain vicious segregation, differentiation and ghettoisation. Finally, of course, cities are the site of political conflict, of popular uprising and struggles, of strikes and demonstrations, of riots and rebellions.
Burrows and Wallace plot how New York's development has been affected and shaped by its shifting position within the global capitalist economy. The history starts with a description of the Native American villages encamped around the mouth of the Hudson River prior to Dutch colonisation. These early chapters include some wonderful snippets of information about the matrilineal base of these nomadic bands of people, the infrequency of war and how these were fundamentally changed by market relations, colonial conquest and the expansion of the fur trade.
As New Amsterdam, the city existed on the periphery of the Dutch Empire. Owned by the West India Company, New Amsterdam was secondary in importance to Dutch concerns in Asia (with the spice trade), Africa (the slave trade) and South America (sugar). However, its takeover by Britain marked a significant change in fortune. It started its journey to world city by becoming a leading trading port, supplying agricultural produce to British colonies in the Caribbean, and an important strategic site in Britain's conflicts with the French across North America.
The American Revolution gave another spurt to New York's development and importance. It became the key point of connection between European (especially British) industrialisation, the Midwest agricultural belt and the cotton producing slave South.
The outcome of the Civil War saw New York become the main site of America's own industrialisation and the principal centre for its westward colonisation. Docks, factories and sweatshops expanded rapidly and the great banks and stock exchanges financed the railroads, mines and factories as they moved ever westward. Finally, at the end of the 19th century the city housed the major corporate headquarters of the most important American companies and banking institutions.
Interlaced with this history is a wealth of detail, description and analysis of the consequences of New York's development on its inhabitants. The differing position, lifestyles and struggles of migrants, labourers, the middle classes and the bourgeoisie are covered, as are the social consequences of rapid urban expansion and their effect on the health and well being of its inhabitants.
Burrows and Wallace's book is fantastically detailed. Yet sometimes the detail imposes an equivalence of the various elements: so vaudeville and the labour movement are just two equally impressive developments within New York's history. Despite its length it is relatively easy to read and follow. It is written by two 'New York partisans' and their love of the city clearly comes through their writing.
Michael Lavalette


Not in the picture

¡Comrades! Portraits from the Spanish Civil War
Paul Preston
Harper Collins £20

¡Comrades! Portraits from the Spanish Civil War

Paul Preston is one of the most eminent and best known historians of the Spanish Civil War, not just in Britain but more impressively in Spain as well. This latest volume, a collection of nine short biographies, is already a bestseller in Spain and will undoubtedly have a wide readership in Britain. Unfortunately, it is a thoroughly pernicious book which shows Preston using his considerable erudition to propagate a seriously distorted view of Spain in the 1930s that effectively removes the working class and its organisations from the equation.
Worth noticing first of all is the novelty of the book's title. A volume which includes biographies of the appalling colonial general José Millan Astray, the dictator Fransisco Franco, the fascist leader José Antonio Primo de Rivera and his sister, Pilar, would have been more appropriately titled ¡Bastards!. But what of his other chosen biographies?
They include chapters on the middle class Republican leader Manuel Azána, the right wing Socialist Indalecio Prieto, and the Communist spokeswoman Dolores Ibárruri, 'La Pasionaria'. But on what possible basis are other representatives of the left denied a voice? Where is the biography of Largo Caballero, leader of the Socialist left, regarded (quite incorrectly) by many working class activists as 'the Spanish Lenin'? Why is there no anarchist biography? And, of course, where is the biography of the Poum leader Andreu Nin, tortured to death by the Communist secret police? Preston's book does not include the biography of anyone to the left of the Communist Party. In the context of Spain in the 1930s this deprives the majority of the working class of any voice in his history of the war.
Why is this? Preston's view of the Spanish Civil War is that it was a conflict between the right and the Spanish Republic, a liberal democratic reformist regime supported by the middle class Republicans, the Socialist right and the Communists. These are the legitimate combatants in the Preston version. Those people fighting for a socialist Spain were a destabilising inconvenience. At the time they were eliminated by political pressure, bribery or repression. Today, in the Preston version, they are simply denied a voice.
Standing in for the left is the Communist Dolores Ibárruri, In many ways this is Preston's Achilles' heel, because he has never really managed to get his head round Stalinism. First of all, we have to consider why he chooses Ibárruri, rather than the Spanish CP leader José Diaz. Ibárruri, is a considerably more attractive figure, emerging in the course of the war as the spokeswoman of the Republican cause. A biography of Diaz would have revealed the extent to which the politics of Spanish Communism were dictated by the needs of Russian foreign policy. Rather than examine the grim reality of Communist activities in Spain, Preston opts for La Pasionaria's heroic rhetoric. He preserves the moment of Communist support for the Popular Front in aspic, sanitises it and freezes it, so as to use it as the cornerstone of his highly tendentious version of the civil war.
From this point of view, we can see why a biography of Nin was out of the question. First of all, Preston would have had to confront the fact that there were socialist alternatives to the Popular Front strategy. And secondly, he would have had to explain why Stalinists suppressed those alternatives.
To be fair, when he writes of Ibárruri's life in exile, the nature of international Stalinism does begin to become apparent, but this is discussed in terms of her personal tragedy rather than of working class politics. Despite everything, he insists that she did not die a failure, but instead remained a symbol of democracy. For us, she was a working class militant, brave and dedicated, who--as part of the great tragedy of the international working class movement this century--became a Stalinist apparatchik.
John Newsinger


Storm centre of strikes

'It Just Went Like Tinder'
John Charlton
Redwords £6.99

As John Charlton makes explicit in the introduction to his book, 'The match girls should give immense heart to workers today who feel helpless in the face of the pressures of capitalism in crisis. If it could happen then it can happen again.'
Although the struggle of the women workers at the Bryant and May factory in Bow, east London, which sparked a massive movement of unskilled workers, seemed to come from nowhere, it had material roots in the period of seeming 'calm' that stretched before.
Ever since the defeat of Chartism the trade unions had been in the grip of leaders who preached moderation and conciliation with the bosses, believing that an expanding British capitalism could 'deliver' for a layer of skilled workers. They left the masses of unskilled workers untouched by union organisation, mired in intense poverty and prey to gross exploitation. And as today, in London poverty lay cheek by jowl with extreme opulence.
However, an economic crisis, the Great Depression, hit British capitalism, shattering this notion of 'partnership'. It was punctuated by brief upswings in the economy, all of which gave space in the mid and late 1880s to a growth in socialist ideas and a new combativity amongst workers.
There was a small revival of revolutionary socialist organisation, with the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and then the Socialist league, whose strengths and weaknesses John Charlton surveys. Working class activists such as Tom Mann, Will Thorne and John Burns began to work away at winning workers to trade unionism and socialist politics. They connected with the growth of a new fighting spirit in the working class, and amongst hitherto unorganised sections of it.
It was in the East End of London, where the SDF and the Socialist League and individuals such as William Morris and Eleanor Marx had been spreading socialist propaganda for some time, that New Unionism erupted.
The book kicks off in tremendous style: 'On an early July afternoon in 1888 a crowd of 200, mainly teenaged girls, arrived outside a newspaper office in Bouverie Street, off Fleet Street in the City of London. They had come from a factory at Bow in the East End.'
The match girls had run for two miles to see Annie Besant, the radical journalist who had exposed the brutal working conditions and near slave labour of the Bryant and May owners in her weekly paper The Link. The match girls stayed out for three weeks and won a partial victory.
Their strike began a whole range of strikes. Most famously the strike for the docker's 'tanner', led by socialists, was extraordinary for its militancy. The use of flying pickets, not used on such a scale since the 1842 general strike, was key. Strikers picketed 50 miles of docks. There were huge daily marches through the City of London and calls for solidarity. The dockers were victorious, although Charlton does point out the 'moderating' intervention of 'wise men', chiefly Roman Catholic Cardinal Manning.
London was the 'storm centre' from which New Unionism fanned out across the country as the book's examples from the north of England show. One estimate is that in a year the number of trade unionists doubled.
One of the book's unique contributions is its uncovering of the role of Irish immigrants at the heart of New Unionism. Charlton points out that not only was the 'Irish question' a key political issue for the left but also that 'over half of Britain's dockers were Irish or of Irish extraction'.
So Irish workers were in the vanguard of the working class struggle. Yet only in 1870 Marx had pointed out that 'England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians,' and that the hostility the Irish met with was a reason for the impotence of the working class as a whole.
John Charlton also analyses the reasons for the decline of New Unionism and the future paths of its leaders--some to the left, others to the right of politics. But, as he points out, 'that the most downtrodden and oppressed members of the working class could take hold of their destinies, however briefly, marked the re-entry of these groups into the world of political and industrial action.'
This book is very well written and fresh with lessons and outlooks for today. It provides a valuable new perspective on one of the greatest movements in British working class history... so far.
Hassan Mahamdallie


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