Our History. Roots of the British Socialist Movement. Duncan Bowie. Review.
Our History. Roots of the British Socialist Movement. Duncan Bowie. Chartist and Socialist History Society, £4.
Edward Thompson once talked of the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ approach to the labour movement’s past. That is, it’s ransacked for “forerunners” of present-day ideas. The academic left, no less than Leninists, tends to sift through our history, to remove the chaff of faulty thinkers. Few are willing to consider without the condescension of posterity the principles and actions of our political ancestors.
Every issue of Chartist contains an ‘Our History’ column by Duncan Bowie. The intention is to “draw attention to the writings of earlier radicals and socialists”. An individual is selected (the most recent is Fred Henderson, the first socialist elected to Norwich City Council – heard of him? I hadn’t) with a short biography and an extract from their work.
The present pamphlet contains the first 50 of these contributions. It begins with the People’s Charter of 1838, which argued for democratic universal franchise, and the “principle of self-government”. Following soon after is Bronterre O’Brien, the leader of the Jacobin tendency amongst the Chartists, underlines the early republicanism of the British left, with an introduction to Buonarroti’s history of Babeuf’s Conspiracy for Equality and a speech praising Robespierre in 1859. It ends with Keir Hardie in From Serfdom to Socialism (1907) stating that “Socialism implies the inherent equality of all human beings….Holding this to be true of all individuals, the Socialist applies it also it also to races…”
Duncan introduces us to William Linton, influenced (as was much of the 19th century European left) by the Italian republican Mazzini. His belief in the “perfectibility of the human race” may perhaps not be fashionable. But it’s a reminder that our past rests on far better foundations than those who would make us bow down before religious and racial difference. Women are represented: Annie Besant (in her socialist and rationalist pre-Theosophy period), Eleanor Marx and Isabella Ford – the first woman to speak at a Labour Party conference in support of a motion that women should be given the right to vote on the same terms as men.
Duncan has selected many who played a role in spreading socialist ideas into the labour movement and further afield. Radicals, by the end of the 19th century often aligned to the Liberal Party, those influenced by Henry George (the only non-British or Irish person represented) and his land reform programme gradually gives was to the formation of independent socialist organisations. The first British Marxist, Belford Bax, reminds us that Henry Hyndman’ England for All (1881) was not unique in that field. There is place for Christian socialists, Fabians, and, naturally for William Morris, one of the few Victorian socialist writers still widely read.
Our History is an abundance of riches. It is also dependable: Duncan has cross-referenced his articles with Labour and Radical Biographical dictionaries and has an extensive collection of the original literature. Perhaps one might extend the hint in O’Brien and Linton’s interest in other European radical and left wing thinkers to the impact that Louis Blanc had, during his long exile in London, on the British left. John Stuart Mill’s famous ‘Chapters on Socialism’ refer to him and to Blanqui, not to Marx.
A gem of a pamphlet we look forward to January’s Chartist for the next Our History.
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