The struggles of the past and how to win today

Submitted by AWL on 14 October, 2009 - 4:15

A socialist study group on the history of the British working class, run by Workers' Liberty on the Isle of Wight.

We'll be looking at the four great upsurges of working-class struggle in British history so far, discussing why they didn't end in socialist victory, and drawing the lessons for today and for the next time round. All welcome.

The discussions will take place every other Sunday, 11.30am, in the Room 4 cafe, 30 Union St, Ryde. For more information or copies of the reading, ring Duncan on 07840 750 508 or email Cohan

We're encouraging people to do the reading, but if you can't please feel free to come along, listen and take part in the discussion.

For a downloadable leaflet advertising the series, see attachment below.

1. 18 October: When workers fought for the vote (1832-48)
We will look at the Chartists, Britain's first mass working-class movement, whose campaign for everyone to have the vote created a social crisis; and at the movement associated with Robert Owen, which pursued a different strategy for overcoming capitalism.
Reading: GDH Cole and Raymond Postgate's book The Common People,* chapters 22-25 (6 and 11 also relevant)

2. 1 November: After the defeat of Chartism (1848-1880s)
Looking at the period after the final defeat and demise of the Chartist movement, and the rise of a new model of trade unionism.
Reading: Chapters 30-32

3. 15 November: "Waking from forty years sleep" (1881-1918)
Looking at the revival of socialist ideas, the development of working-class political representation and, from the late 1880s, the huge struggles which created the "new unionism" organising precarious and unskilled workers.
Chapters 34, 35, 37, 38

4. 6 December: Britain on the brink of revolution? (1919-26)
In 1919 and especially in 1926, in the General Strike, Britain was shaken by revolutionary crises. We will be looking at how different socialists inspired by the Russian Revolution united to create the Communist Party, at the workers' movements the Communists helped build, and at why the General Strike ended in defeat.
Chapters 42-44

5. 3 January: Depression and retreat (the 1930s)
Looking at the 1931 split in the Labour Party, the domination of 1930s politics by the right and the Stalinisation of the Communist Party, which wrecked revolutionary politics in Britain.
Chapters 45-46
Timeline here.

6. 17 January: The golden age of capitalism (1945-1968)
Looking at the 1945 Labour government, which built the NHS and welfare state but also maintained capitalism, the post-war Labour-Tory consensus and the slow growth in working-class confidence and struggle. [See background notes on this site].

7. 31 January: "The fire last time" (1968-late 1980s)
Looking at the huge wave of strikes and struggles throughout the 70s, particularly those which defeated and brought down the Tory government in 1972-4; the Wilson-Callaghan Labour government of 1974-9; the Labour Party upheavals of 1979-82; the miners' strike of 1984-5, and the aftermath of the miners' defeat.

8. 14 February: Workers' struggle and the fight for socialism today
Reading for the last three sessions: our book How Solidarity Can Change The World

*A note on the reading

The basic reading for the study group will be The Common People, by G D H Cole and Raymond Postgate.

This book tells the story, readably, and as an exciting story, for most of the periods we'll be talking about. It has no rival as a compact and comprehensive history in one volume. It is also cheaply and easily available second-hand, so we can let people have copies for £1 each or lend them out. Get in touch if you'd like a copy.

This doesn't mean that we will agree with what Cole and Postgate say about everything. In some sessions some of us will want to criticise what they wrote and bring in facts and ideas from other histories.

G D H Cole (1889-1959) never described himself as a Marxist. He held to a theory called "Guild Socialism", briefly popular after World War One, according to which the main industries should be state-owned but run by the trade unions reorganised as "guilds". For most of his life he was a university professor, also active in the Labour Party.

Cole married Margaret Postgate, sister of Raymond Postgate (1896-1971). Postgate, in turn, was married to Daisy Lansbury, daughter of George Lansbury, who led Poplar Council in its famous and successful revolt against the laws then governing local government finance after World War One.

Postgate was briefly, in 1920-22, a leading member of the Communist Party, then a revolutionary organisation, and editor of its paper. After leaving the Communist Party, he worked closely with George Lansbury, who was a leading figure on the Labour Party left.

Both Cole and Postgate were conscientious objectors during World War One.

How Solidarity Can Change the World includes writings by Friedrich Engels, Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky, with an introduction. It costs £4. Get in touch if you'd like to buy or borrow a copy.

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