Thursday, 29 March 2018

Swedenborg Society: In Conversation & Book Launch TheaurauJohn Tany, English Radicalism and Swedenborgians Ariel Hessayon in conversation with John Rees

Swedenborg Society: In Conversation & Book Launch TheaurauJohn Tany, English Radicalism and Swedenborgians Ariel Hessayon in conversation with John Rees

In collaboration with Goldsmiths, University of London and Breviary Stuff Publications WEDNESDAY 25 APRIL 2018 | 7.00 - 8.30 pm FREE ADMISSION (but book in advance)

Thomas Totney (1608-1659), born in Lincolnshire and largely based in London, was a goldsmith who, following a mystical experience in 1649, changed his name to TheaurauJohn Tany and proclaimed himself a herald of the restitution of the Jews to Jerusalem. Travelling around England and the Low Countries issuing broadsides and more extensive works of prophesy, Tany was for a long time overlooked by historians as just another ranter of the English Civil War period. More recently his writings and impact have begun to be re-evaluated, in no small part due to the dedicated researches of Ariel Hessayon, and a picture has emerged of an extraordinary figure worthy of his place in both the histories of Western esotericism and of English Radicalism. It has also become apparent that Tany was read by early British Swedenborgians, a fact that further elucidates the complex relationship between a nascent Swedenborgianism and the radical thought of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

To mark the occasion of the publication of The Refiner’s Fire: the Collected Works of TheaurauJohn Tany by Breviary Stuff Publications, which features reproductions of material held in the Swedenborg Society Archive, the editor of the volume, Ariel Hessayon, will be in conversation with historian and activist John Rees, discussing Tany, English Radicalism and their connections to Swedenborgianism.

ARIEL HESSAYON is a Reader in the Department of History at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of ‘Gold tried in the fire’. The prophet TheaurauJohn Tany and the English Revolution (Ashgate, 2007) and co-editor / editor of several collections of essays on Scripture and Scholarship in Early Modern England (Ashgate, 2006); Varieties of Seventeenth- and early Eighteenth-century English Radicalism in Context (Ashgate, 2011); An Introduction to Jacob Boehme: Four Centuries of Thought and Reception (Routledge, 2013); Gerrard Winstanley: Theology, Rhetoric, Politics (special issue of Prose Studies, 2014); and Jane Lead and her transnational legacy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). He has also written extensively on a variety of early modern topics: antiscripturism, antitrinitarianism, book burning, communism, environmentalism, esotericism, extra-canonical texts, heresy, crypto-Jews, Judaizing, millenarianism, mysticism, prophecy, and religious radicalism. His essay ‘Jacob Boehme, Emanuel Swedenborg and their Readers’ was published by the Swedenborg Society in The Arms of Morpheus (2007). 

John Rees is a journalist, author, historian and activist who has been a member of the National Executive of the NUS and was a founder of the Stop the War Coalition. Rees has edited and written for many journals and has also made documentaries for television. His books include The Algebra of Revolution: The Dialectic and the Classical Marxist Tradition (Routledge, 1998); Imperialism and Resistance (Routledge, 2006); (with Lindsey German) A People’s History of London (Verso, 2012); and The Leveller Revolution: Radical Political Organisation in England, 1640-1650 (Verso, 2017).

Swedenborg Hall 20/21 Bloomsbury Way London WC1A 2TH 0207 405 7986


Thursday, 15 March 2018

Claire Canary’s Review of Thomas Alcock: A Biographical Account by Susan Margaret Cooper

Of course, it’s something of an irony that a debauchee who took sexual promiscuity to new levels employed somebody called Alcock. This fact was nicely pointed out in the play and film The Libertine and, when I saw both productions, I assumed the cheeky Cockney character to be a creation of writer Stephen Jeffreys, the surname a perfect way to squeeze in a giggle or two.

It was, therefore, a surprise for me to find Thomas Alcock not only existed in reality but also boasted a top education and social respect. The name may mean nothing to you. If you’re into Restoration England though, I can assure you the names of some he’s linked with will ring more than a distant bell.

As biographical accounts go, this must have posed a challenge to Susan Margaret Cooper, as seeking out information on lesser-known individuals such as Mr Alcock is never an easy task. However, the book is satisfyingly full of facts and speculation is logically discussed, taking the reader along the route with the author as she connects her findings to put forward theories and explanations.

While the ins and outs of one person’s life remain the focus of the work, Cooper also makes room for a bit of historical context in her work. From the provocations of the Civil Wars in which Alcock grew up to the happenings of the Monmouth Rebellion he fought against, there’s just enough detail to set the scene but not distract from the subject. This helps immerse even non-historians and is interesting reading in itself. Getting down to the nitty-gritty though, some of the real gems to be found in this book are the documents the author has uncovered and reproduced as both images and transcripts.

 I dread to think how long it took to copy type from 17th-century handwriting, especially with such attention to detail. You’ll find the original spellings, unexpected capitalisation and use of superscript bringing the transcripts to life as you read. Adding similar feeling to the account is an array of pictures, with portraits putting faces to names, a 20th-century shot of one of Alcock’s homes and publication title pages all serving as a perfect illustration.

Assessment of the personality of anyone from the past is a tricky matter to approach. The objective is always safer than subjective when it comes to something like this and Susan Margaret Cooper has stuck to relating the data but in doing so she’s opened up a nice window into the heart of this man. The word ‘friend’ and ‘friendship’ crop up several times in the book and exemplify the close bonds he evidently formed with those he met, especially, it appears, those he worked for. 

Without the amazing research of Cooper, however, we would have no real insight at all into this man, as letters she has uncovered reflect something of his character, while her report that he was chosen as an arbitrator demonstrate the high regard he seems to have been held in.

Thomas Alcock was associated with a wide range of people. Two of the most intriguing parts of this book, however, takes us back to that employer immortalised in a film for his hedonistic ways. When it comes to Alcock’s time under John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester, the shocks come in two forms. 

On the one hand, things get spooky thanks to some remarkable ghost stories. But perhaps the bigger jaw-dropper is not in the supernatural but in the indisputable true story of deceit that’s enough for a movie of its own. Thomas Alcock: A Biographical Account is non-fiction. But some of the content really gets your imagination going.

The effort put into this research is evident and, what’s more, has paid off. It’s the sort of work that can answer historians’ questions, with figures, names, places etc. all included throughout and the revelation of new information makes this a publication to celebrate. By sharing Alcock’s story, we can better understand a person who has long since passed but, like each and every other being on Earth deserves to never be forgotten.

How I Write as a Historian- By: Penelope J. Corfield

Penelope J Corfield has kindly consented to give me an article on How I Write as a Historian. Her article is divided into nine headings.If quoting please cite Copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2018)

1. Learn to enjoy writing: writing is a craft skill, which can be improved with regular  practice.  Learn  to  enjoy  it.  Bored  authors  write  bored  prose.  Think carefully  about  your  intended  readership,  redrafting  as  you  go.  Then  ask  a trusted and stringent critic for a frank assessment. Adjust in the light of critical review – or, if not accepting the critique, clarify/strengthen your original case. 

2. Have something to say: essential to have a basic message, conferring a vital spark of originality for every assignment. Otherwise, don’t bother. But the full interlocking details of the message will emerge only in course of writing. So it's ok to begin with working titles for books/chapters/essays/sections and then to finalise them about three-quarters of way through writing process.

3.  Start  with  mind-mapping:  cudgel  brains  and  think  laterally  to  provide visual overview of all possible aspects of the topic, including themes, debates and  sources.  This  is  a  good  moment  for  surprise,  new  thoughts.  From  that,generate a linear plan, whilst keeping mind-map to hand as reference point. And it’s  fine,  often  essential,  to  adapt  linear  plan  as  writing  evolves.  As  part  of starting process, define key terms, to be defined at relevant point in the text.

4.  Blend  discussion  of  secondary  literature  seamlessly  into  analysis: beginners are rightly trained to start with a discrete historiographical survey but,with  experience,  it’s  good  to  blend  exposition  into  the analysis  as  it unfolds.Keep  readers  aware  throughout  that  historians  don’t  operate  in  vacuum  but debate constantly with fellow historians in their own and previous generations. It’s a process not just of ‘dialogue’ but of complex ‘plurilogue’.

5.  Interpret  primary  sources  with  respect  and  accuracy:  evaluate  the strengths  and  weaknesses  of  primary  sources  from  the  past;  be  prepared  to interpret  them  but  only  while  treating  them  with  the  utmost  respect  and accuracy. Falsifying data, misquoting sources, or hiding unfavourable evidence are  supreme  academic  sins.  Historians  are  accustomed  to  write  within  the constraints of the evidence. That’s their essential discipline. Hence the claim by postmodernist theorists that historians can invent (or uninvent) the past just as they  please  is  not  justified.  Indeed,  if  history  (the  past)  was  simply  ‘what historians  write’,  there’d  be  no  way  of  evaluating  whether  one  historian’s arguments are historically more  convincing than another’s.  And there’d be no means of rebutting (say) Holocaust denial. The challenging task of evaluating, interpreting  and  knitting  together  many  different  forms  of  evidence  from  the past, in the light of evolving debates, is the essence of the historian’s practice.  

6. Expound your case with light and shade: Counteract the risk of monotony by  incorporating  variety.  Can  take  the  form  of  illustrations;  anecdotes;  even jokes. Vary choice of words and phrases. Vary sentence lengths. Don’t provide typical academic prose, full of lengthy sentences, stuffed with meandering sub- clauses,  all  written  in  densely  Latinate  terminology.  But  don’t  go  to  other extreme of all rat-a-tat sub-Hemingway terse Anglo-Saxon texts either. Variety keeps readers interested and gives momentum to an unfolding analysis. 

7.  Know  the  arguments  against  your  own:  advocacy  works  best  not  by caricaturing opposite views but by understanding them, in order to refute them successfully. All courtroom lawyers and politicians are well advised to follow this rule too. But  no  need to  focus  exclusively  on all-out  attack  against rival views. That way risks making your work become dated, as the debates change.   

8. Relate the big arguments to your general philosophy of history:  Don’t know what that is? Time to decide. If not your lifetime verdict, then at least an interim assessment. Clarify as the analysis unfolds. But  again ensure that the general  philosophy  is  shown  as  informing  the  unfolding  arguments/evidence.It’s not an excuse for suddenly inserting a pre-conceived view.

9. Know how to end: Draw threads together and end with a snappy dictum.

Penelope J. Corfield is Historian, lecturer and education consultant: Her blog can be found @

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

1956: The World in Revolt by Simon Hall. Faber & Faber 2017.

The twentieth century has seen some world-shaking events none more so than in 1917 which saw the successful October Russian revolution. While 1956 is not quite in that ballpark, it nonetheless was a significant year by any stretch of the imagination. It is to Hall’s credit that he spent so much time highlighting it. It is also true that while other dates have been widely studied the 1950s and particularly 1956 have been under-researched.

The first question any reader will ask is how one examines a whole year in one medium-sized book. The answer, in this case, is very neatly. Part 1 is ‘Winter; Part II is ‘Spring Part III is called ‘Summer and Part IV, Autumn’.

This cleverness can, however, take you only so far. Although Hall writes in a very accessible and exciting style, he has a limited understanding of the significance of this year on future world events. Moreover, an even less understanding of Stalinism, which diminishes his capacity to produce consistent or groundbreaking work.

While Hall narratively describes these events, it is to the detriment of a more analytical study of the world in 1956. His book tends to end up as a collective mishmash of events that have no real connection other than they happened in 1956.Hall is too reliant on memoirs and secondary sources, which tend to blur out what Hall thinks. The book tends to be written more from a journalist than a historians point of view.

As One reviewer states “1956 is enjoyable and informative, but it has limits. What is missing is the sense of a bigger picture or a deeper rationale. Hall seems to sense this, as he makes periodic efforts to provide a connecting thesis. He ends his Prologue: "1956 saw ordinary people, across the globe, speak out, fill the streets and city squares, risk arrest, take up arms and lose their lives to win greater freedoms and build a more just world... It was an epic contest that would transform the post-war world.[1]

Five Themes

At least five significant themes need to be examined if a book about 1956 is to be any good. First and foremost you would have to examine the explosive rise and dominance of American Capitalism. Secondly the worldwide crisis of Stalinism.Thirdly the catastrophic impact of the policies of the petty bourgois nationalist movement especially in Latin America. Fourthly, The growth of Left-wing groups after 1956. Last but not least the response of the working class and the growth of Trotskyism.

First Theme-American Imperialism

Hall opens the book with the firebomb attack on Martin Luther King. Hall’s writing on the explosive Civil rights protest is separated from the very explosive rise of American capitalism.The events of 1956 were a confirmation of Leon Trotsky’s prognosis although writing in 1924 the Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky’s analysis showed remarkable foresight ” From the power of the United States and the weakening of Europe flows the inevitability of a new division of world forces, spheres of influence and world markets. America must expand while Europe is forced to contract. In precisely this consists the resultant of the basic economic processes that are taking place in the capitalist world. The US reaches out into all world channels and everywhere takes the offensive. She operates in a strictly “pacifist” manner, that is, without the use of armed force as yet, “without effusion of blood” as the Holy Inquisition said when burning heretics alive. She expands peaceably because her adversaries, grinding their teeth, are retreating step by step, before this new power, not daring to risk an open clash. That is the basis of the “pacifist” policy of the United States. Her principal weapon now is finance capital backed by its billions of gold reserve.

“This is a terrible and overwhelming force in relation to all parts of the world and particularly in relation to devastated and impoverished Europe. To grant or to refuse loans to this or that European country is, in many cases, to decide the fate not only of the political party in power but of the bourgeois regime itself. Up to the present time, the US has invested 10 billion dollars in the economy of other countries. Of these 10 billion, two have been granted to Europe in addition to the ten billion formerly supplied for its devastation. Now, as we know, the loans are granted in order to “restore” Europe. Devastation, then restoration: these two aims complement each other, while the interest on the sums appropriated for both keeps flowing into the same reservoir. The US has invested the most capital in Latin America which, from the economic standpoint, is becoming more and more a dominion of North America. After South America, Canada is the country which has obtained the most credits; then comes Europe. The other parts of the world have received much less”.[2]

Many of the events described in Hall’s book were in some cases indirect products of this new era. One more direct product was the Suez crisis. Which largely confirmed America’s preeminence as a global superpower and the demise of one of Europe’s leading bourgeois nations Britain.

Second Theme-Stalinism

The second point that needs to be examined is the USSR’s relationship with America. Many processes were at work to bring about Khrushchev's actions in 1956.  However, the main one being that national autarkic economy of the Soviet Union was rapidly disintegrating and was no match for the global reach of the American Economy. Stalin’s theory that you could build a nationally insulated economy within one country was coming to a bloody demise.

As Nick Beams points out “Leon Trotsky, writing in his book The Revolution Betrayed traced the origins of the bureaucracy and warned that its monopolisation of political power, its nationalist doctrine of socialism in one country and the defence of its material interests and privileges against the Soviet masses would lead inevitably to the liquidation of all the gains of the 1917 revolution and the restoration of capitalism unless it was overthrown by the working class.

Beams continues "In that book, Trotsky refused to characterise the Soviet Union as “socialist”. The Russian Revolution and the nationalisation of the property had, he insisted, done no more than lay the foundations for the transformation of the Soviet Union into a socialist society. Its future depended on a complex series of national and international factors. The transition to socialism depended on the interconnection of two processes. If the revolution, which had begun by 1917, had extended to the advanced capitalist countries and if the Soviet working class was able to overthrow the usurping Stalinist bureaucracy then the USSR could evolve in the direction of socialism. However, if the Soviet Union remained isolated and if the bureaucracy, in defence of its material interests and privileges, continued to stifle the progressive tendencies inherent in the nationalised industry and central planning, then the Soviet Union would undergo a continuous degeneration, leading eventually to the restoration of capitalism”.[3] 

In 1956 sections of the Stalinist bureaucracy turned on its commander in chief and partner in crime Stalin. Kruschev’s  “secret speech”  was hardly secret and was not so much a political break with Stalinism but a mechanism in which to deal with the raging political and economic crisis that gripped world Stalinism.

Khrushchev's speech was typical of a man who was implicated in all the major crimes committed by the Stalinist bureaucracy. One subject all the Stalinist bureaucrats were in agreement was the correctness of the struggle against Leon Trotsky the only leading Bolshevik not to have been rehabilitated by the Stalinists. Khrushchev said “We must affirm that the party fought a serious fight against the Trotskyists, rightists and bourgeois nationalists and that it disarmed ideologically all the enemies of Leninism. The ideological fight was carried on successfully ... Here Stalin played a positive role.”

Khrushchev had a very limited understanding of what social forces he was inadvertenly unleashing with his speech.Far from preventing revolution, he opened the floodgates. His response was the same as Stalin and unleash terror on the working class.

Third Theme-Castroism

While Hall does not glorify the growth of Castrism, he does not explain its ideological roots or the enormous damage it did to the revolutionary aspirations of the Latin American working class.

It is not within the remit of the article to go into any great detail on Castroism, but a few points can be made. It would not be an overstatement to say that Castroism has been the subject of extraordinary misunderstanding. Some people portray it as a movement towards socialism some say it is real existing socialism even Marxism. 

None of these falsehoods is true. Castroism was not a movement of working class. It was a movement based on the petty bourgeoisie of Cuba. When describing Castro as a "petty-bourgeois nationalist" One is merely calling things by their right scientific name. 

As the American Marxist writer Bill Vann states “Marx correctly stated that the petty-bourgeoisie is incapable of independent and consistent political action. Its inconsistency is a reflection of its intermediate social position. Caught between the two main classes of society and continuously being differentiated into exploiter and exploited, it is compelled to follow one or other of these classes—either the proletariat or the bourgeoisie”. 

Far from leading to socialism throughout Latin America the working class there was lead to defeat after defeat; the responsibility lies with the petty bourgeoisie nationalists. An examination of Cuba today is a sad confirmation of these defeats. Castro’s brother is leading the country to a disaster by opening up the economy to the rapacious nature of American capitalism. 

Fourth Theme-The New Left and 1956. 

The political and social crisis produced by the 1956 crisis of Stalinism opened new opportunities for left-wing groups in Britain and globally. The break of Stalinism’s grip on the working class led to new formations on the left. 

The majority of these formations were not that healthy and still clung to the ideological baggage of the Stalinists.The Britsh Communist party lost a significant amount of it working class cadre and a large section of its intellectuals such as EP Thompson Christopher Hill, Raphael Samuel, John Saville to name but a few. 

The historian Eric Hobsbawm stayed in the Party and ended his days an admirer of Gorbachev.” I have a lasting admiration for Mikhail Gorbachev. It is an admiration shared by all who know that, however, for his initiatives, the world might still be living under the shadow of the catastrophe of a nuclear war - and that the transition from the communist to the post-communist era in eastern Europe, and in most non-Caucasian parts of the former USSR, has proceeded without significant bloodshed” 

Samuel who left at the same time as Hill formed a new Magazine alongside Stuart Hall.In November 1956, he sent a letter to Stuart Hall suggesting they set up a magazine called ‘New University Left,' Hall accepted the idea, but the magazine went on to be called Universities & Left Review. To gain support for the publication which would orientate not towards the working class but to students, former CP members, fellow travellers, and various other left-wing radicals Samuel sent letters to these forces appealing for money and articles. 
Samuel and Hall were both hostile to Trotskyism and refused to collaborate when the Trotskyists of the SLL sought a joint political approach to the demise of Stalinism.Healy’s initial response to the ULR was friendly, and he sought a dialogue with them and other New Left groups. The ULR’s hostility to Trotskyism soon became apparent. 

Samuel said “There has been an incredible mushrooming of inner-party groups. On the ultra-Left—the dissidence of Dissent—a dozen ‘vanguard’ parties, and as many tendencies and groups, compete for the honour of leading a non-existent revolutionary working class”. 

Similar hostility was shown by  E P Thompson and John Saville who formed the New Reasoner magazine. Cliff Slaughter then a leading member of the SLL wrote this overture to the first New Left. “Many others in Britain, today besides contributors to LABOUR REVIEW, are consciously trying to make a Marxist theoretical contribution to the socialist movement.Those connected with the New Reasoner and Universities and Left Review number avowed Marxists in their ranks, and some of their work is of great value. 

However, in the belief that theory is very important, indeed basic to the building of a Marxist working-class leadership-and we assume that the editors of those journals agree that this must be the primary aim of all of us-we think it vital to state sharply where we different basic questions of theory and method, as well as genuinely to try to find areas of common ground in research and common fronts in current political struggles”.

Despite the SLL’s comradely approach, this was not reciprocated by the New reasoner editorial board,leaving SLL leader Gerry Healy to write “Comrade Thompson seems to have cast away all the luggage, he was equipped with the Communist Party except one soiled old suitcase labelled anti-Trotskyism. 

Brian Pearce won to the SLL out of the CP wrote warning of the dangers of founding an organisation without thorough assimilation of the struggle waged by Leon Trotsky against Stalinism was prescient. Pearce warned of the dangers of an uncritical attitude by the ULR editors towards their past affiliation to Stalinism and their hostility towards the orthodox Marxist in the SLL. 

“Nothing could be more dangerous today than a revival of the illusions which dominated that ‘old Left.' One of the chief sources of the confusion and worse in ‘new Left’ quarters, and in particular of their hostile attitude to the Socialist Labour League, is to be found in the fact that though these people have broken with Stalinism they have not undertaken a thorough analysis of what they repudiate, have not seen the connection between the apparently contradictory features of Stalinism at different times or even at one time, and so they remain unconsciously open to influence by false ideas absorbed during their period in the Stalinist camp”. 

Fith Theme -Gerry Healy and the Socialist Labour League.

The ULR was not the only magazine around in 1957 that sought to gain political ground from the breakup of the Communist Party. A magazine of an entirely different political calibre was founded by Gerry Healy’s the Club forerunner of the SLL (Socialist Labour League) called Labour Review. 

The knockback from the ULR did not stop the orthodox Marxists or Trotskyists in the Fourth International from doubling their efforts to gain from the crisis within the British Communist party. Healy continued to believe that Stalinism was a counter-revolutionary force. The SLL won prominent figures such as Cliff Slaughter, Tom Kemp, Peter Fryer and Brian Pearce out of the CP. 


 As an epitaph to his book Hall wrote "many of those who took to the streets or called for change, as well as those who defended the status quo, were aware of the global context in which they were acting. Indeed, some sensed that they were part of a larger interconnected story".

While it is facile for one historian to entirely ditch his theory of historical events and adopt another, I believe that if Hall had delved into the Marxist archive and attempted to give his book on 1956 a more analytical and perspective driven angle, then a better book would have been achieved.

[2] Europe and America-(Part 1) (February 1924)
[3] A question on the economic reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union-

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Review of 'The Lost World Of British Communism', Raphael Samuel, Verso £19.99

“I once defined Stalinism as bureaucratic centrism, and events brought a series of corroborations of the correctness of this definition. However, it is obviously obsolete today. The interests of the Bonapartist bureaucracy can no longer be reconciled with centrist hesitation and vacillation. In search of reconciliation with the bourgeoisie, the Stalinist clique can enter alliances only with the most conservative groupings among the international labour aristocracy. This has acted to fix definitively the counter-revolutionary character of Stalinism on the international arena." Leon Trotsky


Raphael Samuel’s book consists of three separate articles reprinted from the New Left Review written in the mid-1980s. His primary purpose for writing the book remains unclear, although it is common for political activists to put down in writing their understanding of events that have played a crucial role in their political development. Written amidst a bitter faction fight inside the British Communist Party for political control the book does almost nothing to further our understanding of Stalinism.

The book is part autobiographical, part “social history” and part “history from below”. It is almost hybrid. Most of the book takes the form of a polemic about Samuel’s life inside the British Communist Party. Given the political nature of his subject, the book is remarkably free of political analysis. He also has selective amnesia towards the betrayals of the Communist Party both in the USSR and Britain.

Samuel had a very romantic view of his time in the CP and tended to see his party through rose-tinted spectacles. Its betrayals are glossed over. He says nothing of the Show Trials that were responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of old Bolsheviks. The countless betrayals of the working class by Stalinism remain untouched.

A further deadly weakness of the book is Samuel’s failure to place his account of British Communism within its international context. This gives the book a one-sided feel to it. When mentions international events they are uninformed and simplistic.

It is perhaps a little strange that while he had a disdain for the undisciplined nature various left groups and publications, he later joined Samuel missed the time when Stalinism had political control over the working class.

Life in the Party

Samuel was a teenager when he joined the CP and the CPHG (Communist Party Historians Group). "Like many Communists of my time, I combined a powerful sense of apartness with a craving for recognition, alternating gestures of defiance with a desire to be ordinary and accepted as one of the crowd. If one wanted to be charitable, one might say that it was the irresolvable duality on which British Communists find themselves impaled today."

Samuel was part of a historical phenomenon. Born in 1934 he had a relatively comfortable childhood and was educated at a private school. During his late childhood, he would have been schooled by his mother who was in the Communist Party about the defeat of Nazi Germany, continued global economic depression and the Second World War. His teenage years would be coloured by the continued rise of Stalinism, the further betrayal of the Russian revolution, and the rise to global eminence of American capitalism.

The book contains significant autobiographical reminisces of Samuels parent's life inside the party. Their life and his inside the party will strike a chord with any political activist whose party became their life, socially, politically, and morally.

While membership of such a party does engender a strong sense of loyalty, Samuel’s point-blank refusal to criticise and draw conclusions from the betrayals of Stalinism is a severe weakness of the book.

It is debatable to what extent Samuel was a Stalinist, but his refusal to criticise the "rights and wrongs" of his party certainly makes him apologist of their betrayals. He did exhibit a Stalinist like disdain for the revolutionary capacity of the working class and was extremely hostile to Trotskyism.

As was said earlier Samuel laments about the time Stalinist parties had control of the working class. As Eric Hobsbawm states the book is “full of melancholy empathy for an irrecoverable past, Communism is as ‘a doomed, flawed but noble faith.”. This quote should be taken with a large pinch of salt, Hobsbawm also talks about the October revolution in the same way.

Samuel's use of anecdotes to try to explain complicated political and theoretical problems can only take you so far. He quotes a letter sent in 1926 from the party secretary in St Pancras to the London District asking for advice: "... Mrs Kingston, although she has passed party training, and is, therefore, a full member of the party, does not accept the materialist conception of history, and she believes that communism is founded on idealism and not on materialism. She is trying to form a group of people who think the same”. On hearing this, any orthodox Marxist would ask why my party is recruiting idealists. Is there something wrong with the method of the party.

While it is essential to understand the political opinions of party members and people do make history Samuel’s approach was not an orthodox one.

As one orthodox Marxist once wrote “Men make their history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under the circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.”

Alternatively, “In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material forces of production. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society — the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life determines the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness”.

Unfortunately, when Samuels left the party, he did not take this methodology with him. He took all the wretched ideological baggage from the Stalinists and transferred it into his new project the Universities and Left Review(ULR). While you could make a case for his tender years inside the CP, there is no excuse for transferring this ideological baggage into his later historical writing.

During his time with the ULR, he and his associates had an almost umbilical link to their sister magazine the New Reasoner, founded in 1957 by the historians E.P. Thompson and John Saville.
Samuel did not brood over his leaving the CP in 1956 he went straight into political activity. In November 1956, Samuel sent a letter to Stuart Hall suggesting they set up a magazine called ‘New University Left’, Hall accepted the idea, but the magazine was to be called Universities & Left Review. To gain support for the magazine which would orientate not towards the working class but to students, former CP members, fellow travellers and various other left-wing radicals Samuel sent letters to these forces appealing for money and articles.

Both magazines were hostile to Trotskyism and favoured an “English Marxist” tradition to justify their opportunism. As Paul Bond writes “ New Reasoner claimed to be elaborating a “socialist humanist” version of Marxism, promoting the “British Road” advanced by the CPGB but carried out instead through the Labour Party”.

Samuels insight into the rise of Thatcherism is at best pedestrian at worse deceiving and relied heavily on his partner in the ULR Stuart Hall. Hall and Samuel’s adoption of Cultural Studies as Paul Bond state “originated as part of an attack on revolutionary Marxism, directed above all against its contemporary expression, Trotskyism. The academic field sought to shift the focus of social criticism away from class and onto other social formations, thus promoting the development of identity politics. Its establishment, in the final analysis, was a hostile response to the gains made by the Trotskyist movement in Britain from the 1950s onwards”.

He continues This was Hall’s preferred political milieu, and he never left it. Significantly, while editing Universities and Left Review, Hall stayed in the house of Jock Haston, whom he described as “a wonderful old Trotskyist”. In fact, Haston was by then a bitter opponent of Trotskyism. He had left the movement in 1950, explicitly rejecting the Fourth International, declaring in a resignation letter that “we have no right to claim political and organisational authority as the international leadership of the world proletariat”. Haston, the future mentor of various trade union bureaucrats, pledged his loyalty to the Labour Party, asserting that despite its “bureaucratic feature…it is one of the most democratic workers’ organisations in existence…the task is to loyally adhere to the mass party and seek to drive it forward on the road to the complete transformation of the system”.

The Socialist Labour League  and the ULR

The ULR was not the only magazine around in 1957 that sought to gain political ground from the breakup of the Communist Party. A magazine of an entirely different political calibre was founded by Gerry Healy’s the Club forerunner of the SLL (Socialist Labour League) called Labour Review.

Healy’s initial response to the ULR was friendly, and he sought a dialogue with them and other New Left groups. The ULR’s hostility to Trotskyism soon became apparent. Samuel said “There has been an incredible mushrooming of inner-party groups. On the ultra-Left—the dissidence of Dissent—a dozen ‘vanguard’ parties, and as many tendencies and groups, compete for the honour of leading a non-existent revolutionary working class”[1].

Healy was not only rebuffed by the ULR, but E P Thompson’s New Reasoner was equally hostile towards the SLL leaving Healy to state that a “Comrade Thompson seems to have cast away all the luggage, he was equipped within the Communist Party except one soiled old suitcase labelled anti-Trotskyism.”

The knockback from the ULR did not stop the orthodox Marxists or Trotskyists in the Fourth International from doubling their efforts to gain from the crisis within the British Communist party. Healy continued to believe that Stalinism was a counter-revolutionary force. The SLL won prominent figures such as Cliff Slaughter, Tom Kemp, Peter Fryer and Brian Pearce out of the CP. They were able to double their efforts through the journal Labour Review and the weekly Newsletter to wage a political-theoretical offensive, leading to the formation of the Socialist Labour League (SLL) in 1959.

Pseudo Left and the Lost Cause of Communism.

The reviews emanating from the Pseudo Lefts groups of Samuel’s books is indicative of their relationship with the Stalinist movement. One study from Red Pepper Magazine said “In this book, Raphael Samuel shows in this wonderfully written history and memoir; its puritanical party members stood aloof from the workers and, overall, this attitude was returned in kind. The Communist Party is now part of history, and as the left reforms itself, it should be careful not to repeat the mistakes of this heroic but ultimately misguided tribe.

This one came from the former SWP member Ian Birchall, “Contrary to the foolish idea sometimes heard on the left that Communist Parties are external to the working-class movement, Samuel shows that the British CP had deep roots in the working class and that its membership held high moral ideals and showed great self-sacrifice. All this is true - yet it is also true that the cause they devoted themselves to was a deeply unworthy one. Samuel was no Stalinist”[2].

Birchall’s party the Socialist Workers Party despite perfunctory attacks on the CP had a close relationship with Stalinism. It printed the flagship paper of the CP the Morning Star and was in the SWP’s eyes an important if misguided part of the working-class movement.


Because of the broad political disagreement I have with Samuels, it is difficult to recommend this book. This is not to say that Samuels was not a gifted historian and his books are probably worth a read. It is because this is such an inadequate analysis of his time in the Communist Party that it would be irresponsible to recommend it to a broad audience without very deep caveats.

[1] Samuel Raphael, The Lost World of British Communism Verso 2017
[2] Review of 'The Lost World of British Communism', Raphael Samuel, Verso £19.99-