Sunday, 23 August 2020
Tuesday, 18 August 2020
"We see no more in common between a Mrs Fawcett [the leading light of the women's rights movement in the late 19th century] and a laundress than we see between [the banker] Rothschild and one of his employees. In short, for us, there is only the working-class movement."
"We had to take new bearings. Though we were not deflected from our course, it marked a turning point. 'Never glad confident morning again.'" This is not a recantation but an adjustment."
Time Will Tell by Yvonne Kapp is an ordinary memoir by an extraordinary woman. She is best known for her excellent biography of Eleanor Marx (1855–1898). Published in two volumes in 1972 and 1976. The Verso publication is issued in one volume as part of its Marx 200 series. Verso also published Kapp's memoir.
Kapp's memoir was published very late in the day by Verso. It has joined a veritable cottage industry of memoirs of members or former members of the Communist Party of Britain. One of the more well known was Raphael Samuel's The Lost World Of British Communism.
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. Samuel, it should be said took the death of Stalin hard. He cried when it was announced and wore a black armband.
Eric Hobsbawm, who like Kapp, stayed in the CP until the end was not too polite about Communist Party memoirs saying that some authors exhibited a "twilight zone of memory".
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Kapp's biography of Marx's youngest daughter rescued her from historical obscurity. The biography should be on the reading list of any young socialist today. Although overshadowed by her famous father, the book restores her place amongst the leading socialists of her day. It is hard not to agree with Eric Hobsbawm who said the book was "one of the few unquestionable masterpieces of twentieth-century biography."
Like many of her generation, Kapp's life (1903–1999) spanned nearly a century of struggle. She witnessed the rise and fall of the Soviet Union and took part in many of the great struggles of the 20th century.
Kapp led a bohemian life. She did not undertake formal education and moved from one job to another. According to one writer Kapp had until meeting Pollitt no fixed ambitions and had no political awareness. Kapp admitted that she had no sudden blinding light on the road to Damascus that awakened her political consciousness.
According to Ellen Leopold, "her life story becomes a picaresque chronicle of progressive movement activities leavened by often amusing tales of encounters with colleagues, friends, and lovers. At one moment, she is traipsing across town shouting "Arms for Spain." The next she is marching to prevent Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts (members of the British Union of Fascists that Mosley founded) from entering the predominantly Jewish neighbourhood of Whitechapel in London's East End. Or she is organising a fundraiser at the Royal Albert Hall where Paul Robeson comes to sing for refugees from the Spanish Civil War".
It is doubtful that her twenty years in the CP would have prepared her for the cataclysmic events that happened in 1956. 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 all the enemies of Leninism ideologically. 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 inadvertently 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.
The fact that Kapp brackets her house purchase in 1956 with the significant political events of the same "traumatic year"—the Hungarian uprising, Suez, and Krushchev's speech to the Communist Party Congress said a lot about her miseducation inside the CP.
In her memoir Kapp makes light of the event saying "We had to take new bearings. Though we were not deflected from our course, it marked a turning point. 'Never glad confident morning again.'" This is not a recantation but an adjustment".
This adjustment did not mean leaving the party but ignited a passion for the study of the past. Kapp conceived the idea of writing the life of Eleanor Marx while translating the correspondence between Frederick Engels and Paul and Laura Lafargue.
Kapp was politically aware enough to see that writing about specific events of the 20th century such as Stalinism, bourgeoise nationalism to name but two was not possible under the control of the Communist Party leadership. It was only in a study of the past she could escape for a time its dominance. Kapp said "I have said that the idea of writing the life of Eleanor Marx arose from my translating the correspondence between Frederick Engels and Laura and Paul Lafargue. Eleanor flits in and out of the pages of these three volumes most tantalisingly. Every reference to her evoked an interesting personality who aroused my curiosity. I wished I knew more about her, but when I enquired I found there existed no biography of her".
To her credit, she did not mimic Josef Stalin's attitude to the study of Marx's family. Stalin upon looking at the file on Marx's son minuted the file "Unimportant, keep in the archives,"
Another subject that was taboo inside the CP was the question of Leon Trotsky or the leading Trotskyist party of her day Gerry Healy's Socialist Labour League. Unsurprisingly Kapp does not mention anything on the CP's hostility to Trotskyism. In her article, Lynne Segal recounts Sheila Rowbotham although not a Stalinist describing the animosity the radical and Stalinist milieu had against the Trotskyist of the SLL she writes "Nevertheless, on moving to Dalston, East London, in 1964, she joined the Hackney Young Socialists the year Harold Wilsonʼs Labour government assumed power, heightening hopes for social reforms and cultural change. There she encountered, in continued action replay, the venomous sectarian combat between differing Trotskyist factions working as ʻentristsʼ inside the Labour Party. ʻUnited Front, yes; Popular Front, noʼ, the member from Militant explained when she joined, warning her against his enemies from Gerry Healyʼs Socialist Labour League: ʻI blinked, trying to concentrate. It would be easy to get this the wrong way round, and his tone suggested the consequences could be direʼ.
Scrutinising the battle of dissenting certainties, she was quickly an expert on the ritual differences between rival Trotskyist sects, admiring their tenacity (always angry, acerbic, alert for betrayal), even while appalled by their arrogance and dogmatism (which served primarily to drive away any working-class youth they managed to recruit). It was the beginning of a permanent aversion to vanguardism, a conviction that it was not the most effective, least of all the most creative, way of winning people for progressive ends while sowing the seeds of potential intimidation or abuse. Several short satirical efforts at illustrating this over the years would culminate in her inﬂuential critique of Leninism in 1979, in Beyond the Fragments, with its call for solidarity between differing campaigning movements, creating immediate but the short-lived impact, in by then already harsher times." 
The unprincipled attacks on the SLL did not deter Healy and the SLL. It 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.
Kapp correctly places Eleanor Marx within her own time and was criticised by the feminists of her day and today refused to place Marx as a leading feminist thinker or activist. Kapp correctly states that Eleanor Marx believed that the fundamental social division was class, not race or gender.
Kapp was writing her biography at a time when inequality amongst women was growing very fast. Another more disgusting phenomena were the unbridled ambitions of various layers of the upper-middle class women who were seeking to leverage past or present abuses, to advance their selfish interests.
The project took Kapp ten years to complete. Kapp said it "drew in one way or another upon my whole accumulated experience." The book is all the more extraordinary since according to Hobsbawm, she 'never passed so much as a single examination, even at school.'
To conclude, given the enormous struggles witnessed by Yvonne Kapp, you would think that a writer with her literary gifts would have given the reader a deep insight and understanding of the "Long Twentieth Century. It is blatantly not the case with this memoir. Any young socialist looking for insight into political problems of the 20th century should look elsewhere. On the other hand, anyone interested in the early socialist movement should read her masterpiece biography of Eleanor Marx.
 See review - https://keith-perspective.blogspot.com/2018/03/review-of-lost-world-of-british.html
 Lost worlds Political memoirs of the Left in Britain-Lynne Segal
 Yvonne Kapp, Time Will Tell: Memoirs (New York: Verso, 2003), 296 pages,
 Formations of feminism Political memoirs of the Left (II) Lynne Segal
Saturday, 8 August 2020
Conservative Revolutionary: The Lives of Lewis Namier - by D.W. Hayton. Manchester, 472 pp., £25, August 2019,
Wednesday, 5 August 2020
Evan Smith and Matthew Worley (eds), Waiting for the Revolution: The British far left from 1956, Manchester University Press, 2017; 279 pp.; £75.00 hbk; ISBN 9781526113658
Tuesday, 4 August 2020
I first met Valerie Pearl in the summer of 1966 when she was a lecturer at Somerville College, Oxford. I had gone to see her at the suggestion of my supervisor, Christopher Hill, to ask her advice on the 2nd Earl of Warwick’s mercantile connections in London in the 1640s. She impressed me with her depth of knowledge and her scholarship as she did when I met her by accident the following autumn on a train from Oxford to Paddington.
I was not, I fear, a very good conversationalist and had to improve greatly in the following spring when Hugh Trevor-Roper asked me to assist her on a project then being funded by the University’s Faculty of Modern History. I got to know her in the Manuscript Room of the British Library where she was pursuing her research into the Parliamentary politics of the 1640s. After a while, I learnt how well-informed she was about academic politics and what a good sense of humour she had.
I was saddened to note how little attention her death in 2016 attracted at that time. She had been born in 1926, the daughter of a trades union official, Cyril Bence, who was later Labour M.P. for East Dunbartonshire from 1959 to 1970. Valerie Bence was educated in Birmingham before entering St Anne’s College, Oxford. Hugh Trevor-Roper’s letters suggest that she was at that stage of her life attracted to Marxism: her doctoral research on the city of London in the early stages of the English Civil War was certainly supervised by Christopher Hill of Balliol College, the leading Marxist historian of the period then in Oxford even though she was later more drawn to Trevor-Roper’s views.
Her thesis was, so I understand, lent by Hill to Perez Zagorin, then on the far left himself, and had to be published rather hurriedly by the Oxford University Press in 1961 under the title London and the Outbreak of the Puritan Revolution: City Government and National Politics. It was to be her only book but was seminal in inspiring later work on the city of London in the latter part of the twentieth century.
The 1960s were undoubtedly her best period as an historian. Tall, blond-haired with dark spectacles and very elegantly dressed, she wrote and published important articles on the middle group in the House of Commons after John Pym’s death and on the Royal Independents whilst a lecturer at Somerville College, Oxford. Unfortunately, her husband became ill and she was unable to take up a Fellowship at Somerville College because she could not move full-time to Oxford. Instead, she accepted a Readership in London History at University College, London at the invitation of Joel Hurstfield and Robin Humphreys.
The History Department there lacked the stellar figures to be found in Oxford (with the exception of the young Nicholas Tyacke) and, after producing articles on Puritans and Fifth Columnists in the capital and on London’s Counter-Revolution, her output came effectively to a halt. In 1981, she accepted an invitation to become President of New Hall, Cambridge in succession to Rosemary Murray and found herself submerged not just in the administrative duties of that post but also in the difficult politics of that college. When she retired in the mid-1990s, she had transformed that college’s fortunes but had not fulfilled her potential as an historian. Sadly, she was never to do so.
The obituaries published after her death were brief and not very informative. In her prime, she was a formidable scholar with extensive knowledge of the politics of the 1640s, far better informed than most contemporaries of hers. Valerie Pearl was a woman of charm and high intelligence as well as someone with a firm conviction in doing what was right for her family, friends and institutions. Her passing needs greater acknowledgement and her historiographical legacy more praise.