Tag Archives: socialism

Sex, cycling and socialism: the revolutionary women that history forgot

Sheila Rowbotham’s latest book plunges us straight into the ferment of the 1880s in Bristol, one of the many cities in Britain set alight in the late-Victorian era by a mixture of radical liberalism, socialism and the rapid growth of trade unionism. Part political chronicle, part emotional narrative, it opens with the story of the blossoming friendship of two fiercely determined women, Miriam Daniell and Helena Born, both from bourgeois backgrounds and drawn towards “unconventional ideas and dangerous causes”. By the late 1880s, not only are both women imbibing the works of Ruskin, Ibsen, Whitman and Blake, they are also deeply involved, under the aegis of the Bristol Socialist Society, with strikes at Fry’s chocolate factory as well as attempts to unionise cotton workers and isolated homeworkers.

But, in keeping with the temper of the times – and the preoccupations that will shape the left and feminism for the ensuing century – these women’s rebellion goes far deeper than political activism. After Daniell leaves her respectable husband for the young Robert Nicol, an enigmatic medical student from Edinburgh, the couple and Born bravely establish a ménage à trois in a poor district of Bristol.

Here they experiment with colour and uncarpeted floors, “while from the most commonplace materials they improve many articles of furniture and decoration, combining both beauty and utility”. By 1890 – with their lives in turmoil because of their unconventional lifestyle and politics, and drawn to “the wider sphere of usefulness” that they glimpse in America – the trio migrate to the United States.

Minutely researching and retelling the political and personal struggles of her characters – six in all – Rowbotham gives us a unique flavour of the era and insight into the bravery, boldness, imagination and occasional wackiness of a period in left-wing British and American history. She eschews the stories of far better-known figures of the era (such as the Pankhursts or Keir Hardie), and even the dominant narratives of suffrage and labour, to bring alive lesser-known causes and ideas, from anarchism to radical individualism. In their attempts to shape a new way of living, these rebels prefigured everything from free love to modern feminism to eco-politics; and, in those Bristol living arrangements, possibly a dash of Habitat-style consumerism as well.

Once in the United States, the narrative becomes somewhat diluted by the vastness of that nation, with the chief figures in the story scattered from California to Boston.…

Under the hammer and sickle: David Aaronovitch’s Party Animals

Anyone brought up in a left-wing family gets used to a particular joshing, voyeuristic line of questioning (“I expect you spent your whole childhood on political marches”, “Did you call each other comrade?”). This is not just an everyday nosiness about an unconventional upbringing; at its worst, it can feel like a discomfiting, albeit disguised form of spite. The question is, in other words: what’s it like to have been raised in a family that had the idiocy or courage (take your pick) to believe it might be able to change the world?

So, one can imagine the glimmer in the publisher’s eye when the idea for this book was first mooted: an authentic portrait of a much-diminished species, the British communist, through the eyes of a red-diaper baby who grew up to be a Times columnist; a tale of quaint habits with serious questions at its heart (despite that corny subtitle echoing Gerald Durrell). According to Aaronovitch, Danny Finkelstein, the Tory peer and his colleague at the Times, keeps asking him when the book is going to be out, because “I want to understand why they did it”. There it goes again – that end-of-history smugness, that needling curiosity.

The trouble is that Aaronovitch knows too much and is, in his intelligent, irritable way, too interested in the multiple backstories involved to reduce his tale to one that will satisfy sceptical, bemused Middle England. Any half-decent account of British communism and the people who made it is bound to yield a long, tortuous, multilayered narrative, and this one is no exception, although it’s a story Aaronovitch never feels fully in charge of, in either theme or tone, for reasons that become clearer by the end.

As a result, Party Animals reads more like a series of extended columns on a number of loosely connected topics. No bad thing. There is a great deal of fascinating material along the way. So we are treated, inter alia, to an early set piece on the visit of Yuri Gagarin to England in 1961, one of the few times when communists were “once again, the people of the future . . . [and] briefly touched the golden face of fashion”; a short history of the rise of the Communist Party in Britain; an account of its relationship to Soviet communism; an anthropological look at the life and habits of CP activists; a long, excoriating feature on show trials of the 1950s; an intriguing case history of domestic political surveillance; and some highly entertaining stories about Aaronovitch’s early political and romantic adventures.…

Latest writing

THE CRISIS OF THE MERITOCRACY

The crisis of the meritocracy: Britain’s transition to mass education since the Second World War

PETER MANDLER, 2020

Oxford: Oxford University Press

361pp, hardback, £25, ISBN 9780198840145

Cambridge historian Peter Mandler has a fundamentally optimistic story to tell about the growth of universal education in Britain over the last seventy years and one can sense his stubborn resistance to any more sceptical interpretation on almost every page of this dense and impressive history. Since the close of the ‘people’s war’ in 1945, Mandler argues, we have witnessed the rise of mass education, initially at secondary level, and more recently in higher education where participation rates currently nudge New Labour’s much vaunted promise of 50 per cent. Contrary to established narratives that have put this development down to economic growth or significant pieces of legislation, Mandler identifies the expansion of educational opportunity as the result of a constantly shifting interplay of demand and supply that has reinforced ‘the deepening compact between the individual citizen and the state which came with formal democracy and the idea of equal citizenship’. Education continues to be seen by the public as one of the ‘decencies’ of life’; hence the inexorable rise in demand for what Mandler often refers to as ‘more and better’.

In short, the people (sort of) did it themselves.

On the face of it, this is an attractive proposition, yet one that is oddly tricky to grapple with, given the mass of contradictory or partial information available to us concerning what the ‘people’ have wanted at any given historical moment or, indeed, who exactly the people are. Mandler deliberately employs ‘a promiscuous array of methods and sources’, sifting through realms of evidence from official publications, interviews, academic studies, pollsters’ findings and demographic surveys in an attempt to clarify the complex relationship between government policy, public demand and social change. This promiscuity encourages him to prosecute his subsidiary critique of the alleged tendency of academic disciplines to work in unhelpful silos. Economists and social scientists, he charges, have paid scant attention to educational expansion while educationists and political historians tend to ‘chop up long-term trends into short political segments’ with many on the left falling into a ‘declinist narrative’ in which the failures of a ‘divided’ Labour party feature heavily as a reason for a lack of genuine progress (an analysis Mandler anyway rejects). But we shall return to the problem of we whingeing progressives in a moment.…

Latest news & events

A Cold War Tragedy

Melissa will be in conversation with Anne Sebba about her new book, ‘Ethel Rosenberg – A Cold War Tragedy.’

Weds 15th September 2021, 5-6pm, in the Robert Graves Tent at the Wimbledon Book Festival.

More information here.

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