The historiography of the British labour movement in the twentieth century has been dominated by a Whiggish concern with the rise and consolidation of the Labour Party and the emergence of trade unionism as an estate of the realm. Even Marxist historians have found it difficult to escape this paradigm. One influential school has portrayed the history as one of incorporation, the containment of socialist politics within a ‘matrix of labourism’. At the root of this conception is a kind of inverted Whiggery which reinterprets the familiar landmarks of labour’s ‘Magnificent Journey’ as successive moments in a process of subordination of the working class within an institutional and ideological structure premised on ‘a de facto recognition of the existing social order as the inevitable framework of action’.footnote1 The problem with such an account lies in its inability to explain the continuing sources of revolt as well as of accommodation in working-class history—a problem solved, notably in the classic articles of Nairn and Anderson—by the virtual excision of such currents of revolt from the historical record.footnote2
The baneful influence of Whiggery does not, however, end here. In seeking to counter a one-dimensional history of accommodation historians of the left have too frequently seen themselves as engaged in the reconstruction of an alternative Magnificent Journey, a stream of pure proletarian self-expression running through from the heroic years of syndicalism, the first shop stewards movement and the early Communist Party to whatever storm of working-class revolt appears to be gathering at the time of writing. Such accounts tend to isolate the militants from the wider social context in which they operated, producing a history with the heroes up front and the real conditions of their existence only schematically and partially sketched in. The teleology of revolution is as distorting as the teleology of accommodation.
Many of the virtues of Stuart Macintyre’s two booksfootnote3 stem from his insistence that the history of British Communism, while it belongs in a ‘militant and anti-capitalist tradition that runs from the demise of Chartism to the present day’, cannot be explained by reference to that tradition alone. The tradition ‘cannot be defined institutionally and finds organized expression only fleetingly in periods of special stress’. It is not ‘a single stream of social protest’ and its history can be
A Proletarian Science maps the intellectual achievements of a generation of autodidact Marxists whose formation owed little to the established institutions of learning. Men like Tommy Jackson, William Paul, Tom Bell, J. T. Murphy, Will McLaine, George Harvey, Will Lawther, Noah Ablett, Noah Rees, and W. W. Craik read their way to Marxism under their own steam. The respect for intellectual self-improvement characteristic of Victorian radicalism provided a basis during the intense class struggles of early twentieth century Britain for the vigorous growth of an independent working-class apparatus of Marxist adult education. Macintyre analyses the characteristics of this autodidact tradition. On the plus side were the energy and determination displayed in the pursuit of knowledge, the voracious appetite for books, and the polymath range of intellectual curiosity. It was characteristic that J. T. Murphy’s 1917 agitational pamphlet on shop steward organization should list Lewis Morgan on Ancient History, Havelock Ellis, Walt Whitman and Ibsen among the further reading recommended to the militants. Against this Macintyre sets the over-simplification and dogmatism implicit in the project of creating a distinct and complete ‘proletarian science’, the reverential attitude to the text, the tendency to reduce Marxism to a catechism of received wisdom—to be transmitted, at worst, by rote learning and tested by formal examination. The Achilles Heel of the autodidact tradition was its positivist appetite for facts, an appetite which Macintyre uses to explain the extraordinary post-war popularity of the self-important, unimaginative but tremendously well-informed J. T. Walton Newbold, one of the few middle-class intellectuals to feature in the study. Separate chapters on Historical Materialism, The Dialectic, Economics, and Class, State and Politics reveal the limitations of a Marxism that was frequently mechanical in its handling of the problems of ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’, and prone to conspiracy theory in its treatment of ideology and of the state. The absence of English-language editions of most of Marx’s early works, of his writings on politics, and (until 1929) of Lenin’s What is to be Done, tended to reinforce this orientation.
The fundamentally external relationship of many working-class Marxists to their class is revealed in the autodidact tendency to hold their less able, determined or enlightened fellow-workers in some contempt—‘the bastards aren’t worth saving’. In the course of an illuminating comparison between Marxism and Labour Socialism, Macintyre shows how both schools, for different reasons, tended to blame their own lack of success on the unregenerate stupidity of the masses. Ramsay MacDonald attributed his defeat in the 1918 election to ‘the women—bloodthirsty, cursing their fate, issuing from the courts and alleys crowded with children, reeking with humanity—the sad flotsam and jetsam of wild emotion’. The 1920s Alf Garnet figure of ‘Henry Dubb’, invoked by Communists as well as Labour socialists, served a similar function of reassuring militants of their own superiority.