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.
By the 1920s this tradition coexisted uneasily with the practical and theoretical implications of the Bolshevik revolution. For a brief period during the post-war social crisis, British Marxists appreciated that the collapse of capitalism had to be engineered, not waited for. Macintyre’s account underestimates the degree to which the shift to a more organic connection between the revolutionaries and the working class predates the Russian Revolution. The involvement of many working-class Marxists in syndicalism throws doubt on his asertion that ‘before the war . . . Marxists had drawn an absolute distinction between their own revolutionary perspective and the reformist perspective of the mass movement’. The process by which, for example, The Miners Next Step was produced in 1911 reveals a fusion between educational and practical activity which undermines Macintyre’s sharp contrast between ‘pre-war study circles’ and post-war attempts ‘to implant Marxism within the practice of the Labour Movement’.footnote4 Nevertheless the immediate post-war period did see a new sense that ‘Comrade History’ was a fickle friend, that Marxists must be ready to ‘seize on any passing opportunity which may present itself, in order to convert it into a Revolutionary situation’.footnote5 The attentisme which characterized both the SLP-De Leonite and the SDF-BSP traditions was temporarily abandoned. In 1918 the Russian exile, Joe Fineberg, invoked the Bolshevik revolution to challenge the economic reductionism of Mark Starr’s textbook A Worker Looks at History. Lenin’s revolution clearly called into questions the doctrine characterized with naive enthusiasm by the Guild Socialists as epppp—Economic Power Precedes Political Power. But as the moment of apparent revolutionary opportunity receded, the Communist Party found it impossible to sustain the new activist perspective. The shift from the merely propagandist and educationalist stance of the pre-war Marxist sects to the interventionist Party projected by Harry Pollitt and Palme Dutt in the Organization Report of 1922 remained incomplete. Throughout the 1920s the cp impact was weakened by what Macintyre describes as ‘an inability to reconcile the revolutionary commitment with regular political practice’, in a situation where revolution no longer figured on the immediate agenda. The old separation between revolutionary doctrine and practical activity reasserted itself. One consequence of this incomplete transformation, sensitively analysed in the book, was the disruption of independent working-class education by the cp concern to substitute a more active process of political education for the formalistic instruction characteristic of the Labour College movement. In practice ‘Party training’ fell far short of the ideal interchange between experience and learning. Instead the cp tended to reproduce the one-way transmission of schematized dogma, while at the same time fostering an antiintellectual contempt for the ‘pedants’ and ‘book worms’ who continued to find refuge in the Labour Colleges.
Little Moscows analyses the history of three cp strongholds between the wars—Mardy in the Rhondda, Lumphinnans in the Fife coalfield and the Vale of Leven, a textile and engineering centre to the north-west