Friday, February 15, 2013

A People's History of London by Lindsey German & John Rees

A People's History of London is a complex book to review.  Complex both because of its authors and their slant on the history they cover. Lindsey German is a former Central Committee Member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and former editor of the periodical “Socialist Review.” John Rees also served on the SWP Central Committee, and edited the quarterly “International Socialism.” Their approach to the subject is polemical, but how could it be otherwise. Even a less politically motivated historian would agree that Britain’s history of relations between “the people,” (who are, in this book, the poor and working class), and the ruling class of Britain has been contentious. Still, one finds one’s self constantly questioning, during the reading, “is this just an opinion, or is it empirically researched history?” One thing is certain: you can expect that a history, written by unabashedly leftist writers formerly associated with the SWP, will staunchly advocate for those they define as “the people,” and their definition will not include the wealthy. 

This is a book that provides a much ignored history: the history of how poor people and workers gained a modicum of democratic rights in the face of a repressive ruling class and monarchy. It begins unfortunately, with a paean to political correctness. It exhibits one Joshua Virasami, and ticks-off a checklist of his acceptability to the fashion-conscious on the Left: 21 years old, black, working class job at Costa Coffee, college student, paying his way through college. Had he been middle-aged, white and wearing a suit to work, I don’t think he would have made the first page. The book gets worse before it gets better (and it does get better). You see, Mr. Virasami is part of the tragically leftist-chic and ineffectual Occupy Movement (LSX incarnation). In the USA, our racist, homophobic crazies of the Tea Party have transformed their protest movement into a somewhat successful set of campaigns to elect representatives to Congress. At the same time, the Occupy Movement has no cohesive message, and their one political achievement has been their remarkable ability to pitch tents.

Had the book continued in this vein, I would now be using it to prop-up my bookshelves. Happily, I can report that A People’s History of London improves dramatically over the next two hundred pages and now resides on my bookshelf, rather than under it. Chapters one through nine do an excellent job of locating the poor and working class in history, and representing the popular movements for their advancement. Throughout the majority of the chapters, it is a well-researched and footnoted study.

There is, however, a pronounced focus on rioting and the use of force to obtain changes. There is no discussion of citizens campaigning for politicians who favor democratic change. No examples of reformist citizen groups that pressured or worked along side MPs around progressive issues. The authors consistently represent violence committed by the rulers in a negative light. There is no criticism of violence when it is used by “the people” during rioting. In representing the Spitalfields Riots, violence is justified by the authors: “Weavers fought their masters to protect their livelihoods” (German and Rees, p. 71). When exhibiting The Gordon Riots, which were in part motivated by anti-Catholic prejudice, the authors show extraordinary patience and sensitivity towards the perpetrators of harm: “The idea of the riots as a series of mindless acts of crime and destruction does not do justice to the issues, or to the sensibilities and consciousness of the poor in eighteenth-century London.” (German and Rees, p. 90). If we’re being all sensitive here, allow me to weigh in with my own touchy-feely perspective. Can one create a society of peace by using violence? Can one build a society when destruction is an initial tactic? If intimidation is used to silence one’s opposition, can all voices be heard and respected?  Mob action may be an outlet for pent-up frustration, but it is not a program for a society’s creation or renewal. Many movements have employed non-violent tactics with success. Abortion Rights, Gay Marriage in Massachusetts and the defeat of Jim Crow Laws, were all won without even one house getting burned to advance the cause. There is a common revolutionist idea that violence is a necessary part of class struggle, which leads to the overthrow of those who own the means of production and their government. I do not know if the authors subscribe to this idea; they never explicitly state it. But if they do support violent overthrow, that would explain their criticism of violence by the ruling class and their silence around violence by peasants or workers.

A People's History of London purports to be just that: “a people’s history.” It borrows its title from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Zinn’s book is a lengthy and comprehensive work that attempts to give equal time to as many of the unique cultures and movements in the United States as possible. Conversely, German and Rees, in their well-chronicled first nine chapters on the advancement of peasants and workers , describe other cultures and movements almost exclusively as they pertain to class struggle. To be fair, there is a fine independent section on “Jews in Medieval London” (German and Rees, p. 26-7), but no other culture or oppressed group is presented independently of poor/labor concerns.

The discussion of black civil rights begins well enough with a section called “London and the Slave Trade.” But following representations within the first nine chapters illustrate the lives of black Londoners only as they relate to the main topic of peasant and worker movements. The lives of Ottabah Cugoano, Olaudah Equiano (both in German and Rees, pp. 95-97), William Cuffay (German and Rees, pp. 109-113) and John Archer (German and Rees, p. 191), are well represented. But each man is then linked to the various working class organizations of his time. The advancement of black peoples rights is not covered for its own sake; it is placed in service to worker’s rights.

Women are not treated independently either. The first mention of women states “women have become an increasingly visible part of left-wing, working-class politics in London” (German and Rees, p. 71). A following section entitled “Love, Marriage and Mother’s Ruin” focuses entirely on the economic effects of class inequity on poor women (German and Rees, p. 73). Mary Wollstonecraft is logically linked to the anti-ruling class movement of her time (German and Rees, pp. 78-9). The Match Girls Strike is covered (German and Rees, p. 139). A short section on “Sexual Politics” begins with “the central role of women in building the socialist movement,“ and never escapes the orbit of worker’s rights (German and Rees, pp. 158-161). Finally, even Suffrage is seen through the lens of worker’s rights. After two paragraphs introducing the issue, the authors link it to worker’s struggles, and there it remains until the end of the section. That section ends with a discussion of how Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst push Sylvia Pankhurst out of the organization for socialist sympathies, and concludes with the incredible statement “the suffragette movement was effectively over,” as if women never subsequently obtained the vote (German and Rees, p. 173). Any women’s issues not dependent upon class are ignored: the pro-choice movement, the women’s shelter movement and the eventual success of the women’s suffrage movement, are unrecorded since these issues do not serve as handmaids to working class concerns.

Finally, in chapter 10 the authors discuss the histories of the city’s various minority cultures. “Migrant City” is a 20 page chapter that fairly represents various immigrant populations without subsuming them under the worker’s banner. A 20 page chapter in a 300 page book does not make this work “a people’s history,“ but this does not detract from the chapter’s fairness.

It would be more accurate to call this book “a history of class struggle,” which is a necessary topic all by itself. By calling this book “a people’s history, ” and devoting only a few pages to minorities and women, and then mostly to serve arguments about class struggle, is somewhat sexist and racist. It’s saying “we’ll tack you onto our book, but you aren’t the real subject; you are supporting characters.”

German and Rees occasionally uncritically accept the propaganda of their subjects. Are we actually supposed to believe that General Booth, founder of The Salvation Army, “originally set out to disprove the claims of the Social Democratic Federation that a quarter of Londoners lived in extreme poverty, but his studies showed that the situation was actually worse"? (German and Rees, p. 130)  Why would a philanthropic individual waste his time disproving a claim by fellow advocates for the poor? Under what conditions would The Salvation Army founder proclaim everyone in London is prosperous; there’s no need for us here? We must not forget that organizations like The Salvation Army require propaganda to recruit both volunteers and financial supporters.

It becomes difficult to review A People’s History of London as a history from chapter 11 “Welcome to the Modern World” to the end of the book. Difficult because we begin exploring events occurring within the political lives of the authors. There are some excellent sections. Pages 260-269 cover international and peace movements without using their issues as a labor or poor movement springboard. But throughout this chapter, the book is transforming from a researched history to a record of personal memories and political opinions. Footnotes are very telling. The footnotes for this chapter include: “L. German, personal recollection,” writings of socialist colleagues in the authors’ generation, and frequent references to “Socialist Worker” a newspaper of the party personally organized by German. So we have exited the realm of historical research. One reaches a section entitled “The Thatcher Nightmare” and it’s opinion to the end of the book. History students reading chapters 11 and 12, are advised to regard them as primary historical material from one side of a struggle. To draw rational conclusions and gain a full picture of London from 1970 through 2011, would involve further research and a wider scope of primary sources.

In summation, I can recommend this book from chapters one through ten, as long as one is reading it as a history of class struggle in London, not as a people’s history. Despite its flaws, the history of peasants and workers is well-researched. It is a subject that has been under-reported in standard history books, and it is time that someone told this story.

German, Lindsey & Rees, John. A People’s History of London. London: Verso, 2012.

For an essay on "Marxist History vs Marxist Politics," see:

For more reviews of books on British History, 
on the Empire of Great Britain.
for a book of Victorian Biographies.