Britain’s meritocratic moment, 1937–1988
Author: Dean Blackburn

This books explores the non-fiction publishing of Penguin Books to offer a new account of Britain’s post-war politics. This account decentres some of the categories that scholars have commonly employed to understand this period. The three decades after 1944, it argues, constituted a ‘meritocratic moment’ in Britain’s intellectual politics. That is not to say that political elites sought to realise a meritocratic order. But the argument that status and rewards should be determined by observable merits was accommodated by key ideological formations and provided a starting point for much political thinking. The perceived crises of the 1970s led to the eclipse of this meritocratic moment. But to understand this development as a victory for Thatcherism is problematic. Indeed this ideology was not able to accommodate or account for many of the antagonisms that followed from the collapse of the post-war political order.

Dean Blackburn

This chapter explores the intellectual politics of the decade that succeeded the 1945 election. In this period, Penguin Books retreated from the political stage, and the political texts that it did publish garnered relatively little attention. It is argued that this development reflected the hegemony of a set of sociological assumptions about the post-war period. Not only did it become common for policy-makers to assume that social mobility was eroding class-based antagonisms, but many actors also endorsed epistemologies that marginalised ‘ideological’ modes of thought.

in Penguin Books and political change
Dean Blackburn

By the early 1960s, the relative optimism that had informed political debate in the late 1950s had dissipated. Contemporaries became particularly concerned about Britain’s apparent economic decline, and in their efforts to propose solutions to this phenomenon, many political elites drew upon meritocratic language. This proliferation of meritocratic rhetoric might lead us to conclude that this period was the zenith of Britain’s meritocratic moment. But this chapter argues that the apparent ubiquity of meritocratic reasoning in this period concealed a political rupture. Indeed when we examine the arguments made by Penguin authors who helped to shape the debate about decline, we can observe the emergence of reasoning that was breaking with the fragile consensus of the preceding decade.

in Penguin Books and political change
Dean Blackburn

Shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War, a vibrant debate about post-war reconstruction gathered momentum. Indeed many intellectuals and policy-makers felt compelled to establish a vision for the future that could inform the war effort. This chapter explores this debate and argues that it facilitated the ascendency of meritocratic logic. Contributors to reconstruction debates may have sought to realise different ideological objectives, but they often shared a common commitment to equalising educational opportunity and strengthening the relationship between merit and rewards.

in Penguin Books and political change
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Dean Blackburn

This chapter employs Penguin Books as a lens through which to view the intellectual politics of late inter-war Britain. By tracing the way in which the publisher’s authors responded to the twin threats of economic crisis and fascism, it claims that this period witnessed the emergence of an emergent ideological settlement. At the core of this settlement was what can be termed a ‘professional ideal’. This ideal privileged the expertise of professionals and was informed by a hostility to both aristocratic and entrepreneurial conceptions of social justice.

in Penguin Books and political change
Robert Gildea and Olga Manojlović Pintar

The final chapter explores the transnational trajectories of resisters after 1945 and the evolution of memories of transnational resistance. The fortunes of both individuals with backgrounds in transnational resistance and memories of these adventures were marginalised by national liberation, the Cold War, wars of decolonisation and a growing tendency to see the Second World War through the lens of the Holocaust. Memories of transnational memories broke through with Cold War détente after 1956, the Six Day War of 1967, which highlighted Jewish resistance, and the events of 1968, which allowed activists to portray themselves as heirs of transnational resisters. The death of Franco, the fall of the Greek Colonels and the rise of François Mitterrand allowed the return of transnational memories, while the surge in Holocaust memory triggered interest in the work of transnational rescuers. The end of the Cold War had a double effect: on the one hand globalisation placed transnational connections once more under the spotlight, but on the other the rise of populist nationalism in countries like the former Yugoslavia put these memories on the defensive. In the end it is historians who are challenged to explore and publicise the phenomenon of translational resistance between 1936 and 1948.

in Fighters across frontiers
Robert Gildea

This chapter explores how internment and POW camps, which were designed to segregate internees by national or political categories and to crush political sentiment, often ended up producing transnational encounters. Camps in France and the French Sahara threw together unlikely groups such as former International Brigaders, Spanish republican refugees and leaders of European communist parties. Camps on Italian islands and on the mainland gathered anti-fascist political prisoners, former International Brigaders, captured Yugoslav resisters and Jews. German POW camps near Bremen and Munich allowed cooperation between Soviet, French and Serbian prisoners and links to forced labourers outside the prisons. Camps became centres for political education, often masked as cultural or sporting activity, and developed communist and anti-fascist resistance thinking and activity. They also provoked disputes between communists and anarchists, or between national groups, not least for access to posts of organisation in the camps. Links might be established with resistance networks outside the camps; active resistance within the camps was provoked by attempts to draft, deport or transfer internees to other camps. Lastly, internees who escaped from camps came with both military and political capital to lead resistance movements in France, Italy, Poland or Romania, reproducing transnational connections and activities.

in Fighters across frontiers
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Ismee Tames and Robert Gildea
in Fighters across frontiers
Transnational resistance in Europe, 1936–48
Editors: Robert Gildea and Ismee Tames

This work demonstrates that resistance to occupation by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy during the Second World War has to be seen through a transnational, not a national, lens. It explores how people often resisted outside their country of origin because they were migrants, refugees or exiles who were already on the move. It traces their trajectories and encounters with other resisters and explores their experiences, including changes of beliefs, practices and identities. The book is a powerful, subtle and thought-provoking alternative to works on the Second World War that focus on single countries or on grand strategy. It is a ‘bottom up’ story of extraordinary individuals and groups who resisted oppression from Spain to the Soviet Union and the Balkans. It challenges the standard chronology of the war, beginning with the formation of the International Brigades in Spain and following through to the onset of the Cold War and the foundation of the state of Israel. This is a collective project by a team of international historians led by Robert Gildea, author of Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance (Faber & Faber, 2015). These have explored archives across Europe, the USA, Russia and Israel in order to unearth scores of fascinating individual stories which are woven together into themed chapters and a powerful new interpretation. The book is aimed at undergraduates and graduates working on twentieth-century Europe and the Second World War or interested in the possibilities of transnational history.

Transnational experiences in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–39
Samuël Kruizinga

The first chapter explores the diverse trajectories taken by eight individuals from eight different European countries, to join the International Brigades in Spain in 1936. Although they were all anti-fascists they each had their own reasons – some political, some personal – for becoming involved. While national fighting units were the starting point, international units inevitably emerged, creating spaces for both international solidarity and international misunderstanding and conflict. The leading role of communists and the Comintern had divided outcomes. Some activists were inspired, educated and hardened by the communist message, but others were repelled by communist ideology and violence. The chapter charts the trajectories of these individuals after they left Spain, following the defeat of the republican armies. Some went on to become leaders of transnational resistance movements elsewhere, while others, who had lost the faith, took very different routes.

in Fighters across frontiers