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This study seeks to delve beyond the familiar image of Ellen Wilkinson as the leader of the Jarrow Crusade. It has attempted to unearth new evidence to provide a richer understanding of this figure who is remarkable in terms of her achievements, her acquaintances and her witnessing of history’s great turning points. From a humble background, she ascended to the rank of Minister in the 1945 Labour government. Yet she was much more than a conventional Labour politician. She wrote journalism, political theory and novels. She was both a socialist and a feminist; at times, she described herself as a revolutionary. She met Lenin, Trotsky and Gandhi. She visited Soviet Russia, the GM sit-down strikes, the Indian civil disobedience campaign, the Spanish Civil War and the Third Reich. While viewed in the collective imagination as ‘Red Ellen’, whose politics were as red as her hair, her ideas were not static and present a series of puzzles. This study seeks to use transnational and social movement theory perspectives to grabble with the complex itinerary of ideas and her relationship with the movements for social transformation. This research is timely because interest in her life remains. This is in part because her principal concerns—working-class representation, the status of women, capitalist crisis, war, anti-fascism—remain central to contentious politics today.
This book explores the eight-month wave of mutinies in the French infantry and navy in 1919. This revolt stretched from France’s intervention against the Soviet Union through the Black Sea, into the Mediterranean and finally resulting in unrest in France’s naval ports. As a consequence, mutineers faced court martials, the threat of the death penalty and years of hard labour.
This research is the result of careful scrutiny of official records and, more importantly, the testimony of dozens of mutineers. It is the first study to try to understand the world of the mutineers, assessing their own words for the traces of their sensory perceptions, their emotions and their thought processes. It shows that the conventional understanding of the mutinies as simple war-weariness and low morale as inadequate. It demonstrates that an emotional gulf separated officers and the ranks, who simply did not speak the same language. It reveals the soundscape (its silences, shouts and songs) and visual aspect of the mutiny. The revolt entailed emotional sequences ending in a deep ambivalence and sense of despair or regret. It also considers how mutineer memories persisted after the events in the face of official censorship, repression and the French Communist Party’s co-option of the mutiny.
This text will interest students, general readers and scholars of the both Great War and its contentious aftermath. Setting the mutiny in the transnational context, it will contribute to the growing interest in 1919 as the twentieth century’s most unruly year.
This chapter examines the evolution of Wilkinson’s ideas and her affiliations to left organisations. From the organisational viewpoint, Wilkinson went through a series of left groups that frame her political ideas: the ILP, the University Socialist Federation, the National Guilds League, the CPGB, the Left-Wing Movement, the ILP and the Fabian Society. Particularly significant in this evolution was her membership of the CPGB (1920-4) and her relationship with Communism. This chapter charts her changing attitude to the Soviet Union and the chronology of her political itinerary. She underwent a radicalisation associated with the revolutionary ferment from 1917 to 1923. Her ideas drifted thereafter until economic crisis and events in India and Germany prompted her once again to adopt the language of revolution and class struggle. Her final break with the Soviet Union occurred with the Hitler-Stalin pack and the Winter War against Finland.
Wilkinson’s involvement in the women’s movement is crucial to understanding her political trajectory. At the level of her ideas, Wilkinson developed a gendered critique of pre-war British socialism. She sought to fuse democratic suffragism and Labour politics. With the war, both her socialism and her gender politics radicalised and fused into a Marxist feminism centred around the achievements of the early Soviet state and admiration for Kollontai. After quitting the CPGB, her criticisms of middle-class feminists mellowed but strongly defended protective legislation against equalitarian feminists. Over the course of the 1920s, she became more focused on women’s reforms rather than revolution. Serving on the NEC constrained her gender politics, especially over family allowances and birth control, alienating herself from even Labour women activists over these matters. She became closer to the Time and Tide circle of Bloomsbury feminism. The transnational dimension introduced anti-fascism into the mix of Wilkinson’s feminism though ultimately a drift and de-radicalisation of her gender politics occurred. This specific loss of radicalism helped to prepare the major threshold in her politics in 1940. Thus, Wilkinson’s gender politics was a distinctive part of her political journey and was actively constitutive of all its phases.
Any discussion of Wilkinson’s trade unionism needs to understand its connection to her politics and vice versa. NUDAW provided crucial help to Wilkinson’s parliamentary career. During the war Wilkinson was recruited as a union organiser for the AUCE. Wilkinson’s intellectual development bore hallmarks of her wartime experiences. The AUCE’s adoption of industrial unionism with its emphasis upon militant grassroots activity reinforced Wilkinson’s commitment to extra-parliamentary politics. With Wilkinson, however, hers’ was the paradoxical industrial unionism of the left trade union official. As an employee of the union, her fortunes were entangled with its institutional interests and there were limits to the criticisms that she could make of it (and the TUC). Her encounter with syndicalism, industrial unionism and the Shop Stewards and Workers’ Committee Movement is significant in that her trade union practices and her heady wartime experiences of struggle radicalised her political engagement. With her ‘industrial unionism for women’, she gendered the union’s philosophy. Her hopes for industrial militancy peaked once again around the time of the General Strike, which had a powerful effect upon her as it did the rest of the Labour movement.
Wilkinson's approach to imperialism and war provides significant insight into her political ideas. For much of the interwar period, she perceived a causal link between imperialism—which she understood as a product of late capitalism—and war. This was clearly a Marxist analysis rather than a feminist or Fabian one. Her opposition to these connected phenomena led her to participate in movements against war (No More War Movement, PPU, WILPF, IPC) and against colonial oppression (LAI, India League, Meerut Prisoners, CCC). Her support for these movements superseded her doctrinal differences with both pacifists and anti-colonial nationalists in her commitment to social mobilisation to effect change. Her approach to these matters also reveals a drift and transition in her political ideas. In late 1936 in response to appeasement, her ideas started to drift away from a Marxist position and she underwent a transformation in 1940. After that point, she gave enthusiastic support not only for the war but also for the interests of the Empire. Where war was concerned, she moved from an anti-militarist and radical pacifist position to an acceptance of war and a legalist solution to it in the shape of the United Nations.
Wilkinson's relationship to the Commons and the PLP is crucial to explaining her political and intellectual itinerary. On entering the Commons, she combined a Marxist rejection of parliamentary illusions with a feminist desire for women's representation albeit with a workerist twist. Although her scepticism and frustration continued for some time, gradually she habituated herself to Westminster’s practices and the associated state institutions. On occasion transgressing the boundaries of Commons immunity or PLP rules, disciplinary procedures helped to force Wilkinson into line. More generally, party loyalty, considerations of career and the exigencies of an NEC member or a PPS constrained her outlook. Between 1924 and 1940, Wilkinson lived in two different though mutually dependent worlds. Inside Westminster, she became a skilled parliamentarian seeking to influence the legislative process and to reshape her party's strategy and leadership. Outside parliament, her commitment to social contestation and the movements persisted. The connection between these two worlds would, in her view, be necessary for a Labour government intent upon introducing socialism. By the late 1930s, her battle on the NEC came to a frustrating dead end and with it the strategy of the Popular Front as a domestic and international possibility. This provided the circumstances for an abrupt turn in her politics, her rupture with the politics of social contestation and entry into Churchill's government. As she did, she left behind the world of the social movements to be fully assimilated into the realm of Westminster.
Wilkinson’s experiences of the early 1930s furnished her with a renewed revolutionary outlook. The rise of fascism in Germany and across Europe brought about a second radicalisation of her political thought. She once again talked explicitly of the need for revolution. Yet the grounds for this changed. In the early 1920s, Wilkinson impatiently condemned the futility of reformism, optimistically expecting imminent revolution, spreading from the youthful Soviet Union. In the 1930s, darker horizons of crisis, fascism and the threat of war rendered revolution necessary. Partly, this was premised upon her travels to the US which provided the most dramatic illustration of modern capitalism and its failings, including that of a New-Deal style rescue. Her odyssey also traversed moments of hope and the revolutionary potential of mass mobilisation in Paris, Flint and Asturias. The events of the 1930s, however, loosened the moorings of Wilkinson’s second radicalisation. By the end of the decade, there was a marked drift in her ideas showing that her second radicalisation was a temporary phenomenon as she had to grapple with the great dilemmas that confronted activists who were against both fascism and war.
The sheer scope and complexity of Wilkinson’s involvement on behalf of Republican Spain is striking. Her attitude towards Spain was the result of entangled relationships with Spanish leaders, her own party, her union, and more than the British Communist Party itself, and the Münzenberg-Katz circle. These pulled her in different directions in campaigning and ideological terms. What attracted Wilkinson to Spain was not so much the defence of a liberal democracy, though her antifascist commitment could not be doubted, but the ebb and flow of a great social movement. At moments, her writings on Spain exhibit a great intimacy and profound affinity with that movement and its revolutionary capacities. Yet the implications of her transnational networks and her advocacy of a Popular Front policy pulled her away from the base of that movement into the reception events for foreign visitors, the hotels filled with some of the world’s most celebrated novelists and journalists. Foremost, Spain was an experience of defeat and nobody connected to it could escape its emotional cost or its challenge to one’s political assumptions.