English radicalism has been a deep-rooted but minority tradition in the political culture since at least the seventeenth century. The central aim of this book is to examine, in historical and political context, a range of key events and individuals that exemplify English radicalism in the twentieth century. This analysis is preceded by defining precisely what has constituted this tradition; and by the main outline of the development of the tradition from the Civil War to the end of the nineteenth century. Three of the main currents of English radicalism in the twentieth century have been the labour movement, the women’s movement and the peace movement. These are discussed in some detail, as a framework for the detailed consideration of ten key representative figures of the tradition in the twentieth century: Bertrand Russell, Sylvia Pankhurst, Ellen Wilkinson, George Orwell, E.P. Thompson, Michael Foot, Joan Maynard, Stuart Hall, Tony Benn and Nicolas Walter. The question of ‘agency’ – of how to bring about radical change in a predominantly conservative society and culture – has been a fundamental issue for English radicals. It is argued that, in the twentieth century, many of the important achievements in progressive politics have taken place in and through extra-parliamentary movements, as well as through formal political parties and organisations – the Labour Party and other socialist organisations – and on occasion, through libertarian and anarchist politics. The final chapter considers the continuing relevance of this political tradition in the early twenty-first century, and reviews its challenges and prospects.
This introductory chapter defines English radicalism, explains why the focus is upon English rather than British radicalism, and discusses its importance and relevance. The moral bases of the tradition, and the legacy of Nonconformist Christianity, are analysed; and the centrality of a priori beliefs in freedom, equality and the rule of law is discussed. All English radicals, whatever their other differences, believed that extra-parliamentary, social movements were essential, both for the culture and for the political strategy of English radicalism and the reasons for this commitment are discussed. Finally, the characteristics and ideological positions of the ten key figures are noted and the reasons for their selection are explained.
This chapter provides, first, an overview of the development of English radicalism to the end of the eighteenth century, and its main ideological constituents. Secondly, it analyses three of the central strands of English radicalism in the twentieth century: the labour movement, the women’s movement and the peace movement. Within this historical framework, the political elements of English radicalism are discussed. The vexed question of ‘agency’ – of how best to achieve the radical changes required, within a profoundly conservative culture – is a particular concern. Whilst parliamentary and other established institutions are by no means precluded as vehicles for achieving radical change, extra-parliamentary social movements have been at least as important. Moreover, for some of the key figures discussed here, they were the primary if not the exclusive focus for both activism and the underlying social theories.
Russell was a world-famous philosopher and this chapter begins with a discussion of the connections between his academic work and his lifelong political radicalism. He was an aristocrat and an elitist; but he was also a democratic socialist and a liberal internationalist. He championed women’s rights, libertarian approaches to sexual relations and to education, and the causes of peace and disarmament. Throughout a long life, he was extraordinarily active in political and social movements, as well as contributing significantly to his specialist academic field, and writing more accessible and popular philosophical and anti-religious books, articles and pamphlets. He was especially prominent in his later decades in the anti-nuclear peace movement – first as President of CND and later as the founder and leading proponent of the civil disobedience movement, the Committee of 100. He was active subsequently in a variety of campaigns – opposition to the Vietnam War, for example – and he was still involved with left-wing protest at the time of his death, aged 97.
Pankhurst was a leading member of the Suffragette movement, committed to non-violent, militant civil disobedience. She broke with her mother, Emmeline, and her sister, Christabel, because of her strong socialist beliefs. She prioritised working-class women and devoted herself to suffrage and socialist activism in London’s East End. Pankhurst was strongly opposed to the First World War, and was a member in its early years of the CPGB. She was an internationalist and active in the anti-fascist campaigns of the 1930s. In the last decades of her life she was involved with the struggle in Ethiopia against Italian fascism and, subsequently, what she saw as British imperialism. She became a nationally celebrated figure for Haile Selassie and the Ethiopian people.
Wilkinson was a working-class woman who gained a scholarship to university and had a high-profile career in the labour movement, as a trade union official, MP and eventually Government Minister. She was influenced by her Nonconformist background, and by her idealistic internationalism. In her youth she was involved with several left-wing movements, including Guild Socialism, and the CPGB. Although she supported the cause of women’s suffrage, she saw the struggle for women’s emancipation as a part of the more generalised movement for socialist change. As an MP, she was effective and influential. When MP for Jarrow, she became a nationally recognised figure as leader of the ‘Jarrow March’ of the unemployed. During the Second World War Wilkinson was a valued member of Churchill’s coalition government; and she became Minister for Education in Attlee’s 1945 government. She died, prematurely, in 1947.
George Orwell was the quintessential English radical. He wrote two of the best and most famous political books of the twentieth century: Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. But he was also an essayist and journalist of real distinction. His concerns were with the moral values underlying democratic socialism, rather than political theory or party politics. He became increasingly convinced that totalitarian societies, and their ideologies as well as their political practice, represented an existential threat to Western civilisation. He was thus not only a committed opponent of fascism and Nazism but a fierce critic of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union. He was essentially a democratic socialist, with a romantic belief in the innate decency of the common people, as exemplified in his portrayal of ‘the proles’ in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell had a profound impact upon English political culture and, seventy years after his premature death, remains a major influence.
Thompson contributed significantly to many fields of radical activity and thought: history, polemics, poetry, literary criticism, biography, adult education and academic research. His most influential book, The Making of the English Working Class, played a key role in the development of ‘history from below’, foregrounding the importance of ‘human agency’ in the historical process and arguing passionately for a humanistic socialism. In 1956, he resigned from the CP, following the suppression of the Hungarian uprising, and became a leading figure in the New Left. Thompson was a lifelong peace campaigner and was especially influential in the European Nuclear Disarmament Movement (END), arguing that peace and ‘third way’ positive neutralism were coterminous with the struggles for liberation in Communist Eastern Europe. His directly political articles and books articulated a powerful case for the historical centrality of a deep-rooted English radicalism, centred on working-class resistance to authoritarian ideologies, both religious and political, from the seventeenth century onwards.
Foot came from a Nonconformist Devonian family, imbued with English radical values and culture. Originally a Liberal, Foot became a socialist as a young man. His socialism was based upon the egalitarian morality of New Testament Christianity, with its emphases upon fairness, justice and a commitment to human rights. He became an MP in 1945 and was a prominent left-wing backbencher and respected parliamentary orator. He had a long parliamentary career, culminating in his senior roles in the Callaghan Government of the late 1970s, and subsequently as Leader of the Opposition Labour Party in the early 1980s. Foot was a lifelong activist in the peace movement and was one of the founders of CND in 1958 and a regular Aldermaston Marcher. A journalist by profession, he was also an accomplished author and knowledgeable bibliophile. Foot was almost universally liked and respected personally; and he exemplified the English radical strand in the Labour Party.
Maynard was a working-class, left-wing socialist and trade unionist from rural North Yorkshire. Although late In her career she became a Labour MP, on the extreme left of the PLP, her first involvement in the labour movement was through the Agricultural Workers’ Union. And it was her championing of the agricultural workers’ cause that remained her priority. She was utterly uncorrupted by the ‘mystique’ of Parliament and its culture; and she retained completely her adherence to socialism and its commitment to fairness, justice and equality. She was one of a small number of MPs who campaigned for peace in Northern Ireland and who supported the cause, though not the violent methods, of the IRA for a united Ireland. Maynard represented the rural, working-class and socialist strand of English radicalism, and was uncompromising in her adherence to morally based socialist values.