Paul Foot

Marx alive in Clerkenwell

(16 December 1995)

From Socialist Worker, No.1473, 16 December 1995. p.11.
Copyright © Estate of Paul Foot. Published on MIA with the permission of the Estate. Paul Foot Internet Archive ( 2005.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

THERE’S AN old Fleet Street saying that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and this column proves it. Not long ago I went round to see Fred Silberman.

Fred is one of that large band of older people who have been socialists all their lives and whose commitment did not waver when the Soviet Union collapsed.

In mid-life he abandoned a prosperous business for full time work in the labour movement.

Fred talks to me about the Marx Memorial Library, of which he is treasurer. He thinks, quite rightly, that not enough Marxists understand the value of the library, support it or use it.

When I worked at the Daily Mirror, I often walked over to Clerkenwell Green to prepare a talk in the Marx Memorial Library. It was a friendly, warm place to work in, but its real value was the extraordinary range of its books, pamphlets and newspapers of the movement.

For instance, when I was doing some work on A J Cook, the Arthur Scargill of the 1920s, I gobbled up whole volumes of the Sunday Worker. This was a brave attempt by the Communist Party in the mid-1920s to produce a popular and broad based newspaper without abandoning socialist commitment.

The library was opened a few weeks after Hitler stormed to power in Germany in 1933. It was at the centre of the cultural flowering of the British left in the middle and late 1930s.

Striking feature

There are pictures and even recordings of some of the great socialist personalities of the time – Ralph Fox, who died on the battlefield in Spain, J.D. Bernal, Paul Robeson.

There is a most moving description by Bill Alexander of the awful imprisonment and torture of British volunteers to the International Brigade in Spain. He attributes the survival of many of the prisoners to intellectual and political discussions traceable to the newly formed library at Clerkenwell Green.

The library’s most striking feature is the Lenin room where Lenin worked for a year on his exiled revolutionary paper Iskra.

The real treasure is the 27,000 books, all related to the working class movement. There are specialist sections on the Spanish Civil War, the Chartists, and the British Communist Party. It costs only £6 a year (that’s 12p a week) to join.

Membership gives you access to the library and its research room (if you can find a seat) and the right to take out three books at a time. It’s open every weekday afternoon (except Friday) and Saturday morning. The librarian is Tish Newland, and the address is 37a Clerkenwell Green, London EC1R ODD.

Of course, SWP members can easily find fault with the library. It was founded, and has been run consistently ever since, by members of the Communist Party.

The very sudden collapse of the CP, both as a purveyor of Marxism and as an active force for change in British politics, is sadly reflected in the choice of books.

The tradition of dissent from Stalinism, for instance, and the works of Leon Trotsky and his ideological descendants are lamentably under-represented. There is little sign of any urgency to correct these glaring shortcomings.

But it would be a grave mistake for any socialist to dismiss the Marx Memorial Library for such reasons. For one thing, the left in general is far too weak to indulge in sectarian boycotts.

For another, much more important, the library is far too rich a resource to be ignored by any socialist. Books are the life blood of our movement, and there is no collection of relevant books anywhere in Britain which even remotely compares with that of the Marx Memorial Library.

After a delicious lunch prepared by Fred I joined again and promised to prostitute my journalistic independence by writing this piece. As I say, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.


Last updated on 12.2.2005