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International Socialism, Spring 1961


Peter Cadogan

Operation Cover-up


From International Socialism (1st series), No.4, Spring 1961, pp.30-31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Proofread by Anoma Cartwright (April 2008).


The Commoners of England
F. Fagan
Lawrence and Wishart 10/6.

Champions of the Workers
H. Fagan
Lawrence and Wishart 10/6.

Uneasy the critic faced with work so clearly a labour of love and so short of its consummation.

The subject of these books is the radical and revolutionary activity of the English from Wat Tyler to Tom Mann. They have been written in ‘an attempt to show how many of our accepted rights and institutions were won’. However, except for vague idealism, they contain no sense of history related to the future. What we are faced with therefore is a radical exercise that is sometimes heartwarming but generally antiquarian, the past studied for its own sake, the negation of history. To make this point clearer may I suggest the sort of questions that books on this subject should attempt to answer? Constitutionally, for example, what is the future of the English state in the light of its past? What can we learn from the successes and failures of the Levellers and Chartists? What is the nature of revolutionary leadership? What can we discover about the interaction of spontaneity and organization? How were successful mass movements built? How do we see opportunism, utopianism and sectarianism in terms of their origin and development? Hymie Fagan, an old-guard Communist Party functionary, jollies along quite unaware that these are the real problems involved in his own subject.

In the first volume the background and significance of Lilburne’s bible – Coke’s Institutes – is wholly missed and so is the critical importance of the puritan struggle for freedom of conscience, the progenitor of the struggle for political liberty. Any appreciation of the fundamental role of the Scots and Irish rebellions and wars is not vouchsafed us. (When, O Lord, will Englishmen begin to make an effort to understand the Scots, Welsh and Irish?) Mistakes abound. Cromwell’s Grandees are described as ‘mostly Baptist’. They must be turning in their tombs! The West Country squire Sir John Eliot appears as a London merchant. It was the threat of the Commons to indict the Queen, following their arrest of the bishops, that led Charles to attempt the Arrest of the Five Members. The struggle over ship money began in 1634 not 1631. There were no ‘Leveller MPs’. The petition of May 1647 was not something new in English political life. The first petition was the previous March. (Fagan, apparently, has not read Joseph Frank’s classic The Levellers.) Cromwell did not ‘act in his usual decisive way’ in the politics that immediately preceded Pride’s Purge. He was in the field, finishing off the second civil war and did not get back to Westminster until the evening of December 6th when the crisis was all over bar shouting and cutting off the king’s head. Fagan gives Robert Owen an undeserved chapter to himself and later (p.58) writes ‘the strange thing about it is that when Robert Owen realised the course Chartism was taking, he wanted nothing to do with it’. There is no need to be baffled! Owen was a benevolent despot out to ‘do good’ for the other half, and when that other half developed into a self-conscious independent working class movement Owen was quite unable to speak the same language – a situation with which we are not unfamiliar today!

The study of Chartism has been revolutionized by A.R. Schoyen’s Chartist Challenge but of this Fagan seems unaware. Harney’s Fraternal Democrats and Red Republican are ignored and we are enjoined to believe the old myth that Chartism died on Kennington Common on April 10th 1848. There is nothing about the subsequent Chartist adoption of socialism and the tragic sequel, the struggle between Harney and Jones with Marx backing the wrong (Jonesian sectarian) horse. Hymie Fagan seems happy enough in his King Street tailored historiographical strait-jacket. One hates to be unkind but must be fair to the past. In trying to expound the English revolutionary tradition he has covered most of it up.

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