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International Socialism, June 1973


James Hinton

The Post-War History of the British Working Class


From International Socialism (1st series), No.59, June 1973, p.22.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Post-War History of the British Working Class
Allen Hutt
E.P. Publishing Ltd, £3.50

Allen Hutt’s history of the working-class movement between the wars well deserves republication. First issued by the Left Book Club in 1937, it rapidly established itself as the classic account of these years. Hutt’s evocative writing vividly captures the feel of the struggles of the period: the great working-class offensive of 1919-20, Red Friday, the General Strike, the hunger marches and the militancy of the unemployed. In all this, and in his incisive characterisations of ‘MacDonaldism’ and ‘Mondism’, Hutt successfully encapsulated the recent historical memory of a generation of working-class militants. There is still no better introduction to this phase in the history of the movement.

But the book cannot be approached uncritically. For all his claims to objectivity, what Hutt, sets down is not the history of the period as such, but the view of that history current among working-class militants in the later 1930s. This is the strength of the book, but also its weakness. Unwittingly the narrative reveals the inadequacies of the view it presents – a lack of theory, a failure to locate itself analytically in its own history.

Successive defeats are known and felt, but never understood. Leadership betrayals are documented, but never explained. The last two chapters, focused around the efforts of the Communist Party to build a popular front against fascism and war, reveal most strikingly the absence of a disciplined Marxist historical analysis. Pained surprise greets the adamantine resistance of the Labour leadership to the appeal for unity. In place of any long-term perspective of building an alternative revolutionary leadership, the final pages of the book slither into a plea for the conversion of the existing one.

If Hutt’s narrative becomes progressively less convincing as it approaches 1937, this is because he was whistling in the dark. What is lacking in the whole account is any adequate measure of the gigantic scale of the defeat suffered by the movement following its failure to seize the fleeting revolutionary opportunities of 1919. Hutt’s insistence that the General Strike was ‘the principal turning-point in the whole historical period’ tends to obscure the even greater reversals of the early 1920s. His vivid account of Mondism exaggerates its novelty. More seriously misleading is his claim that the conflicts that followed the 1931 cuts in government expenditure – the Invergordon mutiny, the mass demonstrations of civil servants and teachers and the unemployed – threatened the stability of British capitalism as gravely as the crisis of 1919. This grossly overestimates the potentialities of the later period.

His method of detailing the histories of the (normally) small strike movements of the 1930s, without at any point quoting overall strike figures, gives a very misleading picture of the degree to which industrial militancy had revived by 1937. Similarly there is a failure to acknowledge the modest goals and essentially defensive character of the unemployed struggles that he describes with such energy. The Marxist historian of the British working-class movement between the wars will start from ai perspective more realistic, and more pessimistic, than Hutt’s.

At £3.50 few militants will be able to buy this new edition. No matter. Older comrades will have a copy – and it can still be picked up cheaply in second-hand bookshops.

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