Compelling history of political pamphlets

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Compelling history of political pamphlets


Thu, 18/08/2016 - 11:40


Henry Pelling. Photo by permission of the Master and Fellows of St John’s College, Cambridge
18 August, 2016

THEY were collected over four decades: cheaply printed and costing around a penny, they were carefully stored in nondescript cardboard boxes on the shelves of a study at St John’s College, Cambridge. 

And now the collection of 800 pamphlets that cast a tantalising light onto British political thought from 1880 to the 1970s have been made public at the Senate House Library in Bloomsbury.

They include short treatises by left-wing thinkers such as HG Wells, William Morris and Harry Pollitt, and had been gathered by the historian Professor Henry Pelling. They contain the issues that seared through the debates on the left, printed by the Communist Party of Great Britain, the Labour Party, the Independent Labour Party and the American RILU, the Red International of Labor Unions. 

And while today, as the current discussions about the direction of the Labour Party are played out online, in the pre-internet age the pamphleteer was an important part of spreading political views and offered a forum for discussion. Inexpensive to produce, they contained carefully forged arguments, used persuasive language and looked striking. 

The Pelling collection has been collated by the University of London’s Curator of Rare Books Dr Karen Attar and Julio Cazzasa of the library’s special collections catalogue. 

“While they were seen as disposable, they were beautifully designed,” says Dr Attar. 

The topics range from domestic issues to global politics, and the writers’ style is as if they were discussing the issues in a factory canteen, the pub, on an allotment patch or on the football terraces. 

“Everyone could read them, not just intellectuals,” adds Dr Attar. 

Pelling was born in 1920 and studied at St John’s, Cambridge. He had begun the collection in the 1930s as an undergraduate, and would go on to become a renowned historian specialising in the history of the British Labour movement. 

When he died in 1997, the collection was passed to colleague Prof Alistair Reid and then on to the Senate House Library. 

Pelling’s professional reputation was cemented by the fact he was one of the first academics to start writing about Labour history in a critical way: his entry in the Oxford Biographical Dictionary says he stepped away from “triumphant myth making”, where people wrote pious histories of the Labour Party. 

During the war, Pelling fought in the Normandy campaign and in the late 40s returned to Cambridge. 

“He saw first hand the politics of the period,” says Dr Attar. “Cambridge in the 1930s was seen as a hotbed of radicalism. He bought the pamphlets from book shops, meetings and stalls. Many date from the earlier years of the organised British Labour movement, starting in 1880. He used the material for research for his books.” 

And they include issues that resonate today. For example, the current Labour Party deputy leader Tom Watson, who claimed among the new members of the Labour Party were Trotskyite infiltrators, may be interested in Hitler’s Agents Exposed by John Mahon. Published in the early 1940s when the British CP were still under the influence of Stalin’s Soviet Union, “Trotskyite” was seen as a particular term of abuse. 

“They are Hitler’s Agents, they are his Fifth Column,” says Mahon. “To conceal their service to Fascism, they call themselves Trotskyites and use language calculated to deceive the unwary into thinking that they are Socialists...” 

The new NHS is discussed in Good Health For All An Examination of the Government’s Proposals for the NHS, which has a chilling reminder of what health services were like before the NHS. “The best treatment is available to those who have the best income,” the pamphlet says. “The people with the most need for medical care cannot afford it.”

How To End The Muddle On The Railways is written by a “Group of Communist Railway Workers”, and train users today will recognise their grievances. 

Written at the height of the war, it describes how the track system is carrying 60 per cent more traffic but all was not well.

“Inefficiency and bungling, an unnecessary amount of blood and sweat... war materials held up... man hours lost...,” the authors write. Blaming bad organisation and working conditions, they add: “We have seen what can be produced for war and we shall demand that what we need shall be produced for peace – and under good conditions.” They slam profits made by directors, adding they “are not the ones who keep the railways running, who work the trains and shift the goods”.

Others are inspiring calls to arms; the book Back from the Dead, by Communist Party leader Harry Pollitt, reads like a Boys’ Own action adventure. It tells the story of a Liverpool docker and seaman who travelled to fight in the Spanish Civil War and the various adventures he had as he fought fascism. 

Simple, lively, and informative – the Pelling collection is a rare and inspiring body of political discourse that is accessible to all. 

• Senate House Library is at the University of London, Malet Street, WC1E 7HU, 020 7862 8500, [email protected]

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