Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Monday, September 08, 2008

Big Bill Moore

Bill Moore (1911-2008)

[If you are up on your American working class history, you will have heard of 'Big Bill Haywood', but I am guessing that far fewer readers of Histomat will have heard of the British socialist historian 'Big Bill Moore', (1911-2008) who sadly died recently, (see his obituary in Socialist Worker here) and whose life in Sheffield in many ways encapsulates the history of the wider British working class movement and its struggles during the twentieth century. I was fortunate enough to hear him talk movingly about his life three years ago at a meeting organised by the Socialist History Society in Salford, and I will never forget his descriptions of the poverty he experienced growing up in industral Sheffield. At the meeting I picked up a copy of 'History From Below', a short autobiographical pamphlet written by the big man himself in 2005. One other piece of his writing is online here, an account of Sheffield shop stewards during the First World War. In tribute to him I will reprint some early extracts from History From Below, about his life, below.]

Extracts from History From Below - By Bill Moore (2005)

'My father was a butcher, apprenticed to the Argentine Meat Co in Sheffield. When he finished his apprenticeship in 1908, the firm sent him to manage their shop in Scunthorpe. There he met my mother; they married in September 1909, and I arrived 18 months later in March 1911. Unhappily, two weeks later my mother died from puerperal fever, common enough in those days...My grandmother had thirteen children. She lost five in infancy in those dreadful 1880s and 1890s, when the level of infant mortality approached that of a southern African country today. A sixth child died in 1905 from TB. So seven survived: my father, two brothers and four sisters...

I was three years old when the First World War began in August 1914...the first to go was my uncle Jack. Strictly he was only a would-be uncle. He was engaged to Clara and they'd planned to marry in the autumn of 1914. But he was on the Naval Reserve, and was carried off straight away. In the summer of 1916 his destroyer was torpedoed and went down with all hands.Then at the end of April 1917 my Uncle Joe was killed...Ten days later, two days before his 30th birthday, my father was killed...So that was the dreadful side of the war. What was a little boy to make of it? I hated the Germans of course - so did the rest of my family. But why did countries attack each other, kill each other? And when I began to discover some simple history at school, I discovered it wasn't just our present war - history seemed full of wars. Why? Didn't anybody learn the lessons. What I hated most of all was war itself.

My first anti-war statement was in 1922 when I won a scholarship to King Edward VII Grammar School, the leading school in Sheffield, independent at that time, with a headmaster who ran an OTC - Officers Training Corps - boys in khaki drilling on the school premises, summer camp and so on. All newcomers to the school were invited to join. I refused. I wasn't the only one. There were three of us who'd lost our fathers in the war. We all refused, and in the circumstances were never pressed.

The second occasion was when I was at Oxford. I'd won a scholarship to Oriel College in 1930 to do a degree in History, and it was in the spring of 1933 that a great scandal shook the country; at a meeting of the Students' Union we passed a resolution "in no circumstances would we fight for King and Country." What a hullabaloo! These weren't a bunch of ignorant working class yobbos. They were the future rulers of Britain, the future MPs, captains of industry, bank managers, doctors...immediately that arrogant lout Randolph Churchill [son of Winston Churchill] (who'd gone down the year before) made a public statement, reported in all the papers, that he was coming back to Oxford to get that resolution expunged from the minute book. He came a month later. At the first meeting there'd been about 400 of us - the vote was 250-odd to 153 (I think). But at the recall meeting there were 900, the place was packed, we could hardly breathe. And after the lout had made his demagogic statement, the vote was: for his resolution to expunge, 138 (I always remember that figure!), with 750-odd against. What a hoot! The lout crept back to London with his tail between his legs!

The vote in both debates was, of course, mainly a pacifist one. But there was a sizeable minority (including myself; I hated war but I was never a pacifist) who thought that the form of society we lived in wasn't worth fighting for. But this was at the bottom of the worst, longest-lasting, world capitalist slump there's ever been. Starting in the USA in the autumn of 1929, it spread rapidly through the entire capitalist industrial world, which only began to emerge from it five or six years later, 1935, 1936.

I knew about unemployment...When I began at King Edward's I cycled to school: two miles up the valley to the city centre, then about a mile and a half into the more salubrious west of the city. On the two miles of the valley I was always passing groups of men at the street corners, just standing there, passing a fag round...I learned about the battles of the Labour Exchange. It took most of the '20s to get a settled Unemployment Register. It was even worse for those who didn't qualify and had to gon on relief. This meant going to the Board of Guardians and asking for some cash. They'd say: "Right, go home and the Officer will visit you." Which he did a few days later. He'd walk straight in - didn't even have time to knock, so you wouldn't have time to hide anything - and go through the house, and you had to open all cupboards and drawers for him, while he took note of all your little treasures and finished up saying, "Right, you've got this and that and this and that - sell them and then come and see us in a fortnight." You're no longer just poor, you're destitute. The most hated men in the city! The wonder is that none of them was ever strangled!

...Even that wasn't the end of the troubles for the working class: Sheffield had a special problem. The Don Valley...according to Sheffield's Medical Officer of Health, was the third filthiest place in the world after Dusseldorf in Germany and Pittsburgh in the USA. On every square mile, every month, there fell 40 tons of soot, nearly 300 tons on the valley every month, over 3000 tons every year - not occasionally, but every year, every decade from the turn of the century till 1955 when the Clean Air Act came in (and people from all over Europe came to see the new, clean Sheffield!)

Imagine being one of the 60,000 or 70,000 housewives in the Don Valley, coping with that, not for a year or two, but for a lifetime! My grandmother dusted the house from top to bottom every day. At least once a week she washed everything, all floors, lino, windows, window frames, inside and out, banisters, staircase, front door, inside and out, back door the same....Every Monday morning of her married life, she was up at four o'clock in the morning to do the week's wash...the washing had to be out by 5.30 at the latest, because by seven o'clock it had to be brought in, because the factories opened them, the furnaces were lit, and by 7.15 the soot began to fall again...Every housewife had the same problem...three quarters of them never gave in. I always remember my grandmother saying to me once: It's muck, love. Muck's our devil, but I can look him in the face and spit in his eye!" So could they all. I know of no other pride that comes within a million miles of that, pride in having a clean house, clean kids, even a clean old man, in a world of filth. Though, of course, it was never just about being clean. It was about never giving in, however bloody awful the condition of your life were. You didn't give in! Those women, wonderful women. I think I've had them on my conscience all my life. But what could a boy do, except help his old gran now and again, doing a bit of shopping to save her legs.

So there I was in the early '30s. I took my degree in History in 1933 and then spent a year at London University, studying for a Diploma in Education, because I wanted to teach history. And in the summer of 1934 I was finished and looking for a job - still in the depths of the world slump. I soon found nobody wanted teachers - they were ten a penny! I remember the figures. I can't remember how many graduates altogether were out of work, but there were more than 2000 would-be teachers, and of those, over 500 were would-be history teachers. Eventually I gave up applying to the occasional advert. I made a bit of money by tutoring the kids my old Headmaster sent me, who needed extra tuition. Then I found the W[orkers] E[ductional] A[ssociation] and began doing classes...

At the same time, I was not happy about history. What was it really about? What lessons could you draw from history? The idea that had developed in the nineteenth century that things were getting better, people's lives were improving decade by decade, was rudely shaken by the First World War, staggered by the unemployment of the '20s, and completely destroyed by the World Slump that started in 1929. Was history really just one damn thing after another? No real progress? So I was still reading widely. Three books I remember clearly. The first was The Revolutions of Civilisation by the world famous Egyptologist Flinders Petrie, who described how history was a series of civilisations that rose, developed, flourished, declined and faded away - and out of its ashes rose the next one, to go through the same routine. Babylon, Persia, Hittites, Greece, Rome, our own Western world. Was the great World Slump the end of our stage? Then Arnold Toynbee was writing his Study of History. I read the first two volumes and it was more or less the same story, though in much greater detail. Finally I read The Decline of the West by that master of gloom and doom, Oswald Spengler, who was in no doubt at all - this slump was the end of our civilisation! What to make of it?

Happily, it was at this point, in the summer of 1935, that I met a Communist Party member. He was engaged to the sister of an old friend of mine. I'd met Communists at Oxford, of course...and I'd been to one or two October Club meetings. But I couldn't stand the speakers they had - usually from London. They were so damned arrogant: they knew all the answers! I wasn't really sure I knew what the right questions were! But this fellow in 1935 was different. He'd even listen to me! But most important of all - he gave me a copy of The Communist Manifesto to read. I took it home, it was on a Friday night, everybody's gone to bed, and I sat in my grandmother's rocking chair in front of the living-room fire and opened the booklet.

It was incredible, unbelievable! Talk about Paul on the road to Damascus - it was something I can never forget! The revelation! "All recorded history is the history of class struggle!" There it was, the thread that linked all history. Through every civilisation the pattern was the same: the struggle of the mass of people to win a better life from the elite that owned everything - revolt after revolt, hundreds of them, but never achieving anything substantial because the increase in wealth was so slow over the centuries - until the Industrial Revolution gave the promise of an eventual rich life for all, once we got rid of the owners of the means of production. "Workers of all lands, unite! You've nothing to lose but your chains!"
I don't think my feet touched the ground for the next three days! And of course I immediately joined the Communist Party...

We were greatly encouraged by the victory in the spring of 1936 of the Popular Front in the French General Election, the result of its work following the agreement of socialists and communists in 1934. So one or two of us decided to go to Paris for the first Bastille day celebrations after the election victory. It was unbelievable!
We got there a few days early and found the city (in spite of a widespread strike) in full holiday mood. Every night, in every square of the city, a band was playing and people were singing and dancing all night long. We were going to bed at six in the morning and getting up at two in the afternoon. And Bastille day itself - I can't remember which square it was - Place Nationale, Place de la Bastille - but we were there watching the advance of the demonstration, spread sixty or seventy feet across the whole boulevard. And in the middle of the front row Leon Blum, the new socialist Prime Minister, side by side with Maurice Thorez, the leader of the French Communist Party, not quite holding hands, but shoulder to shoulder, grinning all over their faces. And behind them - it looked as if every other person had a red flag. All you could see was a vast mass of red flags. Everybody was cheering and dancing. According to the papers, a million people marched that day and three million watched from the sidewalks. Unbelievable! And we were saying to each other: "This is surely it - this must be it - this is where the tide turns - this is where we start dealing with Hitler and Mussolini!"'

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At 11:18 am, Anonymous alan moore said...

I read your article on my late father, Bill Moore, with pleasure.
He was a man who never forgot or detached himself from the working class, despite his Oxford education, and was held in great affection by all who knew him.
When Bill originally published 'History from Below', he made it available in return for donations to Amnesty International.
It is my intention to include the whole of the pamphlet, as well as other writings, on the web-site, www.bigbillmoore.org , which I am currently developing.

At 7:47 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brilliant for posting this so the record is there on the internet.Bill was a fantantic guy...somebody to try and live up to
John Baxter


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