Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

A Worker Looks At History

Today he is a forgotten figure, but Mark Starr (1894-1985) was a pioneer in the development of the idea that the working class movement should create a system of independent education, free from capitalist ideology. A brief biography of his life is available online:

'Mark Starr was a major figure in the Plebs League and The National Council of Labour Colleges in Britain before emigrating to the United States in the late twenties.

He was born in Shoscombe in the Somerset coalfield in 1894 in an area which was both radical in politics and Methodist in religion. After leaving school in 1907,he worked as a builder’s mortar boy for a year before working as a coalminer in the local mines at Radstock. In 1913 he moved to South Wales and soon after won a Rhondda Miners’ Scholarship to the Central Labour College in Earl’s Court, London. His study was interrupted by the first world war; registering as a conscientious objector he was allowed to go back to the mines rather than the armed forces in 1914 but in 1917 he was arrested and sent to Wormwood Scrubs and Dartmoor. On his release, in 1919, he was allowed by his union to finish his Labour College course.

From 1921, he was one of two divisional organizers for the National Council of Labour Colleges, working in the Eastern Counties Region. His working week involved Sunday classes in Norwich, Ipswich and Felixstowe, Monday in Colchester, Tuesday in Braintree and then later in the week, he taught Esperanto in Bethnal Green for the London County Council. In 1922 and in 1924, he was Labour Party parliamentary candidate for Wimbledon in the national elections. He was a prolific propagandist, writing A Worker Looks at History, in 1917, based on articles he had written for the Merthyr Pioneer, A Worker Looks at Economics (1925) and most important of all, Lies and Hate in Education (1928), a polemic against patriotic, nationalist education and a valuable sourcebook of information on education in the twenties. He was a correspondent for a Ukranian Esperanto journal in the twenties (Pedagogia Revro) and when later he worked at Brookwood, the New York Labour College, he was a correspondent for the paper of ‘One Big Union’, based in Winnipeg.

In 1928, he began working at Brookwood, teaching courses on the history of British labour in exchange for his board. In 1935, he became the educational director for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in New York and after his retirement in 1960 he became Chairman of the Esperanto Information Centre, acted as an advisor on workers’ education internationally and still teaches Esperanto in New York.'

A article Starr wrote in 1950 on American educationalist John Dewey is available here, but to my knowledge the rest of his work is hard to get hold of. This is a shame. As Duncan Hallas noted, 'the role played by the Labour College Movement in its various manifestations (Plebs League 1908-27, Central Labour College 1909-29, National Council of Labour Colleges 1921-64) was, on the whole, a very positive one. Look at the publications of the Plebs League and the NCLC. Mark Starr’s A Worker Looks At History, WW Craiks Outline of a History of the British Working Class Movement, Tom Ashcroft’s History of Modern Imperialism stand out among many others, as basic Marxist texts.'

Accordingly, I have decided to undertake a project to type out Mark Starr's A Worker Looks At History (1917) onto Histomat so it is available online. This will take some time, but it is not a long book and I feel it is worth doing. Works like this are more than just of historical interest - they remind us of the fact that before Labourism consolidated its grip, Marxism did have real roots among ordinary workers in Britain. To quote Hallas again:

'It is no exaggeration to say that the whole ideology of labourism...could never have arisen in the form it did except as a reaction to working class Marxists who fought the TUC leaders (often Liberals for the most part) on the basis of class politics.

Of course, these predecessors of ours had many faults. Their Marxism was fairly primitive. Anyone who reads today Mark Starr’s A worker looks at history (1918), which was a most influential text (10,000 sold on first printing and nearly 30,000 before 1925) can pick holes in it. But why were so many sold? Because, between 1910 and the foundation of the CPGB in 1920, a layer of working class militants looked for and found, in Marxism, an alternative world view to the dominant Liberal-imperialist ideology of British capitalism (which the Labourites accepted, albeit critically).

They had practically no help from any bourgeois intellectuals. Why not? From around the time of Engels’ death "Marxism", of some sort or another became the majority or a big minority in the workers’ movement of much of Europe. This, in turn, produced an important bourgeois intellectual reaction (Weber, Pareto, Saussure and so on). Why did this not happen in Britain? For the obvious reason. The European bourgeois intellectual reaction against "Marxism" however defined, was a necessary reaction against the growth of working class movements which had a "Marxist" flavour.

To coin a phrase, without Kautsky, no Weber. But the British working class movement, for good, Marxist reasons, lacked that colouration. Hence, before 1917 it neither produced first class intellectual opponents nor many "renegade" bourgeois intellectuals (the only sort that, broadly speaking, existed).

And so Marxism in Britain was, as MacIntyre says, a “proletarian science”. Think of the outstanding theorists: John Maclean, James Connolly, J.T. Murphy, Tom Bell, Willie Paul and the rest. All of them passed the great test of 1914 – they opposed the imperialist war. All of them passed the test of 1919 (except Connolly who was shot by a British imperialist firing squad in 1916) and supported the Communist International. All, except Maclean, went into the CPGB in 1920 and sought to build a Leninist Party in Britain.' Tragically, the degeneration of the Russian Revolution into Stalinism perverted that dream, but today, with Labourism clearly dying in Britain, it is arguably timely to look again at the writings of working class intellectuals like Mark Starr, to see if they might still have some relevance for our struggles.

A Worker Looks At History
Being Outlines of Industrial History specially written for C.L.C.-Plebs Classes.
By Mark Starr (S.W.M.F.[South Wales Miners' Federation])
With a Foreword by George Barker (Miners' Agent, Abertillery, Mon.)
Second Edition. Published by the Plebs League, 176 Springvale Road, Sheffield. 1918.
Two Shillings & Sixpence.

A Foreword.

Author's Preface.

The following Syllabus of the classes in English Industrial History, conducted by the author in the Aberdare District (S. Wales Miners' Federation), may - besides serving as a Summary of the Contents of this book - be useful to other classes printing similar synopses of courses of study.

Text-books:- Industrial History of England (Gibbins), and History of Modern British Working Class Movement (Craik).

1. A GENERAL INTRODUCTION. - The scope of Industrial History. Benefits obtained from its study. Theory: What it is, its use and test. Various historical theories. Theistic; The Great Man Theory; The Climate, Food and Soil Theory; and the Economic Theory or Materialist Conception, outlined by Marx in the preface of his Critique of Political Economy.
2. AN INTRODUCTION TO ENGLISH INDUSTRIAL HISTORY. - The relativity of all beginnings. The evidence of Geology. Early traces of Man. The Ice Age. The evidence of Ethnology and Archaeology concerning the slow advance. Their different methods of classification based upon the Labour process. The chief sources of information. Probable origins of the Celts. The coming of the Romans (55 B.C.). Its effects.
3. FROM MARK TO MANOR-The evidence of the existence of the Mark. Parallel examples of communism in other lands. The various Invasions of Great Britain. The Anglo-Saxon Manor. Its method of land ownership and cultivation. The evolution of the chief, soldier and priest.
4. FEUDALISM - How it arose. The division between the farmer and the fighter. Its reorganisation in England by the Normans. The Hierachy in Church and State. The land basis of society. The information furnished by the Doomsday book.
5. THE SLAVE, THE SERF, AND THE MODERN WAGE-WORKER- A comparison of their lot. Chattel Slavery: Its origin and history.
6. TOWNS AND TRADE IN THE MIDDLE AGES.-How towns originated in markets, fairs and shrines. The decay of the self-sufficing community. The growth of Luxury. Early traders. The increasing use of money and its consequences.
7. THE GUILDS.Their origin. Differing types. Merchant Guilds. Exclusive control of Craft Guild over production. The Guild-worker's status. The strife between town and country.
8. THE FALL OF FEUDALISM.Commutation of labour rents. Effects of internal and external wars. The Crusades. Castles and Gunpowder. The Black Death. The Peasants Revolt. The subsequent Temporary Golden Age of Labour.
9. THE RISE OF THE MERCHANT CLASS. Early merchants. The 16th century growth of foreign trade. The English wool. Rivalry between national merchants under the Tudors. The merchants and the guilds. Mercantile economy and the precious metals. The methods of accumulation of wealth.
10. THE CREATION OF THE PROLETARIAT. Enclosures for sheep farming. The divorce from the means of production. Vagrancy and the Poor Law. The rise of the manufactory.
11. THE RENAISSANCE FROM MEDIEVAL NIGHT. Examples of mediaeval superstition. The new inductive method of Bacon and others. Printing and the revival of learning. The economic causes behind the awakening.
12. THE BEGINNINGS OF MODERN CAPITALISM.- Its general nature and other systems of production. Its various stages up to the Industrial Revolution. The fight for markets. Division of labour inside workshop. Its philosophy as expressed by Adam Smith.
13. THE POLITICAL STRUGGLE OF THE CAPITALIST CLASS. The right of taxation. The Revolution culminating in 1688. Uses of political power. Further progress until 1832.
14. THE BEGINNINGS OF TRADE UNIONS. Comparison with other labour associations made. Their battle for a legal existence. Their structure and policy outlined from 1700 to the time of Robert Owen.
15. THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION. From the tool to the machine. The gradual destruction of handicraft. The three stages of Power. Manufacture becomes Machinofacture. Inventions an sources of Power discoveries. Developments in textile, mining and transport industries. How England outdistanced her competitors.
16. THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION AND THE WORKERS. Early horrors. The Factory legislation. The new industrial centres. The Chartist movement. The Repeal of the Corn Laws. The succeeding "grand era of capitalist expansion".
17. TRADE UNIONISM FROM 1830 TO 1900. Attempts at Federation. Its revolutionary hopes. The building of stable organisations after 1850. Structure and bargaining policy of the Model Unions. The New Unionism of 1880. Propaganda bodies and their influence.
18. THE TRADE UNIONS FROM 1900-1916. Formation of a political Party and its activity. The Labour Unrest and its causes. The present position; and modern methods of organisation, structure and policy.
19. IN CONCLUSION: A SUMMARY. The logic of the machine. The effects of women's increasing entrance into industry. Modern Movements. The need for working class education in Scientific Socialism. A forecast of the future.

A Worker Looks At History is not a big book, so it shouldn't take too long, but I am not going to spend a lot of time typing it up so do not expect it to appear in full for some time. I will update this page accordingly.



At 7:17 pm, Blogger Matt said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 7:18 pm, Blogger Matt said...

Sounds interesting. I am currently trying to teach myself French, as my experience of being forced to learn the language was largely a negative one. I've only spent thirty pence on learning materials so far, and am doing much better than I did at (state, of course) school!

Have you thought about using a computer, scanner and some OCR software to make your e-text? It might save you a lot of time spent typing. You would need:
- a computer
- a scanner
- a copy of the book that you wouldn't mind bending the spine of
- some OCR software (you can probably get this free somewhere)

Even if you can't find all of these things, simply photographing the book might be a solution if you get sick of typing.

At 1:30 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The existence of this book is exciting news. I am currently translating (to the best of my ability) reading materials provided by our Spanish-speaking socialist discussion group facilitator - materials that are very similar to the topics covered in the outline of this book.

I look forward to seeing this book available on the Internet, perhaps in Project Gutenberg.

At 10:14 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Matt and John - cheers for the comments.

However Optical character recognition software? E-books?
What do you take me for? Someone who knows about technology? It took me about ten attempts to work out how to 'blog' and now you want me to put the book online as an e-book?

Mind you, I agree I might well get sick of typing the thing - so if anyone does find it online or has typed out part of it already then feel free to let me know.

If once I have finished this, someone wants to put it on Project Gutenburg or online in a better format, that is cool with me. I don't have the copyright for it - (given it was published by the Plebs League I doubt anyone does anymore to be honest).

At 12:03 pm, Blogger badmatthew said...

Well this is a beautiful project and good luck to you. This sort of literature definitely needs to be in circulation - and don't forget the Marxism Internet Archive as a place to lodge it (and maybe get advice?)

At 2:34 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Cheers for the encouragement - I have emailed the MIA...

At 4:33 pm, Blogger Matildas mate said...

I have begun a project of transcribing this book into an electronic format which can be found at http://peaceandfreedom-sjv.org

I mention this in case there are other attempts at such a project planned or ongoing which could be turned into a collaborative effort.

At 8:03 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Phew! I have finished it (with the help of an OCR scanner in the end.)

I am not transcribing any other books in a hurry I can tell you...

At 8:35 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is the work you have done part of the same project mentioned at:

or is that a separate effort?

Also, to follow up on John's note ealier, yes, this could be added to Project Gutenberg. One benefit would be that it would provide a permanent home for the text, where the effort you've put in will not be lost.

Also, Project Gutenberg volunteers are used to dealing with many of the issues that can come up in dealing with transcribing old texts. (We've been averaging over 50 new texts a week, of many varieties.) We do have a couple specialized programs to check texts such as this for possible small errors that have slipped by.

At 4:45 am, Blogger Ralph Dumain said...

Thanks for your work on Mark Starr and for acknowledgement of my efforts. Please keep me abreast of your progress on digitizing Starr's texts.

--R. Dumain
Studies in a Dying Culture

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