Monday, February 04, 2008

Working class history

I was sad to hear of the death of Ruth Frow. She and her husband Eddie were celebrated Manchester figures. Their obsession with labour history and collecting books led them to found the Working Class Movement Library, an astonishing achievement and a wonderful resource. The library was originally kept in every room of their house in King's Road and was extraordinary to visit. Even their bedroom was filled with bookshelves, with their bed sitting in the middle of the floor. The only spare wall space was taken up with a frame, veiled against sunlight, containing a rare silk scarf depicting the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, originally sold for the relief of the victims. Spanish Civil War banners hung over the bannisters. When age caught up with them, Salford City Council offered to maintain the collection just as the Frows wanted; open to the public rather than buried in a university library.

I used to take adult education students there on annual visits and once did some work myself amongst their papers. Ruth and Eddie were unceasingly kind, patient and helpful, and were even willing to share a frugal lunch. And, as the Guardian obituary makes clear, they were members of the Communist Party. They were members through the Stalin years, through the invasion of Hungary, through the crushing of the Prague Spring; loyal members. At this point Oliver Kamm would be reaching for his worst epithets and calling them the moral equivalent of fascists. Yes, they were "fellow travellers" with Stalinism, yet these bookish people were a million miles away from the horror of the gulags and their hatred of oppression was palpable.

What this says to me is that, though totalitarian theory is an immensely useful tool for analysing types of regimes, ideologies and movements, it does not tell you much about the people who become involved unless you look at the aims and ideals that the movement purports to advance.

I can assure you that I would not have been comfortable in the company of fascists. Fascism celebrates violence, hatred and racism. Fascists also like to practice all three. Communists like Ruth and Eddie thought they were a part of a movement that would bring peace, justice and harmony; one that would end violence, hatred and racism. It is a big difference. They mistook the declaratory purpose for the reality and either blinded themselves to that reality or saw it as an aberration that could be reformed and the ideal restored. This didn't make them bad people. Others set out not only to apologise for Stalinism but to also falsify reality in full knowledge of their deceit and dishonesty. They are the villains of the piece. They are the ones that Orwell coruscates in Homage to Catalonia.

Orwell is back in fashion these days, and rightly so. However, when I read Animal Farm I do not read a book that is anti-revolution or anti-socialist. It is a bitter book about socialism betrayed. The one moment of happiness allowed to the animals is the moment of success when the humans are overthrown and they take over the farm. The tragedy is in the way they lose their freedom once more. Central to the book is the fortitude and dedication of Boxer. The exploitation of his loyalty and his continuing faith do not make him any the less admirable. He is a noble figure and that very nobility makes the cynical brutality of his betrayal even more tear-jerkingly poignant. Before we pass judgement we need to know the difference between horses and pigs.

Whatever their political commitment, the Frows have left a wonderful legacy; a place where people can go and read a collection of more than two centuries of books, pamphlets and journalism. You can read of the victories and defeats, but also of the errors, follies and tragedies, of the movement for working class emancipation. Visit if you can and support it.


Michael said...

A Celebration for Ruth Frow, co-founder of the Working Class Movement Library, Salford.

A celebration of the life and work of Ruth Frow will take place on Saturday 5 April beginning promptly at 2pm. The venue will be Peel Hall, University of Salford which is situated immediately opposite the library on the university campus. It is easily accessible by public transport. More details will be published on the library website very soon. All are welcome to attend.

George S said...

Of course you are right. Good people remain good people. They are wrong on some things for the best of reasons. I have recently been translating part of the memoirs of someone whose father remained a firm Stalinist through everything.

Nobody is right all the time.

Nice piece.

Larkers said...

Strangely, Peter, this generosity towards the Frows (which I can appreciate springs from your own stalwart values) was not advanced by you to Eric Hobsbawm. Like the Frows, Hobsbawm's activist generation had to make a choice which I did not. For long confused and repelled by far right and far left and contemptuous of Liberalism, I found Orwell in the early seventies and read everything by him. It is gratifying now to hear and be spoken to by more and more of his readers.

The Plump said...

Larkers, that was something I considered when I wrote the post. I realised there was a big difference, other than the fact that I knew the Frows.

Hobsbawm is a professional historian, an academic, bolstered by academic salaries and an income from his writing and his position in an intellectual elite. He moved from economic history into European political history and, amongst some good work, began to introduce apologist strands. Having studied the period and, being-multi lingual, having read the sources, he still comes to unpalatable conclusions that come close to fasification. He should know better.

The Frows were amateurs. Eddie was firmly working class. His background was in the industrial struggles of the 30's. They both worked to support their hobby and obsession.

That they were convinced Communists is never in doubt. However, their main interest was in local 19th Century working class history.

Ruth's work for the Peace Councils is more troubling but in the era of the Cold War, long after the death of Stalin, the same sentiments could be found in much of CND.

And so, I feel more generous to those who were without wealth, privilege or position. And though Hobsbawm's writing will influence future generations of historians. The Frow's library has something more permanent about it. It is an intellectually open collection, which is also physically open to anyone who wishes to use it, regardless of how rare the material. In many ways, theirs is the greater achievement and thus more deserving of respect, in spite of their political commitments.