Ellis Hillman: Information Wanted

I am currently preparing a paper on the life and ideals of Harry Martin, one of the founders of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. He is referred to in Robert Barltrop’s colourful history of the SPGB, The Monument (Pluto Press 1975) on five separate pages. Harry Martin was the first (and last?) prophet of fundamentalism in the history of the Party, taking the view that socialism could not arrive through the instrument of Parliament. This goes back to the debates in the pre-First World War days of the Party (1910-11) over whether any legislation at all could be supported by the Party – by definition via Parliament – even if it was in the interests of the working class movement.

Harry Martin led a small group out of the Party on this issue, proclaiming the fundamentalist gospel that socialism would arrive by convincing the working class of its necessity, rather than ‘utilising’ Parliament – a mechanism for social reforms – as a means of achieving the desired goal.

According to Barltrop: ‘… he took to his own platform, from which he went on speaking for the revolution against all compromise and against all legislators. Almost until he died in 1951 he was a well- known figure in south and central London – an erect, white-bearded man in his eighties, flailing the system from his little box.’ (p. 39). Veteran socialists such as F. A. Ridley and Sam Levy knew him from his Tower Hill days. I have also been assured that he knew Donald Soper. Are there any readers of IC who (i) knew him; (ii) know where he lived; (iii) have any of the broadsheets of his Socialist Propaganda League; (iv) know of any descendants or relatives? (Replies addressed to IC will be forwarded.)

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‘On July 14, 1789, the Bastille had fallen in three-quarters of an hour, its garrison had been massacred, the oppressive pile threatening Paris had been dismantled and its stones sold off. Seven prisoners were freed, including four forgers and two men of unsound mind. Five years after that momentous day, in 1794, the jails of the Republic bulged with over 400,000 prisoners. Fifty years and another revolution later, in the 1840s, all of Paris would be encircled by a ring of fortifications designed to direct fire inwards as well as out.’ (Eugen Weber in TLS 15-21 Jan 88)

THE PEOPLE may be failing to move, clinging to their irrational ways and convictions, but one great advance has been secured: the scholars are agreed that society is moving forward, from absolutism towards ever broadening democracy, showing that the change to a socialist, communist or anarchist society is only a question of time.

Unfortunately this isn’t so. Jonathan Clark, Fellow of All Souls and author of English Society 1688-1832 is claiming that the facts of English history do not support the view put forward by Sir John Plumb, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawn, E.P.Thompson and Lawrence Stone. He accuses them of having ignored evidence that did not support their liberal, radical or Marxist prejudices. He argues that Britain was an ‘ancien regime‘ society right up to the Reform Acts of the 19th Century, and that Marxist or liberal historians have misrepresented the role played by Church and monarchy in the development of Britain. Until about the 1830s monarchy, aristocracy and the clerical intelligentsia, and not a. rising middle class, dominated British history.

Right or wrong, Clark has certainly shown the progressive view to be less secure than is often thought.

from Ideological Commentary 32, March 1988.