Radical Voices: a curate’s egg of an exhibition

Running at Senate House library in the University of London to 31 March 2017.

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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Bishop: ‘I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones.’

Curate: ‘Oh, no, my Lord. I assure you that parts of it are excellent!’

[Caption from the cartoon Two Clerics at Breakfast by George du Maurier, Punch magazine, 9 November 1895]

It’s not common in 21st-century progressive circles, and still less among socialists and communists, to think of elite British academic establishments as being in any way ‘radical’.

After all, it was the likes of Oxford and Cambridge (and, indeed, the University of London) that trained generations of senior colonial civil servants to administer the bloodthirsty oppression of nations and peoples throughout the world on behalf of the British ruling class.

This tradition continued into the officially post-colonial era, with the University of London (UoL) alone boasting that it had “provided a college education to 52 future heads of state and government”. One is entitled to ask oneself how many of these worthy graduates went on to betray their peoples by following the lucrative path of neo-colonial subservience. There are no answers on this to be found in any of UoL’s glossy brochures, by the way.

The multi-media Radical Voices exhibition is posited on the idea that, as an institution with ‘radical’ traditions, the University of London is ideally suited to host such an in-house display.

On the day that Proletarianpaid a visit, the exhibition’s seriously underpaid gatekeeper was hard-pressed to come up with any examples of UoL’s historical ‘radicalism’ (and why should she?) but, it transpires:

– The University of London was the first British higher education institution established on a secular or, at least, non-Anglican basis (as distinct from the Oxbridge colleges’ ban on anyone, student or staff, not Church of England).
– In 1878, it was the first British university to begin offering degrees to women.

The zenith of ‘radicalism’ in UoL history, however, appears to be its brief connection with the (Liberal) MP Sir William Beveridge — credited in bourgeois mythology with establishing the principles behind the National Health Service and the ‘welfare state’, which arose in the wake of the second world war. This philanthropic gentleman served as vice-chancellor of the University of London between 1926 and 1928, and first outlined what was to become the Beveridge report during a 1942 speech in Macmillan Hall at the University of London.

Funny. We in the CPGB-ML had always thought that we lived in a capitalist state, not a ‘welfare’ one, and that it was the struggles of ordinary people pre-war, and the example of the mighty Soviet Union during and after the war, which led a very nervous monopoly capitalist class reluctantly to grant concessions to British workers. These were always going to be temporary. What the boss class giveth, the boss class taketh away.

In light of the Beveridge connection, it’s no surprise that contemporary editions of three of his works are on display but, frustratingly, and as with the rest of the exhibition, these are behind glass and cannot be perused. All we see is the front cover, and sometimes just the spine.

In fairness, though, the printed guide to the exhibition gives us publication details of all the texts featured in the display, so we can follow them up at a library or online.

Back to the general question of ‘radicalism’, though.

Probably one of the first things that strikes the visitor to Radical Voices is a set of two lapel badges issued by the Liberal Party of South Africa during the early 1960s, both featuring a black and a white hand locked in unity and solidarity. The ‘radicalism’ of this organisation was a bit flexible. They closed up shop and ran away when, in 1966, the apartheid regime issued a decree banning any group with both black and white members.

Things get better from here, though. The visitor can now move on to view some interesting material covering pioneering trade union activity and broader social struggles such as that of the suffragettes.

Proletarian readers, of course, will be primarily interested in this exhibition’s coverage of the communist movement. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels are represented at Senate House by a first folio of 1883’s English language edition of the Communist Manifesto, published by the First Internationalitself.

Then there is an 1881 book on the Paris Commune, which, it must be said, is not possessed of the most succinct or catchy title in world literature: Mémorial des 73 journées de la Commune et de la semaine sanglante (Paris-Versailles 1871) — récit historique et complet des événements qui se sont accomplis depuis l’insurrection du 18 mars, par un témoin oculaire du deuxieme siege et de la prise de Paris par le maréchal de Mac-Mahon .

Your reviewer is perverse enough to have wanted to open the cover and read on but, as we’ve said, all the exhibits are behind glass. If you want more information on the Paris Commune, though, we recommend a YouTube talk in English! – on the subject by Steve Cook of the CPGB-ML, which can be found Proletarian TV: youtube.com/proletariancpgbml.

Finally, there are three more references to the communist movement in this Radical Voices exhibition:

– The book Citizen Thomas Paine by Howard Fast, a US communist author writing in 1945 just prior to his victimisation in the McCarthyite witchhunts;
– The pamphlet Refuse to Die to Yankee Orders!, published by the CPGB in 1950 as part of the campaign against US military bases in Britain. On the cover, there’s a carton with Uncle Sam embracing a squaddie and reassuring him that ‘we pay funeral expenses’.
– Finally, we are treated to the cover page of a brochure advertising the CPGB’s ‘communist pageant’ in June 1973 at Finsbury Park’s now-defunct Rainbow theatre in North London.

As we suggested at the beginning of our review, much of this exhibition is filled with material laying a false claim to ‘radicalism’. Nonetheless, readers will find the exhibits relating to trade unionism and to the communist movement interesting and thought-provoking. Enjoy your ‘curate’s egg’ by concentrating on the good bits.

Senate House is located at the foot of Malet Street, behind the British Museum (tube: Euston, Goodge Street or Russell Square). Entry to Radical Voices is free of charge.