Bolshevism, syndicalism and the general strike
The lost internationalist world of A. A. Purcell
The final volume of Kevin Morgan’s widely-acclaimed series Bolshevism and the British Left centres around Alf Purcell (1872-1935), a leader in the British and international labour movement between the wars.
A. A. Purcell was famously one of the TUC ‘lefts’ of the 1920s. But he was also Labour MP for the Forest of Dean and Coventry, the controversial president of the International Federation of Trade Unions and the man who moved the formation of the British Communist party.
A long-term member of the TUC General Council, Purcell became chairman of the general strike committee in 1926 – and this could have been his hour of glory. But when it was called off ignominiously he experienced the obloquy of defeat. With the squeezing of his syndicalist approach, and as the labour movement polarised into Labour and Communist currents, Purcell died a politically broken figure.
Kevin Morgan deploys the life of Purcell as a biographical lens, a way of exploring wider controversies – among them the rival modernities of Bolshevism and Americanism; the reactions to Bolshevism of anarchists like Emma Goldman; and the roots of political tourism to the USSR. The volume also includes a major challenge to existing interpretations of the general strike, which Morgan compellingly presents, not as the last fling of the syndicalists, but as a first and disastrously ill-conceived imposition of social-democratic centralism by Ernest Bevin.
Introduction: around a life - FREE CHAPTER
1. Syndicalism, internationalism and the furnishing trades
2. Roads to freedom in the 1920s
3. Labour’s Russian delegations
4. ‘Swimming against a flood’: Emma Goldman in London
5. The other future?
6. The General Strike
7. Internationalist swansong
Epilogue: a claim-making performer
Bolshevism and the British left: concluding thoughts
‘In the early 1920s Purcell was a leading left-winger on the TUC General Council and was as well-known in the trade union and labour movement as Ernest Bevin - and arguably more immediately effective in his influence on events as crucial as the 1926 General Strike. Kevin Morgan’s book opens up, with great skill, this remarkable and movingly dramatic history of early trade union and Labour Party attitudes towards Bolshevik-style revolutionary revolt and is a very important contribution to our understanding of how the trade union and labour movement developed in the way it did.’ Geoffrey Goodman
Praise for the series
‘Kevin Morgan’s Bolshevism and the British Left is an outstanding work of history. Erudite and subtle, it forces us to confront tired stereotypes embedded in traditional understandings of British labour history and replaces them with a richer and more complex account of the British socialist tradition. The trilogy is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the British left.’ Gregg McClymont
‘Bolshevism and the British Left is an exciting project that will make an important contribution to British history in the 20th century.’ Eric Hobsbawm
‘Kevin Morgan’s great achievement is to throw all this into new relief, with vision, judgement and prose that refreshes. The result is a monumental work, where Morgan’s painstaking scholarship, clarity of voice and eye compel us to visit this central legacy anew. This is a major event.’ Peter Beilharz
‘Despite his prominence in the 1920s, Purcell has received very little attention and would probably present a substantial challenge for the biographer.’
‘Rejecting the widespread perception of the strike as the last hurrah of British syndicalism, Morgan argues convincingly that syndicalists treated the actual general strike, as distinct from the Sorelian myth, as problematic…’
‘Like all else in the book, Morgan’s thesis is well-researched and exhaustively annotated …’
‘The fascination of this book lies in the subtleties of the relationship between Bolshevism and the British left, and their deft exposition. Transnational history may be at the cutting edge of the discipline, but this study is both transnational and that most challenging form of labour history, an exploration of mentalities.’
‘With an excellent command of the diversities of the period, he covers a vast and complex terrain with clarity, insight, and vigour. The interpretations are judicious, and he manages to be fair to all sides (if a trifle sarcastic about Emma Goldman). This volume, like the series, is wholeheartedly recommended.’
‘It is this fascination [with a group of professional revolutionaries] that Kevin Morgan deals with expertly n Bolshevism, syndicalism and the general strike, the third and final volume in his assessment of Bolshevism and the British Left.’
‘The book is a multi-layered account of a key period in the formation of Labour’s identity. It is part political biography, part labour history (both domestic and international) and part ideological study. This is a complicated approach, but it is skilfully done, and this is a well-written account of Purcell’s life, of important and influential strands of socialism, and of how these interacted with the wider labour movement.’
‘The study made up by Kevin Morgan – across all three of his volumes – may well end up being the definitive account of the influence that Bolshevism had on Labour and the trade unions in the post-revolutionary era. … Kevin Morgan’s excellent examination of this period is about as comprehensive an analysis as we are likely to get.’
Jonathan Davis, Socialist History 47