Socialist Worker

Ten who the BBC left out

Issue No. 1827

IT HAS been hard to avoid the top ten 'Great Britons' series currently on TV. It pushes the idea that history is made by remarkable individuals - most often kings, queens, top military brass and other establishment figures. Socialists have a completely different view - that it is the struggles of millions of ordinary women and men that have shaped history.

Hazel Croft presents our alternative list of ten Britons, people immersed in the struggle of ordinary people fighting from below to try to create a better society.

JOHN BALL (executed 1381)
He was a radical preacher who inspired peasants to rise against an unjust 'poll tax' during the 1381 peasants' revolt. One of the rebels' first acts was to free John Ball from Maidstone prison in Kent. Ball had been jailed because he preached a vision of a better society, and agitated to win it.

'Matters cannot go well in England nor ever will until all things shall be held in common... When the lords shall be no more masters than ourselves,' he said.

'They are clothed in velvets and rich stuffs, ornamented with ermine and other furs, while we are forced to wear poor cloth; they have their wine, spices and good bread and we have the chaff and drink water; they dwell in fair houses and we have the pain and labour. Let us go to the king and remonstrate with him on our servitude, telling him we must have it otherwise, or that we shall find a remedy for it ourselves.'

JOHN LILBURNE (1614-1657)
He was a leader of the radical Levellers group during the 1640s English Revolution. The Levellers were the most prominent of a host of radical groups which fought for democracy and equality at a time when society had only ever known the rule of kings and queens, bishops and priests.

John Lilburne was an orator, a pamphleteer and a fighter. For publishing a pamphlet against the church, he was tied to the back of a cart and whipped all the way down London's Strand to Westminster. At the end he was still abusing his captors and throwing pamphlets to the crowds.

Lilburne defended the freedoms and liberties of the poorer in society. One writer described how 'he was, or became, a radical in everything - in religion, in politics, in economics, in social reform, in criminal justice.'

MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT (1759-1797)
She was a pioneer of the struggle for women's liberation and linked women's freedom to the wider struggle for social change. She was inspired by the Great French Revolution of 1789 which swept the old feudal regime aside. She wrote a spirited defence of the revolution, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in which she railed against privilege, the king, the army and the clergy.

Wollstonecraft published her Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792. This was one of the first ever calls for women's emancipation. She argued that the whole of society would benefit if women were no longer reduced to the status of slaves.

Women, she argued, 'may be convenient slaves, but slavery will have its constant effect, degrading the master and abject dependant.'

JAMES BRONTERRE O'BRIEN (1804-1865)
He played a crucial role in the Chartists, the first ever mass working class movement, which mobilised hundreds of thousands of workers against the British ruling class between 1838 and 1848. Bronterre O'Brien was the movement's most popular journalist, known as the 'schoolmaster of Chartism'.

He always placed the self activity of workers at the centre of his politics. He argued against those Chartists who thought you could persuade the ruling class to change their minds. 'It is power - solid, substantial power - that the millions must obtain and retain, if they would enjoy the produce of their own labour,' he wrote. O'Brien threw himself into agitation to help build up the working class's 'sinews of war'.

He also saw that a movement was needed which was 'an entire change in society - a change amounting to a complete subversion of the existing 'order of the world'.'

WILLIAM CUFFAY (1788-1870)
He was a black man who was the son of a slave from St Kitts, and became one of the most prominent Chartist leaders in London. This was testimony to the anti-racism of the Chartist movement. The Chartists opposed slavery and supported the abolitionist movement.

Cuffay, who was a tailor, dedicated himself to organising agitation against the ruling class, and was very much on the left of the Chartist movement. He argued strongly against those Chartists who wanted to compromise with the old order.

In 1848 the ruling class took their revenge. Cuffay was transported to Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania), where he ended his life still fighting for radical causes.

A contemporary newspaper described how Cuffay was 'loved by his own order, who knew him and appreciated his virtues, ridiculed and denounced by a press that knew him not, and had no sympathy with his class, and banished by a government that feared him'.

ELEANOR MARX (1855-1898)
She was the daughter of Karl Marx. She was a socialist, a passionate advocate of women's liberation, and fought all her life for revolutionary change. She was at the forefront of the wave of industrial unrest in the late 1880s, which became known as 'New Unionism'.

These struggles were the foundation of the big general trade unions which we know in Britain today. Eleanor played a key role in building, and was on the national executive of, the Gasworkers' Union, which became today's GMB union.

She threw herself into all the struggles of unskilled factory workers, women and immigrant workers and insisted on linking the fight for workers' immediate demands with the struggle for socialism.

She wrote, 'When the revolution comes - and it must come - it will be by the workers, without distinction of sex or trade, standing and fighting shoulder to shoulder.'

TOM MANN (1856-1941)
He was a socialist who was also one of the driving forces of the explosion of working class militancy in the 1880s. Mann was a key leader of the victorious London docks strike of 1889 for more pay and against casual labour.

He worked 18 to 20 hours a day organising picketing, raising funds and arguing for socialism. Mann also played a key role in the wave of struggles which shook Britain in the years known as the 'Great Unrest' between 1910 and 1914. He led a general transport and docks strike in Liverpool which paralysed the city. The Liberal government anchored gunboats in the River Mersey and sent 7,000 troops to the city.

Mann was defiant: 'Let Churchill order ten times more military to Liverpool. Not all the king's horses with the king's men can take the vessels out the docks to sea.'

Mann played a central role in the socialist and trade union movement right up until the 1930s. He was jailed at the age of 76 because of his agitation among the unemployed.

SYLVIA PANKHURST (1882-1960)
She was one of the Pankhurst family, famous for the fight to win the vote for women at the beginning of the 20th century. But Sylvia was much more left wing than her mother, Emmeline, and sister, Christabel. She supported working class struggles and was a tireless agitator among poor women in London's East End.

Unlike her mother and sister, she opposed and denounced the slaughter of the First World War, despite the jingoism of the time. She wholeheartedly supported the Russian Revolution and declared, 'I am proud to be a Bolshevist.'

'Our eager hopes are for the speedy success of the Bolsheviks of Russia. May they open the door which leads to freedom for the people of all lands,' she wrote.

JOHN MACLEAN (1879-1923)
He was a fighter and socialist who was committed to working class revolution. He was one of the 'Red Clydesider' militants, a consistent opponent of the First World War and a fierce critic of British imperialism. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the 1917 Russian Revolution and he urged British workers to follow the Russian example of taking power into their own hands to end the war.

When he was tried for 'inciting workers to turn the war into a revolution', Maclean made an impassioned speech from the dock. 'I am not here as the accused - I am here as the accuser of capitalism, dripping with blood from head to foot,' he said. He was jailed and suffered dreadful treatment which broke his health and led to his premature death.

In November 1922 Maclean stood for parliament on a socialist platform. His election address proclaimed that he stood as a 'revolutionary, alias a Marxist. My symbol is the red flag and I shall always keep it flying high.'

SHAPURJI SAKLATVALA (1874-1936)
He was elected as a Communist MP for Battersea, London, in the 1920s and was hugely popular among his white working class supporters. One south London newspaper reported, 'I met a Battersea charwoman yesterday who was almost in tears because she lived on the wrong side of the street and couldn't vote for Saklatvala.'

At one election meeting one of his opponents argued that 'the electorate have an instinctive preference for an Englishman', and was howled down by the audience with cries of 'Shame!'

He was jailed for actively supporting the general strike in Britain in 1926. And throughout his life he opposed British imperialism, denouncing British rule in India. The respect Saklatvala drew from British workers reveals the hidden thread of black and white unity which runs through the history of workers' struggle in Britain.


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Features
Sat 23 Nov 2002, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1827
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