History of Association, Cooperation and Un-Statist Socialism in 19th and Early 20th Century Britain

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* Book: Stephen Yeo A Useable Past: A History of Association, Co-operation and un-Statist Socialism in 19th and early 20th century Britain. Volume 1: Victorian Agitator, George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906): Co-Operation as ‘This New Order of Life’. Volume 2: A New Life, the Religion of Socialism in Britain, 1883-1896: Alternatives to State Socialism. Edward Everett Root, Brighton, 2017 and 2018.

URL = https://marxandphilosophy.org.uk/book/17133_a-useable-past-a-history-of-association-co-operation-and-un-statist-socialism-in-19th-and-early-20th-century-britain-in-3-volumes/


Tom Steele:

"Yeo, who was formerly an historian at Sussex University and then Principal of Ruskin College, Oxford, has written a scholarly ‘causerie’ on alternatives to State Socialism based on luminous description and analysis of alternative forms of socialism that developed in Britain in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The volumes are not intended simply for academic historians, but also for activists engaged in contemporary political struggle. Volumes One and Two cover most of the nineteenth century and exhibit a wide and deep range of archival sources and secondary reading, always elegantly expressed, if a little densely at times, and frequently referencing more recent political experience. Yeo is consistently asking the questions: ‘What is the use of this for us today?’ ‘Is this more than dead history?’ and ‘What can we learn from this?’ Following his colleague and friend, the economist Mike Rustin, Yeo identifies three forms of socialism – Statist, Collectivist and Associationist – of which the latter is the form he most wishes to promote (though the co-operative associationists, to whom the term is first applied, were not at all sure they wanted to be called ‘socialists’ at all).

Volume One centres on the life and work of the Victorian agitator (although ‘agitator’ seems too mean a word to be applied to a man of so many parts), George Jacob Holyoake. Relatively forgotten now, except among historians of the History Workshop movement (of which Yeo was a prominent member), Holyoake was an Owenite ‘social missionary’ a militant follower of the radical unionism of the reforming industrialist and ‘utopian’ socialist, Robert Owen. Much of Owen’s appeal was carried through his popular but intelligent journalism which, like that of Tom Paine, was capable of making highly subversive proposals look like simple common sense. He was in large part responsible for the legend of ‘the Rochdale Pioneers’ who built one of the first and most comprehensive systems of consumer and producer co-operative organisations in the world. The influence of the Pioneers was international and Holyoake was its ambassador in much of Europe. Holyoake’s practice of the ‘art of association’ and its ability to transform human social and productive relations in the here and now offers for Yeo a key to non-violent revolutionary reform, an antidote to the statist mentality of politicians who believe socialism can only be introduced from the top down and to the Fabian collectivists who believe society can only be managed by a class of administrative and technical experts.

Volume Two continues this line of attack with critiques of the now customary versions of centralised command-state versions of governance that have become identified with ‘socialism’ and with the ‘new’ professional and managerial class that is intensely suspicious of the political agency of working people. Yeo movingly evokes the joyful dynamism and creative intelligence that energised the working-class ‘religion of socialism’ of the late nineteenth century, often from original source material. This source material includes a Bristol ILP socialist, Hugh Holmes Gore, who states in 1895: ‘Socialists who are ten years old can recall their avidity in studying Marx and his expositors. They will remember how clear it all seemed and how foolish it was of the civilised world to delay its journey to the co-operative commonwealth. We saw as it were from the mountain top, the Socialist state … we prodded the proletariat, we … sang them Pisgah songs, we drew vivid pictures of the Promised land, and enjoined them to hurry up and journey thither’ (Vol 2, 177). For those of us who can remember the late-1960s and early ‘70s such sentiments may induce a reflective melancholy. However, this version of socialism was then fairly brutally shoved aside by the Fabian realists over the next decade who saw, correctly, that dreams were not enough but, unforgivably, also forbade dreaming. The Webbite prescriptions of a socially scientific managerial order that would knock some sense into the proletariat quickly came to dominate the newly-formed Labour Party and the ‘socialist’ state began to look little different from a rationally organised capitalism. When, for example, in 1910, the Fabian, Frederick ‘Ben’ Keeling arrived in Leeds to manage the recently established Labour Exchange, he noted in his diary: ‘We have got to be better capitalists than the capitalists are. When we – that is the administrative classes – have more will, more restlessness, more austerity, more organising ability , more class consciousness than they have, we shall crumple them in our hands’ (Vol 2, 265). Yes, of course, more ‘austerity’." (https://marxandphilosophy.org.uk/reviews/17135_a-useable-past-a-history-of-association-co-operation-and-un-statist-socialism-in-19th-and-early-20th-century-britain-volume-1-victorian-agitator-george-jacob-holyoake-1817-1906-co-operation-a/)