Sunday, 7 September 2008

Review – Comrades in Conscience by Cyril Pearce (2001)

I couldn’t help but pick up this book when I saw. The book covers Huddersfield, where I lived for a few years, during World War One. In particular it deals with working class resistance to the war.
It is a well researched book, examining not only academic reports but examining both the local and national press reports (including the Huddersfield weekly workers paper simply called ‘The Worker’). Indeed it is able to discuss academic work and put forward his own views without boring the casual reader (which is something I which I could say for many other books).
Pearce starts by giving the background to the opposition to the war, covering the state of the two working class parties (the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and the British Socialist Party (BSP)) in Huddersfield as well as the remnants of radical Liberalism and also other organisations in Huddersfield (such as Adult Schools, Socialist Sunday Schools, Huddersfield Trade Council, the local press etc.)
At the time the workers parties were in a bit of disarray but, ironically, the war fused them together and saw them organising jointly against the war, in particular, through the Trades Council. Such a no-go area for pro-war views was Huddersfield that it was labelled ‘a hotbed of pacifism’ (of course people were still recruited for the war from Huddersfield, just fewer than some other areas).
Pearce details the different stages of the war, the governments initiatives to supply themselves with troops for the front and the various tactics used by the workers parties and their sometime radical Liberal allies. In particular he focuses on conscientious objectors (COs and hence the title), not only refuting other academics work in this area, but explaining how support for working class COs was mobilised and how although leaders of the working class parties becoming imprisoned for their resistance for the war affected them, they were able to gather more support and replace them.

There are some problems with the book however. Firstly, it is £15 which I think is a bit steep for a book whose actual content covers only 210 pages (it has over a hundred pages of appendixes and notes however). Secondly, it ends rather abruptly at about mid 1917, although it does mention a few events after much more detail of the after effects of their struggle would have been interesting. And thirdly, for me the book lacks much analysis of the tactics of the various parties and organisations – it is more concerned with presenting the facts of how successful the tactics are, perhaps this a task for another writer though.
Despite these criticisms, the book is a very good read about a topic that contains lessons for all socialists and is worth reading if only to acquaint oneself with the history of this period in England.


Respectable Citizen said...

You may find this paper of interest.

Leftwing Criminologist said...

i'll take a look at it at some point, it's on my to do list amongst many other things