Ellen Wilkinson – Book Review

Review of ‘Red Ellen: The Life of Ellen Wilkinson, Socialist, Feminist, Internationalist’, by Laura Beers (Harvard University Press, 2016).

Whatever your specific political persuasion, I urge you to read it. This year is the 70th anniversary of her death from an accidental overdose of pills on 6 February 1947, at which time she was the Minister for Education in the Attlee Government and one of the architects of the experiment in social engineering from 1945.

Ellen was born in Manchester on 8 October 1891, not far from the area described by Engels in his Condition of the Working Classes in England, though in a slightly more upmarket neighbourhood. She became one of a generation of working-class intellectuals imbued with the ideals of socialism, feminism and internationalism. She campaigned for votes for women from an early age, was a dedicated trade union organiser all her life, helped found the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), became a long-serving Labour MP for Middlesbrough East and Jarrow, campaigned against fascism in the 1930s and on behalf of Republican Spain and helped in the foundation of the UN and UNESCO. She worked tirelessly and this book shows in great detail just how hard that was and how, in the end, it broke her physically. She gave her life for the working classes. If there is to be a statue to her, as has been suggested, it is long overdue and may it replace one of those bronze men on horseback.

I won’t pretend to agree with everything that Ellen chose to do, but I salute her intentions and her bravery and the way she fought. Most of us mortals fall well short. What this book illustrates, step by step, and decision by decision, is the way in which the desire for ‘something better now’ can distort the longer aims and divert the most militant among us. Time and time again, Ellen allowed her principles to be set aside in order to get some small measure of vital improvement for working class lives in the immediate present. Her story is an object lesson and an archetype of how staunch and genuine socialists in the Labour Party in the UK gradually triangulate their way to becoming divorced from the working class while purporting to be representing their best interests. For every reform she won, large or small, there was an equal and opposite compromise where she turned against her own principles and blocked the tide.

This is the road that has led via Blair to Brexit, via Clinton and Obama to Trump, via the integration of neo-liberal principles in EU institutions to the rise of a new fascist menace in Europe. It is matched by similar tendencies across the globe. It is to be hoped that this process quickly produces its opposite and superior reaction: a world-wide movement for the liberation of working people from the fetters of globalised Capital. This time: let the working class be its own force for liberation.

Saying that, let me take nothing away from ‘Red Ellen’ – she did what she believed was right in the circumstances of her times. Would that the present-day Labour Party had more MPs and members like her, whatever the limitations of that organisation.