‘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’’ by Stephen Yeo,’A Useable Past: A History of Association, Co-Operation and Un-Statist Socialism in 19th and Early 20th Century Britain. Volume 2: A New Life, the Religion of Socialism in Britain, 1883-1896: Alternatives to State Socialism’ by Stephen Yeo reviewed by Tom Steele

Reviewed by Tom Steele

About the reviewer

Dr Tom Steele is Senior Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow. His books include …


This review looks at the first two published volumes of A Useable Past by Stephen Yeo, Volume 1: Victorian Agitator, George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906): Co-operation as ‘This New Order of Life’ and Volume 2: A New Life The Religion of Socialism in Britain 1883-1896: Alternatives to State Socialism (Volume Three: Class Conflict and Co-operation in 19th and 20th Century Britain. Education for Association: re-membering for a new moral world, is due for publication in 2020).

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’.

For Holyoake and his fellow co-operators, this bore little relation to the Promised Land. A more rational order that avoided the privation, waste and corruption of capitalist competition was of course the desired end but who needed a state to accomplish it, big or small? As he continuously urged in his journal The Reasoner (a resonant title picked up a century later by E P Thompson and John Saville in their struggle to democratise the Communist Party of Great Britain) the co-operative commonwealth was even now a work in progress. Yeo notes that Holyoake ‘suggests that Labour already has the power: the power which belongs to making and doing… You Co-operators he said again and again, do not need to take, capture, seize … still less vote others into power. You/We can build with that which belongs to us, is in our nature…’ (Vol 1, 46). This belief in the actually existing agency of the working class, the ‘that which belongs to us’, was a potent force in radicalisation particularly in the industrial towns of the north. Allied to the moral power of the chapel and Methodism’s democratic self-organisation it became a kind of ethical force, unwilling to bow to class authority or take direction from the metropolitan centre. There were already the beginnings of a ‘state within a state’ which so terrified polite society. In 1897, for example, there were no less than 80 co-operative stores in Leeds and district alone (91) catering for a very substantial proportion of working-class needs ‘from cradle to grave’. But co-operation was not simply a matter of the rational distribution of commodities and services; for Holyoake it promised no less than a new order of life by enabling the creation of ‘goodness’. Not that men were not already good – and needed to be saved, as the church would have it – but the conditions to facilitate goodness were simply not prevalent in a competitive market economy: ‘The faculty of being good or of doing good, and the desire of it, and the pleasure of it, every man has, but there are millions without the faculty or means of it. What they want is a way of establishing conditions of daily life in which it shall be nearly impossible to be depraved or poor’ ‘Morality’, he concluded, ‘has material conditions’ (54). Education was a further means of facilitating the change, by cultivating innate intelligence in ways forcefully denied by the kind of Gradgrind schooling working-class children were normally subjected to. Many Co-operative Societies established their own educational programmes and even appointed education officers, eventually contributing a leading role to the founding of the Workers’ Educational Association in 1903.

William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) recognisably inhabits this ‘structure of feeling’, in Raymond Williams’s sense, and provides perhaps the most accomplished vision of the co-operative commonwealth that Holyoake believed was at their fingertips, in fiction. But by 1895 Morris also knew the game was up, remarking to Sidney Webb, ‘the world is going your way, at present, Webb, but it is not the right way in the end’ (52).
Yeo’s book does us the rare favour of carefully excavating and revealing the world of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries’ working-class movements, when ‘socialism’ could not neatly be pigeon-holed in the attenuated way it later became. His mining of Holyoake’s papers in Holyoake House in Manchester has allowed us once again to hear this resonant but neglected voice in British socialist history. Yeo makes clear his debt to previous scholars like Eileen Janes Yeo, his mentor, J F C Harrison at Sussex and E P Thompson, who did much to lay down the path. Yeo’s own post-retirement work at the Co-operative College was important in moving the college back to its roots in Manchester and developing the Pioneers’ Museum in Rochdale. This is not simply an academic’s life but one of deep commitment.
In these two volumes, Yeo’s theme is a ‘useable past’ and we have to ask: does he make the case? During the years leading up to the invention of New Labour in the 1990s and subsequently, it appeared as if socialism was dead and buried beneath the weight of the neo-liberal economics inherited from the Thatcher years and the managerial econometrics beloved of Tony Blair’s advisors, epitomised in Peter Mandelson’s phrase ‘Greed is Good’. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 put the final nail in the Workers’ State while China’s belated but fervid adoption of State Capitalism and Tiananmen Square signalled that the East was Red only in tooth and claw. Curiously, the final chapter of Volume 2: A New Life has no swelling chorus of hope, quite the opposite. After a prolonged litany of the defeats of worthwhile autonomous non-party initiatives it ends only with the question, Why? Perhaps we shall have to wait for Volume 3.

Yeo would no doubt reply that he has shown, if not hope itself, then some resources of hope (again in Raymond Williams’s words) and for that we can be thankful. Yeo is for taking the long way round, noting that ‘the hoped-for dashes to the finishing line’ that has perennially excited Labour Party socialists ‘by means of Political monopoly and Party discipline’ (273), only to collapse rancidly in accusations of deceit and betrayal, will never be the way forward. If socialism means something like a socially just and egalitarian society where all are capable of living at ease and finding their own strengths and developing their own talents without constraints of class privilege or financial penury, regardless of gender, colour or disability, then clearly neither the State on its own, nor a new enlightened class of social managers, however benign, is going to deliver. If Holyoake’s work and that of the co-operative pioneers means anything, then it is about transformation in the here and now through co-operative labour and education, and creating the material conditions for understanding and utilising our innate potential for goodness.

If I have any quibbles with these illuminating books, it is because I would like to have seen some consideration of the work of other contemporary commentators and historians like Hilary Wainwright whose most recent work A New Politics from the Left (2018) is mentioned but not dwelt on. Wainwright over the years has patiently recorded the alternative oppositional cultures and socialist practices not only in her own books but in the journal she edits, Red Pepper. The intense Anglo-centrism of Yeo’s works and preoccupation with ‘Englishness’ also means that European theorists like André Gorz, who’s Reclaiming Work (1999) also offers ‘useable’ alternatives, are not mentioned. But this may be because so much of the research and thinking in these two volumes resonate with the passionate History Workshop debates of the 1970s and 1980s (the two central essays of Volume 2 were originally written then and revised for this publication) and you can still hear the rumbling thunder of E P Thomson’s anti-Althusserian, The Poverty of Theory (1978). Although Volume 3 may not resolve these issues, it is to Yeo’s enduring credit that he has vividly stated the case for reclaiming the vital Associationist tradition of socialism ‘from the enormous condescension of posterity’ and holding it to the light.

15 July 2019

One comment

  1. Excellent review of what seem like two very important volumes of social history. George Holyoake’s journals of an agitator sit on my shelves: I shall reread them. Tom Steele has given a brilliant exposition of Yeo’s latest work, whilst also helpfully illuminating this within a wider perspective. I particularly liked the link he made between the Cooperative movement’s education officer and the later establishment of the WEA – very important. I also agree with him about the role of Methodism’s self-organisation in furthering ideas of radical socialist reform especially in the North, Wales and Cornwall. However I would emphasize much more that John Wesley himself was a Tory and socially conservative: it was his followers and particularly the Primitive Methodists who drew out the full democratic logic from his anti-Calvinist ideas about human equality in chances of salvation.

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