Eric Hobsbawm

posted Mar 26, 2010, 4:07 AM by Dick Pountain   [ updated Apr 8, 2010, 6:43 AM ]

[delivered by Sally Davison of Lawrence & Wishart ]:             

" I must ask you all to excuse my absence from this great occasion.  After my spell in hospital I had hoped to be sufficiently recovered to come, but it turns out I haven't returned quite yet and so I can't be here in person.  So I can only write a few lines to honour the publication of this great book by a remarkable historian about a unique figure in British twentieth century history, in the story of our labour movement and, not least, in the history of Wales.

I needn't say anything about Arthur Horner. You can find it all in Nina's two monumental volumes.  They bring out the extraordinary personal achievement of  a man who is too rarely recognized as what I believe him to be, namely the most impressive union leader of the first half of the last century. I say 'personal', because it was achieved both against the political handicap of membership of the Communist Party and, within his own party, particularly in the years 1928-33, against considerable criticism and opposition.  They bring out the sheer scale and historic significance of Horner's leadership during world war II and as the architect of the nationalisation of the mines and a National Mineworkers Union. To have written this book is important, because for most people who don't draw an old age pension, all this is a story of the dead past, a past killed by Mrs Thatcher in 1984-5. It is the job of historians not only to remind people of what they have forgotten and wish to forget, but to show why they also should remember. That is what Nina has done in  these two volumes.

She had worked on it for many years. Fortunately, she managed to complete it before her tragic illness and death.  I read it in manuscript and, luckily, managed to let her see in time, the preface she had asked me to write for it. Arthur Horner, A Political Biography will be her monument as well as Arthur's. It has all the characteristics of Nina Fishman as a historian, including the lengthy time of gestation.  As a technical piece of research it is outstanding in its combination of archival and printed  sources with interviews; in its consistent refusal to accept conventional views and its skill in finding her ways through the   jungle union politics . It is not an obvious page-turner  ,though written with great clarity, but it will have to be read and consulted by anyone who takes a serious interest in the history of  20th century Britain and its labour movement and it is by far the finest - one might almost say the only really adequate - biography of a British union leader of the last century. In every respect it is an imposing piece of historical writing.

But Nina's strength as a historian was not just research technique. She was, essentially, a historian of communism in the British labour movement, though never, I think, a member of the Party.  It was her ability to perceive, and to understand and sympathise with the predicament of the men and women who joined that international movement as revolutionaries in a country in which revolution was not on the agenda or, after 1926, even look as though it might be, but found themselves engaged, often in leading positions, in an industrial labour movement that was plainly not revolutionary and did not look like becoming so .  Under what historical conditions, how far , and how long long,could this  be justified by what she called  the 'revolutionary pragmatism' of communists like Pollitt, Campbell and Horner? What were its achievements. Were there limits beyond which it could not go?  How did men like Horner react to this predicament?  Nina Fishman's strength as a historian of  communism in Britain was that she did not wait to ask these questions after the movement's fall, but from the start of her career as a historian. Her answers are not universally accepted - she would never have expected them to be - but her contribution,  to the understanding of the history of communism, that  movement  central to 20th century history, is capital. Above all through this magnificent biography of Arthur Horner."

This is he best I can do. Cut what you think unnecessary. Hope it goes well. Wish I could be there,