Martin Wright, Wales and Socialism: Political Culture and National Identity Before the Great War (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2016)
Martin Wright, Wales and Socialism: Political Culture and National Identity Before the Great War (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2016)

Since the upsurge in labour history in the 1970s, it has generally been accepted by historians that alongside the transition from Liberal politics to Labour politics evident in Wales in the early twentieth century there was a parallel shift from the particularism of the nation to the universalism of socialism. William Abraham, the Rhondda MP, and pioneering figure in the labour movement of late-nineteenth-century Wales, well known for his encouragement of a particular form of Welshness, nevertheless counselled his supporters that they were above all working men and should not follow the Liberal Party’s nationalist agenda too readily. Drawing on a wealth of hitherto overlooked or unknown sources, many of which are in the Welsh language, Martin Wright challenges this understanding bringing forth a well-argued and timely revisionist account of the makings of a specifically Welsh socialism.

In contrast to earlier work on the organisational emergence of a socialist labour movement, Wright turns his attention to the long neglected intellectual context, showing the permeation of Welsh political culture by socialist ideas in the generation before the First World War. Despite appendages that stretch the narrative, curiously, briefly, and not all that meaningfully, back into the 1790s, and forward into the 1920s, this is a tightly focused survey of the socialist movement known to Keir Hardie – the single most important figure in Wales and Socialism, despite a lengthy passage devoted to the more obscure R. J. Derfel (1824-1905) – and out of which came the great names of twentieth-century left politics such as A.J. Cook, Arthur Horner, and Aneurin Bevan. To Wright’s great credit, and in a clear departure from a field of study which has tended to devote most of its attention to the southern counties of Wales, this is a genuinely pan-Wales survey and draws on the writings and activities of socialists from Aberystwyth and Bangor as well as those of Barry and Aberdare whose exploits are perhaps better known.

It is, however, to Cardiff that Wright draws the reader’s attention at the outset of chapter two. With municipal politics caught in a bitter power struggle between Liberals and Conservatives, the subtle emergence of a socialist movement in the 1880s and early 1890s provides a fascinating testing ground for Wright’s thesis and a clear example of some of the functional problems of squeezing the essence of national identity out of a movement with a materialist rather than Romantic purpose. For the pioneers of socialism in Cardiff were, for the most part, hardly Welsh at all – a number of them had Irish roots and many were English; hardly a surprise therefore that many looked to Bristol for organisational sympathy. They toasted universalist sentiments, sang the Marseillaise, and (though not noted by Wright in his characterisation) attended secularist meetings. They moved on the radical fringes of Cardiff’s political culture, to be sure, even where they enjoyed the friendship of more traditional Welsh Liberals of the period such as Edward Thomas (Cochfarf). The Liberals of Cardiff were more anxious about Wales and Welshness than were the socialists.

Chapter three brings the Independent Labour Party into view and reorients the narrative away from Cardiff. The ILP’s Welsh heartland was in the South Wales Coalfield, with Cardiff and Swansea also important centres for development and organisation. With the arrival of the ILP, Welsh socialism took on a much more powerful and impressive form. The most significant and direct consequence of the steady growth of the ILP along the river Taff, Wright argues, was the election of Keir Hardie as the junior member for Merthyr Boroughs. This is an attractive (and surely correct) assessment which does much to correct the mythologized ‘suddenness’ of Hardie’s triumph there and restores the struggle undertaken by ILP activists in that part of Wales to its rightful place. ‘We are no strangers to one another’, the Scotsman told the Merthyr electorate in 1900, a powerful appeal but no less true. Indeed, by the time of his death in 1915, Hardie’s relationship with the town and its people was well into its third decade. Such facts alert us once more to the subtleties of socialist organisation that Wright has drawn out, although the branch details do tend to obscure the growth of ideas about the nation and socialist models of national identity. But, then again, you cannot find what is not there.

It is, ultimately, in the slate quarrying outposts of the north and in the rural west of Wales that a focus on the nation and on Welshness within the socialist movement comes more easily to the fore. This should not be a surprise, for it was here that Liberal ideas of nationhood also gained greatest support, and from here that the Communist Party in the 1930s began to gain an understanding of the Welsh language and nationality. Such ideas were to be the unique contribution of Welsh-language culture to the languages and ideas of socialism. Chapter four begins, though, not in Wales but in the Welsh enclave in Manchester, the home of R. J. Derfel. It is Derfel who makes the most original contribution to the emergent socialist movement through the Welsh language, propagandising the ideas of socialism in ways readily understood by Welsh-speaking audiences and manipulating them to serve the instincts of nationalism. It cannot be said, though, that Derfel properly succeeded in his mission. Indeed, the connective tissue linking nationalism and socialism in a specifically Welsh context would grow steadily more fragile, and it was hardly strong to begin with.

Chapter five works to bring the disparate strands of Wright’s thesis together. If we are given a fairly traditional portrait of ‘the rise of Labour’ through to 1914, with appropriate nods to the Miners’ Next Step and the Merthyr Pioneer, the chapter also points towards the (admittedly awkward and ironically Anglophone) emergence of a more ‘Welsh’ socialism in this period – the culmination of earlier forward stutters. But as the evidence Wright employs clearly shows, that ‘Welsh’ socialism was being pushed forward by socialists from North Wales, those in the populous southern counties were far more sceptical of the association. One must surely wonder what Hardie’s ‘Red Dragonism’ meant to those in Merthyr of Irish or Spanish descent, let alone English descent, or to those, such as the Welsh-speaking poet Huw Menai, an active socialist and Marxist, resident in Merthyr Vale, who eschewed Welsh nationalist politics altogether – and wrote to Justice to say so. The absence of Huw Menai in Wright’s summative discussion is unfortunate, for he is somewhat more indicative of South Walian political instincts by 1914 than the figures with whom Wright concludes.

Wales and Socialism is, in sum, a pioneering examination of the relationship between Welshness, the ideas and contested meanings of the Welsh nation, and the emergent socialist movement. It will do much to restore the somewhat faded interest in Wales amongst British historians of this period and is thoroughly deserving of an audience beyond the small cohort of active scholars of Welsh political and labour history. All the more so because its sensitivity to regions and to linguistic complexity yield vital insights conducive to the surely necessary ‘four nations’ remodelling of our understanding of the generation before the First World War. Whilst it takes a certain faith to follow Wright fully along the path he lays down, and even more linguistic dexterity to truly engage with the array of evidence he has amassed, there is also no way of denying the relevance of such a path to the politics and fractures of our own time. It may have been more common for labour activists to choose between Wales or socialism, as to some extent it still is, but Wright’s great triumph is to prove that this was never the only way.

[Note: This is a pre-publication version of my review, which appears in print in Labour History Review]

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