Fiery Particle

Lawrence Goldman

  • Red Ellen: The Life of Ellen Wilkinson, Socialist, Feminist, Internationalist by Laura Beers
    Harvard, 568 pp, £23.95, October 2016, ISBN 978 0 674 97152 3

At first sight, a new life of Ellen Wilkinson appears to offer readers a return to ‘old Labour’ principles, as articulated and put into practice by one of the party’s most famous women leaders. Wilkinson came from the north, represented the shipyards of Jarrow and always spoke for the workers. Yet this well-written biography surprises us: she may have been a founding spirit of the party but her interests, associations and beliefs took her a long way from the straightforward defence of the Labour Party as we have come to know it. At one point a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and sympathetic ever after, she had many close friends who scorned parliamentary politics. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s she remained close to the radical European left and the anti-fascist Marxist underground. This dual loyalty was even reflected in her love life: she had affairs with both Herbert Morrison, the Labour minister and fixer, and Otto Katz, a Czech spy and Marxist whose every move in Britain in 1938 was followed by Special Branch.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in