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Monday 27 Mar 2017
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The establishment of the Marx Memorial Library, 1933

At the beginning of 1933 the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Marx  (14 March 1883) was approaching. The question arose of what Robin Page Arnot, the first principal of the Marx Memorial Library and Workers’ School (as it was in its first years), had called “a fitting memorial in the form of a centre of working class education to the greatest thinker and revolutionist of all time, in the city where he lived and worked for the greater part of his adult life”. A Marx Commemoration Committee was set up on the initiative of the Labour Research Department, with the support of Martin Lawrence Limited, publishers of Marxist literature. It comprised well-known trade unionists and veteran Socialists belonging to the Labour Party (like Alexander Gossip, general secretary of the Furnishing Trades Association, and Harry Adams, chairman of the London District Committee of the Building Trade Workers), or the Communist Party (like Tom Mann, Harry Pollitt and Joe Scott of the Amalgamated Engineering Union). The Labour Research Department was represented by its secretary W. E. Williams, Emile Burns and R. P. Arnot (members of its Executive Committee) and Martin Lawrence Ltd. by Ralph Fox, soon to die in battle for Republican Spain. The Committee called a conference at the Conway Hall, Holborn on 11 March: and a strong point made there was the’ ‘burning of the books” already begun in Germany by the Nazis, recently installed in power with the help of Big Business and determined to root out all Marxist and other progressive ideas.

Among the 190 delegates (among them 66 from trade union branches and trades councils, 7 from Labour Parties, 11 from I.L.P. branches and 24 from those of the C.P.) was the veteran Marxist James Macdonald, foundation member of the Social-Democratic Federation, secretary of the London Trades Council from 1896 to 1913 and delegate from the S.D.F. at the first Labour Party conference in 1900. Gossip was in the chair. A resolution, moved by W. E. Baldwin (N.U.R.), was carried unanimously, declaring that the best memorial to Marx in London would be a Marxist library, workers’ school and educational centre. A fund was opened under the auspices of the L.R.D., with Clive Branson in charge and Elinor Burns as secretary (Branson, later one of the “volunteers for liberty” who fought for the Spanish Republic against the Fascist invaders, was killed in Burma in 1944). Within a few months substantial funds were collected, with Branson and his wife Noreen making a major contribution.

At a second conference on 22 October 1933, held at another hall famous for Radical meetings in the 19th century – the Peel Institute in St. John Street, Islington – 123 delegates endorsed the proposal to open the Library at 37a Clerkenwell Green, which had been acquired in the meantime (the title-deeds show Noreen Branson as the purchaser), and where the necessary works had already been carried out by direct labour, organised with official help from the trade unions. The carpenters, bricklayers and painters involved were all present at the conference and were warmly applauded. The delegates approved the draft rules of the Library, elected a provisional council, and endorsed a report by Arnot on the initial schemes for classes, lectures and collecting of books. Classes began on 30 October 1933, with courses on political economy, the Russian Revolution, the theory of the State, the working class movement, and the class struggle in the Colonial countries. The initial public lecture was delivered on Sunday morning, 5 November – “The Life of Marx”, by Tom Mann, leader of the 1889 Dock Strike, a friend of Eleanor Marx and of Frederick Engels.


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