Pluto books reviewed: Gluckstein, ‘A People’s History of the Second World War’ and Arthur, ‘Bert: The Life and Times of A. L. Lloyd’

More Pluto books have been reviewed this week. Two stand-outs are Dave Arthur’s biography of A. L. Lloyd, Bert, and Donny Gluckstein’s A People’s History of the Second World War: Resistance Versus Empire. Both smashing titles, published in May and June respectively, they’ve garnered some excellent written opinion.

Men and Women in ELAS – the Greek Liberation Army

Gluckstein was featured in Review 31, the article by John Newsinger. Challenging the two dominant interpretations of the ever-popular Second World War (as either a righteous crusade against fascism, or as an imperialist locking of horns), Newsinger writes of the People’s History:

Donny Gluckstein’s book … offers a new interpretation that challenges both these earlier understandings of the conflict: the war certainly involved a clash of Empires, a clash in which Stalin’s Russia was one of the active participants, but there was also a parallel ‘People’s War’. While the ruling classes were fighting for imperial advantage, for millions of ordinary people throughout the world this was a war for radical social change, for a better world. As Gluckstein insists these ‘two distinct wars’ ran parallel with each other, indeed they were often ‘indistinguishable to those involved’. There ‘were, however, particular instances where the split was illuminated, as if by lightning’.

Expanding on this theme a little, Newsinger outlines the scope of the book in a little more detail:

Through case studies on Yugoslavia, Poland, Latvia, France, Britain, the USA, Austria, Italy, India, Indonesia and Vietnam, Gluckstein explores the complex relationship between Imperialist and People’s War. With regard to Britain, he shows that Churchill’s primary concern was always with securing the safety of the British Empire. Churchill’s famous ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’ speech went on to proclaim that victory was vital for the ‘survival of the British Empire … for all that the British Empire has stood for.’ Indeed, after every stirring appeal there was always a reference to the Empire. The safety of the Empire was not the concern of ordinary people. They hoped for a better, more just and egalitarian world. That is what they were fighting for. Labour’s 1945 General Election landslide came about because, as Gluckstein puts it, the party successfully ‘claimed the mantle of a people’s war’.

The chapters on Italy, Greece, India, Vietnam and Indonesia are particularly impressive. Indeed, nothing better illustrates the reality of the parallel wars than the spectacle of British troops shooting down Indian protestors fighting for freedom in 1942. The Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, told Churchill that he was facing ’by far the most serious rebellion since that of 1857’. It was put down by brute force. One British official boasted that he had ‘had jolly good fun having shot down twenty-four niggers himself’. Perhaps as many as 10,000 Indian rebels were killed together with almost 100,000 arrested.

One of the only criticisms the reviewer levies is against the book’s length – it is too short to include in further detail the nature of the USSR’s relationship with the People’s war, or to devote more time to the role of Jewish resistance. Nonetheless, as he concludes:

Gluckstein has written what is arguably the most important book on the Second World War to be published for years. It deserves the widest possible readership. One can only hope for an extended second edition, for a more definitive People’s History.

Check out the full article in Review 31. After reading, don’t forget to scroll down a bit and follow the links to buy your copy today.


Dave Arthur’s book has been reviewed in the pages of The Wire by Rob Young. The article can be found on page 79 of the print edition (#343), so no links here, sadly, but check out their site anyway for some other great content.

Rob Young is glowing about what he describes as a ‘tremendous and valuable biography’. Below are a few paragraphs that give you a good sense of the book itself, and the reviewer’s attitude:

The Second World War postponed the folk revival for a decade. Just before it, in 1937, Lloyd had stumbled upon an enclave of living English folk singing at the Eel’s Foot Inn in East Suffolk. Two years after taping this for the BBC, he was making In The Shadow Of The Swastika, an award-winning series explaining the Nazi threat. Nevertheless, Lloyd’s Marxist affiliations got him banned from the Corporation until well after the end of the war. Arthur has uncovered some wonderfully waspish internal correspondence in which Lloyd’s suitability for work is discussed.

Lloyd’s inclusive attitude to folk repertoire – and entrancing singing style – endeared him to the younger, folk rock end of things, in a way that the more austere Ewan MacColl/Peggy Seeger faction did not. Arthur rightly gives dues to Lloyd’s 1967 book Folk Song In England, which remains an unbeatable, overarching survey of English traditional music, from magical balladry to industrial worksong. And yet he remains objective enough to show the less savoury aspects of Lloyd’s character. He’s honest – as Lloyd himself was – about the merits of tracts such as Come All Ye Bold Miners and The Singing Englishman, while acknowledging their importance as some of the only serious attempts to write a history of folk music in the 20th century since Cecil Sharp’s. But, as Arthur points out, Lloyd’s fieldwork could be erratic. He would sometimes accept the official line on the existence (or lack) of certain types of songs. The Romanian ethnographic recordings he supplied for Lomax’s Columbia World Library Of Folk And Primitive Music series, Arthur suggests, may have been stock tapes handed him by a Communist official. And there is the vexed question of how much Lloyd tampered with and even rewrote folk music in his own image. “Bert was no less romantic about his industrial workers than Cecil Sharp had been about his rural peasants,” writes Arthur. “And his and MacColl’s idea of ‘authentic’ generally meant whatever the pair of them thought and did.”

The reviewer continues to acknowledge the paradox the author sees in folk music today – where aficionados must step through the pub, populated with ‘folk’ in order to reach the designated performance area – before concluding:

[Arthur] knew Lloyd personally, a fact he substantially downplays in the book, which seems a lost opportunity for a more direct engagement with the man himself. But the personal testimonies he includes at the end … testify to a man of integrity, honesty, humility, learning and inspirational wisdom.

To order a copy of this book, and A People’s History of the Second World War, follow the links below. Watch this space for more reviews of great Pluto titles.

A People’s History of the Second World War

Resistance Versus Empire

Donny Gluckstein

Fascinating history of the Second World War as fought ‘from below’ by anti-fascist militias, who worked both with and against the allied powers.

“The Second World War is so thoroughly surrounded by myth that it is hard to grasp its real character. Gluckstein offers a new interpretation, portraying 1939-45 as two parallel wars: one waged by the Great Powers among themselves, the other by the peoples against fascism. Refreshingly avoiding a conventional narrative approach, he offers new insights that provide a powerful antidote to historical mythology.” – Alex Callinicos, author of Imperialism and Global Political Economy (2009)

“Rigorously structuring his analysis around the two central themes of popular resistance and inter-imperialist rivalry, Gluckstein makes an indispensable contribution to understanding the reality of the conflict in all its complexity.” – Neil Davidson, Senior Research Fellow, University of Strathclyde and author of Discovering the Scottish Revolution

£19.99 only £17.50 on the Pluto site


The Life and Times of A. L. Lloyd

Dave Arthur. Foreword by Richard Thompson OBE. Preface by Rt. Hon. Sir Stephen Sedley

The definitive biography of the folk legend and left-wing activist.

“When everyone else was listening to Cream, I was listening to A. L. Lloyd.” – Frank Zappa

“I’m old enough and have been close enough to many of the events recounted in this thoroughly but sympathetically researched book to recognise the ring of truth when I hear it.” – Bill Leader, record producer (Bert Jansch)

£24.99 only £22.00 on the Pluto site

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