Margaret Cole

Margaret Cole

Margaret Postgate, the daughter of John Percival Postgate (1853–1926), Professor of Latin at the University of Liverpool and Edith Allen (1863–1962), was born in Cambridge on 6th May 1893.

Margaret was sent to Roedean in September of 1907. In her autobiography, Growing Up Into Revolution (1949) she claimed: "I have never understood why my parents sent me to Roedean. To remove me from the home was understandable. I was the wrong sort of cuckoo in a horridly alien nest. The cross was too wide, and Roedean was, emphatically, the wrong sort of school for me. But I would go further and say it was not a good sort of school at all. It was very expensive; I only got in as the winner of the single annual scholarship."

In October 1911 she entered Girton College. After reading the work of J. A. Hobson, H. G. Wells, Sidney Webb, Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw and Noel Brailsford she became a socialist, feminist and an atheist. In 1914 she left the University of Cambridge to take up a position teaching classics in St Paul's Girls' School.

On the outbreak of the First World War Cole became active in the peace movement. This brought her into contact with leading figures in the Independent Labour Party. In 1915 she began working part-time for the Fabian Research Department, where she met George Douglas Cole. He was leader of what became known as Guild Socialism. This movement advocated workers' control of industry through the medium of trade-related guilds. Other supporters included William Mellor, J. A. Hobson, Frank Horrabin, R. H. Tawney, Leonard Hobhouse and Samuel Hobson. This group formed the National Guilds League in 1915.

Margaret joined the campaigned against conscription. After the passing of the Military Service Act, the No-Conscription Fellowship mounted a vigorous campaign against the punishment and imprisonment of conscientious objectors. About 16,000 men refused to fight. Most of these men were pacifists, who believed that even during wartime it was wrong to kill another human being. This included her brother, Raymond Postgate. and her lover, George Douglas Cole.

Margaret welcomed the Russian Revolution in November 1917. As she explained in her autobiography, Growing Up Into Revolution (1949): "On the way to the office we bought our newspapers and read with incredulous eyes that the Russian people, the workers, soldiers, and peasants, had really risen and cast out the Tsar and his government, who were to our minds the arch-symbols of black oppression in the world - far worse than the Prussians. On that day we did not work at all in the office; we danced round the tables and sang, and went to celebrate. Nor was it merely our small group that was delighted; throughout Britain everyone with an ounce of Liberalism in his composition rejoiced that whatever might come next tyranny had fallen, and thousands of them gathered in the Albert Hall and wept unashamedly as they paid tribute to those who had suffered in Siberia or in the Tsarist prisons. The news of Russia put immense heart into left-wing forces all over the country. It seemed as though there might be something good coming out of the war after all; for if the Russian people could overthrow their government, could not the Germans and the Austrians - or the French, or the British?"

Margaret married George Douglas Cole in August 1918. They moved to Oxford where Margaret taught evening classes and worked part-time for the Labour Research Department. She gave birth to Janet Elizabeth Margaret (February 1921) and Anne Rachel (October 1922). In 1924 the couple moved to Oxford where they both became involved in writing and teaching. Cole became Labour correspondent of the Manchester Guardian and after the publication of several books, including Guild Socialism Restated (1920), William Cobbett (1925) and Robert Owen (1925), Cole was appointed as Reader in Economics at University College.

In 1926 the couple gave support to the miners during the General Strike. They were regular visitors to the home of Beatrice Webb. She wrote in her diary on 5th September: "G.D.H. Cole and his wife - always attractive because they are at once disinterested and brilliantly intellectual and, be it added, agreeable to look at - stayed a weekend with us and later came on to the T.U.C. Middle age finds them saner and more charitable in their outlook... He is still a fanatic but he is a fanatic who has lost his peculiar faith... despite a desire to be rebels against all conventions, the Coles are the last of the puritans."

In 1931 Margaret and G.D.H. Cole created the Society for Socialist Inquiry and Propaganda (SSIP). This was later renamed the Socialist League. Other members included William Mellor, Charles Trevelyan, Stafford Cripps, H. N. Brailsford, D. N. Pritt, R. H. Tawney, Frank Wise, David Kirkwood, Clement Attlee, Neil Maclean, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, Alfred Salter, Jennie Lee, Harold Laski, Frank Horrabin, Ellen Wilkinson, Aneurin Bevan, Ernest Bevin, Arthur Pugh, Michael Foot and Barbara Betts. Margaret Cole admitted that they got some of the members from the Guild Socialism movement: "Douglas and I recruited personally its first list drawing upon comrades from all stages of our political lives." The first pamphlet published by the SSIP was The Crisis (1931) was written by Cole and Bevin.

According to Ben Pimlott, the author of Labour and the Left (1977): "The Socialist League... set up branches, undertook to promote and carry out research, propaganda and discussion, issue pamphlets, reports and books, and organise conferences, meetings, lectures and schools. To this extent it was strongly in the Fabian tradition, and it worked in close conjunction with Cole's other group, the New Fabian Research Bureau." The main objective was to persuade a future Labour government to implement socialist policies.

In April 1933 G.D.H. Cole, R. H. Tawney and Frank Wise, signed a letter urging the Labour Party to form a United Front against fascism, with political groups such as the Communist Party of Great Britain. However, the idea was rejected at that year's party conference. The same thing happened the following year. Although disappointed, the Socialist League issued a statement in June 1935 that it would not become involved in activities definitely condemned by the Labour Party which will jeopardise our affiliation and influence within the Party."

Stafford Cripps was another advocate for an United Front: "Up till recent times it was the avowed object of the Communist Party to discredit and destroy the social democratic parties such as the British Labour Party, and so long as that policy remained in force, it was impossible to contemplate any real unity... The Communists had... disavowed any intention, for the present, of acting in opposition to the Labour Movement in the country, and certainly their action in many constituences during the last election gives earnest of their disavowal." Aneurin Bevan added: "It is of paramount importance that our immediate efforts and energies should be directed to organising a United Front and a definite programme of action."

In 1936 the Socialist League joined forces with the Communist Party of Great Britain, the Independent Labour Party and various trades councils and trade union brances to organize a large-scale Hunger March. Aneurin Bevan argued: "Why should a first-class piece of work like the Hunger March have been left to the initiative of unofficial members of the Party, and to the Communists and the ILP... Consider what a mighty response the workers would have made if the whole machinery of the Labour Movement had been mobilised for the Hunger March and its attendant activities."

Although Margaret Cole and G.D.H. Cole were seen as major figures on the left, Beatrice Webb believed that they now moderated their opinions. In a diary entry on 20th July 1936 she wrote. "Our old friends the Coles came for the night; middle-aged and thoroughly stabilized in all their relationships, endlessly productive of books, whether economic and historical treatises or detective stories, mutually devoted partners and admirable parents of their promising children, they lead their little troop of admiring disciples along the middle way of politics, rather to the right of the aged Webbs - a curious commentary on the world-be revolutionary guild socialist movements of the second decade of the twentieth century."

The United Front campaign opened officially with a large meeting at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester on 24th January, 1937. Three days later the Executive of the Labour Party decided to disaffiliated the Socialist League. They also began considering expelling members of the League. G.D.H. Cole and George Lansbury responded by urging the party not to start a "heresy hunt".

Arthur Greenwood was one of those who argued that the rebel leader, Stafford Cripps, should be immediately expelled. Ernest Bevin agreed: "I saw Mosley come into the Labour Movement and I see no difference in the tactics of Mosley and Cripps." On 24th March, 1937, the National Executive Committee declared that members of the Socialist League would be ineligible for Labour Party membership from 1st June. Over the next few weeks membership fell from 3,000 to 1,600. In May, Margaret Cole and other leading members decided to dissolve the Socialist League.

Margaret Cole and her husband worked together to produce Intelligent Man's Review of Europe Today (1933) and The Condition of Britain (1937). She followed this by two books on her own: The New Economic Revolution (1938) and Marriage Past and Present (1938), which outlined a theory of socialist feminism. She lost her belief in pacifism with the rise of Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany and as a result, she gave her full support to Britain's involvement in the Second World War.

A Labour Party member of the London County Council, Cole was an important figure in the early experiments with comprehensive education. As well as editing the diaries of Beatrice Webb, Cole also wrote several books including an autobiography, Growing Up into Revolution (1949), The Story of Fabian Socialism (1961) and G. D. H. Cole (1971).

According to her biographer, Marc Stears: "Towards the end of her husband's life Margaret Cole increasingly turned to historical studies as she attempted to document the considerable contribution that the couple and their friends had made to the British left.... She broke an informal agreement with R. H. Tawney by producing the first edited collection of articles on the work of Beatrice Webb, generating ill feeling which she perpetuated after his death... Despite these controversies, and a reputation for being personally abrasive, Margaret Cole was still generally respected on the left in the post-war world."

Margaret Cole died in a nursing home at Goring-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, on 7th May 1980, the day after her eighty-seventh birthday.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Margaret Cole, Growing Up Into Revolution (1949)

I have never understood why my parents sent me to Roedean. To remove me from the home was understandable. I was the wrong sort of cuckoo in a horridly alien nest. The cross was too wide, and Roedean was, emphatically, the wrong sort of school for me. But I would go further and say it was not a good sort of school at all. It was very expensive; I only got in as the winner of the single annual scholarship.

Roedean was founded by a formidable group of sisters, Penelope, Millicent, and Dorothy Lawrence. The school did not pit on a polish or train up young ladies for real Society. Nor was it devoted to learning; though we spent the best part of seven hours a day in school, and Saturday morning as well, very few of us went on to Universities, and the standards achieved would have shocked Miss Buss and Miss Beale and the founders of the Girls' Public Day School Trust.

Perhaps this was because the Lawrences themselves, though first-class organisers, not to say advertisers, were no good as teachers and therefore probably not very good pickers; perhaps they were just giving their rich bourgeois clients what they wanted - some instructions, inadequate Christian clients what they wanted - some instruction, adequate Christian training for all but the Jews, discipline partly self-administered (by a prefectorial system and plenty of house and team spirit), and a frill of culture, i.e. concerts and lectures, sometimes with lantern slides, on Sunday evenings. There was also a small school library at one end of the main assembly hall, where girls in the top forms were allowed to read.

(2) Margaret Cole, Growing Up Into Revolution (1949)

I can never be sufficiently grateful to Girton College and the University of Cambridge for the part they played in transforming an unpresentable tadpole into a moderately decent sort of frog. The carping can, of course, find things to criticize in Girton. The mile-and-a-quarter which separates it from the centre of Cambridge is a bit of a nuisance, and was more nuisance in the days before 1914, when there were no buses and we had to cycle to and fro.

We were not allowed to go to meetings unchaperoned, so that before the closing of the debate or whatever it might be we had to rise and go home with our nurse, as it were, in order to get in before the Lodge gates closed. The most unintentionally dangerous chaperone was our junior mathematical don, Miss Cave-Brown-Cave, who was both an enthusiastic stargazer and an indifferent cyclist, and if she caught sight of a pet constellation while climbing Castle Hill would curvet wildly about, head in air, to the great peril of her charges.

(3) While at Girton College Margaret Cole became a Socialist after reading The Science of Wealth by J. A. Hobson.

I slipped into Socialism - the non-dogmatic, idealistic English Socialism of the early twentieth century - as easily as a duck slips into water. The first step in my conversion was a little book called The Science of Wealth, by that generous, profound, and long-neglected thinker, J. A. Hobson. It was a book on economics, not Socialism; but when I read in it the statement, almost causually thrown out, that a certain number of unemployed without wages, living in the last resort on charity and the Poor Law, were a necessary condition of capitalist industry, I was outraged. It must be remembered that in 1911 there was no State unemployment insurance at all; long spells of sickness or unemployment did mean recourse to the Poor Law, and "the workhouse" was pretty real to anyone who knew anything of nineteenth-century popular literature.

(4) At university Margaret Cole began reading the work of H. G. Wells.

I was just one of the many young who over three generations at least took their hope of the world from the vivid, many-gifted, generous, cantankerous personality, and accepted, not merely once but again and again over forty years, his eager conviction that the ideal of Socialism, which included world government, the abolition of all authority not based on reason, and of all inequality based on prejudice or privilege of any kind, of complete freedom of association, speech and movement, and of an immense increase of human welfare and material resources achieved by all-wise non-profit-making organisation of economic life, both could and would save humanity within a measurable space of time. Only at the very end, when he was all but on his death-bed, did H. G. Wells give up hoping for humanity.

Being a Wellsian Socialist, I naturally became at the same time a feminist. I had never in my own life felt any acute sex disability other than the youthful and inescapable one of being a girl in petticoats. My father did not hold with Votes for Women - of course not. But he did not restrain his daughters any more thoroughly than he restrained his sons, and though he strongly opposed the admission of women to degrees at his own University, he paid for their higher education.

(5) By the time that war was declared in August, 1914, Margaret Cole was a pacifist.

In all classes there was some resistance. In the Cabinet, John Morley and John Burns resigned their posts, and put an end to their political careers, sooner than take part; at the other end of the scale a good handful of the working men, particularly engineers on the Clyde and miners in South Wales, who had been especially class-conscious before the war, felt that, whatever statesmen might say, one government was pretty well as bad as another when it came to looking after the ordinary day-today interests of the people, and that, whoever won, the workers would be the losers unless they stood to their rights. With them stood the religious pacifists, Quakers on the left, Christadelphians and odder sects, straight pacifists such as Philip Snowden, Fred Jowlett and Clifford Allen, and some middle-class Socialists like my brother Ray, who had taken seriously the resolutions of the International, and believed that the war was an Imperialist war on both sides and that it was the duty of Socialists to refuse to vote war credits or to serve in any way.

(6) Margaret and her brother, Raymond Postgate, were involved in the campaign against conscription.

Conscription did not arrive until 1916, after every expedient, including solemn promises not to introduce conscription, had been used to man the armies with volunteers; but right from the start any critics of the war suffered a great deal of sporadic persecution by victims of war hysteria. They were booed and pelted, served with white feathers by excited young women, and subjected, particularly at the news of Mons and Charleroi began to come through and it appeared that our army and the French armies were not marching on Berlin but rather running away from it, by a barrage of untrue and idiotic "atrocity stories" about children with their hands cut off by the Germans, priests tied upside-down to the clappers of their own bells, dead bodies boiled down for fat, and the like. (It was a unfortunate that subsequent exposure of all stories as lies conditioned some muddled souls into rejecting any atrocity story whatsoever and so led them to deny or to discount up to the last any reports, however factual, about the doings of the Nazis.

(7) In 1916 Parliament passed the Military Service Act and her brother, Raymond Postgate,was conscripted.

In the spring of 1916 Ray, a scholar in his first year at St. John's College, Oxford, was called up. Of course he refused to go, thereby reducing his father to apoplectic fury; and, after he had failed to secure exemption and was brought before the magistrates as a mutinous soldier, I went up to Oxford be be by his side. At that date it needed a fair amount of courage to be a C.O. Though the Military Service Act allowed exemption on grounds of conscience, it was regrettably vague in its definition of either "conscience" or "exemption"; and the decision as to whether a man had or had not a valid conscientious objection, and if he had, whether he was to be exempted from all forms of war service or from combatant service only, or something between the two, was left to local tribunals all over the country, who had no common standard or guidance, and generally - though not by any means invariably - took the view that every fit man ought to want to fight, and that anyone who did not was a coward, an idiot, or a pervert, or all three.

Objection on religious grounds was for most part treated with respect, particularly if the sect had a respectable parentage; Quakers usually came off lightly, and were permitted to take up any form of service they felt able to do; though Quakers who were "absolutists," i.e., who refused to aid the war effort in any way whatever, were apt to be jailed after a long and futile cross-examination by the Tribunal on how they would behave if they found a German violating their mother. But non-Christians who objected on the grounds that they were internationalists or Socialists were obvious traitors in addition to all their other vices, and could expect little mercy. They would be sent to barracks, and thence to prison - and then nobody quite knew what would happen to them. There was talk of despatching them to France, unarmed, and shooting them there for mutiny.

(8) After her brother Raymond Postgate was sent to prison for refusing to be conscripted into the British Army, Margaret became actively involved in the Peace Movement.

It is almost literally true that when I walked away from the Oxford court-room I walked into a new world, a world of doubters and protesters, and into a new war - this time against the ruling classes and the government which represented them, and with the working classes, the Trade Unionists, the Irish rebels of Easter Week, and all those who resisted their governments or other governments which held them down. I found in a few months the whole lot which Henry Nevinson used to call "the stage-army of the Good" - the ILP, the Union of Democratic Control, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Daily Herald League, the National Council of Civil Liberties - and, above all, the Guild Socialists and the Fabian, later the Labour Research Department.

(9) Margaret Postgate and Douglas Cole, like many socialists, welcomed the Russian Revolution in 1917.

On the way to the office we bought our newspapers and read with incredulous eyes that the Russian people, the workers, soldiers, and peasants, had really risen and cast out the Tsar and his government, who were to our minds the arch-symbols of black oppression in the world - far worse than the Prussians. On that day we did not work at all in the office; we danced round the tables and sang, and went to celebrate.

Nor was it merely our small group that was delighted; throughout Britain everyone with an ounce of Liberalism in his composition rejoiced that whatever might come next tyranny had fallen, and thousands of them gathered in the Albert Hall and wept unashamedly as they paid tribute to those who had suffered in Siberia or in the Tsarist prisons.

The news of Russia put immense heart into left-wing forces all over the country. It seemed as though there might be something good coming out of the war after all; for if the Russian people could overthrow their government, could not the Germans and the Austrians - or the French, or the British?

(10) Margaret and Douglas Cole gave full support to the miners during the 1926 General Strike.

Some members of the Labour Club formed a University Strike Committee, which set itself three main jobs; to act as liaison between Oxford and Eccleston Square, then the headquarters of the TUC and the Labour Party, to get out strike bulletins and propaganda leaflets for the local committees, and to spread them and knowledge of the issues through the University and the nearby villages. My job was to be liaison officer, and half-a-dozen times during those nine days I was driven up to London by Hugh Gaitskill or John Dugdale to Eccleston Square, to collect supplies of the British Worker, any other news or instructions that were going, and while we were there to have a look at the centre of things; and to transport anyone who happened to require transport about the city.

The Government had made up its mind that "direct action" must be scotched once and for all, and, that being so, the Unions had no choice between surrendering and going on to civil war and revolution, which was the last thing they had envisaged or desired. They surrendered, ingloriously, but with the ranks unbroken; and though the immediate outcome was, naturally, a falling-off of membership, and a good deal of angry recrimination, the absence of any real revanche, any sacking of the leaders who had patently failed to lead, showed that the movement, when it had time to think things over, realised that it had in effect made a challenge to the basis of British society which it was not prepared to see through and that, therefore, post-mortems on who was to blame was unprofitable.

The industrial workers forgave their leaders. But they did not so easily forgive their enemies, particularly when the Government, to punish them for their insubordination, rushed through the 1927 Trade Union Act. This was a piece of political folly; it did not (because it could not) prevent strikes; what it did was to make it more easy to victimize local strike-leaders and also to put obstacles in the way of the Unions contributing to the funds of their own political Party.

(11) Beatrice Webb, diary entry (5th September, 1926)

G.D.H. Cole and his wife - always attractive because they are at once disinterested and brilliantly intellectual and, be it added, agreeable to look at - stayed a weekend with us and later came on to the T.U.C. Middle age finds them saner and more charitable in their outlook. Cole still dismisses this man or that with "I hate him," but it is the remnant of a mannerism, for he no longer means it. He is still a fanatic but he is a fanatic who has lost his peculiar faith... despite a desire to be rebels against all conventions, the Coles are the last of the puritans."

(12) Beatrice Webb, diary entry (20th July, 1936)

Our old friends the Coles came for the night; middle-aged and thoroughly stabilized in all their relationships, endlessly productive of books, whether economic and historical treatises or detective stories, mutually devoted partners and admirable parents of their promising children, they lead their little troop of admiring disciples along the middle way of politics, rather to the right of the aged Webbs - a curious commentary on the world-be revolutionary guild socialist movements of the second decade of the twentieth century.

(13) Margaret Cole, Growing Up Into Revolution (1949)

Bristol was bombed while we were there: we used to go down to the cellars of our Hall of Residence. We wore trousers over our pyjamas during night raids (but never in daytime or in the street - trousers were not thought respectable for girl students at that time).

One night in my first term King's College Arts library, which was occupying the Great Hall of Bristol University, was set on fire by incendiaries and completely destroyed. Soon after that we were sent home, for an extended Christmas vacation. There was nowhere for us to work without the library space.

Later, students were on a rota for firewatching. We usually did one night a week, on duty for two hours at a stretch, two of us together, working as part of a team. Those off duty slept in camp beds. The most exciting place to watch was the room at the top of the tower of the University building. You could see the whole of Bristol.