Starr Mark

Mark Starr


Starr was born on 27th April 1894, one of five children, in Shoscombe, Wellow, North East Somerset to William, a Free Methodist coal miner variously described in the census later as a hitcher and earlier as an underground worker, and his mother, Susanna.


The village lies three miles south of the city of Bath and five miles north east of Radstock, on the southern edge of the Cotswold area of outstanding natural beauty.  Most of the pits on the coalfield which did not last part the 1970s were concentrated in the Cam Brook, Wellow Brook and Nettlebridge Valleys.

At age thirteen, Mark began work in the mines, later migrating to South Wales. In 1915 he won a scholarship to the Central Labour College in London. In 1916 he returned to the coal fields and began teaching classes in industrial history, which later became the basis for his book, `A Worker looks at History’.

Pic: Starr is pictured, left, in his later, American, years.


In 1918 he was called up to service in the army but refused to be drafted on political grounds. While in prison his sister sent him a copy of the New Testament in Esperanto, which sparked a lifelong interest in the subject. Lobbying by his father got Starr transferred from prison to farm work in Northumberland. In Northumberland Starr came in contact with the Plebs League and became a leading member of that group.


After his release from prison he returned to South Wales. In 1921 he helped organise the National Council of Labour Colleges.  The same year, in Kensington, Starr married Kathleen Horrabin (born 1888), sister of J F Horrabin, who edited the Plebs magazine, though the marriage was short-lived, ending in divorce, though she retained the name Starr in her later written work as a children's author


Mark Starr played an important role in the 1926 General Strike by carrying proofs of the British Worker by road from London to the printers in Manchester. He was a member of the Communist Party during the early 1920s, being a dual member of the Labour and Communist Parties. He stood unsuccessfully as a Labour Party candidate for Wimbledon in 1923 and 1924, though he was still associated with the Party. Indeed, it is probable that he was a Communist standing as a Labour candidate.  Although this is a statement contrary to the views of some commentators on Starr’s life, who do not seem to understand that it was not just possible but quite common for Labour Party members to also be in the Communist Party until the end of the 1920s.


It does not seem likely that Starr had yet jettisoned the Communist Party on consideration of the contemporary evidence. Statements that he had done so in the early 1920s appear to be part of his own retrospective self-justification. For Starr visited the Soviet Union as late as 1926 to attend an Esperanto conference in Leningrad. (He had written about Esperanto for `Communist Review’ in 1922.)


Contrary to claims that he must have been hostile to what he saw in Soviet Russia, Starr wrote an article for the British Communist Party entitled “Seeing is Believing” published at the end of 1926. It does not read like it was written by a doubter at all and the question has to be asked as to what the motives of having this published might be.


Starr had met many Soviet women who greatly impressed him; he wrote: “However, even before I met such comrades, I knew about the immense and beneficial changes the Revolution had brought to women. In the many Esperanto letters I have received, again and again has been described how the woman cook become a commissar, how the children before and after birth are cared for, how special steps are taken to protect women in the factories and how women are specially encouraged to participate in the life of the Trade Union and the village Soviet. All this I found to be true and the posters and women’s journals obtained indicate campaign being waved against illiteracy and ignorance.”


It is probable that at some point in late 1927 or early 1928, Starr allowed his links with the British Communist Party to drop, though not yet, perhaps, Marxism per se.  Whether he was persuaded to do this by a philosophical change of mind, or simply drew conclusions about which side his bread was buttered on cannot now be known. But his divorce had put Starr in a hostile position to some powerful people in the labour movement and it also coincided with a struggle that went on in Britain’s adult education sphere, both of which would seem to destin Starr to comprehensively loose out on it all.  The Plebs League sank into deep financial trouble and was absorbed by the National Council of Labour Colleges in 1927.  It was Starr’s weakness of position arising from this that almost certainly impelled him to emigrate to the United States. There is no evidence of any ideological turmoil being declared by Starr at this juncture.


Either way, by the summer of 1928, he found a means to enable him to drop his involvement in the British left in the most comprehensive of ways, when he announced that he wanted to move to the USA so as to study a capitalist society that appeared to have arrived at achieving a state of permanent prosperity.  It never mattered that this ludicrous justification was followed a year later by the Wall Street Crash! For Starr had already found a congenial new life, initially in a teaching post at Brookwood College in New York State.


The nature of this college is rarely explained in Starr biographical sketches. This is Brookwood Labor College.  Founded only in the immediate years after the First World War, the founding statement of the college emphasised the replacement of capitalism with socialism. Whilst the leadership of the faculty rarely emphasised such radical principles, by 1928, most US union leaders were often complaining about the supposed radicalism of Brookwood’s students, who kept leaving the college to try to find work as organisers with unions and ended up destabilising right wing control.


A witch-hunt style union investigation soon denounced Brookwood as subversive to the US trade union congress, the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Most unions disaffiliated from Brookwood around the time Starr was offered a job, though which came first is unclear. Subsequent circumstances suggest that Starr was still claiming revolutionary views when he was offered a job, for his post was initially temporary but was soon turned into a permanent one.


For, despite being now bereft of union funding, Brookwood's chairman, fought back and turned to Marxism as a philosophy around the time Starr’s post became permanent. Whilst it is not definitively established exactly what Starr’s stance was at any one time, it does look as if it was in these years of controversy within Brookwood that he turned sharply to the right (ie around 1931).  After some years’ division within the faculty, a majority voted to reject revolutionary politics by 1933; two years later Starr was offered a much better post elsewhere.


By 1937, the college had closed, some two years after Starr left it. Brookwood could claim to have successfully produced a generation of radical union leaders, may of whom went on to build CIO affiliates, the rival US `TUC’ (AFL and CIO subsequently merged.)


Before this, in 1935, Starr had left Brookwood to become a long-term bureaucrat for the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. After a major dispute failed in 1926, Communists were driven from the union by a vicious leadership that allowed no dissent whatsoever. So fierce was the repression of progressive opinions in the ILGWU that all of its employees had to provide an undated letter of resignation that would simply have the date inserted if the leadership later wanted to sack them.


Starr became educational director of the ILGWU, a union composed of 75% women members entirely led by men. A sample of his later work in this post contrasts sharply with `A Worker looks at History’. He published a book entitled “Preparing union leaders for responsibility” in 1944 and it may be readily assumed that the work fit neatly into the political position Starr had now adopted, which did not even extend any more even to social democracy.  


Starr was subsequently heavily involved, as a regional chair and local election candidate, in the US Liberal Party, a failed party founded in 1944 which trundled on for some decades  


He kept his ILGWU position until retirement in 1960 and died on 24 April 1985.


Sources include:

 `The Woman Worker’, November 1926, No. 8

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