E. P. Thompson and the Volunteers on the Red Railway

A recently republished book edited by E. P. Thompson chronicles the story of British socialist volunteers who travelled to post-war Yugoslavia to assist in the construction of a railroad from Šamac to Sarajevo.

Several of the Marxist historians and theorists whose work began making an impact in the 1950s and ’60s had already acquired a practical background beyond academia in key political events of the twentieth century. This included the anti-fascist struggles which anticipated the Second World War, the war itself, and the transformative work of post-war reconstruction. The historian E.P. Thompson’s wartime experience began with leaving school in 1941 to go and fight. He was also deeply affected by the death of his older brother, who was captured and shot while aiding anti-fascist partisans in Bulgaria in 1944.

In his two books about his brother, Thompson considered how such events could shift their meaning in historical memory in response to the changing political climate of the Cold War. The same is true of the post-war events covered in The Railway: An Adventure in Construction, another lesser-known work edited by Thompson which documents the experience of the socialist youth volunteers who constructed a railway from Šamac to Sarajevo in 1947. Now reissued, the book explores the motivations behind the project and the practice of taking part.

By the end of the Second World War, Yugoslavia had lost 11 percent of its population and more than one-third of its industrial and agricultural capacity. The ‘youth railway’, one of several federally-supported post-war rebuilding projects, also attracted the participation of thousands of young people from across the world. Built in just months between April and November 1947 with little professional equipment, the Šamac–Sarajevo Railway’s voluntary workforce consisted of over 200,000 local youth and 5,000 more volunteers from 42 countries, aged between 16 and 25, working in brigades in month-long shifts at a particular site of construction.

In The Railway, Thompson emphasises that the country’s post-war reconstruction was mobilised ‘out of crisis and necessity’ and was not dependent on direction from above. The brigades functioned without direct state supervision and without hierarchical employerworker relations. The book notes the prior history of this kind of multifunctional mobilised unit in the anti-fascist brigades of the Second World War, as well as its subsequent echo in the autonomous collectives of self-management later established in Yugoslavia’s factories.

In addition to Thompson’s primary text, the book includes contributions by other British activists and writers attesting to their motivations for taking part and to daily life on the project. The brigades’ Spartan accommodation, early starts, and six hours of construction work contrasted with the rest of the day being given over to leisure, culture, education, and sport. The communal and internationalist aspects of political commitment, transcending barriers of both country and class, were a fundamental component of post-war socialist engagement — shown in aspects as on-the-nose as volunteers singing the ‘Internationale’ rather than their countries’ respective national anthems. The momentary eclecticism of post-war socialism is shown in a photograph taken of the British brigade in the summer of 1947, which pictures Thompson alongside the future Labour MP John Stonehouse, as well as Alfred Sherman, who went from Republican machine-gunner in the Spanish Civil War to cheerleader of Thatcherism.

At home, the possible effects of this horizon-broadening adventuring by young people formed part of anti-communist anxieties. In August 1947 Labour’s foreign secretary was asked in Parliament whether ‘the appeal for young volunteers from this country to assist in the Yugoslav Youth Railway Project is not connected with efforts to persuade such young persons subsequently to join any military international brigade.’ The official denial of this is reinforced throughout the book in testimony from volunteers themselves, contributor Ernest Bennet stating that ‘[there was] no time to waste in political indoctrination, nor was there need of it, for these people had gleaned their political lesson in a way more bitter than can readily be set in words.’

The practical effects of volunteering were instead more subtle and long-lasting. For British volunteers, expression of the energies that both inspired and were consolidated in the railway’s construction continued after and beyond the project’s completion. Thompson and his future wife Dorothy, who had worked alongside him on the railway, went on to progress their politics both through extramural adult education and works of groundbreaking radical history.

Thompson’s break with the Communist Party of Great Britain over the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary did not negate his commitment to socialist humanism, as the end of the Cold War has not negated the necessity and search for an alternative to capitalism. Projects like the ‘youth railway’ played a vital role in infrastructure and economic development, but were built without the profit-driven corporate development or exploited labour that has become ubiquitous in modern redevelopment and regeneration. The Railway is not only a document of collective ambition and achievement, but newly relevant to a time when crisis and devastation are again making grassroots projects of rebuilding vital.