Vasily Grossman: The People Immortal, translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, New York Review Books Classics, 2022, 352 pages.

 “He had achieved nothing. He would leave behind him no books, no paintings, no discoveries. He had created no school of thought, political party, or disciples. Why had life been so hard? He had not preached, he had not taught; he had remained what he had been since birth – a human being.”

“let’s put God—and all these grand progressive ideas—to one side. Let’s begin with man; let’s be kind and attentive to the individual man—whether he’s a bishop, a peasant, an industrial magnate, a convict in the Sakhalin Islands or a waiter in a restaurant. Let’s begin with respect, compassion and love for the individual—or we’ll never get anywhere.

Anton Chekhov

“In those difficult days, people wanted only the truth, however difficult and cheerless it might be. And Bogariov told them this truth.” 

Vasily Grossman

A work not only of considerable literary significance but also an important historical document. As a new world war is brewing in Ukraine, and the vilest nationalism, xenophobia and historical lies are being promoted by the ruling classes everywhere, works like this will help reconnect the generations that have to wage the revolutionary battles of today with the socialist traditions of 1917.

—Clara Weiss, World Socialist Website

“There are also other aspects of Grossman’s work that are becoming important today. During the last 20 years, the Anglophone world has gradually recognised that the second world war was fought between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany and that the Western allies played a secondary role in it. There are many, many reasons why Grossman seems more relevant today than when I was first translating him over 40 years ago.”

Robert Chandler

In September 2022, The Immortal People, the Soviet author Vasily Grossman’s first of three superb novels chronicling the Second World War, was published with a new English translation by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler. The recent re-publication of the Soviet writer Vasily Grossman’s book reflects a renewed surge of interest in his books. Grossman has a journalist’s eye for detail coupled with a novelist’s empathy. His work has been compared to that of Erich Remarque and Stephen Crane.

Perhaps the most significant thing about this extraordinary new translation by Robert Chandler, who called Grossman’s political stance “revolutionary romanticism”, is that it contains never before-published passages from Grossman’s original manuscript. It, therefore, represents the complete edition of this work published so far in any language, including Grossman’s native Russian. As Claire Weiss correctly states, “The result is a work of considerable literary significance and an important historical document.” Weiss’s interview with Robert Chandler can be seen on the wsws.org.[1]

Grossman’s novel opens with the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. The fact that the Nazis could overrun large swathes of the Soviet Union was down to the fact that The Red Army and Soviet people had been left completely unprepared for the Nazi invasion. According to Weiss, Stalin had not only rejected dozens of warnings of the impending attack but had also murdered the leadership of the Red Army and large portions of its ranks in the Great Terror of 1936-1938.

Weiss states in her book review, “As a result, the Red Army of 1941 was poorly led militarily and politically, and vastly under-equipped to confront the highly sophisticated weaponry and mass assault of German imperialism. In the first months of the war, millions of Red Army soldiers were captured—about two million of them would be starved to death by spring 1942—and many more were killed and wounded on the battlefield”. [2]

The book is a fascinating look at the brutal nature of the Nazi invasion and the extraordinary sacrifice of The Red Army and the Russian Working Class. Grossman includes many important and politically fascinating characters. Such as the political commissar, Bogariov; the commander Babadjanian; and the soldier Ignatiev.

Bogariov doesn’t appear to be modelled on any particular individual but is probably an amalgam of many people met by Grossman. The Marx-Engels Institute mentioned in the book was a refuge for many oppositionists to the |Stalin regime. Mikhail Liftshitz and the Hungarian philosopher and literary critic György Lukács carried out work there. While Lukacs and Lifshitz managed to survive, many leading Bolsheviks, such as Isaak Rubin, were shot in 1937, and the leader of the Institute, Ryazanov, suffered the same fate. Grossman was aware of what was happening and added characters such as Bogariov, who opposed the Stalin regime.

As Clara Weiss writes, “Bogariov is a former employee of the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow, devoted to the legacy of Lenin and the early Russian socialists, who now take to the art of war as much as he did to the writings of Marx and Engels. Bogariov becomes the embodiment of what good political leadership means for Grossman. In what can only be read as a blatant rebuke of the Stalinist effort to dull the population and the soldiers into unconsciousness in the face of the immense dangers they were facing and of the bureaucracy’s constant lies during the war, Grossman writes, “In those difficult days, people wanted only the truth, however difficult and cheerless it might be. And Bogariov told them this truth.”  [3]

One might add that Grossman told the truth, and his novels, including Stalingrad and Life and Fate, were in opposition to the Stalinist falsifications of this history. As Weiss points out, the material also provides a sense of how the soviet bureaucracy’s constant political and historical lies impacted the cultural and socio-political climate at the time. To fully appreciate the book, the reader will need to familiarise themselves with what Weiss says was the “political and ideological crackdown by the Stalinist bureaucracy of the 1930s. “[4]

To conclude, Grossman’s books should be a must for every worker and young person and should be on every university reading list. Grossman, although long overdue, is correctly seen as one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century. His best works are regarded as masterpieces. Grossman states, “I wrote the book out of love and pity for ordinary people, and I still believe in them.” Despite living through what the poet Osip Mandelstam called the “wolfhound century”, Grossman retained this sentiment to his dying day.


[1] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2022/11/02/ljhh-n02.html

[2]The People Immortal: Soviet writer Vasily Grossman’s first novel about World War II-www.wsws.org/en/articles/2022/10/14/auih-o14.html

[3] The People Immortal: Soviet writer Vasily Grossman’s first novel about World War II-www.wsws.org/en/articles/2022/10/14/auih-o14.html

[4] The People Immortal: Soviet writer Vasily Grossman’s first novel about World War II-www.wsws.org/en/articles/2022/10/14/auih-o14.html

Diary Of A Nobody

The next article after this diary will bring up 400 articles on this website. I started this website in 2008 to post some of my essays from my degree at Birkbeck university. Still not sure how to celebrate. Either get drunk or write an article.

The Christopher Hill Conference is only a week away. One of many talking points will be Michael Sturza’s new book, The London Revolution 1640-1643: Class Struggles in 17th Century England[1]. Recently Sturza took to the pages of Academia.EU to attack, albeit mildly, my review of his book and to launch a far more nasty attack on Chris Thompson[2]. I will write a longer reply to Sturza in due course. I do not know Sturza personally, so he was within his right to attack my review in the public domain. Knowing what was “misleading” about the review would be nice. Most important is Sturza’s incapacity to understand why Hill could not tackle and oppose the onslaught of the Revisionists on anything that smacked Marxism.

The answer is to be found, not as Sturza suggests, because Hill “was unable to effectively defend the Marxist viewpoint due to the flaw in his analysis”. This is just not accurate. Firstly to tackle the Revisionists, you would have to expose their political outlook, something Hill could or would not do.

According to Norah Carlin, Hill and Manning must take some blame for the rise of revisionism. On the surface, it would seem that Carlin had a contradictory attitude towards Hill and Manning, which is not the case. Carlin praises Hill and Manning for their work on the English bourgeois revolution and says that any new historiography should incorporate much of their best writings.

However, their contribution does leave much to be desired when taking on the revisionists’ attack on Marxist historiography.  The SWP saw these two as bulwarks against the revisionist onslaught. At best, this was a lousy piece of judgement. At worse, they sacrificed a struggle against revisionism over a closer relationship with these two historians who were in one way or another closely tied to the apron strings of the Communist Party.

If you examine Hill’s role, to his credit, he did, albeit to a lesser extent, play a role in the “storm over the Gentry” debate. His defence of Tawney is still worth reading today. In many senses, this was a missed opportunity to do some severe damage to the anti-Marxists. The fact that Roper could walk away from this debate mostly unscathed merely emboldened further hostile attacks on Marxist historiography.

Gifted as a historian as Hill was, he did not understand the need for a consistent struggle against revisionism. This stems not from his understanding of history but his complete lack of Marxist political consciousness. When the SWP did try to prompt Hill into a more active role in the struggle, the results were not good. In an interview with John Rees and Lee Humber, this question was asked, How do you see the development of the debate around the English Revolution over recent years? Would you agree that the revisionists have taken some ground?

Hill’s answer was, “they have made a lot of useful points, but the younger generation of historians is now attacking their more extreme views. Although the revisionists had all sorts of useful ideas, they had a narrow political approach in that they tried to find the causes of the English Revolution solely in the years 1639–41. This assumes what you are setting out to prove. If you look just at those years, it’s a matter of political intrigue, not long-term causes. I think people are reacting against that now. The better of the revisionists are themselves switching around a bit. John Morrill, for instance, who thought everything depended on the county community and localism, is now taking a much broader point of view. And Conrad Russell has become aware that long-term factors must be considered – he doesn’t like it. Still, he recognises that religion has some long-term effects on what happened in 1640, a rather elementary point, but he left religion out altogether in the early days. Now he’s bought it in. He still leaves out the cultural breakdown in the society of that period, but he is moving a bit. I think a consensus will arise, and there will be another explosion in 20 years. These debates occur regularly –since 1640, people have been arguing about what it was all about”.

Some interesting new releases caught my eye this week.

Jonathan Healey’s new book The Blazing World has just been released and has received extensive reviews in the bourgeois media.

Lucy Hutchinson and the English Revolution was published in 2022. Having just been able to borrow a copy from the London Library, I will look to review it later.

I am currently working on a review of the excellent book by Vasily Grossman, The Immortal people.

Penguin’s republication of Eric Williams’s 1944 book Capitalism and Slavery is welcome. Another possible review in 2023.


[1] See my review-https://keith-perspective.blogspot.com/2022/09/the-london-revolution-1640-1643-class.html

[2] See last two articles on this website.

C Thompson’s Reply to Michael Sturza

First of all, let me make it clear that I am not now and never have been a “revisionist”. I am actually a critic of the work of Conrad Russell, work which I believe to be fundamentally wrong although not for the reasons Mr Sturza holds. Secondly, he will find in Valerie Pearl’s 1961 book on the City of London from 1625 to 1643 careful research that shows that the violence in the streets of London reported in Royalist news books was more carefully controlled and organised than figures like Brian Manning or Christopher Hill believed.

(The fall of the Bastille in Paris is irrelevant in this context.) I have indeed read Mr Sturza’s book which offers a commentary based on secondary works rather than original research into the sources for the early-1640s.   The protagonists on both sides in the events of the 1640s were drawn from all sections of English (and Welsh) society but this was not a “class-based” society in the Marxist sense at all. 

The English Civil Wars were ‘un grand soulevement’ – ‘a great uprising’ in English – more analogous to the revolt of the Low Countries post-1566/7, to the French Wars of Religion from 1562 to 1598 and the Frondes of 1648-1653 and the Revolt of the Catalans in 1640 rather than to any Marxist paradigm based on the Russian Revolution of 1917. Mr Sturza is perfectly entitled to elaborate his hypothesis but it has almost no credibility amongst contemporary academic historians. He may be surprised too to learn that I am not a reactionary in any sense.

Correspondence on Michael Sturza’s The London Revolution 1640-1643: Class Struggles in 17th Century England

(As this critique of my review of Michael Sturza’s The London Revolution 1640-1643: Class Struggles in 17th Century England[1] is in the public domain I will publish it here and will reply to Sturza’s article which first appeared on Academia.EU at a later date.)

Christopher Thompson uses Livesey’s favourable but somewhat misleading review of my book to launch an anti-Marxist diatribe rejecting the idea that social class analysis could possibly be credible. His flat denial of Revisionism’s compatibility with Thatcherism, “This contention is completely untenable,” is spoken like a true Revisionist and illustrates why he and I are mostly talking past each other.

It is not clear that Thompson has read my book. He simply repeats tired claims that various bourgeois historians have “proved” the case against Christopher Hill and Marxism. Thompson is right on one point at least: Hill did try to answer his Revisionist critics. It is Livesey who falsely ascribed to me the claim that he didn’t. But Hill was unable to effectively defend the Marxist viewpoint due to the flaw in his analysis. This left him vulnerable to attacks by Revisionists, who took prodigious advantage of Hill’s weakness to deny any revolution that ever took place in England.

The actual history of the period proves otherwise, despite Thompson’s offhand dismissal that “mob activities and riots were much less important than figures like Hill or Manning, or Sturza supposed.” One might ask whether the the fall of the Bastille, and the further role of the Sansculottes in the French Revolution, were also of such little import. After all, Paris was not all of France. Such attempts by bourgeois conservatives and Revisionists to deprecate mass action of the oppressed, and write social revolution out of history, are the signpost of their reactionary bias. Thompson is not the first to assert that because Christopher Hill made errors, Marxist class analysis is thereby invalidated. Readers of my book can decide for themselves.


[1]See my review at https://keith-perspective.blogspot.com/search?q=michael+sturza 

Remembering Christopher Hill

I first came across Christopher Hill in the Hilary Term (January to March) of 1963 when I attended lectures he gave in the dining hall of Balliol College, Oxford. These were based on the material he later published in 1964 in his book, Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England. I was very surprised by his delivery of these lectures given in a rather flat, even-paced voice punctuated by copious quotations from printed sources and accompanied by an interpretation of this period in a form of soft determinism. Rather disconcertingly, every two or three sentences he would sniff as if to punctuate his remarks.

It was more of a surprise to me in October, 1965 when he was assigned as my supervisor by the History Faculty Board for my prospective work on the 2nd Earl of Warwick. At our first meeting, he enquired after my social background and about my watch, which was one of the very first to provide the date as well as the time, and what it had cost. I was then sent off to the upper reading room of the old Bodleian Library to begin working through the Reports of the Historical Manuscripts Commission and the State Papers Domestic which were on the open shelves. But that was really all the advice he offered on where to find he sources for my research. Unfortunately, he was not acquainted with the manuscript sources available in the Bodleian, in the Public Record Office then in Chancery Lane, London or in the Manuscript Department of the British Museum: he had heard of county record offices but had not, to the best of my knowledge, ever visited one. In a supervisor of a thesis on early to middle seventeenth century history, this was a serious handicap. The old saying that undergraduates were taught while postgraduates taught themselves was never more true than in my case.

I usually saw Christopher Hill in his office in Balliol once a term. He sat in a chair that hung by a chain from the ceiling and gently swung from side to side as he listened to what I had to report. But he remained resolutely silent even when I had nothing more to say. I found this silence rather alarming and only learnt later that it was apparently an old Oxford teaching technique aimed at encouraging pupils to be more forthcoming about their findings. Unfortunately, Christopher Hill knew very little indeed about the Stuart peerage and landowners and, unlike Hugh Trevor-Roper, the Regius Professor of Modern History, had few positive suggestions to offer about the direction of my research or the contents of my draft chapters. From that point of view, it was an unproductive process. Once a week in term time, on Monday evenings to the best of my recollection, postgraduates assembled in his room together with female undergraduates from St Hilda’s College invited by his wife, Bridget, met to consume a barrel of beer the Hills provided. I went to a couple of these but was so deafened by the noise that I stopped going.

The last time I saw Christopher and Bridget Hill was at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California in January, 1997 when I had the good fortune to hold a fellowship there. We were all refugees from bitterly cold weather in England. He was characteristically robust in denouncing the Prime Minister John Major’s government as “bloody awful”. There was little doubt either in my conversations with both of them that he had been wounded by the attacks of Mark Kishlansky and, much earlier, by Jack Hexter on his methods and findings. Bridget Hill confided to me that she was worried about his health since he had recently completed a new introduction to the Calendar of State Papers Venetian which she thought had taken a lot out of him. (On her own health problems of which I later learnt she said nothing.) By then, of course, he was in his mid-eighties and was treated with considerable deference by other scholars then at the Huntington Library. After that, apart from one or two letters I sent to their home in Sibford Ferris in Oxfordshire, our contacts ceased.

Chris Thompson

On Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Biography (Books about Books) Hardcover – by D.J. Taylor- Abrams Press; 1st edition (October 31 2019)

“the day I joined the militia…he was probably a Trotskyist or an anarchist, and in the peculiar conditions of our time, when people of that sort are not killed by the Gestapo, they are usually killed by the GPU”.

George Orwell

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”― George Orwell, Animal Farm

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” ― George Orwell, 1984

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” ― George Orwell, 1984

D J Taylor’s book is a useful but somewhat politically limited biography of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Orwell’s book and his previous masterpiece Animal Farm are correctly seen as “key texts necessary for an understanding of the twenty-first century.” Taylor concentrates mainly on the making of the novel, trying to find out how and why Orwell wrote it.

Orwell took five years to write his last book and was already very ill during its gestation period. Written in seclusion on the windswept Isle of Jura, off Scotland’s coast, he died less than a year after it was published in 1949. Taylor writes, “By writing about the terrors that obsessed him, he had got them out of his system. 1984 is a devastating analysis of the corruption of language and dystopian horror world…and more.”

Taylor believes that Orwell’s idea for 1984 came from his study of The 1943 Allied leaders’ Tehran Conference, which according to Taylor, gave “his consciousness a decisive kick.” Maybe it did, or perhaps it did not. But Taylor misses the point. Orwell’s 1984 attempts to come to terms with Stalinism’s betrayal of the Russian and Spanish revolutions. To give his book clarity and accuracy, Orwell carried out extensive research. One important influence was Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.[1] Orwell did not live to see how important the book would become. It sold over 40 million copies and is as contemporary today as when it was written.

Orwell died in January 1950. One consequence of his early death was that he could not defend his work or prevent it from being used by right-wing ideologues in Europe and the United States for their ideological crusade. As was said in the opening of this review, Taylor’s biography of 1984 is useful but limited. The same can be said about his biography of Orwell despite winning the Whitbread Book Award in 2003.

Missing from both books is an accurate political evaluation of George Orwell himself. Orwell was part of a generation of workers and intellectuals who moved sharply to the left in the 1930s in response to the Depression, the rise of Nazism in Germany and the growing struggles of the working class. While Orwell looked to the Soviet Union for leadership, very early on, Orwell saw that the Stalin regime had nothing to do with Socialism and was betraying the ideals of the 1917 Revolution.

From the late 1930s onwards, he described himself as a Democratic Socialist, but he was mostly a centrist politically wavering between reform and revolution. He detested inequality and, on numerous occasions, favoured the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system. This sentiment was expressed in his book 1984, and Orwell’s main character Winston had a broadly sympathetic and hopeful attitude towards the working class or, as he says, the “proles.”

In the book, he believed the “proles were the only hope for the future. If there was hope, it MUST lie in the proles, because only there, in those swarming disregarded masses, eighty-five per cent of the population of Oceania, could the force to destroy the Party ever be generated.” If only they could somehow become conscious of their strength needed only to rise up and shake themselves like a horse shaking off flies. If they chose, they could blow the Party to pieces tomorrow morning. The proles had stayed human. They had not become hardened. They had a “vitality which the Party did not share and could not kill…the future belonged to the proles.”[2]

Orwell was never a Marxist but was influenced by Marxist writers such as Leon Trotsky. I have not been able to ascertain if Orwell read Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed, but he certainly knew what was in it. But as Fred Mazelis writes, “Orwell was always ambivalent about the genuine legacy of the October Revolution which Trotsky represented. His identification with the working class was based more on emotion and sentiment than scientific conviction. He associated with centrists like the Independent Labour Party in Britain and the POUM in Spain. The ILP called for “left unity,” adapting to the Stalinists and criticizing Trotsky’s merciless critique of Stalinism as “sectarian.” In Spain, the POUM played a similar role, giving crucial support to the Popular Front government, which turned around and suppressed it. At the same time, the Stalinists assassinated the POUM leaders because they could not tolerate any independent left-wing working-class movement.”

Orwell’s Animal Farm was his second attempt at reckoning with Stalinism, his first being the book Homage to Catalonia. At 120 pages, the book Animal farm can be read on many levels. As John Newsinger points out, “The politics of the book were pretty straightforward: a capitalist farmer had been quite properly overthrown by the worker animals, and an egalitarian socialist system had been introduced on the farm. The pigs had then betrayed the revolution with the revolutionary Snowball (Trotsky) driven out and the dictator Napoleon (Stalin) establishing a murderous police state”.[3]

Right-wing ideologues have attempted to portray the book as anti-revolutionary. Orwell refutes this slander saying, “I meant the moral to be that revolutions only effect a radical improvement when the masses are alert and know how to chuck out their leaders as soon as the latter have done their job. The turning point of the story was supposed to be when the pigs kept the milk and apples for themselves (Kronstadt). If the other animals had had the sense to put their foot down, then it would have been all right…What I was trying to say was, “You can’t have a revolution unless you make it for yourself; there is no such thing as a benevolent dictatorship.”[4]

Several short-sighted and stupid ideologues, both left and right, saw that the novel’s police state had an uncanny resemblance to Stalin’s USSR and accused Orwell of being an anti-communist but as Richard Mynick points out, “Orwell was too clear-sighted to conflate Stalinism with socialism (writing, for example, “My recent novel [‘1984’] is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism…but as a show-up of the perversions…which have already been partly realized in Communism and Fascism.”[5]

Despite having serious political differences with Leon Trotsky, there is no doubt that Orwell respected and was heavily influenced by the writings of Trotsky. As Jeffrey Meyers writes in his not-too-friendly essay on Trotsky and Orwell, “In May 1946 Orwell tried to persuade his publisher Fredric Warburg to publish the English edition of Trotsky’s Life of Stalin (1941): “I have read a good deal of it, mostly the bits dealing with Stalin’s childhood, with the civil war and with the alleged murder of Lenin” by Stalin. The earlier parts were “particularly interesting because they demonstrate the difficulty of establishing any fact about a public figure who has been a subject for propaganda. It might be worth trying to get a little more information about the circumstances of Trotsky’s assassination, which may have been partly decided on because of the knowledge that he was writing this very book.”[6]

To conclude, the discussion about Stalinism and the betrayal of revolutions has little interest for Taylor, which is certainly reflected in this book. His main concern is literature and culture. As Newsinger correctly points out, “Taylor’s achievement in his volume is to construct an Orwell who is acceptable to the literary establishment, someone non-threatening, irredeemably one of them. As far as he is concerned, two of the major influences on Nineteen Eighty-Four were Orwell’s rat phobia and the totalitarian horrors he had experienced at his prep school St Cyprian’s!”.[7]

It is not in the realms of possibility in this review to give justice to what was Orwell’s legacy. His most important work concerned the question of what Stalinism was and how to fight it. His most important books satirized the Stalinist political regime and warned of the dangers of totalitarianism. If you ignore the rubbish about him being a reactionary defender of the status quo or even an anti-communist, a systematic study of his most important works reveals a far more nuanced and complex individual. He was very much a product of his time. An old Russian proverb[8] once said, “It sometimes happens to eagles that they descend lower than chickens, but chickens never succeed In mounting as high as eagles”. George Orwell remains an eagle.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/We_(novel)

[2] 1984, George Orwell

[3] https://socialistworker.co.uk/socialist-review-archive/nineteen-eighty-four-and-all/

[4] Letter to Dwight Macdonald,George Orwell

[5] A comment: Revisiting George Orwell’s-1984-wsws.org

[6] https://orwellsociety.com/orwell-and-trotsky/

[7] https://socialistworker.co.uk/socialist-review-archive/nineteen-eighty-four-and-all/

[8]In criticizing Rosa Luxemburg Lenin once quoted two simple lines from a Russian proverb: “It sometimes happens to eagles that they descend lower than chickens but chickens never succeed In mounting as high as eagles”, and he added, “she was and remains an eagle”.

Book Review-Red List: MI5 and British Intellectuals in the Twentieth Century-David Caute Verso, pp. 352, £20

David Caute’s new book is a well-written and deeply researched account of the widespread British Secret Service’s covert surveillance of British writers and intellectuals in the last century. Caute’s work on official documents held at the National Archives shows the massive surveillance of anybody deemed a threat to National security. MI5 opened Letters, tapped phones, private homes were bugged, and hundreds of people were under constant surveillance by Special Branch agents.

Those watched included journalists, academics, scientists, filmmakers, writers, actors, musicians and, in some cases, the ordinary public. Caute lists more than 200 victims, but the figures will be much higher as more files are released to the National Archives.

MI5 spied on such prominent figures as Arthur Ransome, Paul Robeson, J.B. Priestley, Kingsley Amis, George Orwell, Doris Lessing, Christopher Isherwood, Stephen Spender, Dorothy Hodgkin, Jacob Bronowski, John Berger, Benjamin Britten, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, Kingsley Martin, Michael Redgrave, Joan Littlewood, Joseph Losey, Michael Foot and Harriet Harman.

So wide-ranging was the surveillance that even Winston Churchill’s cousin Clare Sheridan who was sympathetic to the Russian revolution, was investigated. According to writer Alan Judd, she was never a Communist, but “she got herself to Russia, lived in the Kremlin and sculpted busts of Soviet leaders, including Trotsky, Zinoviev, Dzerzhinsky and Lenin himself. She subsequently had a relationship with the pro-communist Charlie Chaplin and survived attempted rape by Mussolini. She travelled the world broadcasting anti-British views and was monitored by MI5 until they concluded that she was neither a spy nor a security threat but merely ‘extraordinarily indiscreet’ and had a passion for international mischief-making’. She was later reconciled with her cousin, spent time at Chartwell during the second world war and converted to Catholicism.”[1]

MI5 was set up in 1909 and was tasked to look into “activities designed to undermine or overthrow parliamentary democracy by political, violent or industrial means”. MI5 came into its own during the first world war. Its use of the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) against perceived revolutionaries, pacifists, democratic socialists, and anti-war activists. Members of the Independent Labour Party, such as Fenner Brockwaycame in for special scrutiny.

MI5’s task became especially acute when in 1917, the Bolshevik revolution occurred, which threatened to escalate into a worldwide revolution. The spectre of the socialist revolution haunts the secret service even today.

As Caute shows in his book, most people investigated and labelled subversive were no such thing. One such figure mentioned by Caute is the writer Arthur Ransome who, although was sympathetic to the Russian revolution and interviewed both Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, was never a revolutionary as this quote from his book Six Weeks in Russia shows, “I should have liked to explain what was the appeal of the revolution to men like Colonel Robins and myself, both of us men far removed in origin and upbringing from the revolutionary and socialist movements in our own countries. Of course, no one who was able, as we were able, to watch the men of the revolution at close quarters could believe for a moment that they were the merely paid agents of the very power which, more than all the others, represented the stronghold they had set out to destroy. We knew the injustice being done to these men to urge us in their defence. But there was more to it than that. There was a feeling, from which we could never escape, of the creative effort of the revolution.”[2]

In the post-war period, Caute’s book shows that the CPGB (Communist Party of Great Britain) took up a large part of MI5’s spying activity. All its leading cadre and large numbers of the CPHG (Communist Party Historians Group) were under constant surveillance. Caute believes the CPGB was not revolutionary and harboured no plans to overthrow capitalism.

According to the Trotskyists of the Socialist Labour League, who opposed Stalinism from the left, they were “a group of embittered doctrinaires without roots or perspectives or the ability to learn from their mistakes; a coterie of well-meaning university Dons and writers who have something to say on every subject except the class struggle taking place under their noses; not a party paying lip-service to Marxism but dominated by whichever faction happens to be in control in Moscow.[3]

Caute’s study of the Communist Party Historians Group highlights a historian’s difficulty in using and writing about these documents. It is not just a question of saying how and why people were spied upon, but any study must place the spy’s actions in the social and political context of the time. As Madeleine Davis writes:

“The release of MI5 files on Thompson and Hilton added to those of prominent party intellectuals already available, provides a fresh set of primary sources for and a renewed opportunity to consider these issues in their context, while the Thompson material has extra significance given the continued embargo on his papers.14 These files present problems as sources for historians interested in the human subjects of surveillance rather than its techniques and policy contexts. The secret, partial and incomplete nature of the material, retention or redaction of documents, and the difficulty in many cases of cross-checking against other sources limits their usefulness.

Although some triangulation is possible against the CPGB’s archive, awareness among prominent communists of extensive surveillance provoked counter-measures, including selective record keeping. It reinforced a culture of secrecy and mistrust. Thus while the volume of MI5 personal files now available has started to generate a significant literature drawing on both sets of primary sources, 15 investigation of the motives of those involved in the 1956 crisis needs also to draw on a substantial specialist secondary literature. Especially relevant is work emerging from the ‘biographical turn’ in communist historiography and work that examines both the CPGB’s cultural analysis and the party’s internal culture to illuminate the complex and contradictory reality of Zhdanovism’s implementation and contestation in the British party.”[4]

In the Chapter, The BBC Toes the Line Caute shows that MI5’s vetting of BBC staff was well-known, but the spy agency’s surveillance of independent television was not so much. In 1969, MI5 agents were particularly interested in Granada TV’s World In Action. Although not a Trotskyist, one of the high-profile journalists, John Pilger, had a large dossier on him. MI5 concluded that there was “no evidence of a conspiracy” at the programme and reported that any interest from the Communist Party of Great Britain had “diminished.” As one file claims. “Communists are less influential than Trotskyists, who, however, are too disunited to be able to execute a joint plan.”

Caute’s view of Trotskyism neatly dovetails that of MI5. Although a significant amount of time was spent by MI5 infiltrating many Psuedo left groups claiming to be Trotskyists, Caute, like MI5, thought the Trotskyist movement to be disunited. Perhaps this explains Caute’s ideologically light-minded attitude towards state penetration of the Trotskyist movement and certainly accounts for its lack of coverage in his book.

In March 2000, an article appeared on the WSWS.ORG called Was there a high-level MI5 agent in the British Workers Revolutionary Party?. Caute does not mention anything about this grave matter. As the article’s author David North explains: “A former agent for the British Security Service (known as MI5) has alleged in a sworn statement that the agency received reports from a high-level spy inside the Workers Revolutionary Party during the late 1960s. The ex-agent, David Shayler, is currently living in exile in France, where he has fled to escape prosecution for his exposure of state secrets. In his February 18 affidavit, Shayler asserts that the spy provided MI5 with reports of financial support given by John Lennon to the WRP. Shayler recounts that he was shown portions of an MI5 file relating to the agency’s surveillance of Lennon, whose socialist and anti-imperialist sentiments angered the British ruling class. The affidavit states that the material “concerned Lennon’s support for the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP), a Trotskyist organisation. According to the file, a source in the WRP had reported that Lennon gave tens of thousands of pounds sterling to the WRP in the late 1960s and also provided some funds to the Irish Republican Army at around the same time.”[5]

If David Caute has any information, he must publicise it. As North points out, all those committed to democratic rights in Britain and internationally must call for the identification of the MI5 agent inside the SLL/WRP. This is important not only to expose the individual (or individuals) involved but to educate a new generation of socialists about the dangers posed by state infiltration and provocation.


[1] https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/people-of-little-interest-mi5-s-view-of-left-wing-intellectuals/

[2] Six Weeks in Russia in 1919 Paperback – 10 Sept. 2010

[3] Cited in Gerry Healy and His Place in the History of the Fourth International, David North (1991), Labor Publications, p. 30.

[4] Edward Thompson, MI5 and the Reasoner controversy: negotiating“Communist principle” in the crisis of 1956

[5] Was there a high-level MI5 agent in the British Workers Revolutionary Party?. https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2000/03/lenn-m02.html

Thomas Rainborowe – Dangerous Radical by Stanley Slaughter-CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (19 May 2015)

 “I desire that those that had engaged in it should speak, for really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly. Sir, I think it’s clear that every man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that Government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under; and I am confident that when I have heard the reasons against it, something will be said to answer those reasons, in so much that I should doubt whether he was an Englishman or no that should doubt of these things.”

Thomas Rainborowe

Stanley Slaughter’s book Thomas Rainborowe -Dangerous Radical is one of the many forgotten books which litter the study of the English bourgeois revolution. Which is a shame because it is not a bad book. Unlike many historians, I do not believe its subject matter Thomas Rainsborough is a forgotten hero of the 17th century English revolution.

It must be said that Slaughter’s job was not made easy by the scarcity of archival sources. NothingRainsborowe wrote has survived, and if it were not for his intervention in the discussion at Putney 1647, which elevated him to one of the foremost radical voices of the English revolution, he would have remained just another excellent military figure.

The English revolution produced many fine and brave individuals. Thomas Rainsborough was one of the best. He was an extraordinarily gifted soldier, and his expertise was as a siege master. Like many of his generation, he showed reckless courage in battle. Only Oliver Cromwell stood above him in military skill.

But as Slaughter’s well-written and interesting biography states, he was best known for his radical politics. His radical politics were the main reason the Royalists assassinated him with the collaboration of presbyterian parliamentarians. As Ian Gentles writes : “Rainborowe continued to be a thorn in the side of the military grandees. In October and November he played a leading part in the army general council’s debates at Putney on the Leveller Agreement of the People. He poured scorn on Cromwell and others who said of the projected constitution, ‘Itt’s a huge alteration, itt’s a bringing in of New Lawes’, commenting, ‘if writinges bee true there hath bin many scufflinges betweene the honest men of England and those that have tyranniz’d over them’ (Clarke Papers, 1.246). When the grandees sought to prolong the discussion of the army’s engagements, Rainborowe insisted that they move on to address the Agreement of the People. When Ireton attacked the principle of universal manhood suffrage, Rainborowe took up the challenge in words that still ring in our ears after more than three-and-a-half centuries.”[1]

The exact circumstances of his murder are still a bit murky, and many wild conspiracy theories still abound, such as Oliver Cromwell organising the murder. What is known is that the perpetrators of this murder were given free rein to carry out their deadly deed. Slaughter draws attention to the relative ease the royalist assassins were able to assassinate a leading player in the English revolution and escape unscathed without as much as a scratch back to Pontefract, passing through the lines of the parliamentary forces who were more hostile to the radical Ransborowe than they were to the Royalist they were supposed to be fighting.

It is perhaps an understatement to say that Rainsborowe was a controversial figure hated by Royalists and Presbyterians. It was his misfortune to serve in a parliamentary Navy that was, on the whole, Royalist in its political persuasion.

Not only were they hostile to Ransborowe’s appointment, they were still politically loyal to the king and were opposed to Parliament’s treatment of Charles Ist. They sided with the Presbyterians in Parliament in calling for the disbandment of the New Model Army :

THE DECLARATION Of the Navie, being THE True Copie of a Letter from the Officers of the Navie, to the Commissioners: With their Resolutions upon turning out Colonell RAINSBROUGH from being their Commander.

28th.May, 1648.

Worshipfull;

THese are to certifie you that wee the Commanders, and Officers of the Ship Constant Reformation, with the rest of the Fleet, have secured the Ships for the service of King and Parliament, and have refused to be under the Command of Colonell Rainsbrough, by reason wee conceive him to be a man not wel-affected to the King, Parliament and Kingdome, and we doe hereby declare unto you, that we have unanimously joyned with the Kentish Gentlemen, in their just Petition to the Parliament, to this purpose following, videlicet.

First, that the Kings Majesty with all expedition be admitted in Safety and Honour, to treat with his two Houses of Parliament.

Secondly, that the army now under the Command of the Lord Fairfax, to be forthwith disbanded, their Arrears being paid them.

Thirdly, That the known Laws of the Kingdome may be Established and continued, whereby we ought to be Governed and Iudged.

Fourthly, That the Priviledges of Parliament and the Liberty of the Sub∣jects may be preserved.

And to this purpose we have sent our loving Friend Captaine Penrose, with a Letter to the Earle of Warwick, and we are resolved to take in no Commander whatsoever, but such as shall agree and correspond with us in this Petition, and shall resolve to live and dye with us, in the behalfe of King and Parliament, which is the Positive Result of us.[2]

As Ian Gentles correctly points out, not only was Rainsborowe one of the “most vivid actors of the English revolution” he was also one of the most important. It bewilders me that so few biographies exist, the most recent being Adrian Tinniswood 2013 book.[3] It is hoped that this will change soon.


[1] Rainborowe [Rainborow], Thomas (d. 1648) Ian J. Gentles-https://doi-org.lonlib.idm.oclc.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/23020

[2] https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A82191.0001.001/1:1?rgn=div1;view=fulltext

[3] The Rainborowes Hardcover – 5 Sept. 2013- Jonathan Cape

The New Model Army-Agent of Revolution-by Ian Gentles–Yale University Press-400 Pages-19 Apr 2022

“The natural condition of mankind is a state of war in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” because individuals are in a “war of all against all”

Thomas Hobbes

“I would rather have a plain russett-coated captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows than that which you call a gentleman and nothing else.”

Oliver Cromwell

When history moves with the speed of a cart-this is itself rationality and itself regularity. When the popular masses themselves, with all their virgin primitiveness, their simple crude decisiveness, begin to make history, to bring to life directly and immediately “principles and theories”, then the bourgeoisie feels fear. And cries out that “rationality is receding to the background”.

Vladimir Lenin

Ian Gentles new book is the definitive account of how the New Model Army became an armed party and was the motor force of the English Bourgeois revolution. The book is meticulously researched and extremely well written.

The military history of the New Model Army is well known, but where Gentles book differs is that it is a political history of the rise and fall of the world-famous 17th-century army. As the book title suggests, it was truly an “agent of the Revolution”. While one of the most formidable fighting forces ever put together, it was also one of the most radical apart from the army led by Leon Trotsky after the Russian Revolution. Formed in 1645, it played a crucial role in the aristocracy’s overthrow and brought to power one of the finest representative of the English bourgeoise. 

Leon Trotsky said of the New Model Army “the parliamentary army has converted itself into an independent political force. It has concentrated in its ranks the Independents, the pious and resolute petty bourgeoisie, the craftsmen and farmers. This army powerfully interferes in social life, not merely as an armed force, but as a Praetorian Guard and as the political representative of a new class opposing the prosperous and rich bourgeoisie. Correspondingly the army creates a new state organ rising above the military command: a council of soldiers’ and officers’ deputies (“agitators”). A new period of double sovereignty has thus arrived: that of the Presbyterian Parliament and the Independents’ army.

This leads to open conflicts. The bourgeoisie proves powerless to oppose with its own army the “model army” of Cromwell – that is, the armed plebeians. The conflict ends with a purgation of the Presbyterian Parliament by the sword of the Independents. There remains but the rump of a parliament; the dictatorship of Cromwell is established. The lower ranks of the army, under the leadership of the Levellers – the extreme left wing of the revolution – try to oppose the rule of the upper military levels, the patricians of the army, their own veritably plebeian regime. But this new two-power system does not succeed in developing: the Levellers, the lowest depths of the petty bourgeoisie, have not yet, nor can have, their historic path. Cromwell soon settles accounts with his enemies. A new political equilibrium, and still by no means a stable one, is established for a period of years.[1]

Gentles, a leading authority, examines every aspect of the New Model Army. It killed a King and carried out pioneering military tactics occupying London three times, creating a republic and keeping Cromwell in power as Lord Protector until his death. The book has been expanded to 1660, which means it covers the expedition to the West Indies in 1655 and the Restoration in 1660, which, paradoxically, the NMA made happen.

The army was a hotbed of radical and religious ideas and beliefs. Gentles is no stranger to this subject. His new book is touted as a fully revised version of his 1992 work, but in reality, it is a different book.

As Gentles explains in an interview: “The first edition has been condensed to about half its original length. It assimilates much new research, particularly on the Levellers and army politics (by David Scott, John Rees, Rachel Foxley, Philip Baker, Elliot Vernon, Jason Peacey and others), as well as important new work on the army’s military history by James Scott Wheeler, Glenn Foard, Andrew Hopper, Malcolm Wanklyn, Ismini Pells and others). The new edition adds chapters on the Protectorate (1653-9) and the Restoration (1659-60). It adds substantial new material to the chapters on Ireland and Scotland, extensively using the recently published correspondence of Cromwell’s son Henry to illustrate the army’s increasing dissatisfaction with the Protectoral regime. For Scotland, it illuminates the role of Robert Lilburne and George Monck in bringing that nation to heel, using a previously undeciphered manuscript to add vividness to the narrative of Glencairn’s uprising in 1654. It also provides an in-depth, shocking account of the New Model’s disastrous expedition against the Spanish Caribbean colony of Hispaniola, from which Oliver Cromwell never recovered his confidence. Finally, it provides a detailed, and significantly different interpretation of the army’s role in the Restoration, explaining how that epochal event was brought about without bloodshed.”[2]

As Gentles states, the book contains the latest historiography from the last three decades on the radical groups inside the New Model Army. He does not go along with the various revisionist historians who have deliberately downplayed the influence of groups such as the Levellers inside the army.

He writes, “The Levellers were very influential, despite what other historians have said. As early as March 1647, they hitched their wagon to the New Model Army, regarding it as their main hope for achieving their programme. The Leveller leaders spent a good deal of time at army headquarters in the mid-summer of 1647, striving to politicise it. In October and November, they virtually won over the Council of the Army, with the exception of the conservative Grandees, to back the Agreement of the People. A year later, when the army was desperately in need of political allies, the Levellers got it to adopt the Agreement of the People with the sole proviso that it be approved by Parliament. The decisive falling out between Leveller and army leaders did not occur until the spring of 1649, and even then, many officers remained supporters of Levellerism, which they labelled ‘The Good Old Cause’, up until the eve of the Restoration.”[3]

As Gentles’s book shows, the study of the NMA is integral to understanding how the English bourgeois revolution came about and succeeded. One surprising thing about the book is how little of Gentles’ historiographical proclivities are in this book. He does not subscribe to a’ Three Kingdoms’ approach to the English civil war – as Jasmin L. Johnson wrote, contained within this approach ‘is a tendency to bounce back and forth from country to country and from campaign to campaign, causing confusion and obscuring the effects that developments in one theatre of operations might have had on the others’.[4]

While Gentles is not immune to the siren calls of revisionist and post-revisionist historians, he places the actions of the NMA as part of a ‘people’s revolution. This tends to indicate that the influence of Marxist historians such as Christopher Hill and Brian Manning is not entirely dead.

As was said earlier, Professor Gentles is one of the few modern-day historians who does not downplay the influence groups such as the Levellers had inside the NMA. His new book offers a fresh insight into the complex relationship between Oliver Cromwell and Leveller leaders such as John Lilburne.

Gentles does not spend much time on military matters in this new book, and he acknowledges that Cromwell had no formal military training. Gentles, it seems, does not rate him highly as an army figure which is a little strange because if you read Royalist-supporting military historians like Peter Young, you get a much more accurate picture of Cromwell’s military prowess.

Gentles believes that Cromwell’s adventures in Ireland are a blot on his record and suggests that Cromwell’s overriding concern in Ireland was the neutralisation of Royalist threat and that the attack on, and massacre of, Catholics was a by-product of that action. Cromwell’s hatred for Catholicism was prevalent amongst the rising bourgeoisie of the 17th century. He further suggests that Cromwell played a key part in developing Irish nationalism.

Quite where the NMA fits into Gentles’s belief that the leaders of the revolution belonged to a ‘Junto’ is not explored. The definition of Junto is a group of men united together for some secret intrigue’, with the champion of this new historiography being John Adamson. The main theoretical premise of his book The Noble Revolt is to view the Civil War as basically a coup d’état by a group of nobles or aristocrats who no longer supported the King. According to Diane Purkiss, these nobles were ‘driven by their code of honour. They acted to protect themselves and the nation. Names such as Saye, Bedford, Essex and Warwick move from the sidelines to occupy centre stage, as do their counterparts among Scottish peers. They, not the rude masses, plucked a king from his throne.

I recommend this book to general readers and more academically minded students, as it is intelligent and well-researched. It has extensive footnotes, a lengthy bibliography, and excellent pictures, and it deserves a wide readership and should be on every universities book list.


[1] From Chapter 11 of The History of the Russian Revolution (1931)

[2] https://aspectsofhistory.com/author_interviews/ian-gentles-on-the-new-model-army/

[3] https://aspectsofhistory.com/author_interviews/ian-gentles-on-the-new-model-army/

[4] Jasmin L. Johnson, ‘Review of Ian Gentles, The English Revolution and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, 1638-1652’, H-War (February 2008)

Diary of a Nobody

I am currently working on a review of Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down. Although the conference to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the book has been moved to February, it still gives me some more time to work on this review and other work by Hill.

The new Bob Dylan book just arrived called The Philosophy of Modern Song. Having just glanced inside, it looks stunning with Dylan’s keen analytical insight into the modern song. I will review it for my website.

While there is a backlog of books I need to review, I will have to concentrate on some articles on the latest developments at Royal Mail. Management is hell-bent on destroying the pay conditions of thousands of postal workers and turning the company into an Amazon-style business with all that entails for the workforce, i.e. job cuts and redundancies. With Thirty thousand postal workers having already applied for early retirement, with more on the way, the CWU bureaucracy seems hell-bent on some shabby deal rather than mobilise postal workers against these attacks. Time for some independent rank-and-file committees to be established.

Early next year, I need to start some work on Stuart Hall. His Selected Writings on Marxism were published in 2021, and work on him is long overdue. When I did the first year of a pre-masters degree at Birkbeck, I researched him and his sidekick Raphael Samuel. Returning to the Bishopsgate Institute, where the Samuel archive is held, is a must.

Intend to do a short review of Show Me The Bodies, Peter Apps’ excellent-looking book on the corporate murder of 72 people in the Grenfell fire.

I am near the end of Blake Bailey’s biography of Phillip Roth. It is a superb read, and at over 900 pages long, it feels like I have lived with Roth all my life. Not sure I will review quite yet, and maybe do a bit more reading.

Given that most of the advertisements for my website go through Twitter, thanks to the megalomaniac Adolf Musk, I will have to look elsewhere to publicise the website and blog.

Meetings

On Monday, 21 November 2022, Elliot Vernon will talk on “The Wall and Glory of Jerusalem”: The message of sermons preached before the Lord Mayor and the City of London in the Commonwealth and Protectorate, 1649-1660. Part of Britain in Revolution series from Oxford University.

Christopher Hill and the English Revolution: 50 years after TWTUD- Sat, 4 February 2023, 09:30 – 17:00 GMT- Institute of Historical Research (IHR), School of Advanced Study Senate House Malet Street London WC1E 7HU