Review: Why Study History? By Marcus Collins and Peter N. Stearns-Paperback – 27 May 2020-London Publishing Partnership.
“The study of history is a battleground. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living,”
“History calls those men the greatest who have ennobled themselves by working for the common good; experience acclaims as happiest the man who has made the greatest number of people happy”.
Marx, Reflections of a Young Man (1835)
Perhaps another title for this book should be the study history can earn you loads of cash. As the blurb advertising says “Considering studying history at university? Wondering whether a history degree will get you a good job, and what you might earn? Want to know what it is like to study history at degree level? This book tells you what you need to know”. While it is true that the study of history is taking a battering at university-level promoting the study of history should not be about how much money can be made by the university or the student. All this will lead to is a dumbing down of historical study and a superficial attitude amongst graduates towards history.
The book purports to be a study for people thinking of studying history but does not take into account how universities have become beholden to private companies. Many universities have prostituted themselves before Big business. Billionaires are falling over themselves to give money to universities such as at Oxford University to found new colleges in their names. Donations from billionaires and millionaires are now commonplace even from those who never studied there. The authors, Peter Stearns and Marcus Collins, spend a significant amount of space explaining that history students can gain the “ability to handle evidence, understand causation, wrestle with competing interpretations, write well, and detect bad arguments”. But this is largely window dressing as their main point is that students can make a lot of money by studying history (they cannot by the way). They write “Without a profound understanding of the past, societies, organizations and individuals will make needless mistakes and fail to take full advantage of emerging opportunities.”
If this book were only about why it is important to study history at the university level, then I would have no problem with it, but it is not that simple. Despite being well-established historians, both Collins and Stearns present what little history is in the book simplistically and misleadingly. Some of their historical pronunciations are not only wrong but in one case dangerous. A case in point is this quote from Stearns, who writes “history helps provide identity, and this is unquestionably one of the reasons all modern nations encourage its teaching in some form. Historical data include evidence about how families, groups, institutions and whole countries were formed and about how they have evolved while retaining cohesion. Histories that tell the national story, emphasizing distinctive features of the national experience, are meant to drive home an understanding of national values and a commitment to national loyalty.
He continues “A study of history is essential for good citizenship. This is the most common justification for the place of history in school curricula. Sometimes advocates of citizenship history hope merely to promote national identity and loyalty through a history spiced by vivid stories and lessons in individual success and morality. But the importance of history for citizenship goes beyond this narrow goal and can even challenge it at some points. History that lays the foundation for genuine citizenship returns, in one sense, to the essential uses of the study of the past. History provides data about the emergence of national institutions, problems, and values—it is the only significant storehouse of such data available. It offers evidence also about how nations have interacted with other societies, providing international and comparative perspectives essential for responsible citizenship”. This would not look out of place in any Nazi handbook of how to be a good citizen. I am not saying that Stearns or Collins are fascist sympathizers but as Leon Trotsky wrote: “every sociological definition is at bottom a historical prognosis”.
It would appear that Collins and Stearns’s prognosis is that Communism is little different to what it replaced. Why else on page 35 would they state that after the Bolshevik revolution took place, its police force was little different from the Tsarist one it replaced. The slander is left without any explanation and creates a narrative that ultimately sidelines the complex evolution of events or the ideas of their participants. It would perhaps be excusable if this was the only wrong-headed and that is being a polite piece of history, but their simplistic and sometimes deliberately misleading pronouncements on history matters permeate the whole book.
To conclude the book appears to have been assembled quite quickly, and much of what passes for history appears to been added in the same manner. Again given that these are well known and established historians why no index, and only 96 endnotes. It is also surprising that given the importance of the subject matter why no major publishing house picked up the project. Collins and Stearns’s conclusion is weak. What they should have said is that the study of history is hard and it will or should not make you much money. A serious historian should have a passion for history regardless of the money. The study of history should be for the benefit of mankind or as a man who knew a thing or two about history said: “History calls those men the greatest who have ennobled themselves by working for the common good; experience acclaims as happiest the man who has made the greatest number of people happy”.
Conservative Revolutionary: The Lives of Lewis Namier – by D.W. Hayton. Manchester, 472 pp., £25, August 2019,
“Far too much of modern British history is ensconced in biographies which dribble away their material without coming to grips with basic problems.”
Sir Lewis Namier
Namierization-(also Namierisation) – The application of Sir Lewis Namier’s methods and theories to the interpretation of a historical situation.
Louis Naimer was one of the British bourgeoisie’s favourite historians. Despite being born in Poland, Naimer is considered a doyen of British History. D.W Hayton’s superb biography joins to a recent list of biographies of leading British historians. In the recent past, there have been biographies of AJP Taylor, EH Carr and Hugh Trevor-Roper. As regards Trevor Roper there have been four books of letters and journals, a book of letters from Richard Cobb and David Caute’s Isaac and Isaiah which highlights the tense relationship between Isaac Deutscher and Isaiah Berlin. As regards Berlin, a historian of ideas there has been a biography, four volumes of letters and a book. In the last year alone there have been biographies of E.J. Hobsbawm and JH Plumb.
There is no denying that Naimer was a gifted historian. Whether he was England’s greatest 20th-century historian is open to conjecture. As the title of the biography says, he was a conservative revolutionary with many lives. He enjoyed the company of the upper echelons of the British bourgeoise including friendships with leading figures of his day, including Winston Churchill.
Throughout his career, Naimer was preoccupied not with the history of working people. For him, working people belonged to the footnotes of history. His study of history was the study of the elites, their thoughts and actions. Despite being friends with many politicians, he had a view that all politicians were after material and personal gain. He once declared that any reference to ideas in political discourse was nothing more than ‘flapdoodle’. Naimer’s method of working while being new at the time came under heavy criticism with some accusing him of “taking ideas out of history” and being an elite theorist which he was.
As Christopher Hill says “the Namier method proved attractive during the period of the cold war when ideologically motivated historians (however unconscious the ideology) wanted to play down the significance of principles, whether religious or political, to proclaim “the end of ideology.” Here psychology became useful. The Reformation was alleged to start from Luther’s bowel troubles; it spread no doubt because many Germans were similarly afflicted. Medieval and sixteenth-century heretics were dismissed as “paranoid.” The underlying assumption was that opposition to any government is somehow irrational. Sir Geoffrey Elton, a much more sophisticated practitioner, discusses sixteenth-century English history as a matter of administration, sees all problems from the rulers’ viewpoint. Religion, whether Catholic or Protestant, plays a minor part in his account of the century of the Reformation. “Revisionist” historians have extended Elton’s analysis to explain the origins of the English Revolution, though they eschew the word “revolution.” They see the English civil war as an accident, the result of a series of coincidences. Again the consequence is to minimise the ideological significance of that great turning point in English history”.
Given that Naimer was such an important historian, it is hard to believe that this is the first biography of him in over thirty years. As was said at the beginning of this review, this is a superb example of how to write a biography. The book is based on a significant range of sources, including new archival material.
David Hayton, who is the Emeritus Professor of History at Queen’s University, Belfast, has written what will prove to be a definitive study for the next generation of scholars. Hayton’s book maintains a significant amount of objectivity and avoids calling his subject matter by his first name an annoying trait of some biographers. For a reader, one of the most important things is to trust a biographer. It is more than annoying having to double-check if a biographer has got something right. Hayton is a very trustworthy biographer. Hayton correctly shows Naimer to be a complex figure. According to one source he could be a “crashing bore” and according to another ‘Once let this fellow start talking, there was no stopping him”. The reader will have to make up their mind. But as Hayton believes, the historian should be judged on his work not whether he was a good diner guest or friend.
Too many reviews of Hayton’s book have concentrated on Naimer’s personality. However, as Christopher Hill wrote “the great historian, Sir Lewis Namier wrote three volumes about eighteenth-century England in which he argued that the high-sounding principles which Whig and Tory politicians mouthed bore little relation to their political actions. Here the spoils of office and the patronage of rival grandees were far more important. His books, written with a style and panache that few historians can rival, were a great success and established the credentials of “the Namier method”: close and detailed analysis of the family and patronage affiliations of members of Parliament, of their connections with economic interests—these were the keys to understanding eighteenth-century politics. Principles were fig leaves. Namier was accused of taking the mind out of history, but he was much more cautious than that and made no claim to have discovered a universal key. He dealt with a period in which political and ideological issues were in fact of little significance among what he called “the political nation” and what others might call the ruling class. Hence his success”.
It is not without some truth that Namier was one of the 20th century’s most original historian. He revolutionised historical study and research. As Colin Kidd, in his review, writes “Namier’s impact was not confined to his historiographical patch. He profoundly changed – at least for a time – what constituted best practice in research and exposition. Where once it had seemed obvious that the historian’s primary job was to narrate change over time, Namier investigated the political elite at a particular moment. By contrast with the dauntingly prosopographical analysis of Namier and his disciples, narrative as previously understood seemed quaintly impressionistic, yielding only a superficial understanding of past politics”.
As was said earlier, Namier was a complex figure. At the same time, it is important to understand the early influences on the young Naimer, namely his flirtation with socialism. As Hayton recounts in the book “So deep was his hostility to the old dynastic empires of central and eastern Europe — Austrian, Russian and Ottoman — that he was prepared to accept even the Bolshevik regime as a step towards the liberation of subject nationalities”.
As Ng writes “Namier was almost alone, however, in his ardour for the Bolsheviks. The pressure of war had radicalised Namier to such an extent that he concluded that revolution must take place before evolutionary reform could be achieved. ‘Evolution comes after the revolution to eliminate the moribund forms by a gradual process. That is why systems survive revolutions and yet cannot be killed apart from the revolution.'”4 It is a testimony to Seton-Watson’s fair-mindedness and tolerance that he included Namier’s article ‘Trotski’ in The New Europe, albeit with a note that the article did not necessarily represent the journal’s point of view”.
But as Kidd states “We should not overplay the intellectual pedigree of Namier’s ideas, however. When at Balliol between 1908 and 1911 he fell in love with the stolid, pragmatic instincts of the British governing class and the empire over which it ruled, despite the anti-semitism which prevailed in both. In 1910 he changed his surname from Bernstein to Namier, and in 1913 became a British subject”.
Despite Naimer’s love affair with the British bourgeoisie in the early days of his career, this was a one-sided affair it rarely loved him back. Kidd, like Hayton, believed that anti-Semitism played no small role in Naimer’s bad treatment during his time in academia. In 1947 Namier was passed over for the regius chair at Oxford.
One example of this anti-semitism was a nasty piece in G.K. Chesterton’s weekly magazine New Witness. As Bernard Levin once wrote, “The best one can say of Chesterton’s anti-semitism is that it was less vile than Belloc’s; let us leave it at that.” Naimer’s exclusion from academia did not halt his prodigious output of work. The publication of his books on Georgian politics (in 1929 and 1930) established him as a very gifted historian. Young historians could learn much from Naimer’s attitude to historians craft.
Politically despite his misspent youth as a “socialist” Namier was a Zionist and a one-nation Tory or as he put it “a Tory radical”. His political outlook would shape his historiography. Understanding his historiography is made all the more difficult because one of the few standard biographies of him was by his widow. It has been said that her “inclinations were mystical rather than historiographical”. Without being nasty, Hayton tends to ignore much of what she wrote. He thought it was unreliable as a source.Namier’s most important work was on the Parliament of Great Britain, in particular, English politics in the 1760s.
According to his Wikipedia page “Namier used prosopography or collective biography of every Member of Parliament (M.P.) and peer who sat in the British Parliament in the latter 18th century to reveal that local interests, not national ones, often determined how parliamentarians voted. Namier argued very strongly that far from being tightly organised groups, both the Tories and Whigs were collections of ever-shifting and small fluid groups whose stances altered on an issue-by-issue basis. Namier felt that prosopographical methods were the best for analysing small groups like the House of Commons, but he was opposed to the application of prosopography to larger groups. At the time of its publication in 1929, The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III caused a historiographical revolution in understanding the 18th century”.
Like many historians of his time, his brand of historiography had a name Namierism given to it by his opponents. Like many brands “it was born, flourished and died”. What of Naimer’s conservativism, J. C. D Clark highlights the difficulty “Some political scientists identify two sorts of conservatism, the procedural and the substantive? Procedural conservatism prioritises pragmatic, sensible adaptation to change.
Substantive conservatism prioritises adherence to certain principles, beliefs, values and social forms. Whigs insist that the change to which procedural conservatism always capitulated was Whig change: Whigs could not lose. By contrast, Whigs announce that the ideologies that substantive conservatism adhered to were absurd, outdated, reactionary, implausible: Tories could not win”.
The reception of Hayton’s biography has on the whole been very favourable as befits such a good biography. Fitting Namerism into 21st historiography is another matter. To conclude If Namier were alive today, it would not take him long to fit in with today’s conservative anti-revolutionaries? One of these anti-revolutionaries Mr J.C.D Clark writes “Adherents of the Whig interpretation of history naturally tried to marginalise so devastating a critic, but the purposefulness of the Whig interpretation, its teleology, meshed effortlessly with the Marxist commitments that spread in the universities from the 1960s: the left establishment, too, had deep reasons for denigrating Namier”.
It is true that Naimer “stood head and shoulders above many historians of his age in technical expertise and international range”. But what is Naimer’s legacy? It is a shame that so few historians are reading Naimer and that his legacy has declined to the point of virtual obscurity.
As John Cannon points out “To the world Namier was a hard, combative man; yet he was vulnerable and saw himself ringed by enemies. There are innumerable testimonies, of which those by Berlin and Toynbee are the most charitable, to his awesome loquacity, which could empty any common room. He found life hard. His childhood, he told Lady Namier, had been ‘a mental register of unforgettable rebuffs’, and in old age, an encounter at Manchester with a surly ticket-inspector was enough to set him brooding on the collapse of civilised values (Namier, 16, 300–01). Taylor found him ‘a strange mixture of greatness and helplessness’ (Taylor, 112), and Trevelyan, who had helped him to his chair, muttered, in his terse way, ‘Great research worker, no historian’.
Over the last forty years, the revolution in social history has indeed passed Namier by. Yet he does retain relevance for us today. One does not have to agree with the way Naimer looked at the world, but like all great historians, he should be read and learnt from. Namier, an extraordinarily talented man, had an extraordinarily unhappy life. Perhaps that is the best definition of a Conservative revolutionary”. He at least deserves a revival, and it hoped this excellent biography does the job.
Wu Ming Presents Thomas Muntzer Sermon to the Princes / Part of the Revolutions series / Verso Paperback / 176 pages / May 2010 / £8.99
Tristram Hunt is a former Labour MP and British Historian who is now director of Victoria and Albert Museum. In 2016 he gave a speech at Winchester University entitled: The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and England in the 21st Century. The speech was a clumsy attempt to bring George Orwell’s original essay into the 21st century.
Orwell’s essay was an extraordinary piece of work in that, among other things called for a social revolution during the Second World War in England. Suffice to say that Hunt a right-wing Labourite is not calling for that.
Hunt’s speech is a dishonest attempt to use Orwell’s confusing support for patriotism for his right-wing politics. Some of Orwell’s work in this essay is confusing and just wrong, but the overall thrust of his essay is spot on and far more left-wing than Hunt will ever be. At no stage in Hunt’s essay does he call for a social revolution against one of the oldest bourgeoise in the world.
Much of Hunt’s speech is flippant and shallow. His speech is a cover for Labour’s incredibly right-wing trajectory. The word socialism in the title of his speech is mostly for show, similar to how the Nazi’s used it in the 1930s in order to confuse the working class. Hunt’s real perspective is the revival of a particularly nasty form of English nationalism and a thinly disguised one at that. Hunt begins the lecture with a paean to the good old days of the English “dissenting tradition” of Watt Tyler, the Peasants revolt and the radicals of the English revolution.
While pretending to be a radical Hunt is in fact on the right-wing of the Labour Party. As part of the offensive to shift the party even further to the right he argues that it must “take English identity and cultural affiliation seriously”.
He then says that Labour “needs a much greater honesty in how we navigate Englishness and politics – particularly when it comes to questions of immigration”. To do this, the party must not oppose populist English culture, and instead learn to embrace it”. In reality, Hunt’s appeal is directed at the most degenerate, parochial and right-wing in society.
Hunt goes on to attack the working class for abandoning the Labour Party because “They value home, family, and their country. They feel their cultural identity is under threat. They yearn for a sense of belonging and national renewal. Tradition, rules, and social order are important to them”.
To be honest, Hunt’s politics are not dissimilar to that of the Tory party, or for that matter any number of fascist parties that exist in Britain. Like the fascist’s Hunt wraps himself up in the St George’s flag. Paraphrasing the writer Paul Kingsnorth Hunt believes that there is an analogy “between the spread of St. George’s Cross and the Confederate Flag in the South of the United States. An unofficial, unspoken act of defiance by a people which says “we are still here”.
He continues “Although it is not as entrenched as often suggested, there is a reluctance amongst some in the party to embrace patriotism and promote national pride… An aversion to the institutions and traditions people hold dear has helped to create the perception that the Labour-party is anti-English and does not share the values of the nation”.
Hunt’s extreme right-wing comments regarding immigration would not look out of place with Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood Speech. You do not have to share Gordon Brown’s politics to agree with his comments that Duffy was a bigot. Hunt says “We had nothing to say to Mrs Duffy and the millions of voters like her who, first and foremost, had sincere, legitimate worries about immigration”. This is shocking. Duffy’s patriotism should have been treated as Samuel Johnson so beautifully put it as being “the last refuge of a scoundrel”.
As Hunt’s praise of Derek Blunket in an article in the Guardian is just plain bizarre. In the article, he praises David Blunkett MP as “One of the few politicians brave enough to confront this dilemma has been David Blunkett. The teaching of citizenship in schools, the introduction of citizenship ceremonies, and the publication by Bernard Crick of an official history of Britain have served to return the emphasis to British values. Meanwhile, Blunkett himself has happily broken with the left’s usual reserve on these matters, speaking of his patriotic ardour for English music, poetry, drama and humour”.
This supposed defence of English culture is nothing more than an excuse to wrap himself in the union jack. Does Hunt’ really believe that Blunkett’s tacky and clumsy appeal to British nationalism against the ‘Muslim Hoards’ is progressive? Historically Hunt is not the only historian to promote the so-called British values of Justice and fair play, but he does so to empty any class content behind these slogans. After all these concepts were espoused by a ruling elite that has a lot of blood rather on its hands and has routinely cloaked their imperialist adventures in such terms. Finally, on this matter, Hunt’s attempt to justify his defence of British imperialism aims in the garb of the Enlightenment is a somewhat disgusting spectacle.
It is hard to know where to start with Hunt’s use of George Orwell as a cover for his right-wing conservative perspective. To start with, it must be said that Orwell wrote his famous essay when actual bombs were falling on England; that was hardly the case facing Hunt.
One of the significant problems of Hunt’s choice of the Lion and the Unicorn is not only what he says about it but what he does not say. It should be said that Orwell is wrong and a little confused on the question of patriotism. Orwell writes “England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their nationality. In left-wing circles, it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings”. This could be seen as an attack on left-wing intellectuals it also could read as his position as regards patriotism.
However, this is not the main point and misses the thrust of Orwell’s attack on British capitalism. It must be said that Orwell’s analysis would not have looked out of place with much of the perspective of the British Trotskyists during the Second World War. Orwell’s answer to the war was the call for a social revolution. Some of his work, although he does not acknowledge it, is heavily influenced by the great Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky.
Orwell’s essay was not just a knee jerk reaction to the war Orwell had in the words of Gregory Claeys “before he wrote The Lion and the Unicorn Orwell had briefly suggested three of its central themes: first, patriotism was not inherently conservative or reactionary, but might be expressed as a legitimate sentiment among those on the left; second, patriotism alone would not prevent England’s defeat, but instead the social revolution must progress (and here his Spanish ideals were clearly carried forward). Third, Orwell argued that in fact, it was those who were most patriotic who were least likely to “flinch from revolution when the moment comes.” John Cornford, a Communist, killed while serving in the International Brigades, had been “public school to the core.” This proved, Orwell thought, that one kind of loyalty could transmute itself into another and that it was necessary for the coming struggle to recognize “the spiritual need for patriotism and the military virtues” .
The more you read Orwell, the more you see how far politically he was from Hunt. “The Lion and the Unicorn” is an extraordinary book written at the height of the war it is a damning indictment 0f the war.
Orwell is crystal clear that the only way to beat the fascist is for the working class to make the war a revolutionary one. Orwell writes “It is only by revolution that the native genius of the English people can be set free. Revolution does not mean red flags and street fighting; it means a fundamental shift of power. Whether it happens with or without bloodshed is largely an accident of time and place. Nor does it mean the dictatorship of a single class. The people in England who grasp what changes are needed and are capable of carrying them through are not confined to any one class, though it is true that very few people with over £2,000 a year are among them. What is wanted is a conscious open revolt by ordinary people against inefficiency, class privilege and the rule of the old. It is not primarily a question of change of government. British governments do, broadly speaking, represent the will of the people, and if we alter our structure from below, we shall get the government we need. Ambassadors, generals, officials and colonial administrators who are senile or pro-Fascist are more dangerous than Cabinet ministers whose follies have to be committed in public. Right through our national life, we have got to fight against privilege, against the notion that a half-witted public-schoolboy is better for command than an intelligent mechanic. Although there are gifted and honest individuals among them, we have got to break the grip of the monied class as a whole. England has got to assume its real shape. The England that is only just beneath the surface, in the factories and the newspaper offices, in the aeroplanes and the submarines, has got to take charge of its own destiny.”
To collude in our current time of crisis although no bombs are falling on our heads we do face an even more deadly foe. It is a pity we do not have a George Orwell, we have instead Hunt who thankfully has remained silent.
 “The Lion and the Unicorn”, Patriotism, and Orwell’s Politics-Gregory Claeys-The Review of Politics-Vol. 47, No. 2 (Apr., 1985), pp. 186-211
In a Post-Truth World, How do we Study History-Suzannah Lipscomb-A Reply
In the February issue of History Today, the popular historian Suzannah Lipscomb wrote the article entitled In a Post-Truth World, How do we Study History. In the opening paragraph, she all but calls the left-wing film director Ken Loach a holocaust denier.Despite saying that Loach had denied the claim and had answered the charge in Guardian Lipscomb refused to retract her claim. The fact that the Guardian refused to publish Loach’s full reply to his detractors is not mentioned by Lipscomb.Lipscomb along with 12 other high profile Historians and writers have led a campaign which has accused the Labour Party of being antisemitic and therefore they refused to vote for it during the general election.
Their campaign is fully supported by the Guardian which published a wretched piece by Jonathan Freedland. In his article, Freedland wrote “It means that a man such as Ken Loach – an artist so sensitive he is capable of making the film I, Daniel Blake – ends up lending a spurious legitimacy to Holocaust denial. Asked to react to a speaker at a Brighton fringe meeting who had said Labour supporters should feel free to debate any topic, including the veracity of the Holocaust – “did it happen or didn’t it happen”, as the BBC interviewer put it – Loach could not give a simple, unequivocal denunciation of Holocaust denial. “I think history is for all of us to discuss. Loach had not been asked whether there should be a discussion of the meaning of the Nazi slaughter of the Jews. He had been asked about the fact of it happening. And on that, he said there should be discussion – the same apparently innocuous formulation routinely advanced by hardcore Holocaust deniers”. Loach sought a reply to this slander but was only given a small section in the Guardian’s Comment is Free section. In a further response carried by the letters section of the New York Times, Loach wrote to the Editor saying ”Howard Jacobson alleges that I defended questioning the Holocaust. I did not and do not. In a confused BBC interview, where question and answer overlapped, my words were twisted to give a meaning contrary to that intended. The Holocaust is as real a historical event as World War II itself and not to be challenged. In Primo Levi’s words: “Those who deny Auschwitz would be ready to remake it”.
Whether she is conscious or not Lipscomb’s comments add to an already growing witch hunt in the service of Britains ruling elite. As Jean Shaouls article points out “the aim of this political destabilization operation has been to prevent an election victory that would take him to Number 10 and to then engineer his subsequent removal. It followed a relentless campaign that started as soon as Corbyn became a leader in 2015 when the Blairites—acting with the Conservative Party, the media, the military and intelligence establishment and the Israel lobby—denounced not only Corbyn’s but all left-wing opposition to Israel’s brutal suppression of the Palestinians as anti-Semitic”. The witch-hunt centres on a concerted attempt to equate opposition to Zionism and the colonial policies of the Israeli state with hatred of the Jewish people in general and the infamous and reactionary anti-Semitism of the Nazis in particular.
Lipscomb’s concludes her deeply disturbing article attempting to cover up her lazy sleight of hand journalism with a cloak of orthodoxy by attacking the postmodernist’s attempt to deny historical facts. In fact, it is Lipscomb who is playing fast and loose with historical facts. She should retract her comments and History Today should give Loach the right to reply.
Review: Permanent Record by Edward Snowden – 352 pages- Macmillan-(17 Sept. 2019)
It is hard to think of a greater stamp of authenticity than the US government filing a lawsuit claiming your book is so truthful that it was literally against the law to write,”
“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”― George Orwell, 1984
The ink on Edward Snowden’s new book had barely dried when the US government sought to block the proceeds of his memoir Permanent Record.The US Department of Justice filed suit on Tuesday against Edward Snowden and his publisher Macmillan. The aim of this vindictive move was to stop Snowden receiving any money made from the publication of his new book. US Attorney G. Zachary Terwilliger stated, “This lawsuit will ensure that Edward Snowden receives no monetary benefits from breaching the trust placed in him.”
Snowden’s publisher Macmillan is also being sued “solely to ensure that no funds are transferred to Snowden, or at his direction, while the court resolves the United States’ claims.”Snowden who has over four million Twitter followers is widely respected for his whistleblowing act and in some quarters is regarded as a hero said the book was written not for monetary gain but in order to set the record straight regarding his release of data that showed the US government had systematically and secretly tapped the internet records of every single person on the planet. In doing so successive, US government had violated constitutional rights on a massive scale.
As Snowden intimates in the book, the surveillance apparatus exposed has no real parallel in history. Companies like Verizon, Google and Yahoo helped the US government collect billions of emails, phone calls, texts, videoconference and webcam recordings. One writer said that it “allows the surveillance agencies to draw social and political profiles of every person in the US and hundreds of millions of people beyond America’s borders”.
The book itself contains no secrets” it still nonetheless takes the breath away at the extent of spying the US government undertook. While not implying in the book Snowden has uncovered through a series of leaks “the very advanced framework of a police state, both illegal and unconstitutional. The National Security Agency (NSA) and the US spy network are engaged in the collection of virtually all communications and the assembling of vast databases for the purpose of monitoring the personal, social and political activities of the entire population”.
As Snowden graphically puts it in an interview “All of your private records, all of your private communications, all of your transactions, all of your associations, who you talk to, who you love, what you buy, what you read—all of those things can be seized and held by the government and then searched later for any reason, hardly, without any justification, without any real oversight, without any real accountability for those who do wrong”. On a human level, this point was hit home in the book when Snowden was spying on someone and was watching his target through his computer. The target had his son on his knee all the while Snowden was spying on him.
As Snowden notes he could “actually see you write sentences and then backspace over your mistakes and then change the words and then kind of pause and think about what you wanted to say and then change it. Moreover, it is this extraordinary intrusion not just into your communications, your finished messages but your actual drafting process, into the way you think.”
One overarching aim of the lawsuit is to try to deter people from buying the book and discussing content such as the one above but as As Edward Snowden tweeted “Yesterday, the government sued the publisher of #PermanentRecord for—not kidding—printing it without giving the CIA and NSA a chance to erase details of their classified crimes from the manuscript. Today, it is the best-selling book in the world.”
Snowden’s book is a cross between a novel, spy story and biography, and this makes it a cracking read. Reading the book, one is struck by a certain degree of irony. Although carrying out one of the most audacious revolutionary acts this century Snowden’s early life would appear to have been the inspiration for the film The Truman Show.Snowden grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC. His family was all involved in the military or federal government in some capacity. Snowden himself becoming a trusted CIA employee and NSA intelligence contractor.
There is a lot to admire about Snowden. On a personal level, the fact that he was prepared to sacrifice everything to expose illegal US government spying shows he was a man of courage and principle. On a more broader level, Snowden was radicalised by the multiple wars carried out by the US government during his most formative years. In this sense Snowden is not alone.
The life experience of the 30-year-old Snowden reflects that of an entire generation. “The disaffection with and growing opposition to the existing social and political set-up reflected in the evolution of Snowden’s views is not simply an individual process, but part of a change involving millions of his generation. It is this fact that accounts for the extraordinary level of anger and fear within the state apparatus that has been generated by his actions”. From reading his book, his whistleblowing was as much an act against the massive invasion of privacy as it was against a quarter-century of wars. It would appear that Snowden very consciously fought to oppose these wars in the one way that was open to him and that was whistleblowing.
Kevin Reed supports this sentiment adding“ millions of workers and young people are entering political struggle today—facing a crisis that will challenge and shake up their views about the nature of the US military, the two-party system, the unions, bourgeois nationalism, etc.—Snowden’s book provides an insight into the internal process by which one young intelligence worker came to act, on the basis of principles, against the entire military-intelligence establishment of the American government”.
There is much to like about this book. While Snowden had a reasonable idea what would happen after he released his files nothing really prepared him for how fundamental his life would change. Once the files were released he planned to go to one of few countries that he would feel safe in that being Ecuador.
To do so, he had to fly via Russia while in the air Snowden’s passport was revoked by the US Department of State. Snowden lived at the airport in Russia for 40 days after which he was given asylum by the Russian government.
One striking aspect of the book is the degree of confidence Snowden has shown in his actions. There is not a moment of doubt despite the years of threats and calumny by the US government. His courage and principled stand is not just a reflection of his personal courage but because he knows he has widespread support.
As Glenn Greenwaldy states “Snowden seemed to derive a sense of strength from having made this decision. He exuded an extraordinary equanimity when talking about what the US government might do to him. The sight of this twenty-nine-year-old young man responding this way to the threat of decades, or life, in a super-max prison—a prospect that, by design, would scare almost anyone into paralysis—was deeply inspiring. And his courage was contagious: Laura and I vowed to each other repeatedly and to Snowden that every action we would take and every decision we would make from that point forward would honour his choice.” 
It would be pointless to hope this book gets a wide readership as it is already selling bucketloads throughout the world. It is hoped that the new generation of workers and students reading the book act upon his courageous and selfless action. In his book, he is refreshingly frank about the emotional crisis his whistleblowing caused to his family and partner Lindsay. While had to abandon his girlfriend without any warning it is comforting to know that their relationship was as strong as his principles.
The study of history is in decline in Britain:A Reply
One of the most annoying things about the Economist magazine is not having the authors byline on its articles. It seems the only exception to this rule is the articles written by Bagehot who happens to be dead and dead a long time.
A recent article by this author called The study of history is in decline in Britain is a very right-wing evaluation of the state of historical study in this country. The author correctly notes that England is moving through one of its most difficult historical moments. Bagehot bemoans the fact that England “ is losing its skill at interpreting the past”.
I do not agree with Bagehot’s evaluation, which looks likes a ruse to cover the Economist’s increasingly right-wing position over Brexit. While warning against right-wing populism, the Economist’s real fear is that the crisis will provoke a response in the working class. It is also important to challenge his pessimism. A more optimistic evaluation of the state of historical study comes from the mind and pen of Margaret Macmillan in her excellent book The Uses and Abuses of History. For the Macmillan the historian’s role no matter where they are “ must do our best to raise the public awareness of the past in all its richness and complexity”.
The article begins with a political summation of this situation, stating” Whatever you think about recent events in Britain, you cannot deny that they qualify as historic. The country is trying to make a fundamental change in its relationship with the continent. The Conservative Party is in danger of splitting asunder and handing power to a far-left Labour Party. All this is taking place against the backdrop of a fracturing of the Western alliance and a resurgence of authoritarian populism”.
It is true that after two on the and a half years after the 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union (EU), the British ruling elite “is mired in crisis”. However I prefer a more Marxist presentation of what is going on as Chris Marsden points out “The dominant pro-Remain faction is desperately manoeuvring to either overturn the result or at least secure a deal preserving tariff-free access to the Single European Market on which it depends for 40 per cent of trade and London’s role as a centre of financial speculation. The pro-Brexit faction, led by right-wing Tories and the sectarian thugs of the Democratic Unionist Party, resists all entreaties to compromise. They believe the EU can be forced to accept the UK’s terms through an alliance with the Trump administration in Washington. Such an arrangement would free Britain to strike unilateral trade deals internationally and refashion Britain as a Singapore-style free trade zone in Europe based on crushing levels of exploitation. The working class has no interest in backing either right-wing faction.
Bagehot’s somewhat simplistic and right-wing evaluation of the political situation allows the writer to call into question any other study of history that does not deal with the elites of any given century. Bagehot is of the firm opinion that the study of history should be by the elites for the elites. As he states “ A scholarship to read history at one of the ancient universities was both a rite of passage for established members of the elite and a ticket into the elite for clever provincial boys, as Alan Bennett documented so touchingly in his play “The History Boys”. Prominent historians such as A.J.P. Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper were public figures who spoke to the nation about both historical and contemporary events”.
Bagehot makes another point that “ the study of history has shrivelled” and the number reading it at university has declined by about a tenth in the past decade”. Even if you take the figures cited by Bagehot at face value and some have not you have to ask yourself what is the reason. It is not that there is a decline in the interest in history; it is because of the severe difficulty of getting a decent job with a history degree. As Brodie Waddell on his blog states the chance of getting a job in academia with a PhD has become extraordinarily hard. Once in, things are not much better as universities have in many ways become intellectual prisons.
There is one point that I agree with, and that is Bagehot’s complaint about the over specialisation and that “the historical profession has turned in on itself. Historians spend their lives learning more and more about less and less, producing narrow PhDs and turning them into monographs and academic articles, in the hamster-wheel pursuit of tenure and promotion. The need to fill endless forms to access government funding adds the nightmare of official bureaucracy to the nightmare of hyper-specialisation”.
Much as I would like to blame the government as Bagehot does there is a much more political reason for this slide into obscure historical study. Bagehot would not agree, but this specialisation has occurred because of the turn away from “Grand Narratives” in the study of history. One of the most critical “Grand Narrative” has been the study of history using a historical materialist method or as it is sometimes called the Marxist method. One of the by-products in the decade’s prolonged attack on Marxism has been to move away from any historical study that smacks of Marxism.
Led by a large number of revisionist historians the attack on any Marxist conception has almost become a new genre. Like Bagehot, these revisionists bemoan “History from below” with its studies of the “the marginal”, “the poor” & ” every day”. They believe that history study should be about the haves and not the have nots.
To conclude you have to ask yourself why has the Economist commission this article in the first place. The reason is that there is a real fear now taking place in ruling circles that the growing economic crisis is leading to a growing radicalisation around the world. The universities have always been at the forefront of the attack on Marxism. The Economist article is crude in its attempt to stifle any study of an alternative to capitalism.
That Empathy has suddenly become a hot topic of discussion with books like the recent The Age of Empathy by Frans de Waal, Souvenir Press being seriously touted as a viable means of understanding the past is a retrograde step. Thankfully the use of Empathy has never really had much of a stronghold on historians in the past certainly before the 1970s. However, today it has started to get a hearing it does not deserve.
That is not to say that historians cannot have empathy the great historian G.E.M. de Ste Croix according to Ann Talbot had a lifelong empathy with the oppressed.Who the historian is empathetic to does usually reveal their political bias as it should be. As E.H. Carr once said “if, as Collingwood says, the historian must re-enact in thought what has gone on in the mind of his dramatis personae, so the reader in his turn must re-enact what goes on in the mind of the historian. Study the historian before you begin to study the facts. This is, after all, not very abstruse. It is what is already done by the intelligent undergraduate who, when recommended to read a work by that great scholar Jones of St. Jude’s, goes round to a friend at St. Jude’s to ask what sort of chap Jones is, and what bees he has in his bonnet. When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing. If you can detect none, either you are tone deaf, or your historian is a dull dog”. 
The use of empathy has been used in schools the 1980s in schools as a means of teaching children empathy for the study of history. The use of empathy in schools and now in wider academia and society as a semi-viable means of historical study is a by-product of the dominance of postmodernist theories in universities and society in general. The academic architects of postmodernism and identity politics occupy well-paid positions in academia. As a social layer, the theoreticians of postmodernism are some of the wealthiest in society. Their political and philosophical views express their social interests.
The use of empathy as a method of historical inquiry also owes a lot to the growth of the new Social History school of-of Historiography which appeared in the early 1970s. According to some historians, it was perhaps the last major historiography of the 20th century to try and explain a complex historical phenomenon. Before The 1970s, Social History had mostly been limited to a study of everyday life. During the last thirty odd years, the subject has come to prominence because some aspects of it have become the bête noir of some revisionist historians. The most positive side of the new history is that it brought into the public domain the lives of working people or the poor who had been mainly ignored by historians. On the downside this, new history became divorced from any form of economic or materialist explanation of history. The new social history is not that different from its predecessor “old social history”. Described as a “hodgepodge” of disciplines and unlike any other historiography. The English historian G. M. Trevelyan saw it as the link between economic and political history; he stated, “Without social history, economic history is barren and political history unintelligible.”
One of the avenues influential in promoting empathy as a viable historical method of studying the past is the History Today magazine which has a habit of opening up its pages to several historians who have exhibited sympathetic viewpoints towards postmodernist theories. Its recent issue is no exception. Four historians were given space on the issue of empathy in History.Helen Parr, Professor of History at Keele University and author of Our Boys: The Story of a Paratrooper (Allen Lane, 2018) began the assault with an article called “Empathy can help us understand an uncomfortable culture. She writes “In November 1981, some paratroopers in recruit training gang-raped a 15-year-old girl in an Aldershot barracks. The girl met one of the soldiers in a local pub, who took her to his dormitory. There a group of drunken paratroopers tied her to a bed with elasticated cord, and five or six of them raped her. They kicked her, urinated on her and stole her underwear as a trophy. Two years later – after some of the soldiers had fought in the Falklands – six men were convicted at Winchester Crown Court of rape, indecent assault and common assault. Two of them pleaded guilty. The longest sentence was five years. Empathy – identifying with the paratroopers in that barrack room – can help us to understand this uncomfortable culture and expose the recruits’ vulnerabilities: the unforgiving harshness of some of their early lives, the intense codes of an elite club where loyalty was prized above all and the ways training forged their identities”.
To defend herself from accusations of being sympathetic to these psychopaths she states “Understanding this does not exonerate their crime nor suggest more sympathy with them than with their victim”.This is an unnecessary approach. Given the long history of violence perpetrated by British soldiers over a long period of history an examination of this history would give a much deeper insight into why this crime took place. On this occasion, this historian has to take sides. The first action is not to empathise but to oppose or to be more precise to acquaint these fascist mined paratroopers heads with the pavement.
Perhaps the most extreme example of this type of empathising has been directed towards a study of Nazi Fascism. In an essay Some Reflections on Empathy in History Source: Teaching History, No. 55 (April 1989), pp. 13-18 John Cairns writes Sympathy or Empathy? Sympathy is distinguishable from empathy, for in sympathy we are paralleling ourself and someone else. For instance, when we sympathise with a bereaved person, we are telling that individual about our feelings, and offering a symbol of our regard. Whereas when we empathise, we are doing more than this: we are trying to enter into the mind of another person and seeking to try out what we consider to be his or her thought and motivations. It is possible, for example, to empathise with Himmler, without having any sympathy for him. It would be important for a student to see the contradictory aspects of Himmler in order to gain something of his perspective on events. Consider how he sought approval for visiting the sick and showing compassion for others. The same person who consigned thousands to death by a signature, a clerk in a military uniform, was thoroughly squeamish when witnessing an execution he had ordered. Here was a sensitive man enslaved to Hitler’s megalomaniac”.
This nonsense is even more dangerous postmodernist rubbish than Parrs. Cairn’s psychological approach has its roots in the Frankfurt school of anti-Marxism. Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm and Wilhelm Reich et al. “The theoreticians of the Frankfurt School expressed the outlook of sections of the German petty bourgeoisie. Moreover, the main representatives of the Frankfurt School showed no interest in, let alone active political support for, Trotsky’s struggle against the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union. This is a political fact that is, without question, of great importance in understanding the evolution of the Frankfurt School. However, it would be wrong to neglect consideration of its theoretical-philosophical roots. An examination of the theoretical influences that found expression in the Frankfurt School is necessary, not only to understand this intellectual tendency and its many offshoots but also to identify its essential difference from the Marxism of Bolshevism and the October Revolution”.
In her article entitled The concept that history is something distant is a dangerous one Hallie Rubenhold, author of The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper (Doubleday, 2019) make this point “A certain level of emotional detachment is necessary when examining any historical subject. No historian wants to be accused of failing to apply a critical eye and making hasty, inappropriate judgements. However, it is also possible that complete dispassion can prevent us from recognising the subtler human issues at play. In most cases,it is the smaller human stories that influence, the larger trends: the personal frustrations and private sufferings, often of people who have been written out of the record, that bring down governments, or initiate sweeping social and political change”.
While using the empathetic method for the historical study is fine for retrieving figures from history that have been forgotten such as the victims of Jack the Ripper when a more complex subject matter comes up such as the Russian revolution or the Holocaust the use of empathy is next to useless.
Why because as the great Karl Marx would say “In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or — what is but a legal expression for the same thing — with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation, the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the productive social forces and the relations of production”.
Using the method of historical materialism, it is possible to be empathetic but also have a connection with the past that reveals the real voices. Not in a subjective but an objective way. The study of the past becomes scientifically grounded. Does this stop the historian feeling empathy towards their subject as Miri Rubin, Professor of Medieval and Early Modern History at the Queen Mary University of London writes “It is natural that we should feel empathy with some in the past and abhor the actions of others? I have not lost sympathy for those interrogated by the Inquisition on suspicion of heresy, as in Languedoc or Bavaria in the 1300s, nor has my disgust diminished at the actions of magistrates and judges in the witchcraft trials in Bamberg or Salem in The 1600s. It is a good thing that we feel for the tortured, the abused, the marginalised; victims who can be found both among the elite and the poor. Such empathy, after all, inspired the new histories of women, African-Americans, colonised people, working people, the sick and the disabled since the mid-20th century, leading to lasting changes in history and its possibilities.
The problem with these new histories based on the empathy method is that far from giving us a more scientific understanding of the past it is leading the study of history into a blind alley of gender studies, race studies and ever more obscure specialisation.The third article in History Today by Patricia Fara, Emeritus Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge has an air of irrationality and hostility to reason about it she writes “Hiding something unpleasant from view is less effective than exploring its implications. How tempting it is to adopt a stance of intellectual and moral superiority towards the past. However, although human beings have accumulated vast numbers of facts, there is no guarantee that we have become more clever or more virtuous”.
People have treated the world and its inhabitants badly – they still do. However, the route to improvement lies through exposure and discussion, not concealment and denial.While exposure and discussion are necessary, they cannot by themselves explain complex historical phenomena. If something is being hidden in all these articles, it is the mention of class or being more precise social forces.
As EH Carr wrote ‘The historian undertakes a twofold operation: to analyse the past in the light of the present and the future which is growing out of it and to cast the beam of the past over the issues which dominate current and future.’ It is, he said, the function of the historian not only to analyse what he or she finds significant in the past, but also ‘to isolate and illuminate the fundamental changes at work in the society in which we live’, which will entail a view ‘of the processes by which the problems set to the present generation by these changes can be resolved’. People are a product of history, their judgements and actions conditioned by the past and the historian should work to make them aware of this, but also to make them aware of the issues and problems of their own time; to break the chain that binds them to the past and present, and so enable them to influence the future”.
To conclude whether the historian is empathetic towards his or her subject is entirely up to them. A historian should be passionate towards the study of history and write from the heart as well as the head, but this must be tempered with an understanding that history should be studied as a science and not the emotions of the historian. When a historian finishes a book, it should not have tear stains on it.
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper- Hallie Rubenhold-Doubleday (£16.99).
On Professor David Starkey
In a recent article carried in the Daily Telegraph entitled “ Historians need to have loved and lost to understand the past” the right-wing Thatcherite historian David Starkey intimated that the best historians are older as you need to have loved and lost to understand the past. Starkey says “What I have done is used my own experience of mourning and joy,” he said. “You take the dry facts of history, and with memories in your own life, you realise how you should understand them.”
Starkey’ was reminiscing about the loss of his long-term partner three years ago. Grief can do strange things to the mind. I have lost my father recently, and the loss can lead you to reevaluate many things; however, it did not change my understanding of history, nor has it lead to a better understanding of the past. If you did not have that understanding in the first place, then no amount of loss can compensate.
Starkey believes that loss can better understand figures like King Henry VIII. Since the Tudor period is Starkey’s expertise and not mine, I am not about to cross swords with a world-renowned historian on that subject. I will leave that to others far more qualified what I will say is that Starkey is no stranger to controversy and almost seems to thrive on the oxygen of publicity brings.
There are many dangers with Starkey’s crude shotgun approach to historical and political questions that could lead to a lack of understanding of the real issues involved. Starkey is no stranger to controversy. Many times Starkey’s political views have undermined his evaluation of complex historical events.
It should be said that I am not against political views shaping historical understanding, but when those views are the expression of pure ideology, then we start to have problems. Starkey is not subtle about his politics. He has been accused of being an “aggressive racist” and “sexist” following this quote on a Newsnight programme “The whites have become black; a particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion.”
The same historian went on to say that the proto-fascist Tory politician Enoch Powell was correct when he warned in the 1960s that immigration would lead to civil unrest.
Starkey went on that working-class youth “have become black,” taken over by a “black” culture that has “intruded in England,” which is “why so many of us have this sense literally of a foreign country.” As one writer said “though Starkey characteristically uses racial terms to denote the targets of his hatred, he is using the term “black” to denounce all working-class youth”.
While Starkey’s political bias is easily recognisable, one question comes to mind why is such an extremely right-wing historian given such a high profile? Starkey has presented numerous television history programmes. He lectures at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. I do not know of any left-wing historian given the same opportunities to present their views to such a large audience It has become comfortable for universities to tolerate very conservative historians and allowed to express their right-wing views with virtual impunity while any views representing a left-wing challenge to the current status quo are marginalised or ostracised.
Universities play such an essential role in imparting knowledge about the world we live it is little surprising that given the dominance of an economic system hell-bent on putting profit before people it is little wonder that universities have become little more than corporate appendages.
This, of course, goes hand in hand with an academic assault on Marxism. Young people cannot expect to acquire the necessary knowledge from the capitalist media because it knows full well that experience will be used for its overthrow.
But what about universities asks the Marxist writer David North, “with their many learned professors? Unfortunately, the intellectual environment has been for many decades deeply hostile to genuine socialist theory and politics. Marxist theory—rooted in philosophical materialism—was long ago banished from the major universities.
“Academic discourse is dominated by the Freudian pseudo-science and idealist subjectivism of the Frankfurt School and the irrationalist gibberish of post-modernism. Professors inform their students that the “Grand Narrative” of Marxism is without relevance in the modern world. What they mean is that the materialist conception of history, which established the central and decisive revolutionary role of the working class in a capitalist society, cannot and should not be the basis of leftwing politics”.
This situation cannot last forever. One small step is to challenge at every level the right-wing rantings of professional right-wing historians at every opportunity.
Q How did you come to write about Lay. Was it something you had always aspired to?
I first learned about Benjamin Lay in the 1990s as Peter Linebaugh, and I worked on a book entitled The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (2000). We were interested in cycles of rebellion that erupted around the Atlantic in the 1730s, the 1760s, the 1790s, and wondered if slave revolts helped to generate new abolitionist ideas. Lay’s radical anti-slavery book, All Slave-keepers that keep the Innocent in Bondage … Apostates (1738), reflected his consciousness of the rising tide of resistance. After I learned about Lay and his acts of guerrilla theatre, I thought to myself, this man deserves a book of his own. Some twenty years later, he got it.
Q. The connection between Lay and the English Revolution and its radical wing is fascination, could you elaborate more?
The religious radicals so lovingly chronicled by Christopher Hill in The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas in the English Revolution (1972), provide the essential context for understanding the life and ideas of Benjamin Lay. Among the Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, Seekers, Muggletonians, and yes, the early Quakers were many antinomian radicals, people who felt that the gift of God’s grace had placed them above man-made law, which was created by wicked rich people for their own purposes anyway. Lay carried a revolutionary body of ideas – about democracy, equality, and human rights – into the eighteenth century and included within it the principles of anti-slavery. I, therefore, call Lay “the last radical of the English Revolution.” He connected that revolutionary era to the late eighteenth-century “age of revolution,” which encompassed major uprisings in America, France, and what became Haiti. He embodied the long underground life of radical ideas.
Q In my review I cite Lay as a figure of the Enlightenment. Do you agree?
I agree, Lay is definitely a man of the Enlightenment, but not the usual one we think of when we use that term – the movement that emerged in the late eighteenth century among white, male, elite thinkers in France and across Europe. Lay was enlightened much earlier and in a different way, not in the salons of Paris or London – rather on deep-sea sailing ships and on the docks of Barbados, where he heard about and witnessed the horrors of slavery and turned decisively against them. Lay, in my view, is a representative of “enlightenment from below.” He was one of many working people who took a different route to a vision of a more humanitarian future.
Q The genre history from below is one you use a lot. Could you describe the pros and cons of such a genre? Do you feel it has a future?
This is a well-established way to view history, especially in the UK. A key text, as you know, is Edward Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963). Its strengths have included a broader, more inclusive, more democratic vision of the past and an ability to understand both the experiences and the contributions of ordinary working people in the unfolding of history. Its weaknesses have been an occasional tendency not to concentrate on class as a relationship, which always requires looking at history “from above,” especially if one wants to understand the operation of power.
I am much encouraged about the future of history from below. As new movements from below arise around the world around the many-sided issue of inequality, all seeking in one way or another “power to the people,” the demand for this kind of history is bound to increase. If we want a new kind of society, we are going to need a new history to guide us.
Q What is your next project?
I am writing a play entitled “The Return of Benjamin Lay” with my friend, the distinguished playwright Naomi Wallace. History from below meets theatre from below! My next history book project will be a study of work at sea in the age of sail. This will be a voyage through the oceans of world history with Herman Melville as my shipmate. I will use his sea-novels to explore the issues of labour, class, and power at sea.
The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist Hardcover – September 5, 2017, by Marcus Rediker Verso.
“The barbarities and desperate outrages of the so-called Christian race, throughout every region of the world, and upon every people they have been able to subdue, are not to be paralleled by those of any other race, however fierce, however untaught, and however reckless of mercy and of shame, in any age of the earth”.
William Howitt: “Colonisation and Christianity: A Popular History of the Treatment of the Natives by the Europeans in all their Colonies.” London, 1838,
The just man who is resolute will not be turned from his purpose either by the rage of the crowd or by an imperious tyrant.
Horace-Quoted by Lay’s biographer Roberts Vaux
It is a pretty safe bet that people reading this excellent biography of the Quaker radical Benjamin Lay will not have heard of him or his exploits. Hopefully because of Marcus Rediker’s hard work and perseverance more people will now know of this extraordinary figure.
Lay was Quaker Dwarf who took an active anti-slavery stance; he was attacked and ostracised by the early Quaker movement of which large sections not only supported slavery but made them very rich. Rediker has campaigned for Lay’s rehabilitation. Finally, in 2017, the Abington Quakers of Pennsylvania recognised him as “a Friend of the Truth”. London Quakers followed suit by declaring “unity” with Lay’s spirit.
Rediker response to this development was “ I was, quite frankly, moved to tears. The recognition represented a profound, heartfelt act of retrospective justice because Lay had been unjustly disowned in the first place. It was a symbolic rejection of what a previous slave-owning generation of Quakers had done, and it was simultaneously an affirmation that Benjamin Lay’s values matter to the Abington and North London communities. I learned during my research that Lay dearly loved his fellow Quakers—at least those who did not own slaves—and that his exclusion was terribly painful to him. It was therefore deeply touching, 279 years later, to know that he has been brought back into the fold. This act would have meant everything to him”.
Rediker continues “the significance is two-fold. First, this is a significant step by Quakers to reckon with their own slave-owning past. As such, it is exemplary for the US and the UK as nations. Second, the decision advances the process of restoring Benjamin Lay to his rightful, prominent place in the history of Quakerism. This, in turn, feeds a broader effort to restore him to his proper position in American, British, and world history.
Rediker’s book is a well written and methodically researched book. Rediker is very good at exposing the essential contradiction at the heart of the Quaker movement in that its origins came about during the English revolution. Many Quaker constituted a radical wing of the revolution and had an anti-slavery stance yet large sections of its membership did not oppose slavery, kept slaves and profited by them.
The modern-day recognition of Lay has tended to gloss over the poor treatment dished out to Lay by his peers. For instance, when Lay published his book All Slave Keepers that keep the innocent in bondage: Apostates, He was attacked in Philadelphia by Quakers who declared ‘That the author is not of their religious community; that they disapprove of his Conduct, the Composition and Printing of the Book’.
It must be said that Lay’s book is not an easy read and you have to give Rediker his due for not only reading it but chronicling Lay’s life and struggle in this highly readable book. Despite only measuring four foot two inches Lay was a formidable campaigner who sought the emancipation of all enslaved people around the world. One of Lay’s tactics was to perform guerilla theatre.
As Rediker states in his book “Benjamin began to stage public protests against the “men of renown,” to shock the Friends of Philadelphia into awareness of their own moral failings about slavery. Conscious of the hard, exploited labour that went into making seemingly benign commodities such as tobacco and sugar, Benjamin showed up at a yearly Quaker meeting with “with three large tobacco pipes stuck in his bosom.” He sat between the galleries of men and women elders and ministers. As the meeting ended, he rose in indignant silence and “dashed one pipe among the men ministers, one among the women ministers, and the third among the congregation assembled.” With each smashing blow, Benjamin protested slave labour, luxury, and the poor health caused by smoking the stinking tweed. He sought to awaken his brothers and sisters to the politics of the smallest, seemingly most insignificant choices”.
It would not be an overstatement to say that Lay led a diverse life. He worked as a shepherd, glove maker, sailor, and bookseller. His worldview was a complex mixture of Quakerism, vegetarianism, animal rights, opposition to the death penalty, and abolitionism. Lay while being anti-slavery was not anti-capitalist. He did shunn the trappings of wealth that his business acumen brought him. While in America he lived in a cave with a library of two hundred books.
Lay’s significance was that he was one of the first radicals to call an end to all slavery in whatever form it took. He refused to consume anything produced by slave labour.As Rediker outlines in the book Lay was opposed by a significant section of Quakers, who had grown fat on slavery. As Rediker points out, these Quakers played a massive part in the bloody rise of American capitalism. The New England Puritans and Quakers became some of America’s most significant industrial leaders.
As Karl Marx wrote “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement, and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation.
Rediker has made his name writing popular histories of mutinies, pirates, slaves and revolts at sea. The majority of his work has examined the rise of early capitalism and the part played by the merchants and workers. He correctly states that the rise of early capitalism owed a massive debt to the movement of trade around the world. As Rediker brings out in his book the treatment of slaves by the early capitalists Quakers reminds one of Marx’s famous phrase “If money, according to Augier, “comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek,” capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt”. 
We owe a debt to Rediker in that he life has sought to establish the correct place the sea has played in the rise of early capitalism. As the Russian Marxist writer Isaac Rubin elaborates “Mercantilist policy, which accelerated the breakup of the feudal economy and the guild crafts, corresponded to the interests of the commercial bourgeoisie and merchant capital. Its main objective was to foster rapid growth of foreign trade (together with shipping and such exporting industries as woollen textiles), striving, in particular, to reinforce the influx of precious metals into the country, which in their turn accelerated the transition from a natural to a money economy. It is therefore understandable that mercantilist literature focused its attention primarily on two, closely inter-related problems: 1) the question of foreign trade and the balance of trade, and 2) the question of regulating the circulation of money. We can distinguish three periods in the way the solution to these problems was approached: a) the early mercantilist period, b) the period of developed mercantilist doctrine, and c) the beginnings of the anti-mercantilist opposition”.
This opposition took many forms, but the most striking came from the early stirrings of the working class for better working conditions and social equality.Most of these stirrings took the form of strike action. These strikes as Rediker points out were not in factories but on ships, “the first strike was not in a factory or an office. It was not even on land. In 1768 sailors “ went from ship to ship and took down the sails. That is called striking the sails. Out of that collective action, the term strike was born ”.The ship and the sea are dynamic places of struggle,”. “These people were on the cutting edge of developments between capital and labour in the 17th and 18th centuries. These ships were a precursor of the factory. The ship itself was the most important machine of its day. One of the primary experiences of people who worked on ships was collective cooperation. This was a place where waged workers were assembled in a complex division of labour. “Once they were assembled they began to define their cooperation in different collective ways. So we get a very rich and still not fully understood the history of mutiny, piracy and desertion. “Sailors were in many ways the first international labour force”.
That Lay was an enlightened figure for his time goes without saying. What connection Lay had with other figures of the Enlightenment is a complicated subject, and it is one hopefully Rediker explores at a later date. According to Anthony Comegna, “Benjamin Lay and other radicals were vectors of connection and causation in the world’s great unknown Enlightenment. Beneath the gilded lush layers of philosophes and statesmen that litter our history books were the slave rebels, the servile insurrectionists, the outcasts and arsonists, the common rabble out of doors and on the docks, and even the lone Quaker dwarf abolitionist. These people and much more built their own kind of Enlightenment from below”.
This theme of history from below runs through all of Rediker’s books. In his book Outlaws, he describes a figure like Henry Pitman whose journal was the basis for Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe. Defoe’s book despite being a ripping yarn also glorified Britain’s slave trade.
As Rediker explains “One of the things about my research that continually delights people is to find out about how democratically pirates lived. There is history from below of democracy that has many sources other than the philosophers of the enlightenment.
The English Revolution
Another theme that runs through Rediker’s books is that of the English Revolution. This theme also runs through his biography of Lay.Rediker explains Lay’s deep connection to the radicals of the English revolution. “I’ve identified five major influences, and the first and the most important of these was a specifically radical variant of Quakerism. Now Quakerism goes back, actually, to the English Revolution. It began as one of many radical Protestant groups. The others were the Levellers, the Diggers, the Seekers, the Ranters. The Quakers are all part of this. Those groups arose during the English Revolution when royal censorship broke down as the king, King Charles I, and Royalists did battle with Oliver Cromwell and Parliamentary side. These radical groups really burst into print in that situation, offering from below their own solutions to the problems of the day”.
He continues “Quakers were part of this, and there was a man named James Naylor, who was an especially radical Quaker. I basically argued in my book that Benjamin Lay channelled this early generation of Quakers. They were very activist. They performed street theatre. They were very confrontational. He managed a couple of generations later to reach back to them in order to revive that spirit of Quakerism.
“In any revolutionary situation there are always people who want to go further,” he said. “Often there are retrenchments where those who had originally made the revolution are excluded. In the American revolution slaves and urban protests involving mixed racial crowds created the momentum and some of the ideas of the revolution.
“But around 1773-74 the elites like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson got control and started to define notions of citizenship that would exclude the motley crew. Citizenship then was based to a large extent on property rights, with all the links that have to race, class and gender. The people who had actually destabilised society in the new world were left out. That is what I call the American Thermidor. It is a process that many revolutions go through.”
History From Below
Sometimes it is difficult when reading a well-established historian to hear the buzzing of the bees. This is not the case with Rediker, who manages to write of complex historical processes with a style of historical writing that is easy on the eye without dumbing down the history.
Having looked at and read some of Rediker’s books he has adopted the “history from below” genre and has rescued some exciting and important figures from what the British historian E.P. Thompson called the “enormous condescension of posterity,” and restored to their proper place in the historical record. EP Thompson is an apparent influence but then so is the historian Christopher Hill. Hill wrote of the 17th-century English revolution. From a historiography point of view, Rediker is closer to Hill than Thompson. Hill was extremely complimentary of Rediker’s work.In this review of another historian Hill wrote, “Rediker describes the transition in the early eighteenth century to more capitalist relations in merchant shipping—wage labor replacing profit sharing, stricter discipline brutally enforced, cost-cutting by merchants at the expense of the living standards of seamen—and the growth of organized resistance by seamen, from collective protests, strikes, and mutinies, with piracy as the ultimate resort. The relative egalitarianism and democratic organization of pirate ships was a logical outcome of this situation: so were the utopian pirate communities established on Madagascar and elsewhere, where traditional hierarchical deference was forgotten. Defoe in his History of the Pyrates (1724) made much of such points in order to criticize aspects of English capitalist civilization that he disliked. Defoe “wrote a great deal about buccaneers and sided with them,” says Ritchie, making the same point rather differently. He “had a dyspeptic view of the new financiers and the world of stocks, bonds, and jobbers.” But Defoe had spent a good deal of time talking to retired pirates”.
Rediker like Hill not only wrote about radicals who had largely been forgotten by historians if not history itself but also Rediker wrote a period that was defined by Hill as-as a critical stage in the transition from feudalism to capitalism—a stage that Rediker would also research and evaluate throughout his career.
“I intended to apply the bottom-up approach to doing history that had been pioneered by Thompson and Hill to other contexts,” and along with Peter Linebaugh, my colleague and writing partner since [graduate] school, I wanted to update our understanding of radical activity past where Christopher Hill had left the subject in The World Turned Upside Down—both in chronological terms, past the English Restoration, and, in geographical terms, encompassing the entire Atlantic.”
Like Hill Rediker’s writing still has a contemporary feel to it. The Many-Headed Hydra (2000), which he co-authored with Linebaugh found its way into the discussion of the 2000s Occupy movement.
Despite Lay being of small stature, being only 4 feet 7 inches and suffering from a congenital growth disorder he was a giant of a man in many other ways. Thanks to Rediker’s book Lay can be an inspiration to today’s generation struggling against oppression and social inequality.
As Rediker states “We have now a very big historical debate going on. It’s going on in the streets, it’s going on in publications, it’s going on around dinner tables: Who deserves to be called a hero of American history? We’ve had a lot of direct action with Confederate generals, we’ve had armed battles over this matter in Charlottesville. I think Benjamin Lay shows that there are people, frequently unknown, who embody higher ideals and reflect some of the better possibilities for example, within American life, so that someone like Benjamin Lay, someone like Frederick Douglass, someone like Harriet Tubman. This is a real value of history from below”.
A Socialist History of the French Revolution-Jean Jaures -Pluto Press-Abridged -2015- 288 pages- ISBN-13: 978-0745335001
A Reply to Suzannah Lipscomb’s article Face to Face with History.
The Struggle for Historical Truth
Historians do not work in a vacuum. Each one presents whether consciously or unconsciously a perspective, ideology or at least a moral attitude towards the history they study or put another way “When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing. If you can detect none, either you are tone-deaf, or your historian is a dull dog”. Does this moral or ideological entanglement with history rule out the possibility of a struggle for “true objectivity” or historical truth I do not believe so?
An objective attitude towards history has been closely associated with the Marxist movement. It is in the basic DNA of a Marxist Historian to present their work with the understanding that he or she must at all times tell the truth or more importantly understand that their study of history is the reenactment of an “objective process”.
Following on from this, can we then treat the study of history as a science with its laws? It is very difficult to argue if not impossible to say that it is a pure science in the sense of the type of laws uncovered by physicists, chemists and mathematicians. Having said that any professional or amateur historian worth his or her salt should work in the archives or library with the same devotion and accuracy as a chemist or biologists working in the laboratories.
A historian who understands that history has its laws and carries out a systematic and honest study of these laws can not only give us a deeper understanding of past events but can in some way anticipate future historical events. The use of counterfactual history is a very useful historical genre. Again it should go without saying that the historian must approach their research in archives with honesty and integrity.
While it should be taken for granted that a historian in order to attempt to recreate the past must have “empathy and imagination”, the historian must study the past with a doggedness and intellectual objectivity. Historians are not machines. A famous criticism of the historian Christopher Hill was that he was a Rolodex historian in other words picking pieces of history that fitted his ideology.
I do not believe this was an accurate charge against Hill, but a historian must be disciplined enough not to allow his imagination to run riot. The presentation of facts is not without controversy. It should be noted that “facts” themselves are products of the ideological, social, cultural and political currents of the time.
In seeking a more objective understanding of history, the historian must be disciplined. He or she no matter how talented do not know everything there is to know about their area of expertise. It is not possible to know every fact. The point I am making is that the historian must present an honest piece of work and not let this frustration lead to a short cut in their work or more dangerously lead to outright falsification of history. By doing this, the historian will have a greater understanding of their role in the presentation of facts.
The historian Edward H Carr was a great believer that the historian had a “dialogue between the past and the present”. While it was the duty of every good historian to present this dialogue in a readable form, he or she had to be extremely careful and not to fall into the trap of treating their topics of research as if they were organically linked to the present day. It would be completely wrong to treat figures such as Oliver Cromwell or Napoleon Bonaparte as contemporaries. It should not need to be said that they lived in completely different times to people from the 21st century.
The French historian of feudal society, Marc Bloch, who wrote the book, The Historian’s Craft noted “In a word, a historical phenomenon can never be understood apart from its moment in time. This is true of every evolutionary stage, our own, and all others. As the old Arab proverb has it: ‘Men resemble their times more than they do their fathers.’
It is one thing to seek to be more objective; it is perhaps another thing to achieve it. In the 20th century, a significant number of historians who have sometimes been mislabeled Marxist had sought to interpret Marxist theory and apply it when studying the past. The historian that has perhaps been most identified with the application of the Marxist method to the study of history certainly as regards the former Soviet Union is Edward Hallett Carr ((1892 –1982). Carr was not a Marxist, although he certainly was not a Stalinist. Carr, while being a determinist, sought to present a more objective presentation of history. Philosophically he was closer to Hegel than he was to Karl Marx. He was heavily influenced by the English Hegelian philosopher and historian R G Collingwood.
The historian, R.G. Collingwood, said, “the historian must re-enact in thought what has gone on in the mind of his dramatis personae”. Carr’s groundbreaking book What is History was heavily influenced by Collinwood. That a historian should spend so much time propagating the need for a philosophy of history was not a thing that many English historians had felt the need for. It is a bit strange because the book sold in the hundreds of thousands all over the world.
Carr’s book, on the whole, was warmly received amongst the general reading public amongst historians it was another matter it led to a very public and polarized debate. The British historian Richard J. Evans correctly points out that the book provoked a revolutionary change in British historiography. Even amongst its critics, the book was cited by the Australian historian Keith Windschuttle, as one of the “most influential books written about historiography, and that very few historians working in the English language since the 1960s had not read it”.
Carr believed that the first obligation of a historian was, to tell the truth. By this, I do not mean that the historian must swear on the bible, but he has a duty not to falsify evidence to fit in with his ideology. When a historian deliberately falsifies history to fit in with his or her ideology, then other historians and political writers must expose it. A recent example of this falsification can be seen in Robert Service’s biography of Leon Trotsky. Service’s book was a collection of distortion, lies and half-truths. Character assassination was dressed up as a biography.
Service would have done well to head the advice of one of the better American historians of the Russian Revolution, Leopold Haimson (1927–2010), when he said “The original source of the significance of any truly original and important historical work is to be traced—first and foremost—to its author’s original selection of primary sources on which he elects to focus attention in his research. To this, I would add that its essential value will ultimately depend on the degree of precision and insight with which these sources are penetrated and analyzed”. I doubt Service has read this book.
Not all historians agree with the premise that historical study would be better served with a more objective understanding of its historical laws. It would not be an overstatement to say that in defending a more objective attitude towards the study of history, Carr ploughed a very lonely furrow. His book What is History was a response to an attack by Isaiah Berlin. Berlin accused Carr of being a determinist for ruling out the possibility of the accidental or counterfactual history. Berlin correctly chastised Carr for this historical blind spot, but his attack on Carr was more to do with his perceived view that Carr was a Marxist.
Berlin, after all, had a reputation for going after any historian who was left-wing whether or not they were a Marxist. His “historikerstreit” with the historian Isaac Deutscher is one such example of what was a nasty vendetta.
So in researching this essay, it has not been difficult to find historians who in some way, disagree with the premise of historical truth or objectivity. The last three decades have seen an escalation of attacks on the concept of historical objectivity.While the historian G E Elton was seen as a critic of Carr he upheld the view that the historian and his study of history should be separate from the present or put another way – the historian “should not be ‘at the centre of the historical reconstruction’ and should’ escape from his prejudices and preconceptions”.
His 1967 book The Practice of History Elton attacks Carr for being “whimsical” with his divorce of “historical facts” and the “facts of the past”. He stated Carr had “…an extraordinarily arrogant attitude both to the past and to the place of the historian studying it” Hugh Trevor-Roper is another historian who attacked Carr’s philosophy of history. Roper like Berlin had a habit of attacking left-wing historians so it would probably best to take his criticisms of Carr with a hefty pinch of salt
He was heavily critical of Carr’s dismissal of the “might-have-beens of history”. He believed that Carr had a lack of interest in examining historical causation. He also accused Carr of not looking at all sides in the debate. He believed that Carr’s “winner takes all approach’ to history was the mark of a “bad historian”. While it is important to look back at what historians have said in the past about a subject, it is equally important not to dwell too long to the detriment of what has been written recently or at least in the last few decades.
Certainly, the most damaging attack on the concept of historical truth has come from what I term the post-modernist school of historiography. It would not be an understatement to say that post-modernist historians have been extremely hostile in academia to the concept of historical truth. The last few decades have witnessed the emergence of post-modernism as the dominant force in university life. This philosophical and historical outlook has replaced what passed for Marxism inside universities all over the world.
The chief characteristic of the post-modernists is the use of debatable philosophy, to blur over the difference between truth and lies, and in doing so, commit a falsification of history. The practice of lying about history has been taken to a new level by the various schools of post-modernism. It would not be an overstatement to say that the impact of this school of history has been as David North put it “nothing short of catastrophic”. There is, of course, a connection between the falsification of history and the attack on the struggle for objective truth. One of the most outlandish post-modernist thinkers and an opponent of objective truth is the German Professor Jorg Baberowski b (1961). A student of Michel Foucault, Baberowski describes his method of work in his book the (The Meaning of History)
“In reality, the historian has nothing to do with the past, but only with its interpretation. He cannot separate what he calls reality from the utterances of people who lived in the past. For there exists no reality apart from the consciousness that produces it. We must liberate ourselves from the conception that we can understand, through the reconstruction of events transmitted to us through documents, what the Russian Revolution was. There is no reality without its representation. To be a historian means, to use the words of Roger Chartier, to examine the realm of representations”.
This is pretty dangerous stuff from Baberowski. If this methodology becomes the norm in a historical study, it denotes an anything-goes approach that does not require the historian to tell the truth. For that matter, it also means that reality does not exist outside the historian’s head. Therefore, history has no objective basis. He sees history only in terms of his subjectivity. Why bother with a history that tries to show the economic, political or social conditions at the time.
He continues “A history is true if it serves the premises set up by the historian.” It is clear from this statement that he believes that it is all right for a historian to falsify his work in order to best serve the reader of history. This lying about history can bring about a fundamental and dangerous change in the way history is served to the public. The most extreme example of this fraudulent narratives is the lying about the crimes of Nazi Germany. It is no accident that Baberowski is a leading figure in the attempt to rehabilitate Hitler.
The study of history is a battleground. “The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living,” wrote Marx. According to Baberowski, we cannot learn anything from history. He pours disdain on any approach that seeks to understand the future. A more objective approach is just a dream. This leading spokesman on the “subjectivist school” states “The fact that we could learn from history is an illusion of days gone by… The claim (of the historian) to show how things were having been proved in reality to be an illusion. What the historian confronts in the sources is not the past… the past is a construction. Truth is what I and others hold to be true and confirm to each other as truth…. Therefore, we must accept that there are multiple realities; that it depends on who talks to whom about what and with what arguments”.
To conclude If we accept this premise that truth is not objective but relative, it sets a very disturbing precedent. Aside from the moral and intellectual damage, this may do to the individual historian, this kind of false philosophy will poison the well that future young historians and people interested in history have to drink out of.
The logic of this philosophy of history is that truth is whatever goes on in someone’s head. Smoking is good for you, and hard drugs are not dangerous, Hitler is misunderstood and was a good guy. No person who wants to function and live effectively in the world cannot do without some sense of truth’s objective correspondence to reality. I believe that Objective truth is possible but not without a struggle. The first stage in that struggle is, to tell the truth about history.
Review: The People: the Rise and Fall of the Working Class 1910-2010 by Selina Todd
A Short Q&A with Historian Catherine Fletcher
The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story from Inside the Vatican Catherine Fletcher Palgrave MacMillan 288 pages.
“As an astute judge of character, Spartacus might have chosen some men without prior military experience to lead units of his army.”
The Spartacus Wars by Barry Strauss is an excellent introduction to understanding Spartacus and the most famous slave revolt in history. The book is well researched and not bogged down with footnotes and is certainly not a dense academic tome. As one reviewer said, “In the Spartacus War, Barry Strauss presents a historical portrait of Spartacus to a mass audience”.
Strauss was not just content with researching his subject from the confines of Cornell University but made numerous trips to the Italian countryside in order to see where many battles. Took place.
Strauss is no tourist historian, and his knowledge stands out in the book. Strauss displays admiration for Spartacus. For Strauss Spartacus was no ordinary Slave but a “murmillo gladiator”. Strauss also describes Spartacus battlefield tactics “not as intuition but reveals that the former slave had served as a Thracian auxiliary to the Roman army where he learned about Roman military tactics”.
Strauss presents a good case for his historiography. His task was made more difficult due to the lack of information on his chosen subject. As one reviewer said, “Not content to give the evidence, Strauss usually picks a version of the events and backs it up, or works from multiple hypotheses.”
Strauss mixes his interpretations with useful knowledge of the history and background of the period. Unlike many figures from ancient times, Spartacus has a resonance down the centuries even today his name is used by anyone who purports to fight “tyranny and totalitarianism”. Even the most right-wing figures had claimed Spartacus for themselves according to The Sunday Times review by Mary Beard “When Ronald Reagan addressed the British parliament in 1982, he used Spartacus, the Roman rebel slave, as a symbol of the fight against. For Reagan, Spartacus stood for the struggle of western democracy against Soviet oppression.”
However, it is on the left both politically and historically that Spartacus lies. He was principally an egalitarian; all the loot captured from the Romans was shared amongst his troops. Karl Marx said that Spartacus inspired people in the battle against Capitalism in his words he described him as “a great general, a noble character, a genuine representative of the ancient proletariat”. These sentiments were echoed by Vladimir Lenin co-leader of the Russian Revolution. A hundred years earlier, the great Voltaire called Spartacus’s rebellion “the only just war in history”.
Many people’s understanding of Spartacus is informed by the Hollywood movie starring among others Kirk Douglas. The film itself was a struggle against “oppression” not Roman but American Capitalism. The 1960 Kirk Douglas film was based on a struggle against McCarthyism. The film script was based on the book by one blacklisted author, and the screenplay was written by another.
According to Marty Jonas “Kirk Douglas was impressed with Kubrick and brought him on as director of Spartacus, which Douglas starred in and produced. Kubrick replaced Anthony Mann, who had already shot the beginning and several scenes. Though a cut above the usual big-budget historical films, and with a worthy subject–the massive slave revolt in ancient Rome–it still suffered from the bloatedness and heroics of most Hollywood epics. Kubrick described himself as a “hired hand” and had significant differences with Douglas. It was not a happy time creatively for him. But Spartacus showed the studios that Kubrick could be a responsible Hollywood director, and, conversely, demonstrated to Kubrick that his place was not in Hollywood. His disillusionment with the studio system brought him to England, where he made Lolita (1962) and settled for the rest of his life”.
In an interview given to publicise the book Strauss elaborates further on the movie, Yerxa: Who was the “real” Spartacus, and how does he compare to Kirk Douglas’s character in Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 film?Strauss: “Perhaps the most surprising thing is that the Kubrick film isn’t complete fiction, but offers some historical truth. The fact is that Spartacus really was a slave and a gladiator in Capua, Italy, and he did lead a revolt. As the movie shows, it started in the kitchen of the gladiatorial barracks with the men using basic kitchen utensils to fight the guards and break out. And it’s even true that Spartacus had a ladylove as he did in the movie. But there are some real differences as well. The movie Spartacus was born a slave and was the son and grandson of slaves, but the real Spartacus was born free. He came from Thrace, roughly equivalent to today’s Bulgaria. And far from being a lifelong opponent of Rome, he started out as an allied soldier in the Roman army. He fought for Rome. His fate, ending up as a slave and gladiator, was quite unexpected and quite unjust. The Romans themselves admitted that Spartacus was forced to become a gladiator even though he was innocent”.
Strauss makes clear that there is a problem writing on Spartacus and that is that the majority of evidence of the slave rebellion led by Spartacus in 73BC, was written more than 100 years after the event. Most of this was written by Roman historians who were far from objective. Straus also makes clear that political issues were in play. Although that is not to say that some Roman historians were favourable to Spartacus, Strauss says “I was personally struck by the degree to which later Roman writers presented him as a good guy,”. “They respected him and blamed themselves for the war.” The historian Plutarch writes “And seizing upon a defensible place, and they chose three captains, of whom Spartacus was chief, a Thracian of one of the nomad tribes, and a man not only of high spirit and valiant, but in understanding, also, and in gentleness superior to his condition, and more of a Grecian than the people of his country usually are.”
I thought Strauss could have made more use of Plutarch, in his book on Roman History, the Life of Crassus: writes “The insurrection of the gladiators and the devastation of Italy, commonly called the war of Spartacus, began upon this occasion. One Lentulus Batiatus trained up a great many gladiators in Capua, most of them Gauls and Thracians, who, not for any fault by them committed, but simply through the cruelty of their master, were kept in confinement for this object of fighting one with another. Two hundred of these formed a plan to escape, but being discovered, those of them who became aware of it in time to anticipate their master, being seventy-eight, got out of a cook’s shop chopping-knives and spits and made their way through the city, and lighting by the way on several wagons that were carrying gladiators’ arms to another city, they seized upon them and armed themselves. And seizing upon a defensible place, they chose three captains, of whom Spartacus was chief, a Thracian of one of the nomad tribes, and a man not only of high spirit and valiant, but in understanding, also, and in gentleness superior to his condition, and more of a Grecian than the people of his country usually are.”
Beard writes “What preoccupied serious Roman historians, looking back to the rebellion, were two political issues. First, why did it take the Roman forces two years to crush this band of runaways and their hangers-on, as they wandered to and fro around Italy? (The answer must be that, to begin with, the senate underestimated the danger and sent second-rate generals with untrained armies to deal with it.) Second, which Roman commander ultimately gained most, in honour, prestige and career advantage, from finishing off Spartacus’s uprising? Was it Crassus (played by Laurence Olivier in the film), who infamously crucified the defeated rebels, by the thousand, all along the Appian Way? Or was it Pompey the Great, who hurried back from his campaigns in Spain, and tried to rob Crassus of the credit by wiping out a stray group of runaways and claiming the victory for himself”?
In The Spartacus War, Barry Strauss makes the point that it is neither Crassus who led the victorious war against Spartacus or Pompey who came in later came out with any credit or prestige with history both have been largely forgotten yet it is the loser Spartacus who is arguably the more famous and certainly looked up to.
As one reviewer put it “Both Crassus and Pompey, were as doomed as Spartacus: Crassus was soon to be massacred in a battle against the eastern Parthians (a much more formidable enemy than Spartacus), while Pompey was brutally decapitated in his civil war against Julius Caesar. The political future lay elsewhere, with the one-man rule of the first emperor Augustus. Ironically, it was Augustus’s undistinguished father, Octavius, who, ten years after Spartacus’s death in 71BC, finally crushed the last remnants of his supporters, still living rough (and annoying the local population) in southern Italy”.
To conclude, the book is not without its weaknesses. Not even a good military historian as Strauss undoubtedly can paper over large gaps that appear in the Spartacus evidence. Reading Strauss, you almost get to feel his frustration as well as your own in attempting to understand Spartacus’s motives.Reviewer Tony Williams also makes this point “why they revolted in the first place. Strauss is simply not clear. Spartacus was “a man of destiny,” the author tells us. He was a “man of passion, thirsting for freedom.” But the revolt was neither to free slaves generally nor to escape into freedom far from the clutches of the Roman Republic. If we learn little of the why Strauss does not fall short on the how of the Spartacus revolt”.
This frustration was shared by many who reviewed the book in the mainstream press one writer asked “What, for example, were Spartacus’s strategic plans? Once he had broken out of the gladiatorial barracks at Capua and gathered together a sizeable force of other runaways, why did he march all the way north to the Alps, then back down south again? Was this, as I half-suspect, aimless wandering with no game plan at all? Strauss is more generous, and guesses that Spartacus was let down by his followers: they took one look at the mountains they would have to cross if they were to make their way to freedom in the north, as Spartacus planned, and beat a hasty retreat”.
Strauss has his ideas on what motivated Spartacus. Strauss portrays Spartacus wife as having a significant influence on his motives, but little or no evidence exists to back this up. We do not even know her name. Some things are contradictory in the book. While describing what revolutionary acts were, Strauss downplays the revolutionary aspect of Spartacus. Strauss makes no suggestion that Spartacus had any revolutionary plan to abolish slavery as an institution. But that is not the point. Spartacus was not a conscious Marxist revolutionary wanting overthrow the Roman State.
It was just that objectively Spartacus could not take the revolution further than he did. While you get to learn little of Strauss’s political leanings he has made some wayward comparisons between the rebellions which he describes as probably the most successful insurgencies in world history. He has also made parallels between the slave revolts American’ War on Terror’.
“It’s the story of an insurgency like ours in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Strauss says. “The great power can’t fight him, because it’s bogged down in another war. The war is a test of the great power’s moral fibre. And a charismatic leader inspires men to fight using liberation theology like jihad. The similarities leap off the page.”
While comparisons with the United States imperialism and the Roman Empire are fraught with danger, I would draw the line to say there is any comparison between Spartacus and a bunch of clerical fascists like the Taliban.