General History

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,”

Karl Marx.


“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”.[1] 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”.


[1] https://www.historians.org/about-aha-and-membership/aha-history-and-archives/historical-archives/why-study-history-(1998)


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.[1]

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”.[2]

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”.[3]

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”.[4]

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”.[5]

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”.[6]

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”.[7]

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”[8] 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”.[9]

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”.[10]

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’.[11]

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.


[1]https://thecritic.co.uk/why-are-we-so-interested-in-historians-[2] Under the Tudor Bed-Christopher Hill- http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1987/05/07/under-the-tudor-bed/[3] Under the Tudor Bed-Christopher Hill- http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1987/05/07/under-the-tudor-bed/[4] Duels in the Dark- Lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v41/n23/colin-kidd/duels-in-the-dark[5] Conservative revolutionary: The lives of Lewis Namier-By David Hayton[6] A Portrait of Sir Lewis Namier as a Young Socialist-Amy NgJournal of Contemporary History-Vol. 40, No. 4 (Oct., 2005), pp. 621-636[7] Duels in the Dark- Lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v41/n23/colin-kidd/duels-in-the-dark[8] See –A Portrait of Sir Lewis Namier as a Young Socialist-Amy NgJournal of Contemporary History-Vol. 40, No. 4 (Oct., 2005), pp. 621-636[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewis_Namier[10] https://thecritic.co.uk/why-are-we-so-interested-in-historians-[11] https://www-oxforddnb-com.ezproxy2.londonlibrary.co.uk/

Wu Ming Presents Thomas Muntzer Sermon to the Princes / Part of the Revolutions series / Verso Paperback / 176 pages / May 2010 / £8.99

“Omnia sunt communia—all things are common.”—Thomas Müntzer.

“In the eyes of the German working-classes, Muntzer was and is the most brilliant embodiment of heretical communism”.- Karl Kautsky

“Luther had given the plebeian movement a powerful weapon—a translation of the bible. Through the bible, he contrasted feudal Christianity of his time with moderate Christianity of the first century. In opposition to decaying feudal society, he held up the picture of another society which knew nothing of the ramified and artificial feudal hierarchy. The peasants had made extensive use of this weapon against the forces of the princes, the nobility, and the clergy. Now Luther turned the same weapon against the peasants, extracting from the bible a veritable hymn to the authorities ordained by God—a feat hardly exceeded by any lackey of absolute monarchy. Princedom by the grace of God, passive resistance, even serfdom, were being sanctioned by the Bible”. 

F Engels[1]

Wu Ming, the Italian authors collective have in this collection brought to a wider audience the work of the revolutionary pastor Thomas Muntzer. This Verso publication forms part of its revolution series.

The collective is best known for its excellent bestselling novel which was published under the pseudonym Luther Blissett. Wu Ming examines how Müntzer has continued despite the passage of years to be relevant for today’s revolutionaries.

Thomas Müntzer was a radical pastor who had religious and political differences with the leaders of the Reformation. He was especially opposed to Martin Luther whom he called “brother soft life” it was one of the more polite phrases used against Luther by Mutnzer.

Mutnzer was critical of Luther’s reforms believing they did not go far enough. Muntzer believed that the Kingdom of Heaven should be on Earth. To facilitate this end, he led the Peasants War in Germany. Muntzer and the war itself were a part of a wider movement of the Anabaptists. They constituted the revolutionary wing of the Protestant Reformation in Central Europe and were opposed to Luther’s very limited reforms.

Muntzer was not only a powerful orator but a gifted writer. In his “Sermon To The Princes” Muntzer ransacked the bible in order to attack the greed and institutional corruption of the Vatican.Muntzer was always a capable organiser, and many of his ideas for agitation and organising would find their echo in later political movements such as the 17th-century Levellers and Diggers and 19th and 20th-century political movements. As Engel’s states “Just as Cromwell in England would be challenged from the left by the Levellers and the Jacobins in France likewise by the Enrages, Luther and his political patrons faced a revolt of the voiceless led by Thomas Muntzer.[2]

While Peasants Revolt of 1525 took many by surprise, the discontent had been simmering in Germany for decades. Even the conservative historian G R Elton believed that the revolt was caused “by various landlords to re-impose feudal rights that had fallen into disuse”.
Elton was hostile to both Muntzer and the Peasants Revolt in general. As Wu Ming points out “G. R. Elton, in his Reformation Europe 1517-1559, memorably introduces Muntzer as a ‘youngish man full of violent hatred for all things other than they should have been, university-trained, an idealist of the kind familiar in all revolutions’, dubs him ‘the demonic genius of the early Reformation’ and concludes, in terms wholly congruent with the tradition initiated by Luther and Melanchthon, that he was ‘not so much a constructive revolutionary as an unrestrained fanatic, and in his preaching of violence a dangerous lunatic’.[3]

Elton was also opposed to any Marxist understanding of history writing “history deals with the activities of men, not abstractions’. As Geoffrey Roberts points out “In Elton’s concept of history as a story of human existence and activity there was little place for those large-scale forces, trends, structures, and patterns beloved by social scientists. Everything in history–the events of the past–happens to and through people. Sociological categories may be useful descriptive shorthands of movements and outcomes over the long-run, but they remained abstractions unable to explain specific actions and events–the details and particularities of past happenings created by real people doing something”.[4] Real people in this struggle were dealing with a rapidly declining population after the Black Death had ravaged Europe. While some peasants and serfs had enjoyed both higher wages and better conditions,  

for the majority, it was a time of growing misery. On a broader note, serious economic changes had begun in the economy in Germany as it transitioned from a feudal based economy to a capitalistic one. These changes had brought about a series of local uprisings and peasant riots across Germany and all over Europe.  

As Franz Mehring explains the early origins of capitalist development “World trade arose in a number of cities because of specially favourable historical and geographical conditions. It started in Lower Italy through the overseas trade with the Orient, with Constantinople and Egypt, but spread from there to the North. It brought into circulation great fortunes which seemed almost immeasurable at the time and aroused the greed of all the ruling classes of Europe. Here modern capital appears for the first time, and it appears still essentially as merchant capital. But it immediately exerted a disruptive effect on the feudal mode of production.

The more commodity exchange developed, the greater became the power of money, for which anybody could obtain anything, which everybody needed and everybody took. At the source of the capitalist mode of production stood not the craft guild master, who with his limited number of journeymen could only achieve moderate prosperity, but the merchant whose capital was capable of unlimited expansion and whose lust for profit was therefore boundless. With merchant capital – the revolutionary force of the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries – new life came into medieval society, and new ways of viewing things were born”.[5]

Mehring believed that the social and political position of the clergy began to be seriously undermined by the development of the printing press and the translation of the Bible into German. The clergy’s feudal based ideology rapidly came into conflict with the development of commerce, and the rising of a new capitalist class. When the clergy’s Intellectual positions were taken from it, they became lazy and ignorant which in turn was reflected in the intimate relationship between the higher clergy and the princes so much, so they became indistinguishable.

Muntzer was scathing towards the clergy saying “What a pretty spectacle we have before us now – all the eels and snakes coupling together immorally in one great heap. The priests and all the evil clerics are the snakes…and the secular lords and rulers are the eels… My revered rulers of Saxony…seek without delay the righteousness of God and take up the cause of the gospel boldly”.[6]

The number of riots and revolts increased when the Reformation reached large parts of Germany and then spread to the rest of the empire. The revolt was feared and hated not only by the German princes and knights but also the leaders of the Reformation itself. The peasant revolt was entirely progressive. The twelve articles of Memmingen issued by the peasants, although religious in content were highly democratic. They came out of the “ecclesiastical shell of which inside the more profound growing political and class differences amongst the different sections of the Ruling elites were to be fought out”.

The 12 articles[7]which were demanded from the Swabian League were one of the early examples of the “sighs of the oppressed”. Unfortunately what the German peasants wanted in 1525 was only by the achieved by the French Revolution in 1789.As Mehring states their demands were for “electing and recall of the clergy by the congregation, the abolition of serfdom and noble hunting and fishing rights, the limitation of excessive labour services and taxes, the restitution of the woods and pastures taken from individuals or communities, and the removal of arbitrary justice and administration”.8]

In the beginning, the peasants were able to keep their revolt largely peaceful. While this remained, it won support from the leaders of the Reformation. When the Peasant’s revolt started to become violent, it caused considerable anger and violence amongst the princes. While the revolt was relatively peaceful, it also won the support of Luther who put forward that there should be a settlement based on the 12 articles. He said ‘Not the peasants, but God himself was in revolt against the bloodthirsty tyranny of the princes’.[9]

Once the princes saw that the peasants were not going to be peaceful, they moved to drown the revolt in blood. They were spurred on by Luther who saw like the Princes that the revolt would be violent quickly changed his tune.eHgave the Princes his full support in the form of a pamphlet published on May 6th entitled Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants’. Luther in this pamphlet blamed the Peasants for the violence “Since the peasants, then, have brought both God and man down upon them and are already so many times guilty of death in body and soul, since they submit to no court and wait for no verdict, but only rage on, I must instruct the worldly governors how they are to act in the matter with a clear conscience”.

He then cleared the way for the brutal crackdown saying “The rulers, then, should go on unconcerned, and with a good conscience lay about them as long as their hearts still beat. It is to their advantage that the peasants have a bad conscience and an unjust cause, and that any peasant who is killed is lost in body and soul and is eternally the devil’s. But the rulers have a good conscience and a just cause; and can, therefore, say to God with all assurance of heart, ‘Behold, my God, thou hast appointed me Prince or lord, of this I can have no doubt; and though hast committed to me the sword over the evildoers (Romans XIII). It is thy Word, and cannot lie. I must fulfill my office, or forfeit thy grace. It is also plain that these peasants have deserved death many times over, in thine eyes and the eyes of the world, and have been committed to me for punishment. If it be thy will that I be slain by them and that my rulership be taken from me and destroyed, so be it: thy will be done. So shall I die and be destroyed fulfilling thy commandment and thy Word, and shall be found obedient to thy commandment and my office. Therefore will I punish and smite as long as my heart bears. Thou wilt judge and make things right.’ From then on the princes needed no extra encouragement.H

Thomas Muntzer

The leader of the Peasants revolt, and for that matter, one of the leaders of the Reformation was Thomas Munzer, who was the embodiment of all that was courageous and progressive in the revolt. He was a secular priest who called for social equality and did not hold back in ordering violence against all those who opposed change. In Mulhausen, he laid the basis for a commune which was only able to last barely two months. He and his army of peasants were defeated in a battle by superior armed soldiers with access to significantly larger volumes of armaments.
Despite fighting with much bravery, the one-sided nature of the battles was evident. Some historians have said that the revolt failed because the demands put forward by the peasants were out of date, on the contrary, they were far ahead of the time and were an anticipation of future communist movements.

The revolt had support from a few towns, and some workers such as miners gave support to the rebellion, but the urban centres were still too far underdeveloped to lend the support needed to defeat the knights and princes. Also, in general, the movement was beset by internal disputes and problems. Battles remained local and provincial in their character. Many peasants refused to come to the aid of their sisters and brothers fighting in other parts of Germany.

The princes utilised trickery and outright deception against the Peasantry, which they had through years of serfdom had grown accustomed to trusting their so-called betters. On many occasions, the princes made promises to them, and when the peasants laid down their arms, they were slaughtered by the Princes’ armies. It has been said upwards of 100,000 peasants was killed during the entire conflict.

When the rebellion was over, it would be fair to say that apart from escaping with their lives, not much had changed for the peasants. Although they lost some of their self-government in many respects, they had been so poor at the start of the war that after it, their life had not been made worse. Many richer middling sort peasants had been ruined. For the Princes the war was a financial bonanza, it had allowed them to seize vast tracks of the clergy’s land, and they levied huge fines on the towns which had supported the uprising.

The persecution after the war did not just stop at the general Peasantry, the Anabaptists which took their name from the fact that they opposed the baptism the church carried out on newborn children were treated no less harshly and were virtually killed off as a movement. The Anabaptists were considered a religious peculiarity and were seen by the Princes to be a dangerous enemy and in some quarters were correctly considered revolutionaries. They were driven out of most parts of Germany and were finally pushed to Holland. To survive the movement took up arms. In the old town of Munster, the movement albeit for a short while had done what the Peasant’s revolt had failed to do in setting up and controlling a complete town. It had, however, taken the whole might of the German empire to drown the Peasants revolt in blood.

While the Peasant’s revolt took place at the time of the Reformation, its political inspiration was more of a democratic nature. In other words, an embryonic form communism. The war had significant social consequences. An important part of late medieval Germany disappeared overnight. In the merchant dominated areas, you saw the beginnings of the capitalist nation-state. A National language began to replace Latin. The power of gold and money began to change social and economic relationships, and even agriculture began to be organised along capitalist lines. The knights and general aristocracy felt threatened by these developments.

The church was the most to be affected by these changes and had to adapt. Agricultural lands were developed to make profits. To increase its wealth, it seized common lands and attacked the Peasantry. The new capitalist mode of economic development had little need for the clergy except to keep the masses in their place. The rising bourgeoisie began to take responsibility for science and education. Monasteries increasingly became obsolete and served no function. Priests became lazier, and baseness and vice became commonplace.

As David North writes “Religion began to encounter the type of disrespect it deserved, and the gradual decline of its authority introduced a new optimism. All human misery, the bible had taught for centuries, was the inescapable product of the Fall of Man. But the invigorating scepticism encouraged by science in the absolute validity of the Book of Genesis led thinking people to wonder whether it was not possible for man to change the conditions of his existence and enjoy a better world”.[10]

Current historiography

Much of the current Reformation historiography is dominated by a collection of conservative revisionist historians who downplay the revolutions which were a by-product of the Protestant Reformation. They certainly oppose the concept that the Reformation can be seen in the context of the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism.  hether you agree with a Marxist interpretation of the Reformation as Karl Marx said “Germany’s revolutionary past is theoretical, it is the Reformation.  

As the revolution then began in the brain of the monk, so now it begins in the brain of the philosopher. But if Protestantism was not the true solution, it was at least the true setting of the problem”.[11] On his death bed while being tortured Muntzer stayed true to the revolution saying “Omnia sunt communia” – “all things are to be held in common and distribution should be to each according to his need”. While there is no reason idealise Wu Ming’s or Verso’s politics, this collection of Thomas Muntzer’s sermons and letters can still inspire today’s revolutionaries.

 

 

[1] The Peasant War in Germany, trans. Moissaye J. Olgin (New York: International Publishers, 1966), p. 62.
[2] Quoted in https://www.counterfire.org/articles/opinion/19289-thomas-muntzer-from-reformation-to-revolution
[3] Wu Ming Presents Thomas Muntzer Sermon to the Princes  
/ Part of the Revolutions series / Verso Paperback / 176 pages / May 2010 / £8.99
[4] Defender of the Faith: Geoffrey Elton and the Philosophy of History. http://xml.ucc.ie/chronicon/elton.htm
[5] Franz Mehring-Absolutism and Revolution in Germany
1525–1848 Part One -The German Reformation and its consequences -Merchant Capital
[6] Müntzer, Thomas (1988). Matheson, Peter (ed.). The Collected Works of Thomas Müntzer.
[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twelve_Articles
[8] Franz Mehring-Absolutism and Revolution in Germany-1525–1848
[9] Taken From-Martin Luther: Shaping and Defining the Reformation, 1521-1532 By Martin Brecht
[10] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/1996/10/lect-o24.html
[11] Quoted in Martin Luther: A Christian between Reforms and Modernity (1517-2017) edited by Alberto Melloni

The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and England in the 21st Century. Tristram Hunt-Winchester University in 2016.

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”.

Immigration

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.

George Orwell

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”[1] .

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.


[1] “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[1]. 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”.[2]

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.[3]

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.


[1] Labour’s denial of antisemitism in its ranks leaves the party in a dark placeJonathan Freedland- 27 Sep 2017[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/13/opinion/ken-loach-holocaust-anti-semitism.html[3] The anti-Semitism accusations against Corbyn: A witch-hunt in the service of imperialism-By Jean Shaoul13 December 2019- https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2019/12/13/semi-d13.html

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,”

Edward Snowden

“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”.[1]

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.” [2]

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.

Further Reading

A Quarter Century of War: The US Drive for Global Hegemony 1990-2016 Paperback – 27 Jul 2016-by David North  (Author)- https://www.amazon.co.uk/Quarter-Century-War-Hegemony-990-2016/dp/1893638693


[1] US Justice Department sues Edward Snowden to block proceeds of memoirKevin Reed-23 September 2019- https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2019/09/23/snow-s23.html[2]No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the Surveillance StateBy Glenn Greenwaldy-(p51)

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.[1]

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[2] 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.


[1] The Brexit crisis and the struggle for socialism-By Chris Marsden -23 January 2019- https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2019/01/23/brex-j23.html[2] https://manyheadedmonster.wordpress.com/

On Empathy and its usage in History

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”. [1]

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.[2] 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”[3].

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”.[4]

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”.[5]

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.


[1]  What is History? (1961)[2] See Empathy and History – Ann Low-Beer Source: Teaching History, No. 55 (April 1989), pp. 8-12[3] https://www.historytoday.com/archive/head-head/empathy-aid-or-hindrance-historians[4] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2018/03/19/leip-m19.html[5] E H Carr, The New Society, op cit, chapter 1.

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper- Hallie Rubenhold-Doubleday (£16.99).

Hallie Rubenhold’s new book is a groundbreaking study of the five women murdered by Jack the Ripper. Rubenhold has rescued these women from the condescension of history albeit 130 years after they were murdered.It would seem to be the case that the more that has been written about the five, the less we know about them. Much of the historiography on the murders has centred on the murderer Jack the Ripper. As one reviewer put it “Forests have been felled in the interests of unmasking the murderer, but until now no one has bothered to discover the identity of his victims”.

Rubenhold said: “The stories of these women are each extraordinary and unique, and for nearly 130 years the media has over-simplified their true histories. The Five have always been regarded as society’s waste – filthy, ruined, pitiful drink-sodden whores, yet not one of them began life this way, and none of them came from the East End. They were from Sweden, Wales, the Midlands. Their fathers and husbands were printers, carpenters, gentleman’s valets, coachmen, and soldiers in the Queen’s Life Guard. Their daughters attended fee-paying schools; their fathers-in-law were property developers. They glimpsed Queen Victoria and rubbed shoulders with Charles Dickens. The Five seeks to restore these women their humanity and reclaim Jack the Ripper narrative in favour of his victims.”

Research

It is clear that Rubenhold has spent a lot of time deep mining the archives and she shows how skilful a historian she is when she manages to tell a fascinating tale from so little information. Coroner’s inquests unreliable newspaper reports, parish registers; court registers; birth, marriage and death records; rate books and the archives of the London workhouses. From these records, she manages to trace the murder victims from birth the death. Because they were born female, Rubenhold argues, “their worth was compromised before they had even attempted to prove it.

She continues “what if virtually everything we had ever come to assume about these five women was largely untrue? What if the degree to which they can even be called ‘prostitutes’ when considered within the context of their communities and the broader experience of the poor, the working class woman is questionable? What if we learned that none of them was born in Whitechapel, or even in the East End, but ended up there after living full lives elsewhere? What if we learned that these women had been either wives or mothers or both? What would we think of ourselves and our society for never having questioned these things?”

Rubenhold has sought in this book to rescue these women from the condescension of history. She successfully demolishes the lies and calumny built up over 130 years that all the women were prostitutes that deserved all they got.Rubenhold correctly shows that these working-class women who because of the inequities of the capitalist system once they stepped out from under its vice-like grip are preyed upon by a psychotic killer who got away with murder because no one cared about the victims. Rubenhold writes “In order to gawp at and examine this miracle of malevolence, we have figuratively stepped over the bodies of those he murdered, and in some cases, stopped to kick them as we walked past.”

Hallie Rubenhold

Rubenhold’s book is a narrative based piece of history. While agreeing with her need to correct the historical record I have a problem with her writing out of history the figure of Jack the Ripper. Like it or not the figure of Jack the Ripper is indicative, and the sharpest expression of the treatment given out to working-class women. I say working class women because it is noticeable that they were working class and not middle or upper-class women who had a much easier time under capitalism despite being exploited themselves but not as much as working-class women who faced life or death questions every day. The leaving out of Jack the Ripper is far too much of a concession to the Me Too movement that has now crept into the study of history

Historiography

There are weaknesses in narrative based historiography in that if it is not grounded in a scientific understanding of class relations in any given society in any given century it tends to gloss over very deep-seated class antagonism that produces shocking developments like the murder of five working-class women. Who were probably not the only women to be murdered in that period.

While professing a love of Lawrence Stone’s The Family, Sex and Marriage in England her book could have done with a deeper insight into class relations towards the end of the 1880s. Rubenhold to her credit does not entirely ignore the working class and its conditions She writes “the poor were judged to be lazy and immoral paupers who refused to do honest work, bred bastards and enormous families while ‘living off handouts’.” Welfare reforms designed to “compel the indigent to lead moral, hard-working lives” by driving them into workhouses, instead forced many onto the streets where they were at the mercy of the genuinely depraved”.

However the working class was not just exploited class; it was a revolutionary class and did not take lying down its treatment by capitalism. It is quite striking that given the life span of the first woman murdered,namely Polly she would have witnessed the development of Marxism, Marx’s writing on the 1848 revolutions, Engels The Condition of the Working Class in Britain, the vast and explosive development of the Chartist movement and finally the publication of Marx’s Das Kapital and the growth of the “New Unionism”

On this New Unionism Engels wrote “What I consider far more important than this momentary fashion among bourgeois circles of affecting a mild dilution of Socialism, and even more than the actual progress Socialism has made in England generally, that is the revival of the East End of London. That immense haunt of misery is no longer the stagnant pool it was six years ago. It has shaken off its torpid despair, has returned to life, and has become the home of what is called the “New Unionism,” that is to say, of the organisation of the great mass of “unskilled” workers. This organisation may to a great extent adopt the form of the old Unions of “skilled” workers, but it is essentially different in character. The old Unions preserve the traditions of the time when they were, founded, and look upon the wages system as a once-for-all established, final fact, which they at best can modify in the interest of their members. The new Unions were founded at a time when the faith in the eternity of the wages system was severely shaken; their founders and promoters were Socialists either consciously or by feeling; the masses, whose adhesion gave them strength, were rough, neglected, looked down upon by the working-class aristocracy; but they had this immense advantage, that their minds were virgin soil, entirely free from the inherited “respectable” bourgeois prejudices which hampered the brains of the better situated “old” Unionists..[1]

Another critical thing lacking in the book is to place the emancipation of women in the broader context of the emancipation of the working class. The oppression of women according to Karl Marx and Frederick Engels was located in the rise of class society.“The bourgeois sees in his wife a mere instrument of production. He hears that [under communism] the instruments of production are to be exploited in common, and, naturally, can come to no other conclusion than that the lot of being common to all will likewise fall to women. He has not even a suspicion that the real point aimed at [by communists] is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production.[2]

While Rubenhold has a burning sense of injustice at the treatment of women in capitalist society and has a deep empathy towards the working class, in general, this is not enough to do the type of history she would like to write. In order to do this type of social history, the historian needs at least a working knowledge of the materialist conception of history.As Engels wrote “the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life. This, again, is twofold. On the one side, the production of the means of existence, of articles of food and clothing, dwellings, and of the tools necessary for that production; on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. The social organisation under which the people of a particular historical epoch and a particular country live is determined by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labour on the one hand and the family on the other. The lower the development of labour and the more limited the amount of its products, and consequently, the more limited also the wealth of the society, the more the social order is found to be dominated by kinship groups. However, within this structure of society based on kinship groups the productivity of labour increasingly develops, and with it private property and exchange, differences of wealth, the possibility of utilizing the labor power of others, and hence the basis of class antagonisms: new social elements, which in the course of generations strive to adapt the old social order to the new conditions, until at last their incompatibility brings about a complete upheaval. In the collision of the newly-developed social classes, the old society founded on kinship groups is broken up; in its place appears a new society, with its control centred in the state, the subordinate units of which are no longer kinship associations, but local associations; a society in which the system of the family is completely dominated by the system of property, and in which there now freely develop those class antagonisms and class struggles that have hitherto formed the content of all written history.[3]

Despite having the weaknesses mentioned above the book is a cracking read. Rubenhold has produced an excellent piece of narrative-based history. She is to be congratulated in bringing the lives of these unfortunate women to a wider audience and in doing so correct the historical record. It is hoped that her next book is based on a little more historical materialism than this one has shown.

[1] Frederick Engels, London, January 11th, 1892;
First Published: in the English edition of The Condition of the Working-Class in England, New York, 1892;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.
[2] Manifesto of the Communist Party-Marx-Engels
[3] Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State- Frederick Engels

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”.[1]

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”.[2]

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.

[1] The stench of a police state-https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2011/08/pers-a17.html
[2] https://preview.wsws.org/en/articles/2018/10/09

Niall Ferguson: A Walking Provocation

The fact that the right-wing Professor Niall Ferguson has been caught leading a campaign to attack a left-wing student he disagreed with should come as no surprise.Ferguson has a record of pursuing a right-wing agenda both inside and outside academia. He is well known for his defence of British Colonialism or colonialism anywhere for that matter.While a lot has been made over the scandal what is being missed is the extent that Ferguson’s political activities are a defence of the process of commercialisation of universities and that anyone who comes into conflict with this state of affairs becomes the target of a witchhunt.

The Standford based historian was joined in his witchhunt by other members of the Cardinal Conversations, which is a Stanford program run by the conservative Hoover Institution. This group aims to collect the most right-wing people possible and give them a legitimate hearing inside the university.Standford’s link to the right-wing think tank Hoover Foundation is well known. It has a budget of $50 million and an endowment of more than $450 million.As one writer put it “There is no left-wing equivalent — a sizeable ideological think tank that intimately connected to a university — at any school in the United States.

Standford regularly invites, a veritable who’s who of right-wing writers and theorists, including race-and-IQ theorist Charles Murray, tech mogul Peter Thiel, and Christina Hoff Sommers, a prominent critic of modern feminism”.
Ferguson who appeared to be the leader of the group that believed the left wing student Michael Ocon was a danger to the group.In an email to two other members of the Stanford Republicans, John Rice-Cameron and Max Minshull, he wrote that “some opposition research on Mr O worthwhile.” Minshull stated he would “get on” the dirt-digging.More comments from this group are of a sinister and provocative nature. They would not look out of place in a Donald Trump Tweet.Rice-Cameron wrote in one email that “slowly, we will continue to crush the Left’s will to resist, as they will crack under pressure.”

Ferguson wrote in another note, “now we turn to the more subtle game of grinding them down on the committee,” adding that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”While not on the same scale there are striking similarities to the Watergate Scandal in particular how Nixon mobilised the full apparatus of the state against the Democrats.As one writer correctly stated “The whole saga is bizarre — and revealing. It illustrates a profound double game underpinning much of the so-called “free speech” controversy: a controversy that often isn’t really about freedom and is more concerned with power than with speech”.

While many commentators have concentrated on the danger to free speech within the universities, there has been no attempt to link the right-wing group of academics with the growing commercialisation of universities.It is becoming clear that far from universities being places of study and research for the common good many are becoming nothing more than appendages to transnational corporations. The fact that universities such as Oxford or Cambridge have vast cash reserves bear witness to this. According to the Guardian newspaper, 36 Oxford colleges have ‘consolidated net assets’ of £5.9 billion, while the University holds a further £3.2 billion.

This process of Privatisation of education has been followed by writer and historian Stefan Collini writing in 20011 Collini criticised both Labour and Conservatives for being complicit in this process.“Much of our contemporary discourse about universities still draws on, or unwittingly presumes, that pattern of assumptions: the idea that the university is a partly protected space in which the search for deeper and wider understanding takes precedence over all more immediate goals; the belief that, in addition to preparing the young for future employment, the aim of developing analytical and creative human capacities is a worthwhile social purpose; the conviction that the existence of centres of disinterested inquiry and the transmission of a cultural and intellectual inheritance are self-evident public goods; and so on.

While that conception of a university and its purposes is still very much alive and may, I suspect, still be the one held by a great many ‘ordinary’ citizens, we may be nearing the point, at least in Britain, where it is starting to give way to the equivalent of MacIntyre’s barren utilitarianism. If ‘prosperity’ is the overriding value in market democracies, then universities must be repurposed as ‘engines of growth’. The value of research has then to be understood in terms of its contribution to economic innovation, and the value of teaching in terms of preparing people for particular forms of employment. There are tensions and inconsistencies within this newer conception, just as there are in the larger framework of neoliberalism: neoliberal thinking promotes ‘free competition’ in international markets, while the rhetoric of national advantage in the ‘global struggle’ often echoes mercantilist assumptions. But, gradually, what we still call universities are coming to be reshaped as centres of applied expertise and vocational training that are subordinate to a society’s ‘economic strategy”.[1]

This is not the first or the last time Ferguson has mounted what appears to be a considerable provocation aimed at inciting a response from the left to launch a witchhunt against anybody who challenges his right-wing agenda.In her three-part series called What price an American empire? Reviewing Ferguson’s book Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, Marxist writer Ann Talbot exposes Ferguson’s political and historical agenda.“All British historians, E.H. Carr once said, are Whigs, even the Tories—but not in Niall Ferguson’s case. He is a Tory formed in the Thatcherite mould, who cut his teeth writing for Conrad Black’s Daily Telegraph while he was a research student in Germany.



[1] Who are the spongers now?-Stefan Collini https://www.lrb.co.uk/v38/n02/stefan-collini/who-are-the-spongers-now

1956: The World in Revolt by Simon Hall. Faber & Faber 2017.

The twentieth century has seen some world-shaking events none more so than in 1917 which saw the successful October Russian revolution. While 1956 is not quite in that ballpark, it nonetheless was a significant year by any stretch of the imagination. It is to Hall’s credit that he spent so much time highlighting it. It is also true that while other dates have been widely studied the 1950s and particularly 1956 have been under-researched.

The first question any reader will ask is how one examines a whole year in one medium-sized book. The answer, in this case, is very neatly. Part 1 is ‘Winter; Part II is ‘Spring Part III is called ‘Summer and Part IV, Autumn’.This cleverness can, however, take you only so far. Although Hall writes in a very accessible and exciting style, he has a limited understanding of the significance of this year on future world events. Moreover, an even less understanding of Stalinism, which diminishes his capacity to produce consistent or groundbreaking work.

While Hall narratively describes these events, it is to the detriment of a more analytical study of the world in 1956. His book tends to end up as a collective mishmash of events that have no real connection other than they happened in 1956.Hall is too reliant on memoirs and secondary sources, which tend to blur out what Hall thinks. The book tends to be written more from a journalist than a historians point of view.As One reviewer states “1956 is enjoyable and informative, but it has limits. What is missing is the sense of a bigger picture or a deeper rationale. Hall seems to sense this, as he makes periodic efforts to provide a connecting thesis. He ends his Prologue: “1956 saw ordinary people, across the globe, speak out, fill the streets and city squares, risk arrest, take up arms and lose their lives to win greater freedoms and build a more just world… It was an epic contest that would transform the post-war world.[1]

Five Themes

At least five significant themes need to be examined if a book about 1956 is to be any good. First and foremost you would have to examine the explosive rise and dominance of American Capitalism. Secondly the worldwide crisis of Stalinism.Thirdly the catastrophic impact of the policies of the petty bourgois nationalist movement especially in Latin America. Fourthly, The growth of Left-wing groups after 1956. Last but not least the response of the working class and the growth of Trotskyism.

First Theme-American Imperialism

Hall opens the book with the firebomb attack on Martin Luther King. Hall’s writing on the explosive Civil rights protest is separated from the very explosive rise of American capitalism.The events of 1956 were a confirmation of Leon Trotsky’s prognosis although writing in 1924 the Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky’s analysis showed remarkable foresight ” From the power of the United States and the weakening of Europe flows the inevitability of a new division of world forces, spheres of influence and world markets. America must expand while Europe is forced to contract. In precisely this consists the resultant of the basic economic processes that are taking place in the capitalist world. The US reaches out into all world channels and everywhere takes the offensive. She operates in a strictly “pacifist” manner, that is, without the use of armed force as yet, “without effusion of blood” as the Holy Inquisition said when burning heretics alive. She expands peaceably because her adversaries, grinding their teeth, are retreating step by step, before this new power, not daring to risk an open clash. That is the basis of the “pacifist” policy of the United States. Her principal weapon now is finance capital backed by its billions of gold reserve.

“This is a terrible and overwhelming force in relation to all parts of the world and particularly in relation to devastated and impoverished Europe. To grant or to refuse loans to this or that European country is, in many cases, to decide the fate not only of the political party in power but of the bourgeois regime itself. Up to the present time, the US has invested 10 billion dollars in the economy of other countries. Of these 10 billion, two have been granted to Europe in addition to the ten billion formerly supplied for its devastation. Now, as we know, the loans are granted in order to “restore” Europe. Devastation, then restoration: these two aims complement each other, while the interest on the sums appropriated for both keeps flowing into the same reservoir. The US has invested the most capital in Latin America which, from the economic standpoint, is becoming more and more a dominion of North America. After South America, Canada is the country which has obtained the most credits; then comes Europe. The other parts of the world have received much less”.[2]

Many of the events described in Hall’s book were in some cases indirect products of this new era. One more direct product was the Suez crisis. Which largely confirmed America’s preeminence as a global superpower and the demise of one of Europe’s leading bourgeois nations Britain.

Second Theme-Stalinism

The second point that needs to be examined is the USSR’s relationship with America. Many processes were at work to bring about Khrushchev’s actions in 1956. However, the main one being that national autarkic economy of the Soviet Union was rapidly disintegrating and was no match for the global reach of the American Economy. Stalin’s theory that you could build a nationally insulated economy within one country was coming to a bloody demise.As Nick Beams points out “Leon Trotsky, writing in his book The Revolution Betrayed traced the origins of the bureaucracy and warned that its monopolisation of political power, its nationalist doctrine of socialism in one country and the defence of its material interests and privileges against the Soviet masses would lead inevitably to the liquidation of all the gains of the 1917 revolution and the restoration of capitalism unless it was overthrown by the working class.

Beams continues “In that book, Trotsky refused to characterise the Soviet Union as “socialist”. The Russian Revolution and the nationalisation of the property had, he insisted, done no more than lay the foundations for the transformation of the Soviet Union into a socialist society. Its future depended on a complex series of national and international factors. The transition to socialism depended on the interconnection of two processes. If the revolution, which had begun by 1917, had extended to the advanced capitalist countries and if the Soviet working class was able to overthrow the usurping Stalinist bureaucracy then the USSR could evolve in the direction of socialism. However, if the Soviet Union remained isolated and if the bureaucracy, in defence of its material interests and privileges, continued to stifle the progressive tendencies inherent in the nationalised industry and central planning, then the Soviet Union would undergo a continuous degeneration, leading eventually to the restoration of capitalism”.[3]

In 1956 sections of the Stalinist bureaucracy turned on its commander in chief and partner in crime Stalin. Kruschev’s “secret speech” was hardly secret and was not so much a political break with Stalinism but a mechanism in which to deal with the raging political and economic crisis that gripped world Stalinism.

Khrushchev’s speech was typical of a man who was implicated in all the major crimes committed by the Stalinist bureaucracy. One subject all the Stalinist bureaucrats were in agreement was the correctness of the struggle against Leon Trotsky the only leading Bolshevik not to have been rehabilitated by the Stalinists. Khrushchev said “We must affirm that the party fought a serious fight against the Trotskyists, rightists and bourgeois nationalists and that it disarmed ideologically all the enemies of Leninism. The ideological fight was carried on successfully … Here Stalin played a positive role.”

Khrushchev had a very limited understanding of what social forces he was inadvertenly unleashing with his speech.Far from preventing revolution, he opened the floodgates. His response was the same as Stalin and unleash terror on the working class.

Third Theme-Castroism

While Hall does not glorify the growth of Castrism, he does not explain its ideological roots or the enormous damage it did to the revolutionary aspirations of the Latin American working class.It is not within the remit of the article to go into any great detail on Castroism, but a few points can be made. It would not be an overstatement to say that Castroism has been the subject of extraordinary misunderstanding. Some people portray it as a movement towards socialism some say it is real existing socialism even Marxism.

None of these falsehoods is true. Castroism was not a movement of working class. It was a movement based on the petty bourgeoisie of Cuba. When describing Castro as a “petty-bourgeois nationalist” One is merely calling things by their right scientific name.

As the American Marxist writer Bill Vann states “Marx correctly stated that the petty-bourgeoisie is incapable of independent and consistent political action. Its inconsistency is a reflection of its intermediate social position. Caught between the two main classes of society and continuously being differentiated into exploiter and exploited, it is compelled to follow one or other of these classes—either the proletariat or the bourgeoisie”.

Far from leading to socialism throughout Latin America the working class there was lead to defeat after defeat; the responsibility lies with the petty bourgeoisie nationalists. An examination of Cuba today is a sad confirmation of these defeats. Castro’s brother is leading the country to a disaster by opening up the economy to the rapacious nature of American capitalism.

Fourth Theme-The New Left and 1956.

The political and social crisis produced by the 1956 crisis of Stalinism opened new opportunities for left-wing groups in Britain and globally. The break of Stalinism’s grip on the working class led to new formations on the left.The majority of these formations were not that healthy and still clung to the ideological baggage of the Stalinists.The Britsh Communist party lost a significant amount of it working class cadre and a large section of its intellectuals such as EP Thompson Christopher Hill, Raphael Samuel, John Saville to name but a few.The historian Eric Hobsbawm stayed in the Party and ended his days an admirer of Gorbachev.” I have a lasting admiration for Mikhail Gorbachev. It is an admiration shared by all who know that, however, for his initiatives, the world might still be living under the shadow of the catastrophe of a nuclear war – and that the transition from the communist to the post-communist era in eastern Europe, and in most non-Caucasian parts of the former USSR, has proceeded without significant bloodshed”

Samuel who left at the same time as Hill formed a new Magazine alongside Stuart Hall.In November 1956, he sent a letter to Stuart Hall suggesting they set up a magazine called ‘New University Left,’ Hall accepted the idea, but the magazine went on to be called Universities & Left Review. To gain support for the publication which would orientate not towards the working class but to students, former CP members, fellow travellers, and various other left-wing radicals Samuel sent letters to these forces appealing for money and articles.

Samuel and Hall were both hostile to Trotskyism and refused to collaborate when the Trotskyists of the SLL sought a joint political approach to the demise of Stalinism.Healy’s initial response to the ULR was friendly, and he sought a dialogue with them and other New Left groups. The ULR’s hostility to Trotskyism soon became apparent.Samuel said “There has been an incredible mushrooming of inner-party groups. On the ultra-Left—the dissidence of Dissent—a dozen ‘vanguard’ parties, and as many tendencies and groups, compete for the honour of leading a non-existent revolutionary working class”.

Similar hostility was shown by E P Thompson and John Saville who formed the New Reasoner magazine. Cliff Slaughter then a leading member of the SLL wrote this overture to the first New Left. “Many others in Britain, today besides contributors to LABOUR REVIEW, are consciously trying to make a Marxist theoretical contribution to the socialist movement.Those connected with the New Reasoner and Universities and Left Review number avowed Marxists in their ranks, and some of their work is of great value.

However, in the belief that theory is very important, indeed basic to the building of a Marxist working-class leadership-and we assume that the editors of those journals agree that this must be the primary aim of all of us-we think it vital to state sharply where we different basic questions of theory and method, as well as genuinely to try to find areas of common ground in research and common fronts in current political struggles”.

Despite the SLL’s comradely approach, this was not reciprocated by the New reasoner editorial board,leaving SLL leader Gerry Healy to write “Comrade Thompson seems to have cast away all the luggage, he was equipped with the Communist Party except one soiled old suitcase labelled anti-Trotskyism.Brian Pearce won to the SLL out of the CP wrote warning of the dangers of founding an organisation without thorough assimilation of the struggle waged by Leon Trotsky against Stalinism was prescient. Pearce warned of the dangers of an uncritical attitude by the ULR editors towards their past affiliation to Stalinism and their hostility towards the orthodox Marxist in the SLL.

“Nothing could be more dangerous today than a revival of the illusions which dominated that ‘old Left.’ One of the chief sources of the confusion and worse in ‘new Left’ quarters, and in particular of their hostile attitude to the Socialist Labour League, is to be found in the fact that though these people have broken with Stalinism they have not undertaken a thorough analysis of what they repudiate, have not seen the connection between the apparently contradictory features of Stalinism at different times or even at one time, and so they remain unconsciously open to influence by false ideas absorbed during their period in the Stalinist camp”.

Fith Theme -Gerry Healy and the Socialist Labour League.

The ULR was not the only magazine around in 1957 that sought to gain political ground from the breakup of the Communist Party. A magazine of an entirely different political calibre was founded by Gerry Healy’s the Club forerunner of the SLL (Socialist Labour League) called Labour Review.The knockback from the ULR did not stop the orthodox Marxists or Trotskyists in the Fourth International from doubling their efforts to gain from the crisis within the British Communist party. Healy continued to believe that Stalinism was a counter-revolutionary force. The SLL won prominent figures such as Cliff Slaughter, Tom Kemp, Peter Fryer and Brian Pearce out of the CP.

Conclusion

As an epitaph to his book Hall wrote “many of those who took to the streets or called for change, as well as those who defended the status quo, were aware of the global context in which they were acting. Indeed, some sensed that they were part of a larger interconnected story”.While it is facile for one historian to entirely ditch his theory of historical events and adopt another, I believe that if Hall had delved into the Marxist archive and attempted to give his book on 1956 a more analytical and perspective driven angle, then a better book would have been achieved.

[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/1956-the-world-in-revolt-by-simon-hall-book-review-enjoyable-but-it-has-limits-a6790981.html
[2] Europe and America-(Part 1) (February 1924) https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1926/02/europe.htm
[3] A question on the economic reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union- https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2000/09/corr-s12.html

Interview With Historian Marcus Rediker

Marcus Rediker has kindly answered a few questions regarding his work. His new book is The Fearless Benjamin Lay published by Verso.

My review of the book is linked @ http://keith-perspective.blogspot.co.uk/2018/01/the-fearless-benjamin-lay-quaker-dwarf.html

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”.[1]

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”.[2]

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.[3]

Early Capitalism

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”. [4]

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”.[5]

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”.

The Enlightenment

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”.[6]

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”[7].

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.

Conclusion

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”.[8]

[1] http://www.beaconbroadside.com/broadside/2017/11/radical-abolitionist-benjamin-lay-reclaimed-by-quakers-279-years-later.html
[2] Excerpt from Chapter Three, “Philadelphia’s ‘Men of Renown’”
[3] Capital-Karl Marx
[4]Capital -Karl Marx Chapter Thirty-One: Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist
[5] A History of Economic Thought. Conclusion-Isaak Illich Rubin 1929- https://www.marxists.org/archive/rubin/1929/conclusion.htm
[6] https://www.libertarianism.org/media/liberty-chronicles/benjamin-lay-was-original-sjw-marcus-rediker
[7] Success Story-Christopher Hill- http://www.nybooks.com.ezproxy2.londonlibrary.co.uk/articles/1987/01/29/success-story/
[8] http://prospect.org/article/qa-first-revolutionary-abolitionist

A Socialist History of the French Revolution-Jean Jaures -Pluto Press-Abridged -2015- 288 pages- ISBN-13: 978-0745335001

“Every revolutionary party, every oppressed people, every oppressed working class can claim Jaurès, his memory, his example, and his person, for our own” – Leon Trotsky

For each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it, is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society, that is, expressed in ideal form: it has to give its ideas the form of universality, and represent them as the only rational, universally valid ones. Marx, German Ideology (1845)

Published just a few years before his death, A Socialist History of the French Revolution is one of the most important books written on the French Revolution.Despite the passage of time, interest in the French revolution has not diminished. Aside from the abridged translation of Jean Jaures’s multi-volume Socialist History of the French Revolution, the last decade has seen a significant output from writers like Éric Hazan’s People’s History of the French Revolution (published in French in 2012) and several other high profile books.

The French Revolution was an event of world-historical importance. It would not be an overstatement to say that it changed not only European history but world history. The revolution also changed the way future generations saw revolutions. Like the English revolution, the French revolution is till being fought over by historians. This new abridged version of the writings of Jean Jaures painstakingly put together by translator Mitchell Abidor is a welcome addition to an already crowded market. Jaures’s original work filled several volumes.

Biography

Jaurès was born in Castres in Midi-Pyrénées in 1859. He became a leading international socialist who was later assassinated for opposing the first world war. He was also the celebrated leader of the French Socialist Party leader. His history of the revolution was published in 1914. His work has stayed fresh and has endured the rigors of time. It is one of the most important and influential accounts of the French Revolution. Mitchell Abidor’s much-anticipated translation brings Jaures’s work to an English audience for the first time. Jaures application of the historical materialism method will help students, academics, and the public to a greater understanding of this complex event.

Jaures account of the revolution is not without controversy. Throughout his work on the revolution, he defended Robespierre’s reputation. Jaures believed that Robespierre acted out of necessity and in the words of one writer “to save the new republic from its enemies. Robespierre, like Jaurès after him, was anti-militarist and argued passionately against war with Europe in 1792. Jaures use of narrative history makes his work very readable without lowering political or academic standards. Despite Jaures concern to portray ordinary people in his work, this is not a “history from below”.Despite the working class appearing on the scene, Jaures was careful enough not to portray this revolution as a proletarian revolution while the working class may have stormed the Bastille this was firmly a revolution in the control of the developing bourgeoisie.

As Jaures states “The revolution’s origins were so profoundly bourgeois that a few weeks after July 14, when the National Assembly, freed by the people from the court’s attacks, set up the electoral regime and excluded millions of the working poor from the vote… not even the most democratic of them remembered that at the Bastille the workers of Paris had conquered the title of active citizens for the poor of France.[1]

Jaurès continues “that the proletarians were neither bold enough, conscious enough, nor organized enough to substitute their revolution for the revolution, they marched light-heartedly against the chateaux and turned against the ancien régime the weapons they’d seized… We can see that there was a kind of conservative movement of contraction, or tightening, which was followed by a revolutionary expansion. Under the fear of the unknown and before the uprising of the have-nots, the communities of the villages withdrew into themselves, elected men of whom they were sure, established a militia, and, having thus guaranteed the order of property within the revolution, attacked the feudal system”. The contradiction between the entry of the working class onto the stage of history and the bourgeois nature of the revolution is at the heart of Jaures work on the revolution.

Henry Heller, in his introduction, is correct to point out that Jaures saw the French revolution as the first struggle of socialists to overthrow capitalism. Given the abridged nature of the book, Heller’s introduction takes a more important role than is normal for an introduction. As Jaurès writes “Perhaps one generation alone could not bring down the ancien régime, create new laws and rights, raise an enlightened and proud people from the depths of ignorance, poverty, and misery, fight against an international league of tyrants and slaves, and put all passions and forces to use in this combat while at the same time ensuring the evolution of the fevered, exhausted country towards normal order and well-ordered freedom”.

The Bourgeois Revolution

Jaures was an astute enough writer to know the French revolution was not a chemically pure revolution. The bourgeoisie was not a homogenous class and was made up of factions who were still integrated into the social and economic structures of the ancient regime. Other sections of the middle class who were unable to profit under the old regime established new forms of production undertook a revolution to profit from it. As Jean Jaures said, the finance bourgeoisie represented a hybrid social force at the crossroads of the ancient regime.

The reaction to the revolution of the European bourgeoisie was one of fear and horror. Best summed up by Edmund Burke “France has always more or less influenced manners in England; and when your fountain is choked up and polluted, the stream will not run long, or not run clear, with us, or perhaps with any nation. This gives all Europe, in my opinion, but too close and connected a concern in what is done in France. Excuse me, therefore, if I have dwelt too long on the atrocious spectacle of October 6, 1789, or have given too much scope to the reflections which have arisen in my mind on the occasion of the most important of all revolutions, which may be dated from that day, I mean a revolution in sentiments, manners, and moral opinions”.[2]

The French revolution was the catalyst for national revolutions to follow. The 18th century was a century of crises for various European regimes. The French revolution was not the only one to take place, i.e. the French heavily influenced the American Revolution. Therefore, it is not surprising that this time was called “The age of democratic revolutions”. Having said this, the bourgeoisie in France and Europe was not opposed to scupper democratic norms when they got in the way of making money.

As the Marxist writer, Ann Talbot shows us “The imperatives of private property and profit were not about to stand still, and the Jacobins had no alternative form of social organization to offer. Robespierre did not need to imagine conspiracies. They arose in plenty. Just across the Channel, the emerging capitalist power of Britain could afford to finance the armies of the surviving ancien regimes and uprisings such as that in the province of La Vendée. The domestic opposition was produced by the war profiteers and grain merchants, who exploited the continuing shortages of grain”.[3]

Jaures was clear that this most dramatic revolution was certainly the most politically significant within Europe. While there are some parallels with the English revolution, this was unlike any other previous revolution. In Britain and America, Tom Paine was an extremist in France he was a moderate. As Talbot writes “Paine’s life story reflects the experience of a new social type: self-educated men from poor backgrounds who were making their way in industry, science and, in Paine’s case, politics. He was the most brilliant example of this new phenomenon”.The country of which he had become a citizen was menaced from within by aristocratic conspiracies and from without by aggressive neighbours, as intent on furthering their own interests as restoring the ancient regime. France was isolated; its economy and currency were collapsing. These facts coloured the history of the revolution. The French revolutionaries were increasingly forced to create an emergency wartime regime and take drastic measures. The Great Terror grew out of the Great Fear”.[4]

Reasons for revolution

Like many things regarding the French revolution, the reason for its outbreak has little or no agreement amongst historians.The crisis began in 1787 the trigger being the king’s attempt to stop state bankruptcy. Coupled with this was the fact that France had been involved in a significant number of wars on an international scale. Deregulation of agriculture began to hit the poor the most. Hostility against the excess of the clergy and the nobility who had creamed off most of the money. The advent of the humanist and scientific development produced the ground for the philosophers to challenge the monarchy. Many thinkers came from the bourgeoisie who sought to undermine the aristocracy.

The position of the peasantry had been growing worse for over 20 years. France had run up huge debts during the war in America. The revolution was started by the assembly of notables demanded an extension of their privileges. The revolution was not led by a formal political party with a systematic program. The revolution did have a striking consensus amongst its leader’s. At its heart was a new capitalist class, who had enlightened thinkers who were confident of their ideas. Although the revolution would have happened without them. They made sure that when the regime broke down, something could replace it.

Their demands were laid down in the declaration of the rights of man, men are born equal, but some are more equal to than others l. Their regime would, however, constitute the will of the people and to represent the French nation. A national assembly was constituted to enshrine the power of this new class. Absolutism was at an end, Mirabeau was to declare to the king “sire, you are a stranger in this assembly, you have not the right to speak here” [5].The new assembly had a broad base and represented the labouring masses and peasantry. A Bad harvest had turned things nasty, and open revolt occurred. The king refused to accept the status quo’ the next stage of the revolution saw the storming of the Bastille. July 14. What began as peasant uprising sparked a wider movement? Feudalism was abolished in1793; the middle class finally consolidated its regime.

The middle class had to deal with both the conservative right and left-wing who were determined to pursue their agenda? This brought two groups to the fore, the Jacobeans and the Sansculottes both represented the small middle class. Small farmer’s artisans who were being squeezed by the new larger middle class. The sharp changes brought about in France stirred fervent actions outside its borders, as monarchies grew fearful that it could be repeated elsewhere. The purpose of the revolution was to usher in a new class.The bourgeoisie, however, unstable this was to be the subsequent revolutions were an attempt by the various contending factions to gain power at this the working class did not constitute an independent class yet sided and was led by one section of the middle class. In much respect, the history of this revolution determined the history of Europe.

Historiography– Classical and revisionists

It is not within the realm of this review to discuss every single revisionist historical trend of the revolution. There is a similar theme amongst all of them in that the French revolution was not a bourgeois revolution.Eric Hazan, the author of numerous books of the revolutions in France, claims that Marxist historians have exaggerated the presence of the bourgeoisie in France “In their struggle against the bourgeoisie, the revolutionary peasants and sans-culottes were working against the grain of history as they opposed the establishment of capitalism.”Hazan continues “that the words “bourgeois” and “bourgeoisie” were rare in late-18th-century France: “I have found ‘the rich’, ‘hoarders’, ‘aristocrats’, ‘plotters’, ‘mono­polists’, ‘rogues’, ‘rentiers’, but scarcely a single ‘bourgeois’.” He concludes that the question “Was the revolution bourgeois or not?” does not mean anything.[6]

Amongst the more classically minded historians was Alfred Cobban (May 24 1901-1 April 1968)who opposed a historical materialist understanding of the French revolution. Cobban wrote an article entitled The Myth of the French revolution whose basic premise was to deny the anti-feudal and bourgeoisie nature of revolution.Albert Soboul sought to defend a materialist method of understanding the cause of the French revolution. He believed that even within the liberal school of historians, the revolution was a social act that paved the way for the bourgeoisie to come to power. That the revolution had been prepared ideologically had prepared its ideas, which undermined the existing feudal regime.

Conclusion

To conclude as Lefebvre “Without scholarship there is no history”.[7] It is clear the revolution itself was the result of complex changes in inside France and Europe. Each generation of historians has added immense understanding to this event. It also must be stated that the attack on a historical materialist understanding of the revolution has done great damage. Despite this, there will be a thirst in the coming period for a materialist understanding of past revolutionary events.

In this context, the work by translator Mitchell Abidor should be a tremendous service to increasing one’s knowledge of the complex historical event. While the problem with any abridgement is that it must choose what to leave out, it will hopefully push readers into reading far more on the subject than they had intended which mean that some readers might want to read further on the revolution.

I leave the final word with Jaurès “We will not mock the men of the revolution who read Plutarch’s Lives. It’s certain that the great burst of inner energy Plutarch inspired in them did little to change the march of events, but at least the men of the revolution remained upright in the storm.” To judge them as if they should have brought the drama to a close as if history was not going to continue after them, is both childish and unjust. Their work was necessarily limited, but it was great.”

[1] Jean Jaurès, History of the French Revolution. 1901-https://www.marxists.org/archive/jaures/1901/history/july-14.htm
[2] Reflections on the Revolution in France-Burke
[3] Present historic: Carlyle, Robespierre and the French Revolution
Part one-By Ann Talbot-15 July 2010-https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2010/07/fren-j15.html
[4] Citizen of the world: a brief survey of the life and times of Thomas Paine (1737-1809)
By Ann Talbot-8 June 2009
[5] Age of Revolution: 1789-1848- By Eric Hobsbawm
[6] France’s left will never accept the revolution is over-Ruth Scurr-http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2015/08/frances-left-will-never-accept-revolution-over
[7] Quoted in https://thecharnelhouse.org/tag/albert-soboul/

A Reply to Suzannah Lipscomb’s article Face to Face with History.

Suzannah Lipscomb’s article in history Today[1] is an interesting read. She states that historical novels can bring us closer historical truth than academic writing. “If we can trust writers of historical fiction to situate their stories within a framework of accuracy, we can allow their novels to deliver our heart’s desire: a séance with the past, a face to face encounter with the people of history, that we perhaps find lacking in history books”[2].

While a good historical fiction is a pleasure to read and can shed some light on past events, academic historical research and writing should take precedence. I agree with Lipscomb that a historical novelist should strive to be accurate and authentic. It is also acceptable that an author should have an individual artistic license; after all, it is fiction we are talking about and should be treated as such. But artistic license must be situated within the bounds of historical accuracy and truth.

Bad fiction writing can be a very damaging thing. Perhaps these books should be made to carry a public health warning. Bad fiction can severely damage your intellect.But not all fiction is bad, and not all academic history is right. A good historical novel such as David Caute’s Comrade Jacob is enjoyable and can be an excellent way of attracting readers to history.The best historical fiction can shed new light on an already much written about the period. As Paul Lay speaking about the book the Daughter of Time by Josephine Yey states “The historical novel, when it is this good, this thoroughly researched, has become a means of legitimate historical inquiry”.

Writing any kind of history is indeed fraught with danger. But the struggle for objective truth no matter how hard should be part of the fundamental DNA of any historian or historical fiction writer. Lipscomb is right to warn of historians playing fast and loose with the facts. A historical fiction writer should approach their sources with the full rigour of an academic historian.Lipscomb believes there is a significant amount of bad historical fiction and academic writing. Her article does not examine or account for the growth of bad historical fiction novels or the growth of appalling academic writing and in some cases, outright historical falsification.

Two interrelated trends have brought this about. The growing commercialisation of history is having a serious and adverse impact on history writing. The amount of money that universities are getting from wealthy individuals or corporations is bound to lead to a certain amount of academic prostitution.Coupled with this has been the growth of postmodernism which has not only manifested itself in academic circles but is found in historical fiction writing.The utter dross that is being produced in the name of historical fiction and the disinterest for any kind of “grand narratives” is a by-product of the postmodernists. Domination of universities. One of its leading members is Jean-François Lyotard and his 1979 book, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Lyotard adopted an “incredulity toward metanarratives,” and said, “The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal”.[3]

The chief characteristic of the postmodernist 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 postmodernism. It would not be an overstatement to say that the impact of this school of history has been as one writer put “nothing short of catastrophic.”Lipscomb is very generous in her praise of Mantel’s work and rightly so. Mantel is one of the most gifted writers around and works hard in the archives and knows her way around the historiography of her given subjects.

Lipscomb seems to lose a little clarity and academic objectivity in her assessment of Mantel. Mantel’s portrayal of Thomas Cromwell is, of course, a revision of the previous historiography. It should also be noted that Mantel’s portray of Thomas Cromwell pays a little too much debt to the arch-revisionist historian. G R Elton. Elton like Mantel says little about Thomas More’s writing on utopia.4]

According to Professor Mark Horowitz “Elton decidedly positions himself as the master of the manuscripts, in this case, contemporary documents and administrative records from the statutes and the journals of the House of Commons. He comes close to chastising those historians pursuing the history of ideas – he is not a fan – believing that all is for naught unless such ideas can be traced to actions beyond the mental exercise. Indeed, he has little time for More’s Utopia because no proposals were put forth to better the commonwealth, only ‘remedies in the fictional realm of the unattainable.’ Elton’s goal is to demonstrate the translation of ‘aspiration into achievement’ and how ‘thought yielded results indeed’. This, of course, provides a theme and path for his discussion of Thomas Cromwell as the exemplar of a Tudor action hero of sorts, and he takes his readers on a legislative journey portraying a practical minister’s transition into a proficient planner stoked by the reformist fervour of the day”.

It is, therefore, critical to know what is buzzing in a historian or fiction writers head. Mantel clearly as Lipscomb points out does make Cromwell more likeable than history records.So the reader should at least understand the motives or bias of any writer of fiction or nonfiction. Mantel, after all, is heavily critical of the Catholic church. The Catholic Church, she states “is not an institution for respectable people”[5].

While it should be taken for granted that a historian to attempt to recreate the past must have “empathy and imagination,” the historian or fiction writer must study the history with a doggedness and intellectual objectivity. 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.

The historian E.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 conversation in a readable form to the history reading public he or she had to be extremely careful and not to fall into the trap of treating his topics of research as if they were organically linked to the present day. It would be entirely wrong to treat figures such as Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon Bonaparte as contemporaries. It should not need to be said that they lived in completely different times to people from the 21st century.To conclude the French historian of feudal society Marc Bloch said it best when he wrote The Historian’s Craft ” In a word, a historical phenomenon can never be understood apart from its moment in time. This applies to 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”.


[1] http://www.historytoday.com/suzannah-lipscomb/face-face-history#sthash.Iph979ja.dpuf
[2] http://www.historytoday.com/suzannah-lipscomb/face-face-history#sthash.Iph979ja.dpuf
[3] The return of the “grand narrative” 1 June 2016-http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/06/01/pers-j01.html
[4] Wolf Hall-Hilary Mantel-London, Harper Collins, 2009, ISBN: 9780007230181 ; 672pp.; Price: £5.99
[5] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/9262955/Hilary-Mantel-Catholic-Church-is-not-for-respectable-people.html

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”.[1] 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”.[2] 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.[3]

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.[4]

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.[5] 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”[6] 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)[7]. 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”.[8]

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.

[1] What is History E H Carr?
[2] Reading Architectural History-By Dana Arnold
[3] The American Historical Review discredits Robert Service’s biography of Leon Trotsky
[4] Socialism and historical truth- https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/03/17/lect-m17.html
[5] Isaac and Isaiah: The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic Paperback 2015
by David Caute
[6] The Practice of History, Sir Geoffrey Elton
[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J%C3%B6rg_Baberowski
[8]Jörg Baberowski, The Meaning of History, Munich 2005,

Review: The People: the Rise and Fall of the Working Class 1910-2010 by Selina Todd

“The working class did not rise like the sun at an appointed time. It was present in its own making.” E. P.Thompson.


Despite having the word class in the title of Selina Todd’s new book does not mean that Todd favours a Marxist theory of the proletariat.One only needs to look at a growing number of statements such as the one from Andre Gortz who bid his Farewell to the Working Class or John Major that Britain was a “classless society” and Tony Blair trumpeted we are “all middle class now,” to see that class is “a fiercely contested concept and is not merely a descriptive taxonomy.” Given the tile on Todd’s book, it appears that she has adapted to the sentiment expressed in Gortz’s book Farewell to the Working Class.But things are beginning to change throughout the world, a rising tide of social struggle provoked in part by the COVID 19 crisis has blown apart the proclamations by anti-Marxist intellectuals that the “grand narratives” of working-class struggle and socialist revolution have finished.

The most striking aspect of Todd’s book is her adoption of the genre history from below ” In fact, the book could almost be seen as a sequel to E P Thompson’s classic of the genre The Making of the English Working Class. Selina Todd describes the period covered by the book as a “working-class century, and in 1910, people “who worked with their hands constituted the vast majority of Britons.”Given that the title of the book indicates that she believes that the working class has fallen a premise that is not at all accurate, and implies that nowadays the political and numerical weight of the working class is less. Of course, it is safe to say that the working class of 1910 is not the same as the working class of 2014, but according to an orthodox Marxist position, it still holds the same fundamental relationship to the means of production. Also, it is in many ways larger now given the fact that many middle-class people have now been so affected by the current economic crisis that they have been forced back into the working class.

In her introduction, Todd claims that the motivation for the book came from an earlier period of her academic career when she found that little work has been done on the type of working-class family she came from. “Eventually, I realized I would have to write this history myself”. She continues “the only working-class history on offer was general history — which is great, but it did mean that the only working-class people you ever heard about were those involved in. That was not the full history of working-class life as I knew it from my peers at school and my own family”. [1]I find this very hard to believe given that the last three decades have seen a veritable cottage industry grow up examining different aspects of working-class life. It is also hard to believe that an academic of Todd’s standing found it hard to find material.

However, it is not to say that the book is without merit. It is well researched and informative. The book is part oral history, part academic and suitable for the general history reader. Todd vividly describes the oppression faced by the working class and its attempts to challenge capitalist exploitation. The strongest part of the book is Todd’s use of oral history.It is a very thorough and well-researched piece of history. Todd said “throughout the book, I rely heavily on personal testimonies, gained from interviews and unpublished and published autobiographies. I combed local studies libraries across the country to find the testimonies of over 200 people, and then I added to these by using the archives of some social surveys of working-class life in the 1950s and ’60s”.

You could say that Todd seeks to rescue the servants, industrial workers; the unemployed and the lower middle class from the condescension of history. According to one reviewer “the book is peppered with anecdotes of real people, from those working in what was little more than domestic servitude in some cases in the early part of the last century, to the militant trade unionists of the 1960s and 1970s, to the consumers of today, is what sets it apart. We learn about those whose lives were changed by fame, fortune and in Vivian’s case, the pools (before the greater riches of the National Lottery), to those who became the first property owners under Margaret Thatcher “.

It must be said however that Todd’s conception of class like her great predecessor E P Thompson has nothing to do with an orthodox Marxist view of class. Todd believes as did E P Thompson, that a historical materialist position cannot sufficiently explain the origins of the working class despite professing being influenced by it. She believes that “Class needs to be spoken about in a less determined way”.In his essay on the ‘Peculiarities of the English E.P. Thompson gave his theoretical definition of class: “When we speak of a class we are thinking of a very loosely defined body of people who share the same congeries of interests, social experiences, traditions and value-system, who have the disposition to behave as a class, to define themselves in their actions and their consciousness in relation to other groups of people in class ways. But the class itself is not a thing, and it is happening”. [2]

It is one thing for Todd to be influenced by historians such as Thompson it is another to be blind to their “Stalinist baggage”. Thompson, who was not a political novice, after leaving the British Communist Party in 1956 he founded the magazine the New Reasoner, along with historian John Saville, and Universities and Left Review, edited by Stuart Hall.
Thompson and Saville were hostile to the orthodox Trotskyists represented by the then Socialist Labour League’s international revolutionary perspective.

His magazine was imbued in what was mistakenly called the “English Marxist” tradition.New Reasoner was said to advocate a “socialist humanist” version of Marxism. In reality, it had nothing to do with Marxism and was no more than a crude cover for his support of the Stalinist “British Road” advocated by the CPGB.The New Left movement under the leadership of Thompson and Saville was responsible as Paul Bond for “introducing the nationalist, ethnic and gender-specific theories that have led to so much confusion over the last 30 years, as well as helping the imperialists divert workers and youth along dangerous communal lines in South East Asia, Africa and the Middle East”.

The rejection of a historical materialist understanding of the class struggle was and still is, to a certain extent, a hallmark of several historians who professed sympathy with Marxism. It is to be hoped that Todd does not pick up the bad habits of Thompson who like other historians of his generation decided to cherry-pick certain aspects of a Marxist method and leave aside the most important parts such as the relationship between base and superstructure and how it affects the history of the working class.

The Marxist writer Cliff Slaughter put it so well “When we say that political ideas and movements reflect the economic base we should remember that such reflection is a series of conscious acts. Men’s consciousness is formed in an environment of social institutions controlled by the ruling class, institutions of repression and institutions for educational conditioning, staffed by people trained to operate these institutions as though they were part of a naturally or divinely ordained system. The majority of labour’s own organizations have become tied to this structure of established institutions, and are staffed by the ‘labour lieutenants of capitalism’. The proletariat’s consciousness of its role has to be achieved in struggle against all these institutional forms and their ideological results. Without the highest degree of centralized organization, these ideological battles cannot be won”.[3]

Todd does not see the working class through rose-tinted spectacles, but she believes that most of the working class can do reform capitalism not overthrow it. Also, her attitude towards the “labor lieutenants” is at best weak at worst it borders on glossing over the betrayals of both the Labour Party and the Unions.Given her reformist proclivities, it is not an accident that the book with over 450 pages does not mention Karl Marx., the Communist Party gets only two mentions.Perhaps most damagingly is her view of the most important events affecting the English working class. While it is easy to agree that the Second World War and the rise of Thatcherism are important events in the life of the English working-class surely the most important political event of the 20th century concerning the working class did not happen in Britain but in Russia, i.e. the 1917-The Russian revolution. If one event shaped the modern-day English working Class, it was that event. Leaving the Russian Revolution out is tantamount to doing a history of the bible and leaving Jesus out.

Another strange absence is that despite professing her admiration for E P Thompson, the Marxist History Group, which included E.P. Thompson, Rodney Hilton and Eric Hobsbawm and Christopher Hill is completely ignored. One does not have to accept everything this group wrote, said or did, but I believe it is not possible to write a history of the English working-class without examining their work.As the Marxist writer, Ann Talbot said “Not only was their contribution to the writing of history significant but also they represent a particularly critical phase in British history when Britain lost its world hegemony to the USA, and the class conflict became more intense. They represent a layer of socialist-minded intellectuals who looked in this period of crisis to the Soviet Union and the Russian revolution for a new model of society”.

Talbot, in her examination of these historians, especially Christopher Hill, was mindful of their Stalinist influenced politics. She was extremely critical of the People’s history genre of which Todd adopts in her book, and she writes “the Communist Party sponsored a form of “People’s History”, which is typified by A.L. Morton’s People’s History of England in which the class character of earlier rebels, revolutionaries and popular leaders was obscured by regarding them all as representatives of a national revolutionary tradition. This historical approach reflected the nationalism of the bureaucracy, their hostility to internationalism and their attempts to form an unprincipled alliance with the supposedly democratic capitalists against the fascist Axis countries. People’s history was an attempt to give some historical foundation to the policies of Popular Front—the subordination of the working class to supposedly progressive sections of the bourgeoisie and the limiting of political action to the defence of bourgeois democracy—which provided a democratic facade to the systematic murder of thousands of genuine revolutionaries, including Trotsky. It was the approach that Christopher Hill was trained in, along with E.P. Thompson, Rodney Hilton and Eric Hobsbawm, who were part of the Marxist Historians Group and came under the influence of Maurice Dobb and Dona Torr”. [4]

To conclude if Todd has read this review it is hoped that she has shifted her historiography away from the use of culture and gender to explain class relations and bring it closer to a Marxist position on class. The People-The Rise and Fall of the Working Class is a useful guide to certain aspects of working-class life over the last century but should not be seen as a Marxist analysis. It is hoped that Todd’s next book attempts these difficult processes.


[1] Interview by Joe Gill http://dearkitty1.wordpress.com/2014/05/03/british-historian-selina-todd-interviewed/.
[2] E.P. Thompson-The Peculiarities of the English-(1965)-From The Socialist Register 1965, pp.311-362. Marxists’ Internet Archive.
[3] Cliff Slaughter What is Revolutionary Leadership? From Labour Review, Vol.5 No.3, October-November 1960, pp.93-96 & 105-111.Published by Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
[4] These the times … this the man”: an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill
By Ann Talbot 25 March 2003 http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2003/03/hill-m25.ht

A Short Q&A with Historian Catherine Fletcher

Catherine Fletcher latest book is called Our Man in Rome is set in the six-year period of Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. It’s the story of Gregorio Casali, Henry VIII’s ambassador in Rome from 1525 to 1533, but also the first book-length account of the diplomatic intrigues behind the divorce for several decades.

Q. What made you tackle an already crowded field of historical study of the Tudor’s especially Henry viii?

My interest was originally focused on Renaissance Italy and the way today’s diplomatic system grew up there. I started looking at Henry VIII’s ‘divorce’ from Catherine of Aragon as a case-study of how monarchs negotiated in Rome, and realised that the Italian side of the story really hadn’t been told before in any detail. I found so much fascinating material that I thought it would be worth writing up.

Q How would you described your historiographical style. Who were your mainly influenced as a younger historian/writer.?

Writing The Divorce of Henry VIII I was influenced by microhistories that take one small example – in my case the ambassador in Rome – and use it to tell a bigger story. Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms and Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre are a couple of the classics. Microhistories tend to focus on people lower down the social scale, but I don’t see why they can’t be used to look at the experience of elite figures like ambassadors too. I also had Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana at the back of my mind (my book was first published as Our Man in Rome). That’s a great book about diplomatic duplicity – and makes an important point for historians that you can never be quite sure that envoys’ letters are telling the truth.

Q What advice would you give to an upcoming historian.

First, I’d say go and explore the archives. There’s a huge quantity of documentation out there – in local record offices, family holdings, and the like – that’s never been properly sorted through. Find a story that interests you and follow it through. And second, I’d say that it’s well worth taking the time to learn languages other than your own. Being able to read material in other languages can give you a very different perspective on historical issues.

Q How do you view the development of history blogs and other internet based historical resources.

History blogs are a great way for historians to discuss work in an informal way – and to find out what’s going on in the world of history. I wish I had more time to read them! They can make for much wider interaction between members of the public and academic historians than would otherwise be possible. The internet has also allowed the creation of some great digital databases of original source material. The Medici Archive Project in Florence has put thousands of letters online, and the Old Bailey Online site is a brilliant resource for anyone researching English legal and social history. My only concern is that we may now see a bias towards research on those themes that have good online resources at the expense of areas which don’t.

Q What are you working on now.

I’m trying to finish an academic book about the development of diplomacy in Renaissance Rome. After that, my plan is to write another book based in Renaissance Italy, and I’m working through the options for that now. There are so many good stories to tell about the great dynasties: the Borgias and the Medici, for example. I’m trying to make up my mind which one to write first.

The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story from Inside the Vatican Catherine Fletcher Palgrave MacMillan 288 pages.

One of the things that strike you when reading Catherine Fletcher’s excellent book is that she is a courageous person. Anyone who attempts to find something different to say about a period of English history that has already been mined to near-death deserves a medal.

The book has been met with favourable reviews. Fletcher manages to combine the skill of a journalist, the imagination of a novelist and the intellectual rigour of an academic historian. The book works on many fronts and would be accessible for an enthusiast of the period or for the more serious-minded student or academic.

The book received high praise from the author Hilary Mante who said it an “eye-opening book, an intricate and fascinating story of an elusive man with an impossible job. A brilliant and impressive feat of original research, and necessary reading for anyone fascinated by the story of Henry’s divorce… Catherine Fletcher has allowed the story to tell itself, except that she has been so amusing in the telling of it, cutting through to what matters without over-simplifying.” [1]

The book has a simple premise, and that is to examine the machinations of the divorce of Henry VIII through the story of Gregorio Casali. Casili is an obscure figure. Try doing an internet search for him. Historical records are scarce, and there is no picture of him. Even Fletcher could not find his birth date.We meet Casali as a teenager in England. According to Fletcher, he was a well-connected son of a Bolognese merchant and a Roman noblewoman. Fletcher met the modern-day family while in Italy. They still live in Piacenza in northern Italy. Fletcher, in a remarkable piece of skill or luck, managed to track down the family archive.

Fletcher believes he is a neglected figure in both Tudor and Papal history. To put it simply, Casili was “Our man in Rome.” Henry used him as part of his covert campaign for an annulment of his first marriage. As Fletcher writes “Through Casali’s eyes, we see England from the outside: from Rome, from Italy, from Europe. There, Henry VIII is not the caricature fat tyrant, nor yet the virtuous Renaissance prince, but a mid-ranking northern monarch, a player on the European stage but far from the star of the show.”[2]

One thing that is not disputed (well not much) by academic historians is that this was a genuinely revolutionary period in English history. Writing in the pre-elizabethanengland.blogspot.com Marypana describe Henry VIII as “an ‘iconic figure’ to others a tyrant and a madman. Known throughout the world for marrying six times, breaking from Rome, establishing the Church of England and responsible for the development of the English Reformation and according to Marxist historians set us on the road to the English Revolution of the 1640s.”[3]

Catherine Fletcher, to her credit, does try to tell of Henry VIII’s drive for divorce from a “wider, external angle.” Fletcher tackles the subject from a new perspective, drawing on hundreds of hitherto-unknown archive documents. Her portrayal of the protagonist of this book as a ‘wily Italian diplomat named Gregorio Casali. Fletcher describes in great detail the ends he went to secure a papal blessing for the divorce.In an earlier piece of research, Fletcher describes the skulduggery, bribery, and theft used to achieve the aim of the king’s divorce. Fletcher writes that: “The diplomatic gift-giving detailed in this paper amply demonstrates Castiglione’s maxim that ‘those who give are not all generous.’ The gifts are given by, and to, ambassadors, required a return. Rewards and gifts of all sorts were important tools in diplomatic practice. Tips would ease an ambassador’s way through the stages of a ceremony at the court of Rome, while bribery could find him politically useful friends. Gift-giving was also a means through which the social virtue of liberality could be expressed. Accusations of corruption were not usually prompted by any intrinsic quality of a particular reward. Corruption, like bribe, was rather a label with which to declare gift transactions improper or illicit.

In short, a gift became a bribe when someone cried ‘corruption!’ In the campaign for Henry’s first divorce, all sorts of gifts were deemed to be corrupting: and they were defended heartily by their givers as entirely legitimate. In illicit gift-giving, ambassadors would use much the same rhetoric – that of liberality and reward – that they employed in more legitimate cases. By labelling gifts in this way they hoped to avoid being accused of bribery. Underlying the rhetoric was a shared understanding – in these cases based on or reinforced by the papal decree – that offering inducements to act against one’s conscience was unacceptable. But when conscience, essentially unknowable, was the determinant of the legitimate gift, the justification for the gift’s presentation became all-important”.[4]

The book has substantial merits. However, it also has some significant weaknesses. Firstly you get no idea how we reached the period that Fletcher writes about. The book could have done with a link to the proceeding history, after all, to understand where we are going we have to know where we have been.The fact that the period Fletcher wrote about  was “revolutionary” her book could have done with borrowing a few words from a guy that new quite a bit about revolution,Karl Marx. 

Marx brilliantly describes the period when he writes “The social system that existed in the late medieval period in which Shakespeare set his historical plays is often referred to as “bastard feudalism.” Feudalism was in crisis in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries for reasons that are complex, but which in the final analysis were due to the increasing importance of the market and the rise of the bourgeoisie. Lords no longer drew directly on their estates for manpower in war but maintained private armies of paid retainers. The feudal dues of the peasants were increasingly turned into cash payments as the market economy became more important for all social classes.

Although the peasant’s revolt of 1381 was brutally suppressed, peasants were able to use the acute labour shortage after the Black Death killed an estimated third of the population in the mid-fourteenth century to win concessions and greater freedom. What resulted was not a nation-state, but the more powerful Tudor monarchy. In many ways what is remarkable about the nation-state in England is just how long it took to develop. Capitalist property relations had permeated feudal society for centuries before a crucial clash came in the seventeenth century. Even then the construction of a nation-state was a slow and piecemeal business. The nation-state took so long to make because it did not spring ready-made out of the mind of some Anglo-Saxon genius like Bede or Alfred, as Hastings would have us believe, but was constructed in the course of protracted class struggles and revolutionary upheavals “.[5]

This very concept of a transition period between the fall of feudalism and the rise of capitalism has been challenged by modern-day revisionist historians.[6] These historians believed that the Reformation pursued by Henry VIII in the mid-1530s had nothing to do with contending class forces or contending economic interests. However, was the result of “the deficiencies of Henry’s reproductive system.”

As David Walsh points out “Henry VIII initiated the Reformation in England by breaking with the Catholic Church in the early 1530s. The decisiveness of Henry’s act indicated the growth of economic forces incompatible with feudal social organization and the emergence of a national consciousness. In 1534 he replaced the Pope’s authority by his own Act of Supremacy, creating the Church of England. This church became distinctly Protestant under his son, Edward VI. Mary officially reestablished Catholicism, married Philip II of Spain and persecuted Protestants as heretics, but she died childless, and the crown fell to her half-sister”.[7]

Despite their protestations, these were dangerous times. We witness an abrupt change in religion. Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in Germany, denouncing the practices of the Roman Catholic Church, the opening shot of a new revolution which would sweep across Europe and conclude with the English revolution.The Vatican did not stand idly by and responded with the Counter-Reformation which attacked anyone who challenged Catholic doctrine? A by-product of the Counter-Reformation was the Roman Inquisition which was backed up by torture and execution. It oversaw the torture and ultimate death of hundreds maybe even thousands of so-called ‘heretics,’ the highest-profile being Thomas More. However, again for the revisionists, the significant change in property relations that resulted from the dissolution of the monasteries was merely the result of Henry’s sexual proclivities.Henry VIII’s support for the Reformation was not just a change of mind after all he had formerly defended the Catholic Church in his book (Henry VIII His Defence of the Faith and of the Seven Sacraments) According to one writer His break with the Catholic Church in the early 1530s “Indicated the growth of economic forces incompatible with feudal social organization and the emergence of a national consciousness. In 1534 he replaced the Pope’s authority by his own Act of Supremacy, creating the Church of England. This church became distinctly Protestant under his son, Edward VI. Mary officially reestablished Catholicism, married Philip II of Spain and persecuted Protestants as heretics, but she died childlessly, and the crown fell to her half-sister”.[8]

A lot of historical questions remain unanswered by Fletcher’s book. As Christopher Hill, who pertinently asked “Why did Henry become tyrannical? Why did the wealthy and commercial classes represented in Parliament have to fight for their liberties? During the sixteenth century, under the Tudor rulers, the grandfathers of the Parliamentarians of 1640 were the monarchy’s stoutest supporters. What had happened to change their outlook? Parliament had supported Henry VII and Henry VIII and Elizabeth in their efforts to police the country against the anarchy and brigandage of over-mighty subjects, of feudal potentates with their private armies, and England had been made safe for commercialism. Parliament had also supported Henry VIII and Elizabeth in their successful struggle against the universal Catholic Church: money no longer went from England to Rome”.[9]

To conclude, Fletcher’s book is very well written and is extensively researched. I recommend her book without reservation? The book is not the final word, and Fletcher could have consulted a few more left-wing historians to give the book a better balance.

[1] http://www.mwpweb.eu/CatherineFletcher/news_290.html
[2] http://pre-elizabethanengland.blogspot.com/2012/04/divorce-of-henry-viii-untold-story-from.html
[3] http://pre-elizabethanengland.blogspot.com/2012/04/divorce-of-henry-viii-untold-story-from.html
[4] EUI Working Papers MWP 2011/15 Max Weber program Catherine Fletcher “Those Who Give Are Not All Generous: Tips and Bribes at 16th Century Papal Court”.
[5] Karl Marx. Capital Volume One
[6] See  G W Bernard The Dissolution of the Monarchies Volume 96 issue 4 Number 324  History published by The Historical Association
[7] Elizabeth and a weakened historical sense-By David Walsh
3 December 1998- http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/1998/12/eliz-d03.html
[8] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/1998/12/eliz-d03.html
[9] The English Revolution 1640; Written: in 1940; by Christopher Hill Published: by Lawrence and Wishart.

Conservative Historian Simon Schama to Collaborate with the Tories

Richard Grayson, a journalist for the Guardian newspaper in one of his more lucid moments, wrote that putting the very conservative historian Simon Schama in the classroom would “reshape the history curriculum and using his storytelling talents would be a good start.”[1] Grayson, in the same article, calls Schama “a brilliant historian who understands the problem of narrative.”The problem is that Schama’s narrative is a very right-wing one.

As Tom Mackaman points out “Historians such as Schama who assert that the British Empire was actually the progressive force in the American Revolution do much to distort or downplay the fact that it was the Empire that dominated the slave trade for the better part of two centuries, in the process generating enormous profits that found an outlet in British industrialisation—and palatial aristocratic estates. (They also must hope that their readers are unaware of the long and bloody history of British imperialism in Ireland, India, China, the Caribbean and Africa!.” [2]

Grayson whitewash of Schama’s right-wing ideology continues with this pearl of wisdom, “One of the key strengths of Schama’s work points to one of the problems of “narrative”. Schama’s take on history is a personal take. A History of Britain was precisely that: ‘A’ not ‘The’ history. I do not doubt that Schama recognises the partiality of his approach. It is the same for any historian. We do not state at the start of each book, “this is only my view”, but we all know it, despite the accusations that postmodernist theorists have tried to pin on the profession”.[3]

According to Grayson no historian should be responsible for the narrative they produce after all history is just a collection of opinions, narratives with no objective basis for those opinions or narrative. Schama’s historical narrative( he describes himself as “a born-again Whig” has naturally been supported by leading Conservative party members such as Michael Gove who believe that education had been undermined by left-wing “ideologues” who believed schools “should not be doing anything as old-fashioned as passing on knowledge, requiring children to work hard, or immersing them in anything like dates in history or times tables in mathematics. “These ideologues may have been inspired by generous ideals, but the result of their approach has been countless children condemned to a prison house of ignorance,” [4]

Gove makes clear in this statement that any lingering egalitarian sentiments expressed in the current education system will not be tolerated. The announcement that Schama was to help rewrite the history curriculum has received widespread media coverage. The Financial Times recently carried an interview with the Michael Gove, the education secretary, said recently that he would not have left school without learning “British narrative history”.

The Tories would like to introduce a more nationalistic form of narrative. As Gove states “Children are growing up ignorant of one of the most inspiring stories I know – the history of our United Kingdom. Our history has moments of pride and shame, but unless we fully understand the struggles of the past, we will not properly value the liberties of the present.”[5]

Simon Schama is enough of a historian to know that the Tories right-wing agenda will provoke global social unrest. Schama has already warned of this writing in the Financial Times May 24, “far be it for me to make a dicey situation dicier but you can smell the sulphur in the air right now and not think we might be on the threshold of an age of rage.… in Europe and America there is a distinct possibility of a long hot summer of social umbrage.” [6]

A person that knew a bit about social umbrage was Karl Marx who wrote in the Communist Manifesto that “a spectre is haunting Europe”. As Marxist writer Chris Marsden relates “in recent days, some media commentaries have predicted a similar eruption of social unrest of revolutionary dimensions as a direct result of the worsening economic crisis. These warnings are accompanied by dire predictions that Europe will suffer the return of nationalist tensions, the emergence of fascist movements and even war”.[7]

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/oct/06/simon-schama-history-schools-david-cameron
[2] In Defense of the American Revolution- http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/07/14/revo-j14.html
[3] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/oct/06/simon-schama-history-schools-david-cameron
[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Gove
[5] https://conservative-speeches.sayit.mysociety.org/speech/601441
[6] https://www.foxnews.com/story/have-our-leaders-abandoned-common-sense
[7] Europe’s media warn of global social unrest- https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2010/06/pers-j02.html

Danton’s Death at the National Theatre

 went to see Danton’s Death at the National Theatre in London. The play has generally been well received and reviews have been favorable although some of the more right wing press have been critical. Not really a surprise there.

Buchner was only 21 when he wrote Danton’s Death. He wrote it in 1835 in under five weeks. Being a revolutionary himself he was in constant fear of arrest. The play is all the more significant for the fact that it was written by one so tender an age and in revolutionary terms still a baby.

One word of warning is that you need as one critic put it “you need to do a bit of homework if your knowledge of the French Revolution is as patchy as mine, He was also critical which I agree with him in that “far too many of the dramatis personae fail to come to satisfyingly rounded dramatic life” Also in the book of the play the cast lists Thomas Paine as a Deputy of the National Convention yet unless I am mistaken nothing was heard from him in this production. Please, someone, correct me if I am wrong.

Büchner’s original play is a rarity these days in the sense that even at the tender age of 21 his grasp of the complicated history of the French revolution is very striking. The play focuses on the French Revolution’s year of terror, 1794. The central theme of the play “is the art of Insurrection” and the use of terror in a revolutionary situation. The play’s director tries hard to show this but there severe weaknesses in this production as Billington said cutting two scenes which showed the scope of the revolution, the scenes cut for instance showed crowd scenes and even the national convention was sparsely populated.

Another reviewer also picked up on this Ann Talbot said in her review “the immediate problem is that Brenton has removed two small scenes from the original play. Both of them are crowd scenes. They are brief scenes in an already short play, and it is difficult to see that there was any good reason for dropping them. Running time is hardly a question. The play gains nothing in clarity without them. In fact, it loses something crucial. The effect of taking them out is to unbalance the whole work because omitting them removes a character that has a vital role to play in the conflict between Danton and Robespierre.

That character is not an individual, or instead it is the many individuals who make up the crowd, the mass of the population, the sans-culottes, the poor who must get their living by selling their labour and their bodies on the streets of Paris. Once this element is removed from the play, we are left with a mostly personal drama in which two individuals are pitted against one another in a conflict that lacks any substantial basis in the broader framework of social relations. Danton without the crowd is not really Danton. He is left as a somewhat effete, weary man who just cannot be bothered to take the necessary action to defend himself. What brought Danton to the head of the revolution was his relationship with the sans-culottes. He expressed their material interest in overthrowing the different state of affairs that existed in France under the ancien regime and establishing a more just society. Robespierre was able to defeat him because he still reflected the interests of that social layer. If that relationship is left out of the play, then Robespierre loses his historical stature and is reduced to a slightly dogmatic man.”


Again commentating on Buchner’s method “The fact that such a small piece of editing can have such a major effect on the play points to the masterly precision of Büchner’s technique. He was by training a scientist and doctor. When he died in 1837 he had just won a teaching position at the University of Zurich. The play was written on his dissection table and it has something of the character of a dissection about it in which each organ, each social element, is laid out before us in an entirely objective manner. Büchner is offering us an autopsy of the French Revolution performed at the moment when it reaches its fatal impasse. He allows us to examine his meticulously prepared specimens and draw our own conclusions rather than beating us over the head with his message. It is a powerful dramatic technique so long as all the parts are present. Those two missing scenes, small though they are, are essential to the play”.

I am not saying that the play is not worth seeing and lacks dramatic tension but by cutting out the people scenes according to one review it “thins the dramatic texture and turns the play into a character study: one in which the sensual, death-haunted, strangely passive Danton confronts the repressed, life-fearing, remorselessly active Robespierre. That is a vital part of Büchner’s play; but to focus so exclusively on that element is to miss the larger point that they are also history’s puppets”.The question of Danton and Robespierre being “history’s puppets” is a piece of crude determinist verbiage. I prefer Engels description.

Engels beautifully describes how the laws of a revolutionary insurrection intersects with its human participants. “Insurrection is an art quite as much as war or any other, and subject to certain rules of proceeding, which, when neglected, will produce the ruin of the party neglecting them. Those rules, logical deductions from the nature of the parties and the circumstances one has to deal with in such a case, are so plain and simple that the short experience of 1848 had made the Germans pretty well acquainted with them. Firstly, never play with insurrection unless you are fully prepared to face the consequences of your play. Insurrection is a calculus with very indefinite magnitudes, the value of which may change every day; the forces opposed to you have all the advantage of organization, discipline, and habitual authority: unless you bring strong odds against them you are defeated and ruined. Secondly, the insurrectionary career once entered upon, act with the greatest determination, and on the offensive. 

The defensive is the death of every armed rising; it is lost before it measures itself with its enemies. Surprise your antagonists while their forces are scattering, prepare new successes, however small, but daily; keep up the moral ascendancy which the first successful rising has given to you; rally those vacillating elements to your side which always follow the strongest impulse, and which always look out for the safer side; force your enemies to a retreat before they can collect their strength against you; in the words of Danton, the greatest master of revolutionary policy yet known, de l’audace, de l’audace, encore de l’audace!

Although only two hours in length this production still has enough in it to show some psychological insights into the minds and action of the two leaders of the revolution. It would be useful to record some insights gained from the Wikipedia article on the play. To explain Buchner’s method “

“Its use of numerous historical sources and extensive quotations from original political speeches meant that the play was seen in the 20th century as the precursor to documentary theatre. Until 1979 no one had explored the themes and inner connections within Buchner’s work between Eros and Violence systematically – that year saw Reinhold Grimm treat it in text und kritik, Georg Büchner, and it was continued in the present Georg Büchner Jahrbuch 11 (2005–2008)”.

I will agree with a number of critics who have described the design of the stage the fantastic, the use of lighting gives the play a stunning look. Perhaps the most gripping scene was the technically astute use of the guillotine, with one critic remarking “with executions so convincing that you are surprised that several prominent members of the cast don’t take the curtain call with their heads neatly tucked beneath their arms”

Clearly from the audience’s reaction the play has still a very contemporary feel to it. At the end when the actors took a bow some members of the audience hissed at Robespierre and applauded more when Danton and his supporters appeared. It is clear that the play deals with all the range of themes that are around us today. Danton’s Death looks at the dialectic of revolution, the relationship between men and women, friendship, class, determinism, materialism and the role of theatre itself.

But am I the only one who left the theatre feeling that a lot was missing was this really just a debate between Danton and Robespierre. Did Danton really resign himself so pathetically to his death? Why did Brenton refuse to elaborate on Danton’s relationship with the Sans Culottes? Because in the end were left with a somewhat disappointing debate over morality.Ann Talbot has this answer on Brenton’s idea or none idea of revolution “It is an interpretation that says more about the outlook of the current intellectual world and one time left-wing playwright Brenton than it does about Büchner. In the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the decline in trade union activity in the West, it has become extremely difficult for writers to imagine a revolution in anything other than the most disastrous terms. There is a sharp contrast here between Brenton’s foray into the 18th century and Trevor Griffiths’ A New World: A Life of Thomas Paine. 

The American and French Revolutions provide Griffiths with a context in which revolution can still be imaginatively recreated and a connection made with contemporary class concerns. But for Brenton, the French Revolution only offers further confirmation of the hopelessness of the entire revolutionary project whether in the 18th century or the 21st”.


Notes

1. Michael Billington The Guardian, Friday 23 July 2010
2. Ann Talbot Danton’s Death http://www.wsws.org.
3. Marx and Engels Collected Works XI 85-86
4. The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx Alex Calinicos Bookmarks.
5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danton’s_Death
6. Ian Shuttleworth July 25 2010

The Spartacus Wars by Barry Strauss


“As an astute judge of character, Spartacus might have chosen some men without prior military experience to lead units of his army.”

Barry Strauss

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.”[1]

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”.[2]

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”.[3]

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.”[4]

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”?[5]

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.

[1] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/the-spartacus-war-by-barry-strauss-6gtlfp33qd9
[2] Stanley Kubrick–an appreciation-By Marty Jonas-27 March 1999- https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/1999/03/kub-m27.html
[3] https://muse.jhu.edu/article/268729/pdf
[4] https://www.livius.org/sources/content/plutarch/plutarchs-crassus/plutarch-on-spartacus/
[5] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/the-spartacus-war-by-barry-strauss-6gtlfp33qd9

Niall Ferguson: A Walking Provocation

That the right-wing Professor Niall Ferguson has been caught leading a campaign to attack a left-wing student he disagreed with should come as no surprise.Ferguson has a record of pursuing a right-wing agenda both inside and outside academia. He is well known for his defence of British Colonialism or colonialism anywhere for that matter.

While a lot has been made over the scandal what is being missed is the extent that Fergussn’s political activities are a defence of the process of commercialisation of universities and that anyone who opposes the privatisation process becomes the target of a witchhunt.

The Standford based historian was joined in his witchhunt by other members of the  Cardinal Conversations, which is a Stanford program run by the conservative Hoover Institution. This group aims to collect the most right-wing people possible and give them a legitimate hearing inside the university.

Standford’s link to the right-wing  Hoover Foundation is well known. It has a budget of $50 million and an endowment of more than $450 million.As one writer put it “There is no left-wing equivalent — a sizeable ideological think tank that intimately connected to a university — at any school in the United States.Standford regularly invites, a veritable who’s who of right-wing writers and theorists, including race-and-IQ theorist Charles Murray, tech mogul Peter Thiel, and Christina Hoff Sommers, a prominent critic of modern feminism”.

Ferguson, who appeared to be the leader of the group that believed the left-wing student Michael Ocon was a danger to the group.In an email to two other members of the Stanford Republicans, John Rice-Cameron and Max Minshull, he wrote that “some opposition research on Mr O worthwhile.” Minshull stated he would “get on” the dirt-digging.More comments from this group are of a sinister and provocative nature. They would not look out of place in a Donald Trump Tweet.

Rice-Cameron wrote in one email that “slowly, we will continue to crush the Left’s will to resist, as they will crack under pressure.”Ferguson wrote in another note, “now we turn to the more subtle game of grinding them down on the committee,” adding that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”While not on the same scale there are striking similarities to the Watergate Scandal in particular how Nixon mobilised the full apparatus of the state against the Democrats.

As one writer correctly stated “The whole saga is bizarre — and revealing. It illustrates a profound double game underpinning much of the so-called “free speech” controversy: a controversy that often isn’t really about freedom and is more concerned with power than with speech”.While many commentators have concentrated on the danger to free speech within the universities, there has been no attempt to link the right-wing group of academics with the growing commercialisation of universities.

It is becoming clear that far from universities being places of study and research for the common good many are becoming nothing more than appendages to transnational corporations. The fact that universities such as Oxford or Cambridge have vast cash reserves bear witness to this. According to the Guardian newspaper, 36 Oxford colleges have ‘consolidated net assets’ of £5.9 billion, while the university holds a further £3.2 billion.

This process of Privatisation of education has been followed by writer and historian Stefan Collini writing in 20011 Collini criticised both Labour and Conservatives for being complicit in this process saying”As the recent history of the ministerial pass, the parcel should indicate, the subordination of universities to perceived economic need has been pursued by both Conservative and Labour governments. Much of the language of the present White Paper is to be found almost verbatim in Higher Ambitions: The Future of Universities in a Knowledge Economy, produced by BIS in 2009 when Peter Mandelson was the minister. It should also be remembered that it was a Labour government that first introduced tuition fees (in 1998) and then ‘variable fees’ (in 2006). Variable fees turned out, of course, not to be variable, as all universities very soon charged the top rate.

The frustration felt in the policy-making world at this fresh demonstration of universities’ unwillingness to operate according to good market principles wasn’t the least of the impulses that had to be accommodated by the independent committee, set up in 2009 with a cross-party agreement, to review the effect of the 2006 fees and to come up with a sustainable form of future funding for higher education”.[1]

This is not the first or the last time Ferguson has mounted what appears to be a considerable provocation aimed at inciting a response from the left to launch a witchhunt against anybody who challenges his right-wing agenda.In her three-part series called What price an American empire? Reviewing Fergusson’s book Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, Marxist writer  Ann Talbot exposes Fergusson’s political and historical agenda.

 “All British historians, E.H. Carr once said, are Whigs, even the Tories—but not in Niall Ferguson’s case. He is a Tory formed in the Thatcherite mould, who cut his teeth writing for Conrad Black’s Daily Telegraph while he was a research student in Germany.


[1] ] https://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n16/stefan-collini/from-robbins-to-mckinsey

The Milosevic Trial: William Walker’s role as provocateur

William Walker, the former head of the Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM) for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) insisted in his testimony to The Hague that Slobodan Milosevic had knowledge of the events in Kosovo and should be held responsible for the atrocities carried out there.

Former Yugoslav President Milosevic is on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for crimes against humanity. He faces five counts of war crimes in Kosovo and has been indicted for another 61 counts of war crimes, including genocide, for alleged crimes in Croatia and Bosnia.

Walker’s testimony was key to the prosecution’s efforts to establish Milosevic’s guilt. He said of the accused, “His knowledge was in many respects quite detailed. I never wavered in my opinion that I was dealing with the person who was in maximum control of events in Kosovo, at least from the Serb side.”

Walker’s testimony on the alleged massacre at Racak in particular was meant to prove that Milosevic was responsible for the events in Kosovo and that the NATO bombing of Serbia was a justifiable response. Then US Foreign Secretary Madeleine Albright called Racak a “galvanising incident”, while for German Foreign Minister Joschka Fisher, “Racak became the turning point”.

To emphasis the importance of his account, judges at the Hague tribunal gave Walker nearly two days to testify. In contrast, when Milosevic asked how long he had to question the witness he was told by Judge May, “Three hours, no more: if you refrain from arguing with the witness, if you refrain from repeating the question, if you ask short questions you will be able to get more done.”

Despite this obvious bias on the part of the court, things did not turn out quite the way the prosecution wanted. Walker’s testimony served to highlight the central role he had played in proclaiming Racak as a massacre and thus paving the way for NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia.

William Walker was head of the KVM, which was set up under the control of the OSCE after an agreement between Milosevic and the US envoy Richard Holbrooke in October 13, 1998. Before becoming head of the KVM, Walker was a deputy to the Reagan administration’s Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrahams, who was implicated in the Iran-Contra affair, through which the US illegally supplied weapons to the right-wing Contras who were seeking to overthrow the Sandinista government.

Prior to his appearing at The Hague, two of Walker’s weapons inspectors had given evidence about the events in Kosovo leading up to the NATO bombing—his deputy General Karol Drewienkiewicz and Colonel Richard Ciaglinski. They had also given evidence about the alleged massacre at Racak.

What happened at Racak?

On January 15, 1999, Serbian police and army personnel, accompanied by KVM inspectors and the media, mounted an operation against ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) gunmen, whom they thought were hiding out in Racak, after ambushing and killing three policemen. The army sent in armoured troop carriers and artillery into Racak, Petroovo, Malopoljce and Renaja. Two days later, after intense fighting between the Yugoslav forces and the KLA, Drewienkiewicz and Walker visited the area. Drewienkiewicz explained how, on the way, “Walker made it clear to me that I was to adopt an extremely uncompromising attitude in this matter.” When they arrived, the KLA took them to a gully that contained 45 dead bodies.

Once the bodies had been discovered, Drewienkiewicz told the court, “Walker’s assistant rushed to the top of a hill to phone through to NATO.” At a press conference that evening, Walker announced that there had been a massacre (without mentioning the deaths of the three policemen). Shortly before the announcement Drewienkiewicz said he heard Walker on the phone to Richard Holbrooke saying, “Dick, you can kiss your Nobel Peace Prize goodbye.” Drewienkiewicz added, “I was surprised at the time that he was as specific as to refer to the event as a massacre. However, I do agree with what he said.”

Walker admitted that Drewienkiewicz had briefed him 14 hours before—the night of January 15—about fighting in the area between the KLA and the army and that three policemen had been killed in the vicinity three or four days before. He also knew on January 15 of police reports that 15 KLA militia had been killed at Racak, but at the press conference he said he disbelieved them. Film also shows him walking amongst KLA uniformed corpses.

Walker still held his press conference on January 16 without mentioning the dead policeman or the KLA and saying that the bodies were all civilians. His press statement was, he said, “totally my creation” (page 6805). Walker admitted that he was “not a crime scene investigator” (page 6801) and when one arrived—Judge Danica Marinkovic—on January 17, he refused to meet her. During his testimony, he said he had no recollection of Holbrooke or NATO commander General Wesley Clark speaking to him—“No recollection of myself talking to some of the people who have later said they talked to me.”However, Wesley Clark does remember talking to Walker. In his book Clark describes a phone call from Walker on January 16:

“Wes, we’ve got trouble here” he began. “I know a massacre when I see one. I’ve seen them before, when I was in Central America. And I am looking at a massacre now… There are forty of them in a ditch, maybe more. These aren’t fighters, they’re farmers, you can tell by looking at their hands and their clothes. And they have been shot at close range”.

This account has been disputed by the findings of a Finnish forensics team called in to investigate the incident. The team was firstly critical of the fact that, in the haste to describe the incident at Racak as a massacre, basic crime scene procedures had not been observed. Three days after the event, the Finnish forensic team reported that at no point was the scene of the incident isolated to stop unauthorised access. The report stated, “The scene should then be photographed and videotaped, any evidence be collected and victims localised and marked at site… victims should then be placed in individual bodybags for transport to the morgue. With respect to Racak none of this was done or was done partially and improperly”. The team had no independent verification of the massacre and had to rely on information from the OSCE and European Union observers or the press. Other findings show that only one dead victim was a woman. One victim was under 15 years of age. Six had suffered single gunshot wounds. Most of the 44 were covered by multiple wounds from different angles and elevations, characteristic of a firefight rather than a close range execution. Only one had been shot at close range and no signs of post-mortem mutilations were found. The team could not confirm that the victims were from Racak.

Compare Walker’s response to Racak with his attitude to the murder of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador or the killing of teenagers in Pec by the KLA. In El Salvador Walker tried to blame the killing of the Jesuits on guerrillas dressed as soldiers. He told the ICTY, “I made an inaccurate statement, in hindsight”. When the KLA was blamed for the killing of the Serb teenagers in Pec he said, “When you don’t know what has happened, it’s lot more difficult to sort of pronounce yourself … To this day we do not know who committed that act.” He did not exercise the same degree of caution regarding Racak.

When Milosevic tried to raise the events in El Salvador, Judge May intervened by saying: “Your attempt to discredit this witness with events so long ago the Trial Chamber has ruled as irrelevant.” And later: “This is an absurd question, absolutely absurd. Now you’re wasting everybody’s time.”Milosevic drew attention to the fact that Walker was at the same airport, Illopango, with Lt. Col. Oliver North who was gun running to the Contras, while Walker was supposedly providing them with humanitarian aid. Walker explained this by saying, “Unbeknownst to me, unbeknownst to the State Department, unbeknownst essentially to the world, a Colonel Oliver North in the National Security Council was doing things that were eventually determined by Judge Walsh and his commission to be illegal.”

Walker’s account discredited

Milosevic continued to try and discredit Walker’s account and his interpretation of events in Racak. He asked of Walker, “Now that we are talking about Racak, in your statement you say the following: ‘As I was watching these bodies, I noticed a few things. First of all, judging by the wounds and the blood around them, and also the pools of dried blood on the land around the bodies; it was obvious that these were the clothes that the people wore when they were killed. There was no doubt in my mind that they died where they were lying. The quantity and the location of the blood on the soil in front of them, each and every one of them, was a clear indication of that’.”

Milosevic asked for a series of photos of the bodies to be shown in the correct order and asked, “Where is this blood by the bodies or by individual bodies? Where did you see traces of blood there?”

This began the following exchange:


Walker: “On that picture?”…


Milosevic: “Are there any traces of blood here anywhere?”


Walker: “I assume that’s blood.”


Milosevic: “You’re talking about pools of blood on the soil, and on the soil there is no blood at all.”


Walker: “Not in this picture.”


Milosevic: “Not on the previous picture either. Is there any blood, any traces of blood, any pools of blood here on the soil either?”


Walker: “Not on that picture.”


Milosevic: “Not even here, there is no trace of blood anywhere on the ground, and we see that there are rocks all around.”


Some of the photographs used in the trial came from one of Walker’s observers in the KVM, a London Metropolitan police inspector, Ian Robert Hendrie. Hendrie had recently given evidence to the trial regarding his trip to the “massacre site”. When asked by Milosevic if he toured the site accompanied or alone, Hendrie said that someone had shown him around. He was asked whom and he replied, “I don’t know.” Hendrie could not explain why his photographs showed only patches of blood and not pools.

In his previous testimony, the chief forensic pathologist for the ICTY, Eric Baccard, admitted the stiffness and position of the dead bodies was unusual and it was possible they were moved. From the bullet wounds he said it was impossible to tell if they were due to “accident, homicide or an armed conflict.”

In one incident Milosevic asked Walker if he knew a Canadian Historian Roly Keith, who had been with NATO for 30 years and was head of the KVM in Kosovo Polje. Walker said he did not and so could not recollect his own head of KVM in Kosovo. The reason for Walker’s selective memory was apparent when Milosevic produced a quote from Keith which contradicted Walker’s testimony as to the situation in Kosovo. Keith said, “I can testify to the fact that in February and March there was no genocide. When it comes to ethnic cleansing, I was not present nor did I see events which could be characterised as ethnic cleansing. In connection to my previous answer, I wish to state that I was witness to a series of incidents, and most of them were caused by the KLA, for which the security forces aided by the army reacted.”

Walker’s silences and evasions over the activities of the KLA were again brought out when Milosevic asked if he had read the March 12, 2000 article in the Sunday Times entitled, “CIA aided Kosovo guerrilla army”. Walker said he had not. The article explained how US intelligence agents helped train the KLA before NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia. The CIA were ceasefire monitors in Kosovo in 1998 and 1999, while they were giving the KLA training manuals and field advice.

The article also questions Walker’s role in preparing the way for NATO air strikes. “The American agenda consisted of their diplomatic observers, a.k.a. the CIA, operating on completely different terms to the rest of Europe and the OSCE, said a European envoy.” While Walker dismissed claims that he wanted airstrikes, he admitted that the CIA was involved in the countdown to them.

Walker said: “Overnight we went from having a handful of people to 130 or more. Could the agency have put them in at that point? Sure they could. It’s their job. But nobody told me”. While no proof exists that Walker was a CIA agent, his role was in many respects no different.

The article goes on to say that according to ex-CIA sources, diplomatic observers were “a CIA front, gathering intelligence on the KLA arms and leadership. One agent said: ‘I’d tell them which hill to avoid, which wood to go behind, that sort of thing’. Klorin Krasniqi, a New York builder and one of the KLA’s largest financiers said: ‘It was purely the Albanian Diaspora helping their brothers’.”

The article describes how the KLA got round a loophole that permitted sniper rifles to be exported to hunting clubs. Agim Ceku, a KLA commander, had established many contacts during the latter stages of the war through his work in the Croatian army. He said the Croatian army had been receiving help from an American company called Military Professional Resources Inc., whose personnel were in Kosovo at the time.

Walker’s testimony was another debacle for The Hague tribunal. Far too much information was released as to the real series of events that led up to the bombing of Serbia in 1999. Whether there was a massacre at Racak will need further study, although sufficient evidence has been shown for any objective observer to err on the side of caution. What is certain is that Walker played a pivotal role in providing NATO with justification for the bombing of Yugoslavia.

Obituary: Alvaro Cunhal—leading betrayer of Portugal’s 1974 revolution


By Keith Livesey and Paul Mitchell

Four years saw the death at age 91 of Alvaro Cunhal, leader of the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) for more than 30 years, from 1961 to 1992. This long-serving Stalinist functionary played a crucial role in helping to save Portuguese capitalism from the revolutionary upheaval known as the “Carnation Revolution” that followed the collapse of the Salazar-Caetano dictatorship in 1974.

During the revolutionary upheaval, Cunhal acted as minister without portfolio in several provisional governments and continued as a deputy in the Portuguese Assembly of the Republic until 1987.The death of Cunhal evoked gushing praise from Portuguese and international leaders who recognised the threat posed to international capitalism by the 1974-1975 revolution. Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio, announcing a national day of mourning for Cunhal, called him “a great man whose life is connected with the history of the twentieth century. He has his place among us in the fight against the authoritarian regime, in the revolution and the consolidation of Portuguese democracy.”

Cunhal was born November 10, 1913, in Coimbra, northern Portugal, during a period of great political and social crisis. The period of the First Republic between 1910 and 1926 witnessed eight presidents and 45 governments. A radical working class carried out a general strike in 1917 and provoked two states of siege.In Russia, the Bolsheviks provided the leadership for a successful revolution in October 1917. It was a powerful vindication of Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. In opposition to the Menshevik conception that Russia was too economically backward for socialism, Trotsky insisted that the real dynamics of Russian development could be understood only within the context of the world economy. Consequently, the democratic tasks once associated with the bourgeois revolution could only be completed under the leadership of the working class, drawing behind it the rural masses, as a component part of a socialist revolution that must be completed on the global arena.

The Bolshevik leaders knew that the construction of socialism in impoverished and war-ravaged Russia was dependent on successful workers’ revolutions in Germany and other more highly industrialised countries. It was on this basis and with the help of the Communist International (Comintern) that the PCP was formed in 1921.But the subsequent evolution of the PCP and all the world’s communist parties were shaped by the rise to power of a bureaucratic caste within the USSR under the leadership of Joseph Stalin. The orientation of the Comintern changed radically after Lenin’s death. The unveiling of the theory of “socialism in one country” by Stalin and Bukharin in 1924 provided the ideological foundation for the abandonment of the programme of world socialist revolution and the increasing subordination of the international workers’ movement to the Stalinist bureaucracy’s defence of its own material interests. This produced massive defeats for the working class: most catastrophic of all was Hitler’s accession to power in Germany in 1933, following which Trotsky concluded that the Soviet Communist Party and its satellite parties in the Comintern could not be reformed and called for the founding of the Fourth International to carry forward the struggle for world socialist revolution.

Stalinism and the Popular Front

Stalinism’s political disarming of the working class was also to prove disastrous in Portugal. Economic instability and an insurgent working class had produced a right-wing coup in 1926, and by 1933, influenced by Mussolini’s fascism in Italy, the formal declaration of an authoritarian “New State” by Prime Minister Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. The fascist National Union (UN) party was made the only legal party, and independent trade unions and strikes were outlawed. Salazar established strict censorship and created a vicious secret police force.

The PCP was outlawed and its leadership imprisoned or driven into exile. The party had been purged in 1929, following the Sixth Congress of the Comintern, and Bento Gonçalves, who had only joined the organisation the previous year, installed as General Secretary.

Cunhal joined the PCP in 1931 whilst studying law at university and left for the Soviet Union to attend a congress of Communist youth in September 1935. It was at this time that the Stalinist bureaucracy began to advance its policy of building “popular fronts” with “democratic” bourgeois governments and liberal-reformist elements worldwide supposedly to combat fascism and defend the USSR.

Cunhal, who came to epitomise the policy of popular frontism in Portugal became the leader of the youth organisation and joined the Central Committee of the PCP in 1936 at the age of 22.That year marked a crucial turning point in European history. In June, mass strikes brought France to the brink of revolution. In Spain, in July, fascist military officers led by General Franco attempted a coup, sparking a workers’ uprising and precipitating civil war. By imposing the popular front policy and opposing the independent political mobilisation of the working class against all factions of the bourgeoisie, the Comintern played a critical role in defending Spanish capitalism, liquidating the Spanish revolution and making possible the victory of Franco’s fascist forces.

The Portuguese Communist Party adopted the same political line, helping to block the possibility of the Portuguese workers challenging the Salazar regime, which was able to survive the Second World War and plagued the country for another three decades.Despite the suppression of the PCP—Cunhal spent a total of 15 years in jail—the party maintained its slavish adherence to the Stalinist two-stage theory of revolution. According to this false and disastrous conception, during the “first stage” of the revolution, which had a national-bourgeois character, the working class had to subordinate itself and its class interests to supposedly progressive bourgeois forces. The “second stage,” the socialist revolution, was put off to an ever-more-distant future.

In 1945, as a means of defending his rule in the face of increasing social agitation, Salazar introduced an amnesty for political prisoners and a limited relaxation of censorship. In the parliamentary election that year, the PCP joined the Movement of Democratic Unity (MUD), a coalition of bourgeois forces from across the political spectrum (including the extreme right). When the MUD withdrew, claiming the elections were rigged, its leadership was arrested.In 1958, the PCP supported General Humberto Delgado, a prominent leader in the “New State,” when he contested the presidency in opposition to the official National Union candidate who won the election after widespread ballot rigging. Salazar altered the constitution in order to prevent further direct elections to the presidency.Cunhal became secretary general of the PCP in 1961 and three years later formed the Patriotic Front for National Liberation (FPLN) with the Socialist Party and liberal bourgeois figures such as Delgado.

In 1970, Cunhal reiterated the Stalinist two-stage theory. He wrote that “at each stage of the revolution the proletariat must have a corresponding system of alliances with different classes and layers of the population… The proletariat’s allies for the socialist revolution are not the same as for the national democratic revolution.”This was a wholesale repudiation of Marxism and the critical lessons of the twentieth century, including, above all, the Russian Revolution. It was also a forewarning of the role the PCP would play in the revolution that erupted a few years later.

The early 1970s witnessed a huge international crisis of the capitalist system. US President Richard Nixon withdrew the dollar from the gold standard and ended the Bretton Woods agreement that had underpinned the world economy since 1944, helping precipitate a severe recession.Although the Salazar regime had done everything in its power to keep Portugal backwards and isolated, the country could not be insulated from the world economy. During the 1960s, foreign investment in Portugal trebled, mainly from the United States. By 1973, 150 companies dominated the entire economy headed by a few very wealthy Portuguese families.

The PCP and the Junta

In the 1970s, the Portuguese ruling elite confronted a massive strike wave at home and uprisings in the colonies. Nearly one half of the national budget was spent keeping 150,000 troops abroad fighting the national liberation movements in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau. Compulsory military service combined with low pay to intensify grievances in the army and stimulated an oppositional movement amongst the troops known as the “Movement of the Captains,” which later developed into the Armed Forces Movement (MFA).

On April 25, 1974, the MFA overthrew Salazar’s successor Marcello Caetano, claiming it was “interpreting the wishes of the people.” A National Salvation Council or Junta was formed, composed entirely of high-ranking military officers, with General Antonio de Spinola, the army’s second in command and a director of two of Portugal’s leading monopolies, as president.Spinola intended to limit the coup to a simple “renovation,” but it immediately brought the masses onto the streets demanding further change. Workers began taking over factories, offices and shops, and peasants occupied farmlands. The revolutionary atmosphere spread throughout the armed forces, with soldiers and sailors marching alongside the workers, carrying banners calling for socialism.

Previously banned parties emerged from underground or exile, including the PCP and the Portuguese Socialist Party (PSP) led by Mario Soares. The more far-sighted members of the ruling elite knew the vital role these parties would be called upon to play in preventing the development of the social revolution. Cunhal was brought back from exile in Moscow and given a military welcome at the airport. He was given the second most important ministerial post in the government, a chauffeur and a bodyguard, and the PCP was given a five-storey building.

One of the critical questions posed by the revolution concerned the nature of the officers’ movement, the MFA, which had adopted the slogan of “the alliance of the MFA and the people”—a slogan never challenged by the PCP, PSP and various “left” groups. Instead, Cunhal reached a de facto agreement with the MFA, declaring it “is the motive force and guarantee of our revolution…. [T]he PCP holds that the alliance between the popular movement and the MFA is a necessary and decisive factor for the establishment of a democratic regime, a prime guarantee of the development of the revolutionary process.” The PCP newspaper Avante condemned those who called for a government of “socialist option” as “completely unrealistic.”

The MFA, while it postured demagogically, represented the armed might of the capitalist state and, potentially, at least, represented the threat of a new dictatorship. It was intent on suppressing any independent political activity by the working class—particularly when this threatened to undermine the power of the army. It declared, “No political-military organisations outside the AFM [MFA] will be permitted in the armed forces, whether they represent parties or not, since all military personnel must be integrated into their own movement.”

At the time, the International Committee of the Fourth International and its Portuguese supporters, the League for the Construction of the Revolutionary Party, demanded that the PCP and PSP break with the bourgeois parties, the state machinery and MFA, and fight for the dissolution of the army and the creation of workers, peasants and soldiers soviets.

Instead, the PCP’s Avelino Gonçalves joined Cunhal in the First Provisional Government as minister of labour to enforce labour discipline and implement the austerity programme in the MFA’s “battle for production.” The PCP exhorted workers to “Save the National Economy” and condemned any manifestation of independent activity by the working class.

Subsequent provisional governments, which included Cunhal, introduced anti-strike laws, and workers who refused to obey military orders were arrested and told they would only be reinstated “on condition they took no further part in political activity.”

The revolution betrayed

The actions of the social democrats and the Stalinists gave reaction a second wind and led to two further coup attempts in September 1974 and March 1975.

The government then approved an economic plan endorsed by the MFA that excluded “the social-democratic control of the management of capitalism,” but called for partial nationalisations, the takeover of some large and badly managed estates, and increased foreign investment.

The PCP dutifully declared that business had been “nationalised in the service of the people,” but the capitalist nationalisation proposed differed little from that carried out in many Western countries after World War II, which left economic and state power in the hands of the bourgeoisie. Nationalisation was also a method of installing state-appointed managers in enterprises that had been occupied by workers.

Elections were held on April 25, 1975, in which the PSP won nearly 38 percent of the vote, the semi-fascist Popular Democratic Party (PPD) took 26.4 percent and the PCP 13 percent. But with no sign of the promised agrarian reforms, landless agricultural workers joined the urban insurrectionary movement, seized the large farming estates and started developing them collectively. The PCP called the occupations “anarchistic” and proposed that all future occupations be controlled by the unions (which it in turn controlled).

Between June and August 1975, following the exit of the PSP and PPD from the fourth provisional government, the PCP and its allies were left in virtual control of the state and the ministries. The military wing of the PCP dominated the MFA’s Council of the Revolution.

The MFA and PCP convened a Front of Revolutionary Unity (FUR) to “institutionalise” the “pact” between the MFA and the people. FUR was a popular front set-up to betray the revolution at the most critical moment and received the support of most of the left groups who claimed its so-called “popular assemblies” were “autonomous organs of popular power” that provided “a way forward for the revolutionary process.”

These popular assemblies, in fact, functioned to destroy the independent character of the workers’ committees that had emerged and prevent moves towards dual power and the creation of soviets or workers’ councils. The assemblies were vetted by the MFA and subject to military control at all levels to ensure their “independence from all parties.” No political organisations were to be permitted in the armed forces except the MFA itself.

When these measures proved unable to contain working class resistance, the PCP-dominated fifth provisional government resigned in order to avoid a direct revolutionary challenge to bourgeois rule, along with Prime Minister General Vasco Gonçalves, a leading member of the MFA and a figure closely associated with the PCP. The PCP, along with the PSP and PPD, joined a sixth provisional government—headed by Admiral Jose Baptista Pinheiro de Azevedo—which immediately circulated plans for austerity and repression.

The crisis reached fever pitch. The sixth government and the Council of the Revolution were opposed by so many sections of society that a situation of dual power existed. But within days, the army moved in to dismantle barricades and disarm workers and soldiers with scarcely a shot being fired. “Rank-and-file” military organisations, which in the previous weeks had mobilised tens of thousands in demonstrations, dissolved in the face of some 200 commandos.

A new constitution was proclaimed on April 2, 1976, and elections for a new parliament, the Assembly of the Republic, led to a PSP victory. Almost immediately, Soares turned to the International Monetary Fund and implemented a structural adjustment programme at the behest of big business.

The Portuguese bourgeoisie weathered the revolution thanks to the betrayal of Cunhal’s PCP and its left hangers-on, who tied the working class to the bourgeois parties, the state machine and the MFA. Had the Portuguese revolution triumphed, it would have been a mighty blow to international capital and inspired social movements developing throughout the world in the 1970s. A New York Times editorial on February 17, 1975, gives some indication of the crisis at the time, declaring “a communist takeover of Portugal might encourage a similar trend in Italy and France, create problems in Greece and Turkey, affect the succession in Spain and Yugoslavia and send tremors throughout Western Europe.”

However, neither Cunhal nor the PCP had any intention of mounting a “communist takeover.” Cunhal’s political conceptions, which were essentially those of a Portuguese petit-bourgeois nationalist, were made plain in an interview he gave to Quaderni Comunisti in 1995. He absolved Stalinism and himself for the betrayals of the working class in the twentieth century. He thought that “capitalism’s potentialities were underestimated and socialism’s potentialities overestimated” and that “the way ahead may not lie in attempts to define a world-wide strategy for communists.” He blamed Mikhail Gorbachev “as the number one culprit for that great historic disaster which was the USSR’s collapse and disintegration.” He attacked the European Union from the right saying, “The major consequences of European integration for Portugal are very serious. With a policy of national capitulation, the right wing government sacrifices Portuguese interests to foreign interests.”

Today, the PCP retains its influence within the largest Portuguese trade union federation, the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers, which has played an invaluable role in imposing austerity measures promulgated by one government after another. Such is Cunhal’s real legacy.


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