On Clare Griffin’s comments on The Many-Headed Monster
Clare Griffin’s comments on The Many-Headed Monster about the problems faced by historians wishing to participate in on-line conferences or seminars being held in other time zones actually touches upon a wider issue of concern. One of the surprising features of academic history in this and, I suspect, other countries has been the absence of recordings of conference/seminar papers and of comprehensive note-taking.
Scholars who were not present may hear about the arguments that have been made but not know precisely how they were formulated. In May, 2015, I was privileged to hear John Walter give a paper in Trinity Hall, Cambridge reflecting on his career and publications since the mid-1970s.
It was a fascinating occasion. But I was surprised to learn that no arrangements had been made to record what he had to say. Future generations of academic historians would, I strongly believe, have gained from hearing or watching what he had to say. More recently, I have been reading articles, books and theses from central and eastern Europe (including the states formerly in the Soviet Union) on the English Revolution.
Much of this work is intelligent and interesting but very much out of date in terms of the historiography it reflects. But the historians producing this work do not, prima facie, have contacts with early modern historians in the U.K. or the U.S.A. or other English-speaking countries. Access to current work of the kind being provided, for example, by the Institute of Historical Research on-line would help to mitigate this problem.
That requires more institutions and learned societies being willing to record their proceedings and to make them available to historians elsewhere via the internet. I am sure the benefits would be appreciated in Kazakhstan and elsewhere.
A Letter to Penny Weiss
While working on an article for my blog, I came across a book you edited called Feminist Manifestos: A Global Documentary Reader-edited by Penny A. Weiss.
At the beginning of chapter 2 The humble petition of divers well-affected women you cite a blog belonging to Alison Stuart-the article you quote is not by her but by me, and appeared on my blog A trumpet of Sedition-http://keith-perspective.blogspot.com/ under the title Leveller women and the English revolution. It is too late to ask for a correction, but it would be nice for you to credit my blog instead of hers.
A Letter from Christopher Thompson to Brodie Waddell
I have been following the recent celebrations of the work of Christopher Hill, both in the lectures given by Justin Champion at Newark and in London last November and in March respectively, and in the online version of this lecture published by Verso Books.
I also read your September 2012 piece https://manyheadedmonster.wordpress.com/2012/09/10/christopher-hill-and-the-many-headed-monster/) on the Many-Headed Monster blog last night and again this morning. The subject is of interest to me as one of Christopher Hill’s postgraduate pupils in the mid-1960s. I would agree with you that Hill’s 1965 essay on the attitudes of those members of the higher ranks of English society who commented on the dangers of democracy in early modern England contained comments that were not particularly novel and I would add that, had Hill examined, for example, the records of the Assize Courts, he would have found sentiments just as seditious as those uttered in the 1640s which he believed to have been expressed for the very first time. But these two points are incidental to my main objections to Hill’s position. His focus like that of Brian Manning was on conflict, on political, religious and constitutional conflict underpinned by economic and social changes which he thought undermined the established order of early to mid-Stuart England. There is a lot of celebration in his works of crowd violence in the streets of London, of the intimidation of nobles, gentry and clergymen by people of middling and lower social status, of the appeal of radical demands for abstract political and religious ‘rights’ and of the failure of the English Revolution to consolidate fundamental changes not just in England but throughout the British Isles. I think that this line of argument rests upon a fallacious analysis of the main economic and social trends of the period.
What Christopher Hill was unaware of was the existence of powerful social bonds between landowners and their tenants, bonds that went well beyond tenurial relationships and the payment of rent and encompassed ties of affiliation in matters of politics and religion, of marriage and friendship, that were beyond the reach of small quasi-political groups like the Levellers and the Diggers or religious ones like the Anabaptists or the Fifth Monarchists and others. I should add that this under-appreciated nexus existed within the mercantile community and in its external links to other economic and social groups. There is some evidence to suggest that the position of the landed elite strengthened markedly between 1600 and 1640. If I am right, then the failure of the ‘Revolution’ was by no means a surprise any more than the responses after the Restoration of 1660 were. I realise that these criticisms of Hill may run against the current but I was not persuaded by him in 1965 or afterwards.
With good wishes,
Letter To Suzannah Lipscomb
As a subscriber to History Today I always read your regular column. Your column is always well written and in many cases thought-provoking. Your April article entitled “The World is Turning” is no exception.
As all good historians do whether female or male you make good use of your access to a large number of media outlets that many left-wing female historians would die for. You have over eighty thousand twitter followers, you have access to tv, radio and write regular columns for a number of popular history magazines and have been published several times.
My problem is not so much your access to the media but your promotion use of gender over class in the study of history. While only a fool or male chauvinist would not welcome the increase of female historians in a male-dominated field would that in itself create the conditions for a class-based study of history I do not believe so.
In your World is Turning article you mentioned Hallie Rubenhold’s book The Five. There is no denying this is an excellent narrative based book and deserves a wide readership, however, there are many dangers involved in her approach. The deliberate writing out of historical figures such as Jack the Ripper because he was male gives far too much concession to the #metoo movement. Another point I make in my review is the virtual absence of the class struggle in the book that was raging at the time.
While little has changed in the plight of working-class women from Victorian times to now much has changed in the position of middle to upper-class women. The #metoo movement in the United States and here in Britain has little to do with improving the lives of working-class women than it does to increase the bank balances of already rich women.
While the tide of history is turning it will not turn on the basis of gender, race or sexual orientation it will turn on the basis of class.
Correspondence on David Starkey
From Sean Lang
This isn’t really good enough. Starkey’s point about life experience informing history is a valid one for debate, but this piece moves on from it into an attack on his polemical style and his politics. & there are plenty of prominent left-wing historians on tv – Schama, Beard, Olusoga.
I have just received this reply from Sean Lang to my brief article on David Starkey. Since the response was put in the public domain, it is worth commentating on. I stand by the point I made regarding life experiences informing history. From my perspective, I approach the study of history from a historical materialist standpoint. I believe history has its own laws and the uncovering and understanding of those laws are paramount.
As Marx said “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language”.
This is not to say that life experiences are worthless, they are not, but for the study of history, you need a much deeper understanding of historical processes than relying on a past relationship with a close relative. If that relative or partner happened to be another historian, then that is a different matter.
As regards Starkey’s politics and polemical style I believe he is fair game and well capable of defending himself. If Starkey would like to use my blog to defend himself, he is more than welcome. Lastly to describe Mary Beard as left wing is stretching things a bit. Beard is an excellent classical historian, but her political outlook is Liberal in the best sense of the word. As for Schama this just patently absurd. On David Olusoga I am not that familiar with his work so cannot yet comment.
Letter Steven E Aschheim
Comment by Chris Thompson on Leanda de Lisle’s White King
I have been reading your review of Leanda de Lisle’s book on your blog, A Trumpet of Sedition. I would agree that it is not a particularly good book and that its attempt to defend Charles I’s rule is by no means convincing. But I do not think that it can be described as a “revisionist” work partly because “revisionism” in early modern British history has been dead since c.1990.
Its heyday lasted from c.1976 until the end of the following decade. Whig or whiggish history had effectively perished by the time of the Second World War and the Marxist history of Christopher Hill and his allies like Brian Manning was never as predominant as you, I suspect, might have wished it to have been. It was certainly more influential in the 1950s and 1960s but Conrad Russell’s assault in the mid-1970s terminated its influence.
Kishlansky on The Rise of the New Model Army
I have seen your comments on Kishlansky’s book on your blog, A Trumpet of Sedition. This work is identical to his doctoral thesis supervised by David Underdown, a copy of which is in my possession. The text was not rushed into print prematurely.
Its central argument about the post-1646 politicisation of the New Model Army depends on his claim that, prior to that date, the armies of the Long Parliament lacked political interests of their own but this is clearly mistaken as any study, for example, of the 3rd Earl of Essex’s army after the autumn of 1642 or of that of Sir William Waller or of the 2nd Earl of Manchester shows. Each of these armies had its own allies and advocates at Westminster and followers or supporters in the capital and relevant counties.
Kishlansky failed to recognise the implications of the works of Hexter and of Valerie Pearl in this respect. Nor should it be taken that the Levellers alone were significant in forming the political and religious attitudes of the New Model Army: the proposals debated at Putney were, as Philip Baker and Elliot Vernon showed, formulated by Henry Marten and his radical London allies rather than by the Levellers.
In any case, by the time Kishlansky’s work was written, his argument hardly fitted into the pejoratively-termed ‘Revisionist’ project of Conrad Russell and his allies: that project focused on overthrowing the Whig-Marxist synthesis embraced by Hill, Stone, Manning and others. Its dominance was, however, mythical since it had already been challenged by figures like Hexter and John Ball in the 1950s.
In Christopher Hill’s case, his influence waned rapidly after c.1972 when his model of analysis came under sustained challenge. Kishlansky’s thesis and book were incidental to this process rather than central to it. Peter Lake described Kishlansky in September, 2015 as a “contrarian”, someone who liked turning old notions upside down. You can see what he means from Kishlansky’s study of Parliamentary elections in early modern England or from his last short book on Charles I.
It was this aspect of his approach that appealed to Russell and Morrill. Revisionism itself was, in any event, spent by c.1990 and has long since passed into the pages of secondary works just like the Marxism of Hill and his CPGB colleagues.
A Comment on Goldman on Tawney, Stone and Trevor-Roper
Your remarks on Goldman’s study of Tawney’s career are important and deserve a considered response. It is true that Tawney was a Christian Socialist and that his historical works were informed by his profound moral convictions.
He preferred the more collective society of the late-medieval English peasantry to what he took to be the increasingly market-orientated economy of the post-Reformation period. Similarly, he was even more critical of the capitalist economy and society that existed after the Industrial Revolution and throughout his lifetime.
It was for these reasons that he thought the comments of critics of the societies of these post-1540 periods compelling and valuable. It is, however, also true that his economic analysis of these societies owed a large debt to Marx’s class analysis and could not have been expressed without using Marxist terminology
Valerie Pearl, who knew Tawney, once remarked to me that he had an “aura of sanctity”. By 1940, he was widely regarded in left-wing circles as an oracle of wisdom and, as Christopher Hill’s obituary tributes showed, a person not to be criticised. I very much doubt whether this was a desirable position for an historian, however distinguished, to be in.
I am also doubtful whether much of Tawney’s corpus of works really qualifies as “history” since its subscription to Marxist tenets and the moral condemnation of social changes in the past lies outside the proper remit of the discipline. What the “storm over the gentry” from c.1948 to c.1958 did was to expose Tawney’s contentions about the rise of the gentry as a cause of the English Revolution to long overdue examination and critical evaluation.
The controversy stimulated an immense raft of research in the succeeding period, little of which supported the contentions of the participants. That is something for which Trevor-Roper and J.P.Cooper.
Lawrence Stone’s case was rather different. He had indeed been Trevor-Roper’s pupil. In fact, it was Trevor-Roper who had lent Stone the transcripts from the Recognisances for Debt in the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane which Stone used, without Trevor-Roper’s advance knowledge or permission, in his 1948 article in The Economic History Review.
It was this action – this “act of thievery” as Menna Prestwich described it – that prompted Trevor-Roper’s ferocious language in his immediate response and later comments.
Reading the works of Tawney and Stone is an enjoyable experience. Both were consummate writers and had exciting propositions to put to their readers. But Tawney’s moral approach to the past was underpinned by a crude economic determinism and entailed an overtly political analysis of the past. Stone, by contrast, was an adventurer at large in the past, always seeking to be the focus of attention and at the forefront of historiographical fashion.
He was not, in the strict sense, a scholar at all and was perfectly prepared to lie about his critics. It is no surprise that both have ceased to be relevant to the historiography of the early modern period.
Tom Reilly’s Call For A Conference on Cromwell In Ireland
I would like to try to organise a seminar/debate/conference – call it what you like – to finally determine (inasmuch as we can from this distance) what actually happened at Drogheda and Wexford in 1649. This is in particular regard to the deliberate massacre of large scale unarmed and innocent civilians. I was wondering if you would be interested in helping me get this off the ground. I have no idea where to start.
Here’s the reason, in case you either don’t know, or forget:
In 2004, Folens published Earthlink 5th Class. On page 87 the following words are printed: ‘Cromwell captured Drogheda. About 3,000 men, women and children were killed.’ The Educational Company of Ireland released Timeline in 2008. A paragraph on page 223 reads, ‘He [Cromwell] first laid siege to Drogheda. He was determined to make an example of the town. When he captured it he slaughtered the entire population.’
You ALL know that this is wrong. We’re still teaching bullshit to kids in Ireland. Bullshit that engenders anti-British sentiment. Here in 2015! Seriously?!
As you can see I have copied several early modern experts with this message. Many of you might consider me to be a loud-mouth, obnoxious, insufferable loose cannon.
Which is fine. My wife and kids know who I really am. But that’s not the point. Surely historical integrity demands that we stop the rot here. This subject is still highly emotive where I come from. Anybody Irish will agree.
I fully expect this e-mail to be dismissed by most of you in the same way that my work has been and continues to be. I would be happy if you would prove me wrong.
Please help me make a positive impact on what was such a negative part of Irish history so we can all finally move on. Because we haven’t.
One response To Killers of the King by Charles Spencer
There’s always plenty of scope for revisiting historical events – even ones we think we understand. And as always there are messages for our own times: “They had their own reasons for vengeance.
For a lot of Parliamentarians, choosing the king’s killers as scapegoats took the attention away from their own years of rebellion against the Crown”. Yes indeed!
A Scott’ s blog can be found http://turkeyfile.wordpress.com/
Comment on ‘Conrad Russell and “The Mirage of the English Revolution” ’
By C Thompson
Keith Livesey is a keen commentator on the events of the 1640s and 1650s and a vigorous defender of Marxist interpretations of the English Revolution. He has recently placed on-line his assessment of an article by Conrad Russell entitled “The Mirage of the English Revolution” published by the popular historical magazine, History Today, in 1990. Russell, who was then Professor of British History at King’s College in the University of London, had been concerned to look back at the assumption prevalent amongst (some) historians in the 1950s that the English Civil War was a “bourgeois revolution”.
He maintained that this view had not stood the test of time, partly because there was no correlation between the class or status of partisans on the two sides and partly because there was little or no sign of the Long Parliament having any bourgeois base of substance. Social changes were not responsible for the collapse of the political process at the centre in 1640 or 1642 or later.
The force of ideas as an independent variable was not recognised in Marxist or quasi-Marxist historiography nor was the fact that religious allegiances were not coterminous with social backgrounds. English government, in any case, depended on consent in the localities. There was certainly no sign of a bourgeois revolution in 1688-1689 either. Marx and his works, he concluded, constituted a colossal wrong-turning.
Russell’s essay was, in many ways, a reflection on the arguments current when he had been an Oxford undergraduate in the 1950s. The quarrels over the fortunes of the gentry had subsided by the end of that decade and had been succeeded by a ferment of research into the significance of county and local history and into the importance of ‘Court’ and ‘Country’ conflicts as potential explanatory mechanisms for the English Civil War.
The researches of Valerie Pearl into the City of London’s politics up to 1643 and those of J.T.Cliffe and Gordon Blackwood on the allegiance and fortunes of the Yorkshire and Lancashire gentry, let alone those of Gerald Aylmer on Charles I’s bureaucracy, had demonstrated how difficult it was to sustain the claims of Tawney, Hill and Stone about the nature of the English Revolution. Long before Russell proclaimed his dissent in the mid-1970s from the economic and social determinism informing Marxist and sub-Marxist explanations, those explanations had been recognised as more than inadequate.
This is why it is so strange to read Keith Livesey’s claim in April, 2013 that the attack on Marxism in English Civil War historiography has been heated and aggressive. This is not the case. This has not been the case since the early-1970s. No academic historian I can think of had had to acknowledge the importance of Marxist historiography and to take on board some of its analysis up to 1990.
Whatever Christopher Hill may have thought, the work of Soviet historians on the English Revolution – which Hill tried to promote – was too far divorced from the sources and too heavily shaped by Leninist preconceptions to be worth attention. Lawrence Stone, moreover, was never a Marxist. Keith Livesey’s comments are thus anachronistic. Russell had been writing about the state of historiography in the 1950s: by the time his article appeared in 1990, Marxism had receded dramatically as an intellectual influence. By then, Russell’s own ‘revisionism’ had reached its peak in his Ford lectures and his work on the fall of the British monarchies. He, too, was about to go out of historiographical fashion.
Comments on Alex Callinicos’s review of Neil Davidson, How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?
Bandit Queen commented on The English Civil War- Trial of The King Killers
Excellent drama and history of the trials of the men who killed Charles I and the revenge of the monarchy that they tried to abolish, the sources are well represented here and here their own words and testimony. It was brilliant.
Nick commented on Oliver Cromwell: God’s Warrior and the English Revolution (British History in Perspective) Professor Ian Gentles
I really enjoyed this review – thanks for posting it, I must get round to reading Gentles’s book soon.On the subject of Cromwell and the junto, I don’t think it’s disputed that he was involved in its fringes during the early 1640s. His links to Oliver St John and through that to the circle around the Earl of Warwick and Viscount Saye and Sele are well documented. Where historians disagree – and ultimately the evidence is too slender to prove either way – is quite how much a part of the circle he was.
It’s possible to see his interventions in the Long Parliament in 1640/41 as naive and over-reaching, misjudging the politics of the day, but equally they can be represented as Cromwell flying kites for the junto in full knowledge that they might get watered down (but recognising someone needed to start negotiations).
Personally, I think Cromwell’s involving in freeing John Lilburne points more towards the latter, but whichever the interpretation you take it’s clear Cromwell was only a minor player at this stage.
John Adamson is good on this in his chapter on Cromwell and the Long Parliament in John Morrill’s “Oliver Cromwell and the Puritan Revolution”.
Kate Chidley commented on http://keith-perspective.blogspot.co.uk/2010/08/on-katherine-chidley-1616-1653.html
I’d love to find that she was my ancestor ! you go.girl.l’ve read somewhere that she harangued Cromwell, saying they had promised all would be equal, but, quoting Orwell, some were more equal than others, i.e. men more equal than women. Is it possible to find pamphlets online? What a lady,
Thank you for the comment. Can you remember where you saw that she met Cromwell? I have just finished an article on Women Levellers and the English Revolution for the blog Hoydens and Firebrands which includes some stuff on Chidley.
If you like I can send you some stuff I have on her. It is true she was quite a lady and apparently one of many. Maybe you should do some research on whether she was a relative. Chidley does not strike me as a common name, where are you from.
Newton commented on winstanley Review
I became excited by Winstanley et. al. through Hill’s World Turned Upside Down in the 70s, about the time Kevin Brownlow was creating his movie. Much later, after Christopher Hill gave a talk (on Bunyan), I asked him about the Diggers from the sixties.I noted, that Emmet Grogan’s autobiography, Ringolevio mentions that they decided on calling their NYC group (transplanted to San Francisco) the Diggers after reading an English history book.I asked what that the book would have been since WTUD came out after the Digger moment.He smiled with delight to remind me, of course, that he had been writing about the Diggers at length at least since the edited collection of documents, The Good Old Cause, in 1949.
Correspondence On Speeches Of Oliver Cromwell, 1644-1658 (1901) [Paperback] , Charles L. Stainer (Editor)
Chris Thompson Wrote
Oliver Cromwell’s early years before 1640 have recently been illuminated by the work of Andrew Barclay in his “Electing Cromwell. The Making of a Politician”, published by Pickering and Chatto in February, 2011. John Morrill review it enthusiastically in the May, 2011 edition of History Today.
Christopher Thompson´s blog can be found at http://earlymodernhistory1.blogspot.com/
Alison Stuart commented on What do we really know about Oliver Cromwell by Professor John Morrill? The First Barry Coward Memorial
Thank you for posting this fascinating review of Morrill’s work. I look forward to his conclusion. It is hard to separate fact from fiction after so many centuries and there are elements of Cromwell that strike at a contradictory personality.
The account above recalls the wholesale slaughter of the “Irish” women after the battle of Naseby. Keep us posted
A Letter to Richard Cavendish
I cannot say I follow your articles for History Today on a regular basis, but when an article catches my eye, I tend to read it. One such article was called Trotsky Offered Asylum. As the title of your column suggests, you write about events from the near or distant past.
If this particular article was nothing more than a straight factual account of Leon Trotsky’s exile from the former Soviet Union, I would have had nothing to complain about, but it was not. I am sorry to say your article was a little dark and had a strong hint of conservative bias to it to say the least.
My first complaint is that while you mention the struggle between Trotsky and Stalin for students and people coming to this subject for the first time you would not garner from your article that this was little more than just a personality clash that Trotsky lost.
The life and death struggle was deeply political and to no small extent decided the course of the 20th century and not for the better. In fact, mankind paid a very heavy price for Trotsky’s “fall” from power and subsequent murder.
Your article does not mention a single political difference between Trotsky and Stalin. I admit you have a lack of space, but your article would have been strengthened by at least a cursory examination over the controversy over Stalin’s theory of building socialism in a single country versus Trotsky’s insistence on global revolution.
This aside, there are other things in the article that I would like to address. One of your turn of phrase left me a little cold and to say the least was a little sinister. To describe Trotsky’s murderer as a “charming Spanish Communist painter “is a little ridiculous.
He was a murderer who pursued Trotsky and under Stalin’s personal order caved his skull with an ice pick, perhaps you could explain what was charming about this.
While we are on the subject of Trotsky’s murder to describe the act of murder as a “stab” of an ice pick is just plain bizarre. Trotsky’s skull was caved in why you downplay this horrendous assassination.
My last point is that while it is difficult for a historian to come out of their comfort zone and write on a subject, they know little about I must take exception to your description of Robert Service as “Trotsky’s biographer”, given Service’s very right-wing biography which is strewn with major errors it is simply not true. If readers new to the subject of Trotsky’s life would like to view a more balance view, then they should look no further than Isaac Deutscher’s three-volume trilogy. The compliment you pay Service is not deserved.
- Trotsky offered asylum in Mexico by Richard Cavendish | Published in History Today Volume: 61 Issue: 12 2011 http://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/trotsky-offered-asylum-mexico
2.Trotsky: A Biography by Robert Service; In Defence of Leon Trotsky by David North Review By Bertrand M. Patenaude The American Historical Review Vol. 116, No. 3, June 2011 URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/ahr.116.3.900
Further comment on Does the Work of British Historian John Adamson” Break New Ground
I am grateful for this comment although, alas, I do not think it is right. After his discussion of the dissolution of the Short Parliament, John Adamson did not proceed directly to a discussion of the Petition of the 12 peers but analysed the attitudes of the 2nd Earl of Warwick and his allies towards the Caroline regime in the 1630s and the evidence for collusion in the summer of 1640 between the members of the aristocratic Junto and the Scottish Covenanters.
He identified Maurice Thompson, John Venn and Richard Shute (Noble revolt, page 79) as the bearers of the petition from London supporting the peers’ petition: Thompson and Venn had had links with Warwick through their interests in colonization since the late-1620s and in the 1630s, so his point is valid.
There is, in fact, a mass of material in The Noble Revolt on the importance of popular pressures on the proceedings of the two Houses in 1640-1642: if you do not believe me, please read Pages 285-288 on the end of Strafford’s life or Pages 468-477 on tumults in the capital. He was and is interested in the impact of demonstrations and the threat of violence in London in this and succeeding periods.
Fortunately, a lot is known about how these demonstrations, etc., were organised from the works of Valerie Pearl, Robert Ashton, Keith Lindley and others. (See Clarendon Ms.20, fol.129 for Venn’s role in coordinating such demonstrations.)It is, in any event, for John Adamson to develop his arguments as he wishes rather than meeting old-fashioned Marxist prescriptions.(This post was forwarded to me by Chris Thompson. It was left anonymously on his blog. I am publishing because while not agreeing with every point it does have something to add to the debate. Chris Thompson’s remarks are also included)
It seems to me that most of the valid intellectual work Adamson’s narrative accomplishes was better done by your own work on the “middle group. “Then there are the problems. The valid nugget in Livesey’s discontent, I think, is that Adamson has little patience for or interest in what might be called popular mobilization, even though this was what gave aristocratic politics its bite. And his treatment of the events of 1640–the only moment concerning which I have sufficient expertise to comment–is riddled with significant omissions and errors (example omission: he skips directly from the dissolution of the Short Parliament to the Lords’ Petition, without offering to explain the summer’s agitation; example error: he claims the London Petition was carried by clients of Warwick). While errors are an unavoidable part of the scholarly process, these seem more like errors of opportunity to me, opportunities to affirm the centrality of the figures in his study to the politics of that year.
For me, the main value of Adamson’s work is to reopen the problem of the politics of the early 1640s. Which is a legitimate accomplishment. But I understand Livesey’s uneasiness.
Christopher Thompson commented Does the Work of British Historian John Adamson” Break New Ground
I am afraid, Keith, that this is not a convincing argument. It is factually incorrect to claim that all historiography before the 1970s offered some kind of explanation founded on a relationship between the ‘base’ of English society and its ‘superstructure’ as a reading of Hume, Mackintosh, Hallam, Macaulay and Trevelyan will show.
It is a matter of debate when the heyday of British capitalism occurred but no one has yet shown how this shaped Whig historiography or made it more convincing. In any case, the origins of ‘revisionism’ lie not in the 1970s, whether early or late, but in the late-1960s when it was increasingly obvious that the kind of deterministic explanations offered by Tawney, Hill, Stone and others were unsustainable because they were at variance with the surviving evidence.
By 1973, the work of ‘revision’ as Ted Rabb would describe it and the reaction against the kind of history being written by Stone and Hill wa s well under way. This was long before Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher reached the front rank of politics on either side of the Atlantic and long before John Adamson began his work on the 1640s.
No so -called revisionist poured scorn on Marxist theory nor has Adamson downplayed the role of Oliver Cromwell. You should read the latter’s essay on ‘Oliver Cromwell and the Long Parliament’ in John Morrill, ed., Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution (Longman. 1990) as penance. However one defines the political preferences of those you regard as ‘revisionists’, they were not predominantly or even obliquely right-wing.
Tristram Hunt and Simon Schama are, moreover, hardly specialists in seventeenth-century English history. I ought to add that Kishlansky’s attacks on Adamson in and after 1990 had a great deal more to do with academic politics than your account allows.
There was no requirement on Adamson to preface his study of the political role of the peerage in the 1640s with an analysis of the class composition of the gentry or of its relationship with the Stuart Crown: that would have meant giving up his priorities in research and writing to address a long obsolete Marxist agenda. It was for him to write as he chose and to investigate the issues he wanted to examine. That is the right and duty of every historian. But do not suppose that he is or has been unaware of the connections between the members of the Junto in 1640-1642 and of the grandees later in the decade with the worlds of London mercantile and artisan politics.
The novelty of his work lies in the revelations he has already made about such links and that he will make in subsequent publications. He has reshaped the historiography of the period already and will continue to do so because his work rests on secure evidential foundations, not on a political approach to the past.
Adamson review: a response
John Adamson, The Noble Revolt. The Overthrow of Charles I. (Weidenfeld & Nicolson. London. 2007. Xxii + 742 pages.)
I have just received two responses to my blog review of John Adamson’s book the Noble Revolt and have now published both. Suffice to say I will in time reply to some their points. While putting Adamson’s work in a wider context of new research on the Civil War. One question I will attempt to answer is does it break new ground?
From Chris Thompson
I have now had the opportunity to read Keith Livesey’s comments on his blog (“A Trumpet of Sedition”, 26 September, 2011) regarding John Adamson’s book in detail. Keith Livesey has an intense interest in the events of the 1640s and favours a Marxist interpretation as readers of his blog will know. I enjoy reading what he has to say although I am often sceptical about his claims. On this occasion, however, I fear that he is seriously mistaken.
Let me begin with the historiographical issues he raises. Nineteenth and early-twentieth century Whig historians argued that the English Civil Wars of the 1640s were the result of constitutional and religious struggles that paved the way for the establishment of a limited monarchy alongside Parliamentary supremacy, the rule of law, freedom of the press and religious toleration after the Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689. These were the Whigs’ themes from the time of Hallam and Macaulay to that of G.M.Trevelyan. This argument was rejected by Marxist historians and those historians influenced by Marx in the period before the Second World War and after it.
One thinks of figures like R.H.Tawney, Christopher Hill and others who believed that antecedent economic and social changes explained the origins and course of the ‘English Revolution’. Of course, there were historians like Hugh Trevor-Roper, who was definitely not a Marxist, but who had his own socio-economic explanation to advance in the late-1940s and early-1950s.The ‘storm over the gentry’ and contrasting claims about the fortunes of the peerage led to the great outpouring of theses and published works on the landed elites and on counties in the 1950s and 1960s. It is fair to say that this body of research left earlier arguments about the economic and social causes of the English Civil Wars or Revolution still undetermined. The controversy had run into the sand.
It was in this context that Conrad Russell observed in 1973 that social change explanations of this kind had failed. He left open the possibility that new explanations of this sort might be advanced. Russell himself and those historians advocating a new approach to the religious and political history of the early Stuart period were concerned with the causes of the breakdown in Stuart England before 1640: Theodore Rabb denominated them – misleadingly in my view – as ‘revisionists’. It was against the claims of Russell that historians like Richard Cust, Ann Hughes, Peter Lake and Tom Cosgwell, i.e. the post-revisionists, reacted in the 1980s. But there was a second group of historians, including John Morrill and Mark Kishlansky, engaged more or less simultaneously in re-evaluating the conflicts of the 1640s. These historians, whether or not they constituted one or two groups of ‘revisionists’, were certainly not mainly right-wing in their political persuasions. Russell himself, Ann Hughes, Richard Cust and John Morrill would have rejected such a description out of hand. In any case, by 1991 when Russell’s two books on the origins of the English Civil War and the fall of the British monarchies were published, revisionism and the reaction against it were over. New concerns over images, propaganda and the public sphere were coming to preoccupy seventeenth-century historians.
There was no attempt in the 1970s by the so-called revisionists to put forward explanations entailing “a rejection of both the Marxist and Whig views of English Civil War historiography” or “to pour scorn on Marxist theory”. Whig views were regarded as methodologically flawed and Marxist ones as anachronistic and irrelevant. They had ceased to matter. It is certainly wrong to claim that John Adamson’s “politics and historical attitudes were formulated during the Thatcher era.” John Adamson was a graduate of the University of Melbourne and arrived in Cambridge long after Mrs Thatcher had become Prime Minister. There is nothing in his book to suggest that he viewed the main actors in the period before the end of January, 1642 as reacting blindly to events or that he fails to explain or does not want to explain what provoked this revolt of the nobles and their allies. Equally clearly, he has nothing in its text or in the introduction to the volume of essays he edited in 2009, The English Civil War, to suggest any denigration of Oliver Cromwell or that he particularly admired King Charles I.
When Keith Livesey says that the book “contains significant omissions which include the significant role played by the Earl of Essex as Parliamentary commander after the outbreak of the civil war, the creation of the Royalist party, the significance of the New Model Army, the military defeat and elimination of the King, and the abolition of the House of Lords”, the chronological and logical fallacies involved in such claims are all too clear. None of these things had happened by the end of January, 1642 and thus fell outside the scope of John Adamson’s book. They will, no doubt, be dealt with in his later volumes.
Take, for example, the proposition advanced in his review that “Adamson does not touch upon any of the controversies over the war” and the contention four paragraphs later that he “accused some historians of relying too much on large abstract forces and opposed a downplaying of the role of the individual. He said”, so Keith Livesey argues, “he did not agree that long term views got us anywhere or that it was a bourgeois revolution. He [Adamson] felt that this “economic determinist” viewpoint did not explain too much.”
The two claims are contradictory. But, if one reads Adamson’s book carefully, it is possible to see that he did engage with earlier historians’ interpretations – e.g. throughout the footnotes and in his epilogue (Pages 513-516) and that the bulk of his introduction to the 2009 volume of essays considers historiographical issues as a prelude to the work of his contributors. Nowhere in the book is there any comment to link the decline of Marxist influence on Civil War historiography with the fall of the Berlin Wall or to explain the English Revolution as a result of Charles I’s inexperience and vanity. Furthermore, no one can massage the egos of dead aristocrats.
In fact, almost all of Keith Livesey’s claims are either unfounded or untenable. I understand why, as a Marxist, he regrets its passing as an influence on the study of the events of the 1640s and 1650s since the early-1970s and the great days of Christopher Hill. That was probably inevitable as one generation of historians reacts against the claims of the preceding one. I happen to think that this is a good, positive development which has led to some profoundly important new lines of enquiry. John Adamson’s work has contributed very largely to this process and will, I expect, continue to do so into the future. His views on politics, whatever they may be, are irrelevant to the importance of his research just as they are to the work of historians of the left. We are all engaged in a continuing debate about these issues, a debate to which, alas, this review has contributed very little.
mercuriuspoliticus commented on The Noble Revolt: The Overthrow of Charles I by John Adamson 576 pp, Weidenfeld & Nicolson,
This was a thought-provoking post but I’m not sure I would agree with all of what you say about Adamson’s work here. (You will probably have guessed that having read my own review of the book!). I think it’s a bit unfair to say it’s light on analysis: the sustained way in which Adamson unpicks the factional manoeuvrings behind the Junto, and particularly the complicated Anglo-Scottish-Irish connections, are to my mind highly analytical and considered.
And he does devote lots of space, too, to understanding why a certain section of peers and MPs were so hostile to Charles I’s policies during the Personal Rule. he does not arrive at a class-based explanation of this group’s actions, but on the evidence I think he’s right to locate their opposition in political and religious ideologies: or to put it another way, to prioritise superstructure rather than base.
Perhaps it’s fairer to say that Adamson’s book does not really engage with those below the level of the political class. There are moments when he takes a rather monolithic view of politicians controlling the London crowd: it was probably more complicated than this, and while some protests in 1641 were I’m sure engineered or at least tacitly supported by the Junto grandees, many more will have owed their origins to the indepenent political agency of those participating in them. But to carry out a sustained analysis of the vertical links between politicians and “people” would be a very different work of history, and add hundreds of pages to what is already a monster of a book.
And the book does stop in January 1642, which means that its chronological scope can’t really cover some of the things you mention in your review. Within these limits I think it is absolutely reasonable for Adamson to argue that the outbreak of the war – in the sense of Charles and Parliament coming to blows – is driven by the sustained efforts of the Junto to achieve a quasi-republican settlement. Yes of course when it comes to recruiting armies, to choosing sides etc this doesn’t look at the motivations of working people, but in terms of Adamson’s focus – what was going on in London/Edinburgh/Dublin politics that caused the rift between King and Parliament – the book, for me, breaks new ground.
I’m sure you’re right that Adamson has some sympathies with Charles I (and Strafford, too) – read his chapter in Niall Ferguson’s “Virtual History” for a rollicking attempt to imagine the ancien regime in England continuing into the late eighteenth century had Charles only been able to defeat the Scots. But I’m not sure you can argue that he denigrates Cromwell because of his politics. See for example his chapter in John Morrill’s “Oliver Cromwell and the Puritan Revolution”, in which he conducts a close and considered analysis of Cromwell’s attitudes to Parliament and his behaviour in the Long Parliament.
Letter Steven E Aschheim
In his otherwise excellent review of the book Werner Scholem: A German Life by Mirjam Zadoff, Dona Geyer, Steven E Asceim chooses to leave out a critical piece of history. For reasons unknown, he decides to leave out the relatively well-known the fact that Scholem was a member of the German Left Opposition.
This fact alone would be enough to explain not only the hostility of the Stalinists to him but would alert the Nazis to him so much, so they had him shot in 1940.The information on Scholem’s involvement in the German Left Opposition is widely available on the web.
The Russian Marxist Leader Leon Trotsky had high regard for Scholem as this article outlines“The itinerary of Werner Scholem, one of the most attractive of this group of young post-war leaders is beginning to be known. He refused, like Max Hesse – another veteran of the insurrection prepared in Moscow in 1923 – to support the line which led Fischer and Maslow to capitulate and resigned in February 1928 from the Leninbund, advancing reasons which could have come from Trotsky. As an attentive observer, during a momentary tactical diversion, while he resumed his advanced legal studies to qualify as a lawyer in Berlin, he was attracted by Trotsky’s analyses. In 1931 in Berlin he made the acquaintance of Leon Sedov, and this meeting marked the beginning of a regular collaboration with Trotsky’s German comrades, weekly meetings with E. Bauer and drafting (unsigned) articles for Die Permanente Revolution.He expressed the desire to meet Trotsky, who, for his part, keenly wished to meet a man of his quality and his talents. But in the end, it was Trotsky who opposed his proposal to travel, not wanting someone like Scholem to run the risk of finding himself in Turkey at the moment of the decisive struggle on German soil. Scholem first emigrated to Czechoslovakia, and then returned with underground links to the Left Opposition, and was arrested.
The Nazis were not going to let this prey escape, a Communist, an intellectual and a Jew. He was savagely tortured and, it appears, was executed or struck down in 1939. It is curious that the Trotskyist current has not laid claim with greater enthusiasm to this martyr, who nonetheless did belong to it. Winning him to their ranks, as well as his heroic end, did them credit. The final adherence of this young German leader, who had organised the campaign of signatures for the Letter of the 700, when he joined the international organisation founded by Trotsky, was not just an episode. It demonstrates that it is ridiculous to try to counterpose the course of the Russian Opposition to that of the German Opposition or vice versa. We have tried here to introduce a little clarity into episodes which invite us not to seek scapegoats for errors of tactics so much as to pose serious and with respect for the subject the problems which arose from what the Russian Opposition very correctly at the time called “the crisis of the revolution”.
It is hoped that in future articles on this figure Steven E Aschheim corrects this glaring overcite
 Werner A-Scholem- A German Life by Mirjam Zadoff-Review in TLS October 5th 2018The German Left and the Russian Opposition (1926-28)- https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/revhist/backiss/vol2/no3/gerleft.html
From Christopher Thompson :
But Harrington’s argument was not “the product of an analysis of the contemporary distribution of land, because it does not claim to be” such: it was an investigation of the decline of feudal tenures and the development of freehold tenure, which made possible a state in which a Classical Republic of the kind described by Livy and advocated by Machiavelli. Scholars like J.G.A.Pocock and Judith Schklar showed as long ago as the 1950s that Tawney’s view of Harrington was erroneous.
Reply thehistorywoman (http://thehistorywoman.wordpress.com/)
I’m not saying that Harrington’s thesis is based on an exact or even correct ‘analysis of the contemporary distribution of land’. But he did perceive significant changes which – as you rightly say – were caused by ‘the decline of feudal tenures’. And this decline of feudal tenures gave rise to a new type of landownership and at the same time a new type of society characterised increasingly by merit rather than birth. The senators who replace the old lords in Harrington’s ideal state hold their office because they are ‘wiser than the rest’, not by the virtue of their birth. That is what matters. Changes in property ownership produce changes in a country’s power structures. In the long term freehold tenure facilitates popular participation in politics.
Correspondence on The historywomans article Property and Power: On James Harrington’s 400th Birthday
I am afraid that these assertions about the transfer of land between the nobility and gentry. The peerage in 1601 may have held less land than in 1558 but it still held more than in 1534. By 1641, the much enlarged peerage had far more land in its hands than in 1601. This is true even using Lawrence Stone’s highly improbable figures. The English Civil War or Revolution was preceded by a notable shift in landed possessions towards the peerage and by the rise of “aristocratic constitutionalism”.
That’s an interesting point. The ‘rise of the gentry’ hypothesis has long been contested. However, I find it significant that Harrington still perceived a shift of property and power towards the gentry and yeomanry. Of course one might wonder how far this perception was influenced by a political agenda.
Comment fron C Thompson
Ann Talbot has misled you. Luddism was a phenomenon of the late stages of the war against Napoleonic France, which ended in 1815. Chartism and opposition to the new Poor Law came after the Great Reform Act of 1832. The People’s Charter was published in 1837 and Chartism itself lasted until c.1850. The New Poor Law creating Unions of parishes was passed in 1834.
This a correction to my blog Supplementary Notes for a further Article on the True Levellers Part Two. I have already apologised to him for the error.
Christopher Thompson Wrote:
Keith Livesey has given some details of his ideas for working on the Levellers here. I was surprised to see my 1980 Past and Present article cited as the basis for a claim that Petty had supported a restricted franchise in the Putney debates of October, 1647 on the first Agreement of the People. In fact, I argued that Petty’s position had changed: he came to it as a supporter of manhood suffrage but, towards the end of the debate, sought consent on a more restricted franchise excluding Royalists, servants and other dependents.
My argument was a criticism of the claims of C.B.Macpherson that the Levellers were consistent supporters of a restricted franchise. But it must be said that the view held then that the First Agreement of the People was a Leveller document no longer seems tenable. Elliot Vernon and Philip Baker have recently argued in The Historical Journal (Volume 53. No.1 (March, 2010), Pp.39-59) that the document was the product of a group of London radicals, including Maximilian Petty, around Henry Marten and not a Leveller tract at all.
This means that the assumption upon which Macpherson, Keith Thomas, Monk, Aylmer and I worked was wrong. I am grateful for their research on this point.
Comment on J P Kenyon
By Christopher Thompson
I think that you will find it helpful to clarify J.P.Kenyons view of Marxism by reading John Morrill’s obituary appreciation in the Proceedings of the British Academy (Volume 101 (1999), pages 441-461). Morrill explains there that Kenyon had a “fundamental disapproval of model-builders and systematisers. He had no time for social determinism as a tool of the historian for explaining the past or of social engineering as a tool of the politician in effecting the future.” (ibid. page 443).
Later in this piece, Morrill discussed Kenyon’s 1958 book, The Stuarts, and its analysis of the pre-revolutionary period: “it is a very hard and crisp review of the political, legal, and religious culture of the period 1580-1640 and of the origins of the English Civil War. Kenyon found no evidence of disintegration of an outdated system; no progressive movement made up of an alliance of common lawyers, Puritan gentry and clergy, thrusting merchants and trendy intellectuals; rather he found a gentry confused and unsure of itself, at once timidly in awe of firebrand clergy and determined to subject the church and its wealth more and more to lay control”. (ibid. pages 447-448) That remained his view. He was never a Marxist or a fellow-traveller with them.
A Letter to Ian Pindar
While I concede that in a review of this brevity it is difficult, to sum up, a book that runs to close to six hundred pages but your review of Robert Service-Trotsky is a travesty of critical writing.(1)
In the opening sentence, you declare the same hostility to the subject as the author. You remark “Trotskyites who like to compare their man favourably to the murderous Stalin will probably be disappointed by this bold and balanced biography”.
As a person who opposes Stalin, I must say that your cynical belittling the major political differences between Trotsky and Stalin contributes to the already right-wing, low level and ideologically driven Soviet historiography.
Even in short review a summation of the differences, such as the dispute over the Permanent Revolution, Socialism in a single country as opposed to international socialism to name just two would have given this review a balanced and informed look. But that is not really your objective.
As Service observes, “If ever Trotsky had been the paramount leader instead of Stalin, the risks of a bloodbath in Europe would have been drastically increased.” The above quote which you note verbatim is absurd as well as a funny. Did you even think to examine what he said? Could you explain to me what Trotsky could have done that would have been worse than the Gulags, and the murder of the entire Bolshevik cadre as well as the killing of millions of peasants and workers during the reign of Stalin? Could it really be worse than the Stalinist induced defeats of the Spanish, German and French working class to name a few who led the rise of Fascism which in turn led to the murder of six million Jews and fifty million people killed in the Second World War?
“He also notes that Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution (1923), in which writers are expected to toe the party line, prepared the way for “cultural Stalinism”. I am not expecting you to be an expert on Trotsky’s writings or for that matter the Russian Revolution., but have you read Trotsky’s writing on Literature and Culture. Like Service, you seem to be under the impression that the bigger the lie the more easily it is believed. It is clear you have no comprehension of the debate over “culture” that raged inside the Bolshevik Party of which Lenin took a major interest. Trotsky opposed Stalin’s “Socialist realism” saying that it had nothing to do with Marxism. If you are interested in this debate, I draw to your attention the writings of Aleksandr Voronsky in his book Art as the Cognition of Life, as a poet I am sure you will find this book rewarding.
Lastly, you cannot just repeat verbatim the lies and slanders and outright distortions of Service without any independent verification. After all, you are writing for the Guardian, not the Sun. Even you must know that a number of your readers will be familiar with this period of history and will not accept your lazy and slapdash method of reviewing a book.
You go on “And he founded and trained the Red Army. In short, he was “no angel”. He had a “lust for dictatorship and terror”. Unfortunately, my friend, you cannot just state and quote Service like him you have to prove your assertions.
“He also abandoned his first wife and their two baby girls in Siberia, and later drove one of those daughters to suicide”. This slander is repeated again by you. Did you look into this?
Well, David North a Leading authority on the Russian revolution did and had this to say on the matter “Service devotes an enormous amount of space to blackguarding Trotsky as a faithless husband who cruelly abandoned his first wife and their two children. “As a husband,” writes Service, “he [Trotsky] treated his first wife shabbily. He ignored the needs of his children especially when his political interests intervened. This had catastrophic consequences even for those who were inactive in Soviet public life—and his son Lev, who followed him into exile, possibly paid with his life for collaborating with his father.” [p. 4]
One would hardly guess, based on Service’s telling of the story, that either the oppressive conditions of Tsarist Russia or, later, the persecutions of Stalin had anything to do with the tragic fate of Trotsky’s family and loved ones. In fact, Service actually criticizes Trotsky for assigning responsibility to the Soviet regime for the death of his daughter Zina in 1933” (2)
1)Robert Service-Trotsky-Guardian Newspaper
2)David North Historians in the Service of the “Big Lie”: An Examination of Professor Robert Service’s Biography of Trotsky. http://www.wsws.org.
Correspondence on Oliver Cromwell
I don’t see how the profoundly Biblical Puritan English revolution can be made to fit a Marxist/materialist explanation.
You need to look at how the role of the Bible’s teaching on social justice led to the revolution. Israel got its first king against God’s will, so as to be like other nations. The Puritans knew that God did not sanction a monarchy.
Leviticus 25 is critical here.
At the moment your email does not warrant a long reply. What I will say is that I am not trying to fit a Marxist/Materialist viewpoint into the English Revolution. The point of Marxism is it is a method in which to understand the past, present and a guide to future action.
I do not subscribe to the view that the revolution was a chemically pure one. Marx never said it was. Also, I do not downplay the religious aspect to it, how can I. Its main protagonists were deeply imbued with it. However to say that God caused it or that he was on the side of the Roundheads is absurd. How do you explain that Charles 1 refused to accept parliaments and Cromwell’s authority because he was the sole interpreter of ‘Gods Will’?
To finish, I do not say that the role of the individual is unimportant at certain times it is critical. But the revolution was the product not of Gods will but powerful socio-economic changes that that were pulsing through Britain and come to think of it Europe at the time. Man makes history but not as freely as he would like.
Comments From Christopher Thompson
I have just received these comments on my Essay Oliver Cromwell, the Levellers and the Putney Debates. While it is important to correct factual errors which I will do one does not have to agree with his more general summaries in the second part of the email. In fact, I will begin to reply to his assertions regarding Hill and Manning in particular shortly. I am publishing his remarks in full.
1) If you look at Past and Present (Number 88. August 1980), you will see, for example, that the Levellers did argue for manhood suffrage at the Putney debates. C.B.Macpherson’s interpretation is based on a misreading of the text preserved amongst the Clarke Mss. There was no Digger group in existence in the autumn of 1647. I could continue with the errors of fact in this piece.
2) Many thanks for your e-mail. This would be a sizeable job. For example, you claim that the Levellers pioneered the use of petitioning, large-scale demonstrations, etc., as devices for exerting political pressure in the mid-1640s but, as Valerie Pearl showed back in 1961 in her book on London and the Puritan Revolution, these measures were first used in 1640-42 by Pym’s Junto: John Adamson’s recent book on The Noble Revolt leads to the same conclusion.
There were some elements within the Leveller movement but none, in the light of Rachel Foxley’s work or that of Philip Baker that can justifiably be described as ‘bourgeois.’ Most academic historians, of whom I am one, do not accept or endorse a ‘class explanation’ of the struggles of the 1640s in England or the British Isles.
This is why figures like Christopher Hill (my old doctoral supervisor), Brian Manning, etc., are rarely cited in the literature nowadays. It would take me a significant amount of time to go through all of these matters in detail, but I will consider your request.
Email to Historian Antony Beevor on his article in Guardian 25th July 2009
Dear Antony Beevor,
I would like to make some points in your article in the Guardian 25 July 2009; I like your work especially your book on the Spanish Civil War. Your article in the Guardian is worth reading and should provoke some discussion. I have not read the novel The Mistress of Nothing. Therefore, I cannot comment on the merit of the book.
My first point would be to concur the great Irish Poet, writer and socialist Oscar Wilde who said that “Books are well written, or badly written” which was a rant against people not being able to draw a proper distinction between a good and a bad book. For thousands of years writers have been writing Faction, your invocation of William Shakespeare is one case in point. Having done my history degree using some of his works it can be infuriating when you check some of the histories, and it turns out to be entirely different from real historical facts. But to my knowledge, no one has criticized Shakespeare as an evil writer wrong historian maybe.
While you will get people that will read poorly written books and take them as historical fact I tend to believe that the majority of people are intelligent and curious enough to check the history for themselves. While it is well within your right to attack the dumbing down and fictionalization of history maybe your beautiful writing may be put to better use especially when history has come under such attack in schools by the current labour government.
Lastly, I must take exception to the following extract from your article “It may well stem from an obsessive person who, over the Internet, makes their suspicion sound plausible to tens of thousands, even to millions of others who also have grievances and are eager to believe the worst. Examples include the notion that Aids was created in a CIA laboratory that Princess Diana was murdered by the intelligence services and that 9/11 was orchestrated by the Bush administration.
The last point on 9/11 should be clarified while Bush did not pull the trigger so to speak substantial evidence has led to a significant government collaboration in allowing the attack to happen. After all, the FBI had allowed these people into the country and after spying on them for months enabled them to take one-way flying lessons. This I might add is not fantasy but historical fact. By shooting wide of the mark, you sometimes not only miss the target but give the real historical fantasists more credence.
Reply to Laurence Rees- BBC Historian of Behind Closed Doors
Reply from Laurence Rees on Stalin behind Closed Doors-BBC
Thanks very much for your note. I’m afraid I simply didn’t have space to include a discussion of these issues- fascinating as they are – in the Behind Closed Doors book. I made the decision to begin the story in 1939 and so felt it wouldn’t be helpful to refer back to this history. I’m sure others would have written the book differently, but for better or worse, that’s what I thought was the right way forward. Equally, I’m afraid I can’t go into my views on Trotsky here as I would need several thousand words to adequately represent my opinion on that interesting time. I believe my friend Professor Robert Service is writing a big biography of Trotsky at the minute, so it will be absorbing to see his thoughts. Thanks again for your note.
Best wishes, Laurence
Dear Laurence Rees,
Please forgive me for the delay in answering your reply. It is probably true that had you taken on a study of the inner-party struggle between Trotsky and Stalin your book and film would have taken a different tone. Before you mentioned the fact that you have left the matter of Trotsky to Robert Service, I had somewhat generously given you the right as a historian to choose your subject matter. But as your recent lecture at Coventry Cathedral outlined the deliberate airbrushing things out of history poisons the well that people have to drink out when they try to understand our future from the past.
Your choice of Robert Service as a friend tends to confirm Shakespeare’s adage by your friends you shall be known. Do you share the same view of Service on the Trotsky- Stalin struggle? I would be grateful to you if you would briefly outline your attitude to Trotsky. I am not asking you to agree with him on his struggle against Stalin, but unlike Mr Service who has a tendency to play down the need for historical truth, I think this crucial for future generations to understand what happened in the former USSR. I am inclined to believe there was a left alternative to Stalin and that an honest understanding of Trotsky’s role in that struggle is crucial. I have added for your information a two-part review by Fred Williams of Robert Service biography of Stalin.
Letter from Laurence Rees
Thanks very much for your note.
I’m afraid I simply didn’t have space to include a discussion of these issues- fascinating as they are – in the Behind Closed Doors book.
I made a decision to begin the story in 1939 and so felt it wouldn’t be helpful to refer back to this history. I’m sure others would have written the book differently, but for better or worse, that’s what I thought was the right way forward.
Equally, I’m afraid I can’t go into my views on Trotsky here as I Would need several thousand words to properly represent my view on that intriguing time. I believe my friend Professor Robert Service is writing a big biography of Trotsky at the minute, so it will be really interesting to see his thoughts.
Thanks again for your note.
Letter to Laurence Rees
Dear Mr Rees,
While I tend to view you as one of the most severe historians covering this particular historical period I find your absence of any mention of Stalin’s’ wiping out a generation of Marxists inside the former USSR somewhat strange.
In your book  Behind Closed Doors on page 94, you say that Stalin had no opposition inside the party. I think it would have helped your latest book if you had, at least, a chapter on the inner party struggle between Trotsky and Stalin.
I would like to know your views on Leon Trotsky or the Left Opposition which was opposed to Stalinism from the left. After all the Purges were a response to the growing influence of Trotsky and his ability to the counter the anti-revolutionary views of Stalin.
It would seem that this period of Soviet history is being erased or distorted in many new books on the subject, for example, the new biographies of Trotsky by Geoffrey Swain and Ian Thatcher
 World War Two: Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis, and the West [Kindle Edition] Laurence Rees
Letter from David Renton
Thank you for your email. In my book, I make no positive statement about Hansen describing him merely as a “comrade and a subordinate” of Trotsky. Of course, however, if it was true that he was guilty of having worked for either the Americans or the Russians, then even this would be far too kind.
I have read the text from the book which you sent me, and I must say that in general, I found the writing style unconvincing. A whole number of different allegations are jumbled together, arising from different sources and from testimony made in different places and different times.
Reading it naturally, it appeared to me that the writer thought that by throwing accusation upon accusation, the general effect would be more condemnatory – but this is not how I see things. I prefer it where accusations are specifically made out, and (allegation by allegation) proved or disproved.
When I see accusations all jumbled up together, none was proven but all asserted, my own reaction is to become more sceptical of the author. Further, it appears that the central purpose of the document was to defend the integrity of Gerry Healy’s reputation to history – again, that may or may not be a legitimate aim, but it overshadows the text, causing the writer to join together events in a common comprehensive explanation of everything which I personally found deeply implausible.(Life is not united in that simple fashion, the entire world was not set in a common conspiracy either against the revolutionary left in general or against Healy in particular.
Our enemies have enemies themselves – the ruling class is a band of brothers that war amongst one another). The two central allegations against Hansen in the extract you showed me are (1) that he was personally lax in the arrangements of security for Trotsky’s protection, and (2) that he was in the pay of a state power – at different points, it is suggested either the Russians or the Americans. I think a third allegation is implied, that (3) Trotsky’s execution happened because of these state links. (1) I find unconvincing: the main supportive evidence in the text you showed me appears to be a quote from Cannon in which he says that security was in general lax. But in the quote given, Cannon nowhere says that Hansen was personally responsible for the breaches of security; and I can’t see any other evidence to back this charge up.2)
Hansen, it seems to be suggested had contacts or was an agent for both the Americans and the Russians.The evidence of the former is a letter from the American Consul in Mexico City to an official in the State Department, dated September 25, 1940. First, I will note that it is not a letter from Hansen himself. (This fact alone is likely to create “transmission errors”). Second, it is not clear from a single line taken out of correspondence, what the meaning was of the approach. It appears to have been spent roughly a month after Trotsky’s death. Was Hansen asking for a safe passage (fearing for his own life and knowing that the GPU had struck close to him in the past)? Was Hansen offering to give evidence to the American authorities? Was he trying to find someone – anyone – who would catch Trotsky’s killer? What the response of the State Department, did they bury the contact or did they follow it up? If they did agree to open contacts, then how then did Hansen respond? From what you’ve told me, I don’t know.
To the person who wrote the book, it seems self-evident that any connection, however fleeting, with a state authority, should put the person involved beyond the revolutionary pale.
But I’ve lived in parts of the world where insurrections are of recent memory or are real possibilities for the near future. It is by no means true that in these circumstances there is an iron-hard wall separating revolutionaries from the activities of meddling states. There is some excellent literature on how the Bolsheviks tried to deal with the problem of approaches of assistance made to them by covert agents of Germany towards the end of WWI; and although the common legend of German gold is I believe a complete fabrication, there were other incidents, and not even the Bolsheviks always got it right. I wouldn’t condemn Hansen as a spy or as a tool of spies without seeing much more. The same applies to the suggestion in the text that Hansen must have been a spy because – this time, not for the American but for the Russians – because Louis Budenz said that he was a spy.
Again, I would need to know more before being persuaded; when did Budenz say this? Did he have any animus against Hansen? Did he have any reason for knowing this – e.g. because he had been a spy himself? Why, in short, should we believe him? What makes the allegation particularly unlikely is the way the author joins it to the suggestion that Hansen was also in the pay of the Americans; just thinking about things naturally – it seems hard to believe that he was both.3) I also find unconvincing. Let’s rehearse the evidence again.
Because Hansen after Trotsky’s death had a contact with an American agent, and because Hansen years later was named as a Soviet agent, and because+ Security may have been lax at the time of Trotsky’s death (Cannon has said so) …Therefore, Hansen contributed maliciously to Trotsky’s killing. If the state put a person on trial as an accessory to murder and this was the sum total of the evidence, you and I would be protesting loudly about a miscarriage of justice.
But I am happy to continue this correspondence, for the time being, if there is something that proves the point you wish to make, then I will always think differently of Hansen in future.
With kind regards
Letter to David Renton
I have just finished your biography of Leon Trotsky. While I have some disagreements with some smaller points raised in the book my primary concern is your treatment of Joseph Hansen on page 138.
Your somewhat gushing praise of him concludes one to believe that you are in general sympathy with his politics and his role in the Trotskyist movement.
I am surprised to see that you fail to inform your readers who would be probably reading about Leon Trotsky for the first time that Hanson was, in fact, a United States government agent working inside the Trotskyist movement.
If you do not agree with this, then that is your right, but you should have least inform your audience of the massive evidence that has been produced that points to Hansen’s’ role in Trotsky’s’ murder.
In the document attached, I would like to draw your attention to the investigation into Security and the Fourth International.
World Socialist Web Site online interview commemorates 75 years since the assassination of Leon Trotsky 5 October 2015 http://www.wsws.org/trotsky/interview/part1.html
 Trotsky (Life & Times) Paperback – 31 Aug 2004 Dave Renton