Saturday, 8 August 2020

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.





[2] Under the Tudor Bed-Christopher Hill- www.nybooks.com/articles/1987/05/07/under-the-tudor-bed/
[3] Under the Tudor Bed-Christopher Hill- 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 Ng
Journal 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
Journal 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/

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Evan Smith and Matthew Worley (eds), Waiting for the Revolution: The British far left from 1956, Manchester University Press, 2017; 279 pp.; £75.00 hbk; ISBN 9781526113658


Evan Smith and Matthew Worley's Waiting for the Revolution is the second volume of collected essays that examine British left-wing politics from 1956 to the present day. The first volume was called Against the Grain[1]. As in the first volume, these two radicals express their hostility to any orthodox Marxist analysis or critique of the left groups. Trotskyism is not mentioned, and there is no chapter examining the Socialist Labour League the then section of the Fourth International. Their choice of political groups and movements is a reflection of their parochial and nationalistic outlook.

Smith and Worley's book is not intended to deliver a perspective for the coming struggles of the working class but seeks "to uncover and explore the traditions and issues that have preoccupied leftist groups, activists and struggles". The second volume explores anti-nuclear and anti-apartheid struggles, alongside introductions to Militant and the now-defunct and very right-wing Revolutionary Communist Party.

In the Introduction: The continuing importance of the history of the British far left Smith and Worley maintain that despite its numerous betrayals that the Labour Party is still a vehicle for change and that left groups should move away from entryism and pressure the party to the left. As Smith and Worley write "many on the far left had written off the Labour Party as unreformable in recent years, but Corbyn' s  entry into the leadership contest after the 2015 election made a number of the Party' s leftist critics reassess their analysis of Labour. Corbyn' s victory seemed to suggest that there was political life left in Labour, awoken from its slumber by the thousands of veteran activists from the social movements of the 2000s that Corbyn had been involved in, primarily Stop the War, the and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign".

Jeremy Corbyn was put forward by Britain's pseudo-left groups such as the Socialist Workers Party and sections of the Labour and trade union bureaucracy as proof that the rightward swing of the Labour Party, beginning in the 1970s, including Neil Kinnock's betrayal of the miners' strike of 1984-85 and culminating in the New Labour government of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown could be pegged back.

As the Socialist Equality Party(SEP) stated "No one can seriously propose that this party—which, in its politics and organisation and the social composition of its apparatus, is Tory in all but name—can be transformed into an instrument of working-class struggle. The British Labour Party did not begin with Blair. It is a bourgeois party of more than a century's standing, and a tried and tested instrument of British imperialism and its state machine. Whether led by Clement Attlee, James Callaghan or Jeremy Corbyn, its essence remains unaltered."[2]

Suffice to say Smith and Worley do not agree with this analysis saying only "an understanding of the history of how the far left has operated and functioned in Britain since the 1950s is therefore important to understand the limits of a radical agenda within a reformist framework. It is hoped that this book, as well as the previous volume, will help provide readers with this understanding". What they do not say is that this book offers no way out for the working class and contains rehashes of previously failed perspectives.

In Revolutionary vanguard or agent provocateur: students and the far left on English university campuses, c. 1970-90 Jodi Burkett examines the Pseudo Left groups attitude towards the student movement. There is nothing remotely progressive or left-wing or even Marxist about the attitude of the radical groups towards the student movement and its leadership. The pseudo-left group's promotion of identity and gender issues which are prevalent in student politics over class issues belong not to the Marxist tradition but the tradition of irrationalism and anti-Marxism.

The adoption by the pseudo-left groups of identity politics is one confirmation of their extreme subjectivist and postmodernist nostrums. The philosophical outlook of these groups has enabled them as one writer puts it "to furnish a plethora of alternative justifications for lending "critical" support to imperialism.

Burkett says nothing of the pseudo lefts groups uncritical attitude towards the student leadership the NUS.The NUS in the past regularly banned individuals and organisations from hosting meetings and delivering speeches on campuses across the UK, in line with the student union's long-standing policy of providing "no platform" for offensive speakers in the name of securing campuses as so-called safe spaces.

The British pseudo-left pioneered this policy in the early 1970s as a means of lobbying the institutions of the capitalist state to proscribe speakers from the far right. The chapter 'The Merits of Brother Worth': the International Socialists and life in a Coventry car factory, 1968-75 by Jack Saunders provides an academic cover for the IS's kowtowing to the labour and trade union bureaucracies.

Towards the end of 1968 the International Socialists (IS) decided to adopt what central committee member Alex Callinicos termed "a Leninist model of the organisation". It would not see the IS turn to the working class but would see it develop very cosy relations with the trade union bureaucracies across the United Kingdom and internationally.

The IS decided to adopt the term as Chris Marsden points out " in 1968  revolutionary movements it had spent almost two decades saying would never emerge erupted across Europe and internationally. This pose of orthodoxy was considered vital in combating the danger of workers gravitating to the genuine Trotskyists of the Socialist Labour League. But the essential line of the SWP, as the IS became known in 1977, remained its insistence that the reformist and Stalinist bureaucracies were the natural leaders of a reformist working class".[3]

Making miners militant? The Communist Party of Great Britain in the National Union of Mineworkers, 1956-85 - Sheryl Bernadette Buckley. Buckley's article is a very friendly piece of a whitewash of an organisation that has the blood of thousands of workers on its hands. The CPGB played a central role in the betrayal of the miner's strike of 84-85.

As Chris Marsden and Julie Hyland point outthe Stalinist leader of the NYUM was  "Far from being the revolutionary of popular right-wing mythology, Scargill is a life-long supporter of the Stalinist Communist Party and an advocate of its national reformist programme. To the extent that he spoke of socialism, it was as a perspective for the distant future. In the meantime, what was required was the creation of a nationally regulated economy based on a mix of import controls and subsidies that would provide the basis for protecting Britain's nationalised coal industry. This was the "Plan for Coal" that he sought to commit the Labour Party and the TUC to fight for in a struggle against the Conservatives. What was demonstrated in 1984, however, was not only that the ruling class was no longer prepared to tolerate such a policy, but that there was no longer any significant constituency for such a programme within the labour bureaucracy of which he was a part.[4]

While Buckley mentions the SWP's mild criticism of the CPGB she glosses over the fact that the SWP saw  the miners strike as a fight between two giant forces, the Thatcherite state apparatus and "Scargill's Army". This conception of the struggle conveniently lets the Trades Union Congress (TUC), its affiliated unions and the Labour Party entirely off the hook.

Origins of the present crisis? The emergence of 'left-wing' Scottish nationalism, 1956-79 - Rory Scothorne and Ewan Gibbs. This is quite a shocking and blatant attempt to whitewash the role Stalinism played in the rise of "Left-Wing" Scottish nationalism. Scottish nationalism is neither left-wing wing nor progressive in any way shape or form. It is a reactionary development and goes against Vladimir Lenin's advice "not to paint nationalism red".

Despite Scothorne and Gibbs attempt to gloss over the Scottish Nationalist Party's (SNP)right-wing origins the bourgeois nationalist parties such as the SNP have no tradition in the workers' movement. The SNP is now the ruling party in Scotland's devolved Holyrood parliament.  Scothorne and Gibbs also downplay the role the pseudo-lefts promotion of a Left Nationalism in both Scotland and Wales. These lefts do not constitute, in any sense an independent political force. They are propagandists for the Scottish bourgeoisie and its chosen party.

"The SWP has shifted from being opponents of Scottish separatism to its most ardent proponents. It is a change of course driven by a realisation by the privileged, middle-class layers for which it speaks that independence could offer an excellent opportunity to gain access to political influence and financial resources—drawn from the speculative capital swilling around Edinburgh and then channelled via the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood into innumerable academic and governmental sinecures".[5]

The British radical left and Northern Ireland during 'the Troubles' - Daniel Finn. Perhaps another title for this chapter should be the pseudo lefts in Ireland a disastrous and treacherous legacy. It was only the Socialist Labour League the then British Trotskyists who opposed the sending of troops to Northern Ireland. The work of the SLL was crucial in exposing the crimes carried out by the British bourgeoisie including Bloody Sunday. It outlined the only principled and revolutionary political tasks for the British and Irish working class.

For further articles that illustrate this principled record, in contrast to the rank political opportunism of the Stalinist and fake left groups such as International Socialism, the forerunner of the British Socialist Workers Party, and the International Marxist Group, affiliated to the Pabloite United Secretariat see footnote.[6]

The point is to change it: a short account of the Revolutionary Communist Party by Michael Fitzpatrick. The fact that that this tiny and insignificant organisation gets a full chapter is indicative of the attitude the editors of this collection have towards orthodox Marxism.

The RCP began life as the Revolutionary Communist Tendency in 1976. It changed its name in 1981 to the Revolutionary Communist Party. This party was vomited into existence through a series of unprincipled splits and expulsions from Tony Cliff's state-capitalist International Socialist group, now the Socialist Workers Party. The RCT had been a faction inside the IS called the Revolutionary Opposition whose leader was Roy Tearse. This organisation did not have any distinct programme or theory. When Cliff expelled it, the organisation exploded into many different parts each one as reactionary as the other.

Tearse formed a group called the Discussion Group which predictably ended up inside the Labour Party. Another splinter group under the leadership of David Yaffe, an academic at Sussex University was called the Revolutionary Communist Group (RCG), formed in 1974 it was made up of predominantly of students. Its programme was a mix of Stalinism and bourgeois nationalism. It would go to denounce the working class as the beneficiaries of imperialism.

Fitzpatrick is either incapable or does not wish to explain how an organisation that was purportedly Trotskyist was to become a vehicle for right-wing bordering on fascist nostrums. As Zach Reed points out "Through such self-serving and dishonest claims, Spiked provides both an apologia and a platform for corporations and right-wing individuals and groups. Indeed "free speech" for Spiked overwhelmingly centres on the democratic rights of such layers, often in alliance with Conservative Students societies. In the 1990s, in response to the dissolution of the Soviet Union by the Stalinist bureaucracy, the RCP developed many of the concepts that underwrite the politics of Spiked-Online.

In 1990, in its magazine Living Marxism, Furedi expounded the RCP's new political line in an article, "Midnight in the Century." The liquidation of the Soviet Union and the disavowal of national-reformist programmes by social democracy were cited as proof that socialism was dead. The article typified the pervasive atmosphere of renunciation among a layer of the middle-class worldwide that was lurching to the right, repudiating any past association with working-class and "left" politics as they sought to integrate themselves into the state apparatus, academia and the trade unions.[7]

The Militant Tendency and entrism in the Labour Party - Christopher Massey. With the number of whitewashes in this book, you could paint a whole house. Massey's article is no exception. The Militant Tendency must be the only organisation that began life as a tactical orientation to the Labour Party and turned it into a strategy. The origins of the party were in Britain and was called the Revolutionary Socialist League led by Ted Grant. Anyone joining the organisation was not trained as a Marxist but were trained in the reformist political outlook of the Labour Party.

Grants claim that the organisation adhered to revolutionary socialism was always reserved for speeches and historical articles. The party's outlook that socialism could come about by a Labour government passing an enabling act through Parliament to nationalise the top 200 or so monopolies. This perspective was very similar to the Stalinist Communist Party of Great Britain.

As Ann Talbot correctly points out "It must be said at the outset that Grant was not a Trotskyist when he died and had not been for a long time, if by the term Trotskyist we are to understand a revolutionary Marxist who defends the principles of socialist internationalism expressed in the Russian Revolution of October 1917. It might seem churlish to deny an old man in death the epithet he so much craved in life, but Grant's politics was not a personal matter. They were characteristic of an epoch in which bureaucratic apparatuses dominated the working class and in large part came to be identified as the legitimate leadership of the working class.[8]

It is quite apt that The last chapter Understanding the formation of the Communist Party of Britain  Lawrence Parker is on the CPGB. This organisation is steeped in betrayals of the working class too many to list here. There is an intimate connection between the pseudo-left groups and the Stalinist CPGB. The SWP printed its newspaper The Morning Star for God's sake. But you would not get this from Parker's article. In truth as Chris Marsden points out "the ability of these bureaucracies to dominate the political life of the working class in the twentieth century was rooted in the murderous suppression of the Marxist and revolutionary opposition to Stalinism in the Soviet Union, as represented by the followers of Leon Trotsky".

To conclude, it is hard to understand why Manchester University Press(MUP) gave these two radicals access to the significant resources of the university to produce another volume of what amounts to radical pulp fiction. The majority of the essays amount to a hostile attack on any conception of the working class building a revolutionary alternative to the capitalist. This is the reason that in two volumes next to no mention is made of any orthodox Trotskyist group inside or outside of Britain. As was said before the Fourth International is not mentioned in nearly six hundred pages of text tells the reader about the orientation of the two editors. The MUP should allow a rebuttal of these two volumes.






[1] See review -http://keith-perspective.blogspot.com/2019/02/against-grain-british-far-left-from.html
[2] UK general election result confirms protracted death of the Labour Party
[3] Britain’s Socialist Workers Party descends into factional warfare- https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2013/02/14/swps-f14.html
[4] Britain: 20 years since the year-long miners’ strike- https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2004/03/mine-m05.html
[5] Socialist Workers Party’s Alex Callinicos backs Scottish nationalism-https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/08/12/call-a12.html
[6] Trotskyism and the Bloody Sunday massacre: a record of principled opposition to British imperialism-https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2010/06/irel-j18.html
[7]https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/05/31/spik-m31.html
[8] Ted Grant: A political appraisal of the former leader of the British Militant Tendency-https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2006/09/gra1-s27.html


Tuesday, 4 August 2020

Valerie Pearl (1926-2016)

I first met Valerie Pearl in the summer of 1966 when she was a lecturer at Somerville College, Oxford. I had gone to see her at the suggestion of my supervisor, Christopher Hill, to ask her advice on the 2nd Earl of Warwick’s mercantile connections in London in the 1640s. She impressed me with her depth of knowledge and her scholarship as she did when I met her by accident the following autumn on a train from Oxford to Paddington.

I was not, I fear, a very good conversationalist and had to improve greatly in the following spring when Hugh Trevor-Roper asked me to assist her on a project then being funded by the University’s Faculty of Modern History. I got to know her in the Manuscript Room of the British Library where she was pursuing her research into the Parliamentary politics of the 1640s. After a while, I learnt how well-informed she was about academic politics and what a good sense of humour she had.

I was saddened to note how little attention her death in 2016 attracted at that time. She had been born in 1926, the daughter of a trades union official, Cyril Bence, who was later Labour M.P. for East Dunbartonshire from 1959 to 1970. Valerie Bence was educated in Birmingham before entering St Anne’s College, Oxford. Hugh Trevor-Roper’s letters suggest that she was at that stage of her life attracted to Marxism: her doctoral research on the city of London in the early stages of the English Civil War was certainly supervised by Christopher Hill of Balliol College, the leading Marxist historian of the period then in Oxford even though she was later more drawn to Trevor-Roper’s views.

Her thesis was, so I understand, lent by Hill to Perez Zagorin, then on the far left himself, and had to be published rather hurriedly by the Oxford University Press in 1961 under the title London and the Outbreak of the Puritan Revolution: City Government and National Politics. It was to be her only book but was seminal in inspiring later work on the city of London in the latter part of the twentieth century.

The 1960s were undoubtedly her best period as an historian. Tall, blond-haired with dark spectacles and very elegantly dressed, she wrote and published important articles on the middle group in the House of Commons after John Pym’s death and on the Royal Independents whilst a lecturer at Somerville College, Oxford. Unfortunately, her husband became ill and she was unable to take up a Fellowship at Somerville College because she could not move full-time to Oxford. Instead, she accepted a Readership in London History at University College, London at the invitation of Joel Hurstfield and Robin Humphreys.

The History Department there lacked the stellar figures to be found in Oxford (with the exception of the young Nicholas Tyacke) and, after producing articles on Puritans and Fifth Columnists in the capital and on London’s Counter-Revolution, her output came effectively to a halt. In 1981, she accepted an invitation to become President of New Hall, Cambridge in succession to Rosemary Murray and found herself submerged not just in the administrative duties of that post but also in the difficult politics of that college. When she retired in the mid-1990s, she had transformed that college’s fortunes but had not fulfilled her potential as an historian. Sadly, she was never to do so.

The obituaries published after her death were brief and not very informative. In her prime, she was a formidable scholar with extensive knowledge of the politics of the 1640s, far better informed than most contemporaries of hers. Valerie Pearl was a woman of charm and high intelligence as well as someone with a firm conviction in doing what was right for her family, friends and institutions. Her passing needs greater acknowledgement and her historiographical legacy more praise.

Chris Thompson


Friday, 31 July 2020

1937-Stalin's Year of Terror-By Vadim Z Rogovin-Mehring Books, 1998- £25

"Material from the Soviet archives which has become available in recent years, as well as the publication of many new memoirs, has helped the author accomplish the tasks set by this book: to investigate the mechanism of the origin and the relentless spread of the Great Terror, and to discover the reasons why this mass terrorist action became not only possible but also so successful".

Vadim Rogovin

"The director is not appealing to reason or criticism. He wants to crush the rights of reason with the massive scale of the frame-up, reinforced with executions."
Leon Trotsky

"Trotsky was a hero of the revolution. He fell when the heroic age was over."

E. H Carr

Vadim Zakharovich Rogovin's 1937: Stalin's Year of Terror was one of a seven-volume study that set out to prove that there "Was An Alternative to Stalinism and that alternative came from Leon Trotsky's Left Opposition.

If there was one figure, Stalin feared the most it was Leon Trotsky and the International Left Opposition. Trotsky without the resources of state power exposed the treachery of the Stalinist bureaucracy and advocated a political revolution to overthrow Stalinism.

Stalin could not defeat Trotsky politically hence the need for the Moscow Trials which according to Rogovin the main goal "was to create the conditions for politically discrediting and physically exterminating the entire communist opposition in order to behead the population, to deprive it for many years of a political avant-garde and therefore of the ability to resist the totalitarian regime. The class struggle in the USSR assumed, essentially, its sharpest form - civil war. This civil war, unlike the civil war of 1918-20, took the specific form of state terror directed at precluding any political activity by the masses".[1] 

In this book, Rogovin cites numerous myths that surround the events of 1937 that were regurgitated over the following decades. In a lecture given in the United States, he says "there were two basic forms. The first could be called the Stalinist school of falsification.

A second school we could call the anti-communist school of falsification. It is quite curious that in many places the explanation of our history coincides when presented both by the Stalinists and by the anti-communists. For instance, one central thesis they agree upon is that Stalin was the natural continuation of Lenin's cause. Earlier there was one slight difference when they said that Stalin was the good continuation of a good cause, the cause of Lenin. Now they say, on the contrary, that Stalin was the wretched continuation of an evil policy by the evil Lenin".[2]

With the development of "glasnost" [openness], Rogovin hoped that these myths would be vanquished. During Glasnost and Perestroika, millions of people in the USSR sought answers to complex historical questions. This led to a sharp increase in sales of mass-circulation newspapers, as well as literary and political journals. It soon became very clear to Rogovin that issues of the Great Terror and Stalinism were far from being clarified but were instead being used by many anti-communists to sully the name of socialism.

As Rogovin points out the origins of many of the so-called new myths were peddled at the time of Khrushchev's 1956 report at the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU. While many communists and socialists thought this action by Khruschev would open up the possibilities of a struggle against the bureaucracy prompting the poet and writer Bertolt Brecht to write  "The liquidation of Stalinism can take place only if the party mobilises the wisdom of the masses on a gigantic scale. Such a mobilisation lies along the road to communism".[3]

Brecht would be disappointed as any figure that was capable of opposing Stalinism had all but been wiped out in the purges. The 1956 speech was not a political break with Stalinism but a mechanism in which to deal with the raging political and economic crisis that washed world Stalinism.

Khrushchev delivered his speech with blood dripping from his hands. He was as Rogovin points out implicated in all the major crimes committed by the Stalinist bureaucracy. 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."[4]

Rogovin's book, while examining the political implications of the Great Terror also expands on the significant interest shown by many figures who stood aloof from socialist politics. In the novel Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak used his hero to express the following thoughts: "I think that collectivisation was a mistaken and unsuccessful measure, but it was impossible to admit the mistake. In order to hide the failure, it was necessary to use all means of terror to make people forget how to think and to force them to see what did not exist or to prove the opposite of what was obvious. Hence the unbridled cruelty of the Yezhov period, the declaration of a constitution never intended to be applied, and the introduction of elections not based on elective principles." [5]

Rogovin points out that Pasternak's statements bear a significant resemblance to the ideas of Trotsky. Rogovin also points out that" Pasternak's explanation of the tragedy during the "Yezhov period" also displays unmistakable proximity to Lenin's prognoses made in 1921. In referring to the alternatives Soviet Russia faced at that time, Lenin saw two outcomes from the contradictions which had accumulated by then: "ten to twenty years of correct relations with the peasantry and victory is guaranteed on a world scale (even given delays in the proletarian revolutions which are growing).[6]

Rogovin's mention of writers like Pasternak is interesting in that it highlights the gap between people like Pasternak who were non-political but would stand up for a principle against a coterie of Soviet writers led by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who would not[7]. Solzhenitsyn's work was hardly a bastion of objectivity on the matter of the Great Terror.

His book 'Gulag Archipelago' fails even to mention the main defendants in the Moscow Trials  Leon Trotsky and his son Leon Sedov. He writes next to nothing of the heroic struggle of the Left Opposition against Stalinism. Solzhenitsyn started as a radical critic of Stalinism but ended up being a virulent anti-communist and a Great Russian chauvinist.

He vomited up all the old Stalinist lies that Stalinism was an 'outgrowth' of Bolshevism and was the true face of the Russian revolution. Rogovin's book thoroughly shatters these lies and with it Solzhenitsyn's thesis and reputation.

Rogovin's thoroughness stretches throughout the book. For the general reader, this might make reading a little daunting. The perseverance of the reader is rewarded with a detailed study of what happened after the Russian revolution. The book is hard sometimes going not because of Rogovin's writing which is stunning and lucid but because he does not spare the reader any detail as to what happened to not only the old Bolsheviks but anyone who came into contact with them.

Group shootings with almost daily tens of prisoners sent into the wilderness. According to Rogovin, "they shot not only the Trotskyists themselves, but any members of their families who were with them". He goes on: "When a husband was shot, his imprisoned wife was automatically sent to be shot; with the most significant oppositionists, their children who had reached the age of 12 were also subject to shooting."

The New Stalin School of Falsification.

At the same, this book was translated by Fred Choate on behalf of Mehring books there appeared a new Stalin school of falsification. As Rogovin correctly states: "These ideological operations served the same purpose as the historical falsifications produced by the Stalinist school: to cauterise, deceive, distort and poison the historical memory and social consciousness of the Soviet people."[8]

The release of the book happened to coincide with as one writer puts it with an   "orgy of capitalist propaganda which flooded the post-1989 Russia has for the time being crowded out those voices like Rogovin, demanding a real examination of the Moscow Trials. The bourgeois heirs of the Stalinist bureaucracy that led society to the impasse of the late 1980s cannot carry through this examination. Therefore, in the land of the October revolution and the giants which are produced, the real lessons of these events and its subsequent degeneration along the lines of Stalinism remain unknown by the majority. Trotsky is a slandered figure in modern-day Russia, particularly by the pro-capitalist parvenus who have arisen from the bureaucracy. In their enthusiastic embrace of capitalism, they wish to obliterate all of the real lessons of Stalinism and the heinous purge trials. Rogovin's book provides us with the political ammunition to counter this".

Much of this orgy of Stalinist falsification came from academia and in particular from the pen of Ian Thatcher and Geoffrey Swain. The Marxist writer David North points out "The years since the fall of the USSR have seen the emergence of what can best be described as The Post-Soviet School of Historical Falsification. The principal objective of this school is to discredit Leon Trotsky as a significant historical figure, to deny that he represented an alternative to Stalinism, or that his political legacy contains anything relevant in the present and valuable for the future. Every historian is entitled to his or her viewpoint. But these viewpoints must be grounded in a serious, honest and principled attitude toward the assembling of facts and the presentation of historical evidence. It is this essential quality; however, that is deplorably absent in two new biographies of Leon Trotsky, one by Professor Geoffrey Swain of the University of Glasgow and the other by Professor Ian D. Thatcher of Brunel University in West London. These works have been brought out by large and influential publishing houses. Swain's biography has been published by Longman; Thatcher's by Routledge. Their treatment of the life of Leon Trotsky is without the slightest scholarly merit. Both works make limited use of Trotsky's writings, offering few substantial citations and even ignoring major books, essays and political statements.[9]

After Swain and Thatcher, there came a veritable flood of books that sought to further The Post-Soviet School of Historical Falsification. One particular is worth mentioning is Grover Furr's Stalin Waiting For The Truth!. Furr believes that Stalin committed no crimes; the charges against him are a fabrication. Not a single accusation holds up. On the evidence, according to Furr, Stalin committed no- atrocities. One of Furr's books if you could call them that was entitled "Khrushchev Lied". 

It is hard to know where to start with Furr's unhinged writings. The American professor of Medieval English literature at Montclair State University is an unrepentant Stalinist but the fact that Furr can even get a hearing is down to gentlemen like Swain, Thatcher and Robert Service. Furr is "only a pawn in their game". A terrible price continues to be paid for the falsification of history and the denial of objective truth.

To conclude, it is hoped that people will read Rogovin's work in Russia and throughout the world, not just to honour but to fight for what he believed in. 



[1] 1937-Stalin's Year of Terror-By Vadim Z Rogovin-Mehring Books, 1998(page 145)
[2] lecture given by Professor Vadim Rogovin on February 27 at Michigan State University in East Lansing- http://www.barnsdle.demon.co.uk/russ/rogov1.html
[3]  Inostrannaia literatura [Foreign Literature], no. 4 (1988), p. 170
[4] Murry Weiss-The Vindication Of Trotskyism
[5] 1937: Stalin’s Year of Terror By Vadim Z. Rogovin-Mehring Books-1998
[6] 1937: Stalin’s Year of Terror By Vadim Z. Rogovin-Mehring Books-1998 
[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aleksandr_Solzhenitsyn
[8] http://www.capitalh.org.uk/134/rogovin.html
[9] A review of two Trotsky biographies, by Geoffrey Swain and Ian Thatcher-https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2007/05/lec1-m09.html