Friday, 3 August 2018
Contemporary Trotskyism: Parties, Sects and Social Movements in Britain by John Kelly, Routledge, 295pp,
This new book on the history of contemporary Trotskyism is the first of its kind. It is commendable for a major publisher like Routledge to produce such a book. It is a well researched to a point and a scholarly work.
Having said this other reviews of this book have pointed out that it is a bit rich for an avowed Stalinist to write a book on the history of contemporary Trotskyism. A member of the British Communist Party during the 1980s Kelly still seems to have kept all the ideological baggage of his membership.
His political friends in the Stalinist Morning Star agree with his task stating, “It is an almost impenetrably confusing picture, which the author does his best to unravel. It's a laborious task given the characteristic sectarian feature of Trotskyite organisations, resulting in frequent splits and divisions at both a national and international level.
One striking aspect of the few reviews that have appeared so far in the Pseudo Left press is their mild criticism of an author who is ideologically hostile to Trotskyism. Any serious Trotskyist organisation would have to defend its ideas from this type of hostile source.
Ian Birchall, a member of the SWP, perhaps sums up the complacent and defensive attitude towards Kelly and his downplaying of the possibilities of any Trotskyist group leading a revolutionary struggle “Now it looks very unlikely that any of the small groups (what the French used to call groupuscules) described here will lead a revolution. But for all that, I don't think it was just a waste of breath. For our generations Trotskyism, at its best, was the form taken by what the American Marxist Hal Draper, in his magnificent pamphlet The Two Souls of Socialism, called ‘socialism from below’ – the belief that socialism, if it comes, will be the product of the self-emancipation of ordinary working people through mass action; it will not be the result of relying on elected representatives or liberation by ‘progressive’ armies. What form it will take in the future cannot be predicted, but history always works by continuities as well as ruptures, and somewhere amid the acres of print that Kelly has scrutinized, the spark of human liberation still lives”.
Birchall is supported by another SWP member Joseph Choonara who writes “It should also be said, it is hard for me to hate a book that portrays me as an instance of “younger members” reaching “leading positions” in the Trotskyist movement (even if I have “done little to disturb oligarchic rule”).
Kelly’s Main Problem
Kelly’s main problem is that his conception of Trotskyism is heavily influenced by his Stalinism. His understanding of its history is limited and as we shall see later in this review colored by his politics. According to Kelly, it is only when Trotskyist organisations ditch their program and history do they achieved some limited success.
He writes: “The paradox of those success stories is that they were achieved precisely because Trotskyist groups set aside core elements of Trotskyist doctrine and focused on building broad-based, single-issue campaigns around non-revolutionary goals.” The whole focus of the book is given over to try and persuade the Trotskyists not to be Trotskyists.
Kelly damns Trotskyism for not building “a mass Trotskyist party anywhere on the planet or led a socialist revolution, successful or otherwise”. It is according to Kelly a “rigid and unhelpful doctrine” and has a “millenarian, revolutionary vision”.
This theme of not leading a socialist revolution runs through the entire book. Two things strike one when reading the above comments. Firstly as Kelly conveniently leaves out is that capitalism has survived in no small way thanks the to the betrayals and treachery of the party that he belonged to. Secondly it is just not true that Trotskyists have not led significant struggles throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. If Kelly had bothered to interview some orthodox Trotskyists of the SEP, he would have found this out.
His ideologically driven flippancy also leads him to underplay the enormous internal struggles the Trotskyist movement has gone through which in many respects were, in fact, life and death conflicts which impacted on the lives of millions of workers around the globe.
Three significant struggles come directly to mind. The first being James P Cannon and Gerry Healy’s opposition to Pabloite revisionism leading to issuing of the Open Letter and the founding of the ICFI(International Committee of the Fourth International in 1953. Secondly Healy’s defense of Trotskyism against Cannon’s reunification with the Pabloites in 1963. Thirdly David North’s struggle against the Betrayal of Trotskyism by the WRP(Workers Revolutionary Party) 1984-85. These tremendous political conflicts have little interest for Kelly. A fact represented in the low coverage they received in this book.
Another theme running through Kelly’s book is his obsession with the size of the Trotskyists parties and the fact that there are so many. If Kelly had bothered to do a little more research and drawn from history namely the Russian revolution he would have found out that the Bolsheviks were small, tiny in fact at the beginning and they led a successful revolution.
While it could be said that Kelly is hostile to all Trotskyist parties he has a particular distaste for the parties that make up the ICFI (International Committee of the Fourth International). In perhaps the most accurate statement of the whole book, he identifies the SEP (Socialist Equality Party) as orthodox Trotskyists. He sarcastically writes in a true Stalinist style that despite having only 50 members it is “the sole political tendency on the face of the planet that sets as its aim the revolutionary mobilisation of the working class against imperialism”.
Kelly as already has been mentioned is incapable of understanding the history of the different tendencies. Either Kelly has not done enough research or most probably due to his Stalinist politics he does not care. This forces him to come up with ridiculous names for the different parties, like “institutional Trotskyism”, “Third Camp Trotskyism”.
Kelly’s idea behind these strange names which have no history in the Trotskyist movement is to belittle these groups to be shunned like religious sects.
Kelly is backed up by the Alex Callinicos of the SWP who instead of challenging this slander writes “It is perhaps appropriate here to consider why it was that the Trotskyist movement should so often have displayed the characteristics of religious sectaries.”
Kelly believes that Trotskyism has been isolated from the mass workers movement because of its almost religious-like adherence to principles and perspective. However, this so-called isolation is coming to an end. With the collapse of the old organisations including his own there has developed a changed relationship between Trotskyism and the working class. A point made by the ICFI when it correctly predicted “the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the irrevocable discrediting of Stalinism, together with the political bankruptcy of the social-democratic and reformist parties and trade union organizations, would lead to a fundamental change in the relationship between the Trotskyist movement and militant sections of the working class and youth, radicalized by the deepening crisis of American and world capitalism”.
It is quite striking that all Kelly draws from the centenary year of the Russian Revolution, in his introduction is that the Trotskyist movement has not led a revolutionary struggle anywhere in the world so why would they celebrate this revolution.If Kelly had bothered to leave his cloistered university in London, he would have found some struggles that involved the Trotskyists in a significant way. Another thing that needs to be challenged by Kelly’s introduction is that the “Stalinist terror” was a product of the October Revolution. This lie has been peddled by academics sympathetic to Stalinism for decades.
It must be said that Kelly has approached the subject of contemporary Trotskyist from an entirely nationalist viewpoint. Perhaps one of the most critical discussions to take place inside the worker's movement was the struggle found a section of the Fourth International in Britain on an international basis.
The most critical disagreement during the early years of British Trotskyism was the struggle over the acceptance of the international perspective from a national perspective. As Trotsky wrote in 1938, “The present conference signifies a conclusive delimitation between those who are really IN the Fourth International and fighting every day under its revolutionary banner, and those who are merely ‘FOR’ the Fourth International, i.e. the dubious elements who have sought to keep one foot in our camp and one foot in the camp of our enemies... Under the circumstances, it is necessary to warn the comrades associated with the Lee group [the WIL] that they are being led on a path of unprincipled clique politics which can only land them in the mire. It is possible to maintain and develop a revolutionary political grouping of serious importance only on the basis of great principles. The Fourth International alone embodies and represents these principles. It is possible for a national group to maintain a consistently revolutionary course only if it is firmly connected in one organisation with co-thinkers throughout the world and maintains a constant political and theoretical collaboration with them. The Fourth International alone is such an organisation. All purely national groupings, all those who reject international organisation, control and discipline, are in their essence reactionary.”This struggle receives scant attention in Kelly’s book.
Chapter 1 -Theoretical perspectives
Kelly asks this question can “Trotskyists often describe their organisations as revolutionary vanguard parties built on the principles of ‘democratic centralism’ whose political aim is the destruction of the capitalist state and the capitalist mode of production “.
Having not been in a revolutionary party it is beyond Kelly’s comprehension to understand that these parties are unlike any other party on the planet. Not only from an organisational point of view but more importantly from a perspective standpoint.
While accepting to a certain extent that Trotskyist parties are different from mainstream bourgois parties he goes on to slander these organisations believing they are akin to religious sects who insist in upholding a doctrinal purity. Given that Kelly belonged to a party that in the past took its daily perspective from Stalin who murdered more Bolsheviks than the Nazis and betrayed more workers struggle than any other organisation it is a little rich for Kelly to try to take the political high ground.
It is also extraordinary that in this chapter Kelly has little to say on the history of his own Communist Party. He might want to note that the betrayals carried out by his organisation would have something to do with the isolation of the Trotskyists from the mass workers movements. These betrayals were done in the name of the October revolution and discredited 1917 in the eyes of many workers.
Chapter 2 Trotsky and the origins of Trotskyism
In this chapter Kelly questions whether the contemporary Trotskyists group can describe themselves as the continuation of Leninism or Bolshevism, primarily because Trotsky changed his position on many issues.
In academia when someone makes such a statement like that it is standard practice to back up such a statement with proof. Kelly does not do this, Why, because to do this he would have to explain his hostility to Trotsky and his politics.
Kelly repeats some slanders of Trotsky’s position that have been the stock and trade of academics who have perpetrated a “Post-Soviet School of Historical Falsification. As Wolfgang Weber explains “after the collapse of the Soviet Union, historians of this school—including Dmitri Volkogonov (Russia), Richard Pipes (US), Geoffrey Swain and Ian Thatcher (both UK)—rehashed the old Stalinist lies and falsifications about Trotsky to cut off the younger generation from the ideas of the most consistent Marxist opponents of Stalinism”.
Chapter 3 Development of the Trotskyist movement in Britain, part 1: 1950–1985 and Chapter 4 Development of the Trotskyist movement in Britain, part 2: 1985–2017
While these two chapters cover a significant amount of history, it is nonetheless surprising that Kelly says next to nothing about the 1940s. The 1940’s are instrumental in understanding the subsequent trajectory of all the groups in Britain and internationally.
To discuss the years 1950-1985 in chapter three and then in chapter four 1985-2017 would be a big ask for anyone. To say that Kelly’s analysis is simplistic would be an understatement. Kelly does not devote enough care and attention to the complex issues that confronted the Trotskyist movement during this time.
The treatment of the SLL/WRP again reveals his political bias and does not contain a shred of objectivity. His treatment of the complex expulsion from the WRP of Alan Thornett is a case in point. To Kelly, this was just a power struggle between Healy and Thornett.
If Kelly had bothered to consult the documents of the Split in the WRP 1985 produced by the ICFI especially How the WRP Betrayed Trotskyism he would have given his readers a far more balanced understanding.
As the above documents state “It was the height of political duplicity for Thornett to conspire against his own Party and then denounce the leadership for violating the constitution. Healy, who then had accumulated 45 years of experience within the communist movement, could recognise an anti-party clique when he saw one. However, it is another matter entirely whether the leadership was politically wise in acting to expel Thornett on organisational grounds before an exhaustive discussion of the political differences, regardless of their origins. This is not a question of being wise after the event. The Trotskyist movement had, before Thornett emerged on the scene, acquired a great deal of experience in dealing with unprincipled minorities — of which the most famous was the Shachtman-Burnham-Abern tendency. Experience has taught the Trotskyist movement that the political clarification of cadre must be the overriding priority in any factional struggle — even one involving a disloyal clique”.
Also in these chapters, Kelly wastes an inordinate amount of space on what it means to “assess trends in the membership of the Trotskyist movement over time”. The purpose of the constant fixation with size is to belittle the importance of the Trotskyist movement and to discourage a severe examination of program and history.
Chapter 5 Doctrine, orthodoxy and sectarianism
It is debatable how much Marx, Engels, Trotsky, Lenin Kelly has read. Clearly, from this chapter, it is not enough. The early Marxists understood very early that program builds the Party. From Marx’s time, orthodox Marxists have attached the highest importance in defending the Marxist method and program from attack by revisionists of all sorts.
Kelly calls this defense doctrinaire and sectarian. It must be said that the Trotskyist movement has survived greater insults than Kelly can produce. There is nothing new in Kelly’s stance. The Stalinists have been attacking Trotskyist conceptions since the late 1920s. Kelly is just rehashing their political positions and slanders.
Chapter 6 Party recruitment
In this chapter Kelly’s again berates the Trotskyist movement for its low membership. At no point does Kelly offer his understanding of what happened to the Labour Party and Communist Party politically regardless of whether they have grown or declined. Both of these organisation are organically hostile to the building of a revolutionary party and have spent their entire existence trying to prevent the growth of such an organisation.
Chapter 7 Party electoral performance
Throughout his career it would seem Kelly has been heavily critical of Trotskyist parties such as the SEP for not ditching their “ doctrinal” attitude towards elections. In his article Upbeat and the margins: the British Trotskyist Left and their exceptionally poor election results he states “The extremely poor electoral performance therefore created a significant dilemma for these party leaders. On the one hand, an open acknowledgment of an extremely poor vote implies there is very little support for their programmes and potentially calls into question their main policies, and possibly their core ideology. Moreover, an open admission of unpopularity could threaten the positive attachment of activists to their respective parties. On the other hand, the denial of poor electoral performance or indeed claims that it constitutes some form of success, 1/3 potentially threaten the credibility and authority of the party leaders. The research was therefore undertaken to understand how Trotskyist party leaders constructed accounts of their electoral performance which identified positive achievements in the face of meagre vote shares”.
Kelly’s article shows some things. Firstly Kelly has no faith that Trotskyism can win the working class to its banner with a revolutionary program. They should as Stalinists down the years have been advocating ditch building a revolutionary party and concentrate on electoral politics. Failing that Kelly encourages groups to liquidate their parties and work within front organisations which many Pseudo Lefts groups have all in but name done.
Chapter 9 Working in the trade unions
Kelly correctly states that “Trotskyists have always attached enormous importance to working inside the trade union movement because of the belief that it represents the most organised and class-conscious section of the working class “. As Kelly intimates, the trade union questioned has been a vexing issue for the Marxist movement.
For Kelly, the issue is straightforward; he is uncritical of the trade union leadership. He cannot understand why orthodox Marxists are profoundly critical of the trade leaderships betrayal but have reservations about the very organisations themselves.
As David North from the SEP states “In the history of the Marxist movement, there are two political issues, or “questions,” that have been the source of exceptionally persistent controversy, spanning more than a century. One is the “national question”, and the other is the “trade union” question”. One would think that there is something to be learned from so many unfortunate experiences. But like the old fools found in the tales of Boccaccio, the ageing and toothless radicals today are only too eager to play the cuckold again and again. Thus, the present-day “left” organisations still insist that the socialist movement is duty-bound to minister loyally to the needs and whims of the trade unions. Socialists, they insist, must acknowledge the trade unions as the worker's organisation par excellence, the form most representative of the social interests of the working class. The trade unions, they argue, constitute the authentic and unchallengeable leadership of the working class — the principal and ultimate arbiters of its historical destiny. To challenge the authority of the trade unions over the working class, to question in any way the supposedly “natural” right of the trade unions to speak in the name of the working class is tantamount to political sacrilege. It is impossible, the radicals claim, to conceive of any genuine workers movement which is not dominated, if not formally led, by the trade unions. Only on the basis of the trade unions can the class struggle be effectively waged. And, finally, whatever hope there exists for the development of a mass socialist movement depends upon “winning” the trade unions, or at least a significant section of them, to a socialist perspective.
To put the matter bluntly, the International Committee rejects every one of these assertions, which are refuted both by theoretical analysis and historical experience. In the eyes of our political opponents, our refusal to bow before the authority of the trade unions is the equivalent of lèse-majesté. This does not trouble us greatly, for not only have we become accustomed, over the decades, to being in opposition to “left-wing” — or to be more accurate — petty-bourgeois public opinion; we consider its embittered antipathy the surest sign that the International Committee is, politically speaking, on the correct path”.
Chapter 11 The proliferation of Trotskyist Internationals.
The problem with this chapter like all the rest of the book Kelly presents large numbers of statistics but very little analysis of how the different Trotskyist groups started out and where they have finished. Like I said earlier there is a reason why Kelly does not in any detail discuss not only the international origins of the Fourth international but its origins in Britain.
Everything Kelly examines he does so from a nationalist standpoint point. How could it be any different? He is, after all, a Stalinist. Anyone reading this chapter would be better off closing the book and purchase a copy of the newly updated history of the Fourth international called The Heritage We Defend by David North.
It is a positive thing that a major publishing house publishes a book of this type. While recommending this book, I would draw readers attention to the above book by North which should read first or at least side by side with this book. Despite its significance, in the end, it is sad, but Kelly’s book is but another from the Post Soviet School of Falsification.
 Trotskyism under the Spotlight- June 2018-By Joseph Choonara- http://socialistreview.org.uk/436/trotskyism-under-spotlight
 Report to the Third National Congress of the Socialist Equality Party (UK)-By Chris Marsden
18 November 2016
 Alex Callinicos-Trotskyism- http://www.marxists.de/trotism/callinicos/3-1_orthodox.htm
 Socialist Equality Party holds founding Congress-19 September 2008-https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2008/09/cong-s19.html
 Founding Conference of the Fourth International 1938
On Unification of The British Section-https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/fi/1938-1949/fi-1stcongress/ch13.htm
 A blow against the Post-Soviet School of Historical Falsification-https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2011/12/lett-d31.html
 How the Workers Revolutionary Party Betrayed Trotskyism
1973 – 1985-Statement of the International Committee of the Fourth International-
Why are Trade Unions Hostile to Socialism? -Two vexed questions
By David North -10 January 1998 -https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/1998/01/unio-j10.html
Tuesday, 5 June 2018
The fact that the right-wing Professor Niall Ferguson has been caught leading a campaign to attack a left-wing student he disagreed with should come as no surprise.
Ferguson has a record of pursuing a right-wing agenda both inside and outside academia. He is well known for his defence of British Colonialism or colonialism anywhere for that matter
While a lot has been made over the scandal what is being missed is the extent that Ferguson’s political activities are a defence of the process of commercialisation of universities and that anyone who comes into conflict with this state of affairs becomes the target of a witchhunt.
The Standford based historian was joined in his witchhunt by other members of the Cardinal Conversations, which is a Stanford program run by the conservative Hoover Institution. This group aims to collect the most right-wing people possible and give them a legitimate hearing inside the university.
Standford’s link to the right-wing think tank Hoover Foundation is well known. It has a budget of $50 million and an endowment of more than $450 million.
As one writer put it “There is no left-wing equivalent — a sizeable ideological think tank that intimately connected to a university — at any school in the United States.
Standford regularly invites, a veritable who’s who of right-wing writers and theorists, including race-and-IQ theorist Charles Murray, tech mogul Peter Thiel, and Christina Hoff Sommers, a prominent critic of modern feminism”.
Ferguson who appeared to be the leader of the group that believed the left wing student Michael Ocon was a danger to the group.
In an email to two other members of the Stanford Republicans, John Rice-Cameron and Max Minshull, he wrote that “some opposition research on Mr O worthwhile.” Minshull stated he would “get on” the dirt-digging.
More comments from this group are of a sinister and provocative nature. They would not look out of place in a Donald Trump Tweet.
Rice-Cameron wrote in one email that “slowly, we will continue to crush the Left’s will to resist, as they will crack under pressure.”
Ferguson wrote in another note, “now we turn to the more subtle game of grinding them down on the committee,” adding that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”
While not on the same scale there are striking similarities to the Watergate Scandal in particular how Nixon mobilised the full apparatus of the state against the Democrats.
As one writer correctly stated “The whole saga is bizarre — and revealing. It illustrates a profound double game underpinning much of the so-called “free speech” controversy: a controversy that often isn’t really about freedom and is more concerned with power than with speech”.
While many commentators have concentrated on the danger to free speech within the universities, there has been no attempt to link the right-wing group of academics with the growing commercialisation of universities.
It is becoming clear that far from universities being places of study and research for the common good many are becoming nothing more than appendages to transnational corporations. The fact that universities such as Oxford or Cambridge have vast cash reserves bear witness to this. According to the Guardian newspaper, 36 Oxford colleges have 'consolidated net assets' of £5.9 billion, while the University holds a further £3.2 billion.
This process of Privatisation of education has been followed by writer and historian Stefan Collini writing in 20011 Collini criticised both Labour and Conservatives for being complicit in this process.
“Much of our contemporary discourse about universities still draws on, or unwittingly presumes, that pattern of assumptions: the idea that the university is a partly protected space in which the search for deeper and wider understanding takes precedence over all more immediate goals; the belief that, in addition to preparing the young for future employment, the aim of developing analytical and creative human capacities is a worthwhile social purpose; the conviction that the existence of centres of disinterested inquiry and the transmission of a cultural and intellectual inheritance are self-evident public goods; and so on.
While that conception of a university and its purposes is still very much alive and may, I suspect, still be the one held by a great many ‘ordinary’ citizens, we may be nearing the point, at least in Britain, where it is starting to give way to the equivalent of MacIntyre’s barren utilitarianism. If ‘prosperity’ is the overriding value in market democracies, then universities must be repurposed as ‘engines of growth’. The value of research has then to be understood in terms of its contribution to economic innovation, and the value of teaching in terms of preparing people for particular forms of employment. There are tensions and inconsistencies within this newer conception, just as there are in the larger framework of neoliberalism: neoliberal thinking promotes ‘free competition’ in international markets, while the rhetoric of national advantage in the ‘global struggle’ often echoes mercantilist assumptions. But, gradually, what we still call universities are coming to be reshaped as centres of applied expertise and vocational training that are subordinate to a society’s ‘economic strategy”.
This is not the first or the last time Ferguson has mounted what appears to be a considerable provocation aimed at inciting a response from the left to launch a witchhunt against anybody who challenges his right-wing agenda.
In her three-part series called What price an American empire? Reviewing Ferguson’s book Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, Marxist writer Ann Talbot exposes Ferguson’s political and historical agenda.
“All British historians, E.H. Carr once said, are Whigs, even the Tories—but not in Niall Ferguson’s case. He is a Tory formed in the Thatcherite mould, who cut his teeth writing for Conrad Black’s Daily Telegraph while he was a research student in Germany.
Wednesday, 30 May 2018
The Journey towards Fresh Perspectives: A Personal Reflection on Historical Writing-Dr Kirsteen M MacKenzie
I first of all must thank Keith for the very kind invitation to contribute to his blog. My original idea was to write a defence of the three Stuart kingdoms, essentially assessing the New British histories 20 years after the initial debate. I realise that for many the ‘new British history’ moment has passed and historians have again retreated into their own respective national histories. I thought it may be more useful to reflect upon my own journey in researching and writing my new monograph The Solemn League and Covenant of the Three Kingdoms and the Cromwellian Union 1643-1663. I will reveal how my view of mid seventeenth century Britain and Ireland has evolved over the decades. Historians should not only offer a new perspective on the past but be fully open to their own deeply held views being challenged, shaped and influenced by their own experiences and new discoveries.
Before the Three Stuart Kingdoms
If you had met me twenty years ago I was very much a Cromwellian. In April 1999 I was in Huntingdon for the 400th anniversary of Oliver Cromwell’s birth. I had been interested in Cromwell for almost a decade and had been a member of the Cromwell Association since I was a teenager. I visited the Cromwell Museum frequently, often while we were visiting my former childhood home. I had spent my formative years in East Anglia. I had seen the film Cromwell with Richard Harris and Alec Guinness at school and had an excellent teacher who encouraged me to read books on the subject. I read Antonia Fraser’s Cromwell: Our Chief of Men when I was in the first year at senior school which fuelled my interests and Cromwellian tendencies even more. Unsurprisingly I had a very Anglocentric view of the civil wars and Cromwell was undoubtedly the hero. At the time, having recently moved back to Scotland from East Anglia, Cromwell was a link back to a place I deeply missed.
My view of the conflict that engulfed Britain and Ireland during the mid-seventeenth century was firmly structured around the ‘English Civil War’. Although I was aware of the Scottish origins of the conflict the Covenanters and the prayer book riots hardly registered on the radar! I found the rise of the New Model Army and its radical elements fascinating particularly the Levellers and the Diggers and to this day Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down is one of my favourite history books. I saw Cromwell’s rise to power as a positive event that had been essential to Britain’s transition to democracy. I was a fully paid up member of the Whig school of history without even realising it. Towards the end of my undergraduate history degree I was contemplated doing a PhD on the Levellers or the Quakers but my perspectives on the period were changing.
Wider Horizons: The Three Stuart Kingdoms
In the sub honours year of my undergraduate degree I took the three Stuart Kingdoms course which examined seventeenth century Britain and Ireland from an integrated three kingdoms perspective. It broadened my horizons immensely as the Stuart monarchy had to deal with ruling three very diverse but interconnected kingdoms. The ‘English civil war’ very quickly became the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. Events in Scotland and Ireland became central to understanding the conflict and were as important as events in England. One momentous shift in opinion came with the realisation that Westminster did not hold the monopoly on constitutional innovation with important developments taking place in Scotland and Ireland too. The Covenanters were eager to establish a Scottish Parliament which dispensed with the Royal Prerogative. In Ireland after the 1641 rebellion the Irish Confederation of Kilkenny was formed and evolved into a sophisticated form of government with a supreme council, a general assembly and various committees. The Wars of Three Kingdoms were an era of constitutional change across Britain and Ireland. During my time on the three kingdoms course constitutional change was also taking place across Britain and Northern Ireland. Scotland’s own parliament was reinstated for the first time since 1707, Wales was given its own assembly and devolved government was restored in Northern Ireland. These modern constitutional developments reinforced the three kingdoms approach to the Stuart monarchy.
My view of Cromwell began to change and far from being a harbinger of positive democratic change, Cromwell and the English Republic came seen as a highly dysfunctional form of government within the wider context of Stuart Britain and Ireland. This became all the more apparent when I embarked upon my PhD research in 2001 and explored the Covenanters reaction to the Cromwellian conquest of Scotland. Interestingly over the next few months within the UK newspapers debates raged over the legality of the proposed invasion of Iraq citing precedence and international law with reference to military intervention and the occupation of sovereign states. To my surprise Archibald Johnston of Wariston, one of the leading Covenanters against the Cromwellian invasion of Scotland was using similar arguments to those opposing intervention in Iraq! Historians always write the past within the present and I doubt I would have taken Wariston’s arguments so seriously if it was not for current climate at the time.
During the course of my research I travelled throughout Britain and Ireland and began to appreciate the diversity of these islands at first hand. I also began to understand that nations, groups and individuals cannot simply be put into fixed categories. Actions and beliefs are a pandoras box shaped by constantly evolving circumstances. Many labels that historians apply to religious and political groups are overlapping broad churches of common values and internal conflicts. Throughout my book I highlight not just the common religious and political values that Presbyterians and the Covenanted interest held across the kingdoms but I also aimed to show the internal divisions. In addition, I drew attention to the differences of opinion and the distinctive approaches Presbyterians in Scotland, England and Ireland had towards the Cromwellian government based on the particular situations they found themselves within their own localities and kingdoms. Examining events from a new perspective forced me to view Cromwell and the English Republic with fresh eyes. Cromwell became a ruthless and Machiavellian operator breaking all rules, precedents, laws and customs of Stuart Britain, a far cry from the man who put Westminster on the road to democracy.
Dr Kirsteen M MacKenzie was a lecturer in history at the University of Aberdeen between 2014 and 2017. Her book The Solemn League and Covenant of the Three Kingdoms and the Cromwellian Union 1643-1663 published by Routledge is out now.
Friday, 18 May 2018
(The collection of blog articles titled How I write is now published as an ebook on Amazon reasonably priced at $0.99)
I would like to say that the idea for this collection of articles on Why I write, How I write came to me in a blinding flash of genius but I would be lying. The idea came from two from two sources. The first being an article by the writer George Orwell whose essay Why I write is a brilliant example of the writer's craft.
I would like to say that the idea for this collection of articles on Why I write, How I write came to me in a blinding flash of genius but I would be lying. The idea came from two from two sources. The first being an article by the writer George Orwell whose essay Why I write is a brilliant example of the writer's craft.
The second belongs mostly to me. While attending a short course of creative writing at Bishopsgate Institute, the tutor encouraged us to look into why and how a writer works. After some research, it became clear that very little has been written about why and how a historian writes.
Partially inspired by the historian Marc Bloch and his Historian’s Craft this collection of essays is aimed at the student who is just starting on their history adventure. The purpose of this free book is to save them a small amount of legwork necessary to become a historian.
The more perceptive reader will notice that the majority of contributors are female. This is not an accident. Firstly the majority of female historians, when asked to write an article, were more than happy to do so. More importantly in a field that is overwhelmingly male-dominated, it is high time the female historians had their say.
I have tried to vary the contributions. Some are from historians who are just starting out on their career others are well established. The book also contains a good mixture of professional and non-professional writers.
The articles are free to use for non-commercial purposes. If you decide to use the content, please ask permission at Keith_liv@yahoo.com. All articles are the property of the author.
Monday, 14 May 2018
Up until the age of 19 I was quite certain that I was not a writer, let alone a historian. Despite the fact I had such an interest in politics and history, I found writing an excruciating process, and I had failed history at college. I am now, 7 years later, in the beginnings of a PhD in American History in a collaborative project between the University of Sussex and the British Library, speciﬁcally analysing the political pamphlets of interwar America.
Without going into too much detail, getting to this point was not straight forward, and was owed a lot to both personal and political development. But fundamentally, as I began to understand the concept of historical materialism, history began to make much more sense to me, and in turn this not only made writing an easier process for me, but an enjoyable one. Historical materialism is concerned with analysing the fundamental forces which drive history forward.
As Lenin put it: By examining … all ideas and all the various tendencies stem from the condition of the material forces of production, Marxism indicated the way to an all-embracing and comprehensive study of the process of the rise, development, and decline of socio-economic systems. People make their own history but what determines the motives of people, of the mass of people—i.e., what is the sum total of all these clashes in the mass of human societies? What are the objective conditions of production of material life that form the basis of all man’s historical activity? What is the law of development of these conditions? To all these Marx drew attention and indicated the way to a scientiﬁc study of history as a single process which, with all its immense variety and contradictoriness, is governed by deﬁnite laws.1
This materialistic approach forms the foundation of my writing, and helps to guide me when approaching new areas of research. Nevertheless, I’m still hardly conﬁdent in my writing abilities. This lack of conﬁdence can sometimes get me in a trap of reading excessively in order to avoid writing, but the majority of the time it’s best to just get your thoughts down on paper, no matter how rubbish you think they are. I’m also prone to using uncertain language like ‘perhaps,’ ‘could,’ and ‘possibly’ far more than I should. This sort of language can indicate a lack of conviction in the ideas you are sharing, so when I’m ﬁnished writing I sometimes do a ‘ﬁnd and replace’ to cut them out.
I feel that a central principle of my writing is to be direct and clear. This is often for my own beneﬁt; when I ﬁnd something complex or have difﬁculty understanding something, I spend time breaking it down to something more digestible, and something that I would feel comfortable explaining to others. This makes me feel more conﬁdent in my own knowledge and sure that what I am writing has solid foundations. I ﬁnd that often, complex language can be used as a distraction to shield unsound ideas. But also, I hope that clarity in my writing will make my work more accessible to a broader audience, beyond simply circulating within an academic bubble.
In terms of the more practical techniques for writing, I usually simply write down a short structure for what I’m about to write (it doesn’t matter if this is later shifted around) which I ﬁnd helps to motivate me. Often, I will organise my notes from readings thematically, so later when I’m writing on a topic I can easily ﬁnd what I’m looking for. When I go over these notes, I’ll ‘strikethrough’ sections I’ve covered in my main writing, but never delete them. There’s nothing worse than losing track of that one quote that would’ve ﬁtted perfectly. I also use Evernote to organise journal articles and other texts, which I feel I’d be lost without during this PhD.
Finally, why do I write? I’m drawn to history because it helps me to understand the conditions of the present day. And as the old saying goes, ‘those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.’ However, I’d argue that a lot of popular history is ideologically skewed, focusing on the triumphs of great men, celebration of nationalistic tradition, and even pushing complete myths. How can we learn from history or change the future when our popular perception of the past is distorted and restricted? I write because I want to, in my own small way, contribute to challenging this dominant narrative, and in turn, enhancing how we study and share history.
Friday, 4 May 2018
In her post for this site, Penelope Corfield has already given an excellent set of insights into writing practices, and tips for constructing work. I thought I would take a slightly different line and reflect on my own writing journey. I’ve been writing as an academic historian for over 10 years and have so far published three books and more than 10 journal articles. More recently I’ve also begun to write for a variety of different outputs, ranging from magazines, newspapers and websites, to my own blog. Writing is at the absolute heart of what I do, and I generally write every day – even if it only a few lines. I’m currently finishing off what I hope will be the fourth book – a study of the history of facial hair.
Whatever I’m writing, I feel it’s important to think about the audience for the work. This has to do with developing, and modifying, your authorial ‘voice’. For example, writing a newspaper article of 1000 words is completely different to an academic journal article of 10,000…or a radio script of 300 words. Each has its own requirements and constraints, and each speaks to different people, and in different ways. Whilst academic history journal articles need solid grounding in existing literature, and often the ‘scaffold’ of referencing and stylistic conventions, pieces for popular publications are often much shorter, punchier, and in a ‘looser’ style.
Some academics find it hard to cross from one to the other, since writing something without referencing it goes against the grain! A colleague also once mentioned to me that they were afraid of mixing styles, and writing for a popular audience, in case it ‘polluted’ their academic writing. I actually think that the opposite is true, and that writing different things in different ways makes for a more rounded author.
I’m sometimes asked how and where to start with writing. The obvious answer is at the beginning, but in fact even that’s not always necessarily true. Whatever I’m writing, I always need a spark of inspiration – usually something I’ve come across in a primary source, or whilst reading a book or article. Often, I find that a single source can be enough to get the creative juices flowing, and it’s important to get that down on paper as soon as possible. Where it might end up in a chapter can be decided later.
When I think about how I write, though, there are certain things that I always try to do. Whatever I’m writing, for example, whether a full article or book chapter, or even a blog post, I always start by making a short list of bullet points, outlining what I think the main arguments of the piece will be. This obviously helps to map out the structure of the work. But I also find, by writing the points as prose, I can actually use them as the launch points for paragraphs or sections. Sometimes even just outlining what you want to argue can be a very good way of getting the writing to flow.
Secondly, I think it’s important to set aside specific time for writing, and to give yourself the space, and environment to do it in. For me, this means turning off social media, email and other distractions. Some people can write in noisy libraries, or with music on, but I need peace and quiet to focus on the task.
Thirdly, I am a strong believer in having a writing target for a day. I am very lucky in generally being able to write quickly, so my own target is usually 1000 words per day. It sounds a lot but is only roughly 2 sides of A4. Once that target is reached, unless it’s really flowing, I often leave it and move on to other things. This is about as close as I get to discipline in my own writing! Indeed, in several other ways my approach is perhaps unorthodox!
For example, I never write drafts. When I begin writing a chapter, I consider it the final version. Although it will naturally be shaped along the way (things are always cut and pasted!), I rarely, if ever, start over again or have different versions of the same. Some people also like to amass all their source materials before starting to write.
The benefits of that approach are manifold. But I have always preferred to write as I research, finding inspiration from the sources that I’ve just worked on and, to a large extent, letting them dictate the shape of the argument. In that sense, although I have a broad idea or theory to begin with, it develops along the way. I’m also a great believer in ‘just’ writing, to see where it can lead. Like so many things, writing needs regular practice in order to maintain the momentum. Sometimes when I’m stuck with my academic work, I make a point of writing a blog post instead, even on a completely different subject, just to keep things ticking over. In fact, one recent blog post actually led directly to an academic article on the same subject.
In the last analysis, writing is a personal preference, and what works for one person might not necessarily work for another. That is why I’m sometimes slightly dubious about the whole ‘writing about writing’ literature, and also loathe to try and give students a prescriptive list of what they should do, beyond general tips. But writing this piece has actually been very enlightening since it’s forced me to reflect on what I do and analyze how I do it…something I’ve never really done. Sometimes the best thing to do, is just…write.
After a rather unsatisfying ten-year career with a major high street bank, I decided to take the plunge and return to study. Having begun studying for my history degree part-time with the Open University, I enrolled at the University of Glamorgan and completed my BA (Hons) there in 2005, writing my undergraduate dissertation on the medical information within a seventeenth-century commonplace book.
Having secured funding from the AHRC, I completed my MA in History at Cardiff University in 2006, and was then funded by a Wellcome Trust prize studentship to study my PhD at Swansea University, which I completed in 2009. My thesis was adapted into my first book "Physick and the Family: Health, medicine and care in Wales, c. 1600-1750", published in 2011 by Manchester University Press.
After completing my doctorate I returned to the University of Glamorgan in 2010, as a research fellow on the Leverhulme Trust-funded project "Steel in Britain in the Age of Enlightenment", working with Professor Chris Evans. At the completion of this project, I became a lecturer in History at Swansea University, teaching a range of modules in early modern European history. His blog can be found @https://dralun.wordpress.com/