Monday, 20 January 2020

In a Post-Truth World, How do we Study History-Suzannah Lipscomb-A Reply


In the February issue of History Today, the popular historian Suzannah Lipscomb wrote the article entitled In a Post-Truth World, How do we Study History.  In the opening paragraph, she all but calls the left-wing film director Ken Loach a holocaust denier.

Despite saying that Loach had denied the claim and had answered the charge in  Guardian Lipscomb refused to retract her claim. The fact that the Guardian refused to publish Loach's full reply to his detractors is not mentioned by Lipscomb.

Lipscomb along with 12 other high profile Historians and writers have led a campaign which has accused the Labour Party of being antisemitic and therefore they refused to vote for it during the general election.

Their campaign is fully supported by the Guardian which published a wretched piece by  Jonathan Freedland[1]. In his article, Freedland wrote "It means that a man such as Ken Loach – an artist so sensitive he is capable of making the film I, Daniel Blake – ends up lending a spurious legitimacy to Holocaust denial. Asked to react to a speaker at a Brighton fringe meeting who had said Labour supporters should feel free to debate any topic, including the veracity of the Holocaust – “did it happen or didn’t it happen”, as the BBC interviewer put it – Loach could not give a simple, unequivocal denunciation of Holocaust denial. “I think history is for all of us to discuss. Loach had not been asked whether there should be a discussion of the meaning of the Nazi slaughter of the Jews. He had been asked about the fact of it happening. And on that, he said there should be discussion – the same apparently innocuous formulation routinely advanced by hardcore Holocaust deniers".

Loach sought a reply to this slander but was only given a small section in the Guardian's Comment is Free section. In a further response carried by the letters section of the New York Times, Loach wrote  to the Editor saying ”Howard Jacobson alleges that I defended questioning the Holocaust. I did not and do not. In a confused BBC interview, where question and answer overlapped, my words were twisted to give a meaning contrary to that intended. The Holocaust is as real a historical event as World War II itself and not to be challenged. In Primo Levi's words: “Those who deny Auschwitz would be ready to remake it".[2]

Whether she is conscious or not Lipscomb's comments add to an already growing witch hunt in the service of Britains ruling elite. As Jean Shaouls article points out “the aim of this political destabilization operation has been to prevent an election victory that would take him to Number 10 and to then engineer his subsequent removal. It followed a relentless campaign that started as soon as Corbyn became a leader in 2015 when the Blairites—acting with the Conservative Party, the media, the military and intelligence establishment and the Israel lobby—denounced not only Corbyn’s but all left-wing opposition to Israel's brutal suppression of the Palestinians as anti-Semitic”. The witch-hunt centres on a concerted attempt to equate opposition to Zionism and the colonial policies of the Israeli state with hatred of the Jewish people in general and the infamous and reactionary anti-Semitism of the Nazis in particular.[3]

Lipscomb's concludes her deeply disturbing article attempting to cover up her lazy sleight of hand journalism with a cloak of orthodoxy by attacking the postmodernist’s attempt to deny historical facts. In fact, it is Lipscomb who is playing fast and loose with historical facts. She should retract her comments and History Today should give Loach the right to reply.




















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



Thursday, 2 January 2020

Hill and Timofeeva


By Christopher Thompson

Marina Valerevna Timofeeva’s 2009 thesis on Christopher Hill’s analysis of the 17th-Century English Bourgeois Revolution is another matter. It was submitted to the Ural State University at that time and appears not to be available on-line or in print at present. An abstract of the thesis can, however, be found and seems to be the prelude to an analysis of his writings from the start of the Second World War until he stopped writing in the 1990s. To the best of my knowledge, its existence and apparently formidable length have not been known hitherto. Dr Timofeeva’s objective was to emphasise the significant contribution Christopher Hill had made to the development of Marxist historiography in the West drawing on his published works, the tributes of friends and colleagues in the 1978 and 1988 festschrifts dedicated to him and on appreciations that appeared in newspapers and periodical publications. Hill’s own papers now held in the library of Balliol College, Oxford do not appear to have been used.

On the other hand, she does deploy material from authors in the former Soviet Union and its successor states to support her analysis. Until reading her abstract, I was unaware of the works of Pavlova, Sharifzhanov and Meshcheryakova on the historiography of the ‘bourgeois revolution’. Nor did I know about the analysis of Repina on the ambiguities of the Marxist concept of the English Revolution of the seventeenth-century. It is clear that large sections of Hill’s corpus of works had been translated into Russian, Polish and other eastern European languages with official sanction and that they had and still have a measure of influence in those countries that they have lost in the U.K. and other English-speaking countries.

There are also indications that Dr Timofeeva’s sympathies lie with Christopher Hill’s evolving approach to the English Revolution, to issues of class and cultural and intellectual changes up to and after 1640. His reaction to the rise of ‘revisionism’ in the mid-1970s also appears to have elicited her approval. His concept of a ‘revolution from below’ built of social and economic transformations is one she accepted. And she was able to draw upon methodological studies of British and Western historiography, some of them her own, equally unfamiliar to British scholars and historians in North America and elsewhere.

It would be altogether wrong in my view to disregard such a study which, in its full form, must be a work of formidable length. It would be a mistake too to dismiss the other sources upon which she has drawn as misguided or not as well-informed as they might have been. But Dr Timofeeva like her fellow historians in Russia is clearly a person of intelligence and with an admirable degree of diligence. What she appears, prima facie, to have lacked is the contact with academic historians of the period in Britain and elsewhere whose work has taken the study of mid-Stuart England and Wales, Ireland and Scotland along way forward since Christopher Hill was in his prime. She does not seem to have heard of the problems of multiple kingdoms or, if she has, it does not figure in the abstract of her thesis. There have been major historians in the field since the days of Conrad Russell. Inevitably, the influence of historians fades after their deaths. This is what has happened to Christopher Hill. But attempts to preserve his memory and to acknowledge his contribution have begun here in the U.K. Perhaps, her work will come to be acknowledged here too. 

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Regicide or Revolution? What Petitioners Wanted, September 1648 - February 1649-Norah Carlin- £18.50-Publisher Breviary Stuff


'Popular petitions were at the very heart of the revolutionary crisis of 1648-1649, and this book is unique in recovering their meaning, the context in which they were issued, and the people who wrote and supported them. Essential reading.'

John Rees-The Leveller Revolution

'The petitions Norah Carlin has transcribed and carefully contextualized in Regicide or Revolution? represent an incredibly important cache of materials for understanding the crisis of the English Revolution, the trial and execution of Charles I. Carlin convincingly demonstrate that these petitions were not straightforward demands for bloody retribution. Rather, their content varied considerably, incorporating radical demands for legal, social and constitutional reform, giving historians a highly important window into the ideals and aspirations of the 'well affected' both within and outside the army. The collection should be required reading for scholars and students of the English Revolution, and the general reader alike.'

Ted Vallance, University of Roehampton, London

There are two types of historians. The first type is the historian that spends a tremendous number of hours deep mining archives to produce a book. The second type is the historian that writes about the former.

Norah Carlin has produced a book that firmly places her in the first type of historian. It takes a skilful historian like Carlin to produce a book out of such a large and significant number of texts. The English revolution is one of the most worked-over topics in English history, and rivals only the American, French and Russian revolution in books produced. It is to Carlin’s credit that she has created something new and highly interesting.

It is widely accepted amongst historians of the English revolution that the many petitions addressed to Parliament and the army in the five months before Charles I’s execution influenced the events that led to his trial and death.

However, more Conservative historians have argued that the petitions had little effect and represented little more than a propaganda campaign by a small number of political and military leaders.

It is to her eternal credit that Carlin has undertaken the task to carry out a wide-ranging examination of over sixty texts. As Carlin has said, the book has been nearly twenty years in the making.The sheer number and diversity of the texts in the book indicate a tremendous politicisation of a significant layer of the population. It would not be an overstatement to say this is a groundbreaking book. Every text begins with a context and ends with a background analysis. It is clear that a lot of work and time went into this book.

In a recent interview, Carlin described this process, “this involved trawling the contemporary printed material in the British Library's Thomason Tracts (now available online), which is a sheer pleasure to me, and printed record sources like the Commons Journal. From there, I moved on to whatever manuscripts related to the petitions survive. I also researched each regiment, county and town involved as far as I could without greater specialisation, mainly in secondary sources (some of the Victoria County Histories are a good starting point) but sometimes going back to the national or local archives when I felt existing literature didn't deal satisfactorily with a particular issue”[1].

Dual Power

Carlin clearly believes that the majority of the texts came from plebeian elements  in other words, from the rank and file activists. These texts then gained a wider audience. They also testify to the dual nature of power during this short period as Leon Trotsky describes so well : “the English Revolution of the seventeenth century, exactly because it was a great revolution shattering the nation to the bottom, affords a clear example of this alternating dual power, with sharp transitions in the form of civil war.

At first, the royal power, resting upon the privileged classes or the upper circles of these classes – the aristocrats and bishops – is opposed by the bourgeoisie and the circles of the squirearchy that are close to it. The government of the bourgeoisie is the Presbyterian Parliament supported by the City of London. The protracted conflict between these two regimes is finally settled in open civil war. The two governmental centres – London and Oxford – create their own armies. Here the dual power takes a territorial form, although, as always in a civil war, the boundaries are very shifting. Parliament conquers. The king is captured and awaits his fate.

It would seem that the conditions are now created for the single rule of the Presbyterian bourgeoisie. But before the royal power could be broken, the parliamentary army has converted itself into an independent political force. It has concentrated in its ranks the Independents the pious and resolute petty bourgeoisie, the craftsmen and farmers. This army powerfully interferes in social life, not merely as an armed force, but as a Praetorian Guard, and as the political representative of a new class opposing the prosperous and rich bourgeoisie. Correspondingly the army creates a new state organ rising above the military command: a council of soldiers’ and officers’ deputies (“agitators”). A new period of double sovereignty has thus arrived: that of the Presbyterian Parliament and the Independents’ army. This leads to open conflicts. The bourgeoisie proves powerless to oppose with its own army the “model army” of Cromwell – that is, the armed plebeians. The conflict ends with a purgation of the Presbyterian Parliament by the sword of the Independents. There remains but the rump of a parliament; the dictatorship of Cromwell is established. The lower ranks of the army, under the leadership of the Levellers – the extreme left wing of the revolution – try to oppose to the rule of the upper military levels, the patricians of the army, their own veritably plebeian regime. But this new two-power system does not succeed in developing: the Levellers, the lowest depths of the petty bourgeoisie have not yet, nor can have their own historic path. Cromwell soon settles accounts with his enemies. A new political equilibrium, and still by no means a stable one, is established for a period of years[2].

Carlin tackles a number of important issues in the book. One of the most important issues is to what extent were the authors of the various texts merely responding to political events or were the cause by their actions of subsequent events.

She writes “The petitions were responding to events as they occurred, and we must avoid the temptation to see them as causing the events that followed – especially the king’s execution, which has been a focus for hindsight almost since it happened. None of them calls openly for the king’s death, and even among those that call for vengeance for the blood spilt in the civil wars, only a few name him directly. Much express concern for the common people’s rights and liberties, and a substantial minority call for a radical redefinition of the English constitution, with the House of Commons at its centre as representative of the people. Some list reforms in the law and society that reveal a wider vision of revolution for England, and very many expand on their own interpretation of the civil wars and more recent events”.[3]

The texts in Carlin’s book clearly show that England was going through a profound transformation. The debate about whether to kill the king was unprecedented and had its roots in objective processes. Carlin is enough of a Marxist to believe that such events are not merely spontaneous occurrences but are decades if not centuries in the making. Whether the participants are conscious of what they are doing is not the most important point. To be more precise during the English bourgeois revolution some of its actors were to a certain extent semi-conscious of what they were doing it is a different matter during a socialist revolution such as the Russian revolution where the actors were entirely conscious of what needed to be done.

This does not undermine the English Revolution’s lasting historical significance. As Karl  Marx wrote in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under the circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

SWP

It is a pity that Carlin has not written more on the English revolution. Her first book Causes of the English Civil War (Historical Association Studies) was written in 1998 and gave a very good introduction to the English revolution. It introduces the reader to the various strands of historiography. During her time in the Socialist Workers Party(SWP), she produced two groundbreaking essays that should have prompted the State Capitalist organisation to produce more work on the subject and challenge the growing threat of a number of revisionist historians that were seeking to denigrate any Marxist understanding of the revolution.

Carlin in both compositions makes some critical points worthy of much further study, three of which stand out. She believed that England witnessed a bourgeois revolution, that so-called Marxist historians have not done enough to stem the tide of revisionism that undermined both Whig and Marxist historiography and the need for a more precise understanding of the class nature of the radical groups like the Levellers and how they fit into the concept of a Bourgeois revolution. Carlin’s work did not sit very well with the SWP’s orientation to Historians like Christopher Hill and Brian Manning.The SWP rejected Carlin’s historiography and adopted of the genre of “Peoples History”  which was developed by the Communist Party Historians Group (CPHG).

Of the CP Carlin makes this point “Hill left the Communist Party in 1957 after playing a not very memorable role on the Commission for Inner-Party Democracy and ended up as Master of Balliol College, Oxford. Given the nasty and personalised tone of the right-wing attack, it is hardly surprising that defending Hill should come to be almost a significant activity in itself, yet the striking fact is that when a collection of essays by former pupils of his was got together to mark his retirement at the end of the 1970s, not one article made any explicit reference to Marxism, only one contributor (Brian Manning) could be regarded as in any sense a Marxist, and several (including the advocate of muddle quoted above) were openly anti-Marxist. There is something slightly odd about ‘Britain’s greatest Marxist historian’ (as he is described continuously in journals such as New Left Review and History Workshop) raising no successors”.[4]

She recently elaborated more on her time inside the SWP when she challenged the almost religiously orthodox position of the SWP towards Hill. She states “Most left political tendencies have recognised the importance of the subject to some extent in recent times, though some have got bogged down by making a shibboleth of some over-simplified interpretation. Ironically, the left organisation I belonged to for many years regarded me as a heretic because I didn't agree with every last word written by Christopher Hill, including his claims that the gentry were 'the natural rulers of the English countryside' and that 'the Bible caused the death of Charles I'. As I said in the 2019 memorial lecture, I value Hill's contribution to the historiography of the English Revolution very highly indeed, but his writings are not the last word on everything! It's only when there is no more debate that history ceases to be interesting”[5].

Conclusion

Carlin should be congratulated for producing a marvellous book that deserves to be in every university library. The ideals and principles emanating from the texts were the mainstays of the revolution. But in the final analysis, the English revolution was a bourgeois revolution, and there existed, inevitably, a gap between the ideals its participants proclaimed and their real social-economic and political purpose. However, the revolution did pave the way for the vast expansion of capitalism and produced the first capitalist nation-state.


About the author

Before retirement, Norah Carlin was a Principal Lecturer in History at Middlesex University (London). She is also the author of The Causes of the English Revolution (Oxford, Blackwell for the Historical Association, 1999) and a number of articles on aspects of the seventeenth-century English revolution. Having moved back to her native Edinburgh some years ago, she is currently pursuing research on the kirk and rural society in Scotland in the century after the Reformation.

The book can be purchased directly from Breviary Stuff-https://www.breviarystuff.org.uk/norah-carlin-regicide-or-revolution/

or from Amazon-https://www.amazon.co.uk/Regicide-Revolution-Petitioners-September-February/dp/1916158609/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=Norah+Carlin+%E2%80%93+Regicide+or+Revolution%3F&qid=1577832099&sr=8-1



[1] http://keith-perspective.blogspot.com/2019/12/interview-with-historian-norah-carlin.html
[2] The Seventeenth-Century revolution- Leon Trotsky’s Writings on Britain- https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/britain/v1/ch01a.htm
[3] Review : Regicide or Revolution? What Petitioners Wanted, September 1648 - February 1649-Norah Carlin £18.50 358pp / 156x234mm / paperback ISBN 978-1-9161586-0-3
[4] http://keith-perspective.blogspot.com/2018/04/norah-carlin-socialist-workers-party.html
[5] http://keith-perspective.blogspot.com/2019/12/interview-with-historian-norah-carlin.html

Saturday, 21 December 2019

Interview with Historian Norah Carlin


Norah Carlin’s new book  – Regicide or Revolution? What Petitioners Wanted, September 1648 - February 1649 is out now and is published by Breviary Stuff. I caught up with her and asked a few questions about the book.

Q. What made you pick the subject of Regicide or Revolution and what were the difficulties if any in researching such a wide-ranging subject matter. Basically, I would like to know how you write and approach a subject.

 A. I was spurred on by hearing once too often (at a 350th-anniversary conference) that the motives for regicide were not political as we would understand them, but religious fanaticism and superstition. The army was said to be have been committed since April 1648 to the death of the king as a 'man of blood', and too many books claim that this was also the main content of the late 1648 petitions from soldiers and others. I knew this was not true of the ones I had read, so I set out to find and read them all.

This involved trawling the contemporary printed material in the British Library's Thomason Tracts (now available online), which is sheer pleasure to me, and printed record sources like the Commons Journal. From there, I moved on to whatever manuscripts related to the petitions survive. I also researched each regiment, county and town involved as far as I could without greater specialisation, mainly in secondary sources (some of the Victoria County Histories are a good starting point) but sometimes going back to the national or local archives when I felt existing literature didn't deal satisfactorily with a particular issue.

Q. What is your take on recent historiography on the subject of regicide and revolution?

A.Recent debate has centred on whether the trial of Charles I was intended all along to lead to his execution. The petitions feed into this with their very varied approach to 'bringing offenders to justice'. Most of them don't name the king explicitly, and when they do even fewer attack Charles I personally in the way that some well-known pamphleteers and politicians did. But they are also full of interesting political ideas that could move the discussion away from that narrow theme onto wider issues of what the English Revolution was, what motivated it, and what it achieved.

Q.Since, your first articles on the English revolution, were in the early 1980s, how would you say your historiography on the revolution has changed if at all. How do you see future historiography developing?

A.My main focus remains the many faces of English radicalism in this period, a subject that spreads (like the Leveller movement was said to do at the time) in ever-widening but concentric circles.

Q.The English revolution clearly holds a tremendous interest for you why is that. Also, do you think that left political tendencies have neglected the subject?

 A.I think it's because of the mass of material relating to popular action and radical ideas. Nowhere else in early modern Europe do you have anything like William Clarke's record of the Putney Debates, or the range of pamphlets and news in print.

Most left political tendencies have recognised the importance of the subject to some extent in recent times, though some have got bogged down by making a shibboleth of some over-simplified interpretation. Ironically, the left organisation I belonged to for many years regarded me as a heretic because I didn't agree with every last word written by Christopher Hill, including his claims that the gentry were 'the natural rulers of the English countryside' and that 'the Bible caused the death of Charles I'. As I said in the 2019 memorial lecture, I value Hill's contribution to the historiography of the English Revolution very highly indeed, but his writings are not the last word on everything! It's only when there is no more debate that history ceases to be interesting.

Until very recently I would have said the subject also suffered from a lack of mainstream media attention, but since the December 2019 BBC2 documentary 'Killing a King' there is bound to be a resurgence of interest, and I hope it lasts.

QWhat are you planning to do next?

A.I have a book that was written some time ago but should be published soon, on the history of a grand house in Essex, Old Copped Hall near Waltham Abbey, where I have regularly taken part in an ongoing archaeological project. Over the centuries from 1258 to 1748 its owners were involved in all the major events in English history from the Barons' Wars to the South Sea Bubble, and I was pleased to go back to periods I had studied long ago so as to write about each of them. One owner, the second Earl of Middlesex, even happened to be on Parliament's team negotiating with Charles I at Newport in late 1648, right at the heart of 'Regicide or Revolution?' I am also writing up some research on Scottish local society in the age of the Reformation that I have done since moving back to Scotland.

I am pleased to call myself 'a jobbing historian' because I enjoy taking on a variety of subjects where I find surprising and interesting connections as well as contrasts — always centred on how the world has been changed, on the understanding that it is possible for human action to change it again. I hope these are relevant answers to the questions you asked.


What Historians have said about the book

'Popular petitions were at the very heart of the revolutionary crisis of 1648-1649 and this book is unique in recovering their meaning, the context in which they were issued, and the people who wrote and supported them. Essential reading.'

John Rees, author of The Leveller Revolution

'The petitions Norah Carlin has transcribed and carefully contextualized in Regicide or Revolution? represent an incredibly important cache of materials for understanding the crisis of the English Revolution, the trial and execution of Charles I. Carlin convincingly demonstrates that these petitions were not straightforward demands for bloody retribution. Rather, their content varied considerably, incorporating radical demands for legal, social and constitutional reform, giving historians a highly important window into the ideals and aspirations of the ‘well affected’ both within and outside the army. The collection should be required reading for scholars and students of the English Revolution, and the general reader alike.'

Ted Vallance, University of Roehampton, London

'At last, the army petitions of 1648-9 have found their editor and historian. Every student of the English Revolution will be indebted to Norah Carlin for bringing together in one place the soldiers' petitions, from all over England and Wales, that demanded justice. However, they conceived it, after the first and second civil wars. Each petition has been carefully edited, set in a context, and assessed in what is an authoritative edition of very important documents in the history of relations between Parliament, army and people.'

Stephen K. Roberts, Director, History of Parliament Trust

About the author


Before retirement Norah Carlin was a Principal Lecturer in History at Middlesex University (London). She is also the author of The Causes of the English Revolution (Oxford, Blackwell for the Historical Association, 1999) and a number of articles on aspects of the seventeenth-century English revolution. Having moved back to her native Edinburgh some years ago, she is currently pursuing research on the kirk and rural society in Scotland in the century after the Reformation.



Sunday, 24 November 2019

Imaging Stuart Family Politics: Dynastic Crisis and Continuity-Catriona Murray-London, Routledge, 2017, ISBN: 978-1472424051; 202pp.; Price: £115.00


For a Tear is an Intellectual thing;
And a Sigh is the sword of an angel king;
And the bitter groan of a Martyr’s woe
Is an arrow from the Almighty’s bow.

William Blake

“When does the artistic image appear convincing? When we experience a special psychic state of joy, satisfaction, elevated repose, love or sympathy for the author. This psychic state is the aesthetic evaluation of a work of art. Aesthetic feeling lacks a narrowly utilitarian character; it is disinterested, and in this regard, it is organically bound up with our general conceptions of the beautiful (although, of course, it is narrower than these concepts). The aesthetic evaluation of a work is the criterion of its truthfulness or falseness. Artistic truth is determined and established precisely through such an evaluation.

Art as the Cognition of Life-A Voronsky

Catriona Murray’s Imaging Stuart Family Politics is an award-winning and beautifully illustrated book. It carries with it a significant amount of original research and encompasses a cross-disciplinary approach while maintaining a high academic standard.

Having said that the book suffers a little from a one-sided approach in that it examines the English revolution solely from the standpoint of the monarchy. To her credit Murray rather than examining the images used in the book in isolation, does attempt with varying degrees of success to locate them within the socio-political context of the revolution.

In a convoluted way, Murray’s book shows the class nature of the Stuart dynasty. King Charles I’s use of art to defend his position was a novel solution in his and many eyes, but the fact that it did not succeed was not for want of trying. For all his political acumen which was not a lot King Charles did not understand the class forces he was up against. In pure desperation, he even used his children as propaganda as this cynical quote from Charles states  “We are moved both for your sake and the sake of the kingdom itself, over which you are ruling; because as children are a source of solace to parents, thus are they a source of support for kings; for the more children there are, the deeper are the roots, and the more numerous are the supports, upon which the stability of a kingdom rests.[1] This clearly failed, and in the end, like all dictators, he used war to solve his crisis.

Historiography

“ I hope that my book will encourage scholars to reconsider the significant part of the visual in Stuart politics and to reassess a body of fascinating material which performed a crucial, if, at times, unpredictable, role in early modern public communication”.

Murray recognises that the history of emotions is a very young discipline and that by default her book is a very specialised piece of historical study reflecting the early days of the discipline. Trying to place it in the historiography of the English revolution is, therefore, a complicated task.The book is part of a trend to examine the English revolution, mainly from the standpoint of the monarchy and its use of imagery and religion.The book stands on the shoulders of historians, Roy Strong, Oliver Millar, and Kevin Sharpe.

Again the use of Christopher Hill work would have given the book a better balance. As Hill points parliament and radicals during the revolution were not adverse in using art as a propaganda weapon he states “Politics was invariably expressed in religious language and imagery. (Gerrard) Winstanley used the stories of Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, to express his class analysis of society; the younger brother would overcome his oppressing elder brother. David and Goliath, Samson and the Philistines, were symbols of revolt against tyranny. Existing corrupt society was designated as Sodom, Egypt, Babylon.[2]

Murray’s study of the use of imagery during the English revolution is a little one-sided. A multi-sided approach to the discipline is needed if one is to use art to cognize the complicated nature of the revolution. Her approach is Conservative, to say the least.

While it is only recently that through the work of the Fred Choate and David North that the work of the great Russian Marxist scholars such as Aleksandr Konstantinovich Voronsky is coming to light, Murray’s book would have a better one if she had at least consulted figures like Voronsky who spent his life examining the role of art in society.

As Voronsky States on page 98 of his book Art as the Cognition of Life “What is art? First of all, art is the cognition of life. Art is not the free play of fantasy, feelings and moods; art is not the expression of merely the subjective sensations and experiences of the poet; art is not assigned the goal of primarily awakening in the reader 'good feelings.' Like science, art cognizes life. Both art and science have the same subject: life, reality. But science analyzes, art synthesizes; science is abstract, art is concrete; science turns to the mind of man, art to his sensual nature. Science cognizes life with the help of concepts, art with the aid of images in the form of living, sensual contemplation."[3]

There is no getting away from the fact that the book is a beautifully illustrated and well-written book. It is hoped that in the future, Murray examines the more complicated use of imagery by parliamentary forces.





[1] The Royal Correspondence of King James I of England (and VI of Scotland) to his Royal Brother-in-Law, King Christian IV of Denmark, 1603-16, ed. Ronald M. Meldrum (Brighton, 1977), p. 11.
[2] God and the English Revolution-Author(s): Christopher Hill-Source: History Workshop, No. 17 (Spring, 1984), pp. 19-31-Published by: Oxford University Press
[3] Art as the Cognition of Life: Aleksandr Konstantinovich Voronsky-Mehring Books-https://mehring.com/art-as-the-cognition-of-life.html

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Just Send Me Word, a True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag, By Orlando Figes- - Allen Lane- 352 pages -24 May 2012


“How many times have I wanted to nestle in your arms but could only turn to the empty wall in front of me? I felt I could not breathe. Yet time would pass, and I would pull myself together. We will get through this, Lev.”

Svetlana Ivanov

No, I do not see any grounds for pessimism. One must take history as she is. Mankind moves like some pilgrims: two steps forward, one step back. During the movement back, it seems to sceptics and pessimists that all is lost. Nothing is lost. Mankind has risen from the ape to the Comintern. It will rise from the Comintern to genuine socialism. The sentence of the commission shows once again that a correct idea is stronger than the most powerful police. In this conviction lies the indestructible foundation of revolutionary optimism.

Leon Trotsky

"We wanted nothing for ourselves, we all wanted just one thing: the world revolution and happiness for all. And if it were necessary to give up our lives to achieve this, then we would have done so without hesitating."

Nadezhda Joffe

There is a strong cultural tradition in Russia of recording memoirs as a form of political protest. Unfortunately, the memoirs of Lev Mishchenko and Svetlana Ivanov recorded by Orlando Figes’s 2012 book Just Send Me Word does not fall into this category.

Memoirs from this time can in the words of J.J. Plant “serve many purposes, personal, political and literary. For the survivors of the Stalin terror, it has been particularly important to set the record straight, to rescue and preserve the memories and knowledge which Stalin and his regime set out to expunge and to name the criminals and collaborators who thought the Stalinist regime would last forever”.[1]

Just Send Me Word is a narrative-based study that has become one of many of the “‘survivor of Stalinism memoirs” that they have in the words of the Marxist writer David North become a “literary genre”.

This not to say that Just Send Me Word has no merit. The book is well written and researched. The archive of Lev Mishchenko and Svetlana Ivanov should contain a goldmine if a historian mines it well. Figes appears to found what he looked for in that the book is mainly absent of any politics.

What kind of enemy was Lev Mishchenko? Mishchenko studied physics and was heavily influenced by quantum physics. Ordinarily would have been a death sentence straight away given Joseph Stalin’s ignorant hostility to bourgeois physics. Lev survived and served in the army during the war and was captured by the Nazis.

After the war he offered work in the US as a nuclear physicist He turned this down preferring to be with his girlfriend, Svetlana. It was a wrong decision given that he was arrested for “betraying his homeland”.

During his time in the gulag he exchanged more than 1,200 letters with Svetlana. These letters quite unbelievably have been preserved thus creating “the only known Gulag correspondence collection of such size and scope”.

Lev Mishchenko and Svetlana Ivanov were part of the nightmare years of the late 1930s, during which Stalin oversaw the physical extermination of socialist intellectuals and workers in the USSR.

The flower of the October revolution, Left Oppositionists, intellectuals, workers and peasants died by the hundreds of thousands in conditions of back-breaking labour and deprivation. The political nature of the opposition to Stalinism is a problem for Figes. In the book this struggle is absent.

Why is this a problem for Figes. Is it because the scale of the crimes are so big that they are difficult to comprehend. The key to understanding Figes position appears on page 18 when Figes laments that “no one ever knew what this calculated policy of mass murder was about “. This is not true as there was an opposition to Stalin in the form of the Left Opposition.

Figes blames Stalin’s “Paranoic killing of potential enemies”. This is very vague and is not a satisfactory answer. If Figes elaborated he would be forced to explain that there was a socialist alternative to Stalinism in the form of the Left Opposition led by Leon Trotsky.

A point elaborated by Russian Marxist historian Vadim Rogovin who states ” Stalin’s repressive campaigns flowed from his fear not only of the peasantry but of the working class and above all, its revolutionary vanguard—the Left Opposition. The ever-growing wave of mass violence was directed not against enemies of the October Revolution, but against enemies that the Stalinist regime itself created: the peasantry resisting forced collectivisation and participants in the communist oppositions.[2]

Conclusion

Both Lev Mishchenko and Svetlana Ivanov lives are a triumph of principle and human decency over repression caused by Stalinism.

As Helen Halyard states “The memoirs of survivors of the Stalin terror are central in shedding personal light on the process of the long civil war which Stalin waged against the revolution. They illuminate and add force to the historical research of writers such as Conquest and Rogovin. However, they do more than this. They can, at their best, demonstrate the survival of some tiny kernel of humanity in the face of the most immeasurable oppression”.

Both Lev Mishchenko and Svetlana Ivanov had spirit they did not have a revolutionary spirit.



[1] https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/revhist/backiss/vol6/no4/plant2.html
[2] Author’s introduction to Bolsheviks Against Stalinism 1928-1933: Leon Trotsky and the Left Opposition
By Vadim Z. Rogovin-30 August 2019- https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2019/08/30/intr-a30.html


Sunday, 27 October 2019

How to Do Good to Many: The Public Good Is the Christian’s Life – 13 Nov 2018by Richard Baxter & Jordan J Ballor (Editor) Christian's Library Press


“It is a sign he is a branch cut off and withered who careth little for any but himself” (292). 

Richard Baxter, How to Do Good to Many

“And let all men take their common and special opportunities to do good: time will not stay; yourselves, your wives, your children, your servants, your neighbours, are posting to another world; speak now what you would have them hear; do them now all the good you can. It must be now or never; there is no returning from the dead to warn them” (323-34).

Given the extraordinary literary output by Richard Baxter, it is hard not to agree with Richard Schlatter that figures like Baxter have been largely overlooked by historians both left and right. Baxter was a prodigious writer turning out more than 130 books. So many books that it is difficult to count. Many of the books are folios with over 1 million words in length.

While prominent figures like Baxter have largely been forgotten, the same cannot be said about the English revolution. The last two decades have seen a never-ending stream of literature.  The revolution still provokes significant interest and controversy. The purpose of this little review is to try and place Baxter within the context of the English revolution and to a certain extent, rescue him from the condescension of history.

While many significant figures of the revolution have sketchy biographies, this cannot be said of Baxter, who was born in 1615. From an early age, Baxter began to see things in class terms describing his father as “a mean Freeholder”. Like many families at the beginning of the revolution, Baxter’s family life was tough, and the family was “entangled by debts”. However, his poverty did not stop Baxter from thinking that  ‘Godly People were the best’.

Baxter was heavily influenced by his family’s acceptance of Puritanism. Baxter was later to recognise his father as the “Instrument of my first Convictions, and Approbation of a Holy Life’. In class terms, Baxter was part of a growing and influential lower middle class who would clash so spectacularly with the King and Aristocracy in the English revolution.

Like other middle-class people around him, Baxter had the drive to try and achieve ‘Academick Glory’, and ‘wanting Academical Honours’. This he did not achieve through university but by becoming self-taught.  Baxter “became one of the most learned of seventeenth-century divines.” Baxter puts this down to God. His praise of God is a running theme throughout his writings and is central to the book How to Do Good to Many: The Public Good Is the Christian’s Life. The book is a guide for the middle class on how to do good. There is nothing controversial in the book; much Baxter’s political and social outlook is missing. This is a little strange given that Baxter was profoundly moved by the massive social, political and religious upheavals brought about by the English revolution.

While Baxter’s work is cloaked in religious trappings, once you break open the shell of religiosity, it is clear to anyone that a study of his political and philosophical writings play an essential part in our understanding of the events of the 17th-century English revolution.

From a political standpoint, Baxter was on the right-wing of the Presbyterians. He kept his distance from Oliver Cromwell and other leaders of the revolution. To use a modern term, Baxter took a typical centrist position also attacking anyone associated with the left-wing of the revolution, including Independents such as  Hugh Peters. The “sectaries” like Thomas Rainborow and any Leveller, in general, were “tools of Anabaptists’,. Anyone who sought to widen the franchise was seen as Anabaptists by Baxter.

Early on in his life, Baxter took up an extreme and class position on the poor. He did not believe that men “from the Dung-cart (could) to make us laws, and from the Ale-house and the May-pole to dispose of our religion, lives, and estates. When a pack of the rabble are got together, the multitude of the needy and the dissolute prodigals if they were ungoverned, would tear out the throats of the more wealthy and industrious…. And turn all into a constant war”.

It would be easy to dismiss Baxter’s writing on the poor as an exception, but in reality, they partly expressed a real fear amongst the ruling class that the revolution would lead to a wider franchise and more importantly a revolution against property. which to a certain extent happened.

If you strip away all the religious superstructure at the base of Baxter’s writings are hatred of the masses. His Holy Commonwealth, which is probably his most famous book is a manifesto against a more comprehensive democracy except for the chosen few namely people like him. Baxter‘s hostility to the poor was expressed most vehemently in his opposition to the Leveller’s. 

When Baxter was in the New Model Army as an army Chaplin, he opposed the  Levellers in debate accusing them publishing “wild pamphlets” as “changeable as the moon “and advocating “a heretical democracy”. The irony of this being that Baxter’s books themselves were burnt and he was labelled as a subversive like the Levellers he criticised.

Printing Revolution

You could say that this book by Baxter is the product of two print revolutions. One took place in the seventeenth Century the other in the twenty-first century. Baxter’s original book was part of an influential print culture that exploded during the English revolution. As Joad Raymond writes ” The publication of one of the first popular printed works, Mercurius Gallobeligicus, in 1594 ushered in a new era of the printed word to England in the form of pamphlets and newsbooks. These works quickly gained popularity by the middle of the seventeenth century, amplifying communication among all levels of society”.[1] Given Baxter’s prodigious output it has been said that he “was the first author of a string of best-sellers in British literary history”.

This book is also part of another print revolution no less important. The print revolution in the twenty-first century has seen the rise of books printed by their author or publisher. This particular edition was initially printed in the United States, but my copy says it was printed in the United Kingdom by Amazon. In some cases, it is difficult to tell the origin of the country a book is printed in since ships outfitted with printing presses now print vasts quantities and deliver them to any country in the world.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is Baxters appeal to merchants to behave themselves as good Christians. As Christopher hill recounts in his book The English Revolution 1640 “The political theorist, Hobbes, describes how the Presbyterian merchant class of the city of London was the first centre of sedition, trying to build a state-governed like the republics of Holland and Venice, by merchants for their interests. (The comparison with the bourgeois republics is constantly recurring in Parliamentarian writings.) Mrs Hutchinson, the wife of one of Cromwell’s colonels, said all were described as Puritans who “crossed the views of the needy courtiers, the encroaching priests, the thievish projectors, the lewd nobility and gentry . . . whoever could endure a sermon, modest habit or conversation, or anything good.”[2]

As was said at the beginning of this review, Baxter is an overlooked writer but along with Thoms Hobbes and James Harrington[3] is a crucial figure if one wants to understand the nature of the English revolution. Baxter’s writings give us a more in-depth insight into culture and politics during the civil war.

According to one writer “The largest single group among Baxter's correspondence consists of some seventy men who became nonconformist ministers at the Restoration, but the interest of the letters is not confined to the history of nonconformity, ecclesiastical affairs, or theological controversy. Baxter was an acute enquirer into matters arcane and mundane, inveterately interested in both public affairs and individuals' experience, encyclopedically industrious in establishing the grounds for the opinions which, for over half a century, he freely discussed in letters with persons of every walk of life, from peers, the gentry, and members of the professions, to merchants, apprentices, farmers, and seamen. The result is not merely a rich historical archive: the range of this correspondence, the vitality of its engagement with a great variety of topics, the immediacy of its expression, and the unpredictability’s of its mood and tone make this collection a record of felt experience unique among early epistolary archives”.

To a certain extent Baxter was sensitive enough to recognise the social currents that brought people of diverse social backgrounds into struggle against the king. Baxter used the only tool available to him. He “ransacked the Bible and half-understood historical precedent for some theory to explain what they were doing”.

Baxter chose the parliamentary side because he felt that “for the debauched rabble through the land emboldened by his (the kings) gentry and seconded by the common soldiers of his army, took all that were called Puritans for their enemies”.

While it is correct to place Baxter’s writings alongside that of Hobbes and Harrington  Schlatter believes that Baxter’s opposition to Hobbes and Harrington were that they believed in a secular state, but Baxter did not.

Having said that Baxter closely followed the writings of Hobbes and Harrington declaring  "I must begin at the bottom and touch these Praecognita which the politicians doth presuppose because I have to do with some that will deny as much, as shame will suffer them to deny."

Baxter was heavily critical of Hobbes whose “mistake” according to one writer “was that in his doctrine of "absolute impious Monarchy' he gives priority to man by making sovereign the will of man rather than the will of God. Baxter deplored any attempt to draw criteria for right and wrong from man's As for Harrington; his great fallacy consisted in denying God's sovereignty by making "God the Proposer, and the people the Resolvers or Confirmers of all their laws." If his [Harrington's] doctrine be true, the Law of nature is no Law, till men consent to it. At least where the Major Vote can carry it, Atheism, Idolatry, Murder, Theft, Whoredome, etc., are no sins against God. Yea no man sinneth against God but he that consenteth to his Laws. The people have greater authority or Government than Gods in Baxter's view, such conceptions of politics and its practice as those of Hobbes and Harrington is suited to atheists and heathen”.

While being critical his writings bore similarities to both Hobbes and Harrington.According to Geoffrey Nuttall "in politics as well as an ecclesiastical position as continually taking a 'moderate' position which from both sides would bring him charges of betrayal or insincerity."

To the consternation of many revisionist historians, a case can be made that the English revolution was fought along class lines. As Baxter himself put it at the time: “A very great part of the knights and gentlemen of England . . . adhered to the King . . . And most of the tenants of these gentlemen, and also most of the poorest of the people, whom the others call the rabble, did follow the gentry and were for the King. On the Parliament’s side were (besides themselves) the smaller part (as some thought) of the gentry in most of the counties, and the greatest part of the tradesmen and freeholders and the middle sort of men, especially in those corporations and counties which depend on clothing and such manufactures…Freeholders and tradesmen are the strength of religion and civility in the land, and gentlemen and beggars and servile tenants are the strength of iniquity”.[4]

Conclusion

To conclude Schlatter offers some advice on how we should understand Richard Baxter's place in the English revolution “students of Baxter must look backwards, for he stands near the end of a tradition which, although someone is always trying to revive it as a weapon in the never-ending war on liberty and democracy has been long been dead. To understand Baxter’s politics we must reflect on that long political tradition which achieved its first and most magnificent expression in the City of God, which flourished in the Middle Ages and Reformation, and died in the Age of Reason”.

Comment  by C Thompson

Dear Keith,
                   I read your most recent post on the works of Richard Baxter and their significance with interest. I am afraid I do not think your interpretation is correct. Because Baxter like many of his contemporaries recognised that there were economic and social distinctions in English society does not mean that they were class-based or that they supported an interpretation of the events of the 1640s as an example of class conflict in the Marxist sense. 

The use of terms like "lower middle class" is anachronistic and the view of the capacity of those at the lower end of the social scale to take political decisions was not just a reflection of upper class prejudices. I am hard-pressed to think of any early modern historians nowadays who would use such terms. There was, moreover, no real prospect at any stage of small groups like the Diggers, still less the Levellers, overthrowing the economic and social order. In any case, the complex mechanisms for conciliation and negotiation between different individuals, social groups and localities have yet to be fully explored. Baxter cannot be re-moulded in this procrustean sense.
                 With good wishes,

                                                Christopher   










[1] Joad Raymond, The Invention of the English Newspaper: English Newsbooks, 1641-1649 (Oxford:Clarendon Press, 1996), 6
[2] https://www.marxists.org/archive/hill-christopher/english-revolution/
[3] See J ames Harrington: An Intellectual Biography – 10 Oct 2019-by Rachel Hammersley
[4] https://www.marxists.org/archive/hill-christopher/english-revolution/