Friday, 8 February 2019

Eric Hobsbawm-A Life in History-Richard J. Evans in conversation with Martin Jacques and Donald Sassoon

To mark the publication of Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History (Little, Brown) by Richard J. Evans, the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology at Birkbeck and the Institute of Historical Research held a meeting on 7th February 2019.

The publication of A Life in History is a significant event, and the book deserves a wide readership. The meeting itself contained no surprises and minimal controversy. The most exciting part of the evening happened before the event.

People entering the meeting were met by workers protesting at the deplorable conditions faced by outsourced workers at Britains leading universities, Birkbeck included. The protestors had called for a boycott of the meeting. Evans was accused of ignoring the boycott by holding the meeting.

According to his Twitter account, Evans has sent out contradictory statements regarding the boycott, In one of his latest tweets he said  “At the launch of my 'Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History' yesterday at London's Senate House last night, I took a bundle of the protesters' leaflets into the meeting so people could read them. I am sure we all support the end of outsourcing labour there. I certainly do. I think it is right that outsourced labour should be brought under the aegis of the University of London and given the same working terms and conditions as those employed by the university directly. I understand that the university is making efforts to do this.” 

However, in an earlier tweet, he states “Misleading press reports on last night's launch of my "Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History -undermining-workers-protest …. Hobsbawm would not have approved of the protest, which was mounted by a small sectarian group unaffiliated with the TUC. It was not a picket line mounted by workers”.

Maritza Castillo Calle, University of London branch chairwoman of the IWGB union,  said “It is disappointing that these respected academics chose to ignore the boycott in order to talk about a Marxist historian that we are sure would be on our side in this struggle, Castillo Calle said the boycott was “a last resort following countless strikes”. She added: “We hope the stand taken by our supporters will make university management finally see sense.”

Calle’s point is valid. The meeting could have spent some time discussing the issue. Evans said he would “bring it to the attention of the meeting. However, Evan’s, regius professor emeritus of history at Cambridge University, did not open such discussion at the meeting. A statement from Birkbeck University said the institution was “strongly supportive of the University of London’s decision to bring currently outsourced staff into direct employment of the university – a process which is currently underway”.

A comment disputed by an  IWGB spokesman who said “The bulk of outsourced workers – including maintenance, cleaners and catering – will remain outsourced at least until their contracts are up for tender in 2019, 2020 and 2021. At that point, an in-house bid will be presented alongside other commercial bids, leaving the door open for the workers to remain outsourced indefinitely.”

The meeting itself was a disappointment. The discussion held between Richard J. Evans author of The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914, Martin Jacques Editor of Marxism Today from 1977 to 1991 and Donald Sassoon author of One Hundred Years of Socialism was polite, jovial. Given that Hobsbawm was an extraordinarily complex and controversial figure most of the issues that made him so were not discussed. One of these issues was Hobsbawm’s attitude towards the 1917 Russian revolution.

To what extent this was deliberately avoided is open to debate but given that Eric Hobsbawm (1917–2012) was one of the most influential historians of the twentieth century his views on one of the most important events of the Long Twentieth Century are essential.

A member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, he wrote extensively on the modern history of Europe and the world, notably on the rise of industrial capitalism, nationalism, and the socialist movement. He taught at Birkbeck College in London from 1947 to 1982 and held the post of visiting professor in the political science department at the New School for Social Research in New York City from 1984 to 1997.

According to the Marxist writer and expert on Leon Trotsky David North believes that Hobsbawm’s writing on the Russian Revolution mostly portrays the revolution as being “doomed to failure” and a “fatal enterprise.” Hobsbawm believed that the demise of the Soviet Union was the “Shipwreck of Socialism.”

North admits Hobsbawm has produced some excellent work but,” the subject of the Russian Revolution is dangerous territory for Professor Hobsbawm, for in this field his scholarship is compromised by his politics. Hobsbawm once confessed that as a member of the CPGB he had avoided writing about the Russian Revolution and the 20th century because the political line of his party would have prevented him from being entirely truthful. Why he chose to remain a member of a party that would have compelled him to tell lies is a question to which he has never given a convincing answer. At any rate, it would have been best for him and no loss to the writing of history, had he continued to limit himself to events before 1900”.

Friday, 1 February 2019

Against the Grain: the British Far Left from 1956 Edited by Evan Smith and Matthew Worley. Manchester University Press, 2014. Two hundred seventy-two pp. ISBN 978-0-7190-9590-0, £75.

It is very rare to figure out what a book is about from the first paragraph. I have known only one book, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens which does that, unfortunately Against the Grain is not in that league.

The simple reason being that anyone who uses this quote from Tariq Ali “the only real alternative to capitalist policies is provided by the revolutionary left groups as a whole. Despite their smallness and their many failings, they represent the only way forward”[1] not only agrees with Ali’s political opportunism but also excuses the betrayals committed by Ali et al.

Ali is an expert in political opportunism as demonstrated by his decades-long political record. The editors have produced a book that is nothing more than an apology for the political perspectives of the various pseudo-left organisations in Britain. A book by radicals for radicals. Alternatively, as Mark Perryman describes as “ one for the activists, the old hands for the nostalgia trip of reading of old battles, the new wave to read of past mistakes and dream of not repeating them.”

If there is a theme running through this book, it is to boost the credentials of Tariq Ali and all the Pseudo Left, Stalinist and Anarchist groups. It is also a thinly veiled polemic against orthodox Trotskyism whether represented by Socialist Labour League under Gerry Healy or the Socialist Equality Party(SEP).


To start with, a correction is needed. Evans and Worley state “The genesis of post-war British Trotskyism can be traced back to the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), which contained all of the subsequent leading figures of the Trotskyist movement and held the position of the official British representative of the Fourth International between 1944 and 1949. The RCP made some headway in the rank and file of the trade unions, particularly by supporting strikes when the CPGB was still promoting co-operation with the government, as well as in the anti-fascist activism against Mosley’s newly-formed Union Movement. However, the RCP soon split over questions concerning entrism within the Labour Party and how the Fourth International should view the ‘People’s Democracies’ of Eastern Europe”. [2] 

This quote is misleading because it leaves out the main reason for disagreement being whether national sections would subordinate their program to that of the Fourth International or as Trotsky put it “The construction of a revolutionary tendency is possible only on the basis of an internationalist perspective. As Leon Trotsky insisted in 1928: “In our epoch, which is the epoch of imperialism, i.e., of the world economy and world politics under the hegemony of finance capital, not a single communist party can establish its programme by proceeding solely or mainly from conditions and tendencies of developments in its own country. In the present epoch, to a much larger extent than in the past, the national orientation of the proletariat must and can flow only from a world orientation and not vice versa. Herein lies the basic and primary difference between communist internationalism and all varieties of national socialism”.[3]

This intellectual sloppiness sets the tone for the rest of the book in that all the authors are either hostile or indifferent to orthodox Marxism. The fact that the Fourth international in its modern form the (ICFI) International Committee of the Fourth International and the parties belonging to it rarely get much of a mention is indicative of the political persuasion of the editors. Why for instance does Red Action get a whole chapter and the history of the International Committee of the Fourth International in Britain does not get a single mention.

Chapter I Movements- Engaging with Trotsky: The influence of Trotskyism in Britain (pp. 25-44)John Callaghan

John Callaghan’s chapter discusses the attitude of some leading British intellectuals towards Leon Trotsky. One such intellectual Bertrand Russell while noting Trotsky’s  ‘lightning intelligence’, said he was “vane although had charisma”. He did not regard Trotsky as Lenin’s equal.

It comes as no surprise that Trotsky was attacked by the already Stalinist dominated Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) who depicted Trotsky’s work “as disruptive factionalism”.

Callaghan produces some interesting analysis of George Orwell’s response to the Russian Revolution and its co-leader Leon Trotsky. However, I do not agree with his assertion that Orwell did not think Trotsky's analysis of the Stalinism was accurate. While Orwell it is true did not agree with everything Leon Trotsky wrote he was influenced enough to write Animal Farm and 1984. Without Trotsky, these books would not have been written or would have taken very different forms. 

As Andy Reiss writes “Orwell's book is a skilful metaphor about the degeneration of the Soviet Union which accords in many respects to Trotsky's analysis. Thus when Snowball (that is, Trotsky) after the great battle demands that pigeons are sent to neighbouring farms—to bring about revolutions there as well—Napoleon (Stalin) disagrees. This refers to Trotsky's insistence on world revolution, to which Stalin opposed his concept of “Socialism in one country”.[4]

Chapter 2 The New Left: Beyond Stalinism and social democracy? (pp. 45-61) Paul Blackledge

According to Blackledge “The British New Left emerged in 1956 as a response to a global ideological crisis that opened with Khrushchev’s secret speech, but which came to fruition when the revolutionary workers’ movement in Hungary was suppressed by Russian tanks on the same weekend that Anglo-French troops invaded Egypt. Together these events created a space for a critique of the world system as a totality”.

An alternative scenario is that the collapse of Stalinism and Khrushchev's secret speech condemning Stalin caught the majority of the pseudo-left groups by surprise and unprepared. The majority of these groups had adapted their politics on the basis that the Stalinist regimes would last forever and that Stalinism would dominate world politics for a long time to come.

The most open expression of this accommodation was the development of Pabloism. "Pabloism replaced the Trotskyist movement’s characterisation of Stalinism as counterrevolutionary with a theory that attributed to the Kremlin bureaucracy and its agencies a historically progressive and revolutionary role. Rather than working for the overthrow of the Stalinist regimes in a series of political revolutions, the Pabloites foresaw a process of bureaucratic self-reform, with Trotskyists acting as advisers to the Stalinist leaders, urging them toward a more left-wing course. The “deformed workers states” of Eastern Europe, ruled by the local Stalinist agents of the Kremlin regime, were destined, according to Pablo and Mandel, to last for centuries.[5] .

It is no surprise that Blackledge in this chapter at no point discusses the analysis put forward by the orthodox Trotskyist group The socialist labour League (SLL).

Blackledge spends much time Discussing Edward P Thompson’s response to the crisis of Stalinism. Thompson spent most of his academic career distancing himself from his life in the British Communist Party. His criticism of Stalinism was not from an orthodox Marxist position. Instead, he advocated a “socialist humanism” approach. Thompson at an early age rejected classical Marxism represented by Leon Trotsky despite later breaking with Stalinism it is clear that Thompsons ’subsequent historical and political writings to a lesser extent were still imbued with Stalinist influences.

While the Communist Party of Britain did attract a large number of distinguished historians, this was still an appalling training school and E P Thompson never entirely abandoned all that he learned there.

For the orthodox Marxists or Trotskyists in the Fourth International which was led in Britain by Gerry Healy of the Socialist Labour League (SLL), the crisis within the British Communist party was an opportunity to insist on the counter-revolutionary nature of Stalinism. Many of the best figures from the CP — Cliff Slaughter, Tom Kemp and Peter Fryer were won to orthodox or classical Marxism.

Thompson was not one of them despite being portrayed as being at the centre of a “Marxist revival.” Marxists inside the SLL were hostile to the New Reasoner’s politics but were open to debate. In an article from Labour Review October –November 1959 Healy was mindful of the sharp polemics that Thompson had been involved in sought in his article called - The New left Must Look to the Working Class to open a debate with Thompson and his supporters.

Healy did not mince his words when he said “What strikes one immediately on reading E P Thompson’s article is that he entirely omits the working class; consequently there is no attempt to analyse the relationship between the left of today and the working class. One would imagine that the New Left had just arrived and existed in a world of its own. The opposite, of course, is the case. The New Left is not just a grouping of people around some new ideas that they have developed independently. This new development on the left reflects a particular phase in the elaboration of the crisis of capitalism, which for socialists is the crisis of the working class movement. Like movements among intellectuals and students in the past, the recent emergence of the new left is the advance warning of a resurgence of the working class as an active political force in Britain. The crisis which is the basis of such action finds its first reflection in the battle of ideas.”

From the early years of Thompson’s magazine New Reasoner, it was clear that he did not intend to have a debate with the Trotskyists. Despite Healy trying to have cordial relations with Thompson and his supporters it became increasingly clear that Thompson did not see the Trotskyist’s around Healy as being a part of the working class. Healy’s response was to say that “Comrade Thompson seems to have cast away all the luggage, he was equipped within the Communist Party except one soiled old suitcase labelled anti-Trotskyism.” Thompson’s response to the SLL was to accuse it of factionalism. An epithet I might add that has been levelled at the Trotskyist movement throughout its history.

Chapter 4 Marching separately, seldom together: The political history of two principal trends in British Trotskyism, 1945–2009-Phil Burton-Cartledge

Burton-Cartledge writes “Their opponents in the International Marxist Group and the Socialist Labour League/Workers’ Revolutionary Party (SLL/WRP) each met limited success and influence in the labour movement and The broader social movements, but by the end of the 1980s both had splintered into very small competing groups”.

Like many other academics who write on the Trotskyist movement, Burton-Cartledge believes that a group’s worth is measured not in defence of principles or what program or history they represent and defend but in numbers.

At no point does he offer a serious examination of the political relationship between both the SWP and SP and their respective relationship to the Communist Party and the Labour Party. As Chris Marsden points out “The SWP has for many years calculated that the rightward course of the Labour government would lead to a split-off by a section of the Labour Party and the trade unions, for which it could serve as “left” adviser. However, the attempt to constitute a new party on such a perspective has ended in abject failure because, to date, no significant section of the bureaucracy has broken with Labour”.

One example, which is not in the book of the duplicity of these organisations is their support for the demand that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange be extradited to Sweden.

Both the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party go along with the propaganda of the media that Assange should face rape charges. The purpose of frame-up is in order for the United States, Britain, Sweden and other governments to silence him and destroy WikiLeaks.

Opposition in slow motion: The CPGB’s ‘anti-revisionists’ in the 1960s and 1970s (pp. 98-114) Lawrence Parker

One of the remits given by the editors of this book seems to find the most obscure political development and write about it. Why else would Parker be given a chapter in the book on this group of hard-line Stalinists?

Chapter 7 British anarchism in the era of Thatcherism (pp. 133-152)-Rich Cross

As Cross brings out in this chapter the rise of Thatcher also corresponded with the growth anarchism. It would be a mistake which to his credit Cross does not make to say that it represented a movement of the working class. While there was a significant movement of the working class whose high and low point was the miner's struggle in 1984-85 it should be noted that all the anarchist groups at the time and now reject an orientation to the working as this is rooted in their petty bourgeois scepticism towards the revolutionary capacity of the working class.

Stuart Hall

As is mentioned in the book this period from a theoretical standpoint was dominated by two essays, Stuart Hall’s ‘The Great Moving Right Show’ and Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’ (published in Marxism Today in late 1978)

Hall should be remembered as being credited with inventing the term Thatcherism”. A large amount of Hall’s work appeared in Marxism Today, the journal associated with the Euro-communist wing of the CPGB. In that journal, Hall had a fondness for attacking orthodox Trotskyism and usually used Antonio Gramsci to make his point. His essay ‘The Great Moving Right Show’ is no exception he writes “One also encounters in this discussion variants of "revolutionary optimism" and "revolutionary pessimism". The pessimists argue that we must not rock the boat, or demoralise the already dispersed forces of the Left. To them, one can only reply with Gramsci's injunction: to address ourselves "violently" towards the present as it is if we are serious about transforming it. The optimists cast doubt on the doubters: look for the points of resistance—the class struggle continues. Of course, in one sense, they are right. We must look behind the surface phenomena; we must find the points of intervention, we must not underestimate the capacity for resistance and struggle. However, if we are correct about the depth of the rightward turn, then our interventions need to be pertinent, decisive and effective. Whistling in the dark is an occupational hazard not altogether unknown to the British Left”.[6]

Gramsci was attractive to Hall not only because of his cultural writings but as Paul Bond writes in his essay on Hall “for his attacks on economic determinism, his explicit rejection of the theory of Permanent Revolution and his justification of the nationalist orientation of Stalinism: As Gramsci declared, “To be sure, the line of development is toward internationalism, but the point of departure is ‘national’—and it is from this point of departure that one must begin”.


While Hall was not a Stalinist Hobsbawm was. It would not be an overstatement to say that Marxism Today was fanatically hostile to orthodox Marxism. The journal played a huge role in bringing New Labour to power. The historian Eric Hobsbawm played no small part in that development.

It did not come as a surprise that Hobsbawm’s writing on Labour history brought him closer to the Labour Party. He was made a Companion of Honour. A rarity for a historian especially of his political persuasion. Hobsbawm was lauded from both sides of bourgeois democracy in Britain. Labour leader Ed Miliband said Prof Hobsbawm was "an extraordinary historian, a man passionate about his politics and a great friend of his family”. His historical works brought hundreds of years of British history to hundreds of thousands of people. He brought history out of the ivory tower and into people's lives. However, he was not simply an academic; he cared deeply about the political direction of the country. Indeed, he was one of the first people to recognise the challenges to Labour in the late 1970s and 1980s from the changing nature of our society."

In this respect, Milliband says more than he intended. Hobsbawm was a primary theoretical architect of the right wing shift of New Labour. During his membership of the "Eurocommunist" wing of the CPGB and his time with the Marxism Today theoretical journal, he wrote many articles urging labour to adopt a more right-wing trajectory. In 1978 he wrote the essay “The Forward March of Labour Halted”. Which in many ways laid the basis for Labours future development? "If anything, I was an extremely right-wing Communist and generally attacked by the leftists, including the leftists in the Labour Party".

Hobsbawm relationship with the origins of New Labour is explored in an article by Chris Marsden which reveals Stalinism’s role in spawning new Labour. Marsden said the Communist Party of Great Britain “Euro-Communist” tendency acted as the midwife of New Labour.” Marsden continues with the observation that Marxism Today of which Hobsbawm was a frequent writer for laid the “ideological framework for what was to become New Labour was first established in the editorial offices of Marxism Today. Moreover, it was mostly made possible to implement the project so defined due above all to the liquidation of the Soviet Union”.

Something new under the sun: The revolutionary left and gay politics (pp. 173-189) Graham Willett- Anti-racism and the socialist left, 1968–79 (pp. 209-228)Satnam Virdee and ‘Vicarious pleasure’? The British far left and the third world, 1956–79 (pp. 190-208)-Ian Birchall- Anti-racism and the socialist left, 1968–79. Narratives of radical lives: The roots of 1960s activism and the making of the British left (pp. 62-79) Celia Hughes- Anti-fascism in Britain, 1997–2012 (pp. 247-263)-David Renton

From an editorial viewpoint these chapters of the book should have been dealt with separately, but from a theoretical sense, they should be discussed together because they all come under the field of Cultural studies. One of the leading proponents of this revisionist field was Stuart Hall. Many of the genres above are a branch of the Cultural studies tree. From the start, Cultural Studies was opposed to revolutionary Marxism primarily in the form of its contemporary expression, Trotskyism. As Paul Bond writes “ The academic field sought to shift the focus of social criticism away from class and onto other social formations, thus promoting the development of identity politics. Its establishment, in the final analysis, was a hostile response to the gains made by the Trotskyist movement in Britain from the 1950s onwards”.


It is hard to know where to begin with these concluding remarks. While this book and the sequel have undoubtedly been attacked from the right, this review is an attack from the left. My question to the authors is how far did you go to get an orthodox Marxist to write a chapter in the allowing the record to be set straight. It would appear from both books not very far.

1 T. Ali, The Coming British Revolution (London: Jonathan Cape, 1972) p. 10.
2 E. Hobsbawm, ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’, in M. Jacques & F. Mulhearn (eds), The Forward March of Labour Halted? (London: Verso, 1981), pp. 1–19.
2.    Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956-edited by Evan Smith, Matthew Worley
3.    British Communism and the Politics of Race (Historical Materialism) Paperback – 15 Dec 2018-by Evan Smith

[1] The Coming British Revolution: Tariq Ali
[2] Against the Grain: the British Far Left from 1956. Edited by Evan Smith and Matthew Worley. Manchester University Press, 2014. 272 pp. ISBN 978-0-7190-9590-0

[3] Leon Trotsky (1972) The Third International After Lenin, Pathfinder Press
[4]Animal Farm: a new version on US television by Andy Reiss 12 November 1999  -
[5] Preface to the thirtieth-anniversary edition of The Heritage We Defend
By David North -21 June 2018
[6]‘The Great Moving Right Show’

Sunday, 27 January 2019

The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg-by Klaus Gietinger-(Verso £14.99)

“Here is a world in disorder, Who is then ready to put it in order?” Bertolt Brecht -1926

“Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world; they are still the only ones up to now who can cry with Hütten, ‘I have dared!” Rosa Luxemburg

Although the Eagles do swoop down and beneath the Chickens fly, chickens with outspread wings never will soar amid clouds in the sky. Lenin on Rosa Luxemburg

The Marxist Revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg was executed 100 years ago this month. She was born in Poland in 1871; she was a world-renowned Marxist, economist and anti-war activist. In the introduction to his excellent book, Klaus Gietinger makes the following point “The cold-blooded murder of revolutionary icons Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in the pitched political battles of post-WWI Germany marks one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century”. 

The assassination is also one of the greatest crimes of the 20th century. In Berlin on 15 January 1919, Freikorps soldiers of the Garde-Kavallerie-Schützen Division put Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht under arrest. The two were leaders of newly formed German Communist Party (KPD). They were arrested by Freikorp soldiers and taken to the Hotel Eden, where they were tortured and later murdered.

As the Marxist writer, Peter Schwarz describes “The 48-year-old Rosa Luxemburg was among the most outstanding Marxist revolutionaries of her epoch. She gained notoriety for her sharp polemics against Eduard Bernstein’s revisionism and the Social Democrats’ pro-war policies in the First World War, and was the undisputed theoretical leader of the SPD’s revolutionary wing and later of the Spartacus League”.[1]

Gittinger's investigation was written primarily in order to commemorate the 100th anniversary of their untimely deaths. Gietinger who is not a professional historian has done an excellent job reconstructing the events on that fateful night.

His deep mining of the archives in Germany is an essential first step in identifying who exactly was responsible for the murder, and what forces in the SPD covered for the murderers and allowed them to not only escape, but also to ease back into a comfortable life back into Germany society and in some cases back into politics. Many involved in the murder went on to have careers as Nazis.

One of the strengths of Gietinger’s book is his ability to understand the tragedy of Luxemburg’s death along with the farcical nature of the investigation and subsequent trials.

On the negative side, Gietinger has a limited political understanding of the events that brought about the deaths of Luxemburg and Karl Liebknect. He has a confused understanding of the political situation when asked in an interview why he said that the murders were  “one of the greatest political tragedies” of the 20th century.

His answer was “Luxemburg and Liebknecht were mythical leader figures of the authentic left. The SPD top brass had long moved to the right through their pact with the old powers and armed forces, but many SPD supporters venerated the two Spartacus leaders. They would never have permitted the Stalinization of the KPD. Luxemburg was against joining the Comintern; she criticised Lenin and Radek’s terror. Even Liebknecht would have been reluctant to accept a mere vanguard of the working class.

Both tried to help the masses come into their own and did not seek to patronise them. The left in Germany and Europe would have pursued a more independent path. There would have been a chance to expose the right-wing leaders of the SPD. The division in the left would not have been cemented. Whether that would have prevented fascism and Stalinism is another question, but the chances of doing so would have been higher”.[2]

A more precise appreciation was given by Leon Trotsky who summed up situation in this concise manner “As to the German Revolution of 1918, it was no democratic completion of the bourgeois revolution, it was a proletarian revolution decapitated by the Social Democrats; more correctly, it was a bourgeois counter-revolution, which was compelled to preserve pseudo-democratic forms after its victory over the proletariat.”[3]

To his credit, Gietinger understood that the SPD murdered them in order to head off the impending social revolution. Gietinger deserves much credit for bothering to uncover the murder of Rosa Luxemburg. It is still hard to believe that the full truth has not fully come out until now.
As Gietinger graphically portrays in the book the vulnerable Rosa Luxemburg was smashed in the head with the butt of a rifle in the Hotel Eden foyer. A car was then brought to the hotel she was murdered in the car and her body thrown in the nearby Landwehr Canal. Her body was only discovered by accident a month later. To cover the murder up the perpetrators lied by saying that Luxemburg was lynched by an outraged mob.

As Peter Swartz explains “The brutal murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht marked a new stage of counter-revolutionary violence. Before this, the bourgeois state had ruthlessly cracked down on socialist opponents, and, as in the aftermath of the suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871 in France, took bloody revenge against revolutionary workers with mass executions. However, the murder of the leaders of a revolutionary party by state organs without a trial or court judgment was a new phenomenon and set a precedent followed by others. Even the autocratic Tsarist regime generally banished socialist opponents to Siberia”.

In the latter part of the book, Gietinger explains how the leadership of the SPD systematically protected the killers. The trials of the killers even by bourgeois standards were farces. As the review in the Guardian by Lara Feigel points out “There was a series of trials in which the SPD leaders colluded with the killers, appointing their collaborators as judges. In May 1919, the court decided that Runge had attempted to kill Luxemburg and Vogel had shot her, but only gave them two-year sentences as they could not know who had caused the death. When Vogel escaped to the Netherlands, the authorities failed to extradite him, frightened he would expose the identity of his accomplices. Shockingly, even in 1960s West Germany when Pabst revealed that he had ordered the killing, the government issued a communique labelling the double homicide a “legitimate execution”. At this point, Pabst outed Souchon as the killer, but Souchon took the audacious step of suing for libel. The court assigned to judge the case relied on the wholly inaccurate records from the 1919 trial, so he won. This book, therefore, provides an important coda to these years in proving, with the aid of diagrams and documents, that Souchon was the culprit”.[4]

While Gietinger is clear on the role of the SPD in covering for the SPD, he says little about why the SPD played such a prominent role in the murder of two ex-members. The leaders of the SPD especially Gustav Noske, the minister responsible for the Reichswehr and a leading SPD member, gave the green light to the Garde-Kavallerie-Schützen Division. This was an organisation that was renowned for its ruthless violence against the German working class. When the first court case against the murders took place, their acquittal was personally signed by Noske.


It is not surprising given the political nature of the SPD today that it still denies its responsibility for the murder of Luxemburg and Liebknect.

As Gietinger explains in his book one of the killers, Pabst spoke with Noske by telephone immediately before the killings. In a 1969 letter found after his death, he wrote “It is obvious that there was no way I could have carried out the action without Noske’s support—with Ebert in the background—and that I had to protect my officers. However, very few people have understood why I was never called to testify or charged with an offence. As a cavalier, I acknowledged the SPD’s behaviour at the time by keeping my mouth shut for fifty years about our cooperation”.

Given that they were heavily involved in the unprecedented state-sanctioned murder of Luxemburg you would have thought that the present day leadership would show a little contrition. This is not the case In a chilling statement of intent Wolfgang Thierse, former president of the federal parliament, declared: “We would do it again”.

According to Schwarz  “Had Luxemburg and Liebknecht survived in 1919, not only German history, but also world history would have turned out differently. A victorious socialist revolution in Germany would have freed the Soviet Union from its isolation and thereby removed the most critical factor for the growth of the bureaucracy and the rise of Stalin”. Perhaps Gittinger's next book will examine this prediction.

[1]  One hundred years since the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Christopher Thompson's 2016 Paper

For well over thirty years, the study of the rebellions and revolution that convulsed the British Isles in the middle of the seventeenth century has been dominated by a single line of explanation, that based on the problems faced by the Stuarts in ruling multiple kingdoms differing in their constitutional and legal systems, in their economies, politics and religion. Separately, these differences and problems might have been manageable but, within a single dynastic framework, they were too complex and explosive, especially in religion, to be resolved peacefully. As a result, a large body of sophisticated historical scholarship has come into being on the relationships between the Stuarts’ three kingdoms, particularly on the parts played by the risings in Scotland and Ireland in sparking first rebellion and then revolution in England. The Scots Covenanters of 1637 and the Irish rebels of 1641 have come to be seen as the godparents of the English Parliamentarians of the 1640s.

This analysis rests on a number of short-term claims. First of all, there is the contention that England, the most populous and wealthiest of Charles I’s kingdoms, was basically peaceful, prosperous and stable in the mid-1630s. Had it not been for the maladroit and misguided attempt to draw the Scottish Kirk into a degree of greater ceremonial and doctrinal conformity with an increasingly Arminian Church of England, there would have been no Covenanting movement and thus no loss of royal authority requiring external military intervention in Scotland. Without military defeat, there would have been no compelling necessity to call further English Parliaments. If, moreover, Strafford had been a conciliatory, politically astute Lord Deputy governing Ireland in the king’s name rather than an authoritarian vicegerent, the diverse and religiously antagonistic elements of its population would not have been so resentful of his regime or so fearful of continuing rule by an English Parliament. But for these accidents, the critics of Caroline rule in England would never have had the opportunity to challenge royal authority so fundamentally in and after 1640.

Historians have, of course, had to take into account other longer-term tensions. The Union of the Crowns under King James VI and I in 1603 left Ireland still constitutionally dependent upon England’s sovereign and Privy Council while Scotland’s existence as a separate state maintained her distinctive institutions and legal system. Neither Ireland nor Scotland had Parliaments as forceful as that of England and Wales. In religion, Ireland was a predominantly Catholic country (with a weak Protestant State church) widely thought to pose a strategic threat to her sister kingdoms in a period of religious strife in Europe. Despite their shared Protestantism, there were latent divisions between and within the Churches of Scotland and England over ceremonies and doctrines, the liturgies and organisation of their respective ecclesiastical establishments. There can be no doubt either that there were groups within all three states that preferred the confessional or constitutional arrangements of another kingdom. Similarly, the debilitating effects of long-term fiscal weaknesses and of military failure have been carefully studied. Rival conspiracy theories about the threat from Popery and of Puritan factionalism certainly came to flourish in a climate in which there were important personal and political animosities affecting Charles I’s relationships with significant groups of his subjects. These enduring strains provided the backdrop to the crises of the late-1630s and early-1640s in the British Isles.

Current historiography thus combines short-term contingent elements and long-term factors. The immediate antecedents of the Scottish, Irish and English rebellions matter greatly and are responsible for their explosive interactions. The longer-term factors offer contexts for the weaknesses of Stuart rule. They work together almost in a palaeolithic sense as triggers and preconditions to offer a compelling explanation of these traumatic events within a largely narrative framework. But this perspective would not have been comprehensible to contemporaries in the three kingdoms, to the Covenanters, for example, whose complaints stretched back to the 1580s, to those in England whose grievances went as far back as the start of Charles I’s reign in 1625 or even to the Irish Confederates. It can, moreover, only be sustained by ignoring the defining crises of the war period of the mid-to-late 1620s that shaped both the Caroline regimes and, critically, the attitudes of the king’s opponents in all three realms. How those crises arose, how they differed in severity from kingdom to kingdom and how they influenced the subsequent crises of the late-1630s and early-1640s offer the opportunity to develop a radically different hypothesis.

The dynastic union of England, Ireland and Scotland was intact and secure when James died in 1625. He had ruled like a Scots dominie, keen to assert his authority in law, policy and religion, lecturing his subjects on royal rights and their obligations. But his extravagance and his poor judgment of men had diminished the standing of the English Crown and invited unfavourable comparisons with his predecessor in her prime. Long absence from Scotland had left his subjects there discontented. The legacy of Britain’s Solomon to his younger but only surviving son was a mixed one. That son lacked James’s gregariousness, his mastery of bawdy language and personal dissipation. Charles was chaste and reserved, authoritarian in temperament and liable to interpret criticism as seditious opposition. He was, by any standards, poorly equipped to govern, let alone to make the practical compromises necessary to succeed.

Of his three kingdoms, England was the largest and richest. It was politically unified with royal and conciliar authority pervading the realm. A single system of common law operated and a single, bi-cameral Parliament represented England and Wales. Sovereigns ruled with the co-operation of noble and gentry landowners and of members of the ‘middling sort’ in the countryside and towns. Admittedly, inflation and population growth had adversely affected the poor. But there had been other problems too. Royal revenues had been adequate but no more than that in 1603. James’s spending had spectacularly reduced the Crown’s landed revenues and forced reliance on disputed customs duties as well as on monopolies, patents and the sale of offices and titles. Efforts at reform and retrenchment failed. Inevitably, there were disputes in the Courts and in Parliament. In religion, Elizabethan disputes about ceremonies and church government had faded. Doctrinally, Calvinist teaching on the importance of preaching and predestination was dominant but other views on grace and free will were held. James’s predilection, however, for diplomatic dealings with Catholic powers, indeed his willingness to marry his son to a Catholic Princess when his son-in-law, the Elector Frederick’s lands had been seized by the Habsburgs stimulated Puritan criticisms and fears of Popery’s return.

Legally, Ireland was dependent on the English Crown, ruled by a Lord Deputy and Council in the king’s name but under continuing supervision. It had its own Parliament and institutions of government. English authority before 1603 had been largely confined to the Pale around Dublin. Elsewhere, it rested on the co-operation of ‘Old Irish’ and ‘Old English’ lords. The ‘Old Irish’ were Celts and Catholic, spoke Gaelic and held land collectively in clans. The ‘Old English’ were descended from earlier colonists, were largely Catholic and dominated Irish administration. But, after the defeat and flight of the rebellious Irish Earls, there had been an influx of English and Scottish settlers from the mainland to occupy seized land in Ulster. The arrival of the ‘New English’ added a further, obviously Protestant element. In the event, the State Church of Ireland lacked the resources and will to convert Catholics despite its increasingly Calvinist doctrines after 1615. Persecution of Catholics was rarely possible for long whatever the wishes of officials in Dublin or of planters but the temptation to establish new plantations remained. Over landownership, religion and systems of law, Ireland was divided but loyal in 1625.

Like Ireland, Scotland was poor and lightly populated. It too contained Gaelic-speaking society presided over by clan lords in the Highlands and Islands. But the bulk of its population lived in the lowlands where agriculture was the major occupation. The predominant group was that of the landowners, nobles and ‘lairds’, who exercised jurisdiction over lesser men and women and who provided patronage and protection as well. Only a handful of towns or burghs existed. Personal relationships between the king and his servants were vital. James succeeded in re-shaping his Privy Council to make it more effective and in managing Scotland’s unicameral Parliament by controlling its business through the Lords of the Articles. He even brought the Presbyterian Kirk to heel by persuading it to acquiesce in royal supremacy, to accept Bishops as part of its government and to agree – in principle, if rarely in practice – to accept reforms in the Five Articles of Perth which required kneeling at Communion and observing Holy Days. Doctrinally, it remained overwhelmingly Calvinist in persuasion and thus compatible with the Churches of England and Ireland. The Kirk’s hold over congregations in the lowlands was firm although there were tensions with nobles over landownership. Overall, James won a greater degree of congruity between his kingdoms. Even so, his absence from his native land after 1603, save for a single visit in 1617, left him increasingly out of touch. His successor was even more ill-informed and remote.

The change in sovereign had important consequences even though Buckingham remained as royal favourite. Both were committed to recovering the Palatinate and to championing the Protestant cause. But the expedition funded by the English Parliamentary subsidies of 1624 and led by Count Mansfeld failed to achieve either objective although an alliance with Denmark and help from France apparently offered better prospects. But these hopes proved illusory. The inadequately funded and under-prepared expedition sent to Cadiz in the autumn of 1625 was a humiliating failure, especially to those brought up on tales of Elizabethan success. Worse still, quarrels with France over mercantile shipping and the use of hired English warships against the Huguenot town of La Rochelle led to war in 1627. The amphibious expedition for its relief led by Buckingham in the summer and autumn of that year came home in defeat and disgrace. Charles’s regime in general and Buckingham in particular were blamed.The King had expected his Parliaments to fund these wars with enthusiasm when he sought supply. Bargaining over his subjects’ grievances was a secondary consideration. But his pleas in 1625 gained only a minimal response and were accompanied by attempts to restrict the collection of Tonnage and Poundage, by complaints over Arminianism and against Buckingham. His first Parliament was, therefore, dissolved.

Financial necessity compelled the summoning of a second early in 1626. Barring critics from 1625 did no good. A direct attack on Buckingham for abusing his offices, neglecting his duty as Lord Admiral to defend the kingdom and wasting the Crown’s revenues followed. Efforts by Charles to delay or stop the impeachment process proved unavailing. The House of Lords was alienated by the arrest and detention of the Earl of Arundel and interference over the allegations brought by the Earl of Bristol against the Duke. Threats of dissolution and of the introduction of ‘new counsels’ were made. Only the prospect of four, later five, subsidies kept Parliament in being. Eventually, when Buckingham’s conviction by the House of Lords on the impeachment charges seemed probable, the king dissolved Parliament in June, 1626.

This was one of the turning points of his reign. Charles was already collecting impositions and Tonnage and Poundage without Parliamentary approval. Having failed to persuade his subjects to pay a benevolence, he and his Privy Council demanded a forced loan in the autumn to raise the equivalent of five subsidies and citing his emergency powers as justification. There were precedents for such loans but this one raised profound questions about its legality despite attempts by Arminian clerics to justify it. It was refused by at least fifteen peers and dozens of gentry, some of whom were imprisoned as a result. Five knights sought writs of Habeas Corpus to gain bail and a trial of the legal issues before the Court of King’s Bench. A combination of royal pressure and legal misgivings left these men in custody and the general right of the Crown to imprison without cause shown undetermined. Financially, the loan was relatively successful. But it was accompanied by other contentious matters. Troops were billeted across the country on civilians, usually without pay or compensation, and martial law was widely imposed. When the Rochelle campaign ended, another Parliament had to be called early in 1628. The king’s critics in both Houses were determined to secure his agreement that taxes could not be raised without Parliament’s consent, that arbitrary imprisonment without cause shown was illegal as, indeed, were billeting troops on civilians and their subjection to martial law. Strenuous royal efforts to persuade the House of Lords to amend these proposals failed. No attack on Buckingham or over the collection of Tonnage and Poundage was made before the king’s replies were received. His incentive was the promise of the grant of five subsidies once he gave a satisfactory reply. Eventually he did but he then tried to limit his concessions. This chicanery came to light in the second session of 1629 when he sought statutory approval for the collection of Tonnage and Poundage and the abandonment of efforts to punish the Customs Farmers for gathering such dues.

Charles’s regime had called the liberties and property rights of his subjects into serious question. His claims to tax without consent in emergencies he defined threatened Parliament’s role. Simultaneously, the rise of the Durham House group in the Church of England with an emphasis on the importance of the sacraments rather than preaching, on free will rather than predestination, on prayer and priestly office endangered the Jacobean religious consensus. Men like Laud, Neile and Wren were promoted to high Episcopal offices while Calvinists languished. No stronger defenders of royal authoritarianism in the state could be found than Roger Mainwaring and Richard Montagu. Charles’s preference for ceremonial sacramentalism was made crystal clear at his coronation in February, 1626. The York House conferences showed that Buckingham was inevitably bound to the king’s side on these matters. Efforts in the House of Commons to call Arminian divines like Cosin and Laud, Manwaring, Montagu and Sibthorpe to account were deliberately frustrated by Charles. There was no success either in insisting upon Calvinist formularies like the Lambeth Articles of 1595 or the Irish Articles of 1615 as binding. Royal injunctions to silence on disputed ceremonial or theological requirements applied to Calvinists, not to Arminians who had won power at the highest levels of the Church.

It was this combination of assaults on the liberties of the subject in England and Wales and on Calvinist beliefs in the Church that, by 1629, had created a proto-revolutionary situation. There had been thunderous denunciations of Buckingham, of royal exactions and religious infractions before. In March, 1629, the House of Commons, just before its dissolution, had declared supports of Arminianism and religious innovation capital enemies of the kingdom and those who advocated or supported paying Tonnage and Poundage betrayers of the liberties of England. Violence in St Stephen’s Chapel was narrowly avoided. Merchants refused to pay such levies for months and fears of open revolt occupied Councillors until late summer. Amongst the godly, fears of persecution for opposing the new conformity prompted proposals for migration to New England. While Charles prepared to punish former M.P.s for sedition and treason, their sympathisers began discussing alternative forms of government in Church and State. The King and his Councillors were barely aware of their critics’ activities at first. Nonetheless, it was in this network of opponents in England, not Scotland, that armed resistance was first contemplated in 1634. Clarendon’s ‘great contrivers’ – the Earl of Warwick, Viscount Say and Sele, Lord Brooke and their allies – began devising proposals for a monarchy shorn of executive powers, subject to a bi-cameral legislature and a Church purged of Arminian and Popish infections. Royal and conciliar failure to appreciate how attempts to enforce Laudian conformity in the Church and to levy Ship Money threatened the religious and secular convictions of their critics. The tensions of the late-1620s were reanimated. This time the internal pressure in England was greater. When Charles sought to take military action against the Scots, he had little backing and the apparatus of the English state failed. Scotland’s revolt was the occasion, not the cause, of the collapse of his regime.

Ireland’s trajectory was different. The wars against France and Spain, both Catholic powers, meant that it was vulnerable to threats of internal risings and foreign invasions. Lord Deputy Falkland and his advisers were alert to both dangers in the late-1620s. Ireland’s potential military contribution gave the ‘Old English’ the chance to demonstrate their loyalty by offering to raise men for its defence. In return, they sought the suspension of the recusancy laws, relaxation of the oath of Supremacy and appointments as Justices of the Peace. The prospect, however, of arming Catholics and giving them offices alarmed the ‘New English’. Between 1626 and 1628, a second scheme known as ‘the Graces’ was developed offering, in return for four Parliamentary subsidies, the suspension of recusancy fines, a weaker oath of allegiance and, most importantly, security of tenure for those who had held land for over sixty years. The ‘Old Irish’ and the ‘Old English’ alike would have benefited and the threat of further plantations would have been ameliorated. But, although the subsidies were voted and collected, Charles’s administration did not abide by the deal. The harassment of Catholics and seizure of their lands continued to appeal to ‘New English’ magnates like the Earl of Cork. Religious tensions and sectarian interests affected Ireland’s course but there was no crisis in the late-1620s comparable to that in England.

Falkland’s successor as Lord Deputy in 1632 was Sir Thomas Wentworth. Wentworth had clear aims – to insulate himself against appeals by Irish landowners to the English Court, to enhance royal authority by making its administration financially self-supporting and to play off the ‘Old Irish’, ‘Old English’ and ‘New English’ against one another. He recognized that Catholics had to be allowed de facto toleration but still envisaged extending plantations in Clare, Connacht, Galway and Munster. Once landowners were Protestants, the protection of Catholic priests would end and the tenantry could be converted. To an extent, he succeeded. Revenues from customs and wardship rose sharply. He even secured six subsidies from the carefully-managed Parliament of 1634 without conceding passage of ‘the Graces’ in full. But his plantation policies alarmed the ‘Old Irish’ and ‘Old English’ alike. More ominously still from a ‘New English’ perspective, Wentworth began the process of recovering alienated Church of Ireland lands and tithes. In religion, Wentworth aimed to reform the Church of Ireland along ceremonialist and anti-Calvinist lines. That meant abrogating the Irish Articles of 1615 and introducing the Church of England’s Thirty Nine Articles and the Canons of 1604. Even with the help of John Bramhall, Bishop of Derry, and against the wishes of Archbishop Ussher, this aim was not completely achieved. Admittedly, the Church of Ireland looked less out of line with that of England in ceremonial and theological terms. Communion tables were moved to the east end of churches and the royal supremacy was to be declared four times a year. A new Court of High Commission was created and deprived non-conforming ministers, whether Irish, English or Scottish, for failing to obey these prescriptions. This process of re-modelling the Church of Ireland to serve more authoritarian ends by the late-1630s was still under way when Scotland rose in revolt.

Charles was an absentee monarch in Scotland as in Ireland. He relied, as his father had done, on his Privy Council based in Edinburgh to govern on his behalf. This enlarged body was separated shortly after his accession from the Court of Session, Scotland’s highest Court, to forestall challenges from the Council or the judiciary over an Act of Revocation designed in theory to recover all the grants of property made by the Crown or Kirk since before 1540. A minimum of consultation had occurred. Charles hoped to improve royal revenues and the value of clerical livings as well as curbing magnates’ powers over their tenants. But this threat of large-scale dispossession and re-grant on new terms was bitterly resented by nobles and lairds and, lacking Parliamentary consent, evoked protests from the Privy Council and clergy. It had to be amended under pressure. Compensation was promised but proved unaffordable. The ministers did benefit from a settlement of their teinds (or tithes) but there was a lasting legacy of mistrust.

Scotland, like England, proved reluctant to fund war expenditure after 1625 even though thousands of its men were fighting as mercenaries in the Thirty Years’ War. Its Privy Council was treated as a subordinate instrument of royal policy and few Scots, save those who also held land and titles in England, exercised influence at Whitehall. One exception was the Earl of Menteith who travelled south regularly from 1628 to 1633 but, after his disgrace in 1633 over a claim to the throne, he was not replaced. Traquair and his colleagues were less influential thereafter.

Ignorance about Scottish sensitivities helps to explain the religious divisions that opened in the 1630s. Charles’s belated coronation at Holyrood in 1633 emphasized the importance of the altar while the officiating Bishops wore white rochets and stoles of blue and gold. It was far too reminiscent of a Catholic Mass. In the Parliament that followed, there was open resistance to the confirmation of the Five Articles of Perth and royal claims to regulate clerical dress. The warning signs were missed. That made the decision to introduce a Book of Canons in 1635 and a Scottish Book of Common Prayer late in 1636 without the prior approval of the Kirk’s General Assembly so provocative. The Canons rested on the royal prerogative and prescribed set forms of prayer. In addition, the Articles of Perth were reaffirmed and communion tables were ordered to be placed at the east end of churches. The Scottish Prayer Book laid its emphasis on the sacraments, condemned ex tempore prayer and retained Saints’ days in the Kirk’s calendar. It seemed considerably worse than the English Prayer Book. No fulminations from London, no conciliar injunctions from Edinburgh let alone pleas from Scottish Bishops could win compliance. Nobles and lairds, ministers and merchants banded together in a National Covenant citing the documents of faith from the 1580s and 1590s in defence of the laws, liberties and true religion of their kingdom. This posed a fundamental challenge to royal authority that Charles could only meet from the resources of his other kingdoms.

That trial of arms was one his regime failed. The conflicts of the 1640s exacted a terrible price in human lives and the destruction of property. The struggle in England was the most explosive of all because the pent-up tensions of the 1620s had not been released. Simultaneous conflicts over law and liberty the rights of rulers and their subjects and over religion brought England to the precipice in the latter part of that decade and again by 1640 . When the Long Parliament traced the genealogy of the Civil Wars, the starting point lay with Charles’s accession. In Ireland and Scotland, there were certainly tensions over religion in the 1620s but the major disputes with the king were over lands and the law. Religious quarrels on a major scale came later in the 1630s. Neither country experienced the ‘double crisis’ that England had undergone: each had had predominantly secular tensions in the period after Charles’s accession, tensions that were exacerbated in the case of Ireland in the 1630s while, in Scotland, there was a religious crisis over the king’s ecclesiastical aims. Each of the Stuarts’ kingdoms had different historical trajectories before they were drawn together in the tragic conflicts of the 1640s.  Ireland never achieved loyal independence within the Stuarts’ realms. Scottish ambitions for ecclesiastical suzerainity and a dominant role in its sister kingdoms foundered too. It was in England where resistance first threatened to escalate into rebellion and then revolution that the epicentre was to be found.