Sunday, 22 February 2015

A Critical Review of A People’s History of Scotland- by Chris Bambery Verso, 320pp, £12.99

It is usual for new history books to fall into two broad categories. One is the history book that has no obvious connection to recent historical or political events. The second is a book that is very political and is released to coincide with ongoing historical or political events. It is the second category that Chris Bambery’s new book falls into in that it is deeply connected to nationalist politics in Scotland.

As the title alludes this is a history of the ‘ordinary people’ of Scotland. According to one writer it “looks beyond the kings and queens, the battles and bloody defeats of the past. It captures the history that matters today, stories of freedom fighters, suffragettes, the workers of Red Clydeside, and the hardship and protest of the treacherous Thatcher era”.

I have a number problems with this book. To begin with Bambery never defines what he means by the people. Bambery’s somewhat unrefined thinking lends itself to him making empty generalizations. In the realm of philosophy these are known as abstract identities. What is bad about this type of imprecise thinking is that it presents according to  David North an “inadequate mental representations of reality: The material world simply does not consist of such internally undifferentiated phenomena”.[1]

Bambery promises us “a corrective to the usual history of kings and queens, victorious battles and bloody defeats.” The first hundred pages or so the author struggles to find any of these ordinary people. In fact the only ordinary people he finds were people who made the tactical difference at Bannockburn, because they were mistaken for reinforcements by the English troops.

Know Your Historian

Bambery’s choice of the genre of people’s history has become popular again. This form of historical study was made extremely popular by the Communist Party Historians Group. The problem is that pseudo left groups like the Socialist Workers Party which Bambery used to belong to have unfortunately assimilated worst aspects of this genre such as a nationalist outlook.

It is especially important when reading this kind of history that the reader knows the politics of the historian or as E H Carr was apt to say “Study the historian before you begin to study the facts. This is, after all, not very abstruse. It is what is already done by the intelligent undergraduate who, when recommended to read a work by that great scholar Jones of St. Jude's, goes round to a friend at St. Jude's to ask what sort of chap Jones is, and what bees he has in his bonnet. When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing. If you can detect none, either you are tone deaf or your historian is a dull dog.[2]

I am not saying that Bambery is a dull dog but there is a surprising absence of both his politics and of the organisation he once belonged perspective on Scottish history. I find this a little strange despite his break with the SWP he does not say anything about their position regarding Scottish history.

Bambery has belonged to a number of pseudo left groups in the UK. He began as a member of the now defunct the International Marxist Group he then moved to the Socialist Workers Party. He resigned from the SWP in 2011 having served on their Central Committee and joined International Socialist Group. The SWP lost a significant number of its members to the ISG who were politically active in Scotland.

As far as I can tell Bambery shares much of the SWP positions on the recent independence campaign in Scotland.  The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) lined up behind the SNP in the Yes campaign, proclaiming separatism as the only basis on which to oppose austerity and militarism. Bambery despite leaving the SWP shares their perspective on Scottish separation.
The ISG’s latest articles go so far as to call for alliances with the SNP, asserting that “the Left will look like a backward break on the movement if it doesn’t initiate the support of the SNP where necessary”.[3]

The IMG alongside the SNP believe Scotland is a classless nation. Bambery ignores the fact that Scottish nationalism and the SNP has always had a pronounced right-wing element. "Class antagonism is a thing quite foreign to the Scottish spirit. It was unknown here until it was imported from England.... In Scotland there is no such inherent feeling of a separation between classes."[4]

Further Criticisms

Like I said above it is important to know the authors politics because in this case it so colours his historiography. While this is not an academic history of Scotland some of Bambery’s comments are less than precise and in a lot cases his history contains an absence of class based history. Bambery’s method has very little to do with historical materialism.

Given the sweep of history you could forgive the author for brevity when it comes to certain periods of Scottish history. But the price he pays is a lowering of a critical analysis of the movements and figures portrayed in the 330 or so pages.

Perhaps not so forgivable is his repeated glorification of myths and invention of traditions that permeate Scottish historiography. This flaw in Bambery’s approach is neatly captured by his statement,

‘Legends will appear throughout this book, and in a way it does not matter if they are real, because a legend can take on a life of its own and so inspire a future generation.’[5]

Bambery seems to have uncritically adopted Hegel’s words when he said  “Every nation has its own imagery, its gods, angels, devils or saints who live in the nation’s traditions, whose stories and deeds the nurse tells her charges and so wins them over by impressing their imagination.”[6]

The failure to critically examine these legends, or as one writer says  “to explore the complex and contradictory relationship between the history and the myth, prevents the book from becoming anything more than a greatest hits of radical – a slippery political term at the best of times – Scottish movements “. His decision after twenty three pages to recommend Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart because it gives “a good account of William Wallace’s life.” Backs this observation up.

Scottish Enlightenment

Bambery's gloriification of Scottish figures from history comes to the fore when dealing with the Scottish enlightenment. It is undoubtedly true that Scotland produced some important figures during the enlightenment period but even these figures were part of an international fraternity and many of them never conceived themselves as promoting nationalism. Bambery’s raising them above other European figures is both wrong and will increase nationalist sentiment.

People’s History Genre

For certain subjects the use of the genre people’s history or for that matter narrative history is both useful and enjoyable. Bringing to the attention of a wide audience people who history or for that matter historians have forgotten is both legitimate and needed. However it is not very useful when dealing with very complex historical processes. 

Bambery sees Scottish history through nationally tinted glasses. Its ruling elites were more democratic. Its enlightenment figures better and its working class more militant and left wing. This relentless populism flies in the face of history.

Bambery’s reckless promotion of Scottish exceptionalism tends to whitewash actual historical events.  After all even a leading member of the Scottish bourgeoisie Thomas Johnston was forced to describe the Scottish nobility as "a selfish, ferocious, famishing, unprincipled set of hyenas, from whom at no time, and in no way, has the country derived any benefit whatsoever". Bambery for some reason sought to cover up who Johnston was first describing him as a "19th-century historian" and only later identifying him as “Scotland's most charismatic Secretary of State”.

The English Bourgeois Revolution

Bambery’s nationalist outlook is reflected in the number of historical events that are not even attempted to be examined within their proper international context. Perhaps the most glaring one is Bambery’s attitude towards the English bourgeois revolution. Given the importance of this historical event it gets strangely very little space in the book.

Bambery given his extensive knowledge of the Communist Party’s use of the history from below genre would have known the tendency amongst Communist Party historians and other radical writers to portray radicals such as the Leveller as struggling against foreign invaders.

Ann Talbot writes “serious Marxist criticisms of Hill are that he always maintains an essentially national approach to the English revolution, which he does not place in an international context, and that he has a tendency to romanticise the religious movements of the period and to be too dismissive of their rational intellectual descendants such as Newton and Locke. In part these characteristics arise from the national orientation of his social class and reflect even in Hill vestiges of the Whig outlook that imagined a peculiarly English political tradition rooted in millennial seventeenth century visionaries like Bunyan that was entirely separate from Enlightenment thought. More significantly it reflects the influence of the popular front politics and national outlook of Stalinism”[7]. Bambery’s People’s history continues this attitude.

Unfortunately Bambery shares the same outlook as the Communist party. Except his nationalism is not English it is Scottish. In this book Bambery rejects the theory of the English bourgeois revolution. He puts forward the premise that the revolution was in fact a “war of three kingdoms”.

The central premise of this argument is succinctly described by Jane Ohlmeyer when she said “the English Civil War was just one of an interlocking set of conflicts that encompassed the British Isles in the mid-seventeenth century”[8]. I do not know Bambery that well to say that this has always been his take on the English revolution but it certainly was not his former party. It is not in the realm of this article to discuss at any length the extent that the SWP has moved away from the central premise of the English bourgeois revolution but the fact that Bambery held a revisionist and conservative position on this seminal event is an indicator of the type of dissent that has existed in the last decade inside the SWP.

Scotland as a Nation

The main theme of this book from the first few pages to the last is to give impression that Scotland from a very early period was a nation slowly making itself through its struggles against oppression. Bambery’s assertion is that ‘freedom was finally won on the field of battle at Bannockburn,’ the concept that Scotland was a nation before 1707 permeates a growing body of work of both politicians, writers and historians alike.

The different strands of Scottish nationalism believe that Scotland was a nation before the 1707 Act of Union. In their book Alan McCombes and Tommy Sheridan brag that “Scotland is one of the oldest nations in Europe”, [9]this belief that Scottish people have been oppressed for centuries is historically inaccurate and leads to the tendency for workers on both sides to the border to be played against each other.

Bambery plays very fast and loose with this history. It is clear that the Scottish bourgeoisie and aristocracy was in pretty bad shape before 1707. Before union the failure of the Darien scheme in the 1690s had a massive economic impact. The plan which was to build a predominantly Scottish trading colony in Panama ended in financial disaster for Scotland’s aristocracy and bourgeoisie.

While it true that large sections of the population opposed the union the bourgeoisie and aristocracy in Scotland clearly saw that their sectional interests were best served by union.

Writer Neal Ascherson stating, “It’s a cliché that the Scots ‘punched above their weight’ in the empire, and it’s misleading. They seldom competed directly with the English or Irish, but established distinct and almost exclusively Scottish fiefdoms: the fur trade, the tobacco trade, the jute industry, the opium business in China, the ‘hedge-banking’ outfits in Australia, the executive levels of the East India Company…. Scottish capital was thus a full partner in the expansion of British imperialism. This embraced deep involvement in the slave plantations of the Caribbean and American South.”

To conclude this has not been an easy book to review and given the wealth of history covered and in some cases not covered further articles on this subject will appear in the future. I do not feel the need to repeat my many criticisms of this book. I do like the genre of people’s history when it is done well but Bambery’s promotion of Scottish nationalism dressed up as Scottish history leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.

[1]   A critical review of Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners By David North
 17 April 1997
[2] E H Carr What Is history
[5] A People's History of Scotland by Chris Bambery
[6] Hegel 1795 (Berne) The Positivity of the Christian Religion
[8] ://
[9] T Sheridan and A McCombes Imagine Edinburgh 2000, p180.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Tom Reilly's Call For A Conference on Cromwell In Ireland

I would like to try to organise a seminar/debate/conference – call it what you like – to finally determine (inasmuch as we can from this distance) what actually happened at Drogheda and Wexford in 1649. This is in particular regard to the deliberate massacre of large scale unarmed and innocent civilians. I was wondering if you would be interested in helping me get this off the ground. I have no idea where to start.

Here’s the reason, in case you either don’t know, or forget:

In 2004, Folens published Earthlink 5th Class. On page 87 the following words are printed: ‘Cromwell captured Drogheda. About 3,000 men, women and children were killed.’ The Educational Company of Ireland released Timeline in 2008. A paragraph on page 223 reads, ‘He [Cromwell] first laid siege to Drogheda. He was determined to make an example of the town. When he captured it he slaughtered the entire population.’

You ALL know that this is wrong. We’re still teaching bullshit to kids in Ireland. Bullshit that engenders anti-British sentiment. Here in 2015! Seriously?!

As you can see I have copied several early modern experts with this message. Many of you might consider me to be a loud-mouth, obnoxious, insufferable loose cannon. Which is fine. My wife and kids know who I really am. But that's not the point. Surely historical integrity demands that we stop the rot here. This subject is still highly emotive where I come from. Anybody Irish will agree.

I fully expect this e-mail to be dismissed by most of you in the same way that my work has been and continues to be. I would be happy if you would prove me wrong. 

Please help me make a positive impact on what was such a negative part of Irish history so we can all finally move on. Because we haven't.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Where Is A Trumpet Of Sedition Going

The beginning of a New Year usually warrants a list of intended resolutions. Normally I would ignore this tradition but it happens to coincide with the fact that A Trumpet of Sedition has had over 150,000 page views.

This seems a logical milestone to publish future intentions. This blog is just over five years old and hopefully over these five years it has progressed to reasonably high level and given my readers some satisfaction. The blog will continue much as before. I will continue to examine the latest historiography in the shape of book reviews. Some articles still need to re-written or updated but the general thrust of the blog will remain unchanged.

Mindful of making an announcement that might blow up in my face I would like to attempt a biography of the historian Christopher Hill. It is quite shocking that no conventional biography exists given his statue in study of early modern England. So any publishers out there interested in this project do not hesitate to email me otherwise it will be an Amazon selfie project

Monday, 19 January 2015

John Gurney Obituary

This is sad news. John Gurney the noted historian has died of cancer at the terribly early age of 54. I have enclosed this link from the Guardian . A further obituary will follow.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

A Review: Charles I: An Abbreviated Life by Mark Kishlansky 144 pages Publisher: Allen Lane (4 Dec 2014) ISBN-10: 0141979836

“And thus said Shimei when he cursed, Come out, come out, thou bloody man, and thou man of Belial: The LORD hath returned upon thee all the blood of the house of Saul, in whose stead thou hast reigned; and the LORD hath delivered the kingdom into the hand of Absalom thy son: and, behold, thou art taken in thy mischief, because thou art a bloody man.—King James Bible 2 Samuel 16:7, 8. [1]

So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.

—King James Bible Numbers 35:33. [2]

The above two quotes are not to be found in Mark Kishlanksy’s new biography of Charles I. Kishlansky does not believe that Charles was a “man of blood” on the contrary he believes that history and its historians have much maligned this monarch.
Kishlansky believes “Even his virtues were misinterpreted and scandalously reviled. His gentleness was miscalled defect of wisdom; his firmness, obstinacy; his regular devotion, popery; his decent worship, superstition; his opposing of schism, hatred of the power of godliness.”[1]

Kishlanksy’s book is an aggressive defence of both Charles and monarchy in general. As Charles said "Princes are not bound to give account of their actions, but to God alone" Kishlansky seems to take the quote and turns it into a historical perspective.
According to him “Charles I is the most despised monarch in Britain’s historical memory. Considering that among his predecessors were murderers, rapists, psychotics and people who were the mentally challenged, this is no small distinction.” Kishlansky concludes in this brief book that its protagonist has been misjudged.

Even though the English revolution was the most devastating in terms of people killed and politically interesting given that a reigning monarch was executed a republic declared and the House of Lords abolished you get little of idea of this in this short book. I know Kishlansky did not have much space but surely only one mention of Oliver Cromwell is a little mean.
Given that the English revolution was primarily a political and religious dispute Kishlanksy’s heavy emphasis on the subjective mistakes, misjudgements and general bad luck of the monarch is typical of his historical methodology. In many senses this biography is part political rehabilitation, part polemical essay rather than a history book

The book has only been released recently so it is a little premature to make an overall assessment of its reception in the media or amongst academic journals but some comments can be made.
Generally the book has been well received. Given the conservative nature of its author this is not surprising. For instance on Amazon “In Mark Kishlanksy’s brilliant account it is never in doubt that Charles created his own catastrophe, but he was nonetheless opposed by men with far fewer scruples and less consistency who for often quite contradictory reasons conspired to destroy him. This is a remarkable portrait of one of the most talented, thoughtful, loyal, moral, artistically alert and yet, somehow, disastrous of all this country's rulers”.

Of course it is Amazon’s right to promote the book any way it sees fit but as the above quote suggests this has gone beyond normal promotion.
Hopefully whoever wrote the media blurb was not a historian for it reduces history to the level of a Janet and John book.

Firstly it must be said that the men who opposed Charles both inside parliament and out were men of principle and fought for those principles through to the end.
Kishlanksy’s adoption of the bad man or men theory of history does not enlighten us about Charles or the men who fought him. In many ways Kishlanksy’s theory of history owes more to Hegel than it does to Marx. As we can see later Kishlansky is no friend of a Marxist understanding of history.

Kishlansky believes of Charles that “Beneath the reviled and excoriated king of historical reputation is a flesh-and-blood man trapped by circumstances he could not control and events he could not shape.” Kishlanksy’s belief that individuals are prisoners of objective forces also does not get us very far.
As Herbert Spencer wrote "You must admit that the genesis of the great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown....Before he can remake his society, his society must make him."[2]

Kishlanksy’s aim in this book is overturn centuries of this type of historiography produced in general to better our understanding of the civil war. He believes that the long held view of Charles and his reign has been distorted and the centuries long the historical narratives opposing this view is merely “parliamentarian propaganda”.
A major review of the book is to be found on the Guardian website. It is largely sympathetic of Kishlanksy’s’ view. Without examining in any detail what major historians have printed on the subject matter it produces quotes that back up Kishlansky hypothesis  “ GM Trevelyan thought him “selfish and stupid”, while the Ladybird biography of Oliver Cromwell leaps off the fence to inform six-year-olds that “King Charles was a very stupid man”. It then quotes Kishlansky uncritically saying “What began as propaganda has been transmuted into seeming fact.”

The guardian continues Kishlanksy’s theme that Charles was battling against bad luck all through his life “Whichever side you take, it’s hard to deny that Charles was plagued from early on by almost comical levels of bad luck. As a young man, his daring incognito voyage to Spain to woo the Infanta turned into a fiasco. Two decades later, not only would his armies suffer crippling losses at the battle of Naseby, but Charles’s own personal correspondence would be captured: the public revelation of his efforts to secure Catholic support against the forces of parliament would be a devastating blow to the king’s reputation. A botched attempt to attack and plunder Spanish shipping in the first year of his reign set the tone for later military ventures: ‘the winds, as always for Charles, were contrary’.[3]
Kishlanksy’s defence of Charles I is absolute and virtually unconditional. He rejects the standard view that Charles was intransigent. He believes that the king bent over backwards to conciliate and to compromise with parliament. Kishlansky is perfectly in his right as an established historian to counter prevailing historiography. It is a little surprising that he chooses to do so in such a limited space is surprising. I am not a professional historian but even I know that to overturn three centuries of historiography is going to take longer than 144 pages. As one writer puts it the “small amounts of evidence are made to bear an enormous argumentative burden”.

Even the sympathetic Guardian reviewer was forced to admit that Kishlanksy’s hoop jumping was in danger of turning his reconsideration of Charles into “whitewash”.
It is not in the scope of this review to go over Kishlanksy’s previous written work but it is clear from this new book that his place as a pioneer of a transatlantic revisionist interpretation of early Stuart history is secured.

Kishlansky joins a growing number of major historians such Kevin Sharpe, Conrad Russell and John Morrill. Who in one form or another rejected both the Whig and Marxist historians who had seen the Civil Wars of the 1640s as stemming from the growth of ideological opposition to the Stuart monarchs over the previous half-century,
The revisionist school seek to challenge the “ideological consensus” or as Kishlansky puts it the “fallacy of social determinism’ that has existed since1920s. These historians reject any serious economic or social analysis and argue that revolutions are nothing but the work of a tiny group of conspirators.

In any review I try to be as generous as I can and on the whole I would recommend this short narrative on the life of Charles I as a competent introduction to the subject. If that was all it was then I would have no trouble but as this is more a polemic than a history book it needs to be answered in the future in a more detailed manner.


[1] A Sermon produced thirty years after Charles’s death
[3] Charles I: An Abbreviated Life by Mark Kishlansky –