Monday, 20 November 2017

Lenin and the Russian Revolution -Christopher Hill-English Universities Press-248 pp. 1947

During the current celebrations of the Centenary of the 1917 October Revolution, the attack on Vladimir Lenin and the Russian Revolution, in general, has been particularly severe even by common media standards. According to them, Lenin was a brutal dictator, and the revolution was a disaster.

In his article, [1]The denunciation of the Russian Revolution in Germany the Marxist writer Peter Schwarz makes this point “In Germany’s criminal code there is a paragraph declaring the slandering of the memory of the dead to be a criminal offence. Punishment for such a crime ranges from a fine to two years imprisonment. This appears not to apply to historical figures. If one reviews the articles, contributions on radio and television, and films to mark the centenary of the October Revolution in Russia, the principal rule that applies is: “anything goes.”

This brief review of Christopher Hill’s book on Lenin and the Russian Revolution is my contribution to the celebration of such a seminal event in world history. The October revolution despite what the highly paid lackeys in the media say is an essential lesson for working people to study and learn from, as Schwarz says “that one of the most significant transformations in world history, which influenced the 20th century more than any other event, could not be dismissed with a tirade of insults against Lenin and the Bolsheviks but required a serious study of its social and political driving forces”.

So when writing on such a controversial subject, a serious historian must make an objective assessment of both the revolution and one of its leaders. Hill despite being hampered by his membership of a Stalinist party attempted to make just that. He did not always make it. After all writing about the Russian Revolution in the middle part of the 20th century was a dangerous exercise for any of the historians in the Communist Party Historians Group(CPHG) To insulate himself from attack Hill states that he took advantage of the collaboration between Britain and the USSR during wartime to write the book.

“I wrote Lenin and the Russian Revolution in 1945-46, during the brief period when it appears the wartime friendship between England and the Soviet Union would continue to prosper, painful though it is to think so today”.

Despite not being his best work the book nonetheless laid down some markers that would be examined in later works of a much higher standard. Hill makes this point “In writing the book I made a point of drawing parallels between the 17th-century English Revolution, the French Revolution of 1789, and the Russian Revolution of 1917. In England after 1660, and in France after 1815, there was a severe reaction against the preceding revolutions; but 1688 in England and 1830 in France showed that there was to be no restoration of the old regimes”.[2]

The book was part of a series called “Teach Yourself History” with the historian AL Rowse the general editor. Apparently, Hill became a bête noir of A L Rowse who states "When it arrived, I was taken aback - a work of stone-walling Stalinist orthodoxy, not a whit human."
While it was bought in large quantities by the general public, the book was attacked both inside and outside of academia. John Gollan in his short review manages to attack Hill from the right by heavily criticising him for his relatively light-minded treatment of Leon Trotsky.

He accused Hil of “utterly insufficient attention was paid to the history of the Communist Party and the struggle around policy in the period immediately before and during Lenin’s illness and death. Hence the role of Stalin as Lenin’s successor, his struggle against Trotskyism is not brought out. In his references to Trotsky, Comrade Hill correctly presents Lenin’s criticism of Trotsky’s role at specific periods of the revolution. However, Lenin did not and could not know that Trotsky and his confederates, already in those days were wreckers and plotters criminally associated with foreign powers.

He continues “Stalin succeeded to Lenin’s leadership, not only because of his mastery of Lenin’s teachings, but because of his record in the pre-revolutionary days, his editorship of Pravda, his work on the national question, his leadership in the insurrection, the decisive role entrusted to him by Lenin in the Civil War, and above all, his leadership of the Party in the critical tense period of Lenin’s illness and death. If this had been done Trotsky’s “History” could never have been included in the bibliography”.[3]

Gollan was not the only person to attack Hill’s contribution to our understanding of Lenin and the Russian Revolution. A Particularly nasty one came from the pen of Adam B. Ulam, in the pages of the New York Review of Books. Ullam wrote “ I have hitherto never sought to reply to or to polemicize with reviewers of my books. However, the review article on Stalin which appeared in your magazine on January 24 raises an issue of such importance that I am forced for the first, and I hope the last, time to break this rule. The issue is: how legitimate is it for a magazine of your standing to commission a review from a person, and for him to write it, on a subject in which he has demonstrated his utter disregard or ignorance of facts? I could adduce several examples to support this judgment, but one, I trust, will be enough. Mr Hill is ironic about my assessment of the Mensheviks. Yet, let me put it to you, your readers, and the Master of Balliol whether one should take seriously any judgment about the Mensheviks or any other facet of Soviet and Russian history coming from a man who can write: “[after January 1918] …the leaders of the Menshevik party disappeared from history as the coadjutors of the White Guards trying with the aid of foreign bayonets to demonstrate the impossibility of the socialist experiments of the Bolsheviks.”1 Anybody with a superficial acquaintance with modern Russian history will recognize the outrageous untruthfulness of this statement, but let me rehearse the facts. “In mid-1918 when the Soviet government was locked in military combat against the counterrevolutionaries and the interventionist armies… [the Mensheviks] moved closer to the Bolsheviks by pledging ‘unqualified support’ to the government and calling on their followers to join the Red Army…. Apparently, in return for this loyalty, the Bolsheviks legalized the Menshevik party in November 1918.” The Mensheviks’ most prestigious leaders, Martov and Dan, called for “unconditional support of Bolshevism in its resistance to international imperialism and its internal and counterrevolutionary allies.”2 Were I to write and then maintain in print for over twenty years that the Levellers were agents of the French government, would Mr Hill grant that I was a suitable reviewer for his books on English history?

In the interest of fairness it is worth noting Christopher Hill’s reply “I agree with some of Professor Cameron’s points. In my review I noted as an interesting fact that the authors of two serious books on Stalin, written from very different viewpoints, agreed in rejecting the Trotskyist myth without accepting the Stalinist myth; and I observed that freedom to reject one of these myths without having to rely on the other gave the historian writing now about the Russian Revolution an advantage over even so great a historian as Isaac Deutscher. Professor Cameron, I gather, prefers the Trotskyite myth. This is fair enough, but one does not have to choose, and if one did have to choose literary merit would not necessarily be the best criterion. Any myth with the survival power of Stalinism must surely bear some relation to reality, which the historian should investigate: this has nothing to do with whether one likes it or not. I agree about the literary power and distinction of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, as of Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion; but the literary power of the latter is no reason for preferring his myth to—say—Oldmixon’s.

With reference to Mr Ulam’s letter, it is not for me to defend your choice of a reviewer. I willingly admit to being no expert on the Russian Revolution. Mr Ulam has to go back twenty-seven years to find anything written by me on the subject. For this reason, I tried to concentrate on methodological questions raised by the two interesting books I was asked to review. The reductio ad absurdum argument of Mr Ulam’s last sentence, however, suggests an ironical addition to what I called the “recurrent situations” of revolutions: after their defeat, some of the Leveller leaders did in fact attempt to overthrow the Cromwellian régime in agreement with the Spanish government[4].

From an orthodox Marxist perspective, there are many more important and better criticisms of this book and Hill’s outlook. Like I said earlier the Russian revolution was dangerous territory not only for Hill but the other distinguished historians in the Communist Party.

Before 1956 these historians were lightly policed by the Communist Party Cultural Committee this not to say they could write anything they wanted. As Edward Thompson explained the CPHG largely policed their own work. As John McIlroy explains they “ by and large, knew and respected the rules of the game. The CP leadership’s unspoken interdict on researching into recent history, particularly the history of their own party, was on the whole accepted by the group. Allegiance to Stalinism moulded their Marxism, and, if it did not entirely stifle good scholarship, it undeniably constrained their history. As Hobsbawm remarked, ‘in the years 1946-56 the relations between the Group and the Party had been almost entirely unclouded. [The Historians]… were as loyal, active and committed a group of Communists as any…’[5]

Hill continues the Stalinist tradition of attacking Trotsky’s role and political outlook during the Revolution.As Ann Talbot relates “Hill’s sole attempt at modern history, his study of Lenin is undoubtedly his weakest book. It is marred by repeated attacks on Trotsky, who is dismissed as one of the “Westernising theoreticians” of the revolutionary movement. Discussing whether Trotsky could ever have become the leader of the Bolshevik Party after Lenin’s death, Hill concludes, “Such a view exaggerates, I think, the importance of Trotsky in the party.”

As Hill should have known, the British government were well aware of Trotsky’s importance since they would not allow him into the country when he requested asylum. However, still Hill’s historical faculties would not let him deny that Trotsky was a great orator, that he organised the insurrection which brought the Bolsheviks to power, and nor does he avoid giving Trotsky more references in the index than Stalin. At no point does Hill repeat the false charges that the Stalinists made against Trotsky and his followers at the Moscow trials. Even in this book, which certainly hacks work, Hill did not make himself fully a Stalinist hack. His criticisms of Trotsky are ill-judged and betray an ignorance of his subject, rather than being malicious and dishonest. He retained a core of intellectual honesty in a work that was written in 1947 as the lines were being drawn for the Cold War, which was designed to defend the Russian Revolution and not to win him friends in high places at home or in the Kremlin.[6]

Like any Christopher Hill book, I would recommend the book. Unlike Hill’s other work I would say the reader sometimes needs to hold their nose. As Talbot says, it is a hack work but is a decent read and worth reading to see how far Hill as a historian moved away from the book.






[1] http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/11/11/revo-n11.html
[2] http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/books-second-thoughts-dont-blame-lenin-for-stalin-christopher-hill-looks-back-on-his-study-of-the-5431224.html
[3] An Historian on the Russian Revolution- https://www.marxists.org/archive/gollan/1948/02/historian.htm
[4] Stalin, Trotsky, & Cromwell-Adam B. Ulam, reply by Christopher Hill March 21 1974- http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1974/03/21/stalin-trotsky-cromwell-2/
[5] http://www.revolutionaryhistory.co.uk/index.php/187-articles/articles-of-rh0903/8299-mclroy
[6] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2003/03/hill-m25.html

Why Do Writers Write ? With Alison Stuart

I know it is hard to imagine, but I was born in a time and a place where there were no computers and very little television. Every Sunday afternoon, my father, would read to me from his favourite books (some of which I have to say were probably not really suitable for young children). Dad loved English history so many of the stories he read us were historical novels and the one that stayed with me and fired my imagination for all time was THE KING’S GENERAL by Daphne Du Maurier. If you don’t know this story it is set in the English Civil War and involves the very real life Sir Richard Grenville.

I was in love… not just with history but in particular with the English Civil War. The romance and tragedy of that terrible war between the King and his Parliament, cavaliers and roundheads, captured my imagination. I kept a scrapbook of articles cut from magazines, I devoured any book or movie I could find set in that period and when I ran out of stories to read, I started writing my own. My best friend at school also loved writing and we would spend our lunch hours perched in the willow tree in our school yard, writing away in shorthand notebooks.

Of course I grew up and life and career and family got in the way of writing but I never lost that urge to write. Over the years I continued to accumulate a library of books about the English Civil War and in my spare time I kept writing the story of my heart (which is now a published novel called BY THE SWORD). Then along came computers and the internet and instant access to resources I could only have dreamed about. I have now published eight novels, six of which are set in the English Civil War.

I studied history (and law) at university so I am, technically, a historian by training, but unfortunately living in Australia, my choice of subjects was limited and thus my qualification is in ancient history! That doesn’t matter… I think if I had pursued my love of the English Civil War in an academic sense, I would have lost my passion to write stories! That doesn’t prevent me writing the occasional ‘academic’ type article and for many years I posted regularly to a blog called Hoydens and Firebrands (it is now archived but you can still find my posts, eg this article on War Crimes during the English Civil War, are still being read regularly).

The books I write are often classified as ‘romance’ because I like my characters to have a happy ever after’ but for me historical accuracy is paramount and it is gratifying when readers comment on the colour and accuracy I bring to the story. I have had a lifetime of absorbing every detail of the period of the English Civil War and I find I don’t need to do much research, but I do go to my favourite books which often have little details I can’t find on line that bring a story to life. For example my book THE KING’S MAN came from a single line in Antonia Fraser’s biography of Cromwell which notes that a ‘Miss Granville’ threw a brick bat at the coach bearing Oliver Cromwell to dine with the Lord Mayor of London. Who was Miss Granville and why was she hurling brick bats at the Lord Protector? I still don’t know the true story (don’t tell me!) but I had fun with a fictional explanation!

I am, however, currently writing a series of historical novels set in Australia in the 1870s and that involves a huge amount of research from techniques of gold mining to what sort of lighting they used. The trick I find is not to get bogged in the research while you are writing. My priority is the story and if I get stuck on a piece of research I don’t know, I write a note to myself to go back and fix it when I come to revise the book.

Now for the practicalities… how do I write? I write all my books using a project management system for writers called Scrivener which enables me to store the research (documents, images and websites) so it is easily accessible to the story I am writing. I don’t really plot my stories – they grow organically from an idea, a character or a situation. There is no write or wrong way and trust me I have tried plotting but it killed the story for me before I even began. Every writer is different and whatever works for the individual is the write way for them.

Award-winning Australian author, Alison Stuart learned her passion from history from her father. She has been writing stories since her teenage years but it was not until 2007 that her first full length novel was published. A past president of the Romance Writers of Australia, Alison has now published seven full length historical romances and a collection of her short stories. Many of her stories have been shortlisted for international awards and BY THE SWORD won the 2008 EPIC Award for Best Historical Romance. If you would like to more about her books her website is http://www.alisonstuart.com


Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Why I Write, How I Write by Claire Canary

Language was perhaps the initial love of my life. I was a very vocal baby, speaking early, and I’m sure my nearest and dearest would be the first to say that I haven’t shut up since. As I got older though, I found writing words down had just as much appeal as saying them and, while others at school tended to favour painting or PE, I was only ever really happy with a pen in my hand. In my teens, I acquired another love that was set to last. That was the comedy. I realised quite quickly that this second passion had a link to my first, mind you, because it was the quotable lines of comedic productions that really got me obsessed. They were what opened my eyes to the possibilities language had to offer. Despite my huge admiration for performers, I saw the script as where the real magic lay, and there was nothing to beat the laughter it could bring. After leaving school, I took courses in Scriptwriting and Creative Writing, thinking there was a scribe somewhere inside me. I’m sorry to say that my first venture into professional writing had me questioning this, however. I was working on marketing text, so maybe it was the difference in content. Knowing rather than just dreaming that my pieces would be made public also put pressure on me. For whatever reason though, I found myself sweating over every sentence, and back then that just didn’t seem the mark of a skilled individual. It struck me that writing wasn’t my vocation after all. I went on to concentrate on less creative talents and studied Proofreading, with the intention of channelling any capability I had with words into the scribblings of others.

While my enthusiasm for writing was waning, my interest in the past was burgeoning. Harking back to my comedy enthusiasm, I cannot deny it was the sitcom Blackadder that fuelled this. To satisfy my curiosity, I started looking into the reality behind the setting of the third series, which focuses on the Regency. Still, if you’d been playing word association with me and tried me with “history”, I would almost certainly have said “Great Fire of London”. There was something about this historical event that stood out above all others in my mind. For it to hit the year following the capital’s famous plague epidemic seemed almost to add insult to injury and just when the country thought it had left behind the restriction of the Interregnum not to mention the destruction of the Civil Wars. 1666’s Great Fire appeared to be a climax of the turmoil the mid 17th century had to unleash. Many claim historians shouldn’t feel emotional about occurrences from bygone days. All I can say in my defence is that I’ve never considered myself a historian. Like it or not, I was mentally putting myself in the place of those poor Londoners. They were mostly ordinary people. Chandlers, schoolchildren, apothecaries, maids – nobody in particular, but still somebody. It was only for my imagination to decide.

So ideas were germinating, but what was I to do with them? By this time, my proofreading and editing had seen me work on a real mixture of texts, and spelling, grammar and punctuation had become a joyous part of what writing was about. While I don’t believe they are essential to the creative process, they open up all sorts of new avenues for expression on the page, many of which are lost in spoken form. Prose now had a more significant pull on me than scripts, and there was no doubt I harboured a desire to tell a tale solely by use of the written word. But I didn’t think I had it in me. Then I got to meet an author I’d been lucky enough to work with remotely. I admired him and felt I’d be a fool to ignore his advice. It was a good job then that his opinion was “just go for it”. On the train home, I set to and wrote an opening scene. From there, I was hooked. While the rocking carriage whisked me through England, my mind was firmly transported into 1666 and, quite frankly, I didn’t want to leave.

That isn’t to say it wasn’t challenging. It took me about a year before I realised I was approaching it from the wrong angle or at least in the wrong order. Getting straight into the action was all very well but my characters, like anyone in the world, had pasts and, as their earlier lives developed in my head, another yarn was born. Then there were their futures. I couldn’t be so cruel as to leave them hanging, could I? Henceforth, the amateur trying her hand at a little story decided to commit to a trilogy of novels. Now that’s a lot of words. Without the history though, her pages would be blank.    

The research has been one of the most fascinating tasks I’ve ever undertaken. With the Great Fire being the central focus, it was my starting point, but I soon branched out in different directions. The involvement of the King and Duke of York led me to read up on them both and delve into their personal stories a bit. This, in turn, introduced me to all sorts of 17th-century figures, who were fun to meet but seemed very distracting. I didn’t want to lose focus on the characters of my own creation. It was surprising just how much I learned about my protagonists by studying real people though. As John Donne pointed out, “No man is an island”. When the nation was still reeling from bitter, bloody conflict, figures of authority were despised and revered, while the emerging health crisis endangered society collectively. Emotions ran high, with events and opinions of those around shaping each and every individual. Even my fictional characters couldn’t escape reality, so, to recognise what went on in these 1660s’ heads, I had to correctly understand something of Stuart Britain.

I don’t think I’d have attempted this in pre-Internet days, although printed articles and books can shed light on subjects in greater detail than online resources alone. It’s amazing how gripping a read non-fiction could be, by the way. Special mention here goes to Adrian Tinniswood’s “By Permission of Heaven: The Story of the Great Fire of London” and Rebecca Rideal’s “1666: Plague, War and Hellfire”. What I’d regard as my best research experiences came last year, through some of the many events commemorating the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire. They weren’t always ideal for the obscure details, but talks by historians walk led by city guides, charred exhibits on display in museums and a fascinating new study into the cause of the fire drove my enthusiasm all the more. The atmosphere itself was excellent. Strangers exchanged comments and I no longer felt weird to be sympathising with the victims of the time. Looking to get more of a sense of the period, I remembered the UK didn't lack in preserved history. Banqueting House is a particularly good one, not only for its visual resplendence but also for its audio commentary talking through some of the happenings to have gone on in the building.

I’m armed with a notebook if on a visit anywhere of 17th-century relevance, but most of my jotting down is done electronically. Paper is too readily lost and overlooked. I mainly confine notes to historical facts and the majority of my plot devising is done in my mind only. If I catch myself tied up in knots over it, I sometimes resort to listing statements about what my characters have done and why. This can help clarify interlinking storylines and show me how to proceed if I’m lucky. Thinking up complex plots could well be my downfall, but it adds a sense of mystery that keeps me guessing myself.

I hope the scenarios will grab some interest and of course, I’d like to see my readers feel for the characters. Yet, if someone takes nothing more from my work than a little appreciation for Stuart Britain, I’ll have done a service to an era that has served me well. I may not have lived through it, but revolution, debauchery, conflagration, combat, mass perishing and scientific pioneering teach people an awful lot, even 350 years later.

Claire Canary is still working on her books and is so far unpublished but plans to seek literary representation soon. Meantime she freelances, as a proofreader/editor trying to write historical fiction #GreatPlague #GreatFire.

 Twitter: @FlashheartFave 


Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Facebook LIVE Q&A with Clare Jackson

What made the English Civil War one of the most decisive and dramatic conflicts in English History?

On 30 November at 3.30pm Routledge History is holding a Facebook LIVE Q&A with Clare Jackson, where she will unpack many of the ideas explored in Lawrence Stone's celebrated book, The Causes of the English Revolution 1529-1642, published in the Routledge Classics series in 2017.


The interview will cover the book's controversial reception amongst historians when it was first published in 1972; Stone's views concerning the causes of the English Revolution; and what legacy the English Revolution leaves today.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Why I write, How I write by Marcus Rediker

The Poetics of History from Below-Marcus Rediker, September 2010
In memory of Dennis Brutus (1924–2009)

(Marcus Rediker has kindly allowed me to include this article in my series of Why I write ,How I write. It was first published in the American Historical Association website September 10th 2010) The original article can be found @https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/September-2010/the-poetics-of-history-from-below

My grandfather, the late Fred Robertson, influenced how I think about and write history. He died years before I decided to become a historian and he was not an academic, but he was a historian and an intellectual in his own way. He was a master storyteller.

This Kentucky coal miner was a larger-than-life figure in my youth. I fondly remember sitting with him at the kitchen table. In one hard hand he held a Lucky Strike. In the other hand he held a saucer of his beloved Maxwell House coffee, which he sipped that way even when it was no longer hot. In this posture he told endless stories to a boy who sat enthralled amid the pathos, humor, and quiet heroism of working-class life. His mood changed with the story. He laughed with his whole body, like the then-popular comedian Red Skelton, at his own funny parts. 

His visage grew dark and scary at moments of danger or injustice. His eyes danced with the drama of his words. I knew something big was coming when he paused, put the cigarette in the ashtray, and set aside the saucer, freeing his hands for emphasis. His stories were vivid, complex, passionate, and somehow always practical. They featured apocalyptic Biblical language (a lot of hell-fire), long silences (with fateful stares), and curse words that were normally forbidden in our house (son-of-a-bitchin’ this and that). He always managed to tell a big story within a little story.

One of the stories I remember best concerned a vigilante hanging of a man in a coal village where he had once worked, Beech Creek, Kentucky.I don’t remember why the man was hanged. Nor do I remember whether he was white or black; I don’t think he told me. I do remember my mother walking into the kitchen, expressing her doubt without saying a word about whether I should be hearing this particular story. 

What I remember most of all was how his telling of the story made clear how wrong the hanging was, and how a real-life lynching looked nothing like what we had all seen on television. He described a frantic, terrifying struggle, with legs flailing, ugly cheers from the crowd, and in the end a limp body with dangling eyeballs and wet pants. The storyteller’s sympathy was firmly with the victim, whose deadly ordeal he had made terribly, hauntingly real.

My grandfather, the poetic storyteller, was perhaps the oldest and deepest influence on my life’s choice to write “history from below,” the variety of social history that emerged in the New Left to explore the experiences and history-making power of working people who had long been left out of elite, “top-down” historical narratives. He educated me about the ways of the world and at the same time about the fundamentals of storytelling. He helped me to see and appreciate the poetics of struggle. And he also helped to shape my sense of the art and craft of history.
Like all good storytellers from Shakespeare to Brecht, my grandfather was a good listener. He had a canny ear for how people talked; he was attuned to voices, rich and poor, black and white, male and female, adult and child. Even animals sometimes talked in his stories; a touch of Uncle Remus! He spoke metaphorically: a crowd of people might be “as big as Coxey’s army”; something moving fast “took off like Moody’s goose.” I listened and learned about Coxey, but I never could figure out who Moody was or why his goose was in such a hurry.

I remember hearing while I was in graduate school an admonition about archival and primary sources: “Go on reading until you hear voices.” It seemed an exhortation to schizophrenia at the time, but memories of my grandfather helped me to grasp the point: humanize the sources, humanize the story. Learn to listen. And, of course, the recovery of voices has been a central purpose of history from below from the very beginning, but storytellers were way ahead of us.

The people I study did not often speak through documents of their own making, so it is not easy to hear them. This is the classic challenge of history from below, and many good books have addressed it. I listen by paying close attention to the meaning of words. I spend a lot of time looking up chronologically specific meanings in the Oxford English Dictionary. As an 18th-century specialist, I am especially fond of the words and meanings to be found in A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, compiled by Francis Grose and first published in 1785. In writing Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, a study of deep-sea sailors in the first half of the 18th century, I always had those wondrous things called maritime dictionaries close at hand to help me grasp the material conditions, cooperative work, communications, and consciousness of seagoing proletarians. I also paid close attention to sailors’ speech wherever I could find it, and to their own tradition of storytelling, or yarn-spinning. In his brilliant essay “The Storyteller,” Walter Benjamin explained that historically there have been two main types: the peasant storyteller who had a deep knowledge of locality and its lore, and the sailor storyteller who brought exotic tales from afar. My grandfather was, I suppose, a variant of the former; he helped me to understand the people I studied, the very embodiment of the latter.1

My grandfather chose his words carefully, showing me how a word, a phrase, or a quotation can bring a historical moment to life, even sear it into memory. And what could be more poetic than a note sent by a would-be arsonist to a gentleman in 1830: “My writing is bad but my firing is good my Lord.” One can almost hear the defiant laughter behind the writing. Such words were often speech committed to paper and preserved in the archive of “crime”—always an important place for those who would reconstruct the lives of the expropriated.2

Having heard the power of poetry in stories, I make it a point to use verse as historical evidence wherever possible. For example, poetry is central to The Many-Headed Hydra, a book Peter Linebaugh and I wrote about the motley proletariat of the Atlantic from 1600 to the 1830s. It appears in almost every chapter, some 50 times throughout a book that begins with William Shakespeare (The Tempest) and ends with William Blake (“Tyger, Tyger”). Famous, canonical poets (Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Shelley) rub elbows with largely unknown proletarian poets (Thomas Spence, Joseph Mather, and the ever-scribbling “anonymous,” a preferred female writer’s name for centuries). Contemporary poets such as the Martinican Aimé Césaire appear to summarize themes and ideas, for example, about the serpentine continuities of resistance.

Poetry can get the historian close to the experience and consciousness of working people and can evoke people, places, and events in multidimensional, dynamic ways. Sailor-poet James Field Stanfield crafted memorable, graphic images in his epic poem “The Guinea Voyage” and in his grimly poetic letters about life aboard a slave ship. He described, for example, the second mate of his vessel, lying sick, near death, on the medicine chest, his long hair clotted with filth as it brushed the deck of the ship. He depicted the nightmarish enslavement, flogging, and eventual death of an African woman named Abyeda. Such images can arrest the reader as surely as a surrealist object, disclosing in poetic fashion important connections, relations, parallels, and unities. Christopher Hill once wrote, “Good—imaginative—history is akin to retrospective poetry. It is about life as lived—as much of it as we can recapture.3

Poetry written by workers may be rare, but poetry to be found in action, in resistance by workers, is plentiful; it can be found most everywhere. My grandfather taught me to look for it. To give an example: I discovered a profound one-word poem in a memoir written by Silas Told, a sailor turned Methodist minister who described a drama aboard the slave ship Loyal George in 1727. An enslaved man had decided to die by hunger strike. Captain Timothy Tucker tried to force him to eat. He horse-whipped him to a raw and bloody pulp. He threatened to kill him. The nameless man uttered one word: adomma, so be it. Captain Tucker placed a loaded pistol to his forehead and repeated the demand to eat. Again: adomma. The captain fired and the blood gushed but the man stared him directly in the face and refused to fall. The captain cursed, called for another pistol, and shot the man in the head a second time. Again he would not drop, to the astonishment of all who looked on. A third shot killed the man but by this time an insurrection had exploded among the enslaved, who were inspired by the man’s resistance and outraged by his treatment.

It is impossible to know how many of the hundreds of people who witnessed this incident decided, like Silas Told, to tell the story, punctuated by the word adomma. I suspect many told it, and retold it, in several languages, on plantations, in urban workshops, on docks, and in ships, over many years. The nameless African man gives precise expression to a definition of poetry offered by Ann Lauterbach: “Poetry is the aversion to the assertion of power. Poetry is that which resists dominance.” This is crucial to history from below.4

All good storytellers tell a big story within a little story, and so do all good historians. It can be done in many ways. In my work, the big story has always been the violent, terror-filled rise of capitalism and the many-sided resistance to it from below, whether from the point-of-view of an enslaved African woman trapped in the bowels of a fetid slave ship; a common sailor who mutinied and raised the black flag of piracy aboard a brig on the wide Atlantic; or a runaway former slave who escaped the plantation for a Maroon community in a swamp. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz once remarked that the small fact of sheep-stealing speaks to the big issue of revolution because the storyteller (in his case, the ethnographer) finds connections between the two.5

Finally, I remember my grandfather and remind myself that the historian, like the storyteller, is not above the fray. One of the big questions in the Kentucky coal fields in the 1930s was, which side are you on? In that spirit, I try to develop an ethical relationship with the oppressed and exploited people I study. The relationship is imaginary but no less important for that. In writing The Slave Ship, I asked myself repeatedly, from the beginning of the project to the end, how can I do justice to the people aboard the floating dungeons and what they experienced? The answer is to show retrospective solidarity and “accompany” them through their history, to use a term proposed by Staughton Lynd to describe an egalitarian relationship between historians/intellectuals and movements of working people from below.6

Walt Whitman made the same point in Leaves of Grass. He wrote of:
The hounded slave that flags in the race, leans by the fence, blowing, cover’d with sweat;
The twinges that sting like needles his legs and neck—the murderous buckshot and the bullets;
All these I feel, or am.
I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs,
Hell and despair are upon me, crack and again crack the marksmen;
I clutch the rails of the fence, my gore dribs, thinn’d with the ooze of my skin;
I fall on the weeds and stones;
The riders spur their unwilling horses, haul close, Taunt my dizzy ears, and beat me violently over the head with whip-stocks.
Agonies are one of my changes of garments;
I do not ask the wounded person how he feels—I myself become the wounded person;
My hurts turn livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe.
Whitman exaggerates to make a point: he cannot “become” the fugitive, but he can demonstrate sympathetic understanding of the historical subject. As a poet he can join the struggle and convey it to readers. In the end I strive to write history that is vivid, complex, passionate, and practical. I try to make it real and pose questions of justice as I lean on a cane of social and temporal distance and observe. My grandfather would have expected nothing less, dadgummit.

Marcus Rediker is Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh and Senior Research Fellow at the Collège d’études mondiales in Paris. His books have won numerous awards and been translated into fifteen languages. They include (with Peter Linebaugh) The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (2000); The Slave Ship: A Human History (2007); and most recently The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf who became First Revolutionary Abolitionist (Beacon Press/Verso, 2017).  He is also the producer of the prize-winning documentary film Ghosts of Amistad: In the Footsteps of the Rebels (Tony Buba, director), about the popular memory of the 1839 Amistad rebellion in contemporary Sierra Leone.  He is currently working as Guest Curator in the JMW Turner gallery at Tate Britain.

Notes
1. Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller,” in his Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 83–109.
2. Quoted in E. P. Thompson, “The Crime of Anonymity,” in Douglas Hay, Peter Linebaugh, and E. P. Thompson, eds., Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England (New York: Pantheon Books, 1975), 297.
3. Christopher Hill, The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution (London: Allen Lane, 1993), 438, 437.
4. Ann Lauterbach, “Links Without Links: The Voice of the Turtle,” American Poetry Review 21 (1992), 37–38.
5. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 23.
6. Staughton Lynd, “Oral History from Below,” Oral History Review 21 (1993), 1–8.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

How I write, Why I write by John Rees

I approach writing pretty much as I approach any public activity. For the longest time, I seem to have woken up in the morning with the thought that there is obviously a lot wrong with the world and that you can either lie on the sofa and ignore it or choose to do something about it. Writing is just one important way of doing something about it.

In terms of how I write I’ve been lucky to have two seemingly contradictory influences. While I was still a teenager, I learnt about Hegelian philosophy, and its formative role in the development of Marx and Engels thought from a convinced Hegelian tutor on my degree course. I went on to research this more deeply and Marx’s early writings, and the works of George Lukacs, Franz Jakubowski, Raya Dunayevskya, and Antonio Labriola, gave me a powerful methodological framework which has been present in everything I’ve ever written, long or short, with or without explicit philosophical content.

Method won’t do all the work for you of course. There is no substitute for intense empirical research. But method will give you a hypothesis, it will help highlight essential facts and clear away inessential material, and it will help you to see important connections and patterns, even when, perhaps especially when, they contradict your initial hypothesis.

The second influence is tabloid journalism. I’ve done a fair amount of writing and copy subbing for left-wing tabloids in my time, and I was lucky to be friends with the late, great journalist Paul Foot including at the time he had a weekly column in the Daily Mirror. From this, I learnt the virtue of brevity, simplicity, and clarity in written work. Any idiot can write long, but it takes real skill to write short. Any over-educated simpleton can use long words, the skill lies in writing transparently. George Orwell’s unsurpassed Politics and the English Language codifies this approach brilliantly. Blaise Pascal encapsulated it in a phrase when he wrote to a friend, ‘I’m sorry to have written you a long letter, I didn't have time to write you a short one’.

In terms of immediate technique its fairly standard procedure. I read extensively in both primary and secondary sources, where I can reading the secondary sources first. Although in one part of my mind I’m against marking books in operational practice I underline and make marginal notes in books I’m reading. I actually find this very important, and I’m gratified to see from some of Christopher Hill’s books that I own that he did the same, although he was tidier and made page notes in the end flyleaf of the book. This means I end up buying many more books than I can get on the shelves in my study (or afford)! For The Leveller Revolution, I also printed off reams of original pamphlets from Early English Books Online so that I could make notes on them. This also means that I have extensive files broken down into sub files on my PC for any book project.

I also always use a notebook for ideas, formulations, and transcriptions from original documents and books read in libraries. I used to use A4 notebooks but I now always use the steel-edged A5 notebooks from Manufactum. Although I prefer to write book-length projects on my PC, the iPad has revolutionised note taking so now I move between notebook and iPad, which is especially useful for photographing original documents.

By the time I come to write I’ve usually got the argument both as a whole and in its individual chapters clear in my mind. I write a structure for the book as a whole and for the subsections of each chapter as I move through the book. So when I sit down to write, the section headings in each chapter are laid out like bullet points. I then write the sections in sequence, almost like filling in a form. I’m surrounded by books, articles, documents, and open tabs on the computer as this happens. Then I tidy them all away at the end and move on to the next chapter.

When it's done, I always pay attention to what manuscript readers and subs say about the text, even if I don’t always follow their advice. Everyone is a better writer after they have been subbed. Leo Hollis was a great editor at Verso for The Leveller Revolution. He read it chapter by chapter and kept saying ‘When's the next sword fight?’. I couldn’t always provide one, but it was a good influence making the text as exciting as it could be whilst also being as scholarly as necessary (I hope).




John Rees is the author of The Leveller Revolution (Verso, 2016) which has just been published in paperback. He is a Visiting Research Fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London and his previous books include A People’s History of London (Verso, 2012, co-authored with Lindsey German), Imperialism and Resistance (Routledge, 2008), and The Algebra of Revolution (Routledge, 1998).

Saturday, 11 November 2017

The Place of the October Revolution in World History and Contemporary Po...

Eric Hobsbawm: Socialist Historian (Socialist History Occasional Publications) Pamphlet – 2 Nov 2015- Malcolm Chase, Willie Thompson, and David Parker

This pamphlet is the product of the Socialist History Society special event held in 2013 to assess the work of Eric Hobsbawm. The title was Historian, Teacher and Critic. This review is made up of four parts. Part one looks at Eric Hobsbawm and Labour History; part two examines Hobsbawm’s Tetralogy and Other Works, the third part Hobsbawm, History and Politics and finally Hobsbawm's relationship with the Pseudo Left.

The pamphlet Eric Hobsbawm: Socialist Historian aims to celebrate and assess the life's work of the Historian. It does indeed celebrate his life, but the assessment it makes whitewashes his politics.

The pamphlet correctly portrays Hobsbawm as an exceptionally gifted historian. He had an excellent aptitude for writing in an accessible manner while retaining a robust academic rigour. However, If he had concentrated on writing before the 19th century, then I would not have much problem in recommending his work. However his work on the 20th century especially the Russian Revolution was severely hampered by his near Jesuit defence of both the Stalinist British Communist Party and the Soviet Communist Party.

Eric Hobsbawm and Labour History

Malcolm Chase’s article sets the tone for the rest of the pamphlet.He begins the whitewash of Hobsbawm's politics especially his defence of the Communist Party. His amnesia regarding the many betrayals of the party is breathtaking and offers only limited criticism at the end of his essay.

From Chase’s essay, you would not have guessed that Hobsbawm adopted a genre (Labour History) which was a combination of both his party’s support for the Popular Front and more importantly the Annales school of history. This  Annales school combined Front Popular front politics profoundly influenced Hobsbawm and most of the historians that formed the Communist Party Historians Group (CPHG).

When Hobsbawm started to tackle Labour history he had already drawn very pessimistic conclusions from the post-war defeats suffered by the working class which his party along with the trade union and Labour Party leadership had organised.

It was not wrong for Hobsbawm to examine Labour history but his refusal to expose the betrayals of the working class by the leadership of that class was.

A perfect expression of Hobsbawm’s pessimism was his article The Forward March of Labour Halted. Hobsbawm had no real faith in the revolutionary capacity of the working class as can be seen in this Marx Memorial Lecture of1978. According to the Marxist writer, Chris Marsden “Hobsbawm began by asserting that the crisis of the labour movement could be attributed to the decline of the working class itself. His evidence for this mainly consisted of a presentation of the fall in the number of workers employed in heavy industry and the supposedly concomitant fall in support for the Labour and Communist parties. He then argued that industrial militancy has failed to provide an answer to the failures of the Labour government of the time.Hobsbawm’s The lecture was not just unconvincing. It was an attempt to provide an apologia for the betrayal of the working class by Labour and the TUC”.

It is pretty clear that Hobsbawm played lip service for the need for a revolutionary Marxist Party that would combat the reformist leadership of the working class. Hobsbawm in this quote below believes that all a party should aim for is to stop the working from drifting into reformism.

“A higher degree of political consciousness, a special effort, is needed to prevent the movement from drifting into mere reformism ... a conscious socialist movement, and notably a communist party, provide such a special factor. If the working class attached itself to such a movement at the crucial phase of its development when it forms such attachments, it would have some built-in guarantee against the drift into reformism. However, if, as in the British case, it attaches itself to a movement largely formed in the pre-Marxist mould, it will not. The loyalty and theoretical inertia which it derives from its spontaneous experience will maintain its traditional attachments, and – unless quite extraordinary catastrophes occur, and even then by no means lightly or rapidly – it will stay with them”[1].

While examining the history of the British Labour movement, Hobsbawm discounted the possibility of a Marxist Party being established in the working class. As Norah Carlin suggests “Hobsbawm became so convinced that the dead weight of tradition on the British labour movement was irremovable? .In rejecting the ‘heroic moral epic’ style of labour history and deciding to concentrate on the long-term social and economic background of the movement, Hobsbawm ruled all revolutionary and near-revolutionary situations out of consideration. Thus he has very little to say about the high points of working-class struggle such as Chartism, the peak of the new unions in 1889-93, the waves of militancy of 1910-14 and 1919, or the General Strike of 1926”.

As was said previous Hobsbawm had a near Jesuit ability to avoid upsetting both the labour and Stalinist bureaucracy when writing about the working class.Despite this handicap, it would be wrong to say that all Hobsbawm writing on the Labour movement was worthless. To his credit, Hobsbawm wrote about Labour History with the same academic rigour as any of his other subjects. He believed historians should “consolidate the new territories won by the committed.’

In many ways, his new writing was as groundbreaking as was the former Communist party historian E P Thompson. As Norah Carlin put it “his studies of early nineteenth-century machine-breaking, Primitive Methodism, and general unions in Britain, for example, broke new ground and inspired a generation of Marxist labour historians”.

Hobsbawm’s Tetralogy and Other Works

Willie Thompson’s essay concentrates on Hobsbawm’s four core writings The Age of Capital, 1848–1875 (1975), The Age of Empire, 1875–1914 (1987), and finally The Age of Extremes: the Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991 (1994). He also examines Hobsbawm as both historian and activist.

Hobsbawm understood in embarking on such a wide-ranging study that he was, in fact, writing three separate books but was, in essence, writing a history of the 19th century. Hobsbawm’s first book of the Tetralogy The Age of Revolution 1789-1848 while maintaining a very high academic standard was written for a broad audience.

Like in the first essay Thompson largely absolves Hobsbawm from any blame regarding Stalinism’s betrayals. When commenting on the Khrushchev revelations of Stalin’s murderous regime, he manages to lump together right-wing commentators with those he calls the “anti-communist left”.

In another point he glosses over the crimes of Stalin by saying that their exposure proved that the Communist Party could reform itself from its worst excesses. Which was Hobsbawm’s position also.

Hobsbawm subsequent later life as a historian and activist was shaped by his early political experiences. This worldview was dominated by the rejection of the working class as a revolutionary force and his anti-Trotskyism.

Especially crucial in shaping his outlook were the political events in Germany that he witnessed as a child. Joining the Communist Party as a direct result of the threat of Fascism, Hobsbawm stood on the right of his party and drew extremely pessimistic conclusions from the rise of fascism.

“Liberalism was failing. If I had been German and not a Jew, I could see I might have become a Nazi, a German nationalist. I could see how they would become passionate about saving the nation. It was a time when you did not believe there was a future unless the world was fundamentally transformed".

This is quite a statement. Instead of the nationalism of the Nazis, Hobsbawm adopted the nationalism of the Stalinists. Hobsbawm joined the CP in 1931. It was unfortunate that the party he joined had broken decisively with orthodox Marxism and the German Communist party would later commit a vast betrayal by allowing Hitler to come to power without a shot being fired. The refusal of CPSU to acknowledge any fault for this calamitous defeat of the German working class led later on to the Russian Marxist and opponent of Stalin, Leon Trotsky forming a new Fourth International.

Hobsbawm parrotted the party line on the victory of Hitler by saying “In Germany, there wasn’t any alternative left,” he said in an interview with Maya Jaggi published in The Guardian newspaper in 2002. This was untrue. There was a Left Opposition to the rise of Fascism which sought to oppose both the increase of the fascists and the betrayal of the party that Hobsbawm had just joined. From an early part of his life it is clear that Hobsbawm rejected the Trotskyist view of events in Germany.

Age of Extremes

The Age of Extremes was dangerous territory for Hobsbawm. His previous three volumes were to a much lesser extent coloured by his politics. In the fourth volume, they were very much to the fore.

While Hobsbawm did not write extensively on the Russian revolution in this book he did in a later book called On History.The Russian revolution was the dangerous territory of for Hobsbawm. It is well-known that Communist Party historians avoided like the plague writing on the Russian revolution. For the simple reason that his party leadership would have frowned upon it. With the threat of expulsion a real possibility. Hobsbawm knew that when he finally wrote on the subject, he would have to lie about it.One striking aspect of the group was that none of them specialised in twentieth-century history. More specifically the experiences of the Russian revolution were never to be explored by the group apart from one book by Christopher Hill which in reality was an apology for Stalinism.

According to A Talbot “In more recent areas of history, as in politics, the control of the Stalinist bureaucracy was too high to allow the free development of Marxist thought and whether deliberately or not they all avoided venturing into the modern arena”.

Hobsbawm was acutely aware that broaching the subject was largely taboo according to him “it raised some notoriously tricky problems”. According to one essay on the CPHG a study of the journal Our History between 1956 and 1992 showed there was not a single article dealing with any part of Soviet history. Having visited the Marx Memorial Library to check this statement out I can say there was one article by Monty Johnson on Leon Trotsky in 1992.

Hobsbawm has gone on the record to say that he “wasn't a Stalinist. I criticised Stalin and I cannot conceive how what I have written can be regarded as a defence of Stalin. However, as someone who was a loyal Party member for two decades before 1956 and therefore silent about some things about which it is reasonable not to be silent - things I knew or suspected in the USSR. Why I stayed [in the Communist Party] is not a political question about communism, it is a one-off biographical question. It was not out of idealisation of the October Revolution. I am not an idealiser. One should not delude oneself about the people or things one cares most about in one's life. Communism is one of these things and I have done my best not to delude myself about it even though I was loyal to it and its memory. The phenomenon of communism and the passion it aroused is particular to the twentieth century. It was a combination of the high hopes which were brought with progress and the belief in human improvement during the nineteenth century along with the discovery that the bourgeois society in which we live (however great and fruitful) did not work and at certain stages looked as though it was on the verge of collapse. Moreover, it did collapse and generated awful nightmares “[2].

According to the Marxist writer and expert on Leon Trotsky David North Hobsbawm’s writing on the Russian Revolution mostly portrays the revolution as being “doomed to failure” and a “fatal enterprise.” This leads to the assumption that the breakdown 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”[3].

Hobsbawm and the Labour Party.

It does 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 major 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”[4].


Historian and activist

To begin this part of Thompson’s essay he uses a quote from Isaac Deutscher in which he regrets being expelled from the Polish Communist Party and advises Hobsbawm not to leave the party.

The fact that Deutscher was expelled from the party for "exaggerating the danger of Nazism and ... spreading panic in the Communist ranks."  Moreover, that Deutscher opposed the Stalinist line that Nazism and Social Democracy were "not antipodes but twins."  largely passes Thompson by. Hobsbawm never undertook any systematic work opposing the party line. This sleight of hand by Thompson is a hallmark of his political writing.

When Hobsbawm made issue mild criticism of the party’s line on Hungry he immediately backed down and accepted his punishment. Never to combine his history writing with opposition to the party’s line.

This went for all the historians who were part of the Communist Party Historians Group. As Ann Talbot points out “There is something Jesuitical about the relationship of these historians to Marxism. They seem to have been capable of partitioning their minds and pursuing a scientific Marxist approach to history up to the point where the Stalinist bureaucracy drew the line, like the Jesuit scientists who would pursue their investigations as far as the Church authorities permitted, but no further. It was an approach that was further encouraged by the extreme specialisation of academic life that enabled them to concentrate on very narrow areas of history that never brought them into direct collision with the bureaucracy on political questions”[5].

Hobsbawm, History and Politics

David Parker has written extensively on the Communist movement. His essay Hobsbawm, History and Politics is an expansion of his concluding remarks from the Socialist History Society special event held in 2013 to assess the work of Eric Hobsbawm. 

Parker is correct to say that this pamphlet is only a small start to what must be a massive project. Recently Oxford University Press[6] released a collection of essays in an attempt to evaluate Hobsbawm’s place in history.

Parker justifies Hobsbawm’s decision to stay inside the Communist Party. The fact that all writers closely associated with SHS have primarily whitewashed Hobsbawm’s Stalinism is staggering.
Another comment equally startling is Parker’s opinion that Hobsbawm was instrumental in developing New Labour. A comment that seemed genuine as it was stupid. As if this was some great achievement. It is true that Hobsbawm was motivated by the struggle for humanity to better itself, but Parker continues the SHS’s attempt to whitewash history will not bring that about.

Hobsbawm's relationship with the Pseudo Left.

Although not a subject tackled in the SHS pamphlet, Hobsbawm relationship with the Pseudo left is critical in understanding, his history and his politics. It should be the starting point for any understanding of Hobsbawm’s place in history.

Firstly a point of clarification. The term Pseudo Left comes from the Marxist David North who characterises these groups in this way “the pseudo-left denotes political parties, organisations and theoretical/ideological tendencies which utilise populist slogans and democratic phrases to promote the socioeconomic interests of privileged and affluent strata of the middle class”.
He continues. The pseudo-left is anti-Marxist. It rejects historical materialism, embracing instead various forms of subjective idealism and philosophical irrationalism associated with existentialism, the Frankfurt School and contemporary postmodernism.[7]

The second paragraph is crucial to understanding their relationship with Eric Hobsbawm. None of the writings of these groups came from the standpoint of classical Marxism when examining Hobsbawm place in history.

A cursory look at a number of the titles of articles on Hobsbawm by these radicals shows this. Neil Davidson who is a member of the State Capitalist Socialist Workers Party wrote an article: Hobsbawm As A Marxist Historian: An Appreciation.  He states “Now that his life is over and his body of work complete, it is only fair to Hobsbawm that his critical admirers take time to assess his output as a whole, free from the demands of instant assessment required by obituaries. I am confident, however, that relatively little of his serious historical output is irredeemably tainted by the political tradition to which he belonged; most of is a lasting contribution, not only to the culture of the left, but far beyond it. Moreover, can those critics of the right who endlessly demanded that he recant the views which informed his entire life and work point to any historians with their beliefs who entered the public consciousness to anything like the same degree?”[8].

Davidson follows a well-worn path where Hobsbawm’s history is largely divorced from his Politics.This amounts to a political amnesty from an organisation that professes itself to be Trotskyist.

Hobsbawm himself did not hide his political orientation which became more pronounced towards the end of his life. In his Guardian article in 2005[9] I have a lasting admiration for Mikhail Gorbachev. It is an admiration shared by all who know that, however, for his initiatives, the world might still be living under the shadow of the catastrophe of a nuclear war - and that the transition from the communist to the post-communist era in eastern Europe, and in most non-Caucasian parts of the former USSR, has proceeded without significant bloodshed”[10]. His place in history is secure. How does an admiration for a man that helped restore capitalism back into the former Soviet Union not colour one's history writing.

As the Marxist writer David North said “Hobsbawm is not merely blind to all this. His writing suggests that he has failed to subject to any critical review the political conceptions that allowed him to remain a member of the British Communist Party for many decades: "The terrible paradox of the Soviet era," Hobsbawm tells us with a straight face, "is that the Stalin experienced by the Soviet peoples and the Stalin seen as a liberating force outside were the same. Moreover, he was the liberator for the ones at least in part because he was the tyrant for the others."

What Hobsbawm really should have written is that "the Stalin experienced by the Soviet people and the Stalin as he was deceitfully portrayed by the British Communist Party were not quite the same thing". Instead, unfortunately, Hobsbawm compromises himself as a historian by engaging in shabby pro-Stalinist apologetics, and thereby exposing what has been the tragic paradox of his own intellectual life”[11].

There is no denying that Hobsbawm was a hugely significant historian. His work is read all around the world and for anyone wanting to understand the world we live in they are very useful. However, a proper assessment of his politics and history is overdue. The starting point of this assessment must be an examination of the extent his politics clouded his judgement, especially on such a crucial subject as the Russian Revolution. 


Further Reading
Hobsbawm, Eric J. Nations and Nationalism since 1780. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Professor Eric Hobsbawm Interview Transcript London, 17 June 2008 Interview was conducted for the project ‘Making history: the discipline in perspective’.
Interview with Maya Jaggi published in The Guardian newspaper in 2002.
For an alternative view of life in Germany in the 1030s see And Red is the Colour of Our Flag: Memories of Sixty Years in the Workers' Movement [Paperback] Oskar Hipp
Martin Jacques: embittered British Stalinist pronounces on death of the “left “Part One By Chris Marsden15 December 2004
Martin Jacques: embittered British Stalinist pronounces on death of the “left” Part Two By Chris Marsden16 December 2004




[1] Kinnock’s favourite Marxist-Eric Hobsbawm and the working class-Norah Carlin & Ian Birchall-(1983)- http://www.marxists.de/workmvmt/birchcarl/hobsbawm.htm

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/sep/22/history.politicalbooks
[3] Leon Trotsky and the Fate of Socialism in the 20th Century A Reply to Professor Eric Hobsbawm By David North 3 January 1998.
[4] Martin Jacques: embittered British Stalinist pronounces on death of the “left “Part One By Chris Marsden15 December 2004
[5] "These the times ... this the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill By Ann Talbot 25 March 2003
[6] History after Hobsbawm-Writing the Past for the Twenty-First Century-Edited by John H. Arnold, Matthew Hilton, and Jan Ruger
[7] What is the pseudo-left?-30 July 2015- https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/07/30/pers-j30.html
[8] Hobsbawm As A Marxist Historian: An Appreciation -www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/hobsbawm_as_a_marxist_historian_an_appreciation
[9]  The last of the utopian projects-  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/mar/09/russia.comment
[10] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/mar/09/russia.comment
[11] Leon Trotsky and the Fate of Socialism in the 20th Century -A Reply to Professor Eric Hobsbawm
By David North -3 January 1998