Friday, 22 January 2016

At the Raphael Samuel Archive

I must admit it was by complete chance that I discovered not only the Raphael Samuel archive but now the New Left Review archive at the Bishopsgate Institute. I must say upfront the archive at Bishopsgate is a wonderful resource.

Head of the Archive Stefan Dickers and his staff make the archive a very good place to study. I will use the archive at least up until my dissertation on Samuel’s time at Universities and New Left is written. I must admit with such a good resource it is mightily tempting to do a biography of him. There is a complete dearth of biographies of the Communist Party historians.

The first few files of the archive concentrate on the early days of University and New Left (ULR). Samuel it would have seem spent most of his time sending begging letters to everyone under the sun for money and articles for the new project.

The letter to Michael Foot the then Labour MP is indicative of the fact the new journal still wanted to remain tied in some way to the coattails of the Labour Party. Samuel I believed after 1956 joined the Labour Party.

While working at the archive sometimes the best moments are meeting other people who are working on the Samuel archive. A special mention goes to Florence who is working on a documentary on East End lives.

Finally, while talking to Stefan he told me of a very disturbing matter. According to Historical Association “Archive material dating back to the first decades of the twentieth century of the internationally renowned labour movement college, Ruskin College, Oxford has been destroyed and material constituting its radical history has been dispersed. The integrity of the material in the college as an archive of working class history no longer exists. Sadly, this process of destruction and dispersal has not finished”[1]


Wednesday, 6 January 2016

The Struggle for Historical Truth

Historians do not work in a vacuum. Each one presents whether consciously or unconsciously a perspective, ideology or at least a moral attitude towards the history they study or put another way “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”[1]. Does this moral or ideological entanglement with history rule out the possibility of a struggle for “true objectivity” or historical truth I do not believe so?

For better or worse the more objective attitude towards history has been associated with the Marxist movement. It is in the basic DNA of a Marxist Historian to present their work with the understanding that he or she must at all times tell the truth or more importantly understand that their study of history is the reenactment of an “objective process”.

Following on from this can we then treat the study of history as a science with its own laws? It is very difficult to argue if not impossible to say that it is a pure science in the sense of the type of laws uncovered by physicists, chemists and mathematicians. Having said that any professional or amateur historian worth his or her salt should work in the archives or library with the same devotion and accuracy as a chemist or biologists working in the laboratories.

A historian who understands that history does have its own laws and carries out a systematic and honest study of these laws can not only give us a deeper understanding of past events but can in some way anticipate future historical events.  The use of counter factual history is very useful historical genre. Again it should go without saying that the historian must approach their research in archives with honesty and integrity.

While it should be taken for granted that a historian in order to attempt to recreate the past must have “empathy and imagination”, the historian must study the past with a doggedness and intellectual objectivity. Historians are not machines although that has not stop historians labelling others as such. A famous criticism of the historian Christopher Hill was that he was a rolodex historian in other words picking pieces of history that methodically find deterministically fitted his ideology.

 I do not believe this to be true but having said that a historian must be disciplined enough not to allow his imagination to run riot. The presentation of facts is not without controversy. It should be noted that “facts” themselves are products of the ideological, social, cultural and political currents of the time.

In seeking a more objective understanding of history the historian must be disciplined. He or she no matter how talented does not know everything there is to know about their area of expertise. It is not possible to know every fact. The point I am making is that the historian must present an honest piece of work and not let this frustration lead to a short cut in their work or more dangerously an outright falsification of history. By doing this the historian will have a greater understanding of their role in the presentation of facts.

The great historian E H Carr was a great believer that the historian had a “dialogue between the past and the present”. While it was the duty of every good historian to present this dialogue in a readable form to the history reading public he or she had to be extremely careful and not to fall into the trap of treating his topics of research as if they were organically linked to the present day. It would be completely wrong to treat figures such as Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon Bonaparte as contemporaries. It should not need to be said that they lived in completely different times to people from the 21st century.

The French historian of feudal society, Marc Bloch, wrote in his book, The Historian’s Craft was clear on this “In a word, a historical phenomenon can never be understood apart from its moment in time. This is true of every evolutionary stage, our own, and all others. As the old Arab proverb has it: ‘Men resemble their times more than they do their fathers.’

It is one thing seeking to be more objective it is perhaps another thing to achieve it. In the 20th century a significant number of historians who have sometimes been mislabeled Marxist have sought interpret Marxist theory and apply it when studying the past. The historian that has perhaps been most identified with the application of the Marxist method to the study of history certainly as regards the former Soviet Union is Edward Hallett Carr ((1892 –1982). Carr was not a Marxist and he certainly was not a Stalinist.  Carr while being a determinist sought to present a more objective presentation of history. Philosophically he was closer to Hegel than he was to Karl Marx. He was heavily influenced by the English Hegelian philosopher and historian R G Collingwood.

The historian R.G. Collingwood, said “the historian must re-enact in thought what has gone on in the mind of his dramatis personae…”. Carr’s ground breaking book What is History was heavily influenced by Collinwood. That a historian should spend so much time propagating the need for a philosophy of history was not really a thing that many English historians had felt the need for. This is a bit strange because the book sold in the hundreds of thousands all over the world. So the general public felt there was a need

Carr’s book on the whole was warmly received amongst the general reading public amongst historians it was another matter it led to a very public and polarized debate. The British historian Richard J. Evans correctly points out that the book provoked a revolutionary change in British historiography. Even amongst its critics the book was cited by the Australian historian Keith Windschuttle, as one of the “most influential books written about historiography, and that very few historians working in the English language since the 1960s had not read it”.

Carr believed that the first obligation of a historian was to tell the truth. By this I do not mean that the historian must swear on the bible but he has a duty not to falsify evidence to fit in with his ideology. When a historian deliberately falsifies history to fit in with his or her ideology then it is the duty of other historians and political writers to expose it. A recent example of this falsification can be seen in Robert Service’s biography of Leon Trotsky. Service’s book was a collection of distortion, lies and half-truths. Character assassination was dressed up as biography.[2]

Service would have done well to head the advice of one of the better American historians of the Russian Revolution, Leopold Haimson (1927–2010), when he said “The original source of the significance of any truly original and important historical work is to be traced—first and foremost—to its author’s original selection of primary sources on which he elects to focus attention in his research. To this I would add that its essential value will ultimately depend on the degree of precision and insight with which these sources are penetrated and analyzed”. I doubt Service has read this book.[3]

Counter view

It goes without saying that not all historians agree with the premise that historical study would be better served with a more objective understanding of the its historical laws.  It would not be an overstatement to say that in defending a more objective attitude towards the study of history Carr ploughed a very lonely furrow. His book What is History was a response to an attack by Isaiah Berlin[4]. Berlin accused Carr of being a determinist for ruling out the possibility of the accidental or counterfactual history[5]. Berlin correctly chastised Carr for this historical blind spot but his attack on Carr was more to do with his perceived view that Carr was a Marxist.

Berlin after all had a reputation for going after any historian who had left wing proclivities whether or not they were actually a Marxist. His “historikerstreit” with the historian Isaac Deutscher is one such example of what really was a nasty vendetta.[6]
So in carrying out research for this essay it has not been difficult to find historians who in some way disagree with the premise of historical truth or objectivity. Most of the attacks on this conception have come in the last three decades. It is also pretty safe to say that this debate is one of a left versus right variety.

                While the historian G E Elton was seen as a critic of Carr he upheld the view that the historian and his study of history should be separate from the present or put another way – the historian “should not be ‘at the centre of the historical reconstruction’ and should ‘escape from his prejudices and preconceptions”. I do find Elton’s attack on Carr somewhat contradictory. While he concedes the historian should try for some kind of subjectivity, he believes their work is carried out by both mind and pen which means some form of objectivity is needed.

His 1967 book The Practice of History Elton attacks Carr for being "whimsical" with his divorce of “historical facts" and the "facts of the past". He stated Carr had “ extraordinarily arrogant attitude both to the past and to the place of the historian studying it"[7] Hugh Trevor-Roper is another historian who attacked Carr’s philosophy of history.  Roper like Berlin had a penchant for attacking left wing historians so it would probably best to take his criticisms of Carr with a hefty pinch of salt

He was heavily critical of Carr’s dismissal of the "might-have-beens of history”. He believed that Carr had a lack of interest in examining historical causation. He also accused Carr of not looking at all sides in the debate. He believed that Carr’s ‘‘winner takes all approach’ to history was the mark of a "bad historian". While it is important to look back at what historians have said in the past about a subject it is equally important not to dwell too long to the detriment of what has been written recently or at least in the last few decades.

Certainly the most damaging attack on the concept of historical truth has come from what I term the post-modernist school of historiography. It would not be an understatement to say that post-modernist historians have been extremely hostile in academia to the concept of historical truth. The last few decades have witnessed the emergence of post-modernism as the dominant force in university life. This philosophical and historical outlook has replaced what passed for Marxism inside universities the world over as the dominant tendency in intellectual life.

The chief characteristic of the post-modernist’s is the use of debatable philosophy, to blur over the difference between truth and lies, and in doing so commit a falsification of history. The practice of lying about history has been taken to a new level by the various schools of postmodernism. It would not be an overstatement to say that the impact of this school of history has been as one writer put “nothing short of catastrophic”.

There is of course a connection between the falsification of history and the attack on the struggle for objective truth. One of the most outlandish post-modernist thinkers and an opponent of objective truth is the German Professor Jorg Baberowski b (1961)[8] a student of Michel Foucault. Baberowski describes his method of work in his book the (The Meaning of History)

“In reality the historian has nothing to do with the past, but only with its interpretation. He cannot separate what he calls reality from the utterances of people who lived in the past. For there exists no reality apart from the consciousness that produces it. We must liberate ourselves from the conception that we can understand, through the reconstruction of events transmitted to us through documents, what the Russian Revolution really was. There is no reality without its representation. To be a historian means, to use the words of Roger Chartier, to examine the realm of representations”.

This really is pretty dangerous stuff from Baberowski. If this methodology becomes the norm in historical study it denotes an anything goes approach that does not require the historian to tell the truth. For that matter it also means that reality does not exist outside the historian’s head. Therefore, history has no objective basis. He sees history only in terms of his own subjectivity. Why bother with history that tries to show the economic, political or social conditions at the time.

He continues “A history is true, if it serves the premises set up by the historian.” It is clear from this statement that he believes that it is alright for a historian to falsify his work in order to best serve the reader of history. This lying about history can bring about a fundamental and dangerous change in the way history is served to the public. The most extreme example of this fraudulent narratives is the lying about the crimes of Nazi Germany.  It is not accident that Baberowski is a leading figure in the attempt to rehabilitate Hitler.

The study of history is a battleground. “The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living,” wrote Marx. According to Baberowski, we cannot learn anything from history. He pours disdain on any approach that seeks to understand the future.  a more objective approach is just a dream. This leading spokesman on the “subjectivist school” states “The fact that we could learn from history is an illusion of days gone by… The claim (of the historian) to show how things actually were having been proved in reality to be an illusion. What the historian confronts in the sources is not the past… the past is a construction.  Truth is what I and others hold to be true and confirm to each other as truth.... Therefore, we must accept that there are multiple realities; that it depends on who talks to whom about what and with what arguments.” [9]


If we accept this premise that truth is not objective but relative it sets a very disturbing precedent. Aside from the moral and intellectual damage this may do to the individual historian this kind of false philosophy will poison the well that future young historians and people interested history have to drink out of.

The logic of this philosophy of history is that truth is whatever goes on in someone’s head.  Smoking is good for you, hard drugs are not dangerous, Hitler really is misunderstood and was really a good guy. As one writer said “a person who wants to function and live effectively in the world cannot do without some sense of truth’s objective correspondence to reality. I believe that Objective truth is possible but not without a struggle. The first stage in that struggle is to tell the truth about history.

[1] What is History E H Carr?
[2] The American Historical Review discredits Robert Service’s biography of Leon Trotsky-
[3] Russia’s Revolutionary Experience, 1905–1917:
[4] I Berlin-Historical Inevitability
[5] See A Talbot Chance and necessity in history: E.H. Carr and
Leon Trotsky compared 
[6] Isaac and Isaiah: The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic Paperback – 2 Jun 2015
by David Caute 
[7] The Practice of History, Sir Geoffrey Elton 
[9] 2) Jörg Baberowski, The Meaning of History, Munich 2005,

Sunday, 8 November 2015

A Comment on Goldman on Tawney, Stone and Trevor-Roper

Your remarks on Goldman’s study of Tawney’s career are important and deserve a considered response. It is true that Tawney was a Christian Socialist and that his historical works were informed by his profound moral convictions.

He preferred the more collective society of the late-medieval English peasantry to what he took to be the increasingly market-orientated economy of the post-Reformation period. Similarly, he was even more critical of the capitalist economy and society that existed after the Industrial Revolution and throughout his lifetime.

It was for these reasons that he thought the comments of critics of the societies of these post-1540 periods compelling and valuable. It is, however, also true that his economic analysis of these societies owed a large debt to Marx’s class analysis and could not have been expressed without using Marxist terminology

Valerie Pearl, who knew Tawney, once remarked to me that he had an “aura of sanctity”. By 1940, he was widely regarded in left-wing circles as an oracle of wisdom and, as Christopher Hill’s obituary tributes showed, a person not to be criticised. I very much doubt whether this was a desirable position for an historian, however distinguished, to be in.

I am also doubtful whether much of Tawney’s corpus of works really qualifies as “history” since its subscription to Marxist tenets and the moral condemnation of social changes in the past lies outside the proper remit of the discipline. What the “storm over the gentry” from c.1948 to c.1958 did was to expose Tawney’s contentions about the rise of the gentry as a cause of the English Revolution to long overdue examination and critical evaluation.

The controversy stimulated an immense raft of research in the succeeding period, little of which supported the contentions of the participants. That is something for which Trevor-Roper and J.P.Cooper.

Lawrence Stone’s case was rather different. He had indeed been Trevor-Roper’s pupil. In fact, it was Trevor-Roper who had lent Stone the transcripts from the Recognisances for Debt in the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane which Stone used, without Trevor-Roper’s advance knowledge or permission, in his 1948 article in The Economic History Review.

 It was this action – this “act of thievery” as Menna Prestwich described it – that prompted Trevor-Roper’s ferocious language in his immediate response and later comments.

Reading the works of Tawney and Stone is an enjoyable experience. Both were consummate writers and had exciting propositions to put to their readers. But Tawney’s moral approach to the past was underpinned by a crude economic determinism and entailed an overtly political analysis of the past. Stone, by contrast, was an adventurer at large in the past, always seeking to be the focus of attention and at the forefront of historiographical fashion.

 He was not, in the strict sense, a scholar at all and was perfectly prepared to lie about his critics. It is no surprise that both have ceased to be relevant to the historiography of the early modern period.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

The Life of R. H. Tawney: Socialism and History- Lawrence Goldman-Bloomsbury 2013

The fact that Lawrence Goldman’s biography is the first for well over half a century is an indication of how far R H Tawney’s reputation and influence has declined. It is hoped that this book is the start of a revival of an interest in Tawney’s writings. The book is almost entirely drawn from the archive based at the London School of Economics(LSE) and from personal material from his family. Goldman takes a basic broadly chronological approach, and tries but does not always succeed to work in the more serious political and history issues that arose during his lifetime. The book delves heavily into Tawney’s life to the detriment of a more in-depth study of his politics and historiography.

Perhaps the most striking thought when reading the book is the fact that Tawney’s archive has hardly been touched. Goldman does not attempt to answer this conundrum but I believe that despite Tawney being a Christian Socialist not a Marxist his work has falling victim to the onslaught in academia led by large numbers of revisionist historians who have sought to bury Marxist historiography under a large number of dead dogs.

Early Life

Tawney came from a family that was academic and comfortably well off. Like large numbers of his class he was privately educated in Tawney’s case at Rugby and later went on to Balliol. It is without doubt Tawney’s social background that heavily influenced his political and historical writings. As one writer pointed out he  “ brought a late Victorian and Edwardian ethical sensibility to the economic and industrial troubles of the 1920s and 30s,”[1]

It is clear that it was his “ethical sensibility” that drove him to give something back to society in the form of educating the working class. Tawney clearly had an empathy with the poor. While rejecting Marxist theory he started the first Workers’ Educational Association courses in Lancashire and the Black Country.

The education of workers and the unemployed through Workers Educational Associations in one form or another was an international phenomenon. The German Workers’ Educational Society in London was started in 1840 by a group of political refugees, who were members of the League of the Just.

When the Communist League was founded in 1847, its members played leading roles in the society. Creating branches in many workings areas of London. The importance of the society attracted Marx and Engels in 1849-50 who took more responsibility for the political direction of the society.  

The Society unfortunately was closed 1918, by the British Government.
Goldman believes that Tawney choose his field of study carefully. His study of economics was clearly motivated by his attempt to understand the origins of capitalism.  Unfortunately, not by using Marxist methodology, rejecting using historical materialism as a method of examining capitalism.

Goldman is not really interested in looking into Tawney’s philosophy of history. While rejecting Marxism, Tawney adopted an essentially utopian approach to politics and for that matter history.

This approach can be seen in one of his most important and famous books. He states “The distinction made by the philosophers of classical antiquity between liberal and servile occupations, the medieval insistence that riches exist for man, not man for riches, Ruskin’s famous outburst, “there is no wealth but life”, the argument of the Socialist who urges that production be organized for service not for profit, are but different attempts to emphasize the instrumental character of economic activities, by reference to an ideal which is held to express the true nature of man.”[2]

Compare this to Marx “In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely [the] relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness”[3]

Tawney rejected Marx’s linking of base and superstructure. Tawney never believed that socialism should have a material base. While he believed that working men and women should have strong convictions his appeal was to the heart and not the head.

He was fond of quoting Oliver Cromwell who during the English revolution commented on the type of person he wanted in the New Model Army a “plain russet-coated Captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows”.

Tawney’s socialism was suffused with Christian morality. According to Goldman Tawney gave out good will and expected in return. Declaring that “no political creed will ever capture their hearts which begins by saying simply ‘we will give you a little more money’”. It is quite striking that Tawney had a very low goal for socialism.

Would he have been a better historian if he had embraced Marxist methodology I believe he would have been. But despite this handicap so great was his influence at the time that his study of the period 1540-1640 became known as “Tawney’s century”.


Probably the weakest part of the book is the treatment or lack of it of the furious battles Tawney had with predominately right wing historians. While it would have clear to even an O Level history or politics student that Tawney was not a Marxist this did not stop him being attacked for his perceived Marxist orientation.

He was involved in certainly the biggest and nastiest discussion of the 20th century. While some of today’s historians have treated this debate as arcane they are wrong and do so for mainly ideological reasons.

The start of the battle occurred when in The Economic History Review of 1941, Tawney published ‘The Rise of the Gentry’ as Goldman puts it he “argued that a change occurred in the ownership of property in the century before the Civil War, with a new class of gentry replacing the old land-owing classes. Tawney’s most important piece of empirical evidence was what later came to be referred to as the ‘counting of manors’ – between 1561 and 1680 ‘the number of landholders owning more than 10 manors fell from 612 to 347. Impressionistically, the number of lesser landholders grew but the wealthiest landholders were losing their grip and declining in numbers and wealth’ (p. 234).

While Goldman is light on historiography the book would have been greatly improved if he devoted more time and space to this debate, which he did not see as an objective exchange of opinions. Personal prejudice and petty jealousy was to intercede. American historian Lawrence Stone became involved in the debate. Stone visited Tawney during the second world war.
The story goes that Hugh Trevor-Roper, who was covering the same ground as Tawney gave Stone some papers on the subject. Whether Stone deliberately gave Tawney papers to further his research is open to conjecture. Trevor Roper saw this as a slight and decided to ‘smash’ Stone.

According to the National Oxford Biography Stone had an “impatience to get on with ‘real’ history earned him a reputation for arrogance during his post-war undergraduate year; on one occasion he stormed out of a revision class conducted by a newly appointed Christ Church tutor, Hugh Trevor-Roper”.

It would appear that Roper never forgave him for this but does not explain Ropers vitriolic attack. Trevor-Roper accused Stone of failing to understand the technological nature of the documents he studied and had substantially exaggerated the level of indebtedness of the Aristocracy. See also C Thompson Critic of Stone’s work) This ‘mistake’ did not warrant Roper’s “academic vituperation”. Tawney was moved to defend Stone saying that ‘an erring colleague is not an Amalakite to be smitten hip and thigh’.

On a broader point while Stone himself described his early career as being a young Marxist perhaps his mistakes were the product of an incomplete assimilation of the Marxist method of Historical Materialism. Stone had a major problem in that he never really understood the difference between genuine Marxism and a crude form of economic determinism.

In fact, Stone himself soon moved away from any link with Marxist historiography and in his own words became as he put it in an interview in 1987, "an old fashioned Whig".
Stone never really deepens the reader’s knowledge of the political persuasion of Roper or other historians such as J H Dexter who also weighted in heavily to the debate with Tawney. Stone mistakenly described him as a Liberal.

Hexter’s work is very readable but here is not the place to evaluate its merit but it does warrant me to say that Hexter’s close links to the American Encounter magazine which in turn had close links to the CIA could have been exposed by Stone.

In the 1950s Hugh Trevor-Roper went to a conference in Berlin which was largely made up of anti-communists, I am not sure if J H Hexter went to as well but writer and some Stalinist intellectuals such as Sidney Hook, Melvin J. Lasky, Ignazio Silone, and Arthur Koestler. The result of this conference was the founding of the Congress for Cultural Freedom and its magazine Encounter. Trevor Roper wrote extensively for the magazine Encounter, is it any wonder that Stone who was mistakenly described as a Marxist historian would get such a hostile treatment

This would in my opinion armed his readers with an understanding of the fact that attacks on Stone’s and Tawney’s work were not just motivated by historical accuracy but had a very right wing political undertone.

The attack on Stone was unwarranted for a number of reasons. The main one being that after writing the Cause of the English Revolution he was moving away from any link to a Marxist analysis of the English Revolution.

But it became clear that roper’s real target was Tawney. Goldman to his credit does question whether Trevor-Roper was justified in attacking both in this manner– ‘why, if he had killed the child, did Trevor-Roper go on to kill the father?’ (p. 237). He chides Roper ‘for all the huffing and puffing Trevor-Roper had merely offered an alternative and admittedly better model of social structures in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries … Trevor-Roper had not vanquished Tawney, merely corrected him … The judgement that he had delivered an ‘annihilating oposculum’ to Tawney’s article is in need of revision. Trevor-Roper’s motivation was clearly ideological driven. He saw Tawney as a Marxist that must be vanquished.


It is impossible in the space of this review to sum up the importance of Tawney’s work or his legacy. To the modern reader Tawney was clearly the archetypal absent-minded scholar, As Goldman points out he lived in chaos. Goldman recounts a story that when Tawney invited William Temple (a future archbishop of Canterbury) for a meal “and removed three musty volumes from his bookshelf to reveal two cold chops on a plate” (p. 139).

A L Rowse also recounts a visit to Tawney ‘When I penetrated his study in Mecklenburg Square I was amazed: not only the litter of books and papers on every chair, table or ledge, but trays with scraps of food, unwashed teacups etc. …Tawney sat imperturbably in the midst of the mess, he didn’t seem to notice the squalor’, Historians I Have Known, pp. 93–4.

These anecdotes while amusing should not be an excuse for ignoring an important historian. The least he deserves is a proper re-evaluation of his work.  Certainly the “Storm Over the Gentry” debate needs to be put in a more appropriate context. Hopefully Goldman’s book will rekindle not just an interest but provokes other historians into doing some long overdue work on Tawney.

[1]   For the Common Good-Stefan Collini
[2]  Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926),
[3]K. Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977, with some notes by R. Rojas. 

Monday, 5 October 2015

The Election of Jeremy Corbyn and “The rebirth of the Levellers”

It would not be an overstatement to say that the election to the leadership of the Labour party of Jeremy Corbyn is an event of some significance. Corbyn has been the unwitting benefactor of the enormous social hostility aimed at the  growing enrichment at the expense of millions of working people by a handful of super elite. There is without doubt something rotten in the state of Britain.

A tremendous amount of newspaper columns, most of it pretty puerile has drawn attention to Corbyn’s left wing politics.  As Julie Hyland correctly points out “Corbyn’s own history is steeped in opportunist petty-bourgeois politics. For all his votes against aspects of Labour policy, he has been a loyal defender of the party throughout his 32 years on Labour’s backbenches. No one can seriously propose that this party—which, in its politics and organisation and the social composition of its apparatus, is Tory in all but name—can be transformed into an instrument of working class struggle. The British Labour Party did not begin with Blair. It is a bourgeois party of more than a century’s standing and a tried and tested instrument of British imperialism and its state machine. Whether led by Clement Attlee, James Callaghan or Jeremy Corbyn, its essence remains unaltered”.[1]

One of the more interesting articles which appeared as a by product of Corbyn’s election victory was by the historian Edward Vallance in the Guardian newspaper[2]. The purpose of my article is to tackle the issues raised by Vallance’s article rather than a polemic against Corbyn’s politics.  
As in politics so in history it is important for “principled considerations” to guide any  analysis.
I was not surprised by the content of Vallance’s article but I was a little perturbed. 

His article took note of an interview with the New Statesman in which Corbyn sought to trace his radicalism back to the mid-17th-century England.  The interviewer asked Corbyn what historical figure he most identified with. It was not really surprising that he named John Lilburne.

Firstly I am not against modern day political figures identifying with historical figures or having a good grasp of history but firstly a lot of historical water has passed under the bridge since 1640 and secondly to compare Corbyn’s opportunist petty-bourgeois politics with the revolutionary Levellers and their leader John Lilburne is a little disingenuous to say the least. 

Who was john Lilburne

Lilburne was the de facto leader of the Levellers who appeared in the mid 1640s and were England’s first radical political party. They were responsible for many of modern day political techniques such as mass demonstrations, collecting petitions, leafleting and the lobby of MPs. Their strength mainly lay in London and other towns and had quite considerable support in the army. The MP Henry Marten described Lilburne saying “If the world was emptied of all but John Lilburne, Lilburne would quarrel with John and John with Lilburne.”

The ‘movement’ contained other smaller  groups of radicals such as the Diggers known as the True Levellers and Ranters who were on the extreme left wing of the Leveller movement.
As Valance correctly points out “Lilburne would forge a career as one of the most prominent radical figures of the period. Along with the works of other writers, notably Richard Overton, William Walwyn and John Wildman, Lilburne’s ideas formed the intellectual basis for what came to be known as the Leveller movement”.[3]

How radical were the Leveller’s has preoccupied historians and some politicians for over a century and some.  This task has been some what muddied recently with the Leveller’s legacy being claimed by the right wing including fascists such as the BNP[4] and the semi fascist UKIP[5] have adopted them as their own.  Ukip MP Douglas Carswell  wrote on his blog that he thought the Levellers were proto-Conservatives who favoured small government, low taxes and free trade. Would for instance Mr Carswell really agree with the egalitarian sentiment of Thomas Rainborowe a leading Leveller at the Putney debates who said "I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he, and therefore ... every man that is to live under a government ought first, by his own consent, to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under." Lest it be forgotten the Levellers also took part in a successful revolution and fought a successful civil war and cut off a kings head.

It was correct for the early Marxists to look at the early plebeian movements as precursors of modern socialist movement. What needs to be clarified is what a modern socialist movement looks like. The communist party Historians group (CPHG) alongside numerous radical groups such as the SWP have a tendency to glorify the spontaneous movement of the “middling sort” and to link it to working class struggles today as if there was some unbroken radical and democratic thread that would supersede the need for a scientifically grounded Marxist revolutionary party.

If there is to be a “rebirth of the Leveller” historiography it must be done with a substantial appreciation of the historians and political figures that flowered during the Russian revolution. One such figure was Evgeny Pashukanis[6]. His area of expertise was legal history. His writings on the radical movements of the 17th century are perceptive and well worth a study but have been neglected  by even todays left leaning historians. He rejected crude historicism and opposed historians who saw the Levellers democratic demands as utopian.

Pashukanis saw the English Levellers and Diggers as “primitive precursors of Bolshevism”. In the introduction to his Revolutionary Elements in the History of the English State and Law one writer said  “These movements were primitive because they articulated their demands chiefly in terms of bourgeois notions of distributive justice, yet they were also precursors of Bolshevism because they attacked existing property relations and recognized the necessity of forging political alliances with the urban workers and rank and file soldiers. In praising the informal nature of the Levellers’ demands, and the democratic nature of their organizations, Pashukanis is drawing an explicit parallel between the Levellers’ organization and the structure of the Soviets of Soldiers’ and Workers’ Deputies of 1917. The Levellers’ failure lay in the fact that they were betrayed by the upper strata of the peasantry, and that they were insufficiently prepared to resist the authoritarian opportunism of Cromwell and his generals”.[7]

What is any serious student of the subject of the Levellers to make of all this. Anyone who knows the history of the Levellers this is not a simple question in fact it is very complex. You would search in vain amongst the MPs mentioned including Corbyn of any sense of the revolutionary process (which the Levellers took part in) that brought Oliver Cromwell to power as England’s first non-royal head of state. Many MPs would lack any kind of historical knowledge on this matter and they would certainly downplay the revolutionary nature of the Levellers.   And more importantly they would stay deathly silent on their social writings.

Fabians and Tony Benn

Another thing a serious student of the Levellers would have to contend with is the fact that modern day historiography is still partially dominated by Fabianism.  In Putney there is an exhibition on the Putney Debates of 1647. The information on Leveller involvement in the debates (which was considerable) was largely dominated by politicians and historians with close association with the British Labour Party and more precisely the Fabians .

Any debate over the Levellers has been dominated certainly over the last century by figures in or around Social Democracy. Perhaps the most important figure has been Tony Benn. Who before his death spoke at a commeration of  Lilburne’s birth.
As Julie Hyland wrote in 1999 “Benn prides himself on his “historical viewpoint”. Through his father, the experiences of the 1930s became a formative influence on him politically. From this tumultuous decade of fascism, defeated revolutions, depression and war, he developed a loathing for class conflict. This reinforced his belief that parliamentary democracy and social reform were all that stood between Britain and chaos.[8]

Fabians such as Benn present the English revolution not as a revolution and the Levellers are not seen as revolutionaries but mere radicals. Speaking about British Fabianism, Leon Trotsky wrote: “Throughout the whole history of the British Labour movement there has been pressure by the bourgeoisie upon the proletariat through the agency of radicals, intellectuals, drawing-room and church socialists and Owenites who reject the class struggle and advocate the principle of social solidarity, preach collaboration with the bourgeoisie, bridle, enfeeble and politically debase the proletariat.”
 “The interest in the radicalism of the English revolution is indicative of the current crisis in British political life “. This is certainly the most interesting and accurate sentence in the whole of Vallance's article. Can a study of the Levellers tell us anything about politics today. Firstly the fact that we are talking about the 17th century English revolution and it radical wing at all is due to the fact that the issues like what kind of democracy do we want, the rise of social inequality and how to tackle it and in general what kind of society do we want are contemporary issues. Given the explosive political situation today it is understandable that the bourgeoisie is a little nervous over a discussion of the revolution of 1640.

In many ways the answer given to all these questions in a lot of ways mirror the answers given by Cromwell and other bourgeois leaders of his day are similar to  todays politicians both Labour and conservative. Cromwell opposed the abolition of private property and had no solution to the rise in social inequality other than to send his army against any one that proposed it. For example  on May 17th, 1649, Cornet Thompson, Corporal Perkins and Private Church rank and file Levellers were shoot at the hands of Oliver Cromwell troops.  Like in the 17th century real wealth and the power that goes with it are still in the hands of a tiny extremely wealthy elite who call the shots.

Further reading

1)     The Last of the Leveller’s - Paul Lay-
2)     The political issues posed by Corbyn’s election as UK Labour Party leader14 September 2015

[1] The political issues posed by Corbyn’s election as UK Labour Party leader14 September
[4] See Edward Vallance’s book-A Radical History Of Britain: Visionaries, Rebels and Revolutionaries - the men and women who fought for our freedoms

[8] The end of Fabianism in Britain-

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Professor Ann Hughes ‘Preachers and hearers in revolutionary London’.

RHS Ann Hughes Lecture from Jane on Vimeo.

Reprinted from

RHS Lecture, Gustave Tuck Lecture Theatre, UCL, 27 September 2013

Ann Hughes has been Professor of Early Modern History at Keele University since 1995. She served as Head of the School of History and Classics, 2000 -2003, and currently acts as Director of Research in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

She won the Alexander Prize of the Royal Historical Society in 1980 and her major publications include Politics, Society and Civil War in Warwickshire 1620-1660 (1987),
 The Causes of the English Civil War ( 2nd edition, 1998), Gangraena and the Struggle for the English Revolution (2004), Gender and the English Revolution (2011).

 She has edited (with Richard Cust) Conflict in Early Stuart England (1989), and (with Tom Corns and David Loewenstein) The Complete Works of Gerrard Winstanley (2009). She is now working principally on a reassessment of the impact of parliamentarian preaching during the English.