Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The John Lilburne 400th Anniversary Conference

Born 400 years ago, John Lilburne’s courage and passion for justice was unfailing during the turbulent years of the English Revolution. Whipped, pilloried and often imprisoned in his lifetime, John Lilburne was a Leveller activist and pamphleteer who campaigned for radical change. He fought to establish many of the liberties and political freedoms that we take for granted today. He was a champion of popular sovereignty, trial by jury and the rights of the ordinary citizen.

Don’t miss this one-day celebration of the life and legacy of ‘Freeborn John’.

Speakers include Martine Brant and Peter Flannery (writers of The Devil’s Whore series on Channel 4), Ted Vallance (author of A Radical History of Britain), Dr Ariel Hessayon (Goldsmiths, University of London), Katherine Clements (author of The Crimson Ribbon), Jason Peacey (author of Print and Public Politics in the English Revolution), Dr Rachel Foxley (University of Reading and author of The Levellers: Radical Political Thought in the English Revolution), Jeremy Corbyn MPand Rev. Hammer (singer/songwriter and creator of the Freeborn John song cycle).


In partnership with The Levellers’ Association.

Financially supported by the Ameil and Melburn Trust and the Goldsmiths Annual Fund.

The conference will run from 11.00am - 9.00pm. 14 March 2015 at the Bishopgate Institute

*A postage fee of £1 applies for sending out tickets booked online or over the telephone.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Killers of the King - The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I Hardcover – 11 Sep 2014 352 pages Bloomsbury Publishing - ISBN-13: 978-1408851708

 [This post is a re-write of the review posted last week. The post was done too hastily and was not really fit for print].

It would be a brave soul to contest the widely held view amongst historians and the wider reading public that the execution of Charles I is a fascinating one. After all Charles I was and is the only monarch in English history to be killed by his own people.

It is also perhaps a truism accepted by most historians that his trial and subsequent execution was a watershed moment in British and world history.

As Blair Worden said “The beheading of Charles I on January 30th, 1649, left an indelible mark on the history of England and on the way that the English think about themselves. It was the climactic moment of the Puritan Revolution and it also changed the whole character of the conflict. Most of the people who had taken up arms against Charles I seven years earlier were opposed to his killing, if not outraged by it. They knew that it would destroy their cause, though they could not have foreseen how lasting the condemnation of the regicide would be”.   I would only substitute English for the word Puritan.

Charles Spencer’s new book is a product of this interest. It is a splendid, narrative driven book.  And given the number of narrative driven books recently published it would appear that this particular historical genre is on the up . As Tom Holland flamboyantly points out “Imagine the Odessa File re-written by Christopher Hill, and you will have some idea of the pleasure to be had in reading Killers of the King. The virtues of a thriller and of scholarship are potently combined”.

I must admit not all historians are fans of this type of historical writing. When C V Wedgwood produced her splendid book A King Condemned-The Trial and Execution of Charles I it was criticised in some academic quarters. In his foreword to the 2011 edition by Tauras Parke Paperbacks Clive Holmes said “Wedgwood’s relationship with academic historians was not an easy one, and the immediate reception of this work by the professionals in their flagship journals was cool, and even condescending”

As far as I can tell there has been no academic reviews of Spencer’s book. Narrative type of books have been criticised in the past for being “theoretically light”. This is to a certain extent a genuine criticism of Spencer. He is not in the same class of writer as Wedgwood and his book could have been improved if he had used previous academic research on the subject. His use of other historians work is sparse to say the least. Spencer's use of narrative history writing has its defenders. Paul Lay  recent article in October's Literary Review called The Return of Narrative is one example.


Spencer’s book does fall into any recognisable historiographical school. On a broader point given the magnitude and richness of the subject there is a dearth of serious academic studies of the trial and execution of the king and subsequent politics contained within the trial and execution of the regicides. It is a richly rewarding subject to study. It is hard to understand why such an important event in the history of both Britain and the world has been so under researched.

Outside of C V Wedgewood’s The Regicides and the Execution of Charles I there has been books by Jason Dr Peacey, The Regicides and the Execution of Charles I Hardcover – 7 Dec 2001 Why Was Charles I Executed? 2007 by Clive Holmes and last but no means least in 2010 we have The Tyrannicide Brief: The Story of the Man who sent Charles I to the Scaffold by Geoffrey Robertson apart from these there is very little on offer.

Given that most historical changes happen slowly and over time, some at a glacial pace, the killing of a king by his own people showed that certain periods move not only at lightning speed but have the character of tectonic plates moving such is the momentous change.

Some reviewers of Spencer’s book have tried to place it in the “history from above” genre. I do not accept that classification. Despite dealing with a royal subject Spencer’s book is a bit more than that.
As to the event it there appears to be little agreement amongst historians how far back in the revolution the revolutionists were prepared to kill the king. Again in the 2011 foreword to a new publication of C V Wedgwood’s book Holmes defends the view that the regicides knew exactly what they were doing when they executed the king and had prepared for his killing a good few years before. Spencer broadly agrees with this viewpoint.

Not all historians agree with this premise. According to Ian Gentles   in a series of compelling articles Sean Kelsey has argued that the New Model Army and the purged Long Parliament actually had no wish to see the king dead when they brought him to trial on charges of committing treason against his own people”.

Sean Kelsey has also argued in his essay The Ordinance for the Trial of Charles I that Parliament had a significant bigger role in bringing the King to execution than had previously thought.  Historians as Kelsey say have paid little or no attention to the role of Parliament in bringing about the trial of the king. “The ordinance passed by the Commons on January 1st 1649 has never roused much interest amongst historians of the English Revolution, one of whom has remarked that “formal documentary evidence for this (first) tribunal is lacking”. Neither the House of Lords Record Office not the principal collections of parliamentary papers has yielded the secrets of the Ordinance. A search of the National Archives of Scotland has not yet located a copy of the Common’s measure which the commissioners of Edinburgh parliament resident at Westminster in January 1649 sent to their superiors shortly after its passage in the English lower house”.

High Road to Revolution

The trial and execution of the king was the high point and culmination of a long and protracted process called the English revolution. This view that there was a high road to revolution has also come under heavy attack from the revisionist historians . Admittedly the men who started the revolution against the king did not start out to kill him but to make revolutionary changes in 1642 for “king and parliament” but ended it cutting the kings head off. It is not Spencer’s fault that his book does not really answer this contradiction. The problem is not Spencer’s ability as a writer but his method or theory of historical events.

He could have consulted even an out and out revisionist historian such as Blair Worden who perceptibly writes, “Yet wars, once embarked upon, have to be won. The fighting and winning of them can radically extend their aims. The New Model Army, raised in 1645 to end the carnage, acquired revolutionary goals in both politics and religion. Only slowly did its generals come to contemplate trying the king. The decisive event was the Second Civil War, fought in 1648. It centred on an invasion by a Scottish army, with whose leaders Charles had been conspiring even as he negotiated, ostensibly in good faith, for his restoration by the English parliament. In 1647 Oliver Cromwell and his ally and son-in-law Henry Ireton had conducted their own negotiations with him. Now they concluded that Charles’s innate duplicity would wreck any settlement. There could be no lasting peace, they decided, while he remained alive”.

His concentration on the narrative to the detriment of theory does not get us very far. While it is important to understand what went through the minds of the leading actors of the revolution such as Cromwell, Ireton and Harrison to do so would only give us a one sided understanding of the why a kings head was cut off and a republic established. Spencer is free to adopt whatever theoretical approach he wants to portray historical events. But historians such as Spencer preoccupation with narrative can take the reader only so far.

The rise of narrative history has been at the direct expense of Marxist historiography and has done untold damage to our understanding of the English revolution.

As Karl Marx correctly points out “the production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct efflux of their material behaviour. The same applies to mental production as expressed in the language of politics, laws, morality, religion, metaphysics, etc., of a people. Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc. – real, active men, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these, up to its furthest forms. Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men is their actual life-process. If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process.

Of course there was gentlemen and landowners on the Parliamentary side in the civil war and small farmers and artisans on the Royalist side. This was not a “chemically pure revolution in which the members of one social class lined up one side of the barricades and those of the other on the opposite side”

A snapshot of the regicides shows that they came from diverse social backgrounds but were united by their opposition to the king. They were not conscious revolutionists in the mould of a Vladimir Lenin or Leon Trotsky but they were however the “ideologists of the revolution (who) ransacked the Bible and half understood historical precedent for some kind of theory to explain what they were doing”.

The most politically aware of the revolutionists were astute enough to understand that when they executed their king after a complex trial with long deliberation, it was the result not of an accident or misunderstanding. Many soldiers from the New Model Army who were mainly drawn from smallholders and lower yeomanry were acutely aware of what and more importantly why they moved against the king. when the king challenged Cornet George Joyce and asked him where he received his commission Joyce is reported to have waved his sword towards his troops and replied " here is my commission".

But as one writer put it “has a profound revolutionary significance entailing a complete break with the feudal past. Although the monarchy was later restored and the triumphant bourgeoisie were soon eager to pretend that the whole thing had been a ghastly mistake, no monarch sat easily on the throne after that event until quite late in Victoria’s reign”.

The killers of the King is Spencer’s third book covering the English Civil war.  The author was recently asked why this subject “The three main history books that I have written have concentrated on the period 1642-1704 – quite a short period of time, in fact. I am not the first to be intrigued by the English Civil War – but my particular interest is in the characters involved: there seem to have been so many huge personalities active during that time of massive, national, upheaval. For me, History has always been more about people watching than dry statistics and dates. The mid- to late seventeenth century provides very rich pickings indeed.

The book and the author have received a substantial amount of interest from the media. Partly because the subject matter lends itself to great interest due to its dramatic content. The book is very well written and very well researched and is beautifully illustrated.   It is not for the fainthearted as Spencer at times goes into graphic detail of the punishment handed out to the king killers. Many after all were hung drawn and quartered and their genitals cut off and innards burned before their eyes while still alive.

Spencer’s book at times reads like a novel. He shows that leading figures of the revolution turned on their former colleagues and hunted them down.  One was Sir George Downing of Downing Street fame, and described by Samuel Pepys as “that perfidious rogue”, he plotted and went to the Continent, kidnap and if necessary murder then and there his former friends or bundle them back to England to stand trial and certain execution.

It would appear from the book that the reign of Charles was dominated by this manhunt. While sanctioning what amounted to judicial murder the regime was hardly a picture of stability. The longer the show trial went on the more nervous Charles and his ministers became and recognised the growing danger of a rebellion. Charles II made one mistake in giving a public funeral to one of the regicides over twenty thousand people attended testifying the still considerable support held for republican ideas.

As I said above Spencer’s understanding of why Charles II would undertake a risky thing to try his father’s killers is very limited, and tends to put the trial down to simple revenge as Spencer states “Charles II naturally loathed those who had seen to his father's beheading. He was unable to exact vengeance on all those who had fought for Parliament, of course – approximately half the nation; but he was allowed to bring down retribution on the regicides. Originally he was only looking to make seven of them suffer, but many – especially in the House of Lords – wanted all those intimately involved in Charles I's death to die. They had their own reasons for vengeance. For a lot of Parliamentarians, choosing the king's killers as scapegoats took the attention away from their own years of rebellion against the Crown”
Spencer further elaborates on this matter “Killers of the King starts with the fall of Charles I, and then his trial and execution. But the driving narrative is what happened to the many diverse men who came together to end his life. On the whole, these were not people with a grand background – they included a butcher's son, a jeweller, a brewer, and a tanner of hides – men who had risen through merit to regimental command in Parliament's New Model Army. British history tends inevitably to be seen through a royal prism, because – apart from the 11 years between Charles I's death and Charles II's restoration, of course – we have always had a monarchy”.

When I started reading this book I had expected that Earl Spencer would side with one of his own in the matter of the regicide of the king but the opposite would appear to be the case, As Spencer says “I started the book with a view that I would end up being hugely sympathetic to Charles I as a victim of a kangaroo court, but, as I researched the extraordinary drama of the civil war it had thrown up, these intriguing, individuals whose stories were so fascinating and diverse. Getting to know some of the key regicides in greater depth meant I sympathised with them much more,” says Spencer, who despite being an Earl, would have sided with Parliament had he been alive at the time.

His book is not a radical history of the English revolution. The author if anything is sympathetic to the Whig interpretation of history. Spencer believes that the civil war was a progressive development  and supports Geoffrey Robertson’s contention that  “ The proceeding against Charles I in 1649 secured the constitutional gains of the Civil War – the supremacy of Parliament, the independence of judges, individual freedom guaranteed by Magna Carta and the common law”.

Spencer adds “I do believe the king had to die for England to have a hope of peace. He was impossible to trust and the one thing you had to be as a ruler was decisive otherwise you were too weak to survive. The whole of society was changing in a fundamental way and something drastic has to happen. Sadly for Charles it was being decapitated. But despite my feelings against him as a king, I have huge personal regard for him as a man, he was a gentle, church loving, chess playing figure. I feel very sorry for him, but I also think those who put him to death were very brave men.”

Another striking aspect of the book and Spencer gives ample room space to is the manner in which people who were once leading members in the Cromwellian era shifted their allegiances like some people change a shirt.

Charles Monck, who has always struck me as a person of extreme opportunism was as one writer said “a turncoat of heroic proportions”. He had been commander in chief of the English army in Scotland and an ardent follower of Cromwell. But after being promised the unheard of sum of £100,000 a year for the rest of his life changed sides and decided to do the kings dirty work. It would have added to Spencer’s book if he had investigated this phenomena further. Another perceived weakness of the book is that fact that he never really addresses what happened to the revolution. Why was it so easy for a regime change so shortly after Cromwell’s death?

One severe weakness of the book is that it fails to convey how the regicides lost power and a monarchy established albeit with the help of substantial sections of the bourgeoisie. There is an absence from the book as to the political and economic makeup of the Charles ll regime. The trial far from just being about revenge was a counter revolution by sections of the bourgeoisie who were still closely connected to the Monarchy.

As James Holstun’s has written “What turned the tide was the failure of bourgeois republican revolutionaries to unify themselves militarily, and create an interest and stake in the republic among the copyholders, soldiers, sailors and apprentices; and the superior power of General Monck and the forces of Restoration in shaping and controlling the army”. With some reservations I would recommend a wide readership for the book. It is a cracking read and deserves wide readership and would grace anybody’s bookshelf

Sunday, 12 October 2014

One response To Killers of the King by Charles Spencer

There’s always plenty of scope for revisiting historical events – even ones we think we understand. And as always there are messages for our own times: “They had their own reasons for vengeance. For a lot of Parliamentarians, choosing the king’s killers as scapegoats took the attention away from their own years of rebellion against the Crown”. Yes indeed!

A Scott' s blog can be found http://turkeyfile.wordpress.com/

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

David M. Hart, Tracts on Liberty by the Levellers and their Critics Vol. 3 (1646). [2014]

As reported on this blog the Online library of Liberty has started the process of publishing large swathes of Leveller writings  in digital form. David M. Hart  has now put on “Tracts on Liberty by the Levellers and their Critics Vol. 3 (1646)”. [2014] in ebook form. 

More will follow in 2015. The link is http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/hart-tracts-on-liberty-by-the-levellers-and-their-critics-vol-3-1646

Monday, 4 August 2014

E. P. Thompson and English Radicalism Edited by Roger Fieldhouse and Richard Taylor. Published: February 2013 256 pages Publisher: Manchester University Press

Published in 2013 E P Thompson and English Radicalism is a collection of essays to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of E. P. Thompson’s most famous book, The Making of the English Working Class. 

Manchester University have produced a stylish and very well designed book cover which reminds one of a soviet propaganda poster from the 1920s or 30s.

The book on the whole has been warmly received Sheila Rowbotham called it an “eloquent set of essays manages to address, both sympathetically and critically, the many and varied aspects of Thompson’s life, as a historian, a teacher, a poet, a political activist, a Marxist and libertarian, and an Englishman and a cosmopolitan. Thompson’s legacy is hugely relevant for the troubled times in which we now live.'  Mary Kaldor, the London School of Economics and Political Science called it “A major book on Edward Thompson, who died 20 years ago, is an important reminder of the loss of English radicalism and the need to revive it"

The book has appeared at the same time as a veritable cottage industry of material relating to the life and work of E P Thompson. It is after all fifty years since Thompson published his seminal work The Making of the English Working Class. Harvard University held a conference on the book. Birkbeck University held a highly successful conference entitled the future of ‘history from below’: an online symposium, papers from the conference can be found at the many-headed monster blog[1].Lastly Monthly Review Press  has just released  E.P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left: Essays & Polemics Carl Winslow (Editor)

Given my limited amount of time I have not examined every single chapter of the book and will return to missed ones at a later date.  It is also impossible in the realm of this review to examine every aspect of E P Thompson’s work as a politician and historian, some of this will be done in a review of Carl Winslow’s new book on Thompson mentioned above. The fact that his work is still being translated all over the globe that new books about his life and work appear almost daily is testimony alone to his historical and political significance.

It is clear that Thompson was a natural teacher. He had a passion for teaching. Whether you agreed with his politics or his interpretation of historical events he sought to imbue in his student a passion for history and learning. He had a partisan approach to the education in that it should have a “social “purpose “.

John Rule in his Biography of E P Thompson for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [2] “With his postgraduate students his relationship was excellent. They remember with affection a painstaking and inspiring mentor, and most became lifelong friends. With the university itself relations were more strained. Resources for the centre were short of his expectation; undergraduate teaching took up much time, as did boards and meetings, leading him to complain that little time was left for writing. His writing was itself undergoing a shift. The Making carried marks of having been written by someone not fully bound by academic conventions. Its invective, for example in its infamously hostile depiction of Methodism as ‘ritual psychic masturbation’, could be immoderate. He had a blind spot when it came to quantification, and a glimpse of his feelings towards some academic tendencies is exemplified in a passage which summarizes the average worker's share in the benefits of the industrial revolution as: ‘more potatoes, a few articles of cotton clothing for his family, soap and candles, some tea and sugar, and a great many articles in the Economic History Review’

Given the number of books, papers, lectures and conferences examining every aspect of Thompson’s life and writing it is extremely disturbing that none of it has been given over to an orthodox criticism of his work both in politics and history. It would appear that an orthodox Marxist critique of his work is still a taboo subject and has been largely airbrushed out of history. Given the current climate of hostility to genuine Marxism in academia this is not a major surprise. For the sake of balance and the historical record and more importantly historical truth an orthodox Marxist position should be given space in future books on Thompson.

Like Scott Hamilton’s recent book[3]this is not an orthodox biography of E P Thompson. It would seem that Thompson spent most of his academic career distancing himself from his life inside the British Communist Party. His criticism of Stalinism was not however from an orthodox Marxist position instead he advocated what he said was a “socialist humanism” approach. Thompson at an early age rejected the classical Marxism represented by Leon Trotsky despite later breaking with Stalinism it is clear that Thompsons ’subsequent historical and political writings to a lesser extent were still imbued with Stalinist influences.

While the Communist Party of Britain did attract a large number of excellent historians this was still a very bad training school and E P Thompson never entirely abandoned all that he learnt there.An orthodox biography of Thompson is long overdue. The purpose of this review is to examine certain aspects of Thompson’s work mentioned in the book. Therefore the chapters discussed will not flow in numerical order.

To begin with in Chapter 8 Michael Newman discusses what is perhaps the most important period in Thompson’s life both from the standpoint of his political and historical development.
Thompson and the early new left.

From 1956 it is clear that the crisis that developed within world Stalinism over Khrushchev’s semi-secret denunciation of some of Stalin’s crimes had a profound effect on Thompson and other historians that were around or in the Communist party Historians group.

Newman is correct to point out that with the development of Khrushchev‘s speech the crisis of the Communist Party brought about a realignment in radical politics. Thompson’s answer was to reject a path towards Orthodox Marxism represented by the Fourth International, he instead created the first New Reasoner and later the New Left Review (NLR).

I do not agree with Newman when he describes the NLR as an “Internationally renowned organ of Marxist scholarship” Thompson adoption of “socialist humanism” ran counter to everything orthodox Marxists stood for.

For the orthodox Marxists or Trotskyists in the Fourth International which was led in Britain by Gerry Healy of the Socialist Labour League (SLL) the crisis within the British Communist party was an opportunity to insist on the counter revolutionary nature of Stalinism. Healy went on an offensive in order to win the most important cadre from the breakup of the Communist Party. Those figures who had not been entirely corrupted by the years of lies and calumny of the Stalinist regimes throughout the world were won to orthodox or classical Marxism. Cliff Slaughter, Tom Kemp and Peter Fryer to name but a few.

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

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

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

At the same time that Healy sought to clarify the issues involved in the crisis of world Stalinism Pseudo Left groups such as the Socialist Workers Party started to muddy the water and sought to argue that despite Khrushchev’s speech there was “a process of self-reform” going on and that under the pressure from the working class Stalinism would move in a revolutionary direction.

Thompson would get a warmer reception from groups such as the British SWP who broke from the Fourth International in the early 1940s. The SWP also sought to profit from the crisis in world Stalinism. The New Left was courted by the SWP and some of its leaders spoke at numerous SWP events. The SWP has for the last 50 or so years sought to give these emigrants from Stalinism a left cover and justified their reformist-nationalist adaptation and orientation.

According to SWP member David Mcnally E P Thompson, “was the greatest Marxist historian of the English speaking world and had a “political commitment to freeing Marxism from the terrible distortions of Stalinism, a commitment which originated in the battles of 1956 within the official Communist movement”[4].

Thompson founded the New Reasoner 1957 along with historian John Saville. The group was made up of ex- and current members of the CPGB, a varied group of middle class elements which left the Fourth International, members of the Labour Party. The group was characterised by its opposition to the orthodox Marxists represented by the Fourth International.

Thompson and socialist humanism

Thompson was avowedly hostile to an international revolutionary perspective and sought to imbue his new publication with an “English Marxist” tradition. As Kate Soper outlines in chapter 6 Thompson rejected orthodox Marxism and in its stead he offered up a form utopian socialism entitled socialist humanism. In order to distance himself from orthodox Marxism he entered into a series of reckless, stage-managed and convoluted polemics against a series of academics, intellectuals who in one form or another had been mistakenly labelled Marxists.

It is not in the realm of this review to go into detail Thompson’s polemics but an evaluation of Thompson’s socialist humanism is overdue.  Firstly it must be said that this theory has nothing to do with Marxism.  Thompson’s critique of Stalinism had as one writer said a “certain sense of vagueness”. To Thompson Trotskyism was just another “variant of Stalinism”.

Despite McNally’s glorification of Thompson he makes an interesting point when he pointed out that Thompson had a “The lackadaisical attitude toward scientific rigour.  'For all its moral and political fervour, there was something remarkably imprecise about his attack on Stalinism. Thompson described his as a 'moral critique of Stalinism' - and there is much to be said for that.

Whatever its limitations, revolutionary socialists can only applaud a critique which refuses to countenance slave labour camps, show trials, mass murder, a police state regime of lies and crimes against human rights, as authentic forms of socialism. But alongside the vigour of moral denunciation one needs a clear analysis of the nature of the regimes at issue. At no time did Thompson offer the latter.”

At no stage of his chequered history did Thompson and his friends in the New Left advocate the need to build a Leninist type party. To do so would as Thompson believed would lead directly back to Stalinism. The New Left specifically rejected Lenin’s theory of the vanguard party, which was blamed for the development of Stalinism. On this matter Thompson invited a former  Stalinist turned Labour Party bureaucrat Eric Heffer to write an article in the New Reasoner in 1959,  Heffer’s views fitted in nicely with Thompsons when he wrote that  “The ‘Vanguard corresponded to a given historical need but is not essential today: in fact, it is a definite hindrance”.

E.P. Thompson and his New Left Review colleagues sought to imbue every article he wrote with the spirit of a new “humanist” version of Marxism. As Julie Hyland  points out “In the ensuing decades it acted as a meeting place for Stalinist-influenced historians and other academics and members of the pseudo-left groups such as the United Secretariat of the Fourth International. Its various authors offered a combined advocacy of Western Marxist philosophies, the Frankfurt school, French structuralism, Maoism, anarchism, post-modernism, and sundry other petty bourgeois theories of student radicalism.[5]

The possibilities of Theory-Thompson’s Marxist History

As Theodore Koditschek writes Thompson began a “lifelong engagement with the politics of socialism and Marxism”. It should be clear that Thompson’s Marxist had nothing to do with the “dogmas of orthodox Marxism as Koditschek puts it... “Class rather Classes is an extremely misleading phrase.

Thompson’s rejection of a historical materialist method in examining historical phenomena underpins his most famous work the making of the English working Class. The book is deeply flawed in the absence of any materialist understanding of the development of the working class.

Despite the popularity of the book Thompson’s methodology has caused great damage. His use of the history from below genre is now being revitalized by a growing section of historians, and radical groups such as the British Socialist Workers Party.

History from below or people’s history genre has become increasingly popular during the current social, economic and political turmoil caused by the latest crisis facing the capitalist system. It is not to say that this genre does not have its merit. Books that are written well can add to our understanding of complicated historical events or processes.

But books and more precisely the historians who have written essays using the methodology either underestimate or deliberately leave out not only the origins of this type of history but the politics of such history writing. 

Perhaps the most damaging aspect of the genre is its disdain for an understanding of the role consciousness plays in history. To be more precise how that consciousness comes about. It is one thing to rescue the working class from history it is another to understand not only where it came from but how and where it get its ideas from.

Stuart Hall who collaborated with Thompson on the New left project writing in NLR in 2010, shared Thompson’s downplaying of the need for historical materialist understanding when it came to the origins of the working class.  “We had a deep conviction that against the economism of the Stalinist, Trotskyist and Labourist left alike, socialism was a conscious democratic movement and socialists were made, not born or given by the inevitable laws of history or the objective processes of the mode of production alone”.[6]

If historians writing about Thompson had bothered to read what Karl Marx had actually wrote on this subject then perhaps Thompson would no longer be labelled a Marxist historian so freely. Writing the German Ideology Marx and Engels had this to say.

[7]The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct efflux of their material behaviour. The same applies to mental production as expressed in the language of politics, laws, morality, religion, metaphysics, etc., of a people. Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc. – real, active men, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these, up to its furthest forms. Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men is their actual life-process. If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process.

In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say, we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life. In the first method of approach the starting-point is consciousness taken as the living individual; in the second method, which conforms to real life, it is the real living individuals themselves, and consciousness is considered solely as their consciousness. This method of approach is not devoid of premises. It starts out from the real premises and does not abandon them for a moment. Its premises are men, not in any fantastic isolation and rigidity, but in their actual, empirically perceptible process of development under definite conditions. As soon as this active life-process is described, history ceases to be a collection of dead facts as it is with the empiricists (themselves still abstract), or an imagined activity of imagined subjects, as with the idealists.

Thompson also had a tendency to romanticise the working class which in turn led to his glorification of spontaneity. He himself admitted to having a very empirical outlook. Historians even those who have criticized him have done so in the belief that he was a Marxist. This lose description has done enormous damage.

Nina Power’s chapter examines Thompson’s conception of Class. The making of the English working Class “was a highly influential work which contributed significantly to a revolution in the way history was studied, not only in Britain but in many countries. Instead of viewing history solely in terms of kings, courtiers, aristocrats and politicians, historians began to consider the perspective of the common people”.

“Edward Thompson’s masterful The Making of the English Working Class (1963), has had an undoubtedly positive effect on historiography, the pressures of academic specialization have also led to the production of an awful lot of dross”.

When you cut through the hyperbole written about Thompson’s conception of class in The Making it is clear that Thompson and others were hostile to the conception that socialism is based on the working class.

As Paul Bond puts it His “Marxism” was an ideology purpose-built to meet the requirements of the “left” petty-bourgeoisie, discontented, looking for “space”, but tied by a thousand strings to the existing order. [8]

It is extremely difficult in this short review of the above book to estimate Thompson’s politics and historical preferences, let alone his place in history. He is a historian worth reading and his books will be read by future generations looking for answers to complex political and historical problems of our day. I would recommend that E. P Thompson and English Radicalism gets a wide audience and does gives us a limited but ultimately closer approximation of the historian and his work. This review has at times taken on the role of a polemic against Thompson but this is only in so much that he is routinely labelled a Marxist when in reality he was closer to Hegel than he was to Marx. My wish in the future when other essays are being prepared that an orthodox Marxist is allowed to put his or hers viewpoint.

[2] John Rule in his Biography of E P Thompson for the Oxford Dictionary of national biography http://www.oxforddnb.com/templates/article.jsp?articleid=40259&back=
[3] The Crisis of Theory: E.P. Thompson, The New Left, and Post-war British Politics
Scott Hamilton Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2011, ISBN: 9780719084355; 288pp.; Price: £60.00
[4] E P Thompson: class struggle and historical materialism by D Mcnally Issue 61 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Winter 1993 Copyright © International Socialism
[5] Embittered row between UK Labour Party leader Ed Miliband and Daily Mail over his father Ralph
By Julie Hyland 2013- http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2013/10/08/mili-o08.html
[6] Stuart Hall Life and times of the first New Left  NLR 2010,
[7] The German Ideology https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/
[8] Cultural theorist Stuart Hall (1932-2014): A political career dedicated to opposing Marxism
By Paul Bond 5 March 2014 http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/03/05/hall-m05.html

Friday, 11 July 2014

Cromwell-An Honourable Enemy by Tom Reilly

This is a guest blog by the writer Tom Reilly. It is copyrighted further publication is at the discretion of the author.

On the morning before Oliver Cromwell swung his legs out of bed to travel to Ireland, the notion of besieging the town of Drogheda – the event that would later become the biggest blot on his career – would never have even occurred to him. That’s because Drogheda was under roundhead control that day as it had been for the lengthy duration of two whole years previously. He could simply have strolled through any of the gates of the walled town any time that day and he would have been greeted with a barrage of deferential good morning sirs.

On 11 July 1649 the town of Drogheda was captured by the royalists under Lord Inchiquin and wrested from the hands of Parliament, who had been in military occupation since the summer of 1647. It was parliamentarian soldiers who would later be accused of committing civilian atrocities at Drogheda, yet it was parliamentarian soldiers who had lived peaceably, side by side with these very same inhabitants for two long years beforehand, with no recorded evidence of discord between the military and civilian occupants whatsoever. Indeed, there is even some evidence to suggest that Cromwell’s attacking forces at Drogheda included members of roundhead regiments who had fraternised with the local populace for those two years previously. Cromwell, who would not have been aware of the royalist victory at Drogheda the previous day, left London for Ireland on 12 July 1649 to crush royalist resistance there.

But that’s not what the history books will tell you – especially Irish history books. In Irish history it is much more difficult than in the story of most other countries to reverse traditional views, and although there have been many investigators of this period at first hand, few have concluded that Cromwell was not a war criminal.

The idea that the massacre of the unarmed civilian populations of both Drogheda and Wexford by Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army did indeed take place has survived through the centuries almost perfectly intact. Indeed, it is so well constructed that it is virtually indestructible. The years bristle with the names of erudite academics who have studied Cromwell’s Irish campaign and who have produced hundreds of articles and books on the subject.

Even the most ardent Cromwell enthusiasts who have studied the period forensically have conceded that large-scale massacres of defenceless civilians occurred in September (Drogheda) and October (Wexford) 1649. Done deal. Case closed. The result of their labour is captured in short sound bytes in both past and present Irish school textbooks. In 2004, Folens published Earthlink 5th Class. On page 87 the following words are printed: ‘Cromwell captured Drogheda. About 3,000 men, women and children were killed.’ The Educational Company of Ireland released Timeline in 2008. A paragraph on page 223 reads, ‘He [Cromwell] first laid siege to Drogheda. He was determined to make an example of the town. When he captured it he slaughtered the entire population.’ There is no ambiguity there.

Such is his murderous Irish legacy, Cromwell features in a modern-day cult card game called Terror Top Chumps, a ‘politically charged version’ of the children’s card game Top Trumps (created by Fear Trade Ltd.) alongside Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, Hitler, Mussolini, Pol Pot, Ivan the Terrible, Vlad the Impaler, Sadam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden; a total of thirty-two terrorists and dictators in all – and has a body count of 600,000 attributed to him. Not by coincidence, this figure has often been used as the entire number of people who died due to famine, pestilence and war during the Cromwellian period in Ireland.

When discussing the horrific events at Drogheda in 1649, one of the ‘go to’ sources for many is the (second hand) account of the parliamentarian soldier Thomas á Wood, who fought at Drogheda and therefore could be (and often has been) described as an eyewitness. Wood reputedly tells us that children were used ‘as a buckler of defence’ by the attackers and he describes the gruesome killing of a young local girl, whom he tried to save but one of his crazed colleagues stabbed her through ‘her belly or fundament whereupon Mr Wood seeing her gasping, took away her money, jewels &c., and flung her down over the works.’

Although some have determined that Wood’s tract is melodramatic hyperbole it has generally been used in a primary source context coming directly from an eyewitness. This is a mistake. Now for the first time the stories of Thomas á Wood, which were transcribed decades later by his brother Anthony, (rendering it non-eyewitness testimony) in the context of fireside stories with which he regaled his ‘brethren’ can be revealed as unequivocally untrustworthy. The source is normally cited loosely as The Life of Anthony á Wood from the year 1632 to 1672 written by himself.

New evidence now clearly shows that this book was first compiled (not published) in 1711 by a Doctor Thomas Tanner, 16 years after Anthony á Wood died and 62 years after Drogheda. Most significantly however, is the fact that it might easily have been influenced by the hands of others and it did not see the light of day until 1772, when a Thomas Hearne edited and published it - that’s 123 years after the events!
Anthony á Wood, a staunch royalist, who was always suspected of being a Catholic had his life’s historical works published after his death in various publications, and all with different editors (including the Rev Sir J Peshall 1773, John Gutch 1786, Phillip Bliss 1813, Andrew Clark 1889), some of which included the story of his life, which in turn contains the account of his brother Thomas at Drogheda. Wood’s biography was not in fact published by himself in the literal sense, but was transcribed by editor Hearne in 1772 from pocket diaries, documents and manuscripts that Wood left to Dr. Tanner, among others, on his deathbed. This is not exactly what you would call an authentic primary source directly from an eyewitness. Diminishing the credibility of the source even further is the fact that Colonel Henry Ingoldsby, Thomas á Wood’s commanding officer described Thomas as having ‘an art of merriment called buffooning.’ Just the type of soldier, as Samuel Rawson Gardiner has suggested, who might make up sensational stories to impress a fireside audience.

It is important to analyse Anthony á Wood’s commentary because his is the only account that gives details of civilian deaths at Drogheda, using his brother’s lurid stories, if they even were his brother’s own lurid stories.
In stark contrast to what the Wood brothers purportedly say are the actual words of Oliver Cromwell. As soon as he landed in Ireland he issued orders to his troops not to do ‘any wrong or violence to any person, not in arms or office with the enemy.’ In the main, commentators on this topic throughout antiquity tend to assume that Cromwell just ignored the fact that many of his troops simply disregarded this order and lost their self-control at Drogheda, as indeed did their commanding officer himself. But the evidence does not support this point of view.

In his declaration to the Catholic clergy in the winter of 1649, after Drogheda and Wexford Cromwell categorically denies that he has stepped outside the military domain, and on no less than ten occasions he emphasises that the ordinary unarmed people of Ireland are to be left unmolested. On one occasion he even denies that he has actually killed unarmed civilians and he is consistent in this respectful attitude to the civilian population in all of his documented utterances throughout his entire campaign in Ireland. On his approach to Drogheda he even had two of his men hanged for stealing hens from an old woman, a clear breach of his orders.

On several occasions throughout his life Cromwell shows his abhorrence of indiscriminate civilian massacres when he hears of them. In Ireland he unequivocally blames the Catholic clergy for the 1641 massacres of innocent Protestant settlers and outlines his revulsion of such behaviour in no uncertain terms in the above mentioned declaration.

Also in May 1655 as Lord Protector he is clearly horrified when he learns of the massacre by the troops of the Catholic duke of Savoy, of some 200-300 Protestants known as Waldensians who lived in the adjoining isolated Alpine valleys in Piedmont to the west of Turin. There is ample evidence from throughout his life that Cromwell’s moral threshold was high and even in this narrow context of an appreciation of his character, a massacre of unarmed blacksmiths, cobblers, innkeepers, their wives, daughters, babies and toddlers at either Drogheda or Wexford at his hands does not accord with his personality and now given these fresh insights seems ludicrous in the extreme. Those who promote Cromwell as a war criminal perpetuate the idea that he simply lost his moral compass in Ireland and returned to his old self on his return to England. This is not an inaccurate portrayal.

So where then did the allegations of civilian atrocities come from?
Much store has been put into the letters (or military despatches) that Cromwell sent back to his superiors in London from both Drogheda and Wexford that outline the events at both towns in detail. In the opinion of many the letter concerning Drogheda in particular has incriminated Cromwell, where he is alleged to have admitted that he killed ‘many inhabitants’ in that town in a list of the slain that appears in the official pamphlet that was printed by parliament on 2 October 1649 to officially announce the news of the fall of Drogheda.
In the pamphlet Letters from Ireland relating the Several great successes it hath pleased God to give unto the Parliament’s forces there, in the taking of Drogheda, Trym, Dundalk, Carlingford and the Nury. Together with a list of the chief commanders, and the number of the officers and soldiers slain in Drogheda this list appears at the end of Cromwell’s letter, the last line of which reads, ‘Two thousand Five hundred Foot Soldiers, besides Staff Officers, Chyrurgeons, &c and many inhabitants.’

For the first time in 365 years this official government document has now been analysed forensically (by me) in conjunction with the newsbooks (newspapers) of the day that also carried the exact same list of those killed. And for the first time ever it can be almost categorically said (inasmuch anything from that period can) that the three words ‘and many inhabitants’ were NOT the words of Cromwell himself. Up to now, most early modern historians have deemed these lists (There is also a list of the composition of the garrison.) in Letters from Ireland... to have been from the quill of Old Ironsides himself. (The original letter does not survive.) But this writer’s analysis proves that the published list of those slain at Drogheda was in separate circulation to Cromwell’s letter and that it was published in no less than seven newsbooks in early October 1649 in isolation, without Cromwell’s letters directly preceding it. Furthermore, none of the newsbook writers attribute the list to Cromwell himself. It can also be shown that of the seven publications that printed the list of the slain, only two include the phrase ‘and many inhabitants’. Most significantly, this list of the slain can now be shown to have been in circulation on 22 September, TEN days before Cromwell’s letter was even opened in parliament. It can further be shown that the pamphlet was printed in haste and that these two lists were simply slotted into the available spaces on the 16-page leaflet with clear demarcation lines to separate the lists from Cromwell’s letters. 
Of course, the caveat here is that these ‘many inhabitants’ may well have been armed and involved in the conflict, a scenario that is perfectly plausible since The Moderate Intelligencer of 6 September says of Drogheda that ‘every man in that kingdom fit to bear arms is in a posture of war.’ This is another inconvenient fact that is now being brought to general public attention for the first time ever and that gets in the way of the tales of indiscriminate massacres of unarmed civilians. After all, an armed civilian is no longer a civilian.

Seventeenth-century historians rightly generally disregard (or at least view with acute suspicion) the later accounts of post-Restoration writers who, when writing their memoirs, documented their accounts about this issue years afterwards (like Bulstrode Whitelocke, the Earl of Clarendon, Dr George Bate, and the officer in the regiment of Sir John Clotworthy). None of these individuals were at either Drogheda or Wexford, they were not qualified to comment, had axes to grind and all allege that Cromwell engaged in deliberate civilian massacres.

The most pragmatic way to approach the question of the origin of the deliberate civilian atrocity allegations is to separate the wheat from the chaff and identify the primary sources themselves, those that date from the year 1649 and were written in the weeks and months following the sackings of Drogheda and Wexford. These 1649 sources are well-known and mostly comprise the newsbooks of the day, the letters of those in command of the royalist army (Lord Ormond and Lord Inchiquin) and one or two private letters.

It may therefore occasion surprise for one to learn that in the eleven intervening years between the stormings of both Drogheda and Wexford and the Restoration there are just TWO contemporary accounts that allege Cromwell slaughtered the lawyers, merchants, servants, farmers, doctors, carpenters, washerwomen, widows, teenagers and children of Drogheda and Wexford.

That being the case, it is not such a wild leap of faith to identify these two individuals as the ones who instigated the civilian massacre stories – or alternatively to identify them as the ones who framed Oliver Cromwell. Sir George Wharton and John Crouch were royalist propagandists who spewed out their radical anti-government newsbooks Mercurius Elencticus and The Man in the Moon respectively on a weekly basis. Both Wharton and Crouch have been described by many early modern print experts as the purveyors of little news but lots of outlandish absurdity. Any analysis of any of their publications will reveal their penchant for lies, slander, slurs, calumny and character assassination, including crass sexual innuendo directed at Cromwell himself and his high profile parliamentary bosses. Indeed, in his edition of 7 November 1649 John Crouch decides to spread a rumour that Cromwell’s penis was shot off at Drogheda and goes into some explicit and gaudy details as to how this might affect Mrs Cromwell. 

For eleven long years no other document, that we know, of accuses Cromwell of civilian atrocities. There the matter should really have ended. Indeed, it is worth speculating that if the House of Cromwell, in the guise of his son Richard in the first instance, the second Lord Protector, had survived into the 1660s and beyond it is likely that both Crouch’s and Wharton’s outrageous publications would have been long cast to the mists of time. 

Instead, of course, the Restoration happened when Charles II restored his royal seat on the throne and it wasn’t long before his father’s killers became the victims of vengeful royalist wrath. Not long after the bodies of Cromwell, his parliamentarian compatriot John Bradshaw and son-in-law Henry Ireton were exhumed and defiled as the chief protagonists of the failed republic, people couldn’t get to the printing presses quickly enough to destroy their reputations. The royalist James Heath was one of the first out of the traps when he published his scurrilous Flagellum, The Life and Death, Birth, Burial of O Cromwell, the Late Usurper in1660 where the author alleges that Cromwell himself ordered the massacre of 300 women around the market cross in Wexford. Indeed, Heath further alleges that those troops he ordered to carry out the dastardly deed refused and Cromwell, sneering them for their refusal, called another group of soldiers up to complete the task. Few historians take anything Heath says seriously.

Interestingly, Heath doesn’t even mention the deaths of any inhabitants of Drogheda in his heavily biased narrative. That particular privilege is left to the Catholic clergy in Ireland, who join in the post-Restoration Cromwell bashing free-for-all and now ludicrously declare that 4,000 civilians had died in Drogheda without a scrap of primary source evidence. Naturally 4,000 dead civilians at Drogheda makes no sense whatsoever, since the population of the town was approximately 3,000 and we already know that upwards of 3,000 soldiers were slaughtered. No other source, credible or otherwise suggests for a moment that 7,000 souls lost their lives at Drogheda. Furthermore, this same body politic of Catholic clergy had already had their say about Drogheda and Wexford in their decrees from Clonmacnoise in the winter of 1649, when there is no mention of this assertion whatsoever. And the difference in the timing? Cromwell was still alive and well, still in Ireland, and he would have dismissed such claims out of hand in the strongest possible terms, one imagines, with any talk of a restoration at that point aeons away.

Among the many other fresh revelations that this writer has discovered is evidence from several different sources that suggest the civilian population of Drogheda were not even in the town by the time the 12,000 Roundheads sat down in front of the walls. For instance, there was a siege of Drogheda just eight years earlier when the Irish rebels, under the command of Sir Phelim O’Neill surrounded the entire town and reduced the population to eating rats and horses. It is difficult to believe that they would stay put to have a similar culinary experience so soon afterwards. Furthermore, Ormond was expecting a long siege and ordered all ‘superfluous’ people to depart from the town in order that the provisions (a reported nine-month supply) stored there would stretch among the soldiers over the several months they expected the siege to last. Dean Nicholas Bernard, the Protestant minister at St Peter’s Church in Drogheda in 1649, and an eyewitness, confirms that his family were sent out of the town. Bernard, who saw what happened that day and wrote a detailed account of it later, says nothing of civilian deaths.

There is no doubt that some women died in Wexford as a result of them cramming into boats and the boats sinking in the harbour in an attempt to flee the place. But they clearly died as the result of an accident and not because of a deliberate policy to kill the innocent by the New Model.

Also into this anti-Interregnum maelstrom of vengeance came the petition of the people of Wexford, who were pleading to Charles II for the restoration of their properties following the Cromwellian Plantation. Remarkably the petition writers seem to have chosen to grossly exaggerate Cromwell’s actions in Ireland in order to receive clemency from their new king. In their petition they claim that after entering Wexford, Cromwell ‘put man, woman and child, to a very few’ to the sword, again a scenario that has no supporting contemporary evidence or eyewitness attestation. In the same petition the writers allege that Cromwell ‘put all of the inhabitants and soldiers’ of Drogheda to the sword, an allegation that simply does not stand up since nobody who was there on that fateful day corroborates this contention. This significantly reduces the credibility of the petitioners’ sycophantic petition, which Charles II ultimately ignored anyway.

The evidence now being revealed by this writer simply hones in on whether or not Cromwell was responsible for deliberately killing large numbers of innocent, unarmed civilians in Ireland in the year 1649. Some may have died in the cross-fire, as the result of collateral damage, others definitely drowned by accident. The subsequent dreadful Cromwellian Plantation that devastated Catholic Ireland is another matter altogether and should not cloud one’s judgement when discussing these alleged war crimes. Were large numbers of innocent civilians deliberately massacred? Did Cromwell do it, or did he not? Should we still be teaching children that Cromwell indiscriminately slaughtered entire town populations? As President of the Cromwell Association, Prof John Morrill has recently announced, Paradoxically, by blaming Cromwell for the much more lasting horrors of the Commonwealth period in Ireland, we let those really responsible off the hook.’
I, for one, as an Irish citizen and native of Drogheda would like to start the ball rolling and posthumously apologise to Oliver Cromwell and his family for staining his reputation. He was an honourable enemy and the victim of a huge miscarriage of historical justice. Cromwell was framed. Wharton and Crouch fitted him up.            

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Interview with Writer/Historian Tom Reilly

I recently came into contact with the Irish historian/writer Tom Reilly. His books have concentrated on many aspects of Oliver Cromwell’s controversial military and political campaign in Ireland. I have only started to read Tom’s last two books and would like to review them at a later date. I will therefore reserve comment on his work. I would welcome comments on this interview and Tom’s writing on Ireland and Cromwell.

Q What made you take up the study of history and especially your specialization of Cromwell in Ireland?

A I would love to say that I was always suspicious of the politicisation of Irish history and that my cynicism was piqued when it came to what we (Irish citizens) were being taught about Cromwell in Ireland but that’s not really true. Well, there is a grain of truth about it and that’s to do with me being a cynic, which I believe I am. I was one of those ‘question authority’ types when I wore a younger man’s clothes. (He didn’t seem to mind. ) However, the real reason why I took up this study is because I come from Drogheda – the scene of Old Ironsides’ most notorious deeds. Indeed, I now live in a house, the boundary of which was once the town wall, and furthermore it was into my garden that the breach in the walls was made and the Roundheads poured through in 1649.

I was brought up in this town. My family go back generations here. I used to hang around (what was left of) the town walls and was fascinated about the fact that Cromwell is supposed to have killed all of my ancestors. So, as a young adult, I decided to check the local records to see if there was anything to be gleaned there. And lo and behold, the records go back to the year 1649. In these records, there were the names of hundreds of Drogheda’s inhabitants whose daily lives continued through into the 1650s and beyond, all of whom showed very little signs of being massacred in cold blood. This was not a document (Drogheda Corporation records) that many historians had checked in the past, but it seemed obvious to me, even though I wasn’t a historian. I’m still not. That was the starting point. And I have never looked back since.  
Q Describe how difficult it was for an amateur writing in the current formally academic controlled climate.

A That’s quite an interesting question. So, to start at the beginning, it wasn’t long before I felt that I was on to something. So I wiped the slate clean and dismissed all I have ever heard about Cromwell and I began to read voraciously about the man – SR Gardiner, WC Abbott, Thomas Carlyle, Hillaire Belloc, Pauline Gregg, Ivan Roots, Peter Gaunt, John Morrill, etc. etc. all made an impact on me and none of them seemed to think that Cromwell was a complete bastard. Hmm. That’s odd. It was Antonia Fraser’s Cromwell, Our Chief of Men that gave me a real insight into his personality and as I kept on reading and reading it seemed to me that a pattern was beginning to emerge. Fr Denis Murphy (Cromwell in Ireland) and JP Prendergast (The Cromwellian Settlement of Ireland) DMR Esson (The Curse of Cromwell) typified Irish attitudes to Cromwell, whereas English writers tended to be much more circumspect when it came to the stories of civilian atrocities. So I wasn’t alone. Gardiner in particular did not believe the war criminal allegations and copper-fastened my doubt that the stories of indiscriminate massacres of civilians might be just that, stories. That was enough for my cynicism to ignite and it continues to burn in flames today.
But what to do?

So in 1993, in the middle of my research, I wrote an amateurish book called Cromwell at Drogheda, which didn’t really say anything at all except explain the facts of the siege. It was for the local market (1,000 copies) and it sold out.

Finally, I had so much material assembled I decided to write another book. Strangely, for me, this was more about writing than it was about history. Like many amateur writers I wanted to be heard. I brought out (self-published) two more books on local history in the nineties and after completing the first draft of Cromwell, An Honourable Enemy, I sent it to a few publishers (70!!) to see if they’d bite, not for a minute thinking that any of them would.  Steve McDonogh (Brandon Books) rang me one day and I nearly fell out of my standing. He wanted to publish – but the book would need footnotes. I think I said something like, ‘I’m sorry, footwhats?’ Not a clue. I failed second level history at school, so I had absolutely no idea what he meant. Naturally I had encountered footnotes in all of my research because many of the books that I had read had footnotes, or endnotes (I still don’t know the difference, if there is a difference) or references of some sort. But could I actually do this? Me?!

To make a long story longer, I gave it a go. I vaguely knew that if you stated a fact you needed to reference it. So I copied the footnote style of others, (probably various others), went back through the manuscript (this was a hell of a memory test) to see if I could remember where I read this fact and that fact and the other fact. After several more months, I had the footnotes done. I had referenced all of the facts (well, those that I figured needed referencing, my editor never questioned them) that were in the text that identified the location where I got these same facts. Of course, little did I know that I had suddenly dipped my toe into the bewildering world of academia, a world, where a primary source reference can be compromised if that reference comes second-hand from a modern-day publication, or shock horror, if a comma is misplaced. I hadn’t a clue.  I simply thought it was good enough to say where I had read the fact. But hey, the publisher didn’t question my references so I seemed to be getting away with it. After another long wait the book was published. There was no going back now. I had definitely gotten away with it. A book with footnotes eh? Go me.

So what was the question? Oh yeah, how difficult it was writing in an academically controlled climate. Actually, it wasn’t difficult at all first time round. I had no idea that the climate was controlled by academia. But by Jaysus, do I know now!

The academics were horrified. They thought of me as if I was dirt on their shoe. Reviews in most of the national Irish newspapers were bad. ‘None of this is convincing’ said the Irish Times. ‘This is a painfully bad book’, said Dr Jason McElligott and he followed up with, ‘and it is tempting to suggest that its main use will be to teach students how not to conduct research, assess evidence or write prose.’ I was stunned. ‘But, the evidence, I cried. Look at the evidence’.

Thankfully, those without insular opinions embraced the book and its thesis. I began to realise that those who came out against it were simply showing themselves up. Cromwell didn’t massacre unarmed women and children. They knew/know it. Surely this is about balance. If you don’t buy my entire thesis then, c’mon historians, at least come out and agree that the teenagers, granddads, grannies, toddlers and babies of Ireland weren’t slaughtered by Cromwell in 1649. But I digress.

Q What do you make of the current historiography regarding Cromwell?

A I’m going to assume that this means Cromwell in Ireland. I have discovered that there is a vast difference between Irish attitudes and English attitudes (no kidding, right?) to Cromwell. Here is an excerpt from the opening chapter of my book, which succinctly explains what I make of it:

‘As the crow of antiquity flies, the early modern period is not really that far away in terms of distance in time, especially in Ireland where history has an irritating habit of not going away. This is something that we Irish know to our cost. History and myth have always been close companions; indeed, one is frequently mistaken for the other. Myth is a powerful tool that has been used to shape nations. The axiom that truth is the first casualty of war has rarely been in sharper focus than in seventeenth century Ireland. Irish history is strewn with colourful myths, many of which are associated with Oliver Cromwell.

Often given credit for being personally responsible for founding the British Empire, Cromwell is full of contradiction; a country squire who became an outstanding military commander; a king killer who was offered the crown and refused it; a champion of religious toleration who was terrified of the power of Catholicism; a party reveller who danced late into the night and who banned Christmas; a practical joker who became an enduring symbol of everything Puritanical.

Such is his murderous legacy, Cromwell features in a modern-day cult card game called Terror Top Chumps, a ‘politically charged version’ of the children’s card game Top Trumps (created by Fear Trade Ltd.) alongside Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, Hitler, Mussolini, Pol Pot, Ivan the Terrible, Vlad the Impaler, Sadam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden; a total of thirty-two terrorists and dictators in all – and has a body count of 600,000 attributed to him. Not by coincidence, this figure has often been used as the entire number of people who died due to famine, pestilence and war during the Cromwellian period in Ireland.’

One of the main problems here is that the seventeenth century experts in Ireland seem extremely reluctant to accept a rehabilitated Cromwell and they still want to perpetuate myths. Oh, hang on, that’s the next question.

Q As you say in the preface you have received much criticism over your book how much do you think this was politically motivated.

A Political motivation is an excellent way of describing some of the hostility towards my work. Without getting personal there are some Irish historians who are very obviously nationalists and even if you took them back to 1649 in a time machine and showed them what happened and they saw it with their own eyes, they still wouldn’t believe it. This is a fact. (Well, inasmuch as it can be since time travel hasn’t been invented yet.)
It is always a source of amazement to me how one’s political inclinations can determine how one views history. It’s unlikely (although not impossible) that any member of Sinn Féin (for instance) would agree with me in a million years. Just not gonna happen. I think this is a tragedy of major proportions. This issue has been an accelerant in the incessant deterioration of Anglo-Irish relations over the years and it is one of the reasons why Ireland holds a huge grudge against England today. It fuels bigotry and insular thinking. Still today, an Irishman will point to Cromwell as the source of all of Ireland’s woes; the bastard that slaughtered whole Irish communities without batting an eyelid.

The biggest issue I have with politically motivated attitudes is the historians. There are many non-historians (lay people I suppose) who really don’t know any better and look to experts to tell them what to think. Well, nuts to that. I don’t need an expert to tell me what to think. I can make up my own mind. That’s why I didn’t use footnotes in my new book, Cromwell was Framed. I will see their book with footnotes and I will raise them a book that ordinary folk can read. And that’s why I reproduced most of the actual primary documents in this new book. There is no need for footnotes, because the documents are there for all to see. I didn’t want to hide behind a reference/footnote  that I have interpreted on behalf of Joe and Josephine Public. I included them so people can interpret them themselves. Besides, I wasn’t going down that road again. I have no idea how to assemble a footnote. So I’m not going to take on the historians at their own game. I’m going to take them on at mine. And hey, if there are any seventeenth century historians out there please tear my work to shreds if you can. Go on. Prove that I’m wrong. Shut me up forever. Make me go away. Make me crawl back under the non-academic stone from whence I came. But if you do try, you better be clear of your facts. Because any rebuttal will be closely scrutinised by the world at large – and who knows, your work may be labelled politically motivated and your reputation might be tarnished as a result. Because that’s exactly what has happened/will happen to the historians I mention in the book. Touché
Q Has there been much discussion on your book in Ireland. If so could you describe it?

A Cromwell, An Honourable Enemy has been virtually dismissed by most historians here. At least the ones who have ventured into print. There are many who have not said anything and who knows what their private thoughts are. But none, and I mean none, have publically come out and supported me in any book that has been written since 1999. It’s virtually impossible for academics to accept the fact that an amateur has had the temerity to state that generations of experts have gotten such a controversial issue in Irish history wrong. Those who have ventured into print with rebuttals of my work are dealt with in the new book. I have proved that they have used disingenuous methods of interpretation to draw conclusions. And they should be totally ashamed of themselves for doing this, especially when this is such a hot political potato. But will they apologise and display any humility or contrition? Will they heck? I know this sounds like another Internet rant. And that’s what it is. But I’m nothing if not honest. And I’ve also waived all royalties for this new book. Why? Because I have been accused in the past of doing this for money. Get real people. This is about history. About righting a wrong.

Cromwell was Framed is probably well on the way to being dismissed by those same historians.  Ah, but here’s the rub. They are going to have to come up with primary source evidence that has not yet entered the public domain if they are to do challenge me in a meaningful way. And I mean primary source proof from the year 1649. Sure, I could be wrong. But until a serious challenge comes along that completely refutes my thesis, then I will continue to have the confidence to shout this from the highest rooftops. The historians are wrong. Cromwell did not commit war crimes in Ireland. Get over it. Have I a chip on my shoulder? You betcha. But hey, is it any wonder? It’s the constant refusal of scholars and experts to accept my work that irks. Call it a desire to be accepted if you will. So, yes, they’re to blame for my attitude. Not me. I see this as the little person versus the might of academia. And so far I’m winning
Q What are your future plans?

A Now there’s a question. I got nothing. If anybody can think of a controversial topic for me to write about let me know. I’m on Facebook. I’d love to find out that St Patrick wasn’t all he was cracked up to be and do an exposé on him. Watch this space.