Tuesday, 16 October 2018
“Some medieval courts not only condemned their worst opponents to death, but they also prescribed a series of extremely cruel and bloody forms of execution to be carried out one after the other. The thirst for revenge and urge to deter others mixed with the fear that those subjected to torture could return and take revenge. The Russian Revolution and its best-known leader, Vladimir Illyich Lenin, have suffered a similar fate over the past 90 years. Up to this day, propagandistic efforts have not ceased to strike dead this most important revolution of the twentieth century”.
While this quote from Peter Schwarz is taken from his article on the German Magazine Der Spiegel the same could be said of the History Today Magazine. It would appear that not a month goes by without an article attacking in some form Marxist conceptions or leading Marxist figures. It would appear that History Today has a particular grievance against Vladimir Lenin.
A simple search of the History Today archive would bring to the attention of the reader over thirty articles, and one must say very few of these are worth the paper they are printed on. The latest one in the November issue is no exception. Its title Lenin: The Machiavellian Marxist by Graeme Garrard gives its intentions away. It also follows a similar pattern; it is almost like History Today has a template for these kind of articles.
One problem that arises with these type of articles is the choice of writer. Graeme Garrard who is a reader at Cardiff University and is an established historian but like many who write on revolutionary politics has little or no grasp of what life in a revolutionary party today or yesterday was like. It was not always like this.
While Lenin studies are not in a very good place at the moment as the Marxist writer David North points out the situation in Trotsky studies is worse and has “deteriorated in the 1990s. American and British scholarship produced nothing substantial in this field during the entire decade. The only published work that perhaps stands out as an exception, though a minor one, is a single volume of essays, produced by the Edinburgh University Press in 1992 under the title The Trotsky Reappraisal. During this decade, a disturbing trend emerged in Britain, which consisted of recycling and legitimising old anti-Trotsky slanders. This trend was exemplified by the so-called Journal of Trotsky Studies, which was produced at the University of Glasgow. The favourite theme of this journal was that Trotsky’s writings were full of self-serving distortions”.
In many ways, Garrads is characteristic of the approach to historical and political issues taken by other writers. Comparing the revolutionary figures such as Lenin and Trotsky to religious fanatics is not new.
Another distortion peddled is that the October revolution was coup. First, the establishment of the first worker's state was not a coup carried out by a small group of supporters of Lenin. “The October revolution was the product of the struggle of millions of workers, impoverished peasants and war-weary soldiers, who joined the Bolsheviks because they regarded the party as the most consistent defender of their interests.”
A further point which again is not new is that Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin were only able to live as revolutionaries off the backs of Russian Peasants and English workers. This is a cheap and very right-wing approach to historical questions. , Lenin and Marx lived under capitalism, not socialism.
Garrards use of only one other historian is a little strange. Ullam is a gifted historian but has certain baggage regarding the Russian revolution, and Garrard should have drawn on other sources.
The reference Garrard makes to Lenin being Machiavellian is absurd and would take too long to expose the stupidity of such a comment. Again he is not alone in making this remark, and the company he keeps is not very pleasant.
The last point the author makes is perhaps the most perplexing. Much of the article is given over to what happens to the state under Socialism. Lenin's and Trotsky position was clear as day it would wither away mankind would live under a society based on need, not profit. His last sentence is strange given that what happened to the Soviet Union after Lenin died is common knowledge. Why did Garrard not mention the betrayal of the Russian revolution by Stalinism?
Why are these articles being written? After all, we have had the “Death of Marxism, “The End of History”, why to bother with figures such as Lenin, Marx, Trotsky. The reason being is that many workers and young people are looking for a socialist alternative. Many are now turning to a systematic study of the October Revolution.
They are being met with a web of lies and distortions left by bourgeois and Stalinist propaganda. It explains why 90 years on History Today continues to vilify the Russian Revolution and its revolutionaries
Sunday, 14 October 2018
"In a strike, I am for my class, right or wrong; in a war, I am for my country, right or wrong". Ben Tillet, union leader
“You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”
― Leon Trotsky
Dave Sherry’s book is a reliable and well-written introduction to the complex history of the First World War. Written from the standpoint of the historical genre “history from below” its fourteen chapters cover all the most critical aspects of the war and subsequent revolutions.
Like many similar historical subjects, there is little agreement among historians as to the origins of the war to end all wars. Some right-wing historians have attempted to rehabilitate the First World War, as a “necessary” war for democracy. As Sherry states “That is one of the reasons I wrote the book. There’s a truly myopic view of some British historians who see it as just a war on the Western Front”. Two recent articles in the November 2018 edition of History Today has confirmed his viewpoint.
As the Marxist writer, Nick Beams contends “the question of its origin remains controversial. The reason is that this issue is of direct relevance for the analysis of contemporary events. Roughly speaking there are two contending positions—that of Marxism and various forms of bourgeois liberal scholarship. The Marxist analysis, to summarise it in the broadest terms, is that the war was the outcome of conflicts, rooted in an objective and irresolvable contradiction of the capitalist mode of production: that between the global character of the economy and the nation-state system in which the profit system is grounded. The opposing theories boil down to the conception that the war arose out of the political mistakes, miscalculations and misjudgements of various bourgeois politicians and it could somehow have been averted if only wiser heads had prevailed”.
The book does demolish some myths that have surrounded the events of 1914. One myth propagated by numerous historians is that the war fell from the sky that nobody could have foreseen the war and the carnage that followed. Another myth is that the war was solely German imperialisms greed for new markets and intent of world domination.
Sherry also draws the readers attention not only to the betrayals of the various parties such as the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), but to the strikes, occupations and mutinies across each country are well detailed. He also documents how these struggles were betrayed by their leadership.
Sherry correctly concentrates on the socialist movement's opposition to the war. In his book, War and the International Leon Trotsky makes two interrelated points. The first point is he relates the origins of the war to the historical development of capitalism. The second point is to outline the development of a strategy for the international working class in the face of the betrayals by the leaders of the Second International especially that of German Social Democracy (SPD). The SPDs repudiated the decisions of its own Congress to provide support for their own ruling elite’s support of the war.
For people such as the revisionist Edward Bernstein who propagated the fallacy that capitalism had somehow overcome its contradictions and would not plunge humanity into the abyss the war cruelly exposed this myopic judgement.
This breakdown was predicted I must add by Marx who said “In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely 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. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure”.
Leon Trotsky makes a similar point in his book, the War and the International “The forces of production which capitalism has evolved have outgrown the limits of nation and state. The national state, the present political form, is too narrow for the exploitation of these productive forces. The natural tendency of our economic system, therefore, is to seek to break through the state boundaries. The whole globe, the land and the sea, the surface as well as the interior have become one economic workshop, the different parts of which are inseparably connected.”
One of the strengths of Sherry’s book is that despite its short length he does explain that the war was a product of the growing inter-imperialist rivalries that had been simmering for the previous thirty years or so.
The proceeding thirty years before the First World War saw the emergence of Imperialism. A handful of industrialised capitalist nations dominated the world. At the head of these countries stood substantial corporate and banking conglomerates who were exporting capital on a global scale. These rival powers battled for the control of markets and sought even cheaper labour in Africa and Asia.
German capitalism sought to challenge Britain's strategic and geopolitical interests. To a degree previous to the outbreak of war conflicts between the major imperialist powers had been regulated by a series of alliances between the major imperialist powers in the form alliances which pitted the Triple Entente against the Triple Alliance.
As Leon Trotsky pointed out “The future development of world economy on the capitalistic basis means a ceaseless struggle for new and ever new fields of capitalist exploitation, which must be obtained from the same source, the earth. The economic rivalry under the banner of militarism is accompanied by robbery and destruction which violate the elementary principles of human economy. World production revolts not only against the confusion produced by national and state divisions but also against the capitalist economic organisation, which has now turned into barbarous disorganisation and chaos. The war of 1914 is the colossal breakdown in history of an economic system destroyed by its inherent contradictions.”
Trotsky believed that war not only signalled the downfall of the nation-state, but it ended the historical role of capitalism. This analysis came under sustain attack from figures such as Woodrow Wilson who said this was not a breakdown of capitalism and hence no need for socialism.
Trotsky’s viewpoint was supported by Elie Halevy (1870-1937) in a series of lectures published in 1938 as The Era of Tyrannies), Halévy said that world war “” had increased national control over individual activities and opened the way for de facto socialism. In opposition to those who saw socialism as the last step in the French Revolution, he saw it as a new organisation of constraint replacing those that the Revolution had destroyed”.
As was pointed out earlier by Nick Beams one of the historians that fall indirectly into the camp of bourgeois historians albeit on the right wing of this group is Niall Fergusson. Fergusson it would appear has spent most of working life seeking to overturn Marxist historiography. As Beams says “Ferguson adopts the crude method deployed by so many in the past. According to his view, for the analysis of Marxism to be valid, we must be able to show that political leaders made their decisions by a kind of profit-and-loss calculus of economic interests, or that there was a secret cabal of businessmen and financiers operating behind the scenes and pulling the strings of government. Failure to find either, he maintains, cuts the ground from under the feet of the Marxist argument”.
Ferguson believes he was smart when he wrote his attack on the fundamental Marxist conception that the war arose as an inevitable product of the capitalist mode of production—the struggle for markets, profits and resources. However, no matter how many books he writes he has proved nothing.
As Beams points out the “The point upon which Marxism insists is not that war is simply subjectively decided upon by the capitalist class but that, in the final analysis, it is the outcome of the objective logic and contradictions of the capitalist profit system, which work themselves out behind the backs of both politicians and businessmen. At a certain point, these contradictions create the conditions where political leaders feel they have no choice but to resort to war if they are to defend the interests of their respective states.
Beams also mentions another historian who takes issue with Marxism on the origins of the war, although from a slightly different perspective. The British historian Hew Strachan who according to Beam “ points to the crucial role of the alliance system is not only failing to prevent war but helping to promote it. When the crisis of July 1914 erupted, he writes, “each power, conscious in a self-absorbed way of its potential weakness, felt it was on its mettle, that its status as a great power would be forfeit if it failed to act.”
The book two has two significant weaknesses one is the significant omission of far more complete opposition to bourgeois historians attacks on fundamental Marxist conceptions.
Another thing I am not sure about is whether the genre of history from below is the best way to describe such complex questions or war, revolution and inter-imperialist rivalries.
Whether we will see a flood of-of patriotic nonsense written about the 20018 anniversary of the ending of the first world war remains to be seen. As Sherry points out the war was a clash of ruling classes which were the hell-bent in protecting their interests at the cost of millions of dead. Sherry’s book is an excellent basic introduction to these events.
 War and the International (Colombo: Young Socialist Publications, 1971),
 “Imperialism and the National Idea,” in Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International (New York: Pathfinder Press), pp. 369-370.
 Leon Trotsky, “On the Question of Tendencies in the Development of the World Economy,” in The Ideas of Leon Trotsky, H. Tickten and M. Cox ed. (London: Porcupine Press, 1995), pp. 355-70.
 Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, vol. II, p. 306.
 K. Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977, with some notes by R. Rojas. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/preface.htm
 The War and the International-https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1914/war/part1.htm
Friday, 12 October 2018
From Sean Lang
This isn't really good enough. Starkey's point about life experience informing history is a valid one for debate, but this piece moves on from it into an attack on his polemical style and his politics. & there are plenty of prominent left-wing historians on tv - Schama, Beard, Olusoga.
I have just received this reply from Sean Lang to my brief article on David Starkey. Since the response was put in the public domain, it is worth commentating on. I stand by the point I made regarding life experiences informing history. From my perspective, I approach the study of history from a historical materialist standpoint. I believe history has its own laws and the uncovering and understanding of those laws are paramount.
As Marx said “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language”.
This is not to say that life experiences are worthless, they are not, but for the study of history, you need a much deeper understanding of historical processes than relying on a past relationship with a close relative. If that relative or partner happened to be another historian, then that is a different matter.
As regards Starkey’s politics and polemical style I believe he is fair game and well capable of defending himself. If Starkey would like to use my blog to defend himself, he is more than welcome. Lastly to describe Mary Beard as left wing is stretching things a bit. Beard is an excellent classical historian, but her political outlook is Liberal in the best sense of the word. As for Schama this just patently absurd. On David Olusoga I am not that familiar with his work so cannot yet comment.
Wednesday, 10 October 2018
The most striking aspect of this book is why a celebrated historian and broadcaster would write such a book. It is true that Lipscomb is a leading light and outstanding communicator in her field, but it is a bit like William Shakespeare putting in a script for EastEnders.
Another anomaly is while the book is beautifully illustrated by Martyn Pick the number of illustrations is half the book. Given the complex nature of the subject, you would have thought Ladybird would have given more space for analysis. On the other side, the book is an entertaining, straightforward but minimal introduction to the subject.
Even a gifted writer like Lipscomb clearly is uncomfortable with explaining a complex historical issue in such a short space. She does slay some of the more apparent myths that have developed about the subject. Lipscombe is correct that the witch trials were not carried out by “ecclesiastical authorities but by judicial courts. This is a good point, but it does not explain the fact that the worldview of the ruling elite carrying out what amounts to legal murder was backward and medieval.
The book is not without exciting information who knew that “men could be witches too. Across Europe, 70–80 per cent of people accused of witchcraft were female – though the proportions of female witches were higher in certain areas: the bishopric of Basel; the county of Namur (modern Belgium); Hungary; Poland; and Essex, England. But one in five witches were male across Europe, and in some places, males predominated – in Moscow, male witches outnumbered women 7:3; in Normandy 3:1”.
In Lipscombe’s defence, she does believe that “causality is not simple.”, But given her limited space, her arguments are not fully developed. Many of the witchhunts carried out were in times of famine, war and plague but many were not. She correctly states that war, disease and famine did create the social and political conditions to carry out a near genocide against large sections of the population.
Perhaps Lipscomb most crucial point is made on page 22 under the heading The Dawn of Modernity she makes this point, “most people lived in small village communities and depended on each other. They lent, borrowed, gave and forgave. It was only the way to get along. But in tough times, people turn in on themselves. They start to look after number one. A neighbour who would not offer help or charity, who enriched himself by expanding his farm as others were forced to give up theirs, or who begged for handouts when everyone was suffering could foster resentment, bitterness and suspicion. These feelings were the product of a transition from old to new ways. In grand socio-economic terms, what was happening was a shift towards capitalism. The witch-trials were the blood red finger of modernity”.
I know Marx said that capitalism came into the world dripping with blood but blaming it for the witch-trials is a bit much. As Lipscomb points out the trials and their decline was the product of the transition from Feudalism to capitalism. But the trials were more a product of Feudalism, than early Capitalism and their fall was a product of the development of more scientific ways of thinking which brought about the decline religious doctrine.
As the Marxist David North explains “Until the early seventeenth century, even educated people still generally accepted that the ultimate answers to all the mysteries of the universe and the problems of life were to be found in the Old Testament. But its unchallengeable authority had been slowly eroding, especially since the publication of Copernicus's De Revolutionibus in the year of his death in 1543, which dealt the death blow to the Ptolemaic conception of the universe and provided the essential point of departure for the future conquests of Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Johann Kepler (1571-1630) and, of course, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Intellectually, if not yet socially, the liberation of man from the fetters of Medieval superstition and the political structures that rested upon it, was well underway”.
I very rarely do not recommend a book to be read so I will not break this tradition. The book has severe political and historical limitations. Also who exactly is it aimed at? On the plus side, it is gloriously illustrated. So read it don’t read it you pay your money you take your choice.
Tuesday, 9 October 2018
In a recent article carried in the Daily Telegraph entitled “ Historians need to have loved and lost to understand the past” the right wing Thatcherite historian David Starkey intimated that the best historians are older as you need to have loved and lost to understand the past. Starkey says “What I have done is used my own experience of mourning and joy,” he said. “You take the dry facts of history, and with memories in your own life, you realise how you should understand them.”
The article was provoked by Starkey’s reminiscing the loss of his long-term partner three years ago. Grief can do strange things to the mind. I lost my father recently, the loss can lead you to reevaluate many things, however, it did not change my understanding of history nor has it lead to a better understanding of the past. If you did not have that understanding in the first place, then no amount of loss can compensate.
Starkey believes that loss can better understand figures like King Henry VIII. Since the Tudor period is Starkey’s expertise and not mine, I am not about to cross swords with a world-renowned historian on that subject. I will leave that to others far more qualified what I will say is that Starkey is no stranger to controversy and almost seems to thrive on the oxygen of publicity brings.
There are many dangers with Starkey’s crude shotgun approach to historical and political questions that could lead to a lack of understanding of the real issues involved. Like I said Starkey is no stranger to controversy. Many times Starkey’s political views have undermined his evaluation of complex historical events.
It should be said that I am not against political views shaping historical understanding, but when those views are the expression of pure ideology, then we start to have problems. Starkey is not subtle about his politics. He has been accused of being an “aggressive racist” and “sexist” after this quote on a Newsnight programme ““The whites have become black; a particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion.”
The same historian went on to say that the proto-fascist Tory politician Enoch Powell was correct when he warned in the 1960s that immigration would lead to civil unrest.
Starkey went on that working class youth “have become black,” taken over by a “black” culture that has “intruded in England,” which is “why so many of us have this sense literally of a foreign country.” As one writer said “though Starkey characteristically uses racial terms to denote the targets of his hatred, he clearly is using the term “black” to denounce all working class youth”.
While Starkey’s political bias is easily opposed, far more complex problems are raised by his politics and historical outlook. Firstly why is such an extremely right-wing historian given such a high profile? Starkey has presented numerous television history programmes. He lectures at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. I know of no left wing historian given the same opportunities to present their views to such a large audience.
This is because it has become comfortable for universities to tolerate very conservative historians and their right-wing views with virtual impunity while any views representing a left-wing challenge to the current status quo are marginalised or ostracised.
Given that universities play such an essential role in imparting knowledge about the world we live it is little surprising that given the dominance of an economic system hell-bent on putting profit before people it is little wonder that universities have become little more than corporate appendages.
This, of course, goes hand in hand with an academic assault on Marxism. Young people cannot expect to acquire the necessary knowledge from the capitalist media because it knows full well that experience will be used for its overthrow.
But what about universities asks the Marxist writer David North, “with their many learned professors? Unfortunately, the intellectual environment has been for many decades deeply hostile to genuine socialist theory and politics. Marxist theory—rooted in philosophical materialism—was long ago banished from the major universities.
“Academic discourse is dominated by the Freudian pseudo-science and idealist subjectivism of the Frankfurt School and the irrationalist gibberish of post-modernism. Professors inform their students that the “Grand Narrative” of Marxism is without relevance in the modern world. What they actually mean is that the materialist conception of history, which established the central and decisive revolutionary role of the working class in capitalist society, cannot and should not be the basis of leftwing politics”.
This situation cannot last forever. One small step is to challenge at every level the right wing rantings of professional right-wing historians at every opportunity.
Friday, 5 October 2018
In his otherwise excellent review of the book Werner Scholem: A German Life by Mirjam Zadoff, Dona Geyer, Steven E Aschheim chooses to leave out a critical piece of history. For reasons unknown, he decides to leave out the relatively well-known fact that Scholem was a member of the German Left Opposition.
This fact alone would be enough to explain not only the hostility of the Stalinists to him but would alert the Nazis to him so much, they had him shot in 1940. The information on Scholem’s involvement in the German Left Opposition is widely available on the web. The Russian Marxist Leader Leon Trotsky had high regard for Scholem as this article outlines
“The itinerary of Werner Scholem, one of the most attractive of this group of young post-war leaders is beginning to be known. He refused, like Max Hesse – another veteran of the insurrection prepared in Moscow in 1923 – to support the line which led Fischer and Maslow to capitulate and resigned in February 1928 from the Leninbund, advancing reasons which could have come from Trotsky. As an attentive observer, during a momentary tactical diversion, while he resumed his advanced legal studies to qualify as a lawyer in Berlin, he was attracted by Trotsky’s analyses. In 1931 in Berlin he made the acquaintance of Leon Sedov, and this meeting marked the beginning of a regular collaboration with Trotsky’s German comrades, weekly meetings with E. Bauer and drafting (unsigned) articles for Die Permanente Revolution.
He expressed the desire to meet Trotsky, who, for his part, keenly wished to meet a man of his quality and his talents. But in the end, it was Trotsky who opposed his proposal to travel, not wanting someone like Scholem to run the risk of finding himself in Turkey at the moment of the decisive struggle on German soil. Scholem first emigrated to Czechoslovakia, and then returned with underground links to the Left Opposition, and was arrested. The Nazis were not going to let this prey escape, a Communist, an intellectual and a Jew.
"He was savagely tortured and, it appears, was executed or struck down in 1939. It is curious that the Trotskyist current has not laid claim with greater enthusiasm to this martyr, who nonetheless did belong to it. Winning him to their ranks, as well as his heroic end, did them credit. The final adherence of this young German leader, who had organised the campaign of signatures for the Letter of the 700, when he joined the international organisation founded by Trotsky, was not just an episode. It demonstrates that it is ridiculous to try to counterpose the course of the Russian Opposition to that of the German Opposition or vice versa. We have tried here to introduce a little clarity into episodes which invite us not to seek scapegoats for errors of tactics so much as to pose serious and with respect for the subject the problems which arose from what the Russian Opposition very correctly at the time called “the crisis of the revolution”.
It is hoped that in future articles on this figure Steven E Aschheim corrects this glaring oversight
 Werner A-Scholem- A German Life by Mirjam Zadoff-Review in TLS October 5th 2018
The German Left and the Russian Opposition (1926-28)- https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/revhist/backiss/vol2/no3/gerleft.html
Monday, 1 October 2018
‘And if a history shall be written of these times and transactions, it will be said, it will not be denied, but that these things that I have spoken are true.’
“I will not cozen you by perplexed expressions in my commission about fighting for King and Parliament. If the King chanced to be in the body of the enemy, I would as soon discharge my pistol upon him as upon any private man; and if your conscience does not let you do the like, I advise you not to enlist yourselves under Me.”
It would appear that every year a story appears in the right-wing press regarding the merits of the statue of Oliver Cromwell situated outside Parliament in London. This year is no exception.
The Sunday Telegraph ran an article called “ Parliament's statue of Cromwell becomes the latest memorial hit by 'rewriting history' row”.
The article's author Patrick Sawer must have had a slow day in the office because in the article he says a bitter row has broken out between historians.
This is stretching things a bit. The one historian quoted by the newspaper is a one Jeremy Crick, described as “a social historian” has called for the statue to be pulled down.
His justification for this being Cromwell’s anti-religious zeal and comparing Cromwell to the actions of the Taliban. He says “Its banishment would be poetic justice for his Taliban-like destruction of so many of England’s cultural and religious artefacts carried out by his fanatical Puritan followers.”
It is hard to take Crick seriously. Even a cursory search would find that he has written next to nothing on Cromwell and is hardly a world authority on Cromwell and the English revolution. It would seem that the only thing Crick specialises in is the calling for “unloved statues” to be pulled down.
Source of controversy
It must be said the English bourgeoisie has always an ambivalent and contradictory attitude towards Cromwell and for that matter the English revolution. While playing lip service to the fact that he was the father of Parliamentary democracy albeit with a bit of military dictatorship thrown in they have always been wary of drawing attention to their revolutionary past. They would prefer that people saw Britain’s history as being tranquil. That any change that took place was of a gradual nature and progress was peaceful through class compromise without the violent excess of revolution. This illusion is more important in light of today's explosive political and economic atmosphere.
If Cromwell were alive today, he would be a bit angry at this attitude given that today’s modern bourgeoise owes everything it has to his leadership during the English revolution.
Marxist’s, on the other hand, have no ambivalence towards the great bourgeois revolutionary, and workers and youth as the Russian revolutionary points out can learn a lot from his leadership
“In this way, Cromwell built not merely an army but also a party -- his army was to some extent an armed party and herein precisely lay its strength. In 1644 Cromwell's “holy” squadrons won a brilliant victory over the King's horsemen and won the nickname of “Ironsides.” It is always useful for a revolution to have iron sides. On this score, British workers can learn much from Cromwell. The observations on the Puritans' army made by the historian Macaulay are here not without interest:
“A force thus composed might, without injury to its efficiency, be indulged in some liberties which, if allowed to any other troops, would have proved subversive of all discipline. In general, soldiers who should form themselves into political clubs, elect delegates, and pass resolutions on high questions of state, would soon break loose from all control, would cease to form an army, and would become the worst and most dangerous of mobs. Nor would it be safe, in our time, to tolerate in any regiment religious meetings at which a corporal versed in scripture should lead the devotions of his less gifted colonel, and admonish a back-sliding major. But such was the intelligence, the gravity, and the self-Command of the warriors whom Cromwell had trained that in their camp a political organisation and a religious organisation could exist without destroying the military organisation. The same men who, off duty, were noted as demagogues and field preachers, were distinguished by steadiness, by the spirit of order, and by prompt obedience on watch, on will and the field of battle.”
While it is a bit much to call this a controversy, it does beg the question why does it keep coming up. Firstly the issue of the English revolution has never been a mere question of studying a past event; it is because many of the significant problems that were discussed and fought for on the battlefield are still contemporary issues. What do we do with the monarchy, the issue of social inequality addressed by groups such as the Levellers? Until these and many more are resolved, we will keep getting more stories calling for Cromwell’s statue to be removed.
Sunday, 9 September 2018
Review: Invisible Agents: Women and Espionage in Seventeenth-Century Britain by Dr Nadine Akkerman-Oxford University Press-2018
– ‘Have we not an equal interest with the men of this nation in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right?’ ‘if this principle were true that all subjection and obedience to persons and their laws stood by electing them, then…all women at once were exempt from being under government’.
Nadine Akkerman’s new book is a superb introduction to the little-known world of female spies during the later stages of the English Revolution. In this book, she manages to combine academic rigour with the art of a novelist. Given the lack of material on female spies Akkerman’s abilities to deep mine, the archives are impressive.
According to the blurb on the jacket of the book, she has previously written extensively on Women’s history and curated several exhibitions. In the years 2015/2016, she was a fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in Humanities and Social Sciences. Akkerman is the world authority on Charles II ’s aunt Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia. She is very much a hands-on historian complimenting her research on spies by producing Youtube videos about invisible inks.
The book is packed with original research. Akkerman’s use of primary sources acquaints the reader with long-forgotten texts, and as one writer puts it “ with a fresh eye, she corrects the mistakes of past cataloguers and transcribers who left out essential sentences. Akkerman has immersed herself in archives, libraries, and private collections, transcribing hundreds of letters, breaking cypher codes and their keys, studying invisible inks, and interpreting riddles”.
Akkerman’s book is an attempt to rescue these invisible agents from the condescension of history. She is careful not to ‘regurgitate myths’, and challenges previous historical conceptions. Her defence of Elizabeth Murray, accused as a double agent Royalist and Oliver Cromwell’s mistress, is an example of her wearing history on her sleeve.
Akkerman correctly lauds these female spies who often worked on their own with little or no support. She demonstrates the diverse backgrounds of Royalist and Parliamentary agents.
In many ways this a groundbreaking work. Akkerman introduces us to women that have been long forgotten by historians or in some cases never been researched. It is clear that in writing this book, Akkerman faced enormous problems. Her subjects were criminally underresearched and given the nature of their occupation hard to track down. She contends that there were more than just the handful of seventeenth-century female spies such as Aphra Behn and Elizabeth Murray. The others just haven’t been discovered.
One that was not given extensive treatment by Akkerman is the formidable Elizabeth Alkin. Like many in Akkerman’s book far too little is known of her life, even her birth date is a guess (c. 1600 – c. 1655).
She wore many hats including publisher, nurse and spy for the Parliamentarian armies during the English Civil War. She was famous enough to have been given her derogatory name by the Royalists as “Parliament Joan”.
Spying seemed to run in her family she was the wife of Francis Alkin, a spy for the Parliamentarians who was according to Wikipedia hanged early in the English Civil War by royalist forces for his activities. The loss of her husband meant not only did she keep spying, a dangerous occupation in itself she managed to look after three children.
Her involvement in publishing needs further research. According to her Wikipedia page “In the seventeenth century, daily news was published in newsbooks which tended to be small eight-page publications, the forerunners of newspapers. They were usually sold on the street by what the historian Bob Clarke describes as "semi-destitute female hawkers, known as Mercury Women". Those publications supporting the royalist cause were closed down and the publishers prosecuted, and Alkin became involved in uncovering those behind the publication. In 1648 the royalist newsbooks the Mercurius Melancholicus and the Parliament Kite both referred to her attempts to uncover them, and the following year the Mercurius Pragmaticus called her an "old Bitch" who could "smell out a Loyall-hearted man as soon as the best Blood-hound in the Army".
Her role as a double agent was to get information on the Royalist newsbooks. To do this she acted as a Royalist newsbook seller between 1650 and 1651, According to historian Bob Clarke, Alkin used royalist titles, to gain the confidence of royalist sympathisers. Wikipedia cites the historian Marcus Nevitt who disagrees, and believes that Alkin was "reappropriating Royalist titles for Parliamentarian consumption".
Akkerman believes the war gave women opportunities that they would have never had in peacetime. Many women were actively involved in defending their property. Many disguised themselves as men so they could fight. Some ran family businesses when their husbands were killed in the war.
Most importantly they got involved in politics. Finding the figures for female participation is difficult. But it is undeniable that large numbers on both sides of the barricades took part. It is a shame that this is not addressed to an any great extent in the book. An evident radicalisation of women took place during the English Revolution. This radicalisation was not met with open arms.
According to Heather Delonnette, “All this political activity was not received with complete acceptance. The term ‘fishwife’ became used as a disparaging term for the women who involved themselves in these protests. This type of behaviour was considered abnormal for women at the time despite their increased activity in other spheres, as we have seen. Women’s involvement in politics was the source a series of jokes claiming that there would soon be a ‘Parliament of Women’ where women would have superiority over their husbands and fathers, a world truly ‘turned upside down’”.
Women Levellers mounted large-scale demonstrations and organised petitions in favour of social equality. They were met with differing levels of brutality depending on which class they belonged to. On the whole middle-class women were treated with disdain, but mostly no violence was committed against them. This is not the case with the poorer sections of the women’s movement who were often treated severely by MP’s and soldiers alike.” Many were thrown into prison, mental institutions or workhouses. Middle-class women were simply escorted away by soldiers and told to 'go back to women's work”.
Ann Hughes correctly states that “Women’s political activism did not begin in the twentieth century. Women from all social ranks have been involved in popular protests, religious conflicts and aristocratic conspiracies from the earliest times. In the English civil war, women acted as spies and couriers; they defended their homes from soldiers and worked hard to protect their families from the ravages of political division and war; they played a prominent part in the novel religious freedoms of the period, founding new congregations and insisting that men had no authority over their consciences or their souls. But they did not claim the vote or other formal political rights for women, despite their ‘equal interest’ in the freedoms of the commonwealth. The prevailing notion was that institutional political power was confined to men of some property, heads of households, whose wives, children, and servants, as their dependents, could not be political actors”.
A further small weakness of the book is that Akkerman does not expand on her choice of the ”War of Three Kingdoms” to explain the nature of the English civil war. The book is also part of a growing market of “royalist studies” and Gender studies. This would tend to situate her book within the two significant historiographical themes; Royalist conspiracy and Gender Studies.
Akkerman’s book is part of a growing trend of Royalist studies over the last five years. In fact, you cannot enter a bookshop history section without tripping over them.
In some respects, the book is painful reading. It shows that the treatment of women during the seventeenth century is still shockingly close to their treatment in the twenty-first century. As Akkerman points out that male chauvinism was one of the reasons why so many female Royalist spies were either not caught or treated with leniency, although not all were spared.
The book is well written and is never dry. The book moves at a pace but does contain needless phrases such as ‘mud sticks’ and ‘sniff out information’. The reference to Madonna seems out of place with the overall academic presentation.
Let us hope that Akkerman continues with this line of enquiry and sheds more light on a forgotten army of women still left in the archives.
Notes and references
Royalist Agents, Conspirators and Spies: Their Role in the British Civil Wars, 1640-1660-Geoffrey Smith-Farnham, Ashgate, 2011, ISBN: 9780754666936; 252pp.; Price: £60.00
Geoffrey Smith, The Cavaliers in Exile 1640–60 (Basingstoke, 2003).
Literature of Exile in the English Revolution and its Aftermath, 1640–1690, ed. Philip Major (London, 2010).Back to (2)
David Underdown, Royalist Conspiracy 1649–1660 (New Haven, CT, 1960).Back to
P Higgins, ‘The reactions of women, with special reference to women petitions’, in Manning, Politics, Religion and the English Civil War, p. 197.
Clarke, Bob (2004). From Grub Street to Fleet Street. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-7546-5007-2.
About the Author
Nadine Akkerman is a Reader in Early Modern English Literature at Leiden University. She has published extensively on women's history, diplomacy, and masques, and curated several exhibitions. In the academic year 2015/16, she was Fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIAS-KNAW). She is the editor of The Correspondence of Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia (OUP, three volumes, of which the first appeared in 2011), for which her prize-winning PhD (2008) serves as the groundwork. She is currently writing a biography of Elizabeth Stuart (forthcoming from OUP). In 2017, the World Cultural Council recognised the transformative effect of her work in the form of a Special Recognition Award.