Tuesday, 5 October 2010

A L Rowse –A life in contradiction.

According to a recent biography of the writer and historian A L Rowse he was a man of contradictions which having read some of his work is perhaps an understatement. Having no connection with the Rowse I will attempt a limited, objective but partisan appreciation of the historian. Based on the two works of his I have read The Spirit of English History and a review of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. At a later stage I will return to Rowse’s other work when I have more time to read them.

The reason for wandering into Rowse’s historical orbit was the chance buying of his Spirit of English History published in 1943 at the height of the war with Germany. Hence the dedication of the book to Winston Churchill.

For a man who dabbled with Marxist politics in the 1930s this book is about as far removed from orthodox Marxism as you could get. In fact it would more correct to say that Rowse was closer to Hegel who in his book the book The Philosophy of History talked about a “world Spirit “In history. Although Hegel was talking of a world history this quote I think brings Rowse closes to Hegel. “It is only an inference from the history that its development has been a rational process; that the history in question has constituted the rational necessary course of the world spirit-that spirit whose nature is always one and the same but which unfolds this is one nature in the phenomena of the world’s existence”

One reviewer of the Richard Ollards Book A Man of contradictions further elaborates, “The very title of one volume, The English Spirit (1945), would be anathema to a Marxist, despite his somewhat unconvincing attempt at the same time to include the character of the people in his broad definition of the underlying (economic) conditions of British history. The English Spirit was launched with an impressive print-run of 10,000 copies (Ollard, p. 179). In this collection of essays Rowse is the epitome of the national intellectual, depicting and celebrating a unifying national tradition rooted in literature and life in which the thorny issue of class is completely passed over. Its inspiration is much more George Santayana - whom Rowse quotes admiringly - than Marx. Santayanas Soliloquies in England (1922) exercised a profound effect on a generation of non-Marxist intellectuals and public figures who wrote in the interwar period: Barker, W.R. Inge, G.M. Trevelyan, and Stanley Baldwin. Rowse's dedicated The English Spirit to Trevelyan, admirable exemplar of the English spirit. He was at pains to emphasise in the introduction that the contents of the book bore no witness to a hasty patriotic conversion engendered by the heroism of Britain in the Second World War: many of the essays derived from the closing years of the previous decade. Nor, despite the people’s war, was he about to flatter the masses by projecting the nation in their image: This may be the century of the Common Man - it certainly is of the common cliché - but I prefer to look for the uncommon man, the man of genius or ability (p. vi). The elite corps of Englishmen and women whom he assembled for the book - Churchill, Drake, Sarah Churchill, Horace Walpole, Macaulay, and so on - exemplified all that was best in the nation. This was a direct fly in the face to the carping [Left] intellectuals for their niggardly rejection of the outstanding achievements which he believed to be to the English nations eternal credit. Ollard rightly emphasises Rowses support of ordinary Labour leaders like Ernest Bevin but his loathing of the leading intellectuals of the left like Cripps, Shaw and Laski, the latter-day descendants of Carlyle. Indeed, he later asserted that had it not been for the Conservative Partys ruinous foreign policy in the 30s, he would not have been a Labour man”

In fact much of Rowse’s patriotism and defence of empire would make Niall Ferguson blush. The large sales of this book tended to reflect the brief outburst of patriotism during the war which largely dissipated after 1945 when the threat of social revolution became a real possibility.

By all accounts Rowse was not a man who was easy to live with. Much has been made of his childhood and the influence his mother and father had on his later life and this is explored in the new book. While these influences may have impacted on his social attitudes and relationships to the public and other historians I believe that far more objective forces made Rowse the figure he was. After all most of his life spanned a century that was characterised by wars and revolutions.

In saying this I am not belittling Rowse who was a man of some intellect and insight who had to struggle to get where he did. Rowse was the son of a china clay miner, both his parents were semi-literate, and was according to a reviewer of his diaries” was a brilliant student who learned to read by the age of 4, became obsessed with speaking precisely correct English and worked so hard to win the only Cornwall scholarship to Oxford that it almost ruined his already precarious health”.

In his autobiography A Cornish Childhood “I owe what I am to the struggle, he wrote, it isolated me from others, it concentrated me within the unapproachable tower of my own resolve; I was determined to do what I wanted to do; I was left sufficiently to myself, for nobody was interested, to carry on what I wanted in my own way and nourish the inner life of my own imagination”.

On the other hand he was “prone to overstatement, brisk dismissal of his opponents, and lack of generosity to others. He became trapped in a vicious circle of overappraising himself, leading to rebuffs from others, which fed - in turn - his sense of superiority and worth. Disappointments there certainly were, although no more than is usual in the course of a professional lifetime”.

Rowse’s connection with Marxism was tenuous, he never joined the Communist Party and rejected dialectical materialism and despite reviewing Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution he had no connection with any Trotskyist group. Having said that most of his writings were according to one writer “accompanied by a sustained profession of Marxist faith. At its most elementary level, this took the form of an insistence on the shallowness of any history which does not see with understanding and sympathy how throughout the ages the burden has always rested on the people”

While Rowse was not overtly hostile to Marxism per se the historian Robert Ashton writing on the English Revolution makes an interesting point on some historians while not being Marxist did use some use of Marxist ideas. Ashton said “The idea of religious, political and constitutional issues as an ideological superstructure based on foundations of material and class interests has been influential far beyond the ranks of Marxist historians. It has indeed been adopted, in part at least and with a radically different emphasis, by some of their more formidable and determined opponents. The following passage from a celebrated article by Professor Trevor-Roper may serve to remind us that anti-Marxist history is not necessarily history which plays down the crucial importance of material factors and class interest".

Julia Stapleton makes a further insightful point “he exemplified the wider tensions in British intellectual life in the middle decades of the twentieth century: a residual English nationalism and liberalism bequeathed by a declining but still seductive Whig ideal and a Marxism which posed a serious challenge to, but never entirely succeeded in displacing the latter This was certainly true of ' formative years in the 1930s. Such tensions were bound to become accentuated in a writer whose own personality was perpetually under the strain of oppositional forces. But there is surely further scope for exploring these and other intellectual currents which informed ' work. For example, another historian who felt the charms of both Marxism and Whiggism in the 1930s and 40s was Butterfield himself. ‘Anti-intellectualism married to a vehement patriotism was also not exclusive to him, but was shared by other contemporary writers such as Arthur Bryant and Francis Brett Young, as well as Betjeman”.

Having read this review by Rowse there is certain sympathy to the revolution. And you cannot compare his review to the large number of hatchet jobs of Trotsky from a number of current historians who have written on Trotsky.

“For the real claim of this book is not that it is an impersonal, a scientific history; though, indeed, it is a brilliant example of a very rare species, a history that is inspired by the conception of society and the forces at work in it, implied by historical materialism. This, in short, is a Marxist history, but not the Marxist history of the Revolution; for that we shall have to wait for some future Pokrovsky, altogether more impersonal, more objective; but, no doubt, that will be a much duller affair. Whereas this is alive and tingling in every nerve. It has all the brilliant qualities, and the defects, of its author’s personality. It has extreme definiteness of outline, a relentlessness towards his enemies that goes with it, dramatic sense and visual power, a remarkable sympathy for the moods of the masses with a gift for vividly portraying them – the qualities we should expect from a great orator; and, in addition, the political understanding of a first-rate political figure”.

Rowse seems to hold a respect for the writer and this can be seen in this quote “It was impossible to expect Trotsky to suppress his own personality in the book; not only for the reason that he is Trotsky, but because, after all, he played such an Important part in the Revolution. To have suppressed him would be a falsification of history. But he does go much further towards impersonality than one would have thought possible from one of his temperament. He writes throughout in the third person; he keeps himself in the background of the picture. The book gives an impression of a highly exciting personality, but not one of egoism; and, with one notable exception, it leaves an impression of fairness, at least not of unfairness. In the light of events he seems justified in his merciless characterisation of the Tsar and Tsarina, Miliukov, Kornilov, Kerensky, and many of the Socialists. The exception is, of course, Stalin”.

This part of the review highlights the end of Rowse’s attempt at an ‘objective’ review. Rowse clearly has an aversion to the political divisions that separated Trotsky from Stalin. Contained within Trotsky’s writing after the death of Lenin are his irreconcilable differences with Stalin. His books such as Revolution Betrayed are testimony to that. But Rowse mentions none of them in the review.

To him the political struggle was a personal feud with Stalin and that “has prevented him from recognising Stalin’s part in the Revolution. Whenever he comes near the subject, the history tends to turn into a political pamphlet; and one is tempted to think that Trotsky writes history, as the celebrated Dr. Clifford was said to offer extemporary prayer, for the purpose of scarifying his enemies. Nobody would guess from his account that in the October Revolution, though Trotsky was the President of the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Soviet, which organised the insurrection, Stalin was responsible for the organisation of the Bolshevik Party, apart from the Soviet in which other parties were included, to the same end. Over the struggle within the party in October, when Lenin was forcing them into insurrection and the party was divided in opinion, it seems needless to attack Stalin, as the editor of Pravda, for trying to tone down the differences: it is the function of a party organ to gloss over the differences within the party, before the eyes of the outside world. Nor, though Trotsky allows that Stalin’s defects are not due to lack of character, as in the case of Kamenev and Zinoviev, the two opponents of the insurrection, is it reasonable to attack him on the ground of his caution. There are leaders and leaders. It is true that Stalin is not of the tempestuous, romantic type of revolutionary like Trotsky, but he is none the less a great leader. He reminds one rather of Burghley in our own history, who had a great gift for taking cover. But that did not prevent him from being bold and courageous in policy, as in the case of the great leap in the dark of 1559, when this country was committed finally and decisively to the Protestant Reformation. And so, too, Stalin is the man, after all, who has taken the plunge of committing Russia to the Five Years’ Plan”. This glorification of Stalin does now fit in current historians such as Ian Thatcher and Robert Service.

Rowse‘s own political agenda he was after all a member of the Labour Party and attempted to stand in elections did not blind him to the fact that Trotsky did have a theory of history he goes on “The real importance of Trotsky’s History does not lie in his power of word-painting, either of character or scene; though indeed his gift is so brilliant and incisive that one is continually reminded of Carlyle. There is something of the same technique, the same mannerism even, in the way the rapid lights shift across the scene and particular odd episodes are brought out in singular sharpness of relief and made to bear general significance; something of the same difficulty in following the sequence of events – the lights are so blinding – one may add. But where Carlyle had but his magnificent powers of intuition to rely on, Trotsky has a theory of history at his command, which enables him to grasp what is significant and to relate things together. The same point can be illustrated more appositely by comparison with Winston Churchill’s The World Crisis, for the two men are not dissimilar in character and gifts of mind. But here again one notices the difference; for Mr. Churchill’s History, for all its personality, its vividness and vitality - points which it has in common with Trotsky – has not a philosophy of history behind it”.

Rowse was unlike a large number of 19th century historians who were generally indifferent to the philosophy of history. According to E H Carr

“The term was invented by Voltaire, and has since been used in different senses; but I shall take it to mean, if I use it at all, our answer to the question: What is history? The nineteenth century was, for the intellectuals of Western Europe, a comfortable period exuding confidence and optimism. The facts were on the whole satisfactory; and the inclination to ask and answer awkward questions about them was correspondingly weak. Ranke piously believed that divine providence would take care of the meaning of history if he took care of the facts; and Burckhardt with a more modem touch of cynicism observed that "we are not initiated into the purposes of the eternal wisdom." Professor Butterfield as late as 1931 noted with apparent satisfaction that "historians have reflected little upon the nature of things and even the nature of their own subject." But my predecessor in these lectures, Dr. A. L. Rowse, more justly critical, wrote of Sir Winston Churchill's The World Crisis -- his book about the First World War -- that, while it matched Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution in personality, vividness, and vitality, it was inferior in one respect: it had "no philosophy of history behind it." British historians refused to be drawn, not because they believed that history had no meaning, but because they believed that its meaning was implicit and self-evident. The liberal nineteenth-century view of history had a close affinity with the economic doctrine of laissez-faire - also the product of a serene and self-confident outlook on the world. Let everyone get on with his particular job, and the hidden hand would take care of the universal harmony. The facts of history were themselves a demonstration of the supreme fact of a beneficent and apparently infinite progress towards higher things. This was the age of innocence, and historians walked in the Garden of Eden, without a scrap of philosophy to cover them, naked and unashamed before the god of history. Since then, we have known Sin and experienced a fall; and those historians who today pretend to dispense with a philosophy of history are merely trying, vainly and self-consciously, like members of a nudist colony, to recreate the Garden of Eden in their garden suburb. Today the awkward question can no longer be evaded”.


1. A Man of Contradictions: a Life of A.L. Ollard London, Allen Lane, 1999

2. Julia Stapleton, review of A Man of Contradictions: a Life of A.L. Rowse, (review no. 100) URL: http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review.

3. An Epic of Revolution: Reflections on Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution) Published: The End of an Epic: Reflections on Contemporary History, Macmillan, 1947

4. E H Carr What Is History

5. The Diaries of A L Rowse, edited by Richard Ollard

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