Sunday, 23 May 2010
This year marks the 350th anniversary since the restoration of the British monarchy. This event has been marked by a stunning silence in the media, among historians and writer alike. One of the few pieces I have been able to track down is by Antonia Senor.
This article contains no merit and requires commentary only because it epitomizes an unserious and flippant approach to historical questions that seems to populate the major quality newspapers. Senor’s article appeared in The Times which is the leading newspaper of the English bourgeoisie and encapsulates the attitude to the Glorious revolution of 1688 has not changed in over 350 years only the level of historical writing has dropped alarmingly.
“The poorly named English Civil War, which was in reality a British and Irish, many-stranded revolution, is unaccountably missing from our popular history narrative”. In the above quote Senor is in reality appealing to a poor level of of history. She seems to be under the illusion that if you write history at the level of a Mills and Boon paperback this will improve things.
Has she bothered to research her articles or even think about what she writes? Even a cursory look on the internet would show the “poorly named English civil war” has been written about some of the finest national and international historians both on the left and right of historiography. The output of books on the subject is second only to the Second World War.
But this passes over her head she laments “Yet all of this rich and vibrant material has largely been left to the driest of professional historians and slightly odd re-enactment societies. The historiography of the period is acrimonious. Religious wars or class-led revolt? A problem at the centre or a crisis at the localities? The latest to rewrite the conflict is John Adamson, who argued in The Noble Revolt that the Civil War originated in aristocratic discontent. All these arguments delight the already initiated. This is history as blood sport”.
But we need a new popular appreciation of the era. Maria McCann’s second novel set in the period, The Wilding, is a good start, but she should not be a lone popularising voice. Where are the novels and plays? Why has there only ever been one, slightly ropy, civil war drama on television recently — Channel 4’s The Devil’s Whore? Why the modern obsession with the Tudors, when it is the Stuarts’ rise and fall that tells us most about our island and its story”?
What Senor is really bothered about is the fact the Civil War had a revolutionary content to it that according to her is out of character with the English. This thinking happens to also coincide with the thinking of most sections of the British ruling elite along with the sections of the Labour party and Trade Union bureaucracy and not a few English historians.
The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, writing in the 1920s, described this feature of British politics: 'The English bourgeoisie has erased even the memory of the revolution of the 17th century, and recast its entire past in the form of "gradual changes"'. 'Gradualism' permeates the trade union and labour movement, leading to the dominant view that voting is the only way of changing anything and nothing can be done to remove the royal family or lords, whose roots seem to go back for centuries.
To her only foreigners do revolutions “Think of revolution, and what comes to mind? Bolsheviks rampaging through the Winter Palace, stripping gilt from the walls? A Frenchwoman, drunk with blood lust, screaming for another aristocratic head to hit the bucket? Revolutions are for foreigners. They get all the glamour and all the turmoil of violent regime overthrow. The gutters of Paris and St Petersburg filled with revolutionary blood, not London’s.”
In review of the historian Christopher Hill Ann Talbot said “The sense that in Britain things were done differently and without continental excess was not entirely new. Burke had expressed it in his Reflections on the French Revolution, but there were plenty of voices to gainsay him and the social disturbances in the years of economic upheaval that followed the Napoleonic wars were a testimony to the contrary. Luddism, anti-corn law agitation, the anti-poor law movement, strikes and most of all Chartism demonstrated that Britain was not an island of social peace.
Nonetheless the Whig interpretation of history had deep roots in the consciousness of the British political class. The visitor to Chatsworth House in Derbyshire can still see in the great entrance hall a fireplace inscribed with the legend “1688 The year of our liberty.” It refers to the “Glorious Revolution” when James II quit his throne and his kingdom overnight and William of Orange was installed as king. This was the kind of palace revolution that the British ruling class increasingly preferred to look back on rather than the revolution in the 1640s when they had executed the king, conveniently overlooking the fact that James would not have run if he had not remembered the fate of his father—Charles I.
“The myth of the “Glorious Revolution” was the target of Hill’s first published article, which appeared in the Communist International under the pseudonym E.C. Gore in 1937. It was followed in 1940 by a short essay, The English Revolution 1640, which contained a concise statement of the arguments that Hill was to spend the rest of his life elucidating”.
“Hill never acknowledged having read Trotsky, but there are distinct parallels between his attacks on the Whig interpretation of history and Trotsky’s brief but trenchant analysis in Where is Britain Going? In which he identified two revolutionary traditions in British history—that of the Cromwell in the seventeenth century and later of Chartism—both of which were denied by the prevailing conception of gradualism that characterised the Whig view of history. “The ‘great’ national historian Macaulay,” Trotsky wrote, “vulgarises the social drama of the seventeenth century by obscuring the inner struggle of forces with platitudes that are sometimes interesting but always superficial”
Senor has a very poor understanding of historical processes and individuals in that process. According to her nobody except the Puritans wanted the English Revolution but the wider population wanted the King restored. “We went through all the tumult of fighting with the King, killing him, mythmaking and blood-shedding, just to reinstate his son voluntarily. In Deal, Pepys reports, Maypoles were set up, the streets strewn with herbs and the booze flowed. The people of Britain chose pleasure over godliness; they chose the King whom they understood over the Republic that they didn’t, and all the tumult of the years just gone was lost in pealing bells and a national exhalation of relief”
A man that knew a thing or two about revolutions would give her an alternative argument “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 an Alp on the brains of the living...."
Senor goes on “The fabric of Britain had cracked, and sealed over again — with just a scar left from an eruption of radical thoughts about God, gender, marriage, life and class. All men are equal in the sight of God, the Levellers said. If entry to Heaven and Hell is predestined, then we may as well transgress as much as possible, the Ranters said. From the insistence on peace and love of the Quakers to the agrarian, proto-communism of the Diggers, this was an era of big ideas in a political vacuum. God was a player in this revolution; He marched with the New Model Army and sent women into strange frenzies of prophesying”.
While the above quote may seem a very bad historical rant there is a logic to it. In fact there are parallels with today. When a political vacuum arises radicals step in. There is a very great fear expressed limitedly by Senor that there are growing conditions for a proletarian revolution against the ongoing attempt by the capitalist elites to make working people pay for this economic crisis. The thing Senor wants to avoid is any revolutionary conclusions being drawn from the “bloody civil war” if any conclusions should be drawn it should be from the 1688 revolution. But even this revolution was far from bloody.
According to Wikipedia “The expression "Glorious Revolution" was first used by John Hampden in late 1689, and is an expression that is still used by the British Parliament. [The Glorious Revolution is also occasionally termed the Bloodless Revolution, albeit inaccurately. In England there were two significant clashes between the two armies, and anti-Catholic riots in several towns. There was also the Williamite War in Ireland and serious fighting in Scotland (notably the Battles of Killicrankie and the Dunkeld). The revolution also led to the collapse of the Dominion of New England and the overthrow of Maryland's government”.
Senor comforts us with “Despite all the radicalism and the astonishing act of executing the King, somehow the country drew back from the brink. Somehow, when the body politic lay broken and Puritanism prevailed, we took back a monarch — and a playboy dilettante at that. We must reclaim our revolution, revel in the Restoration. Break out the Maypoles — the King is back; long live the King!
Today’s body politic is broken, what will replace it maybe a monarchy based on an army dictatorship or a dictatorship of the working class. While the working class can learn from history especially the English revolution and a study of this time is important it would be more important to study a revolution that was made in its interest that of the Russian Revolution. Now that is a revolution that Senor dare not speak its name.
Wednesday, 19 May 2010
A Turbulent, Seditious and Factious People: John Bunyan and His Church-by Christopher Hill-Verso 2017.
If anything characterized Christopher Hill’s long career it was his belief that to understand any historical change one had to believe in the dialectical connection between economics and politics and that the materialist base determines the superstructure of social, intellectual, and political developments. Maintaining this belief was not always easy. He came under fierce attack both inside the Communist Party (he left in 1956) and out. This belief still permeates Verso’s new edition of his biography of John Bunyan.
When this book was originally published, Hill was accused of renouncing his Marxist interpretation of the English revolution. Later, in life Hill attempted to answer this charge during a talk he gave celebrating the centenary of the publication of Marx’s “Das Kapital”.
He recounted that Marx had accidentally overheard some former comrades from the 1848 revolution. To a man, they had become rich and decided to reflect on old times and asked Marx if he was becoming less radical as he aged. “Do you?” said Marx, “Well I do not”.
It is not an overstatement to say that John Bunyan’s work has recognized the world over, especially The Pilgrim’s Progress. It is certainly one of the most influential books written in the English language
It has been translated into more than 200 languages. It was and is popular in America, the great Russian writer Pushkin admired it. And was the first English literary work to be translated into Polish.
Today, while it is more likely to read by children it is safe to say that many households in Britain have a copy. Bunyan wrote from a "class-conscious piety," as one writer puts it “a contempt for the rich and a passionate defense of the poor, that helps to explain why those writings exert an appeal that transcends the circumstances of Bunyan's own age”.
It is true to say that we are still grappling with the great questions posed by the revolution in England in the 17th century. That questions of social inequality, religious freedom, democracy and even communism are still topics of discussion today bear testimony to the importance of studying this period. Hill was correct when he said we are still beginning to catch up with the 17th century.
Hill’s examination of the life John Bunyan was done so in recognition of the rupture of class antagonisms that brought about the English revolution. Books like the Pilgrim’s Progress were an attempt to understand these events and in Bunyan’s case offer a critique as well as a solution.
Hill’s first-rate biography A Turbulent, Seditious, and Factious People: John Bunyan and His Church, 1628-1688 2017, traced a multitude of connections between The Pilgrim’s Progress and radical political movements. Both from the 17th century and later political movements.
While reading the book, it should not take the reader long to figure out that this is not just a children’s book. The book has a deeper political meaning and greater social significance. Hill’s book helps us appreciate the political meaning of Bunyan's allegory.
The beauty of Hill’s book is that he carefully places Bunyan’s ideas firmly within the context of the religious and political conflicts that shaped the English revolution. As Hill states, he was "the creative artist of dissent,"
Bunyan was not on the same level of political maturity as John Lilburne and certainly not as open in his use of politics to gain power. However leading members of the gentry still saw him saw him as a threat and acted accordingly. Bunyan was to serve large swathes of his adult life in jail.
Hill argued that ‘Bunyan is the most class-conscious writer in English literature”. He took a class stand in the sense of he was always on the side of the poor. It is not an accident that “most of Christian’s opponents in The Pilgrim’s Progress are Lords or gentry”.
Hill believed that Bunyan understood his working-class position and wrote accordingly. But why use the allegorical style of writing. It would not be too much of a stretch of the imagination that someone as intelligent as Bunyan would be blind to the growth of science and philosophy or that Newton, Boyle, Locke, and others had started to put mankind’s understanding of the world on a more rational and materialist basis, so why the allegorical style of writing.
Hill believed that despite huge advances in science and philosophy it was still a dangerous time politically for anyone to attack the ruling elite.
Per Richard Ashcraft “Bunyan quite deliberately used allegorical style, heavy-laden with metaphors and flights of fancy to avoid jail. In part, of course, the decision was a tactical one; ridicule is a powerful political weapon, and figurative language provides a rhetorical shield against the sword of the magistrate. But Bunyan was writing primarily for an audience of self-taught literate artisans like himself, and he knew that "words easy to be understood do often hit the mark when high and learned ones do only pierce the air." Bunyan understood the creative power of popular prose, and "The Pilgrim's Progress" was "written by a man of the people for the people."
Having said that even the most stupid member of the elite could not have failed to understand Bunyan’s use of these names which mirror tiered social structure of 17th century England. Lord Hate-good, Mr. Lyar, Sir Having Greedy, Lord Carnal Delight, Mr. By-ends, Mr. Money-love of the town of Coveting. “The pilgrim’s psyche is thus rooted in social and material life”.
Bunyan was a teenager when he went into the Parliamentary army. He was to receive a very quick education both militarily but more importantly, this impressionable young man would have been exposed to the political cauldron that was brewing in the army and in wider society.
Rank and file soldiers such as himself were exposed to radical ideas about religion, democracy, social inequality, and early communist ideas. As Hill brings out in his book this would have led him to believe that another world was possible
Bunyan's radicalization did not take an overtly political form. His writings took the form of an organized but allegorical attack on the religion of the day. To do this it was necessary to in the words of one writer “adopt a distinctive political position in the context of 17th-Century English society”.
While Bunyan had been a soldier during the revolution as he grew into adulthood he would have witnessed the ebb of the revolution and felt at first hand the years of reaction.
He would have been alarmed at the rate that the revolution was being expunged from memory. It led him to write the book Mansoul (in the Holy War) to cognize and oppose what was going on.
It is true is that Bunyan had a lot of years to think about these issues. Having spent 12 years in prison. But like John Lilburne, the Leveller leader, it seemed to only make him stronger politically.
Even as I write this review of Hill’s book I know that the first line of attack will be that Hill’s work is outdated and should be studied only as period pieces.
Unlike Mark Kishlansky who once wrote “It is becoming difficult to remember how influential Christopher Hill once was when E.P. Thompson dedicated Whigs and Hunters to ‘Christopher Hill I do not believe that Hill is outdated. In fact, a more objective review of his work is long overdue. Also, it is quite scandalous that no major biography of him has appeared.
When Kishlansky reviewed the book, he believed that Hill was “about to enter the most productive years of his career. Two not altogether unconnected impulses characterized them. The first was to champion groups and individuals who placed personal freedom above political necessity; this resulted in his masterpiece, The World Turned Upside Down (1972). The second was the flowering of his interest in the great literary figures of the age, which yielded Milton and the English Revolution (1977) and A Turbulent, Seditious and Factious People (1988), his book on Bunyan. Hill now turned violently against the mainstream of the Revolution he had spent decades illuminating and towards the radical fringe groups and iconoclastic individuals who posed extreme challenges to the social order and religious discipline that successive revolutionary governments attempted to maintain. Cromwell and Ireton at Putney became as oppressive a power structure as Laud and Strafford had been at Whitehall. Hill called this history variously, ‘history from below’, ‘total history’, or the ‘history of the dispossessed’, though few of his subjects derived their social origins from within even the bottom half of 17th-ccntury society and most were so self-consciously unconventional as to defy generalizations based on their behavior.
“This work became part of a larger project in which Hill sought to represent the dispossessed throughout history. He identified himself with such ‘radicals’, once instructing a group of US scholars to turn their attention to the study of Native Americans, and in a spirit of cleansing self-criticism proclaimed: ‘One of the things I am most ashamed of is that for decades I proudly illustrated the spread of democratic ideas in 17th-century England by quoting the ringing Leveller declaration, “the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he” ... Every he? Every man? What about the other 50 percent of the population?’ Here he may be anticipating the movement for children’s rights, as even the Levellers were advocating only an adult franchise and adults comprised only about 55 percent of the Early Modern population”.
He went on to call Hill a Rolodex historian who was “immune to criticism”. The attack on Hill was wrong and was driven by political considerations. I am not against healthy debate but Kishlansky’s almost vendetta like attacks were “clumsy and resentful”.
Hill was defended by his friend fellow former Communist Party Member E. P Thomson who wrote “The testimony of Baxter, Bunyan, Muggleton, George Fox and all Quakers, is disallowed because this served the polemical purposes of marking out the permissible boundaries of sectarian doctrine. This (which was McGregor’s old thesis) may indeed be true, but it by no means disproves the reality of a Ranter ‘moment’. It is notorious that in sectarian history (whether religious or secular) some of the fiercest polemics are between groups which draw upon a common inheritance and share certain premises. In its earliest years, Quakerism was involved in unseemly polemics with the Muggletonians, in which each side accused the other of having gathered up former Ranters among their adherents. I cannot see any reason this may not have been true of both since both originated in the Ranter ‘moment’ and both defined their doctrines and practices in part as a rejection of Ranter excess.
Hill’s insistence that Bunyan ‘moved in Ranter circles in his youth’ – was backed up by 14 references to Bunyan’s Works in his book the World Turned Upside Down, despite this he was attacked by J C Davis for saying that the Ranters were a separate and coherent group (see J. C. Davis, Fear, Myth, and History: The Ranters and the Historians (Cambridge University Press, 1986, pp. 224)
Tom Shipley writes “Yet in other respects, and having admitted Hill’s immense reservoir of knowledge, it can seem that there is too much in his book of reading backward from now. One warning sign is the prevalence of phrases like ‘must have been’. Bunyan was in the army of Parliament for several years, and in what appears to have been a particularly ‘bolshie’ unit (the adjective is peculiarly appropriate). It is true that Bunyan hardly ever mentions this, but it ‘must have been an overwhelming experience’; in this milieu, radical ideas circulated so much that the young conscript ‘cannot but have been affected by them’. Maybe not. And quite likely reminiscing about the Civil War would have been ‘contra-indicated’ after 1660. But people can be stubbornly resistant to mere proximity, however, much scholars like to forge connections. It is striking to note, for instance – to take an example from Anne Hudson’s book – that Margery Kempe, about whose orthodoxy there was at least considerable doubt, had as her parish priest William Sawtry, the first man to be burnt to death for Lollardy. If the authorities who interrogated her had known that, they might have felt that this was prima facie proof of contagion. Yet as far as one can tell, Sawtry had no influence on Margery Kempe at all: on all disputed points of doctrine, she was rock-solid. Maybe the teenage Bunyan was as imperceptive. At least the evidence for his revolutionary radicalism must be stretched a bit.
Although not a historian Shipley makes the case that Hill cannot be sure that moving in radical circles inside the army Bunyan became radicalized or that he was influenced to some extent.
Again, this kind of argument is petty. Because no one hears a tree fall in the forest does not mean that the tree did not fall. Shipley attack on Hill’s historical materialist outlook has been the stock and trade of every revisionist historian of the 20th and 21 centuries.
When Hill was attacked by Kishlansky for being “immune to criticism” he was in some regards playing him a back handed compliment given the ferocity of the attacks like the one from Hugh Trevor-Roper he would have needed to very thick skinned. Trevor-Roper complained of that Hill’s ‘scholarship is transformed into advocacy’. It is true that Hill was a partisan historian and was proud of it.
As Ann Talbot wrote “As a historian, he stands far above his detractors and his books deserve to be read and reread, and if, with a critical eye, it should always be with the knowledge that his limitations and faults as much as his great historical insights and innovations are the product of his time. He may be bettered, but never dismissed, and only bettered by those who have studied him closely.
The radical publisher Verso has done a great service in bringing out this new edition of Hill’s biography of John Bunyan. It is hoped that this is only the start of a revival of interest in the work of the great historian.
 On the Rant-E.P. Thompson- https://www.lrb.co.uk/v09/n13/ep-thompson/on-the-rant
 Danger-Men-Tom Shippey- https://www.lrb.co.uk/v11/n03/tom-shippey/danger-men
Tuesday, 11 May 2010
While I concede that in a review of this brevity it is difficult to sum up a book that runs to close to six hundred pages but your review of Robert Service-Trotsky is a travesty of critical writing.(1)
In the opening sentence you declare the same hostility to the subject as the author. You remark “Trotskyites who like to compare their man favourably to the murderous Stalin will probably be disappointed by this bold and balanced biography”.
As a person who opposes Stalin I must say that your cynical belittling the major political differences between Trotsky and Stalin contributes the already right wing, low level and ideologically driven Soviet historiography.
Even in short review a summation of the differences, such as the dispute over the Permanent Revolution, Socialism in a single country as opposed to international socialism to name just two would have given this review a balanced and informed look. But that is not really your objective.
As Service observes, “If ever Trotsky had been the paramount leader instead of Stalin, the risks of a bloodbath in Europe would have been drastically increased.” The above quote which you note verbatim is absurd as well as a funny. Did you even think to examine what he said? Could you explain to me what Trotsky could have done that would have been worse that the Gulags, and the murder of the entire Bolshevik cadre as well as the killing of millions of peasants and workers during the reign of Stalin. Could it really be worse than the Stalinist induced defeats of the Spanish, German and French working class to name a few which led the rise of Fascism which in turn led to the murder of six million Jews and fifty million people killed in the Second World War.
“He also notes that Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution (1923), in which writers are expected to toe the party line, prepared the way for “cultural Stalinism”. I am not expecting you to be an expert on Trotsky’s writings or for that matter the Russian Revolution., but have you read Trotsky’s writing on Literature and Culture. Like Service you seem to be under the impression that the bigger the lie the more easily it is believed. It is clear you have no comprehension of the debate over “culture” that raged inside the Bolshevik Party of which Lenin took a major interest. Trotsky opposed Stalin’s “Socialist realism” saying that it had nothing to do with Marxism. If you are interested in this debate I draw to your attention the writings of Aleksandr Voronsky in his book Art as the Cognition of Life, as a poet I am sure you will find this book rewarding.
Lastly you cannot just repeat verbatim the lies and slanders and outright distortions of Service without any independent verification. After all you are writing for the Guardian not the Sun. Even you must know that a number of your readers will be familiar with this period of history and will not accept your lazy and slapdash method of reviewing a book.
You go on “And he founded and trained the Red Army. In short, he was "no angel”. He had a “lust for dictatorship and terror”. Unfortunately my friend you cannot just state and quote Service like him you have to prove your assertions.
“He also abandoned his first wife and their two baby girls in Siberia, and later drove one of those daughters to suicide”. This slander is repeated again by you. Did you look into this? Is Service’s opinion your opinion?
David North a Leading authority on the Russian revolution had this to say on the matter “Service devotes an enormous amount of space to blackguarding Trotsky as a faithless husband who cruelly abandoned his first wife and their two children. “As a husband,” writes Service, “he [Trotsky] treated his first wife shabbily. He ignored the needs of his children especially when his political interests intervened. This had catastrophic consequences even for those who were inactive in Soviet public life—and his son Lev, who followed him into exile, possibly paid with his life for collaborating with his father.” [p. 4]
One would hardly guess, based on Service’s telling of the story, that either the oppressive conditions of Tsarist Russia or, later, the persecutions of Stalin had anything to do with the tragic fate of Trotsky’s family and loved ones. In fact, Service actually criticizes Trotsky for assigning responsibility to the Soviet regime for the death of his daughter Zina in 1933” (2)
1)Robert Service-Trotsky-Guardian Newspaper
2)David North Historians in the Service of the “Big Lie”: An Examination of Professor Robert Service’s Biography of Trotsky. www.wsws.org.
Sunday, 9 May 2010
There is a significant historical debate taking place amongst Russian historians and writers over differing interpretations of Russia’s 20th century history. It must be said this debate is far from healthy.
A reinterpretation of Russian history is being used to justify the current governments ‘great Russia’ policy. The writer Elena Godlevskaya has written a mild attack on this type of history called “Russian History Doesn't Explain Why Russia is great” in order re-examine Russian history albeit again from a right wing perspective.
In 2007 Vladimir Putin called for a more patriotic history. Putin said teachers had “porridge in their heads”, attacked some history textbook authors for taking foreign money — “naturally they are dancing the polka ordered by those who pay them” — He then went on the call for new history textbooks. He then passed a new law which gave the state sweeping powers to approve and to cancel history textbooks for schools.
While some new textbooks provide some opposition to this falsification they did not go very far and certainly very few Russian historians will uncover the real history of the Stalin period. Igor Dolutsky, the author of a history textbook of “positive history”? “It’s an appalling idea which hinders proper teaching in schools. School history should not create patriots, it should teach children to think. Putin’s task is to rule a state edging towards totalitarianism.”
It is certainly extremely worrying that what is being taught in Russian schools is largely also superficial and false. When the BBC journalist John Sweeney went into a Russian classroom it was clear that many of the students had a low level of understanding of their own past. This is not a fault of their own.
Aleksandr Filippov is a typical example of the “Positive History Man”. He defends this type of history “It is wrong to write a textbook that will fill the children who learn from it with horror and disgust about their past and their people. A generally positive tone for the teaching of history will build optimism and self-assurance in the growing young generation and make them feel as if they are part of their country’s bright future. A history in which there is good and bad, things to be proud of and things that are regrettable. But the general tone for a school textbook should still be positive.”
Godlevskaya applauds the fact that “educationalists are working to solve a task of national importance – how to use the past to glorify the present”.
While the years of Stalinist falsification, lies distortions and slanders have taken a toll on the consciousness of the Russian and international working class she complains that “ Soviet people were taught that the history of any nation is the history of class struggle, the crowning glory of which was the Great October socialist revolution.
Then there was continuing conflict with counter-revolution, capitalists, kulaks, wreckers, cosmopolitans, Western ideology etc. – until the last enemy, in the form of low oil prices, brought about the collapse of the USSR”
While not agreeing with entirely the above statement it does sum up the predicament of the present Russian revisionist historians. While they would like to forget about the history of the Russian Revolution under conditions of a massive global capitalist crisis this history is assuming a greater significance than at any time since the last great depression of the 1930s.
Godlevskaya criticises the current Russian historiography as far too simple and not complex enough she says “The ideology of textbooks today is different: Russia is a great country. We really do have something to be proud of. But as you read paragraph after paragraph, you start to think that you’re missing the most important thing. There are plenty of victories, no problem with that. The facts which before could only be read about in samizdat or discovered from reports by Western radio stations, which were jammed with enviable consistency, – they’re all here: the destruction of the peasantry, the repressions and the undemocratic nature of the one-party system. Names have appeared which were previously unmentionable. So what’s missing? Reasons and arguments. Russia is a great country simply because it is great”.
Godlevskaya in her articles also fails to touch upon an important part of this campaign to rewrite history is the attempt rehabilitate Stalin and his political methods. This is also an expression of Russian capitalism's attempt to achieve its place history and in order to defend its growing nationalist ambitions.
The Russian capitalist class is unable or wants to solve the problems of Russia's population of mass unemployment and social inequality. It is attempting to gain a modern legitimacy by invoking a past period which according to any objective source was “dark period “.
Godlevskaya makes some correct points when she examines why the population in general has a so little understanding of its own history and quotes French historian Lucien Febvre when he complained: “…universities don’t require their students to have a critical understanding of the text. They teach them to make do with mere words – dates, names of historical figures and places…”While this sentiment is to be applauded it leaves a lot of the past untouched.
In fact the ‘ignorance’ for want of a better word of the general Russian population of its own history lies not only with the falsification of national history by the Stalinists and their historians but also international historians have complimented this glorification of Stalinist historical falsification.
For want of a better explanation, in the west the failure of a number Russian and international historians to comes to terms with the role of Stalinism in the former USSR has been severely debasing. This is not to say that all historiography on the Bolshevik revolution and its aftermath is bad far from it. See Witnesses to Permanent Revolution: The Documentary Record edited and translated by Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido. (Brill, 2009). See also David North who has written numerous good works on the subject. A good historian could also examine the work of the foremost authority in Russia on the purges Vadim Rogovin. Vadim Rogovin in his numerous books has said that the main aim of Stalin’s terror was the destruction and annihilation of any kind of left wing of opposition inside the Soviet Union to his bureaucratic regime. At the centre of his work was Stalin’s chief protagonists Leon Trotsky. Trotsky represented the best traditions of the Bolshevik Party and Marxism in Russia.
But in general it seems that that Russian historiography is dominated by a very right wing cable of historians who intend to first rehabilitate the memory of Stalin but also to denigrate and slander Leon Trotsky. While it is impossible to go into every single historian of this genre I will deal with the most recent. Robert Service has recently written a biography of Leon Trotsky.
David North one of the world’s leading authority on the Russian Revolution has recently given another lecture on the book by Service said this “Returning to Mr. Service’s biography after a hiatus of several months, two things became clear to me. First, the book is even worse than I had remembered it to be. Second, I had not identified all the factual errors, half-truths, distortions, falsifications and outright slanders that are to be found in Mr. Service’s biography. Indeed, the work of identifying all the errors in his book is a job that could keep a number of Oxford history department graduates busy for months. What I wrote in my initial review was not an exaggeration: the refutation of every statement that is factually incorrect, lacks the necessary substantiation and violates accepted standards of scholarship would require a volume almost as long as Service’s book. There are statements and assertions that are completely unacceptable, from a purely professional standpoint, in every chapter”.
If Robert Service book is not bad enough he is backed up by a coterie of writers such as the poet Ian Pindar who does occasional small reviews for the Guardian newspaper. Having a look at his blog he apparently holds no specialised knowledge of the subject i.e. the Russian Revolution. While not being against this it is clear that he cannot recognize bad history when he sees it and unless he wants to refute it he must share to same right wing proclivities that are buzzing around the head of Mr Service. His review of Comrades: Communism - A World History, by Robert Service (Pan, £9.99) back this up and I quote him
“Communism is hard to define, largely because of the "confusing legacy" of Marx, says Robert Service in this superb history. There are many communisms, he argues, but roughly the same Marxist-Leninist model has been employed, with variations, around the globe. Marx argued that under communism, the state would cease to exist. But as Service shows, the exact opposite happened, the state becoming a bloated monster, squashing indigenous cultures and religions and intruding into private lives. The first communist state was a genuine innovation, he admits, although the Bolsheviks were never very popular. Winning over working people has always been a problem for communist leaders, the solution usually being a dictatorship in their name”.
In conclusion I am not saying that anyone who writes on the Russian Revolution has to agree with a Marxist perspective. But what I must insist is that basic professional standards have to be upheld. It is only when this is done can a new audience which is studying this controversial period can be given a choice based on ‘good history writing.