Sunday, 27 June 2010

Correspondence on Professor John Kenyon's The Civil War in England.

From C Thompson

Kenyon was a Tory and a member of the Church of England.

The review of Kenyon's book was never intended as an examination of his conservative political views. On his book I merely pointed out that historically speaking he was closer to the Hill school of history than to the revisionists.

I take it that you disagree with the suggestion that he was an "orthodox Tawneyite". As to your point that he was Church of England I am unsure what you mean. His book is fairly objective neither coming down on parliaments or the Kings side. What he thought in private does concern me.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

On Professor John Kenyon’s The Civil War in England

John Kenyon’s book the Civil War in England is largely a military history of the civil war but this does not detract from its great worth as a great piece of history. It is also wrong just to describe it solely as military history as he has a sharp insight into the politics and economics of the conflict which blends well with his military understanding.

The book is a cracking read and moves along at the pace of a novel. It is well researched book. This is the first book I have read of Kenyon so I am not familiar with his work. He has been described as “one of Britain's leading scholars of 17th-century English history” but I will hold judgement until I have conducted further work.

It would be wrong to describe him as belonging to the so called ‘Marxist’ wing of early modern Britain historiography but his use of class terms would certainly qualify him as a fellow traveller.

Kenyon held chairs at the universities of Hull, St Andrews, Kansas and Columbia, he published eight books, and also he was a reviewer for the Observer newspaper.

One obituary described Kenyon “as a product of King Edward VII Grammar School in Sheffield and then Sheffield University. When he appeared at Christ's in 1954 he cast himself in the role of mocking outsider, offering caustic criticisms from the fringes of college power in the confident and correct expectation that they would largely be ignored. They were. College meetings would be punctuated by Kenyon's heavy sighs and even heavier disapproving sniffs and brief dismissive comments, but the college men of affairs went about their efficient business untroubled by these background mutterings”.

Kenyon’s publications included The Stuart Constitution in 1966, The Popish Plot in 1972, Revolution Principles in 1977, Stuart England in 1978 and The Civil Wars of England in 1988. The History Men in 1983. While it is difficult to measure the man in one reading it is clear from this book that Kenyon had a “scholarly attention to detail and an ability to extract every nuance from his sources. He distrusted fads and was sceptical of theories not fully backed by historical fact”.

Kenyon was writing on the English Civil War at a difficult time for any historian who upheld views which saw the conflict in socio-economic or historical materialist terms. Kenyon faced growing hostility from a growing collection of revisionist historians who were increasingly vocal and poured scorn on the ‘Marxist’ wing of Early Modern England historiography.
From the early 1970s a significant number of historians who wrote on the English Civil War sought to discredit any understanding that the civil war could be understood through either an economic determinist or historical materialist viewpoint.

Probably the two most well-known and respected historians of the above genre of writing were Christopher Hill and Brian Manning, both unfortunately no longer with us. Both sought to counter pose a growing group of revisionist historians such as John Morrill, Mark Kishlansky, Austin Woolrych and Conrad Russell who in one way or another sought to down play the role of social, economic and political factors in understanding historical events.

According to Morrill, Mark Kishlansky, Ian Gentles ‘were prominent in seeking to challenge the nature and extent of Leveller penetration of the army, certainly before the high summer of 1647. Morrill argues that the Levellers rhetoric was fundamentally opposed to a standing army and that Lilburne’s own experience made him suspicious and out of touch with its rank and file, while Kishlansky suggested that the dynamics of army relations with parliament could be explained adequately in terms of the army’s own sense of its honour, its legitimate demands as an army, and its own experience in war and peace’.

Even today the causes of the civil war and the English Revolution are still contested. While Professor Kenyon presents a good and at times objective account of the fighting. He was described accurately as an “orthodox Tawneyite”.

While admitting that the causes and why people took sides was complex he was enough of a historian to realise that historical events do not take place in a vacuum. He was astute enough to make the point that Parliament mainly rested on the towns which were more industrialised than the rural areas which were mainly in support of the King, so much so that in 1643 Charles I said that he 'dared not trust his person inside any closed town'; the clothing areas were 'aggressively parliamentarian', Birmingham 'a solidly parliamentarian industrial town'.

In making this analysis Kenyon was clearly attacking the revisionists who were deliberately ignoring his albeit limited historical materialist viewpoint. Kenyon also opposed the revisionists who sought to deny that before 1642 social revolution was potentially present.

Again Kenyon did not deny that some rank-and-file soldiers (on either side) were not motivated by political principle. Large numbers of people were conscripted sometimes forcibly, there were mercenary elements that joined for the money and the possibility of plunder.

 But loyalties were strong. For example when Prince Rupert threatened Bradford in 1642, “an urgent appeal was issued to deserters from the army, and the response was overwhelming”.

Another thing that separated Kenyon from the revisionists was his support for the theory that the English revolution was a product of a general European Crisis of the 17th Century. This view tends to cut across the largely nationalist English view of the civil war as opposed to putting the war in a more international context. (See Eric Hobsbawm-The General Crisis of the European Economy Past and Present No 5 May 1954 pp 33-53.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Historian warns of “New Age of Rage”

The last few weeks have seen a number of articles, statements that have a common theme. That being that the current austerity measures taking place across Europe will provoke as the historian Simon Schama put it a “New age of rage.

Schama is not a historian with left wing proclivities. In an article for the Financial Times he said “Far be it for me to make a dicey situation dicier but you can't smell the sulphur in the air right now and not think we might be on the threshold of an age of rage. The Spanish unions have postponed a general strike; the bloody barricades and the red shirts might have been in Bangkok not Berlin; and, for the moment, the British coalition leaders sit side by side on the front bench like honeymooners canoodling on the porch; but in Europe and America there is a distinct possibility of a long hot summer of social umbrage. 

Historians will tell you there is often a time-lag between the onset of economic disaster and the accumulation of social fury. In act one, the shock of a crisis initially triggers fearful disorientation; the rush for political saviours; instinctive responses of self-protection, but not the organised mobilisation of outrage. Whether in 1789 or now, an incoming regime riding the storm gets a fleeting moment to try to contain calamity. If it is seen to be straining every muscle to put things right it can, for a while, generate provisional legitimacy”.

While the Europe wide demonstrations and strikes are at an early stage they are significant in their development. Schama’s attention to history is correct. What he describes above is the development towards a revolutionary situation. He goes on “Act two is trickier. Objectively, economic conditions might be improving, but perceptions are everything and a breathing space gives room for a dangerously alienated public to take stock of the brutal interruption of their rising expectations. What happened to the march of income, the acquisition of property, the truism that the next generation will live better than the last? The full impact of the overthrow of these assumptions sinks in and engenders a sense of grievance that 'Someone Else' must have engineered the common misfortune.

The stock epithet the French revolution gave to the financiers, who were blamed for disaster, was "rich egoists". Our own plutocrats may not be headed for the tumbrils but the fact that financial catastrophe, with its effect on the "real" economy came about through obscure transactions designed to do nothing except produce short-term profit aggravates a sense of social betrayal. At this point, damage-control means pillorying the perpetrators: bringing them to book and extracting statements of contrition. This is why the psychological impact of financial regulation is almost as critical as its institutional prophylactics. Those who lobby against it risk jeopardising their own long-term interests. Should governments fail to reassert the integrity of public stewardship, suspicions will emerge that, for all the talk of new beginnings, the perps and new regime are cut from common cloth. Both risk being shredded by popular ire or outbid by more dangerous tribunes of indignation”

It should be made clear that Schama is no revolutionary historian and does not oppose the capitalist system. He is warning the ruling elite that unless it is seen to punish the “perps” as he says revolution is on the cards. But his solution to the crisis lacks any historical depth and is largely ineffective.

“At the very least, the survival of a crisis demands ensuring that the fiscal pain is equitably distributed. In the France of 1789, the erstwhile nobility became regular citizens, ended their exemption from the land tax, and made a show of abolishing their own privileges, turned in jewellery for the public treasury; while the clergy's immense estates were auctioned for La Nation. It is too much to expect a bonfire of the bling but in 2010 a pragmatic steward of the nation's economy needs to beware relying unduly on regressive indirect taxes, especially if levied to impress a bond market with which regular folk feel little connection. At the very least, any emergency budget needs to take stock of this raw sense of popular victimisation and deliver a convincing story about the sharing of burdens. To do otherwise is to guarantee that a bad situation gets very ugly, very fast”.

Schama’s analogy with France is legitimate but his sleight of hand does nothing to describe how we have presently come to this economic mess. Capitalism as a system has caused this crisis not just a collection of bad individuals who if replaced and suitably chastised everything will be okay. Schama discounts a revolutionary change of government to solve the crisis and makes a significant point that elections are very useful in quelling the mob. But as Marx said of elections workers are merely replacing one set of money grabbing capitalists with another.

Schama goes on “we face a tinderbox moment: a test of the strength of democratic institutions in a time of extreme fiscal stress. On the one hand, we should be glad that the mobilisation of public energy in elections can channel mass unhappiness into change. That is what we must believe could yet happen in Britain. Elsewhere the outlook is more forbidding. In the sinkhole that is the Eurozone, animus is directed at unelected bodies - the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund - and is bound to build on itself. Those on the receiving end of punitive corrections - in public sector wages or retrenched social institutions - will lash out at their remote masters. Those in the richer north obliged to subsidise what they take to be the fecklessness of the Latin’s, will come to see not just the single currency, but the European project as an historic error and will pine for the mark or franc. Chauvinist movements will be reborn, directed at immigrants and Brussels dictats, with more destructive fury than we have seen since the war”.

While Schama is correct to point out the dangers from this crisis is a move to the right by sections of the population on the other hand he rules out directly that a revolutionary movement from the left could emerge and succeed. On this matter the warning from the Daily Telegraph is perhaps more significant. In the article Europe's deflation torture is a gift to the Far Left. It says If Europe’s ultra-Left has so far reaped little dividend from the great "Crisis of Capitalism", this will surely change as the Eurozone’s 1930s policies of wage deflation sap the credibility of the governing centre and the EU itself”.

“The tragedy of the interwar years in Germany was that the Social Democrats - then the world’s foremost socialist party - became fatally tainted by acquiescing in Bruning’s deflation torture from 1930 to 1932. They did so, of course, because they dared not confront the orthodoxies of the Gold Standard”. Their analysis on the SPD is very wide of the mark. The SPD ceased to be a revolutionary party when it voted for war credits at the start of the First World War.

As for the rise of fascism it goes on “By then the fixed-exchange mechanism had gone horribly wrong - in much the same way that EMU has gone horribly wrong - because the surplus countries were not recycling demand to maintain equilibrium. It had become a job-destruction machine. The result in Germany was the Reichstag election of July 1932 when the Communists and Nazis won over the half the seats. This leaves out the role of Stalinism which divided and betrayed the German working class with its policy equating the Social Democrats as “social Fascist” which divided the working class and paved the way for the fascists.

“Here is typically a lag-time between economic shocks and social fury. Luckily there is no Fascist threat this time. It is the (more benign) Marxist Left that stands to gain”. I am not sure what the meaning of benign left means but its boasting of the profile of ‘left’ groups is significant. It warns that Perma-slump has already chipped at the left flank of the ruling Socialists in Portugal. The Communist Party (PCP) and the Maoists and Trotskyists of the Left Bloc together won 18pc of the vote in September 2009, leaving Premier Jose Socrates with the lonely task of enforcing yet more austerity by minority government”.

The crisis has confirmed one thing that the groups the Telegraph calls the benign left are thoroughly bankrupt and nationalistic. Look at the example of Communist leader Jerónimo de Sousa who said that his country was being reduced to a "protectorate of Brussels", and that it was “cowed into submission by financial blackmail. The Telegraph reported that “He invoked the civil war in 1383 when the country rallied heroically to expel the foreign oppressor - with English help, the "ultimato inglês" as he calls it - from Portuguese soil”.

"It is not just the Communists who are worrying about this. There are a great numbers of Portuguese who are concerned that this country built over the centuries, for better or worse, on a foundation of sovereignty and independence is endangered by accepting everything that comes from Brussels without a trace of patriotism. The EU’s claim of economic and social cohesion is just propaganda," he told Publico.

The Telegraph article confirms the bewilderment of the ruling elite that has precious few answers to this crisis and that increasingly it is having to rely on organisations such as De Linke for its analysis. The Telegraph gushes over the DeLinke organisation saying “It was refreshing to read "The Euro Burns" by Michael Schlecht, Die Linke’s economic guru, arguing that the primary cause of Euroland’s crisis is "German wage-dumping". He shows from Eurostat data that German labour costs rose 7pc between 2000 and 2008, compared to 34pc in Ireland, 30pc in Spain, Portugal, and Italy, 28pc in Greece and Holland, and 20pc in France. Again,”

De Linke along with other radical groups answer to the austerity measures is to promote Europe’s trade union movement whose solution is promote nationalism and pit worker against worker. A recent interview by Joe Monks, the general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC shows that the trade unions share the same nervousness as the ruling over the austerity measures.

He describes the current situation in Europe as “extremely dangerous.” He continues: “This is 1931, we’re heading back to the 1930s with the Great Depression, and we ended up with militarist dictatorship. I’m not saying we’re there yet, but it’s potentially very serious, not just economically, but politically as well.”

The article in the WSWS makes the valid point “As history has repeatedly demonstrated the defeat of working class resistance to attacks on jobs and living standards, far from preventing dictatorship, is the prelude to dictatorship. There is no “democratic” solution to the global crisis of capitalism outside of the revolutionary mobilization of the working class to put an end to capitalism and establish socialism. To this Monks is unalterably opposed, and he speaks for the trade unions internationally. Given the choice between working class revolution and capitalist dictatorship, they will to a man choose the latter”.

As for the New Anti-Capitalist Party in France, the Left Party in Germany, the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, Rifondazione Comunista in Italy, and SYRIZA and Antarsya in Greece, say that any resistance to the cuts must be subordinated to the unions.

The World Teeters on the Brink of a New Age of Rage By Simon SchamaJune 03. 2010 "FT" -- May 22 2010 --By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard
European trade union head backs austerity

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Does Opening Soviet Archives Really Provide A New Insight Into Stalin’s Mind

Once upon a time, unintentionally,And probably hazarding a guess,Hegel called the historian a prophet,Predicting in reverse.
B. Pasternak

No man can have in his mind a conception of the future, for the future is not yet. But of our conceptions of the past, we make our future.

Thomas Hobbes

A recent article by the writer Sherwood Ross claims the opening of the Soviet archives provides an insight into the mind of Josef Stalin. Ross says “Historians today are only coming to understand the complex and sophisticated individual that was Joseph Stalin, who ruled Russia for nearly thirty years until his death in 1953. Much of the information shedding light on the character of the dictator is being unearthed from the archives of the Soviet Union, opened in the 1990s after the collapse of Communism, and which is the source material for a series of some 25 books titled The Annals of Communism, published by Yale University Press. Now Jonathan Brent, former editorial director of the Press, has written a companion “Inside The Stalin Archives” to help get at what he terms is “a true understanding of one of the giant phenomena of the 20th century” that was Soviet Communism”.

Despite the reams of books that have recently come out regarding the rise of Soviet communism it must be said that they are largely worthless and do not give any new insight into the complex and controversial subject of Soviet Communism in fact as the great Oscar Wilde might have said of them they seem ‘know the price of everything yet the value of nothing’. In fact one reading of the Revolution Betrayed by the leading Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky would garner more insight into the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy than hundreds of others produced from the archives.

One worthwhile thing Brent did say in the interview was “that understanding the archives is vital not only for political and educational reasons but for “the moral education of our children and of future generations.” While agreeing with this the historians using the archives are largely seeking two things to bolster the image of Josef Stalin and to attack the political legacy of Leon Trotsky. Some historians such as Robert Service would like to go further and kill Trotsky all over again.

In his interview Brent starts to rehabilitate Stalin when he says “To begin with, people err who dismiss Stalin as some sort of paranoid madman. The man was not a criminal who personally beat, tortured, or shot people, even if he was responsible for the deaths of millions of human beings. He didn't, himself, torture people, not like Ivan the Terrible who threw people out the window, who killed his own son. He was a highly functional individual who was also a man of simple tastes and the father of three children “who did not believe that he was constrained by any moral law, because all moral laws were relative to him,” Brent says. Stalin would never criticize things on the basis that they were bad or approve them because they were good”.
Brent’s attempt to absolve Stalin from the murderess purges does not hold water and he relies on people’s ignorance of the subject. “Vadim Rogovin who was a Doctor of philosophical Sciences at the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences “outlines that Stalin and a group of leading Bolsheviks in the Politburo, Molotov, Kaganovich, Voroshilov and Yezhov, ran the purges. Rogovin produces substantial archival evidence and supporting material garnered from the 20th Communist Party Congress outlining the crucial role that Stalin and the others played in party expulsions, arrests and murders. These sections of the book refute people like Brent and the revisionist school of Sovietology. This new genre of historiography seeks to query or dismiss the assertion that the Great Purge was personally controlled by Stalin and that he agreed totally with the results.

Whether Stalin was a madman or not is open to debate, this should be decided by psychiatrists but this misses the point.

As Leon Trotsky said in the “The Role of Personality “Our author substitute’s mechanistic determinism for the dialectic conditioning of the historical process. Hence the cheap jibes about the role of individuals, good and bad. History is a process of the class struggle. But classes do not bring their full weight to bear automatically and simultaneously. In the process of struggle the classes create various organs which play an important and independent role and are subject to deformations. This also provides the basis for the role of personalities in history. There are naturally great objective causes which created the autocratic rule of Hitler but only dull-witted pedants of “determinism” could deny today the enormous historic role of Hitler. The arrival of Lenin in Petrograd on April 3, 1917 turned the Bolshevik party in time and enabled the party to lead the revolution to victory. Our sages might say that had Lenin died abroad at the beginning of 1917, the October revolution would have taken place “just the same.” But that is not so. Lenin represented one of the living elements of the historical process. He personified the experience and the perspicacity of the most active section of the proletariat. His timely appearance on the arena of the revolution was necessary in order to mobilize the vanguard and provide it with an opportunity to rally the working class and the peasant masses. Political leadership in the crucial moments of historical turns can become just as decisive a factor as is the role of the chief command during the critical moments of war. History is not an automatic process. Otherwise, why leaders? Why parties? Why programs? Why theoretical struggles?”

 Brent then attempts to understand the reason behind the launching of the Great Terror.” “Stalin’s lack of a moral compass enabled him to launch in the mid-Thirties what became known as The Great Terror, during which, in 1937 alone, one million Soviet citizens were arrested and, of those, one-third put to death. Stalin claimed he did this to purge the nation of “Trotskyites,” followers of Red Army architect Leon Trotsky who split with Stalin and took refuge in Mexico---where Stalin had him assassinated in 1940. But a lot of the charges against the accused were “pure hokum,”

While the charges were as Brent says “pure hokum” but his dismissal of the opposition to Stalin is careless and wrong. According to Vadim Rogovin the political aims of the Terror were the destroying of all socialist opposition to Stalin’s rule are, ignored or dismissed by much of the Western Sovietology written on the subject.

A true picture of the events in the Soviet Union using archive material would be an important service not only to western readers but to the general Russian population who even today know next to nothing of the great struggle between Trotsky and Stalin.
Another important insight by Rogovin was he saw the relationship between Stalin’s repression and the growth of social inequality in the USSR. In the introduction to the book 1937: Stalin’s Year of Terror By Vadim Z. Rogovin the writer makes the point “This relationship, Rogovin concluded, was essential to understanding the nature of the Stalinist regime. Based on a study of historical documents, Rogovin came to view the Left Opposition, which emerged in 1923 under the leadership of Trotsky, as a socialist alternative to the anti-egalitarianism of Stalin’s bureaucratic regime”.


Perhaps Brent's most bizarre comment comes in his attempt to dissuade his public “that “Stalin was not necessarily anti-Semitic”, you notice that by using the word necessarily he is not too convinced of his own assertion. Brent says. “In May, 1939, he arrested the famous Jewish writer Isaac Babel and had him executed eight months later. This, however, was not because Babel was Jewish per se, but rather because Stalin could use him to send a message to Hitler “that he knows what to do with Jews,” Brent says. It also served to send a message his Politburo “about how he is going to deal with the problems of Germany and the Jews.” Babel’s execution served a “useful purpose” in Stalin’s mind. Similarly, Stalin demoted Maxim Litvinov, a Jew, in May, 1939, not for anti-Semitic reasons but because he would not have a Jew negotiating with Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. And when Stalin replaced Litvinov with Molotov, he used the fact that Molotov’s wife was Jewish to tease him as “Molotstein.” Later, when Stalin had Molotov’s wife purged from the Central Committee, Molotov was so fearful that he did not vote against the motion but only abstained”.

Brent’s trapeze act regarding Stalin’s pronounced Anti-Semitism is either a poor writing or something more sinister. Brent could have looked at other sources for help on this question. Vadim Rogovin includes an insightful chapter, “The Anti-Semitic Subtext of the Moscow Trials,” in his 1937. Stalin’s Year of Terror. [17] Also for deeper understanding of the Purges he could have consulted the above book for a deeper understanding of the Great Terror and the Moscow Trials.
Brent is not the only author to down play anti-Semitism. David North recently commented on Robert Services –biography Trotsky “One issue that undermines Service’s insistence on “Stalin the Marxist” is the question of Stalin’s anti-Semitism. By the time he addresses the issue directly (and very late in his book, page 567), Service has provided several clues in passing that Stalin might indeed be anti-Semitic. Here are a few examples: “Stalin differed from Lenin inasmuch as he never—not even once—commented on the need to avoid anti-Semitic impulses”[15] [p. 156]; “The Great Terror had removed hundreds of qualified personnel. Jews in particular were repressed” [p. 395]; “[In 1943], Alexander Fadeev, Chairman of the USSR Union of Writers, roundly condemned ‘rootless cosmopolitanism’... . Stalin was already playing with one of the grubbiest instruments of rule: anti-Semitism” [p. 447]; “As the harness of repression was imposed, Stalin strove to increase the degree of dependable compliance. He did this in line with his lurch into an anti-Jewish campaign in the USSR after he fell out with the Israeli government. Communist parties were constrained to select a Jew from among their midst, put him on show trial and execute him” [p. 518]; “But what was Stalin up to? Certainly he had it in for Jews from 1949, and his behaviour and discourse became ever cruder” [p. 519].

Perhaps the most insidious and malicious part of Brent’s interview is his attempt to portray Stalin as a “formidable Intellect” He states "Who was Stalin? What was Stalin? That became the driving impulse behind my work in Russia," Brent said. Stalin was the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union's Central Committee from 1922 until his death in 1953. "He was a formidable intellect," Brent said, pointing to copies of Lenin's "The State and Revolution" and Trotsky's "History of the Russian Revolution" with Stalin's handwritten notes in the margin’s”.

“Examining Stalin's copy of Leon Trotsky's History of the Bolshevik Revolution, Brent found in Stalin's handwriting in the margins--phrases such as "this is not true, maybe this is true,” and so on and so forth all the way through. At the top of some pages, Stalin wrote 'lie, liar, and betrayer.' And then with his big blue pencil, he would just cross out of the book what Trotsky was saying." Pointing out that Stalin had no intimate friend to whom he confided his deepest thoughts and no lover to whom he wrote love letters, Stalin’s notations reveal who the man was "in the quiet of his own study at 4 a.m. when nobody is looking; we can see how his mind is working," Brent says. Trotsky was Stalin's hated enemy but Stalin nevertheless read Trotsky’s book because "he wanted to know what his hated enemy was thinking.”

In reality Stalin rarely understood anything and foresaw nothing. For Trotsky he was a typical bureaucrat and Trotsky described him as “the Party’s outstanding mediocrity”. His thought was largely empirical and he produced no outstanding piece of literature. Trotsky famously said that if “Stalin had known at that time where he would end up, he would not have gone ahead”.

Again in the introduction of 1937: Stalin’s Year of Terror by Vadim Z. Rogovin “Stalin’s fixation on Trotsky was not, Rogovin maintains, an incidental phenomenon that served little more than propaganda purposes. Rather, Stalin perceived the exiled Trotsky as the most significant threat to his dictatorship. He was the personification of a revolutionary program and tradition that the bureaucratic regime was determined to extirpate”.


Stalin’s Terror of 1937-1938: Political Genocide in the USSR, by Vadim Rogovin

1937: Stalin’s Year of Terror By Vadim Z. Rogovin – Introduction

Stalin’s Great Terror: Origins and Consequences By Vadim Rogovin 29 December 1998

Was there an alternative to Stalinism? By David North 25 October 1995

Historian offers glimpse inside the Stalin archives BY FRANZ BROTZEN

The Class, The Party and the Leadership-Leon Trotsky

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Niall Ferguson is called on to rewrite British History

Saturday June 05, 2010

Only a historical or political virgin would have been surprised by the current Conservative –Liberal government deciding to ask the ultra-right wing historian Niall Ferguson to re-write the national Curriculum for history in schools.

It is entirely in keeping with this right wing government that it should ask an apologist for imperialism to select his own brand of history to impose on unsuspecting pupils.

The national curriculum was introduced by Margaret Thatcher in the early 1980s was largely to promote the 'Little Englander' school of history. A recent article carried in the Times that bemoaned the lack of celebration of the Glorious Revolution and promoted a type of history that portrays British history as distinctly non revolutionary and of a peaceful nature.

These two strands of thinking and that is being generous to call them that are complementary or more accurately two sides of the same coin. The impression you get with is type of thinking is that British history is this peaceable and law abiding it is only John Foreigner that does revolution, experiences 'totalitarianism' and mad dictators such as Hitler and Stalin.

The sad thing is that a number leading politicians and historians believe this at least in public. Thatcher believed that Britain had enjoyed a 'thousand years of British democracy'.

These ideas are not restricted to the Tories, New Labour in power continued Britain's imperial tradition in Afghanistan and Iraq. Labour echoed a nostalgia for empire with Gordon Brown saying in 2004 'We should be proud . . . of the empire, the days of Britain having to apologise for its colonial history are over'.

Niall Ferguson has said it time to get rid of what he calls 'junk history.' He has bemoaned that Pupils know too much about Martin Luther King but not enough about Martin Luther. But this comment is really a smokescreen behind which he seeks to establish proper ‘traditional history'.

This kind of history which sees only the history of the rich and famous seeks to defend the interest of the rich and famous. It is doubtful that the working masses and their history will get a look in.

It should be said that Ferguson’s rose tinted view of empire has come under attack one such historian Stephen Howe who described Ferguson’s 'world view' 'Some people – mostly poor and dark-skinned ones – need to recognise that they are conquered, accept the fact, indeed realise that it’s in their own best interests to be so. And other people, especially Americans, must know and accept that they are conquerors and imperialists, shoulder the accompanying burdens, understand that such a role benefits everyone. As Ferguson says in the introduction to Colossus (2004): "Unlike most of the previous writers who have remarked on this, I have no objection in principle to an American empire. Indeed, a part of my argument is that many parts of the world would benefit from a period of American rule."'

'The fact is that Ferguson systematically bypasses or blanks out every source which analyses or presents the perspectives of the colonised. There thus emerges a consistent pattern of distortion or one-sidedness: a pattern which tends to reinforce the prejudices of those he seeks to influence. Much of the impact Ferguson’s writing has had on public debate, especially in the US, stems from his being perceived as an expert historian whose arguments about policy are based on specialist knowledge. Ferguson is indeed a proficient historian with a great deal of accumulated learning at his disposal. But his authority does not extend to the histories of any part of the non-European world. When he makes claims about these, they must be evaluated as the arguments of a talented, opinionated amateur, not a scholar.'

Jerry Brotton, professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of London, said of Ferguson's appointment to re write the history curriculum was "an outrage" and his story of western domination "a misrepresentation of history". Brotton said: "It's an ideology. It is typical of him. It's another revision of empire – getting empire back in by the back door."

The British historian Niall Ferguson is perhaps is the most identifiable historian with the “right-wing, Eurocentric vision of western ascendancy”, Ferguson has been speaking at the Guardian Hay festival, said that children should be given the "big story" of the last 500 years and that story for him "is the rise of western domination of the world".

Ann Talbot wrote recently that “ All British historians, E.H. Carr once said, are Whigs, even the Tories—but not in Niall Ferguson’s case. He is a Tory formed in the Thatcherite mould, who cut his teeth writing for Conrad Black’s Daily Telegraph while he was a research student in Germany. He is also one of the most prolific historians working today. His most recent book Colossus, a study of American imperialism follows Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2003), The Cash Nexus: Money and Politics in Modern History 1700-2000 (2002), The House of Rothschild: Money’s Prophets, 1798-1848 (2003), The House of Rothschild, 1849-1998 (2002), The Pity of War: Explaining World War I (1999) and Virtual Histories: Alternative and Counterfactuals (1997). Every one of them is a thick doorstop of a book”.

It is little wonder that Michael Gove, the education secretary, has publicly praised Ferguson's "exciting and engaging" ideas for a "campaign for real history". He asked: "My question is, will Harvard let you spend more time in Britain to help us design a more exciting and engaging history curriculum?"

At the Hay festival Ferguson was forced to defend his views when some members of the audience accused him of not being interested “in the fates of the oppressed”. This provoked an angry reply from Ferguson who railed at "the militant tendency" in the audience and said: "Can we get away from this right-wing-historian, apologist-for-empire crap?"

Ferguson’s stance has had some support from Martin Kettle writing in the Guardian. “This would be a serious mistake, because a lot – not all – of what Ferguson says on this subject is less right wing than right. There is a lot of similarity between what he said this week and what the late Raphael Samuel, whom one would label a left-wing historian, wrote on the same subject about 20 years ago. Ferguson's argument, set out this week at the Guardian Hay Festival, is that history has been banalised and marginalised in the school curriculum and that both trends need to be reversed – which in fairness they are already beginning to be – if we are to educate the next generation better. The figures bear him out. But the core of his argument is not about numbers of GCSE or A-level candidates. It's about the kind of history we teach and learn”.

He goes on to deny that Ferguson is a right wing historian. “Even without such eloquence, similar warnings surely apply to a labelling in the Guardian this week of Professor Niall Ferguson as a right-wing historian. Ferguson may or may not be usefully described as right-wing. "Irritating" is his own word for that. But he is certainly a historian – author of some formidable books with an occasional weakness for arresting overstatement. Calling him a right-wing historian, though, seems about as relevant as describing Cézanne as an anti-Dreyfusard painter”.

One significance of Kettle’s article is that it articulates a trend in the Guardian of a cautious but noticeable supporting of certain policies of the new Con-Lib government and a defence of Britain’s interests both home and abroad.

In the next quote from Kettle we get to the nub of his complaint. “In the era of multicultural globalisation this is a problem facing every country. National narratives – the bedrock of most school history teaching – are being eroded everywhere. Britain, though, has special difficulties of its own. Not only is there no overarching British narrative, as distinct from English, Scottish, Welsh and at least two sorts of Irish narratives. English culture, in particular, is still disabled by unresolved class differences as well. History from above? History from below? Or a synthesis? And which one?

Kettle’s idea of a British narrative is the same as Ferguson’s i.e. a defence of British imperialism. This is made even clearer by his admission that British History is “disabled by unresolved class differences”.

Under conditions of social polarisation unprecedented in Britain's history is this so surprising. Kettle along with Ferguson wants no discussion on these questions in their history of Britain. Kettle is not alone in bemoaning the fact that historians have had to deal with the involvement of the working class in recent history. He bemoans the genre of ‘history from below’ which has grown up over the last 30 or so years.

Ann Talbot in her review of Colossus said “For most of the twentieth century, even right-wing historians have had to adapt themselves to the political and ideological consequences of the Russian Revolution—how the world’s first successful socialist revolution inspired millions in a belief that there was an alternative to imperialist brutality, a belief that survived even after the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet Union under Stalin. It was de rigueur to deplore the slaughter of the First World War, but now there is a generation of historians who are increasingly eager to revise the judgement of earlier researchers.

They can do so without doing obvious violence to evidence and principles of historical methodology. At a cursory glance all the apparatus of a history book is present in The Pity of War. There are extracts from contemporary accounts by statesmen, generals and ordinary soldiers from all sides; there are statistics, economic, military and sociological; there are contemporary photographs showing scenes of carnage and men relaxing behind the lines. There are, of course, extensive footnotes. The immediate impression is of a book at once scholarly yet sensitive. On closer inspection, however, a very different book emerges. It is a carefully camouflaged glorification of war”.


Martin Kettle With no common culture, a common history is Thursday 3 June 2010

Ann Talbot What price an American empire? Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, Penguin Press, 2004, ISBN 0-713-99615-37 December 2004

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Oliver Cromwell by David L Smith

I have just finished David L Smith’s book on Oliver Cromwell from the Cambridge University press Topics in History. This is not an orthodox biography of Cromwell but a guide to study. It works both for A Level students as well as those taking degrees.

I don’t know much about D L Smith and you will not gain much from this book regarding as the historian E H Carr said of his “buzzing of the bees”. For the moment this is not important. The book is a very good introduction to Cromwell. It is well balanced. Neither favouring those for him or those against.

While his explanations are brief and none to analytical they give directions to the reader for further study well enough. The questions posed are informative and will make the student or lay person carry out further research. I would have preferred more essay type questions but then again that’s just me. Just one note of caution his glowing enthusiasm for the forthcoming Blair Worden biography is a bit much. 

It's not that I don’t like Worden he is a fine historian but at the moment given the current climate dominated by the revisionists ‘what revolution’ there is certainly not the intellectual climate to better the work undertaken by Christopher Hill. Maybe Worden has uncovered the secret Cromwell diaries hidden from view all this time.

Biographical details from Wikipedia are below as well as a list of publications.

“David L. Smith, born in London on 3 December 1963, is a noted historian of the Early Modern period of British history, particularly political, constitutional, legal and religious history in the Stuart period. He is the author or co-author of eight books, and the editor or co-editor of four others (see list of chief publications below). He was educated at Eastbourne College (1972-81) and then went up to Selwyn College, Cambridge, as a Scholar in October 1982. At Selwyn he took his BA with First Class honours in 1985, his PGCE with Distinction in 1986, and his MA in 1989, and his PhD in 1990.He has been a Fellow of Selwyn College since 1988. He has also served as a Director of Studies in History since 1992, and as a Graduate Tutor since 2004. He was a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago in 1991. In that year he also won the Royal Historical Society's Alexander Prize, and Cambridge University's Thirlwall Prize for historical research. For nearly twelve years (1992-2003) he was Admissions Tutor at Selwyn, a period during which the College's academic performance improved markedly. From 1996 until 2006 he was also the College's Praelector.He has been an Affiliated Lecturer in the Faculty of History at Cambridge since 1995, and he served as Convenor of the Directors of Studies in History from 2006 to 2010. He also teaches regular courses for Cambridge's Institute of Continuing Education. He was a member of the Institute's Management Board from 2005 to 2008, and he has been Director of the Institute's annual History Summer School since 2005.

He became a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 1992, and he has been President of the Cambridge History Forum since 1997. He is also a Governor of Eastbourne College (since 1993), and a Trustee of Oakham School (since 2000”.


• Oliver Cromwell: Politics and Religion in the English Revolution, 1640-1658 Cambridge University Press, 1991

• Louis XIV Cambridge University Press, 1992

• Constitutional Royalism and the Search for Settlement, c. 1640-1649 Cambridge University Press, 1994

• (co-edited with Richard Strier and David Bevington) The Theatrical City: Culture, Theatre and Politics in London, 1576-1649 Cambridge University Press, 1995

• A History of the Modern British Isles, 1603-1707: The Double Crown Blackwell, 1998

• The Stuart Parliaments, 1603-1689Edward Arnold, 1999

• (with Graham E. Seel) The Early Stuart Kings, 1603-1642 Routledge, 2001

• (with Graham E. Seel) Crown and Parliaments, 1558-1689 Cambridge University Press, 2001

• (edited) Cromwell and the Interregnum Blackwell, 2003

• (co-edited with Jason McElligott) Royalists and Royalism during the English Civil Wars Cambridge University Press, 2007

• (with Patrick Little) Parliaments and Politics during the Cromwellian Protectorate Cambridge University Press, 2007

• (co-edited with Jason McElligott) Royalists and Royalism during the Interregnum Manchester University Press, 2010

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Some Preliminary Notes on Ideology and Politics in the Parliamentary Armies 1645-9 Mark Kishlansky

1. Kishlansky begins this chapter in very sarcastic mood. He attacks the concept that it is possible to draw wider social conclusions from the debate that took place inside the New Model Army. Ideology inside the army has been exaggerated and misconceived.

2. ‘Much has been written about the ideology of the army, but most of it misconceived. A principle reason for this has been historians have assumed that the lowly social origins of many of the officers created a commitment to radical ideology. This is false on both factual and logical grounds. There were men of low birth among the new Model’s officers, and much has been made of Pride the drayman and Hewson the cobbler more still might be made of obscure officers like Spongers and Creamer whose surnames suggest backgrounds in trades and service. The army also contained a Cecil, a Sheffield, and three colonels who were knights. Yet careful study of the armies social origin, which lends support to the view that they were more traditional in nature (of solid status in rural and urban structures) still does not meet the real objections to existing interpretation- the fallacy of social determinism’.

3. He opposes that class has any bearing on how a person thinks or behaves. He rejects ‘the conception that social being determines social consciousnesses. Kishlansky doubts the amount of radical literature available to the army. His use of the term “intellectual historians” is curious to say the least. Even historians hostile to what has commonly been the common coin of radical or Marxist writers have agreed that philosophy of some kind played a significant part in army. Kishlansky calls for a complete rethink on what ideas did motivate individual soldiers.

4. "Hill’s achievements were twofold. Firstly he identified the mid-seventeenth century crisis as a revolution, which in the case of Britain overthrew the rule of one class and brought another to power. Secondly he recognised that revolutions are made by the mass of the population and that for a revolution to take place the consciousness of that mass of people must change, since revolutions are not made by a few people at the top although the character of their leadership is crucial at certain points. These achievements were considerable at the time and are of continuing relevance today, when historians increasingly reject any serious economic or social analysis and argue that revolutions are nothing but the work of a tiny group of conspirators". Ann Talbot

5. If we were to accept Kishlanskys assertion that “From 1645 to March 1647 there is almost no evidence of political activity within the New Model Army: for fifteen months the soldiers fought; for eight they waited”. What is his point? Ideas do take time to develop and they do change under the pressure of political and economic changes. I do not believe that there is a mechanical relationship between economic changes and politics there is a dialectical one

6. “Ever since the Putney debates of 1647 the way in which economic inequality inevitably undermines political equality had remained an insoluble problem that the Levellers had never managed to resolve. Waldron sets Locke’s discussion of equality in the context of this seventeenth century debate about the relationship between political and economic equality. He concludes that Locke seems to have regarded an unequal distribution of property as inevitable in an economy based on money, but that he was critical of the English inheritance customs that tended to produce large landed estates. He favoured the division of property among heirs, a practice that, it was thought, would result in a more equitable division of land” .Quote from page 167 of reactions to the Civil War- Kishlansky says, “From disparate and inchoate ideas the army formed its self –justification, and the process by which this happened, as do so many others of similar circumstances, remain mysterious”. The dictionary definition of inchoate used for our purpose is: not organized; lacking order: an inchoate mass of ideas on the subject. While some of this is applicable to the ideas floating around in the army it is not entirely accurate. Some of the Levellers document was far from inchoate as the way  Cromwell moved against them proved.

7. For a historian of Kishlanskys statue to say this is quite an admission. The development of consciousness is really key to understanding how the civil war came about; how parliament and the army killed a king it is the whole shebang. Kishlansky seeks to mystify this process in order to cover up the dialectical relationship between politics and economics which in the end run moves men and women to carryout history.

8. It is clear the army had some form of collective ideology. The actions it took after the Putney Debates are a clear indicator of this. It does not take a great leap of imagination to understand that systematic agitation by radical ministers in the army would coincide with grievances to push the army in an extreme direction. Kishlansky says prove it. Well outside of going back in time an interviewing a few soldiers that is not possible. But history does not work like that. On the other hand the Work of Hill and Manning along with a host of others have established certain historical truths as to the nature of the radical groups inside the army.

9. Grievances over lack of pay and demands for indemnity against illegal acts coincided with a great acceptance of Leveller ideas from a growing number of agitators.