Friday, 23 July 2010

Gerrard Winstanley and the Digger Movement


The release of the complete works of Gerrard Winstanley gives me the opportunity to examine the life and impact of Winstanley and the Digger Movement. While the historian Christopher Hill had a lot of time for Winstanley and the “True Levellers” as the Diggers were referred it has been a while since someone has attempted to remove Winstanley from under a large number of dead dogs.

It is apt that the new volumes are dedicated to the memory of Christopher Hill who carried out incredibly important work to place the Digger movement and Winstanley in an objective and semi-historical materialist context.

According to Hill in his seminal study, The World Turned Upside Down the Diggers, “have something to say to twentieth-century socialists”. In this, he meant that they were an anticipation of future struggles. In my opinion, despite their radicalism, the social and economic conditions had not yet matured for them to carry out a “second revolution” which would have seen the overthrow of Cromwell and the use of a wider use of the popular franchise among other things.

Despite over thirty years of revisionist attacks Hill’s work and The, in particular, World Turned Upside Down continues to be the defining work that historians of early modern Britain have to work around.

This is not to say that the Revisionist historians have given up on the contrary they according to Michael Braddick “have tried to cut the English revolution down to size or to cast it in its own terms. In so doing, they naturally also cast a critical eye over the reputation and contemporary significance of its radical heroes. In Winstanley’s case, this led to an emphasis both on the strangeness of his thought for twentieth-century socialists and on the fact that he was a Digger leader only briefly in a long and, in many other ways, very respectable life. His Digger year, 1649, falls in the middle of four years of prolific and exhilarating publication, but that period of his life appears in the historical record as an irruption into an otherwise rather unremarkable and anonymous biography. Thus, to Mark Kishlansky, Winstanley was “a small businessman who began his career wholesaling cloth, ended it wholesaling grain, and in between sandwiched a mid-life crisis of epic proportions”. For revisionists, the years when the world was turned upside down stand in the same relation to the course of English history as Winstanley’s wild years either side of his fortieth birthday do to his subsequent life as a churchwarden”.

In answer to the revisionists it is not the point to talk up or talk down Winstanley and the Diggers but to place them in the proper context of the English Revolution. It is true that Winstanley was a businessman and that his radicalism coincided with one of the most revolutionary chapters in English history but that merely points out that at certain times men and women are moved by such profound events such as wars and revolution and that their thoughts during peaceful times sometimes move at glacial speed during revolutions they speed up dramatically.

While there are distinct differences Winstanley's life and ‘sudden’ found radicalism mirrored that of a far bigger actor in the drama that being Oliver Cromwell. Who if you had told him at the beginning of his political career he would in a few decades lead the call for the killing of a king then he would have probably thought you were mad.

Biography

Gerrard Winstanley was born 1609 and died 10 September 1676. Much of his early life remains a mystery. He was the son of an Edward Winstanley. In 1630 he moved to moved to London and took up an apprenticeship and in 1638, he was a freeman of the Merchant Tailors' Company.

His adult life is unremarkable he married Susan King, who was the daughter of London surgeon William King, in 1639. It is clear that without the English Civil War, his life would have moved at the same pedestrian pace as before. But like many his world was turned upside down. His business took a beating during the early part of the war, and in 1643 he was made bankrupt. He moved to Cobham, Surrey, where he found menial work as a cowherd.

From 1648 to 1649, he issued five religious tracts, these tracts are in the two volume set of his complete writings. It is known that in early 1649, Winstanley and William Everard met with a small number of similar minded men to dig on common land on St George’s Hill in Walton parish, near Cobham.

Winstanley’s writing was put into practice through the occupation of land. In 1650 they felt bold enough to send out others to expand the Digging. The South and areas of the Midlands were targeted.

According to Braddick “Winstanley’s five earliest tracts were prompted by the anxiety and suffering of the war years: the certainty that this crisis was in some sense divine in origin, and intended as a prompt to sinners to seek reformation, was for many people matched by disabling uncertainty about what form that reformation should take. Winstanley’s writings offered comfort and spiritual advice that was essentially personal, directing believers to look inside themselves, and that led increasingly towards criticism of scripture and learned commentary as guides to practical action.

Winstanley’s readers were urged to follow the promptings of the spirit and of their personal experience of God. God’s guide in the world was Reason, something distinct from the right of individual creatures, but equally something to which we all have some access”. 

The New Law of Righteousness

Perhaps Winstanley’s most remarkable body of work.in which he agitated for a form of Christian communism. Verses 44 and 45 outline his basic core in the Book of Acts, he said: "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need." Winstanley argued that "in the beginning of time God made the earth. Not one word was spoken at the beginning that one branch of mankind should rule over another, but selfish imaginations did set up one man to teach and rule over another."

It is entirely correct to trace Winstanley’s radical thought in The New Law of Righteousness back through time. Indeed it, echoed profoundly with Watt Tyler and the Peasants' Revolt (1381). While much of Winstanley and that of the Diggers thought was couched in religious terms, he was openly advocating a primitive form of Communism.

His avocation of the redistribution of land through the pamphlet called The Law of Freedom in a Platform, saw him elaborate a Christian/Communist basis for society in which property and wages were abolished. From A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England he said "The power of enclosing land and owning property was brought into the creation by your ancestors by the sword; which first did murder their fellow creatures, men, and after plunder or steal away their land, and left this land successively to you, their children. And therefore, though you did not kill or thieve, yet you hold that cursed thing in your hand by the power of the sword; and so you justify the wicked deeds of your fathers, and that sin of your fathers shall be visited upon the head of you and your children to the third and fourth generation, and longer too, till your bloody and thieving power be rooted out of the land".

In The Law of Freedom you can see that Winstanley was heavily influenced by the European Anabaptists. Who believed that all institutions were by their nature corrupt: "nature tells us that if water stands long it corrupts; whereas running water keeps sweet and is fit for common use". Winstanley in order to combat this corrupting nature called for all officials should be elected every year. "When public officers remain long in place of judicature they will degenerate from the bounds of humility, honesty and tender care of brethren, in regard the heart of man is so subject to be overspread with the clouds of covetousness, pride, vain glory.

"The Diggers further outlined their aims in a pamphlet, True Levellers Standard Advanced, In this document Winstanley argued that the Digger communes were only the first part of a programme that would see people refuse to ‘work’ for the rich. The Land would be ‘a common treasury for all'. No one would either give for hire or take for hire. Nor was anyone to pay rent. The old society, dominated by 'the landlords, teachers and rulers (who) are oppressors, murderers and thieves'. The SWP (Socialist Workers Party) and some other radical organisations have tended to equate this type of action with a 20th-century proletariat withdrawing its labour from the capitalist class in a sort of general strike. While communistic in its approach it must be said we are talking about a working class that’s in an embryonic form not an industrial proletariat led by a communist party.

The strength of the Diggers can be borne out by the fact that Cromwell and his supporters amongst the rising middle class could defeat the Levellers along with the Diggers extremely easily and by 1653 both organisations were mainly spent forces.

Who Were the Diggers and Levellers?

The Diggers and Levellers were part of a group of men that sought to understand the profound political and social changes that were taking place at the beginning of the 17th century. They were the true ‘Ideologues of the revolution’ and had a capacity for abstract thought. While the Diggers were sympathetic to the poor, which stemmed from their religion they had no programme to bring about social change, they never advocated a violent overturning of society. Their class outlook, that being of small producers, conditioned their ideology. At no stage did the Diggers or that matter did the larger group the Levellers constitute a mass movement.
The contradiction between their concern for the poor and their position of representatives of the small property owners caused some tension. They had no opposition to private property, and therefore they accepted that inequalities would always exist, they merely argued for a lot of the poor to be made more equitable.

The Levellers

The Levellers philosophy can be summed up by one of its members who at the Putney Debates explained “I am no advocate for the poore further then to provide bread and necessaries for them, without which, life cannot be maintained, let rich men feast, and the poore make hard meale, but let them have bread sufficient”.

Knowing that they could not come to power through the presently constituted electorate the Levellers attempted to find constitutional ways of getting round it. A draft constitution produced in 1647 called the Agreement of the People declared that the state had broken down in civil war and must be re-founded on the basis of certain fundamental “native rights” safeguarded even from a sovereign went against one of the most fundamental reasons for the war in the first place. The Agreement amongst other demands, called for biennial parliaments, franchise reform, only those who contracted into the new state by accepting the agreement were to have the vote.

The one chance the Levellers had to put their ideas into practice was to gain control of the army. The development of the new model army was central to the outcome of the English Civil war, who controlled the army-controlled state power. The Levellers had agitated for the arrears of wages to be paid and that indemnity for actions committed during the civil war be granted. This agitation had won them considerable support in the army.

At the Army Council debate at Putney held in the October/November of1647 came the Levellers opportunity. The limitations of the Leveller program was cruelly exposed in a very famous exchange between Colonel Rainborowe, leader of the Levellers in Parliament and Henry Ireton, Rainborowe stated that “The poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he and therefore every man that is to live under a government ought, first, by his own consent. To put himself under the government”.

This seemed all very democratic but ‘free born Englishmen’ excluded servants and the poorer sections that did not constitute ‘the people’. Christopher Hill says “The Leveller conception of free Englishmen was thus restricted, even if much wider than the embodied in the existing franchise. Their proposals would perhaps have doubled the number of men entitled to vote. But manhood suffrage would have quadrupled it. The generals, generally horrified, pretended at Putney that the Levellers were more democratic than they were”.

To put it more simply the generals deliberately exaggerated the radicalism of a majority of the Levellers in order to label them extremists and to mobilise their own supporters against them. Cromwell correctly recognised that if the franchise was widened it would threaten his position in parliament. Again Hill explains “Defending the existing franchise Cromwell son in law, Henry Ireton rejected the doctrine ‘that by a man being born here, he shall have a share in that power that shall dispose of the lands here and of all things here’. The vote was rightly restricted to those who ‘had a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom’. Namely, ‘the person in whom all lands lies and that incorporation’s in whom all trading lies”.

Ireton claimed the present House of Commons represented them and went on to ask by what right the vote was demanded for all free Englishmen. If by natural right, taking up the Levellers point that they should be free. Who could freely dispose of their own labour? Then Ireton could see no reason why men had as much natural right to property as to the vote. He went on to point out that if you give them the vote, then they will be the majority in parliament and they will give equal property rights to everybody. This argument completely confused Rainborowe and undermined his argument.

Cromwell was acutely aware that the ideas of the Levellers and the smaller groups within them such as the Diggers were becoming a dangerous business. Cromwell said of what he called the ‘lunaticks’ “You must break these men or they will break you” Cromwell declared. By May 1649 the Levellers had been defeated in battle and their influence in the army and in civilian life disappeared.

Modern popularity and legacy

Largely thanks to the pioneering work of Christopher Hill and Brian Manning to name just two we have a much deeper appreciation of the Diggers, Levellers and other groups who made up the Left Wing of the English Civil War. While this popularity is out of a mainly historical interest the Radicals have managed to achieve a wider interest. One pop band named itself after the Levellers. Elvis Costello called a song Oliver’s Army.

One folk musician wrote a song called "The World Turned Upside Down," by English folksinger Leon Rosselson, “weaves many of Winstanley's own words into the lyrics”.

The Diggers’ Song

You noble Diggers all stand up now, stand up now!

You noble Diggers all stand up now!

The wasteland to maintain, seeing Cavaleers by name,

Your digging does maintain and persons all defame,

Stand up now, stand up now!

Your houses they pull down stand up now, stand up now (means, repeat line as in verse one)

Your houses they pull down, to fright your men in town,

But the gentrye must come down,

And the poor shall wear the crown,

Stand up now, Diggers all.

With spades and hoes and plowes, stand up now, stand up now

Your freedom to uphold, seeing Cavaliers are bold,

To kill you if they could and rights from you to hold,

Stand up now Diggers all.

Theire self-will is theire law, stand up now,

Since tyranny came in they count it now no sin

To make a gaol a gin, to starve poor men therein.

 stand up now, Diggers all.

The gentrye are all ‘round, stand up now...

The gentrye are all ‘round, on each side they are found,

Theire wisdom’s profound; to cheat us of our ground,

Stand up now, stand up now.

The lawyers they conjoyne, stand up now...

To arrest you they advise, such fury they devise,

The devill in them lies, and hath blinded both their eyes,

Stand up now, stand up now.

The clergy they come in, stand up now....

The clergy they come in and say it is a sin,

That we should now begin our freedom for to win,

Stand up now, Diggers all.

The tithes they yet will have, stand up now....

The tithes they yet will have, and lawyers their fees crave,

And this they say is brave, to make the poor their slave.

Stand up now, Diggers all.

‘Gainst lawyers and ‘gainst Priests stand up now...

For tyrants they are both, even flatt against their oath,

To grant us they are loath, free meat and drink and cloth,

Stand up now, Diggers all.

The club is all their law, stand up now....

The club is all their law, to keep all men in awe,

But they no vision saw, to maintain such a law,

Stand up now, Diggers all.

The Cavaleers are foes, stand up now,

The Cavaleers are foes, themselves they do disclose

By verses not in prose to please the singing boyes.

Stand up now, Diggers all.


In many respects the true revolutionaries of the civil war were Cromwell and his New Model Army. While not agreeing with the revisionists that the Diggers and Levellers were an insignificant movement, they should not also be hyped into something they were not. They were essentially a movement of the lower middle class that sought to extend the franchise on a limited basis. The reason this failed was that the social and economic basis for their ideas had not yet developed in this sense their egalitarian ideas were a foretaste of future social movements, not communistic but more in the tradition of social democracy.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Orlando Figes to pay libel damages over ‘fake’ reviews


While this is a new article on the Orlando Figes row, I have included some previous comments made in other blog articles.
Orlando Figes, a leading historian in his field, has been forced to pay libel damages and costs. Figes who is a professor at London's Birkbeck College was successfully sued by historians Dr Rachel Polonsky and Professor Robert Service.

An apology by Figes has been issued as part of the damages settlement. Figes was the mystery reviewer who secretly criticised the work of his rivals Robert Service and Dr Rachel Polonsky.
The mild poison reviews posted on Amazon were blamed on the professor's wife. Figes wrote secret reviews of some of Britain's leading Russian history writers. Professor Figes somewhat clumsily used the pseudonyms "Historian" and "Orlando-Birkbeck".

Rachel Polonsky, whose book Molotov's Magic Lantern was attacked as "the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published”. Robert Service‘s Comrades was judged "an awful book”. Although having trawled through Service’s latest book on Leon Trotsky, I must agree with Figes attack on Service. On this matter, I suggest reading, Please see David North’s Review. In The Service of Historical Falsification: A Review of Robert Service's Trotsky 11 November 2009.
What is strange is that a gifted historian who has written numerous books on the former Soviet Union is Prize-winning author known for his works about Russia, including Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia and The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia should stoop so low as to write hack reviews on Amazons website defies belief. No disrespect to anyone who has done so, myself included, but there are proper ways of attacking a book or historian.

It is this part that worries me whatever the immediate excuses Figes uses, "I have made some foolish errors and apologise wholeheartedly to all concerned, in particular, I am sorry for the distress I have caused to Rachel Polonsky and Robert Service” he appears to be contributing to an already horrible intellectual climate in Soviet historiography.
What appeared to be a start of the spat between Figes and his arch nemesis Rachel Polonsky was her review of his book in the TLS's. The study was called “savage”. It accused the noted Russian scholar of inaccuracy, near plagiarism and intellectual irresponsibility. Friends of Figes have said the review was "perhaps unprecedented hostility and malice".

These are serious charges and the response by Figes should have been a strong rebuttal which would have added a new understanding of Soviet historiography. What we have got is a sordid mess. ”I have not read Figes book yet or the Polonsky review. So cannot comment on the reports. But this is not really the point. This should not be a debate to boost the sales books by each author but should be an intellectual debate which would enlighten the public. Instead, we are treated to a “grotesque carnival of gossip and spite.”

During her dispute with Figes , Rachel Polonsky wrote an article that would not look out of place in the Sun Newspaper but instead it was in the Mail that bastion of progressive thought entitled “How I rumbled the lying professor: The story behind the discredited don who rubbished rivals on Amazon...then left his own wife to take the blame”.
Let’s be clear Figes did a stupid thing and the resort to his lawyer is unforgivable, but the circling of vultures over his prospective dead historical body is becoming a disgusting site. The Mail claimed it had “exposed an extraordinary row that has rocked the usually impeccably mannered world of academia”. While the row is special the Mail gets nowhere near the significance. At no stage has there been any discussion on how this debate improves the already low state of current Soviet historiography.

While Polonsky pats herself on the back for her detective work in outing Figes but she is hardly Sherlock Holmes. Figes did sign his review on Amazon Orlando-Birbeck where he is a professor. I do not agree with everything Figes had written when I did my Part time degree he gave a lecture on the Russian Revolution which gave too much emphasis on the role of the peasantry.
So far Polonsky has not issued a single line on her past differences with Figes. This is not just a debate over who has the best career but should involve real political and historical differences.

But Polonsky like Service is much more worried about how her sales of her books on Amazon are going. “I first spotted Figes’s immortal puff for The Whisperers on Monday, April 12. Going online to check how my book Molotov’s Magic Lantern was faring, I noticed a new review. The reviewer, a Historian, had given my book just one star. On Amazon, one star means ‘I hate it’”. So what, as far as I know a review on Amazon is not the be all and end all of the historical debate.
Another thing is the next resort to lawyers to settle historical arguments is petty but then so is gloating over recounting of her spat with Figes. “I have a history with Figes. In 2002, I gave his book Natasha’s Dance a bad review in the Times Literary Supplement. My review made Figes incandescent with rage, I am told, and he issued libel threats to newspapers that wanted to follow up the story. I clicked on the ‘See all my reviews’ link beside Historian’s name and read all ten. As well as trashing my book, Historian had trashed three books by Bob Service, and the book by Kate Summerscale that beat Figes and The Whisperers to the lucrative Samuel Johnson Prize in 2008. ‘It is better to go to Figes’s The Whisperers,’ Historian told Amazon readers in his hatchet-job on Service’s Stalin”. Again what are her differences with Figes?

Her friendship with Robert Service is interesting. She gushes “Throughout this thrilling high-stakes chase, Bob has been a true comrade. He is a good man. He thinks the best of people. It took him until the next morning, April 13, to take it in. Orlando Figes, a fellow historian in a small field, had been attacking his books from behind a mask for years. Bob was angry. He wanted to do something. Meanwhile, I had mentioned Historian’s review to a couple of friends, who went straight to the comments thread. As it turned out, that automatic email could have destroyed Bob. He did not know how dangerous Figes would become when his reputation was on the line”.
I find her picture of Robert Service hard to swallow. This from the man who was reported in the London Evening Standard at a public launching of his new biography of Leon Trotsky said:” There’s life in the old boy Trotsky yet—but if the ice pick didn’t quite do its job killing him off, I hope I’ve managed it.”

Services recent book on Leon Trotsky has been described as a “Character Assassination”. Trotsky: A Biography is a thick and offensive book, produced without respect for the most minimal standards of scholarship. Service’s “research,” if one wishes to call it that has been conducted in bad faith. His Trotsky is not history, but, rather, an exercise in character assassination. Service is not content to distort and falsify Trotsky’s political deeds and ideas. Frequently descending to the level of a grocery store tabloid, Service attempts to splatter filth on Trotsky’s personal life. Among his favourite devices is to refer to “rumours” about Trotsky’s intimate relations, without even bothering to identify the rumour’s source, let alone substantiate its credibility”.
So I find it hard to believe that his wife “Adele and I are scared out of our wits,’ I can’t leave her without a home.’ Believe me, the past fortnight has been hell for Bob and Adele”.

Polonsky and Service get some perverse delight in their attempts to break Figes and ruin him. Like a pack of wolves devouring their weakened prey she goes on “The next day, my flame-throwers at Carter-Ruck rained down more fire on Figes and Palmer. It was a tough week. Bob Service, now lighter of heart, helped me keep my nerve. It was not so much a battle of wits now, as a battle of wills. I don’t know what made Figes and Palmer break in the middle of Thursday night. She sent me an email, thanking me for my message, and the next day came the PR-managed announcement that Figes had confessed”.
This type of behaviour belongs not in the realms of historical debate but in the pages of some tacky gossip magazine. Service makes one correct point and then proceeds to leave it at that “This is a matter that has broad implications for the public interest”. But along with Polonsky he refuses to discuss his historical differences with Figes or centre the debate within the confines of current Soviet historiography which would enlighten the public

 “Fellow Sovietologists continued to send in messages of support”. Who were they and what did they say. Now we get to Service’s real nervousness is the impact this has on sales of his book. He states he “went on Amazon to see how events were affecting the sales of my latest book, Trotsky. Whoever said that there's no such thing as bad publicity got it wrong. The book is doing all right, but it hasn't experienced a dead cat bounce. Still, you have to laugh. This winter I've been picketed by Trotskyists at public talks. While they may be bitter, they do at least deliver their denunciations in the open. They confirm my belief that there's a genuine public need for Ol' Man Trotsky to be looked at with a clear eye”.
But Service is not looking at Trotsky with a bright eye. His book actually lowers the intellectual climate surrounding Soviet historiography. As David North said, it was a “shameful episode” “Despite the considerable length of this review, it has left much unsaid.

"A comprehensive refutation of all of Service’s distortions and misrepresentations would easily assume the size of a substantial book. This reviewer will leave for another time the exposure of Service’s political falsifications as well as his persistent defence of Stalin against Trotsky. In this regard, another important issue that remains to be explored is the significance of the Trotsky biographies of Thatcher, Swain and Service as manifestations of the confluence of neo-Stalinist falsification and traditional Anglo-American anti-Communism. Indeed, a striking feature of the on-going campaign against Trotsky is the degree to which it draws upon the lies and frame-ups of the Stalinists”.
While much more will come out on this subject, the recent debate does serve as a barometer of the crisis in academia. Whatever Figes mental state is at the moment he is subject to intense pressures inside and outside a university.

According to one writer “Academics, however, live not in a vacuum and are subject to the many ideological pressures that rage throughout society. In the mass media, in public discourse, in modern culture, an undeniable trend is easily discernible: the intellectual decay that set in under Thatcher and Reagan has assumed shocking forms under Blair and Bush” and for that matter Gordon Brown”.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

A Revised estimation of Professor John Kenyon’s The Civil War in England


This is a revised article. After publishing the original I received a comment from Professor Christopher Thompson. While not Seeing Eye to eye on methodology or ideology of the English Civil War I welcome his comments on my article. He has far more knowledge on the subject than myself and his comments are worth noting.

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 history of the civil war. 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 dialogue.

The book is a cracking read and moves along at the pace of a novel. It is well research 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.

Thompson in a comment on my blog said "I think that you will find it helpful to clarify J.P.Kenyon’s view of Marxism by reading John Morrill’s obituary appreciation in the Proceedings of the British Academy (Volume 101 (1999), pages 441-461). Morrill explains there that Kenyon a “fundamental disapproval of model-builders and systematiser. He had no time for social determinism as a tool of the historian for explaining the past or of social engineering as a tool of the politician in effecting the future.” (ibid. page 443). Later in this piece, Morrill discussed Kenyon’s 1958 book, The Stuarts, and its analysis of the pre-revolutionary period: “it is a very hard and crisp review of the political, legal, and religious culture of the period 1580-1640 and of the origins of the English Civil War. Kenyon found no evidence of a disintegration of an outdated system; no progressive movement made up of an alliance of common lawyers, puritan gentry and clergy, thrusting merchants and trendy intellectuals; rather he found a gentry confused and unsure of itself, at once timidly in awe of firebrand clergy and determined to subject the church and its wealth more and more to lay control”. (ibid. pages 447-448) That remained his view. He was never a Marxist or a fellow-traveller with them".

As I am not familiar with John Morrill’s obituary/appreciation in the Proceedings of the British Academy (Volume 101 (1999), pages 441-461) I cannot comment on his work directly. In my previous blog I described him as a fellow traveller of the Marxist wing. This was miss-leading and wrong. Having read the introduction to his book on Stuart England Kenyon was clearly his own man.

However I did not describe Kenyon belonging to the so called ‘Marxist’ wing of early modern Britain historiography so I will agree with Professor Thompson on this point. I should also point out that Kenyon was also critical of the revisionists as well.

His use of class terms such as “Working Class and Ruling Class would need explaining. Having studied Kenyon a bit more I am inclined to support Robert Ashton’s view who said that “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".

Hugh Trevor Roper, “Hit by the price revolution, slow to redeem their losses by ‘good husbandry’, left in the provinces from which, they complained, the hated metropolis had drained the wealth and vitality, taxed to maintain ‘the expenses of a court so vast and unlimited by the old good rules of economy’, the English mere gentry felt themselves to be depressed, declining class, and, grumbling, consoled and –or armed themselves with religious dissent. Against a protestant court some of them struck under the banner of recusancy; against a ‘popish’ court others struck again, under the banner of puritanism”.

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 that saw the conflict in socio-economic or historical materialist terms. Kenyon faced growing hostility from a growing collection of revisionist historians who increasingly vocal poured scorn on the ‘Marxist’ wing of Early Modern England historiography. Even today the causes of the civil war and the English Revolution are still contested. While Professor Kenyon presents good and at times objective account of the fighting. He was described somewhat 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 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 this vaguely materialist viewpoint. Kenyon also opposed the revisionists who have sought to deny that before 1642 social revolution was always 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.

The Tories Treat History as a Game


Recently the Guardian newspaper which at the moment seems to be a mouthpiece for the historian Niall Ferguson reported his call to “shake up history curriculum with TV and war games”.

Earlier this year the current Conservative –Liberal government had asked the ultra-right wing historian 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.

Ferguson was quoted as saying “History books make the mistake of teaching about old men, most of history is made by young people “. He wants to do for history what “Jamie Oliver has done for school food – make it healthy, and so they actually want to eat it".

Niall Ferguson has called 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 a “proper traditional history’”. This is 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.

Since coming to power, the Tories have courted Ferguson. Education secretary, Michael Gove called him a "modern Macaulay", and congratulated him for studying "the legacy of the British empire with a balanced mind, accepting its manifold evils, but also ready to acknowledge its progressive side".

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

Ann Talbot said“ 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”.

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 who despite being an able historian has only a working knowledge of the current curriculum. Listing some of his teaching aids: "We need to use television. The reason I do TV is that I think it's a more accessible way of education," he says. "I think we also need to use games."

While having repeatedly saying that the history Second World War has been flogged to death in schools it has not stopped him no doubt lucrative according to the Guardian to have “collaborated with a US software developer to create a second world war-based video game for use as a classroom aid, and believes role-playing would help students understand the choices that shaped history”. “History is more like a match than it is a novel because you don't know, when you're in it, what the end is going to be.

"You can re-run world war two, you can explore strategy, and you can come up with a plausible alternative past. It's exciting to young people – my teenage son, and his little brother has been my consultants on this." The game, entitled The War of the World, claims to bring "real grand strategy gaming to World War II". The developer describes it as a chance for players to lead a nation and remake history "from the factories and shipyards on the home front, to epic battles across the globe".

Quite how you would treat events such as the Holocaust as a game would be worth seeing. Perhaps the player could be in charge of a concentration camp. Perhaps one of the inmates or a driver of the trains that took Jews to their deaths. What about the firebombing of Dresden the gamer could be an RAF pilot dropping the incendiaries on the defenceless population.
He then goes on to say that "History books make the mistake of teaching about old men, often with a beard. Most of history is made by young people. I'm an old guy by historical standards, at 46. Child soldiers in Africa? There were lots of child soldiers in the Napoleonic wars. It's all about making history young."

Whether there is a crisis of history study in education is contentious. Ferguson produces little research on this matter. The Guardian cites “last year about 219,000 pupils took history at GCSE, compared with more than 300,000 who took design and technology”. If this is the case then rather than seeking to dumb down the study of history with games why not call a roundtable of leading national and international historians to discuss the matter.

But this is not really about a supposed decline in history in schools this is really about what kind of historical narrative is to dominate. Ferguson is “keen to restore an overarching story, based on western ascendancy”.

He has repeatedly denied that he is an apologist for empire, but that is largely what he is. In Colossus, he suggests the US is “an empire in denial”.

Opposition to Ferguson

Thankfully there has been no lack of opposition to the Tories and Ferguson's attempt to teach history through games. Historian Antony Beevor did not support the idea "Playing counterfactual? To be perfectly honest there's more than enough you need to learn about the basic structure before you start playing hypothetical," he said. However, he was supportive of Ferguson's approach to history's grand narrative. "I think the basic idea is right. It's fascinating to study the rise of the West because then you get to consider the decline of the west in the course of the next few years. It's fascinating to look at why China and India, with their own very advanced cultures, did not flourish."

Colin Jones, president of the Royal Historical Society, warned that Ferguson risked slipping into a Samuel Huntingdon-style clash of civilisations. “The history that he has in mind has the risk of making the distinctions between different groups appear more real than they are. “It homogenises culture, so French culture is characterised by shrugging and having revolutions and the British by being phlegmatic and not having revolutions."

Ferguson appears to be one of a new generation of historians who are increasingly eager to revise the judgement of earlier researchers who broadly supported a more left centred narrative and replace it with a very right-wing historical narrative which is dressed up as making history fun in schools.

It is important to know about a method in the historical study it is even more important to know your historian as E H Carr said "Study the historian before you begin to consider the facts. This is, after all, not very abstruse. It is what is already done by the talented undergraduate who, when recommended to read a work by that great scholar Jones of St. Jude's, goes round to a friend at St. Jude's to ask what sort of chap Jones is, and what bees he has in his bonnet. When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing. If you can detect none, either you are tone deaf, or your historian is a dull dog. The facts are really not at all like fish on the fishmongers' slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean, and what the historian catches will depend partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use - these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants. History means interpretation. Indeed, if, standing Sir George Clark on his head, I were to call history "a hard core of interpretation surrounded by a pulp of disputable facts," my statement would, no doubt, be one-sided and misleading, but no more so, I venture to think, than the original dictum.

Ferguson cannot replace one way of studying history by another without attacking and trashing evidence and principles of historical methodology.


As Ann Talbot said of Fergusson’s book the Pity of War “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”.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Further comment on J P Kenyon

By Christopher Thompson

I think that you will find it helpful to clarify J.P.Kenyon’s view of Marxism by reading John Morrill’s obituary appreciation in the Proceedings of the British Academy (Volume 101 (1999), pages 441-461). Morrill explains there that Kenyon a “fundamental disapproval of model-builders and systematisers. He had no time for social determinism as a tool of the historian for explaining the past or of social engineering as a tool of the politician in effecting the future.” (ibid. page 443). Later in this piece, Morrill discussed Kenyon’s 1958 book, The Stuarts, and its analysis of the pre-revolutionary period: “it is a very hard and crisp review of the political, legal, and religious culture of the period 1580-1640 and of the origins of the English Civil War. Kenyon found no evidence of a disintegration of an outdated system; no progressive movement made up of an alliance of common lawyers, puritan gentry and clergy, thrusting merchants and trendy intellectuals; rather he found a gentry confused and unsure of itself, at once timidly in awe of firebrand clergy and determined to subject the church and its wealth more and more to lay control”. (ibid. pages 447-448) That remained his view. He was never a Marxist or a fellow-traveller with them.

Christopher Thompson