Saturday, 26 May 2012

1940-1956, Ideology Absolutism and the English Revolution: Debates of the British Communist Historians, 1940-1956. Edited and introduced by David Parker-Lawrence & Wishart

An important proviso before reading David Parker’s book is for the reader to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of the writings of the British Communist Party and most importantly a firm grasp of the differences that occurred in the Soviet Communist Party in the early 1920’s between Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky. A basic understanding of the debate over the adoption by the CPSU of Stalin’s theory of Socialism in One Country as opposed to the internationalist theory of Leon Trotsky would also help.

One of the main weaknesses of Parker's book which is well researched and useful is that it tends to present only side of the debates that occurred between 1946- 56. There tends to have a pronounced nationalist feel to the book. Leaving the developments that took place in the former USSR out of the equation is a little like doing a history of the Bible and leaving Jesus out.

The historians and significant intellectuals that occupied the British Communist Party Historians Group (CPHG) in the 1940 and 1950s played an important and dare I say leading role in the study of British and World history throughout the 20th century. It is significant that in London’s National Portrait Gallery there used to hang a painting which has been described as “of seven people arranged on either side of a low table in a book-lined study”. They were historians, members of the editorial board of the journal Past & Present, which arose from the British Communist Party’s Historians’ Group”.

Eric Hobsbawm, Edward and Dorothy Thompson, Christopher Hill, Victor Kiernan, George Rude, Raphael Samuel and Rodney Hilton to name a few  were all moulded by the early strategic experiences of the 20th century, the depression of  the 1930s,the Second World War and of course the Russian revolution. “For some the Group was, if not exactly a way of life, then at least a small cause, as well as a minor way of structuring leisure. For most it was also a friendship.”  said Eric Hobsbawm

The first seventy-odd pages provide the reader with a valuable introduction to the book. In this Parker attempts to give a picture of the relationship between the historian's group and the Communist Party and its leading figures such as R Palme Dutt (See his Document 1 1940 Amended Draft The English Revolution 1640). It is evident from Parker’s book that there were significant differences between the historians on the class nature of the 17th Century English Revolution but also on other wide-ranging subjects.

The first major fault of the book is that you get no feel for the times the historians began writing in. These historians, in particular, were not writing in some academic vacuum. It should, therefore, be noted the historians and Hill, in particular, began writing their books and essays in the midst of the Moscow Show Trials instigated by Stalin against all the old Bolsheviks.

Leon Trotsky one of the chief defendants in the trials had this to say “It is time, my listeners; it is high time, to recognise, finally, that a new aristocracy has been formed in the Soviet Union. The October Revolution proceeded under the banner of equality. The bureaucracy is the embodiment of monstrous inequality. The revolution destroyed the nobility. The bureaucracy creates new gentry. The revolution destroyed titles and decorations. The new aristocracy produces marshals and generals. The new aristocracy absorbs an enormous part of the national income. Its position before the people is deceitful and false. Its leaders are forced to hide the reality, to deceive the masses, to cloak themselves, calling black white. The whole policy of the new aristocracy is a frame-up.' And “But it remains an incontestable historical fact that the preparation of the bloody judicial frame-ups had its inception in the “minor” historical distortions and innocent” falsification of citations. The bureaucracy found it indispensably necessary to adapt Bolshevism to its own needs. This could not be done otherwise than by corroding the soul of Bolshevism. To the revolutionary essence of Bolshevism the bureaucracy gave the name of “Trotskyism.” Thus it created the spindle on which to wind in the future its falsifications in all the spheres of theory and practice”. (1)

None of this drama and the other main historical events that would impact on the lives and writings of the CPHG is touched on by Parker. Why? It is apparent to any person who has studied the period that the Popular Front Policy pursued by the Stalinists was an old millstone around the necks of the CPHG and would have a profound effect on the Communist Party History Group in the future. Yet again nothing is actually mentioned by Parker of this. Parker also fails to mention Leon Trotsky at all in the book.

Trotsky after all was the joint leader of the Russian revolution and wrote considerable amounts on this policy. His writings on Spanish Civil War are some of his best. “The theoreticians of the Popular Front do not essentially go beyond the first rule of arithmetic, that is, addition: 'Communists' plus Socialists plus Anarchists plus liberals add up to a total which is greater than their respective isolated numbers. Such is all their wisdom. However, arithmetic alone does not suffice here. One needs as well at least mechanics. The law of the parallelogram of forces applies to politics as well. In such a parallelogram, we know that the resultant is shorter; the more component forces diverge from each other. When political allies tend to pull in opposite directions, the resultant proves equal to zero”. Continue "A bloc of divergent political groups of the working class is sometimes completely indispensable for the solution of common practical problems. In certain historical circumstances, such a bloc is capable of attracting the oppressed petty-bourgeois masses whose interests are close to the interests of the proletariat. The joint force of such a bloc can prove far stronger than the sum of the forces of each of its component parts. On the contrary, the political alliance between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, whose interests on basic questions in the present epoch diverge at an angle of 180 degrees, as a general rule, is capable only of paralysing the revolutionary force of the proletariat.” Civil war, in which the force of naked coercion is hardly effective, demands of its participants the spirit of supreme self-abnegation. The workers and peasants can assure victory only if they wage a struggle for their own emancipation. Under these conditions, to subordinate the proletariat to the leadership of the bourgeoisie means beforehand to assure defeat in the civil war."(2)

It does not take a tremendous leap of faith to work out that the origins of the concept of “history from below” instigated by the CPHG owe a lot to the Popular Front policy. That historians such as Hill, Rude and Morton were influenced by it was evident. Leslie Morton’s work, a People's History of England, was the founding book of the group. (3)

From the beginning there was a contradiction between the avocation of Popular Front politics and the historian’s group writing about Democratic groups such as the Levellers in the vein of history from below. The CPHG group tended glorify an unbroken historical line of English radicalism. This outlook permeated E P Thompson’s the Making of the English Working Class which portrays the English working class as inherently radical and therefore not needing a scientific perspective. A leading member of the Group, Dona Torr, decided to position Tom Mann in her study Tom Mann and his Times, as a figure that “was a late representative in a story of England’s long-running struggle “.
For Ann Talbot “the Communist Party sponsored a form of “People’s History, which is typified by A.L. Morton’s People’s History of England in which the class character of earlier rebels, revolutionaries and modern leaders was obscured by regarding them all as representatives of a national revolutionary tradition. This historical approach reflected the nationalism of the bureaucracy, their hostility to internationalism and their attempts to form an unprincipled alliance with the supposedly democratic capitalists against the fascist Axis countries. People’s history was an attempt to give some historical foundation to the policies of Popular Front—the subordination of the working class to supposedly progressive sections of the bourgeoisie and the limiting of political action to the defence of bourgeois democracy—which provided a democratic facade to the systematic murder of thousands of genuine revolutionaries, including Trotsky. It was the approach that Christopher Hill was trained in, along with E.P. Thompson, Rodney Hilton and Eric Hobsbawm, who were part of the Marxist Historians Group and came under the influence of Maurice Dobb and Dona Torr”. (4)

One striking aspect of the group was that none of them specialised in twentieth century history.  More specifically the experiences of the Russian revolution were never to be explored by the group apart from one book by Christopher Hill which in reality was an apology for Stalinism. Again according to Talbot “In more recent areas of history, as in politics, the control of the Stalinist bureaucracy was too great to allow the free development of Marxist thought and whether deliberately or not they all avoided venturing into the modern arena”. As Matt Perry correctly points out the group had an absolute academic freedom on the subject of English history pre 20th century because the CP had no official line on that period of history.

Hobsbawm was acutely aware that broaching the subject was largely taboo according to him “it raised some notoriously tricky problems”. According to one essay on the CPHG a study of the journal Our History between 1956 and 1992 showed there was not a single article dealing with any part of Soviet history. Having visited the Marx Memorial Library to check this statement out I can say there was one article by Monty Johnson on Leon Trotsky in 1992. It is still a poor record nonetheless.

Eric Hobsbawm was the de facto leader of the groups. It would be fair to say that for good or bad Hobsbawm’s writings have shaped the world historical view of a generation of students, academics and lay people. He was born in 1917 in Alexandria, under the British protectorate of Egypt, just twenty years after the death of Marx. Hobsbawm was part of an extraordinary group of historians that took on many of the characteristics of a political party. It had membership subscriptions, a secretary and a chairman. He was the only one of the CP historians to actually write on the 20th century and the taboo subject of the Russian revolution. But this was done mainly after the group had in fact collapsed.

Hobsbawm has gone on the record to say that he “wasn't a Stalinist. I criticised Stalin and I cannot conceive how what I've written can be regarded as a defence of Stalin. But as someone who was a loyal Party member for two decades before 1956 and therefore silent about a number of things about which it's reasonable not to be silent - things I knew or suspected in the USSR. Why I stayed [in the Communist Party] is not a political question about communism, it's a one-off biographical question. It wasn't out of idealisation of the October Revolution. I'm not an idealiser. One should not delude oneself about the people or things one cares most about in one's life. Communism is one of these things and I've done my best not to delude myself about it even though I was loyal to it and to its memory. The phenomenon of communism and the passion it aroused is particular to the twentieth century. It was a combination of the great hopes which were brought with progress and the belief in human improvement during the nineteenth century along with the discovery that the bourgeois society in which we live (however great and successful) did not work and at certain stages looked as though it was on the verge of collapse. And it did collapse and generated awful nightmares “.

According to the Marxist writer and expert on Leon Trotsky David North Hobsbawm’s writing on the Russian Revolution mainly portrays the revolution as being “doomed to failure” and a “fatal enterprise.” This leads to the assumption that the breakdown of the Soviet Union was the “Shipwreck of Socialism.”

North admits Hobbawm has produced some excellent work but,” the subject of the Russian Revolution is dangerous territory for Professor Hobsbawm, for in this field his scholarship is compromised by his politics. Hobsbawm once confessed that as a member of the CPGB he had avoided writing about the Russian Revolution and the 20th century, because the political line of his party would have prevented him from being entirely truthful. Why he chose to remain a member of a party that would have compelled him to tell lies is a question to which he has never given a convincing answer. At any rate, it would have been best for him and no loss to the writing of history, had he continued to limit himself to events before 1900”. (5)

Here lies the tremendous contradiction at the heart of the group. Despite this handicap it would be fair to say that without the fear of interference from the Stalinist bureaucracy the CPHG historians did try to examine “the early plebeian movements and utopian communists of the English revolutionary period as precursors of the modern socialist movement”. This was done by the CPHG largely in the spirit of Marx who in 1847 said “The first manifestation of an actually active communist party is contained within the bourgeois revolution, at the moment when the constitutional monarchy is eliminated. The most consistent Republicans – in England the Levellers, in France Babeuf, Buonarroti, were the first to proclaim these ‘social questions’.”

It was correct for the early Marxists to look at the first plebeian movements as precursors of modern socialist movement. What needs to be clarified is what a modern socialist movement looks like. The CPHG historians alongside numerous radical groups did have a tendency to glorify the spontaneous circulation of the “middling sort” and to link it to working class struggles today as if there was some unbroken radical and democratic thread that would supersede the need for a scientifically grounded need for a revolutionary party.

To his credit, Parker also attempts to establish what kind of ‘Marxists’ were the in the history group. He says their attempt to apply orthodox Marxist theory i.e. Historical Materialism to a study of the English Revolution was no easy task. He reviews other issues of methodology and the ‘empiricism’ of the group. However on this subject as with others, the biggest problem of the book is not so much what is in it as to what has been left out.
It is clear that the group’s use of Marx was mainly mined from his work on historical materialism mostly from his Preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. The group relied heavily on Engel’s’ correspondence in the 1890s which was translated by Historians Group member Dona Torr. Despite the attempts at absorbing the Marxist method, the group was also prone to a type of empirical methodology which would primarily stem from the influence of Stalinism.

This methodology was confirmed by E P Thompson who described the group's approach as “quaintly empirical.” I am not condemning all the work of the historians as empirical that would be inaccurate as they produced some of the most outstanding historiographies of any generation, but it does show the handicap they were working under.

David Parker’s collection of the internal discussions of the British Communist Party Historians Group in the 1940s-50s provides only a partial record of debates within the group despite this you get inkling on the tremendous ideological pressure that was exerted by the CPGB and the Soviet Communist Party on the CPHG. Parker refuses to believe that Stalin’s theory of Socialism in a Single Country which ran in contradiction to Trotsky’s theory of an international revolution had a profound impact on the history writing and research of the history group. Stalin’s own writings also had a significant impact on the History group. Hill for instance sided with Stalin over the debate on Pokrovsky. The Stalinist’s in the late 1930s used the controversy over Pokrovsky to attack Trotsky. Again Parker mentions none of this. His portrayal of the debate over Pokrovsky is one sided to say the least.

If Parker did not understand the role Stalin played Leon Trotsky did "In what way did Stalin’s own theoretical work express itself? In nothing. All he did was to exploit his fellow-traveller theorists, in the interests of the new ruling caste. He will enter into the annals of the history of “thought” only as the organizer of the greatest school of falsification. But for this very reason Stalin, more truly and comprehensively than anybody else, expresses the ideological physiognomy of the new ruling stratum. Each theoretical formula of anti-Trotskyism (whether it involved Zinoviev, Bukharin or Pokrovsky) became at the very next stage an intolerable burden to the new masters of the situation. Official “theory” is today transformed into a blank sheet of paper on which the unfortunate theoreticians reverently trace the contours of the Stalinist boot. Retreating with seven league strides from its Bolshevik past, the bureaucracy at first devoured at each successive stage its own theoreticians. Nowadays that is no longer adequate. The bureaucracy cannot be reconciled with anything but the destruction of the entire old generation of Bolsheviks. Such is the consummation of the Soviet Thermidor!”

The English Revolution has been written on quite extensively down the years by many of the great Marxist thinkers. Parker’s book gives the reader a chance to evaluate to what extent the CPHG applied orthodox Marxism to their studies of the English Revolution. It must be said that some did a better job than others.

In 1850 Marx and Engel’s reviewed a pamphlet, entitled why did the English Revolution succeed? It was written as a polemic against the historian M Guizot in it they said Guizot “finds it superfluous to mention that the subjection of the crown to parliament meant subjection to the rule of a class. Nor does he think it necessary to deal with the fact that this class won the necessary power in order finally to make the crown its servant. According to him, the whole struggle between Charles I and parliament was merely over purely political privileges. Not a word is said about why the parliament, and the class represented in it, needed these privileges. Nor does Guizot talk about Charles I’s interference with free competition, which made England’s commerce and industry increasingly impossible; nor about the dependence on parliament into which Charles I, in his continuous need for money, fell the more deeply, the more he tried to defy it.” “The English class of great landowners, allied with the bourgeoisie – which, incidentally, had already developed under Henry VIII – did not find itself in opposition, as did the French feudal landowners in 1789, but rather in complete harmony with the vital requirements of the bourgeoisie. In fact, their lands were not feudal, but bourgeois property. On the one hand, they were able to provide the industrial bourgeoisie with the manpower necessary for manufacturing, and on the other they were able to develop agriculture to the standards consonant with industry and commerce. Thus their common interests with the bourgeoisie, thus their alliance with it.”

One of the most important points made by Marx and Engel’s is that England passed from what amounted to a feudal country into the early stages of a bourgeois country in the 17th century. This analysis was common coin amongst other Marxist thinkers of both the 19th and 20th century. In Karl Kautsky’s ‘Revolutions, past and present’ (1906), and also in Trotsky’s Where is Britain going? (1926). Trotsky wrote “In the England of the 1640s we see a parliament based on the most whimsical franchise, which at the same time regarded itself as the representative organ of the people. The lower house represented the nation in that it represented the bourgeoisie and thereby national wealth. In the reign of Charles I it was found, and not without amazement, that the House of Commons was three times richer than the House of Lords. The king now dissolved this parliament and now recalled it according to the pressure of financial need. Parliament created an army for its defence. The army gradually concentrated in its ranks all the most active, courageous and resolute elements. As a direct consequence of this, parliament capitulated to this army. We say, “as a direct consequence,” but by this we wish to say that Parliament capitulated not simply to armed force (it did not capitulate to the King’s army) but to the Puritan army of Cromwell which expressed the requirements of the revolution more boldly, more resolutely and more consistently than did Parliament.

“The adherents of the Episcopal or Anglican, semi-Catholic Church were the party of the court, the nobility and of course the higher clergy. The Presbyterians were the party of the bourgeoisie, the party of wealth and enlightenment. The Independents and the Puritans especially, were the party of the petty bourgeoisie, the plebeians. Wrapped up in ecclesiastical controversies, in the form of a struggle over the religious structure of the church, there took place a social self-determination of classes and their re-grouping along new, bourgeois lines. Politically the Presbyterian party stood for a limited monarchy; the Independents, who then were called “root and branch men” or, in the language of our day, radicals, stood for a republic. The half-way position of the Presbyterians fully, corresponded to the contradictory interests of the bourgeoisie – between the nobility and the plebeians. The Independents” party which dared to carry its ideas and slogans through to their conclusion naturally displaced the Presbyterians among the awakening petty-bourgeois masses in the towns and the countryside that formed the main force of the revolution”.

Hill’s absorption of Marx (we do not know if he studied Trotsky)and application of Historical materialism enabled him in the words of Ann Talbot identify “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 individuals 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 severe economic or social analysis and argue that revolutions are nothing but the work of a tiny group of conspirators”.

The debate over the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism

Perhaps the most important discussion that took place and which dominated all the groups was the discussion over the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism.

Christopher Hill’s essay The English Revolution of 1640 was the catalyst for a wide-ranging and divisive battle within the groups and beyond. Some  Stalinists which included leading historians inside the group and leading members of the central committee of the Communist party took exception to Hill’s characterisation of the English Revolution as ‘Bourgeois,' and therefore opposed the conception that the 1640s revolution represented major a turning point in the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Anyone who sided with Hill’s position was accused of “Hillism” (6)

As I said earlier, Parker downplays the influence that the CPSU had on politics and actual discussion inside the CPHG. In reality, the official line on all “revolutions” was dictated directly or indirectly by Joseph Stalin. The fact that Parker uncritically presents quotes from his work in his choice of documents is a testament to this.

Stalin’s position as advanced in 1924 was that socialism could be built in the Soviet Union using its own national reserves. Not caring that this position would have catastrophic consequences for the socialist revolution internationally and according to David North “represented a fundamental revision of the perspective that had guided the Soviet leadership and the Communist International under Lenin. This divorcing of the prospects for the Soviet Union from the development of the world socialist revolution likewise constituted a frontal assault on the theory of permanent revolution, upon which the October Revolution of 1917 had been based”.

Stalin’s position on the October revolution was primarily a Menshevik one in that the revolution could not leap over the bourgeois democratic stage of its development and called for limited support to the bourgeois Provisional Government. He opposed “Trotsky’s theory that the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution could only be achieved by the working class taking power and building their own state.

How did this theory interfere with the debate over Hill’s position? One of the more overt attacks on Hill's conception of the revolution was by Victor Kiernan who argued that the revolution of 1640 “was not a decisive turning point” because it was spread over several centuries. While it is true the revolution was spread over centuries the denial of a watershed has less to do with the debate over the transition from feudalism to capitalism and more to do with the political line of the CPGB at the time. During the high point of the discussion the Communist Party of Great Britain adopted its “ British Road to Socialism” which saw the development of socialism as a purely national event that happened gradually rather through violent revolution. 
Another remarkable aspect of the transition debate was the fact that a number of the arguments marshalled against Hill by his fellow historians were adopted in some form by early and current day revisionist historians.  Conrad Russell refused to believe that a revolution took place during the 17th century. German Stalinist Jurgen Kuchynski described the 1640 revolution somewhat bizarrely as an attempted feudal counter-revolution. Kuchynski also put forward that Tudor England was already capitalist. In his book Parker quotes him describing Queen Elizabeth I was “the most prominent capitalist in capitalist bourgeois society” (p32) His theory is not a million miles away from a number of revisionist historians who contend that the 1640s saw a “noble’s revolt” against the monarchy.

Debates took place over the correct Marxist usage of the term feudalism. It took along while before Hill’s definition was accepted. Hill explained his reasoning “I use the word feudal in the Marxist sense, and not in the more restricted sense adopted by most academic historians to describe narrowly military and legal relations. By “feudalism” I mean a form of society in which agriculture is the basis of economy and in which political power is monopolised by a class of landowners. The mass of the population consists of dependent peasants subsisting on the produce of their family holdings. The owners are maintained by the rent paid by the peasants, which might be in the form of food or labour, as in early days, or (by the sixteenth century) in money. In such a society there is room for small handicraft production, exchange of products, internal and overseas trade; but commerce and industry are subordinated to and plundered’ by the landowners and their State. Merchant capital can develop within feudalism without changing the mode of production; a challenge to the old ruling class and its state comes only with the development of the capitalist mode of production in industry and agriculture”. (7)

This leads me onto another debate over the term Merchant capital. One of the charges against Pokrovsky was that he believed that merchant capitalism was a mode of production and therefore Merchant capitalist were the prominent motor force of the revolution. They made up the most relevant section of the Bourgeoisie. Pokrovsky was wrong but this is not the place to analyse his theory suffice to say that his conception of merchant capitalism came under feroroious attack inside the Soviet Union. Stalin saw it as threat to the theory of socialism in one country theory. He was labelled mistakenly a Trotskyist which he was no.It did not seem to bother the Stalinists that Trotsky opposed Pokrovsky theories as essentially ill-defined and borrowed from Marx and were taken out of context.

In his history of the Russian revolution he wrote “Pokrovsky has published an article dedicated to my book: 1905, which demonstrates – negatively, alas! – What a complicated matter it is to apply methods of historic materialism to living human history, and what a rubber-stamp affair is often made out of history even by such deeply erudite people as Pokrovsky. The book which Pokrovsky criticises was directly called out by a desire to establish historically and justify theoretically the slogan of the conquest of power by the proletariat, as against the slogan of a bourgeois democratic republic, and also that of a democratic government of the proletariat and the peasantry ... This line of thought produced a very great theoretic indignation on the part of no small number of Marxists, indeed an overwhelming majority of them. Those who expressed this anger were not only Mensheviks, but also Kamenev and Rozhkov (a Bolshevik-historian). Their point of view in broad outlines was as follows: The political rule of the bourgeoisie must precede the political rule of the proletariat; the bourgeois democratic republic must be a prolonged historic schooling for the proletariat; the attempt to jump over this stage is adventurism; if the working class in the West has not yet conquered the power, how can the Russian proletariat set itself this task? etc., etc. From the point of view of this pseudo-Marxism, which confines itself to historical mechanisms, formal analogies, converting historic epochs into a logical succession of inflexible social categories (feudalism, capitalism, socialism, autocracy, bourgeois republic, dictatorship of the proletariat) – from this point of view the slogan of the conquest of power by the working class in Russia must have seemed a monstrous departure from Marxism. However, a serious empirical evaluation of the social forces as they stood in 1903 – 05 powerfully suggested the entire viability of a struggle for a conquest of power by the working class. Is this a peculiarity, or is it not? Does it assume profound characteristics in the whole historical development or does it not? How it does come that such a task arose before the proletariat of Russia – that is, the most backward (with Pokrovsky’s permission) country of Europe?

If Parker is planning another book on the subject, he could no better than a systematic study of the debates in the Former USSR. This work would have shed a not unsubstantial light on this theme of the CPHG. Parker’s book is not an easy read. For the casual reader, it is almost a nightmare. But for a careful, methodical and political nuanced reader it is a window of opportunity to carry out some serious study of a crucial period. Parker only really presents one side of the debate. However, David Parker’s book is an important but terribly flawed contribution to this discussion.


1)       Leon Trotsky --The Stalin School of Falsification-Foreword to the American Edition

2)      Leon Trotsky Writings on the Spanish Revolution- Pathfinder Press.

3)      Morton’s book was first published in the 1930s. The Communist Party Historians? Group first began to meet after the war to inform the argument of the second edition.

4)     "These the times ... this is the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill Ann Talbot.

5)      Leon Trotsky and the Fate of Socialism in the 20th Century A Reply to Professor Eric Hobsbawm By David North 3 January 1998

6)     Document 12 (1947) the Basis and Character of Tudor Absolutism

7)      The English Revolution of 1640 C Hill

Monday, 21 May 2012

The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story from Inside the Vatican Catherine Fletcher Palgrave MacMillan 288 pages.

The first thing that strikes you when reading Catherine Fletcher’s excellent book is that she is a very brave person. Anyone who attempts to find something different to say about a period of English history that has already been mined to near death deserves a hearing. On the whole, the book has been met with favorable reviews apart from a few discordant ones. (John Guy-Great Matter, Small Fry) Being one. The writer manages to combine the skill of a journalist, the imagination of a novelist and the intellectual rigor of an academic historian. The book works on many fronts and would be accessible for an enthusiast of the period and for the more serious minded student or academic.

Author Hilary Mantel, of Wolf Hall fame, correctly praised it by saying “An eye-opening book, an intricate and fascinating story of an elusive man with an impossible job. A brilliant and impressive feat of original research, and necessary reading for anyone fascinated by the story of Henry’s divorce... Catherine Fletcher has allowed the story to tell itself, except that she’s been so amusing in the telling of it, cutting through to what matters without over-simplifying.” The book has a simple premise, and that is to examine the machinations of the divorce of Henry VIII through the story of Gregorio Casali’s. 

Casili is an obscure figure, to say the least. Try doing an internet search for him. Historical records are scarce, and there is no picture of him. Even Fletcher could not find his birth date, and we meet Casali as a teenager in England. According to Fletcher, he was a well-connected son of a Bolognese merchant and a Roman noblewoman. Fletcher met the modern day family while in Italy They apparently still live in Piacenza in northern Italy. Fletcher in a remarkable piece of skill or luck managed to track down the family archive.

For Fletcher, he is a neglected figure in both Tudor and Papal history. To put it simply Casili was as the title of the English publication “Our man in Rome.” Henry used him as part of his covert campaign for an annulment of his first marriage.

In the beginning of this review this period of English history has been mined to death. To some people, Henry VIII is an ‘iconic figure’ to others a tyrant and a madman. Known throughout the world for marrying six times, breaking from Rome, establishing the Church of England and responsible for the development of the English Reformation and according to Marxist historians set us on the road to the English revolution of the 1640s.

One thing that is not disputed (well not much) by academic historians that this was a truly revolutionary period in English history. As one writer said Henry” lived to cause and be part of a revolutionary time in English history.”

Catherine Fletcher, to her credit, does try to tell of Henry VIII's drive for divorce from a “wider, external angle.” Fletcher tackles the subject from a new perspective, drawing on hundreds of hitherto-unknown archive documents. Her portrayal of the protagonist of this book as a 'wily Italian diplomat named Gregorio Casali. Fletcher describes in great detail the ends he went to secure papal blessing for the divorce.

In an earlier piece of research, Fletcher describes the skulduggery, bribery, and theft used to achieve the aim of the king’s divorce. Fletcher states that: “The diplomatic gift-giving detailed in this paper amply demonstrates Castiglione’s maxim that ‘those who give are not all generous.' The gifts are given by, and to, ambassadors, required a return. Rewards and gifts of all sorts were important tools in diplomatic practice. Tips would ease an ambassador’s way through the stages of ceremony at the court of Rome, while bribery could find him politically useful friends. Gift-giving was also a means through which the social virtue of liberality could be expressed. Accusations of corruption were not usually prompted by any intrinsic quality of a particular reward. Corruption, like bribe, was rather a label with which to declare gift transactions improper or illicit. In short, a gift became a bribe when someone cried ‘corruption!’ In the campaign for Henry’s first divorce, all sorts of gifts were deemed to be corrupting: and they were defended heartily by their givers as entirely legitimate. In illicit gift-giving, ambassadors would use much the same rhetoric – that of liberality and reward – that they employed in more legitimate cases. By labelling gifts in this way they hoped to avoid being accused of bribery. Underlying the rhetoric was a shared understanding – in these cases based on or reinforced by the papal decree – that offering inducements to act against one’s conscience was unacceptable. But when conscience, essentially unknowable, was the determinant of the legitimate gift, the justification for the gift’s presentation became all-important”. (1)

While I like the book and it has substantial merits, it also has some significant weaknesses. Firstly you get no idea how we reached the period that Fletcher writes about. The book could have done with a link to the proceeding history, after all, to understand where we are going we have to know where we come from.

Karl Marx describes this period so well. He states “The social system that existed in the late medieval period in which Shakespeare set his historical plays is often referred to as "bastard feudalism." Feudalism was in crisis in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries for reasons that are complex, but which in the final analysis were due to the increasing importance of the market and the rise of the bourgeoisie. Lords no longer drew directly on their estates for manpower in war but maintained private armies of paid retainers. The feudal dues of the peasants were increasingly turned into cash payments as the market economy became more important for all social classes. Although the peasant’s revolt of 1381 was brutally suppressed, peasants were able to use the acute labor shortage after the Black Death killed an estimated third of the population in the mid-fourteenth century to win concessions and greater freedom. What resulted was not a nation-state, but the more powerful Tudor monarchy. In many ways what is remarkable about the nation-state in England is just how long it took to develop. Capitalist property relations had permeated feudal society for centuries before a crucial clash came in the seventeenth century. Even then the construction of a nation-state was a slow and piecemeal business. The nation-state took so long to make because it did not spring ready-made out of the mind of some Anglo-Saxon genius like Bede or Alfred, as Hastings would have us believe, but was constructed in the course of protracted class struggles and revolutionary upheavals “.(2)

This conception of an early developing capitalism is currently under tremendous assault from modern day revisionist historians writing about this period.(3) For them, the reformation pursued by Henry VIII in the mid-1530s had nothing to do with contending class forces or contending economic interests. But was the result of “the deficiencies of Henry's own reproductive system.”
These were serious times. 

We witness an abrupt change in religion. Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in Germany, denouncing the practices of the Roman Catholic Church, this was the opening shot in the new revolution which would sweep across Europe.

The Vatican did not stand idly by and responded with the Counter-Reformation. Which attacked anyone who challenged Catholic doctrine? A by-product of the Counter-Reformation was the Roman Inquisition which was backed up by torture and execution. It oversaw the torture and ultimate death of hundreds maybe even thousands of so-called 'heretics,' the highest profile being Thomas More, but again for the revisionists, the significant change in property relations that resulted from the dissolution of the monasteries was merely the result of Henry's sexual proclivities.

Henry VIII support for the Reformation was not just a change of mind after all he had formerly defended the Catholic Church in his book (Henry VIII His Defence of the Faith and of the Seven Sacraments) According to one writer His break with the Catholic Church in the early 1530s “Indicated the growth of economic forces incompatible with feudal social organization and the emergence of a national consciousness. In 1534 he replaced the Pope's authority by his own Act of Supremacy, creating the Church of England. This church became distinctly Protestant under his son, Edward VI. Mary officially re-established Catholicism, married Philip II of Spain and persecuted Protestants as heretics, but she died childlessly, and the crown fell to her half-sister”.

A lot of questions remain unanswered by Fletcher, and she could have done no better than to study Christopher Hill who asked “Why did Henry become tyrannical? Why did the wealthy and commercial classes represented in Parliament have to fight for their liberties? During the sixteenth century, under the Tudor rulers, the grandfathers of the Parliamentarians of 1640 were the monarchy’s stoutest supporters. What had happened to change their outlook? Parliament had supported Henry VII and Henry VIII and Elizabeth in their efforts to police the country against the anarchy and brigandage of over-mighty subjects, of feudal potentates with their private armies, and England had been made safe for commercialism. Parliament had also supported Henry VIII and Elizabeth in their successful struggle against the universal Catholic Church: money no longer went from England to Rome”. (4)

I am not expecting Catherine Fletcher to take on board all that I have written above. But her next project would be taken to a higher level if even a small amount of the above criticisms were taken on board. Would I recommend her book yes without reservation? I would also recommend that the reader does some further reading around the subject as well?


(1)    EUI Working Papers MWP 2011/15 Max Weber program Catherine Fletcher "Those Who Give Are Not All Generous: Tips and Bribes at 16th Century Papal Court”.
(2)   Karl Marx. Capital Volume One

(3)   One example of the revisionist writings is G W Bernard The Dissolution of the Monarchies Volume 96 issue 4 Number 324  History published by The Historical Association

(4)  The English Revolution 1640; Written: in 1940; by Christopher Hill Published: by Lawrence and Wishart.

Monday, 14 May 2012

The Star Chamber-Alison Stuart

Inspired by Keith Livesey’s post on the Levellers I thought it might be appropriate to talk about “the Star Chamber” which reached such a level of infamy during the reign of Charles I that the term “Star Chamber” still exists in our idiom today.  It is generally used to denote any judicial or quasi-judicial action, trial, or hearing which so grossly violates standards of "due process" that a party appearing in the proceedings (hearing or trial) is denied a fair hearing.

It has its origins in the fourteenth century and is said to have derived from a room in the Palace of Westminster decorated with a starred ceiling where the King and his privy council met. Initially it served the valuable role as a “conciliar court” which were convened at short notice to deal with urgent matters. Initially well regarded because of its speed and flexibility, it was made up of Privy Counsellors, as well as common-law judges, and supplemented the activities of the common-law and equity courts in both civil and criminal matters. In a sense, the court was a supervisory body, overseeing the operations of lower courts, though its members could hear cases by direct appeal as well. The court was set up to ensure the fair enforcement of laws against prominent people, those so powerful that ordinary courts could never convict them of their crimes.

In 1487, a Star Chamber Act was enacted setting up a special tribunal to deal with subversive activities within the King’s household. In theory the Star Chamber could only take cognisance of a matter if there was a good reason to interfering with the ordinary processes of law. In practice it meant that it heard cases and impose punishments in matters where no actual crime had been committed but, in the subjective opinion of the court, were considered morally reprehensible. The sort of matters coming before it would now constitute offences such as conspiracy, libel, forgery, perjury, riot, conspiracy and sedition. Henry VII and Henry VIII, in particular, used the power of the Star Chamber to break the powerful nobles who opposed his reign. Prosecutions were brought by the Attorney General and prisoners tried summarily by affidavit and interrogation (which very often included torture). Punishments included fines, imprisonment, pillory, branding or loss of an ear. It did not have the power to order a death sentence.

It’s more sinister side began to emerge by the end of the fifteenth and into the sixteenth century when it began to lose its “civil” side and notwithstanding its inability to mete out death, by the reign of Charles I, the Star Chamber had achieved a terrible reputation for severity and tyranny.

Charles I routinely used the Star Chamber Charles to examine cases of sedition, which meant that the court could be used to suppress opposition to royal policies. It came to be used to try nobles too powerful to be brought to trial in the lower court. During the time of Charles “personal rule” he ruthlessly stamped down on the freedom of the press and religious and political dissenters.  William Prynne, Alexander Leighton, John Bastwick and Henry Burton, all appeared before the Star Chamber for their views on religious dissent. William Prynne for example was a puritan who published a number of tracts opposing religious feast days and entertainment such as stage plays. The latter was construed as a direct attack on the Queen and in 1634 he was sentenced in the Star Chamber to life imprisonment, a fine of £5000, he was stripped of his qualifications and membership of Lincolns Inn and lost both his ears in the pillory.

It was the treatment of John Lilburne that eventually led to the abolition of the Star Chamber. As you will have read in Keith Livesey’s post, John was a Leveller (“Free born John”). In 1637 he was arrested for publishing unlicensed books (one of them by William Prynne). In that time all printing presses had to be officially licensed. John was brought before the Star Chamber In his examinations he refused to take the oath known as the 'ex-officio' oath (on the ground that he was not bound to incriminate himself), and thus called in question the court's usual procedure. On 13 February 1638 he was sentenced to be fined £500, whipped, pilloried, and imprisoned till he obeyed.

On 18 April 1638 Lilburne was flogged with a three-thonged whip on his bare back, as he was dragged by his hands tied to the rear of an ox cart from Fleet Prison to the pillory at Westminster. He was then forced to stoop in the pillory where he still managed to campaign against his censors, while distributing more unlicensed literature to the crowds.  He was then gagged. Finally he was thrown in prison. He was taken back to the court and again imprisoned. During his imprisonment in Fleet he was cruelly treated. While in prison he however managed to write and to get printed in 1638 an account of his own punishment styled The Work of the Beast and in 1639 an apology for separation from the church of England, entitled Come out of her, my people. John spent the next few years going back and forth between the Star Chamber and prison.

 In 1640, the King’s personal rule ended and he was forced to reconvene Parliament. Incensed by John Lilburne’s treatment at the hands of the Star Court, John Pym led a campaign to abolish it and in 1640 one of the most significant pieces of legislation in the western world was enacted, the Habeus Corpus Act. This Act abolished the Star Chamber and declared that anyone imprisoned by order of the king, privy council, or any councilor could apply for a writ of habeas corpus (literally meaning “release the body”) and it required that all returns to the writ "certify the true cause" of imprisonment.  It also clarified that the Court of Common Pleas had jurisdiction to issue the writ in such cases (prior to which it was argued that only the King's Bench could issue the writ). On this statute stands our basic right to a fair trial.

Despite the rights of Habeas Corpus, “Star Chambers” still creep into our modern age. In modern American history, for example,  the best example of star chamber proceedings was the conduct of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (1938-1975) which used its subpoena power to intimidate citizens by asking them unconstitutional questions about their political beliefs and associations, and then charging them with contempt of Congress for refusing to answer. Another example was the conduct of criminal proceedings against black defendants in some southern states from 1876 until the late 1960s. As a lawyer I have my doubts about the proceedings against the Guantamo Bay detainees but this is probably not the time and place to discuss these issues.


An Introduction to Legal History J.H. Baker
Luminarium, Encyclopedia Project

Alison Brideson
Writing as Alison Stuart