Monday, 27 May 2019

Oliver Cromwell (Profiles In Power) Barry Coward,216 pages, Longman; (22 Aug 2000) ISBN-10: 0582437512


Barry Coward's book is a valuable introduction to the complex and controversial world of Oliver Cromwell. His book has become a standard textbook on the period. While not an orthodox biography Coward manages to keep an open mind on the significant issues surrounding Cromwell and quite prepared to change his mind, a hallmark of Coward.

Coward makes no secret of his admiration of Cromwell being a paid-up member, and former president of the Cromwell Association means his biography is a little partisan.

Coward's biography has entered into an already crowded field. The high interest means that historians can finally begin to strip away the myths surrounding Cromwell. Many of these myths and falsehoods were spread by hostile biographers. The fact that we have started to learn more about Cromwell's early life is down to significant work by historians such as Andrew Barclay[1].

The previous historiography has acknowledged Cromwell's early religious influences as a young man, especially from Dr Thomas Beard. Coward, however, pours cold water on this. He does not believe that Cromwell was 'Lord of the Fens' or "an opponent of capitalist syndicates." Coward does not believe Cromwell's class position made him a champion of popular rights.

Cromwell, in his own words, describes his class position when he said "I was by birth a gentleman, living neither in any considerable height nor yet in obscurity. I have been called to several employments in the nation — to serve in parliaments, — and (because I would not be over tedious) I did endeavour to discharge the duty of an honest man in those services, to God, and his people's interest, and of the commonwealth; having, when the time was, a competent acceptation in the hearts of men, and some evidence thereof".[2]

One shortcoming of the book is that it fails to place Cromwell within the huge changes, both socially and economically that was taking place in England at the time.
To do so would give the book a far more multi-dimensional approach to Cromwell. 

Such an approach was by F.A. Inderwick's who showed "A complex character such as that of Cromwell, is incapable of creation, except in times of great civil and religious excitement and one cannot judge the man without at the same time considering the contending elements by which he was surrounded. It is possible to take his character to pieces, and, selecting one or other of his qualities as a corner-stone, to build around it a monument which will show him as a patriot or a plotter, a Christian man or a hypocrite, a demon or a demi-god as the sculptor may choose".[3]

Coward correctly believes that Cromwell's political views were radicalised by his interpretation of the James Ist bible. Cromwell from a very early period before hostilities had even broken out opposed the King. One of his first actions before the war had officially broken out was to raise a troop of soldiers to seize money bound for the King. Cromwell was adamant that religion was an important factoir in the struggle against the King saying "Religion was not the thing at first contested for at all but God brought it to that issue at last; and gave it unto us by way of redundancy, and at last it proved to be that which was most dear to us" [4].

Cromwell it must be said saw further than any of his contemporaries in need from a proletarian army to combat the King. His famous words "I had rather have a plain, russet-coated Captain, that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that you call a Gentleman and is nothing else." [5] Need little explanation.

Coward's biography is a million miles away from a Marxists approach to Cromwell contained in Christopher Hill's Gods Englishman. Coward believed that because there were "middling sort "on both sides of the revolution, hence there was no bourgeois revolution. For Coward it is "more important in explaining why divisions over religious and policy issues did not spill over into rebellion and attacks on the social order, is the fact that such divisions cut across 'class' lines. Indeed, although there was (as has been seen) a significant disparity in the distribution of wealth in early modern London between 'the rich' and 'the poor', there was also a massive group who it is best to call (as they did at the time) 'the middling sort', tradesmen, merchants, craftsmen and their apprentices. It is significant that analyses of different religious and political groups in Civil War London show no significant difference in their social composition; most notably, they all show large contingents of the middling sort.

People from the same social groups are to be found on all sides. They are to be found amongst the Levellers and the radical gathered churches, but also amongst the readers of Thomas Edwards's Gangraena and the militant conservative crowd who invaded the chamber of parliament in July 1647. The point quite simply is that what was lacking in Civil War London was the ingredient of class division or class hostility that might have made, for example, excise riots the breeding ground for radical protest and demands" [6].

Ann Talbot in her essay counters this argument saying "the prevailing academic orthodoxy is that there was no bourgeois revolution because there was no rising bourgeoisie and that people from all social classes can be found on either side of the struggle. Even Cromwell, it is argued, can better be understood as a representative of the declining gentry rather than the rising bourgeois. He and those around him aimed not at revolution but wished merely to restore what they believed to be the ancient constitution of the kingdom.

The whole unpleasant episode could have been avoided if only Charles II had been a little wiser. Hill, of course, was well aware that there were gentlemen and landowners on the Parliamentary side in the civil war and small farmers and artisans on the Royalist side. He had read enough Marx and Lenin to know that one could not expect a chemically pure revolution in which the members of one social class lined up one side of the barricades and those of the other on the opposite side. However, he was sensitive enough to his historical sources to detect the social currents that brought people of diverse social backgrounds into a struggle against the King and well-grounded enough in history to identify new and revolutionary ideas in the curious and archaic guise in which they appeared—as the ideologists of the revolution ransacked the Bible and half-understood historical precedent for some theory to explain what they were doing".[7]

The logic of Coward's rejection of a class-based analysis of the ideological battles that occurred during the revolution leads him to make the outstanding claim that the New Model Army was not political from the outset and that the Levellers did not politicise it. Coward says the army spontaneously gravitated to radical solutions overpay and grievances. This downplaying of the ideological debates that took place in the military is a major weak point in the book. It is therefore not surprising that Coward devotes so little to the Putney Debates 1647.

What conclusions did Cromwell draw from the debates at Putney? The dangers of a Levellers inspired mutiny against the Grandees were a real possibility. Alongside Ireton, he saw a growing danger of losing control of the New Model Army to the radicals. This army was already to the left of Cromwell and would move against both the King and Cromwell himself if left to its own devices. Cromwell's nervousness over the Levellers was expressed when he said: "I tell you sir; you have no other way to deal with these men [the Levellers] but to break them in pieces" [8].

It does not need a leap of faith to believe that the conclusions Cromwell drew from Putney was the need to purge the army of radicals and began to move to military dictatorship under his control. In the chapter Cromwell and the Godly Reformation, 1653-54 Coward outlines Cromwell move towards a military dictatorship. On-Page 96, Cowards explains following the Barebones Parliament; there was a definite playing up of a fear of social revolution.

What was Cromwell's heritage? The fact that his name still elicits such hatred or admiration is down to the still contemporary class nature of the Civil War period. Even today, there are sections of the ruling elite who still refuse to be reminded that Britain had a violent revolution which was not the British way of doing things. Coward tends to hold this position as well.

Coward's fixation with Cromwell's attempt at Godly Reformation misses Cromwell's legacy in establishing the rule of the English bourgeoisie. On this score, the great Russian Marxist  Leon Trotsky offers a better epitaph for Cromwell "In dispersing parliament after parliament, Cromwell displayed as little reverence towards the fetish of "national" representation as in the execution of Charles I he had displayed insufficient respect for a monarchy by the grace of God. Nonetheless, it was this same Cromwell who paved the way for the parliamentarism and democracy of the two subsequent centuries. In revenge for Cromwell's execution of Charles I, Charles II swung Cromwell's corpse upon the gallows. However, pre-Cromwellian society could not be re-established by any restoration. The works of Cromwell could not be liquidated by the thievish legislation of the restoration, because what has been written with the sword cannot be wiped out by the pen.[9]"

To conclude that Coward's biography of Cromwell is one of the better ones and deserves to be the standard textbook on the subject. Any biography of Cromwell involves a lot of hard work. As Karl Marx said, "There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits". Reaching a scientific understanding was hard work. Conscientious, painstaking research was required, instead of philosophical speculation and unwarranted, sweeping generalisations" [10].





[1] Electing Cromwell: The Making of a Politician (Political and Popular Culture in the Early Modern Period)
[2] Speech to the First Protectorate Parliament (12 September 1654)
[3] The Interregnum, 1648-60
[4] Speech made on the Dissolution of the First Protectorate Parliament on 22 January 1654
[5] Letter to Sir William Spring (September 1643) "A few honest men are better than numbers."
[6] (London and the Civil War)
[7] "These the times, this the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill
[8] The English Wars and Republic, 1637–1660-By Graham E. Seel
[9] Two traditions: the seventeenth-century revolution and Chartism
[10] 1872 Preface to the French edition of Das Kapital Vol. 1,

Sunday, 26 May 2019

The Civil Wars 1637-1653 Martyn Bennett,1998, Sutton Pocket Histories



The decade of the 1990s witnessed the publishing of large numbers of books that sought to overturn previous Whig and Marxist historiography. The revisionist historians who carried out this revolt were clear on what they were against a little less clear on what they wanted to replace the previous historiography with.

Alongside Bennett's book, you had John Morrill's Revolt in the Provinces: The English People and the Tragedies of War, 1634-1648 by  Mark Stoyle. Loyalty and Locality: Popular Allegiance in Devon during the English Civil War, The English Civil War and Revolution: Keith Lindley, The English Wars and Republic, 1637-1660, to name just a few.

It is not possible in this short article to examine the reasons for the rise of such disparate historiography suffice to say it was hostile to any Whig or Marxist historiography which sought to explain the war from the standpoint of it being a bourgeois revolution and not just a civil war.

In this well-written book, Bennett favoured another type of historiography that was prevalent at the time called the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. The term was not a new one. It dates back to 1662 when James Heath's book A Brief Chronicle of all the Chief Actions so fatally Falling out in the Three Kingdoms, was first published.

Bennett explains his reasoning behind his choice of historiography, "The enduring symbol of the crisis which gripped the British Isles during the middle of the seventeenth century is the name given to it, `The English Civil War'. This symbol is itself problematic and can even act as a barrier to a clear understanding of what happened in that turbulent century. It may be argued that calling the conflict the English Civil War limits the scope of our perceptions. By labelling it an English event, we can marginalise Scotland and Ireland and perhaps even ignore Wales altogether. Yet all four nations were involved in the rebellions, wars and revolutions that made up the period" [1].

Bennett's book starts with examining the war from the standpoint of Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales in the first three chapters. As one writer put this historiography was "a trend by modern historians aiming to take a unified overview rather than treating some of the conflicts as mere background to the English Civil War. Some, such as Carlton and Gaunt, have labelled them the British Civil Wars.  This type of explanation for the revolution was popular with historians based outside England. One such historian Jane Ohlmeyer argued "Proponents of the New British Histories agree that British history should not be enriched English history which focuses on Whitehall and uses events in Ireland and Scotland to explain developments in England. Yet the traditional terms used to describe the conflict which engulfed Britain and Ireland during the 1640s, which include 'Puritan Revolution', 'English Revolution', and more recently 'British Civil War(s)', tend to perpetuate this anglocentrism.

None of these reflects the fact that the conflict originated in Scotland and Ireland and throughout the 1640s embraced all of the Stuart kingdoms; or that, in addition to the war enjoying a pan-British and Irish dimension, each of the Stuart states experienced its domestic civil wars. The phrase 'Wars of the Three Kingdoms' acknowledges the centrality of the various civil wars fought within the Stuart kingdoms as well as the interactions between them.[2]

Bennett while supporting the "wars of three kingdoms" historiography does explain its limitations warning "against thinking that this current interpretation of the war is the last word, historical fashions come and go. It may be as well to paraphrase Mark Twain: reports of the death of the English Civil War may yet be greatly exaggerated".[3]

Martyn Bennett book is precise in the type of terminology used, as Bennett argued, the type of terminology used says a lot about how the historian "reflects and reinforces the interpretations we make". This approach is commendable. As Edward Hallett Carr once wrote:

"if, as Collingwood says, the historian must re-enact in thought what has gone on in the mind of his dramatis personae, so the reader in his turn must re-enact what goes on in the mind of the historian. Study the historian before you begin to study the facts. This is, after all, not very abstruse. It is what is already done by the intelligent 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.”[4]

The date spread used in this book 1637-1653 is not one I have come across. The throwing around of dates seems to have been popular in the 1990s. Bennett explains his reasoning "Imposing the dates 1642-1651 on the civil wars renders them relatively meaningless outside the bounds of England and Wales: calling them the 'English' Civil War is similarly problematic. The term English Civil War became common during the last century, adding to the range of titles available - from the contentious 'English Revolution' to the 'Great Rebellion' and the 'Great Civil War'. Yet such a title does obscure the involvement of the other nations as effectively in the book market as it does in popular entertainment" [5].

Bennett uses the term revolution in a couple of times in the book but does not believe this was a bourgeois revolution. The book does not provide any insight into the socio-economic problems that gave rise to the conflict. Bennett, to his credit, does believe that the war was a product of long term political changes to the base and superstructure of English society.

The book gives a good explanation of what took place during the war. Chapters 1-6 deal primarily with this and can be seen as a good introduction. Perhaps the most interesting and informative chapters are 7-8. Chapter 7 called Revolution in England and Wales gives an essential insight into the growing divergence of views within parliament and the growing threat posed by the Levellers. Chapter 8 gives a presentable account of the views and actions of the Levellers.

The book is quite striking in its minimal use of historiography. He mentions only one other historian, but this is compensated by the excellent notes at the back of the book.

To conclude It is a short book of 114 pages, it should not be seen as an in-depth or analytical study of the revolution. At best, it should be seen as an excellent introduction to the conflict. It would have a been a better book if Bennett had given more of his take on the revolution.




[1] What's in a Name? the Death of the English Civil War:M Bennett-https://www.questia.com/library/journal/1G1-98171389/what-s-in-a-name-the-death-of-the-english-civil-war
[2] https://military.wikia.org/wiki/Wars_of_the_Three_Kingdoms
[3] https://www.questia.com/library/journal/1G1-98171389/what-s-in-a-name-the-death-of-the-english-civil-war
[4] What Is History
[5] https://www.questia.com/library/journal/1G1-98171389/what-s-in-a-name-the-death-of-the-english-civil-war

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Black Tom: Sir Thomas Fairfax and the English Revolution (Politics, Culture and Society in Early Modern Britain) Paperback – 1 May 2013-by Andrew Hopper


“Sir Tho. Fairfax, a man of military genius, undaunted courage and presence of mind in the field both in action and danger [was also] but of a very common understanding in all other affairs, and of a worse elocution; and so a most fit tool for Mr. Cromwel to work with”.

Sir Phillip Warwick, Mémoires of the Reigne of Charles I (1702)

Andrew Hopper’s book is the first modern academic study of Sir Thomas Fairfax. Books of this type usually make or break a historian. It is to Hopper’s credit that he has dug deeper than other previous historians were prepared to go to rescue Fairfax’s historical reputation and place him in the correct hierarchy of participants of the English revolution. He was second only to Cromwell in importance during the English revolution.

Hopper contends that it was Sir Thomas Fairfax, not Oliver Cromwell, who created and then commanded Parliament's New Model Army from 1645 to 1650. However, this book is not purely a military history but a political assessment of Fairfax’s role in the successful outcome of the English bourgeois revolution.

The book combines narrative and thematic approaches to give a more nuanced understanding of a complex figure. The first part contains a historical biographical study and evaluation of Fairfax as a military figure who showed tremendous bravery and military acumen. He also had a political mindset and when needed, defended his politics as if he was still in battle. The second part of the book is what Martyn Bennet called “a themed analysis”.

The comment made in the opening paragraph that these types of books can make or break a historian may be a little exaggerated, but given the paucity of previous biographies of Fairfax, it is not by much. There is a touch of rescuing Fairfax from the condescension of history about Hoppers biography. As Fairfax wrote himself in the 1660s 'my retirement makes me seem dead to the world' (p183). It, therefore, takes a brave historian to go against the centuries-long orthodoxy that portrays Fairfax as a relatively minor figure during the English revolution. This book is the first step towards rectifying this misnomer.

From a biographical standpoint, Fairfax is a hugely complex and contradictory character. He began the revolution fighting for King Charles I against the Scots in the Bishops' Wars (1639) where he commanded a troop of Yorkshire Dragoons. He switched sides and became the general of the New Model Army the most radical army of its kind in the world. Politically he was in the camp of the Independents. He ended his days a key figure in the restoration of Charles II. Hopper is perhaps one of the most well-equipped historians to explain Fairfax’s change of allegiances having written a book called Turncoats and Renegadoes.

Martyn Bennett’s review[1] captured the many faces of Sir Thomas when he wrote  “Sir Thomas is usually shown to be politically conservative during this period, allowing others, such as Cornet Joyce or Cromwell to make the running: his absence from much of the Putney debates seems to underline this political inertia. Hopper argues that this is not the case; Fairfax may have been pushed firmly into the army's political maw by the impugning of his honour by Presbyterian MPs, but he took up its position with gusto. Although he later pretended he had not: Fairfax approved of the army's radicalisation, and its accusations of treason levelled against the 11 Presbyterian MPs at the centre of the attack on the army. He supported the mutiny against Sydenham Pointz, commander of the Northern Association Army, and an ally of the parliamentary Presbyterians, and used it to gain control of all the armed forces in the country. Furthermore, during the second civil war, Hopper reads Fairfax's anger at the renewed conflict as anti-royalist, rather than anti-disorder or anti-rebellion: placing the monarch to be the root of the problem. The execution of Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle must then be seen in this light”.

One of the most substantial aspects of the book is Hopper's insistence(correctly I might add) that Fairfax should be given much more credit for his part in leading the New Model Army. His leadership of the army meant a successful outcome of not only the war but the revolution itself. Hopper also believes that Fairfax deserves far more recognition for his part in the radicalisation of the New Model Army. Fairfax was not the passive military/political figure shown in previous histories of the revolution.

If there was one criticism of Fairfax, it was his prevarication at critical moments. As Hopper points out, it is not that Fairfax was apolitical but when events around him moved at breakneck speed his inertia at times allowed others to carry out actions in his name, in other words allowing others to dictate the course of the revolution. One such event being the King's trial although a commissioner of the High Court of Justice, Fairfax did not attend the King's trial. When his name was called in the courtroom, his wife Anne famously cried out: "He had more wit than to be here."

Leveller Suppression

This is not to say that that he could not act decisively, especially when he saw that the revolution might be taken in a direction the bourgeoisie did not want it to go. He dealt firmly and personally with the Leveller Mutinies of April and May 1649. When Cromwell pleaded for mercy to be shown to the Levellers Fairfax made sure one of the Leveller leaders Robert Lockyer was executed, making Lockyer a Leveller martyr with thousands attending his funeral. Fairfax dealt extremely severely with further mutinies most notably at Burford where he led a force of nearly 4000, in crushing Leveller resistance in a late-night attack.Three more Levellers were made martyrs.

Fairfax justified his action saying “the power of the army (which I once had) was usurped by the forerunners of confusion and anarchy … the arbitrary and unlimited power of this new counsel would act without a General, and all that I could doe could not prevaile against this streame … For now, the officers of the army were placed and displaced by the will of the new agitators who with violence so carried all things as it was above my power to restraine it”.

It is not to say that doing the bourgeoisie’s dirty work and acting as their attack dog did not bother Fairfax who deep down had some political limited sympathies with aspects of the Leveller programme. In a letter to Lenthal, he states 'It will be your glory and your honour to settle this poor Nation upon foundations of Justice and Righteousnesse ... for the poore  people ... may see you will improve your power for their good, and then  your Enemies shall be found lyars'.[2]

Restoration

As Hooper brings out, Fairfax did not exactly cover himself in glory during his retirement and was extremely lucky not to be hanged alongside other regicides. Some of his relatives were not so lucky. Part of this luck was because he played such a significant role in overseeing the restoration of the monarchy. When the Protectorate collapsed in 1659, Fairfax Carried out communication with General Monck. Fairfax agreed to use his influence in raising an army in Yorkshire in order to smooth the passage of Charles II to the throne.

Strong opposition to the Restoration came in the form of Colonel Robert Lilburne and General Lambert. Fairfax’s intervention in Yorkshire enabled Monck’s forces to deal with both Lambert and Lillburne and pave the way for Restoration.
Monck, it seems was the supreme opportunist leading one writer to call him  “a turncoat of heroic proportions”. A Commander in chief of the English army in Scotland and an ardent follower of Cromwell. After the death of Cromwell, he played the pivotal role in the Restoration of the monarchy where he was given the unheard of sum of £100,000 a year for the rest of his life to ease his pain of being a turncoat.

Conclusion

In this book, Hopper does not examine in any great detail the charge that Fairfax was a turncoat of similar proportions to Monck, but it is pretty clear that such a case could be made. Thanks to relatively lazy historians, many other facets of Fairfax’s life have not been explored. Hoppers book, at last, gives a much more accurate picture of Fairfax warts and all.

It is clear that that this was not an easy book for Hopper to write and he has had to combat the previous historiography that Fairfax was a reluctant revolutionary, swept along by events. At certain moments this was true, but in other events, he was decisive and followed his political principles. Many previous biographies have been one dimensional Hopper presents readers with a three-dimensional Fairfax. It is true that Fairfax as one writer puts it been “reluctant at certain points to carry on with the developing radicalisation of politics, but he strove to remain at the head of the army at all times”. This a finely researched and well-written book. Hopper restores Fairfax to his rightful place in the English revolution.



[1] https://reviews.history.ac.uk/review/637
[2] A Full Narrative of all the Proceedings betweene His Excellency the Lord Fairfax and the Mutineers
 [10 May 1649], BL, Ε 555/27, p

Friday, 17 May 2019

A Letter from Christopher Thompson to Brodie Waddell


Dear Brodie,
                        I have been following the recent celebrations of the work of Christopher Hill, both in the lectures given by Justin Champion at Newark and in London last November and in March respectively, and in the online version of this lecture published by Verso Books. I also read your September 2012 piece (https://manyheadedmonster.wordpress.com/2012/09/10/christopher-hill-and-the-many-headed-monster/) on the Many-Headed Monster blog last night and again this morning. The subject is of interest to me as one of Christopher Hill's postgraduate pupils in the mid-1960s. I would agree with you that Hill's 1965 essay on the attitudes of those members of the higher ranks of English society who commented on the dangers of democracy in early modern England contained comments that were not particularly novel and I would add that, had Hill examined, for example, the records of the Assize Courts, he would have found sentiments just as seditious as those uttered in the 1640s which he believed to have been expressed for the very first time.
     
  But these two points are incidental to my main objections to Hill's position. His focus like that of Brian Manning was on conflict, on political, religious and constitutional conflict underpinned by economic and social changes which he thought undermined the established order of early to mid-Stuart England. There is a lot of celebration in his works of crowd violence in the streets of London, of the intimidation of nobles, gentry and clergymen by people of middling and lower social status, of the appeal of radical demands for abstract political and religious 'rights' and of the failure of the English Revolution to consolidate fundamental changes not just in England but throughout the British Isles. I think that this line of argument rests upon a fallacious analysis of the main economic and social trends of the period.

What Christopher Hill was unaware of was the existence of powerful social bonds between landowners and their tenants, bonds that went well beyond tenurial relationships and the payment of rent and encompassed ties of affiliation in matters of politics and religion, of marriage and friendship, that were beyond the reach of small quasi-political groups like the Levellers and the Diggers or religious ones like the Anabaptists or the Fifth Monarchists and others. I should add that this under-appreciated nexus existed within the mercantile community and in its external links to other economic and social groups. There is some evidence to suggest that the position of the landed elite strengthened markedly between 1600 and 1640. If I am right, then the failure of the 'Revolution' was by no means a surprise any more than the responses after the Restoration of 1660 were.

       I realise that these criticisms of Hill may run against the current but I was not persuaded by him in 1965 or afterwards. With good wishes,
                                                                                                                                          Christopher 

Friday, 3 May 2019

On Empathy and its usage in History


That Empathy has suddenly become a hot topic of discussion with books like the recent The Age of Empathy by Frans de Waal, Souvenir Press being seriously touted as a viable means of understanding the past is a retrograde step.

Thankfully the use of Empathy has never really had much of a stronghold on historians in the past certainly before the 1970s. However, today it has started to get a hearing it does not deserve.

That is not to say that historians cannot have empathy the great historian G.E.M. de Ste Croix according to Ann Talbot had a lifelong empathy with the oppressed.

Who the historian is empathetic to does usually reveal their political bias as it should be. As E.H. Carr once said “if, as Collingwood says, the historian must re-enact in thought what has gone on in the mind of his dramatis personae, so the reader in his turn must re-enact what goes on in the mind of the historian. Study the historian before you begin to study the facts. This is, after all, not very abstruse. It is what is already done by the intelligent 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”. [1]

The use of empathy has been used in schools the 1980s in schools as a means of teaching children empathy for the study of history.[2] The use of empathy in schools and now in wider academia and society as a semi-viable means of historical study is a by-product of the dominance of postmodernist theories in universities and society in general. The academic architects of postmodernism and identity politics occupy well-paid positions in academia. As a social layer, the theoreticians of postmodernism are some of the wealthiest in society. Their political and philosophical views express their social interests.

The use of empathy as a method of historical inquiry also owes a lot to the growth of the new Social History school of-of Historiography which appeared in the early 1970s. According to some historians, it was perhaps the last major historiography of the 20th century to try and explain a complex historical phenomenon. Before The 1970s, Social History had mostly been limited to a study of everyday life. During the last thirty odd years, the subject has come to prominence because some aspects of it have become the bête noir of some revisionist historians. The most positive side of the new history is that it brought into the public domain the lives of working people or the poor who had been mainly ignored by historians. On the downside this, new history became divorced from any form of economic or materialist explanation of history. The new social history is not that different from its predecessor “old social history”. Described as a “hodgepodge” of disciplines and unlike any other historiography. The English historian G. M. Trevelyan saw it as the link between economic and political history; he stated, "Without social history, economic history is barren and political history unintelligible."

One of the avenues influential in promoting empathy as a viable historical method of studying the past is the History Today magazine which has a habit of opening up its pages to several historians who have exhibited sympathetic viewpoints towards postmodernist theories. Its recent issue is no exception. Four historians were given space on the issue of empathy in History.

Helen Parr, Professor of History at Keele University and author of Our Boys: The Story of a Paratrooper (Allen Lane, 2018) began the assault with an article called “Empathy can help us understand an uncomfortable culture. She writes “In November 1981, some paratroopers in recruit training gang-raped a 15-year-old girl in an Aldershot barracks. The girl met one of the soldiers in a local pub, who took her to his dormitory. There a group of drunken paratroopers tied her to a bed with elasticated cord, and five or six of them raped her. They kicked her, urinated on her and stole her underwear as a trophy. Two years later – after some of the soldiers had fought in the Falklands – six men were convicted at Winchester Crown Court of rape, indecent assault and common assault. Two of them pleaded guilty. The longest sentence was five years. Empathy – identifying with the paratroopers in that barrack room – can help us to understand this uncomfortable culture and expose the recruits’ vulnerabilities: the unforgiving harshness of some of their early lives, the intense codes of an elite club where loyalty was prized above all and the ways training forged their identities”[3].

To defend herself from accusations of being sympathetic to these psychopaths she states “Understanding this does not exonerate their crime nor suggest more sympathy with them than with their victim”.

This is an unnecessary approach. Given the long history of violence perpetrated by British soldiers over a long period of history an examination of this history would give a much deeper insight into why this crime took place. On this occasion, this historian has to take sides. The first action is not to empathise but to oppose or to be more precise to acquaint these fascist mined paratroopers heads with the pavement.

Perhaps the most extreme example of this type of empathising has been directed towards a study of Nazi Fascism.  In an essay Some Reflections on Empathy in History  Source: Teaching History, No. 55 (April 1989), pp. 13-18 John Cairns writes Sympathy or Empathy? Sympathy is distinguishable from empathy, for in sympathy we are paralleling ourself and someone else. For instance, when we sympathise with a bereaved person, we are telling that individual about our feelings, and offering a symbol of our regard. Whereas when we empathise, we are doing more than this: we are trying to enter into the mind of another person and seeking to try out what we consider to be his or her thought and motivations. It is possible, for example, to empathise with Himmler, without having any sympathy for him. It would be important for a student to see the contradictory aspects of Himmler in order to gain something of his perspective on events. Consider how he sought approval for visiting the sick and showing compassion for others. The same person who consigned thousands to death by a signature, a clerk in a military uniform, was thoroughly squeamish when witnessing an execution he had ordered. Here was a sensitive man enslaved to Hitler's megalomaniac”.

This nonsense is even more dangerous postmodernist rubbish than Parrs. Cairn’s psychological approach has its roots in the Frankfurt school of anti-Marxism. Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm and Wilhelm Reich et al. “The theoreticians of the Frankfurt School expressed the outlook of sections of the German petty bourgeoisie. Moreover, the main representatives of the Frankfurt School showed no interest in, let alone active political support for, Trotsky’s struggle against the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union. This is a political fact that is, without question, of great importance in understanding the evolution of the Frankfurt School. However, it would be wrong to neglect consideration of its theoretical-philosophical roots. An examination of the theoretical influences that found expression in the Frankfurt School is necessary, not only to understand this intellectual tendency and its many offshoots but also to identify its essential difference from the Marxism of Bolshevism and the October Revolution”.[4]

In her article entitled The concept that history is something distant is a dangerous one  Hallie Rubenhold, author of The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper (Doubleday, 2019) make this point  “A certain level of emotional detachment is necessary when examining any historical subject. No historian wants to be accused of failing to apply a critical eye and making hasty, inappropriate judgements. However, it is also possible that complete dispassion can prevent us from recognising the subtler human issues at play. In most cases,it is the smaller human stories that influence, the larger trends: the personal frustrations and private sufferings, often of people who have been written out of the record, that bring down governments, or initiate sweeping social and political change”.

While using the empathetic method for the historical study is fine for retrieving figures from history that have been forgotten such as the victims of Jack the Ripper when a more complex subject matter comes up such as the Russian revolution or the Holocaust the use of empathy is next to useless.

Why because as the great Karl Marx would say “In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or — what is but a legal expression for the same thing — with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation, the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the productive social forces and the relations of production".

Using the method of historical materialism, it is possible to be empathetic but also have a connection with the past that reveals the real voices. Not in a subjective but an objective way. The study of the past becomes scientifically grounded. Does this stop the historian feeling empathy towards their subject as Miri Rubin, Professor of Medieval and Early Modern History at the Queen Mary University of London writes “It is natural that we should feel empathy with some in the past and abhor the actions of others? I have not lost sympathy for those interrogated by the Inquisition on suspicion of heresy, as in Languedoc or Bavaria in the 1300s, nor has my disgust diminished at the actions of magistrates and judges in the witchcraft trials in Bamberg or Salem in The 1600s. It is a good thing that we feel for the tortured, the abused, the marginalised; victims who can be found both among the elite and the poor. Such empathy, after all, inspired the new histories of women, African-Americans, colonised people, working people, the sick and the disabled since the mid-20th century, leading to lasting changes in history and its possibilities.

The problem with these new histories based on the empathy method is that far from giving us a more scientific understanding of the past it is leading the study of history into a blind alley of gender studies, race studies and ever more obscure specialisation.

The third article in History Today by Patricia Fara, Emeritus Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge has an air of irrationality and hostility to reason about it she writes “Hiding something unpleasant from view is less effective than exploring its implications. How tempting it is to adopt a stance of intellectual and moral superiority towards the past. However, although human beings have accumulated vast numbers of facts, there is no guarantee that we have become more clever or more virtuous”. People have treated the world and its inhabitants badly – they still do. However, the route to improvement lies through exposure and discussion, not concealment and denial.

While exposure and discussion are necessary, they cannot by themselves explain complex historical phenomena. If something is being hidden in all these articles, it is the mention of class or being more precise social forces. As EH Carr wrote 'The historian undertakes a twofold operation: to analyse the past in the light of the present and the future which is growing out of it and to cast the beam of the past over the issues which dominate current and future.' It is, he said, the function of the historian not only to analyse what he or she finds significant in the past, but also 'to isolate and illuminate the fundamental changes at work in the society in which we live', which will entail a view 'of the processes by which the problems set to the present generation by these changes can be resolved'. People are a product of history, their judgements and actions conditioned by the past and the historian should work to make them aware of this, but also to make them aware of the issues and problems of their own time; to break the chain that binds them to the past and present, and so enable them to influence the future”.[5]

To conclude whether the historian is empathetic towards his or her subject is entirely up to them. A historian should be passionate towards the study of history and write from the heart as well as the head, but this must be tempered with an understanding that history should be studied as a science and not the emotions of the historian. When a historian finishes a book, it should not have tear stains on it.

























[1]  What is History? (1961)
[2] See Empathy and History - Ann Low-Beer Source: Teaching History, No. 55 (April 1989), pp. 8-12
[3] https://www.historytoday.com/archive/head-head/empathy-aid-or-hindrance-historians
[4] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2018/03/19/leip-m19.html
[5] E H Carr, The New Society, op cit, chapter 1.