Saturday, 22 June 2019

A Man of Contradictions: a Life of A.L. Rowse-Richard Ollard, Allen Lane, 1999

“As for the individual, everyone is a son of his time; so philosophy also is its time apprehended in thoughts. It is just as foolish to fancy that any philosophy can transcend its present world, as that an individual could leap out of his time or jump over Rhodes”.

Hegel, Preface to The Philosophy of Right (1821)

“I confess that he gets on my nerves. I have admired some of his work. However, the ipse behind the work - what a lot of that ipse there is!”.

Herbert Butterfield

To describe Rowse as Richard Ollard does in his book as a man of contradictions is probably the biggest understatement of both  the 20th century and 21st Century. Ollard’s book is worth reading if only because of his attempt to place Rowse in the context of his time.

I no intention of studying Rowse until I wandered into his historical orbit after reading Spirit of English History published in 1943 at the height of the war with Germany. Hence the dedication of the book to Winston Churchill.

For a man who dabbled with Marxist politics in the 1930s, this book is about as far removed from orthodox Marxism as you could get. It would be correct to say that Rowse was closer to Hegel than Marx. Hegel, in his book the Philosophy of History, also talked about a “world Spirit “ in history. Hegel writes. “It is only an inference from the history that its development has been a rational process; that the history in question has constituted the rationale necessary course of the world spirit-that spirit whose nature is always the same but which unfolds this is one nature in the phenomena of the world’s existence.”[1]

This analysis is echoed by Julia Stapleton who writes “The very title of one volume, The English Spirit (1945), would be anathema to a Marxist, despite his somewhat unconvincing attempt at the same time to include the character of the people in his broad definition of the underlying (economic) conditions of British history. The English Spirit was launched with an impressive print-run of 10,000 copies (Ollard, p. 179). In this collection of essays, Rowse is the epitome of the national intellectual, depicting and celebrating a unifying national tradition rooted in literature and life in which the thorny issue of class is completely passed over. Its inspiration is much more George Santayana - whom Rowse quotes admiringly - than Marx[2].

Much of Rowse’s patriotism and defence of the empire would make even the right-wing historian Niall Ferguson blush. The massive sales of this book tended to reflect the brief outburst of patriotism during the war, which largely dissipated after 1945, when the threat of social revolution became a reality.

As Ollard states in his book, Rowse was not an easy man to live with. Much has been made of his childhood and the influence his mother and father had on his later life, and this is explored in the book. While these influences may have impacted on his social attitudes and relationships to the public and other historians, I believe that far more external forces made Rowse the figure he was. After all most of his life spanned a century that was shaped by wars and revolutions.
Saying this, I am not belittling Rowse who was a man of some intellect and insight, who had to struggle to get where he did. This struggle is accurately recorded in the book. Rowse was the son of a china clay miner, both his parents were semi-literate. According to Robert Thomas” Rowse was a brilliant student who learned to read by the age of 4, became obsessed with speaking precisely correct English and worked so hard to win the only Cornwall scholarship to Oxford that it almost ruined his already precarious health”.[3]

In his autobiography Rowse claims “I owe what I am to the struggle, it isolated me from others, it concentrated me within the unapproachable tower of my resolve; I was determined to do what I wanted to do; I was left sufficiently to myself, for nobody was interested, to carry on what I wanted in my own way and nourish the inner life of my own imagination”.

Even a cursory read of Ollards book would show the reader that Rowse’s connection with Marxism was tenuous, he never joined the Communist Party and rejected dialectical materialism, and despite reviewing Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, he had no connection with any Trotskyist group. This one of the contradictions alluded to in the title. Rowse’s writings were according to Julia Stapleton “accompanied by a sustained profession of Marxist faith. At its most elementary level, this took the form of an insistence on the shallowness of any history which does not see with understanding and sympathy how throughout the ages the burden has always rested on the people.”.[4]

While Rowse was not overtly hostile to Marxism, his empathy towards certain aspects of it needs explaining. Readers could no worse than examine what the historian Robert Ashton had to say when writing about the English Revolution, Ashton makes an interesting point on why some historians while not being Marxist did use Marxist ideas.

Ashton said “The idea of religious, political and constitutional issues as an ideological superstructure based on foundations of material and class interests has been influential far beyond the ranks of Marxist historians. It has indeed been adopted, in part at least and with a radically different emphasis, by some of their more formidable and determined opponents.

Julia Stapleton in her review makes the point “he exemplified the wider tensions in British intellectual life in the middle decades of the twentieth century: a residual English nationalism and liberalism bequeathed by a declining but still seductive Whig ideal and a Marxism which posed a serious challenge to, but never entirely succeeded in displacing the latter This was certainly true of ' formative years in the 1930s. Such tensions were bound to become accentuated in a writer whose own personality was perpetually under the strain of oppositional forces. However, there is surely further scope for exploring these and other intellectual currents which informed ' work. For example, another historian who felt the charms of both Marxism and Whiggism in the 1930s and 40s was Butterfield himself. ‘Anti-intellectualism married to a vehement patriotism was also not exclusive to him, but was shared by other contemporary writers such as Arthur Bryant and Francis Brett Young, as well as Betjeman”.

Rowse’s attitude towards Trotsky is worth examining. Ollard only mentions Trotsky once in the book to tell us that Rowse read his Literature and Revolution book.

Rowse has a certain sympathy towards the Russian revolution but only to a certain point.  Moreover, you cannot compare his review to the large number of hatchet jobs on Trotsky from several current historians who have written on Trotsky.

Rowse writes “For the real claim of this book is not that it is an impersonal, a scientific history; though, indeed, it is a brilliant example of a very rare species, a history that is inspired by the conception of society and the forces at work in it, implied by historical materialism. This, in short, is a Marxist history, but not the Marxist history of the Revolution; for that we shall have to wait for some future Pokrovsky, altogether more impersonal, more objective; but, no doubt, that will be a much duller affair whereas this is alive and tingling in every nerve. It has all the brilliant qualities, and the defects, of its author’s personality. It has extreme definiteness of outline, a relentlessness towards his enemies that goes with it, dramatic sense and visual power, a remarkable sympathy for the moods of the masses with a gift for vividly portraying them – the qualities we should expect from a great orator; and, in addition, the political understanding of a first-rate political figure”.[5]

Rowse seems to hold a respect for the writer, and this can be seen in this quote “It was impossible to expect Trotsky to suppress his own personality in the book; not only for the reason that he is Trotsky, but because, after all, he played such an Important part in the Revolution. To have suppressed him would be a falsification of history. However, he does go much further towards impersonality than one would have thought possible from one of his temperament. He writes throughout in the third person; he keeps himself in the background of the picture. The book gives an impression of a highly exciting personality, but not one of egoism; and, with one notable exception, it leaves an impression of fairness, at least not of unfairness. In the light of events, he seems justified in his merciless characterisation of the Tsar and Tsarina, Miliukov, Kornilov, Kerensky, and many of the Socialists. The exception is, of course, Stalin”.[6]

This part of the review ends Rowse’s attempt at an ‘objective’ review. Rowse clearly did not understand the political divisions that separated Trotsky from Stalin. Contained within Trotsky’s writing after the death of Lenin is his irreconcilable political differences with Stalin. This does not really interest Rowse.

To him, the political struggle was just a personal feud with Stalin. Rowse claims this has  “has prevented him(Trotsky) from recognising Stalin’s part in the Revolution. Whenever he comes near the subject, the history tends to turn into a political pamphlet; and one is tempted to think that Trotsky writes history, as the celebrated Dr Clifford was said to offer extemporary prayer, for the purpose of scarifying his enemies. Nobody would guess from his account that in the October Revolution, though Trotsky was the President of the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Soviet, which organised the insurrection, Stalin was responsible for the organisation of the Bolshevik Party, apart from the Soviet in which other parties were included, to the same end. Over the struggle within the party in October, when Lenin was forcing them into insurrection, and the party was divided in opinion, it seems needless to attack Stalin, as the editor of Pravda, for trying to tone down the differences: it is the function of a party organ to gloss over the differences within the party, before the eyes of the outside world. Nor, though Trotsky allows that Stalin’s defects are not due to lack of character, as in the case of Kamenev and Zinoviev, the two opponents of the insurrection, is it reasonable to attack him on the ground of his caution. There are leaders and leaders. It is true that Stalin is not of the tempestuous, romantic type of revolutionary like Trotsky, but he is none the less a great leader. He reminds one rather of Burghley in our own history, who had a great gift for taking cover. But that did not prevent him from being bold and courageous in policy, as in the case of the great leap in the dark of 1559 when this country was committed finally and decisively to the Protestant Reformation. And so, too, Stalin is the man, after all, who have taken the plunge of committing Russia to the Five Years’ Plan”.

This glorification of Stalin would not look out of place with other more modern ones carried out by historians such as Ian Thatcher and Robert Service. His review of Leon Trotsky ‘s book does expose Rowse‘s own political agenda he was after all a member of the Labour Party. Despite  Rowse’s empathy towards Trotsky, he shared the Labour Party’s inbuilt hostility to Trotsky and Trotskyism.


There many problems with Ollards book. Perhaps the most serious is his blindness to Rowse’s indifference to the philosophy of history.

According to Edward Hallett Carr Dr A. L. Rowse, more justly critical, wrote of Sir Winston Churchill's The World Crisis -- his book about the First World War -- that, while it matched Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution in personality, vividness, and vitality, it was inferior in one respect: it had "no philosophy of history behind it." British historians refused to be drawn, not because they believed that history had no meaning, but because they believed that its meaning was implicit and self-evident. The liberal nineteenth-century view of history had a close affinity with the economic doctrine of laissez-faire - also the product of a serene and self-confident outlook on the world. Let everyone get on with his particular job, and the hidden hand would take care of the universal harmony. The facts of history were themselves a demonstration of the supreme fact of a beneficent and apparently infinite progress towards higher things. This was the age of innocence, and historians walked in the Garden of Eden, without a scrap of philosophy to cover them, naked and unashamed before the god of history. Since then, we have known Sin and experienced a fall; and those historians who today pretend to dispense with a philosophy of history are merely trying, vainly and self-consciously, like members of a nudist colony, to recreate the Garden of Eden in their garden suburb. Today the awkward question can no longer be evaded”.

To conclude Ollards book provides the reader with a kind but a basic introduction to A. L. Rowse. Two significant failings of the book are that it does not address Rowse’s political perspectives in any great detail and does not examine his lack of interest in the philosophy of history.

Julia Stapleton adds “There is much self-indulgence in language and imagery, and the footnoting is slipshod, even allowing for an understandable contempt for the dry-as-dust nature of modern scholarship. At one point, for example, the reader is referred to the already sizeable literature on the subject without any further details (p. 68). Nevertheless, this is an extremely rewarding book, and it has undoubtedly set the framework for any future studies of Rowse”.

[1] Philosophy of History, G Hegel,
[3] A. L. Rowse, Masterly Shakespeare Scholar, Dies at 93-.OCT. 6, 1997-
[5] An Epic of Revolution:Reflections on Trotsky’s History(The History of the Russian Revolution)
Published: The End of an Epic: Reflections on Contemporary History, Macmillan, 1947
[6] An Epic of Revolution:Reflections on Trotsky’s History(The History of the Russian Revolution)
Published: The End of an Epic: Reflections on Contemporary History, Macmillan, 1947