Sunday, 28 July 2019

Some Thoughts on The BBC slanders the English Revolution: a reply by Alan Woods –22 July 2019


There are several things  I would like to take issue with in Alan Wood's extraordinary long attack on the BBC or more precisely its Channel Four documentary titled: ‘Charles I, Downfall of a King’.

Wood begins his polemic with this opening paragraph,I did not believe that it was possible for the low esteem in which I hold modern academics in general, and bourgeois historians in particular, to sink any lower than it already was. However, that belief was misplaced. I have just had the misfortune to watch a three-part series put out by BBC Channel Four with the title: ‘Charles I, Downfall of a King’. I now hold the intellectual qualities of our modern historians at a slightly lower level than those of Mr Bean. At least Mr Bean can be mildly amusing at times, but our self-appointed intellectuals lack even that redeeming virtue”.

Woods talks about “experts and self-appointed intellectuals”. I am not up on the libel laws of Britain, but Wood needs to reign in his scattergun approach. The historians appearing on the programme were all professional historians and have written several books on the subject. Woods is writing his first book on the subject, so a little humility would not go amiss.

The second thing to comment on is Woods disdain for modern academia. There are ways of polemicising about the general level of thought in academia. Unfortunately, Wood’s way is not a very good one. Also, it is one thing to attack the political bias of the historians that took part in the programme; it is another to dismiss their contributions to an understanding of the English revolution. The majority of those historians taking part have written thoughtful books on the subject. Those historians who have written narrative-driven books such as Charles Spencer are well worth a read.

If wood would like to view how an orthodox Marxist tackles modern academia, he could do no worse than consult the writings of David North, the quote below is taken from his lecture Eighty Years of the Fourth International: The Lessons of History and the Struggle for Socialism Today[1].

Under the subtitle, The impact of academic attacks on Marxism North writes “Of course, young people cannot be blamed for their limited knowledge of the revolutionary upheavals of the past century. From whom and from where are they to acquire the necessary knowledge? The capitalist media indeed will not dispense knowledge that may contribute to the overthrow of the existing social order. However, what about the universities, with their many learned professors? Unfortunately, the intellectual environment has been for many decades deeply hostile to genuine socialist theory and politics. Marxist theory—rooted in philosophical materialism—was long ago banished from the major universities.

Academic discourse is dominated by the Freudian pseudo-science and idealist subjectivism of the Frankfurt School and the irrationalist gibberish of post-modernism. Professors inform their students that the “Grand Narrative” of Marxism is without relevance in the modern world. What they actually mean is that the materialist conception of history, which established the central and decisive revolutionary role of the working class in a capitalist society, cannot and should not be the basis of left-wing politics”.

Before moving on to other things, it is worth a comment on the title of Wood’s polemic. Woods believes that the BBC has slandered the English revolution. Slander is a strange word to use. Maybe Wood is preparing a libel action against the BBC, or he has not been paying too much attention to the many BBC history programmes which have all been written very conservative standpoint. Woods is correct in that the BBC has shunned this subject up until now, but this has been the response by other media such as cinema and commercial television.

Woods does make a correct point that “Our historians do not like to talk about this because it contradicts everything we have been led to believe for decades, and indeed centuries. Now, at last, they finally decided to talk about it because the present crisis in Britain has upset all the old comforting illusions. We are living in the most turbulent period, probably in the whole history of Britain – certainly for a very long time. Moreover, if we are to seek some point of reference in history for events that are unfolding before our eyes, it is impossible to ignore what occurred in this country in the stormy years of the 17th century”.

I do agree that Hilton should have made more of Rees. However, this is the BBC, what do you expect. One criticism I have made, and it is in my review[2] is that the historians who contributed to the programme went into it blind, not knowing the historical bias of the programme.

Wood correctly states that the programme was the product of the current postmodernist trend in history. This trend in history as in many subjects glorifies irrationalism, through the cultivation of backwardness and religious prejudice against the search for objective truth. My problem with Wood on this matter is that he has given the programme importance it does not merit. The BBC four programme does not constitute slander or betrayal of the English revolution it is what it is a very conservative history programme why elevate it to world-historical importance it does not have.

Wood’s finishes his over eleven thousand word polemic saying “With the honourable exception of John Rees, the self-styled ‘experts’ in this series cannot conceal their spiteful attitude towards long-dead revolutionaries. This extreme vindictiveness can hardly be explained by the events that happened so long ago. Behind it lies an unspoken fear that revolution can recur in our times”.

It is not surprising that Wood announced at the end of his article that he is writing a book on the English revolution. It is hoped that his scattergun approach to history is reigned in and that his attitude towards revolution is re-examined. Wood’s record on the subject of revolution is not a very good one as his support for Hugo Chavez would imply.

Woods wrote in his glowing obituary of Chavez. “ Hugo Chávez is no more. Always a fighter, Chávez spent his last months in a life and death struggle against a cruel and implacable enemy – cancer. He fought bravely to the very end, but finally, his strength gave out. On Tuesday, March 5, at 4.25 pm the cause of freedom, socialism and humanity lost a great man and the author of these lines lost a great friend”[3].

However, a more orthodox Marxist assessment of Chavez would be “Chavez’s nationalist rhetoric, his government’s diversion of revenues from the country’s protracted oil bonanza to pay for social assistance programs and its forging of extensive economic ties to China earned him the hatred of both Washington and a fascistic ruling class layer in Venezuela. They did not, however—as both he and his pseudo-left supporters claimed—represent a path to socialism. Chavez was a bourgeois nationalist, whose government rested firmly on the military from which he came and which continues to serve as the crucial arbiter in the affairs of the Venezuelan state”.[4] The moral of this article is that people living in glass houses should not throw too many stones.




[1] www.wsws.org/en/articles/2018/10/09/codn-o09.html
[2] http://keith-perspective.blogspot.com/2019/07/review-charles-i-downfall-of-king-lisa.html
[3] A tribute to Hugo Chávez- https://www.marxist.com/a-tribute-to-hugo-chavez.htm
[4] Hugo Chavez and socialism-8 March 2013- https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2013/03/08/pers-m08.html