Sunday, 17 October 2021

A Rebel's Guide to George Orwell – by John Newsinger-Published by Bookmarks publication-December 10, 2020.

 "If there was hope, it must lie in the proles... Everywhere stood the same solid unconquerable figure, made monstrous by work and child-bearing, toiling from birth till death and still singing. You were the dead; theirs was the future. But you could share in that future if you kept alive the mind."

George Orwell -1984

In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.

George Orwell

'"All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."'

Animal Farm

Bookmarks are the publishing arm of the British Socialist Workers Party (S.W.P.). Their Rebel's Guide is a series of small books which largely consist of condensed versions of larger books written by the same author.

A Rebel's Guide to George Orwell by John Newsinger is one of these books. It is largely a smaller version of his book Orwell's Politics.[1]At only sixty pages long, this is a short introductory guide to the work of the English writer George Orwell. To a certain extent, Newsinger does a good job. By any stretch of the imagination, Orwell is a complex and controversial literary and political figure. He was, without doubt, one of the most influential writers of the 20th century

Orwell is an attractive figure for the S.W.P. They even mistakenly go as far as calling him a literary Trotskyist.[2]A significant amount of material has been written about Orwell by this Pseudo Left political organisation. Yet, for all their so-called insight, they do not characterise Orwell as a centrist political figure.

This is not to denigrate the work of one of the great literary figures of the 20th century, but political categories matter. A simple reading of Leon Trotsky's writings on centrism would help understand Orwell's shifting political positions that occurred throughout his life. As Trotsky said, "Speaking formally and descriptively, centrism is composed of all those trends within the proletariat and on its periphery which are distributed between reformism and Marxism, and which most often represent various stages of evolution from reformism to Marxism – and vice-versa. Both Marxism and reformism have a solid social support underlying them. Marxism expresses the historical interests of the proletariat. Reformism speaks for the privileged position of proletarian bureaucracy and aristocracy within the capitalist state. Centrism, as we have known it in the past, did not have and could not have an independent social foundation.

Different layers of the proletariat develop in the revolutionary direction in different ways and at different times. In periods of prolonged industrial uplift or the periods of political ebb tide, after defeats, different layers of the proletariat shift politically from left to right, clashing with other layers who are just beginning to evolve to the left. Different groups are delayed on separate stages of their evolution; they find their temporary leaders and create their programs and organisations. Small wonder then that such a diversity of trends is embraced in the comprehension of "centrism"! Depending upon their origin, their social composition and the direction of their evolution, different groupings may be engaged in the most savage warfare with one another, without losing thereby their character of being a variety of centrism".[3]

While Trotsky was not writing directly about Orwell, who vacillated between revolution and reformism for most of his life, they capture the essence of Orwell's politics.  But he was also a consistent anti-capitalist and a lifelong opponent of Stalinism. He died a Socialist

There are many striking aspects of Newsinger's work on Orwell. Perhaps the most obvious is that for a member of an organisation that purports to be Trotskyist, he makes no use of Leon Trotsky's writings on centrism or his important writings on The Spanish Revolution in this small book or bafflingly in his major book Orwell's politics, making one passing comment that Trotsky had differences with the centrist POUM leader Andreas Nin.

To his credit, Newsinger does show that Orwell read many works by the various radical groups of the time. As Newsinger shows "Orwell saw no shame in starting small. He collected pamphlets from even the smallest groups, and he took them seriously. The 214-page inventory of his 2,700-item collection includes pamphlets by the All-India Congress Socialist Party, the People's National Party (Jamaica), the Polish Labour Underground Press, the Leninist League, the Groupe Syndical Français, the Workers' Friend, Freedom Press, Russia Today, the Meerut Trade Union Defence Committee, the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, and myriad others".[4]

He also read Karl Marx and had a substantial collection of left-wing pamphlets borne out by this quote from Newsinger's book on Orwell" I have before me, what must be a very rare pamphlet, written by Maxim Litvinoff in 1918 and outlining the recent events in the Russian Revolution. It makes no mention of Stalin but gives high praise to Trotsky and also to Zinoviev." [5]

Orwell also had a significant number of Leon Trotsky works found in his library after his death. He believed that "Trotskyism can be better studied in obscure pamphlets or in papers like the Socialist Appeal than in the works of Trotsky himself, who was by no means a man of one idea."[6]

As Newsinger states, Orwell read a significant amount of Trotsky's work enough to be heavily influenced by his work. You could safely say that without Trotsky's analysis of Stalinism, Orwell could not have produced his two most famous works Animal Farm and 1984. Orwell mistakenly called himself a Democratic Socialist, but he was more than that. As he writes, he was heavily influenced and radicalised by the times he lived in "In a peaceful age, I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties. As it is, I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer... Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows."[7]

As Newsinger points out, Orwell was not always a socialist his early days were spent being a colonial policeman in Burma. Orwell was forced to break from this past imperial life. He did so in response to the 1926 General Strike in Britain. His experiences of poverty and unemployment shaped Orwell's future writing in the North of England. As Orwell explained, "I have only been down one coal mine so far but hope to go down some more in Yorkshire. It was for me a pretty devastating experience, and it is fearful thought that the labour of crawling as far as the coal face (about a mile in this case but as much as 3 miles in some mines), which was enough to put my legs out of action for four days, is only the beginning and ending of a miner's day's work, and his real work comes in between." [8]

Stalinism's betrayal of the Spanish revolution had a massive impact on Orwell and led to certain disorientation and confusion, which showed up in his later writings, particularly his work on war and nationalism. His experience of revolutionary Spain would move him further to the left. Homage to Catalonia, written about the events in Spain, is arguably his most important book and the key event in Orwell's political life.

The English historian Eric Hobsbawm. Suffice to say; this book came under ferocious attack from Stalinists around the world. They still attack it even today. As Ann Talbot writes, "One could be forgiven for thinking, from the venom with which Hobsbawm attacks him, that Ken Loach was personally responsible for the defeat of the Spanish Republic. And George Orwell, author of Homage to Catalonia, which records his own experiences in the Spanish Civil War, also comes under sustained attack. Victor Gollancz was right to refuse to publish the book Hobsbawm fumes, and Kingsley Martin of the New Statesman was right to run hostile reviews when it was published since it could only divide the left. No one was interested in it anyway. "Only in the cold-war era did Orwell cease to be an awkward, marginal figure." With this sneering remark, Hobsbawm implies that Orwell was serving the interests of Washington and the C.I.A. when he tried to expose the crimes of the Moscow bureaucracy in Spain. It is an old lie and one that has been hawked about ever since 1938 when Homage to Catalonia revealed the way in which Stalin suppressed the revolution in Spain".[9]

This confusion is seen in his essay the Lion and the Unicorn. Orwell writes, "England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their nationality. In left-wing circles, it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings". This could be seen as an attack on left-wing intellectuals. It also could read as a little bit of a right-wing attitude as regards patriotism.

Orwell's essay was not just a knee jerk reaction to the war. As Gregory Claeys points out, "before he wrote The Lion and the Unicorn Orwell had briefly suggested three of its central themes: first, patriotism was not inherently conservative or reactionary, but might be expressed as a legitimate sentiment among those on the left; second, patriotism alone would not prevent England's defeat, but instead the social revolution must progress (and here his Spanish ideals were clearly carried forward). Third, Orwell argued that, in fact, it was those who were most patriotic who were least likely to "flinch from revolution when the moment comes." John Cornford, a Communist, killed while serving in the International Brigades, had been "public school to the core." This proved, Orwell thought, that one kind of loyalty could transmute itself into another and that it was necessary for the coming struggle to recognise "the spiritual need for patriotism and the military virtues".[10]

Orwell's work after Spain vacillated between right and left positions. Some of his best analyses drew heavily on the works of Leon Trotsky and his British supporters. As this quote shows, his work also contained much political confusion. He writes, "It is only by revolution that the native genius of the English people can be set free. Revolution does not mean red flags and street fighting; it means a fundamental shift of power. Whether it happens with or without bloodshed is largely an accident of time and place. Nor does it mean the dictatorship of a single class. The people in England who grasp what changes are needed and are capable of carrying them through are not confined to any one class, though it is true that very few people with over £2,000 a year are among them. What is wanted is a conscious open revolt by ordinary people against inefficiency, class privilege and the rule of the old. It is not primarily a question of change of government.

British governments do, broadly speaking, represent the will of the people, and if we alter our structure from below, we shall get the government we need. Ambassadors, generals, officials and colonial administrators who are senile or pro-Fascist are more dangerous than Cabinet ministers whose follies have to be committed in public. Right through our national life, we have got to fight against privilege, against the notion that a half-witted public schoolboy is better for command than an intelligent mechanic. Although there are gifted and honest individuals among them, we have got to break the grip of the monied class as a whole. England has got to assume its real shape. The England that is only just beneath the surface, in the factories and the newspaper offices, in the aeroplanes and the submarines, has got to take charge of its own destiny."[11]


It is hard not to recommend this little book. It is a good basic introduction to the work of George Orwell. A Short Review of this book is not enough to do justice to such an important literary and political figure's work and legacy, as Orwell undoubtedly was. Towards the end of his life, there was much controversy over the issue of Orwell of compiling a list of some 130 prominent figures in 1949 that he believed were sympathetic to the Stalinist regime in Moscow.

Orwell gave over 35 of these names to a secret government organisation called the Information Research Department. This was an arm of the British Foreign Office set up for organising anti-Soviet and anticommunist propaganda. This fact has been used to rubbish his political and literary legacy.

What Orwell did was wrong and a grave mistake, but his actions should be put in historical context not to justify what he did but to understand and learn from this experience.

As points out, "Orwell, to his credit, was neither a dupe of Stalinism nor a bourgeois liberal defender of the Moscow regime during this period. He took up an intransigent struggle against Stalinism from the left, at a time when this was the most unpopular position to take amongst liberal intellectuals. When Homage to Catalonia was published, Orwell was virtually ostracised for this account of the Spanish Civil War, which laid bare the Stalinists' treachery against the Spanish and international working class. The Stalinists and their supporters were enraged by the book's exposure of their role in strangling a genuine revolutionary movement through the same bloody methods then being utilised inside the USSR”. [12]

His work should be studied and critiqued, he was an intransigent opponent of Stalinism and died an opponent of capitalism. It should be in that context that his memory should be honoured.


1.   George Orwell and the British Foreign Office-Fred Mazelis-

2.   A comment: Revisiting George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four in 2010-Richard Mynick-

3.   George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, Stalinism and the Spanish revolution-

4.   Eric Hobsbawm on the Spanish Civil War: an anti-historical tirade Ann Talbot-


For Emily, My Bestie




[2] George Orwell: a literary Trotskyist? A review of John Newsinger, Orwell's Politics (Macmillan Press, 1999), £42.50 Anna Chen

[3] Centrism “in General” and the Centrism-of the Stalinist Bureaucracy

(January 1932) -


[5] Orwell's Politics-By J. Newsinger


[7] George Orwell, Why I Write (September, 1946)

[8] George Orwell, letter to Richard Rees (29th February, 1936)

[9] Eric Hobsbawm on the Spanish Civil War: an anti-historical tirade

Ann Talbot-

[10] "The Lion and the Unicorn", Patriotism, and Orwell's Politics-Gregory Claeys-The Review of Politics-Vol. 47, No. 2 (Apr., 1985), pp. 186-211

[11] The Lion And The Unicorn-Socialism and the English Genius-1941

George Orwell


Thursday, 9 September 2021

The Tragedy of the Worker-Towards the Proletarocene-by The Salvage Collective-Part of the Salvage Editions series-112 pages / July 2021-Verso publication.

Liberation is a historical and not a mental act. Communists do not oppose egoism to selflessness or selflessness to egoism, nor do they express this contradiction theoretically, either in its sentimental or in its high-flown ideological form; they rather demonstrate its material source".

The German Ideology by Marx and Engels[1]

"From the standpoint of a higher economic formation, the private property of particular individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men",

Karl Marx[2]

From the start, it must be said that this book is a thoroughly reactionary, pessimistic, anti-Marxist and anti-working class diatribe. A reader would be hard press to find a more right-wing publication this year. It is to Verso's eternal shame and damnation that it collaborated with its publication.

Despite containing a few left-wing phrases, the word communism is mentioned a few times. But even when they do this, they distort and pervert Marxism. Like in this quote from Marx, What the bourgeoisie produces, above all, are its grave-diggers taken from The Communist Manifesto, which is correct what follows is a perversion of Marxism they continue (the) "tragedy of the worker, must be her grave-digger as long as she works for capitalism. Capital never extracts energy from the Earth, but it makes a taxing withdrawal from the worker's body".

The authors have nothing to do with Marxism. The basic premise of this book is that Mankind is doomed unless it reverts to a pre-capitalist society and that the working class must share some of the blame for the state of the planet because it is a by-product of the development of capitalism.

While the authors of this book would like to think that their political outlook and solution to Mankind's problems are new, you can trace their political outlook to that of The Frankfurt School. The authors share the same form of subjective idealism that believes in the primacy of thought over matter, the very opposite of Marxism.

As Tom Carter writes, "Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, two leaders of the Frankfurt School, concluded that the Enlightenment was to blame for all the authoritarianism and barbarism that characterised the first half of the 20th century, because it was all the inevitable result of a misguided attempt to exert control over nature through science and reason. Adorno would go on in Negative Dialectics (1966) to claim that all systemic thought is inherently authoritarian.[3]

The Tragedy of the Worker's main critique of Classical Marxism is that it is anthropocentric—that it is only bothered about human needs. The author's viewpoints are of an ecocentric philosophy that is nature-centred.

As Joel Kovel, long-time editor of the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism, writes, "We believe in the intrinsic value of nature, and believe that the highest expression of this is the global reclamation of the commons, which we call ecosocialism".[4] It must be said that these so-called radical environmentalists have nothing to do with socialism or even Marxism. In many ways, they use these terms much like the Nazi's did in the 1930s to fool the working class and hide their reactionary agenda.

While the political outlook of this so-called radical environmentalist stems from the Frankfurt School, the authors of this book, for the most part, came out of a bitter split in the British Socialist Workers Party in 2013[5]. Their reactionary perspective that was tolerated and in many ways shared inside the SWP for so long says more about the SWP than it does about the authors of this book.

As Chris Marsden writes, "The dispute has focused almost exclusively upon allegations of rape made against a leading member of the party and the mishandling of the charges by the SWP's Disputes Committee. The opposition is led by unashamedly referred to as the party's "celebrity members", such as Richard Seymour, who runs the blog Lenin's Tomb, and fantasy writer China Miéville. It draws support from academia and the Socialist Workers Party Students Societies. Their views are posted widely, and internal documents are routinely leaked to hostile publications. Attempts by the SWP leadership to pose as an orthodox opposition to such positions are a transparent fraud. The SWP has incubated the elements involved in the anti-leadership faction and their politics. They draw on positions advocated for years by the party.

The Tragedy of the Worker was reviewed in the SWP's main theoretical journal, the misnamed International Socialism by Ian Angus.[6] Angus makes mild criticism of the book but offers an olive branch to the authors, saying, "Because of the unfortunate tendency of the left to treat every disagreement as grounds for ostracism, I must stress that this is a disagreement among environmental activists, and I raise it intending to advance our common project, which an open discussion of our differences can only strengthen".

Angus completely ignores the confused, desperate, and deeply pessimistic approach these authors have to global climate change. Take this quote "In the era of Marx and Engels, and in the long century after, communists dreamed of liberating humanity and enjoying a world of plenty, sharing in abundance. Had October inaugurated a new era of revolutions, had barbarism's reign ended a century sooner, perhaps that is the world we would have. If Communism – automated or otherwise – was possible at that moment, we hypothesise that now, as we race past tipping point after tipping point, it is no longer – at least not before a long and difficult age of repair. From our benighted vantage point, the birth, growth and exploitation of the working class have been inextricable from biocide and catastrophe. That is to say, global proletarianisation and ecological disaster have been products of the same process. The Earth the wretched would – will – inherit, will be in need of an assiduous programme of restoration. While we may yearn for luxury, what will be necessary first is Salvage Communism"[7].

It is hard to work out where to begin in attacking this reactionary nonsense. This idea that we could "salvage Communism" is hardly original. As David North points out, Michel Pablo made a similar approach in the 1950s. North writes, "The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 provided a degree of political credibility to the conception that the United States was preparing for all-out war against the Soviet Union. Still occupied with a discussion that centred on the process through which the social character of the buffer states had been transformed under Stalinist auspices, Pablo seized upon the possibility of war, converted it into an imminent inevitability, and made it the starting point and centrepiece of a new and bizarre perspective for the realisation of socialism. Adopted at the ninth plenum of the IEC of the Fourth International in 1951, the theory of "war-revolution" argued that the eruption of war between the United States and the Soviet Union would assume the form of a global civil war, in which the Soviet bureaucracy would be compelled to serve as the midwife of social revolutions.

In the schema worked out by Pablo, the international proletariat ceased to play any independent role. Instead, all political initiative in shaping world events was attributed to world imperialism and the Soviet bureaucracy. This was spelt out in the document, suggestively entitled "Where Are We Going?" The theoretical essence of his perspective was spelt out as follows: "For our movement, objective social reality consists essentially of the capitalist regime and the Stalinist world. Furthermore, whether we like it or not, these two elements, by and large, constitute objective social reality, for the overwhelming majority of the forces opposing capitalism are right now to be found under the leadership or influence of the Soviet bureaucracy".[8]

To conclude, this book is deeply reactionary and pessimistic. The authors  seem to want to wallow in their disorientation and pessimism, saying, "Salvage has earned its pessimism. There is much to be pessimistic about. Fascist politics have not enjoyed a better climate since 1945. The climate crisis is underway and bringing with it yet further fecund material for a reconstituted far-right. The organisation and militancy of the working-class continue to fray, as does the revolutionary tradition. Hope is still precious; it must still be rationed.  Yet, having yearned for our pessimism to be proved wrong and been giddied by Evental shifts which allow for habitable outcomes to be war-gamed, Salvage is tentatively open to a more generous ration of hope. Salvage, recognising that the catastrophe is already upon us and that the decisive struggle is over what to do with the remains, is for the Communism of the ruins.[9]

The authors are a collection of disillusioned petty bourgeoisie pseudo lefts who, even if they believed which I doubt that the working class could solve the climate crisis, they do not believe that now. They see the working class as passive and collaborates with capitalism in bringing about Mankind's destruction. Not a revolutionary class that can fight for a socialist cause that will nationalise giant corporations and banks under workers' control and abolish capitalism and the nation-state system.




[2] Capital Vol. III Part VI-

[3] The ideological foundations of Critical Race Theory-


[5] See Britain’s Socialist Workers Party descends into factional warfare

Chris Marsden-14 February 2013-

[6] Anthropocentrism versus ecocentrism: notes on a false dichotomy

Issue: 171-Posted on 23rd July 2021-

[7] The Tragedy of the Worker: Towards the Proletarocene

by Salvage Editorial Collective | January 31, 2020

[8] The Heritage We Defend-


Sunday, 29 August 2021

The Royal Society: And the Invention of Modern Science, by Adrian Tinniswood, Head of Zeus, RRP£18.99, 256 pages

 Nullius in Verba. On no man's word.

The motto of the Royal Society 

In science, it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds, and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should because scientists are human, and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan

August 29, 1662. The council and fellows of the Royal Society went in a body to Whitehall to acknowledge his Majesty's royal grace to granting our charter and vouchsafing to be himself our founder; then the President gave an eloquent speech, to which his Majesty gave a gracious reply, and we all kissed his hand. The next day, we went in like manner with our address to my Lord Chancellor, who had much prompted our patent.

— John Evelyn

"If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."

Isaac Newton 1675


Adrian Tinniswood’s new book is a superb introduction to the origins of the Royal Society. His book part of the Landmark Library series is well written and finely researched. Tinniswood is a historian with no previous track record in science history, so this is a remarkably good book. It is compact and highly accessible.

The Society resulted from the huge intellectual and political ferment that was created by the English bourgeois revolution. Tinniswood shows that before the Royal Society became a recognised body, it comprised a collection of discussion groups.

Many of these groups were inspired by Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Bacon was part of the massive growth of intellectual ideas that proceeded in the seventeenth century. Bacon is an important figure because he was the first to reject traditional Aristotelian thinking and proposed an experimental investigation to find truths about nature.

As Karl Marx wrote, "The real progenitor of English materialism is Francis Bacon. Natural science is to him the true science, and sensuous physics the foremost part of science. Anaxagoras with his 'homoimeries' and Democritus with his atoms are often his authorities. According to Bacon, the senses arc unerring and the source of all knowledge. Science is experimental and consists in the application of a rational method to sensuous data. Observation, experiment, induction, analysis are the main conditions of a rational method. Of the qualities inherent in matter, the foremost is motion, not only as mechanical and mathematical motion, but more as impulse, vital force, tension, or as Jacob Boehme said, pain of matter. The primitive forms of the latter are living, individualising, inherent, and essential forces, which produce specific variations".[1]

However, not everyone saw as clear and precise as Bacon according to the Marxist writer David North " until the seventeenth century, even educated people still generally accepted that the ultimate answers to all the mysteries of the universe and the problems of life were found in the Old Testament. But its unchallengeable authority had been slowly eroding, especially since the publication of Copernicus's De Revolutionibus in the year of his death in 1543, which dealt a death blow to the Ptolemaic conception of the universe and provided the essential point of departure for the future conquests of Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Johann Kepler (1571-1630) and, of course, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Intellectually, if not yet socially, the liberation of man from the fetters of Medieval superstition and the political structures that rested upon it was well underway".[2]

Historians have largely accepted that the English bourgeois revolution created the conditions for establishing the Royal Society. Many of the practices adopted by the Society, according to Tinniswood, were "far ahead of its time". Probably one of the most important activities was the publishing of Philosophical Transactions, launched in 1665. It is the world longest-running scientific journal.

One of the more gruesome facts uncovered by Tinniswood was that live experiments were done on the premises at Gresham College. In 1664, Robert Hooke inserted a pipe into the trachea of a dog and pumped in the air with bellows saying, "I was able to preserve it alive as long as I could desire after I had wholly opened the thorax and cut off all the ribs, and opened the belly,".

Tinniswood convincingly argues that the Royal Societies methodology, scholarship and activities laid the foundations for developing modern science. Tinniswood book does not examine the class background of the founders of the Society, but it is clear that many of its founding members were from sections of the lower middle class and gentry class.

As Neil Humphrey writes, "The nature of the Society's membership evolved over the following centuries, but from its beginning, it was a multifarious organisation. Members of the British gentry that used the Society as a means for social advancement (while injecting it with much-needed capital) were plentiful alongside studious researchers. This diversity created a tension between science and privilege that finally exploded in 1830 when fellow Charles Babbage lambasted the glut of unproductive members. In 1847 the Duke of Sussex took the Society's reins, and scientific fellows seized control and amended its constitution in 1847 to stymie further influence from the gentry. This power-grab forever transformed the nature of the Society from that of a scientific, social club into a scholarly society".[3]

It is not easy to cover over three centuries of scientific developments in such a short book, but Tinniswood does well. One mild criticism is his lack of interest in what is happening recently in the Royal Society. It would appear that the Society's recent history is not as glorious as its past. In 2008 the Royal Society's education director, Professor Michael Reiss, was forced to resign for advocating the teaching of creationism in schools and evolution studies. He said, "Creationism is best seen by science teachers not as a misconception but as a world view."[4]

His comments provoke and anger and opposition from many members. Nobel Prize winners Richard Roberts, John Sulston and Harry Kroto, sent a letter demanding Reiss step down.


Tinniswood's history of The Royal Society is an accessible account of the formation of modern science. His writing style and explaining complex historical matters in a simple manner means the book is accessible to the general reader without losing its academic rigour. I would highly recommend it.



About the Author:

Adrian Tinniswood many books include Behind the Throne and The Long Weekend. He writes for many publications such as The New York Times and BBC History Magazine. He is a senior research fellow in history at The University of Buckingham, and he lives in Bath, England.




[1] England and Materialist Philosophy-

[2] Equality, the Rights of Man and the Birth of Socialism

David North-



Sunday, 15 August 2021

Review: Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton-Nicholas McDowell-Princeton University Press October 27 2020- 494 pages


"Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:

England hath need of thee: she is a fen

Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,

Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,

Have forfeited their ancient English dower

Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;

O raise us up, return to us again,

And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power."

William Wordsworth-London, 1802[1]


Let us never forget Milton, the first defender of regicide.[2]

-Frederick Engels, The Northern Star December 18, 1847.


"Innocence, Once Lost, Can Never Be Regained. Darkness, Once Gazed Upon, Can Never Be Lost."

John Milton


"We develop new principles for the world out of the world's own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to".

Karl Marx, Letter from the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher to Ruge (1843)


It would be perhaps an understatement to say that the poet John Milton (1608–1674) has a unique position in England's literary and intellectual history. It could also be argued that Paradise Lost and other great works could place Milton in the realm of one of the world's greatest narrative poets.

Nicholas McDowell's new book provides the reader with a competent introduction to the life of John Milton. While I do not normally pay too much attention to the title of a book, it is worth mentioning on this occasion. While Mcdowell concedes that Milton was a "poet of Revolution", he does not say that Milton was the poet of the English bourgeois revolution. McDowell deliberately downplays Milton's radicalism and his theoretical connection to groups like the Levellers, Diggers and other radical groups that appeared during the English bourgeois revolution.

A second significant omission from Mcdowell's book is his failure to show Milton's significant contemporary importance. The Poet Christopher Kempf recently issued a collection of Poems entitled What Though The Field Be Lost.[3] Kempf is a huge fan of Milton. According to Erik Schreiber, "The book takes its title from a line in Poet John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667), which describes Satan's rebellion against God, his defeat and his temptation of Adam and Eve. Critics have likened the angels' uprising to a civil war, and Milton's initial attempt to write the epic was indeed interrupted by the English Civil War. It is legitimate that Kempf turned to Milton after being inspired to focus on the American Civil War".[4]

Kempf, to his eternal credit, quotes for an ordinary soldier who, even during the most bloody conflict in American history, had the outstanding ability to compare his struggle with that of Milton's, writing, "An eagle in the very midst of the thunderstorm might have experienced such confusion. Milton's account of the great battle between the forces of good and evil, which originated in this same question of secession, gives some faint idea of this artillery duel."[5]-

The biggest weakness of McDowell's book is its deliberate failure to draw any connection Milton had to radical groups such as the Levellers and Diggers. His oversight is perhaps driven more by ideological considerations than an unintended omission on McDowell's part. One such omission is Mcdowell's non-use of David William's, Milton's Leveller God.

According to John Rees, Williams has "done a considerable service in bringing out this interpretation of Paradise Lost as an account of self-determining democratic revolution. It is a powerful and closely argued reading that will repay careful consideration by all those who wish to understand Milton's purpose. But there are more difficulties in seeing this as a direct reflection of specifically Leveller politics. First, there are some circumstantial difficulties. Things said in the revolutionary 1640s do not have the same meaning when said in the late 1660s. And they are not the same said in poetry rather than pamphlet prose. A revolutionary program advanced in the heat of debate and a poetic reflection two decades later may be related, but not in simple or straightforward ways. Second, and more importantly, in concentrating on the Leveller strand of thought informing Milton's politics, Williams excludes other threads in a more varied tapestry. There are, to be sure, continuities between Milton and the Levellers, but there are also important differences. Williams has certainly done us all a service in highlighting the former, but the latter need some consideration as well.[6]

Milton was a genius for all to see, but his Dissent and radicalism did not fall from the sky. He was part of the intellectual flowering of Dissent, a complex religious and intellectual development shared by other radical elements of the English Civil War, such as the Levellers, who wanted greater equality although not for everyone in society.

Milton and the other radical groups were also part of the merchant and manufacturing classes in their struggle against the aristocracy. Milton put this struggle by the merchant and manufacturing classes into a literary form and was joined by other major figures like John Bunyan's and his world-famous Pilgrim's Progress (1678). According to Paul Mitchell, Bunyan's use of imagery" reflected deep objective changes in society that also expressed the subjective strivings for a better future".

Milton's defence of the English Revolution and his agreement with the execution of Charles I meant his work would go on to influence a whole number of French and American revolutionaries. Milton's work was also followed by major figures in the 1917 Russian Revolution. The people's commissar for the Enlightenment, Anatole Lunarcharsky, compared the Russian Revolution to Milton's. Milton is also an attractive figure for revolutionaries of today. His revolutionary fervour, unfailing attachment to the 'good old cause', commitment to human freedom, and hatred of all forms of tyranny are good examples for all revolutionaries to follow. But you would not get that from McDowell's book.

McDowell's book is not without merit. It is a groundbreaking work in many ways and contains recent archival discoveries that, on a limited basis, further our understanding of the connection between Milton and the revolution he fought for. Mcdowell, unfortunately, is not a radical. His biography is very conservative and challenges biographers such as the Marxist Christopher Hill[7] , who, unlike Mcdowell, believed Milton was radical at a very early age and became more radical during the English revolution. Also, unlike McDowell, Hill believed that Milton's prose was heavily influenced by the English bourgeois revolution and groups such as the Levellers and Diggers. McDowell mentions the Levellers only twice in the book.

McDowell believes that Milton was a great history man but does not subscribe to any materialist or Marxist view of such men. Although the great Russian Marxist G.V Plekhanov was writing about a different period of history and different historical characters, his perceptive understanding of the role great figures play in history could be applied quite easily to Milton.

Plekhanov writes, "In the history of the development of human intellect, the success of some individual hinders the success of another individual very much more rarely. But even here, we are not free from the above-mentioned optical illusion. When a given state of society sets certain problems before its intellectual representatives, the attention of prominent minds is concentrated upon them until these problems are solved. As soon as they have succeeded in solving them, their attention is transferred to another object. By solving a problem, a given talent-A diverts the attention of talent B from the problem already solved to another problem. And when we are asked: What would have happened if A had died before he had solved problem X? – we imagine that the thread of development of the human intellect would have been broken. We forget that had A died, B, or C, or D might have tackled the problem, and the thread of intellectual development would have remained intact in spite of A's premature demise.

In order that a man who possesses a particular kind of talent may, by means of it, greatly influence the course of events, two conditions are needed. First, this talent must make him more conformable to the social needs of the given epoch than anyone else: if Napoleon had possessed the musical gifts of Beethoven instead of his own military genius, he would not, of course, have become an emperor. Second, the existing social order must not bar the road to the person possessing the talent which is needed and useful precisely at the given time. This very Napoleon would have died as the barely known General, or Colonel, Bonaparte, had the old order in France existed another seventy-five years. [8]

Christopher Hill

As was said earlier, Mcdowell does not subscribe to a materialist view of historical development. The last person to place Milton within the context of the great English bourgeois revolution was the Marxist Christopher Hill. Even with a cursory look at his biography of Milton,[9] it is easy to see that it contains more insight and gives the reader a far more multifaceted view of the poet than any other biography of Milton, including McDowell's. It could be argued that this was Hill's greatest book.

Hill correctly places Milton alongside other "Bourgois radicals" of the English Revolution. While Milton was influenced by ancient writers such as Plato, Aquinas, and Homer, Hill, believed Milton's connection with radical groups such as the Levellers and Diggers and others had a far more profound impact on his thinking and actions than has been given credit.

As this quote shows, Hill did not think Milton was a Leveller but said, "Lest I be misunderstood, I repeat that I do not think Milton was a Leveller, a Ranter, a Muggletonian or a Behemist. Rather I suggest that we should see him living in a state of permanent dialogue with radical views which he could not wholly accept, yet some of which greatly attracted him. (Milton and the English Revolution [1977], 113-14)

As Andrew Milner perceptively writes, "By the standards of previous Milton criticism, Hill's Milton is boldly adventurous. It restores the poet to that social context from which he has been wrenched by the ahistorical idealism of mainstream literary criticism. Its emphasis on the radicalism both of that context and of the poet himself serves as a valuable corrective to those who have sought to subsume Milton under the mantle of conservative orthodoxy. Milton the dour Puritan is superseded by Milton, the libertarian revolutionary, and much that has previously appeared obscure becomes clarified".[10]


McDowell's Poet of Revolution is not a bad book and contains much that is worthwhile. However, it does not give the reader any great new insight into the English bourgeois revolution or Milton' place within that revolution. Milton was a major player in that revolution. Marxists like Hill saw the  English Revolution of 1640-1660 as a bourgeois revolution. Hill also believed that paved the way for the future development of capitalism.

Figures like Milton and Oliver Cromwell were bourgeois revolutionaries who were convinced that they had divine support for their revolution. But they were not alone. Other radicals formed the left wing of this revolution. It was these groups that had an important impact on Milton's thinking as a poet and revolutionary. The next biography of Milton needs to explore this connection in greater depth.







[3] What Though the Field Be Lost-Poems-by Christopher Kempf- LSU Press


[5] Pvt. John C. West, 4th Texas, July 27, 1863-

[6] Williams, David. Milton's Leveller God. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queens UP, 2017. xviii + 494pp. ISBN 13: 9780773550339. $120.00 (cloth). Review by John Rees.

[7] Milton and the English Revolution Paperback – 18 Aug. 1997

by Christopher Hill

[8] G.V. Plekhanov-On the Role of the Individual in History(1898)

[9] Milton and the English Revolution-Christopher Hill-


Sunday, 18 July 2021

I Come To Bury Cromwell Not Praise Him

'Cromwell was about 50% saint and about 50% serpent.'

Ronald Hutton,

Cromwell's task consisted of inflicting as shattering a blow as possible upon the absolutist monarchy, the court nobility and the semi-Catholic Church, which had been adjusted to the needs of the monarchy and the nobility. For such a blow, Cromwell, the true representative of the new class, needed the forces and passions of the masses of people.'

Leon Trotsky

'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. But 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.'

Leon Trotsky

If the historian Thomas Carlyle were alive today, he would have sent a strongly worded email to the Bristol University Professor Ronald Hutton asking why he had heaped a further dead dog on top of the great leader of the English bourgeois revolution Oliver Cromwell.

In a recent BBC History magazine article called The dark truth about Oliver Cromwell, Hutton claims that "The victor of the Civil Wars described himself as pious, honest and selfless. But, as all too many victims of his lies and malice would have attested, the reality was often more sinister".[1]

The purpose of his BBC article was not to make an objective assessment of Cromwell but has more to do with the fact that Hutton has a book on Cromwell coming out in August.[2]

The last few decades have seen a veritable production line of studies examining every facet of the main leader of the English bourgeois revolution. In the past three decades alone, he has been the subject of five full-length biographies, three studies of his career as a soldier, and a further three major collections of essays.

Hutton is a capable historian, so why would he adopt the attitude of a Sun Newspaper journalist when assessing Cromwell. One reason is that he can get away with it. It is a rare event today when a historian challenges the work of a fellow historian. History has become far too polite. Long gone are the great debates of the past. Today's historians are far too comfortable and passive.

Hutton's essay has all the hallmarks of a provocation which he knows will go unanswered. A second reason and Hutton is correct to say that so little is known about Cromwell that it is easy to make outlandish comments on his character without too much come back.

Hutton's new book on Cromwell does not appear until August of this year, but it is clear from his previous work on Cromwell that he is unlikely to produce an objective biography of Cromwell based on the previous historiography. Hutton rejects the notion that Cromwell can be best understood from this objective standpoint.

While it is hoped that Hutton's new book does place Cromwell within the complex events that are known as the English Revolution, given that his BBC History Magazine does not, I will not hold my breath.

Hutton knows he cannot just trash the memory of Cromwell. In his essay, he pays lip service to Cromwell's many attributes but adds, "all this is quite familiar to scholars of the period, but my research also revealed less attractive – and less often noticed – aspects of Cromwell's personality. One is his relentless pursuit of self-promotion. He grabbed the attention of the Long Parliament, almost as soon as it was elected, by speaking on behalf of the famous radical Puritan John Lilburne, who had been imprisoned by the royal government. Cromwell had never met the man, but that did not prevent him from using his misfortune as an opportunity to further his career".[3]

The rest of Hutton's article continues trashing Cromwell's reputation. He rehashes previous vitriolic attacks on Cromwell, saying that "Cromwell prepared his soldiers to inflict violence and retribution before the assault by quoting a biblical text which called for the cleansing of the land of idolators, declaring of Catholic images that "they that make them are like unto them" and so should be destroyed with them. His notorious massacre at the Irish town of Drogheda, later in his career, was long presaged".

Buzzing Of The Bees

Despite it going out of fashion, I still find it important to establish what the great English historian E. H Carr said was going on inside a historians head. What if any bees are buzzing around Hutton's head?

The first thing that strikes you about Hutton's work is his underestimation of the damage revisionist historians have done in their Marxist and Whig historiography attacks. In his book Debates in Stuart History, according to Mark Stoyle, "Hutton argues that the 'revisionist' wave of the late 1970 s was the product of specific developments within the culture of academic life over the previous fifteen years: citing, in particular, the expansion of higher education, which prompted a novel disposition among academics 'to establish new work by questioning received views'; the sudden availability of fresh sources; and 'the general distrust of established values which developed during the 1960s."

Stoyle says that  "Hutton's argument that revisionism was not so much a specifically right-wing attack on the left, as is sometimes claimed, but was rather a rebellion by young historians of widely differing political views against those senior academics — almost all from comfortable backgrounds, but of far-left inclinations — who represented the historical establishment. The fact that the young Turks — mostly political liberals, who 'included no Marxists or radical socialists' — were so quickly labelled as 'revisionists' by their opponents was indicative of how some senior left-wing academics saw the battle, for, as Hutton notes, the term 'revisionist' had 'commonly been employed during the … 1970 s by Marxists across the world to describe those who adulterated and betrayed true doctrine'.

What the revisionists eventually succeeded in doing was to demolish the 'socialist modernisation of the Victorian historiographical achievement' which had been crafted by historians such as Christopher Hill over the previous 30 years. But, partly because of their differences in emphasis, partly because of the sheer complexity of the picture which they had uncovered, the revisionists failed to establish a new consensus of their own".[4]

It is no accident that Stoyles praises Hutton's latest book as both seem to adopt a lot of the right-wing wing revisionists hostility to Marxist historiography. While  Hutton does note somewhat perceptively that those right-wing revisionist historians who sought to demolish Marxist historiography had nothing but hot air in which to replace it. Hutton's complacent attitude towards these historians further legitimises their anti-Marxism.

To conclude, I will review Hutton's new book at a later date. Those who want a more objective assessment of Oliver |Cromwell would do well to examine t the work of the great Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who said of Cromwell," In this way, Cromwell built not merely an army but also a party -- his army was to some extent an armed party and herein precisely lay its strength. In 1644 Cromwell's "holy" squadrons won a brilliant victory over the King's horsemen and won the nickname of "Ironsides." It is always useful for a revolution to have iron sides. On this score British workers can learn much from Cromwell".[5]




[1] BBC History Magazine-8 Jul 2021-Ronald Hutton.

[2] The Making of Oliver Cromwell-Ronald Hutton.

[3] BBC History Magazine-8 Jul 2021-Ronald Hutton.

[4] Debates in Stuart History by Ronald Hutton

[5] Leon Trotsky's Writings On Britain-Two traditions: the seventeenth-century revolution and Chartism-