Saturday, 15 December 2018

Roger Howell and the Origins of the English Revolution-by Chris Thompson

I was privileged whilst an undergraduate at the University of Oxford to spend two terms being taught sixteenth and seventeenth-century English and European history in St John’s College by the late Roger Howell. He was then a Research Fellow at that college having completed his D.Phil. on the subject of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the English Civil Wars. He was certainly the best and most demanding tutor I ever encountered as an undergraduate, a man with a gift for teaching that I have only ever seen equalled by one person, the existentialist philosopher, Dr Jan Rogan.

Sadly, from my point of view, Roger Howell shortly thereafter returned to his own alma mater, Bowdoin College in Maine, where he became President of that institution until his premature death in the late-1980s. I only ever saw him once again in the North Library of the British Museum in the late-1960s when he was on a brief visit for his own research.

I had no idea until earlier today that Roger Howell had ever written a short pamphlet on the origins of the English Revolution published in 1975.[1] Its contents were and are unknown in detail to me apart from the comments made by Richard T. Hughes of Pepperdine University who reviewed it in the Sixteenth Century Journal.[2]

According to Hughes, Howell argued that it was the House of Commons which upset the constitutional balance inherited from Queen Elizabeth by her Stuart successors despite its members subscribing to the myth of a balanced constitution.

Its members did not force the issue before 1640 because of their vested interests. Charles I, by contrast, was in the right when he claimed that he was the victim of Parliamentary innovation and the defender of the traditional constitution.

Puritanism as Howell defined it involved a concern for moral improvement and hostility to the laxity of the extravagant Court although Hughes thought that Howell had underestimated the degree to which Calvinists aimed to re-shape English society entirely. He was, however, more impressed by Howell’s brief discussion of the impact of the new science and of scepticism on views of the hierarchy in Church and State.

Unfortunately, I have not been able so far to locate a copy of this pamphlet. But my initial and indirect impression is that Roger Howell had become out of touch with the main currents of historical work in this period by the time of its composition. Other historians based in the U.S.A.

Lawrence Stone at Princeton, for example – experienced the same process. Howell’s argument that the House of Commons in particular and Parliament in general proved to be constitutionally aggressive would not have found favourable reception from figures like Conrad Russell or Kevin Sharpe at that time.

Nor would his claim that Kings James and Charles were conservative defenders of the ancient constitution have carried much weight amongst historians in the 1970s or, perhaps, now. But whatever my reservations based on second-hand knowledge, nothing diminishes my gratitude to Roger Howell for his skill as a teacher. It was and remains a privilege to have known him.

[1] Roger Howell, Jr., The Origins of the English Revolution. (Forum Press, Missouri. 1975)

[2] The Sixteenth Century Journal. Volume 7, No.1 (April, 1976), p.106.

Saturday, 24 November 2018

Review: The Common Freedom of the People: John Lilburne and the English Revolution-Michael Braddick-OUP, pp.416, £25

‘If there were none living but himself John would be against Lilburne, and Lilburne against John.’ Henry Marten

‘We are all in his debt: rather than rebuke him for his failings, we should honour him for his courage.’ Michael Braddick

Michael Braddick’s political biography of John Lilburne is a welcome fresh Perspective on the Leveller leader. It continues a recent trend of examining the Leveller movement and Lilburne’s place in the English revolution. Braddick’s book is a readable account of Lilburne’s life, and it is hard to believe the first biography of Lilburne to appear for nearly 60 years.

It is quite shocking to find that it was 1961 that H.N. Brailsford’s published his Levellers and the English Revolution (1961) a book-length study of the subject aimed at a general public.

Brailsford’s book is worth reading as John Rees writes “Brailsford’s was the first book-length account to fully integrate the economic, social and religious background of the Levellers with a description of the political dynamic of the revolution, the Levellers’ role as an organised revolutionary current within it and an estimate of the ideological advances that Leveller thought represented. If nothing else it was a considerable work of synthesis. However, it was more than this. Throughout the book, but particularly in the chapters on ‘The Leveller Party’ and ‘The Moderate’, Brailsford presented more forcefully than any writer before him a picture of the Levellers as a functioning political organisation of an entirely new type”.

On one level it comes as no great surprise that Lilburne has received much greater attention than before. Any study of Lilburne and the Leveller movement offers the historian a far greater insight into the complex issues of the English bourgeois revolution. On a another level, the plethora of recent studies is a response to the growing social polarisation existing in today's capitalist society. These books can give valuable advice to workers in order that they might prepare for the great struggles facing them today. Despite the passage of time many of the issues tackled by Lilburne and the Levellers are still with us today.

The book is well written and attempts to strike a balance between the minutiae of Lilburnes life with that of an objective assessment of the English revolution. Braddick manages this feat a few times but overall his objective understanding of the revolution and Lilburnes place in it falls short. On the other hand, the book is  “bright and accessible”, and maintains a high academic standard of both research and writing..

Braddick’s book compares well with John Rees’s last book The Leveller Revolution: Radical Political Organisation in England, 1640-1650. Rees’s book does benefit from his  2014 doctoral thesis which is well worth a read and deserves publication. Like Braddick Rees has to a lesser extent played down his analytical and thematic approach of a dissertation. However, both offer “an absorbing and fluent narrative of the political life of the foremost radical group to emerge during the English Revolution”.

While there are many similarities between the two books, there are some significant differences. I cannot speak for Rees, but I am sure he would not agree with Braddick’s assertion on page 298 that Lilburne was not a political theorist.

The more you read of Lilburne’s publications, the more confident the reader will become of how politically conscious Lilburne was. He did not merely react to events. On some occasions, anticipated the ebbs and flows of the revolution and acted accordingly.

He was highly conscious of his status as a gentleman. Like Cromwell he was acutely aware of his status “I was brought up well-nigh ten yeares together, in the best Schooles in the North, namely at Auckland and New Castle.” He claimed knowledge “in the Latin tongue”, and “Greeke also”.

Braddick has done extensive research including a significant study of the 20,000 pamphlets collected between 1640 and 1660 by the bookseller George Thomason held at the British Library.[1]

Like most of Braddick’s books, this one is written in short sentences. While not being narrative driven it does contain a large number of interesting facts that keep the reader honest. According to Russell Harris QC “It brings the judicial and penal infrastructure of the time alive with revealing glimpses of its main institutions. The Fleet, for example, was a prison run by private owners who built houses for the inmates within the grounds and then let them out at commercial rates. As long as the inmates were up to date with their rent, the warders were forbidden to enter the homes and prisoners could live a relatively normal comfortable domestic existence”.[2]

It is clear from Braddick’s book that John Lilburne was a fascinating, contradictory and complex character. Lilburne is second only to Cromwell in historical importance as regards the English revolution. Lilburne was the second son of a modest gentry family, sharing in many ways the class background of Oliver Cromwell. Braddick’s book is very good at showing how Lilburne’s experience of political activism sharpened and clarified his ideas.

Lilburne was the most high profile figure in the political radicalisation that went on during the English revolution. He could have chosen a relatively peaceful and prosperous life but instead chose a life that saw him accused of treason four times and put on trial for his life on numerous occasions twice acquitted by juries. His bravery in battle was only surpassed by Oliver Cromwell himself. He fought in major battles rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

To his credit, Braddick does attempt to give Elizabeth Lilburne more than a walk-on part in the revolution. There has, however, been a crying need to have a full-length study on the tremendous politicisation of women on both sides of the barricades.

Women Levellers mounted large-scale demonstrations and organised petitions for social equality. They were met with differing levels of brutality depending on which class they belonged to. Overall middle-class women were treated with derision, but mostly no violence was committed against them. This is not the case with the poorer sections of the women’s movement who were often treated severely by MP’s and soldiers alike.” Many were thrown into prison, mental institutions, or workhouses. Middle-class women were quietly escorted away by soldiers and told to 'go back to women's work”. One MP told them to go home and wash their dishes, to which one of the petitioners replied, “Sir, we scarce have any dishes left to wash”’.

While the book correctly explores the extraordinary and dramatic life of 'Freeborn John and presents a picture of his political activism, it would be a mistake to believe that Lilburne and the Levellers were merely prisoners of the radical spontaneity that was produced by the revolution.

While it would be wrong to say that Liburne was communist or Marxist in his thinking and actions, he did attempt to guide his work with a historical understanding. These revolutionaries were handicapped by the fact that they had very little precedence for their actions and the ideologists of the revolution ransacked the Bible and half-understood historical precedent for some theory to explain what they were doing.

It would be fair to say that Lilburne and the Levellers in political terms punched way above their weight. Without land, established profession, or public office he succeeded in establishing a movement that was able many times to influence the course of a revolution. All this as Braddick states while seeming to have spent around 12-and-a-half years in prison or exile’.

As Marx said “the weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism of the weapon, material force must be overthrown by material force, but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses. The theory is capable of gripping the masses as soon as it demonstrates ad hominem, and it demonstrates ad hominem as soon as it becomes radical. To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter. However, for man, the root is the man himself”.[3]

To some extent, Lilburne tried to understand the objective nature of his ideas. While Henry Marten’s quote ‘If there were none living but himself John would be against Lilburne, and Lilburne against John is not far off the mark, the fact that Lilburne and the other leading members of the Leveller wrote hundreds of publications established them as the central theoreticians of the revolution.

While Rees does not deny that the Levellers should be approached from the perspective of the history of ideas, he believes “they were activists, not utopian theorists, and they wrote and campaigned to achieve political change”.

Braddick’s Historiography

The publication of this book which is the first full-length biography of John Lilburne for over sixty years marks a significant shift in Braddick’s historiography. Despite having the secondary title of the book as John Lilburne and the English revolution, it is still unclear to the extent that Braddick believes there was an English revolution. If you go back to previous work such as his book God’s fury, England’s Fire which was heralded as a new history of the English Civil Wars Braddick advocated the theory that there was a “war of Three Kingdoms” not a revolution. This was the perspective adopted by Austin Woolrych's important book of six years ago, Britain in Revolution, 1625-1660. Woolrych believed that that the war began with the revolt of the Scottish Covenanters and ended in the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland. He believed that this was not an English revolution but the "war of three kingdoms".

For Braddick, “one vital feature of the period is that it generated ideas in politics, religion and natural philosophy that foreshadow the 18th-century Enlightenment. It was, he says, a time of "creative chaos". Indeed chaos and confusion dominate his story. The two sides in the war, he tells us, "consisted of complex coalitions of allies, with varying concerns and differing degrees of conviction and commitment". The Thomason tracts reveal a babble of discordant voices and conflicting viewpoints.

The moral he draws is disconcertingly postmodernist. After his long, carefully grounded, empirically based narrative, Braddick in his final paragraphs abruptly dissociates himself from the "hubristic pomp" of professional historians who seek a definitive account of the period. Instead, he plumps for indeterminacy. "Experiences of these conflicts," he declares, "were plural, ambiguous, divided and contrasting; their potential meanings equally diverse." They deserve to be remembered, he tells us in a one truly awful concluding sentence, "not for a single voice or consequence, but because they provide many pieces of knowledge for our discourse"[4].

Braddick believed the term “Leveller movement” was misleading and that the Levellers were not a party or a group. As John Rees writes  “Michael Braddick is similarly sceptical of the Levellers' ‘practical significance to the events of the 1640s’. No doubt this view in part explains the absence of a book-length study. It is, after all, hard to write a book about something that is supposed barely to exist.”.

Whether Braddick took this criticism to heart is another matter. His new book on Lilburne and the Levellers does seem to show a radicalisation of Braddick especially when it is rumoured that his next major project is a biography of Christopher Hill. A long overdue book if ever there was one.
Historical revisionism

There is one major flaw in this work, and it is the fact that Braddick, unlike John Rees, is extremely reluctant to take on a large number of conservative revisionist historians that have held sway in the last twenty or so years.

Much of the historiography of the later 20th century and early 20th century has been dominated by historians who argued that the war did do not have any long-term causes. Popularised by historians such Conrad Russell and John Morrill. There second argument primarily aimed at historians like Christopher Hill was that there was not English Bourgeois revolution some like John Morrill has gone so far as to deny any revolution took place.

In a 1994 article published in New Left Review, Morrill defended his historiography saying “It is unfair to say that Conrad Russell and I, for example, have denied that there is a social context of the revolution. Time and again, I have argued that the processes of social change occurring in the long sixteenth century created a new kind of political culture that helps to explain why England had the kind of civil war it had, though not whether it had a civil war. I have commented at length (in for example my 1993 volume The Nature of the English Revolution) on the changing nature of noble power, the homogenization of an elite culture based on land, literacy and the secularization of the wealth and authority of the Church; and I have argued that the process of social change (which I see in more neo-Malthusian terms than Brenner would ever allow) creates ‘contexts within which yeomen, husbandmen and labourers struggled to make free and informed political choices’ of a kind not possible in previous centuries. The English civil war was a different kind of civil war from anything that came before. Revisionism need not mean the lack of a social interpretation, so long as that means social contexts rather than social causes. Since Brenner is explicit that Merchants and Revolution do not argue for the inevitability of the Revolution, simply that a political collision between the monarchy and the landowning class was inherently likely, this fuzziness about what exactly he intends by ‘social interpretation’ is fairly debilitating”.[5]

This quote does give us a clearer picture of Morrill’s political and historical outlook. He was hostile to any Marxist interpretation of the English bourgeois revolution. In the above essay, he explicitly denies that there was any connection between economic development and its reflection on the ideas of men and women.

Morrill’s revisionism was significantly analysed in John Rees’s PhD thesis. It is a shame that the thesis was not published in book form because it offers one of the most political assessments of the origins of the revisionism.

According to Rees “The revisionist challenge to liberal and left interpretations of the English Revolution synchronised with almost suspicious exactitude with the end of the post-war boom and the abandonment of the welfare state consensus. This change, beginning in the mid-1970s, achieved its electoral representation when Margaret Thatcher became prime minister of Britain in 1979 and Ronald Reagan president of the US in 1980. One of the arguments made against the left by the revisionists was that they read their current political preoccupations back into history. However, if that was sometimes true of the left, it was also undoubtedly true of some revisionists. You can almost hear the snap of Gordon Gekko’s red braces in the background as J C D Clark quotes approvingly a letter to the Times Educational Supplement, British political science was particularly torpid until the electoral shock of 1979. Too many existing political scientists belong to the generation of 1968~a provenance that almost disqualifies them from a comment on late 20th-century politics. Revisionism drew on the work of, among others, Conrad Russell, Mark Kishlansky, Kevin Sharpe, John Morrill, and Peter Laslett.88 The major themes of revisionism were a stress on the accidental nature of the revolution rather than on its long-term social and economic causes; a localist denial of nationally operative causes of the revolution; an insistence that religious issues were more central to the revolution than previous historians had allowed; an attempt to deny that the revolution involved class conflict or that the mass of people had much impact on its outcome; a corresponding emphasis on ‘high politics’ as a key determinant of events.”[6]


As Rees correctly states “There can be no tradition and no debate where there is no knowledge”. It is therefore to Michael Braddicks credit that his new book has furnished us with a large amount of Knowledge about Lilburne and the Levellers.

Braddick’s book represents a significant contribution to our understanding of the English Revolution and valuable addition to our understanding of the English revolution.

The Common Freedom of the People is an important book. It draws on a wide range of sources but has a few flaws the biggest is his reluctance to take on the revisionist revolt. A minor but still annoying admission is that it does not have a bibliography. The book is highly recommended and should be on university booklists.

1.    God's Fury, England's Fire: A New History of the English Civil Wars-by Michael Braddick 758pp, Allen Lane, £30
2.    2 Leveller organisation and the dynamic of the English Revolution-John Rees-

[3]A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right-
[5] Conflict Probable or Inevitable  John Morrill-
[6] Leveller organisation and the dynamic of the English Revolution-John Rees-

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Lenin, Machiavelli and History Today Magazine

“Some medieval courts not only condemned their worst opponents to death, but they also prescribed a series of extremely cruel and bloody forms of execution to be carried out one after the other. The thirst for revenge and urge to deter others mixed with the fear that those subjected to torture could return and take revenge. The Russian Revolution and its best-known leader, Vladimir Illyich Lenin, have suffered a similar fate over the past 90 years. Up to this day, propagandistic efforts have not ceased to strike dead this most important revolution of the twentieth century”.

While this quote from Peter Schwarz is taken from his article on the German Magazine Der Spiegel[1] the same could be said of the History Today Magazine. It would appear that not a month goes by without an article attacking in some form Marxist conceptions or leading Marxist figures. It would appear that History Today has a particular grievance against Vladimir Lenin.

A simple search of the History Today archive would bring to the attention of the reader over thirty articles, and one must say very few of these are worth the paper they are printed on. The latest one in the  November issue is no exception. Its title Lenin: The Machiavellian Marxist by Graeme Garrard gives its intentions away. It also follows a similar pattern; it is almost like History Today has a template for these kind of articles.

One problem that arises with these type of articles is the choice of writer. Graeme Garrard who is a reader at Cardiff University and is an established historian but like many who write on revolutionary politics has little or no grasp of what life in a revolutionary party today or yesterday was like. It was not always like this.

While Lenin studies are not in a very good place at the moment as the Marxist writer David North points out the situation in Trotsky studies is worse and has “deteriorated in the 1990s. American and British scholarship produced nothing substantial in this field during the entire decade. The only published work that perhaps stands out as an exception, though a minor one, is a single volume of essays, produced by the Edinburgh University Press in 1992 under the title The Trotsky Reappraisal. During this decade, a disturbing trend emerged in Britain, which consisted of recycling and legitimising old anti-Trotsky slanders. This trend was exemplified by the so-called Journal of Trotsky Studies, which was produced at the University of Glasgow. The favourite theme of this journal was that Trotsky’s writings were full of self-serving distortions”.[2]

In many ways, Garrads is characteristic of the approach to historical and political issues taken by other writers. Comparing the revolutionary figures such as Lenin and Trotsky to religious fanatics is not new.

Another distortion peddled is that the October revolution was coup. First, the establishment of the first worker's state was not a coup carried out by a small group of supporters of Lenin. “The October revolution was the product of the struggle of millions of workers, impoverished peasants and war-weary soldiers, who joined the Bolsheviks because they regarded the party as the most consistent defender of their interests.”

A further point which again is not new is that Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin were only able to live as revolutionaries off the backs of Russian Peasants and English workers. This is a cheap and very right-wing approach to historical questions. , Lenin and Marx lived under capitalism, not socialism.

Garrards use of only one other historian is a little strange. Ullam is a gifted historian but has certain baggage regarding the Russian revolution, and Garrard should have drawn on other sources.

The reference Garrard makes to Lenin being Machiavellian is absurd and would take too long to expose the stupidity of such a comment. Again he is not alone in making this remark, and the company he keeps is not very pleasant.

The last point the author makes is perhaps the most perplexing. Much of the article is given over to what happens to the state under Socialism. Lenin's and Trotsky position was clear as day it would wither away mankind would live under a society based on need, not profit. His last sentence is strange given that what happened to the Soviet Union after Lenin died is common knowledge. Why did Garrard not mention the betrayal of the Russian revolution by Stalinism?

Why are these articles being written? After all, we have had the “Death of Marxism, “The End of History”, why to bother with figures such as Lenin, Marx, Trotsky. The reason being is that many workers and young people are looking for a socialist alternative. Many are now turning to a systematic study of the October Revolution.

They are being met with a  web of lies and distortions left by bourgeois and Stalinist propaganda. It explains why 90 years on History Today continues to vilify the Russian Revolution and its revolutionaries

[1]Der Spiegel churns out old lies on the October Revolution-
[2] Leon Trotsky, Soviet Historiography, and the Fate of Classical Marxism
By David North
1 December 2008

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Empire and Revolution: a socialist history of the First World War, Dave Sherry, Bookmarks. £7.99)

"In a strike, I am for my class, right or wrong; in a war, I am for my country, right or wrong". Ben Tillet, union leader

“You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”
― Leon Trotsky

Dave Sherry’s book is a reliable and well-written introduction to the complex history of the First World War. Written from the standpoint of the historical genre “history from below” its fourteen chapters cover all the most critical aspects of the war and subsequent revolutions.

Like many similar historical subjects, there is little agreement among historians as to the origins of the war to end all wars. Some right-wing historians have attempted to rehabilitate the First World War, as a “necessary” war for democracy.  As Sherry states “That is one of the reasons I wrote the book. There’s a truly myopic view of some British historians who see it as just a war on the Western Front”. Two recent articles in the November 2018 edition of History Today has confirmed his viewpoint.

As the Marxist writer, Nick Beams contends “the question of its origin remains controversial. The reason is that this issue is of direct relevance for the analysis of contemporary events. Roughly speaking there are two contending positions—that of Marxism and various forms of bourgeois liberal scholarship. The Marxist analysis, to summarise it in the broadest terms, is that the war was the outcome of conflicts, rooted in an objective and irresolvable contradiction of the capitalist mode of production: that between the global character of the economy and the nation-state system in which the profit system is grounded. The opposing theories boil down to the conception that the war arose out of the political mistakes, miscalculations and misjudgements of various bourgeois politicians and it could somehow have been averted if only wiser heads had prevailed”[1].

The book does demolish some myths that have surrounded the events of 1914. One myth propagated by numerous historians is that the war fell from the sky that nobody could have foreseen the war and the carnage that followed. Another myth is that the war was solely German imperialisms greed for new markets and intent of world domination.

Sherry also draws the readers attention not only to the betrayals of the various parties such as the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), but to the strikes, occupations and mutinies across each country are well detailed. He also documents how these struggles were betrayed by their leadership.

Sherry correctly concentrates on the socialist movement's opposition to the war. In his book, War and the International Leon Trotsky makes two interrelated points. The first point is he relates the origins of the war to the historical development of capitalism. The second point is to outline the development of a strategy for the international working class in the face of the betrayals by the leaders of the Second International especially that of German Social Democracy (SPD). The SPDs repudiated the decisions of its own Congress to provide support for their own ruling elite’s support of the war.

For people such as the revisionist Edward Bernstein who propagated the fallacy that capitalism had somehow overcome its contradictions and would not plunge humanity into the abyss the war cruelly exposed this myopic judgement.

This breakdown was predicted I must add by Marx who said “In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure”.[2]

Leon Trotsky makes a similar point in his book, the War and the International “The forces of production which capitalism has evolved have outgrown the limits of nation and state. The national state, the present political form, is too narrow for the exploitation of these productive forces. The natural tendency of our economic system, therefore, is to seek to break through the state boundaries. The whole globe, the land and the sea, the surface as well as the interior have become one economic workshop, the different parts of which are inseparably connected.”

One of the strengths of Sherry’s book is that despite its short length he does explain that the war was a product of the growing inter-imperialist rivalries that had been simmering for the previous thirty years or so.

The proceeding thirty years before the First World War saw the emergence of Imperialism. A handful of industrialised capitalist nations dominated the world. At the head of these countries stood substantial corporate and banking conglomerates who were exporting capital on a global scale. These rival powers battled for the control of markets and sought even cheaper labour in Africa and Asia.

German capitalism sought to challenge Britain's strategic and geopolitical interests. To a degree previous to the outbreak of war conflicts between the major imperialist powers had been regulated by a series of alliances between the major imperialist powers in the form alliances which pitted the Triple Entente against the Triple Alliance.

As Leon Trotsky pointed out “The future development of world economy on the capitalistic basis means a ceaseless struggle for new and ever new fields of capitalist exploitation, which must be obtained from the same source, the earth. The economic rivalry under the banner of militarism is accompanied by robbery and destruction which violate the elementary principles of human economy. World production revolts not only against the confusion produced by national and state divisions but also against the capitalist economic organisation, which has now turned into barbarous disorganisation and chaos. The war of 1914 is the colossal breakdown in history of an economic system destroyed by its inherent contradictions.”[3]

Trotsky believed that war not only signalled the downfall of the nation-state, but it ended the historical role of capitalism. This analysis came under sustain attack from figures such as Woodrow Wilson who said this was not a breakdown of capitalism and hence no need for socialism.

Trotsky’s viewpoint was supported by Elie Halevy (1870-1937)[4] in a series of lectures published in 1938 as The Era of Tyrannies), Hal√©vy said that world war “” had increased national control over individual activities and opened the way for de facto socialism. In opposition to those who saw socialism as the last step in the French Revolution, he saw it as a new organisation of constraint replacing those that the Revolution had destroyed”.

As was pointed out earlier by Nick Beams one of the historians that fall indirectly into the camp of bourgeois historians albeit on the right wing of this group is Niall Fergusson. Fergusson it would appear has spent most of working life seeking to overturn Marxist historiography. As Beams says “Ferguson adopts the crude method deployed by so many in the past. According to his view, for the analysis of Marxism to be valid, we must be able to show that political leaders made their decisions by a kind of profit-and-loss calculus of economic interests, or that there was a secret cabal of businessmen and financiers operating behind the scenes and pulling the strings of government. Failure to find either, he maintains, cuts the ground from under the feet of the Marxist argument”.

Ferguson believes he was smart when he wrote his attack on the fundamental Marxist conception that the war arose as an inevitable product of the capitalist mode of production—the struggle for markets, profits and resources. However, no matter how many books he writes he has proved nothing.

As Beams points out the “The point upon which Marxism insists is not that war is simply subjectively decided upon by the capitalist class but that, in the final analysis, it is the outcome of the objective logic and contradictions of the capitalist profit system, which work themselves out behind the backs of both politicians and businessmen. At a certain point, these contradictions create the conditions where political leaders feel they have no choice but to resort to war if they are to defend the interests of their respective states.

Beams also mentions another historian who takes issue with Marxism on the origins of the war, although from a slightly different perspective. The British historian Hew Strachan who according to Beam “ points to the crucial role of the alliance system is not only failing to prevent war but helping to promote it. When the crisis of July 1914 erupted, he writes, “each power, conscious in a self-absorbed way of its potential weakness, felt it was on its mettle, that its status as a great power would be forfeit if it failed to act.”

The book two has two significant weaknesses one is the significant omission of far more complete opposition to bourgeois historians attacks on fundamental Marxist conceptions.
Another thing I am not sure about is whether the genre of history from below is the best way to describe such complex questions or war, revolution and inter-imperialist rivalries.

Whether we will see a flood of-of patriotic nonsense written about the 20018 anniversary of the ending of the first world war remains to be seen. As Sherry points out the war was a clash of ruling classes which were the hell-bent in protecting their interests at the cost of millions of dead. Sherry’s book is an excellent basic introduction to these events.

Further reading
[1] War and the International (Colombo: Young Socialist Publications, 1971),
[2] “Imperialism and the National Idea,” in Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International (New York: Pathfinder Press), pp. 369-370.
[3] Leon Trotsky, “On the Question of Tendencies in the Development of the World Economy,” in The Ideas of Leon Trotsky, H. Tickten and M. Cox ed. (London: Porcupine Press, 1995), pp. 355-70.
[4] Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, vol. II, p. 306.

[2]  K. Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977, with some notes by R. Rojas.
[3] The War and the International-

Friday, 12 October 2018

Correspondence on David Starkey

From Sean Lang

This isn't really good enough. Starkey's point about life experience informing history is a valid one for debate, but this piece moves on from it into an attack on his polemical style and his politics. & there are plenty of prominent left-wing historians on tv - Schama, Beard, Olusoga.

My Reply

I have just received this reply from Sean Lang to my brief article on David Starkey. Since the response was put in the public domain, it is worth commentating on.  I stand by the point I made regarding life experiences informing history. From my perspective, I approach the study of history from a historical materialist standpoint. I believe history has its own laws and the uncovering and understanding of those laws are paramount.

As Marx said “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language”.

This is not to say that life experiences are worthless, they are not, but for the study of history, you need a much deeper understanding of historical processes than relying on a past relationship with a close relative. If that relative or partner happened to be another historian, then that is a different matter.

As regards Starkey’s politics and polemical style I believe he is fair game and well capable of defending himself. If Starkey would like to use my blog to defend himself, he is more than welcome. Lastly to describe Mary Beard as left wing is stretching things a bit. Beard is an excellent classical historian, but her political outlook is Liberal in the best sense of the word. As for Schama this just patently absurd. On David Olusoga I am not that familiar with his work so cannot yet comment.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Review : Witchcraft: Suzannah Lipscomb A Ladybird Expert Book-

The most striking aspect of this book is why a celebrated historian and broadcaster would write such a book. It is true that Lipscomb is a leading light and outstanding communicator in her field, but it is a bit like William Shakespeare putting in a script for EastEnders.

Another anomaly is while the book is beautifully illustrated by Martyn Pick the number of illustrations is half the book. Given the complex nature of the subject, you would have thought Ladybird would have given more space for analysis. On the other side, the book is an entertaining, straightforward but minimal introduction to the subject.

Even a gifted writer like Lipscomb clearly is uncomfortable with explaining a complex historical issue in such a short space. She does slay some of the more apparent myths that have developed about the subject. Lipscombe is correct that the witch trials were not carried out by “ecclesiastical authorities but by judicial courts. This is a good point, but it does not explain the fact that the worldview of the ruling elite carrying out what amounts to legal murder was backward and medieval.

The book is not without exciting information who knew that “men could be witches too. Across Europe, 70–80 per cent of people accused of witchcraft were female – though the proportions of female witches were higher in certain areas: the bishopric of Basel; the county of Namur (modern Belgium); Hungary; Poland; and Essex, England. But one in five witches were male across Europe, and in some places, males predominated – in Moscow, male witches outnumbered women 7:3; in Normandy 3:1”.

In Lipscombe’s defence, she does believe that “causality is not simple.”, But given her limited space, her arguments are not fully developed. Many of the witchhunts carried out were in times of famine, war and plague but many were not. She correctly states that war, disease and famine did create the social and political conditions to carry out a near genocide against large sections of the population.

Perhaps Lipscomb most crucial point is made on page 22 under the heading The Dawn of Modernity she makes this point, “most people lived in small village communities and depended on each other. They lent, borrowed, gave and forgave. It was only the way to get along. But in tough times, people turn in on themselves. They start to look after number one. A neighbour who would not offer help or charity, who enriched himself by expanding his farm as others were forced to give up theirs, or who begged for handouts when everyone was suffering could foster resentment, bitterness and suspicion. These feelings were the product of a transition from old to new ways. In grand socio-economic terms, what was happening was a shift towards capitalism. The witch-trials were the blood red finger of modernity”.

I know Marx said that capitalism came into the world dripping with blood but blaming it for the witch-trials is a bit much. As Lipscomb points out the trials and their decline was the product of the transition from Feudalism to capitalism. But the trials were more a product of Feudalism, than early Capitalism and their fall was a product of the development of more scientific ways of thinking which brought about the decline religious doctrine.

As the Marxist David North explainsUntil the early 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 to be 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 the 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”[1].

I very rarely do not recommend a book to be read so I will not break this tradition. The book has severe political and historical limitations. Also who exactly is it aimed at? On the plus side, it is gloriously illustrated. So read it don’t read it you pay your money you take your choice.