Monday, 29 October 2012

Men and Women in the English Revolution

By Gaby Mahlberg 

Over the summer I agreed to review two books on the English civil wars. One Blair Worden’s God’s Instruments (2012), the other Ann Hughes’s Gender and the English Revolution (2012). The first, aside from a few fleeting references to Lucy Hutchinson, deals almost exclusively with Oliver Cromwell and other men who fought in the Civil War and determined the politics of the country in its aftermath. The second focuses mainly on women, though never studying them separately from the men they supported and challenged.

What I conclude from this is, that nearly half a century after the emergence of women’s history, it is still possible to write history books that largely ignore women, while it is virtually impossible to write anything at all that ignores men. I.e. as far as high political history is concerned, gender is only a ‘relational concept’ with regards to women.

I do not blame Blair Worden. In fact, I admire his work and frequently cite it in my own. Besides, I am no less guilty of having written entire book chapters or journal articles without mentioning a single woman. Political correctness and indeed the contribution of women to politics and political decision making easily slip our mind when the evidence is so much focused on a male political sphere – especially for students of the early modern period. But I still think we should try and change our practice and ask ourselves every time we look at a political issue: and what was the contribution of women?

As Hughes shows in her recent book, aside from Lucy Hutchinson (the author, translator and biographer of her husband, the republican Colonel John Hutchinson), there were thousands of other ‘Women at war’ (35). There was ‘Elizabeth Alkin, also known as “Parliament Joan”’, who ‘spied for the armies of the Earl of Essex, Sir William Waller and Sir Thomas Fairfax’, or the ‘royalist … conspirator … Katherine Stuart, Lady Aubigny’, who came to London ‘to raise supporters in the city’ and prompted ‘an abortive plot’ (36).

Women frequently ‘played a full part in organising the defences of besieged towns’ (36), while soldiers’ wives ‘helped with civil war administration’ (37). Queen Henrietta Maria herself was one of Charles I’s most trusted advisors; Elizabeth Cromwell presumably kept the household up and running while husband Oliver was out killing royalists; and Elizabeth Ludlow remained the faithful companion and co-conspirator of her regicide husband Edmund, who had to flee England for continental exile in 1660. There were also many others without whose contribution history might have developed differently.

I know the case has been made many times before, but the gender segregation in works on political history shows that it’s worth repeating.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Andrew Barclay. Electing Cromwell: The Making of a Politician. Political and Popular Culture in the Early Modern Period, London: Pickering and Chatto, 2011. pp. xi + 288.

The last few decades have seen an extraordinary growth of popular interest in Oliver Cromwell. It is unfortunate that most of the books, articles have not increased our understanding of this complex historical figure. The same cannot be said about Barclay's book.

Based on meticulous research using a huge range of newly discovered primary sources, this book has increased our understanding of the life and career of Oliver Cromwell.
Barclay's task was not an easy one. Very little is known of how Cromwell became an MP as Jonathan Fitzgibbons of Christ's College, Cambridge points out "among the many mysteries that shroud the career of Oliver Cromwell, his election as MP for Cambridge in 1640 remains one of the most baffling. 

Cromwell was hardly the town's typical choice for MP; he was not a member of the civic ruling élite, nor did he have any useful ties to the court. Yet this outsider, from a relatively humble background, was elected as MP for Cambridge in 1640 not once but twice: it was no fluke. For almost two decades the default explanation for this anomaly has been John Morrill's claim that Cambridge saw Cromwell as a man with connections worth cultivating—specifically, his links to a godly network centred upon the earl of Warwick. Andrew Barclay's book seeks to demolish this interpretation of aristocratic patronage—which the author politely dismisses as nothing more than a 'suggestive possibility".[1]

It is clear from the preface that Barclay would like to present a "warts and all" picture of Cromwell. His book is very much a product of his work Barclay' with the History of Parliament Trust House of Commons project. Barclay's work for the trust covers the period 1640-1660. The book is a comprehensive examination of Cromwell's early political life in Cambridge borough politics and is as Sabrina Alcorn Baron writes "a model for interrogating the silences in the historical record."[2]

Barclay rejects placing Cromwell within the context of the times. According to him"If Cromwell has loomed large in the histories of Civil War Cambridge, he has also done so, more debatably, in more general histories of the Civil War. While few have ever seen him as being wholly typical, his career has conventionally been used to exemplify many of the war's major themes. He is the most famous soldier in a political conflict that was ultimately won on the battlefield. He remains by far the most obvious example of a man for whom the war was the making of him. He is the archetypal Puritan.

This temptation to place him in the foreground of these events has, naturally enough, been least resisted by his many biographers. Linking Cromwell's career to the wider social drama, so that one becomes an implicit microcosm for the other, has proved itself to be one of the more perennial ways in which historians have tried to make sense of his remarkable story. Furthermore, just because so much that is new has now been discovered from the years before he became famous does not lessen that temptation." [3]

Not all historians agree with Barclay's method. Christopher Hill while appreciating Barclay's hard work would have been slightly critical as regards solely concentrating on one aspect of Cromwell's early political career. In his essay The Pre-Revolutionary Decade he wrote "not all historians, unfortunately, read literary criticism (and I fear some do not even read English literature), if they did, they would realise that there was a revolution in English literature as well as in science, even if they cannot persuade themselves that there were revolutions in politics, economics, and society. Those historians, who concentrate on Parliamentary debates, state papers and the correspondence of the gentry, fail to notice what is going on elsewhere. It is one of the disastrous consequences of specialisation".[4]

Having said that Barclay does put his knack of specialisation to good use to provide a tremendously detailed look at a massive range of original sources. In his bibliography section, he has examined forty-six archival collections. The book provides an incredibly original piece of research into Cromwell's election as Member of Parliament for Cambridge borough in both April and November 1640. The book complements John Morrill's work on a New Critical Edition of all the Writings and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell.

One aspect of this re-evaluation is an extensive look at James Heath's Flagellum. A word of warning if you are unfamiliar with this book, a word of caution as John Morrill said in his History Today review "If the Daily Sport had existed in the 1660s Heath would have been its editor". Heath's book has for a very long time been held by historians to be unreliable, and in many places, his book has outright falsifications. Barclay has sought to resurrect Heath as a semi-reliable source of Cromwell's early political career. According to Barclay, Heath's words are the most"accurate account of the election that exists." It is not possible in the space of this article to agree or refute Barclay's claim.

Suffice to say the reader should be aware that Barclay's work is not just a piece of pure research. Historians do not function in a vacuum, and Barclay has a definite agenda regarding the use of Heath's work. Barclay rejects past historiography regarding Cromwell's election. The resurrection of Heath fits with Barclay's and other historians such as John Adamson view that the civil war was primarily a conspiratorial affair. Adamson's book has a theoretical premise that the Civil War as basically a coup de état by a group of nobles or aristocrats who no longer supported the King. According to Diane Purkiss, these nobles were "driven by their code of honor; they acted to protect themselves and the nation. Names such as Saye, Bedford, Essex, and Warwick move from the sidelines to occupy centre stage, as do their counterparts among Scottish peers. It was they and not the ignorant masses who plucked a king from his throne. Oliver Cromwell, for Adamson, was merely one of their lesser lackeys".[5]

Sabrina Alcorn Baron supports Heath's usefulness with some reservation saying "the disreputable Heath correctly described the machinations of a group of like-minded godly who had encountered Cromwell in Fenland conventicles and believed him to be a man of action who would successfully plead their case at the national level. They then manoeuvre the mayor, who had no acquaintance with or prior knowledge of him, into appointing Cromwell a freeman of the borough, and from there Cromwell made his way into the parliamentary election for the district, a process that historically had been fractious. Indeed, in the Long Parliament election, he ignored a double return and took his seat anyway. And the rest, as they say, is history. Barclay ends with crediting the institution of Parliament as the great catalyst that set Cromwell in place to become a national hero and head of state".[6]

Barclay's work has been defended in some revisionist circles. John Morrill says "Barclay's account 'challenges and overturns' my own earlier work with its highly tentative suggestions as to why Cromwell was elected for Cambridge. Excellent! Barclay has burrowed deep into archives in Cambridge, Ely and parts of the National Archives (such as 'Petty Bag') which few have dared to enter. Many of his sources can be described as terra incognita. Even more remarkably, there are citations of manuscripts in no less than 45 depositories. This is an unintended rebuke to much current academic laziness, the world of quick-fix scholarship, in which books and articles are compiled through word-searches in Early English Books Online and British History Online".

To conclude, this is a very specialised piece of revisionist writing and is not aimed at the wider reading public. However, it is a goldmine for researchers.

[1] The English Historical Review, Volume 127, Issue 529, December 2012, Pages 1524–1526,
[2] Sabrina Alcorn Baron,
[3] Andrew Barclay. Electing Cromwell: The Making of a Politician. Political and Popular Culture in the Early Modern Period, London: Pickering and Chatto, 2011. pp. xi + 288
[4] see Christopher Hill, “The Pre-Revolutionary Decades,” in Writing and Revolution in Seventeenth-Century England.
[6] Sabrina Alcorn Baron,

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Eric Hobsbawm-1917-2012

The death of Eric Hobsbawm at aged 95 marks the end of an era when a group of Communist historians dominated their respective fields of study. The purpose of this obituary is to place the historian in the context of his politics and his role as a dominant force inside and out of the Communist Party Historians Group.

The influence of this group of 'Marxist historians' has since waned mainly due to the 'Marxism is Dead' campaign which found support amongst an aggressive collection of revisionist historians who sought to counter Marxist historiography and to replace it with a hodge-podge of theories that in one way or another denied that class or economic issues had anything to do with the revolutionary upheavals of the last four hundred years.

Hobsbawm, who was born in Egypt in 1917 just a few months before the Bolshevik revolution. His father worked as a colonial officer, and his mother was Austrian. 

Hobsbawm spent his childhood mainly in Berlin. He saw the early dangers of the rise of Fascism, and the Nazi's hatred of Jews. Hobsbawm said later on in his life "Anybody who saw Hitler's rise happen first hand could not have helped but be shaped by it, politically. That boy is still somewhere inside, always will be".[1]

Hobsbawm left Berlin in 1933 and came to London. His life spanned all the significant events of the 20th century. It is safe to say his politics, personality and history writing were shaped by these developments. He became a communist in 1931. It was unfortunate that the party he joined had broken decisively with orthodox Marxism and the German Communist party would later commit the stupendous betrayal in allowing Hitler to come to power without a shot being fired. The refusal of CPSU to acknowledge any fault for this calamitous defeat of the German working class led to the Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky forming a new Fourth International.

In many ways, Hobsbawm perception of the events in Germany would be important in shaping his future political and historical career. Even at an early period in his political career, Hobsbawm was on the right of his newly adopted party, how else do you explain the following extraordinary statement about the developments in Germany, "Liberalism was failing. If I had been German and not a Jew, I could see I might have become a Nazi, a German nationalist. I could see how they would become passionate about saving the nation. It was a time when you did not believe there was a future unless the world was fundamentally transformed". In Germany, there was not any alternative left".[2]

It was untrue. There was a Left Opposition to the rise of Fascism which sought to oppose both the fascists and the betrayal of the party that Hobsbawm had just joined. From an early part of his life, it is clear that Hobsbawm rejected the Trotskyist view of events in Germany.

Hobsbawm's acquiescence to the Stalinist programme and perspective would be a problem for him in later life and for that matter other members of the CPHG. Hobsbawm wrote more than 30 books; his most famous works were the trilogy, The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital and The Age of Empire. He characterised the period he wrote about as the "the long 19th century" from the start of the French revolution in 1789 to the outbreak of war in 1914, but he wrote very little in the 20th century and most of this when it was relatively safe to do so.

One striking aspect of the CPHG was that none of them specialised in twentieth-century history. More specifically, the experiences of the Russian revolution were never to be explored by the group apart from one book by Christopher Hill, which in reality was an apology for Stalinism.

According to A Talbot "In more recent areas of history, as in politics, the control of the Stalinist bureaucracy was too high to allow the free development of Marxist thought and whether deliberately or not they all avoided venturing into the modern arena". [3]

As Matt Perry correctly points out, the group had particular academic freedom on the subject of English history pre 20th century because the CP had no official line on that period of history.

Hobsbawm was acutely aware that broaching the subject was largely taboo according to him "it raised some notoriously tricky problems". According to one essay on the CPHG a study of the journal Our History between 1956 and 1992 showed there was not a single article dealing with any part of Soviet history.

Eric Hobsbawm was the de facto leader of the historian's group. It would be fair to say that for good or bad Hobsbawm writings have shaped the world-historical view of a generation of students, academics and laypeople. Hobsbawm was part of an extraordinary group of historians that took on many of the characteristics of a political party. It had membership subscriptions, a secretary and a chairman.

Despite his politics, Hobsbawm did write some very good stuff. His essay "The General Crisis of the European Economy in the Seventeenth Century" and "The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century, II" were particularly important.

It is a very useful guide to deepen our understanding of the 17th century, which contained a large number of revolutions. It is important to bear in mind one piece of advice on this subject according to Spinoza "the order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things".[4] While the revolutions in Europe had many differences, they also had significant similarities.

Hobsbawm's The "general crisis" thesis-like many ground-breaking essays provoked significant controversy from historians who opposed the emphasis on the social and economic origins of the revolutions that were carried out throughout Europe. Also, several historians refused to believe that there was any "general crisis" at all such as the Dutch historian Ivo Schöffer, or the Danish historian Niels Steengsgaard.

Eric J. Hobsbawm's essay, which was printed in two parts in 1954, as "The General Crisis of the European Economy in the Seventeenth Century" and "The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century, II" sought to present a Marxist analysis of the transformation from a feudal society to a capitalist one in the 17th century. This change was held responsible for the revolutions, wars and social unrest that took place. Hobsbawm put forward that most of the social and economic structures associated with capitalism had grown and developed during "long sixteenth century." He believed that feudal "elements fatally obstructed growth" of capitalism. He believed that a revolution was needed to clear away the feudal rubbish for a new capitalist system to develop.

The most pronounced expression of this process of was to be found in England. Hobsbawm writes, "It will be generally agreed that the I7th century was one of social revolt both in Western and Eastern Europe. This clustering of revolutions has led some historians to see something like a general social-revolutionary crisis in the middle of the century. France had its Frondes, which were significant social movements; Catalan, Neapolitan and Portuguese revolutions marked the crisis of the Spanish Empire in the I64os; the Swiss peasant war of I653 expressed both the post-war crisis and the increasing exploitation of peasant by town, while in England revolution triumphed with portentous results. Though peasant unrest did not cease in the West - the "stamped paper " rising which combined middle class, maritime and peasant unrest in Bordeaux and Brittany occurred in 1675, the Camisard wars even later- those of Eastern Europe were more significant. In the i6th century, there had been few revolts against the growing enserfment of peasants. The Ukrainian revolution of I648-54 may be regarded as a major servile upheaval.

So must the various " Kurucz " movements in Hungary, their very name harking back to Dozsa's peasant rebels of I5I4, their memory enshrined in folksongs about Rakoczy as that of the Russian revolt of I672 is in the song about Stenka Razin. A major Bohemian peasant rising in i68o opened a period of endemic serf unrest there. It would be easy to lengthen this catalogue of the large social upheavals - for instance by including the revolts of the Irish in 164I and 1689".[5]

Hobsbawm has gone on the record to say that he "was not a Stalinist. I criticised Stalin, and I cannot conceive how what I've written can be regarded as a defence of Stalin. But as someone who was a loyal Party member for two decades before 1956 and therefore silent about a number of things about which it's reasonable not to be silent - things I knew or suspected in the USSR. Why I stayed [in the Communist Party] is not a political question about communism, it's a one-off biographical question. It wasn't out of idealisation of the October Revolution. I'm not an idealiser. One should not delude oneself about the people or things one cares most about in one's life. Communism is one of these things and I've done my best not to delude myself about it even though I was loyal to it and to its memory. The phenomenon of communism and the passion it aroused is particular to the twentieth century. It was a combination of the high hopes which were brought with progress and the belief in human improvement during the nineteenth century along with the discovery that the bourgeois society in which we live (however great and fruitful) did not work and at certain stages looked as though it was on the verge of collapse. And it did collapse and generated awful nightmares ".[6]

According to the Marxist writer and expert on Leon Trotsky David North Hobsbawm's writing on the Russian Revolution mostly portrays the revolution as being "doomed to failure" and a "fatal enterprise." This leads to the assumption that the breakdown of the Soviet Union was the "Shipwreck of Socialism."

North admits Hobsbawm has produced some excellent work but," the subject of the Russian Revolution is dangerous territory for Professor Hobsbawm, for in this field his scholarship is compromised by his politics. Hobsbawm once confessed that as a member of the CPGB he had avoided writing about the Russian Revolution and the 20th century, because the political line of his party would have prevented him from being entirely truthful. Why he chose to remain a member of a party that would have compelled him to tell lies is a question to which he has never given a convincing answer. At any rate, it would have been best for him and no loss to the writing of history, had he continued to limit himself to events before 1900"?[7]

As North points out Hobsbawm did not in later life limit himself to write on events pre 1900. Hobsbawm was very active writing about politics. It is in this regard I would like to examine his political career. While I believe that the plaudits Hobsbawm got recently for his history writing are thoroughly deserved. Given the level of press coverage and favourable obituaries from establishment figures highlight the importance Hobsbawm was for the ruling elite in Britain and internationally.

He was, after all, made a Companion of Honour. A rarity for a historian especially of his political persuasion. Hobsbawm was lauded from both sides of bourgeois democracy in Britain. Labour leader Ed Miliband said Prof Hobsbawm was "an extraordinary historian, a man passionate about his politics and a great friend of his family". His historical works brought hundreds of years of British history to hundreds of thousands of people. He brought history out of the ivory tower and into people's lives. But he was not simply academic; he cared deeply about the political direction of the country. Indeed, he was one of the first people to recognise the challenges to Labour in the late 1970s and 1980s from the changing nature of our society."

In this respect, Milliband says more than he intended. Hobsbawm was a major theoretical architect of the right-wing shift of New Labour. During his membership of the "Eurocommunist" wing of the CPGB and his time with the Marxism Today theoretical journal, he wrote many articles urging Labour to adopt a more right-wing trajectory. In 1978 he wrote the essay "The Forward March of Labour Halted". Which in many ways, laid the basis for Labours future development? "If anything, I was an extremely right-wing Communist and generally attacked by the leftists, including the leftists in the Labour Party".

Hobsbawm relationship with the origins of New Labour is explored in an article by Chris Marsden, which reveals Stalinism's role in spawning new Labour. Marsden said the Communist Party of Great Britain "Euro-Communist" tendency acted as the midwife of New Labour."

Marsden continues with the observation that Marxism Today laid the "ideological framework for what was to become New Labour was first established in the editorial offices of Marxism Today. And it was mostly made possible to implement the project so defined due above all to the liquidation of the Soviet Union".

Hobsbawm had no real faith in the revolutionary capacity of the working class as can be seen in his Marx Memorial Lecture in 1978 and as Marsden concluded "Hobsbawm too began by asserting that the crisis of the labour movement could be attributed to the decline of the working class itself. His evidence for this mainly consisted of a presentation of the fall in the number of workers employed in heavy industry and the supposedly concomitant fall in support for the Labour and Communist parties. He then argued that industrial militancy had failed to provide an answer to the failures of the Labour government of the time. Hobsbawm's lecture was not just unconvincing. It was an attempt to provide an apologia for the betrayal of the working class by Labour and the TUC. He was writing after the election of a Labour government in 1974 as a result of a mass militant movement that culminated in the downfall of the previous Conservative government of Edward Heath. After making sure minimal concessions to the miners, who had led that campaign, Labour had proceeded to implement austerity measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund and, when this produced a major decline in its support amongst workers, had formed a coalition with the Liberal Party in order to continue with its attacks. Hobsbawm responded to this by blaming the working classand identifying a supposed decline in its numerical strengthfor Labour's loss of support".

Hobsbawm was not an orthodox Marxist. Politically speaking Hobsbawm was closer to social democracy and the right-wing side of the Labour Party than to Marxism. The harsh tone of this obituary should not take anything away from Hobsbawm's historical writing, especially pre the 20th century, but you cannot separate his historical writing with his politics. This should be borne in mind when reading him.

[2] Interview with Maya Jaggi published in The Guardian newspaper in 2002
[3] . "These the times ... this the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill By Ann Talbot 25 March 2003
[7] Leon Trotsky and the Fate of Socialism in the 20th Century A Reply to Professor Eric Hobsbawm By David North 3 January 1998.