Monday, 28 March 2016

A Critical Review of Trotsky, Downfall of a Revolutionary by Bertrand M. Patenaude’s -New York HarperCollins, 2009

“There’s life in the old boy Trotsky yet—but if the ice pick didn’t quite do its job-killing him off, I hope I’ve managed it.”  Robert Service London, October 2009,

“Everyone has the right to be stupid on occasion, but Comrade Macdonald abuses the privilege”. Leon Trotsky

Over the last decade or so we have seen a relentless campaign to promote the death of Marxism. It is perhaps then a little surprising that over the corresponding period we have seen a plethora of biographies on the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.  Over the past ten years, we have seen four English-language novels and four English-language academic books. This is not counting books produced in other languages.

Bertrand M. Patenaude’s book is one of the better ones. The book, published in Britain as Stalin’s Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky and in the United States as Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary has been widely reviewed in both the capitalist press and various pseudo-left publications. One has sympathies with any historian who attempts a biography of Trotsky since he or she will have to with apologies to Thomas Carlyle “drag him out from under a mountain of dead dogs, a huge load of calumny and oblivion”.

Patenaude a fellow at the Hoover Institution had unprecedented access to Trotsky’s personal papers at Harvard and of course to papers held at the Hoover archives. Even this privileged access has not prevented him from repeating a number of distortions and fabrications about Trotsky and the Russian revolution. It is unfortunate but Patenaude’s book is not the only one to give an inaccurate and politically driven portrait of Leon Trotsky. Many of these recent books do not have even the most basic academic integrity.

Recent Historiography

The current low standard of books on Leon Trotsky has not always been the case. A significant number of historians who while not being close to Trotsky’s politics have written very good and in most cases objective books. It is not possible to examine all of them but perhaps the historian worth reading the most is E H Carr. 

Carr was one the first major historian to attempt a rehabilitation of Trotsky. His publications on the history of Soviet Russia are “monumental”. According to the Marxist writer David North, “Carr was not politically sympathetic to Trotsky, but he brilliantly summarized and analyzed the complex issues of program, policy and principle with which Trotsky grappled in a difficult and critical period of Soviet history”.

Carr was followed by the writer and historian Isaac Deutscher who had close links with Trotsky’s Fourth International. He published three biographical trilogies: The Prophet Armed, The Prophet Unarmed, and The Prophet Outcast. Unlike Carr Deutscher was sympathetic to Trotsky and his ideas. Deutscher was expelled from the Polish Communist Party for Trotskyism in the 1930s.  He was a delegate to the first conference of the Fourth International. However, he disagreed with Trotsky over the founding of the Fourth International in a period of defeats and believed that the new group was too weak.  His books are still standard reading for anyone interested in the topic.

This cannot be said of the current spate of biographies? These books are in many ways a useful barometer to the growing shift to the right in academia. After all, academics do not live not in a vacuum and are subject to the many ideological pressures that rage throughout society. It is churlish to say that every writer who produces a work on the figures of the Russian Revolution should adhere to Marxism but is it too much to ask for some objectivity or even good serious history. It is hard not to notice that most history departments have become little more than production lines for anti-Marxist books.

Many of these books are as Oscar Wilde said “hitting below the intellect”. By far the worst of these books is Robert Service’s biography of Trotsky[1] In the preface of his book Service makes the boast that his is "the first full-length biography of Trotsky written by someone outside of Russia who is not a Trotskyist." This is simply not true. It is hard to believe that the editor of this book would have let this comment pass without checking it.

Leon Trotsky

Patenaude correctly criticizes Service’s book for its level of factual inaccuracies. Writing in the American Historical Review he says “I have counted more than four dozen [mistakes],”. he continues, “Service mixes up the names of Trotsky's sons, misidentifies the largest political group in the first Duma in 1906, botches the name of the Austrian archduke assassinated at Sarajevo, misrepresents the circumstances of Nicholas II's abdication, gets backwards Trotsky's position in 1940 on the United States' entry into World War II, and gives the wrong year of death of Trotsky's widow. Service's book is completely unreliable as a reference…. At times the errors are jaw-dropping. Service believes that Bertram Wolfe was one of Trotsky's ‘acolytes’ living with him in Mexico (pp. 441, 473), that André Breton was a ‘surrealist painter’ whose ‘pictures exhibited sympathy with the plight of the working people’ (p. 453), and that Mikhail Gorbachev rehabilitated Trotsky in 1988, when in fact Trotsky was never posthumously rehabilitated by the Soviet government.”[2]

Patenaude goes on to explain how he came to review the book saying he was “initially inclined to turn down the review request”. He felt that working on the review would lead him away from other work. “Nonetheless, after checking to make sure that David North's book did not mention my own recent book on Trotsky, I accepted the invitation, fully expecting that I would add my voice to the chorus of praise for Service's biography.”

 “I wrote the review at the request of the editors of the AHR,” They asked me to review both Service's book and North's book. I did find this a little curious, because Service is a major figure in the field of Soviet history and his Trotsky has been hailed by several reviewers as the definitive biography -- so why dilute the effect by combining it with a slender, essentially self-published volume written by an avowed Trotskyist who devotes most of his pages to criticism of Service and his book?”

Bertrand M. Patenaude

Patenaude would later retract his sharp opinion of North who after all is a leading authority on Leon Trotsky and has written extensively on him. Patenaude wrote “Enter David North. David North is an American Trotskyist whose book collects his review essays of Service’s volume and of earlier biographies of Trotsky by Ian Thatcher and Geoffrey Swain. (He does not mention my 2009 book, Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary.) Given North’s Trotskyism, he might reasonably be suspected of hyperbole in his brief against Service. But a careful examination of North’s book shows his criticism of Service to be exactly what Trotsky scholar Baruch Knei-Paz, in a blurb on the back cover, says it is: ‘detailed, meticulous, well-argued and devastating.’”

North has his own deep-seated criticism of Service’s work on Trotsky. In his review, he writes that Service’s book “is a crude and offensive book, produced without respect for the most minimal standards of scholarship. Service’s “research,” if one wishes to call it that, has been conducted in bad faith. His Trotsky is not history, but, rather, an exercise in character assassination. Service is not content to distort and falsify Trotsky’s political deeds and ideas. Frequently descending to the level of a grocery store tabloid, Service attempts to splatter filth on Trotsky’s personal life. Among his favorite devices is to refer to “rumors” about Trotsky’s intimate relations, without even bothering to identify the rumor’s source, let alone substantiate its credibility”

Swain and Thatcher

North has also been heavily critical of other biographies of Trotsky by Geoffrey Swain and Ian Thatcher. Thatcher from Leicester university produced his Trotsky in 2003 published by Routledge. In his opinion “Thatcher and Swain belittled Deutscher for creating the “myth” of Trotsky. The Thatcher-Swain biographies set out to create a new anti-Trotsky narrative, utilizing slanders and fabrications of old Stalinist vintage in the interest of contemporary anti-communism”.

Thatcher’s Trotsky as North says is little more than character assassination. The book is also heavily pregnant with undocumented assertions. Like Service’s book both make it exceedingly difficult for the average reader to trace articles and evaluate for themselves Thatcher’s and Swain’ comments. Even something basic as footnotes are not very accurate and sometimes misleading.


Patenaude is not immune to this right wing shift in academia. His book despite being better than some others does sufferer from the repeating the same myths and mistakes of previous books. Patenaude’s use of sources close to Trotsky who were either hostile or had broken with his politics is not really useful and Patenaude is far too uncritical of them.
Patenaude relies a great deal on the testimonies of Trotsky's bodyguards. These are mainly from the American Trotskyist movement. Many of these people had broken with Trotskyism and should have been treated with caution.

It is clear that Patenaude is not fully acquainted with Trotsky’s writings and politics and still less so with the major political ‘social and cultural subjects tackled by Trotsky. This limitation on his part could have been rectified by quoting from writers that did. Patenaude does portray a certain amount of sympathy for his subject which is done so from a liberal, not Marxist standpoint. He also has the annoying habit of using throw away lines such Trotsky attempted to "cloak the Bolshevik coup" and that Trotsky "helped create the first totalitarian state". Aside from not being true Patenaude does little to back up such a serious charge. His viewpoint on other struggles inside the Bolshevik party is predominantly impressionistic.

'Warts and all'

On the plus side, Patenaude’s account is important because it brings together a wide range of sources on Trotsky’s murder. Some of these sources have not been available in English before. He also makes use of the personal papers of the Alexander Buchman, Albert Glotzer and the FBI and the GPU agent Joseph Hansen.

Patenaude employs a novelist type writing style. It is a shame that this style does not work when he tries to employ this method when encountering Trotsky’s revolutionary past.
The main focus of the book centres on the last decade of Trotsky's life and work. Patenaude portrayal of Trotsky’s life while 'imprisoned' in Blue House would in some instances not look out of place in cheap adult books and sometimes borders on the salacious.  Having said that he does manage to show the element of tragedy in Trotsky’s life. Barely a member of Trotsky’s family and close friends survived Stalin’s murderous clutches.

Despite having unpatrolled access to Trotsky’s archive Patenaude has nothing to say politically that has not been said before. Very little is said about Trotsky’s followers around the world. Next to nothing is written in the preparation and discussion following the publication of the Transitional Programme.


It is clear that Patenaude has no sympathy for the Trotskyist movement. He believes it is full of “sects” and is riddled with “splits and mergers”. Trotskyist’s will need a strong stomach if they read this book. The book is likely to gain a wide readership, but young people and workers and the general reader interested in the life and ideas of Leon Trotsky who struggled against Stalinism, fascism and capitalism, should read as much as possible of the great man himself and, at least, a few biographies from a much earlier period these should be read in conjunction with this book.

[1] Robert Service, Trotsky, A Biography (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009)
[2] The American Historical Review (2011) 116 (3): 900-902

Monday, 14 March 2016

1917: Before and After by Edward Hallett Carr, Macmillan,1969

“Trotsky was a hero of the revolution; He fell when the heroic age was over.” E H Carr.

This collection of articles, reviews and lectures deal predominantly with Carr’s assessment of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and its revolutionaries. To say that Carr had a contradictory attitude to the Revolution and for that matter Marxism, in general, would be an understatement.

The items that make up this slim volume were written before 1950 and give me a welcome opportunity for a limited survey of his work and the place it occupies in the field of Soviet studies.

The themes of the lectures are broad in scope. Ranging from figures such as Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky and literary figures such as Nikolai Chernyshevsky. Like all Carr’s work his style of writing is clear and straightforward and explains complex historical and political events in a language untainted by jargon. 

However, one major criticism of Carr’s work and perhaps the biggest charge against him is that he was only interested in writing about the victors in history. This is simply not true while he did not deal with the defeat suffered by Leon Trotsky and others on the scale of say Isaac Deutscher he did none the less deal with the defeated in a precise and not unsympathetic manner.

The first chapter The Russian Revolution; its place in History is a well-written attempt to place the revolution in its historical context. This is a solid piece of writing which is free of the usual cynicism that permeates Soviet historiography today. Carr correctly observes that the Russian revolutionaries learned the lessons from previous revolutions including the French and English bourgeois revolution.

The second chapter is a preface to a translation of the novel What Is to Be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky. The novel was highly thought of by Vladimir Lenin.  One of Lenin great works What is to be Done, written in 1902 took the name of this book. He called the author a “great Russian socialist”. This a very sympathetic portrait of Chernyshevsky. The novel is highly thought of in academic circles. Joseph Frank wrote "No work in modern literature, with the possible exception of Uncle Tom's Cabin, can compete with What Is to Be Done? in its effect on human lives and its power to make history. For Chernyshevsky novel, far more than Marx's Capital, supplied the emotional dynamic that eventually went to make the Russian Revolution."[1]

Carr’s third chapter is called Red Rosa. As Carr admits it is very difficult to do justice to Luxemburg in the space of eleven pages of text. A full-length biography and then some is needed. It is clear that Luxemburg was held in high esteem amongst the Bolsheviks leaders. Lenin especially commented that “Although the eagles do swoop down and beneath the chickens fly, chickens with outspread wings never will soar amid clouds in the sky”.[2]

Carr properly designates Luxemburg as an equal of any leading Marxists of the time. She played a crucial role in the attack on Eduard Bernstein’s revision of Marxism. Her Accumulation of Capital written in 1915 was among other things an attack on Bernstein’s revisionism. Luxemburg, it is true did not hold back any criticism especially of the Bolsheviks if she felt it was warranted.

The paragraph below quoted in Carr’s book has been interpreted as a thinly veiled attack on the Bolsheviks but I am not sure Carr’s reads it that way.

“The essence of socialist society consists in the fact that the great labouring mass ceases to be a dominated mass, but rather, makes the entire political and economic life its own life and gives that life a conscious, free, and autonomous direction. The proletarian revolution requires no terror for its aims; it hates and despises killing. It does not need these weapons because it does not combat individuals but institutions because it does not enter the arena with naïve illusions whose disappointment it would seek to revenge. It is not the desperate attempt of a minority to mould the world forcibly according to its ideal, but the action of the great massive millions of the people, destined to fulfil a historic mission and to transform historical necessity into reality.[3]“

Carr’s fourth chapter is called The Bolshevik Utopia. This is a very misleading piece of writing, in that it gives the impression that Marxism has a utopian content. Given that Carr is usually very precise in his writing this is not a mistake or slip of the pen. Carr really did identify with this characterization of the Bolsheviks. It is a little strange given that Carr would have been familiar with the decades-long struggle the Marxist movement carried out in opposing the utopian socialists.

The Tragedy of Trotsky is by far the most interesting piece of this collection. The chapter is a multi-layer review of Isaac Deutscher’s biography of the Russian revolutionary. Carr it must be said was one of the first historians to carry out a major attempt at restoring Trotsky to his rightful place in Soviet and international history. Using sources from the soviet archives he was one of the first historians to write a detailed account of the political struggles inside the leadership of the Communist Party of the USSR 1923-24.

Carr clearly thought that there was an alternative to Stalinism in the form of Leon Trotsky and his Left Opposition. According to the Marxist writer David North “Carr was not politically sympathetic to Trotsky. But he brilliantly summarized and analyzed the complex issues of program, policy and principle with which Trotsky grappled in a difficult and critical period of Soviet history. Carr’s account made clear that Trotsky became the target of an unprincipled attack that was, in its initial stages, motivated by his rivals’ subjective considerations of personal power. While Carr found much to criticize in Trotsky’s response to the provocations of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev, the historian left no doubt that he viewed Trotsky as, alongside of Lenin, the towering figure of the Bolshevik Revolution”. [4]

Carr’s Place in Soviet Historiography

Carr was part of that generation of historians although not Marxist who sought to make an objective evaluation of the October revolution and its aftermath. As one writer commented "not exactly a Marxist, but strongly impregnated with Marxist ways of thinking, applied to international affairs".

Carr, who worked under difficult circumstances throughout his career had to come to terms with the debilitating effect of Stalinism had on his field of historical study. According to Deutscher “The Stalinist state intimidated the historian and dictated to him first the pattern into which he was expected to force events and then the ever new versions of the events themselves. At the outset, the historian was subjected to this pressure mainly when he dealt with the Soviet revolution, the party strife which had preceded and which had followed it, and especially the struggles inside the Bolshevik Party. All these had to be treated in a manner justifying Stalin as the Leader of monolithic Bolshevism”.  [5]

Since Carr’s time, there has been a distinct and traceable decline in the historical study of the Russian revolution. The failure of today’s historians to produce an objective and intelligent account of the revolution has more to do with current politics than it does with just bad academic standards and this is despite having access to archives that Carr could have only dreamed of. In fact, outside the confines of the International committee of the Fourth International, there has been no historian that has bettered Carr’s work.

It is not within the realm of this review to examine the current state of soviet historiography suffice to say it is at a very low ebb. Far from being objective historical studies, many of the books appearing lately have been hagiographies and very right-wing ones at that. Many of them do not even retain minimal academic standards.

One such book is Robert Service’s biography of Trotsky according to David North “Trotsky: A Biography is a crude and offensive book, produced without respect for the most minimal standards of scholarship. Service’s “research,” if one wishes to call it that, has been conducted in bad faith. His Trotsky is not history, but, rather, an exercise in character assassination. Service is not content to distort and falsify Trotsky’s political deeds and ideas. Frequently descending to the level of a grocery store tabloid, Service attempts to splatter filth on Trotsky’s personal life. Among his favorite devices is to refer to “rumors” about Trotsky’s intimate relations, without even bothering to identify the rumor’s source, let alone substantiate its credibility”.[6]

In conclusion I am not saying Carr is without flaws and limitations. His work however will “remain a great and enduring landmark in historical writing devoted to the Bolshevik revolution. “It will take a very great historian to better his work. In today’s climate I for one am not holding my breath.


1.       Heretics and Renegades and Other Essays, Isaac Deutscher, Hamish and Hamilton, London, 1955).

2.       EH Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1921 (three volumes, London, 1950, 1952, 1953); The Interregnum, 1923-1924 (London, 1954).

[1] Joseph Frank, The Southern Review
[2] Leon Trotsky- Hands Off Rosa Luxemburg! (June 1932)
[3] Rosa Luxemburg-What Does the Spartacus League Want? (December 1918)
[4] North, David, In defence of Leon Trotsky, Mehring Books, Detroit,2015
[5] Isaac Deutscher’s, Heretics and Renegades and Other Essays (Hamish and Hamilton, London, 1955). Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.
[6] In The Service of Historical Falsification: A Review of Robert Service's Trotsky-David North 2009

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Mussolini and the Rise of Fascism-Donald Sassoon- HarperCollins UK 2008

“He raised the Italian people from the Bolshevism into which they might have sunk in 1919 to a position in Europe such as Italy had never held before”, Winston Churchill.

Whether the author consciously set out to write a book that challenges a very dangerous trend in a number of poorly written books is open to debate. These books have sought to impose a revisionist historiography that attempts to rehabilitates Benito Mussolini and mystify the rise of Italian fascism.

For Sassoon, the study of Italian fascism is not merely an exercise in historical research but has lessons for today’s political situation. To combat the growth of right-wing and fascistic forces in Italy today the past must be studied objectively and truthfully.

Modern Italian Politics

Perhaps the most marked development in politics during the Berlusconi years was the attempt to rehabilitate Mussolini and his fascist party. Italy’s former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, on numerous occasions, praised the fascist “Duce” Benito Mussolini.  According to him, Mussolini had “done a great deal of good”.

Berlusconi went on to downplay Italy’s collaboration with the holocaust saying it was “not comparable to that of Germany”. He also repeated the tired lie that Mussolini was pressured by Hitler.

One of the more grotesque by-products of the whitewashing of the Italian fascist leader by Berlusconi came about when iPhone issued an app of Mussolini’s speeches. Apple was roundly condemned by a large number of Jewish groups who correctly stated that Mussolini was directly responsible for sending thousands of Jews to the death during the Holocaust. The app was subsequently pulled by Apple.


This political whitewashing of Mussolini and the fascists is mirrored in publishing circles by a growing number of poorly written books. At the moment, it is hard to gauge whether this revisionist whitewash is a minority, or has started to gain a foothold in academic circles.  So many of these books have appeared that one writer sees it as “a noir publishing niche”.
It would take a historian a rather long time to sift through over 100 current biographies of Mussolini to tell whether this very nasty revisionist trend has done any damage in academia.

According to the historian R J B Bosworth, “It is true that much revisionism of the Berlusconi years is hard to take seriously. The slew of biographies and memoirs devoted to praising 'good Fascists' mostly fall well below acceptable academic standard. in devoting himself without reserve to the idea in which he believed'. But the quality of the research base of such works, and the decisions about which facts to include and which to exclude are too blatantly slanted to make much impact on scholarship.[1]

While that may be the case for academic books there is a definite trend in non-academic publications for rebranding fascism in order to fit into today’s politics. As one reviewer put it these books are not so much an attempt “at revisionism, but at restoration.”

One such book is by Nicholas Farrell[2] who has sought to overturn decades of historiography to claim that Mussolini was not really all that bad and that he took a wrong direction because of his alliance with Hitler. According to Farrell, Mussolini had "charisma" and was a "phenomenal" personality. Farrell tends to mirror Berlusconi thoughts.

It is not that difficult to challenge these falsehoods. A more objective and truthful examination of the facts would also lead us to a different picture. Mussolini’s prime goal was to create a new. “Roman Empire” around the Mediterranean Sea.

In order to achieve this goal, the Italian fascists invaded and occupied North Africa and areas of Yugoslavia. In order to justify the slaughter of Jews, Africans and Slavs the fascists classified them as “subhuman”. This discrimination was done in the defense of a “pure Italian race”. According to historian Carlo Moos, Italian racial laws were very similar to the Nazi’s and belonged to “a long-existing, general-fascist racial concept” [3]

Another book Liberal Fascism [4] is “less a work of neutral scholarship or unbiased journalism than thinly veiled historical revisionism”. Jonah Goldberg’s argument is simplistic, to say the least, it is the idea that fascism came from liberalism. A position not dissimilar to some of the “pseudo-left” writers from the Frankfurt school who put forward the perspective that fascism can be traced back to the enlightenment. However, it must be said that it is hard to take this writer seriously when he describes former presidents of the United States as fascists.
The rise of fascism

Given a limited space, Sassoon does a very competent job in explaining the rise of Italian fascism. While not a Marxist he does favor a left-wing slant to his history. The rise of fascism in Italy was a spur-of-the-moment development with significant sections of the population taking part.  Its leaders predominantly came from the rank and file fascist organization.

Despite taking a plebian character it was controlled and financed by big business. Its social composition was made up largely of the petty bourgeoisie, lumpen elements of the working class and in its latter stages, it began to draw in larger sections of the working class.

Sassoon has done some good research into the social makeup of the fascists in 1921 24-per cent rural workers; 15.5-per cent industrial workers; 14-per cent white-collar workers; 13-per cent students; 11.9-per cent small farmers; and 9- percent shopkeepers. “The proportion of students was, "a much higher proportion than any other group in the population".
Mussolini’s Rise to Power

The notion fostered by far too many right wing history books is that Benito Mussolini came to power in Italy at the end of 1922 by carrying out a heroic march on Rome. The truth revealed by Sassoon is a little less glamorous.

The majority arrived in special trains. The few that did march were hardly a fascist vanguard they were as one writer put it a “raggle-taggle bunch with hardly a modern weapon among them, and who could have been easily stopped by the army.”

Benito Mussolini and his fascists did not crush all before him rather he was invited by the aristocracy and sections of big business to form a coalition government. Once fully in power, the fascists carried out a murderous crackdown against its opponents in the working class.

The Italian bourgeoisie had always fancied itself as a great power but economically this was not the case. The crisis of capitalist rule that brought the Italian fascists into government was the product was Italy's entry, in 1915, into the First World War on the side of Britain and France.

The pressure of the war merely escalated Italy’s economic and political crisis. This led to the famous post-war "Red Years" of 1919 to 1920. During these years, a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism was clearly on the cards. Sassoon’s account is very puzzlingly light on these years. Why?

To solve this crisis, the Italian bourgeoisie turned to the fascists, as the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky explains “At the moment that the "normal" police and military resources of the bourgeois dictatorship, together with their parliamentary screens, no longer suffice to hold society in a state of equilibrium -- the turn of the fascist regime arrives. Through the fascist agency, capitalism sets in motion the masses of the crazed petty bourgeoisie and the bands of declassed and demoralized lumpenproletariat -- all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy”.[5]

There are two major weaknesses of the book the first being Sassoon’s complacent attitude towards the Italian Communist party’s role in the rise of fascism. Despite its being only two years old when Mussolini was given power it played a crucial role in allowing the fascists to consolidate its rule again as Trotsky said “One must admit, however, that the German Communist Party has also learned little from the Italian experience. The Italian Communist Party came into being almost simultaneously with fascism. But the same conditions of revolutionary ebb tide, which carried the fascists to power, served to deter the development of the Communist Party. It did not give itself an accounting as to the full sweep of the fascist danger; it lulled itself with revolutionary illusions; it was irreconcilably antagonistic to the policy of the united front; in short, it was stricken with all the infantile diseases. .[6]

The second major political weakness of the book is its glaring underestimation of the revolutionary nature of the working class. The Italian bourgeoisie saw very clearly the dangers of socialist revolution and turned to fascism to solve its predicament. In doing it had the collaboration of both social democracy and Stalinism.

Despite these weaknesses, I would recommend this book to anyone who is beginning a study of this important international event. I would also urge students and anyone interested in history to fascism to consult Leon Trotsky’s writing on the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy.

[1] R. J. B. Bosworth -  Benito Mussolini: Bad Guy on the International Block- Contemporary European History, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Feb., 2009), pp. 123-134
[2] Farrell Nicholas Mussolini: A New Life Weidenfeld, 2015
[3] Moos, Carlo: Late Italian Fascism and the Jews, 2008).
[4]  Jonah Goldberg- Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning- Penguin- 2009
[5] Leon Trotsky - What Next? vital Question for the German Proletariat, 1932
[6]Leon Trotsky - Fascism- What It Is and How to Fight It

Friday, 4 March 2016

The Poor in the English Revolution-1640-1649

"For really I think that the poorest he that is in England bath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore, truly, Sir, I think it is clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his consent to put himself under that government. "

Colonel Rainborowe – New Model Army Soldier-Putney Debates

"the necessitous people [the poor] of the whole kingdom will presently rise in mighty numbers; and whosoever they pretend for at first, within a while, they will set up for themselves, to the utter ruin of all the nobility and gentry of the kingdom."

Quoted in Christopher Hill The English Revolution 1640

"thus were the agricultural people, firstly forcibly expropriated from the soil, driven from their homes, turned into vagabonds, and then whipped, branded, tortured by laws grotesquely terrible, into the discipline necessary for the wage system."
Karl Marx [Capital]

"This Commonwealth's freedom will unite the hearts of Englishmen together in love, so that if a foreign enemy endeavour to come in, we shall all with joint consent rise to defend our inheritance, and shall be true to one another. Whereas now the poor see, if they fight and should conquer the enemy, yet either they or their children are like to be slaves still, for the gentry will have all. Property divides the whole world into parties, and is the cause of all wars and bloodshed and contention everywhere." When the earth becomes a common treasury again, as it must, then this enmity in all lands will cease."

Gerrard Winstanley, Digger Leader

When it comes to the matter of the poor during the English Revolution, there have primarily been two trends in the English Revolution historiography. The first is either to ignore them entirely or to place them in the forefront of the leadership of the English revolution alongside radicals from previous centuries representing an unbroken thread of radicalism that goes right up to the present day. I do not claim that there was no "revel, riot and rebellion" during the English Revolution, but the English revolution was made by the bourgeoisie, not the working class which was still in its infancy.

There was, however, a significant radicalisation of the poor during this time. As Christopher Hill points out "Against the king, the laws and religion were a company of poor tradesmen, broken and decayed citizens, deluded and priest-ridden women, . . . there rode rabble that knew not wherefore they were got together, tailors, shoemakers, linkboys, etc. on the king's side. .all the bishops of the land, all the deans, prebends and learned men; both the universities; all the princes, dukes, marquises; all the earls and lords except two or three; all the knights and gentlemen in the three nations, except a score of sectaries and atheists".[1]

It was these sectaries and atheists that conservative thinkers like Richard Baxter sought to warn the ruling elite about when he wrote "A very great part of the knights and gentlemen of England . . . adhered to the king. And most of the tenants of these gentlemen, and also most of the poorest of the people, whom the others call the rabble, did follow the gentry and were for the king. On the Parliament's side were (besides themselves) the smaller part (as some thought) of the gentry in most of the counties, and the greatest part of the tradesmen and freeholders and the middle sort of men, especially in those corporations and counties which depend on clothing and such manufactures…Freeholders and tradesmen are the strength of religion and civility in the land, and gentlemen and beggars and servile tenants are the strength of iniquity".[2] 

Baxter was one of the most politically astute commentators on the English revolution. His writing expressed a general fear amongst the ruling elite of growing social unrest.

It is not in the realm of this essay to examine every single piece of historiography connected with the poor during the English revolution. It is however hard not to disagree with the words of Lawrence Stone who described the history of the 17th century as "a battleground which has been heavily fought over…beset with mines, booby-traps and ambushes manned by ferocious scholars prepared to fight every inch of the way".

A large number of these ferocious scholars have ignored the radicalisation of the poor during the English Revolution or when they did comment on it was done so coupled with a persistent attack on Marxist historiography, with figures like Christopher Hil and Brian Manning taking the brunt of this assault.

While it is clear that up until the late 1960s, there appeared to be a consensus amongst historians studying the English revolution that a study of the poor had to be linked with socio-economic changes that were taken place in the 17th century.

The late 1970s, saw this disappear and was replaced with a consistent attack on Marxist historiography. During an interview by John Rees and Lee Humber, the left-wing Christopher Hill was asked this question "There is a marked trend to separate various aspects of the revolution, so that cultural development is seen in isolation to, say, economic ones, a trend which is part of a much wider debate taking in the arguments around postmodernism. Would you agree that this is also a great challenge to the economic and social interpretation of history?.

Hill's answer was "Yes, all this linguistic stuff of the literary historians ignores the social context. I think that is a very unfortunate phase that literary criticism seems to be going through. I had thought that one of the good things of the last few decades was the way historians and literary critics seemed to be coming together on the 17th century and producing some sort of consensus. This is now in danger with all this linguistic guff. I suppose it is quite difficult for people trained in one discipline to take on board the lessons learnt in others, but any new consensus will have to be one based on looking at society as a whole including literature and religion".[3]

As the Marxist economist, Nick Beams also points out "One of the most frequently employed caricatures of Marxism is the claim that it argues that ideology is just a cover for the real economic motivations of social actors. Accordingly, Marxism is "disproved" by the discovery that individuals act, not according to economic motives but based on powerful ideologies. Marxism does not deny that historical actors are motivated and driven into action by their ideological conceptions, and it does not claim that these ideologies are simply a rationalisation for the real economic motivations. However, it does insist that it is necessary to examine the motives behind the motives—the real, underlying, driving forces of the historical process—and to make clear the social interests served by a given ideology—a relationship that may or may not be consciously grasped by the individual involved".

While it is essential to understand what motivated the poor to "revel, riot and rebellion" it is even more critical to understand the relationship between the poor and its leaders, which on this occasion during the English Revolution were the various radical groups such as The Levellers and Diggers and to a certain extent the Ranters.

As Leon Trotsky wrote "In reality leadership is not at all a mere "reflection" of a class or the product of its free creativeness. A leadership is shaped in the process of clashes between the different classes or the friction between the different layers within a given class".[4]

The Levellers, while being sympathetic to the poor, their perspective of bringing about deep-seated change was hampered by their class outlook that being of small producers, conditioned by their ideology. This contradiction caused some tension between their concern for the poor and their position of representatives of small property owners. They had no opposition to private property, and therefore they accepted that inequalities would always exist, they merely argued for the lot of the poor to be made more equitable. As John Cooke, a regicide and sympathetic to the Leveller cause explained 'I am no advocate for the poore further then to provide bread and necessaries for them, without which, life cannot be maintained, let rich men feast, and the poore make hard meale, but let them have bread sufficient'.[5]

In order to overcome their contradiction, knowing full well that they could not come to power through the presently constituted electorate or through the control of the army, the Levellers attempted to find not a a revolutionary solution to their problem but a constitutional one.

A draft constitution produced in 1647 called the Agreement of the People declared that the state had broken down in civil war and must be reformed based on certain fundamental 'native rights' safeguarded even from a sovereign parliament: religious toleration, no tithes. The attack on Parliament as sovereign went against one of the most fundamental reasons for the war in the first place. The agreement amongst other demands, called for biennial parliaments, franchise reform, only those who contracted into the new state by accepting the agreement were to have the vote.

While this was extremely radical for the time 'freeborn Englishmen' excluded servants and the poorer sections that did not constitute 'the people'. As Christopher Hill wrote: "The Leveller conception of free Englishmen, was thus restricted, even if much wider, than that embodied in the existing franchise. Their proposals would perhaps have doubled the number of men entitled to vote. However, manhood suffrage would have quadrupled it. The generals, generally horrified, pretended at Putney that the Levellers were more democratic than they were".[6]

The generals deliberately exaggerated the radicalism of the Levellers in order to label them extremists and to mobilise their supporters against them. Oliver Cromwell correctly recognised that if the franchise was widened, it would threaten his majority in Parliament. As Hill explains 'Defending the existing franchise, Henry Ireton rejected the doctrine "that by a man being born here, he shall have a share in that power that shall dispose of the lands here and of all things here". The vote was rightly restricted to those who "had a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom". Namely, the persons in whom all lands lies and those incorporation's in whom all trading lies.'[7]

The other substantial leadership of the poor came from the Diggers. Hill, in his seminal study, The World Turned Upside Down, believed that Winstanley and his Diggers, "have something to say to twentieth-century socialists". In this, he meant that they were an anticipation of future struggles. Hill was cognizant that despite their radicalism, the social and economic conditions had not yet matured for them to carry out a "second revolution" which would have seen the overthrow of Cromwell and broader use of the popular franchise.

John Gurney, who was perhaps the foremost expert on the Diggers recognised the leader of the Diggers Gerrard Winstanley was one of the most important figures to appear during the English Revolution commenting "the past is unpredictable.' So it has proved for Gerrard Winstanley. For all but one of his 67 years, he lived in obscurity, and then he died forgotten. Generations of historians passed over him either in silence or derision. He entirely eluded the notice of the Earl of Clarendon in the 17th century and of David Hume in the 18th. Even the Jacobin William Godwin, the first champion of the Civil War radicals, judged his exploits' scarcely worthy of being recorded', and S.R. Gardiner's comprehensive history of the Commonwealth contained only two references to him, one a bare mention of his name.

Then in the early 20th Century, Winstanley was rediscovered, and he has exerted a magnetic pull on left-leaning intellectuals ever since. He is variously credited as the father of English communism, socialism or environmentalism, depending on which is seeking paternity. His notice in the Victorian DNB was a scant 700 words; in the new DNB, it has ballooned to more than 8000. Now he has been canonised by the publication of an Oxford edition of his complete works, the second complete works in a century, more than have been accorded either Hobbes or Locke".[8]

While the Diggers were far more radical in their perspective for the poor, they shared the same class position as the Levellers. No matter how radical their ideas at no point could they overturn class society through revolution. The only class that could have achieved their aims was still in its infancy.

Historians such as John Gurney are a rare bread today in that his study of the poor was done so from a relatively left-wing standpoint. While Hill and Manning tended to dominate the study of the poor during the English revolution, there were a group of historians that were less incline to support a Marxist interpretation of the poor but were sufficiently influenced to carry out important work.

One of many historians that fit the above criteria was D.C. Coleman. While not being close to Marxism was undoubtedly influenced by left-wing historians such as Hill.

Coleman was a multidimensional historian according to his obituary he  "was sceptical about politics and thought religion was largely nonsense. He realised that people were subject to the motivation of a variety of sorts and that economic rationality could provide only a partial explanation. He made use, therefore, of economic theory, but did not regard it as the be-all and end-all in the attempt to explain human social behaviour over time, the essence of what he thought economic history should be about.[9]

Coleman points out in one of his writings that early capitalists were conscious that profit could be made by exploiting the large and growing working class. Coleman quotes J Pollexfen who writes, 'The more are maintained by Laborious Profitable Trades, the richer the Nation will be both in People and Stock and ... Commodities the cheaper".[10]

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Coleman's research was his publishing figures on the levels of poverty which are stunning. The levels of child labour that would not look out of place in a third world country today, stating "If the economists and social pamphleteers wanted a larger body of labouring poor, there is no lack of evidence that in mere numbers the poor already formed a very substantial part of the total population. Contemporary comment upon the numbers of poor stretches back into the sixteenth century, at least, and forward into the eighteenth. To Bacon, labourers and cottagers were 'but house beggars'; to a writer of the 1640's it. Seemed reasonable to suppose that 'the fourth part of the inhabitants of most of the parishes of England are miserable, poor people, and (harvest time excepted) without any subsistence', the comprehensive and well-known investigations of Gregory King in the 168o's and 1690s tell an even grimmer tale. He classed 23 per cent of the national population as 'labouring people and out servants' and a further 24 per cent as 'cottagers and paupers', estimating that both groups had annual family expenditures greater than income".[11]

Another historian worth reading is Steve Hindle; he is especially important and essential reading. Hindle's work should be read in conjunction with that of Hill and Manning.

His work on the Levellers backs up my earlier assumption that while Levellers such as John Wildman were sympathetic to the poor, there was also a fear that the levels of poverty and a dearth of food could get out of hand. Wildman states 'The price of food [is] excessive', wrote the Leveller John Wildman from London in 1648, 'and Trading [is] decayed'. It would; he thought, 'rend any pitifull heart to heare andsee the cryes and teares of the poore, who professe they are almost ready to famish'. 'While our divisions continue, and there be no settlement of the principles of freedom and justice', he insisted: trading will but more decay every day: Rumours and feares of Warre, and the Army coming now into the City, makes Merchants unwilling to trust their goods in the City, and exchange beyond sea falles, and there will be no importing of goods, and then there will be no exporting and so the staple commodities of the kingdom which maintains the constant trade, will not tend to the advantage of the labourers, and then most of the poore in the kingdom which live by spinning, carding, & will be ready to perish by famine".[12]

Wildman was echoing a common fear and worry amongst sections of the lower middle class that the impact of the failed harvests of 1647-1650. According to Hindle "Wildman was accordingly convinced that 'a suddain confusion would follow if a speedie settlement were not procured'.

Hindle goes on "Wildman's vivid analysis of the relationship between harvest failure, economic slump, political crisis and popular protest is proof enough that those who lived through the distracted times of the late 1640s were well aware of the interpenetration of economic and constitutional dislocation. It is surprising, therefore, that historians have made so little attempt to take the harvest crisis of the late 1640s seriously".

Another famous exponent of regional studies of the poor is A. L. Beier. One of his studies was Poor relief in Warwickshire 1630-1660. Beier presented in this essay a view that was supported by a significant number of historins that the study of the regional poor was an important part of a wider national study of the poor.

Beier warned about trying to read too much into these local studies, but a study of such areas as Warwickshire was legitimate. He writes "It would, of course, be dangerous to generalise from the example of one county to the whole of England, but the degree of typicality of Warwickshire and Professor Jordan's findings are encouraging. To study other counties from this point of view may yield interesting comparisons and the discovery of new variables, particularly if areas are found where relief administration in fact collapsed. More generally, however, and assuming that poor relief did not collapse in England during the Interregnum, of what significance was its continued functioning? First, it is clear that the devolution towards local control which took place in this period did not mean collapse or even falling efficiency in administration whether the sort of zealous efficiency characteristic of the Puritan rule was continued after I660 is another question deserving of study.[13]

[1] Christopher Hill-The English Revolution 1640-
[3] John Rees and Lee Humber-The good old cause-An interview with Christopher Hill-
[4] The Class, the Party-and the Leadership-
[5] Unum Necessarium:John Cooke, of Graies Inne, Barrester.
[6] The Century of Revolution: 1603–1714
[7] Christopher Hill-The English Revolution 1640-
[8] Gerrard Winstanley and the Left-John Gurney-Past & Present, Volume 235, Issue 1, May 2017, Pages 179–206,
[9] Professor D. C. Coleman-Obituary-
[10] Labour in the English Economy during the 17th Century-
[11] Labour in the English Economy during the 17th Century-
[12] Dearth and the English revolution:the harvest crisis of 1647–50-By Steve Hindle-
[13] A. L. Beier Poor relief in Warwickshire 1630-16601 – Past and Present 1966