Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Why Are They Back? Historical Falsification, Political Conspiracy and The Return of Fascism In Germany by Christoph Vandreier - Mehring Books-2019

Today historians are again labouring to rewrite and falsify history in order to justify new wars and discredit opposition to them. Their falsifications aim to “whitewash and legitimise the worst crimes of twentieth-century capitalist imperialism and, conversely, to criminalise and render morally illegitimate the entire struggle of the international socialist movement,”

David North The Russian Revolution and the Unfinished Twentieth Century.

When a state turns fascist, it doesn’t only mean that the forms and methods of government are changed in accordance with the patterns set by Mussolini – the changes in this sphere ultimately play a minor role – but it means, primarily and above all, that the workers’ organizations are annihilated; that the proletariat is reduced to an amorphous state; and that a system of administration is created which penetrates deeply into the masses and which serves to frustrate the independent crystallization of the proletariat. Therein precisely is the gist of fascism.

Leon Trotsky-What Next for the German Revolution? (1932)

Both Hitler and Mussolini have plagiarised and imitated practically everything from everyone. Mussolini stole from the Bolsheviks and Gabriele D’Annunzio and found inspiration in the camp of big business. Hitler imitated the Bolsheviks and Mussolini.

Stalin: An Appraisal of the Man and his Influence (1941), translated by Charles Malamuth, p. 412

“In order to carry out an aggressive foreign policy, history has to be rewritten, and the crimes of the Nazis have to be trivialised.”

Christoph Vandreier

Why Are They Back? is an essential read for anyone who wishes to understand the reasons behind the rise of Fascism in modern-day Germany. It is also unique in that it is the only recent book that understands and opposes Fascism from a classical Marxist perspective.

While maintaining a high academic standard, the book takes the form of a polemic and calls for action against the fascists as Vandreier says. “It is not written from the standpoint of a neutral observer, but as a contribution to the struggle against the return of militarism and fascism.” Not since Leon Trotsky’s writings on Fascism[1] has such a book been needed.

It is hard to believe that after the shocking barbarity which included the mass extermination of 6 million Jews and others, the war of annihilation against the Soviet Union which claimed 27 million lives, that the fascists have once more not only taken to the streets but have won considerable seats in the German parliament.

The writer Christoph Vandreier belongs to the Sozialistische Gleichheitspartei (Socialist Equality Party) in Germany. He explains the origins of the book. “We had long been thinking about writing a book about the experiences of the last five years, in which the rise of the right wing, the return of fascism and war were ideologically and politically prepared,” After the neo-Nazi riots in Chemnitz, “we decided that this project was urgent and that the book had to be completed by the time of the Frankfurt Book Fair,”.

The neo-Nazi riots were a turning point and revealed that the fascists were back and that history had returned with a vengeance. Vandreier believes that the fascists can only raise their heads because of the political support and protection they receive from the political establishment and media.

The book is divided into eight chapters and they deal with the role of academics, the media, political parties, and the state apparatus which all have played a part in boosting the main fascist party in Germany the AfD.

There are many themes to the book; two most pronounced are the return of German militarism and the falsification of German history. Vandreier believes the two are inextricably linked. At a recent meeting in London Vandreier gave an example of the attempt by a group of revisionist historians to overturn previous historical studies. One such attempt is to discredit the work of the historian Fritz Fischer. Fischer held the belief alongside many other historians that German capitalism prepared for the First World War long in advance. While not being blind to the fact that Germany was not alone in defending its imperialist interests, Fischer sought to examine German capitalism’s global expansion plans which brought about the 1st World War.

According to John C. G .Rohl “ this interpretation has recently been challenged by a wave of revisionism, exemplified by the astronomical success—especially in Germany, where it has sold many hundreds of thousands of copies—of the book The Sleepwalkers by our colleague Christopher Clark He and the other revisionists largely exonerate the Kaiser’s Germany from responsibility for the First World War. While claiming to argue that war broke out by accident, with no one government more at fault than any other, in practice Clark places the blame to a large extent on little Serbia, followed by Russia, France and Britain in that order, presenting Austria-Hungary as doing its genuine best to avoid war and simply omitting altogether the evidence of any German intention to bring the war about”[2].

The case of Jörg Baberowski

Vandreier believes that in order to justify new wars of conquest a campaign was launched by right-wing historians to falsify the historical record. One such historian is Jorg Baberowski. Vandreier’s exposure to Jörg Baberowski’s falsification of history is one of the most important facets of the book. Quoted in the prominent German magazine Der Spiegel Baberowski has in the past said that “Hitler was no psychopath, and he was not vicious. He did not want people to talk about the extermination of the Jews at his table.” Vandreier said this is a lie and can be easily proved.

More importantly, though Vandreier points out in the book that there has not been a single professor or journalist who disagreed publicly with these offensive and lying remarks. Vandreier believes “This deafening silence was a prerequisite for today’s extreme right to act so aggressively,” There is, of course, a connection between the falsification of history and the attack on the struggle for objective truth and there is no more wretched figure putting forward these falsifications than Baberowski.

The German Professor (1961) who was a student of Michel Foucault has been given ample space to expand on his falsifications by the book publishing world in his The Meaning of History he rants “In reality, the historian has nothing to do with the past, but only with its interpretation. He cannot separate what he calls reality from the utterances of people who lived in the past. For there exists no reality apart from the consciousness that produces it. We must liberate ourselves from the conception that we can understand, through the reconstruction of events transmitted to us through documents, what the Russian Revolution really was. There is no reality without its representation. To be a historian means, to use the words of Roger Chartier, to examine the realm of representations”[3].

Unfortunately, this methodology is becoming the norm increasingly in academic writing. It denotes an anything-goes approach that does not require the historian to tell the truth. For that matter, it also means that reality does not exist outside the historian’s head. Therefore, the historical truth has no objective basis. Baberowski sees history only regarding his own subjectivity. Why bother with a history that tries to show the economic, political or social conditions at the time

It is evident from this statement that he believes that it is all right for a historian to falsify his or her work to serve the reader of history. This lying about history can bring about a fundamental and dangerous change in the way history is served to the public. The most extreme example of this false narratives is lying about the crimes of Nazi Germany.  It is therefore not an accident that Baberowski is a leading figure in the attempt to rehabilitate Hitler.

 “Historian’s dispute.”

The book is particularly keen on an essential chapter in not only the study of German history but the study of history around the world. The “historians’ debate” or Historikerstreit took place between 1986–89 and was an attempt by German historians to come to terms with the Nazi era.

According to the excellent Wikipedia article[4]  “the position taken by the right-wing intellectuals, led by Ernst Nolte, was that the Holocaust was not unique and therefore the Germans should not bear any special burden of guilt for the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question". Nolte argued that because there was no moral difference between the crimes of the Soviet Union and those of Nazi Germany—and, even more controversially, that because the Holocaust was something that the Germans were allegedly forced to do out of a fear of what the Soviet Union might do to them—that Germans should not feel any guilt over the Holocaust and should essentially forget about it. Likewise, the conservative historian Andreas Hillgruber asserted that there was no moral difference between Allied policies towards Germany in 1944–45 and the genocide waged against the Jews”.

It does not take a genius to see that what Nolte has written in the past and what Baberowski writes now are similar if not the same. Nolte’s argument and I use the term advisably is best summed up in this despicable quote "It is a notable shortcoming of the literature about National Socialism that it does not know or does not want to admit to what degree all the deeds—with the sole exception of the technical process of gassing—that the National Socialists later committed had already been described in a voluminous literature of the early 1920s: mass deportations and shootings, torture, death camps, extermination of entire groups using strictly objective selection criteria, and public demands for the annihilation of millions of guiltless people who were thought to be "enemies".

It is probable that many of these reports were exaggerated. It is certain that the “White Terror” also committed terrible deeds, even though its program contained no analogy to the “extermination of the bourgeoisie”. Nonetheless, the following question must seem permissible, even unavoidable: Did the National Socialists or Hitler perhaps commit an “Asiatic” deed merely because they and their ilk considered themselves to be the potential victims of an “Asiatic” deed? Was not the 'Gulag Archipelago' more original than Auschwitz? Was the Bolshevik murder of an entire class not the logical and factual prius of the "racial murder" of National Socialism? Cannot Hitler's most secret deeds be explained by the fact that he had not forgotten the rat cage? Did Auschwitz in its root causes not originate in a past that would not pass?"[5]

It is not in the bounds of possibility to review the entire debate in this article, anyone interested in this should at least study the Wikipedia pages on it. I will say that Nolte and the other right-wing historians were strongly opposed by historians around the world most notably by British historians such as Richard J. Evans, Writing in 1989, he said:

 “Nolte's attempts to establish the comparability of Auschwitz rest in part upon an extension of the concept of "genocide" to actions which cannot plausibly justify being described in this way. However much one might wish to criticize the Allied strategic-bombing offensive against German cities; it cannot be termed genocidal because there was no intention to exterminate the entire German people. Dresden was bombed after Coventry, not the other way around, and it is implausible to suggest that the latter was a response to the former; on the contrary, there was indeed an element of retaliation and revenge in the strategic bombing offensive, which is precisely one of the grounds on which it has often been criticized.

There is no evidence to support Nolte's speculation that the ethnic Germans in Poland would have been entirely exterminated had the Nazis not completed their invasion quickly. Neither the Poles nor the Russians had any intention of exterminating the German people as a whole. At this point, it is useful to recall the conclusion of the German historian and Hitler specialist Eberhard Jäckel that "the Nazi murder of the Jews was unique because never before had a state decided and announced, on the authority of its responsible leader, that it intended to kill in its entirety, as far as possible, a particular group of human beings, including its old people, women, children and infants, and then put this decision into action with every possible instrument of power available to the state".

The attempts undertaken by Nolte, Hillgruber, Fest and other neoconservative historians to get around this fact are all ultimately unconvincing. It requires a considerable degree of myopia to regard the policies of the USA in Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s or the occupation of Afghanistan by the USSR in the 1980s as "genocide". However much one may deplore the conduct of the occupying armies, there is no evidence of any deliberate policy of exterminating the inhabitants of the countries in question. The terrible massacres of the Armenians by the Turks in 1915 were more deliberate, on a wider scale and concentrated into a far shorter time, then the destruction of human life in Vietnam and Afghanistan, and they were not carried out as part of a military campaign, although they did occur in wartime. However, these atrocities were committed as part of a brutal policy of expulsion and resettlement; they did not constitute an attempt to exterminate a whole people. Similar things may be said of the forcible removal of Greeks from Asia Minor during the 1920s, although this has not, in contrast to the events of 1915, generally been regarded as genocide[6]

However, as Vandreier points out in the book unlike in the 1980s, during the “Historian’s dispute,” there were no protests from these historians against the relativization of the Nazis’ crimes”.

Ideological Foundations

A significant reason for this silence is explained by Vandreier who cites the influence of postmodernist tendencies inside the universities. He quotes the Marxist writer David North who says “In this period of extreme social contradictions, the determination of historical truth has been vastly complicated by the emergence of retrograde and extremely dangerous tendencies in bourgeois intellectual life. Lying about history and politics did not begin in the twentieth century. But it is only in recent decades, with the emergence of post-modernism as the dominant tendency in the intellectual life of universities throughout the world, that there has been such a determined effort to justify intellectually, on the basis of philosophy, the obliteration of the distinction between truth and lies, and thereby legitimize the falsification of history. It is for this reason that The Russian Revolution and the Unfinished Twentieth Century deals at considerable length with post-modernist theory, whose origins and evolution are theoretically based on subjective idealist irrationalism, politically motivated by hostility to socialism, and socially rooted in the material interests of the ruling class and affluent sections of the middle class”[7].

It would not be an overstatement to say that the impact of this school of history has been as one writer put “nothing short of catastrophic.”


Alongside Leon Trotsky’s writings on Germany, Why Are They Back? by Christoph, Vandreier will be used by all anti-fascists wanting to struggle against Fascism all over the world. While in the last three decades we have seen the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the rise of fascists in Germany, massive growth of social inequality, Trump in the White House it can safely be assumed that this is not the end of history. On the contrary, history is back with a vengeance.

A word of caution, however, this is not like the 1930s when the fascists where a large force with state power and an army to back them up. The fascists today are not a mass movement. They are hated throughout the world.

As David North says “They will not conquer again, We can be certain of that. There is no way that the experiences of the 1930s will suddenly be erased from memory. Germany was traumatized by the events that happened in this country between 1933 and 1945. Baberowski and his clique at the university and the lackeys in the administration who support him may think that he can erase the crimes of the Nazis and everyone will forget what happened, but that is not possible. Almost overnight, to the extent people become aware, in this country, of the threat they face, we anticipate an enormous growth of social and political opposition. That will not be lacking. But what will be required is a very high level of political and historical awareness. German capitalism and the German ruling elites carry the ineradicable virus of fascism; not as individuals, but as representatives of a social system. This has been proven by history.”[8]

The Book can be ordered @

[1] The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (Merit S.) Paperback – 1 Jun 1971
[2]Goodbye to all that (again)? The Fischer thesis, the new revisionism and the meaning of the First World War.
[3] The Meaning of History-Jörg Baberowski
[5] Forever In The Shadow of Hitler? edited by Ernst Piper, Humanities Press, Atlantic Highlands, 1993
[6] 1989. In Hitler's Shadow: West German Historians and the Attempt to Escape the Nazi Past, New York, NY: Pantheon.
[7] Socialism and historical truth-A lecture delivered at the Leipzig Book Fair-By David North
17 March 2015-
[8] Two hundred attend meeting on the struggle against fascism at Leipzig Book Fair-

Friday, 22 March 2019

Response to BBC History Magazine’s ‘ordinary’ people tweet

David Musgrove content director of BBC History Magazine and History Extra has responded to criticism of a tweet issued by the BBC History Magazine twitter account. The tweet was "Do we need to consider the lives of 'ordinary' people as much as monarchs or leaders when studying #history"?.

Musgrove defensively tied to explain this mildly shocking statement by saying "Hands-up, this was a somewhat clumsy attempt by us to engage with a conversation started on Twitter by the historian Hallie Rubenhold that suggested there is too much focus in public and popular history on great figures (principally men), and by extension the great events they were involved in (wars, acts of parliament etc.) to the detriment of the presentation of the lives and times of the less exalted people of the past".However, because of our initial poorly-phrased tweet, we threw ourselves into the fire of Twitter opinion with many historians wryly, drily, or angrily observing that we appeared to have overlooked many decades of deep and detailed work into social history".

Musgrove while conceding the tweet was wrong went on to defend the magazine's stance of excluding the working class from its history magazine and blames his working-class readership for their supposed disinterest saying"Right now though, I'm afraid, it's a much harder task to get the passing reader to pick up a magazine that shouts about the life of a person who has not come into your consciousness at all. I suppose, also, there is the question of consequence; however fascinating the life of an 'ordinary person' from the past might have been if that person's actions didn't have an impact on wider developments in history, the passing reader seems to be less inclined to want to invest time and money in a magazine in order to find out about them".

While I am all for the study of working-class people because hopefully, that is what historians like Hallie Rubenhold mean by "ordinary people" however I am against the clumsy and unscientific usage of the term.

Many historians have used the term mainly to blame the working class for various bad things that have happened in history. This term was heavily popularised by the historian Daniel Goldhagen in his wretched book Hitler's Willing Executioners. His usage of the term "ordinary Germans" was criticised by the Marxist writer David North who wrote 

"The methodological flaw of Professor Goldhagen's book is indicated in its title: Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. Let us stop right there: What is meant by "ordinary Germans?" For those of you who would like a textbook example of an "abstract identity," this is it. This is a category that is so broad, it is capable of including virtually everyone, except, presumably, Germans of Jewish parentage. What, after all, makes any particular German an "ordinary" one? Is it a large girth and a fondness for knockwurst and sauerbraten? Is it blond hair, blue eyes and a penchant for sunbathing in the nude? Is it a talent for abstruse philosophising and a passion for 300-pound Wagnerian sopranos? A concept built upon such foolish and arbitrary stereotypes cannot be of any scientific value in the cognition of objective reality".[1]

Hallie Rubenhold is a gifted and respected historian her book[2] is selling like hotcakes and has generated a large amount of interest. Unfortunately, this interest far outweighs the importance of the work.

Rubenhold recently said that "I do feel that what our culture recognises as 'history' needs some recalibrating. For too long, its focus has been 'the great deeds of great men' - monarchs, Generals, politicians, wars, Acts passed by governments. By these standards, the lives of ordinary people are disregarded”[3].

If Rubenhold is talking about writing about the working class, then she should say so why to continue with this "abstract identity". Another abstract identity favoured by Rubenhold is "peoples history" or "history from below". Like ordinary people, this phrase removes any class content from the subject being discussed this is a little ironic given that "peoples history" was a type of history produced by the Communist Parties around the world to justify their class collaboration with their respective bourgeois regimes.

As the Marxist writer, Ann Talbot notes "the Communist Party sponsored a form of "People's History", which is typified by A.L. Morton's People's History of England in which the class character of earlier rebels, revolutionaries and popular leaders was obscured by regarding them all as representatives of a national revolutionary tradition. This historical approach reflected the nationalism of the bureaucracy, their hostility to internationalism and their attempts to form an unprincipled alliance with the supposedly democratic capitalists against the fascist Axis countries. People's history was an attempt to give some historical foundation to the policies of Popular Frontthe subordination of the working class to supposedly progressive sections of the bourgeoisie and the limiting of political action to the defence of bourgeois democracywhich provided a democratic facade to the systematic murder of thousands of genuine revolutionaries, including Trotsky”.[4]

[1] A critical review of Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners- David North-

[2] The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper- Houghton Mifflin


[4] "These the times ... this the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill Ann Talbot -


Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Letter To Suzannah Lipscomb

Dear Suzannah,

As a subscriber to History Today I always read your regular column. Your column is always well written and in many cases thought-provoking. Your April article entitled “The World is Turning” is no exception.

As all good historians do whether female or male you make good use of your access to a large number of media outlets that many left-wing female historians would die for. You have over eighty thousand twitter followers, you have access to tv, radio and write regular columns for a number of popular history magazines and have been published several times.

My problem is not so much your access to the media but your promotion use of gender over class in the study of history. While only a fool or male chauvinist would not welcome the increase of female historians in a male-dominated field would that in itself create the conditions for a class-based study of history I do not believe so.

In your World is Turning article you mentioned Hallie Rubenhold’s book The Five[1]. There is no denying this is an excellent narrative based book and deserves a wide readership, however, there are many dangers involved in her approach. The deliberate writing out of historical figures such as Jack the Ripper because he was male gives far too much concession to the #metoo movement. Another point I make in my review is the virtual absence of the class struggle in the book that was raging at the time.

While little has changed in the plight of working-class women from Victorian times to now much has changed in the position of middle to upper-class women. The #metoo movement in the United States and here in Britain has little to do with improving the lives of working-class women than it does to increase the bank balances of already rich women.

While the tide of history is turning it will not turn on the basis of gender, race or sexual orientation it will turn on the basis of class.

[1] See my review 

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper- Hallie Rubenhold-Doubleday (£16.99).

Hallie Rubenhold’s new book is a groundbreaking study of the five women murdered by Jack the Ripper. Rubenhold has rescued these women from the condescension of history albeit 130 years after they were murdered.

It would seem to be the case that the more that has been written about the five, the less we know about them. Much of the historiography on the murders has centred on the murderer Jack the Ripper. As one reviewer put it “Forests have been felled in the interests of unmasking the murderer, but until now no one has bothered to discover the identity of his victims”.

Rubenhold said: “The stories of these women are each extraordinary and unique, and for nearly 130 years the media has over-simplified their true histories. The Five have always been regarded as society’s waste – filthy, ruined, pitiful drink-sodden whores, yet not one of them began life this way, and none of them came from the East End. They were from Sweden, Wales, the Midlands. Their fathers and husbands were printers, carpenters, gentleman’s valets, coachmen, and soldiers in the Queen’s Life Guard. Their daughters attended fee-paying schools; their fathers-in-law were property developers. They glimpsed Queen Victoria and rubbed shoulders with Charles Dickens. The Five seeks to restore these women their humanity and reclaim Jack the Ripper narrative in favour of his victims."


It is clear that Rubenhold has spent a lot of time deep mining the archives and she shows how skilful a historian she is when she manages to tell a fascinating tale from so little information. Coroner’s inquests unreliable newspaper reports, parish registers; court registers; birth, marriage and death records; rate books and the archives of the London workhouses. From these records, she manages to trace the murder victims from birth the death. Because they were born female, Rubenhold argues, “their worth was compromised before they had even attempted to prove it.

She continues “what if virtually everything we had ever come to assume about these five women was largely untrue? What if the degree to which they can even be called ‘prostitutes’ when considered within the context of their communities and the broader experience of the poor, the working class woman is questionable? What if we learned that none of them was born in Whitechapel, or even in the East End, but ended up there after living full lives elsewhere? What if we learned that these women had been either wives or mothers or both? What would we think of ourselves and our society for never having questioned these things?”

Rubenhold has sought in this book to rescue these women from the condescension of history. She successfully demolishes the lies and calumny built up over 130 years that all the women were prostitutes that deserved all they got.

Rubenhold correctly shows that these working-class women who because of the inequities of the capitalist system once they stepped out from under its vice-like grip are preyed upon by a psychotic killer who got away with murder because no one cared about the victims. Rubenhold writes "In order to gawp at and examine this miracle of malevolence, we have figuratively stepped over the bodies of those he murdered, and in some cases, stopped to kick them as we walked past.”

Hallie Rubenhold
Rubenhold’s book is a narrative based piece of history. While agreeing with her need to correct the historical record I have a problem with her writing out of history the figure of Jack the Ripper. Like it or not the figure of Jack the Ripper is indicative, and the sharpest expression of the treatment given out to working-class women. I say working class women because it is noticeable that they were working class and not middle or upper-class women who had a much easier time under capitalism despite being exploited themselves but not as much as working-class women who faced life or death questions every day. The leaving out of Jack the Ripper is far too much of a concession to the Me Too movement that has now crept into the study of history


There are weaknesses in narrative based historiography in that if it is not grounded in a scientific understanding of class relations in any given society in any given century it tends to gloss over very deep-seated class antagonism that produces shocking developments like the murder of five working-class women. Who were probably not the only women to be murdered in that period.

While professing a love of Lawrence Stone’s The Family, Sex and Marriage in England her book could have done with a deeper insight into class relations towards the end of the 1880s. Rubenhold to her credit does not entirely ignore the working class and its conditions She writes “the poor were judged to be lazy and immoral paupers who refused to do honest work, bred bastards and enormous families while 'living off handouts'.” Welfare reforms designed to “compel the indigent to lead moral, hard-working lives” by driving them into workhouses, instead forced many onto the streets where they were at the mercy of the genuinely depraved”.

However, the working class was not just exploited class; it was a revolutionary class and did not take lying down its treatment by capitalism. It is quite striking that given the life span of the first woman murdered,namely Polly she would have witnessed the development of Marxism, Marx’s writing on the 1848 revolutions, Engels The Condition of the Working Class in Britain, the vast and explosive development of the Chartist movement and finally the publication of Marx’s Das Kapital and the growth of the “New Unionism”

On this New Unionism Engels wrote “What I consider far more important than this momentary fashion among bourgeois circles of affecting a mild dilution of Socialism, and even more than the actual progress Socialism has made in England generally, that is the revival of the East End of London. That immense haunt of misery is no longer the stagnant pool it was six years ago. It has shaken off its torpid despair, has returned to life, and has become the home of what is called the “New Unionism,” that is to say, of the organisation of the great mass of “unskilled” workers. This organisation may to a great extent adopt the form of the old Unions of “skilled” workers, but it is essentially different in character. The old Unions preserve the traditions of the time when they were, founded, and look upon the wages system as a once-for-all established, final fact, which they at best can modify in the interest of their members. The new Unions were founded at a time when the faith in the eternity of the wages system was severely shaken; their founders and promoters were Socialists either consciously or by feeling; the masses, whose adhesion gave them strength, were rough, neglected, looked down upon by the working-class aristocracy; but they had this immense advantage, that their minds were virgin soil, entirely free from the inherited “respectable” bourgeois prejudices which hampered the brains of the better situated “old” Unionists..[1]

Another critical thing lacking in the book is to place the emancipation of women in the broader context of the emancipation of the working class. The oppression of women according to Karl Marx and Frederick Engels was located in the rise of class society.

“The bourgeois sees in his wife a mere instrument of production. He hears that [under communism] the instruments of production are to be exploited in common, and, naturally, can come to no other conclusion than that the lot of being common to all will likewise fall to women. He has not even a suspicion that the real point aimed at [by communists] is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production.[2]

While Rubenhold has a burning sense of injustice at the treatment of women in capitalist society and has a deep empathy towards the working class, in general, this is not enough to do the type of history she would like to write. In order to do this type of social history, the historian needs at least a working knowledge of the materialist conception of history.

As Engels wrote “the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life. This, again, is twofold. On the one side, the production of the means of existence, of articles of food and clothing, dwellings, and of the tools necessary for that production; on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. The social organisation under which the people of a particular historical epoch and a particular country live is determined by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labour on the one hand and the family on the other. The lower the development of labour and the more limited the amount of its products, and consequently, the more limited also the wealth of the society, the more the social order is found to be dominated by kinship groups. However, within this structure of society based on kinship groups the productivity of labour increasingly develops, and with it private property and exchange, differences of wealth, the possibility of utilizing the labor power of others, and hence the basis of class antagonisms: new social elements, which in the course of generations strive to adapt the old social order to the new conditions, until at last their incompatibility brings about a complete upheaval. In the collision of the newly-developed social classes, the old society founded on kinship groups is broken up; in its place appears a new society, with its control centred in the state, the subordinate units of which are no longer kinship associations, but local associations; a society in which the system of the family is completely dominated by the system of property, and in which there now freely develop those class antagonisms and class struggles that have hitherto formed the content of all written history.[3]

Despite having the weaknesses mentioned above the book is a cracking read. Rubenhold has produced an excellent piece of narrative-based history. She is to be congratulated in bringing the lives of these unfortunate women to a wider audience and in doing so correct the historical record. It is hoped that her next book is based on a little more historical materialism than this one has shown. 

[1] Frederick Engels, London, January 11th, 1892;
First Published: in the English edition of The Condition of the Working-Class in England, New York, 1892;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.
[2] Manifesto of the Communist Party-Marx-Engels
[3] Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State- Frederick Engels

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Was Oliver Cromwell Really Framed

“Whether the proletarian revolution will have its own ‘long’ parliament we do not know. It is highly likely that it will confine itself to a short parliament. However, it will the more surely achieve this the better it masters the lessons of Cromwell’s era.”

Leon Trotsky —Where Is Britain Going?

“What is History but a fable agreed upon”.  Napoleon I.

Despite the title which comes from one of Tom Reilly’s books on Oliver Cromwell[1] this article is not so much concerned with the rights and wrongs of Reilly’s defence of Cromwell although that will be discussed it is more concerned with the economic and political motives which drove the plunder of Ireland by the English Bourgeoisie in the late 1640s. The second part of the article will address the heat generated by another historikerstreit debate.

While much of the historiography of this period has concentrated on Cromwell, it should be borne in mind that he was not the only player in this game and was working under the political direction of Parliament and also under the economic and political direction of the English bourgeoisie.

Before the invasion of Ireland Cromwell had to do two necessary things both crucial to a successful outcome in Ireland. First was the execution of Charles I. Although in the short term far from stabilising an already unstable ruling elite the execution lead sections of the bourgeoisie to pursue negotiations with the Royalists both in England and Ireland. One of the reasons for the invasion was to subdue a possible Royalist/Catholic revolt and to secure Cromwell’s and a large section of the English bourgeoisie's strategic political and economic interests in that country.

Second, Cromwell was charged by Parliament to deal with the growing radicalisation of the New Model Army. One manifestation of this radicalism was the Leveller inspired revolt over the army being shipped to Ireland to put down the revolt.

The Levellers held contradictory views on Ireland but showed solidarity with them as in the case of William Walwyn who wrote, “the cause of the Irish natives in seeking their just freedoms...was the very same with our cause here in endeavouring our rescue and freedom from the power of oppressors”.[2]

When Cromwell moved against the Levellers earlier in the revolution, he did so reluctantly not so now. Cromwell and his generals ruthlessly attacked and crushed the mutinies in the army. As Christopher Hill said the generals “were now the government; and the government decided Ireland had to be subdued once and for all.” [3]

The bourgeoisie rewarded Cromwell for his actions against the Levellers. He was given an honorary degree by Oxford University, a city already known for its steadfast support of Royalism. The City of London held a banquet in his honour. 

The English Bourgeoisie and The Conquest of Ireland.

The Cromwellian conquest began the British colonisation of Ireland. To paraphrase Thomas Hobbes, this conquest was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’.’ As can be seen with the heated historian's debate this episode has caused bitterness that has carried on for centuries. For centuries the Irish and English Catholics were seen as second class citizens an did not become full political citizens of the British state again until 1829. They were also barred from buying land interests until 1778.

The English Bourgeoisie from the beginning saw Ireland as a money-making adventure. As an incentive to make the conquest easier it got parliament to pass an  “Adventurers Act” in 1642 in order to invite the “Middling Sort” to invest in the army. The greater the investment the great the return of land. Cromwell himself had loaned over 2,000 pounds and had been promised land in Leinster. Christopher Hill correctly states Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland was “the first big triumph of English imperialism and the first big defeat of English democracy”.[4]

While many of the bourgeoisie stumped up money for their adventure in Ireland Parliament felt a little more cooperation was a need and this came in the form of a series of ordinances which was a demand for money with menaces. In February 1648: it issued An Ordinance For raising of Twenty thousand pounds a Month for the Relief of Ireland.

The Citation reads“Whereas it hath pleased God of late so to bless and prosper the Forces of this Kingdom in the Kingdom of Ireland, and to give them such Success against the inhumane and bloody Irish, as that those Rebels are reduced to very great straights, and our Affairs put into such a condition, as gives very great hopes to put that War to a happy and speedy period (if there be now an effectual and vigorous prosecution of the Advantages we have) with seasonable Supplies, the want whereof hath hitherto hindered the compleating of that work, notwithstanding that great sums have been at several times raised and spent for that service: The Lords and Commons in Parliament assembled, taking these things into their consideration, and also how much the honour and interest of this Kingdom is concerned, in the reducing of Ireland to the obedience of the Crown of England. And of how absolute and indispensible necessity it is for the Peace and Tranquillity of this Kingdom, that this relation should be compleat; And considering also in how great want, both of food and clothing these Forces are, And that after so much good service, and such great Success and Victory against the Rebels, themselves are in danger to be lost by Famine and Nakedness, and this Kingdom to lose the fruit of all their service and success, if there be not speedy care taken to provide against these Necessities: Therefore although the said Lords and Commons are very sensible of the great burthens that have been and still are upon this Kingdom in other Taxes and Payments, which the exigency of Affairs by the late Troubles have necessitated to be laid and levied; And that by a late Ordinance there hath been Sixty thousand pounds per mensem charged upon the Kingdom for the service of England and Ireland, of which notwithstanding by reason of the said exigencies and necessities, no part can possibly be spared for the Kingdom of Ireland, They have thought fit to order and Ordain, and be it Ordained by the said Lords and Commons assembled in Parliament, and by the authority of the same, That for the intents and purposes aforesaid, the Sum of Twenty thousand pounds a moneth shall be charged, rated, taxed and levied upon all and every the several Counties, Cities, Towns, Liberties, places and persons hereafter mentioned, according to the several Proportions, Rates, and Distri butions in this present Ordinance expressed; the same to be paid in monethly to the several Collectors to be appointed for the receiving thereof, and so to continue for the space of six moneths, the moneths to be accounted according to the moneths in the Kalender, and not according to Twenty eight days for the moneth, beginning from the First day of February, 1647”[5].

One striking feature of these ordinances is the list of small “investors” who stumped up money for the plunder in Ireland in which well forty per cent of Irish land changed owners. While the making of money was one of the prime movers for the treatment meted out to the mainly Catholic population religion was another. The majority of the Irish poor were Catholic. As Hill states there was substantial anti-Irish prejudice in England, writing “The hatred and contempt which propertied Englishmen felt for the Irish is something which we may deplore but should not conceal”.[6]

The Irish socialist James Connolly while not blaming the English bourgeoise for everything that befell the Irish people after the conquest of Ireland in the latter part of the seventeenth century wrote perceptively “ Just as it is true that a stream cannot rise above its source, so it is true that a national literature cannot rise above the moral level of the social conditions of the people from whom it derives its inspiration. If we would understand the national literature of a people, we must study their social and political status, keeping in mind the fact that their writers were a product thereof, and that the children of their brains were conceived and brought forth in certain historical conditions. Ireland, at the same time as she lost her ancient social system, also lost her language as the vehicle of thought of those who acted as her leaders. As a result of this twofold loss, the nation suffered socially, nationally and intellectually from a prolonged arrested development. During the closing years of the seventeenth century, all the eighteenth, and the greater part of the nineteenth, the Irish people were the lowest helots in Europe, socially and politically. The Irish peasant, reduced from the position of a free clansman owning his tribeland and controlling its administration in common with his fellows, was a mere tenant-at-will subject to eviction, dishonour and outrage at the hands of an irresponsible private proprietor. Politically he was non-existent, legally he held no rights, intellectually he sank under the weight of his social abasement, and surrendered to the downward drag of his poverty. He had been conquered, and he suffered all the terrible consequences of defeat at the hands of a ruling class and nation who have always acted upon the old Roman maxim of `Woe to the vanquished'[7].

Cromwell, Ireland and the Historians

The subject of Oliver Cromwell in Ireland is a contentious one, to say the least so much so that significant numbers of historians have steered well clear of the topic. The debate over Cromwell in Ireland has tended to reveal more about 20th-century politics than early modern historiography. Broadly speaking the historiography is divided into two camps. On the one side, we have Tom Reilly and his supporters who believe that “Cromwell was Framed”. Reilly’s books have been aimed at demolishing some myths about Cromwell’s and for that matter Parliaments behaviour in Ireland. Tom Reilly’s first book claimed that no civilians were killed in Drogheda by Cromwell’s forces and that Cromwell did not intentionally target civilians during his anti-Catholic campaign. “There were no eyewitnesses who give us ideas of civilian deaths,” he said of the two sieges, claiming that it was two propagandists who spread the word about Cromwell. Reilly maintains that Cromwell had “no deliberate policy to kill the innocent”. He sees his book as “the start of Cromwell’s rehabilitation”.

Reilly is currently organising the conference and a collection of new essays. In an email sent to a number of writers and historians inviting them to take part, including this writer Reilly explained his project “this new book will be an attempt to harness the variety of current perceptions of Cromwell's Irish campaign by a range of established and early career scholars, within the context of the war in Ireland 1641-1653. Cromwell’s reputation is variously construed and depends greatly upon standpoint and the nation from which it is looked at. In England and Wales he is regarded as a figure of national importance, from Scotland there is a great deal of antipathy, as he is seen as part of a long history of English interference. In Ireland however, Cromwell’s reputation remains most controversial and where most of the accusations of his being a ‘war criminal’ are levelled. It is intended that most if not all of the essays will address this controversy directly, placing Cromwell’s reputation generally and especially in Ireland into the context of modern scholarship and research. It will be a fresh, new, balanced and contemporary series of perceptions of Oliver Cromwell from a miscellany of academics which it could be hoped will contribute to peace and reconciliation initiatives that were borne out of the Good Friday Agreement throughout the island of Ireland”.

Some questions arise from this project. If a number of participants go along with Reilly’s opinion that Cromwell was an honourable enemy and that he was framed by historians who want to harm his record, then this is hardly going to be an objective assessment of Cromwell’s historical reputation.

Perhaps the most disconcerting part of the email was Reilly’s belief that the book and conference will “be a fresh, new, balanced and contemporary series of perceptions of Oliver Cromwell from a miscellany of academics which it could be hoped will contribute to peace and reconciliation initiatives that were borne out of the Good Friday Agreement throughout the island of Ireland”.

While I have nothing against the group of writers and historians who will contribute to the conference and later book I do have a problem with Reilly’s promotion of the Good Friday Agreement. Reilly’s defence of Cromwell is connected to his stance on the agreement in that he would like to prevent the  “escalating deterioration of Anglo Irish relations over the years”.

Reilly’s promotion of the Good Friday Agreement is politically naïve and dangerous given that “The Good Friday Agreement was patched together by the United States, Britain and Ireland as a means of creating a more stable economic environment for corporate investment in the North. Irish workers were excluded from any real say so over the future course of events. The US in particular, which is the largest and most influential investor in the island, was concerned to replicate the success of the Southern Irish Republic which had been transformed over the preceding decades into a boom area for corporations seeking an avenue into European markets. But plans to extend the cheap labour economy north of the border depended upon establishing a stable political and economic framework for investment by ending the sectarian-armed conflict, and enabling greater collaboration between London and Dublin.”[8]

The opposition to his thesis on Cromwell in Ireland is equally reckless and dangerous. Reilly’s historiography has many opponents among them are the historians Simon Schama, John Morrill and Micheál Ó Siochrú[9]. Simon Schama in 2001 threw a live hand grenade into the debate when he referred to Oliver Cromwell's alleged massacre of 3,000 unarmed enemy soldiers at the Irish town of Drogheda in 1649 as a 'war crime' and 'an atrocity.” Schama claimed in his History of Britain series on BBC2. Whether Schama believes Cromwell was a “war criminal” is not essential; his use of inflammatory language is not conducive to a healthy debate of the subject.
As Bernard Capp, professor of history at Warwick pointedly wrote “War crimes are a twentieth-century term, not a seventeenth-century one, and its use is problematic,' said 'It is true he treated the enemy in Ireland much harder than elsewhere, but there was a strong military rationale.''A bloodthirsty episode would have served the purpose of driving the war to a speedy conclusion,'”.

John Morrill[10] while being a little more restrained believes that Cromwell if not a war criminal was insensitive to the suffering caused by his soldiers. He writes “the principal evidence against Cromwell comes from his reports sent to the Speaker of the English Parliament. They are the words of a General insensitive to the suffering of others; conditioned by the relentless propaganda of the previous ten years into believing that Irish Catholics were collectively responsible for the torture and killing of thousands of unarmed Protestant settlers; convinced that he was the divinely ordained instrument of retribution. 

He wrote of Drogheda:‘In the heat of action, I forbade them to spare any that were in arms in the town, and, I think, that night they put to the sword about 2,000 men. Divers of the officers and soldiers being fled over the Bridge into the other part of the Town, where about one hundred of them possessed St Peter’s steeple [and two other Towers]… I ordered the steeple of St Peter’s to be fired where one of them was heard to say in the midst of the flames: ‘God damn me, God confound me: I burn. I burn’ …. The next day, the other two Towers were summonsed. When they submitted, their officers were knocked on the head, and every tenth man of the soldiers killed, and the others shipped [as slaves] to the Barbadoes… The last Lord’s Day before the storm, the Protestants were thrust out of the great church called St Peter’s, and they had a public Mass there; and in this very place near one thousand Catholics were put to the sword, fleeing thither for safety. I believe all the friars were knocked promiscuously on the head but two; the one of which was Fr Peter Taaff… whom the soldiers took and made an end of; the other was taken in the round tower, under the repute of lieutenant, and when he understood that the officers in the Tower had no quarter, he confessed he was a friar; but that did not save him.’[11]

Morrill concludes his essay by saying that “Cromwell failed to rise above the bigotry of his age in respect of the Irish people. He did rise above it in other respects (especially in his commitment to religious liberty in Britain). As a general, he behaved differently in Ireland from how he behaved in England and Scotland. There were massacres at Drogheda and Wexford in hot and cold blood. Cromwell’s contempt for the Catholic clergy meant that he permitted them to be slaughtered. However, whether he broke the laws of war then prevailing, and whether he was anything like as brutal as many others in the Irish wars, whether indeed he should be blamed for things much worse than what happened in Drogheda and Wexford, is still difficult to establish”.

The historian most associated with the opposition to Reilly’s views on Cromwell in Ireland is Micheál Ó Siochrú. In a review of Ó Siochrú book God’s Executioner: Oliver Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland Jason Peacey perceptively points out the dilemma faced by most historians writing about Cromwell “ the civil wars that engulfed the three kingdoms of England, Ireland and Scotland in the mid-17th century remain a battlefield, and generation after generation they retain a capacity to provoke passionate debate and heated historical controversy. Within this field, however, there is probably no single individual more likely to generate historiographical heat than Oliver Cromwell, utterly convincing analysis of whose complex personality continues to elude even the greatest of scholars. Moreover, within scholarship on Cromwell and the Cromwellian period, there is no more controversial topic than his attitude towards, and activity in, Ireland. Cromwell’s name retains the capacity to inflame passions, and in at least some quarters he has become synonymous with religiously inspired brutality and atrocity, with something little short of ethnic cleansing, and with tyranny and military dictatorship. At the same time, however, he is capable of making the ‘top ten’ in a 2002 BBC poll of In a review of greatest Britons’”.[12]

Ó Siochrú repeats Morrill’s claim that Cromwell  ‘uncritically accepted’ the horror stories regarding the rebellion, and the claim that the rebellion had no justification or back-story (p. 19), and who was determined to exact revenge upon the Irish Catholic population, irrespective of their involvement in the rising.

I have the same problem with Ó Siochrú as with Reilly in that a lot of what he writes is more to do with Irish politics than it is to do with historical accuracy. Ó Siochrú believes that Cromwell's use of violence was not justified “but a pre-determined exercise in religious and ethnic vengeance”. "Even by the standards of the time [Cromwell's] behaviour was beyond the pale,"

I wish Tom Reilly and his friends well with their conference and their book. I look forward to reviewing it. It is hoped that he will produce a more objective account of Cromwell and the English bourgeoise’s adventure in Ireland. It is the least the Irish people deserve. It is also hoped that the new historiography produced by the book will not add to the already crowded book market lending justification to the centuries-long plunder of Ireland.

[1] Cromwell was Framed: Ireland 1649 by Tom Reilly
[2] Cromwell, Our Chief Of Men By Antonia Fraser
[3] God's Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution.
[4] The English Revolution 1640-
[5] 'February 1648: An Ordinance For raising of Twenty thousand pounds a Moneth for the Relief of Ireland.', in Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum, 1642-1660, ed. C H Firth and R S Rait (London, 1911), pp. 1072-1105. British History Online [accessed 18 February 2019].
[6] God's Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution
[7] Labour in Irish History by James Connolly
[8] Northern Ireland election: An attempt to rescue the Good Friday Agreement
By Steve James -26 November 2003-
[9] God’s Executioner: Oliver Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland
Micheál Ó Siochrú London, Faber and Faber, 2008, ISBN: 9780571218462; 336pp.; Price: £14.99
[10] “Was Cromwell a War Criminal?” by John Morrill
[11] 'For the Honourable William Lenthall, Esquire, Speaker of the Parliament of
England: These.'Dublin, 17th September, 1649.