Sunday, 4 August 2019

The study of history is in decline in Britain:A Reply

One of the most annoying things about the Economist magazine is not having the authors byline on its articles. It seems the only exception to this rule is the articles written by Bagehot who happens to be dead and dead a long time.

A recent article by this author called The study of history is in decline in Britain is a very right-wing evaluation of the state of historical study in this country. The author correctly notes that England is moving through one of its most difficult historical moments. Bagehot bemoans the fact that England “ is losing its skill at interpreting the past”.

I do not agree with Bagehot’s evaluation, which looks likes a ruse to cover the Economist’s increasingly right-wing position over Brexit. While warning against right-wing populism, the Economist’s real fear is that the crisis will provoke a response in the working class. It is also important to challenge his pessimism. A more optimistic evaluation of the state of historical study comes from the mind and pen of Margaret Macmillan in her excellent book The Uses and Abuses of History. For the Macmillan the historian's role no matter where they are “ must do our best to raise the public awareness of the past in all its richness and complexity”.

The article begins with a political summation of this situation, stating” Whatever you think about recent events in Britain, you cannot deny that they qualify as historic. The country is trying to make a fundamental change in its relationship with the continent. The Conservative Party is in danger of splitting asunder and handing power to a far-left Labour Party. All this is taking place against the backdrop of a fracturing of the Western alliance and a resurgence of authoritarian populism”.

It is true that two and a half years after the 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union (EU), the British ruling elite “is mired in crisis”.  However, I prefer a more Marxist presentation of what is going on as Chris Marsden points out “The dominant pro-Remain faction is desperately manoeuvring to either overturn the result or at least secure a deal preserving tariff-free access to the Single European Market on which it depends for 40 per cent of trade and London’s role as a centre of financial speculation. The pro-Brexit faction, led by right-wing Tories and the sectarian thugs of the Democratic Unionist Party, resists all entreaties to compromise. They believe the EU can be forced to accept the UK’s terms through an alliance with the Trump administration in Washington. Such an arrangement would free Britain to strike unilateral trade deals internationally and refashion Britain as a Singapore-style free trade zone in Europe based on crushing levels of exploitation. The working class has no interest in backing either right-wing faction.[1]

Bagehot’s somewhat simplistic and right-wing evaluation of the political situation allows the writer to call into question any other study of history that does not deal with the elites of any given century. Bagehot is of the firm opinion that the study of history should be by the elites for the elites. As he states “ A scholarship to read history at one of the ancient universities was both a rite of passage for established members of the elite and a ticket into the elite for clever provincial boys, as Alan Bennett documented so touchingly in his play “The History Boys”. Prominent historians such as A.J.P. Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper were public figures who spoke to the nation about both historical and contemporary events”.

Bagehot makes another point that “ the study of history has shrivelled” and the number reading it at university has declined by about a tenth in the past decade”. Even if you take the figures cited by Bagehot at face value and some have not you have to ask yourself what is the reason. It is not that there is a decline in the interest in history; it is because of the severe difficulty of getting a decent job with a history degree. As Brodie Waddell on his blog[2] states the chance of getting a job in academia with a PhD has become extraordinarily hard. Once in, things are not much better as universities have in many ways become intellectual prisons.

There is one point that I agree with, and that is  Bagehot’s complaint about the over specialisation and that “the historical profession has turned in on itself. Historians spend their lives learning more and more about less and less, producing narrow PhDs and turning them into monographs and academic articles, in the hamster-wheel pursuit of tenure and promotion. The need to fill endless forms to access government funding adds the nightmare of official bureaucracy to the nightmare of hyper-specialisation”.

Much as I would like to blame the government as Bagehot does there is a much more political reason for this slide into obscure historical study. Bagehot would not agree, but this specialisation has occurred because of the turn away from “Grand Narratives” in the study of history. One of the most critical “Grand Narrative” has been the study of history using a historical materialist method or as it is sometimes called the Marxist method. One of the by-products in the decade's prolonged attack on Marxism has been to move away from any historical study that smacks Marxism.

Led by a large number of revisionist historians the attack on any Marxist conception has almost become a new genre. Like Bagehot, these revisionists bemoan “History from below” with its studies of the "the marginal", "the poor" & " every day". They believe that history study should be about the haves and not the have nots.

To conclude you have to ask yourself why has the Economist commission this article in the first place. The reason is that there is a real fear now taking place in ruling circles that the growing economic crisis is leading to a growing radicalisation around the world. The universities have always been at the forefront of the attack on Marxism. The Economist article is crude in its attempt to stifle any study of an alternative to capitalism.

[1] The Brexit crisis and the struggle for socialism-By Chris Marsden -23 January 2019-

Friday, 2 August 2019

Geoffrey Parker, Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century,Yale University Press, 2014, 904 pages.

"Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night, / God said 'Let Newton be!' and all was light.

Alexander Pope

“This summer of the King’s being here was a very strange year in all His Majesty’s three kingdoms if we duly consider the heavens, men and earth. I conceive the heavens were offended with us for our offence committed to one another for, from Mayday till the 15th of September, we had scarce three dry days together. His Majesty asked me whether that weather was usual in our Island. I told him that in this 40 years I never knew the like before.”

John Oglander

This is a door stopper of a book that runs to over 600 pages. The central premise is that the weather played the most crucial part of the wars and revolutions that plagued the 17th-century.
It is true that the weather in the 17th century has given Parker some ammunition for his theory. 

The diaries of the rich and famous such as Pepys and John Evelyn recorded a large number of “extreme weather events”.Pepys and Evelyn referred to prolonged droughts, terrifying and summers and winters so cold or hot the likes of which had never been seen before. Parker describes this period as a ‘Little Ice Age’. This ice age saw temperatures plummet to levels not seen since the last glaciation 13,000 years ago.

Historians, both new and old, have portrayed the 17th century as a time of tremendous political turmoil that stretched across Europe and Asia. It is not for nothing that Eric Hobsbawm described it as The General Crisis of the European Economy in the 17th Century.

The century began with the Thirty Years War which devastated large swathes of Europe and destabilised many European governments. This murderous war devasted vast areas of Germany. Civil wars and revolutions in both France and England occurred. The century also saw the disintegration of the Spanish empire. One commentator described it as ‘one of the epochs when every nation is turned upside down’. To describe and understand this century, both Hobsbawm and Hugh Trevor-Roper popularised the term ‘the General Crisis’ to describe the events of the 17th Century. To my knowledge, they did not call it the generally bad climate crisis.

Geoffrey Parker book while acknowledging this as a time of crisis, divorcees the material base of this crisis from its superstructure. This is despite his monumental researches and bibliography and the source list of nearly 150 pages.

Parker’s book is filled with cataclysmic events, while it is undeniable that these events were made worse by extreme weather events.I do not agree with Parker’s theory and is many respects could be interpreted as a reactionary and retrograde theoretical position.

In his essay Equality, the Rights of Man and the Birth of Socialism the Marxist writer David North points out “Until the early seventeenth century, even educated people still generally accepted that the ultimate answers to all the mysteries of the universe and the problems of life were to be found in the Old Testament. But its unchallengeable authority had been slowly eroding, especially since the publication of Copernicus's De Revolutionibus in the year of his death in 1543, which dealt the death blow to the Ptolemaic conception of the universe and provided the essential point of departure for the future conquests of Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Johann Kepler (1571-1630) and, of course, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642).

Intellectually, if not yet socially, the liberation of man from the fetters of Medieval superstition and the political structures that rested upon it, was well underway. The discoveries in astronomy profoundly changed the general intellectual environment. Above all, there was a new sense of the power of thought and what it could achieve if allowed to operate without the artificial restraints of untested and unverifiable dogmas.

He continues “religion began to encounter the type of disrespect it deserved, and the gradual decline of its authority introduced a new optimism. All human misery, the Bible had taught for centuries, was the inescapable product of the Fall of Man. But the invigorating scepticism encouraged by science in the absolute validity of the Book of Genesis led thinking people to wonder whether it was not possible for a man to change the conditions of his existence and enjoy a better world. The prestige of thought was raised to new heights by the extraordinary achievements of Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) who, while by no means seeking to undermine the authority of God, certainly demonstrated that the Almighty could not have accomplished his aims without the aid of extraordinarily complex mathematics. Moreover, the phenomena of Nature were not inscrutable but operated in accordance with laws that were accessible to the human mind. The key to an understanding of the universe was to be found not in the Book of Genesis but in the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. The impact of Newton's work on intellectual life was captured in the ironic epigram of Alexander Pope: "Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night, / God said 'Let Newton be!' and all was light."

Not everyone saw the light. In his groundbreaking book Leviathan, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes concluded that the life of man is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. Despite his pessimism, Hobbes is a significant figure in the 17th century. Hobbes played a vital role in the development of materialist philosophy. Hobbes was a writer clearly influenced by European political and philosophical developments, and they, in turn, influenced his philosophy; it was a dialectical arrangement.

The writer Jonathan Israel has also suggested that the Fronde in France and the Masaniello rising in Naples was just as important in terms of their impact on Hobbes as the English revolution. The international character of the English revolutionary movement was the product of processes that can be understood and not the blind working out of climatic changes. These can be traced to the beginnings of the Enlightenment, which according to Israel was “the unprecedented intellectual turmoil which commenced in the mid-seventeenth century,” and was associated with the scientific advances of the early seventeenth century, especially those of Galileo. These scientific advances gave rise to “powerful new philosophical systems” producing a profound struggle between “traditional, theologically sanctioned ideas about Man, God, and the universe and secular, mechanistic conceptions which stood independently of any theological sanction.”

Parker mentions Hobbes on numerous occasions and is very selective in his use of the philosopher to back his theory up. Hobbes materialist outlook is somewhat overlooked by Parker. As the Marxist writer, Ann Talbot states, Hobbes “ describes the life of man in a state of nature as “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short.” The state of nature was the condition into which human society fell when civil society broke down. For Hobbes, the state of nature was not an abstract, theoretical construct; it was something that existed in large parts of Europe and could cause him to alter his travel plans“.[1]

The historian's Debate

Despite Parker’s book being published in 2013, he has been working on this thesis since the 1970s. The debate over the General Crisis theory had been rumbling since the early 1950s carried into the 60s and 70s and to this day has still not been resolved. It was by all accounts  “ an intense and occasionally acrimonious debate among historians as to what caused the political catastrophes of the 17th century – whether, indeed, anything one could call a “general crisis” had taken place”.

This debate was not over whether the weather was responsible for the period of wars and revolutions. The debate started with a two-part article published by the Communist Party historian Eric Hobsbawm in the 1950s. His thesis of a general economic and political crisis was challenged by Hugh Trevor-Roper, who put the turmoil down to a conflict between society and the state.

It is hard to disagree with Hobsbawm premise of a “ General Crisis”. It was not meant to be the last word on the subject but to start a debate. Hobsbawm returned to the subject with a second paper. Hobsbawm seemed to be following the advice of Spinoza who said: “the order and connection of ideas are the same as the order and connection of things”.

Hobsbawm’s “general crisis” -like many ground-breaking essays provoked significant controversy from a number of historians who opposed the emphasis on the social and economic origins of the revolutions that were carried out throughout Europe. Also, a number of historians which included the Dutch historian Ivo Schöffer and Danish historian Niels Steengsgaard who refused to believe that there was any “general crisis” at all.

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

Hobsbawm writes, “It will be generally agreed that the I7th century was one of social revolt both in Western and Eastern Europe. This clustering of revolutions has led some historians to see something like a general social-revolutionary crisis in the middle of the century. France had its Frondes, which were important social movements; Catalan, Neapolitan and Portuguese revolutions marked the crisis of the Spanish Empire in the I64os; the Swiss peasant war of I653 expressed both the post-war crisis and the increasing exploitation of peasants by town, while in England revolution triumphed with portentous results. Though peasant unrest did not cease in the West - the “stamped paper " rising which combined middle class, maritime and peasant unrest in Bordeaux and Brittany occurred in 1675, the Camisard wars even later- those of Eastern Europe were more significant. In the i6th century, there had been few revolts against the growing enserfment of peasants. The Ukrainian revolution of I648-54 may be regarded as a major servile upheaval. So must the various " Kurucz " movements in Hungary, their very name harking back to Dozsa's peasant rebels of I5I4, their memory enshrined in folksongs about Rakoczy as that of the Russian revolt of I672 is in the song about Stenka Razin. A major Bohemian peasant rising in i68o opened a period of endemic serf unrest there. It would be easy to lengthen this catalogue of major social upheavals - for instance by including the revolts of the Irish in 164I and 1689.”

A different approach to the “general crisis” debate was taken by Hugh Trevor-Roper, who opposed Hobsbawm’s Marxist approach and put forward a theory that sought to explain the crisis from a Court versus Country standpoint. This also provoked heated discussion. Historians such as Roland Mousnier, J. H. Elliott, Lawrence Stone, E. H. Kossmann and J. H. Hexter who in a paper,[2] expressed all sorts of differences with Roper. An example of the heat generated came from the Italian Marxist historian Rosario Villari, who said: "the hypothesis of imbalance between bureaucratic expansion and the needs of the state is too vague to be plausible, and rests on inflated rhetoric, typical of a certain type of political conservative, rather than on effective analysis.”

He also accused Trevor-Roper of denying the importance of the English Revolution. Villari believed that the "general crisis" was part of a Europe-wide revolutionary movement. Along similar lines propounded by Hobsbawm.

Roper wrote not from the standpoint of a Marxist but he agreed with Hobsbawm that in the early part of the 17th century in Western Europe there was a substantial number of revolutions which led to numerous break-down of monarchies and governments the cause was “a complex series of demographic, social, religious, economic and political problems “English Civil War, the Fronde in France, the Thirty Years' War in Germany and the disputes in the Netherlands, and revolts against the Spanish Crown in Portugal, Naples and Catalonia, were all expression of the same problems”. Roper rejected the Marxist analysis of the crisis as a struggle of a rising capitalist class, which sought to replace the old Feudal system.


It is complicated, to sum up, a book that runs for over 600 pages. It would take a better historian than me to defeat Parker’s theory. Unlike the previous debate, it would appear that the publication of this book has not been substantially challenged in academia.It is hard not to see the book as an attack on the historical materialist approach to history that has been the hallmark of revisionist historiography that has dominated university life for the last few decades if not more. Having said that the book is well written deeply researched, and Parker argues his point well. I just do not agree with it.

[1] The ghost of Thomas Hobbes-By Ann Talbot -12 May 2010-
[2] Discussion of H. R. Trevor-Roper: "The General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century."
Roland Mousnier, J. H. Elliott, Lawrence Stone, H. R. Trevor-Roper, E. H. Kossmann, E. J. Hobsbawm and J. H. Hexter-Past & Present-No. 18 (Nov., 1960), pp. 8-42