Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Killing Beauties by Pete Langman- Unbound Digital (23 Jan. 2020)400 pages

KILLING BEAUTIES is a well-written semi-interesting piece of historical fiction. Langman sets his novel during the Protectorate of the 1650s. The novel focuses on the extremely dangerous world of the Royalist spies.

Having read the book from cover to cover, I find the premise a little implausible. Without spilling too much of the plot, I find it hard to believe that Cromwell's foremost spy catcher John Thurloe would fall for a sister of a leading Royal Royalist Edward Hyde, the Earl of Clarendon writer of a History of the rebellion.

The book seems to be well researched and has a degree of erudition you would expect from a PhD holder whose subject was Francis Bacon.

In terms of historiography Langman's book joins a growing army of such like publications that promote the Royalist cause against the nasty parliamentarians who cut the head off a beloved king. Langman was influenced by his partner Dr Nadine Ackerman's research for her book invisible agents[1]

As Langman explains "I was introduced to Susan and Diana by my partner, Dr Nadine Akkerman, as she was researching her (bloody splendid) book Invisible Agents: Women and espionage in seventeenth-century Britain. She was not that far into the task before it seemed as if Nadine was operating more as Spycatcher than a researcher, and it was only in the face of her relentless work that the she-intelligencers slowly gave up their secrets. As Nadine put ever more flesh on their archival bones, we began to realise that they were the perfect protagonists to star in a work of historical fiction. What was so promising about this pair was partially the fact that they were operating in the same circles at the same time, and yet don’t appear to have met, and partially the fact that their lack of excitement about the idea of being caught led to their tracks being pretty well covered over.[2]

While I found Langman's book, a moderately interesting read, I found his method even more fascinating. As he explains in this interview"There are two approaches available to the historical novelist: to fictionalise history or historical fiction. A fictionalised history is one in which a story is woven around actual events, while historicised fiction is one in which historical detail is inserted into a story. I would say I chose the former, but it would be more accurate to say that the former chose me.

Archives do not tell us everything. There are always gaps. Sometimes you can fill them in by using other sources (though this needs to be approached with care), but sometimes they simply insist on remaining as gaps. The primary site of divergence between the historian and the novelist is in the way they approach these gaps: for the former, they are traps; the latter, portals. I could make the gaps work with me rather than against me.”

To conclude, I have read better historical fiction books, and I have read worse. My overriding feeling is that a PhD holder of Langman's calibre should be writing academic books, not historical fiction. Maybe his next book will prove me wrong.


The book is published by Unbound it was the first crowdfunding publisher founded in 2011. A list of people who pledged support for the book to be published is in the back and front of the book. A brave new world


Monday, 27 April 2020

History Today Continues its Love Affair with Eric Hobsbawm

Jesus Casquete's recent article in the May edition of History's Today continues the magazines love affair with Eric Hobsbawm. Given the stature of Hobsbawm, there is nothing wrong with examing a historian that made a significant contribution to the study of history.

However, like many articles before there are substantial problems with the content of this article. It is written from the standpoint of airbrushing any criticism of Hobsbawm's  Stalinism from left to be more precise from an orthodox Marxist viewpoint.

There are several issues worth examining in this article. Casquetes is correct that Hobsbawm was obedient to the "guidelines established by Moscow". This is a very strange formulation, almost casual and non-descript. Hobsbawm was not just obedient, he agreed with the political line that came from Moscow and implemented it when he was a member of the British Communist Party. It is not hard to figure; he was after all a Stalinist to his dying day

Casquete is also correct to praise Hobsbawm's "literary quality", and Judt's description of him as "master of English prose" is very accurate. The problem occurred for Hobbawm when he wrote anything that took place in the 20th Century and especially during the Russian Revolution.

As the Marxist writer David North states "his writing suggests that he has failed to subject to any critical review the political conceptions that allowed him to remain a member of the British Communist Party for many decades: "The terrible paradox of the Soviet era," Hobsbawm tells us with a straight face, "is that the Stalin experienced by the Soviet peoples and the Stalin seen as a liberating force outside were the same. Moreover, he was the liberator for the ones at least in part because he was the tyrant for the others."North said that it would have been no great loss if Hobsbawm had stuck to writing history before the 20th Century.

The subject of the rise of Fascism is a legitimate topic. My two issues of concern are that the article airbrushes from the historical record of Stalinism's part in the coming to power of the Fascists. The other concern is the consistent airbrushing out the history of the opposition to both Stalinism and Fascism by Leon Trotsky. Whether you agree with Trotsky or not the readers of history Today should be allowed to make up their minds. Trotsky was not just some innocent bystander and wrote extraordinarily perceptive articles as this one shows

What is Fascism? The name originated in Italy. Were all the forms of counter-revolutionary dictatorship fascist or not (That is to say, prior to the advent of Fascism in Italy)?. The former dictatorship in Spain of Primo de Rivera, 1923-30, is called a fascist dictatorship by the Comintern. Is this correct or not? We believe that it is incorrect. The fascist movement in Italy was a spontaneous movement of large masses, with new leaders from the rank and file. It is a plebian movement in origin, directed and financed by big capitalist powers. It issued forth from the petty bourgeoisie, the slum proletariat, and even to a certain extent from the proletarian masses; Mussolini, a former socialist, is a "self-made" man arising from this movement.[1]

To conclude it must be said that Casquete's last remarks on Hobsbawm are a little generous. He continues the political line that Hobsbawm was a willing dupe of Stalinism's "Poisonous legacy". This is not only wrong but gives a false picture as to what Hobsbawm represented.

[1] FAascism What it is Extracts from a letter to an English comrade, November 15 1931;printed in The Militant, January 16, 1932-

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Gerald Aylmer and the Discussion Group on the State

By Chris Thompson

I have just spent part of my time searching for material on the response of Robert Brenner to the works of Immanuel Wallerstein and thinking about whether I should buy the first volume of the latter’s series of works on the World System. During the course of these searches, I found an on-line copy of Spencer Dimmock's defence of Brenner's work on the rise of capitalism and also a reference to Gerald Aylmer's participation in the work of the Discussion Group on the State until his death.

I had been aware of the existence of this group, partly through the book by Corrigan and Sayer entitled The Great Arch and partly as a result of a conversation many years ago with John Morrill, who had known Aylmer much better than I ever did. I then found a tribute by Derek Sayer to Gerald Aylmer in the Journal of Historical Sociology for March 2002.

Sayer's account began with a description of his initial meeting with Aylmer, then newly installed as Master of St Peter's College, Oxford, and the evolution of the plans for an informal conference to be held there each year on the evolution of the English State (although that restriction to England was never fully enforced). Approximately twenty scholars, sometimes a few more, sometimes a few less, were invited to discuss short papers that were circulated in advance and to elaborate on their contents for about ten minutes or so before wider discussions began amongst those present. There were sessions on Thursday evenings, two the following morning and evening and one or two on the final Saturday morning.

Interestingly enough, there were no formal ‘discussants’ nominated to reply to the papers and no plans for publication. Gerald Aylmer evidently thought that participants would be bolder in the discussion if they did not expect their papers to be dissected or their remarks to be published shortly thereafter. They could be and often were drawn out of their periods of expertise with fruitful results. Of course, some sacrifices had to be made - Aylmer like Sayer and Patrick Wormald had to give up smoking in the DGOS’s sessions – and some papers did, in due course, make it into print once their authors had reflected on the responses they had received from those present.

All in all, Sayer paid a gracious tribute to Gerald Aylmer and his role in this informal group. But there may be a wider point to be made here. I am certainly interested in what people in other disciplines have to say.  As a historian, however, I personally find it very difficult to listen to or read the observations of scholars in other disciplines, whether historical sociologists or political scientists or philosophers, advancing arguments or making comments about subjects in which I am interested without having consulted the sources for the period. All too often they base these observations on the secondary works they have consulted without any direct knowledge of the records at all. Frequently, these arguments are made in the service of ideological causes that I find unconvincing.

Nonetheless, it is pointless to complain about sociologists or political scientists or anyone else going to the past to find ammunition. That process cannot be stopped. But their arguments and conclusions remain subject to historical examination, a point Gerald Aylmer understood as well as anyone.

A Letter to Penny Weiss

Dear Penny,

While working on an article for my blog, I came across a book you edited called Feminist Manifestos: A Global Documentary Reader-edited by Penny A. Weiss.

At the beginning of chapter 2 The humble petition of divers well-affected women you cite a blog belonging to Alison Stuart-the article you quote is not by her but by me, and appeared on my blog A trumpet of Sedition- under the title Leveller women and the English revolution. It is too late to ask for a correction, but it would be nice for you to credit my blog instead of hers.



Monday, 20 April 2020

No Newes Is Good Newes


The first episode of a new series! Every Friday, Alan Woods (editor of will be discussing the English Revolution: a colossal event in world history that dealt an irreparable blow to feudal absolutism.


Christopher Thompson Article Kingdoms Come Apart appeared in the April Issue of History Today- The path to Britain's Civil Wars of the 17th century was paved in the three very different realms of England, Scotland and Ireland. But it was in the richest and most populous of these that crisis escalated into conflict. 

American Historical Review publishes a letter on 1619 Project by Tom Mackaman and David North-

The text of a letter written by Tom Mackaman, World Socialist Web Site writer and historian, and David North, the chairman of the World Socialist Web Site International Editorial Board. It was published in the April issue of the American Historical Review, the leading US journal of academic historians. The letter responded to a column by AHR Editor Alex Lichtenstein, published in the February issue of the AHR, defending the New York Times’ 1619 Project and attacking the WSWS and the historians it had interviewed for their criticism of the project's racialist reframing of American history.

Brendan McGeever's Antisemitism and the Russian Revolution: Distorting history in the service of identity politics-part one and Part two by Clara Weiss-

New books

1.    Conservative Revolutionary: The Lives of Lewis Namier by David Hayton-Manchester University Press (27 Aug. 2019)

2.    The Decline of Magic: Britain in the Enlightenment Hardcover – 14 Jan. 2020-by Michael Hunter-Yale

3.    James Harrington: An Intellectual Biography Hardcover – 10 Oct. 2019-by Rachel Hammersley

4.    Charles I's Killers in America: The Lives & Afterlives of Edward Whalley & William Goffe-By Matthew Jenkinson-Oxford University Press 255pp £20

Saturday, 18 April 2020

The Decline of Magic. Britain in the Enlightenment, by Michael Hunter -London: Yale University Press, 2020

"I am a lumper, not a splitter. I admire those who write tightly focused micro-studies of episodes or individuals, and am impressed by the kind of quantitative history, usually on demographic or economic topics, which aspires to the purity of physics or mathematics. But I am content to be numbered among the many historians whose books remain literary constructions, shaped by their author's moral values and intellectual assumptions."[1]

Keith Thomas

There never was a merry world since the fairies left off dancing and the parson left conjuring.

—John Selden (1584–1654)

Michael Hunter is an Emeritus Professor of History at Birkbeck and is the author of various essays and books. A world-renowned expert on Robert Boyle (1627-1691). His book Boyle: Between God and Science (2009) won the Roy G. Neville Prize. He has produced a catalogue of Boyle's vast archive and was given the task of editing Boyle's Works (14 vols., 1999-2000).

Given this level of expertise and knowledge, you would have thought he would have been more careful in the opening pages of his new book in describing the 17th-century scientific revolution as "so-called". In a 2001book review [2], Hunter again cast doubt on there being a scientific revolution by putting quotation marks around the term.
We should be thankful for small mercies when he correctly surmises the problem some historians have in using the term scientific revolution; he writes "The concept of a 'Scientific Revolution' — a radical transformation of ideas about the natural world that occurred in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries — seems to have survived the attacks on it in recent years by revisionists who stress the continuity between old and new ideas in the period. On the other hand, it has become more rather than less difficult to write about the topic. This is partly due to the accumulation of research and partly to the proliferation of different approaches to the subject.

The Marxist view of science as being moulded by social forces still exerts a strong influence on ideas about developments in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This period saw the emergence not only of modern science but also of modern capitalism, raising questions about how the two are related. There was a powerful intellectualist reaction against this view in the postwar years, associated particularly with the historian of science Alexandre Koyré, which stressed the internal dynamics underlying the evolution of scientific ideas. This tradition, too, remains very much alive. More recently, we have seen the rise of cultural history, which looks for subtler social and institutional links between ideas and their context".

Given Hunter's well-known aversion to anything Marxist maybe it was the word revolution that Hunter objected to and not the term scientific. His reticence over the term scientific revolution is not surprising since Hunter is part of a group of historians of early modern science and medicine, according to Andreas Sommer who "have challenged simplistic popular accounts, according to which the 'decline of magic' in western culture was due to progress in the sciences or open-minded empirical approaches to 'occult' phenomena".[3]

Hunter's aversion to science's role in the decline of magic is a significant departure from the previous historiography. His book has been compared to Keith Thomas's Religion and the decline of magic. Thomas correctly had science playing the lead role in the decline of both religion and science.

As Roger L. Emerson correctly points out "Keith Thomas ended Religion and the Decline of Magic by claiming that the works of Isaac Casaubon, Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, John Ray, and other like-minded men in the Royal Society, along with a host of continental philosophers, had made it possible for magical thinking to be overthrown among the elite intellectuals and for religious claims to be chastened by "rationalism." Beliefs in things like second sight and communion with witches and fairies were being relegated to the lower orders. He noted the role in this process of social developments, such as the wider and quicker dissemination of news by more presses and better roads, the optimism which came with the increased ability to predict and control events in one's life, and of the emergence of attitudes that gave the new sciences and medicine more purchase on a world which seemed less magical and spirit-haunted. He so saw these developments as being based on the "methods of the scientists," which he characterised as "controlled experiment and innovation," methods which were not those of the religious or the magicians.[4]

Thomas's viewpoint has since the 1970s been consistently under attack. Hunter has been one of many historians that have sought to undermine some of Thomas's historiography, and in particular his insistence on science playing the most prominent role in the decline of religion and magic.

The central premise of Hunter's new book is that it was not scientists that were predominantly responsible for the decline of both magic and religion but freethinkers. Hunter states 'Insofar as there was a political dimension to this, it was arguably not in the struggles of Whigs and Tories but in the inexorable growth of the state and the establishment in this period of what J.H. Plumb aptly described as "political stability." And this went with an increasing emphasis on the pursuit of an essentially civil religion which Deists like John Toland had pioneered.' (175).

Hunter is careful enough not to rubbish too much the part science played in the decline of magic but downplays its role citing the fact that many leading scientists of the day defended the "reality of supernatural phenomena."

Hunter's book has been widely reviewed and widely praised with very few if any hostile reviews. The book is well written and well researched which does not come as a surprise given Hunter's stature. It is beautifully produced by Yale containing many varied illustrations and photographs. Some of the reviews have been a little over the top, such as "Hunter's book deserves to become another classic."— "This is an important and remarkable book" "Definitely a book to think with, and Hunter brings new figures to scrutiny".

The majority of reviews skate over Hunter's very dangerous downplaying of science's preeminent role in the decline of magic and religion. As Jeremy Black points out "The scholarly move away from an emphasis on science leads to the observation that assertion, rather than proof, was important to the dismantling of belief in magic. Particular case- studies take up much of the relatively short text (there are valuable notes and interesting appendices), before the conclusion, which offers a pulling together of the case studies and themes, including a review of other literature."[5]

The elevating of "freethinkers" above both scientists and politicians for being responsible for the decline of both religion and magic is one dimensional. Hunter's attitude towards science is replicated by an attitude towards politics in which he downplays the role of politics in the decline of religion and magic As this paragraph from the book shows "'Scepticism about witchcraft had escaped from its dangerous affiliations with freethinking to become an acceptable viewpoint for orthodox thinkers of various houses. The truth is that party politics were tangential to the major attitudinal change towards magic that was now coming about: one is here reminded of the rather fruitless debate over the party-political affiliations of Newtonianism in the same period that occurred some years ago, which ended in an almost total stalemate.' (174)

Hunter's chapter on the Englightenment and the rejection of magic is both small and disappointing. Given that the subtitle of the book is Britain in the Enlightenment you get a lot of Britain but very little Enlightenment.

Hunter should be applauded for his work on the "freethinkers" of the period covered in the book such as John Toland. But his assertion that these "freethinkers" were leading the struggle against religion and magic is contentious. As the Marxist writer David North correctly states it was the scientist who led the way "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 a 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. 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."[6]

Britain and the Englightenment

Perhaps one of the most disappointing aspects of the book is that it only concentrates on Britain's place in the Englightenment. While a historian is free to choose the subject, putting the decline of religion and magic in a European context would have given the book a much more multi-dimensional outlook.

British enlightenment thinking could be perhaps best summed up as a more pragmatic approach summed up by John Locke who said "our business here is not to know all things, but those, which concern our conduct. It has been argued that the enlightenment "baby's first words were spoken in English".

Enlightenment figures in Britain had a profound effect on thinking around the world as Voltaire wrote, "without the English reason and philosophy we would still be in the most despicable infancy in France". Diderot translated into French the works of people such as Shaftesbury, and the idea of the Encyclopedia came from a scheme to translate Ephains chamber Encyclopaedia.

Having said that there was a dialectical relationship between the English Enlightenment and Europe. The Scottish economist Adam Smith absorbed much of what the physiocrats were saying in France. The philosophy Jeremy Bentham derived his utilitarianism partly from a study of Helvetius.

The American declaration of independence was heavily influenced by the thinking of John Locke, whose idea that there were no innate principles in mind reflected much of the thinking on the continent of Europe. Diderot summed the universal friendship fostered by enlightened thinkers when he said of David Hume "my dear David, you belong to all nations, and you will never ask an unhappy man for his passport".[7]

Perhaps the hardest thing for these Enlightenment figures to do was to define what was the Enlightenment. Norman Hampson, who is one of the leading authorities on the subject defined it as "less a body of doctrines than a shared premise from which men from different temperaments placed in different situations drew quite radically different conclusions". Maybe they held a common language but talked with different accents.

John Gray in his book The Great Philosophers: Voltaire: said of Giovanni Battista Vice  (23 June 1668 – 23 January 1744) "that historical epochs may be so different that their values cannot be recaptured without the tremendous effort of imagination. Herder's claim that different cultures may honour goods that cannot be combined and which are sometimes incommensurable. Pascal's distinction between l'espirit de teometrie and le espirit de finese and its collollary that truth cannot be contained within the confines of any system or discovered by applying any one method- such ideas are alien to the humanist spirit of the Enlightenment. They limit too narrowly what can be known by human beings and what can reasonably be hoped for them to be acceptable to any enlightened thinker".

To conclude, readers should approach this book in the spirit of the Enlightenment, which was "Sapere Aude" dare to know". Hunter's revisionist outlook should also be approached with caution. I would urge the reader to read around the subject before judging this book as another classic.

[1] The Magic of Keith Thomas-Hilary Mantel-
[2] How the old became new Revolutionizing the Sciences: European Knowledge and its Ambitions,1500–1700 by Peter Dear Palgrave: 2001. 208 pp. £45 (hbk), £14.99 (pbk)
[6] Equality, the Rights of Man and the Birth of Socialism
By David North-24 October 1996-
[7] The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments – 1 Aug. 2004-by Gertrude Himmelfarb 

Monday, 6 April 2020

Englishmen with Swords by Charles Montagu Slater, Merlin Radical Fiction, (1950)

Montagu Slater was a minor figure inside the British Communist Party. Outside the party, he had limited success as a playwright and poet.

He was born into a working-class family in 1902 who went on to win a prestigious scholarship to Oxford. Like many of his generation, he was shaped intellectually by the social, economic and political upheavals caused by the Great Depression and the rise of Fascism. While active in local politics at an early age he joined the CP in 1927.

It was an unfortunate time to join the British Communist Party because by 1927 it was already exhibiting signs of political degeneration and slavishly sided with Joseph Stalin's struggle against Leon Trotsky. Slater very quickly sided with the revisionist Stalinist theory of building Socialism in One Country in opposition to Leon Trotsky's orthodox Marxist position of permanent revolution.

The CPGB slavishly followed the Soviet party's line. When anybody stepped outline such as in the case of Maurice Dobbs who wrote for a journal that had "Trotskyists" writing for it, he was forced into a humiliating retreat.

According to John McIlroy "by 1933 G.A.Hutt was denouncing accounts of the development of Marxism which failed to privilege Stalin by an invocation of Stalin's letter, declaring: 'There is no true Marxism today that is not Leninist. Lenin developed and extended the work of Marx and Engels and Lenin's unchallenged successor in the field of both theory and practice is Stalin'. A new orthodoxy, a new canon and new controls over party intellectuals were in place: in late 1933 the requirement that books written by CPGB members were to be submitted for approval by the party leaders was formalised". [1]

Any assessment of Slater's literary work should take into consideration his Stalinist politics. His craven adherence to Stalinism paved the way for him in the 1930s to become founder and then editor of the journal 'Left Review' in October 1934. Left Review from the beginning was an apologist for Stalinist crimes against the working class and became a house organ for attacks on Leon Trotsky.

As Brian Pearce writes "right from the very first number, Left Review revealed where its basic allegiance lay, with a poem by Louis Aragon glorifying the speed-up in a Soviet tractor-works. And in the number for February 1935 Tom Wintringham, one of the co-editors, launched a violent attack on Max Eastman's book Artists in Uniform, which had shaken illusions among some left-wing intellectuals about the position of literature and the writer in the Soviet Union. A characteristic jolly-them-along phrase in Wintringham's article ran: 'Not a few bureaucratic absurdities have happened at times during the Soviet Revolution. And as soon as the party has been able to be quite clear on what it is all about – they go.' (Wintringham was himself expelled from the Communist Party only a few years later, for keeping company with the daughter of an alleged Trotskyist.)

Pearce continues “In November 1937 the publisher Frederick Warburg revealed in a letter to the New Statesman that Left Review had refused an advertisement for The Case of Leon Trotsky, published by his firm. This book was the report of the examination of Trotsky, regarding the statements affecting him made in the trials, carried out by an independent commission of inquiry headed by John Dewey. The new liberalism of Left Review did not include giving a show to the other side. Editor Randall Swingler explained on behalf of the journal, in the next issue of the New Statesman, that "there is a line at which criticism ends and destructive attacks begin, and we regret that this line separates us both from Dr Goebbels and Leon Trotsky”. [2]

Slater, who died at a very early age of 54, stayed true to his Stalinist ideas. Despite being linked with the new Reasoner wing inside in the Communist Party, Slater agreed with every twist and turn of the British Communist party's attack on Trotskyism. He backed the party's reformist "British Road to Socialism". When the Hungarian Revolution took place in 1956, Slater called it a counter-revolution. He died in 1956 still retaining his party membership.

Englishmen with Swords

As was said before any assessment of Slater's literary achievements should be within the context of his politics. Englishmen with Swords is a piece of historical fiction that centres on the years 1647-1649, these years being the highpoint of the English Bourgeois revolution. Slater wrote the piece using material from the journal of a minor but significant real-life participant of the English Civil War Gilbert Mabbot.

As much as I can tell, the storyline remains faithful to actual events. The book should not be seen as a historical document but should be seen as a complement to academic historical research.

Slater does bring Mabbott to the attention of a wider audience. Too many figures such as Mabbott have been lost because revisionist historians are reluctant to research figures such as Mabbott and others.  Revisionists attempt to replace the "history from below" genre with history from above has done much damage.

Mabbott (1622—c. 1670) was according to Graham Stevenson "the official licenser of the press from 1647 to 1649 and himself a pioneering journalist and publisher of newsbooks during the English Civil War period". He was significantly linked to radical groups such as the Levellers during his publication of the Moderate newsbook. Describing his time with the Moderate Mabbott said: "I have laid down my former title of 'Moderate Intelligencer' and do go by another, 'The Moderate'". The Moderate espoused republican views. It fully supported the execution of the King and held views that were similar to the Levellers.

Mabbott'ss link to the Levellers has been questioned by  Frances Henderson who said "Mabbott's reputation as a Leveller, which rests solely on his alleged editorship of the radical newsbook The Moderate, is open to question. It is possible that he contributed to early issues of this newsbook, but there is no evidence that he was responsible for editing it and nothing in his career or conduct to link him directly to the Levellers".

Henderson's view has in turn been challenged by Pattrick Ludolph "Gilbert Mabbott was a licenser of pamphlets and newsbooks from 1645 to 1649. He was also brother-in-law to Sir William Clarke and a client of John Rushworth. From 1647 to 1649, he was in the pay of the New Model Army, acting as their "agent" in London. As well, Mabbott has been accused of being the editor of the radical newsbook The Moderate, an accusation which I have come to believe".

Patrick's views on Slater's book is worth quoting "I have read it, but I could not tell you much more about its background than what is already on the dust jacket. It is from Gilbert Mabbott (which you know because you commented here, but I thought I would say for others out there) and makes use of several original documents from the Civil War. However, Slater chose Mabbott because he knew absolutely nothing about him. 

He saw his name on a bunch of documents and decided to write from his viewpoint because Mabbott was a virtual nobody, a clean slate to write on. The irony is not lost on me. It has been a while since I looked at it; I seem to recall that Slater was a little confused about some things, but I do not remember what. Come to think of it, I probably should have done a post on this, but I read it before I started blogging".

To conclude, it is difficult to say how good this book is. As Chris Hopkins says "Lukacs in his The Historical Novel (1937; 1963) distinguishes between various periods when literary historicism has become merely a mannerism and periods when historical genres have made authentic engagements with history, as some of his section titles may briefly suggest: 'The Classical Form of the Historical Novel', 'The General Tendencies of Decadence and the Establishment of the Historical Novel as a Special Genre'. Lukacs, of course, as one of the most influential Marxist critics of the twentieth century sees the success of the historical novel at a different period as not simply an aesthetic matter, but as one deeply determined by history itself" [3]

[1]   The Establishment of Intellectual Orthodoxy and the Stalinization of British Communism 1928-1933 John McIlroy Past & Present, No. 192 (Aug., 2006), pp. 187-226
[2] Brian Pearce-Some Lessons from History:The Left Review, 1934–1938
(November 1959)From The Newsletter, 7 November 1959.Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.
[3] Historicising the Historical Novel: Introduction-Chris Hopkins, Sheffield Hallam University

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Conversations With Historians: Christopher Hill

"I think one of the vital qualifications for a historian is to be readable, is to write history which people will read, and is not dry as dust".

Robert Blake

"In a sense, our recordings were almost like a tutorial in reverse, where I interrogated them on why they had come to particular conclusions, and whether they had changed their minds at a later date. "

John Miller

This interview with Christopher Hill (1912-2003) a former Master of Balliol College, Oxford, and leading authority on the English bourgeois revolution was first broadcast on February 1991 on BBC Radio Four for 'Conversations with Historians'. The interviewer is John Miller.

The programme was a product of a "dictum of Jacob Burckhardt". As Miller relates "When producer John Knight and I were planning it we were keen to include a broad cross-section of approaches as well as periods of study. So we were delighted when everyone on our first list accepted the invitation to take part – Lord Blake, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, Sir Michael Howard, Lady Longford and David Starkey. As Elizabeth Longford put it, on hearing who else made up the group: 'High Tories to Marxists, with me somewhere in the middle."

One of the things that strike the listener is Hill's tremendous erudition and almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the English revolution.

It must be said Miller was not a hostile interviewer. His questions ranged from the interesting to the mundane.

One of Miller's first question and probably one of his most important was why did Hill study the English revolution? Hill's answer I must admit was a little reticent and defensive. Like most of the historians in the Communist, Party Hill came to study the English revolution through a love of literature.

This was, of course, coupled with an interest in the significant events of his early years. The late 1930s saw the Great Depression. The Moscow Purges in the Soviet Union that saw the mass murder of millions of Communists including the state murder of the entire central committee that had led the Bolshevik revolution. The rise and fall of Italian and German Fascism. While it would have been hard for even the most politically astute person to orientate themselves at this time (Hill was, after all, no great shakes as a political theorist), it is to Hill's credit that he managed to produce such quality and quantity of historical writings on his chosen subject.

Hill's answers to the questions are informative and incisive. They also indicate that Hill had not to any substantial extent revised his previous convictions on the English revolution. He still believed that it was a bourgeois revolution. The older Hill got, the more accurate and precise became his analysis.

The interview begins with Miller attempting some counterfactual questions. Hill quite correctly avoids getting involved in the trap of "what if" school of history.

It is true that Hill in response to Miller's question as to whether a different outcome could have happened if  Charles Ist did things differently he did offer the possibility that a settlement between Parliament and the King which would have given England a constituent monarchy, would have seen Parliament have more say over legalisation, a degree of freedom of the press and toleration of religious groups.

Hill was enough of a Marxist not to rule out the role an individual plays in the historical process. It is clear that the actions of Charles Ist played an integral part in the "long march" towards revolution. His vanity, stubbornness and sheer stupidity played their part, but he was part of a much significant movement of social,  forces. 

As Hill said "Marx himself did not fall into the error of thinking that men's idea was merely a pale reflection of their economic needs, with no history of their own: but some of his successors, including many who would not call themselves Marxist, have been far more economic-determinist than Marx. It seems to me that anybody of thought which plays a major in history – Luther's, Rousseau's, Marx's own takes on because it meets the needs of the significant group in the society in which it comes into prominence".[1]

It is true that the historical process that brought about the English revolution was not predetermined. Hill believed, and his answer to Miller's question expressed his opinion that the revolution and its development could have proceeded in any number of a given number of directions. 

However, in the end, run the material political and economic changes expressed in the revolution would have come out sooner or later, albeit in different forms. Also, the actions of any given character such as Charles 1 or for that matter an Oliver Cromwell represented in distorted constitute the struggle of classes, both characters pursued mutually different but in the end incompatible terms.

Hill expressed in his writings the fact that individuals, classes, even whole parties have socioeconomic interests, and these are sometimes expressed through significant historical figures. But in the end "The breadth and nature of their activity are substantially defined by the laws of the capitalist mode of production".

Some historians have criticised Hill for an overestimation of the political influence of radical groups such as the Levellers or Diggers. It is true that Hill paid substantial attention to the radicals of the English revolution represented by groups such as the Levellers and Diggers and was correct when he said that while these were the most conscious revolutionaries, they were second in importance to Oliver Cromwell as a revolutionary force. At the time of the 1991 interview, Penguin had just re-published Hill's The World Turned Upside Down. Hill's work on the Levellers stands the test of time. He does not overestimates their importance, and he correctly states that in the historical scheme of things the most important revolutionary was not John Lilburne but was in fact, Oliver Cromwell.

Hill justified this by saying that "Some will think that I overemphasise the importance of the defeated radicals at the expense of the mainstream achievements of the English revolution. Yet without the pressure of the Radicals, the civil war might not have transformed into a revolution: some compromise could have been botched up between the gentry on the two sides- a "Prussian path". Regicide and republic were no part of the intentions of the original leaders of the Long Parliament: they were forced on the men of 1649 by the logic of the revolution which they were trying to control."

Hill was accused that he had renounced his Marxist interpretation towards the end of his life, one writer recounted that "Hill gave a talk on radio marking the centenary of the publication of Marx's "Das Kapital". He ended it by recounting how Marx had accidentally come across some former comrades from the 1848 revolutions, many years later. They had become prosperous and one, reflecting on old times, indicated how he felt that he was becoming less radical as he aged. "Do you?" said Marx, "Well I do not."

[1] Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution – Revisited-C Hill

Friday, 3 April 2020

The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and England in the 21st Century. Tristram Hunt-Winchester University in 2016.

Tristram Hunt is a former Labour MP and British Historian who is now director of Victoria and Albert Museum. In 2016 he gave a speech at Winchester University entitled: The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and England in the 21st Century. The speech was a clumsy attempt to bring George Orwell's original essay into the 21st century.

Orwell's essay was an extraordinary piece of work in that, among other things called for a social revolution during the Second World War in England. Suffice to say that Hunt a right-wing Labourite is not calling for that.

Hunt's speech is a dishonest attempt to use Orwell's confusing support for patriotism for his right-wing politics. Some of Orwell's work in this essay is confusing and just wrong, but the overall thrust of his essay is spot on and far more left-wing than Hunt will ever be. At no stage in Hunt's essay does he call for a social revolution against one of the oldest bourgeoise in the world.

Much of Hunt's speech is flippant and shallow. His speech is a cover for Labour's incredibly right-wing trajectory. The word socialism in the title of his speech is mostly for show, similar to how the Nazi's used it in the 1930s in order to confuse the working class. Hunt's real perspective is the revival of a particularly nasty form of English nationalism and a thinly disguised one at that. Hunt begins the lecture with a paean to the good old days of the English "dissenting tradition" of Watt Tyler, the Peasants revolt and the radicals of the English revolution.

While pretending to be a radical Hunt is in fact on the right-wing of the Labour Party. As part of the offensive to shift the party even further to the right he argues that it must "take English identity and cultural affiliation seriously".

He then says that Labour "needs a much greater honesty in how we navigate Englishness and politics - particularly when it comes to questions of immigration". To do this, the party must not oppose populist English culture, and instead learn to embrace it". In reality, Hunt's appeal is directed at the most degenerate, parochial and right-wing in society.

Hunt goes on to attack the working class for abandoning the Labour Party because "They value home, family, and their country. They feel their cultural identity is under threat. They yearn for a sense of belonging and national renewal. Tradition, rules, and social order are important to them".

To be honest, Hunt's politics are not dissimilar to that of the Tory party, or for that matter any number of fascist parties that exist in Britain. Like the fascist's Hunt wraps himself up in the St George's flag. Paraphrasing the writer Paul Kingsnorth Hunt believes that there is an analogy "between the spread of St. George's Cross and the Confederate Flag in the South of the United States. An unofficial, unspoken act of defiance by a people which says "we are still here".

He continues "Although it is not as entrenched as often suggested, there is a reluctance amongst some in the party to embrace patriotism and promote national pride… An aversion to the institutions and traditions people hold dear has helped to create the perception that the Labour-party is anti-English and does not share the values of the nation".


Hunt's extreme right-wing comments regarding immigration would not look out of place with Enoch Powell's Rivers of Blood Speech. You do not have to share Gordon Brown's politics to agree with his comments that Duffy was a bigot. Hunt says "We had nothing to say to Mrs Duffy and the millions of voters like her who, first and foremost, had sincere, legitimate worries about immigration". This is shocking. Duffy's patriotism should have been treated as Samuel Johnson so beautifully put it as being "the last refuge of a scoundrel".

As Hunt's praise of Derek Blunket in an article in the Guardian is just plain bizarre. In the article, he praises David Blunkett MP as "One of the few politicians brave enough to confront this dilemma has been David Blunkett. The teaching of citizenship in schools, the introduction of citizenship ceremonies, and the publication by Bernard Crick of an official history of Britain have served to return the emphasis to British values. Meanwhile, Blunkett himself has happily broken with the left's usual reserve on these matters, speaking of his patriotic ardour for English music, poetry, drama and humour".

This supposed defence of English culture is nothing more than an excuse to wrap himself in the union jack. Does Hunt' really believe that Blunkett's tacky and clumsy appeal to British nationalism against the 'Muslim Hoards' is progressive? Historically Hunt is not the only historian to promote the so-called British values of Justice and fair play, but he does so to empty any class content behind these slogans. After all these concepts were espoused by a ruling elite that has a lot of blood rather on its hands and has routinely cloaked their imperialist adventures in such terms. Finally, on this matter, Hunt's attempt to justify his defence of British imperialism aims in the garb of the Enlightenment is a somewhat disgusting spectacle.

George Orwell

It is hard to know where to start with Hunt's use of George Orwell as a cover for his right-wing conservative perspective. To start with, it must be said that Orwell wrote his famous essay when actual bombs were falling on England; that was hardly the case facing Hunt.

One of the significant problems of Hunt's choice of the Lion and the Unicorn is not only what he says about it but what he does not say. It should be said that Orwell is wrong and a little confused on the question of patriotism. Orwell writes "England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their nationality. In left-wing circles, it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings". This could be seen as an attack on left-wing intellectuals it also could read as his position as regards patriotism.

However, this is not the main point and misses the thrust of Orwell's attack on British capitalism. It must be said that Orwell's analysis would not have looked out of place with much of the perspective of the British Trotskyists during the Second World War. Orwell's answer to the war was the call for a social revolution. Some of his work, although he does not acknowledge it, is heavily influenced by the great Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky.

Orwell's essay was not just a knee jerk reaction to the war Orwell had in the words of Gregory Claeys "before he wrote The Lion and the Unicorn Orwell had briefly suggested three of its central themes: first, patriotism was not inherently conservative or reactionary, but might be expressed as a legitimate sentiment among those on the left; second, patriotism alone would not prevent England's defeat, but instead the social revolution must progress (and here his Spanish ideals were clearly carried forward). Third, Orwell argued that in fact, it was those who were most patriotic who were least likely to "flinch from revolution when the moment comes." John Cornford, a Communist, killed while serving in the International Brigades, had been "public school to the core." This proved, Orwell thought, that one kind of loyalty could transmute itself into another and that it was necessary for the coming struggle to recognize "the spiritual need for patriotism and the military virtues"[1].

The more you read Orwell, the more you see how far politically he was from Hunt. "The Lion and the Unicorn" is an extraordinary book written at the height of the war it is a damning indictment 0f the war.

Orwell is crystal clear that the only way to beat the fascist is for the working class to make the war a revolutionary one. Orwell writes "It is only by revolution that the native genius of the English people can be set free. Revolution does not mean red flags and street fighting; it means a fundamental shift of power. Whether it happens with or without bloodshed is largely an accident of time and place. Nor does it mean the dictatorship of a single class. The people in England who grasp what changes are needed and are capable of carrying them through are not confined to any one class, though it is true that very few people with over £2,000 a year are among them. What is wanted is a conscious open revolt by ordinary people against inefficiency, class privilege and the rule of the old. It is not primarily a question of change of government. British governments do, broadly speaking, represent the will of the people, and if we alter our structure from below, we shall get the government we need. Ambassadors, generals, officials and colonial administrators who are senile or pro-Fascist are more dangerous than Cabinet ministers whose follies have to be committed in public. Right through our national life, we have got to fight against privilege, against the notion that a half-witted public schoolboy is better for command than an intelligent mechanic. Although there are gifted and honest individuals among them, we have got to break the grip of the monied class as a whole. England has got to assume its real shape. The England that is only just beneath the surface, in the factories and the newspaper offices, in the aeroplanes and the submarines, has got to take charge of its own destiny."

To collude in our current time of crisis although no bombs are falling on our heads we do face an even more deadly foe. It is a pity we do not have a George Orwell, we have instead Hunt who thankfully has remained silent.

[1] "The Lion and the Unicorn", Patriotism, and Orwell's Politics-Gregory Claeys-The Review of Politics-Vol. 47, No. 2 (Apr., 1985), pp. 186-211

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Rachel Willie. Staging the Revolution: Drama, Reinvention and History, 1647-72. Manchester University Press, 2015..

It is not often that a book cover nearly outshines the book itself, but Rachel Willie's first book is close to being upstaged by the cover showing Wenceslas Holler's illustration of Aesop's fable 'Of The Rebellion of the Arms and the Legs'.[1]

As the blurb for the book states it "is an exciting attempt to understand the complex politics of the 1660 restoration through the use of "textual and visual narratives".  

The use of art or in this case, the use of drama to understand and explain the counter-revolution that took place during the Restoration period is a positive development.

Willie's use of art as the cognition of life is in the spirit of great Aleksandr Konstantinovich Voronsky if not his politics. As Voronsky writes "What is art? First, art is the cognition of life. Art is not the free play of fantasy, feelings and moods; art is not the expression of merely the subjective sensations and experiences of the poet; art is not assigned the goal of primarily awakening in the reader 'good feelings.' Like science, art cognises life. Both art and science have the same subject: life, reality. But science analyses, art synthesises; science is abstract, art is concrete; science turns to the mind of man, art to his sensual nature. Science cognises life with the help of concepts, art with the aid of images in the form of living, sensual contemplation."[2]

Rachel Willie
Willie's book from a historiography standpoint is revisionist through and through. Willie is part of a new generation of British historians whose Historiography is an explicit rejection of previous Whig and Marxist historiography.

While not ignoring what passes for Marxist historiography her uncritical attitude towards Margot Heinemann[3] is especially troubling. Heinemann was intimately connected to the Stalinist perspective of Peoples history practised by the British Communist Party. The Communist Party sponsored a form of "People's History" first came to prominence after A.L. Morton's People's History of England was published. As Ann Talbot points out, Morton obscured the class character of earlier rebels and revolutionaries and popular leaders "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.[4]

Heineman is only mentioned twice in the book, so it is hard to gauge how much she influences Willie. My guess is quite a bit, and the extent of her influence will probably come out during further projects by Willie.

While Heinemann is used from a political standpoint, her use of Jurgen Habermas is down to her agreement with his philosophical outlook. Habermas was a crucial figure in the anti-Marxism Frankfurt School.

Much of Habermas's writings were borrowed by cultural theorists such as Stuart Hall who in turn borrowed certain conceptions from the Italian left-wing figure Antonio Gramsci, particularly the latter's notion of cultural hegemony in addressing popular culture as a preferred sphere of political activity. As Paul Bond writes "Gramsci was attractive not merely for his cultural writings—many of which were produced during solitary confinement under the Mussolini fascist regime—but also for his attacks on economic determinism, his explicit rejection of the theory of Permanent Revolution and his justification of the nationalist orientation of Stalinism: As Gramsci declared, "To be sure, the line of development is toward internationalism, but the point of departure is 'national'—and it is from this point of departure that one must begin".[5]  Willie's theoretical outlook appears to be an amalgam of all three.

Willie's absentmindedness towards Habermas's politics is another troubling aspect of the book. As Uli Rippert[6] points out, Habermas represents the political transformation that took place in many of his generations from the late 1960s who protested against the  Vietnam War but have now thrown their lot in with the German bourgeoisie's imperial designs and warmongering.

Willie's usage of the work of Hannah Arendt is perhaps the most baffling. Arendt was a liberal opponent of fascism who was an apologist of Martin Heidegger's Nazi sympathies. Arendt bent over backwards in her attempts to downplay Heidegger's Nazi connections saying "Heidegger himself corrected his own 'error' more quickly and more radically than many of those who later sat in judgment over him—he took considerably greater risks than were usual in German literary and university life during that period."[7]

To conclude, while being a useful introduction to the study of Restoration drama, it is beholden of Willie in the future to defend her choices of political and philosophical friends.

[2] Art as the Cognition of Life, Selected Writings 1911-1936, -Aleksandr Konstantinovich Voronsky, Mehring Books, Michigan, 1998,-ISBN 0-929087-76-3, 554 pages,
[3] Puritanism and Theatre: Thomas Middleton and Opposition Drama under the Early Stuarts, 1980
[4] "These the times ... this the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill
by Ann Talbot-25 March 2003
[5] Cultural theorist Stuart Hall (1932-2014): A political career dedicated to opposing Marxism-
[6] Jürgen Habermas—Germany's state philosopher turns 85
By Ulrich Rippert-18 June 2014-
[7] Quoted in The Case of Martin Heidegger, Philosopher and Nazi-The Cover-up-By Alex Steiner
4 April 2000-