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Friday, 31 July 2020
Wednesday, 22 July 2020
I was a postgraduate researcher and aspiring early career researcher in the 1960s. The context in which I lived and worked was radically different. After the Robbins Report was published in the autumn of 1963, there was a rapid expansion of new universities and the creation of a significant number of history departments across the country.
A cohort of young postgraduates and early career researchers took up posts in these departments. Unfortunately, the sterling crisis of 1967 brought this process of expansion to an abrupt end. It became much more difficult for postgraduates like me in the middle of their research to get one of the few posts being advertised while the new incumbents naturally enough stayed put.
Looking back, there were all sorts of issues that I was not aware of at the time. As an undergraduate, I had been relatively well off: as a postgraduate on c.£500 a year, I was pretty hard up, especially in comparison with those of my contemporaries who had got jobs in external professions. I was also only dimly aware of the importance of patrons in the academic world: I knew that there were historians who disagreed with one another but had only the faintest idea of the competition that existed between them to secure posts for their proteges. Nor was I sensitive to the dangers of criticising established figures.
When I submitted my first article to The Economic History Review in 1972, Lawrence Stone sent me a very short letter telling me in July of that year that publication would do me no good and that he would see to it that I never got a job. Admittedly, publication as such was less important then: a large number of historians then in post had a minimal number of articles or books to their names, a situation that later research assessment exercises made untenable. There was, moreover, very little and sometimes no guidance on how to teach even though I got some experience in my own university, in the nearby polytechnic and in a technical college. Even so, my sense of despair and disappointment at not being able to get an academic job until the late-1980s was, I suspect, just as intense as that experienced by anyone in the last few years.
But I did not give up. I was lucky enough to be able to keep in touch through my friends and via contacts in the British Museum, the Public Record Office and the libraries of the University of London with the historiography of early modern England and of Europe. I was even able to get some articles published in academic journals and a volume of essays. Eventually, I did get an academic post and have been able to move forward to other roles.
I realise that postgraduates and early career researchers nowadays have had just as tough, perhaps even tougher, a time. Universities have a wide range of choice amongst a plethora of candidates from which to choose. Issues of academic patronage and publication remain vital. (Avoid my mistakes too.) If I may comment on the problems postgraduates and early career researchers face, it is important for them to take of advantage of all the opportunities that arise in the course of their research.
If a document or set of documents that are of interest crops up, please think about publication (with the necessary permissions of the archive or owner) in an academic or local history journal or, if that is not possible, contact the International Book Numbering Agency and get some of its numbers so that you can publish it yourself. Most universities and colleges have printing shops where written pieces can be printed and bound relatively cheaply.
Secondly, there are the resources of the internet. It is perfectly possible without too much effort to use Facebook or Twitter to tell other interested people about the work you are doing, about the reading you have done, about the contacts you have made. Successful networking on-line as well as at conferences and seminars is vital to keep in touch with one’s peers and prospective colleagues. And then there are weblogs or blogs.
The Many-Headed Monster is a good example of what can be achieved by a group of historians with common interests but there are many other blogs of interest carrying news, reviews, notices of conferences and seminars, etc. I must also add that a significant number of blogs exist that have been composed by independent historians working in other professions but still committed to the subjects they have studied. Here I am thinking of figures like Nick Poyntz or Keith Livesey. It is up to you to exploit the range of available options.
Above all, make sure you complete your research and get your thesis written. If you can do that and can promote your merits as a scholar in other ways, then a job should be more likely however stiff the competition.Chris Thompson
Sunday, 19 July 2020
'O what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive.'
"It might seem that the notion of tradition, unlike kilts and bagpipes, has been around for many centuries. Once more, appearances are deceptive. The term 'tradition' as it is used today is a product of the last 200 years in Europe. Just like the concept of risk, which I talked about in my last lecture, in mediaeval times, there was no generic notion of tradition. There was no call for such a word, precisely because tradition and custom were everywhere".
Neil Davidson died on May 3, 2020. His death removes from the historical scene a gifted historian and a working-class autodidact that is rarely seen today. Davidson wrote on many subjects, including the historical status of bourgeois revolutions, Scottish politics and history, the relationship between the nation-states and capital and seventeenth-century intellectual thought. However, as this obituary will show, his historiography was always dominated by his pseudo-left political outlook.
Davidson was born 1957 in Aberdeen. He spent much of his childhood in a largely rural area of Scotland that Davidson would later write about as been the last part of the British Isles to lose its peasantry. Life was hard for Davidson growing up in a flat with no indoor toilet. Davidson had a tremendous work ethic and dedication to historical study. Davidson regularly rose at 5 am to study Marxist classics without the early luxury of going to university. The majority of his writings were done in the evening and weekends because he held a fulltime civil service job. It was only very late in life did Davidson escape the clutches of his civil service job for a life in academia. He became a senior research fellow at Strathclyde University. In 2013 he became a lecturer in sociology at Glasgow University.
He became radicalised during the early 1970s joining the International Socialists forerunners of the Socialist Workers Party in 1976. When Davidson joined the IS, it had already broken from orthodox Trotskyism, and from 1951 had sustained a systematic attack on the basic tenents of Trotskyism. Its then-leader Tony Cliff repudiated any chance of there being a social revolution in the post-war period. Cliff put forward his thesis that a form of "state capitalism "had taken place in the Soviet Union.
The IS postulated that this was a new form of capitalist exploitation on a world scale. The result of this theory was that it in the words of Chris Marsden it "lent capitalism a new lease on life". He continued "the IS' declaration that the Soviet Union was equivalent to US imperialism and its insistence that the reformist parties and trade union apparatuses represented the interests of the working class enabled it to secure a niche in a layer of the petty bourgeoisie that relied upon the welfare state and the trade unions for their privileges. This layer combined radical rhetoric and pressure on the labour bureaucracies to safeguard wages and public-sector jobs and services with unswerving opposition to any attempt to construct a working-class party independent of the Labour Party".Davidson agreed with IS's position on state capitalism because it made 'made perfect sense'.
Davidson and the "Scottish Revolution"
Davidson produced a significant amount of material on Scottish history and politics. The books Origins of Scottish Nationhood (2000) and Discovering the Scottish Revolution (2003) defined Davidson's attitude to the "Scottish Question". Davidson's main position on Scotland was that it existed as a Scottish state before 1707. However, there was no mass national consciousness. Whether a mass national consciousness developed naturally or was manufactured is a debate that still rages amongst historians. One does not have to agree with Hugh Trevor Roper's politics to see that he had a point when he wrote in his article on the 'invented traditions' of Scotland, that the 'the whole concept of a distinct Highland culture' was a 'retrospective invention'.
It would seem that Davidson spent most of his academic career looking for a Scottish bourgeois revolution. Some would say that it would have been easier to find Lord Lucan. Davidson is correct to point out that some decisive moments point to a significant pathway towards the goal of a Scottish bourgeois revolution. One of these events is the defeat of the last Jacobite revolt in 1746. However, this defeat was attained with the direct intervention of the British state and with the help of the Scottish lowland bourgeoisie. This action finally suppressed the last remnants of Scottish feudalism. It was very much a bourgeois revolution from above with the help of the English bourgeoise. The Scottish bourgeois revolution if you can find one, was, in the end, a pretty tame affair and no way comparable to that of the English bourgeois revolution of the 1640s.
Despite the rise of the Scottish Nation-state being intimately connected to the development of the English bourgeoise numerous Pseudo left commentators and historians have sought to argue differently in that it was an oppressed nation that needed to throw off the yoke of English capitalism.
Scotland, despite Davidson arguing to the contrary, was not an oppressed nation. On the contrary orthodox Marxists have argued it was, in fact, part of an imperialist state. The Psuedo Left revisionists downplay the Scottish ruling elites past crimes which have resulted in the Scottish bourgeoise making vasts amounts of money out of the brutal exploitation of millions the world over.
It could be argued that ever since 1707, workers in Scotland have been oppressed not because of their nationality but because of their class position within capitalist society. As a Socialist Equality Party(SEP) statement points out "The Act of Union in 1707 provided the framework for the development of capitalism and the vast growth of the productive forces. This, in turn, formed the basis for the emergence of the first industrial working class in the world. Since then, working people in England, Scotland and Wales have fought side by side in epic struggles, including the great revolutionary Chartist movement for democracy and equality, the general strike of 1926, the mass strike movement that brought down a Tory government in 1974 and the year-long miners' strike of 1984-85.
The advocacy of Scottish independence is a reactionary response to the bankruptcy of the nation-state system, which no longer corresponds to the global organisation of economic life. In the last century, this fundamental contradiction gave rise to two of the most devastating wars in human history as the leading capitalist powers fought for world hegemony. Today, with the advent of global production, in which every country's economy is integrated into a greater whole dominated by huge transnational corporations and banks, inter-imperialist and national antagonisms have reached a new peak of intensity".
In order to justify his position regarding Scottish independence, Davidson was forced to continue the "invention of Tradition" historiography. I do not believe he falsified his research to fit a political perspective, but it is clear that his positions on Scottish history led him down a reactionary and nationalist road. In the first volume of his collected essays entitled Holding Fast to an Image of the Past (2014) of which the title is taken from Walter Benjamin's 'On the Concept of History' (1940) Davidson warned that revolutionaries could without their knowledge, become 'tools of the ruling class'.
Despite warning against this trait, it would seem that Davidson did exactly what he warned others against. Davidson became a foot soldier for the 2014 "yes" campaign for Scottish independence. He downplayed the reactionary nature of the "Yes" Campaign and ignored completely the significant opposition that existed to the separatist project among Scottish workers. Davidson exposed his political bankruptcy saying at a RIC meeting, "People in this room, people on the left, people out there on picket lines … believe in the unity of the British working class, and they dismiss some of us who argue for independence as useful stooges of the ruling class".
Much of Davidson's work on Scotland was done while he was still a member of the SWP. Davidson held a diametrically opposite line to the SWP who in the early 1970s had a semi orthodox line on Scotland history.
In 1974 they wrote "Scottish nationalism had not played any such progressive role since the 17th century when the idea of Scotland, or at least of the Scottish lowlands, as a nation grew up in opposition to Scottish feudalism. The struggles of the Scottish bourgeoisie against the remnants of feudalism took place more or less simultaneously with similar struggles in England, in the 1640s and 1688, with the movements in one country being intimately bound up with movements in the other.
The Act of Union between the two countries did not represent the suppression of the Scottish bourgeoisie by the English but rather an agreement between the two to exploit the British empire jointly. The Scottish bourgeoisie swung behind support for the Union after a colonial adventure of their own failed. Indeed, it can be argued that the final bourgeois unification of Scotland was only fully achieved with the aid of English arms when the pre-capitalist society of the highlands was destroyed in the aftermath of 1745. The Scottish bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie led no sort of struggle against British imperialism; instead, they mobilised the rest of the population in its support". Suffice to say this is not the SWP's position today.
 Britain's Socialist Workers Party descends into factional warfare-https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2013/02/14/swps-f14.html
 Whig Tartan: Material Culture and its Use in the Scottish Highlands, 1746–1815
Matthew P. Dziennik-Past & Present, Volume 217, Issue 1, November 2012, Pages 117–147,
 Vote “no” in the Scottish referendum—Fight for a socialist Britain-https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/06/21/scot-j21.html
 Deflected Permanent Revolution.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1963/xx/permrev.htm
 The USSR in War-(September 1939)- https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1939/09/ussr-war.htm
 The ABC of Materialist Dialectics-(December 1939) https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1939/12/abc.htm
Friday, 17 July 2020
My first encounter with Hill was as an undergraduate when I heard him give a series of lectures in Balliol College’s hall which later found their way into print in his book, Society and Puritanism. His general points were buttressed by copious quotations from late-sixteenth and early to mid-seventeenth century printed sources, most of them pamphlets and sermons. He had a rather off-putting habit of sniffing after every two or three sentences which I found rather disconcerting.
Two and a half years later, I found myself assigned to him as my supervisor for my prospective research. Our initial talk took place in his office as Master of Balliol. He was interested in finding out what my social origins were, what the cost of my watch (which was one of the very first to show dates) had been and to invite me to the Monday evening parties to which his other pupils and girls from St Hilda’s College, where his wife taught, came for drinks. And that was about it. (I gave up on the Monday evening parties after attending one or two because I could not hear myself think due to the noise.)
Later meetings took place in a room where he had a chair held by a chain coming down from the ceiling. He used to sit in this chair swinging slightly from side to side whilst saying nothing. I found this silence disconcerting: it was only a year or two later that I was told that this was an old Oxford technique to encourage students to be forthcoming about their work. It did not work for me.
Much more seriously, Christopher Hill, for all his encyclopaedic knowledge of printed sources, was completely at sea as far as manuscript sources were concerned. I never saw him reading manuscripts in the Bodleian, in the British Museum or the Public Record Office or in any county archive then or in the better part of forty years that followed. Since I was desperately searching for the lost archives of the people I was investigating, his inability to help was a problem I had not anticipated. His comments on my written work were rather perfunctory too, probably because he soon recognised that I was not a follower or potential follower of his Marxist approach in any sense at all. As a potential protégé or candidate for academic jobs, I was without promise from his point of view.
I did see him once or twice after I ceased being a postgraduate – in Malet Street in London and again at The Huntington Library in California. He and his wife were friendly and polite but I got the distinct impression that he had found the changes in the historiography of pre- and post-revolutionary England since the mid-1970s invalid, unacceptable and nonsensical. He had gone on writing as if they had not happened and thereby lost touch with later generations of historians. This was sad but it happens sooner or later to most academic historians. I was pleased to have known him although never convinced by his arguments at any stage.
Wednesday, 15 July 2020
"Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword as was said three thousand years ago so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.' With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."
Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address
The last few weeks have seen the removal of statues in the United States and Britain that were related to the slave trade. While this may seem justifiable for the moment, the indiscriminate nature of the removal of statues are troubling, especially when now statues of revolutionary figures such as George Washington, who led the American Revolution and Abraham Lincoln who led the Civil War that ended slavery are being removed.
The attacking of revolutionary figures has now crossed the Atlantic to Britain with the calls for statues of Oliver Cromwell to be removed. The only thing missing in this reactionary nonsense is the call for the exhuming of his body in order to drag it through the London streets and place his head on a spike above Westminister Hall again.
Any historian or general reader of English history will know that the calling for the statue of Oliver Cromwell to be removed from outside Parliament is a yearly occurrence. Two years ago the Sunday Telegraph ran an article called "Parliament's statue of Cromwell becomes the latest memorial hit by 'rewriting history' row". The article's author Patrick Sawer must have had a slow day in the office because in the article he says a bitter row has broken out between historians. His article was stretching things a bit. The one historian quoted by the newspaper was Jeremy Crick, described as "a social historian" has called for the statue to be pulled down.
His justification for this being Cromwell's anti-religious zeal and comparing Cromwell to the actions of the Taliban. He says "Its banishment would be poetic justice for his Taliban-like destruction of so many of England's cultural and religious artefacts carried out by his fanatical Puritan followers."
It is hard to take Crick seriously. Even a cursory search would find that he has written next to nothing on Cromwell and is hardly a world authority on Cromwell and the English revolution. It would seem that the only thing Crick specialises in is the calling for "unloved statues" to be pulled down.
What makes this year, so very different is that it is a Labour Party member that is calling for it. Lord Adonis who is a Labour Peer and a "Remainer" has called for the statue to be torn down because Cromwell committed "genocide" in his conquest of Ireland (1649-53).
The peer said: "I think Cromwell's statue should be removed from outside Parliament and put in a museum. Cromwell was a military dictator who ended up abolishing Parliament and committing genocide in Ireland. He has no place outside Parliament - unlike Churchill, who led the successful national and international resistance to Hitler and the Nazi dictatorship."
It must be said that this "debate" while having a strong historical interest is also an expression of how reactionary and right-wing the Labour Party has become. It is also an expression of how large sections of the English bourgeoisie cannot defend or even remember its revolutionary traditions.
The English bourgeoisie has had an ambivalent and contradictory attitude towards Cromwell and for that matter, the English revolution. While paying lip service to the fact that he was the father of Parliamentary democracy albeit with a bit of military dictatorship thrown in, they have always been wary of drawing attention to their revolutionary past. They would prefer that people saw Britain's history as being tranquil. That any change that took place was gradual and progress was peaceful through class compromise without the violent excess of revolution. This illusion is more important in light of today's explosive political and economic situation.
It is perhaps all the more ironic that it is a section of the Tory party that has opposed the removal. As the Ashfield Conservative MP Lee Anderson said: "I walk past the Cromwell statue every single day to work and he is a daily reminder to me of our history, good and bad. I would strongly suggest he stays there and that it should be Lord Adonis who is removed from the House of Lords and put in a museum."Anderson accused Adonis of having "a juvenile, one-dimensional view of history".
Several Irish historians have opposed the removal with Professor Louise Richardson arguing that the statue was of educational value and should be preserved no matter how controversial. She said that it was wrong to pretend that history should be changed because people do not agree with it.
The erasing of revolutionary figures and revolutions for that matter from history has a long pedigree. The most infamous being Joseph Stalin's removal of leading Bolsheviks such as Leon Trotsky from the historical record.
The successful removal of the Cromwell statue would set a dangerous precedent. It would embolden all those inside and outside of academia, especially those who have been involved in a tendency in historiography as Professor James Oakes points out "to erase revolutions from all of human history. First, the English revisionists said there was no English Revolution, and then François Furet came along and said there was no French Revolution. We have historians telling us that the Spanish-American revolutions were really just fought among colonial elites that got out of hand and happened to result in the abolition of slavery".
If Cromwell were alive today, he would be a more than a bit angry towards today's English bourgeoise who owes everything it has to his leadership during the English revolution.
Marxist's, on the other hand, have no ambivalence towards the great bourgeois revolutionary, and workers and youth as the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky said can learn a lot from Cromwell's leadership: " Cromwell built not merely an army but also a party -- his army was to some extent an armed party and herein precisely lay its strength. In 1644 Cromwell's "holy" squadrons won a brilliant victory over the King's horsemen and won the nickname of "Ironsides." It is always useful for a revolution to have iron sides. On this score, British workers can learn much from Cromwell".
To conclude the consistent controversy over this statue does beg the question of why does it keep coming up. Firstly the issue of the English revolution has never been a mere question of studying a past event; it is because many of the significant issues that were discussed and fought for on the battlefield in the 1640s are still contemporary issues. What do we do with the monarchy, the issue of social inequality addressed by groups such as the Levellers? Until these and many more are resolved, we will keep getting more calls for Cromwell's statue to be removed.