Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Letter to the Financial Times

Dear Sir,

On November 23, 2021, your newspaper published an article entitled “Radiohead’s interactive ‘exhibition’ pushes music and games into new territory” by Tom Faber[1]

Faber’s article carried a quote from the rock band Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke. Yorke said “ “When we first started thinking about it, we intended to build a physical exhibition in a central London location, on a Play Station blog. It was going to be a huge red construction made by welding shipping containers together, constructed so that it looked as if a brutalist spacecraft had crash-landed into the classical architecture of the Victoria & Albert Museum in Kensington. This astounding steel carapace would be inserted into the urban fabric of London like an ice pick into Trotsky. Jutting up into the grey English sky. And then – being constructed from shipping containers – we could ship it around the world… New York, Tokyo, Paris.

Yorke’s flippant and ignorant comment regarding the assassination of the Russian Revolutionary Leon Trotsky is bad enough, but as Faber did not comment or condemn it, I can assume that he and the Financial Times celebrate the Stalinist murder of Leon Trotsky.

The assassination of Leon Trotsky was the culmination of savage repression between 1936 and 1940 that targeted the socialist working class and intelligentsia. Within the Soviet Union, Stalin’s decision to eradicate socialist opposition to his regime resulted in approximately one million executions. The victims included the Trotskyist opposition and all those who had played a significant role in the October Revolution and the early years of the Soviet Republic. The Stalinist terror claimed the lives of major Soviet writers, scientists, and artists.

I demand you retract the article and issue an apology. I will, however, not hold my breath. Nor will I wait for you to publish this letter in your newspaper. This letter will be published on my website-atrumpetofsedition.org.

[1] https://www.ft.com/content/eb18c19a-d568-4436-991c-d4e302a3cdc0

Sunday, 14 November 2021

More Years for the Locust: the Origins of the SWP Paperback – June 16. 2012 by Jim Higgins (Author), John Game (Foreword), Phil Evans (Drawings)


"Style is the Man",

A proverbial saying, early 20th century, meaning that one's chosen style reflects one's essential characteristics; earlier in Latin, and the French naturalist Buffon (1707–88) in the form, 'Style is the man himself.'

"Everyone has the right to be stupid on occasion, but Comrade Macdonald abuses the privilege".

Leon Trotsky

At the end of the film The Shawshank Redemption,[1] Andy Dufresne escapes from the prison in the night by crawling through the sewer pipe and escaping into a nearby river. Reviewing this book has a similar feel to it.

The author of this book Jim Higgins (1930-2002), began his political life as a member of the British Communist Party. He left in 1956 after reading Nikita Khrushchev's 'Secret Speech', which denounced the crimes of Stalin. Nothing is mentioned in this book about Higgin's life in the Stalinist Communist Party.

It is true that Higgins read "voraciously" the writings of Leon Trotsky but appears to have learnt nothing from then accept he did not agree with orthodox Marxism. Therefore it is a little strange that he joined Gerry Healy's The Club that became the Socialist Labour League and later the Workers Revolutionary Party. The Club played an important role in major industrial struggles and within the Labour Party, especially the movement in opposition to the development of the H-Bomb. In 1958, the youth paper Keep Left was relaunched monthly, and members were sent into the Labour Party's youth movement, the Young Socialists. Higgins almost immediately formed a faction against the leadership.

Although Higgin's book purports to be a history of the Socialist Workers Party(SWP), he spends an inordinate amount of time and space attacking the SLL and Healy, which makes me believe that Higgin's joined the wrong party by mistake. It seems pretty clear he was never a Trotskyist and retained much of his Stalinist baggage acquired during his membership of the Communist Party.

Higgins was thrown out of the SLL and joined Cliff's Socialist Review Group (founded in 1950). This group would later turn into the International Socialists, which later became the Socialist Workers Party. Cliff's Socialist Review came out of a factional struggle within the RCP. Before Cliff left the RCP, he had been a supporter of Max Shachtman's state-capitalist thesis. [2] Cliff was to build his tendency by recruiting from amongst disaffected RCP members based on their agreement with Cliff's revisionism of Marxism.

According to a Socialist Equality Party(SEP) perspective document, "Cliff was to argue that the Stalinist dictatorship was only the most finished expression of a new stage in the evolution of world capitalism, which was partially expressed by Labour's post-war nationalisations and those conducted by the newly independent colonial regimes. He placed the intelligentsia alongside the Stalinist bureaucracy as the midwife of yet another variety of state capitalism. The industrial working class had "played no role whatsoever" in the Chinese revolution, while in Cuba, "middle-class intellectuals filled the whole arena of struggle". From this, Cliff declared that Trotsky's Theory of Permanent Revolution was wrong because, "While the conservative, cowardly nature of a late-developing bourgeoisie (Trotsky's first point) is an absolute law, the revolutionary character of the young working-class is neither absolute nor inevitable… Once the constantly revolutionary nature of the working class, the central pillar of Trotsky's theory, becomes suspect, the whole structure falls to pieces."[3]

Higgins completely agreed with Cliff's attack on Trotsky's work. In an article written in 1963, Higgin's, agreed with his mentor and leader Cliff, saying, " The demise of British Trotskyism (and it died sometime before the corpse was formally interred) cannot be blamed only on its tactical inadequacies. However, it is true that with a more realistic appraisal of the world, they could have continued for much longer. But like Trotsky, they founded their attitude on an erroneous analysis of reformism and imperialism with a fundamental misappraisal of Stalinism. The characterisation of Russia as a counter-revolutionary abortion hid the fact of the profoundly capitalist nature of the Russian economy, its dynamism and its ability to survive. Far from being a shallow-rooted caste, the bureaucracy was, and is, an integral part of the Russian body politic".[4]

"Style is the man."

When I say "Style is the man", I do not mean Higgins wore bad clothes, which he did, but this book is not a serious history of the origins of the SWP or the early days of British Trotskyism. What passes for analysis from Higgins would not look out of place in the Beano or Dandy children's magazines.

Given the seriousness of his subject matter, Higgin's writes more like a  comedian or raconteur than he does a serious historian or political activist. He is, after all, dealing with historical issues in which millions of people lost their lives due to the betrayals of Stalinism and Social Democracy. Books like these should have a certain amount of gravitas.

To conclude, this book was written 20 years after Higgins had left serious political activity and is written to settle a few old scores rather than contribute to understanding the history of British Trotskyism. You would have thought that his editor at Unkant publishers would have had a word with him. His so-called history is unserious, lacking in any academic rigour and is the work of a "mock historian". Although talking about another ex Stalinist E.P.Thompson, this quote from Healy is apt for Higgins "Comrade Thompson seems to have cast away all the luggage. He was equipped within the Communist Party except one soiled old suitcase labelled anti-Trotskyism". His book is a product of that training.



1.   Higgin's papers are left with Senate House Library, University of London. They are well worth a look because they contain a goldmine of pamphlets etc., about the history of the Fourth International.

2.   The Heritage We Defend (30th Anniv. Edition): A Contribution to the history of the Fourth International-The work reviews the political and theoretical disputes inside the Fourth International, the international Marxist movement founded by Leon Trotsky in 1938. It is a devastating reply to former WRP General Secretary Michael Banda's document "27 Reasons why the International Committee Should be Buried Forthwith and the Fourth International Built." Contains a detailed and objective assessment of the political contribution and evolution of James P. Cannon, Trotsky's most important co-thinker in the US, as well as the evolution of the US Socialist Workers Party.The 2018 edition of the foundational 1988 work by David North, chairman of the International Editorial Board of the World Socialist Web Site, contains a new preface, photo section, and an extensive glossary.

3.   Higgin's writings for what they are worth can be accessed here. https://www.marxists.org/archive/higgins/index.htm

4.   The SLL's Labour Review - https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/lr/




[4] Ten Years for the Locust-British Trotskyism 1938–1948-https://www.marxists.org/archive/higgins/1963/xx/10years.htm

Thursday, 11 November 2021

Review: Paul Flewers and John McIlroy (editors) 1956: John Saville, EP Thompson and The Reasoner Merlin Press, 2016, pp450, £20.

"Comrade Thompson seems to have cast away all the luggage. He was equipped within the Communist Party except one soiled old suitcase labelled anti-Trotskyism". Gerry Healy

"I do not see class as a 'structure', nor even as a 'category', but as something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships. The notion of class entails the notion of historical relationship. And class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.  E. P. Thompson

 E.P. Thompson had been dead for two decades and John Saville for 12 years. It is perhaps a little strange that in 2016 a book came out that republished for the first time three copies of the obscure The Reasoner journal that Saville and Thompson established during their split from the British Communist Party in 1956.

The essays in this book by McIlroy and Flewers largely provide Thompson and Saville with a Psuedo left cover for their anti-Marxist positions. This review will show that while breaking organisationally from the Communist Party, Thompson and Saville never broke from many of the ideological positions held during their time in the Communist Party, one of which was their hostility to Trotskyism.

In 1956 sections of the Stalinist bureaucracy turned on its commander in chief and partner in crime, Joseph Stalin. Kruschev's "secret speech" was hardly secret and was not so much a political break with Stalinism but a mechanism to deal with the raging political and economic crisis that gripped world Stalinism.

Khrushchev's speech was typical of a man implicated in all the major crimes committed by the Stalinist bureaucracy. One subject all the Stalinist bureaucrats agreed on was the correctness of the struggle against Leon Trotsky, the only leading Bolshevik not to have been rehabilitated by the Stalinists. Khrushchev said, "We must affirm that the party fought a serious fight against the Trotskyists, rightists and bourgeois nationalists and that it disarmed all the enemies of Leninism ideologically. The ideological fight was carried on successfully ... Here, Stalin played a positive role.[1]"

Khrushchev had a very limited understanding of the social forces he was inadvertently unleashing with his speech. Far from preventing revolution, he opened the floodgates. His response was the same as Stalin before him: to unleash terror on the working class worldwide.

Trotskyists inside Gerry Heally's Socialist Labour League welcomed the crisis inside the Soviet Communist Party. Healy sought to clarify the issues involved in the crisis of world Stalinism. However, Pseudo Left groups such as the British Socialist Workers Party muddied the water and argued that despite Khrushchev's Speech, there was "a process of self-reform" going on under pressure from the working class Stalinism would move in a revolutionary direction.

Thompson got a warm reception from the British SWP, who broke from the Fourth International in the early 1940s. The SWP, from its inception until the present day, has given these emigrants from Stalinism a left cover and justified their reformist and nationalist adaptation and orientation. According to SWP member David Mcnally E P Thompson, "was the greatest Marxist historian of the English-speaking world and had a "political commitment to freeing Marxism from the terrible distortions of Stalinism, a commitment which originated in the battles of 1956 within the official Communist movement.[2] "

It is perhaps an understatement to say that the speech caused mayhem in the British Communist Party. It lost over 9000 members, most of its important intellectuals, and nearly all its historians inside the Communist Party Historians Group. The leaders of the Communist Party of Great Britain attempted to deal with the crisis by suppressing any opposition occurring inside the party.

Historians John Saville and EP Thompson were among many who refused to bow down to the party line and issued the three magazines published in this book. Saville and Thompson resigned their party membership, saying, "We believe that the self-imposed restrictions upon controversy, the 'guiding' of discussions along approved lines, the actual suppression of sharp criticism - all these have led to a gradual blurring of theoretical clarity, and the encouragement among some communists of attitudes akin to intellectual cynicism when it has been easier to allow this or that false proposition to go by than to embark upon the tedious and frustrating business of engaging with bureaucratic editorial habits and general theoretical inertia" (p137).

While the Reasoner was critical of Stalin and some of his crimes, it said nothing about the persecution and murder of hundreds of thousands of left oppositions, including the state murder of most leading Bolsheviks, including Leon Trotsky. They stayed silent on the Show Trials and purges carried out by the Stalinist bureaucracy.[3]

Perhaps the worst aspect of this book among many is that it continues the lie that Thompson or, for that matter, Saville were Marxists. After leaving the party, Thompson cherry-picked which bits of Marxism he would use while rejecting orthodox Marxism. His criticism of Stalinism was not from an orthodox Marxist position; instead, he advocated a form of "socialist humanism".

After closing down The Reasoner, Thompson founded the New Reasoner in 1957 along with historian John Saville. The group was made up of ex and current members of the CPGB. It also attracted a varied group of people who had left the Fourth International and members of the Labour Party who wrote articles for the magazine. Most ex Stalinists from the Communist Party dropped out of politics altogether or found an easy life within the Labour Party and trade union apparatus.

Thompson was avowedly hostile to an international revolutionary perspective and sought to imbue his new publication with an "English Marxist" tradition.  Thompson rejected orthodox Marxism, and in its place, he preached a form of utopian socialism entitled socialist humanism. To protect his so-called Marxist credentials, he launched "a series of reckless, stage-managed and convoluted polemics against a series of academics, intellectuals who in one form or another had been mistakenly labelled Marxists". Thompson held the belief that classical Marxism was sectarian. He believed that this "sectarianism" and "purism" dated way before the Russian Revolution.

While Thompson and Saville shared hatred of early classical Marxism, they reserved their most vitriolic hatred for the Trotskyist's inside the SLL. It must be said that the editors of this book share Thompson's attitude towards the Trotskyists inside the Socialist Labour League.                 

The orthodox Marxists or Trotskyists in the Fourth International, which was led in Britain by Gerry Healy of the Socialist Labour League (SLL), saw the crisis within the British Communist party as an opportunity to insist on the counter-revolutionary nature of Stalinism. Healy went on an offensive to win the most important cadre from the breakup of the Communist Party. According to Stan Newens," When the April 1957 Communist Party Congress took place in Hammersmith Town Hall, many of them, including Gerry Healy himself, were outside selling journals and lobbying delegates."[4] Those figures who had not been entirely corrupted by the years of lies and calumny of the Stalinist regimes throughout the world were won to orthodox or classical Marxism. Cliff Slaughter, Tom Kemp and Peter Fryer.

Marxists inside the SLL were hostile to Thompson's politics but were open to debate. Healy was mindful of the sharp polemics that Thompson had been involved in and told Thompson that "The New left Must Look to the Working Class"[5].

While cordial in tone, Healy did not mince his words when he said, "What strikes one immediately on reading E P Thompson's article is that he entirely omits the working class; consequently, there is no attempt to analyze the relationship between the left of today and the working class. One would imagine that the New Left had just arrived and existed in a world of its own. The opposite, of course, is the case. The New Left is not just a grouping of people around new ideas that they have developed independently. This new development on the left reflects a particular phase in the elaboration of the crisis of capitalism, which for socialists is the crisis of the working-class movement. Like movements among intellectuals and students in the past, the recent emergence of the new left is the warning of a resurgence of the working class as an active political force in Britain. The crisis which is the basis of such action finds its first reflection in the battle of ideas."[6]

During the early years of Thompson's magazine, the Reasoner and later the New Reasoner, and later still the New Left Review, it is clear that he had no intention of debating with the Trotskyists. Despite Healy trying to secure cordial relations with Thompson and his supporters, it became increasingly clear that Thompson did not see the Trotskyist's around Healy as a part of the working class. Healy's response was to say that "Comrade Thompson seems to have cast away all the luggage, he was equipped within the Communist Party except one soiled old suitcase labelled anti-Trotskyism." Thompson's response to the SLL was to accuse it of factionalism. An epithet I might add that has been levelled at the Trotskyist movement throughout its history.

This book is useful to future generations of revolutionaries only because it is an example of how not to build a revolutionary movement. It is important to study the history of the workers' movement both in Britain and internationally. Students and workers could do no worse than a systematic study of David North's The Heritage We Defend[7].


In 2014 several capitalist newspapers reported that MI5 had been spying on many members of the British Communist Party starting in the early 1930s. MI5 systematically followed, broke into their house and stole documents of a significant number of academic members of the Communist Party. MI5 even went so far as to plant large numbers of agents inside the Communist Party. One agent, Olga Gray, succeeded in becoming secretary to Harry Pollitt, Secretary-General of the Communist Party of Great Britain.[8] How much disruption was caused by these agents is a moot point. Madeline Davis seems to think not much. In her article, Edward Thompson, MI5 and the Reasoner controversy: negotiating "Communist principle" in the crisis of 1956, she downplays MI5 involvement in the aftermath of Kruschev's speech. My point is why is none of this mentioned in Flewer's and McIlroy's book.




 [1] Speech to 20th Congress of the C.P.S.U. https://www.marxists.org/archive/khrushchev/1956/02/24-abs.htm

[2] E.P. Thompson: class struggle and historical materialism-https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isj2/1993/isj2-061/mcnally.htm

[3] See Vadim Rogovin’s 1937: Stalin’s Year of Terror-https://mehring.com/product/1937-stalins-year-of-terror/

[4] http://isj.org.uk/memories-of-a-seminal-year/

[5] Labour Review October –November 1959 edition,

[6] "The New left Must Look to the Working Class"

[7] The Heritage We Defend (30th Anniv. Edition): A Contribution to the History of the Fourth International-The work reviews the political and theoretical disputes inside the Fourth International, the international Marxist movement founded by Leon Trotsky in 1938. It is a devastating reply to former WRP General Secretary Michael Banda’s document “27 Reasons why the International Committee Should be Buried Forthwith and the Fourth International Built.”Contains a detailed and objective assessment of the political contribution and evolution of James P. Cannon, Trotsky’s most important co-thinker in the US, as well as the evolution of the US Socialist Workers Party.The 2018 edition of the foundational 1988 work by David North, chairman of the International Editorial Board of the World Socialist Web Site, contains a new preface, photo section, and an extensive glossary.

[8] https://www.mi5.gov.uk/the-soviet-threat-between-the-wars 

Sunday, 7 November 2021

What is History, Now? by Helen Carr and Suzannah Lipscomb Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 352pp, £20


"Great history is written precisely when the historian's vision is illuminated by insights into the problems of the present."

E.H. Carr, What is History? p. 37

"It used to be said that facts speak for themselves. This is, of course, untrue. The facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context."

― Edward Hallett Carr

Facts … are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend, partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use – these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants.

E.H. Carr, What is History?

"every sociological definition is at the bottom a historical prognosis."

Leon Trotsky

You can never judge a history book by its cover. But you can judge a book by the blurb on the back cover, especially when the historians praising the book are broadly conservative ones.

While this new collection of articles contain E.H. Carr's original title of his world-famous book, I somehow doubt that he would favour the type of gender, racial or culturally-based historiography presented in this book.

The central theme of Carr's book was how to connect the writing of history with contemporary social, political and economic problems. As the historian, R.G. Collingwood, said: "the historian must re-enact in thought what has gone on in the mind of his dramatis personae."[1]

While the introduction to this new collection of essays is adequate, it leaves out the context and point of Carr's book, which was to answer an attack on him by the writer and philosopher Isaiah Berlin.[2] As Ann Talbot writes out, "The book was in large measure a reply to Berlin's essay Historical Inevitability, in which he had criticised those who believed in the "vast impersonal forces" of history rather than giving priority to the role of the individual and the accidental. (Berlin 1997) Berlin maintained that those who regarded history as a determined causal chain, in the manner of Hegel or Marx, denied the role of free will and the individual responsibility of history's tyrants for the crimes they committed. Both Carr and Berlin wrote with sparkling wit.

What was at issue was Britain's attitude to the Soviet Union and its place in a putative nuclear war. The counterfactuals that Carr had in mind were those that suggested that some other outcome had been possible in Russia, that the 1917 Revolution was not inevitable, that the Bolsheviks might not have come to power and that instead, the Provisional Government might have succeeded in maintaining its grip on events and managed to establish a parliamentary system. An ideological dispute of this kind is so very un-British that there is not even a satisfactory English word for it, so I will use the German word. What we have here is a very British Historikerstreit.

It was a dispute conducted in the most gentlemanly, oblique and mediated of terms, and both sides were more likely to appeal to the commonsense of the average Times reader than high theory, but a Historikerstreit it was nonetheless. The national peculiarities of the time and class should not lead us to suppose that theoretical questions were not involved any more than we should suppose that political questions were not involved simply because they remained, for the most part, unstated".[3]This kind of dispute, however gentlemanly, is a very rare occurrence in today's heavily sanitised academic world.

Despite being called a diverse set of essayists, what these historians write about has a common thread: they reflect a modern-day preoccupation with gender, race, and sexuality. Titles such as "Can and should we queer the past?", "How can we write the history of empire?" and "Can we recover the lost lives of women?" and a debate over the removal of statues set the tone for the rest of the book.

If the debate over removing a few reactionary statues were all there was, then that would be fine. The middle-class layer behind the removal of revolutionary figures has a far more right-wing and sinister agenda. In some cases, the demand and removal of progressive and revolutionary figures such as Abraham Lincoln are deeply reactionary and troubling.

There is nothing progressive in the destruction of statues and monuments that memorialise the American Revolution and the Civil War leaders such as Lincoln. As Leon Trotsky wrote, "for argument's sake, let us grant that all previous revolutionary history and, if you please, all history, in general, is nothing but a chain of mistakes. But what to do about present-day reality? What about the colossal army of permanently unemployed, the pauperised farmers, the general decline of economic levels, the approaching war? The sceptical wiseacres promise us that sometime in the future, they will catalogue all the banana peels on which the great revolutionary movements of the past have slipped. But will these gentlemen tell us what to do today, right now"?[4]

As Trotsky said, the study of history is important to make sense of the world. Although Carr was not a Marxist historian, he knew enough about Marx to know that people do not make history as they please. According to Marx, "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under the circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionising themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis, they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language".[5]

The first chapter by Peter Frankopan titled Why global history matters while not breaking any new ground is hard not to disagree with. Alex Von Tunzelmann's chapter is a little more contentious, examining history at the movies. I am afraid I have to disagree with Katrina Gulliver[6] when she says, "Tunzelmann takes the optimistic view that even inaccurate history might pique people's interest and lead them to engage with more meaningful sources".Bad history is what it is and should be opposed in both movies and academia.

It should be said upfront that I love historical movies. It would be hard to find a person that does not. It must also be said that most historical movies are simply misleading, lazy and, in many cases, an outright and deliberate falsification of history. Many historical dramas today are made by a  self-obsessed middle-class layer who, instead of wanting to change the social conditions for the bulk of the population, want to change the historical facts to suit their ideological prejudices. The result, in many cases, is dreadful movies that make them a pile of money.

One film mentioned by Tunzelmann is James Cameron's Titanic. By any stretch of the imagination, this is an extremely bad film. Titanic made close to one billion dollars and was lauded as a great film. As David Walsh wrote, "The response to Titanic is so great and so out of proportion to the quality of the film itself that one is forced to view its success as a social phenomenon worthy of analysis. This is not simply a film—it is virtually a cause. Its admirers defend it with fervour and admit no challenges and no criticisms—it is not simply a 'good' film or a 'wonderful' film. It must be acknowledged as 'the greatest film of all time.'[7]

It is hard to know where to start with Justin Bengry's essay, Can and should we queer the past?. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, there is either bad history or good history but no queer history. If only Bengry were talking about the study of homosexuality through the ages, this would be a legitimate field of study, but unfortunately, there is an agenda here. The promotion of so-called gender, race and sexuality is being pushed out not by the working class but by a self-obsessed section of the middle class. This is not about social equality or democratic rights. It is about money and power.

This modern-day campaign for want of a better word has nothing to do with left-wing politics and certainly has nothing to do with Marxism. It is the product of decades of ideological and political reaction. It has more to do with the politics of envy than it does with socialism.

Helen Carr's piece on the history of emotions promotes the "Cultural Turn" genre. Carr's use of this genre has more in common with writer and historian Stuart Hall than with her great grandfather. As Paul Bond perceptively writes in his obituary of Hall," Stuart Hall, who died in London February 10 at the age of 82, was the academic figure most closely identified with the growth of Cultural Studies in British universities. His obituaries have been fulsome. Cultural Studies originated as part of an attack on revolutionary Marxism, directed above all against its contemporary expression, Trotskyism. The academic field sought to shift the focus of social criticism away from class and onto other social formations, thus promoting the development of identity politics. Its establishment, in the final analysis, was a hostile response to the gains made by the Trotskyist movement in Britain from the 1950s onwards.[8]

Another genre covered in the book is 'history from below' –popularised by E. P Thompson and other leading historians in the Communist Party Historians Group. Lucien Febvre originally used the phrase in 1932, 'Histoire vue d'en bas et non d'en haut' roughly translated by Google as 'history seen from below and not from above. Perhaps the most famous book produced by this genre was E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. Despite containing some valuable insights, Thompson saw the development of the English working class from a purely nationalist perspective.

He also played down the deeply right-wing nature of the History from Below genre. As Ann Talbot writes, "The Communist Party sponsored a form of "People's History", which is typified by A.L. Morton's People's History of England in which the class character of earlier rebels, revolutionaries and popular leaders was obscured by regarding them all as representatives of a national revolutionary tradition. This historical approach reflected the nationalism of the bureaucracy, their hostility to internationalism and their attempts to form an unprincipled alliance with the supposedly democratic capitalists against the fascist Axis countries. People's history was an attempt to give some historical foundation to the policies of Popular Front—the subordination of the working class to supposedly progressive sections of the bourgeoisie and the limiting of political action to the defence of bourgeois democracy—which provided a democratic facade to the systematic murder of thousands of genuine revolutionaries, including Trotsky. It was the approach that Christopher Hill was trained in, along with E.P. Thompson, Rodney Hilton and Eric Hobsbawm, who were part of the Marxist Historians Group and came under the influence of Maurice Dobb and Dona Torr".[9]

When there are many essays in a book, there is usually a conclusion where the editors usually sum up what has been written by all the essayists. For some reason, this has not been done by these editors. Maybe there is confusion over what the hell to do with a rather large number of very conservative pieces of history.

So what is the general reader to make of this book. It is clear that it is a very conservative piece of work and that the essayists were carefully chosen to put forward complacent and largely reactionary historiography. If this is Edward Hallett Carr's legacy, I am not sure he would be too happy about it. Perhaps we should leave the last word to the great historian "the facts of history never come to us "pure", since they do not and cannot exist in a pure form: they are always refracted through the mind of the recorder. It follows that when we take up a work of history, our first concern should not be with the facts which it contains but with the historian who wrote it."


[1] What is History? (London: Penguin, 1990), p. 23 [back]

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaiah_Berlin

[3] Chance and Necessity in History: E.H. Carr and Leon Trotsky Compared

Author(s): Ann Talbot: Historical Social Research , 2009, Vol. 34, No. 2

[4] Once Again on the “Crisis of Marxism” https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1939/03/marxism.htm

[5] The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Karl Marx 1852- https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch01.htm

[6] https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/don-t-ask-a-historian-what-history-is

[7] Titanic as a social phenomenon.www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/11/29/phen-n29.html

[8] Cultural theorist Stuart Hall (1932-2014): A political career dedicated to opposing Marxism-https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/03/05/hall-m05.html

[9] "These the times ... this the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill-https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2003/03/hill-m25.html

Monday, 1 November 2021

The Making of Oliver Cromwell. 424pp.Yale University Press. £25 $35. By Ronald Hutton.

 So restless Cromwell could not cease

In the inglorious arts of peace,

But thorough advent'rous war

Urged his active star.

Andrew Marvel- An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland

"In this way, 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."

Leon Trotsky[1]

"No one rises so high as he who knows not whither he is going."

-Oliver Cromwell.

"I had rather have a plain, russet-coated Captain, that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that you call a Gentleman and is nothing else."

-Oliver Cromwell, letter to Sir William Spring, September 1643.

In the first part of his introduction, Ronald Hutton tries to justify why there is a need for a new biography of Oliver Cromwell. He admits the market is a little crowded ( there have been five full-length academic studies alone since 1990), but the historian is on very dodgy ground already if the first words he utters are an apology. On the whole, the book has been well received and heavily reviewed. It is not that surprising because Hutton's book is largely a very conservative piece of historiography. Also, if the historian Thomas Carlyle were alive today, he would have sent a strongly worded email to the Bristol University Professor Ronald Hutton asking why he had heaped a further dead dog on top of the great leader of the English bourgeois revolution.

The biography has been welcomed by the more conservative-minded writers who have had enough of being kind to Cromwell as Anna Keay writes, "The Making of Oliver Cromwell is radical, powerful and persuasive, and it will cause a stir. It stands as a landmark challenge to the hagiographical tendencies of some of the historiography. Hutton's assertion that Cromwell is 'definitely not somebody to be taken simply at his word' is utterly convincing".[2]

Cromwell is a bit of a strange choice for a biography, given Hutton's area of expertise. He is a prolific historian of early modern England's political, military, cultural, and social history books. He has covered subjects such as the Royalist war effort, high politics, and the social history of witchcraft and paganism.

Hutton's new book is the first of a three-part biography on one of the most controversial figures in British history. Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658) was the only English commoner to become the overall head of state. It must be said from the start that this book is a very conservative piece of historiography. It contains nothing new about Cromwell, and the author has not presented any new archive research. It seems doubtful that Hutton has examined in much detail the new work on Cromwell by the historian John Morrill.[3]

If Cromwell were alive today, it is a safe bet that Hutton would not be on his Christmas card list. His recent hatchet job in the BBC History magazine is testimony to that.[4] Hutton believes that historians have failed to appreciate that Cromwell was "more pragmatic and more devious" than has been shown in the previous historiography and that he was "about 50% saint and about 50% serpent.'

This first volume is primarily a military history. Hutton's book contains no real or deep insight into the "making of Cromwell".  Hutton admits somewhat grudgingly that Cromwell had a spectacular military career but believes that Cromwell had a large amount of luck on his side and that he took the glory of victory away from his other commanders.

As Hutton is a distinguished historian of 17th-century England, you would have expected him to examine in greater detail the political context of Cromwell leadership of the English bourgeois revolution. However, instead, he concentrates, like all conservative historians, on Cromwell's early religious experience. From a historiographical standpoint, Hutton borrows heavily from John Adamson, who subscribed to Cromwell being part of a "Junto". As historian Jared van Duinen points out, "When historians discuss the Long Parliament, they frequently refer to a hazy and often ill-defined collection of individuals invariably centred around the figure of John Pym.  This assemblage is variously referred to as 'Pym's group', 'Pym and his allies', or 'Pym and his supporters.  Probably the most common appellation has become 'Pym's junto', or more often simply the 'junto'.  Over the years, this junto has assumed a variety of historiographical guises, and its role within the Long Parliament has been the subject of some debate".[5]

What political analysis Hutton offers he believes that  Cromwell's politics should be seen in the context of a balancing act between the radical groups such as the Levellers and Diggers and a group of "Independents", both on the battlefield and within parliament. Hutton offers no political analysis of the class forces involved in this dual power struggle that erupted during the English revolution. The Levellers are not mentioned in his book, and neither does he go into much detail as to the class nature of the so-called "Junto".

A historian has the right to use any source material he chooses to back up his argument, but Hutton could have done no worse than to consult the writings of a man who knew a little bit about revolutions. As Leon Trotsky points out, "The English Revolution of the seventeenth century, exactly because it was a great revolution shattering the nation to the bottom, affords a clear example of this alternating dual power, with sharp transitions in the form of civil war. At first, the royal power, resting upon the privileged classes or the upper circles of these classes – the aristocrats and bishops – is opposed by the bourgeoisie and the circles of the squirearchy that are close to it. The government of the bourgeoisie is the Presbyterian Parliament supported by the City of London. The protracted conflict between these two regimes is finally settled in open civil war. The two governmental centres – London and Oxford – create their own armies. Here the dual power takes a territorial form, although, as always in civil war, the boundaries are very shifting. Parliament conquers. The King is captured and awaits his fate. It would seem that the conditions are now created for the single rule of the Presbyterian bourgeoisie.

Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658) 
But before the royal power could be broken, the parliamentary army has converted itself into an independent political force. It has concentrated in its ranks the Independents, the pious and resolute petty bourgeoisie, the craftsmen and farmers. This army powerfully interferes in social life, not merely as an armed force but as a Praetorian Guard and as the political representative of a new class opposing the prosperous and rich bourgeoisie. Correspondingly the army creates a new state organ rising above the military command: a council of soldiers' and officers' deputies ("agitators"). A new period of double sovereignty has thus arrived: that of the Presbyterian Parliament and the Independents' army. This leads to open conflicts. The bourgeoisie proves powerless to oppose with its army the "model army" of Cromwell – that is, the armed plebeians. The conflict ends with a purgation of the Presbyterian Parliament by the sword of the Independents. There remains but the rump of a parliament; the dictatorship of Cromwell is established. The lower ranks of the army, under the leadership of the Levellers – the extreme left wing of the revolution – try to oppose to the rule of the upper military levels, the patricians of the army, their own veritably plebeian regime".[6]

Hutton is correct when he states that the war radicalised Cromwell. But is unable to answer why this is the case, how a simple member of the gentry with no military experience rose to be one of Englands greatest military commanders and leader of the first bourgeois revolution. Hutton did not have to go very far to look for answers but has declined to do so. He makes no mention of the great historian Christopher Hill's work, Gods Englishmen.[7] Hill sought to place Cromwell in a wider social, political and economic context. Hill was critical of conservative historians like John Morrill and Conrad Russell, who, like Hutton, tend to minimise the revolutionary significance of figures like Cromwell, writing, "People like Morrill and Russell are taking things aboard. Russell said of Cromwell, for instance, that he was the only member of parliament of whom we have records before 1640 who tried to help the lower orders in his work for the fenmen – but he does not draw any conclusions from that, yet this is one of the most important aspects of Cromwell. He had a much broader approach than most of the gentry".[8]

Hill's advocation and practice of a materialist conception of history are foreign to Hutton. I doubt he has heard of the great Marxist writer Georgi Plekhanov whose book The Role of the Individual in History should be the first port of call for any historian writing biography. Although the great Russian Marxist G.V Plekhanov was writing about a different period of history and different historical characters, his perceptive understanding of the role great figures play in history could be applied quite easily to Cromwell.

Plekhanov writes, "In the history of the development of human intellect, the success of some individual hinders the success of another individual very much more rarely. But even here, we are not free from the above-mentioned optical illusion. When a given state of society sets certain problems before its intellectual representatives, the attention of prominent minds is concentrated upon them until these problems are solved. As soon as they have succeeded in solving them, their attention is transferred to another object. By solving a problem, a given talent-A diverts the attention of talent B from the problem already solved to another problem. And when we are asked: What would have happened if A had died before he had solved problem X? – we imagine that the thread of development of the human intellect would have been broken. We forget that had A died, B, or C, or D might have tackled the problem, and the thread of intellectual development would have remained intact in spite of A's premature demise.


It must be said that before I read this book, I had little hope that it would be an objective assessment of the life of Oliver Cromwell. Hutton's book does not disabuse me of that. It can be only hoped that the next two books contain a degree of insight and analysis missing in the first. I will not hold my breath.

Cromwell was the leader of the bourgeois English Revolution and deserved a better epitaph than this from Hutton. I will leave that to the great Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky, who wrote, "'In dispersing parliament after parliament, Cromwell displayed as little reverence towards the fetish of "national" representation as in the execution of Charles I he had displayed insufficient respect for a monarchy by the grace of God. Nonetheless, it was this same Cromwell who paved the way for the parliamentarism and democracy of the two subsequent centuries. In revenge for Cromwell's execution of Charles I, Charles II swung Cromwell's corpse upon the gallows. But pre-Cromwellian society could not be re-established by any restoration. The works of Cromwell could not be liquidated by the thievish legislation of the restoration because what has been written with the sword cannot be wiped out by the pen.'



[1] Leon Trotsky's Writings On Britain-Two traditions: the seventeenth-century revolution and Chartism- https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/britain/ch06.htm

[2] Young Ironsides-The Making of Oliver Cromwell-By Ronald Hutton-https://literaryreview.co.uk/young-ironsides

[3] Why We Need A New Critical Edition of all the Writings and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell-https://keith-perspective.blogspot.com/2012/01/why-we-need-new-critical-edition-of-all.html

[4] https://www.pressreader.com/uk/bbc-history-magazine/20210708/282041920106086-See also My article-I Come To Bury Cromwell Not Praise Him-http://keith-perspective.blogspot.com/2021/07/i-come-to-bury-cromwell-not-praise-him.html

[5] Pym’s junto’ in the ante-bellum Long Parliament: radical or not? https://oajournals.fupress.net/public/journals/9/Seminar/duinen_pym.html. See also my article Does the Work of British Historian John Adamson” Break New Ground” https://keith-perspective.blogspot.com/2011/10/does-work-of-british-historian-john.html

[6] The History of the Russian Revolution-Volume One: The Overthrow of Tzarism-https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/hrr/ch11.htm

[7] https://www.amazon.co.uk/Gods-Englishman-Cromwell-English-Revolution/dp/0140137114

[8] https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isj2/1992/isj2-056/hill.html