Monday, 8 August 2016

A Reply to Face to Face with History.

Suzannah Lipscomb’s article in History Today[1] is an interesting read. She states that historical novels can bring us closer historical truth than academic writing.“If we can trust writers of historical fiction to situate their stories within a framework of accuracy, we can allow their novels to deliver our heart’s desire: a séance with the past, a face to face encounter with the people of history, that we perhaps find lacking in history books”[2].

While a good historical fiction is a pleasure to read and can shed some light on historical events, academic historical research and writing should take precedence. A bit like a relationship between a cousin and the core family group.

I agree with Lipscomb that a historical novelist should strive to be accurate and authentic. It is also acceptable that an author should have a certain artistic license, after all, it is fiction we are talking about and should be treated as such. But this artistic license must be situated within the bounds of historical accuracy and truth.

Bad fiction writing can be a very damaging thing. Perhaps these books should be made to carry a public health warning. Bad fiction can seriously damage your intellect.

But not all fiction is bad and not all academic history is good. A good historical novel such as David Caute’s Comrade Jacob is enjoyable and can be a very good way of attracting readers of history to more academic reading and the best historical fiction can shed new light on an already much written about the period. As Paul Lay speaking about the book the the Daughter of Time by Josephine Yey states “The historical novel, when it is this good, this thoroughly researched, has become a means of legitimate historical enquiry”.

It is true that writing any kind of history is fraught with danger. But the struggle for objective truth no matter how hard should be part of the basic DNA of any historian or historical fiction writer. Lipscomb is right to warn of historians playing fast and loose with the facts. A historical fiction writer should approach their sources with the full rigor of an academic historian.
Lipscomb clearly believes there is a large amount of bad historical fiction and academic writing.

Her article does not examine or account for the growth of bad historical fiction novels or the growth of very bad academic writing and in some cases outright historical falsification.

Two interrelated trends have brought this about. The growing commercialisation of history is having a dangerous and negative impact on history writing. The amount of money that universities are getting from rich individuals or corporations is bound to lead to a certain amount of academic prostitution.

Coupled with this has been the growth of postmodernism which has not only manifested itself in academic circles but is found in historical fiction writing.

The utter dross that is being produced in the name of historical fiction and the disinterest of any kind of “grand narratives” is a by-product of the postmodernists. One of its leading members Jean-François Lyotard in his 1979 book, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.Lyotard adopted an “incredulity toward metanarratives,” and said “The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal.[3]

The chief characteristic of the post-modernist is the use of debatable philosophy, to blur over the difference between truth and lies, and in doing so commit a falsification of history. The practice of lying about history has been taken to a new level by the various schools of postmodernism. It would not be an overstatement to say that the impact of this school of history has been as one writer put “nothing short of catastrophic”.

Lipscomb is very generous in her praise of Mantel’s work and rightly so. Mantel is one the most gifted writers around and clearly works hard in the archives and knows her way around the historiography of her given subjects.

Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb
But Lipscomb seems to lose a little clarity and academic objectivity in her assessment of Mantel. Mantel’s portrayal of Thomas Cromwell is obviously a revision of the previous historiography. It should also be noted that Mantel’s portray of Thomas Cromwell[4] pays a little too much debt to the arch revisionist historian. G R Elton. Elton like Mantel says little about Thomas More’s writing on utopia.

According to Professor Mark Horowitz “Elton decidedly positions himself as the master of the manuscripts, in this case contemporary documents and parliamentary records from the statutes and the journals of the House of Commons. He comes close to chastising those historians pursuing the history of ideas – he is not a fan – believing that all is for naught unless such ideas can be traced to actions beyond the mental exercise. Indeed, he has little time for More’s Utopia because no proposals were put forth to better the commonwealth, only ‘remedies in the fictional realm of the unattainable’. Elton’s goal is to demonstrate the translation of ‘aspiration into achievement’ and how ‘thought yielded results in deed’. This of course provides a theme and path for his discussion of Thomas Cromwell as the exemplar of a Tudor action hero of sorts, and he takes his readers on a legislative journey portraying a practical minister’s transition into a proficient planner stoked by the reformist fervour of the day”.[i]

It is therefore very important to know what is buzzing in a historian or fiction writers head. Mantel clearly as Lipscomb points out does make Cromwell more likeable than history records.

So the reader should at least understand the motives or bias of any writer of fiction or nonfiction. Mantel, after all, is heavily critical of the Catholic church. The Catholic Church she states “is not an institution for respectable people”[5]

While it should be taken for granted that a historian in order to attempt to recreate the past must have “empathy and imagination”, the historian or fiction writer must study the past with a doggedness and intellectual objectivity. A historian must be disciplined enough not to allow his imagination to run riot. The presentation of facts is not without controversy. It should be noted that “facts” themselves are products of the ideological, social, cultural and political currents of the time.

The great historian E H Carr was a great believer that the historian had a “dialogue between the past and the present”. While it was the duty of every good historian to present this dialogue in a readable form to the history reading public he or she had to be extremely careful and not to fall into the trap of treating his topics of research as if they were organically linked to the present day. It would be completely wrong to treat figures such as Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon Bonaparte as contemporaries. It should not need to be said that they lived in completely different times to people from the 21st century.

To conclude the French historian of feudal society, Marc Bloch, wrote in his book, The Historian’s Craft " In a word, a historical phenomenon can never be understood apart from its moment in time. This is true of every evolutionary stage, our own, and all others. As the old Arab proverb has it: ‘Men resemble their times more than they do their fathers.’

[3] The return of the “grand narrative”1 June 2016-
[4] Wolf Hall-Hilary Mantel-London, Harper Collins, 2009, ISBN: 9780007230181 ; 672pp.; Price: £5.99

[i] Reform and Renewal, Thomas Cromwell and the Common Weal-Geoffrey Elton
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1973, ISBN: 9780521098090; 182pp.; Price: £27.99
Wolf Hall- Hilary Mantel London, Harper Collins, 2009, ISBN: 9780007230181 ; 672pp.; Price: £5.99-Professor Mark Horowitz-

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Hobbes Great Thinkers on Modern Life Paperback by Hannah Dawson. Pegasus (14 Sept. 2015) ISBN-10: 1605988065

It takes a very skilled author to make a case for a writer who lived in the 17th century having anything to say to us in the 21st century. Dawson’s book provides us with an interesting and thought inducing attempt. Her book concentrates solely on Hobbes’s Leviathan and is part of Alain de Botton's The School of Life Series. Other philosophers include Freud, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Byron, and Bergson

From the beginning, Dawson is honest about her book. She wants to rehabilitate Hobbes and “reveal the insights that he possessed despite – and sometimes because of – the darkness, and the sparks that they might ignite in our albeit very different twenty-first-century minds”.[1]

It is well known that Hobbes was a significant figure in English philosophy. He was one of the first English materialist philosophers to put politics on a more scientific basis. Also very controversially at the time advocated a separation of state and religion. Some say he laid the foundations for modern sociology. Recently it has become fashionable to use Hobbes “on navigating society and politics today”.

As Dawson intimates in her book Hobbes‘s philosophical outlook has made a strong resurgence not so much in academic circles which have always taken a keen interest in his work but in today’s wider political circles. Even today Hobbes reputation provokes admiration and hatred in equal doses. In 2009, Corey Robin wrote in the Nation lumping Hobbes with Italian Futurists and Friedrich Nietzsche as a “blender of cultural modernism and political reaction”. [2]

Given today’s levels of social inequality, it is little surprising that Hobbes ideas are provoking an interest. For many people around the world human life has become ‘nasty, brutish and short’. The growing international protest against these conditions has seen the rise of Political figures such as Donald Trump who advocates a semi-fascist totalitarian state to maintain order and head off a revolution. It is safe to say the materialist side of Hobbes’ is not being resurrected.

Dawson is clearly heavily influenced by Hobbes. She explains why she decided to put her fascination of Hobbes into book form “Why on earth, then, have I chosen him for this book? What could he, nasty, brutish Mr. Hobbes, the ‘Monster of Malmesbury’, possibly have to teach us about how to live well? In a sense, it is precisely because of his gritty verdict on our human condition that we need to listen to him. While we do not want to let him take us all the way to the abyss of his authoritarian dystopia, we would do well to take note of his clear-eyed assessment of the psychological forces that pit us against one another, and the fact that, as uncomfortable as it is, we need to be restrained”.

She continues “I can whistle about the streets or, indeed, in the office or at home, safe in the knowledge that I probably won’t be hit or killed, in part at least because my would-be attackers are frightened of going to jail and therefore leave me alone. This is the civilized and civilizing foundation without which the fantastically plural coordination’s of society could not hope to get under way. It is on this foundation that I am free to make as much or as little of my life as I am able. This is why, Hobbes helped me to understand, and I should obey and value government. As the first great social contract theorist, he shows us why we consent – even tacitly – to authority.” [3]

I do not detect Dawson’s tongue in her cheek so I will take these comments at face value although it is hard to know where to start. There is a degree of complacency here that is very dangerous. I am sure Julian Assange would love to walk down the street and whistle. I am sure the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan would like to walk down a British street free from want. I could go on.

A major weakness of the book is it is not a very realistic picture of class relations both in Hobbes time and ours. It also very simplistic to intimate that people get the government they deserve.

As the Russian revolutionary Marxist Leon Trotsky observed “There is an ancient, evolutionary-liberal epigram: Every people gets the government it deserves. History, however, shows that one and the same people may in the course of a comparatively brief epoch get very different governments (Russia, Italy, Germany, Spain, etc.) and furthermore that the order of these governments doesn’t at all proceed in one and the same direction: from despotism – to freedom as was imagined by the evolutionists liberals. The secret is this, that a people is comprised of hostile classes, and the classes themselves are comprised of different and in part antagonistic layers which fall under different leadership; furthermore every people falls under the influence of other peoples who are likewise comprised of classes. Governments do not express the systematically growing “maturity” of a “people” but are the product of the struggle between different classes and the different layers within one and the same class, and, finally, the action of external forces – alliances, conflicts, and wars and so on. To this should be added that a government, once it has established itself, may endure much longer than the relationship of forces which produced it. It is precisely out of this historical contradiction that revolutions, coup d’etats, counterrevolutions, etc. arise. [4]

Another danger contained in Dawson’s book is her attempt to lift Hobbes off his materialist's feet. She states "what he wants to teach us, in addition to how we can escape debilitating fear, is what it means to be free, and what it means to be good, to show us that – even at our most rational – we are pressed on by our desires, and that we must be ever watchful of the dangers of language and religion. Even if we violently disagree with Hobbes much or indeed most of the time, he can teach us to meditate more carefully than we are accustomed on the subjectivity, motivations, and opinions which structure our lives”.[5]

It is not in the realm of this review to examine the relationship between Hobbes and Locke but both were instrumental in establishing an early materialist world outlook. Dawson’s paragraph is a direct repudiation of much of the 17th century's  materialist philosophy.

As Dawson knows having written on John Locke (1632-1704) his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, disavowed the concept of innate ideas. Locke believed that man's thinking had an objective source, the external world. As the Marxist writer David North states “If there were no "innate" ideas, there could not be "innate" evil. Man's thinking, and, therefore, his moral character, was, in the final analysis, a reflexive product of the material environment which acted upon him. Contained within this conception of human cognition was a profoundly subversive idea: the nature of man could be changed and improved upon by changing and improving the environment within which he lived.[6]

How subversive was Hobbes? One biographer argued in 1691 that Leviathan had “corrupted half the gentry of the nation”[7].It can be said without a doubt the works of Hobbes provoked a storm of criticism certainly within his lifetime and also after it. So what was it about them that provoked such hostility?.There is an element of truth in the suggestion by Jon Parkin” that the response was so violent because Hobbes ideas went far beyond anything which his readers had come across before “.[8] During his lifetime and to a certain extent even today, his  name has become equated with materialism and worse still atheism,

The subject of Dawson’s book Leviathan was written by Hobbes during one of the bloodiest periods of English history. He was one of only a handful of writers who sought to understand the complex social economic and political development that was the English revolution.

Hobbes’s felt the fear of war and revolution more acutely than most and attempted to construct a scientific and materialist theory of politics. The Philosopher hated the war and remained a firm supporter of absolute monarchy at least up until the war ended then he like many ardent Royalists only tolerated the new Cromwellian Protectorate when it restored law and order. To say his work reflected this contradiction would be an understatement which is probably why it inspired both hatred and admiration.

Leviathan is a difficult book to master and it is very much a crossover book in the sense while containing his Royalist sympathies and anti-revolutionary sentiments he had to deal with the reality that was the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of a new class, the bourgeoisie. The book published in 1651 was seen in some quarters as Hobbes making peace with Cromwellian revolution. He was starting to come to terms with the fact that Cromwellian protectorate was the best chance of a peaceful stable government.

It is well known that he believed that humans during the 17th century were nasty, brutish and short and that mankind's nature is inherently competitive and selfish. The central theme of his work was to utilize these traits for the development of the early bourgeoisie.

Hobbes was not an isolated individual philosopher and had support from philosophers such as Spinoza on the continent. It is a shame from Dawson's book that you do not get a clear picture of Hobbes influence on writers from abroad, particularly in Europe. According to Quentin Skinner, the writers on the continent had a much clearer picture as to the importance of Hobbes work than in Britain. One of his most important readers was the writer Spinoza. According to Quentin Skinner, "it is a commonplace that Spinoza's Tractus Politicius shows the effects of critical reflection on Hobbes's theory in its content and terminology as well as method". Even his enemies had a grudging admiration for him, the third earl of Shaftesbury "I must confess a genius and even an original among these later leaders in philosophy".

He was also not without influence in England. As C B Macpherson wrote in the introduction to the Pelican version of Leviathan he edited “they thought it dangerous because of the widespread acceptance it was attaining amongst the reading classes”.[9]

At an early age rejected the prevailing Aristotelian philosophy. He said at university, the dominance of Aristotle meant that “the study is not properly philosophy but Aristolelelity”[10] He accused the universities of acting as a “handmaiden to the Roman religion”[11].

Hobbes was luckier than most philosophers of his generation in that he was able to secure valuable employment when he became a tutor to the Cavendish family, who gave him extensive use of their library. He would spend most of his long life as a teacher, secretary and to the Cavendish family. This was a  shrewd move by Hobbes as the job gave him access to some very influential people who also protected him when things got dangerous. According to Hobbes, the  time spent at the Cavendish’s was the most crucial in his intellectual development.

It is difficult to get an idea of the tremendous change in men’s minds during Hobbes’s time. As David North writes the “17th century started to fundamentally change the way man saw the world. Up until then mankind's worldview had largely been dominated by the Aristotelian worldview. Until the early seventeenth century, even educated people still generally accepted that the ultimate answers to all the mysteries of the universe and the problems of life were to be found in the Old Testament. But its unchallengeable authority had been slowly eroding, especially since the publication of Copernicus's De Revolutionibus in the year of his death in 1543, which dealt the death blow to the Ptolemaic conception of the universe and provided the essential point of departure for the future conquests of Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Johann Kepler (1571-1630) and, of course, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Intellectually, if not yet socially, the liberation of man from the fetters of Medieval superstition and the political structures that rested upon it, was well under way.[12]

Hobbes was certainly connected profoundly with what was to be a massive leap in political and scientific knowledge, which would see the dissolution of the medieval world view to be replaced by one based on science and reason. The previous one having given mankind a somewhat limited understanding of his place in the universe.

Hobbes played a crucial role in laying the foundations for the Enlightenment his most important work Leviathan published in 1651 was one the first studies of what the early modern capitalist state would look like.

His book was groundbreaking in the sense it attempted lay the basis for scientific principles on which to base that state. As Dawson states, Hobbes was not democratically inclined[G26] . The ruler or rulers of his state would have to rule it with an iron fist because as mankind’s life was solitary, poor, nasty, and brutish and short he believed in order to overcome this   there had to be a “war against all”.

In Chapter 8 On Religion as a Human Construct Dawson is correct in pointing out that it is difficult to work out his thoughts on religion. Hobbes knew he was on dangerous ground. Given that men had fought a war and carried out a revolution because they believed they had god on their side.

Hobbes correctly believed that an understanding of religion was crucial in solving the problem that beset the English state.  His idea of a national religion in which the sovereign was head was a dangerous idea.

As “G A J Rogers concurs” Hobbes materialism everything is either body or it is nothing and his mechanical determinism soon brought a charge of atheism. Although it would be wrong to regard him as strongly religious there is no reason to doubt his claim that he was an Anglican, albeit with Calvinist leanings. He is often regarded as sanctioning absolutism, but he would reply that all he had done was to describe the way in which societies actually work and that unless was recognized the outcome would be disorder and social disaster”.

While his philosophical writings were more important that his religious leanings. Their impact was to be momentous. His thoughts and emotions were a product of his environment and ideas remained in his brain long after they had been first stimulated. According to Hobbes, “words are wise men’s counters, they do but reckon by them but they are the mony of fools. He believed that words must never be allowed to take a life of their own. He continues “the universe is corporal, body…. And that which is not body, is no part of the universe according to Roy Porter the implications were momentous, no spirit, no lords spiritual”.

 It is hard to separate Hobbes political views from his philosophical ideas. He was acutely aware to choose his words well. He drew definite conclusions from the civil war.

One aspect of the war which filled Hobbes with dread was the spread of ideas put forward by the English Dissenters. He believed their ideas were a form of madness. According to Frederick C Beiser “the ultimate source of enthusiasm, Hobbes is convinced, is the same as that for all human actions, the desire for power. Whether he is aware of it or not the enthusiast attempts to dominate people. He claims divine inspiration to win the allegiance of a superstitious multitude: and then he promises them eternal happiness if they obey his dictates”.[13]

Hopefully, in the future, Dawson will include other 17th seventeenth-century philosopher in the Life series as it is important to place Hobbes within the wider context of modern philosophy. Bacon would be a good choice while it was Hobbes who developed the idea of mechanical determinism in the latter half of the 17th century, it was Francis Bacon (1561-1626) who was the true founder of English materialism.

Frederick Engel's described Bacon as "The real progenitor of English Materialism. To him, natural philosophy is the only true philosophy, and physics based upon the experience of the senses is the chief part of natural philosophy".  "Hobbes had systematized Bacon, without, however, furnishing a proof of Bacon's fundamental principle, the origin of all human knowledge from the world of sensation. It was Locke who, in his Essay on the Human Understanding, supplied this proof”.[14]

After his death in 1679, to be called a ‘Hobbist’ was one the  most diabolical insults. No one is called a Hobbist today so why should we show an interest in his ideas. As George Orwell once wrote, "Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” While there much to disagree with Dawson’s book it is nonetheless an important contribution to a deeper understanding of this philosopher leading to a deeper understanding of our world.

[1] Life Lessons from Hobbes. Hannah Dawson. Pan Macmillan. September 2013.-
[2] Corey Robin, “The First Counter-Revolutionary”, Nation, October 19, 2009.
[3]     Life Lessons from Hobbes. Hannah Dawson. Pan Macmillan. September 2013.-
[4] Leon Trotsky-The Class, the Party and the Leadership-From Fourth International, Vol.1 No.7, December 1940, pp.191-195.
[5] Life Lessons from Hobbes. Hannah Dawson. Pan Macmillan. September 2013.
[6] Equality, the Rights of Man and the Birth of Socialism-By David North -24 October 1996
[7] The Ideological Context of Hobbes's Political Thought Quentin Skinner: The Historical Journal, Vol. 9, No. 3 (1966), pp. 286-317
[8] Hobbism in the Later 1660s: Daniel Scargill and Samuel Parker-Jon Parkin-
 The Historical Journal, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Mar., 1999), pp. 85-108
[9] Leviathan Thomas Hobbes- Pelican C A B Macpherson
[10] Images of Anarchy: The Rhetoric and Science in Hobbes's State of Nature-By Ioannis D. Evrigenis
[11] Leviathan-Hobbes
[12] Equality, the Rights of Man and the Birth of Socialism-By David North -24 October 1996-
[13] The Sovereignty of Reason: The Defense of Rationality in the Early English-By Frederick C. Beiser

[14] Engels-Anti Duhring

Monday, 28 March 2016

A Critical Review of Trotsky, Downfall of a Revolutionary by Bertrand M. Patenaude’s -New York HarperCollins, 2009

“There’s life in the old boy Trotsky yet—but if the ice pick didn’t quite do its job killing him off, I hope I’ve managed it.”  Robert Service London, October 2009,

“Everyone has the right to be stupid on occasion, but Comrade Macdonald abuses the privilege”. Leon Trotsky

Over the last decade or so we have seen a relentless campaign to promote the death of Marxism. It is perhaps then a little surprising that over the corresponding period we have seen a plethora of biographies on the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.  Over the past ten years, we have seen four English-language novels and four English-language academic books. This is not counting books produced in other languages.

Bertrand M. Patenaude’s book is one of the better ones. The book, published in Britain as Stalin’s Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky and in the United States as Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary has been widely reviewed in both the capitalist press and various pseudo-left publications. One has sympathies with any historian who attempts a biography of Trotsky since he or she will have to with apologies to Thomas Carlyle “drag him out from under a mountain of dead dogs, a huge load of calumny and oblivion”.

Patenaude a fellow at the Hoover Institution had unprecedented access to Trotsky’s personal papers at Harvard and of course to papers held at the Hoover archives. Even this privileged access has not prevented him from repeating a number of distortions and fabrications about Trotsky and the Russian revolution.

It is unfortunate but Patenaude’s book is not the only one to give an inaccurate and politically driven portrait of Leon Trotsky. Many of these recent books do not have even the most basic academic integrity.

Recent Historiography

The current low standard of books on Leon Trotsky has not always been the case. A significant number of historians who while not being close to Trotsky’s politics have written very good and in most cases objective books. It is not possible to examine all of them but perhaps the historian worth reading the most is E H Carr. 

Carr was one the first major historian to attempt a rehabilitation of Trotsky. His publications on the history of Soviet Russia are “monumental”. According to the Marxist writer David North, “Carr was not politically sympathetic to Trotsky, but he brilliantly summarized and analyzed the complex issues of program, policy and principle with which Trotsky grappled in a difficult and critical period of Soviet history”.

Carr was followed by the writer and historian Isaac Deutscher who had close links with Trotsky’s Fourth International. He published three biographical trilogies: The Prophet Armed, The Prophet Unarmed, and The Prophet Outcast. Unlike Carr Deutscher was sympathetic to Trotsky and his ideas. Deutscher was expelled from the Polish Communist Party for Trotskyism in the 1930s.  He was a delegate to the first conference of the Fourth International. However, he disagreed with Trotsky over the founding of the Fourth International in a period of defeats and believed that the new group was too weak.  His books are still standard reading for anyone interested in the topic.

This cannot be said of the current spate of biographies? These books are in many ways a useful barometer to the growing shift to the right in academia. After all, academics do not live not in a vacuum and are subject to the many ideological pressures that rage throughout society.

It is churlish to say that every writer who produces a work on the figures of the Russian Revolution should adhere to Marxism but is it too much to ask for some objectivity or even good serious history. It is hard not to notice that most history departments have become little more than production lines for anti-Marxist books.

Many of these books are as Oscar Wilde said “hitting below the intellect”. By far the worst of these books is Robert Service’s biography of Trotsky[1]

In the preface of his book Service makes the boast that his is "the first full-length biography of Trotsky written by someone outside of Russia who is not a Trotskyist." This is simply not true. It is hard to believe that the editor of this book would have let this comment pass without checking it.

Leon Trotsky

Patenaude correctly criticizes Service’s book for its level of factual inaccuracies. Writing in the American Historical Review he says “I have counted more than four dozen [mistakes],”. he continues, “Service mixes up the names of Trotsky's sons, misidentifies the largest political group in the first Duma in 1906, botches the name of the Austrian archduke assassinated at Sarajevo, misrepresents the circumstances of Nicholas II's abdication, gets backward Trotsky's position in 1940 on the United States' entry into World War II, and gives the wrong year of death of Trotsky's widow. Service's book is completely unreliable as a reference…. At times the errors are jaw-dropping. Service believes that Bertram Wolfe was one of Trotsky's ‘acolytes’ living with him in Mexico (pp. 441, 473), that André Breton was a ‘surrealist painter’ whose ‘pictures exhibited sympathy with the plight of the working people’ (p. 453), and that Mikhail Gorbachev rehabilitated Trotsky in 1988, when in fact Trotsky was never posthumously rehabilitated by the Soviet government.”[2]

Patenaude goes on to explain how he came to review the book saying he was “initially inclined to turn down the review request”. He felt that working on the review would lead him away from other work. “Nonetheless, after checking to make sure that David North's book did not mention my own recent book on Trotsky, I accepted the invitation, fully expecting that I would add my voice to the chorus of praise for Service's biography.”

 “I wrote the review at the request of the editors of the AHR,” They asked me to review both Service's book and North's book. I did find this a little curious, because Service is a major figure in the field of Soviet history and his Trotsky has been hailed by several reviewers as the definitive biography -- so why dilute the effect by combining it with a slender, essentially self-published volume written by an avowed Trotskyist who devotes most of his pages to criticism of Service and his book?”

Bertrand M. Patenaude

Patenaude would later retract his sharp opinion of North who after all is a leading authority on Leon Trotsky and has written extensively on him. Patenaude wrote “Enter David North. David North is an American Trotskyist whose book collects his review essays of Service’s volume and of earlier biographies of Trotsky by Ian Thatcher and Geoffrey Swain. (He does not mention my 2009 book, Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary.) Given North’s Trotskyism, he might reasonably be suspected of hyperbole in his brief against Service. But a careful examination of North’s book shows his criticism of Service to be exactly what Trotsky scholar Baruch Knei-Paz, in a blurb on the back cover, says it is: ‘detailed, meticulous, well-argued and devastating.’”

North has his own deep-seated criticism of Service’s work on Trotsky. In his review, he writes that Service’s book “is a crude and offensive book, produced without respect for the most minimal standards of scholarship. Service’s “research,” if one wishes to call it that, has been conducted in bad faith. His Trotsky is not history, but, rather, an exercise in character assassination. Service is not content to distort and falsify Trotsky’s political deeds and ideas. Frequently descending to the level of a grocery store tabloid, Service attempts to splatter filth on Trotsky’s personal life. Among his favorite devices is to refer to “rumors” about Trotsky’s intimate relations, without even bothering to identify the rumor’s source, let alone substantiate its credibility”

Swain and Thatcher

North has also been heavily critical of other biographies of Trotsky by Geoffrey Swain and Ian Thatcher. Thatcher from Leicester university produced his Trotsky in 2003 published by Routledge.

In his opinion “Thatcher and Swain belittled Deutscher for creating the “myth” of Trotsky. The Thatcher-Swain biographies set out to create a new anti-Trotsky narrative, utilizing slanders and fabrications of old Stalinist vintage in the interest of contemporary anti-communism”.

Thatcher’s Trotsky as North says is little more than character assassination. The book is also heavily pregnant with undocumented assertions. Like Service’s book both make it exceedingly difficult for the average reader to trace articles and evaluate for themselves Thatcher’s and Swain’ comments. Even something basic as footnotes are not very accurate and sometimes misleading.


Patenaude is not immune to this right wing shift in academia. His book despite being better than some others does sufferer from the repeating the same myths and mistakes of previous books. Patenaude’s use of sources close to Trotsky who were either hostile or had broken with his politics is not really useful and Patenaude is far too uncritical of them.
Patenaude relies a great deal on the testimonies of Trotsky's bodyguards. These are mainly from the American Trotskyist movement. Many of these people had broken with Trotskyism and should have been treated with caution.

It is clear that Patenaude is not fully acquainted with Trotsky’s writings and politics and still less so with the major political ‘social and cultural subjects tackled by Trotsky. This limitation on his part could have been rectified by quoting from writers that did.

Patenaude does portray a certain amount of sympathy for his subject which is done so from a liberal, not Marxist standpoint. He also has the annoying habit of using throw away lines such Trotsky attempted to "cloak the Bolshevik coup" and that Trotsky "helped create the first totalitarian state". Aside from not being true Patenaude does little to back up such a serious charge. His viewpoint on other struggles inside the Bolshevik party is predominantly impressionistic.

'Warts and all'

On the plus side, Patenaude’s account is important because it brings together a wide range of sources on Trotsky’s murder. Some these sources have not been available in English before. He also makes use of the personal papers of the Alexander Buchman, Albert Glotzer and the FBI and the GPU agent Joseph Hansen.

Patenaude employs a novelist type writing style. It is a shame that this style does not work when he tries to employ this method when encountering Trotsky’s revolutionary past.
The main focus of the book centers on the last decade of Trotsky's life and work. Patenaude portrayal of Trotsky’s life while 'imprisoned' in Blue House would in some instances not look out of place in cheap adult books and sometimes borders on the salacious.  Having said that he does manage to show the element of tragedy in Trotsky’s life. Barely a member of Trotsky’s family and close friends survived Stalin’s murderous clutches.

Despite having unpatrolled access to Trotsky’s archive Patenaude has nothing to say politically that has not been said before. Very little is said about Trotsky’s followers around the world. Next to nothing is written in the preparation and discussion following the publication of the Transitional Programme.


It is clear that Patenaude has no sympathy for the Trotskyist movement. He believes it is full of “sects” and is riddled with “splits and mergers”. Trotskyist’s will need a strong stomach if they read this book. The book is likely to gain a wide readership, but young people and workers and the general reader interested in the life and ideas of Leon Trotsky who struggled against Stalinism, fascism and capitalism, should read as much as possible of the great man himself and, at least, a few biographies from a much earlier period these should be read in conjunction with this book.

[1] Robert Service, Trotsky, A Biography (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009)

[2] The American Historical Review (2011) 116 (3): 900-902

Monday, 14 March 2016

1917: Before and After by Edward Hallett Carr, Macmillan,1969

“Trotsky was a hero of the revolution; He fell when the heroic age was over.” E H Carr.

This collection of articles, reviews and lectures deal predominantly with Carr’s assessment of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and its revolutionaries. To say that Carr had a contradictory attitude to the Revolution and for that matter Marxism in general would be an understatement.

The items that make up this slim volume were written before 1950 and give me a welcome opportunity for a limited survey of his work and the place it occupies in the field of Soviet studies.

The themes of the lectures are broad in scope. Ranging from figures such as Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky and literary figures such as Nikolai Chernyshevsky. Like all Carr’s work his style of writing is clear and straightforward and explains complex historical and political events in a language untainted by jargon. 

However, one major criticism of Carr’s work and perhaps the biggest charge against him is that he was only interested in writing about the victors in history. This is simply not true while he did not deal with the defeat suffered by Leon Trotsky and others on the scale of say Isaac Deutscher he did none the less deal with the defeated in a precise and not unsympathetic manner.

The first chapter The Russian Revolution; its place in History is a well-written attempt to place the revolution in its historical context. This is a solid piece of writing which is free of the usual cynicism that permeates Soviet historiography today. Carr correctly observes that the Russian revolutionaries learned the lessons from previous revolutions including the French and English bourgeois revolution.

The second chapter is a preface to a translation of the novel What Is to Be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky. The novel was highly thought of by Vladimir Lenin.  One of Lenin great works What is to be Done, written in 1902 took the name of this book. He called the author a “great Russian socialist”. This a very sympathetic portrait of Chernyshevsky. The novel is highly thought of in academic circles. Joseph Frank wrote "No work in modern literature, with the possible exception of Uncle Tom's Cabin, can compete with What Is to Be Done? in its effect on human lives and its power to make history. For Chernyshevsky novel, far more than Marx's Capital, supplied the emotional dynamic that eventually went to make the Russian Revolution."[1]

Carr’s third chapter is called Red Rosa. As Carr admits it is very difficult to do justice to Luxemburg in the space of eleven pages of text. A full-length biography and then some is needed. It is clear that Luxemburg was held in high esteem amongst the Bolsheviks leaders. Lenin especially commented that “Although the eagles do swoop down and beneath the chickens fly, chickens with outspread wings never will soar amid clouds in the sky”.[2]

Carr properly designates Luxemburg as an equal of any leading Marxists of the time. She played a crucial role in the attack on Eduard Bernstein’s revision of Marxism. Her Accumulation of Capital written in 1915 was among other things an attack on Bernstein’s revisionism. Luxemburg it is true did not hold back any criticism especially of the Bolsheviks if she felt it was warranted.

The paragraph below quoted in Carr’s book has been interpreted as a thinly veiled attack on the Bolsheviks but I am not sure Carr’s reads it that way.

“The essence of socialist society consists in the fact that the great laboring mass ceases to be a dominated mass, but rather, makes the entire political and economic life its own life and gives that life a conscious, free, and autonomous direction. The proletarian revolution requires no terror for its aims; it hates and despises killing. It does not need these weapons because it does not combat individuals but institutions, because it does not enter the arena with naïve illusions whose disappointment it would seek to revenge. It is not the desperate attempt of a minority to mold the world forcibly according to its ideal, but the action of the great massive millions of the people, destined to fulfill a historic mission and to transform historical necessity into reality.[3]“

Carr’s fourth chapter is called The Bolshevik Utopia. This is a very misleading piece of writing, in that it gives the impression that Marxism has a utopian content. Given that Carr is usually very precise in his writing this is not a mistake or slip of the pen. Carr really did identify with this characterization of the Bolsheviks. It is a little strange given that Carr would have been familiar with the decades-long struggle the Marxist movement carried out in opposing the utopian socialists.

The Tragedy of Trotsky is by far the most interesting piece of this collection. The chapter is a multi-layer review of Isaac Deutscher’s biography of the Russian revolutionary. Carr it must be said was one of the first historians to carry out a major attempt at restoring Trotsky to his rightful place in Soviet and international history. Using sources from the soviet archives he was one of the first historians to write a detailed account of the political struggles inside the leadership of the Communist Party of the USSR 1923-24.

Carr clearly thought that there was an alternative to Stalinism in the form of Leon Trotsky and his Left Opposition. According to the Marxist writer David North “Carr was not politically sympathetic to Trotsky. But he brilliantly summarized and analyzed the complex issues of program, policy and principle with which Trotsky grappled in a difficult and critical period of Soviet history. Carr’s account made clear that Trotsky became the target of an unprincipled attack that was, in its initial stages, motivated by his rivals’ subjective considerations of personal power. While Carr found much to criticize in Trotsky’s response to the provocations of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev, the historian left no doubt that he viewed Trotsky as, alongside of Lenin, the towering figure of the Bolshevik Revolution”. [4]

Carr’s Place in Soviet Historiography

Carr was part of that generation of historians although not Marxist who sought to make an objective evaluation of the October revolution and its aftermath. As one writer commented "not exactly a Marxist, but strongly impregnated with Marxist ways of thinking, applied to international affairs".

Carr, who worked under difficult circumstances throughout his career had to come to terms with the debilitating effect of Stalinism had on his field of historical study. According to Deutscher “The Stalinist state intimidated the historian, and dictated to him first the pattern into which he was expected to force events and then the ever new versions of the events themselves. At the outset the historian was subjected to this pressure mainly when he dealt with the Soviet revolution, the party strife which had preceded and which had followed it, and especially the struggles inside the Bolshevik Party. All these had to be treated in a manner justifying Stalin as the Leader of monolithic Bolshevism”.  [5]

Since Carr’s time, there has been a distinct and traceable decline in the historical study of the Russian revolution. The failure of today’s historians to produce an objective and intelligent account of the revolution has more to do with current politics than it does with just bad academic standards and this is despite having access to archives that Carr could have only dreamed of. In fact, outside the confines of the International committee of the Fourth international, there has been no historian that has bettered Carr’s work.

It is not within the realm of this review to examine the current state of soviet historiography suffice to say it is at a very low ebb. Far from being objective historical studies, many of the books appearing lately have been hagiographies and very right wing ones at that. Many of them do not even retain minimal academic standards.

One such book is Robert Service’s biography of Trotsky according to David North “Trotsky: A Biography is a crude and offensive book, produced without respect for the most minimal standards of scholarship. Service’s “research,” if one wishes to call it that, has been conducted in bad faith. His Trotsky is not history, but, rather, an exercise in character assassination. Service is not content to distort and falsify Trotsky’s political deeds and ideas. Frequently descending to the level of a grocery store tabloid, Service attempts to splatter filth on Trotsky’s personal life. Among his favorite devices is to refer to “rumors” about Trotsky’s intimate relations, without even bothering to identify the rumor’s source, let alone substantiate its credibility”.[6]

In conclusion I am not saying Carr is without flaws and limitations. His work however will “remain a great and enduring landmark in historical writing devoted to the Bolshevik revolution. “It will take a very great historian to better his work. In today’s climate I for one am not holding my breath.


1.       Heretics and Renegades and Other Essays, Isaac Deutscher, Hamish and Hamilton, London, 1955).

2.       EH Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1921 (three volumes, London, 1950, 1952, 1953); The Interregnum, 1923-1924 (London, 1954).

[1] Joseph Frank, The Southern Review
[2] Leon Trotsky- Hands Off Rosa Luxemburg! (June 1932)
[3] Rosa Luxemburg-What Does the Spartacus League Want? (December 1918)
[4] North, David, In defence of Leon Trotsky, Mehring Books, Detroit,2015
[5] Isaac Deutscher’s, Heretics and Renegades and Other Essays (Hamish and Hamilton, London, 1955). Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

[6] In The Service of Historical Falsification: A Review of Robert Service's Trotsky-David North 2009

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Mussolini and the Rise of Fascism-Donald Sassoon- HarperCollins UK 2008

“He raised the Italian people from the Bolshevism into which they might have sunk in 1919 to a position in Europe such as Italy had never held before”, Winston Churchill.

Whether the author consciously set out to write a book that challenges a very dangerous trend in a number of poorly written books is open to debate. These books have sought to impose a revisionist historiography that attempts to rehabilitates Benito Mussolini and mystify the rise of Italian fascism.

For Sassoon, the study of Italian fascism is not merely an exercise in historical research but has lessons for today’s political situation. To combat the growth of right-wing and fascistic forces in Italy today the past must be studied objectively and truthfully.

Modern Italian Politics

Perhaps the most marked development in politics during the Berlusconi years was the attempt to rehabilitate Mussolini and his fascist party. Italy’s former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, on numerous occasions, praised the fascist “Duce” Benito Mussolini.  According to him, Mussolini had “done a great deal of good”.

Berlusconi went on to downplay Italy’s collaboration with the holocaust saying it was “not comparable to that of Germany”. He also repeated the tired lie that Mussolini was pressured by Hitler.

One of the more grotesque by-products of the whitewashing of the Italian fascist leader by Berlusconi came about when iPhone issued an app of Mussolini’s speeches. Apple was roundly condemned by a large number of Jewish groups who correctly stated that Mussolini was directly responsible for sending thousands of Jews to the death during the Holocaust. The app was subsequently pulled by Apple.


This political whitewashing of Mussolini and the fascists is mirrored in publishing circles by a growing number of poorly written books. At the moment, it is hard to gauge whether this revisionist whitewash is a minority, or has started to gain a foothold in academic circles.  So many of these books have appeared that one writer sees it as “a noir publishing niche”.
It would take a historian a rather long time to sift through over 100 current biographies of Mussolini to tell whether this very nasty revisionist trend has done any damage in academia.

According to the historian R J B Bosworth, “It is true that much revisionism of the Berlusconi years is hard to take seriously. The slew of biographies and memoirs devoted to praising 'good Fascists' mostly fall well below acceptable academic standard. in devoting himself without reserve to the idea in which he believed'. But the quality of the research base of such works, and the decisions about which facts to include and which to exclude are too blatantly slanted to make much impact on scholarship.[1]

While that may be the case for academic books there is a definite trend in non-academic publications for rebranding fascism in order to fit into today’s politics. As one reviewer put it these books are not so much an attempt “at revisionism, but at restoration.”

One such book is by Nicholas Farrell[2] who has sought to overturn decades of historiography to claim that Mussolini was not really all that bad and that he took a wrong direction because of his alliance with Hitler. According to Farrell, Mussolini had "charisma" and was a "phenomenal" personality. Farrell tends to mirror Berlusconi thoughts.

It is not that difficult to challenge these falsehoods. A more objective and truthful examination of the facts would also lead us to a different picture. Mussolini’s prime goal was to create a new. “Roman Empire” around the Mediterranean Sea.

In order to achieve this goal, the Italian fascists invaded and occupied North Africa and areas of Yugoslavia. In order to justify the slaughter of Jews, Africans and Slavs the fascists classified them as “subhuman”. This discrimination was done in the defense of a “pure Italian race”. According to historian Carlo Moos, Italian racial laws were very similar to the Nazi’s and belonged to “a long-existing, general-fascist racial concept” [3]

Another book Liberal Fascism [4] is “less a work of neutral scholarship or unbiased journalism than thinly veiled historical revisionism”. Jonah Goldberg’s argument is simplistic, to say the least, it is the idea that fascism came from liberalism. A position not dissimilar to some of the “pseudo-left” writers from the Frankfurt school who put forward the perspective that fascism can be traced back to the enlightenment. However, it must be said that it is hard to take this writer seriously when he describes former presidents of the United States as fascists.
The rise of fascism

Given a limited space, Sassoon does a very competent job in explaining the rise of Italian fascism. While not a Marxist he does favor a left-wing slant to his history. The rise of fascism in Italy was a spur-of-the-moment development with significant sections of the population taking part.  Its leaders predominantly came from the rank and file fascist organization.
Despite taking a plebian character it was controlled and financed by big business. Its social composition was made up largely of the petty bourgeoisie, lumpen elements of the working class and in its latter stages, it began to draw in larger sections of the working class.

Sassoon has done some good research into the social makeup of the fascists in 1921 24-per cent rural workers; 15.5-per cent industrial workers; 14-per cent white-collar workers; 13-per cent students; 11.9-per cent small farmers; and 9- percent shopkeepers. “The proportion of students was, "a much higher proportion than any other group in the population".
Mussolini’s Rise to Power

The notion fostered by far too many right wing history books is that Benito Mussolini came to power in Italy at the end of 1922 by carrying out a heroic march on Rome. The truth revealed by Sassoon is a little less glamorous.

The majority arrived in special trains. The few that did march were hardly a fascist vanguard they were as one writer put it a “raggle-taggle bunch with hardly a modern weapon among them, and who could have been easily stopped by the army.”

Benito Mussolini and his fascists did not crush all before him rather he was invited by the aristocracy and sections of big business to form a coalition government. Once fully in power, the fascists carried out a murderous crackdown against its opponents in the working class
The Italian bourgeoisie had always fancied itself as a great power but economically this was not the case. The crisis of capitalist rule that brought the Italian fascists into government was the product was Italy's entry, in 1915, into the First World War on the side of Britain and France.

The pressure of the war merely escalated Italy’s economic and political crisis. This led to the famous post-war "Red Years" of 1919 to 1920. During these years, a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism was clearly on the cards. Sassoon’s account is very puzzlingly light on these years. Why?

To solve this crisis, the Italian bourgeoisie turned to the fascists, as the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky explains “At the moment that the "normal" police and military resources of the bourgeois dictatorship, together with their parliamentary screens, no longer suffice to hold society in a state of equilibrium -- the turn of the fascist regime arrives. Through the fascist agency, capitalism sets in motion the masses of the crazed petty bourgeoisie and the bands of declassed and demoralized lumpenproletariat -- all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy”.[5]

There are two major weaknesses of the book the first being Sassoon’s complacent attitude towards the Italian Communist party’s role in the rise of fascism. Despite its being only two years old when Mussolini was given power it played a crucial role in allowing the fascists to consolidate its rule again as Trotsky said “One must admit, however, that the German Communist Party has also learned little from the Italian experience. The Italian Communist Party came into being almost simultaneously with fascism. But the same conditions of revolutionary ebb tide, which carried the fascists to power, served to deter the development of the Communist Party. It did not give itself an accounting as to the full sweep of the fascist danger; it lulled itself with revolutionary illusions; it was irreconcilably antagonistic to the policy of the united front; in short, it was stricken with all the infantile diseases. .[6]

The second major political weakness of the book is its glaring underestimation of the revolutionary nature of the working class. The Italian bourgeoisie saw very clearly the dangers of socialist revolution and turned to fascism to solve its predicament. In doing it had the collaboration of both social democracy and Stalinism.

Despite these weaknesses, I would recommend this book to anyone who is beginning a study of this important international event. I would also urge students and anyone interested in history to fascism to consult Leon Trotsky’s writing on the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy.


1.       Mussolini and The Rise of Fascism, by Donald Sassoon A timely riposte to Il Duce's wrong-headed revisionists Reviewed by Ian Thomson 2008
2.       Bosworth, R.J.B-Mussolini, Arnold, 2002
3.       Behan, Tom, The Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini, Bookmarks, London,2003
4.       Guerin, Daniel, Fascism and Big Business, Monad Press, New York,1973

[1] R. J. B. Bosworth -  Benito Mussolini: Bad Guy on the International Block- Contemporary European History, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Feb., 2009), pp. 123-134
[2] Farrell Nicholas Mussolini: A New Life Weidenfeld, 2015
[3] Moos, Carlo: Late Italian Fascism and the Jews, 2008).
[4]  Jonah Goldberg- Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning- Penguin- 2009
[5] Leon Trotsky - What Next? vital Question for the German Proletariat, 1932

[6]Leon Trotsky - Fascism- What It Is and How to Fight It