I was fortunate enough to acquire, among a collection of books, both the 1884 and the considerably expanded 1906 edition ofArrowsmith’s Dictionary of Bristol, edited by Henry J. Spear and J. W. Arrowsmith. Concurrent with other research I have been conducting into the Bristol riots of 1831 I perused the entry in each edition and was struck by the volume of revisions. It should initially be noted that the account given in the 1906 edition is substantially longer. As such it is perhaps the detail that has been omitted from the later edition that holds greatest intrigue.
The 1884 edition commences with reference to the ‘Bristol Revolution as it has been magniloquently termed’. This is interesting in and of itself in its suggestion that what is now universally considered a riot may have been conceived as something worthy of an altogether grander title by a significant enough proportion of Bristolians for it to be referred to as such in a prominent local history reference work. The only other source I have located that refers to the riots in this fashion is John Taylor’s 1877 work Bristol and Clifton: Old and New. A thorough examination of Nineteenth Century sources is necessary before any definitive conclusions can be drawn as to the prevalence of the terminology ‘Revolution’ with regard to 1831.
Its inclusion by authors who otherwise appear to have little interest in stressing the popular character of the riots does suggest some acknowledgement of what appears was a somewhat prevalent perspective of the riots as progressive insurrection. The ‘magniloquent’ proviso immediately brings into question the validity of such an assessment, and throughout the piece the riots are characterised as a ‘tumultuous gathering of the dregs of the people’, in keeping with the predominant perspective found in secondary sources.
This is equally true of the 1906 edition but it should be noted that this later edition was revised and enlarged by John Latimer; a name familiar to local history enthusiasts for his gargantuan three volume work: Annals of Bristol. It is not clear from the 1906 edition whether the revisions were entirely his own or done in consultation with the authors of the first edition. However the account given in the 1906 edition is befitting of Latimer’s style. Absent are some of the more excessive literary flourishes: ‘Revolution’ is replaced with ‘riot’; the ‘licentious rabble’ is reduced to a simple ‘rabble’; ‘outrages’ alone are considered sufficient without the inclusion of ‘violences [sic] and outrages’; and ‘leaving the town and lives and property of the inhabitants at the mercy of a mass of infuriated ruffians’, following Colonel Brereton’s ordering of the 14th Light Dragoons out of the city is dispensed with altogether.
Additionally, the later edition clarifies some historical points that the former either excluded or assessed in a manner out of keeping with a closer examination of the sources. For example, when speaking of a citizen killed by a dragoon on the evening of Saturday 29th, the 1884 edition claims that ‘a dragoon shot a man (who had wounded him) dead’, whereas the 1906 edition clarifies that the executed man was in fact ‘a peaceful ostler’. An assertion that the mob attacked the military in Queen Square made in the 1884 edition is replaced with the claim that the Mansion House was the target for the rioter’s anger. The omission of ‘violences’ may also be taken in a similar vein. There is little record of physical violence enacted by the rioters. Their targets were material symbols of authority, and casualties were largely a by-product of such. The 1906 edition also offers a considerably expanded account of the attack on Bridewell Prison and the Bishop’s Palace.
Nevertheless, the 1906 edition is still very much in keeping with the orthodox, top-down account of the riots. Absent entirely from the 1884 edition, Major Digby Mackworth has been elevated to heroic restorer of the peace by 1906, and Colonel Brereton’s place as scapegoat is similarly affirmed.
What neither account offers is anything much in the way of context in which to situate and assess the actions of the rioters. Instead disparaging remarks are about as close to an understanding of the makeup and motivations of the ‘mob’ as either account gives, whether as ‘licentious rabble’ or ‘infuriated ruffians’ (1884), or as “entirely low Irish” as a Newspaper quote given in the 1906 edition assessed those who laid siege to the Mansion House on Sunday 30th. In fact, despite the more sober tone generally adopted in the 1906 edition, perhaps the most striking omission beside that previous alluded to is the absence of a quote attributed to a rioter during the disturbances:
“I’m curs’d if this bean’t very funny. Charley [Wetherall] com’d down here to try the prisoners; but Charley funk’d, and so he cut and run’d away. Well, we turn’d judges, and so we found all the pris’ners not guilty; and I’m d—-d if we aren’t made a reg’lar gaol deliv’ry!” [sic]
The source is not given any further provenance but the author’s justify its inclusion ‘as an example of coarse humour’. It is certainly conceivable that its omission from the 1906 edition was simply due to Latimer’s inability to verify the source, coupled with his seeming preference for formality. Regardless it is an interesting testimony; so few are the voices of the rioters, swamped in accounts from the city and military elite, that any snippet of perspective from the other side of the barricades is invaluable. Further it contains an allusion to popular sovereignty attainable through an assertion of collective force, albeit in a haphazard fashion. As such it speaks to the historical actuality of the events in a manner beyond the reach of the moralising elitist accounts unable to conceive the rioters as anything other than a disorganised, drunken and impetuous rabble.
Whilst Arrowsmith’s Dictionary of Bristol in either of its incarnations is far from a definitive account of the 1831 riots, it offers insight into the emerging dominant narrative of the events and how this developed over time. It is important not to read too much into this. It is quite conceivable that the differences are primarily attributable to the role and perspective of John Latimer. I hope shortly to read his account of the riots in the Annals of Bristol in the Nineteenth Century and doing so should provide an interesting cross-reference to the revisions made in the 1906 edition of the Dictionary. Nevertheless it is hoped that the above assessment may offer some interest to students of the 1831 riots in Bristol.
It is always interesting to note how one’s profession operates overseas. My first such encounter was during a short time I spent in South-East Asia. My perspective was very much that of an outsider, meeting seller’s focused on serving the tourist market. Native language booksellers of course exist in that part of the world, although I did not encounter any, and their presence is certainly muted compared with the apparently thriving tourist market.
Although my travels began in Thailand, it was not until entering Cambodia that the evidence of a significant tourist-driven book trade became prominent. Anyone who has visited Siem Reap and the nearby remains of the fascinating Angkor kingdom will be well acquainted with the army of street sellers who lurk at both entrances and exits of all the major sites. The merchandise on offer is always more or less the same. I have no idea of the specific working conditions and relations of these sellers. It is quite clearly a precarious and often demeaning existence, and I would guess fairly confidently that the sellers themselves have little stake in the goods they are selling.
Books are not the main stay of the traders who seek shade around the outskirts of the glorious temple complexes. But one book in particular is ubiquitous, Claude Jacques’ Ancient Angkor. I think in the three days spent exploring the various temples it must have been offered to me over fifty times. The minute you arrive, the first seller able to latch on to your crowd appears so keen not to allow others the opportunity to make their pitch, that the price falls remarkably and near continuously if you decline to make the purchase. Now I check to see the book’s availability online it appears it may have been worth me buying up several at these basement prices. The high competition amongst sellers also generates some interesting sale techniques. My particular favourite was a Cambodian who had evidently perfected an Australian twang and proclaimed “Wanna buy my book mate?” as we passed.
There is one distinct aspect to the sellers around Angkor that sets them apart from most street book sellers in South-East Asia. They actually sell original copies of the book. The booming trade elsewhere is sustained by cheaply produced photocopies of various standard works. In clear disdain for any copyright laws these bootleg books are sold freely and publicly. As would be expected from such a venture, the quality of the final product is very varied. All show the clear signs of photocopied reproduction and budget binding. Some have unreadable passages, others are misbound with pages absent or out of place, and the text block is never squarely justified. If you do wish to buy a decent inspection of the text is essential. Although most sellers seem to keep their books in plastic wallets I never encountered one who refused their prospective buyer a browse prior to purchase. The lower quality is reflected in the sale price, although this too is highly variable and often seems subject to the seller’s appraisal of his client. Whilst in South America I was informed by one tout that the practice was to always begin negotiations at double the standard start rate when dealing with Japanese tourists. I’m sure the specifics are different in South-East Asia, but the same general rule applies. The tight fisted can always get a bargain, even if it means initially walking away from the negotiation. Although a high start price can create the illusion of a bargain, so it is always best to shop around if you are really concerned about the best price, which most Western tourists to South-East Asia are unlikely to be, given our purchasing power there.
That being said, original authentically published English-language books are generally not cheap. The prices in the few new bookshops geared to tourists I came across would not have seemed out of place in Britain. Not enough to deter many perhaps, but certainly an encouragement for the budget backpacker to buy bootleg.
Crossing the border into Vietnam I encountered a new phenomena. Whilst my experience of Cambodian book bootleggers was as market stallholders, more common to Vietnam was the roaming salesman precariously balancing a mountainous pile of books on their forearm. Yet this was not the most daring balancing act I was to witness in Vietnam. From a large gas canister resting unhinged on the back of a speeding motorbike, to a cyclist with boxes piled high in his front basket obscuring all vision of the road ahead. Still I can certainly be thankful my work does not require me to carry my wares all day long.
Being constantly pestered to consume is an unfortunate by-product of any visit to Ho Chi Minh Cityand I can understand the temptation of many a frustrated tourist requesting a perusal of a title sitting dangerously near the bottom of a sellers’ book mound in hope perhaps of causing a cascade rather than locating a new read. A futile hope, for this is an art well perfected by the street sellers.
I got into conversation with one seller whilst browsing his selection and mentioned that I too was a bookseller. He showed little interest and in truth was right to recognise little commonality. I did not pry into the details of his working conditions but it seems highly likely that he and others like him receive only a fraction of the agreed sale price. Whilst I have grievances with the amount of money that goes to ABE each time I sell a book through their site it could hardly be considered a similar relationship.
The selection of books on offer varies little between sellers but includes much of interest, particularly for those with an interest in the history of the region. They offered a good range of titles on the Vietnam War, the Khmer Rouge and the Angkor civilisation, although little on less prominent periods of regional history. Whilst mostly authored by Westerners there were a few titles written by Cambodians and Vietnamese, for the most part first hand accounts of either the war, or life under the Khmer Rouge. All manner of perspectives are on sale, although those with an anti-imperialistic bent prevail. Not all the books they sell are cheaply available online. I purchased a copy ofPeople’s War, People’s Army. The Viet Cong Insurrection Manual for Underdeveloped Countries by General Vo Nguyen Giap of the Vietnam People’s Army to read for what equated to approximately £1, and after returning home was able to sell it as a poor photocopy reproduction for £5, half the price of the next cheapest copy and a fifth of the price of the cheapest copy in Britain. Hardly the route to a fortune, but nevertheless indicative of the online worth of some of the books on offer. There is of course an ethical criticism of bootlegging, which I reject, but will perhaps save discussion of that for another piece.
Following the death of renowned historian Eric Hobsbawm on October 1st of last year I vowed to make my way through his seminal Age of… series. I had read parts during my time at university, but had always had my eye on reading them fully, and his passing seemed a fitting time to do so. Now, having finished the series, admittedly with a few interludes to read other material, I am most thankful I made the time and effort. As a panorama of the modern era nothing I have read until this point is even close to accomplishing what Hobsbawm achieves both in terms of a wonderfully readable account and in setting out a convincing historical framework through which to understand our modern world and the vast transformations that have forged it. I will not attempt a complete review of the works here. So much worthy of comment is covered in the four titles that to do so would warrant some significant rereading, and a mammoth review to do the works justice. As anyone who has read my first review on this blog, of Richard Baxell’s British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War will know that brevity is not my strong point, even when dealing with a relatively concise work. So whilst the scope of this piece is rather limited, I felt it worth an entry if for nothing more than to recommend any enthusiasts of history who have not already done so to make there way through Hobsbawm’s epic. I expect very few would come out the other side feeling disappointed they had done so.
Hobsbawm was born in June of 1917. His life experience was very much intertwined with many of the tumultuous events that comprise the final book in the series, Age of Extremes. Being a Jew living in Berlin at the time of Hitler’s rise to power left Hobsbawm little chance to shy away from the defining historical events of his time. It was this experience which led him into the Communist movement, the most visible and forceful opponent of the Nazi Party. As he is keen to recognize, history is often best written from the perspective of an outsider. Writing on a period through which one lived inevitably draws up sentiments and perspectives coloured by one’s contemporary experience of the event. Hobsbawm deals with this issue extensively in Age of Extremes, and warns that it cannot be taken in quite the same way as the other three titles in the series precisely for this reason. Some critics have also highlighted his lack of distance as a flaw of this final work. A compelling overture in The Age of Empire also tackles this question of a writer’s relationship with the history they are relaying in an insightful manner.
Hobsbawm’s early commitment to communist ideas became fundamental in shaping his approach to history. Along with other such notable historians of his time like Christopher Hill and E. P. Thompson, Hobsbawm became perhaps the most revered of the Communist Party Historians Group, which was to become a significant force in shaping historiographical trends. As would be expected this school placed emphasis on the centrality of social and economic aspects, and were pioneering in the intensive study of the lower social classes throughout history. Whilst in less able hands the Marxist historical materialist analysis can feel overly mechanistic, and at worst dogmatic, in Hobsbawm’s work it appears a wonderful asset, allowing great thematic coherence. The theoretical framework never seems externally imposed, rather its strength emerges as almost self-evident through the narrative. I must add here that I too am inclined to a similar perspective and as such am perhaps lacking the rigorously critical perspective of a sceptic. Nonetheless the high regard in which Hobsbawm is held is near universal in the world of academia. Unsurprisingly it was left to the Daily Mail to wheel out a little-known historian seething with bile to pen a derisory obituary to Hobsbawm.
The Age of… series can be considered as two parts. The “long nineteenth century” detailed in the first three works, The Age of Revolution, 1789 – 1848, The Age of Capital, 1848-1875, andThe Age of Empire, 1875-1914, and the “short twentieth century” dealt with in Age of Extremes, 1914-1991. The first three books appear to have received near universal acclaim, Extremeshowever has proved a more controversial work.
Revolution was first published in 1962 and is centred on Hobsbawm’s concept of the “dual revolution”, its political manifestation in France and economic counterpart in the British industrial revolution. Consequently the work takes a highly Eurocentric approach. However it is hard to find great fault with this as Hobsbawm is seeking to trace the events most fundamental in shaping the modern world and, like it or not, during the nineteenth century at least, these were to predominantly be found in Europe. To quote from the introduction, “Indeed [the dual revolution’s] most striking consequence for world history was to establish a domination of the globe by a few western regimes” (p. 3). As the title suggests this was a period of great instability beyond the dual revolution. Hobsbawm highlights and elucidates three further “waves of revolution in the western world” between 1815 and 1848 bleeding out into South America, although as yet unknown in Africa and Asia (Chapter 6). The impacts of the radical transformations inculcated by the dual revolution are tracked across all layers of society, with particular attention given to the newly emerging dichotomy between rural and urban life. Ample consideration is also given to major trends in science and culture in conjunction with and reflecting the development of economic, political and social change.
In 1975 The Age of Capital followed Revolution. Ostensibly it covers a somewhat less momentous period than its predecessor, but nonetheless tracks many fundamental developments of a capitalist system finding its feet. Whilst the majority of the world’s population continued to work the land as it had ever done, largely unaffected by the newly emerging dominant social and economic structure, capitalism’s reach extended markedly during the period, with industrialisation breaking its previously British confines, giving indication of the rapaciously expansive nature of capitalism that today has left very little of the globe untouched. Hobsbawm considers this period the first where one can really write of world history as a coherent totality. There were also several developments that reshaped the geopolitical map as nation-building projects led to the reunification of Germany under Prussian dominance, as well as comparable events in the Italian Risorgimento, not to mention the American Civil War. The continuing transformation of class dynamics and the newly emergent workers movement is also covered in much detail. The Communist Manifesto itself of course first saw light in this period following the failure of the 1848 revolutions across Europe.
Hobsbawm’s survey of the long nineteenth century concludes with The Age of Empire, first published in 1987. Following an initial economic depression, this period was typified by a great expansion of the capitalist economy, and with it increasingly rapid social and cultural change. Often referred to as the Belle Époque, the era saw an emerging upper middle class of merchants and businessman begin to rival their aristocratic counterparts in terms of prosperity and lavish excess. This label has been derived retrospectively, a golden age when considered by those enduring the harsh years of intermittent war in the first half of the twentieth century. Not only was it looked back upon as a time of great economic prosperity but also of considerable peace. From our contemporary perspective it is easy to dismiss the general optimism of the period, but there certainly was widespread belief, amongst the emergent middle classes at least, that the new economic order would bring with it unprecedented peace in international affairs. As the twentieth-century was to prove, quite the opposite was in fact true. Looking at the belle époque with what it led to in mind, it is not so difficult to see how entirely unrealistic the contemporary optimistic view was. The rising living standards were matched by growing inequality, and as capitalism continued to engulf more of the globe many of the transformations it wrought were cause for instability.
A look at the collapse of Imperial China under the Manchu dynasty in 1911 is clear evidence of this. It was to create a profound instability that threatened China’s very existence as a cohesive totality. A fear only abated following Communist victory in the Civil War in 1949. It was precisely under the strains of contact with imperialist powers during the nineteenth-century that the fragility of Imperial China became clear. Intellectuals in China became convinced of the need to break from the rigid orthodoxy of Confucianism and embrace certain aspects of Western economic, political and social development in order to prevent being entirely submerged into one or other of the imperialist empires. Fundamentally the Manchu dynasty was unable to balance the necessary reform to exist in this new era with the maintenance of traditional values that validated their rule. Its collapse and the subsequent power vacuum saw China without national central authority for the best part of forty years.
Whilst China’s development in this period has its own distinct form it demonstrates well the predicament many societies that had been on the periphery of the dual revolution faced when its consequences came to bare on them. The outcome was always unlikely to be stability and increased prospect of peace. This was also true for countries at the heart of the capitalist boom inWestern Europe. Whilst the details of the First World War are covered in Age of Extremes, Empiretackles the factors that led to it in graceful fashion. Hobsbawm tracks the sinister undertones to the belle époque all generating an inextricable drive toward conflict despite the fact that when it came none of the belligerents desired it, at least not in the form it came. The rising German challenge to British hegemony and the complex array of alliances it wrought created a tension which threatened to turn even the most minor political event into cause for large scale conflict. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was to prove just that, and was of little direct consequence to several of the most heavily involved belligerents in the war. The role of the economic order inculcated by the industrial revolution was at the heart of this. Its expansive drive had led Western nations and capitalists to nearly every corner of the globe in search of profit. As Lenin’s famous pamphlet Imperialism – The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917) was to argue, this new international dynamic was a fundamental precipitator of conflict.
It is in this climate, with all the great hopes of the belle époque in tatters, that Hobsbawm concludes his survey of the long nineteenth century. Age of Extremes appeared in 1994, with the short twentieth century of 1914-1991 as its scope. Whilst the first three Age of… titles have their critics, these largely seem to be partial criticisms of minor emissions or slight inconsistencies. They are generally held in high regard. Whilst Extremes also has its fair share of admirers it has received some staunch criticism particularly around Hobsbawm’s treatment of the Russian revolution and the subsequent development of the Soviet Union.
It was not until after the Soviet Union had collapsed and the international Communist movement withered that Hobsbawm had attempted to tackle twentieth-century Russian history in any great detail. In a radio interview he suggests this was due in no small part to his membership of and allegiance to the Communist Party of Great Britain. The centralised party structure discouraged public criticism of the Soviet Union, and Hobsbawm felt unwilling to sacrifice his historical integrity by producing a neutered and over-sympathetic history, or his political integrity in breaching party discipline. By the early nineties international political developments freed him of this constraint. According to his critics however, it did not free him of his rose tinted view of the Soviet Union. Having been aware of such criticisms prior to readingExtremes I was actually taken aback by how critical a stance on the Soviet Union Hobsbawm takes throughout. He essentially sees the Soviet project as a failure following the defeat of the German revolution in the early 1920s, and Stalin’s consolidation of power under the ideological banner of “socialism in one country”. What in effect, this failure to spread the revolution amounted to was a transformation of communist politics from a revolutionary project aimed at fundamentally altering the class dynamic of society into a vehicle for centralised, authoritarian power committed to rapid industrialisation. Whilst this manifested itself in quite a different way to free-market capitalism, the working class under “really existing socialism” was no closer to wielding power. Nor was the spread of revolution given much support. Revolutions led by Communists in Yugoslavia, Albania and China were all unsuccessfully discouraged from seizing power by Stalin, whilst developments in Greece after World War Two and during the Spanish Civil War also highlighted a conservative attitude towards world revolution emanating from the Kremlin.
Hobsbawm then is no clear apologist for state socialism on the Soviet model. The harshest critics of Extremes seem themselves to be as locked into the Cold War mentality as they accuse of Hobsbawm of being, albeit from the opposite anti-Communist angle. His more nuanced critics however, do highlight some flaws which ultimately make Extremes less satisfying than the other three Age of… titles. He exhibits a reluctance to give full scope to the atrocities committed in the name of communism, his near life long commitment to the cause being an undoubted factor. The idea of systematically detailing all the wrong turns and unjustifiable actions that he, as a member of the Communist Party, had spent his political life advocating must bare heavy even for someone of Hobsbawm’s clarity of historical vision. As he emphasises, he lacks the historical distance for a more detached view. The debate around Extremes and the history of the Soviet Union is such a vast and controversial topic that to go into it in too great an extent is beyond the scope of this supposedly brief review. In summary, it is unwise to dismiss altogether Hobsbawm’s take on Soviet history, but it must be considered in light of his long held sympathy toward “really existing socialism” and the constraints this has placed on his historical objectivity.
There is far more to Extremes than the Soviet Union, although it is events in Russia which effectively provide the scope for the short twentieth century, and the Russian revolution and its consequences are rightly located as the most significant political developments of the period. Interwoven with this are two world wars, the rise of fascism and the relative international decline of Britain and rise of America, all of which comprise the “Age of Catastrophe”, the first half of the short twentieth century up to the conclusion of the Second World War. It was an era of unprecedented death and destruction, of stark contrast to the belle époque as the contradictions of that period unravelled in conflict.
Even such notable positives as the retreat of imperialism left much uncertainty. A plethora of new nation-states of varying derivation and stability filled the map. For the most part repressive and parasitic foreign elites were replaced by similar domestic ones as the century wore on, and neo-colonialism, or the indirect domination of weaker nations particularly through foreign control over resources, began to replace the traditional imperial dominance. This is not to downplay the beneficial aspects concurrent with the end of traditional empires but to emphasise that the subsequent new structures masked a similar underlying dynamic.
The Cold War was of course central in shaping the parameters under which the post-colonial world came into being. It was the geopolitical backdrop to the post-war “golden age” of the fifties and sixties and the international stability it somewhat paradoxically created was a facilitating factor in this prosperity. This stability did not prevent conflict as the several “hot” wars from Korea to Afghanistan are testimony, but generally speaking the two superpowers had hegemonic blocks of influence that both accepted at least until the 1970s, and by that point the Sino-Soviet split had made the international division of forces along capitalist-communist lines less clear cut. Until this point the fiery rhetoric from both camps actually obscured a more stable reality.
The conclusion of the Second World War had also seen a general shift in perspective amongst the population of West European belligerent states towards sympathy for a more inclusive social structure and in response governments across Europe of both right and left introduced massive programs of reform bringing the modern welfare state into being. This increased living standards, and for a time arrested the seemingly ever growing inequality at least in developed states. Economic growth was near universal and with it a decline in the peasantry and increased urbanisation, although a diminishing but still considerable proportion of the world’s population remained isolated from it. Demographic explosion in the “third world” also added to already considerable strains on their resource distribution, all too often concentrated in very few hands.
Golden Age prosperity could not last and “The history of the twenty years after 1973 is that of a world which lost its bearings and slid into instability and crisis.” (p. 403) This is how Hobsbawm begins the final part of the book and is indicative of the more pessimistic tone ofExtremes. Whilst this period saw a serious blow landed against the predominant Keynesian model of the Golden Age, Hobsbawm argues that the free-market ideologues who appeared to benefit from this transition also failed to revitalise the economy to anything like the extent of the fifties and sixties. This transition was fundamental however and its effects are still obvious today, with a general shift away from welfare politics in parties of left and right, a rise in individualist attitudes and correspondent decline of traditional community and worker organisations in the West. The legacy of the Thatcher-Reagan generation is still in the driving seat in shaping domestic economic policy, although its connections to the pure free-market ideology of Hayak, Friedman et al. are tenuous.
Whilst the capitalist world was spluttering through its own crisis, the Soviet model was being more profoundly undermined. In the fifties the pretence of socialism being a superior economic model to capitalism had its sympathisers even in the West. Later developments evidenced just how bankrupt the Soviet system was. Saturated with a self-serving bureaucracy and economically stagnant, not to mention politically repressive and culturally sterile, Hobsbawm argues it eventually fell because, “…hardly anyone believed in the system or felt any loyalty to it, not even those who governed it.” It is perhaps in his interpretation of the post-Soviet world that Hobsbawm most angers his critics. He does not defend the Soviet system but emphasizes the crises its collapse has caused across much of Eastern Europe, with inequality mushrooming to extreme levels and standards of living falling for many. The newfound ferocity to nationalist movements in the region has also caused conflict and confusion. Even now territorial disputes arising from the collapse of the Soviet Union are a cause for tension and instability. It is Hobsbawm’s refusal to accept the predominant rhetoric of the “end of history” and the unassailable dominance of capitalism that is refreshing in a world still beset with all the problems communism sought to solve, despite how catastrophically it failed in its Russian incarnation. Hobsbawm’s final chapter dealing with the consequences of the short twentieth century is fascinating and thought provoking, but is overarched by a great uncertainty of what is to come. It is clear that the free market does not hold answers to the fundamental crises facing the world. The changing role of the nation state, the decaying of democracy, demographic and ecological problems, all seem unsolvable without vast transformations in our social and economic structure, but neither do alternatives seem clear.
Ultimately however Hobsbawm believes the short twentieth century will be viewed retrospectively as an age of great progress, despite it being perhaps the bloodiest century in human history that has concluded with a rising ideological assault on enlightenment principals. The fundamental reason for this is the remarkable forward steps made by mankind in the fields of science and technology. The globe has been transformed to the extent that today so many central aspects of societal operation would cease to function without the science that underpins it. A corresponding social and cultural transformation has also eroded many conservative values held for hundreds of years. It is this rapidity of change that creates such great uncertainty for the future, but seems to guarantee that continued transformation is inevitable.
In brief summary, Hobsbawm’s Age of… series is a must read for any history enthusiast. There is so much that provokes thought in his work, and his command of language is masterful. I feel as though I have gone on rather a lot about the content and controversy of Extremes in particular, yet there is so much more I could write. Perhaps the single strongest aspect of this work is the framework which allows the reader to engage with this great volume of knowledge without being overwhelmed, whilst simultaneously providing the theoretical consistency to understand the modern era in world history as a cohesive but continually evolving whole.
Baxell, Richard (2007), British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. The British Battalion in the International Brigades, 1936 – 1939 (Warren & Pell: Abersychan)
Greening, Edwin (2006), From Aberdare to Albacete. A Welsh International Brigader’s Memoirs of his Life (Warren & Pell: Abersychan)
For my first book review Richard Baxell’s work seemed an obvious place to start. The Spanish Civil War is a topic I have been interested in since my time in school, and was the topic of one of my major A-level essays. As such it is a subject I am reasonably well acquainted with. Furthermore this book happens to be one of my bestsellers. In the second-hand trade repeat sales of individual titles is not particularly common but thanks to the local market I have been able to acquire multiple copies of this book at a very reasonable rate. It’s publisher, sadly now defunct, is Warren & Pell, which at one time, operated in Abersychan, not too far from where I live. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Alan Warren through my father, and he helped me in supplying resources for my previously mentioned A-level project. Having once maintained a lively internet presence, following a move to Spain he seems to have sadly fallen off the radar, but I always keep my eye out for the books he helped publish. As such I have made use of this review to also mention another of his titles I currently have in stock, Edwin Greening’s “From Aberdare to Albacete. A Welsh International Brigader’s Memoirs of His Life”. Not commonly available, I was able to pick up a copy going cheap on eBay. Greening’s work is a nice accompaniment to Baxell’s, serving as a personalized, first-hand account of much of what Baxell covers.
Before dealing with the content of the books I should also mention another reason that led me both to read “British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War” and to choose it for review. That is the glowing comment supplied by a leading authority on the Spanish Civil War, Paul Preston, which I reproduce here in full:
“There is a huge literature on the role of the British volunteers in the International Brigades. Some of it is inspirational, some of it deeply moving, yet if I could keep only one book on the subject it would have to be the one by Richard Baxell. No one before or since has managed to weld the volume of disorganized and confusing memoir material into a clear and coherent political and military chronology and geography. Not only is this entirely serious but it is also extremely exciting. Baxell’s book is a classic in the making on the Spanish Civil War.”
Such praise is not undeserved. Right from outset it is apparent Baxell’s work is one of rigorous research. He appears to have left little unexamined in his quest for comprehension. References are taken from first-hand accounts, Russian archives, historical appraisals, and even unpublished dissertations. The reference and bibliography section alone takes some reading. Yet, this is a remarkably concise book at 216pp. in total, with just 152pp. comprising the main text. Baxell’s ability to continually engage is also commendable given the academic rigour.
He begins by looking at who comprised the British section of the 15th International Brigade. Previous work had tended to overstate the proportion of middle-class intellectuals present. Often this has been a problem of perception as much as anything else, with the most prominent first-hand accounts of the conflict emerging from this stratum. Most famously George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia”, but also figures like Laurie Lee and John Cornford have given greater prevalence to the role of the intelligentsia in the International Brigades than there numbers warrant. Instead Baxell draws out a clear picture of the predominant trend amongst volunteers: 80% working-class, largely from urban centres, and in unionised jobs. Whilst some expressed reluctance to state an explicit political affiliation upon recruitment, the majority that did were members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).
Whilst some who attempted to go to Spain were refused as unsuitable, this seems to have been more on political grounds than anything else, as the recruits were largely inexperienced militarily. Nevertheless many members of organisations other than the CPGB did go to Spain, with the Labour Party having 110 declared members. The CPGB were however, undeniably the main force behind mobilisation for recruitment. Attempts at the time by the right-wing press, at its head, as ever, The Daily Mail, to depict the volunteers as unemployed layabouts looking for some action, appear unfounded on the basis of Baxell’s data. Although he accepts that, as was the case for many in 1930’s Britain, despite listing an occupation upon recruitment, many volunteers may have been struggling for consistent work.
As Baxell moves on to address what motivated the volunteers to go and fight in Spain he is entirely dismissive of the most cynical appraisals. There is no evidence to suggest anyone volunteered for financial reasons, as some critics have claimed, or that they were tricked into participation by a deceptive CPGB. Financial remuneration was low, and all first-hand accounts are clear that volunteers were made aware of this, as well as the many other hardships they would face in Spain, prior to enlistment. Whilst the motivation for a few may have been adventure and escape, such was certainly atypical. When one considers the amount sacrificed by volunteers, in what was, nominally at least, a foreign civil war, it can be hard to comprehend how they came in such numbers, from many parts of the world unless it is understood that they did not view the events in Spain as a foreign civil war at all, but merely the flashpoint for an international struggle against the encroaching march of fascism. Even a cursory glance across Europe in the 1930s should be enough to demonstrate why many people felt this, and in hindsight it is clear that they were quite right to. Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists was also generating some political momentum, and the experience of fighting the fascists on British streets, and forcing partial retreat, also drove many to Spain. Beyond anti-fascism, involvement in other social and political struggles also had influence.
Here it is apt to mention Greening’s memoir. He details his involvement as a young miner, in and out of work, in several campaigns around the Welsh valleys, particularly the National Unemployed Workers Movement. He describes communities enthused with political struggle, mass rallies and debates, and the desire to stand up and fight the government. His disappointment at the Labour Party’s unwillingness to take the battle to the streets and organise mass demonstrations led him into the local section of the CPGB. Greening’s account, whilst very much his own, is in many ways representative of the broader experiences which led individuals to volunteer for the International Brigades. Solidarity with the Spanish Republic was particularly strong amongst mining communities, in part fuelled by links that had been developed through British miners support for the 1934 uprising of Spanish miners in Asturias. Hywel Francis’ book “Miners Against Fascism: Wales and the Spanish Civil War” of which I have a copy, but am yet to read, elaborates on this point. Perhaps I will return to it at more length when I have done so.
Having established the make up of the volunteers, and the reasons behind their decision to go to Spain, Baxell then gives an account of their combat role. Throughout the war, the Republic was at a continual disadvantage to Franco’s forces in several vital aspects, often exemplified in the International Brigades’ experiences. Whilst the Brigades did encompass some of the Republic’s most skilled military cadre, those with previous combat experience were very much the minority. This was true throughout the Republican forces, and only worsened as the war wore on and conscription became necessary.
The arms situation was even more deplorable. Entirely inexperienced recruits were sent out into the field without any weapons training. Within the International Brigades the training seems to have been particularly poor, amounting to little more than marching drills. Whilst there does appear to have been some negligence in regards to training, the lack of military equipment was the predominant factor. There were simply not enough guns to spare, and even if a raw recruit was lucky enough to handle a weapon prior to seeing action, ammunition was unlikely to be supplied. If one compares this situation with that of their adversaries it seems remarkable the Republic held out for as long as it did. Highly trained, experienced troops comprised the core of Franco’s fighting force. A flood of arms from Nazi Germany was also at their behest, not to mention advisers, aircraft, and troops on the ground. This allowed Franco to continually outnumber the Republic’s forces.
It also brings light to one of the most discussed aspects of the Civil War. I will not deal with it in any depth here as it is not Baxell’s main concern, but it cannot pass without mention. The international support enjoyed by Franco was arguably the fundamental reason for his eventual victory. Whilst Britain and France sat on their hands cowering behind a Non-Intervention pact, the fascist world made no attempts to hide their mass arming of Franco. Meanwhile Stalin, driven by his fear of Hitler, was anxious not to over aggravate Britain and France, and thus sent only minimal financial and military support to the Republic. Given the role the Spanish Communist Party was to play, under Comintern direction, in seeking to control the revolution and stifle its most radical elements could also arguably be seen as an essentially destructive force to the cause of the Republic. Whilst Greening, a good Party man, certainly makes no such claims for the adverse role of Soviet intervention, instead praising their support, he is clear in his view that the British establishment was essentially complicit in the fascist victory in Spain. It’s evident that large sections of it favoured a fascist Spain to a communist Spain.
This was one of many factors that fuelled British volunteers with the immense bravery and conviction they showed in Spain. They viewed it also as a struggle against there own ruling class. High morale and political dedication were arguably a major factor in the length of the Republic’s resistance, and helped to compensate, albeit meagrely, for their obvious deficiencies in other aspects. This was an army overwhelmingly committed to the rightness of their cause, and willing to go to any extent to defend it. Such was particularly true of the non-Spanish sections of the Brigades, who had after all, given up all that they had, without any pressure other than their convictions. One Brigader, mentioned in Baxell, and prominent in his own right, is Tom Wintringham. I have admired his work since becoming aware of it. One of his books, “Armies of Freemen”, offers a tenuous but engaging thesis that wars throughout the ages have been won by those with liberty on their side, who were fighting for themselves, and not at the behest of any elite or master. He uses examples such as the Spartans at Thermopylae, victorious against great odds, over a slave army. His assertions would not meet historical rigour, but it is a highly entertaining read nonetheless. The outcome of the Spanish Civil War itself is a clear exception to Wintringham’s thesis, but there is certainly something in his assertion that political conviction amongst troops is an important asset in war. Greening perhaps offers a more apposite perspective. In response to a statement made by 15th Brigade Chief of Staff Captain Smrka that, “… good morale is better than all the bombing planes in the world!” he writes, “I disagree; both are of equal value in battle.” (p. 86)
The first prominent involvement of British troops in Spain was the important role they played in the Republican defence of Madrid in 1936. Baxell recognises the significance of their contribution whilst urging caution towards certain accounts that have portrayed the 15th Brigade as solely responsible for the victory. As the war went on such successes were to become few and far between for the Republic. Still, accounts of great bravery amongst the British volunteers emerge from every major battle. It seems even considerable problems with coordination and organisation failed to dint the commitment of many. Greening describes, in perhaps the most captivating section of his book, how during the Ebro campaign in 1938, Greening and two comrades were separated from their unit and had to spend several days scavenging behind enemy lines before being able to rejoin the main group. (pp. 87-93) It seems such things were not uncommon.
Brigades had to face other considerable problems too. Desertion was a factor, as was internal conflict on both national and factional-political grounds. Whilst efforts had been made to enforce a policy of shooting deserters it appears that the British sections at least, were unwilling to do so, although a few accounts have filtered through of undesirable individuals purposely being placed in harm’s way. Baxell considers that the factual evidence suggests this may have happened once or twice during the course of the war, with a similar level of executions, reserved only for deserters it was believed were attempting to aid fascist troops. Baxell states, “… there is no doubt that the belief that the battalion was ruled with rigid and merciless discipline, including the execution of deserters, is an exaggeration.” (p. 147)
It appears that for the most part those who deserted the Brigades did so due to the appalling hardship of the war, rather than political disaffection, or anger at the dominant role of the official Communists within the Brigades. No doubt there were political disagreements but these seem to have been secondary to disputes of a national nature, at least according to Baxell’s account. In a way this may seem strange, avowed internationalists bickering along national lines, but whatever ones beliefs, the influence of national culture and identity impacts on ones outlook. For the most part it was manifested as harmless banter, but it did have a more sinister and disruptive side, particularly as the war continued. Some British volunteers began to view the Spanish as weak. Conversely the Spanish were coming to resent the seniority enjoyed by foreigners within the International Brigades, which, by the later stages of the war, were predominantly comprised of Spaniards. Irish Brigaders defected from the British Battalion to join the American Lincoln Battalion over unwillingness to fight alongside men who had served in the British Army inIreland. Greening recalls a fight breaking out between white American and black Cuban Brigaders shortly before repatriation. (p. 102) But these disputes should not be overstated. Baxell concludes that for the most part they remained petty, and went against the prevailing spirit of the Brigades. The appreciation of many normal Spaniards for the role played by the International Brigades was clear when they turned out to bid them farewell once the decision for repatriation had been made.
There were clearly also personal disputes within the Brigades. It appears they never reached sufficient levels to disrupt operations, but there were some events of note, one of the most prominent and intriguing being the incident between Wilf McCartney and Peter Kerrigan. It was claimed that Kerrigan had accidentally shot McCartney thereby ending his service period inSpain. Some Brigaders believed it not to have been an accident at all. McCartney had become a liability, and “increasingly critical of the Party”. However, Baxell remains unconvinced it was anything other than an accident seeing as McCartney was about to return on leave to Britainanyway, and could have been prevented from returning to Spain had the CPGB leadership considered him unfit. (pp. 72-73) Nevertheless the varying accounts of volunteers supplied by Baxell seem to suggest a degree of factionalism surrounding the dispute, perhaps a possible indicator of deeper lying political divisions. Greening also relays his personal dispute with Lance Rogers about his period of absence from the Brigade following his separation at the Ebro. (p. 102-106) It certainly appears a somewhat bizarre affair. Such things were certainly an aspect of life for British volunteers in the Brigades.
Baxell’s penultimate chapter deals with the experiences of British prisoners of war. Despite efforts by elements of the British press sympathetic to the nationalist cause to play down the levels of mistreatment suffered, Baxell concludes that conditions were harsh for Brigaders captured by the fascists. They were however largely safe from execution due to Franco’s unwillingness to risk provocation. On the whole their punishment was restricted to severe beatings and attempts at indoctrination. Some of the latter allowed prisoners to mock their guards with faux appreciation for Franco, amending the cry of ‘Franco!’ to ‘Fuck You’, and offering a bizarre display of comical fascist salutes. More constructively, sections of the CPGB formed prisoners committees in an attempt to manage internal disputes without involvement of the guards.
The books concluding chapter is perhaps it’s most interesting. Here Baxell takes a step back from the immediate experience of British volunteers in Spain and asks the question, “British Volunteers for Liberty, or Comintern Army?” He positions himself firmly in the former camp. He is highly critical of recent accounts that have reduced the International Brigades to a mere pawn of Stalin. Whilst he accepts that Stalin did attempt to manipulate the Brigades and the Spanish situation at large, in alignment with his policy of “socialism in one country”, there are little grounds for seeing the Brigaders themselves as the exponents of Stalin’s domestic policy on Spanish soil. The great purges in Russia were never matched in Spain. In fact there are very few reported executions, with deserters receiving largely liberal treatment. It is also important to keep the events in context. Spain was locked in a brutal civil war. Simply allowing fascism to seize the reins was not a consideration for the Brigaders, thus certain measures otherwise undesirable, would have been considered. With that in mind Baxell concludes that the authoritarian nature of the Brigades has been overplayed by both right and left. He is also adamant that it does a severe disservice to the Brigaders to view them as Soviet dupes, “they went to Spain to fight fascism, and by their definition of fascism they did just that.” Any support they received from Soviet Russia was welcomed with open arms, whilst most of the world stood by and watched. Baxell’s concludes by deploying the weight of hindsight, and sees history as vindicating the volunteers. Their “analysis was … proved correct. [They] were fighting an illegal military rising launched against a legally elected government, the rising was supported by the might of the European fascist powers of Italy and Germany and the war was the precursor for the wider European conflict that the Western democracies had sacrificed the Spanish Republic to avoid.” (p. 152)
It is hard to feel anything but massive admiration for all those who risked and gave their lives fighting to stave off fascist advance, with the hope to forge a brighter future. Both Baxell and Greening’s works are important contributions to their history. I would go so far as to say Baxell’s account is essential. And I’m not just saying that because I have it for sale! It appears unmatched in comprehension and even-handedness. Greening’s work is more supplementary, but it is the availability of such accounts that has allowed Baxell to compile such an impressive panorama. The books work well when read in conjunction, Greening providing the personalised narrative to Baxell’s analytical treatment.
Greening discusses much more of interest than that I have dealt with here, providing insight into life in the Welsh valley towns up to and during the 1930’s depression, his politicisation, and a brief account of his experiences during the Second World War.
Details of the copies I have in stock:
Baxell, Richard (2007), British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. The British Battalion in the International Brigades, 1936 – 1939 (Warren & Pell: Abersychan). 2nd edition. Paperback. Condition: Fine. 216pp. Profusely illustrated with maps and tables. £10
Greening, Edwin (2006), From Aberdare to Albacete. A Welsh International Brigader’s Memoirs of his Life (Warren & Pell: Abersychan). 1st edition. Paperback. Condition: Nr. Fine. 160pp. Illustrated. Slight creasing to top corner. £15
A selection of other titles on the Spanish Civil War I currently have in stock:
Kenwood, Alun ed. (1993), The Spanish Civil War. A Cultural and Historical Reader (Berg:Providence). 1st edition. Paperback. Condition: Very Good. xiv + 306pp. From the Berg European Studies Series. Marking and wear to covers. £6
Kay, Solly ed., In Defence of Liberty. Spain 1936-9. International Brigade Memorial (International Brigade Memorial Appeal: London). 1st edition. Paperback. Condition: Very Good. 24pp. Illustrated. Marking to covers. Some creasing to corners. £4
Edwards, Jill (1979), The British Government and the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 (Macmillan:London). 1st Edition. Hardback. Condition: Fine in very good dust jacket. xiv + 280pp. Contains maps and tables. Dust jacket spine faded. £20
Heaton, P. M. (1985), Welsh Blockade Runners in the Spanish Civil War (Starling: Risca). 1stEdition. Hardback. Condition: Fine in fine dust jacket. 107pp. Illustrated, with maps. £6
Lee, Laurie (1991), A Moment of War (Viking: London). 1st edition. Hardback. Condition: Fine in near fine dust jacket. 178pp. Illustrated. Creasing to internal front flap of dust jacket. £3
Campbell, Roy (1939), Flowering Rifle. A Poem from the Battlefield of Spain (Longmans, Green, and Co.: London). 1st edition. Hardback. Condition: Very Good. No dust jacket. 157pp. Previous owners’ signature to front end paper. Variable mild foxing, occasional throughout. £20
If you are interested in any of the above titles, or anything else I have in stock, please contact me on the email address provided. Please note that the above prices do not include shipping costs.