Collected short stories of Somerset Maugham volume four

Consisting of a preface and 30 tales, this is the longest of the four volumes of Somerset Maugham’s collected short stories, made up of 461 densely-printed pages.

Preface Maugham says these stories were set early in the twenties, long before aviation became common. The British people who staffed remote outposts in Malaysia were very isolated and a long way from home. They served five years with hardly any contact with other white people, rarely saw newspapers, and dreamed of a Britain which slowly changed and left them behind.

Now, as he is writing the preface in the early 1950s, the experience of colonial administrators has changed out of all recognition. Radio, TV, jet airplanes, have all reduced the distance and abolished the sense of psychological isolation, which was so often his subject in the stores from the 20s and 30s.

In this preface Maugham is also at pains to emphasise how much he respected the people who did these thankless jobs so far from their homeland. I know from his biography that Maugham received a lot of criticism for enjoying the hospitality of Brits in faraway places and then betraying their confidences and telling stories about real people which, in these small colonial societies, could be very damaging to the individuals described.

In this preface he goes out of his way to emphasise that his often lurid stories are about rare and exceptional people or incidents, and that in reality almost all the Brits he met administering the empire were honest and good.

The short stories

The Book-Bag (1932 – Malaya – 1st person narrator) This is an eerie, powerful and disturbing story, up there with Rain as one of his best. In Penang Maugham stays with the British Resident who tells him a story about a chap they bumped into at the club earlier in the evening, Tim Hardy. His parents had been divorced and Tim and his sister Olive were brought up apart, she in Italy, he in Britain. Then the parents died and the adult siblings hooked up and came to stay in Malaysia, keeping themselves to themselves. Over a period of time Maugham’s host, Featherstone (the man telling us the story) falls in love with Olivia but she is playfully stand-offish. Then Tim, her brother, is called back to England. After a few months he telegraphs from there to say he’s met someone and fallen in love. Then another telegram to say he’s got married. Featherstone notices Olivia taking this nervously, but continues to woo her right up till the moment when Tim Hardy arrives back at Penang with his new blushing bride. Everyone welcomes them and Featherstone accompanies them all the way to the bungalow Tim had shared with his sister. He is outside when he hears a gunshot. Featherstone rushes in to find that the beautful Olivia has shot herself, blowing half her face off. In shock Featherstone staggers back to his house and sits stunned, as darkness falls. He is startled by a knock at the door. It is Tim Hardy’s new wife, in hysterics. She needs to leave, now, right away, she never wants to see Tim again, she is weeping, hysterical. Suddenly Featherstone realises the truth. Hardy and his sister were lovers. Olivia shot herself in rage and jealousy at Tim abandoning her for another woman. And this is the story Featherstone calmly tells the narrator, over gin at the club.

French Joe (1926 – Thursday Island, the Torres Straits – 1st person) The hermit they call French Joe fled to a remote South Sea island after the suppression of the Paris Commune of 1871, having been a commune-ist. This is a brief but intense, three-page description of French Joe’s character and oddities.

German Harry (1924 – Trebucket, near Thursday Island, Torres Straits – 1st person) Another brief thumbnail sketch, this time of a grumpy old German who lives on a desert island, the conclusion being that isolation brings no enlightenment, but a return to savagery.

The Four Dutchmen (1928 – Singapore – 1st) The four fat, friendly Dutchmen who crew a lugger, are legendary throughout the South Seas for their bonhomie. Until the captain takes a native mistress and his insistence that she accompanies them on their voyages drives a wedge between him and the others. The captain finds the girl in bed with the chief engineer, shoots the latter dead, then goes up on the bridge and shoots himself.

The Back Of Beyond (1931 – Timbang Belud, Malaysia – 3rd person narrator) George Moon is the Resident in Timbang Belud, a fictitious town in the Federated Malay States (a British colony). He is on the verge of retiring. One morning he is surprised to get a visit from Tom Saffary, with whom he has argued in the past. Both have heard of the death of the popular member of their ex-pat community, ‘Knobby’ Clarke, on board ship back to Britain. Now Saffary tells Moon the story behind it. In a sequence of very believable scenes and dialogues, Saffary describes how he realised that his wife, Violet, was having an affair with Clarke. The guilty couple had got as far as deciding to run away together, when suddenly Clarke’s wife announced that she was pregnant. Unable to leave her, Knobby decides to do the decent thing and leave the scene of his affair, taking his wife back to Blighty for the birth. But overcome by misery at leaving his true love (Violet) he killed himself on the ship home. Which plunges Violet into such unhappiness that she reveals all to Saffary. Which explains why Saffary is now in Moon’s office, helplessly crying his eyes out. Moon gives him what succour he can and the crying man eventually leaves.

Then, adding a further level to the narrative, Moon reflects on his own marriage, and the wife he divorced years ago when he discovered that she was having an affair. Meeting her years later, he realized his mistake in giving up years of happiness, comfort and companionship for the momentary satisfaction of his pride disguised as honour.

So this tale is a complex interplay of timelines, and of two highly emotional stories, handled with immaculate skill.

P. & O. (1923 – P&O liner from the East back to England – 3rd) Another longish story, given depth and resonance by the complete verisimilitude with which Maugham creates his characters. Mrs Hamlyn is a middle-aged, pukka lady on the long sea journey from the East back to Britain. There is a lot of social observation of the other passengers and a distracting side story about whether or not the second class passengers should be allowed to attend the Christmas party being arranged by the first class passengers – but all this is really just to create more ‘reality’ as background to the principle story. The story consists in the fact that Mrs Hamlyn casually meets a big Irish man named Gallagher, they chat, they flirt. She is surprised to hear, a few days later, that he’s become confined to his bed with, of all things, hiccups. Mrs Hamlyn encounters the short cockney man, Pryce, who was Gallagher’s assistant on his rubber plantation out East and is accompanying him home. Pryce explains that before Gallagher left, he had offended a fat old native woman who put a hex on him, vowing he would die before they next sighted land. Initially laughing this off, Mrs Hamlyn comes to almost believe it as she watches Gallagher become progressively more ill. One night, on deck, she sees a crowd around a small fire and observes from a distance the magic ceremony which Pryce has organised, led by one of the ship’s Malay sailors, and which involves sacrificing a cockerel in a bid to counter the old woman’s curse. But it doesn’t work, and Gallagher eventually dies and is buried at sea. The Christmas party, which had been rumbling along in the background, goes ahead, with the second class passengers now invited. But the oddest thing about the story is the impact of all this on Mrs Hamlyn: she had previously been tired and depressed. Somehow, now, she feels rejuvenated and energised. Gallagher’s death makes her realise how important life is. She faces the future radiant with hope.

This is another complex, absorbing and completely compelling story, rich in layers and meanings.

Episode (1946 -Brixton – 3rd) A story told to the narrator by his friend Ned Preston, a semi-invalid who has become an unpaid ‘prison visitor’. At a typically Maughamesque upper-class party Ned tells the guests the story of a convict he’s met in prison, Fred Manson. Fred was a postman in Brixton where he chatted up the ladies and, one day, a young woman called Gracie Carter. They walk out together. Her family are appalled because they have invested a lot of time and money getting her into teacher training school and don’t want her consorting with a rough postman. But Gracie rejects them in favour of Fred who, alas, is shortly afterwards arrested and convicted for stealing money out of the letters he handles and sent to Wormwood Scrubs. It is here that Ned meets him, hears his story, and gets into the habit of visiting the Carter family to pass on Fred’s messages. From this vantage point that Ned is able to paint such a convincing picture, giving not only Gracie’s side of events but the opinions of her respectable working class parents, especially the mother. So for some months Fred and Gracie correspond and have occasional prison visits. She is devoted to him, waiting only for his release. Then only a month before the big date, Fred has quite a bad illness and takes a few weeks to recover. And when he does Ned is astonished to discover that he doesn’t want to marry Gracie any more, he doesn’t even want to see her. He is sick of her cloying possessiveness. He’s had enough of her. When Ned passes this shocking news on to Gracie the latter says, ‘Well, there’s nothing for me to do but go and stick my head in a gas-oven.’ Which is what she does. The end. A grippingly detailed account of working class life with a stunningly abrupt ending.

The Kite (1946 – London – 1st) A second story sourced from the narrator’s friend Ned, the prison visitor. Herbert Sunbury is brought up in a close-knit, if not cloying lower-class suburban family. He enjoys flying kites with his dad, really enjoys it, it is a passion and hobby every Saturday to go to the nearby park and fly one. He becomes attached to the rougher, more ambitious Betty Bevan, disapproved of by Herbert’s parents, who seduces him into marrying her. But they are forced by poverty to live in a tiny apartment and soon her clinging possessiveness drives Herbert to distraction. All he wants is to spend Saturday afternoon with his dad flying their kite, but Betty tries to stop him and, in a climactic argument, makes it a point of honour: me or the kite. Herbert pushes her out of the way, and goes and spends a happy afternoon with his dad flying the kite. That night there’s a bit of rummaging around in the bins and sheds at the back of the Sunburys’ terraced house. In the morning Herbert discovers that Betty had been round and has smashed to pieces the new superkite which was his dad’s new prize possession. At which point Herbert refuses to give Betty her support money or, when the furniture rental falls due, to pay it. With the result that he is summonsed before a magistrate who orders him to pay his wife her support. Still refusing, Herbert is sentenced to imprisonment. Which is where Ned meets the Man Who Is In Prison Because His Wife Smashed Up His Kite.

A Woman Of Fifty (1946 – Mid-West America – 1st) This story has the tone of a very senior author, a man of the world (Maugham was 72 when it was published).

In the placid surroundings of a mid-Western university, at a faculty party, Maugham meets a middle-aged woman named Laura and it sparks a distant memory, taking several days for him to remember her part in a scandal which took place a generation earlier. Against her family’s advice, as a beautiful young woman, Laura had married a handsome, young hot-headed Italian man, Tito, son of an elegant if penniless count. Tito turns out to be an addicted gambler, and becomes increasingly harsh to his wife. To save him from his addiction, Laura closes their apartment and moves them into the count’s dilapidated palazzio outside town. Slowly Tito begins to suspect there is something between Laura and his father, an old but elegant and courtly man. Eventually, in a passion of jealousy, Tito shoots his father dead and is arrested. A distraught Laura is persuaded that the only way to save Tito from a life in solitary confinement is to ‘confess’ that she was having an affair with the father and so Tito’s act was defensible as a crime passionel: which she does. The kick in the story is that, some time later, when the narrator is talking the story over with some American ex-pats who knew her, one of the ex-pats says that Laura confessed to her that she was in fact having an affair with the father!

And now, 25 years later, here is Maugham meeting the heroine of this wild, garish, violent melodrama, transformed into a plump respectable matron, in the respectable surroundings of a cocktail party at a nice American university.

Mayhew (1923 – Capri – 1st) Mayhew was a big, brawny lawyer in Detroit when he heard of an old house for sale on Capri and, on a whim, decided to buy it. He realises he wants to escape the rat race, sells all his worldly possessions, buys an annuity i.e. an annual pension with the money, and retires to the house with its great view over the Bay of Naples. Here Mayhew becomes obsessed with the Roman emperor Tiberius (14-37) and decides to devote his life to researching and writing a history of the Second Century of the Roman Empire. He spends 15 years acquiring books, making vast volumes of notes, employing all his forensic skills. His once big, tough body wastes away. He becomes a shadow of himself. Finally he sits down to write this great magnum opus and drops dead.

The Lotus Eater (1935 – Capri – 1st) Maugham dates the first part of this story to 1913. On Capri he meets a charming Englishman named Wilson. After the usual drinks and dinner they get to chatting and Wilson tells him that he used to be a respectable bank manager in London but one day realised that he just wanted to escape the rat race. Wilson calculated to perfection the money he had and bought an annuity which would last him till age 60, he being 35 when he made the decision. When that day comes and his money dries up, Wilson has cheerfully vowed to kill himself. He has lived on Capri in a simple house and meagre rations but in perfect happiness ever since.

Then the Great War breaks out and Maugham doesn’t return to Capri for many years. It is then that he hears the grim second part of the story. As the deadline for the end of his pension – and his act of suicide – approached, Wilson found he couldn’t do it. He began borrowing money from the shopkeepers, putting off paying his landlord, kept this up for a year or so, and then went completely bust. On the day before the landlord was due to evict him, Wilson barricaded the doors and windows and lit a brazier, planning to asphyxiate himself to death. But it was a leaky old house and enough air got in so that he lost consciousness but didn’t quite die. The landlord’s wife found him, he was sent to hospital, it was touch and go whether he’d survive but, although he was eventually cured in body, it became apparent that Wilson had gone a bit mad. After some consideration the landlord – a simple peasant himself – put Wilson up in a lean-to next to his barn and the wizened, mad old Englishman became a regular sight on the island, hiding behind trees, dodging behind rocks, avoiding all human contact. Finally he was found dead having spent the night at a famous beauty spot.

Salvatore (1924 – Capri – 1st) Maugham starts the story by teasingly asking the reader whether he can do it – leaving us a bit mystified at what he means by ‘it’. He then proceeds to tell the story of a beautiful Italian youth on Capri, Salvatore, who falls in love with a local girl, has to do national service, catches an illness in distant China, is invalided out of the Navy and returns to his native village where he discovers that his beloved (and her family) have all heard about his illness, learning that he will never be fully well again, and so she has married another man. After his initial disappointment, Salvatore’s family fix him up with another woman, not so good-looking, older than him, but sturdy and loyal. They have children. Watching big strong Salvatore bathe the babies in the sea is a pleasure to visitors to the island like the narrator.

And now Maugham reveals what the challenge is that he mentioned right at the start of the story: it was to see whether he could hold the reader’s attention with a description of human goodness. Nothing bad happens. there are no murders or suicide. the story is a portrait of simple goodness.

The Wash-Tub (1929 – Positano – 1st) The narrator is in Capri, gets bored and rows over to Positano. It’s out of season so he’s surprised to find another guest at the hotel, is introduced and gets to know him, a charming American professor who says his name is Barnaby. That’s funny, says the narrator: this summer London was taken by storm by an American millionairess. She said she was a rough daughter of the West, married to One-Bullet Mike (who got  his name because he shot two bandits with one bullet), that she had cooked and kept camp for a gang of miners out West, till One-Bullet Mike struck oil and paid for her to fulfil her ambition of visiting Europe.

By accident the narrator sees the photo of this same Mrs Barnaby in his new friend’s hotel bedroom, whereupon the full story comes out. This sophisticated university professor is in fact Mrs Barnaby’s husband. On the liner from the States to Britain, Mr Barnaby was taken ill and cabin-bound for a few days. One morning Mrs Barnaby got nattering to the Duke and Duchess of Richmond and experimentally told a tall tale about the West, which went down well, then another, and another – and soon found herself being introduced to other aristocratic Brits as a ‘Daughter of the American West’. She came back to their cabin and told her husband all about it and they treated it as a big joke, her husband telling her old Bret Harte tales of the Wild West which Mrs Barnaby then retold to the posh British passengers as her own experiences.

But Mrs Barnaby became such a celebrity aboard ship that she eventually asked her husband to remain in the cabin, even when he was better. Her cover story had been that One-Bullet Mike had struck oil back West while he sent his good lady wife for the trip of a lifetime, and she couldn’t afford to change it now.

Things eventually went so far that she asked him not to get off at Southampton and show up all her stories as lies; she asked him to go on to France and, since the professor fancied doing some research at the Sorbonne, he agreed. But as Mrs Barnaby established a base in a swanky London hotel and set about taking ‘the season’ by storm, she realised he must never come to England and burst her bubble. So she sent word to him in Paris to go somewhere out of the way and obscure for the whole summer – and that’s why he is whiling away the summer in remote Positano, reading books and bored to death!

A Man With A Conscience (1939 – French Guiana – 1st) Maugham gives us a detailed factual introduction to St Laurent de Manoni, capital of the French penal colony on Guiana, a prison for murderers, which he had himself visited and been shown round.

The narrator meets the governor and has the rules and regulations of the prison explained to him. Then he tells the story of a convict he names Jean Charvin. Charvin grows up with a best friend, Henri. They both fall in love with the same small-town beauty, Marie-Louise. Jean works in a boring job in Le Havre. Henri is offered a job with a trading company in faraway Cambodia, but it is so far away that Marie-Louise refuses to go, so – victory for Jean.

But then, before the Cambodia job falls due, Henri is offered a job at the very firm where Jean works in Le Havre, threatening to stay and win Marie-Louise’s hand. To avoid his friend getting the job and – therefore, probably winning the hand of the town beauty in marriage – Jean tells the boss that his best friend Henri is unreliable and shouldn’t be given the job. And so Henri doesn’t get the Le Havre job and is forced to accept the post in faraway Cambodia, leaving the ground clear for Jean to woo and marry Marie-Louise. But – slowly he comes to realise that she is dull and superficial. Slowly he comes to resent her.

Then, disaster – they all hear that Henri got an illness and died out in Cambodia. Now Jean feels mortally guilty at having sent his best friend out to his death. He begins to have bad dreams and then nightmares in which his dead friend reproaches him. And he projects that guilt and resentment onto empty-headed Marie-Louise. One morning Jean is exercising with his dumb bells when she a particularly idiotic remark about Jean’s mother, and with all his strength Jean cracks her round the head, smashing her skull. Jean’s guilty dreams about poor Henri disappear. From that day to this, he has slept perfectly.

Jean is arrested, tried and sentenced, but no-one can adduce a motive, and so he only gets six years. He has been a model prisoner and hopes, upon release, to be able to go back to France and get a job. And here Maugham adds his characteristic touch, the sliver of ice in the heart, the glint of cold cynicism. Jeans tells Maugham that he’d even like to get married again – but next time he’ll marry for money, not for love!

An Official Position (1937 – French Guiana – 3rd) Still in the penal colony in French Guiana, the third person narrator describes the life and character of Louis Remire, convicted for murdering his wife but who, through good behaviour, has been allowed to become the penal colony’s official executioner. His predecessor was assassinated by freed convicts (after serving their time in the prison, convicts are freed, but not allowed to leave the colony, and so roam far and wide, begging and often reverting to crime in order to survive). Remire goes fishing on a rock near his hut and realises that for the first time in his life he is happy, genuinely happy. He naps a while, then wakes to go back to prison to perform a midnight execution. On the way he is ambushed and, like his predecessor, horribly murdered.

The main drive in this story is in the contrast between Louis’ happy carefree moments fishing by the sea and, later that night, his terror-stricken walk through the dark jungle, which is terrifying enough to make your hair stand on end.

Winter Cruise (1943 – Transatlantic steamer – 3rd) Miss Reid runs a tea rooms in Plymouth. She has saved up and bought herself a return ticket on a tramp steamer which goes from Germany, via England, to the Caribbean. It is crewed by six German sailors. The other passengers alight in the Caribbean and then Miss Reid is the only passenger. The trouble is that she won’t stop talking and is an intolerable bore. She is driving the ship’s crew to distraction with her ceaseless nattering. One night, the ship’s doctor, over a beer with the rest of the crew, suggests that maybe Miss Reid is a virgin and needs to be… needs a… you know. The captain blushes red, considers his options, and then orders the tall, handsome, blonde young radio engineer to do his duty. He reports at Miss Reid’s door late that night and – it happening to be New Year’s Eve – helps her start the new year with a bang.

Mabel (1924 – Burma – 1st) In 1923 Maugham travelled through Burma, Siam and into French Indo-China. He took his time composing his impressions into a travel book, The Gentleman in the Parlour, which was published in 1930. This ‘story’ and the next four ‘stories’ are included in that book as factual encounters, which just goes to show the very thin wall between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ in Maugham’s short stories.

This is a short, comic story of a chap named George who gets engaged to a girl in Britain before going out to Burma, but years pass and when she finally sails out to join him, he gets cold feet, panics, and flees to Singapore. Here, however, he finds a loving telegram from his fiancee awaiting him. So he flees to Bangkok. And to Saigon. And to Hong Kong. Each time followed – uncannily – by a telegram from his beloved promising to catch him up. So he flees into China, deep into remote rural China, where he hides out in a place called Cheng-tu. And a few weeks later is enjoying a drink with the local British Consul, when there’s a knock at the door and Mabel waltzes in, fresh as a daisy, and asks if he’s ready to marry her now.

Masterson (1929 – Burma – 1st) Another excerpt from the 1930 travel book, The Gentleman in the Parlour. At a village in Burma, Maugham dines with Masterson, who is twitchy and unhappy. It emerges that he has been there for years, taken a beautiful Burmese girl as a mistress, and had three children with her. But eventually she became insistent that he marry her. She wasn’t getting any younger and soon no Burmese man would look at her. But Masterson can’t bring himself to; it would mean the end of his dream, which is to eventually quit the East and retire back to Cheltenham, to become a kindly old buffer pottering about second-hand bookshops, quite impossible with a ‘native’ wife. . So as quietly and politely as she came, the Burmese wife packs her bags, takes the children and leaves. And now Masterson is lonely and miserable.

Princess September A number of prominent authors were invited to donate volumes to a doll’s house which was being created for the young Princess Elizabeth in the early 1920s. Maugham wrote this fairy story. It has an Oriental setting, probably inspired by Maugham’s 1921 trip to Siam, and he later included it as a chapter in his travel book The Gentleman in the Parlour.

The King of Siam had nine daughters named after the months of the year. The youngest daughter named September had a very pleasing personality. Her other sisters were all of sullen nature. One year on his birthday the King gave each of his daughters a beautiful green parrot in a golden cage. The parrots shortly learnt to speak.

Unfortunately, the parrot of Princess September died. She was heartbroken. Presently a little bird bounded into her room and sang a lovely song about the king’s garden, the willow tree and the goldfish. The princess was thrilled. The bird decided to stay with her and sing her beautiful songs. When the princesses’ sisters became jealous when they came top know of the sweet bird that sang better than their parrots.

The malicious sisters urged Princess September to put the bird in a cage. The innocent princess put the bird into a cage. The bird was bewildered but the princess justified caging the bird as she was afraid of the lurking cats. When the bird tried to sing, it had to stop midway as it felt wretched in the cage.

The next morning the bird asked Princess September to release her from the cage, she did not listen to it. Instead she assured the bird that it would have three meals a day and nothing to worry all day. The bird was not happy with it and pleaded to let it out from the cage. September try to console the bird saying that she had caged the bird because of her love for it. The distraught bird did not sing the whole day and stopped eating its food.

The next morning the princess noticed the bird lying in the cage still. Thinking that the bird was dead, she started weeping. Then the bird rose and told the princess that it could not sing unless it was free and if it could not sing it would die. Taking pity on the bird, the kind princess released the bird. The bird flew away. Yet, it returned to enchant the princess with its sweet songs. The princess kept her windows open day and night for the bird to come and go whenever it wanted.

A Marriage Of Convenience (1929 – Aboard ship off Vietnam – 1st) Another excerpt from the 1930 travel book, The Gentleman in the Parlour. Maugham is on a small steamer running up the Indo-China coast carrying a rum collection of passengers, including an American husband and wife who run a miniature circus. Another passenger is a French Governor, a small man married to an enormous, stout woman.

She was a large woman, tall and of a robust build, of fifty–five perhaps, and she was dressed somewhat severely in black silk. On her head she wore a huge round topee. Her features were so
large and regular, her form so statuesque, that you were reminded of the massive females who take part in processions. She would have admirably suited the role of Columbia or Britannia in a patriotic demonstration. She towered over her diminutive husband like a skyscraper over a shack.

The Governor candidly tells his back story. When he first applied for the post he was rejected because he wasn’t married. The interviewer said the post would be his if he could find a wife within a month, and recommended advertising for a wife in Le Figaro. The Governor did so and was amazed to be overwhelmed by offers of marriage, so many (over a thousand) that he didn’t know where to begin. Then he took the advice of a friend who said he had a nice cousin holidaying in Geneva who might be suitable. So he travelled straight to Geneva, found the (large, imposing) cousin and proposed. Laughing, she accepted. And here they are, both completely happy!

Mirage (1929 – Haiphong, Vietnam – 1st) Another excerpt from the 1930 travel book, The Gentleman in the Parlour.

The ship Maugham’s on which is still steaming up the coast of Indo-China, docks at Haiphong, which Maugham goes to explore. Sitting at the bar of his hotel he is approached by a big, shabby, red-faced, fat old boy who announces that his name is Grosely and that he was in the same class as Maugham back at St Thomas’s Hospital, must have been in back in 1892.

It takes Maugham a while to remember that this Grosely was once a slender, attractive 19-year-old boy who lived a surprisingly luxury life for a student – until, that is, he was arrested for defrauding pawn shops on an industrial scale. Grosely takes him back to his house which turns out to be a dingy room in the roughest part of the native quarter, where he lives with a local woman. She makes him several opium pipes while he tells Maugham his story.

After getting arrested and briefly imprisoned, thus ending his medical school career, Grosely headed out East to make his fortune and became a ‘tide-waiter’ i.e. liaised between trading ships coming into Shanghai and H.M. Customs. Obviously crooked, he spent decades raking off bribes and kickbacks, but always harboured the fond ambition of going back to London to show everyone he’d done good. Finally he did make the trip ‘home’ and spent a miserable month realising he knew no-one and that the entire place had changed. Even the tarts in Piccadilly didn’t want to be propositioned by a fat, red-faced old buffer. (Maugham describes his unhappiness and alienation brilliantly.)

Eventually Grosely takes ship back out East, stopping at various places on the way, until the ship puts in at Haiphong and… and… Maugham realises what happened next. Grosely had lived for years for one mirage – Old London Town – and it had let him down badly. Now, in his retirement, he was worried that returning to China would be no good either; that he would see his life for what it really was. So, instead, he parked himself with a retired prostitute in seedy Haiphong and spent every evening dreaming of the happy China he’d once known, continually promising himself to finish the journey and return to China, knowing deep down he never will, happy to live with his mirage.

The Letter (1924 – Singapore – 3rd) An absolutely riveting story, told from the point of view of the family lawyer – Mr Joyce – defending a white woman – Lesley Crosbie- accused of murder. She claims that tall, good-looking Geoff Robinson came to her bungalow late at night and tried to rape her so she defended herself in a blind panic, grabbing a gun which went off in her hand. Now she is in gaol awaiting the trial which should be a formality leading her to release when – the lawyer’s Chinese assistant mentions to him the existence of ‘a letter’.

The Chinaman explains that only days before his death, Robinson had received a letter from Lesley begging him to come and see her. The lawyer realises that the existence of such a letter implies a relationship between the defendant and the murdered man and would completely change the complexion of the case. The sleek, inscrutable Chinese assistant goes on to say that he has a friend who possesses the letter, and will sell it for $10,000.

This is a huge amount but when Joyce goes to meet Lesley’s husband, Crosbie, at the club, the latter in his simple-mindedness, immediately vows to raise the cash. And so, late that night, Joyce and Crosbie are taken by the Chinese to a creepy room above a native store where a fat Chinese with a gold necklace (gangster bling even in those days) takes the cash and hands over the letter.

The trial goes ahead and, in the absence of the letter, Lesley is indeed released. Only when the couple get back to Joyce’s house does Crosbie confront his wife with the truth and storm out. And then the apparently mild, frail and posh Lesley confesses everything to the horrified lawyer. She and Robinson had been having an affair for years. It was her passion, her whole life. Then she learned that he was seeing a Chinese woman and sent the letter demanding a meeting to confront him. At this midnight meeting Lesley goaded Robinson so much that finally he snapped and said he no longer loved her, and had been living with the Chinese woman all along. At which point Lesley cold-bloodedly shot him six times at point blank range.

Lesley finishes telling all this to the stunned lawyer, gets up and walks out leaving him, as so many of Maugham’s storytellers, stunned with horror at the depths of human passion.

The Outstation (1924 – Malaysia – I) A new assistant, Cooper, arrives to help British resident Warburton at an isolated outstation in Malaya. They do not get on. Warburton is an upper-class snob who blew a fortune hanging out with England’s finest aristocrats – a natural gentleman – whereas new boy Cooper was born and educated in Barbados and has a chip on his shoulder about being an outsider. But, counter-intuitively, it is Warburton, the snob, the one who dresses impeccably for dinner every day in that ridiculous imperial way, who in fact understands and likes the Malays, who speaks fluent Malay and rules them wisely, loves the people so much that he wants to be buried there when he dies. And it is Cooper, fiercely anti-snob who is, paradoxically, harsh and bullying to his Malay servants.

Warburton, seeing Cooper alienate and enrage the Malays, writes an official request for Cooper to be transferred but this is rejected. So Warburton lets Cooper bully his houseboy and all the other servants and Malays he come sin contact with, so severely that, with complete inevitability, Cooper is one night murdered in his sleep. Warburton goes about the formalities with scrupulous efficiency, but in his heart rejoices.

The Portrait Of A Gentleman (1925 – Korea – 1st) At a loose end in Seoul, Maugham comes across an old copy of The Complete Poker Player by one Mr John Blackbridge, published in 1879. This is barely a story, just a series of quotes to back up Maugham’s claim that the book is the most perfect example of an author unconsciously painting a self-portrait that he knows of. In fact, neither the book nor the quotes Maugham chooses are particularly impressive. Maugham was conventional in  his tastes and opinions.

Raw Material (1923 – Shanghai – 1st) Maugham tells us he had always wanted to write a novel about card sharps. In Shanghai, and then in Peking, he meets two Americans who like playing cards in the clubs and bars he frequents – elegant little Campbell and big, bearish Peterson. Maugham becomes convinced they are professional card sharps and that their claims of being a banker and mining engineer, respectively, are just ‘cover’ stories. Maugham takes careful notes of their conversation and method of play, so as to use them in future stories. Imagine his chagrin when, back in New York, at a smart salon, he is introduced to… none other than Campbell and Peterson, who really are a banker and a mining engineer. How disappointing. How silly an author’s whims and fancies.

Straight Flush (1929 -Aboard ship – 1st) Aboard ship on a very rough passage in the North Pacific, Maugham encounters two old millionaires, Mr Rosenbaum and Mr Donaldson who tell him the stories of why they, separately, gave up poker: Donaldson because he took part in a game out West where two brothers fell out and one shot the other dead right in front of him; and Rosenbaum because during a fateful game he realised he was going so blind he could no longer see a straight flush when he had one.

The End Of The Flight (1926 – Borneo – 1st) Maugham stays with the District Officer in a remote town on the north coast of Borneo, who proceeds to tell him a story about the last man to sleep in the spare bedroom, an extremely nervy Dutchman who was fleeing from a native, an Achinese, who he had offended and who was convinced that this man had followed him to towns all across the East.

Here, in this out of the way spot, he thought he would finally be safe, but nonetheless locked the door and windows and got into bed with a gun by his side. But in the morning the District Officer had to break the locked door down and found the man dead in his bed, with a kris (the Malay dagger) placed carefully on his neck.

Maugham and the officer both look at the bed where all this happened and in which Maugham is set to sleep that night. Sweet dreams, says the Officer.

A Casual Affair (1934 – Borneo – 1st) As so often Maugham is staying with a District Officer in an out-of-the-way part of the British Empire, this time in Borneo, an amiable little man named Low and his wife, Bee.

As usual there’s a fair bit of circumlocution before we come to the ‘story’. This is that Low is called to attend the corpse of a white man found in a scrappy Chinese slum, his only belongings a suitcase containing a package with a written message requesting it be hand-delivered to the extremely posh Lady Kastellan in London. When Low opens the package it turns out to contain forty or so love letters written by the man, signed only as J., to this Lady Kastellan, detailing the course of a passionate love affair. Low’s wife insists on reading all the letters and drawing her own conclusions. Low then tells Maugham that on his next trip back to England he took the package to Lady Kastellan’s and she accepted it without a tremor, their interview being interrupted by the entrance of Lord Kastellan. During their brief conversation Lady K confirmed the man’s identity as dashing Jack Almond.

Now, the point of the story is that it allows Maugham to show his skill in delineating character: for a start the contrasting characters of Mr and Mrs Low back in Borneo, both essentially comic creations.

It goes on to give a terrifically acute description of Mr Low’s resentment at being treated as a common tradesman by the immensely self-possessed and superior Lady Kastellan. We now understand how the entire anecdote started – with the fact that the Lows happened to glimpse Maugham at a fantastically posh party given by Lady Kastellan, on the occasion of Low’s trip back to England when he delivered the package. They didn’t know her at all but she obviously thought it shrewd, after Mr Low had given her the letters, to invite them. The story is enlivened by Mrs Low’s chagrin at buying a dress specially for this party which turned out to make no impression at all among the millionaire ball gowns.

And this in turn adds spice to Mrs Low’s malicious dislike of Lady Kastellan for leading Jack Almond such a merry dance.

But there’s more: because it’s only when Lady Kastellan mentions Jack’s name that Low realises that he himself knew young Jack as a dashing handsome chap out East, a nice chap who played tennis, drank at the club etc, and was the life and soul for five years, until he went back to England.

From that trip he returned a broken man, fell into dissipation, and disappeared off the social scene. And it turns out that Maugham himself knew Jack during his own brief involvement with the Foreign Office where Jack had been a junior official.

With all the evidence to hand, Maugham now speculates that Jack and Lady Kastellan had a passionate affair but that Lord Kastellan found out. To avoid the threat of scandal it was agreed that Jack would quit his Foreign Office job and be packed off to the colonies, but for five long years he had continued to carry a torch, convinced that Lady Kastellan secretly loved him and would eventually leave her husband for him. Obviously, on that trip back to England, she had calmly disabused him of this notion, and Jack had realised that all his dreams were ashes. He came back to the East a broken man and let himself go to pot.

The story of a disappointed love affair is relatively straightforward. But Maugham manages a) to tell it in an extremely complex and sophisticated way, combining fragments and different points of view of a number of characters, a technique which b) sheds a tremendous light on the psychology of the characters he’s created – on Mr Low, on Bee his wife, on Lady Kastellan and even on the briefly glimpsed Lord Kastellan.

It is a work of tremendous sophistication in every sense – in the airy confidence with which it describes life and manners at the top of the aristocratic tree, as well as its completely convincing description of colonial life – and in the high artfulness of its construction and telling.

Red (1921 – An island near Samoa – 3rd) This is a wonderful story. The fat, raddled old Yankee captain of a schooner puts into a remote island and makes his way to the hut of an isolated European. He’s come to bring supplies to a trader down the coast but could do with a guide to take him there. In the hut is a fat old Swede gone to seed named Neilson, surrounded by books and a piano. Neilson (as usually happens in  Maugham tale) proceeds to tell his life story.

He was 25, a philosophy lecturer, diagnosed with tuberculosis and given one year to live so he decided to travel. He fell in love with the South Seas. He came to this island, stumbled across this particularly beautiful spot and heard about the Love Story connected to it. The story was this:

Years earlier, an American sailor with long pre-Raphaelite red hair – and so nicknamed ‘Red’ – had deserted his ship and fetched up here, falling in love with a beautiful native girl, who he called Sally. He was 20, she was 16, their love was pure and true. He built the hut and they lived together in perfect bliss. After a year he heard that an American ship had anchored outside the reef and paddled out with a native friend to see if he could swap coconuts for real tobacco, which was the one thing which was hard to get in his idyllic life. But the crew slipped Red a mickey fin and, while unconscious, shanghaied i.e. kidnapped him – the native being thrown back over the side, to regain his canoe and return to tell Sally what had happened. Sally was distraught but never gave up hoping that Red would one day return.

A few years later Neilson pitched up looking for somewhere to live out his last year of life, fell in love with the island, with this spot and with the grieving native girl, still young and beautiful. He listened to Sally’s story, became friends with her family, realised he was falling in love with her, and launched a campaign to marry her. Eventually, she acquiesced and married him, but Neilson was never happy because he realised that he never truly possessed her. Always Sally remained faithful to her memory of Red.

25 years have passed. The healthy climate and modest diet ended up curing Neilson’s TB and he lived on here while the native girl got fat and blowsy (as did he).

Neilson had gone off into a storyteller’s trance as he told all this. Now he comes out of it to realise that the jolly fat sea captain opposite him is chuckling in a crude, horrible way. Suddenly he has a flash of insight and asks the captain… can it be… could he be… Yes, the captain confirms. He’s an old seadog known around the islands as Red – though it’s a long time since he had that full head of hair.

So this is the man who kept Sally’s heart from him, who stymied Neilson’s happiness, who ruined both of their lives. He feels a flash of anger, a wish to smash up everything. But the captain is looking at him, chuckling. At that point fat old Sally comes in to serve tea and for a moment Neilson has the opportunity to explain to her that this is the slim young hero she has cleaved to all her long life.

But the moment passes: what would be the point? She goes out and Neilson calls a local to guide the captain to the trader down the coast.

Neil Macadam (1932 – Singapore – 3rd) One of Maugham’s longest stories, at 40 pages, this one describes the arrival of young, earnest, virginal Scot, Neil Macadam, to be assistant curator at the museum at Kuala Solor curated by the kindly, older Scot Angus Munro. Munro’s wife Darya is the daughter of a Russian general and princess, who Munro saved from a life of poverty in Japan. While the old man is a passionate and honest naturalist, his wife is a crazy, impulsive, passionate Russian, mad about Turgenev and Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, unconventionally taking the cigarettes out of shy Macadam’s lips to smoke them herself, or talking with grating candour about sexual and other bodily functions.

At the club in town, when Macadam innocently announces that the Munros have invited him to stay on with them, some of the young bloods snigger and say he isn’t the first one to be seduced by Mrs Munro. At which puritanical Macadam punches the man who said this.

Then Munro announces that he and Macadam are going on a month-long expedition upriver into the jungle to catch specimens and that, unusually, Darya has volunteered to come with. And it’s on this trip that Darya makes her intentions increasingly plain, whenever Munro’s back is turned: she loves Macadam, she can’t do without him, he is so young and virile etc. She surprises him bathing in a pool naked and strips and gets in herself before he can stop her. She tries to sneak into his tent to seduce him but Macadam makes a great fuss to wake up Munro. And so on. She tries everything to have sex with him; Madadam keeps nobly putting her off.

Finally Munro goes off on a lengthy solo exploration from the main camp which they’ve established, and Darya spends the whole afternoon trying to wear down Macadam’s resistance to her. Up till now he’s taken the moral high ground that he can’t possibly betray the trust of a man he respects so much, but when quite literally push comes to shove he admits, at least to himself (and the reader) that he dislikes sex, finds it messy and disgusting, and that is why he is still a virgin.

Darya physically assaults him, trying to kiss him, then biting the hand Macadam puts up between their mouths, provoking him so much that he punches her quite hard, and takes to his feet, fleeing into the jungle. Darya staggers to her feet and hurries after him. On and on they run. Finally in a clearing somewhere he stops exhausted and she unveils her final weapon: if he won’t love her, she will tell Munro that he tried to rape her. The bruise on her face, the bitemark in his hand, everything will incriminate him. Her eyes glow red with triumph. She walks slowly towards her prey: and Macadam turns and flees again, running, running, running he knows not where.

Eventually, exhausted, he stops, completely lost. But he has a compass and he knows the direction of the camp. It takes over an hour but by careful navigation he arrives back at parts of jungle which he recognises, then, finally, at the camp.

At the end of the day Munro arrives back from  his trip and asks where Darya is. ‘Oh, isn’t she in her room?’ asks Macadam, all innocently. Munro rummages round the camp, then asks the Chinese servants. No-one knows where she is. Panic-stricken, Munro organises the Dyak bearers into search parties, one led by young Macadam, one by himself, and they set off to triangulate the jungle. But Macadam knows they won’t find her, he knows they ran for ages into the jungle, he has no idea where. He had a compass, but she didn’t.

Clouds gather over the mountains. Then a tremendous tropical storm comes howling down, splitting the night with lightning, deafening them with thunder.

Macadam knows he has done his duty by his host and his own morality. His heart is pure.

Brief thoughts

Love The stories are all about love. War and peace, diplomacy and politics, all social issues and any interesting ideas about art and culture, are all banished from his stories. Love, passion, marriage, infidelity, murder and suicide are his subject.

Artfulness A large part of the enjoyment is the ornate elaborateness of the initial settings within which the stories eventually come to be told. Sometimes the frame narrative about a planter or resident or a dinner party or a shipboard encounter is as subtle and enjoyable as the central tale.

Travel What a lucky man Maugham was, to have travelled so widely and seen so much. Nowadays travel is a) expensive b) ruined by overpopulation and airplanes, package holidays and cars c) made difficult by dangerous political regimes or wars. But Maugham wandered at will through Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia and China with perfect ease and security, and his stories transport you back to that simpler, less violent age.

Social history Having now read all his short stories, I see how they provide a wealth of social history of two broad types:

  1. the culture, lives, expectations and behaviour of white men in the colonies of the Far East and the Pacific
  2. the culture, language and behaviour of the English upper classes in England, from the Edwardian decade through into the 1920s and little into the 1930s

On both counts, Mauagham’s stories are a treasure trove of fascinating linguistic, cultural, behavioural and fashion history.


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

This is nowhere near a complete bibliography. Maugham also wrote countless articles and reviews, quite a few travel books, two books of reminiscence, as well as some 25 successful stage plays and editing numerous anthologies. This is a list of the novels, short story collections, and the five plays in the Pan Selected Plays volume.

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1898 The Making of a Saint (historical novel)
1899 Orientations (short story collection)
1901 The Hero
1902 Mrs Craddock
1904 The Merry-go-round
1906 The Bishop’s Apron
1908 The Explorer
1908 The Magician (horror novel)
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (romantic novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before the Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1948 Quartet (portmanteau film using four short stories –The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite and The Colonel’s Lady)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1950 Trio (film follow-up to Quartet, featuring The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium)
1951 The Complete Short Stories in three volumes
1952 Encore (film follow-up to Quartet and Trio featuring The Ant and the GrasshopperWinter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette)

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

The Manifesto of the Communist Party by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848)

This little booklet is worth whole volumes: to this day its spirit inspires and guides the entire organised and fighting proletariat of the civilised world. (Lenin)

The history of the Manifesto reflects the history of the modern working class movement; at present, it is doubtless the most widespread, the most international production of all socialist literature, the common platform acknowledged by millions of working men from Siberia to California.
(Preface to the 1888 English edition)

Layout of this blog post:

  1. Historical background
  2. Marx’s uniqueness
  3. Marx’s failure to complete Das Kapital
  4. The background to the Communist Manifesto
  5. The basic idea
  6. Structure
    1. Part one – The achievements of the bourgeoisie and why it is digging its own grave
    2. Part two
      1. the role of communists vis-a-vis the proletariat
      2. the future of private property
      3. the invalidity of bourgeois ideas of justice, morality etc
      4. how the proletariat will take over power
    3. Part three – Description and dismissal of a number of rival socialist or communist movements
  7. My thoughts:
    • the Manifesto’s appeal
    • its problems
    • its legacy
    • what we need today

1. Historical perspective

Utopian dreams of overthrowing repressive social structures go back in Europe at least as far as the Middle Ages. In the 17th century the British civil wars of the 1640s not only established a Puritan republic but threw up a variety of utopian schemes for redesigning society. The French Revolution turned into the Terror, then gave way to the military adventurism of Napoleon, but the ideas contained in its Declaration of the Rights of Man – of social and political freedom – haunted Europe for the rest of the nineteenth century.

2. Marx’s uniqueness

What made Marx’s vision of a free, equal and just society different from all its predecessors was that he based it on a massive analysis of the economic and technological underpinnings of society (of the Victorian society he lived in and – he claimed – of all previous human societies, too).

Previous utopians had based their ideas on moral or psychological or religious premises. Marx claimed to have discovered objective scientific laws of history which proved that industrial societies would inevitably move towards a revolution which must usher in a communist society i.e. one where everyone was equal, everyone worked, everyone had a say in what work they did, natural resources were exploited fairly for the benefit of all, in which there would be no more ‘classes’, in which everyone would rejoice in their work and lead fulfilling lives.

Marx thought it was inevitable because all capitalist economies tend towards the formation of monopolies: companies buy other companies, deploy economies of scale and pay, get bigger, buy out other companies – think of American multinationals, Google, Microsoft, Unilever, Monsanto. Meanwhile the workers in these ever-larger concerns get more and more value squeezed out of them, getting poorer while company shareholders get richer. As the workers approach closer and closer to the condition of slaves, the owning bourgeoisie become more and more rich.

Marx thought this unavoidable tendency in all capitalist systems for the concentration of wealth into fewer and fewer hands, while more and more people join the ranks of the immiserated proletariat, was leading to a society divided ever more sharply into two opposing camps – a shrinking bourgeoisie and a growing proletariat. The size and misery of the proletariat could only be contained by the various lackeys of the system – the police, law courts, the fig leaf of ‘parliamentary democracy’ and all the other phoney frontages of bourgeois society.

Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other – Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.

Eventually, by sheer weight of numbers, it dawns on the proletariat that they have it in their own hands to rise up at ‘the decisive hour’, to overthrow the system, to eliminate the hated bourgeoisie, to seize control of the means of production and distribution, and to usher in the great day of universal freedom. Everything will be owned by ‘the people’ who will all have a say in how things are made and distributed.

3. Marx’s failure to complete Das Kapital

Marx spent thirty years sitting in the British Library getting haemorrhoids in the effort to flesh out his new theory of capitalism, with the aim of making it incontrovertible, unanswerable, irrefutable – a task he found, in the end, impossible.

The publication of volume one of Capital: A Critique of Political Economy in 1867 made Marx the foremost socialist thinker of the age – nobody could match its enormous erudition and its tremendous insights into the actual practical working of the capitalist economy. But despite all those hours in the library, he never completed volumes two or three before he died in 1883. It is important to realise that his life’s work as a scholar and theorist was left incomplete.

4. Background to the Communist Manifesto

Luckily for the general reader, a generation earlier he had produced a pop version of his ideas, in the form of the Manifesto of the Communist Party. The Communist Manifesto has been reprinted countless times over the decades since and became the single most accessible work by Marx,

It was published early in 1848. This was the year which saw political uprisings all across Europe. Young Karl was just 30 and deeply involved in European revolutionary politics. The manifesto was written to explain the programme of a new party, the Communist League. This had been established on June 1, 1847 in London by a merger of ‘The League of the Just’, headed by Karl Schapper and ‘the Communist Correspondence Committee of Brussels’, which was headed by Karl and his close friend and collaborator, Frederick Engels.

(A key characteristic of communist movements throughout the ages is the way they have always been divided into hundreds of groups on the left, which merge, splinter and fight each other like ferrets in a sack to promote their own special and uniquely correct view of the revolution. Left-wing politics has always been highly fissile. Thus a good deal of Marx and Engel’s best works were written not to attack the Bourgeoisie but to attack fellow socialists, Engels’s most influential work – Socialism Scientific and Utopian – was written for just this purpose, to rubbish all other flavours of socialism and communism and assert Marx’s vision as uniquely scientific and objective. The arcane in-fighting of left-wing groups in the 1840s and 50s prefigure the way that 20th century communist dictators like Stalin and Mao ended up putting so many of their own colleagues on trial. Communism is a radically unstable idea which, however, can tolerate no deviations from a very strict party line. The more you ponder this basic fact, the more you realise that it is an almost inevitable recipe for repression.)

5. Summary of the central idea

Less than thirty pages long, the Manifesto of the Communist Party was mostly the work of Karl, as he came up to his thirtieth birthday. The basic idea is simple.

The proposition is this: That in every historical epoch, the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organization necessarily following from it, form the basis upon which it is built up, and from that alone can be explained the political and intellectual history of that epoch;

that consequently the whole history of mankind (since the dissolution of primitive tribal society, holding land in common ownership) has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes;

that the history of these class struggles forms a series of evolutions in which, nowadays, a stage has been reached where the exploited and oppressed class – the proletariat – cannot attain its emancipation from the sway of the exploiting and ruling class – the bourgeoisie – without, at the same time, and once and for all, emancipating society at large from all exploitation, oppression, class distinction, and class struggles. (from Engels’s preface to the English edition of the Communist Manifesto, 1888)

6. Structure of the Communist Manifesto

Before we proceed, let’s be clear about terminology.

By bourgeoisie is meant the class of modern capitalists, owners of the means of social production and employers of wage labour. By proletariat, the class of modern wage labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour power in order to live. (Engles 1888 note to the main text)

The Communist Manifesto is divided into three parts:

    1. Bourgeois and Proletarians
    2. Proletarians and Communists
    3. Socialist and Communist Literature

1. Part one – Bourgeois and Proletarians

Part one is in many ways the most inspirational and enjoyable part, a sustained hymn to the startling achievements of the new Victorian bourgeoisie, to the:

industrial millionaires, the leaders of the whole industrial armies, the modern bourgeois.

I’m not the first person to point out that although Karl said the bourgeoisie were wicked appropriators of the wealth created by other men, although they had overthrown all previous social relationships, reduced the family to organised prostitution, enslaved millions, and thrown their poisonous tentacles right round the world in search of profit – Karl can’t help being excited and enthused by their astonishing achievements.

Modern industry has established the world market, for which the discovery of America paved the way. This market has given an immense development to commerce, to navigation, to communication by land. This development has, in its turn, reacted on the extension of industry; and in proportion as industry, commerce, navigation, railways extended, in the same proportion the bourgeoisie developed, increased its capital, and pushed into the background every class handed down from the Middle Ages.

It has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades.

The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground – what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?

Impressive stuff, eh? Nonetheless, we need to hate the bourgeoisie. Why?

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self interest, than callous ‘cash payment’. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers. The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.

Marx says the modern industrial bourgeoisie has introduced a permanent sense of change, of unsettled and ever-speeding novelty into society, due to its need to continually disrupt and revolutionise the means of production, in order to invent new ways to make a profit.

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

The endlessness of bourgeois rapacity has led it to spread its tentacles over the face of the earth, creating empires of exploitation to further its lust for profit.

The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.

But this energy is creating its own nemesis.

The weapons with which the bourgeoisie felled feudalism to the ground are now turned against the bourgeoisie itself. But not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons – the modern working class – the proletarians.

Repeatedly, Marx asserts that this pattern – ‘the wheel of history’ – is inevitable and unstoppable.

The essential conditions for the existence and for the sway of the bourgeois class is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage-labour. Wage-labour rests exclusively on competition between the labourers. The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.

The proletariat is the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands. Crucially, the proletariat is a class like no other in history because it contains all that is best in the entire history of humanity: its victory will be the victory of humanity.

All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air.

It is an immensely powerful vision, combining a thrilling overview of all human history, with devastatingly accurate insights into the nature of contemporary social and economic change, and an inspirational prophecy of the end of all conflict and the advent of a fair and just golden age.

Part two – Proletarians and Communists

Part two addresses a number of distinct issues, among them the role of the communist party, the future of private property, and the precise nature of the revolution.

The relationship of the communists to the Proletariat A dicey subject because it becomes clear that the Proletariat needed to be wakened from their slumber and roused on to the barricades by thinkers, writers and activists who were, ahem, unfortunately, of bourgeois origin. Karl explains it thus:

Just as, therefore, at an earlier period, a section of the nobility went over to the bourgeoisie, so now a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole.

Raised themselves, in other words, to the lofty eminence of agreeing with Karl and Frederick’s theories! Knowing that he’s tackling a slightly embarrassing and touchy problem (if the rise of the Proletariat is so inevitable, why should they need the help of any members of the bourgeoisie?), this section is more programmatic and dogmatic than the more thrillingly rhetorical tone of part one.

In what relation do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole? The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.

The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.

The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.

‘They have the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.’ This claim to a uniquely privileged understanding of History would underpin the idea of a vanguard communist party until, in Lenin’s hands, it formed the basis of a ruthless dictatorship, which, in turn, gave rise to Stalin whose techniques of central control by terror were copied by Mao and numerous other, lesser, communist dictators.

Because it follows from what Marx says that, if the leaders of the Communist party are the only ones gifted with this special understanding of History, then any deviation or dissent from their views must by definition be an attack on the Course of History itself, a kind of blasphemy against the Unstoppable March of the Proletariat, and must be dealt with ruthlessly because it threatens to derail the Forward march of History.

Fortunately, Russia had a lot of empty sub-Arctic territory where anyone who questioned the party’s ‘clear understanding of the line of march’ could be sent for re-education.

But Karl spends less time on this issue than on the fate of private property.

The communists want to abolish private property, and Karl’s arguments explaining why include an enormously important idea. He says that the kind of property he wants to abolish is only bourgeois property, the kind built up by expropriating the labour of the slaving proletariat – and that all the philosophy, morality, legal and cultural arguments any of his opponents bring against this proposal are bourgeois ideas of philosophy, law, morality and culture and therefore invalid.

There are two points here, one about property, two about the complete invalidity of all ideas derived from the bourgeois domination of capitalist society, which is much bigger.

First, private property. Karl says communists only want to abolish the private property of the bourgeoisie since it all amounts to theft from the slave proletariat.

The distinguishing feature of Communism is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property. But modern bourgeois private property is the final and most complete expression of the system of producing and appropriating products, that is based on class antagonisms, on the exploitation of the many by the few.

What about the property of the non-bourgeoisie? Should they be worried about having it confiscated?

Here Karl resorts to some shifty arguments. He claims that the small peasant and petty artisans needn’t worry about having their property taken away because they have no property anyway. We day by day watch the monster squid bourgeoisie confiscate everyone’s property and so – the small peasant and petty artisan have no property to lose. (The only problem with this line of argument being that, of course they did.) Marx claims that a working definition of the proletariat – which he claims makes up nine-tenths of the population – is that they own nothing except their labour which they sell like slaves to the bourgeoisie.

You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths. You reproach us, therefore, with intending to do away with a form of property, the necessary condition for whose existence is the non-existence of any property for the immense majority of society.

Therefore, according to Karl, abolishing private property cannot hurt the workers or artisans or peasants because they have no property to ban. Only the bourgeoisie have property and since it is all the result of slave labour and therefore criminal, it is perfectly fair to confiscate it. All property must be confiscated by the revolutionary class, prior to redistribution.

This is a good example of the way Marx’s background in German philosophy blinds him to reality. He is used to dealing with Hegelian concepts which are neat and tidy. You can hear the conceptual tidiness in these ideas: the proletariat, artisans and peasants own nothing; only the bourgeoisie own anything; the bourgeoisie’s possessions are acquired through exploitation; therefore, it can all be confiscated by the new revolutionary communist government with a clear conscience.

Slick and compelling, this rhetoric completely ignores the way that peasants, for example, do own things, from icons and family heirlooms through to the tools of their agricultural work, to scraps of family land and maybe livestock.

It was following pure Marxist ideology which led first Stalin then Mao to force through the collectivisation of agriculture in revolutionary Russia and then China, on the basis that the peasants didn’t – and according to Marx shouldn’t – have any possessions of their own, so it wouldn’t matter. But the peasants did of course own all kinds of things, most importantly patches of land on which they grew food or livestock for themselves. When all of this was confiscated from them, they lost all motivation to work hard to grow just that little bit extra for themselves, and if they were caught anywhere doing so they were punished – with the result that agriculture in both Russia and China collapsed as a result of communist policies of collectivisation, resulting in the starving to death of millions of people.

There is a direct line between the conceptual tidiness of Marx’s writings, the rhetorical sleights of hand with which he makes absolute claims such as the peasants and artisans own no property which completely ignore the complex facts of reality on the ground – and the deaths of millions of poor people a hundred years later.

All bourgeois ideas are invalid, nay, criminal.

Law, morality, religion, are to [the communist] so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests.

This is a massive idea, in its way the most important idea of the book.

We may sort of agree with Karl that the history of all previous societies has been the history of class conflicts. (It’s a dubious claim. Just because all previous societies – in fact all human history- has been pretty violent doesn’t prove the class-based nature of these conflicts. A moment’s reflection suggests that most violence in history has been between factions of ruling classes not between classes as such, or prompted by invasions by other groups. Could it just be that humans are violent by nature?)

We may give more agreement to Karl’s idea that the capital-owning class of Karl’s generation had built up huge amounts of money which they needed to constantly invest in new ventures in order to keep the system running.

We may agree that this ‘capitalist’ system had reached out from the cities into the countryside to make production more efficient, and stretched its tentacles right around the world in search of new raw materials and new markets to sell to – and that this process is the basis of imperialism, a process which was visibly gathering speed throughout Karl’s lifetime.

But we cross a very important line if we go on to agree that all the values expressed in a capitalist system are fake and invalid – are only fig leaves behind which the revolting bourgeoisie can do its work of exploitation.

But don’t wrangle with us so long as you apply, to our intended abolition of bourgeois property, the standard of your bourgeois notions of freedom, culture, law, &c. Your very ideas are but the outgrowth of the conditions of your bourgeois production and bourgeois property, just as your jurisprudence is but the will of your class made into a law for all, a will whose essential character and direction are determined by the economical conditions of existence of your class.

Yes, it’s clear that many laws in many societies are passed to bolster the ruling classes. It’s arguable that legal systems of many countries exist mainly or solely to protect the property and persons of the rich.

But to go one step further and to say that the very ideas of justice, law and morality are bourgeois prejudices which need to be abolished – that is a big line to cross, but it is a central element of Karl’s theory.

This section is devoted to proving that all bourgeois ideas of property, of freedom, of law and justice and of culture, are merely the contingent, transient notions thrown up to protect this particular form of economic production, the capitalist phase, and will, like the comparable notions of all previous ruling classes, eventually be overthrown by the coming communist revolution, this time forever.

The selfish misconception that induces you [the bourgeois apologist] to transform into eternal laws of nature and of reason, the social forms springing from your present mode of production and form of property – historical relations that rise and disappear in the progress of production – this misconception you share with every ruling class that has preceded you.

Cross that line – invalidate all those ideas of truth, justice or morality, in fact condemn them for their association with the criminal bourgeoisie – and you are left with no other source of values, ideas or morality except the proletariat whose guides are, of course, in practice, the ruling the communist party, which all experience has shown ends up being ruled by one super-powerful dictator.

The abolition of this state of things is called by the bourgeois, abolition of individuality and freedom! And rightly so. The abolition of bourgeois individuality, bourgeois independence, and bourgeois freedom is undoubtedly aimed at.

Marxist philosophers have spent 170 years devising ever-subtler refinements on the notion that ideas are produced by the social structures of the societies they originate in, and that all ideas are to some extent implicated or compromised by the power structures of that society, and so the palpable unfairness of Western capitalist society undermines its own ideas of justice, freedom etc.

All bourgeois ideas of truth, justice, law, morality and so on are merely tools and fig leafs for the ongoing exploitation of the proletariat.

But far from the scholarly seminar rooms of France and America where this kind of thing is debated, over in communist Russia and China, this principle allowed all so-called bourgeois notions of ‘fair’ trials, of the process of law, of freedom of speech or of the press and so on – all checks on absolute power – to be swept away in their entirety and replaced by revolutionary freedom, revolutionary justice and revolutionary morality.

Thus, by a grim logic, this ‘revolutionary justice’ tended to boil right down to the dictates of the highly centralised communist party which, in practice, boiled down to the whims and dictates of the man at the top. He issued ‘quotas’ of counter-revolutionaries or kulaks or saboteurs or spies or capitalist running dogs etc who needed to be eliminated and zealous functionaries rounded up suspects and eliminated them, without trials, without evidence, without any help or defence, without any of those discredited ‘bourgeois’ restraints on absolute lethal power.

By ‘individual’ you [opponents of communism] mean no other person than the bourgeois, than the middle-class owner of property. This person must, indeed, be swept out of the way, and made impossible.

Chinese counter-revolutionaries about to be swept out of the way and made impossible

Chinese counter-revolutionaries about to be swept out of the way and made impossible

The revolution So how will this perfect world actually in practice come about? How did Karl propose that we get from 1840s Britain, France and Germany to the classless utopia of the future?

Again I’m not the first person to point out that Karl left the nuts and bolts of this extremely important issue extremely vague and unclear, nor to point out that the later revolutions (in Russia or China) didn’t correspond at all with his prophecies. Here’s how Marx describes the transition.

We have seen above, that the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy. The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.

Of course, in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measures, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionising the mode of production.

So the proletariat are meant to ‘win the battle of democracy’ – does he mean in elections? What does he mean? The proletariat will use the power thus acquired to wrest control of capital ‘by degree’ from the bourgeoisie. There may be some ‘despotic inroads’ in the rights of property.

It all sounds like a peaceful if rather coercive process. There’s no mention of guns and street battles and firing squads, of prolonged civil war, famine and emergency measures.

Instead, having won ‘the battle for democracy’, the successful proletariat will then implement its ten-point plan:

  1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.
  2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
  3. Abolition of all rights of inheritance.
  4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.
  5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
  6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.
  7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.
  8. Equal liability of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
  9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.
  10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c, &c.

And then:

When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organise itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.

In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

By sweeping away the exploitative conditions which created it as a class, the proletariat will sweep away all exploitative relations and end all class antagonisms, forever. Society will become:

an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

Again, you can see the beautiful clarity of the concepts underlying this view of the world, history and social change. It is like a set of equations on a blackboard; everything balances and works out perfectly.

The amazing thing is that anyone, anywhere, took such a naive view of human nature, as to think this was remotely possible.

Part three

Part three of the Communist manifesto is the least interesting. It consists of dismissals of everyone else’s visions of socialism and communism, in each case Karl explaining why they fall short of the purity, clarity and accuracy of his own views, and/or how they are merely the fig leaves of reactionary forces.

One by one he demolishes:

  1. Reactionary Socialism
    • Feudal Socialism (aristocrats encouraging the proletariat against the rising bourgeoisie, with a secret agenda of protecting their aristocratic privileges)
    • Clerical Socialism (much rhetoric from priests about ‘brotherly love’, which in reality serves to support the existing regime)
    • Petty-Bourgeois Socialism (a version which accurately critiques the ills of modern capitalism but in the name of nostalgia for old ways of production and social relations i.e. backward looking)
    • German or ‘True’ Socialism (when imported into backward Germany, French revolutionary slogans were converted into grandiose philosophical phrases which were taken up by petty-bourgeois philistines who opposed actual social change)
  2. Conservative or Bourgeois Socialism (a section of the bourgeoisie understands social grievances and wants to do everything necessary to redress them – short of actually changing society)
  3. Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism (dating from an early era of industrialisation, various philanthropists judged the proletariat helpless victims and mapped out utopian communities for them to live in. As the proletariat has grown in power, these utopian socialists have grown fearful or resentful of it, criticised it and clung on to their (now reactionary) ideals – thinkers in this area include Saint-Simon, Fourier, Owen)

As mentioned above, fierce criticism of all other socialist/communist thinkers or movements is an intrinsic part of Marxist thought right from the beginning, and would bear fruit in the twentieth century in a rich rhetoric of vituperation and, of course, the arrest and murder of millions of ‘right deviationists’, ‘capitalist lackeys’ and so on.


7. My thoughts

Basic appeal

Like Christianity before it, Karl’s scientific communism provides:

  • a complete analysis of present society
  • a complete theory of human nature
  • a complete theory of human history (in terms of class conflicts) all leading up to the present moment
  • the promise of an end to all sorrows and suffering in the imminent arrival of a Perfect Society
  • and a complete theory of who you are, where you fit into the story and how you,too, can be saved

And it’s all going to have a happy ending. Karl says so. Science says so. The revolution is at hand. Any minute the workers will rise up and overthrow the hated bourgeoisie. This time next year we’ll be living in paradise.

The Communists turn their attention chiefly to Germany, because that country is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution that is bound to be carried out under more advanced conditions of European civilisation and with a much more developed proletariat than that of England was in the seventeenth, and France in the eighteenth century, and because the bourgeois revolution in Germany will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution.

The Communist Manifesto had, as its object, the proclamation of the inevitable impending dissolution of modern bourgeois property. (1882 preface)

Millions of half-literate working men and women living in appalling conditions, working seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, were offered a vision that change would not only come, but was inevitable – not only in Karl’s Europe, but 70 years later, across continental Russia, 100 years later in China, and then across the newly independent nations of Africa and South America.

There’s no denying that Marx’s shrewd social and economic analysis, combined with his utopian rhetoric, have offered the hope of change and a better life to hundreds of millions of people.

Intellectual appeal

It’s such a powerful system partly because Karl combines mastery of three distinct fields:

  • philosophy
  • economics
  • politics

For the really well-educated, for the philosophically super-literate, Karl adapted the German philosopher Hegel’s idea of the dialectic to produce a vision of the motor of history. All previous philosophers considered human nature and society essentially static. Sure, stuff happened, but nothing that particularly changed human nature, so a 19th century philosopher could ponder essentially the same questions about human nature, reality and knowledge as Plato had done 2,000 years earlier.

Karl tore this static vision up and said humans are changed by the societies they live in, they are shaped and formed by their society. And every society is based on its technological and economic basis.

Does it require deep intuition to comprehend that man’s ideas, views, and conception, in one word, man’s consciousness, changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life? What else does the history of ideas prove, than that intellectual production changes its character in proportion as material production is changed? The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.

It hadn’t been clear to previous ages, but as Karl and his contemporaries watched the bourgeoisie inventing steam engines and trains and telegraphs and factory production, they simultaneously watched them taking power in parliaments across Europe (for example, in the revolution of 1830 in France which brought to power the bourgeois king Louis Phillippe or in the changes wrought by the Great Reform Act in Britain in 1832, and so on) and saw that the two were related.

It was clear as never before that political power is based on economic power. And economic power is based on control of new technology. That society changes as its technological and economic base changes. And what people think is changed by these changes in society.

When people speak of the ideas that revolutionise society, they do but express that fact that within the old society the elements of a new one have been created, and that the dissolution of the old ideas keeps even pace with the dissolution of the old conditions of existence.

Ideas are socially determined. New technology = new economic arrangements = new classes (bourgeoisie overthrows landed aristocracy) = new ways of thinking.

Human nature is not fixed and static as philosophers in their book-lined studies had always thought (because, after all, it suited them very nicely to think that). Human nature is malleable and dynamic.

Thus 2,000 years of static philosophy are overthrown by Marx’s new dynamic philosophy based on the first, truly scientific understanding of economics.

And both together underpin the new politics outlined above i.e. the inevitability of a communist revolution led by the proletariat.

Like Christianity, Marxism is a belief system so vast and complex that you can enter it at any level – as an illiterate coal miner or a PhD student – and find you are surrounded by powerfully thought-through answers to almost any question you can ask about contemporary society, answers which are all the more impressive because they pull in evidence and arguments from such a wide range of the human sciences.

Problems

The biggest problem with Karl’s scientific communism was, of course, that it turned out to be wrong.

According to him, History was a kind of unstoppable conveyor belt and the most advanced capitalist countries would be the first to topple off the end into communist revolution, those being Britain, Germany and America.

But – despite plenty of social strife, none of these countries in the end had the communist revolution Karl said was inevitable. Instead, the big communist revolution took place in Russia, the most economically backward country in Europe, and then passed on to China, the most economically backward country in Asia.

The fundamental idea of communist inevitability – capitalism at its most advanced must evolved into communism – was categorically disproved.

Walter Laqueur, in his book on the Weimar Republic, says that some left-wing intellectuals as early as the 1920s were wondering if communism would turn out not to be a revolutionary force at all, but to be a centralised social system which would force industrialisation onto backward countries in a way their tottering aristocratic governments couldn’t. That it would turn out to be a form of compulsory industrialisation which would do capitalism’s job for it.

And that now appears to have been the case. Russia passed through a long period of forced industrialisation under a repressive communist regime, and has eventually emerged as a capitalist country. Reverted to being a capitalist country. China is doing the same.

In the Communist Manifesto Karl numbers among the bourgeoisie’s many crimes the way it drags all sectors of a nation into industrial production under a strong, centralised government.

The bourgeoisie keeps more and more doing away with the scattered state of the population, of the means of production, and of property. It has agglomerated population, centralised the means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands. The necessary consequence of this was political centralisation. Independent, or but loosely connected provinces, with separate interests, laws, governments, and systems of taxation, became lumped together into one nation, with one government, one code of laws, one national class-interest, one frontier, and one customs-tariff.

But this is precisely what China and Russia did during their communist years.

Meanwhile, the most advanced capitalist country in the world, America, went from strength to strength, successfully managing periods of great economic distress (the Depression of the 1930s) to emerge as the world’s leading economic power after World War Two, offering what most of the global population considered to be an unbelievably luxurious and free way of life, and most definitely not becoming a communist state.

Marx’s compellingly scientific vision of the inevitable unfolding of history turned out to be just about as wrong as it was possible to be.

Legacy

If Karl’s idea of scientific inevitability looks broken beyond repair; if his entire notion that the dictatorship of the proletariat would give rise to a classless society looks laughable, since we know it just gave rise to dictatorship, pure and simple – nonetheless, much of his analysis of the social effects of capitalism linger on to this day in the social sciences.

Chief among these I would select: the idea that capitalism must constantly seek the new, new technologies which disrupt old structures, create huge new markets and needs (the internet, mobile phones, laptops, tablets and so on).

Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

The idea of job insecurity. Circumstances have fluctuated wildly over the past 170 years, but we are again living in a gig economy, a minimum wage economy, where many people are being paid the minimum required, with as little job security as necessary, by employers determined to screw as much value out of them as possible.

In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e., capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class, developed – a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.

And the central idea of alienation, that people feel alienated from their work, as if they’re making or producing something for others’ benefit, that they no longer in fact ‘make’ anything, just contribute paper, reports, powerpoints or spreadsheets to a huge system which seems to generate vast wealth for the owners of multinational companies or big government departments, but brings no sense of closure or achievement to the people sitting in front of crappy computers all day.

Owing to the extensive use of machinery, and to the division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him.

Though so much has changed, many of Karl’s descriptions of the nature of work in a capitalist system, and the alienation it engenders, remain eerily accurate.

We need…

Someone to update Marx. Since the collapse of Soviet communism in 1990 the left in the West has been rudderless. Tony Blair thought he could square the circle of being left-wing within a neo-liberal capitalist system with his idea of ‘the Third Way’, which boiled down to public-private initiatives and setting targets in all aspects of government. Bill Clinton did something similar. Both ended up being patsies to international business.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, released from the threat of serious socialist or trade union resistance, big businesses in all Western nations have zoomed ahead with massive pay rises for executives, accompanied by zero hours and gig economy contracts for workers, and the stagnation of pay among the middle management. Lots of people are really pissed off.

A Marxist critique helps explain why and how this is happening in terms of capital accumulation, the way companies constantly seek to casualise labour, and the way capital buys political parties and laws which further its interests.

It also explains why, without a plausible left-wing alternative, the disgruntled populations of the industrialised nations will be tempted to turn to populist, nationalist leaders, who encourage xenophobia, conservative values, protectionist economic policies, but will ultimately fail because they don’t understand the real economic trends underpinning the crisis. Donald Trump.

So insights derived from Marx’s economic and social theories can still help us to understand the present moment. The problem is that the central plank of his theory – the notion that an ever-growing industrial proletariat will become so numerous that it simply must overthrow its oppressors – is no long remotely credible.

Marx has left us the intellectual tools to understand why we are so unhappy, but with no idea how to solve the problem.

Which explains why you read so many newspaper and magazine articles lamenting the end of meritocracy, the rise in job insecurity, the way our children will be the first ones to have a worse quality of life than their parents, the ruin of the environment, and the growth in wealth among the super-rich – you read in papers and hear on the radio the same thing year in, year out — but nobody has a clue what to do about it.


Related links

Communism in Russia

Communism in China

Communism in Vietnam

Communism in Germany

Communism in Poland

  • The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953) A devastating indictment of the initial appeal and then appalling consequences of communism in Poland: ‘Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups…’

Communism in France

Communism in Spain

  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006) Comprehensive account of the Spanish civil war with much detail on how the Stalin-backed communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye witness account of how the Stalin-backed communist party turned on its left-wing allies, the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification, only just escaping arrest, interrogation and probable execution himself

Communism in England

From Weimar to Wall Street 1918-1929 (1993)

This book is volume three in Hamlyn’s History of the Twentieth Century. It’s a fun, Sunday afternoon coffee-table book, nice and big – 28 cm tall by 22 cm wide – with plenty of space for full-page reproductions of photos, posters, film stills, art works and so on. It also includes timelines for each sector or topic, useful maps and ‘datafiles’, giving facts and figures about populations, industrial production, election results and so on.

One of its appeals is that it doesn’t restrict itself just to Europe and America, but ranges right around the world, describing social and political history in Turkey, the Middle East, Africa, Russia, Asia, China. It’s divided into four big topic areas – Politics, Economics, Society and Culture – and these main chapter headings are interspersed with special features about, for example, Bolshevism, Hollywood, modern medicine, jazz, air travel and so on.

It looks rather like one of my daughter’s school textbooks, with its busy layout of pages, text, Fact Boxes, maps, graphs and graphics – all designed to retain the interest of the hyperactive teenager.

A Peace Conference at the Quai d'Orsay by William Orpen (1919)

A Peace Conference at the Quai d’Orsay by William Orpen (1919)

It includes this striking painting by William Orpen, an Anglo-Irish painter who fought during the Great War and did some paintings of the Front, before moving on to portraits of key political players of the day. Here you can seee the leaders of the victorious allies – thin Woodrow Wilson at centre front, sitting in the red chair; to his right, with the big white moustache, Clemenceau, Premier of France; and to his right David Lloyd-George, Prime Minister of Great Britain, with the mane of white hair.

In the full-page reproduction of this painting what really stands out is the way Orpen handles the immense amount of gold decoration, shaping and moulding it in thick impastos of gold paint, alive with catchlights.

A flavour of the 1920s

  • 11 November 1918 end of World War One. Collapse of the Wilhelmine Empire and creation of the Weimar Republic. Germany’s colonies in Africa handed over to Britain (Tanganyika), France (Cameroon) and Belgium (Rwanda). Britain maintains its blockade on German seaports leading to thousands of civilian deaths from starvation over winter 1918, until Germany signs the Versailles Treaty in June 1919.
  • The Versailles Treaty imposes punishing reparations on Germany. Successive treaties see the creation of new countries from the collapsed European empires e.g. Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia. Establishment of the League of Nations which, however, the U.S. Senate refuses to ratify in 1919.
  • The Ottoman Empire is dismembered by the Treaty of Sèvres (August 1920). Mustafa Kemal, who has led the Turkish nationalist revolution, becomes Turkish president in 1920. the Allies encourage Greece to invade mainland Turkey which leads to the bitter Greco-Turkish War (1919-22). France and Britain take over ‘mandates’, controlling newly created countries across the Middle East in what had been the Ottoman Empire.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1918)

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1918)

  • Economic boom in America. Political confrontations between Left and Right in Italy climax with Mussolini’s seizure of power for the Fascist Party in 1922. In 1923 Germany experiences hyper-inflation, economic collapse and the occupation of the Ruhr by France for failing to keep up with war reparations.
  • By 1920 Japan’s population has doubled since 1868 and it seeks new markets for its economy. This quest will lead to the creation of the Far East Economic Sphere i.e. the Japanese Empire, in the 1930s, to the invasion of Manchuria in 1937 and, eventually, war with America.
  • The Bolsheviks win their civil war against the Whites (1922) but catastrophic economic collapse forces Lenin to introduce the New Economic Policy, reintroducing limited business and trade. Lenin dies in 1924 giving way to a joint leadership which includes Josef Stalin. Only in 1928, with the exile of Leon Trotsky, does Joseph Stalin take full control of the USSR and impose the first Five Year Plan for full industrialisation and the collectivisation of agriculture.
  • In 1921 the Chinese communist party is created, in 1925 the Vietnamese Nationalist Party is established by Ho Chi Minh (among others). Both of which will have massive long term repercussions in the 1940s and 50s.
Young Ho Chi Minh

Young Ho Chi Minh at the Communist Congress in Marseilles, 1921

  • A succession of British government reports fail to satisfy calls for independence from Indian politicians and the 1920s see the rise to prominence of Mahatma Gandhi with his strategy of peaceful non-cooperation.
  • Cinema evolves in leaps and bounds with Hollywood stars led by Charlie Chaplin becoming world famous. 1927 sees the first part-talking movie (the Jazz Singer). Jazz evolves rapidly with Louis Armstrong emerging as one among many star performers. Jazz becomes more sophisticated in the hands of arrangers like Duke Ellington and gives its name to the entire era in America. It spawns dance crazes not only across America but in Europe too (the Charleston, the Black Bottom etc).
  • America imposes Prohibition in 1919. This swiftly leads to the creation of organised crime across the country, running bootleg booze production and a network of illegal nightclubs. Gangsters like Al Capone become notorious and a world-wide symbol of American’s ‘criminal capitalism’.
  • Radio becomes global. In 1920, in a radio first, Nelly Melba broadcasts from London to listeners all across Europe. In the US radio explodes into commercial chaos; in the USSR radio is strictly controlled, like all the arts, by the Communist Party. Britain invents the BBC in 1922, funded by a compulsory licence fee paid by every owner of a radio.
  • The spread of affordable birth control (not least via the educational books of Marie Stopes) liberates women, many of whom had for the first time worked during the Great War. Many take jobs in the new light industries which are springing up around major cities – the spread of the phenomenon called ‘suburbia’, all facilitated by the enormous growth in car ownership. Women around the world get the right to vote: in the UK women over 30 got the vote in 1918, over 21 in 1928 – with some countries (the Nordics) ahead of this, some (France) lagging behind.
Constructing the Empire State Building

Constructing the Empire State Building

Some thoughts

I liked the way the book restricts itself to the period 1918 to 1929. It scrupulously avoids the Wall Street Crash because that economic catastrophe in fact rumbled on into 1930 and, of course, its economic consequences were chiefly felt in the following decade.

By limiting itself to just the 1920s, the book conveys the chaos and excitement of the Jazz Decade in itself, of itself, without the shadow of the Depression looming over it, let alone the Nazis. All too often histories of the period skip through the 1920s to get to the Crash and then to Hitler, who then completely overshadows everything that came before, whereas the 20s are quite fascinating in their own right.

Stepping back, the two Big Political Themes which resonate through the decade are:

  1. The Repercussions of the First World War, namely:
    • The collapse of the four empires, Germany, Russia, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian, which gave rise to a host of new independent countries, generally with very fragile new political systems and unhappy ethnic minorities,
    • The economic consequences of the peace – the tough reparations on Germany lead to hyper-inflation, but Britain ended the war deeply in debt and never regained the worldwide power she enjoyed in the 1900s. By contrast, America clearly emerged as the world’s most advanced industrial, technological and financial centre.
  2. The Repercussions of the Russian Revolution. New communist parties were set up in virtually every country in the world, promising freedom, justice, equality and so on, especially appealing to developing countries and colonies seeking their freedom.

Consumer culture

All these political changes were obviously important but the bigger message is that the 1920s were also a major step down the path towards a consumer capitalist society, as the practical notions of convenience and home comforts took precedence over older ideas of nationhood, morality and so on.

The populations of Western societies wanted to benefit from the invention and widespread distribution of gas, electricity, lamps and lights, hoovers, sewing machines, telephones, radio and gramophones, and so on, not to mention the huge growth in car use.

And accompanying all this were the posters, adverts, hoardings, design and branding, huge developments in the layout of magazines and ads, of fonts and styles. All these had existed in the 1890s, 1900s and 1910s and each of these decades had seen the steady growth in number and sophistication of all the media of consumer culture. But the 1920s saw the arrival of major new technologies – led by gramophones and sound movies, which promoted whole new forms of music (jazz) and new types of personality (the movie star) as never before.

Even if they didn’t all personally enjoy it, more people than ever before in the industrialised nations could see what a good standard of living – with a car, a home of your own and foreign holidays – looked like, bombarded through newspapers, magazine and billboard hoardings with compelling images of astonishing luxury.

Just flicking through the book shows that the imagery of consumer capitalism was more vivid, stylish, ‘liberated’ and ubiquitous than ever before. It’s lots of fun!


Related links

Related reviews

Victoria’s Wars by Saul David (2006)

The 2nd Europeans, 31st and 70th Regiments of Native Infantry drove the enemy from their cover with great slaughter. I only saw one European amongst the dead; at least a part of one. He was a sergeant of the 2nd Europeans; his cap, grog bottle, and his head was all we saw. There was a letter in the cap, but I could not make out any of it, for it was saturated with blood. (An anonymous British private describing the aftermath of the Battle of Sadiwal, Second Sikh War, 21 February 1849, quoted p.136)

This book is unashamed good fun, intelligent, gripping, informative and horrifying by turns.

Victoria’s Wars: The Rise of Empire consists of 400 pages of lucid compelling prose which retell the rattling stories of the British imperial conflicts during the 24 years between Queen Victoria ascending the thrown in 1837 and the death of her much-beloved husband, Albert, in 1861. The period is sometimes referred to as the ‘Dual Monarchy’ and saw the size of the British Empire almost quintuple in size from 2 million to 9.5 million square miles. But this didn’t happen peacefully: the British Army fought 30 or so campaigns during the period. David explains this book will cover the two major and nine medium-sized wars of the period. That’s a lot of fighting.

David disarmingly admits in the Author’s note that he first got addicted to the thrill and swashbuckling adventure of Britain’s early Victorian imperial wars from a boyhood reading of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels. When he came to research the period as a mature historian, he discovered that Victoria and Albert had more say in some of these conflicts than had previously been reported.

Thus he had the idea of interweaving his accounts of these (pretty well-known) imperial conflicts with the key events in the lives of the royal couple – how Victoria inherited the throne (in 1837), her coronation (in 1838), her wooing and wedding to Albert (February 1840), and then their periodic interventions in politics through till Albert’s death in December 1861. So a central thread of this narrative is the surprisingly detailed interest the royal pair took in Britain’s imperial conflicts: David quotes the letters which show Victoria being surprisingly sharp and critical of her governments for the way they (mis)managed both the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny, and the other conflicts of the period.

The early Victorian wars

The wars are:

  • 1st Afghan War (1839-42)
  • 1st Opium War (1839-42)
  • 1st Anglo-Sikh War (1845–46)
  • 2nd Anglo-Sikh War (1848–49)
  • 2nd Anglo-Burmese War (1852-3)
  • The Crimean War (1853-6)
  • 2nd Opium War (1856-60)
  • The Anglo-Persian War (1856-7)
  • Indian Mutiny (1857-9)

The nature & scope of these ‘wars’

This is essentially a military history, not a political or diplomatic or strategic or cultural history – these accounts take us right into the guts of the fighting and this approach, as always, has numerous benefits.

For a start they make it clear what ‘war’ actually means in each instance, in terms of geographic location and strategic intention. I’ve never really read in detail about the Crimean War before, and so was surprised and enlightened to learn that Britain and France, for a start, need never have fought it.

The conflict arose because the Czar insisted on bullying Turkey into granting authority over all Christians in the ailing Ottoman Empire to Russia. The Turks vacillated between agreeing or giving in to France who, under Napoleon III, also wanted control of the Turkish Christians, and Britain, who saw the whole thing as yet another pretext for Imperial Russia to extend her power south and take control of the entire Black Sea, thus threatening Britain’s supply lines to India.

If the allies had managed to pull Austria into the alliance of France, Britain and Turkey this would probably have sufficed to make Russia back off, but instead, while the diplomats wrangled, Russia sent her armies into the Balkans to besiege strategic towns there with a view to marching on Constantinople. Britain and France decided Russia must not only be threatened out of the Balkans but taught a lesson. This lesson, it was decided, would be the seizure of Russia’s main military port in the Black Sea, Sevastapol on the Crimean Peninsula.

That was it. That was the aim of the Crimean War: to teach Russia a lesson by seizing Sevastapol. But the allies landed 20 miles away to the north of the port, took ages to get all the equipment ashore, slowly marched to the city and then dithered about attacking – all of which gave the defenders of Sevastapol time to create awesome defences around it, thus setting the stage for a long and bloody siege which dragged on through the cruel Russian winters in which thousands of men slept in mud and water and snow and, not surprisingly, died like flies from cholera.

What a miserably mismanaged cock-up. The three battles I’d heard of – at the River Alma, Inkerman and Balaklava – were all subsidiary battles fought only to achieve the main goal, seizing Russia’s only warm water port.

We are used, in our time, to the Total Wars of 1914-18 and 1939-45 and so tend to think of ‘war’ on the same epic scale, fought to obliterate the opponent. It is thought-provoking to read about ‘wars’ of much more limited geopolitical, geographical and military scope and aim, fought with much smaller numbers, using much more primitive weapons.

Blow-by-blow eye-witness accounts

The second feature of a military history like this is its detailed, blow-by-blow description of the actual fighting, the battles and encounters, feints and charges and stands. (David’s book is graced with lots of charming hand-drawn maps – perfectly clear but in a whimsical deliberately archaic style – maps of the whole country affected, and then detailed maps of specific battles. These are vital.)

Thus David’s account of the ill-fated Kabul expedition, or the Crimea, or the Sikh Wars or the Mutiny, are studded with eye-witness accounts, scoured from letters, journals, diaries and official battle reports, which take the reader right into the sweat and fury of battle. Again and again we read the specific actions of named individuals and their vivid terrifying descriptions of fighting off Pathan warriors with swords, parrying Russian soldiers with bayonets, of rushing walls and stockades or helping comrades under fire. This is from the account of Private Wightman of the 17th Lancers describing how the survivors of the Charge of the Light Brigade, disorientated and riding back through dense smoke, veered by mistake up the sides of the valley only to encounter Russian infantry:’

My horse was shot dead, riddled with bullets. One bullet struck me on the forehead, another passed through the top of my shoulder; while struggling out from under my dead horse a Cossack standing over me stabbed me with his lance once in the neck near the jugular, again above the collar bone, several times in the back, and once under the short rib; and when, having regained my feet, I was trying to draw my sword, he sent his lance through the palm of my hand. I believe he would have succeeded in killing me, clumsy as he was, if I had not blinded him for the moment with a handful of sand.’ (quoted on p.233)

I guess this sort of thing is not for everyone but if you’re a certain sort of boy or man then you’ll find these hyper-detailed accounts of combat thrilling and exciting. ‘Why do men fight?’ girlfriends have asked me over the years. For the simple reason that it is the most exciting thing a man can experience – or a certain sort of man, at any rate.

One example can stand for thousands: here the young British officer Garnet Wolseley describes the feeling of standing on the battlefield shouting for volunteers, then charging a well-defended enemy stockade in Burma in 1853.

Wolseley could see the numbers of the Burmese above their stockade, urging the British on with shouts and gesticulations. Once again he experienced the thrill of the charge as adrenalin coursed through his veins. ‘The feeling is catching,’ he wrote; ‘it flies through a mob of soldiers and makes them, whilst the fit is on them, absolutely reckless of all consequences. The blood seems to boil, the brain to be on fire.’ (p.169)

Or Lieutenant E.A. Noel of the 31st Foot describes the exhilaration of charging the Sikh artillery at the Battle of Ferozeshah on 22 December 1845. The battle was:

‘murderous, but glorious, the excitement of charging right into the mouth of the guns you cannot conceive.’ (quoted p.101)

Most of the common infantry fought because a career in the army offered the security and pay their lives in Britain couldn’t provide, as well as training and camaraderie and a sense of identity. The officers – as David brings home – were mostly upper-class twits, not least because throughout this era officers could simply buy their ranks and saw the army as a means to social and financial advancement.

Nevertheless, ragamuffin proles or chinless toffs, all or any of them could be swept up in the heat of actual battle and find themselves performing super-human feats.

Heroism

For men under pressure reveal extraordinary capacities. There are accounts of mind-boggling heroism here, of men fighting on single-handed, manning guns after all their comrades are killed, racing across open ground towards walls stuffed with musketeers shooting at them, and so on.

It was during this early period, in 1857, that a new medal, the Victoria Cross was instituted for just such acts of stunning bravery. (David has a fascinating section about the creation, the design and casting of the first Victoria Crosses: they were, and still are, cast from the bronze cascabels – the large knobs at the back of a cannon used for securing ropes – of two Russian cannon captured at Sevastapol, hence the dull gunmetal colour. The remaining metal from these cascabels has still not all been used up; there is said to be enough metal for eighty-five more medals, p.282)

At the battle of the Alma the defeated Russians were limbering up their guns and withdrawing them, when Captain Edward Bell of the 23rd Fusiliers ran forward alone and, armed only with a pistol, surprised the Russian driver, who fled, while Bell seized the horse and led horse and Russian gun back to the British side of the breastworks. For this he later won the first Victoria Cross awarded in the Crimea (p.207).

At the Battle of Inkerman (5 November 1854) Captain John Crosse of the 88th Foot found himself defending the Saddle Top Ridge against advancing Cossacks:

‘I found myself close to a knot of six Russians who were advancing to attack me… I shot four of the Russians, the fifth bayoneted me & fell pulling me down on top of him, the sixth then charged on me & [with my sword] I cut down his firelock on to his hands and he turned back.’ (quoted p.241)

Who needs movies?

Butchery

But, of course, scattered moments of heroism are all very fine, and tend to be remembered by all concerned for the fine light they shed on combat, but fighting boils down to men killing each other in hair-raisingly grisly ways, hacking at each others’ bodies with blunt swords, stabbing and gouging and strangling and bludgeoning, while others are shooting bullets which smash bones, joints, shoot through your eyes or mouth or skull.

Take the relief column under Lieutenant Robert Pollock which was sent to rescue the British hostages held in Kabul (those held back and so not slaughtered in the mountains). As this force went back over the ground taken by the retreating Kabul garrison, it walked over bodies the whole way.

All along the road from Fatiabad lay the remains of the Kabul garrison, the corpses ‘in heaps of fifties and hundreds, our gun-wheels passing over and crushing the skulls and other bones of our late comrades at almost every yard.’ (quoted p.71)

Having rescued the British hostages, this column also withdrew back to India, but was harried all the way by the fierce Ghilzai tribesmen. One of the last to die was Ensign Alexander Nicholson of the 30th Native Infantry. The following day, John Nicholson, just released from Afghan captivity and following the same path to safety, came across his brother’s mutilated corpse, with his penis and balls cut off and stuffed into his mouth, as was the local custom (p.72).

After the Battle of Sobraon (Sikh War, 10 February 1846), the British drove the Sikh defenders back onto a narrow bridge over the River Sutlej which quickly broke. Thousands tried to swim across but were slaughtered by rifle fire and grape and canister shot being poured into the swimming mass at point blank range. Gunner Bancroft described the river water as:

‘a bloody foam, amid which heads and uplifted hands were seen to vanish by hundreds.’ (p.109)

By the same token as he uses eye-witness accounts to describe the progress of battles, giving the sense of total immersion in the gripping, terrifying experience of combat, so David also details the appalling gory butchery and bloodshed of battle. He gives a harrowing account of the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimea, on 25 October 1854:

A corporal who rode on the right of the 13th was ‘struck by a shot or shell in the face, completely smashing it, his blood and brains spattering us who rode near’. A sergeant of the 17th had his head taken off by roundshot, ‘yet for about thirty yards further the headless body kept the saddle, the lance at the charge firmly gripped under the right arm.’ (p.232)

There is an appalling price to pay for all these conflicts and the pages of this book are drenched in blood and brains. Describing the Indian ‘rebels’ at Sikandarbagh, Fred Roberts recalled:

‘Inch by inch they were forced back to the pavilion , and into the space between it and the north wall, where they were all shot or bayoneted. there they lay in a heap as high as my head, a heaving, surging mass of dead or dying inextricably entangled. It was a sickening sight… ‘ (quoted p.342)

I wonder if David did a tally of how many people died during these imperial conquests, men killed in battle, and women and children murdered in the accompanying atrocities by both sides: to the casual reader it must have been several million – the Crimean War alone accounted for some three quarters of a million dead on all sides. So much blood. So many human bodies composted back into the soil.

‘We overtook numbers of their infantry who were running for their lives – every man of course was shot. I never saw such butchery and murder! It is almost too horrible to commit to paper.’ (An officer of the 9th Lancers at the Battle of Sadiwal, Second Sikh War, 21 February 1849, p.137)

One example from thousands sticks in my mind: at the siege of Cawnpore, when the ‘rebel’ Indian regiments rose up against their European officers and families, pushing them back into a hastily defended cantonment, a ball from an Indian canon decapitated the son of the British commander, Major-General Sir Hugh Wheeler, leaving the boy’s hair and brains smeared on the wall of his father’s wall. His brains and hair (p.310). In fact, the rebels promised the garrison safe passage down the river, but as they loaded into the boats treacherously opened fire, killing 800 or more. The survivors were thrown into a small building along with Brits from other locations, nearly 200, almost all women and children, and kept prisoner in the blistering heat, without food or water for weeks. When a relief column of British forces approached all of them – 194 women and children – were hacked to death with swords. it is recorded that the killers needed replacement swords because the first ones became blunt hacking on human bone. Then all the bodies were thrown down a well, quite a few still alive at the time, only to asphyxiate under the weight of bloody bodies.

Yes. I know – the butchery, on both sides, during the Indian Rebellion, requires a book of its own. But still, it’s the father having to see the hair and brains of his son smeared across the wall which has stayed to haunt me at nights…

Incompetence

But maybe the main learning from the book is the staggering level of blundering incompetence shown by so many Brits at so many levels. As a survivor of the catastrophic retreat from Kabul, put it, the complete destruction of the allied force was due to the ‘incompetency, feebleness and want of skill’ of the military leaders (p.70) and this story is echoed again and again during these 24 fraught years.

The absolute epitome of mismanaged confused dunderhead behaviour was the Charge of the Light Brigade, sent into the wrong valley against well-placed Russian guns which wiped them out – an event David goes into in great detail (pp.227-237) and which just gets worse the more you understand it.

The entire Crimean campaign became byword for mismanagement, not least in the inability to feed, clothe and medicate British troops who died in their thousands during the first winter besieging Sevastapol. It was this dire situation which prompted T.J. Delane, the editor of The Times, to write an editorial excoriating the incompetence of the army and the government.

The noblest army England ever sent from these shores has been sacrificed to the grossest mismanagement. Incompetence, lethargy, aristocratic hauteur, official indifference, favour, routine, perverseness, and stupidity reign, revel and riot in the camp before Sevastapol, in the harbour at Balaklava, in the hospitals of Scutari, and how much closer to home we dare not venture to say. (p.254)

How the devil did these clodhoppers manage to acquire and run the greatest empire the world has ever known? The book suggests a number of levels at which British incompetence and stupidity operated:

1. The wrongness of basic aims Was it even worth fighting the Crimean War or the Afghan war in the first place? Diplomatic pressure was already making the Russians withdraw from the Balkans; after three years of war, the peace treaty didn’t achieve much more than had been on the table at the start.

Similarly, the First Afghan ‘war’ amounted to an armed expedition into Afghanistan to overthrow the existing ruler – Dost Mohamed – for being too friendly to the Russians and replace him with an exile of our choosing, Shah Suja, who would then owe us undying loyalty. The British force with some 10,000 camp followers fought its way through south Afghanistan, finding it harder than predicted, and eventually took Kabul, forcing Dost to flee and imposing the new ruler. But the people rejected him, we never controlled the outlying settlements, we promised subsidies (bribes) to various tribes which we failed to pay or cut back – and so shouldn’t have been surprised when there was a popular uprising which quickly took Kabul, besieging the Europeans in an indefensible cantonment.

The divided British leadership patched up an agreement with Dost Mohamed’s son in which we were promised free passage over the mountains back to Jelalabad but a) it was winter – the first weeks of January – b) nobody told the various angry tribes who controlled the mountains, and so the vast retreating force of several thousand soldiers and over 10,000 camp followers, were picked off at leisure or died of exposure in the sub-freezing temperatures. Notoriously, of the 16,000 or so total who went into Afghanistan, one – ONE – survivor, a Dr Brydon, made it alive to Jelalabad.

The Remnants of an Army (1879) by Elizabeth Butler, depicting the arrival of William Brydon, sole survivor the disastrous retreat from Kabul in January 1842

The Remnants of an Army (1879) by Elizabeth Butler, depicting the arrival of Dr William Brydon, sole survivor of the disastrous retreat from Kabul in January 1842

2. Strategic blundering The Kabul disaster reads like a textbook example of how not to do it. For a start leadership of the expedition was divided between the military leader Elphinstone and the political emissary, Macnaghten. The cantonment where the British Army based itself was significantly outside the city of Kabul; we didn’t build a citadel of strength to act as a secure base; and we relinquished control of the only secure building in the city, the Bala Hissar fort, to the new playboy ruler we had installed, and his harem.

3. Indecision and hesitation This really comes across as a key cause of failure in almost all these conflicts. Even after fighting broke out in Kabul the British leaders refused to take it seriously. Quick and decisive action might have stamped it out, captured the ringleaders and dissipated the local aggression; but the military leaders on the ground hesitated or plain refused to march into the city and so it was lost and the rest followed logically.

The same hesitation or plain refusal to attack leaps out of the account of the Crimean War where a quick attack on Sevastapol immediately after the allied forces had landed might have taken the city and prevented two years of costly siege: but the generals in charge – Lord Raglan for the British, Jacques Leroy de Saint-Arnaud for the French – wanted to wait until everything was ready and everyone had landed etc, thus giving the Russkies time to defend Sevastapol to the hilt. After the hard-fought Battle of the Alma River, with Prince Menshikov’s army retreating in disarray, both generals lost the opportunity to devastate them with the as-yet unbloodied British cavalry.

Only by taking chances are crushing victories won. And the Battle of the Alma could have been a crushing victory; it might even have ended the war… [but] neither Raglan nor Saint-Arnaud had the genius or nerve required to destroy the Russian Army in a single battle. Instead it was allowed to withdraw largely intact to fight another day – with disastrous long-term consequences for the allies. (p.212)

The same reluctance and refusal shines out of David’s account of the Indian Mutiny, a much bigger more complex event, in which there’s one silver thread concerning how the British garrison forced out of Delhi by the ‘rebels’, joined by reinforcements, took the cantonment to the north-west of the city: had they attacked immediately they might have driven the rebels out and squashed the rebellion at its heart. Instead, just like Raglan and Saint-Arnaud in Crimea, they waited, they prevaricated, they said they needed more forces – and the moment was lost (p.307).

Months passed and then waited: had they attacked straightaway who find a secure base above the city and then prevaricate for months and months and months, under the reluctant leadership of Brigadier Archdale Wilson, who drove his officers mad with frustration by continually claiming he needed just a few more guns, ammunition, soldiers, before he launched the attack to retake the city.

A very crude rule emerges from all of these accounts which is: If you see an advantage – SEIZE IT! Even if all your regiments, cavalry, artillery or whatever haven’t totally arrived – if you see the enemy retreating or vulnerable – GO FOR IT. Time and again opportunities were lost for quick, decisive knockout blows because the men in charge hesitated, were afraid, wanted to be sure of total success… and all too often that turned what would have been quick campaigns into brutal struggles of attrition in which tens of thousands died needlessly.

4. Penny pinching Prevarication was often caused by the wish to save money, for another thread which emerges is the way the British wanted to have an empire on the cheap. It’s striking to realise how nothing has changed in the national culture in 180 years – we’ve always been an austerity nation. Garnet Wolseley complained that all the logistics support for the army had been shut down ‘on so-called economical grounds’ and much of the rest contracted out to private suppliers – hence the revolting inedibility of the food provided for the soldiers in the Crimea. Ring any bells?

Thus the disaster at Kabul was partly caused by the Treasury demanding cuts to the costly expedition so that its political leader, Macnaghten, halved the subsidy/bribe being paid to a northern tribe of Afghans – who promptly rose against us; and, in order to save money, ordered a column out to meet a relief force coming from the north instead of waiting – which was promptly massacred.

The Crimea was a classic example of a major war which we tried to fight on the cheap, resulting in military stalemate (we won the side battles of Inkerman and the Alma but obstinately failed to take Sevastapol for years) and the deaths, due to lack of equipment (proper winter uniforms, tents, even food) of thousands and thousands of poor bloody infantry. ‘The Army is a shambles’, he quotes one officer as commenting (p.186). Eventually, the government was shamed by the extensive newspaper reporting of Russell (among others), the reports of Florence Nightingale, and pressure from the Queen, to face the facts that it was going to cost money to win the damn thing.

And David highlights the same mindset at the outbreak of the Indian Rebellion: the government didn’t take it seriously because it didn’t want to take it seriously because it didn’t want to spend the money which ended up being required to put it down. By this stage, twenty years into her reign, Queen Victoria had the confidence to write to her Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, criticising the government for, yet again, being:

anxious to do as little as possible, to wait for further news, to reduce as low as possible even what they do grant…’ (quoted p.327)

I’ve read so many times that the Empire was a device for looting and creaming off vast wealth from colonised countries that I am genuinely puzzled how come an account like this gives the strong impression of a colonial government in a permanent financial crisis, consistently underfunding and under-equipping the army it needed to police the empire, acting slowly, refusing to recognise the severity of the crises it faces and always trying to get away with the cheap option.

David gives a handy checklist for responsibility for the Afghan disaster, which serves as a useful checklist for many of these imperial fiascos. Who was to blame?

  • The political ruler of India, Lord Auckland, for ordering an invasion of Afghanistan which was never really necessary in the first place – the existing ruler was fairly friendly and could have been bribed to be on our side without the loss of a single life.
  • The Tory government, which, in order to save money, demanded a reduction in troop numbers and reduction of local bribes – thus helping to spark the rebellion.
  • General Cotton, the senior military man on first arrival in Kabul, who acquiesced in making the large, indefensible, out-of-town cantonment the main British base.
  • Sir William Macnaghten, the senior political agent on the spot, who deliberately played down the rebellion when it started, refusing to give permission for quick decisive suppressing action, then made a hash out of negotiating with the enemy chieftains (for which he was shot dead on the spot by one of them).
  • Brigadier-General Shelton, the man in charge of the British forces, who made a series of decisions all based on hesitation and caution, which allowed the rebellion to spiral out of control.

5. Unwanted freelancing Another theme is the regularity with which the men on the spot far exceeded their orders from the home government which then found itself forced to back them up. For example, the governor-general of India, Lord Ellenborough, sent Sir Charles Napier in 1842 with a force designed to bring the amirs of Sind, in north-west India, into submission to the British. Instead, Napier fought a series of battles and annexed the territory outright, to the horror of the board of the East India Company (who still, technically, ruled India) and the government of Robert Peel. It was felt to have been unnecessarily aggressive but also – more importantly – incurred unwanted cost: all very well for these soldier chaps to go a-conquerin’ territory, but then someone had to pay for the new lands to be garrisoned, manned, administered and so on, which cost a fortune.

6. Disease Three quarters of the 20,000 British deaths in the Crimea were caused by disease: 10,000 allied lives were lost to cholera, dysentery and fever before the allied armies even arrived at the Crimea, due to the squalid conditions at the base camp of Varna. In the winter of 1855 it was clear both sides in the Crimean War desired peace, but Napoleon III of France let himself be persuaded by the British to keep his forces at the Sevastapol siege through the winter to keep the pressure on Russia. With the result that the French lost more men – at least 30,000! – to disease in the final three months of the war than they lost in all combat operations of the previous two years.

Disease was the bane of all these ‘wars, fought in extreme heat or freezing cold in the plains of India, the jungles of Burma, the snowbound Afghan mountains or the frozen trenches of the Crimea.

The grim dynamic of imperialism

Again and again the same pattern and sequence of events took place: local rulers of land bordering the existing empire refuse to become our allies (Dost Mohammed in Afghanistan) or harass British traders (the ruler of Burma the Qing Emperor in China) so a British force is dispatched to bring them to heel/punish them/force them to let free trade continue.

If they resist in any way, especially if any of our chaps is killed, then the whole thing is converted into a massive Insult and Dishonour to Queen and Country and suddenly the entire nation is whipped up by the government/popular press to avenge/right/redeem this Insult, carrying out ‘the just retribution of an outraged nation’ (p.71) – and a large force is sent to sort them out.

Then it turns out to be tougher going than we thought, there are unexpected defeats, casualties mount up, it takes longer than we expected, soldiers start dying of heat and disease, they have the wrong uniforms (winter for summer or vice versa), run out of ammunition, reinforcements are delayed, individual acts of amazing heroism help to conceal systematic failings of strategy, funding and logistics and so the whole thing drags on, sometimes for years.

Eventually, enough extra forces, ammunition and cannon finally arrive to force a ‘victory’ of sorts or face-saving compromise, news of which is cabled back to a jubilant nation, there’s dancing in the streets, pubs and streets are named after the various bloody battles – the Alma, the Balaklava – medals are handed out, victory parades, the native rulers are arrested, exiled, replaced, the native peoples brutally massacred and cowed into submission… for the time being.

All in all, it is a shameful narrative of bullying, exploitation and hypocrisy but almost everyone was caught up in it, the national narrative. It is inspiring that there were radical thinkers and even MPs who were solidly against the notion of Empire, who consistently thought it directly contradicted Britain’s own rhetoric about Freedom and Liberty. But they made little impression on the jingoistic national culture, which only became more and more imperialistic as the century progressed.

Vandalism

A summary of these years wouldn’t be complete without some mention of European vandalism and destructiveness.

  • After the gruesome retreat from Kabul in which over 10,000 died, British forces were despatched to rescue the European hostages being held west of the city. They successfully rescued them and fell back on a pacified Kabul but realised they couldn’t hold it and retreated back to British India. But not before the force, under Lieutenant Robert Pollock and widely nicknamed the ‘Army of Retribution’, had blown up Kabul’s ‘magnificent Great Bazaar’ amid widespread looting and destruction (p.71), as punishment for the murder of the British envoys whose dismembered bodies had been hung there a year earlier (p.54).
  • During the Crimean War Sir George Brown was despatched with a force to capture Kertch, a vital supply port on the east coast of the Crimean Peninsula. Once they’d captured the relatively undefended town the allied troops went wild, looting homes, murdering civilians and raping women. They also burnt to the ground Kertch Museum with its priceless collection of early Hellenic art (p.261)
  • The Summer Palace of the Chinese Emperors at Beijing was (to quote Wikipedia) ‘widely conceived as the pinnacle work of Chinese imperial garden and palace design… an architectural wonder, known for its extensive collection of garden, its building architecture and numerous art and historical treasures.’ Towards the end of the Second Opium War in 1860, as an Anglo-French expedition force approached Beijing, two British envoys were sent to meet Prince Yi under a flag of truce to negotiate a Qing surrender. When news emerged that the delegation had been imprisoned and tortured, resulting in 20 deaths the British High Commissioner to China, Lord Elgin, retaliated by ordering the complete destruction of the palace. It was comprehensively looted and then burned to the ground. The Chinese have never forgotten or forgiven this crime.

Footnotes & insights

This is the kind of fact-packed popular history where even the footnotes are packed with interesting information. There’s a footnote on almost every page and every one is worth reading – from details of the  several assassination attempts on Queen Victoria, the Indian origin of the words sepoy, sirdar, pundit and so on, what a regiment’s ‘colours’ actually are (two flags, one regimental, one for the queen), how the town of Ladysmith in South Africa got its name, and an extended sequence on how the famous Koh-i-noor diamond came to be handed over the British and included in the crown.

The evolution of military hardware

Alongside the thread about Victoria and Albert’s interventions is another thread which dwells on the evolution of military technology during this period. I was fascinated to read about the arrival of steam warships. At first battleships continued to have masts and depend on sail power – if there was wind – but were also equipped with steam engines for when there wasn’t. Only slowly did they make the full transition to steam. I was particularly interested in the advent of a new design of much smaller warship, only 200-foot long, powered by steam and equipped with a small set of rotatable guns. Because of their size these could penetrate up even minor rivers and still deliver punishing artillery fire. They were called gunboats and for the first time really allowed the Royal Navy (and Britain) to extend its might/force/violence into the remotest river frontages all over the globe (p.159).

And so for the first time I really understood the hoary old expression ‘gunboat’ diplomacy’, which is always used to describe Lord Palmerston’s belligerent foreign policy during this period. The use of gunboats is exemplified here by their use in the Second Burma War, 1852-3.

Just as interesting was David’s detailed description of how new ‘rifles’, manufactured at the new workshops on the River Lee at Enfield, hence the ‘Lee Enfield rifle’, were developed to replace the old flintlocks which were still in use at the start of the period, much more accurate at a longer distance, giving our boys a distinct advantage.

A little less interesting, but still giving you the sense of getting a complete overview of the military world of this era, is David’s attention to the evolution of uniforms, away from the heavy double buttoned tunic and the clumsy tall shako hat towards more practical (but still to us, improbably unwieldy) uniform.

Conclusion

This is a compellingly written, exciting and illuminating book on many levels – popular history at its best.


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The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China by David J. Silbey (2012)

Passing judgement is a dangerous role for a historian to play. (p.202)

1. Silbey is an American – he is Associate Professor of History at Alvernia University, Pennsylvania – so for a start it’s nice to read someone who is not a Brit and therefore does not go on and on about the wickedness of the British in a tediously self-hating manner (compare and contrast with the tediously anti-British tone of recent China books by Rana Mitter or Robert Bickers).

Instead, Silbey treats the Brits sensibly, as the dominant imperialist power until later in the 19th century, when more and more European powers began hovering around China like vultures – but as only one among a pack of imperialist nations who all shared the same values and assumptions and, moreover, by 1900, one that was very much losing its European dominance to Germany, its global industrial dominance to America, and, in Asia, was nervously aware of the growing rivalry between Japan and Russia.

2. This is a great read – at a slender 240 pages it’s half the size of most of the other China books I’ve been reading, and is written in a clear style with short declarative sentences retailing facts and events in a lucid, forceful way, not drowning them in political correct attitude or an over-fancy prose style.

To begin with Silbey skips briefly over the prior history of the Qing Dynasty (which was founded way back in 1644), and through the more recent two opium wars with Britain (1839-42 and 1856-60). These passages lack the depth or detail of a John Keay or Jonathan Fenby, but they are well judged as an introduction to the main theme. Slowly the detail builds up along with the pace, until I found myself genuinely gripped and excited by his narrative. I read the whole book in less than a day.

Background

Before he even gets to the account of the Boxer Rebellion itself, I found one early section particularly memorable, mainly because it chimes with my own obsessions/concerns.

For me everything any human being does or says or thinks is secondary to the basic fact that we are breeding like rabbits and destroying the planet. Our ‘cultural’ achievements – much though I spend time and effort enjoying and analysing them – are ultimately trivial compared to the one Big Story of our time, that we are degrading the natural environment wherever we go, driving huge numbers of plants and animals extinct, fouling our own nest and bequeathing our children a poisoned planet.

So I sat up a bit when Silbey himself early on introduced an environmental explanation for the rise of what became known as the Boxer Rebellion. Basically, overpopulation was the fundamental cause for the social instability which plagued China throughout the 19th century and beyond:

  • Population China’s population was 150 million in 1700, around 350 million by 1800, and maybe 430 million by 1850!
  • Environment, flood and famine This explosive population growth was supported by the immense fertility of China’s huge river valleys – specially the Yellow River in the north and Yangtze to the south. But the Chinese didn’t have the kind of ‘agricultural revolution’ that we in the West benefited from during the 1700s. By 1850 even these huge fertile river plains could barely support the galloping population. Thus, from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, China’s population was extremely vulnerable to agricultural disaster, caused by drought or torrential rain leading to floods, or when the Yellow River underwent one of its periodic massive shifts of route, leaving devastation in its wake (as it did in 1855). China lived on an environmental and agricultural knife-edge which was almost guaranteed to produce periodic disasters, mass starvation, huge population dislocations. (Silbey doesn’t mention it but Jonathan Fenby’s more overarching account of China 1850 to 2000 describes, in often gruesome detail, repeated outbreaks of cannibalism in famine-stricken areas of China.) Even at the best of times, many millions were reduced to a hand-to-mouth existence on the periphery of their villages, or became migrant labourers roaming the countryside and easily transitioning into the ‘bandits’ who plagued much of non-coastal China – angry young men looking for food/justice/a better life.
  • Secret societies Chinese culture was drenched in respect for authority, for the family dead, for parents, local authority figures and for the Big Daddy of them all, the emperor. There were no political parties. There was no legal way to express opposition or dissent. Anyone who got on the wrong side of the emperor – and, in the second half of the 19th century, that meant anyone who crossed the all-powerful Dowager Empress Cixi – was liable to be beheaded. Hence it was a country alive with ‘secret societies’, cults and underground movements, the more so as so many of the dispossessed migrant workers, deprived of the traditional home, support and constraints of a settled village community, sought safety and validation elsewhere – in what were, basically, gangs.

So unlike Rana Mitter – who centres his (admittedly later) history on the diary of China’s leader Chiang Kai-Shek, or Robert Bickers – who quotes extensively from British traders and officials throughout the nineteenth century – i.e. unlike both those accounts which focus on surviving texts left by high-level, literate social leaders – Silbey digs deeper to put his finger on the key structural forces which help to explain the chronic instability of 19th century China.

And in particular he applies them to the rise of the so-called Boxer movement in the last years of the 19th century: population explosion, poverty, secret societies and then – a catastrophic natural disaster. In 1898 the Yellow River broke its banks, flooding millions of acres and reducing millions of peasants to starvation; the following year, in a cruel irony, there was drought. Huge numbers of peasants took to the road seeking food.

Exterminate the foreigners

The Boxers were mostly illiterate peasants, which explains why we have no manifesto or documentation from, for or about them. There are hardly any photographs of ‘Boxers’, even though their numbers at their peak ran into the millions. They didn’t have a leader, so we have no diaries or correspondence to pore over, no high level meetings to eavesdrop on, no strategies to weight and assess.

Almost the only thing we know about the Boxers is their one, simple, peasant slogan –

Support the Qing, exterminate the foreigners

What seems to have happened is that disparate groups of young men across northern China but especially in Shandong Province, just to the south of the capital Peking (as it was then called), became superstitiously convinced that it – the disaster, the poverty, the starvation -was the fault of the foreigners.

In particular, they blamed the only foreigners that the average peasant ever met or knew about – the interfering missionaries, missionaries from all the European nations, who arrived one day out of the blue in your village and not only began preaching un-Chinese nonsense about a tortured god, but made converts often among the lowest dregs of society – criminals and losers – who promptly used their powerful western backers to start winning village feuds and gaining the upper hand.

Silbey quotes numerous missionaries and journalists who were uncomfortably aware of this trend at the time. Missionaries appealed most to renegade members of society who had nothing to lose and everything to gain by acquiring powerful new western sponsors, but were often despised and scorned by their peers.

So the Boxer phenomenon first manifested itself, to western eyes anyway, as attacks on the Chinese converts to Christianity. Reports of scattered attacks, some murders, some atrocities, filtered into the European legations in Peking in 1898. And then came reports – sporadic at first – of attacks on the European missionaries themselves, which filtered in during 1899.

Occasional attacks on remote mission settlements were not unknown already, so it took a while for anyone to realise something new was happening, something more organised. Silbey reports the scepticism among consular officials in Peking, and even more so among hard-pressed imperial civil servants back in Britain and and the European nations.

The missionaries had always been a problem for imperial officials because they were always wandering far beyond the protection of our minimal military forces and then getting into trouble. For a long time the Boxer thing seemed like more of the same.

The Boxer movement

The Boxers are so-named because they grew out of secret societies and groups who were reviving China’s native traditions of martial arts. In Chinese the name was Yi-he quan, roughly translated as ‘Righteous Fists of Harmony’ or ‘Boxers United in Righteousness’. Boxers was short and snappy, so that’s what caught on with the British and has stuck to this day.

To their martial arts the Boxers added the voodoo belief that the correct rituals and spiritual exercises, for example swallowing bits of paper with magic phrases on them, would make them invulnerable to bullets – something we’ve seen in our own time among some African fighting groups.

Their discipline, their cult-like conviction, the righteousness of their cause, all spread like wildfire among half-starving angry young men in the drought summer of 1899, and through into the spring of 1900. They attacked missionaries and got away with it, they coalesced into larger bands, they stole guns and weapons where they could find them – and then they began to infiltrate the big cities.

The fighting

As 1900 progressed, consular officials wrote reports about the increase in attacks. In the spring Boxers – wearing their trademark red sashes – began to appear in towns frequented by foreigners, intimidating them with hard stares and displays of martial arts.

In April and May reports arrived of Chinese converts being murdered in ritualistic ways, tied to trees, having their arms chopped off and their intestines hacked out.

On June 1 two missionaries were ambushed, tortured and murdered. In late May the first surly, aggressive, red-sashed young men arrived in the streets of Peking, terrifying the Europeans. On May 27 a bloodied Belgian engineer staggered into the Peking embassies to announce that the train line to the coast was being destroyed by Boxers. On 31 May the British ambassador called a meeting of all the foreign consuls and they telegraphed to the coast for help and soldiers. The menfolk of the legations began building defences, reinforcing the existing wall surrounding the European quarter, adding barbed wire and trenches. On 9 June a racetrack just outside Peking was attacked and burned down. Some young Westerners who rode out to see the fun got caught in a firefight and came scampering back. On 11 June the Japanese ambassador, Sugiyama Akira, went with a servant to the train station to check on the arrival of the reinforcements but was shot dead in the streets. On June 13 the last telegraph line was cut. On 14 June several hundred Boxers with flaming torches attacked the legation but were beaten back by a picket of marines. By June 17 the legation quarter was surrounded and the Westerners were besieged, cut off from food, water, ammunition and help.

Thus Silbey shows how a trickle of scattered events slowly snowball into a major historical event -the siege of Peking – without anyone realising.

Several points are worth making about Silbey’s approach:

1. Day-to-day detail

There are numerous different ‘types’ of history writing, but nothing replaces a straightforward account of what actually happened.

Silbey’s narrative covers every available strand of the so-called Boxer Rebellion, the European part of which, the bit which is well-documented and understandable, took place in three or four locations simultaneously. By taking you carefully through it on a day-by-day basis, Silbey helps the reader understand the pressure the players were under, the limits of what they knew, the decisions they faced, why they did what they did – even if, with the benefit of hindsight, it turns out to have been the wrong decision.

Like a video game, this approach puts you in the game

  • Should the European forces set off to relieve Peking by train (quicker but vulnerable) or by river (safer but a lot slower)?
  • Should the Empress Cixi back the Boxers, hitching her star to this unpredictable uprising because it’s the best chance in a generation to kick the Europeans out of China?
  • Or are the Boxers a flash in the pan which the Europeans will crush, in which case she should declare war on them?

Silbey shows how at the start of June contingents of the Chinese army were stationed all along the train track and river from the coast via the city of Tianjin and along the route on to Peking – waiting for orders from the court: were they to make an alliance with the foreign armies in order to attack the Boxers – or ally with the Boxers against the foreigners?

Silbey’s day-by-day approach means that you, the reader, get involved in these decisions and find yourself taking sides, making gambles, taking part. The result is vastly more involvement, commitment and understanding than in the usual run of higher-level histories, which might make throwaway references to this or that battle, generalising, summarising etc.

But in Silbey’s account we are right down in the nitty gritty. When Able Seaman McCarthy is shot down in open ground in front of the fortified walls of Tianjin, Basil Guy a midshipman stays with him to bind the wound, under heavy fire, runs to get a stretcher team which he brings back, then helps the stricken McCarthy to safety. This takes half a page to describe and the reader is shaking at the intensity of the experience; you wonder whether you would have the nerve to do that, to stay with a comrade under heavy rifle and sniping fire, taking every measure to save their life. Guy was awarded the Victoria Cross (p.154).

During the same battle, the allies struggled to take the heavily defended inner wall of the city. Late at night the Japanese, closest to the inner wall, under cover of darkness planted tins of gunpowder against the south gate and set a fuse. Three times they set it and three times the Chinese defenders saw it flaring and shot it out. Until finally a Japanese engineer grabbed a box of matches, ran to the pile of gunpowder, and lit it. Boom! Up went the gate and the engineer was blown to smithereens. Wow – what bravery, fanaticism, madness!

On August 13 the Boxers made what was to be their final assault on the Peking legations, including an attack on the so-called Tartar Wall, an ancient fortification which they’d included in their defences. The section under attack was defended by just two men, Captain Newt Hall and Private Dan Daly of the U.S.Marines. As the attack intensified, Hall left Daly to go get reinforcements. Now alone, Daly, five feet six inches tall and ‘the most prolifically profane man in the history of the armed services’, held off waves of attacks. If he had given in or run away the Boxers would have made a breach, swarmed in and massacred the 500 plus Europeans. For his sweary bravery Daly was later awarded the Medal of Honour.

The day-by-day approach puts this book (for me) in the same league as Simon Schama’s monumental history of the French Revolution, Citizens (1989), or Orlando Figes’ epic account of the Russian Revolution (1996) or – going back earlier – Veronica Wedgwood’s masterpiece narrative of the British Civil Wars of the 1640s, The King’s War (1958).

By dealing with each day at a time, these historians convey not only the events, but something important about the very nature of human behaviour, of time and free will. The outcome of entire wars are shown to hang by a thread. The Chinese had held off the Europeans at Tianjin – if the Japanese engineer hadn’t sacrificed his life to blow the gate, would they have continued to hold out long enough to force the Europeans to run out of ammunition and be forced to retreat? Would the European legations in Peking have been stormed? Would Chinese forces in the rest of China, hesitating about which side to join, have come in on the side of the Empire and the whole thing turned into a genuine war of liberation against the Europeans? Would the Empress Cixi have gone down in history as the woman who liberated China and guaranteed the future of the Qing Dynasty for another century? And China never have fallen to Mao’s communists?

The day-to-day approach shows how truly contingent human affairs are, how people are forced to take all kinds of decisions on the basis of inadequate or zero information, decisions which only later assume huge importance.

All of this – the specificity of human agency and free will, the importance of individuals, the contingency of human affairs, heroism and cowardice, luck or good planning – come over brilliantly in this thrillingly detailed and exciting history.

And all of this is precisely what is lost as you write higher and higher level history, which deals in broader and broader brushstroke, misleading generalisations, giving a profoundly misleading sense that human history is somehow fated, predictable or purposeful.

2. Revealing the precise scope of the war

The day-by-day approach helps you understand a whole range of things. For a start, by the end of the book you’ve grasped the odd shape of the ‘conflict’. Basically, the European legations in Tianjin and further up the river, at Peking, found themselves unexpectedly besieged. A train of troops led by Admiral Seymour set off from the coast to rescue them, but found the track dug up by Boxers and came under repeated attack until eventually they had to retreat in disarray. So, next the Europeans tried the river route up the River Hai to get to Tianjin. But the seaward entrance to the Hai River was guarded by two forts on the north and south banks. So Silber gives us a nailbiting description of the European assault on the forts, infantry fighting their way across the mudflats, while the Royal Navy planned to bring two ships alongside two moored Chinese battleships and storm them – a plan Silber righttly describes as ‘insane’.

But it worked.

And so, having secured the forts, the riverborne relief troops set off up the river and, next, had to take Tianjin to free the besieged Europeans inside. This was a long hard fight in which the Europeans nearly lost. Eventually, they took the city, freed the Europeans and sailed on into another battle, to take the next settlement up the river, Beicang. Silber describes this battle in punishing detail, as he does the next encounter at Huangcan.

The Dagu Forts are significant because it was this which forced the Empress Cixi to make a decision. Support the Europeans against the illegal rebel Boxers, or support the Boxers against the far-from-invulnerable Europeans? She took option B, executed all the advisers who had been pushing for option A (there really not being space in Chinese politics for opposition or political parties – your argument loses, you die), and ordered the Chinese army to engage the foreigners.

At Beicang and again at Huangcan the Chinese army proved tougher and better organised than the foreigners expected. The Chinese lost, but they fought hard, and they withdrew in good order, not just scarpering and abandoning their kit.

The great mystery at the heart of the story is what happened next: after the battle of Huangcan the Chinese opposition suddenly and completely melted away. Before Huangcan the allies had been sniped at and ambushed at every bend in the river; afterwards, it was plain sailing through an empty landscape to Peking.

Why?

Silber invokes the same causes he gave at the beginning of his account: it started to rain. Plenty of journalists had been accompanying the expedition and they, and accounts from soldiers, paint a searing picture of the scorching summer heat of July and August in the north China plain. Dead crops, abandoned villages, bodies of animals and humans scattered across the barren plains. Then it started to rain. And rain. And rain. Crops needed tending, fields looking after, animals shepherded back into health, families needed supporting, flood defences reinforcing. The Boxers disappeared back to their villages. And the Chinese army hesitated.

At Peking, it’s true, the allies did encounter stiff resistance – but this was patriotic: after all, who would want their capital city assaulted and razed by foreigners? The Dowager Empress Cixi and her court had long fled into the western provinces (where, in Fenby’s account, she for the first time in her life witnessed the squalor her subjects endured, living in mud huts or holes in cliffs, suffering malnutrition and starvation in their hundreds of thousands).

After hard fighting, the allies took Peking and liberated the legations who, to their surprise, were generally in better shape than many of the troops – not having spent the previous two months marching through a parched landscape and fighting tough battles. A peace settlement was imposed on the Chinese government. The war was over.

Thus Silbey’s account allows you to really understand the shape and scope of the actual events. It wasn’t a ‘war’ as we think of European wars; it was really a glorified relief expedition which, at several key moments, very nearly failed.

3. Imperial shame

Because Silbey’s account has soaked us in the day-to-day struggles and suffering of everyone concerned – the starving peasants, the angry Boxers, the murdered missionaries, the officials and soldiers on both sides, because it has all been made imaginatively alive and important to us – this makes the atrocities that he describes all the more shocking.

The taking of the three towns (Tianjin, Beicang and Huangcun) was followed by Western reprisals and, because the Boxers were essentially civilians, only sometimes marked out by their red sashes, the reprisals are shockingly indiscriminate. An American contingent came across a group of French soldiers who had corraled about 300 Chinese men, women and children down towards the river and were firing indiscriminately into them – mass murder.

High level historians like Mitter and Bickers use words like racism very freely, so freely that after a while they lose their power. Silbey, by contrast, rarely uses the word – he shows you the thing in action – and this is infinitely more shocking, repellent and shameful.

Plenty of correspondents, even senior army officers and European officials, were horrified at the behaviour of their troops and – crucially – realised that they undermined if not destroyed any claim whatsoever that European ‘civilisation’ possessed any kind of superior values.

Having ‘liberated’ Peking, the allied troops went on a rampage of killing, raping and looting. Officers and officials tried to prevent it, and Silbey recounts the story of one American soldier who was tried and convicted of murder and rape and sentenced to life imprisonment; and this attempt at keeping control contrasts with, say, the behaviour of Japanese troops in China 30 years later who were given complete freedom to murder, rape and torture the Chinese at will. There was a real difference in attitude, with the best of the allies trying to prevent atrocity. But all too often they failed, and they certainly failed when it came to the wholesale ransacking the Peking.

Silbey doesn’t judge, he just shows. And by taking us so thoroughly into the feel and pressure of the time, by taking us so close to the sweating, fearful people of those days, makes us experience the atrocities with a similar visceral intensity – more powerful than any amount of name-calling or political correctness. Less is more.

4. Patriotic hate and the fall of the Qing

The Empress Cixi came back to Peking, her tail between her legs, and appointed the aged statesman Li Hongzhu to negotiate a crushingly humiliating peace treaty with the allies. A huge indemnity was forced on China, which she was still paying off 40 years later. The Western rapes, murders and looting shook the  Chinese intellectual class to the core; quite obviously ‘Western values’ were about as humane as Genghis Khan’s. They smile and invite you to tea with the vicar but, given half a chance, will ransack your capital city and rape your women. 

Cixi’s gamble had failed. She had backed the wrong side. More starkly than in some of the other accounts I’ve read, Silbey highlights how her failure condemned not only her dynasty, but the entire tradition of imperial rule, to the dustbin. Patriots and intellectuals growing up during this crisis not only saw at first hand that Westerners were violent, exploitative hypocrites – but just as clearly that the entire structure of imperial rule had failed and had to go.

5. The allies

So far I haven’t mentioned one of the dominant threads in the story which is that the expedition to relieve the besieged legations was strikingly multinational. Forces from Britain, British India, France, America, Japan and Russia took part. Again, by drilling down to the daily nitty-gritty Silbey reveals the highly complex world of competing imperial rivalry which operated, from staff level all the way down to individual soldiers. When the allied force finally took Tianjin, there was a race, an actual race, between the Japanese and British to get to the city flagpole and be the first to raise their flag over the liberated city. There was even more intense rivalry about which nation’s forces would be the first into besieged Peking (again it boiled down to bitter rivalry between the British and Japanese).

Silbey makes the point (as does Bickers in his book) that the Boxer conflict took place at exactly the same period as the second modern Olympic Games were happening in Paris (summer 1900). Exactly the same spirit of international rivalry was on display in China.

6. The aftermath

I’ve mentioned that one of the medium-term consequences was the end of the Qing dynasty, which itself contained the seed of another 75 years of further turmoil for China.

But it was really the rivalry between the allies which was full of portent and omen. The armies of France, Britain, Russia, Japan, America not only fought alongside each other against the Boxers and Chinese army – they watched each other and assessed each other. Spookily, at the Peking victory parade, the Japanese examined the Russians with a very appraising eye, noticed by onlookers. Four years later Japan would provoke a conflict with Russia in which she would whip the hapless Slavs, and consolidate her sense of being a World Power and entitled to a major role in Asia – a sense of entitlement which would lead her to annex Korea in 1910 and then invade north China in 1931.

It is fascinating to learn that conquered Peking was partitioned into sectors, each run by a different power – exactly like Berlin in 1945. All through the story the Germans had behaved with egregious brutality, inspired by their wicked Kaiser, Wilhelm II, who made a speech to departing troops telling them to take no prisoners and to inspire the same terror as their forebears, the Huns under Attila.

Silbey goes on to detail how the Chinese fled the brutality of the German sector, which became a ghost town, and flooded into the relatively well-run American sector. Apparently, when the Americans came to pull out a year later, the Chinese raised a large petition begging them to stay. The Americans brought order, stability, law, as well as clean water, medical facilities, schools and so on, something even their own authorities couldn’t provide until…. well, when exactly? The 1980s? The 1990s?

Conclusion

This is a thrillingly powerful, well-written, lucid and thought-provoking account of the Boxer Rebellion and the allied expedition to relieve Peking – bristling with all kinds of ideas and insights into the period itself, but also into the very nature of war and politics, of heroism and failure, of the scope and possibility of free will and action in a world constrained by society, history, politics and culture.

They did what they thought right, some of it wicked, some of it wrong, some of it foolish and deluded, some of it inspired and heroic. They were flawed people, constrained by their times, just as we are, in ours. For as Silbey writes:

Passing judgement is a dangerous role for a historian to play. (p.202)

Judge not lest ye be judged. A clear, well-written factual account of these kind of events is vastly more illuminating – and ultimately damning – than any amount of editorialising and name calling.

American cartoon (by Joseph Keppler for Puck magazine) satirising the foreign powers squabbling over China's corpse in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion

American cartoon (by Joseph Keppler for Puck magazine) satirising the foreign powers squabbling over China’s corpse in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion


Related links

Other reviews about the history of China or the Far East

The Scramble for China by Robert Bickers (2011)

Bickers obviously knows a hell of a lot about western intervention in nineteenth-century China – or the story of the Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire 1832-1914, as the book’s sub-title puts it. Unfortunately, he attempts to convey this wealth of information in such a long-winded, round-the-houses manner, choked by a prose style which manages to combine academic jargon and whimsical archaism, that a lot of the time it’s difficult to tease out what he’s on about.

For example, the early chapters open with an unnamed ‘he’ doing something melodramatic and striking, thus creating an arresting opening – but take a page or more getting round to explaining who ‘he’ is, what ‘he’ is doing, where and when and why, thus leaving us in the dark.

They shouldered their way in. At Mr Lindsay’s order, Mr Simpson and Midshipman Stephens put their shoulders against the barred entrance to the Daotai’s quarters and heaved, twice. (Opening of chapter two)

Who? Where? When? Why? Patience, grasshopper. All will be revealed… eventually.

Was it a dream? Were his eyes deceiving him? He pressed forward through the crowd, the report goes, to get a better sight of the strangers, and “immediately began rubbing his eyes”. (Opening of chapter three)

Who? Where etc. Wait. Wait and see. Wait quite a while, in fact, for Bickers to make himself clear.

These teasing anecdotes, once finally explained, themselves take a while to be placed in the wider historical moment, which Bickers tends to explain both repetitively and obscurely. Quite regularly I didn’t know who he was referring to or when because the narrative jumped unpredictably between one set of characters and another, and (very frequently) back and forward over time. The only really consistent thing about his approach is his use of colourless academic phraseology and his scorn for the no-good imperialising westerners.

At first sight there appears to be a good deal of ‘background colour’ – the third chapter prides itself on going into great detail about the role of theatre and opera in Chinese society, from the professional heights of Peking Opera to the most amateur of local productions. Unfortunately, a lot of these purple passages, when you really look at them, merely state the obvious.

To give an example, the ‘he’ described in the opening of chapter three turns out to be a Chinese bystander who’s heard about two Europeans who have arrived out of the blue at Shanghai in – well, the date is lost in the yards of verbiage, I genuinely couldn’t figure it out – and who have blundered into a public opera production. This is Bickers’ cue to write pages about the Chinese opera and theatre tradition. Sounds fascinating, right? Alas, these pages are written thus:

But what was being staged depended on the occasion, and who was paying – the temple, a guild or a private patron. We cannot know, but we do know that the temple and the gathering so rudely interrupted by these bumptious foreign travellers were part of the fabric of Shanghai life and culture, in which were tightly interwoven the sojourning communities of commercial China, men from afar, whose trading activities were a key component of its wealth and importance. (p.59)

This one long sentence informs us that this big temple in Shanghai was part of Shanghai life and culture. Golly. Communities of sojourners (sojourner = ‘a person who resides temporarily in a place’) were – in case you hadn’t twigged – ‘men from afar’. OK. And that the trading activities of travelling merchants ‘were a key component of [Shanghai’s] wealth and importance’. ‘Tightly interwoven’ sounds impressive, doesn’t it? What does it mean, though?

I.e. when you take this grand-sounding sentence to pieces, it doesn’t tell you anything that wasn’t already fairly obvious. This is true for thousands of passages throughout the book: sound great, don’t tell you a thing.

Obscurity 

I’ve gone back and reread the opening pages of chapter three, twice, and I genuinely cannot actually work out when the action quoted above is taking place. You have to wait until three pages into the chapter before there is any reference to an actual date, and then it’s to two dates at once, one or both of which may refer back to a scene described in the previous chapter (I think), a reference which, in turn, required me to go back and double-check those dates.

In other words, this book requires quite a lot of double-checking and cross-referencing just to figure out when the thing is happening. Here’s the date reference I’m talking about:

Understanding what they were congregating for on this dreary October day in 1835 and had been watching on that wet June morning in 1832, and why at a temple, will help us develop a fuller picture of the China that first Lindsay and Gütlzaff, and then Medhurst and Stevens, were so intent on interrupting with their presence. (p.53)

This is what I mean by a round-the-houses manner. The opening of chapter three is deliberately obscure and teasing but… becomes no clearer as it goes on, in fact becomes in many ways more obscure and confusing as it goes on. All that really comes over is Bickers’s anti-British attitude (‘so intent on interrupting’) which is, indeed, the central thread of his account.

All this makes for a very frustrating read. Obviously Bickers knows masses about this subject – it is a tragedy for us readers that he can’t set it down in a straightforward, understandable manner.


The sound of his own voice

Complementing the obscure structuring of the book is the convoluted prose style.

1) Long paragraphs Bickers’ paragraphs routinely last an entire page and often longer, so on opening the book anywhere the reader is faced with a blank wall of words, with no way of breaking the text down into smaller, manageable units of meaning. I continually found myself losing the drift of a 2-page long paragraph, my eyes glazing over, suddenly snapping out of it and then having to go right back to the start to figure out what was happening.

2) Long sentences These mammoth paragraphs are indicative of the book’s general long-windedness. Bickers is reluctant to write a simple declarative sentence. He prefers long, swelling periods, dotted with commas to indicate the proliferation of subordinate clauses and – if possible – the insertion of one or two additional facts in parentheses, to make them as ornate and rhetorically over-wrought as possible.

You know those suitcases which are so over-stuffed you have to sit on them to try and get them closed? Bickers’ sentences are like that. And is this over-stuffing done in the name of presenting the facts clearly? Alas, no. Nine times out of ten it is to achieve an effect of style, a rhetorical repetition of phrases or artful alliteration, the deployment of irony or sarcasm – all techniques which are more suitable to a creative writer than to a historian.

And so, yet again, the Tianhou temple at Shanghai played host to parley, and the crude theatrics of private diplomacy, as Medhurst in particular stood, or rather aimed to sit, on his dignity as yet higher officials, the Customs superintendent (with a foreign cloak, he noted) and the district magistrate, came along in turn to sort things out, and found the foreign intruders rudely rebuffing the requirements of propriety when meeting officials of the great Qing. (p.52)

Note the attempts at humour – ‘or rather aimed to sit’. Note the insertion of a parenthesis, which itself contains two grammatical parts ‘(with a foreign cloak, he noted)’. Note the fondness for alliteration, for the sound of his own style – ‘rudely rebuffing the requirements’. Note that rather than describing or explaining the attitudes of the participants, Bickers prefers to convey them through irony verging on sarcasm – ‘the great Qing’.

Basically, this is a historian trying to write like a novelist.

3) Old fashioned Ironically for someone who is so determined to take a loftily modern, politically correct point of view of the old British Empire, Bickers’ prose, as well as being convoluted to the point of incomprehension, is also addicted to very old-fashioned locutions and vocabulary. Since I often couldn’t work out what he was on about, I found myself drawn to collecting his oddities and archaisms (= ‘a thing that is very old or old-fashioned, especially an archaic word or style of language’):

  • History was ever a public act, but it was also ever a private passion. (p.16)

Leaving aside the fact that this grand sounding period means less the more you think about it, there is the phrasing to savour – ‘ever’ to mean ‘always’? Really? In 1817 certainly. In 1917 maybe. But in 2017? Reading so many Victorian journals, tracts, articles has obviously infected Bickers’ style. But this is far from being a one-off oddity:

  • Lindsay was ever deadly serious, of course, and Medhurst too. (p.75)
  • There were private interactions, too, as there had ever been. (p.224)
  • Music was ever also a private pleasure, a private relief, a source of succour. (p.228)
  • Such confidence in the foreign ability to know China better than the Chinese themselves was to be oft rehearsed. (p.39). ‘Oft’?
  • All understood the law, he averred… (p.41) ‘Averred’?
  • All this fury and posture came to nought. (p.46)
  • The bells in Macao were quieted at the request of his physicians, but it all proved to no avail. (p.46)
  • Emigrants from Fujian, who had long sojourned in the city… (p.54)
  • The colonial consolidation and expansion of the emperor’s predecessors was largely foresworn… (p.66)
  • The Qing could but capitulate… (p.324)

Odd that Bickers is so loftily dismissive of the old imperialist bullies when he himself sounds so like a mutton-chopped lawyer out of Dickens:

  • The tension among the Company men in China persisted thereafter… (p.25)
  • … they aimed to get their complaints heard elsewhere along the coast and transmitted thereby to Peking… (p.26)
  • Scholars have begun in recent decades to look beyond the rhetoric of some schools of Chinese statecraft, particularly insofar as it articulated hostility to commerce.. (p.62)
  • Thereafter he held an intendant post in Zhejiang… (p.72)
  • Charles Elliott, by now the British superintendent of trade, rushed to Canton from Macao in cocked-hatted full dress uniform, evading the blockade and thereby deliberately adding himself to the hostaged fray. (p.78) ‘The hostaged fray’?
  • There were ‘mixed feelings’ from The Times, at the conclusion of a ‘miserable war’, and the ‘ill-gotten gains’ therefrom. (p.84)
  • Jardines had fourteen receiving ships by 1845, and usually ten thereafter… (p.92)
  • Like most of the early missionary community in China, he secured a post with the official British establishment during the war, and turned it into a secure position thereafter… (p.94)
  • In this way they rationalised their operations somewhat. (p.106)
  • Telegraph lines snaked their way thereafter to China. (p.164)
  • [The convicted murderer John Buckley] went quietly to his death, the site guarded by twenty-four policemen in case an attempt was made to rescue him, and he was not thereafter missed. (p.180)
  • For almost a quarter of a century thereafter the firm grew and diversified… (p.185)
  • Thomas Hanbury and his ilk were wedded to their interests in the Settlement at Shanghai… (p.189)
  • At least in Britain there was a Public Records Office, and in principle archives were transferred to public access, but nothing of that like existed in China. (p.376) — I don’t think I’ve ever read ‘like’ being used in this way before. ‘…nothing of that like…’ Surely you or I would write ‘but nothing like that existed in China’, but where would be the fun in that?

Alliteration Alliteration self evidently promotes sound and rhetoric over factual content and meaning.

  • Lindsay instantly resumed a pointed game of protocol and precedence. (p.21)
  • Their later frantic, frequent queries… (p.27)
  • It complained that the authorities in Canton were corrupt, capricious and cruel (p.28).
  • All wanted friendly and fruitful relations… (p.41)
  • They left that afternoon with a promise that a polite and properly formal response to their petition would follow. (p.41)
  • Instead they indulged in recondite debates about terms and texts. (p.73)
  • [Nathan Dunn’s exhibition of chonoiserie in London in December 1841] inspired catcalls and copycats… (p.88)
  • Such consular conveniences, compounded by confusions… (p.107)
  • [The Taiping rebels] fought fanatically and fiercely. (p.120)
  • … fifteen years’ worth of precedent and practice. (p.155)

Maybe Bickers is modelling himself on the lyrics of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. In at least one place he does in fact directly quote Gilbert & Sullivan – on page 78 referring to the ‘little list’ being used in negotiations with the Chinese, a phrase which is the focus of a well-known song from their operetta about Japan, The Mikado (1885) (in fact, Bickers likes the jokey reference so much, he makes it again on page 194).

Hendiadys and pairing Why use one word when you can use two – ideally alliterating or rhyming – to deliver that knockout rhetorical punch?

  • Confident, nonetheless, they memorialised now more readily and steadily. (p.370)
  • … ongoing debates and disagreements… (p.374)

Fancy-ancy just for the fun of playing with words:

  • These shows… brought curious orientals to accompany the oriental curiosities on display in London. (p.89)
  • As successive reports made their way back to Britain, and as the lobbyists worked their words… (p.80)
  • But abate it they could not, or abate it they would not… (p.113)
  • Nearly all foreigners could or would still only talk a pidgin English… (p.114)
  • The act of uprising – daring to stand and daring to fight… (p.120)
  • But he could not, or would not, pay them. (p.126)
  • Parkes had grown up as British China grew up. He had grown with conflict and he had grown accustomed to conflict. China was his adult life, his only life… (p.138)
  • The men were there to fight and fought there well. (p.162)
  • So Robert Hart had had his fill of life in the foothills of the China apocalypse, had seen how vacuum would follow and violence ensure if the Qing could not hold… (p.196)
  • This new Peking, the object of romantic contemplation, suggested a China that might be appreciated rather than caricatured, and savoured rather than savaged. (p.221)

Singular nouns or nouns without an article This a real addiction of Bickers’ style, it occurs throughout on every page and gives the prose a stilted, hieratic feel:

  • [Lindsay] was ready to perceive slight and note omission… (p.22)
  • Now Lindsay was sailing north without invitation… (p.24)
  • … he and his retinue had been denied audience… (p.24)

Shouldn’t that be, ‘denied an audience’? It’s not wrong, it’s just that denying many of these nouns an article turns them from specific instances or events into lofty-sounding abstractions – makes them and the sentences they appear in just that wafer-thin bit more stilted and precious than they need be. More portentous and pretentious, to adopt Bickers’ own manner.

  • The predictable regularity of the internationalised trading world was periodically upset, as in any port city, by human failing and misadventure… (36)
  • They knew so well many of the possibilities that lay beyond their reach by imperial order, and engaged in shrewd estimate and wild conjecture… (p.65)
  • Nor was [the emperor Daoguang] the despised feudal archaism of the Marxist history of communist-era China, which castigated the failures of the late-Qing monarchs to combat imperialism’s assault. (p.67)
  • Those Napier-ordered bombardments of the Canton forts were simply ‘minnows’ compared with the just desserts of Chinese obstruction and insult that were to be meted out by British warships. (p.77)
  • The British helped inform this comedy of error. (p.86)

As with the other elements of Bickers’ style it gives the impression of acuity and insight without providing any actual information. The proliferation of these rhetorical tricks explains why you can read whole page-long paragraphs, arrive exhausted at the end, and then wonder why you don’t appear to have learned or remembered anything.

  • The Canton RegisterCanton Courier, and the more ambitious and scholarly Chinese Repository, edited by Elijah Bridgman, the first American missionary to China, all conveyed up-to-date news, description and opinion across the seas. (p.36) Why not descriptions?
  • Every contact with Chinese officials was an occasion for slight. (p.44)
  • It administered each in the way which seemed best, or most pragmatic at the time, and given considerations of resource and capacity. (p.69) Why not ‘resources‘?
  • Bouts of fighting were interspersed with parleys and negotiations, and with defence of insecure occupations of Chinese islands… (p.81) Why not ‘the defence’?
  • Stronger still would be the accumulated body of printed and private report… (p.89)
  • … the consequent legal haziness of their operations generated much correspondence and dispute. (p.93)
  • But domestic crisis was no small matter when rumour swept around… (p.114)
  • If stray shots passed over there would be formal complaint and stern rebuke. (p.127)
  • European initiative needed Chinese resource. (p.156)
  • The Customs delivered increasing resource as foreign trade grew… (p.198)
  • The development of official banks of information and report by consul and commissioner… (p.218)

So Used as an emphasiser, and in an unusual position in the word order, in a very old-fashioned way:

  • Indeed it will help if we understand more about the temple itself, which so stood out on the Shanghai waterfront close by the Customs House and under the highest point on the city wall, and which so stands out in these two landmark accounts of foreign visits to the city…This way we can better understand the China of the early 1830s outside the narrow confines of the factories, the roads, Macao, that narrow semi-foreignised sliver of the Canton delta that so overfills accounts of the early Sino-foreign encounters. (p.53)

Indeed, it would have been better for the gentle reader of these rhetorical tricks which so embellish and so adorn the purple prose of this grandiloquent historianographer, if his exuberant verbosity had been somewhat reined in and replaced with useful and understandable factual content.

Presage Bickers likes this word.

  • The foreign traders, all of them, were to be held hostage for the drug, without fresh food, without their servants, worried that the commissioner’s little list… presaged individual arrests and possibly torture. (p.78)
  • The sight of the burning buildings… presaged some more years of violent Canton problems. (p.101)
  • All such minor disturbances of men and women could presage consular grief. (p.114)
  • An estimated 7 million people were affected by the floods and dyke-failures that presaged the great change [of the course of the Yellow River in 1851] (p.136)
  • This turn to antique China also presaged the opening of another front in the foreign campaign. (p.221)
  • Margary’s slaughter presaged another round in China’s despoliation… (p.260)
  • The new blockade was to presage a new phase in the campaign… (p.296)

The use of ‘presage’ is typical of Bickers’s preference for the orotund and bombastic as opposed to the plain and simple.

Inversions of normal sentence order which makes sentences sometimes difficult to understand.

  • Quickly to the Company’s aid came instead other parties and volunteers… (p.26)
  • What commercial bliss it was that hot Canton spring… (p.78)
  • Rare it was that ‘the preacher commences and ends his discourse without a single intervention’. (p.111)
  • Always in Peking, I think, someone will in fact have heard him. Always someone will have heard the young foreigner belting out song in the capital’s dry air. (p.229)
  • Always there were exceptions… (p.249)
  • Fearful too were Chinese residents and local authorities. (p.349)

Incomprehensible In fact the combination of all the above tricks and jackanapary makes some sentences simply incomprehensible.

  • And what was eventually left over, why, when the hullaballoo was over, and when Lin’s officers had spent three weeks in April and May overseeing the smashing of the balls of opium and their flushing out to sea at Humen, close by the Linten anchorage, then what a market there was for it, and what prices it could now fetch discreetly, much more discreetly, sold along the coast to friends disappointed by the diversion of the spring stock. (p.79)
  • Along the coast with the British Cantonese went nonetheless, or followed soon after. (p.101)
  • Gods of ignorance and bafflement reigned over the China theatre. (p.397)

Sojourners sojourning As mentioned above, a sojourner is ‘a person who resides temporarily in a place’. Lots of westerners came out to newly-opened-up China to make a quick fortune then go home; they are pretty obviously ‘sojourners’, if you choose to use this antique term. But lots of Chinese, both native and immigrants from the south-east Asian diaspora, also came to ‘sojourn’ in the new Crown colonies Britain had wrested from China. Hence there was a whole lot of sojourning going on, and the text doesn’t let us forget it:

  • Sojourners and settlers prefer familiarity to adaptation… (p.62)
  • [The Qing empire] was well used to dealing with sojourners from outside its formal domain… (p.69)
  • Cantonese migrants and sojourners were quick to see additional value in association with the British… (p.102)
  • Robert Fortune’s second sojourn in China… (p.105)
  • They [westerners] were sojourners, mostly… Their sojourns were not short. (p.117)
  • Shanghai itself fell on 7 September 1853 to a sojourner coup. (p.125)
  • The sojourner was mentally relocating, settling in, his sense of where he formally belonged shifting. (p.168)

Personification

  • Arrogant opium swaggered its way along to the newly opened ports. (p.92)

Not traditional history writing, is it?

Tired and jaded

It is an oddity of this book that Bickers’ tone is tired and jaded with the whole western adventure in China before it has even started. Very early on he starts using phrases like ‘once again’ and ‘yet again’, when in fact what he’s describing is happening for the first time. This quickly conveys to the reader that Bickers is frightfully bored with the oh-so-predictable cultural misunderstandings or western bullying or the absurd scenes of everyone standing on their dignity which he depicts.

  • At Shanghai as at Hong Kong, and in every foreign community, such sentiments… were to be expressed again and again… (p.134)
  • Again it all began in Canton… (p.136)
  • And here we are again at the closed gates of the city and at the closed door of the yamen… (p.146)
  • It was the old story, of China coast savviness about Chinese duplicity… (p.213)

This tone conveys the regrettable sense that Bickers feels blasé and superior to the events he’s describing and the poor saps enacting them. If only the human race had given Bickers something a bit more interesting and novel to write about! There’s a striking passage which introduces the First Opium War where he tells us how awfully over-familiar the whole thing is:

The course of events that followed are well known. How Lin Zexu was sent as a special commissioner to investigate the problem in Canton and to put a stop to the trade, how he made his way overland to the city and set about making his mark: all of this has been much narrated. (p.77)

Is it well known, though? Has it been much narrated? Do you know all about Lin Zhu and his overland trek and what happened next? I certainly didn’t. In fact, that’s why I’m reading a book about the scramble for China, precisely to learn about this history, not to be patronisingly told that I ought to know all about it all already.

This passage (there are plenty more in the same vein) crystallised my feeling that Bickers is far too close to his subject matter and makes a kind of rookie error in assuming that his readers share his specialised knowledge and are all as blasé and bored by it as he is.

But many of us have barely heard any of this story before and it is his responsibility to tell it to us. Alas, Bickers is so over-familiar with events that he has to resort to fancy prose and attitudinising to keep his own interest up. I, on the other hand, was hoping for a simple, reliable and clearly written account of the events of these hundred years in China.

Alas, I didn’t get it here. Bickers’ account of the First Opium War is confusing, but not as confusing and partial as his account of the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) on pages 118 to…. well… his account just fizzles out somewhere ten pages later – which I was particularly looking forward to. As if determined to confuse, he begins his account of the Taiping Rebellion, one of the most epic events in world history, in mid-chapter, after some pages which give the impression they are going to be a description of the cosy lives of the China British. He introduces this vast historical subject with these words:

But then enter the younger brother of Jesus Christ who came to discomfort all their lives… (p.118)

If you didn’t know that the leader of the Taiping Rebellion was a religious visionary who really did think he was the brother of Christ, this opening would be incomprehensible. In fact, Bickers doesn’t give an account of the overall Taiping Rebellion at all – he is only interested in it insofar as a) it demonstrates and was arguably caused by, the destabilising presence of Europeans on China’s coasts and b) it impacted the British settlements at Canton and at newly colonised Shanghai (where, for example, in 1853, the British – from the protection of their walled settlement – could watch pitched battles between the Taiping army and the imperial Qing forces).

The accounts of the Taiping Rebellion in the books by John Keay and Jonathan Fenby are both much clearer and much more penetrating than in Bickers. These two historians clearly explain the causes and consequences of this truly epic conflict, possibly the largest civil war in all human history, anywhere, a titanic devastation which led to the loss of as many as 20 million Chinese lives, maybe more.

The same frivolous and off-hand approach characterises Bickers’s treatment of the contemporaneous but distinct Nian Rebellion (1851-68), given only a brief page here (p.135), fleetingly explained but not analysed in any depth.

The brief mention of the Crimean War (on pages 134 and 135) neither explains that conflict nor its geopolitical ramifications for the European powers in China. Bickers briefly points out that the war had a distinct Pacific element – a fascinating idea I’d never come across before – but then frustratingly drops the subject completely. This feels like a massive and fascinating topic completely ignored. So disappointing. I bought this book precisely to understand the geo-political implications and context and motives for the sequence of China-oriented wars of the nineteenth century, and that turns out to be the very last thing on Bickers’ mind.

This confusing melange of super-brief references to these huge and super-important wars then segues abruptly and, as usual, in a very offhand way, into a typically arse-over-tit account of the Second Opium War (1856-60).

So the foreigners placed their faith in the Qing, once they had warred with them, beaten them, and humiliated them. Again, it all began in Canton. (p.136)

Note the tired and jaded tone as he casually begins a confusing account which spools onto page 150, with a vivid but hard-to-follow explanation for the (scandalous) British burning of the Emperor’ Summer House. OK. But in the 14 or so pages which cover it, Bickers nowhere mentions that he is describing the Second Opium War – you have to know that already. He is so close to, and over-familiar with, his subject, he just assumes that we all know about this stuff already. But we don’t. That’s why we bought your bloody book in the first place.

Towards the end I was genuinely appalled when the only mention he makes of the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, the first war in modern times in which a non-European nation (Japan) thrashed a European one (Russia) is the following. (He’s explaining how, after the Boxer Rebellion was finally quelled, the European nations demanded reparations but, for the most part, didn’t seek to acquire new territory. Apart from Russia):

Russia failed to conform, though, and hung on in Manchuria with 200,000 troops. So the British and the Japanese opened up a new world of international politics by entering into a formal alliance in 1902, breaking with decades of British practice, and in 1904-5 the Japanese smashed Russian forces in Manchuria and Siberia, shocking the European world, and offering new hope for the colonised and threatened. (p.349)

The Russo-Japanese War doesn’t even get a sentence of its own, but is shoehorned into the second half of a sentence which starts in 1902 and ends in 1905. Wow.

The republican revolution which finally overthrew the Qing Dynasty – and ended 3,000 years of rule by emperors – in October 1911, is dealt with – including the accident which sparked it, the spread of revolt, the seizure of power by Sun Yat-Sen, the abdication of the emperor, and the handing over of power to general Yuan Shikai – this seismic event is dealt with in 10 sentences – half a page – and not returned to.

Thus does Bickers leap over hugely important geopolitical, strategic and military events in order to get back to lambasting western businessmen living in sin with their Chinese mistresses, making fortunes from the opium trade and lobbying for more access to Chinese markets.

This is a sociological essay about the British in China, not a history.

Academic jargon

By this stage the reader has realised that Bickers isn’t interested in giving a chronological account of what happened during China’s century of humiliation; he isn’t interested in analysing or explaining the complex geopolitics of a weakened China caught between coastal invaders like the British and, towards the end of the period, the Japanese – all overshadowed by the ever-present threat from the land-grabbing Russian empire in the west and north.

He isn’t even very interested in any of the other European nations – the French and Americans get only a few walk-on parts, while the Portuguese, Dutch or Germans are hardly mentioned at all.

Instead, what becomes clearer and clearer is that Bickers thinks he is giving a kind of cultural history of the British in China.

That’s a fine ambition but he doesn’t live up to it. There is nothing at all in the book about, say, Chinese art or poetry, nothing. What there is, is repeated references to the way the Chinese or British performed as if on a stage with each other, or the way Chinese artefacts (and people) were shipped off to London to be put on display in various public shows and the big European expositions of the later Victorian era, or the way the colonisers engaged in practices and policed sites and shaped public space, and so on. Instead of interesting stuff about Chinese culture, what Bickers gives us is a lot of Eurocentric academic jargon.

Over the past forty years or so, the mind-set and terminology of (mostly French) modern literary theory/history/sociology pioneered in the 1960s and 70s by, say, Roland Barthes or Michel Foucault, has congealed to form a higher entity called just Theory – an attitude and set of jargon which has spread out to infect study of all the humanities subjects at university.

I’m extremely familiar with this all-purpose semi-sociological terminology from the many art exhibitions I go to, where contemporary artists no longer make ‘art works’ – they engage with issues of gender and sexuality, or money and class or whatever, carrying forward projects which use strategies of this, that and the other, which taken together amount to their practice. What used to be called ‘works of art’ are now more often than not the sites of their engagement with some issue or other, where the artists subvert conventional narratives of whatever or challenge this, that or the other norm or convention.

This all-purpose academic jargon has a number of purposes. Firstly, like academic jargon down the ages, from the ancient world through the Middle Ages – it makes the author sound clever. Secondly, it makes it all sound very serious: no longer painting a picture or developing a photo, an artist is now engaged in their practice – like a serious professional, like an architect or a GP. Thirdly, it is all very active – none of that old bourgeois standing around in front of an easel, an artist now engages with, subverts, challenges and questions and interrogates and a whole load of other action words. All very exciting and edgy.

At the same time many of the words have a very clinical and scientific feel: not only the artist, but especially the art critic, is no longer subject to the wishy-washy whims of their bourgeois imagination, but gives the impression of applying rigorous scientific procedures: artists have ‘projects’ and ‘practices’ which are enacted in ‘sites’ and ‘spaces’. Anything like a sculpture or installation reorientates the ‘space’ around it, maybe reorders ‘spatial hierarchies’, probably ‘challenges’ accepted ‘narratives’ or what a work of art can be, and so on.

Another feature of Theory Language is that a little of it goes a long way: these terms have become remarkably all-purpose: you can apply them to almost any human activity and come out sounding serious, weighty and profound.

The only snag is that – although this kind of language, used sparingly, conveys a sense of power and thrust and importance and intellectual force,

a) it doesn’t, on closer examination, really tell you anything at all
b) used too much, it quickly turns into a vacuous jargon of empty slogans – just as the public very quickly got sick of Theresa May telling us she represented ‘strong and stable leadership’ (and turned out to represent the opposite) so an artist, or curator, or critic, or historian who goes on and on about ‘practice’ and ‘projects’ and ‘sites’ and ‘narratives’ in an effort to sound meaningful and scientific and precise – runs the risk of ending up like a cracked record playing the same meaningless jargon over and over again; far from subverting anything, this kind of jargon ends up reinforcing existing conventions about art writing. In fact, it is the new set of conventions.

Examples of academic jargon

Display is an important idea for Bickers. European merchants built big houses – he takes it as an example of ‘display’. They hosted lavishes dinner – more ‘display’. Chinese objects were sent back to London – where they were put on ‘display’. As if grouping these pretty everyday activities under a semi-scientific singular noun gives us all a special insight into human activity, grouping them all together somehow explains… something.

  • China was in this way [exhibitions of China bric-a-brac in London in the 1840s] being normalised as an object for such display and ethnographic and other curiosity. (p.89)
  • Such displaydisplay at table, architectural display – announced probity and confidence (to each other, to Chinese merchants), but it also spoke of vulgarity and extravagance. (p.99)
  • Admiration for the appearance of the Sikhs, the ‘colour’ they were felt and said to have brought to China, and to British display in China… (p.163)
  • What became the routine display of China at such forums was a key strand in the project that Hart was leading. (p.204)

Engage and engagement At a recent internet conference I attended there was a list of banned words; if you mentioned one you had to contribute to the swear box (all money coughed up was sent to a charity for refugees). ‘Engage’ and ‘engagement’ were top of the list. Why? Because they means everything and nothing; because they are empty buzzwords.

  • Farmers engaged in handicraft production. (p.64)
  • The ordered business of its routine engagement with the world at the treaty ports elsewhere was able to continue… (p.352)

Enterprises and projects

the British Empire didn’t carry out strategies or policies, apparently. It engaged in projects and enterprises.

  • At the heart of the official British China enterprise… (p.206)
  • The foreign China enterprise at Shanghai was actually truly a real-estate imperialism… (p.222)
  • They were men of commerce and outside what was formally recognised as British empire, and their enterprise was multi-national and often makeshift. They had no imperial project. (p.382)

Sites and spaces Both make pretty run-of-the-mill places sound important and exciting, and make it sound as if you’re saying something especially perceptive and insightful about them.

  • This book explores the world which created that final photograph and its many sites and fields of action. (p.14)
  • A popular temple was also a commercial and economic site… They were embedded in the daily public space of the city. (p.16)
  • The rural landscape was pocked with market sites. (p.65) — It is so much more emphatic and intellectually demanding than simply writing ‘markets’ or ‘market places’.
  • [Just outside harbour boundaries, opium] was stored, and there were established new sites for conflict and the low-level disorderliness that filled the consulate letter books. (p.93)
  • The new ports were like many of the other sites of power around the Indian Ocean. (p.105)
  • As the new roads and buildings grew up in the treaty ports they were to acquire new memorials, and new sites for commemoration and celebration. (p.112)
  • It might seem odd that we can find so much insistent quiet emphasis on the symbolic ordering of foreign space [the British insisted on having a grand ex-palace to be their legation in Beijing]. Partly this was a response to understandings of Chinese conceptions, a breaking out of spaces and sites allotted them for reasons they interpreted (rightly sometimes) as intentionally demeaning. But they had their own such practices already… (p.206)
  • Foreign observers chuckled at Chinese geomancy, at fengshui, even as they fashioned symbolic landscapes themselves, sacralising space, creating sites for pilgrimage, reflection and remembrance. (p.207)

In this last example Bickers is describing how the British built graveyards wherever they settled. Note how he goes out of his way to ridicule the British who, he claims, chuckled at Chinese geomancy but – at least according to Bickers’ confidently post-imperialist view – were themselves every bit as superstitious and irrational in their treatment of ‘space’ – i.e. building cemeteries. Ha ha ha, silly old British.

But as with almost everything Bickers writes, a moment’s reflection makes you question this casual criticism and superiority: geomancy or fengshui are to some extent optional practices; organising the hygienic and orderly burial of the dead are rather more of a necessity. But – and here’s my point – Bickers has conceived and written this sentence not to make a factual statement – but to score politically correct points over ‘the foreigners’.

  • Peking, resolutely, was different to all the other sites of the foreign presence, different in scale, meanings, history, experience and climate. (p.215)
  • the Inspectorate General was the site in time of an entirely novel private experiment of Hart’s. (p.227)
  • There were of course other sites of jubilee. (p.309)
  • China long remained a site of foreign male opportunity. (p.311)
  • Homes, memoirs show, now became sites for the assertion of the supremacy of the European woman over her servants… (p.313)
  • Real Chinatowns became fictionalised nests of opium dens and sites of the despoliation of white girls by Chinese men. (p.364)

Space

  • [Western music] served to mark space in new ways. (p.228)
  • So at Shanghai they ordered space, responding as quickly as they were able to the breathtaking speed with which opportunities were seized, innovations latched onto, loopholes explored. They also ordered Chinese use of public space, imposing new norms of behaviour, turning urination into a minor criminal category. They also attempted to order aspects of private space: the gambling house, the brothel, the household. (p.224)

On reflection, where Bickers writes ‘space’ he really means ‘behaviour – but ‘space’ sounds more abstract, intellectual and scientific. And, in his usual hurry to denigrate Europeans and the British at every turn, he turns the imposition of regulations like banning people pissing in the street into a bad thing. Maybe we should return to the days of men randomly urinating in the street? Similarly, maybe gambling houses and brothels shouldn’t have been regulated. Naughty, naughty Europeans with their silly imperialising laws.

Practice A super-useful word which can be applied to almost any human activity to make yourself sound impressively intellectual. For example, my postman for the most part engages in letter-delivery activities but has recently expanded his practice to encompass the manual transmission of parcels in the course of which he transitions from the public space of the pavement, governed by one code of conduct, to the private space of my porch, which has become a site for intrapersonal exchange and dialogue i.e. we have a bit of a chat whenever he knocks on the door to deliver a parcel.

Used in this pretentious way ‘practice’ has become a buzzword which lends your text the authority and the spurious pseudo-scientific precision of an anthropologist or ethnographer or sociologist. But like so many of these terms, it mostly just dresses up banality and the bleeding obvious.

  • Officials often had little time intellectually for popular religious practice. (p.61)
  • Buddhist in origin, but adopted far beyond Buddhist practices, [the festival] involved opera performances, processions and bonfires… (p.61)
  • But that containment [of foreign traders by the Chinese] was too restrictive, too contrary to emerging European interests and practices… (p.157)
  • As the concessions and settlements merged spatially with the rest of the developing cities, their autonomous judicial systems and practice routinely returned to deportation as a legal punishment. (p.160)
  • It was a queer affair, the extension of Tongzhi restoration practice to overseas diplomacy… Burlingame was carefully and explicitly instructed not to follow practices which might prompt reciprocal demands on Peking.. (p.212)
  • There were descriptions and assessments too of Chinese practice. (p.281)
  • North China farmers knew that into their brittle world had come new forces, with alien ideas and practices… (p.341)
  • And the practices of the new combined forces of Boxers, the Yihequan, ‘Boxers united in righteousness’, gave them mastery over foreign things… (p.342)
  • Foreign office archives practice was in theory quite clear. (p.375)

Lovely sentence this last one, don’t you think?

Network Not found so much in other Theory-mongers, this word makes you sound like you’re all across modern technology and the internet and the groovy, cool, multi-connected world.

  • [The Taiping Rebellion] was a revolt informed by the new intellectual currents from over the oceans which were at work in Chinese cities and in the networks of people, goods and ideas that flowed through them… (p.120)
  • The swiftness of the incorporation after 1860 of the new sites of treaty port China into these far wider networks shows just how interconnected it already was. (p.156)
  • Globalisation, international migration, the growth of British and other European empires and the networks that cut across and through them, all had a bearing on developments in China. (p.156)
  • China was already deeply embedded in new-fashioned networks… (p.157)
  • So the Inspectorate general became the centre of its own network of stations, as well as a node in wider networks – regional meteorology, the international round of display and representation… (p.204)
  • The growing presence, and relative ease of transmission of goods and people, locked China more and more closely into knowledge networks, not least geographical and scientific ones. (p.165)
  • By 24 October 1860, when allied troops paraded into the heart of the imperial capital escorting Elgin and Gros, two bands in the vanguard heralding their intrusion and the imminent treaty ceremony, China was already being fashioned steadily into new networks – of communications, of people, of ideas. (p.157)

‘New networks of communications, of people, of ideas’ – this is vacuous modern corporate jargon: it could be an excerpt from the press release for any big company, bank or government department – it has that hollow corporate ring, impressive, vibrant-sounding and absolutely empty of meaning.

Scripts and performance This is another classic piece of sociological jargon in which people are depicted as hollow puppets helplessly ‘performing’ ‘scripts’, putting on performances – which they called living and making decisions but which we – everso wise Posterity – can now see as ritualised and formulaic ‘performances’:

  • The China script for the performance of British power and identity in the treaty ports was borrowed from the Subcontinent. (p.162)
  • Many missionaries played at the local level the China game of compensation for injury and damage, property restitution and repair, and symbolic gesture – judgement and proclamation set in stone, or transfer of communally important sites as punishment… Some did so to show how powerful Church and mission were, how actively they could help; to reassure and protect existing converts, and to tempt others. Such action could also provide a stage for the rehearsal of the national honour script, the dignity of the nation residing in the person of the missionary and his flock. (p.249)
  • But as 3,000 troops and labourers disembarked at Langqiao Bay in May 1874, a more routine script was being rehearsed… (p.254)
  • His death was incorporated into the same empire script that he rehearsed as he travelled… (p.260)
  • The limits of this private enterprise imperialism, of the sweaty plans of Bland and his ilk were reached on the early Sunday of of 28 July 1913, when Bruce and his band blundered noisily into sleepy Zhabei, and nobody met them to play their scripted part in the local drama of Settlement expansion. (p.369)

Transgressions and subverting and challenging and interrogating etc. Sounds so exciting and edgy and revolutionary. But is all too often applied to really boring and obvious descriptions in an effort to jazz them up.

  • As guardians of order and peace they saw such large gatherings… as sites of transgressions of moral order. (p.61)

What he means is that prostitutes often plied their trade at big Chinese festivals. Who’d have thought? Pretty transgressive, eh?

Actually, there isn’t as much transgression here as I find in the commentary of art galleries; and only one or two mentions of another favourite of Literary Theory, ‘desire’, used as a kind of bland, all-purpose, catch-all term for sex in the widest sense. Although there are quite a few references to brothels and prostitutes – mainly, of course, pointing out how brothels and prostitutes followed western land grabs and settlements, thus proving what racist hypocrites Europeans were. Oh, and many of them took Chinese mistresses, as well. How vile and disgusting, only white men have ever taken mistresses, and only in China.

Prose like concrete

The direction of Bickers thought is always upwards towards sweeping generalisations. Converting a specific argument between a specific Chinese and English into the generic term ‘dispute’, or particular local laws and customs into the generic word ‘practice’, is always to leave the specific and colourful behind in the name of scientific-sounding but in reality vague and generalised concepts. Move in this direction enough and you are left with sentences which are so generalised they could be about anything, anywhere. It just makes long stretches of this book really, really boring.

Always there were exceptions, men and women horrified by this new world of local conflict and dispute that could unfold as people converted. But the mission enterprise was nonetheless mired from the start in such local dispute, at the same time as it was enmeshed with the wider foreign world in China through nationality, affinity, language, marriage, and wider kin networks. (p.249)

It’s like reading concrete. It’s like being stuck in a supermarket car park looking at thousands of shopping trolleys, all the same. Dispute, insult, practice, site, spatial integration, networks of communication, sites of display, imperial spaces, networks of engagement, circuits of empire, colonial display, imperial sites, the China project, the China enterprise, blah blah blah.

I should have been warned off by the reviewer on Amazon who said reading this book was like walking through thickening mud.

Some, such and many Bickers also has a peculiar way with the words ‘there’, ‘some’, ‘such’ and ‘many’: by peculiar I mean that I’ve read thousands of books, paying close attention to their style, and never come across anyone use those words so eccentrically and idiosyncratically. He is fond of ‘fray’ which recurs many times; and ‘odd’.  It is tempting to embark on an analysis of these short, common words for what they reveal about Bickers’ eccentric uses of them – but this review is long enough already.

  • Such permission was certainly given to some… (p.374)
  • Such fear held good there. (p.374)
  • Such memory is the product of hard state work. (p.392)

A simpler soul might write ‘this kind of’ permission or fear or memory – but Bickers is a sucker for rhetorical effects.

Bullying sanctimoniousness

It goes without saying that a modern white, middle-aged English academic will have completely absorbed the political correctness of their university context and so be extremely, comprehensively, sarcastically critical of the white, middle-aged Englishmen of the past. A modern politically correct academic could take no other attitude.

They are all racist imperialist saps; we, dear reader, are by contrast morally unimpeachable and live in an age of complete enlightenment. Thank goodness the modern West which Bickers is a part of doesn’t go around invading other countries and plunging them into decades of chaos and civil war; thank goodness the modern West doesn’t build encampments in foreign countries – Iraq, say, or Afghanistan – protected from angry natives by huge walls inside which the soldiers and civil servants of the occupying forces, blissfully uninterested in the local culture, are provided with all the pleasures of home.

Yes, the modern historian, embedded in this wonderful Western culture, is sooo superior to his great-great-great-great grandparents who did just the same in China or India. In an account of a speech the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury gave in 1898, Bickers makes sure to point out that it was infused with the outdated ideology of social Darwinism, that he spoke ‘complacently’ and that his imperialist audience ‘chortled’.

What’s ironic is that Bickers’ own account is drenched with the cultural ideology of our times – sanctimonious political correctness – and that he himself never loses an opportunity to ‘chortle’ at the inferiority of other people – in this case, our ancestors. Bickers displays exactly the same patronising tone towards people who can’t defend themselves, as he lambasts haughty imperialists for displaying towards their victims.

Bickers laughs at the British merchants and soldiers, the consuls and captains he depicts, for importing the comforts of home, for bringing in English plants and trees, for building Anglican churches, for ordering prints and paintings of reassuringly patriotic subjects to hang on their walls, and even sending for familiar foods, rather than the bewildering local cuisine.

They wanted and recreated the familiar. They wanted their cigar brought, and then their newspaper. So they made themselves at home on the Huangpu, the Min, Gulangyu island, the slopes of Hong Kong, as snug as they could manage, and read weeks-old news about the real world over the ocean in a fug of finest Havana. (p.117)

Silly selfish saps!

And in their insatiably imperialist lust for profit, Bickers points out that some British firms even sold guns and ammunition to the warring sides in the Taiping Rebellion! The horror of those racist imperialist profiteers! Luckily, we now live in a blessed and enlightened age, when the British government would never dream of selling arms and airplanes, guns and implements of torture to Third World regimes, to countries like Saudi Arabia, who use the planes we sell them to bomb civilians in Yemen. Never ever.

— To be perfectly clear: I find a lot of the historiography of the British Empire, generally written by guilty white liberal men who bend over backwards to be politically correct in every way, to be revoltingly smug, superior and sanctimonious. To assume that their responses to the problems those people living in the 1840s, 1850s, 1860s and so on faced – their motivations to travel where the opportunity was, to set up companies, to trade and make money, to seek a living and a career – were all somehow uniquely wicked, and only the British ever did this or displayed imperialistic behaviour – never displayed before or since by any other nation (including the countless Chinese merchants they traded and set up companies with, or the genuinely bestial Japanese Empire) – and to assume that these are all behaviours which we moderns, in our infinite wisdom, have completely outgrown.

In my opinion, every human being is born into struggle – against their biological destiny, their physical flaws, the illnesses and accidents we are all prone to, against the psychological damage of childhood and education, against the cultural and technological limits of their time and position and, above all, the crushing necessity to make a living, to earn a crust, to eat and drink and stay alive.

My opinion is the same as John Locke’s, that we do better to commiserate our common frailty and sinfulness with our fellow humans – to sympathise with other people, to understand their suffering and pain, to help and aid those who are alive, now, today – and to empathise with the tribulations of those who came before us, who struggled through their own challenges.

But people like historians of empire, who appoint themselves judge and jury over the past, who lump the entire population of Britain into one undifferentiated pile labelled IMPERIALISTS so they can sneer and ridicule and belittle our benighted ancestors, well they run the risk of themselves being lumped in with the Britain of our times, being judged by the same strict broad-brush approach which they apply to the past – and found wanting. Was Bickers not alive during the invasion of Iraq, the invasion of Afghanistan, the financial crash of 2008, the Brexit vote or, at its widest, the election of President Trump? In a hundred and fifty years time won’t he be lumped in with this violent, war-starting, financially ruinous era?

And – the most obvious crime of our age – he is living through the destruction of the planet’s life forms and the tipping point of global warming. In a hundred and fifty years time Bickers too – with his flying round the world and globetrotting, a privileged western academic who ‘travelled extensively, visiting many of the haunting sites scattered across China that feature in the book’ (as the blurb puts it) – will be lumped in with the stupid, blinkered generation who arrogantly took it as their prerogative, as their right, as their entitlement, to burn up fossil fuel, to heat up the atmosphere, and to permanently damage the planet – and all in order to write his sarcastic quips about his obscure forebears.

And, if anybody reads books a hundred and fifty years hence, this type of morally superior historian will be judged all the more harshly because they have forfeited the possibility of themselves being forgiven by the unremitting harshness, judgmentalism, superior and supercilious attitude which they apply so flippantly and casually to people who died 150 years ago, and who cannot speak in their own defence. ‘Judge not lest ye be judged,’ as a dead white man said long ago.

Seen from this perspective – of condemning the helpless dead – judgmental histories like Bickers’ are a form of bullying. And when I see any form of bullying happening right in front of me, although I may not like the victim very much, my instinct is to side with the underdog, with the person being subjected to relentless vilification by someone in power over them.

But the relentless patronising of the past is not only morally offensive, it’s also plain dumb. Repeatedly Bickers comes up with the revelation that these businessmen and traders and merchants and bankers were out to make a profit! That merchants and bankers came out from Britain to set up businesses, to trade, and to make money! God, the implication is – how grubby and tacky and awful, all this fussing about money and profits!

The implied contrast is with morally pure academics, swanning around the world paid for by government grants, unfurling their deathless prose for the benefit of lesser mortals who have to scheme and plan and graft, to set up businesses, borrow capital, employ staff, hire premises and equipment, do deals and live with the permanent risk of going bankrupt or having your offices, staff or family attacked by anti-western zealots. What losers they must be, eh!

Bickers describes how a lot of the China traders got very rich very quick which, it is implied, was a contemptible thing. What depraved wretches! Lucky for us that we live in an era of perfect equality, with no disparities of income and wealth, either here in perfectly governed Britain, or in contemporary not-at-all-capitalist China. Aren’t we so right to feel superior to the past and their despicable get-rich-quick mentality 🙂

Eurocentric

The final irony is that, despite all his fashionably anti-imperial attitudinising, this book is in fact written overwhelmingly from the white western point of view. To be precise, from the British and, by and large, English point of view. Chaps’ diaries are used to put chaps down. Chaps’ accounts of their adventures are used to criticise chaps’ racist attitudes. Chaps’ reports back to the East India Company or Parliament are used to chastise chaps’ crudely mercantile way of thinking.

Oh silly, silly Victorians who knew nothing about multicultural studies or LGBT rights, who thought only in terms of their own age, cultural and social norms. How blinkered some people can be! Could they not guess how they would be judged in 150 years time and reorient all their actions accordingly?

Also, a thorough account of ‘the scramble for China’ really ought to include not just the British but the French, Portuguese and Dutch, with large roles for the Russians and Germans, all of whom got in on the act, scrambling for their own treaty ports and concessions. But in this book there are hardly any accounts of other countries’ activities.

All in all, this book is emphatically not a historical account of the multi-national scramble for China – it is a cultural and sociological study of ‘the British in China 1832-1915′ and its title really should have conveyed that more accurately.

And above all – irony of irony – for such a politically correct writer, there are hardly any Chinese voices in the text. This may be for all kinds of structural reasons, such as that many of these encounters weren’t recorded on the Chinese side, or that the archives were lost in the various revolutions and rebellions. But the fact remains that this is yet another book about the white British empire, by a white British historian, which relies overwhelmingly on the efficient and detailed record-keeping of white Victorian imperialists – in order to twist and quote them out of context with the sole intention of proving what awful racist money-grubbing insensitive imperialists they were.

In other words, through the academic jargon and preening rhetoric, there is little in the facts and nothing in the attitude which are either new or interesting. The Scramble for China conforms entirely and dully to the politically correct dogmas of our time.

Extended example

The Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) was just one of several native Chinese uprisings which overlapped with, or promoted reprisals from, the European powers to create a terrifying vortex of violence right at the end of the nineteenth century. What you’d hope for from a long (400-page) historical account of the period might be an attempt to disentangle these events, to patiently explain and analyse them. Bickers does the opposite.

War was fought across Manchuria, as Russian forces razed Amur river cities, and smashed their way south into Manchuria and north out of Port Arthur. It was fought in Tianjin, the foreign concessions besieged by Boxer bands and the Qing army. It was fought all the hot dusty way to Peking, as a multinational force of foreign troops slogged their way to the capital and relieved the besieged legations and Christian cathedrals. War was fought in Shanxi province, as German and British columns tramped to Taiyun, slaughtering opposition on the way… War was fought between Boxers and Christians, between Qing armies with Boxer allies, and the ‘Eight Power’ allied expeditionary force. It was fought by British marines and Japanese infantry, as well as by Sikhs, Bengalis, Black Americans, Annamese, Algerians and a British regiment of Chinese from Weihaiwei… It was a cruel war: a war between states, a civil war, a fight for personal survival… (p.346)

My critique is simple: every one of these incidents (the battles and campaigns) and ideas (for example, the very mixed nature of the armies) ought to receive extended treatment so that the reader can understand these key events and these important issue better; can learn something.

Instead, this vast tangle of events and ideas is made subordinate to Bickers’ addiction to fancy rhetoric, to the single flashy rhetorical trick of starting a lot of sentences with ‘war was fought’ or ‘it was fought’. Sure, the repetition rams home the idea that there was a whole lot of fighting going on; but the most basic elementary entry-level journalistic questions – who, what, where, when, why and how? are ignored – not in the name of some compelling insight or new thesis – but in the name of grand-standing rhetoric.

Bickers is more interested in describing the way news of these events back home was chaotic and often fabricated, how reports were made up by European journalists or editors, along with staged photographs and how some of the very first newsreel footage in the new technology of moving pictures was also generally faked and rigged.

Golly! News is fabricated and created by fallible and/or profit-seeking papers, magazines and media outlets! Wow! Yes indeedy, Bickers is here to tell us that coverage of far-away wars is often sensationalist and inaccurate.

There was a dearth of authenticity in this much-faked war, characterised and impelled as it was by forgery and wild rumour (p.355)

To read Bickers you’d think this must be the only war in history characterised by ‘forgery and wild rumour’ – as opposed to the obvious fact that, as the saying coined a century ago puts it, the very first casualty of war is truth.– This is a truism. A cliché. A threadbare, bleedingobvious commonplace taught to every GCSE schoolchild. Why am I reading it in a book written by a professor of history as if it is a dazzling new discovery?

My contention is that Bickers knows an awesome amount about this period, but fails to report it clearly or accurately, preferring to corral it all into either a) huge paragraphs designed to show off his rhetorical prowess, or b) long sections filled with tedious academic jargon which, upon a closer reading, always turn out to be obvious and banal.

To adopt Bickers’ own sociological terminology, this book is history ‘recruited’ and ‘refashioned’ for personal ‘display’ and ‘aggrandisement’.

This example is far from unique. A few pages later he does the same thing again. In among the chaos of the turn-of-the-century conflicts there was a lot of looting and pillaging (as, I believe, has occasionally happened in other wars) – but do we gets details, context, causes or consequences, useful facts and analysis to help us understand and remember each of the distinct outbreaks and incidents? Nope. We get another set-piece of booming rhetoric:

They looted at Tianjin; they looted at Peking; they looted everywhere in between, and far out into the northern provinces. They looted for days, for weeks, for months. They looted arsenals, granaries, mints and palaces. They looted the instruments from the old Jesuit Observatory. They looted salt stocks and Tianjin, and treasure from pawnshops. They looted houses and hovels. They looted tombs. They took furs, silks, paintings, jades and porcelains. They looted gold-plate from the roofs of temples. They took books and statues. What they did not like or could not take they trampled underfoot, tore, burned or wrecked. (p.350)

OK, I get it – there was a lot of looting. But who, what, where, when, why and how? Not in this book, you won’t find these basic questions answered.


Conclusion

This long book is a struggle to read. The average person-in-a-hurry could pick up pretty much all they need to know in half an hour by reading these Wikipedia articles.

What this 400-page book gives you which Wikipedia doesn’t, is vast amounts of anthropological-ethnographic-sociological jargon, almost entirely about the Western, and specifically British, individuals involved in the opening up and colonising of China.

There are brief descriptions of festivals or temples, a bit about Peking architecture, many scattered details about relevant places and events though generally delivered in a confusing way – but little or nothing about Chinese art or poetry, history or attitudes, culture or politics – and nothing you can really grasp or learn from about the big wars in Victorian China and their geopolitical implications. And that was the main reason why I bought this book.

Instead, there are lengthy sociological disquisitions about the spread of Christianity through missionary activity (chapter 8), the rise of the Chinese Customs Authority under the legendary Ulsterman Robert Hart (chapter 7), a lengthy account of how Hart’s Customs helped organise a comprehensive network of lighthouses along China’s coast in the 1870s and 80s, which leads on to the western gathering of data generally, about the meteorology of the coast or of Chinese diseases (chapter 9).

Sounds interesting, doesn’t it? But because it is all couched in the limited and stereotyped jargon of ‘practices’ and ‘networks’ and ‘sites of insult’ and ‘imperial enterprise’ etc, and because Bickers never drops his anti-British sentiment (lighthouses were – shockingly -built to make imperial trade safe and guarantee profits! meteorological data designed to help imperialist shipping! medical reports to help the racist westerners better able to exploit etc) it isn’t. It ends up all sounding the same. He manages to make a riveting period of history sound really boring.

Last thoughts

For my £15 I had to wade through hundreds of pages of preening prose and abuse being thrown at long-dead profit-hungry, racist imperialists – but did ultimately emerge with two newish (to me) thoughts:

  1. The China British were always a sort of spin-off of British India, using the same slang, building the same sort of houses, treating the locals, especially their servants and mistresses, with the same appalling and often violent condescension. And the Forward Party of China colonists really thought they could hoodwink and bully the British government back home into supporting an incremental takeover of China through piecemeal wars and ‘punitive actions’ – raucously calling for more and more belligerent intervention. This, after all, was all how we slowly acquired India. Hmmm. Interesting.
  2. Right at the end of the book Bickers describes how he has himself been subjected to harangues and lectures by modern young Chinese criticising him personally for being British and therefore to blame for the ‘century of humiliation’. What is interesting is that these young people have absolutely no experience of any of the events they cite (the violence of 1842, 1860 or 1901). But this story – how their country was subjected to a hundred years of imperialist conquest, a hundred years of victimhood – has been drummed into them by the Chinese state. Why? Bickers explains that, after the Chinese government violently repressed the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, and arrested and imprisoned the reform-minded leaders who let it all get out of hand, they then undertook a sweeping review of Chinese education designed to emphasise the uniquely nation-saving achievements of the Chinese communist party and why all Chinese should be forever grateful to it. In order to boost its role as the goody in the story, the communists emphasised the irredeemable baddyness of all foreigners, of Western Imperialism, be it British, French or Russian, and also to lump in the decades of abuse from Japan as somehow permitted and encouraged by those imperialist farangs.

It is fascinating to learn that the anti-western feeling of many of China’s young educated people is more powerful and passionate today than it has ever been – and that it is encouraged by state-sponsored history books, courses and teachers.

The final chapter of Bickers’ book is thirty pages devoted to a rather boring description of how archives and records were rescued from China during the 20th century, and how a patchwork of researchers has set about writing more accurate and unjingoistic accounts of western, and especially British, imperialism in China. Fair enough.

The irony is that they are doing so at the same time as China’s authorities are also sponsoring a highly tendentious anti-western narrative. Bickers worries that this could lead to quite dangerous results:

A globalised China is not new; but a powerful global China is unprecedented. That provides new food for thought, especially as Chinese youth come out into the world equipped for instinctive indignation at China’s past humiliations and what they feel to be contemporary echoes of those. The awkward confidence that such sensitivity engenders in them might make for all of us a very awkward world. (Final words of the text – p.399)

Worrying, eh?

And this leads onto a final thought of mine, which isn’t in the book at all – that we live in an age of Victimhood, of ever-multiplying victim narratives competing to be heard. The Jews have a well-established Holocaust narrative which is now enshrined in Holocaust Memorial Day (January 27). Black History Month has been going since 1970 in the States, 1987 in the UK. Since as far back as 1909 there’s been an International Women’s Day, now held on 8 March. These are state-sanctioned days or periods solemnly commemorating what are, at heart, victim narratives.

But away from these official victim narratives, the sense of being victimised and humiliated proliferates in the modern world – the entire Arab world, for example, blames Europeans and especially the British for allowing Israel to be founded, for giving their countries stupid arbitrary borders, for interfering and undermining their nations in any number of 20th century coups and invasions, and for continuing to kill Muslims in Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria – victim narratives which can be compiled into recruiting literature for al-Qaeda or ISIS.

I’m not passing judgement on any of these or the numerous other narratives of victimhood of our time – just pointing out the fact that the last pages of Bickers’ book make a riveting contrast to the previous 400. For the first 400 he gives hundreds of quotations from bombastic, jingoistic, imperialistic, often overtly racist, patronising and violently confident China pioneers, settlers and apologists all boasting about their power and might and supremacy. Right at the end of the book there is a loud screeching of brakes as you are suddenly dumped into the 21st century and find yourself surrounded by voices all clamouring to show off their weakness, to show you their wounds and their suffering, all competing to show you how vulnerable and abused and humiliated they have been.

Read newspapers and magazines from 1911 and they’re all about power, might and conquest; read newspapers and magazines from 2011 (when this book was published) and it’s a wall of helplessness, victimhood and suffering.


Related links

Other reviews about the history of China or the Far East

China: A history by John Keay (2008)

Keay crams China’s dense and confusing 3,000-plus-year history into 580 pages, divided into 16 fact-packed chapters, with plenty of notes, diagrams and, above all, lots and lots of maps. It’s a very big subject – it’s a lot to digest!

He explains at the start that many Western accounts race through the earlier periods in order to get to the first European arrivals in China (around 1500), slow down to dwell on the imperialist nineteenth century – ‘our bit’ of Chinese history – and then really linger over the disasters of the 20th century – the 1912 Republican Revolution, the Warlord Era, the Japanese invasion, World War II, the Civil War, communist victory, the long Maoist nightmare, and finally the slow crawl out of tyranny into the state capitalism of the nineties which continues to the present.

Keay deliberately inverts these priorities, devoting an unusual amount of space to the earliest era of proto-Chinese history, the period of myths and legends when many of the founding ideas about Chinese identity and lineage were laid down by semi-historical figures. By contrast he relatively skimps on the modern period, particularly on the troubled 20th century – after all, there are plenty of other books about all that.

This is just one of the several ways Keay deliberately sets out to question, challenge or overthrow the accepted narratives of Chinese history.

Conflicting versions of ancient Chinese history

Rule 1: China is obsessed by its history and its cultural continuity. The traditional narrative has the ethnic Han Chinese developing in the northern, ‘core’ area of the Huang He or ‘Yellow River’ valley, before slowly spreading their culture outwards. Traditional history describes how there were a legendary ‘five emperors’ before 2000 BC, who were followed by three pre-imperial dynasties. The three pre-imperial dynasties are:

  • Xia – 2070 BC – 1600 BC
  • Shang – 1600 BC – 1046 BC
  • Zhou – 1050 BC – 256 BC

BUT

1. The increasing pace of archaeological discovery in the past 30 years (freed from the Maoist dictatorship, paid for by new capitalist wealth, and often prompted by the frenzy of new building work going on in China) has produced more and more evidence to undermine this centuries-old view. The Chinese are proud of their very early tradition of casting bronze to make sculptures and bells, enormous bells. But now findings from the south and west of the country are suggesting that bronze-casting peoples who used a proto-Chinese script existed side by side with, and maybe even before, the northern ‘founders’ of the Chinese state. Scandal.

2. From the earliest times China has possessed a written record of its dynasties and rulers. But the archaeological record is turning up evidence consistently at odds with the traditional periods and dates for the rise and fall of the pre-imperial kings and/or dynasties (above) given by tradition. The traditional timeline is being undermined and no new synthesis or scholarly consensus has yet emerged. The historian of early China is in a tricky limbo, for the time being.

3. It’s a straw in the wind, a symptom of this general overhaul of Chinese history, that the Chinese for centuries considered there to have been ‘Four Great Ancient Capitals of China’ (Beijing, Nanjing, Luoyang and Xi’an (Chang’an)) – but that during the twentieth century archaeology has revealed the size and importance of other ancient cities to such an extent that the number has slowly been doubled, with the inclusion of Kaifeng (added in the 1920s), Hangzhou (added in the 1930s), Anyang (added in 1988) and Zhengzhou (2004).

4. Even more controversially, Keay relates the discovery of a set of Caucasian ‘Tarim mummies‘ in the eastern part of the modern province of Xinjiang. These startling finds have led some scholars to speculate that working with metal – and particularly bronze – the wheel, chariots and so on, may have been introduced into China from the West. Not, admittedly, from Europe but the cultures of the Caucasus or India or Tibet. Or maybe not. The debate rages. But for a culture which prides itself on its uniqueness, its separateness and its ancientness, this is shocking stuff.

Needless to say, scholars in China have had some difficulty with this. (p.41)

Keay continues this theme throughout the book with examples too many and too complicated to quote. But again and again he says that modern scholarship, set free from nationalist and communist tyranny, is now chipping away at the traditional narrative of a northern, solely Han origin for Chinese culture. This long tradition in fact relies on a series of Han historians who worked at the courts of the various Chinese dynasties, and who shaped their narratives to please their masters and the cultural expectations of the day.

But increasingly we realise that at many, many periods, large parts of China were not under the control of the Han Chinese. Many non-Han kingdoms and dynasties rose and ruled for centuries other key parts of Chinese territory – At its simplest, many non-Han peoples ruled China.

An already well-known example is the Manchu people (which Manchuria is named after). The Manchus form the largest branch of the Tungusic peoples. They are descended from the Jurchen people, who established the Jin dynasty (1115–1234) in China, and then went on to found the Later Jin dynasty (1616-1636), and then, famously, China’s final dynasty, the Qing dynasty (1636–1912).

It would be hard enough if Keay were simply retelling the ‘traditional’ Han-focused history of China in his book – long and complex and alien enough to be demanding – but in this book he relates both the ‘traditional’ account and then highlights how it is being undermined at all points by new archaeological, textual and ethnographic evidence.

The only comparison I’m in a position to make is with my own people, the English. It would be as if there were an ‘official’ version of the history in which the English had ruled England from time immemorial, had invented all its culture and, despite some changes in dynasty, handed down one continuous language and culture. And then modern scholars came along and began to unearth and present a radically different story, that the ancient Britons had driven out earlier peoples before being themselves colonised by the Romans, then by various tribes of Angles, Saxons and Jutes, then the long wars with the Viking Danes, then the conquest by a completely foreign people, the Normans, not to mention the imposition of foreign kings in the shape of James I of Scotland, William of Orange and George I of Hanover.

As I write this I am still reading the section about the Song Dynasty, which lasted from 960 to 1279 (although, true to his revisionist approach, Keay points out that the official dates for most of these dynasties are ‘optimistic’: they tended to consolidate true power somewhat after the official start date and to have lost their grip long before the official end date: there was more chaos and interregnum between dynasties than traditional Chinese historiography likes to admit). Although it appears to have been a period of artistic flourishing in the Song-held area, Keay’s narrative is just as much about how much of China was held by long-lasting alternative dynasties and ethnic groups – the Jurchen in the far north, the Khitan and Lao in the north, the Xia in the middle Yellow River valley, the Nanchao in the deep south on the border with Vietnam, and the Uighurs west in Xinjiang.

When Keay quotes 11th century courtiers and poets criticising the way the Song had to give large payments or tributes to the Khitan, it reminds me exactly of how the critics of Aethelred the Unready complained at his abject payment of Danegeld to the voracious Vikings around 1000 AD.

Think of the complexity of English history over the past 3,000 years – and then multiply that by a continent. It is a huge and confusing history, though this volume does a marvellous job of telling it, helped along by a vital supply of maps and frequent timelines for the numerous dynasties (and overlapping dynasties and kingdoms).

Barriers to understanding Chinese history

But it isn’t just the size and geographic scope and ethnic complexity of the story (and the fact that the old versions are being superseded by new discoveries) which make Chinese history so hard to assimilate. Right at the start of the book Keay spends some time outlining the cultural difficulties so many Europeans have in getting to grips with Chinese culture or history.

1. The Chinese language

Logograms European languages (and Arabic, apparently) use symbols (letters) to depict individual sounds, and build up ‘words’ by assembling these individual ‘letters’ together. Chinese is radically different. It consists of logograms or ‘characters’, each one of which stands for a different idea or concept. To quote Wikipedia:

A well-educated Chinese reader today recognizes approximately 4,000 to 6,000 characters; approximately 3,000 characters are required to read a Mainland newspaper. The PRC government defines literacy amongst workers as a knowledge of 2,000 characters, though this would be only functional literacy. School-children typically learn around 2,000 characters whereas scholars may memorize up to 10,000. A large unabridged dictionary, like the Kangxi Dictionary, contains over 40,000 characters, including obscure, variant, rare, and archaic characters; fewer than a quarter of these characters are now commonly used.

The picture is complicated by the way that each pictogram can have radically different meanings depending on the precise tone and intonation of the sound attached to it – there are, apparently, five distinct tones which can be used in Chinese pronunciation to drastically alter the meaning of a written symbol and no recognised way of conveying these in Roman script.

In addition, pronunciation varies hugely across China, so that numerous regional dialects are mutually incomprehensible; two Chinese may be able to read the same newspaper, but would pronounce the characters so differently as to be unintelligible to each other.

Writing system Western scholars have been struggling for centuries to devise a system with which to transliterate the logograms into Latin/Roman script, before then translating the transliterations. From the late 1890s to the late 20th century many Anglophones used the Wade–Giles system, produced by Thomas Wade and systematised in Herbert A. Giles’s Chinese–English Dictionary of 1892.

Its drawbacks were:

a) it used nearly as many diacritics or apostrophes, hyphens and various supernumerary markings to convey the variety of intonations as it did letters, making it hard to familiarise yourself with
b) it wasn’t used in America or other European countries

To try and sort out the confusion, from the 1960s onwards Wade-Giles has been steadily replaced by the Hanyu Pinyin system which transliterates Chinese characters into a different set of letters. This is progress, but has the bad side-effect that many if not most Chinese places, people and events can go under two different names: for example, Peking (Wade-Giles) or Beijing (pinyin); Mao Tse-tung or Mao Zedong.

Keay tells us that something like 75% of all Chinese words in translation have been changed in the past thirty years from Wade-Giles to pinyin, but we are living in a period of transition in the way Chinese is written in English, a confusion which Keay describes as having ‘catastrophic’ consequences for Western understanding of Chinese.

Mismatched vocabulary Their words are not our words. Our words are not their words. Thus, in the final chapters, Keay tells us that Chinese doesn’t really have words for ‘democracy’ or ‘human rights’. Instead these concepts have to be translated into characters which have vastly different, traditional connotations. Part of the belated reforms to the state and culture in the 1920s involved trying to update the language so it could cope with modern (Western) ideas (p.487).

A striking passage on page 461, he explains that the mistranslation of one character, yi, caused decades of trouble. A number of the treaties which the Western powers compelled the Chinese to sign in the 1840s and 1850s contained the word yi, which some translators gave as ‘foreigners’. (In a fascinating side issue, apparently Chinese nouns don’t indicate whether they’re singular or plural.) But other translators translated yi, widely used in this and other treaties to refer to the European side, as ‘barbarian’ – which the British in particular took as a huge racial insult.

The ramifications of the mistake, if that is what it was, were enormous. More even than opium this tiny monosyllable poisoned diplomatic exchanges, and would require an article of its own – number 51 – in the 1858 Anglo-Chinese Treaty of Tianjin. It infected the translation of other Chinese characters and slewed the interpretation of whole passages, invariably rendering them more reprehensible to foreign readers. It fouled Anglo-Chinese relations: it permeated racial stereotyping; and it corrupted – and still does – most non-Chinese writing on the entire course of China’s history… ‘Never has a lone word among the myriad languages of humanity made so much history as the Chinese character yi,’ writes Lydi Liu. (p.462)

Thus the difficulty and untranslatability of the Chinese language isn’t a remote academic issue, but central to centuries of misunderstanding working in both directions – so that the West has misunderstood Chinese ideas and intentions, but also China has been unable to understand or assimilate western ideas, without first placing them into entirely alien and inappropriate contexts.

2. Multiple dynasties and names

Language aside, there is another basic problem with the sheer numbers of Chinese rulers. There have been hundreds and hundreds. Over its 4,000 year (?) history, China has had numerous would-be ‘dynasties’, of which only a score or so are recognised as ‘canonical’, and of which there are Five Big Ones. Keay – sounding a lot like my old history teacher – says these need to be memorised:

  • HAN 202 BC – 220 AD (contemporary with the later Roman Republic and early Empire)
  • TANG 618-907 AD (from the Heptarchy to a unified England, or the early period of Muslim expansion)
  • SONG 960-1279 AD (roughly contemporary with the Crusades 1095-1291)
  • MING 1368-1644 AD (from Edward III to the start of the Civil War; or the early Ottoman and Mughal empires)
  • QING (or Manchu) 1644-1912 – from the time of Charles I to the Great War

Minor dynasties could overlap i.e. there be two (or more) competing dynasties at the same time in different parts of this huge country. For example, during the period from 907 to 960 there were no fewer than five dynasties in the heartland of the lower Yellow River and ten distinct kingdoms in the south!

Another complicating factor is that later dynasties often took the names of earlier dynasties in order to invoke their power and authority: these are distinguished by adding an indication of timing or a geographical location (former Han or Eastern Han).

At the individual level, emperors might also take a number of names – they had personal names, temple names, dynasty names and sometimes period names, with no consistent naming convention over the full 3,000 year reach. Sometimes they took the names of ancient and venerable predecessors, but without the convenient tradition – in Western Europe at any rate – of numbering same-name rulers. Instead emperors (or would-be emperors) have their dynasty name attached to the beginning of their title: thus Song Taizong (r.976-997), Song Renzong (r.1022-63), Song Shenzong (r.1068-85) and so on, where Song indicates the dynasty name. This is always written in italics.

Later, during the final dynasty, the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) emperors were named after the period during which they ruled, their so-called era name which always starts with ‘the’ – thus the Shunzhi Emperor (r. 1643–1661), the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1661–1722), the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735–1796) and so on. Though I read this through carefully several times, I still don’t pretend to really understand it…

3. Concern for the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ distorts Chinese history

And running like a thread through the narrative, Keay highlights the concern of most Chinese historians to present the history of China as One Unbroken Lineage. Very early on, the concept evolved of the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ i.e. that a dynasty and its emperor enjoyed its power from Heaven and that, in turn, their job was to ensure harmony and balance here on earth.

This didn’t stop competing family members, usurpers, scheming eunuchs, queen mothers, rebellious generals and invading foreigners fighting like ferrets in a sack for Total Rule. But it meant that

a) when someone finally came out on top, there was an established sense of harmony, balance and Good Rule for them to follow, multiple traditions bolstered by hordes of followers of Confucius, who taught respect for the past and the necessity for a deeply hierarchical social order.
And b) that, looking back, the Chinese historians we rely on for much of our accounts, excluded or marginalised from their narratives incidental rulers or dynasties which didn’t suit a neat linear progression of the Mandate of Heaven.

Thus eleventh century historians like Ouyang Xiu and Sima Guang made the official pedigree of rulers flow through the northern Five Dynasties of the period – because they were based in the north, the ‘traditional’ birthplace of Chinese culture and rule – and downplayed the history of the Ten Kingdoms of the south, even though by this period the majority of the population of China lived in their territory in the south. Because they didn’t fit the tradition.

Their obsession with creating a consistent linear pedigree to bear out and justify the theory of the Mandate of Heaven means that the traditional, old Chinese historians have to be handled with caution. Having explained all this Keay routinely gives more space to alternative dynasties and entire non-Han kingdoms than the Chinese tradition likes to. It is another example of the way he’s not just telling one story, but comparing and contrasting multiple stories which we, the readers, are expected to grasp and evaluate for ourselves.

4. China name dyslexia

Even more basic, we can’t help it but we Westerners just find it difficult to remember Chinese names. They look and sound very similar. For example, the timeline of Western Zhou kings from 1045 to 770 BC goes: Wen, Wu, Cheng, Kang, Zhao, Mu, Gong, Yi, Xiao, Yi, Li, Gonghe, Xuan and You. If you read it through once:

a) it seems as if there are several repeats because several of the names are very similar
b) some of the names have distracting meanings in English e.g. Gong, You
c) adding to the difficulty is that they are all very short, just one or two syllables. Compare and contrast with the ancient names we’re used to from the European tradition – Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great. I’m not saying they’re better, just pointing out that they’re longer and so there’s more for the ear and mind to hang on to and distinguish.

Right at the start Keay himself remarks ‘Non-Chinese readers will be appalled by the swarm of same-sounding people, places and titles lying in wait for them. (p.52)’ and he isn’t wrong. Every time I picked the book up I had to go back a few pages to remind myself where I was and who I was reading about: which dynasty or kingdom, which era, which set of rulers, fighting which set of non-Han enemies, and so on.


Some memorable ideas

Beyond these few points I won’t make any attempt to summarise Chinese history, it is far too vast and complex: read Wikipedia, or this excellent book. But a few things have stuck in my mind.

No stone, no old buildings China is deficient in quarriable stone. The eastern part is soft loess and alluvial silt, fertile for agriculture with no stone in sight. From time immemorial the Chinese built in wood. Scrolls and artworks show immense cities and dazzling palaces from the time of the European Dark Ages onwards. But wood perishes and burns (and civil wars have repeatedly led to entire cities being razed to the ground), so hardly any of China’s ancient architecture survives. Unlike the ruins of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, there is not much to see.

Confucian conformity Keay describes the long waxing and waning of China’s three philosophical traditions – Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism. Confucianism emphasises right-thinking, self-scrutiny and self-correction until you bring your mind into harmony with the heavens, the emperor, the ancestors and society around you. Because I know more about Chairman Mao’s terrifying tyranny of Right Thinking I found that every time I read about Confucius and Confucian traditions, it just made me think how Chinese culture’s long-held belief in the priority of the mass and society at large over the individual has made it a natural home for dictatorship and tyranny.

Compare and contrast with the irreverent knockabout vulgarity of Anglo-Saxon individualism, which is littered with eccentrics, rebels and dissidents, and which underpins our ideas of modern democracy i.e. that everyone is entitled to their opinion and to free speech to express it in and to freedom of association to form parties and groups who can argue and lobby for their ideas.

Reading this deeply into Chinese history makes you realise how vast is the gulf between our Western democratic individualism and the Chinese mind-set, even today. From earliest times the emperor was subservient to the Mandate of Heaven, everyone was subservient to the emperor, and the Confucian system was one of unrelenting hierarchy and subservience in every social situation. The entire tradition produced what Keay describes as ‘a stifling degree of social conformity’ (p.349). Seen in this perspective the terrifying mind control of the Maoist years, in which millions of victims were singled out because they were rich peasants or traders or teachers and subjected to ‘re-education sessions’ in which they had to reveal their past errors of thought and learn ‘correct thinking’, appear just a continuation of Confucian notions that the individual must bring his thinking into harmony and alignment with the ancestors, the emperor and society around him (it’s always a he).

China and the West China had an advanced civilisation while Europe was in the Dark Ages, how come Europe came to dominate China by the 19th century etc etc blah blah? Having read this account the answer is fairly obvious:

  • Chinese culture preached slavish submission to the emperor; Europe was convulsed by widespread revolutions which overthrew oppressive rulers in the name of liberty and freedom from as early as the 1640s, and which led to (various competing forms) of democracy.
  • Confucianism despises merchants and trade and business. According to Confucian scholars the highest calling in life was being a Confucian scholar. On the contrary, the West, despite superficial distaste, in fact worships and glorifies the trader, the merchant, the successful businessman, the plantation owner, the Indian nabob, anyone who made it rich and bought a big estate in the country.
  • In China innovation was punished. Innovation and change, like the formation of any ‘party’ or lobby group, were seen as subverting the static harmony of the Celestial Kingdom and directly threatening the emperor, his huge bureaucracy, and society at large. From the Middle Ages through to the 19th century, any attempt to change things generally resulted in punishment, exile or execution. If any reforms were carried out, they had to be camouflaged as returns to an idealised past, invoking the names of past emperors or dynasties. Thus it was that figures as diverse as  Britain’s first envoy to China, George Macartney, and the father of modern communism, Karl Marx, both agreed that China’s political system had completely outlived its relevance and was a hollow shell just waiting to collapse.

Foot binding Under the Song Dynasty, by about 1100, binding the feet of girls and women had become commonplace. As soon as they could toddle girls’ feet were securely bent and bound, each toe bent and held under the sole by rope or rags. The binding was never taken off, but only changed as feet grew (or tried to). The result was girls and women were in constant pain, their feet sometimes growing to only half their intended size, permanently deformed and bent double like a birds’ claws. Hundreds of millions of girls and women were reduced to an agonising hobble. Maybe a third of China’s female population was tortured this way, for the best part of 800 years. Given the size of the Chinese population, Keay remarks that the Chinese custom of binding girls’ feet may have caused pain and suffering to more people than any other activity in human history (p.326).

One reason the Song dynasty is remembered The Song dynasty ended in the 1270s. It was followed by three other Big Dynasties which followed each other without much hiatus – the Yuan (1279-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912). But all three were somewhat compromised. The Yuan and Qing were imposed from outside by non-Han peoples; the Yuan by Mongols and the Qing by Manchu northerners. So for many Chinese to this day, both dynasties are somewhat unauthentic. The only ethnically Chinese dynasty was the Ming, but they are now associated with China’s long decline, the era when China’s international standing began to slip in comparison with the European nations who increasingly visited and oppressed her.

By contrast with these three compromised dynasties, the Song – untainted by foreign rulers or national humiliation – is sometimes considered, by Chinese scholars, to be a peak of peace, culture and achievement, even if it did end while Henry III was on the throne of England.

The name China When Marco Polo visited China in the 1270s, it had come under the rule of the Mongols. The Mongols had had to fight their way south from Mongolia through the part of northern China long-held by the Jin people, before confronting and overthrowing the reigning Song dynasty. As a result, from their perspective, the Mongols tended to refer to all the southern enemy as Jin – or Chin, as they pronounced it. Thus the Mongols who hosted Marco Polo and showed him round referred to the ‘natives’ as Chin and through one of the many mistranslations and misunderstandings which characterise China’s interaction with outsides, in Polo’s account of his adventures, this became Chin-a.

That’s one theory, anyway.

Magna Carta and Genghis Khan I was struck by the coincidence that Genghis Khan and his Mongol army, having fought their way across northern China, captured Beijing on 1 June 1215. And on 15 June 1215, exactly a fortnight later, King John of England grudgingly signed the ‘Magna Carta‘, effectively a peace treaty in his civil war with his own nobles. Two worlds, one emphasising its Asiatic tyranny, the other laying the basis of civil rights and democracy.

Chinese history in one map

This animation gives a sense of the ebb and flow of Han power over this vast geographical region.


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Other reviews about the history of China or the Far East

China’s War with Japan 1937 – 1945 by Rana Mitter (2013)

The aim of the book

Mitter is an eminent historian of twentieth century China and of the period leading up to World War II in particular. In his introduction he points out that the Sino-Japanese War – which lasted from 1937 and then became subsumed in the wider World War – is often neglected in Western historiography which, perhaps understandably, focuses on the war in Europe/Russia and on the American War in the Pacific: both perspectives tend to overlook the fact that the Chinese were fighting the Japanese for four long years before the Americans joined the struggle. By providing one continuous narrative of the entire Sino-Japanese War, as seen from the Chinese point of view, Mitter aims to redress this imbalance and tell this generally ‘untold story’.

The second main point, which emerges increasingly as the wider World War progresses, is that China – as the four-year adversary of the Japanese, and as the country responsible right to the end of the war for tying down some 500,000 Japanese troops as well as supplying men to fight alongside the British in Burma – deserved much greater representation in the meetings of the Big Three – Russia, America, Britain – which decided the fate of the post-war world. China was only invited to one, minor, Allied conference – held in Cairo – and was not invited to Yalta, Tehran, Potsdam. To this day, Mitter claims, the lack of recognition of China’s part in the wider anti-fascist struggle, and then her deliberate omission from the meetings of the Big Three – which they think should have been a Big Four – rankle in the memory of educated Chinese.

It contributes to the smouldering Chinese sense that for a long, long time, for some 150 years, first the British and then the Americans assumed control and sway over the Pacific and all its peoples, and that Chinese interests and contributions were consistently ignored or trampled on.

Now, at last, in the 21st century, China is confident enough and powerful enough to begin to flex her muscles and assert her rights in the region. Which is why, Mitter argues, educated people in the West need to be aware of the often harrowing events of this brutal eight-year war, and of the emotional significance it still has for many Chinese, and how it still informs modern China’s attitudes and worldview.

The Sino-Japanese War

1. 1937 to Pearl Harbour (1941)

Having annexed neighbouring Korea (1910) and the huge northern province of China known as Manchuria (1931), the aggressively militarist Japanese Empire took the opportunity of a trivial border incident (at the so-called Marco Polo Bridge) to launch a full-scale armed invasion of China in July 1937.

When Japan attacked there were broadly three forces in China: the Nationalist Party of Chiang Kai-Shek (also known as the Kuomintang) which claimed to be the official government of the whole country; the smaller Chinese Communist Party – whose leaders included the up-and-coming demagogue Mao Zedong – and a number of regional warlords.

China was divided like this:

a) Because the latter part of the 19th century was marked in China by decades of civil war and administrative weakness. The biggest of these disruptions was the Taiping Rebellion, a vast civil war which dominated the 1860s and in which anything up to 100 million Chinese might have killed each other, and which people in the West have little awareness of. The rebellion had only been put down at the cost of giving autonomy to regional military leaders and it was this which established the pattern of ‘warlord’ control of some regions. A growing body of politicians, modernisers and revolutionaries all realised that the old imperial structures just couldn’t rule this huge country, and the turmoil eventually led to the overthrow of the Qing imperial dynasty in 1912 and the establishment of a republican government.

b) However, the nationalist revolutionaries proved incapable of preventing the country falling apart into a patchwork of regions controlled by local military leaders or ‘warlords’. Hence the complex geography and politics of the ‘Warlord Era’, 1916 – 1928.

Japan’s advance was swift not only because of China’s political, administrative and economic divisions but for the more basic reason that, under successive 19th century rulers, China had failed to modernise and keep up with the industrialised world. Convinced of their cultural superiority, of their lofty position as ‘the Heavenly Kingdom’, China’s rulers looked down on the big-nosed Europeans with their crude manners and obvious greed. Which turned out to be a mistake because the foreign devils (one of many discriminatory terms the Chinese use for non-Chinese) came armed with the benefits of the Industrial Revolution – steamships, guns, cannon, trains.

In the 1840s Chinese rulers found themselves forced at gun point to agree to treaties with Western imperialist powers – Britain, France, America – who secured for themselves coastal entrepôts (Hong Kong, Shanghai), exemption for Western citizens from Chinese law, but who (wisely) never made any attempt to colonise the vast peasant interior.

China’s economic and social backwardness contrasted with Imperial Japan, whose government realised in the 1860s that they had to keep up with the farangs by importing the best of Western know-how. The Japanese gave Westerners limited rights at certain specific trading ports but, more importantly, embarked on a wholesale reform and modernising of their technology and industry. By the turn of the twentieth century Japan combined an ongoing level of rural Asian poverty with surprising levels of urbanisation and industrialisation. This was brought forcefully home to everyone when Japan defeated Russia – itself arguably a vast, backward nation but still, in theory, European – in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. Bolstered by this victory, Japan’s well-organised, well-equipped and well-managed army and navy went on to seize control of all Korea in 1910.

The disparity in cultural attitudes (Japan’s Big Yes to Western know-how compared to China’s lofty rejection), in their respective levels of industrialisation, and in central economic, political and military control, help explain why – when they decided to extend their occupation in 1937, Japan, with a population of just 72 million, managed to subdue China, with a population of about 520 million.

The war was marked early on by the Japanese massacre of the civilian inhabitants of the capital Nanking

and continued to be marked by extreme Japanese brutality and bloodshed, including the indiscriminate bombing of cities crowded with refugees – for example, the bombing campaign against the Nationalists’ temporary capital of Chongqing – which resulted in horrifying casualties.

The Nationalists themselves contributed to the mayhem with a ‘scorched earth’ policy, including burning some of their own cities to the ground before the Japanese could take them and – most notoriously – in 1938 breaking the dikes which held in the massive Yellow River. This created a truly epic flood over a huge area of central China which certainly delayed the Japanese advance but led to a mind-boggling 800,000 deaths from drowning, not to mention further deaths from disease and starvation.

The Communist forces, such as they were, had retreated deep into remote northern China in the long flight which their propaganda machine turned into the legendary ‘Long March’. About 70,000 communist cadres set out on it and maybe as few as 7,000 completed it, the rest dying or giving up along the way. Thus the bulk of the resistance to the Japanese invaders, of the actual fighting, fell to Chiang, his German-trained Nationalist forces, and whatever warlord allies he could press to help him (and who all too often let him down).

The whole story is a panorama of extraordinary chaos, suffering and death on a continental scale.

2. After Pearl Harbour

The story becomes a lot more comprehensible – and therefore interesting and memorable – once the Japanese have their bright idea to attack Pearl Harbour and declare war on the most powerful nation on earth. And Hitler decides – quite unnecessarily – to rally to their support and also declare war on America.

There had been an earlier turning point when the war in Europe broke out in September 1939 and Chiang’s Nationalists suddenly hoped for arms and support from the European democracies (who just happened to be the very same imperialist devils which Chinese nationalist propaganda had been reviling for decades). But, in the event, the supposedly all-powerful British Empire turned out to be weak – in fact, it was shown to be an essentially peacetime operation, able to carry out local police actions and just about manage a huge array of established colonial assets, but in no way ready for a war of aggression – unlike Germany or Japan. Britain herself struggled for survival in 1940 and ’41 and so the last thing on her mind was sending troops to the other side of the planet to fight in someone else’s war.

Pearl Harbour marked the beginning of the war for America, but was only a way station for the Chinese who had, by this stage, been resisting the Japanese for four long years. It would take three more bitter years to defeat them, with mixed results for Chiang’s Nationalists: on the one hand they now found themselves de facto allies of Britain and America in the war against Japan; on the down side, they now found themselves caught up in the very complicated diplomatic and military manoeuvering which took place even between the nominal allies Britain and America, with the added challenge of Stalin’s Russia, as well as coping with Mao’s communists and the Chinese collaborationist regime.

For one of the many untold stories which Mitter brings back into the light is the role of Wang Jingwei, at one time a colleague of Chiang’s, who was persuaded that the patriotic thing to do in order to prevent more loss of Chinese lives and destruction of Chinese land, was to co-operate with the Japanese. After agonising soul-searching – recorded in detail by one of his aides-de-camp, Zhou Fohai, in a diary from which Mitter liberally quotes – Wang agreed to fly back to the occupied former capital of Nanjing and allow himself to be set up as the Japanese-backed puppet leader of Occupied China – an equivalent of the Vichy Regime in France or Quisling in Norway.

The three years of the War in the Pacific are detailed in Max Hasting’s grim history Nemesis. Mitter usefully complements such Anglocentric accounts with his narrative of the ongoing battles – and the complex diplomatic manouevres – taking place in war-torn China.

One of the most interesting themes which emerge in the final part of Mitter’s book is that the various Chinese administrations – as they struggled to keep control of their areas and populations, to properly organise the collection of taxes, the feeding of soldiers, the distribution of the growing amounts of Allied aid – became progressively more centralised and relied increasingly on Terror as a political tool. Each of the three regimes set up secret police forces who used arbitrary arrest, torture and executions to intimidate dissident voices, each one headed by specific individuals – the equivalents of the Nazis’ Heinrich Himmler – who became notorious for their brutality and sadism. For Chiang’s nationalists it was Dai Li, for Wang’s collaborationists it was Li Shiqun, for Mao it was Kang Sheng.

And all three parties despised Westerners as culturally inferior, hated and bitterly resented the shame and humiliation they’d been subject to during the era of Unequal Treaties, and were – accordingly – contemptuous of the hypocrisy of Western ‘liberal, ‘democratic’ societies. None of them really understood the Western notion of democracy from below – the models of all three (as indeed of the conquering Japanese) was of top-down rule by a strong Leader – Generalissimo Chiang or Chairman Mao.

Given the huge political differences between all three factions and given the direct links between the Chinese Communists and Stalin’s Russia – Stalin told the CCP, basically, what to do – on the one hand, and the widespread corruption, brutality and inefficiency of Chiang’s Nationalists (to the many Americans who had experience of Chiang Kai-Shek’s regime, he acquired the nickname ‘Cash My Check’) on the other – it’s no surprise that relations between the Western Allies and the various Chinese factions were fraught with misunderstandings, miscalculations, misgivings and mistakes, which Mitter records in great detail.

3. Conclusion

By the end of World War II, the sustained struggle against the Japanese had exhausted Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist forces. By contrast the war had seen the growth in strength and confidence of the Communists who had been able to send out political cohorts to infiltrate broad areas of unoccupied China to spread their message of a revolution for the peasants, for the poorest of the poor.

It was also during the latter part of the war that Mao began to establish his grip on the Chinese Communist party through a programme of biting criticism and calls for ideological purity – the so-called ‘Rectification Process’ – which was the start of 30 years of intimidating, arresting and executing his opponents. As Mitter points out, the techniques which underlay the catastrophic Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s were first laid down in the early 1940s.

When the War in the Pacific came to an abrupt end in August 1945, the war for control of China still had four more bloody years to go, a ragged civil war in a shattered country which ultimately led to the complete seizure of power by the Communists and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949. The remnants of Chiang’s Nationalists fled to Taiwan, where they rule to this day. As Mitter sums up – Chiang’s Nationalists won the war but lost China.


Related links

Reviews of books about other Asian wars

The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis (2005)

Lenin, following Marx, assumed the incompatibility of class interests: because the rich would always exploit the poor, the poor had no choice but to supplant the rich. [President Woodrow] Wilson, following Adam Smith, assumed the opposite: that the pursuit of individual interests would advance everyone’s interests, thereby eroding class differences while benefiting both the rich and the poor. These were, therefore, radically different solutions to the problem of achieving social justice within modern industrial societies. At the time the Cold War began it would not have been at all clear which was going to prevail.
(The Cold War, page 89)

Gaddis (b.1941) is a renowned academic expert on the Cold War and has been teaching and writing about it since the 1970s. The preface to this book explains that his students and publishers suggested he write a popular, brief overview of the subject, and this book is the result.

The cover of the Penguin paperback edition promises to give you the lowdown on ‘the deals, the spies, the lies, the truth’ but this is quite misleading. Along with Len Deighton’s description of it as ‘gripping’, it gives the impression that the book is a rip-roaring narrative of an action-packed era, full of intrigue and human interest.

Cover of the Penguin edition of The Cold War

Cover of the Penguin edition of The Cold War

Academic and theoretical approach

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact the book feels very much like a textbook to accompany a university course in international studies. It doesn’t give a chronological narrative of the Cold War and certainly has no eyewitness accounts or personal stories of the kind that bring to life, for example, Jim Baggott’s history of the atom bomb, Atomic, or Max Hasting’s history of the Korean War.

Instead, the book is divided into seven themed chapters and an epilogue which deal at a very academic level with the semi-abstract theories of international affairs and geopolitics.

Nuclear weapons and the theory of war

So, for example, the second chapter, about the atom bomb, certainly covers all the key dates and developments, but is at its core an extended meditation on the German theorist of war, Carl von Clausewitz’s, famous dictum that war ‘is a continuation of political activity by other means’ (quoted p.51). The chapter shows how U.S. presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy, and their Russian opposite numbers, Stalin and Khrushchev, worked through the implications of this profound insight.

If war only exists to further the interests of the state (as it had done through all recorded history up till 1945) then a war which threatens, in fact which guarantees, the destruction of the very state whose interests it is meant to be furthering, is literally inconceivable.

Truman showed he had already grasped some of this when he removed the decision to deploy atom bombs from the military – who were inclined to think of it as just another weapon, only bigger and better – and made use of the atom bomb the sole decision of the civilian power i.e. the president.

But as the atom bombs of the 1940s were superseded by the hydrogen bombs of the 1950s, it dawned on both sides that a nuclear war would destroy the very states it was meant to protect, with profound consequences for military strategy.

This insight came very close to being ignored during the darkest days of the Korean War, when the massed Chinese army threatened to push the Allies right out of the Korean peninsula and plans were drawn up to drop atom bombs on numerous Chinese cities. Then again, during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, American generals were advising president Kennedy to authorise a devastating first strike on the Soviet Union with results not wildly exaggerated in Kubrick’s bleak nuclear satire, Dr Stangelove.

And yet both times the civilian authority, in the shape of Presidents Truman and Kennedy, rejected the advice of their military and refused the use of nuclear weapons. Truman signalled to both China and Russia that the Korean War would remain a conventional war limited to Korea only. And Kennedy made significant concessions to the Soviets to defuse the Cuba situation. We aftercomers owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the wisdom and restraint of both these men.

It is by following the ramifications of the new theory of war created by the advent of nuclear weapons, that Gaddis makes sense of a number of Cold War developments. For example, the development of regular meetings to discuss arms limitations which took place between the Cold War antagonists from the Cuban crisis onwards, talks which continued to be fractious opportunities for propaganda but which proved Churchill’s dictum that ‘jaw jaw is better than war war’.

Capitalism versus communism

If chapter two considered the evolution of new military theory during the war, chapter three covers much the same chronological period but looked at in terms of socio-economic theory, starting with a very basic introduction to theories of Marxism and capitalism, and then seeing how these played out after World War One.

Gaddis deploys a sequence of significant dates from succeeding decades, which tell the story of the decline and fall of communism:

  • in 1951 all nations were recovering from the devastation of war, the USSR had established communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe and a newly communist China was challenging the West’s staying power in Korea
  • in 1961 Nikita Khrushchev visited America and gleefully told his audience that the communist countries would surge ahead in economic production and ‘bury’ the West
  • by 1971, as consumerism triumphed in the West, all the communist economies were stagnating and communism in China was accompanied by inconceivable brutality and mass murder
  • by 1981 life expectancy in the Soviet Union was in decline and Russia was mired in a pointless war in Afghanistan
  • by 1991 the Soviet Union and all the communist East European regimes had disappeared, while China was abandoning almost all its communist policies, leaving ‘communism’ to linger on only in the dictatorships of Cuba and North Korea

Capitalism won the Cold War. Marx claimed to have revealed the secrets of history, that the capitalist system was inevitably doomed to collapse because the exploited proletariat would be inevitably grow larger as the ruling capitalist class concentrated all wealth unto itself, making a proletariat revolution inevitable and unstoppable.

  1. In direct contradiction to this, living standards in all capitalist countries for everyone are unrecognisably higher than they were 100 years ago.
  2. Marx predicted that his communist revolution could only happen in advanced industrial countries where the capitalists had accumulated all power and the proletariat forced to rebel. In the event, communist revolutions turned out to be a characteristic of very backward, feudal or peasant countries, namely Russia and China, later Cuba, and then a sorry string of Third World basket cases – Angola, Somalia, Ethiopia, Afghanistan. It only ever existed in Eastern Europe because it was imposed by Russia’s military dictatorship, and here was thrown off the second that Russia’s tyrannical grip was loosened. It was the tragedy of both Russia and China that, in order to make their countries conform to Marx’s theories, their leaders undertook policies of forced collectivisation and industrialisation which led to the deaths by starvation or murder of as many as 50 million people, generally the very poorest. Communism promised to liberate the poor. In fact it ended up murdering the poorest of the poor in unprecedented numbers.

Lenin’s 1916 tract, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, is an interesting analysis of the history of the European empires up to that date and a contribution to the vast debate over the origins of the First World War. But its key practical suggestion was that capitalist states will always be driven by boundless greed and, therefore, inevitably, unstoppably, must always go to war.

Gaddis shows how Stalin and Mao shared this doctrinaire belief and how it led them to bad miscalculations. Because in direct contradiction to the notion of inevitable inter-capitalist war, American presidents Truman and Eisenhower, both with experience of the Second World War, grasped some important and massive ideas, the central one being that America could no longer be isolationist but needed to create (and lead) a union of capitalist countries, to build up economic and military security, to ensure they never again went to war.

This was a big shift. Throughout the 19th century America concentrated on settling its own lands and building up its economy, happily ignoring developments beyond its borders. Despite President Wilson’s achievement in persuading Americans to intervene in the Great War, immediately afterwards they relapsed into isolationism, refusing to join the League of Nations and indifferent to the rise of authoritarian regimes in Russia, Germany and Japan.

After the cataclysm of the Second World War, American policy shifted massively, finding expression in the Truman Doctrine, President Truman’s pledge that America would help and support democracies and free peoples around the world to resist communism. To be precise:

‘It must be the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.’ (Truman’s speech to Congress on 12 March 1947)

The doctrine was prompted by practical intervention ($400 million) to support the anti-communist forces during Greece’s Civil war (1945-49), which the Americans felt also had to be balanced by support ($100 million) for Turkey. In both respects the Americans were taking over from aid formerly provided by Britain, now no longer able to afford it. The doctrine’s implicit strategy of ‘containment’ of the USSR, led on to the creation of NATO in 1949 and the Marshall Plan for massive American aid to help the nations of Western Europe rebuild their economies.

Of course it was in America’s self-interest to stem the tide of communism, but this doesn’t really detract from the scale of the achievement – it was American economic intervention which helped rebuild the economies, and ensured freedom from tyranny, for France, West Germany, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Belgium and Holland (in Europe) and Japan and South Korea in the Far East. Hundreds of millions of people have led lives of freedom and fulfilment because of the decisions of the Truman administration.

The power of weakness

Of course the down side of this vast new expansion of America’s overseas commitment was the way it turned into a long and dishonourable tradition of America supporting repellent dictators and right-wing rulers solely because they were the only available anti-communist force.

This lamentable tradition kicked off with America’s ambivalent support for Chiang Kai-shek, the semi-fascist Nationalist leader who America supported in China, then the repellent Syngman Rhee in South Korea, through Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam, General Pinochet in Chile, the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and so on and so on.

This dark side to American post-war foreign policy is well-known, but what’s thought-provoking about Gaddis’s account is the thesis he hangs his fourth chapter on, a teasing paradox which only slowly emerges – that many of these small, ‘dependent’ nations ended up able to bend the Superpowers to their will, by threatening to collapse.

Thus many of the repellent dictators America found itself supporting were able to say: ‘If you don’t support me, my regime will collapse and then the communists will take over.’ The paradox is that it was often the weakest powers which ended up having the the strongest say over Superpower policy – thus Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist regime was able to summon up American support, as was the equally unpleasant Sygman Rhee in South Korea, because America regarded their states as buffers to communist expansion, which meant the dictators could get away with murder – and still be supported, often reluctantly, by the U.S.

But the same could also go for medium-size allies. In 1950 both France and China very much needed their respective sponsors, America and the Soviet Union. But by 1960 both were more confident of their economic and military power and by the late 1960s both were confident enough to throw off their shackles: General de Gaulle in France notoriously withdrew from NATO and proclaimed France’s independence while in fact continuing to benefit from NATO and American protection: France was weak enough to proclaim its independence while, paradoxically, America the superpower had to put up with de Gaulle’s behaviour because they needed France to carry on being an ally in Western Europe.

Mao Zedong was in awe of Stalin and relied on his good opinion and logistical support throughout his rise to power in China in 1949 until Stalin’s death in 1953. This lingering respect for the USSR lingered on through the 1950s, but China came to despise the weakness of Stalin’s successor, Khrushchev, and the feebleness of the USSR’s hold over its East European satellites, especially after they rose up in revolt (East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968).

I didn’t know that border incidents between China and Russia flared up in 1969 and spread: for a while it looked as if the world’s two largest communist powers would go to war – contradicting Lenin’s thesis.

This of course presented the West with a great opportunity to divide the two communist behemoths, and Gaddis is favourable to President Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for the brave decision they took to visit China, to meet Mao in person and try to develop better trade and cultural links.

The Chinese, surrounded by a menacing Russia to the north, neutral India to the West and the traditional enemy, Japan, to the East, realised there was merit in reaching an understanding with distant America. Nixon realised what an enormous coup it would be to prise apart the two largest communist nations, as well as helping sort out some kind of end to the disastrous war in Vietnam.

By this stage, 25 or so years into the Cold War, the relative simplicity of a bipolar world divided between two superpowers had become considerably more complicated, increasing complexity created by the newly independent nations of the developing or Third World, and the growth of a would-be ‘non-aligned’ group of nations seeking to avoid entanglement with either side, but cannily playing both superpowers off against each other in order to extract maximum advantage.

Other themes

These first chapters deal with:

  • the realisation of the nuclear stalemate and its implications i.e. superpower war is self-defeating
  • the failure of both capitalism and communism to deliver what they promised
  • the realisation by ‘weak’ states that they could use the superpower rivalry to their advantage

Further chapters discuss:

Human rights The rise of the notion of human rights and universal justice, which was increasingly used to hold both superpowers to ever-tighter account. Gaddis looks in detail at the slow growth of official lying and ‘deniability’ within American foreign policy (epitomised by the growth in espionage carried out by the CIA) which reached its nadir when the systematic lying of President Nixon unravelled after Watergate.

Gaddis compares the discrediting of American policy with the long-term effects of the Russian suppression of the Prague Spring of 1968. In a kind of mirror of the Watergate experience, the Soviet repression in Czechoslovakia planted seeds of doubt about the legitimacy of communist rule in the minds of much of the Soviet population and especially among its intellectuals. From the 1970s onwards the Soviets had to cope with home-grown ‘dissidents’, most notably Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov.

Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev worked hard to secure the ‘Helsinki Accords’, a contract with the West giving a permanent written guarantee of the security of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe. He allowed the declarations of human rights which made up its latter sections to be inserted by the West as a necessary concession, but was appalled when these began to be used by dissidents within Russia to measure the government by.

When a Czech rock band was arrested in 1977 leading intellectuals protested and signed Charter 77, which politely called on the Czech communist government to respect the human rights which were paid lip service in the Czech communist constitution and the Helsinki Accords. And when the first Polish pope, Pope John Paul II, visited his homeland in 1979, he also called on the Polish government to respect human rights as defined in the Helsinki Accords.

Gaddis identifies this emergence of human rights, a realm of authenticity over and above the laws or actions of any actual government, of either West or East, as a major development in the 1970s.

The power of individuals A chapter is devoted to the importance of individuals in history – contrary to Marxist theory which believes in historical inevitabilities driven by the power of the masses. Thus Gaddis gives pen portraits of key players in the final years of communism, namely Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, Vaclav Havel and Lech Wałęsa, but above all space is given to the importance of Ronald Reagan.

Gaddis explains that détente, the strategic policy developed by President Nixon and continued by Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, and on the Soviet side agreed by Brezhnev, amounted to an acceptance of the status quo, especially the borders in Europe, and thus solidified Russia’s grasp in the East. With these borders defined and agreed, both sides could:

a) Settle down to a routine of talks about reducing nuclear weapons (which, by this stage, came in all shapes and sizes and hence the complexity of the Strategic Arms Limitations (SALT)) talks.
b) Sublimate their confrontation into the developing world: hence the stream of local conflicts in far away countries like Ethiopia or Nicaragua, although Gaddis quotes Kremlin advisers confessing that the Soviet leadership often had second thoughts about getting involved in some of these remote conflicts, e.g. in Angola or Somalia, but felt trapped by the logic of being seen to support ‘national liberation struggles’ wherever they involved self-proclaimed Marxist parties.

At the time it felt as if Soviet communism was successfully funding revolutions and spreading its tentacles around the world; only in retrospect do we see all this as the last gasps of a flailing giant. According to Gaddis, the great political visionary who brought it to its knees was Ronald Reagan!

As someone alive and politically active during the 1980s I know that the great majority of the British people saw Reagan as a bumbling fool, satirised in the Spitting Image TV show in a recurring sketch called ‘The President’s brain is missing’. To my amazement, in Gaddis’s account (and others I’ve read) he is portrayed as a strategic genius (one of America’s ‘sharpest grand strategists ever’ p.217) who swept aside détente in at least two ways:

a) Reagan thought communism was an aberration, ‘a bizarre chapter’ (p.223) in human history which was destined to fail. So instead of accepting its potentially endless existence (like Nixon, Ford and Carter) his strategy and speeches were based on the idea that it would inevitably collapse (for example, in his famous speech in Berlin when he called on Mr Gorbachev to ‘tear down this wall’).
b) Similarly, Reagan rejected the entire twisted logic of mutually assured destruction which had grown up around nuclear weapons: he was the first genuine nuclear abolitionist to inhabit the White House, hence his outrageous offer to Gorbachev at the Iceland summit for both sides to get rid of all their nuclear weapons. And when Gorbachev refused, Reagan announced the development of his Strategic Defence Initiative (nicknamed Star Wars) i.e. the creation of a satellite shield which would shoot down any incoming nuclear missiles attacking the United States, thus rendering Russia’s nuclear arsenal obsolete, but also dangerously disturbing the delicate balance of power.

At the time these destabilising words and actions seemed reckless and dangerous, and what Gaddis portrays as the entrenched détente establishment on both sides strongly criticised Reagan. It is only with the enormous benefit of hindsight – the knowledge that the Soviet Union and communism collapsed like a pack of cards in 1989 – that Reagan’s approach and all his speeches take on the light not of a mad old man (he was 74 when Gorbachev came to power in 1985) but of a bold visionary.

The steady growth in Reagan’s stature is a salutary lesson in how history works, how what we think about a period we’ve actually lived through can be completely transformed and reinterpreted in the light of later events. How our beginnings have no inkling of our ends. An object lesson in the severe limitations of human understanding.

Conclusion

To summarise: The Cold War is not a straightforward historical account of the era 1945 to 1991 – it is really a series of thought-provoking and stimulating essays on key aspects and themes from the era. Each chapter could easily form the basis of a fascinating discussion or seminar (of the kind that Gaddis has no doubt supervised by the hundred). Thus coverage of specific incidents and events is always secondary to the ideas and theories of geopolitics and international strategic ideas which the period threw up in such abundance, and which are the real focus of the text.

It’s a fascinating book full of unexpected insights and new ways of thinking about the recent past.

I was politically active during the 1970s and 1980s, so I remember the later stages of the Cold War vividly. Maybe the biggest single takeaway from this book is that this entire era is now a ‘period’ with a beginning, a middle and an end, which can be studied as a whole. As it recedes in time it is becoming a simplified artefact, a subject for study by GCSE, A-level and undergraduate students who have no idea what it felt like to live under the ever-present threat of nuclear war and when communism still seemed a viable alternative to consumer capitalism.

Although many of its effects and implications linger on, with every year that passes the Cold War becomes a distant historical epoch, as dry and theoretical as the Fall of the Roman Empire or the Thirty Years War. I try to explain how it felt to be alive in the 1980s to my children and they look at me with blank incomprehension. So this is what it feels like to become history.


Credit

The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis was published by Allen Lane in 2005. All quotes and references are to the 2007 Penguin paperback edition.

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