Conclave by Robert Harris (2016)

‘No emotion, Ray,’ warned Lomeli. ‘We need to think very clearly.’ (p.330)

The Pope dies in the middle of the night. Heart attack, according to the Vatican doctors. The Dean of the College of Cardinals, Jacopo Baldassare Lomeli, Cardinal-Bishop of Ostia, is woken in the early hours to come see the body and set in train the host of formal procedures prompted by the death.

Immediately we are thrown into the midst of the procedural and political complexities of the Holy City, and quickly ushered into a melee of bustling cardinals and archbishops, and to the monsignors and priests, secretaries, nuns and security men, who staff and run the Vatican.

It turns out that we are going to see the entire story from Lomeli’s point of view. The text is not a first-person narrative, it is a third-person narrative, but it follows Lomeli very closely and continually eavesdrops on his thoughts and feelings as the story unfolds.

This is because, as Dean of the College of Cardinals, it falls to Lomeli to make all the practical arrangements for the conclave which must now be called to elect a new pope – to invite the cardinals to Rome, to organise their accommodation, to supervise the transformation of the Sistine Chapel into a voting chamber, the whole thing. Thus Lomeli is the perfect character to accompany through all these arcane mysteries and also the man best placed to confront and unravel the knotty problems which the conclave, in the event, throws up…

Harris skips over the state funeral of the dead pope, which is irrelevant to his purpose, in order to jump to the moment three weeks later when the conclave of all the cardinals foregathers to elect the next pope. One hundred and seventeen cardinals are called from all over the world to the conclave. The successful candidate must gain two thirds of the votes i.e. 79. If the classic thriller is a question of Whodunnit, Conclave is a Whowillgetit: who will be the next pope?

Factual research and conclave procedure

In fact there are more than 117 cardinals in the world but, back in 1970, Pope Paul VI introduced an age limit: no cardinal over the age of eighty can vote. The procedure was further amended by Pope John Paul II in 1996. Thus only 117 are eligible.

Harris is a former investigative journalist, and the book is heavily loaded with factual information, from an intimate description of the interior of the Sistine Chapel as it is prepared for the Conclave of Cardinals, to a detailed description of the hostel on the south side of the Vatican, the Casa Santa Marta, where the cardinals all stay, with all kinds of scattered insights into the roles of the serving nuns or security police, and so on. Building up an in-depth and persuasive picture of how the place runs.

I was particularly fascinated by his description of the actual process of voting, which is surprisingly straightforward: each of the cardinals has a sheet of paper placed in front of their seat at the benches lined up in the Sistine Chapel and, after some preliminary prayer, they simply write down the surname of the cardinal they’re voting for in big block capitals then fold the piece of paper in half.

Then, one by one, they process up to the altar of the chapel where tellers are waiting, say a short formal prayer, place the folded paper on a chalice and tip the chalice up so the paper falls into an urn, while a secretary counts off their name. When all 117 have voted, the pieces of paper are then counted by one teller, another teller unfolds each one and reads out the name, handing the paper to an assistant who skewers it on a big needle attached to a red thread, so there can be no accidental double counting.

When all 117 have been read out and the votes totted up, the teller announces them, then the pieces of paper on thread are bundled into an oven and burnt.

There is another oven next to it (both being makeshift installations inside the famous chapel) beside which are two piles ‘cartridges’ filled with a chemical mix. After the count, an assistant places one or other of these cartridges into the second oven and ignites it. One produces a billow of black smoke, indicating that a pope has not been elected, the other produces white smoke, indicating that a pope has been elected.

I thought there might be speeches or presentations from the leading candidates but no: they all just vote and the results are read out. Then they traipse back to the Casa Santa Marta where lunch is served amid a hum of gossip and intrigue. And then they traipse back to the Sistine Chapel (or pack into the cheesy little white minibuses which are laid on to take them the half mile or so round the back of St Peter’s, in case it’s raining), troop into the chapel, take their places at the makeshift benches, listen to another prayer, then one by one write out their preferred candidate, walk up to the tellers table, tip their voting slip into the urn, and so on.

Generally, it only takes four or five ballots for a winner to gain the necessary two-thirds majority. In 1978 it took eight ballots to elect Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, Archbishop of Kraków, as Pope John Paul II. The rules have changed several times in recent decades but the current rule is that, if the first ballot gives no clear result, there follow four ballots a day, two in the morning, two in the afternoon. Wikipedia gives the full, current procedure:

In Harris’s novel, the process is given a sense of urgency and suspense because Cardinal Lomeli gets unofficial bulletins from the reliable Monsignor O’Malley, ‘Secretary of the College of Cardinals’, about the press speculation going on outside the Vatican, and in reply gives generalised advice for O’Malley to pass on to the Vatican press office.

The set-up

Even as Lomeli is called to the bedside of the dead pope on that fateful evening, he realises that the two or three other cardinals in attendance are already beginning to assert their authority and – gently but firmly – compete for the vacant position.

By the time we’ve jumped forward three weeks to the start of the conclave, the competition is overt and jostling for position among the three or four main contenders has become open. There is worldwide attention – as many as a billion and a quarter Catholics are waiting on the result, as well as every media organisation on the planet.

(The three week delay is to give time for every cardinal around the world to sort out their affairs, and fly to Rome, to get settled in at the Casa Santa Marta, and prepare physically and spiritually for the conclave.)

The media and the cardinals themselves acknowledge the leading candidates, representing the various wings of the church. Most obviously there is a liberal, Secretary of State Aldo Bellini, and a man-of-the-people conservative, the Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Tedesco.

But there is also the smooth-talking, silver-haired operator, the Canadian Chamberlain of the Holy See, Joseph Tremblay, plus a number of ‘outsiders’, including the African cardinal, Joshua Adeyemi from Nigeria who, if elected, would obviously be the first black Pope.

Revelations

But just as the conclave is about to begin, just as the last of the cardinals arrives at the gate of the Vatican, and the last of the non-essential staff leave in order to ensure there are no distractions and no communication with the outside world (all phones and laptops must be handed over), Lomeli is thrown into turmoil by two revelations:

1. The Polish Woźniak, Prefect of the Papal Household, makes a fearful confession to Lomeli: on the very afternoon of his death the former Pope had summoned smooth Cardinal Tremblay and dismissed him from all his offices i.e. sacked him. Why? Woźniak doesn’t know.

2. Lomeli is still reeling from this revelation when he is summoned back to the gates and told that there is an unexpected cardinal there, one who is not on the official list. How can this possibly be the case? It turns out that Vincent Benítez, Archbishop of Baghdad, was made a cardinal by the dead Pope in his last few weeks, by a process known as in pectore, in his heart’, meaning the Pope didn’t tell anyone else.

This is pretty irregular but not unknown. Pope John Paul II had also created a cardinal in pectore, it was widely thought because the new cardinal was dispatched to work in China, where he had to conceal his identity from the authorities.

In the event the other cardinals take this discovery in their stride, welcoming cardinal Benítez during the first group meal, and he turns out to be a slender, quiet, but popular figure.

The plot

Having set the scene the book then rattles along at a steady pace, mixing factual background about this or that aspect of the voting, with acute insights into Lomeli’s own personal doubts and hesitancies – after the votes and communal meals we follow him back to his spartan quarters where he often prays for guidance, and the reader shares these moments of vulnerability, indeed all his moods – but the driver of the book is the well-calibrated description of the Race To Be Pope.

And, because it is a thriller, you won’t be surprised to learn that there is a steady stream of further revelations which shock and horrify Lomeli, who then has the agonising responsibility of whether to share them with the rest of the conclave. And face the accusation that when he does, he is only doing so in order to sabotage his opponents and place himself in pole position.

And although we are privy to all his thoughts – Lomeli repeatedly tells all the other cardinals, and himself, that he does not want to become pope, he saw what it did to the previous incumbents – nonetheless, as scandal engulfs not one but two of the leading candidates, in each consecutive ballot the vote for him increase, and the reader wonders whether he will, despite all his protestations, end up being elected. Whether, in fact, the man whose inner doubts and worries we have been party to, will turn out to be the next Pope.

But quite apart from his place inside the story, Lomeli plays a far more important function as our eyes and ears into what is going on, providing appropriate explanation whenever needed – and for his pondering over the meaning of the hints and implications which drive the plot.

In fact, slowly and inexorably Lomeli, who is supposed to be a frail 75-year-old Italian cardinal, turns into Hercule Poirot, a slow-moving, thoughtful but acute observer of other people, who puts together various pieces of evidence to piece together the mysteries hanging over the conclave.

Spoilers

Two more revelations dominate the main body of the story.

1. it emerges that the African cardinal, Adeyemi, thirty years earlier had had a brief affair with a very young novice and got her pregnant. Now she has turned up, assigned among the nuns who silently and reverently prepare and serve the cardinals’ meals between voting sessions. This middle-aged nun confronts Adeyemi in the canteen in front of all the other cardinals during dinner, and the resulting scandal ends his promising candidature.

But Lomeli is prompted to ask who arranged for this African nun to be transferred at short notice from Nigeria to Rome. And a trail of clues eventually leads him to a further revelation. When Woźniak told him about the former Pope dismissing Tremblay, there was mention of a report into his alleged misdeeds. Where can this report be? Probably among the dead Pope’s belongings. In his apartment. Which is sealed up with plastic ribbon and papal seals.

Well, Lomeli prays for guidance and decides he can’t do nothing, and so in the middle of the night he calmly breaks into the former Pope’s apartment and searches it until – in the tradition of schoolboy adventure stories – he discovers that the old Pope’s massive, antique wooden bed contains hidden compartments. And in these compartments Lomeli discovers the report the late Pope had commissioned which turns out to be a root and branch investigation into the finances of each and every one of the cardinals, with generally shocking results.

But in particular Lomeli discovers indisputable proof that smooth-operator Tremblay had been paying other cardinals to vote for him. This is the sin of corruption or simony.

Not only that, but he discovers it was definitely Tremblay who arranged for the African nun to be brought to Rome to stymie Joshua’s chances! What a schemer! What a crook!

As usual we are given access to Lomeli’s private thoughts as he ponders what on earth to do, before deciding that God has helped him discover all this, and it is not his job to conceal it: if he waits till after Tremblay is elected pope and this all gets out – as, he ruefully reflects, every secret the Vatican has tried to smother for the previous fifty years does, eventually, leak out – think what damage it will do to the institution he has served all his life.

And so he co-opts the assistance of the steely-willed head of the Vatican’s nuns, Sister Agnes, head of the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, and between them, overnight, they make 118 photocopies of the dead Pope’s damning report into Cardinal Tremblay’s activities and place one on every seat in the cardinals’ refectory. As they come down to breakfast the next morning, one by one they read it, leading to uproar. In a dramatic scene Tremblay stands, confronts the accusations head on, and claims Lomeli has only done this to sabotage him, Tremblay, and promote his, Lomeli’s, chances of becoming pope.

Which, for a moment, sways the cardinals against Lomeli until the steely little nun Sister Agnes breaks all convention by speaking in the refectory, demanding to be heard, and announces to the horrified cardinals that she can vouch for the fact that it was Tremblay who requested the African nun be transferred to Rome and thereby sabotaged cardinal Adeyemi’s candidature.

After which the tide turns against Tremblay, and he can only stand begging for understanding and denying it’s true as the rest of the cardinals turns their backs on him.

And so, with only eighty pages of this 380-page-long book left to go and the two front runners, Adeyemi and Tremblay, dramatically withdrawn from the race, who on earth is going to win?

Two bombshells

With Adeyemi and Tremblay knocked out, the next ballot puts Lomeli ahead as front runner, though without the necessary two-thirds majority, when there is an abrupt and shocking change in the tone of the book. A car bomb goes off in St Peter’s Square out front of the Vatican. And a suicide bomber blows himself up. And a terrorist goes into a Catholic church in Munich and starts machine-gunning the congregation.

Suddenly, and irrevocably, the rather charming, old-world if intriguing atmosphere of the novel is shattered. If you have any imagination, you can hear the screams of the wounded, the smell of burned flesh, the body parts scattered across the cobbles. For me this sudden eruption of the real world shattered the rather quaint, almost Ealing Comedy era atmosphere Harris had created.

Lomeli finds out what has happened from O’Malley and then, as usual, agonises about whether to even tell the other cardinals. they heard the loud explosion. Indeed some of the stained glass in the lobby of the chapel was blown in, but it is against the rules of the conclave to bring in any extraneous subject – otherwise it would turn into a political talking shop, not a retreat for spiritual meditation.

Eventually, Lomeli decides he will tell the assembled cardinals what is going on (it is, as it has been all the way through, his job to run the conclave, as Dean of the College of Cardinals: that’s why Harris chose him to be the main protagonist of the story).

Once he has it prompts two speeches from the assembled cardinals. First of all the son of peasants, the ultra-conservative Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Tedesco, declares that, in light of this atrocity, all the Catholics in the world will be looking for strong leadership. If he’d stopped there he would have seized the meeting, but he unwisely goes on to lambast all the progressive tendencies of the last 50 years, tolerance of homosexuality, of divorced Catholics remarrying, up to and including the mass immigration which has seen countless mosques being built across Italy, home of the Catholic Church, and it s during his tirade against Islam that the first cries of ‘Shame’ and ‘Boo’ are heard.

When he finally sits down, to everyone’s surprise it is the shy, retiring and inexperienced Vincent Benítez, Archbishop of Baghdad, who asks to be heard, and makes an impassioned plea for tolerance and forgiveness. He has tended to Christians dying in Muslim lands and can tell his fellow cardinals that not one of them wanted vengeance. they all died in the spirit of Christ, asking for their murders to be forgiven.

This quiet speech for the first time creates a real sense of religion, of holiness, in the chapel. Lomeli finds himself being lifted by it, and when the next ballot is held he unequivocally votes for Benítez and then listens, dazed, as the votes are counted and the secret cardinal of Baghdad is voted Pope!

But that isn’t the second bombshell. This comes when Prefect of the Papal Household, Woźniak, staggering at the news, asks to take Lomeli aside for a hurried word. Right back at the start of the narrative it had been Woźniak who told Lomeli that the previous Pope had dismissed Tremblay and Lomeli had asked him to do a bit of digging, which led to the revelation that the former Pope had commissioned the report. But  Woźniak had also done a bit of digging into Benítez while he was at it.

Back then, three days earlier, he’d told Lomeli that Benítez had been involved in a car bomb explosion in Baghdad, been injured but (obviously) survived, and there were some references to him being booked into to go to a clinic in Switzerland, a visit which was then cancelled and here he is at the conclave, having just been voted Pope. But Woźniak has only just had time to find out more, to contact the clinic and discover it is a clinic for gender reassignment.

My God. Lomeli runs through to the small Room of tears where Benítez is already being fitted into the papal robes. They have sent the white smoke out the chimney. Already the crowd in St Peter’s Square is roaring. He is only minutes from making his appearance and his first speech.

Lomeli turfs everyone else out the room and demands Benítez tells him the truth. So he does. Benítez was born with the genitals of a girl, but his parents (like so many parents in developing countries, wanting a boy) raised him and dressed him as a boy and, of course, as soon as he started attending seminary school, and then into the junior priesthood, he didn’t give sex a thought, he didn’t see other men’s genitals, his looked normal to him. It was only when he was injured in the car bomb and went to hospital, that a full inspection revealed he was a woman. He went straight to the former Pope to discuss it, and himself made a booking at the gender reassignment clinic. But then realised this is the way he’s made. This is the way God made him. And this is the destiny God has chosen for him. Who is he to say no to God.

And leaving Lomeli perplexed and bewildered the new Pope continues dressing ready to greet his flock of over 1 billion souls, the first ladyboy to be Pope!

Clichés and clarity

On page one we read a description of cardinal Lomeli making his way at two in the morning to the pope’s apartment.

The Rome air was soft and misty yet already he could detect the first faint chill of autumn. (p.1)

Later on we read that:

Once, in his youth, Lomeli had enjoyed a modest fame for the richness of his baritone. But it had become thin with age, like a fine wine left too long. (p.115)

A cliché can be defined as a thought or description which you’ve read or heard so many times before that it slips past the eye or ear with the minimum amount of disturbance, barely registering, like soothing background music in a restaurant or hotel lobby. It is designed not to detain you but speed you on your way to your business appointment.

This is true of a great deal if not most of Harris’s writing – it is smooth and effective without stirring any ripples. If you pause for thought, it is at what he is reporting – documentary explanation of the byzantine procedures of the Vatican or the latest revelation in the fast-moving plot – but never the way he reports it. As befits a man trained by years in journalism, Harris’s English is unfailingly clear and lucid.

Harris isn’t an awful writer, he is a very good writer, but of a kind of clear and rational prose which is almost devoid of colour. This is very effective when conveying factual information (and his novels tend to be packed with factual information which needs to be written out as clearly as possible in order for the reader to understand what is at stake.) But it leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to character.

I’ve just read Munich, his thriller set during the 1938 Munich Crisis and the best parts of it, the bits which have stayed with me most, are his documentary descriptions of the actual meetings between Neville Chamberlain and Hitler. The personalities of the two male protagonists of the thriller plot pale into insignificance next to the factual content. They are like competent watercolours placed next to an oil painting.

Same here. Lomeli is meant to be Italian, a crusty, 75-year-old, dogmatic, Catholic cardinal of an Italian; just imagine what a rebarbative, rich, gnarly old cuss he must be, and all the sins and corruption he must witnessed, and the decades of in-fighting and politicking he has had to navigate. You’d imagine he would have wildly un-PC views about race, homosexuality, women and so on. Just imagine the depths of cynicism this tottering old Italian must have sunk to, what a monstrous character could have been created.

And yet, in Harris’s hands, Lomeli is a decent chap who thinks in perfectly lucid, grammatically perfect, English sentences. There is no confusion in his mind. He reacts to new information or insights with the thoroughness of a computer, processing them and thinking entirely rationally about what to do next. If he is temporarily at a loss, things soon reappear to him in a cool rational way.

Harris makes a few gestures towards Lomeli’s age, his decrepit body, his wavery voice and the fact that he has difficulty sleeping, but these are all on the surface. Lomeli’s mind is never confused or overcome by bias or prejudice or cantankerous feelings. In fact he hardly has any feeling. Harris gives him ‘moments of doubt’ when he kneels and prays to God for help and advice. But none of these convey any emotion at all, let alone a sense of genuine religious anguish or loss. They are window dressing.

This is because Lomeli is a cypher, a cog at the centre of the plot. In a thriller, the plot is everything, literally everything. Each new development must be communicated in as clear a way as possible so that the reader can share the sense of suspense and thrill and excitement. Any lingering over description or psychology just gets in the way of the slow release of new information to build up suspense.

So Lomeli is given a few superficial trappings of age and experience:

He switched on the stuttering light and checked himself in the bluish glow: front first, then his left side, then his right. His profile had become beaky with age. He thought he looked like some elderly moulting bird. (p.138)

But no real psychological depth, no sense of the countless physical degradations of age or the incredible depth of experience such a man must have. Instead he sounds much like you or me, a decent chap doing a tricky job.

Instead he is Hercule Poirot in the Vatican, on the trail of several mysteries, as the clock ticks on and the conclave votes go by – breaking into sealed apartments, investigating the dead pope’s last wishes, uncovering sin and corruption.

And, at the end of the day, what he uncovers (until the final revelation) is relatively clean and straightforward:

1. Adeyemi had an affair with a pretty young woman which, to most of us, is acceptable and forgiveable. It was a breach of trust and an abuse of his position. But it wasn’t the systematic sexual abuse of under-age boys, which is the real story in the modern Catholic Church. This subject is referred to a couple of times by Harris’s cardinals but is treated very much as something of the past, something that has been dealt with and is behind the church now. Which we know not to be true. The opposite. It shows every sign of growing to really profoundly undermine the Catholic Church forever.

2. Similarly, we learn that Cardinal Tremblay has doled out what appear to be mere tens of thousands of Euros to cardinals to get them to vote for him; but there is no mention of the far, far bigger, scandalous involvements of the Vatican Bank with the Mafia, with organised crime, drugs and people smuggling, and a shadowy network of freemason, which emerged in the 1980s.

In the middle of the book, when not much had been revealed and it is full of dark premonitions, I imagined the big secret would turn out that Tremblay had murdered the Pope because he was uncovering a vast web of financial corruption. It all turns out to be that Tremblay was directing Church funds towards the generally backward and impoverished dioceses of cardinals he hoped would vote for him.

In other words, Harris’s protagonist uncovers ‘scandal’ but it is relatively clean and respectable scandal. Nothing to seriously frighten the horses.

Maybe this is part of the deal he did with the Vatican, whose authorities gave him such full access to the Vatican, even rooms off limits to the public and gave him every help and advice. Maybe in return Harris pledged to keep the ‘scandal’ on the safe side. Or maybe there was no deal or understanding, Harris was just being tactful and polite. Or maybe these relatively minor transgressions were his plan all along.

Whatever the motivation, in his earlier novels, protagonists proceeded from the everyday world and slowly uncovered vast and horrifying conspiracies which underlie it – hence their tremendous grip and excitement. Whereas this ‘thriller’ about the Vatican, in the end delivers ‘revelations’ which are pale and insignificant compared to the actual scandals which have rocked and continue to rock the Catholic Church.

Hence, for me anyway, a tremendous sense of disappointment and anti-climax.

The car bombs

That said, the midly intriguing narrative is turned upside down by the car bombs which, for me, ruin the tone of the book. they introduce a note of real tragedy and bloodshed which is all to recent and real for a Londoner like me. And all the less necessary as, in the end, their only use in the plot is to provide the opportunity for a speech by the arch conservative which loses him the papacy, and the quiet speech in favour of forgiveness which wins it for Benítez.

And then there is the revelation that the new pope is a woman!

This, for me, reduced the whole thing to an extended joke, with this revelation as the punchline. The climax of Harris’s first and best book, Fatherland, was the revelation of the Holocaust in a Nazi Germany which had won the war and successfully covered its appalling secret. The slow uncovering of the truth and the final scenes of full knowledge, made my hair stand on end with genuine fear and terror.

The last few pages of Conclave did quite the reverse, and make me laugh out loud at its politically correct, bien-pensant, North London liberalism.

Not only have almost all the cardinals all the way through been immaculately correct in their attitude to black and other Third World cardinals, none of them has had a flicker of a thought about women, let alone choirboys (with the egregious, scapegoating exception of Adeyema), and now the result of all this praying by all these decent, upstanding, compassionate old men turns out to be… electing a woman Pope!

Very funny. Very suave. Very slick. But more like a Guardian editorial turned into a novel than his earlier, genuinely gripping, thrillers.


Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.

1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?

1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.

2007 The Ghost – The unnamed narrator is a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.

2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.

2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

2016 Conclave We follow Dean of the College of Cardinals, Jacopo Lomeli, as he supervises the conclave called in the Vatican to elect a new Pope, only to discover a number of scandals which compromise most of the leading candidates, and lead up to a very unexpected result.

2017 Munich A young German civil servant tries to smuggle a key document showing Hitler’s true intentions to his opposite number during the fateful Munich Conference of September 1939, complicated by the fact that the pair were once friends who shared a mistress until she met a terrible fate at the hands of the Gestapo.

Lenin on The Train by Catherine Merridale (2016)

Dominic Lieven’s book about the diplomatic build-up to the Great War – Towards The Flame – was very demanding, every page full of analyses and counter-analyses of complex international situations, which took a good deal of concentration to understand.

By contrast, Catherine Merridale’s book is like a series of articles in a travel supplement, or the book version of a TV script – chatty, opinionated, entertaining, lightweight and, in the end, a bit disappointing.

The story

In April 1917 the German High command laid on a sealed train to transport Lenin and 30 or so communist colleagues to war-weary Russia, in the hope that his subversive activities would weaken the Russian war machine. It was a strategy they’d been trying elsewhere. The Germans were arming independence fighters in Ireland and trying to foment rebellion against British rule in India.

This book sets out to recreate Lenin’s fateful journey, describing the broader context of the war, the nexus of German agents and dodgy Russian businessmen who arranged the deal, the journey itself, and the fraught political situation which Lenin found in wartime St Petersburg when he arrived.

Lenin's train journey from Switzerland to the Finland Station in St Petersburg

Lenin’s train journey from Switzerland to the Finland Station in St Petersburg

Three parts

Merridale’s book isn’t formally divided into three parts, but it felt to me like it fell naturally into three big sections.

Part one – Catherine’s adventures and pukka Brits

For such an important and, in its consequences, tragic subject, the introduction and part one are disconcertingly light, chatty and frivolous.

In the introduction Merridale describes her own attempt to recreate Lenin’s journey on modern-day trains and ferries, with a great deal of travel magazine observations – people smuggling booze on the ferry from Germany to Sweden, it’s very cold in Finland, and so on.

Her observations are often disappointingly trite – in one place she points out that when Lenin took the journey Europe was at war, whereas in 2016 – Europe is at peace! Back then it was a dangerous and uncomfortable journey – but now crossing frontiers is easy, and the seating is nice and comfy! Golly.

So much for the introduction. In the first 80 or so pages of the text proper she plunges us not into the fraught economic, military and political situation of 1917 Europe but… into the world of quirky upper-class characters who populated the British Embassy and diplomatic corps in 1917 St Petersburg.

It was, she tells us gushingly, a simply magical city!

The journey ends in the magical city of St Petersburg, Lenin’s wartime Petrograd, the second Russian capital. (p.17)

She introduces us at very great length to chaps like Sir Samuel Hoare, Sir George William Buchanan, Major-General Sir Alfred William Fortescue Knox, Sir John Hanbury-Williams, and so on.

Now, when Dominic Lieven introduces diplomatic personnel or political leaders into his narrative, it is always to summarise their ‘line’, their views on geopolitical issues, and to feed them into his intricate portrait of the complex debates about political and diplomatic strategy among the Russian ruling class.

When Merridale introduces key players, it is generally to tell us a funny story about their parrot or their umbrella.

When Lieven introduces Marxist revolutionaries, it is to explain their theories and how they had developed out of the economic and social situation of Russia, the threats they posed to the Tsarist order, and to clarify the complex concatenation of circumstances which made them viable.

When Merridale introduces her revolutionaries, it is to tell us about their love lives and taste in wine.

So, for example, she tells us that in 1905 Trotsky and his wife arrived at the Munich apartment of Alexander Helphand (known as ‘Parvus’), a Marxist theoretician, revolutionary, and activist in the Social Democratic Party of Germany.

You might expect Merridale to give us at least a hint of the theoretical discussions and how they influenced the man who went on to be number two in the Russian Revolution, but no. The Trotskies, she tells us:

became unofficial lodgers at the big man’s place, sharing all the news and imbibing Parvus’ theories of revolution along with his strong coffee and delicious late-night wine. The two men talked about the revolutionary potential of the general strike, they honed their idea of a world revolution (for Russia was only ever meant to be a starting point) and they dared each other to get tickets for the next train east. (p.60)

Instead of anything about his theoretical contribution or political strategy, we learn that Parvus was so fat that the children of German Marxist leader, Karl Kautsky, nicknamed him ‘Dr Elephant’.

When Parvus persuades the German High Command to fund his plan to send revolutionaries to Russia, we learn that he used the initial down-payments to set himself up in Zurich’s Baur au Lac hotel where he established an entourage of bosomy blondes and ordered champagne for breakfast (p.63).

This may all be true, but these first hundred pages present serious, tragic, even catastrophic history, as jolly japes retold by Bertie Wooster. The British Embassy, we learn, was situated in the impressive Saltykov Palace, although the diplomats had to share it with:

an ancient princess, Anna Sergeyevna Saltykova, who still lived in the back with her servants and a loquacious parrot. (p.31)

The British ambassador to Petersburg was supported by his wife, Georgina, his daughter Meriel, and – a bad-tempered Siamese cat.

The acting head of intelligence at the time was Major Cudbert Thornhill, an old India hand and ‘a good shot with rifle, catapult, shot-gun and blowpipe.’ (p.33)

It feels a lot like ‘Miss Marple investigates the Russian Revolution’.

Part two – The Russian revolution and the train journey

Around page 100 things pick up. Merridale begins to pay more serious attention to Lenin’s beliefs and theories. We still get a lot about his haircut, his boots and how he was dragged off to a department store in Stockholm to buy new clothes so that he would look more presentable on arriving in Russia (plus some more gushing travelogue from Merridale who has, she assures us, visited as many of these shops and cafes and sites as still remain).

But for the central hundred and fifty pages or so Merridale’s narrative becomes genuinely gripping.

The genesis of the idea to send Lenin to Russia remains a bit murky. Some communist fixers-cum-shady businessmen (hence the portrait of Parvus and others of his type) appear to have volunteered their services as go-betweens with the communist agitators, at just the time that the German secret services were casting around for characters likely to cause the most damage to the Russian state.

Contacts and discussions had been floating in the foggy atmosphere of war more or less since the outbreak of hostilities. What suddenly kick started everything was the February 1917 Revolution – covered in gripping detail by Merridale – when a march of women to celebrate International Women’s Day attracted other protesters, swelled in size and then – crucially – the soldiers sent in to suppress it refused to obey orders, with some turning on their own officers.

After a winter of escalating strikes and unrest, exacerbated by severe food shortages, it was the mutiny of the soldiers in garrisons all across Petersburg which led to the Revolution.

The members of the Duma, the Russian Parliament, were confused by events. The conservatives fled, many resigned, but a hard core of liberals stayed on to set up what they called a Provisional Government, under the benign figurehead of kindly old Prince Lvov.

At the same time, there was unstoppable momentum from politicised workers (especially from the working class Vyborg area of Petersburg) and representatives of the mutinous regiments, to set up their own council or soviet.

Meanwhile, the Tsar had been forced to abdicate, excluding his sickly son from the succession, and passing the throne on to his brother, Grand Duke Michael, who himself deferred taking it up until ‘the people were allowed to vote through a Constituent Assembly for the continuance of the monarchy or a republic’.

This never happened, and it was Grand Duke Michael’s demurral, his refusal to accept the poisoned chalice of monarchy, which, in effect, brought the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty to an end.

Thus in a few hectic days came about a situation in which Russia had become a republic, but was lumbered with two governing bodies – the Provisional Government and the Petersburg Soviet – who eyed each other with suspicion.

The initial euphoria of the revolution settled down into a pattern of all-night debates and arguments in smoke-filled rooms – while all the while Russia was still fighting a war against an extremely professional opponent, imperial Germany, and the government was trying to motivate a huge army of some seven million men who now wondered what and who they were fighting for.

Merridale explains all this very well, not least because she draws heavily on the eye witness accounts of the British diplomats and writers present in Petersburg. It is only now that the reader understands why we were introduced to all these upper-class twits in the first 80 or so pages – it was because they would turn out to be invaluable source material for describing and interpreting the confusing chaos of events in Petersburg that fateful spring.

It would have helped a lot if Merridale had prefaced her opening chapters by explaining this, by saying: ‘I am now going to introduce you to a florid collection of British upper class eccentrics, incompetents and curiosities which might seem odd but, trust me, they will turn out to be vital eye-witness testimony to one of the most seismic events in history.’

Anyway, Merridale now skillfully intersperses pretty much everything that is known about the eight-day journey of the train – the organisation of the train by German authorities, the gathering up of Lenin’s associates, the setting off, the stops, the delays, the invasions by drunken soldiers, the professional and personal rivalries of many of the figures aboard it, the border passports control (which, I was surprised to read, included humiliating strip searches) – all interspersed with sections describing the fast-moving events in Petersburg.

Above all, for the first time, the narrative starts to sound political. For the first time Merridale descends into the feverish mesh of argument and counter-argument which engulfed every educated person living in Russia, and gives it a sense of urgency:

Should Russia continue fighting? Some socialists thought Russia should offer an immediate ceasefire in what was, after all, a brutal imperialist war. Liberal pacifists agreed. But right-wing traditionalists thought Russia must fight on to defend her honour, the Holy Church etc. And many socialists thought to surrender would be simply to allow imperial Germany to invade and conquer European Russia.

Among socialists there was fierce and bitter debate about whether the ‘revolution’ needed to be continued or whether it had achieved its aim. You have to understand that Marx thought that Western societies would inevitably and unstoppably pass through certain fixed stages of development, and that orthodox Marxists therefore thought that Russia had to pass from a peasant autocracy into a bourgeois democracy, before it could go on to have a workers’ revolution. The Tsarist autocracy had quite clearly been overthrown and the new provisional Government, made up mostly of lawyers, academics and some industrialists, quite clearly represented the triumph of the bourgeoisie. This stage should be given a chance to bed in, to establish Western norms of democracy, a free press and so on, while the socialists continued to educate the workers and peasants in order to prepare for the next stage, the socialist revolution which was just around the corner. Manana. Soon. Probably.

Merridale’s very English, pragmatic, unintellectual approach to the situation brings out some of the more basic, humdrum psychological explanations for delay – namely, that many of the so-called socialists and communists were in fact scared of assuming responsibility in such a perilous situation. Power looked like a poisoned chalice. Russia was losing the war and the people were starving. With the convenient scapegoat of the Tsar removed, whoever took the reins would get all the blame.

This is the fraught backdrop against which Lenin’s train finally steams into the Finland station and he is greeted by a large cheering crowd and dignitaries with bouquets of flowers etc.

Merridale has, by this stage, done such a good job of bringing out Lenin’s spartan, puritan, obsessive personality that we’re not at all surprised that he throws away the bouquets, ignores the pompous welcome speeches, and goes straight out onto the balcony to address the crowd of workers to announce that – ‘The Time Is Here, the time is now for uncompromising revolution. No-one must cooperate with the bourgeois provisional government. It must be stormed and overthrown and all power vested in soviets or communes of workers and peasants.’

Merridale brilliantly conveys the shock Lenin’s unbending zealotry had on absolutely everyone: the bourgeois liberals, the meek-minded socialists, let alone the cowering conservatives and scheming reactionaries. Even the radical Bolshevik faction of the Party, which Lenin had himself founded back in 1903, was surprised by his single-mindedness. Bolsheviks who had only just arrived back from Siberian exile such as Kamenev and Stalin found themselves having to readjust their positions to match Lenin’s extremism.

No-one else was thinking so radically and violently.

Merridale shows how Lenin was in a minority of one even among his own followers, and quotes both socialists and provisional government officials, who were eye-witnesses in the days and weeks that followed to meetings, debates, speeches and presentations in which Lenin was booed and roundly lost the argument.

The acting premier, Kerensky, initially worried by his return, watched Lenin alienate his entire party and confidently concluded that he was ‘finished’.

How to end?

If you think about it, Merridale and her publishers had always faced a problem with this book which is, Where to end it? The train journey lasted just eight days, from 9 to 17 April. How far either side of the actual journey should the book extend?

You can see how you’d need a build-up to the journey, in Merridale’s case using the accounts of British diplomats to paint in the privations and discontents of wartime Petersburg.

You can see how you’d need a middle section describing the shady activities of the immense swamp of spies, middle men, entrepreneurs, smugglers, double agents, conspirators, fanatics, political zealots of all colours and so on who infested wartime Switzerland, in order to give a flavour of the struggle the German High Command had to weed out hundreds of absurd plots from the handful of ideas which might really contribute to their war effort.

And how you’d then drill down to the specific contacts between Russian Bolshevik supporters (often themselves pretty shady businessmen) and try to identify the specific individuals in the German secret service who carried out the negotiations (whatever archive material still exists).

Merridale does all this and summarises what is currently known about the contacts, agreements, payments and practical details fixed up among these men.

Then you’d want a detailed description of the train journey itself, right down to the most trivial detail, right down to the way Lenin hated smoking and so insisted that people use the only toilet in his set of ‘sealed’ carriages to smoke in – which made it uncomfortable for people who actually wanted to use the loo as a loo. So that, in the end, Lenin devised a ticketing system: second class tickets for those who wanted to smoke in the lav, first class tickets for those who needed to use it for its primary function.

Then you’d want to gather all the eye witness accounts that exist, from the memoirs and diaries and letters of survivors, to describe Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Station.

And then you’d want to follow the excitement of his arrival and track the stimulus it gave to the left-wing cause, on into the days and weeks afterwards to gauge the impact Lenin had on the political situation (and, incidentally, to assess the value for money which the German High Command got for what, it turns out, was quite a hefty investment in the train plan).

But where should the book end? One week after Lenin arrives? One month? A year?

In fact six months were to pass between Lenin’s arrival in April and the October Revolution which brought the Bolsheviks to power. Is Catherine going to describe all six months in the kind of intense detail with which she had described the crucial eight days of Lenin’s journey and the first week or so of his arrival?

No.

It would be too much, it would be too long. Other people have done it better, more comprehensively and thoroughly following the immensely complicated twists and turns of the revolution – and the ongoing fighting – for that six months and beyond.

Even if you took the story up to the October Revolution, you’d still have to stop at some stage – before the peace with Germany, before the Russian civil wars break out.

In the event Merridale continues her account of the fierce arguments among all shades of political opinion which Lenin’s arrival had brought to a head, up until the writing of the ‘April Theses’, the set of ten directives which Lenin hammered out immediately upon his arrival, announced in speeches on 17 April and subsequently published in Pravda.

The core of Merridale’s book is devoted to showing Lenin’s absolute, unwavering insistence that the next stage of the revolution needed to take place now, and required peace with Germany, the complete overthrow not only of the Provisional Government but of all the bourgeois instruments of the state, and the assumption of power by workers’ and soldiers’ soviets.

With the April Theses Lenin established clear blue water between the Bolsheviks and every other party in Russia, and positioned them as more or less the only alternative to the bodged ‘dual government’ situation of Provisional government and Petersburg Soviet. So, from Merridale’s point of view, there is a compelling logic to stopping here and this is where her chronological account of events does, indeed, stop.

Then something odd happens. The book changes tack completely.

Part three – German money and Catherine’s reflections

The historical narrative morphs into a chapter devoted to investigating one specific issue: how much did the German High Command fund the Bolshevik revolution? (‘Gold’, pp.242 to 266)

Quite clearly the German High Command laid on the train to carry Lenin back to Russia. His opponents weren’t blind to the propaganda value of this simple fact, and many of them – both rival socialists and opposition liberals and conservatives – set out to prove that the entire Bolshevik operation was in fact a German front designed to take Russia out of the war and let Germany win. That the Bolsheviks were German agitators, and traitors. But were they right?

Merridale lays out the pros and cons of these claims and shows how, down the years, opponents of Bolshevism continued to make them, on until well into the 1950s and even 60s.

Russians in exile after the Revolution spread the accusations that the Bolshevisks were hired dupes of the Germans and, from time to time, dubious individuals popped up, both in Russia and later in Europe, even including an American (Frank Chester) – all of whom claimed to have been involved and to have proof that the entire Russian Revolution was a German scam.

I found Merridale’s exposition of all this a little confusing. I think in the end she is saying that (apart from the obvious fact of the Germans laying on the train, making all the practical arrangements, arranging all the passports and visas etc) the initial operations of the Bolsheviks in Petersburg – the running of the printing press, distribution of pamphlets and so on – must have cost a lot more money than the party was making simply through membership fees (although membership of the Bolshevik party did rocket from some 13,000 to around 80,000 by the time of the October coup).

Where did this money come from?

Well, there is archive evidence that several of the dubious middle-men who we met earlier, socialist-minded fixers who ran a healthy smuggling trade from Germany through Sweden to Russia – did indeed receive substantial payments from German authorities, which can’t be accounted for solely by their business activities. So, yes, it is quite possible that the Germans continued to fund the Bolsheviks, after Lenin’s arrival, via various middle-men.

But this is all very murky. It was wartime. The Germans didn’t keep full accounts of their off-the-record espionage activities and anyway Berlin was bombed to the ground in 1945, destroying most archives. For their part, the smugglers didn’t exactly keep legitimate accounts. The Bolsheviks had no incentive to tell the truth at the time and, under Stalin, became past masters at suppressing any inconvenient truths.

So this whole question is sort of interesting in a gossipy, John le Carré sort of way, but I mentally consigned it to the same place as speculation about who killed JFK or whether an alien UFO landed at Roswell.

Does it really matter? Even if it could be proved that the Germans actively funded the Bolsheviks in the months between Lenin’s arrival and the October Revolution, it is only really icing on the basic fact that they sent Lenin back to Russia in the first place.

Moreover, no-one denies the fact that the Germans were pouring millions of marks into funding all kinds of subversive activity in Russia (in April 1917 alone, the German Foreign Ministry alone authorised five million marks to be used for propaganda, and there were numerous other German agencies doing the same – p.257).

And in any case, once the war in Europe was over, the civil wars in Russia got into full swing, and the sums of money which the Allies poured into Russia to support the White Armies dwarfed anything the Germans might have spent on the Bolsheviks.

The money, important on one level, is only really of interest to obsessives who think that somehow the Russian Revolution could have been averted – exactly like the geeky types who think that, if only JFK hadn’t been assassinated the Americans would never have gone into Vietnam and brought their own country to the brink of civil war. If only, if only, if only.

But, in my opinion, ‘if onlies’ like this, counterfactuals and hopeful speculations, are rendered irrelevant by the sheer scale of the economic and political crisis, the enormity of the vast social collapse Russia found itself in. It was falling to pieces. It was the Titanic sinking.

For me, this and the other accounts I’ve read tend to show that Lenin’s unflinching extremism matched up to the extremism of the situation.

If it hadn’t been Lenin, Russia would still have collapsed into chaos and probable civil war between red and white factions, maybe allowing Germany to have advanced into undefended territory and establishing a Germanic empire in Russia. Other extremists would have been pushed to the surface and into leadership roles, and any of these would have found it very difficult if not impossible to resist the soldiers’ calls for peace and the hundred million peasants’ clamour for land reform.

Extreme circumstances called for extreme solutions, no matter who provided them.

But none of these alternatives took place. Deeper realities prevailed. And even though sending Lenin to Russia did lead to not only political disruption, as the Germans hoped, but to a comprehensive revolution – which must have exceeded their wildest fantasies – and then to a hugely advantageous peace settlement in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918, precisely what they wanted in order to free up their eastern armies to take part in the massive Spring 1918 offensive against the West —-

The Germans still lost the war. In the end, the entire policy of the Lenin train and payrolling the Bolsheviks was a failure for the Germans. So what if they funded the Bolsheviks. They still lost.

Aftermath and Catherine’s views

Having brought her historical narrative to an end with the discussion of the funding issue, Merridale then concludes the book with a chapter outlining the fates of the key characters and personalities we have met through the book, before jotting down a few final reflections.

Most of the Bolsheviks who greeted Lenin so enthusiastically, and were either appalled or enthused by the fierce line he took, were murdered in the 1930s during Stalin’s judicial purges. So the final pages turn into a litany of gruesome and ironic deaths.

The shrewdest members of the Provisional Government, such as the egregious Kerensky, managed to escape, living on in exile in Paris or New York. And the British embassy staff, with their Siamese cats and expertise at blowpipes, lived on to claim their knighthoods from a grateful monarch.

Merridale’s concluding thoughts mix reflections on the characters we’ve met in the narrative, and of her own visits to museums enshrining the memory of Lenin – in Zurich, or at his sisters’ flat in Petersburg (where he stayed in the period before the October Revolution) – with reflections about the lasting significance of Lenin in Russian history.

These are, to be polite, disappointing. Having worked hard to attain the level of Dominic Lieven’s intellectually demanding account of prewar Russian and European diplomacy, it was a long plummet back down to the Readers Digest level of many of Merridale’s reflections.

She is, basically, a nice Radio 4-type of white, middle-class professional lady, who often finds herself wondering why the world is such a beastly place. For example:

There is as much instability across the planet now as there once was in Lenin’s day, and a slightly different collection of great powers is still working hard to make sure that they stay on top. One technique that they use in regional conflicts, since direct military engagement tends to cost too much, is to help and finance local rebels, some of whom are on the ground, but some of whom must be dropped in exactly as Lenin was. I think of South America in the 1980s, of all the dirty wars in central America since that time. I shudder at the current conflicts in the Middle East. (p.9)

This paragraph contains almost no useful information at all, in fact it blunts understanding. Great powers use regional conflicts to their advantage? This is elementary, GCSE-level knowledge.

The most salient feature of the paragraph is the centrality of Catherine herself to it. The way she ‘thinks’ of South America in the 1980s doesn’t tell us anything at all about South America but is designed to emphasise what a thoughtful and concerned soul she is. And then, whenever she thinks about the current conflicts in the Middle East, Catherine shudders, yes shudders.

In these final pages we learn that Stalin used the cult of Lenin to underpin and validate his own authority, and so Lenin’s reputation was whitewashed as thoroughly as his body was preserved in its mausoleum.

That both Lenin’s memory and his body rotted in the stagnant decades of the 1960s and 70s due to incompetent mummification techniques. That the 1980s period of glasnost under Gorbachev was a period of ‘dangerous’ change. That after a decade of chaos in the 1990s, Russia reverted to the strong man rule of Vladimir Putin.

We learn, in other words, nothing that any fifth former studying history or anybody who reads serious newspapers, doesn’t already know.

Merridale’s book ends with sentimental descriptions of her visits to the fading museums of Leninism and chats with their sad curators.

Shame. There are few if any insights or ideas worth recording or summarising in her final section.

Still, to emphasise the positive – the long central section of the book detailing the personalities and circumstances surrounding the train journey, and Merridale’s description of the incredibly intense political crisis into which Lenin arrived, are thrilling, convey a gripping sense of the chaos and confusion and knife-edge political atmosphere of the time, and are worth reading.

Lenin’s Address at the Finland station in Petrograd, 1917 by Nicolai Babasiouk (1960)

Lenin’s Address at the Finland station in Petrograd, 1917, painted by Nicolai Babasiouk in 1960

Nowhere man

Maybe the most symptomatic of the various encounters Merridale describes having with railway officials, passport checkers, museum keepers and so on when she undertakes her own version of the Lenin journey, is when she arrives at the swanky Savoy Hotel in Malmö, where Lenin and his entourage stopped for lunch after an unpleasant crossing of the stormy Baltic Sea.

Merridale knows that Lenin ate here. In fact, she later finds a plaque commemorating his visit tucked away in a corridor. But when she asks about him, the concierge looks blank. ‘Lenin? Lenin? Oh, you mean John Lennon?’

Quite. The world moves relentlessly on. People forget their history and are busy with their own day-to-day concerns. And – it could be argued – that’s a blessing.


Credit

Lenin on the Train by Catherine Merridale was published by Allen Lane in 2016. All references are to the 2017 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Other blog posts about Russia

Other blog posts about the First World War

American Revolutions: A Continental History 1750-1804 by Alan Taylor (2016)

The picture which you have drawn, & the accts which are published, of the commotions & temper of numerous bodies in the Eastern States, are equally to be lamented and deprecated. They exhibit a melancholy proof of what our transatlantic foe have predicted; and of another thing perhaps, which is still more to be regretted, and is yet more unaccountable; that mankind left to themselves are unfit for their own government. (George Washington letter to Henry Lee, 31 October 1786)

Debunking myths

In his blurb on the back of American Revolutions, historian Eric Foner makes the Big Point that it was during the Cold War that a particular version of American history was defined and taught across America’s schools, a version which made the American revolution an exception, distinct and different from the later French and Russian revolutions – by contrast with their chaos and violence the American Revolution was portrayed as ‘good, orderly, restrained and successful’ (p.3), a squeaky-clean Disney version of history designed to underpin America’s claim to an Exceptional Destiny, to being a beacon of reason and light, the leader of the free world.

In this version, whereas they (the French and Russian revolts) had been led by radical ideologues and resulted in appallingly violence, the American Revolution was fought by gentleman-farmers who just happened to be wise and benevolent philosophers in their spare time. They rallied the whole nation behind them with ringing declarations of human rights, to combat a corrupt and greedy British Empire.

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (Second sentence of the 1776 Declaration of Independence)

Taylor’s history sets out to blow the Disney version of American history sky high in any number of ways.

For a start his text sets the American War of Independence in a far broader time period, and much wider geographical frame of reference, than is traditional.

But it is the core American myths and legends about the heroic men who left their simple life as farmers to stand up to British tyranny, to defy British demands for outrageous taxes, and to forge a new nation out of the thirteen disparate colonies, which take a colossal battering.

Not only is the reality neither as simple nor as high-minded as that, but Taylor regularly takes the reader’s breath away with the blunt, matter-of-fact way in which he debunks so many myths, so comprehensively.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

The dates Taylor endstops his account with – 1750 and 1804 – sound fairly innocent and anodyne, until you realise that this period covers:

  • the build-up, course and outcome of the Seven Years War (1756 to 1763)
  • the slow, incendiary build-up to the War of Independence (1775 to 1783) with its bloody, anarchic eight year duration – during which it metastasised into a world war involving Britain against France, Spain and Holland
  • and, the period I found most interesting, the aftermath of the American War of Independence – 1783- 1804 – during which the newly liberated ‘Patriots’ struggled with
    • a major economic depression
    • a huge increase in public and private indebtedness and the taxes required to pay them off
    • violent (riots, lynchings) disagreements about how to pull the new nation together

Taylor’s account of the creation of the American Constitution is as riveting as it is eye-opening. I had no idea that the chaos, confusion and violently different goals of post-war Americans led many eminent figures (Adams, Washington, Jefferson) to worry that, following ‘victory’ in the war of independence, there might be a civil war between the southern slave-owning states and the northern anti-slave states.

It is a little staggering to realise that the seeds of the great Civil War (1861-65) were evident, and were a real threat, in the 1780s. The question then becomes not ‘Why did the Civil War break out in 1861?’ but ‘How did the Americans manage to delay the inevitable Civil War for so long?’

Such was the suspicion and hatred between the victorious states and their various political leaders that many commentators feared that the new nation might end up fragmented between the European empires which still surrounded it (Britain in the north [Canada], France in the west, Spain in the south).

And – mind-bogglingly – Taylor quotes many who thought that the only way to restore order and deference to authority (as opposed to jostling anarchy) was a return to a monarchy. To institute an American royal family!

For not only was there a division between slave-owning south and slave-free north, but, throughout the thirteen states, huge conflict between those who represented money and property and wanted a strong central government to defend them (who came in time to be called the ‘Federalists’) and those who wanted only a weak central government, and power to remain with the thirteen states, who became known as ‘Republicans’.

The Republicans felt keeping power close to the states ensured a better democracy, each state knowing its own special interests best and its leaders being accountable to an electorate who knew them best.

Taylor’s account of the lengthy debates among the fifty or so representatives from each state who met in Philadelphia in 1787 to create a new constitution is among the most interesting things I’ve ever read.

a) Because if you’re interested in politics, his explanation of the numerous compromises that had to be made to please various factions is a real eye-opener about the realities of power and power-brokering.
b) Because the constitution has remained the subject of intense debate and conflicting interpretation right down to the present day, invoked all sides in the constitutional battles raging around president Trump.

It is really eye-opening to realise that the American Constitution grew out of tumultuous and vituperative disagreement among men so incensed against each other that key players in the framing (Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton) often despaired of reaching any agreement.

In fact I was reminded, as I read Taylor’s clinical account of the Americans’ ferocious squabbles, of the Magna Carta of England, signed in 1215, which was also not, as most people think, some high-minded declaration of human rights, but a peace treaty, the minimum requirements the barons demanded from dictatorial King John. It also came at the end of a ruinous war and was an attempt to reconcile warring parties, and so has much in common with the American Constitution.

The delegates came to Philadelphia seeking a peace pact to avert civil wars within the fragile union, but their rancour seemed more likely to hasten that bloody collapse. (p.378)

In Taylor’s account the American constitution is just such a compromise, designed to heal rifts and bring together fiercely opposed factions, namely:

  • the slave-based south and slave-free north (in 1780 slaves comprised less than 4% of the northern population compared to 40% of the south)
  • believers that only a strong federal government could hold the ramshackle union together as opposed to believers that only strong independent states guaranteed liberty
  • and laid across these rifts a third one, a class conflict between supporters of the rural interest – of farmers and settlers who had been screwed by the Depression which followed the war and wanted a fairer distribution of land and wealth – and the well-educated, urban elite who owned big plantations, or were lawyers and bankers who made their money from big landowners and their wealth

The drafting was a long and acrimonious process which is absolutely fascinating to read about.

The Founding Fathers of America, from top left clockwise: Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson

The Founding Fathers of America, from top left clockwise: Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson

After months of horse-trading final agreement on a text was followed by even more trouble when the framers tried to get it ratified by the thirteen states, some of whom flatly refused.

Taylor brings out the importance of the control of the media, the press and the existence of good, well-educated writers and speakers on the Federalist side, which loaded the scales for in their favour, as opposed to illiterate and badly organised opposition from poor farmers and settlers who lived a thousand miles away from the urban centres of power.

This political and rhetorical power helped most of the states ratify the thing, and the ratifiers and drafters then were able to coerce the last few holdouts, like little Rhode Island, until they too capitulated.

It’s a thrilling read which completely alters your view about the origins of the United States and, on almost every page, sheds light on the origins of the economic, political and social problems which it faces to this day.

Americans often romanticise the founders of the nation as united and resolute and then present them as a rebuke to our current political divisions. Pundits insist that Americans should return to the ideal vision set by the founders. That begs the question, however, which founders and what vision? Far from being united they fought over what the revolution meant… Instead of offering a single, cohesive, and enduring plan, the diverse founders generated contradictions that continue to divide Americans. (p.434)

Myth-busting

The American revolutionaries were simple farmers  Well, they certainly derived their money from the land, but both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were masters of large estates worked, of course, by slaves. Washington had a very keen eye for a bargain and was an accomplished land speculator. He was one of the Virginia landowners angered by the British refusal in the 1770s to allow enterprising colonists (i.e. land speculators) to expand westwards into Indian territory.

The war was fought by patriots Taylor emphasises what John Ferling’s book had already made clear to me, that after the first flush of revolutionary fervour in 1775 and 1776, as the war of independence ground on, all the Americans who could manage to do so, evaded military service and conscription by paying to have someone poorer replace them. By 1788 the Continental Army consisted almost entirely of ‘apprentices, transients, beggars, drunks, slaves, and indentured immigrants’ (p.195) All those gentleman farmers which the legends talk about, had skedaddled back to the safety of their farms.

American greed Nobody made noble sacrifices. All the Yanks who possibly could, bought their way out of military service. The officer class fought like ferrets in a sack for promotion and for more money. The issue of pensions for officers became such an issue that significant numbers of officers quit the services, or organised strikes while the war was still in progress, so that Congress was eventually forced to promise all officers five-year pensions.

Government support The British took better care of their soldiers than the Americans took of theirs. Congress could never raise adequate money to feed or clothe their own troops, and had to rely on massive loans from France to continue the war. In the depths of winter 1777, while his Patriot army was dispersed in winter quarters around Pennsylvania – in the freezing snow, often without tents or even blankets to huddle under, without food and without boots or shoes – Washington was disgusted to visit Philadelphia and discover it a city of fashionable balls and feasts and revelries celebrated by an urban élite dressed up in the latest fashions from London and eating fancy French delicacies.

American soldiers making the most of the appalling conditions at Washington's retreat at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-8

American soldiers making the most of the appalling conditions at Washington’s retreat at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-8

There was, in other words, as Ferling’s book also makes clear, almost no solidarity between the colonial rich and the poorest of the colonial poor who they conscripted and sent off to be blown up and bayoneted to death in the scores of inconclusive but brutal military encounters which made up the ‘revolutionary war’.

American ‘liberty’ always tainted by slavery Any slave who could make it to British lines was promised their freedom. Many freed slaves fought for British and a lucky few chose to sail to Britain when ships were evacuating or fleeing American attacks (an unlucky few ending up in Canada, where they were completely unprepared for the freezing weather).

Thus, to many rich Americans, especially in the middle and southern states where slavery was economically vital, the British represented a threat to slavery and, very simply, to their wealth. Whenever any American of the period writes about ‘freedom’, the entire concept, in American mouths, is intimately linked with – and hopelessly compromised by – the enslavement of about half a million Africans, (a fifth of the 1770s population of 2.5 million).

An American slave

American slaves

American ‘freedom’ British politicians and propagandists spotted this straight away and Taylor has a wry smile on his lips as he quotes a steady stream of British politicians and propagandists pointing out the wretched hypocrisy of white American men bickering from morning to night about the precise definition of ‘liberty’, while keeping a fifth of the population of America in chains – and all the while hell-bent on breaking through the barrier of the Appalachian Mountains to the west in order to seize and steal Indian land.

The Indians It was news to me that one of the complaints that enterprising Americans had in the 1760s against the British authorities was that the latter tried to protect the Indians by limiting the colonists’ right to seize and trade land west of the Appalachian mountain chain, in the vast valleys of the river Ohio and Mississippi.

In 1774 the British passed the Quebec Act, designed to bring order and consistency to their rule in Canada. One of its many provisions was to extend Crown control over a huge swathe of land south of the Great Lakes – southern Ontario, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and parts of Minnesota – areas which American land speculators considered theirs to buy, develop and sell on (at immense profit).

Thus the ‘freedom’ which the Patriots proclaimed was the freedom to continue exploiting black slaves and to expand westwards and conquer the native Americans.

Punishing opponents With typically unanswerable bluntness, Taylor declares that: ‘Revolutions breed civil wars’. The Patriots, utterly convinced of their own rectitude, couldn’t credit conservatives and Loyalists (who wanted to remain in the British Empire) with sensible arguments or ideas; they thought they must be brainwashed, blinded or – worse – bribed into opposing the cause of ‘Truth and Virtue’.

It is striking that 250 years ago ‘progressives’ displayed the same intolerant mind-set that they show today. Anybody who opposes the call for ‘revolution’ cannot be someone with a sensible or cautious approach; they must be a traitor, an outcast, a non-person.

Thus a recurrent theme in the history of the American Revolution is the whipping-up of mobs to attack and burn the houses of anyone who opposed the Patriotic line (compare and contrast the not-very-different mob rule in the French and Russian revolutions).

Naming and shaming and tarring and feathering Hence the extensive examples Taylor gives of the way Patriot communities sought out British governors or anyone else in the British power structure who didn’t have the sense to scarper as soon hostilities broke out.

Anybody who collaborated or expressed ongoing loyalty to King George III, or was just too slow to respond enthusiastically to the latest Patriot declarations, risked being rounded up by a vengeful mob, stripped naked, having boiling tar (boiling, so it melted their skin) poured over them, feathers sprinkled onto the cooling tar, then placed on a beam of wood and paraded round town.

Some courts had Loyalists branded on the face or had their ears cut off, just so everyone could see who ‘the enemy’ was.

So much for the American revolution being some kind of ‘exception’ to the notion that revolutions breed civil wars and civil violence. And Taylor shows how, once established as a valid way of expressing political views and uniting communities, mob attacks, lynchings, the tarring and feathering of opponents, continued  long after the cessation of the War of Independence, well into the era of disputes about the Constitution and beyond.

Lynching a Loyalist, 1773

Lynching a Loyalist, 1773. Note the Liberty Tree, in American mythology a symbol of freedom but also handy for hanging dissidents from

The civilian violence engendered by the War of Independence established the kind of raucous and aggressively violent tone of public debate which visitors like Dickens and Trollope were so surprised by 50 years later – with lynchings, particular, going on to have a long career in the southern slave-owning states until well into the twentieth century.

Taylor’s style and approach

Taylor’s style is crisp, blunt and forthright.

  • Rendered arrogant by their larger population, British colonists mistreated their Indian neighbours, and colonial juries would rarely convict settlers for murdering natives. (p.40)
  • [Benjamin Franklin argued for toleration of people with different coloured skin] Most colonists rejected his logic, preferring their racism. (p.60)
  • [The framers of the Constitution] wanted to redesign republican governments to weaken the many and empower the few. (p.371)

I’ve just finished reading John Ferling’s epic account of the American War of Independence, which deploys a leisurely, poetic prose style, and lengthy biographical sketches of key politicians and military leaders, to seek to understand the character, psychology and motivation of the men who made the big decisions and fought the battles of the Revolutionary War.

Taylor’s prose style is the opposite of rich and poetic. Pithy and to the point, many passages sound as if they’ve barely been expanded from a lecturer’s powerpoint presentation.

  • The Glorious Revolution plunged Britain into prolonged warfare with the French Empire.
  • After 1700, British America imported 1,500,000 slaves: more than four times the number of white immigrants. (p.20)
  • The culture taught women to define their lives by motherhood and domesticity. (p.27)
  • Natives exploited the competition between rival empires to procure presents from both. (p.41)

Individuals – and entire cultures – are briskly dismissed for not sharing our modern enlightened views about race and gender, or for just generally being bad. Taylor takes no prisoners on either side.

  • [British commissioner for Indians] Johnson acted selfishly and cynically
  • In the name of liberty, Patriots suppressed free speech, broke into private mail, and terrorised their critics. (p.108)

His factual statements are sweeping and nervelessly confident.

  • Patriot women felt pride in their enhanced political awareness. (p.112)
  • British critics cast Americans as canting hypocrites who preached liberty while practicing slavery. (p.116)

Moderation, doubt, qualifications, don’t seem to exist in Taylor’s mind. Softening words which might qualify his judgments, words like ‘some’, ‘many’, ‘most’, aren’t in his vocabulary.

  • Eighteenth-century Britons celebrated their mixed constitution as the surest foundation for liberty in history and on earth. (p.91)

Really? Absolutely every Briton who lived between 1700 and 1800 believed this? There were no British critics of the British constitution at all in that entire hundred year period?

No. There is no room for equivocation, doubt or shades of grey in Taylor’s brisk, dismissive prose.

Taylor’s revolutionary aim

But then Taylor’s aim is not to equivocate but to overthrow accepted opinion in its entirety, to subvert reputations, to make us completely and utterly rethink what we thought we knew about the origins, course and meaning of the American War of Independence. (I say us: his book is mostly, one imagines, aimed at an American audience – Taylor is a professor of history at Virginia University, and this book is published by an American publisher.)

The sub-title, A continental history, is the key. As in the prequel to this book, the stunningly eye-opening American Colonies, Taylor’s avowed aim is not just to broaden our thinking about early American history, but to smash the bonds which have held it in prison for generations.

For two hundred years research, thinking and writing about America have been conducted in terms of white European men, focusing on the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ who settled New England, and following a lineage of Protestant dissent through to the ‘Founding Fathers’, who created the noble Constitution.

Taylor’s books aim to show this tradition up for the travesty it is, and to utterly transform it.

The earlier book, American Colonies, starts with the first people to cross the Barents Strait from Siberia around 15,000 years ago, and describes how they spread across the continent, developing differing cultures to cope with the huge variation of ecosystem they encountered, until the southernmost tip of Tierra del Fuego was reached some 8,000 years ago.

He then describes how the Norse settled Greenland and then reached Newfoundland around 1,000 AD.

Then Columbus came in 1492, bringing with him the brutal system of slave plantations which the Spanish had perfected on the Canary Islands.

The conquistadors first colonised the West Indian islands, then attacked mainland Mexico, destroying empires and enslaving peoples wherever they went. The Spanish explored up into Florida, where they spread diseases which ravaged the civilisations of the Mississippi basin, and also sent explorers and Christian missionaries across the arid deserts of New Mexico and up the California coast.

In other words, an absolutely vast amount of human activity had been taking place on on the American continent for millennia before the English Pilgrim Fathers ever arrived. American history did not start with the Pilgrim Fathers.

And to think so is to submit, acquiesce and accept the very narrow, blinkered myth of America as a land of high-minded white Protestant farmers – that myth of ‘American exceptionalism’ which Eric Foner claims was fostered and crystallised during the Cold War.

Even once the white English settlers arrive in New England, they remain only a part, a tiny fragment, of the vastly wider network of human activities which comprise American history. It is impossible to understand how American developed unless you grasp:

Geography

How the different geography and ecosystems of the Atlantic coast determined what could be grown in each region and therefore what kind of social systems developed there. Thus the West Indies turned out to be ideal for growing sugar, which requires enormous amount of physical effort and so it was these islands that saw the rise of vast plantations worked by enormous workforces of slaves brought over from Africa, and the rise of a relatively small network of rich plantation owners.

Sugar grew less well in the land surrounding the big Chesapeake Bay (which became Virginia) but tobacco did. Again requiring intensive labour, and so big plantations of enslaved Africans.

But from New York northwards the climate was more like Europe and so farms for livestock or crops were more suitable, which tended to remain smaller, mostly family-run affairs. Hence there was never any need for slaves in the north and, though there were some, the slave population was always small.

The Atlantic economy

The intricacy of the Atlantic economy, whereby British ships bought slaves on the west African coast, shipped them to the Indies and Virginia, picked up sugar, rum and tobacco, carried these north to New England where they picked up grain and raw materials, and then sailed back to Britain, or swapped them for foodstuffs and linen which could also be taken across the sea to Britain, or sailed back south to feed the ever-hungry slave populations.

All parts of this triangle of trade became wealthy, and Taylor is brilliant at conveying the unremitting interlockedness of so many different peoples and cultures, towns and nations, agricultures and technologies, all around the Atlantic coastline.

Background to the American Revolution

This – the gist of American Colonies – is all recapped at speed in the first 50 or so pages of American Revolutions, the context for the series of conflicts between Britain and France which took place in Europe and around the world throughout the 18th century: to be precise, from 1689 to 1763.

The last of these conflicts took place from 1756 to 1763. The British called it the Seven Years War, although the colonists called it the French and Indian War, as that was who they were fighting.

The British won the Seven Years War, making massive gains in India, and in north America, seizing all of Canada from the French (along with some smaller West Indian islands and Louisiana).

But it had been a costly war, and when Britain began to raise taxes on the colonists to pay for the British soldiery and the new forts built to protect them, the colonists balked at the new taxes.

At least, that’s the conventional story – but, as usual, Taylor goes way beyond this, to describe another, previously overlooked and far less creditable source of conflict – the colonists’ relentless thirst for new land which brought them into conflict with the Indians, and with the British Imperial authorities who had pledged to protect the Indians and limit the colonists’ westward expansion.

In other words, there was more to the American rebellion than the high-minded rhetoric about taxation and representation would suggest. Characteristically, Taylor points out that Benjamin Franklin who represented himself as an honest man of simple tastes, was himself involved in some breath-taking land speculations just before war broke out. Taylor also chooses to debunk Daniel Boone – for generations painted as a true-hearted son of the soil – revealing that he also was in it for the money.

A veteran hunter, Boone knew the best routes over the mountains to the finest lands in Kentucky. Folklore casts Boone as a nature-loving refugee from settled civilisation; in fact, he helped land speculators fill the forest with farmers. (p.81)

Thus Taylor proceeds, in his short sharp prose larded with unforgiving judgements, as detached from his subject as a Martian examining an alien species.

Patronising

Sometimes Taylor’s explanations seem patronising – as when he explains that a society based on deference meant that the ‘common’ people were expected to defer to their ‘betters’ – as if these were ideas nobody had heard of till his book.

Similarly, he explains that colonial high society was based on status, part of which was being seen to wear the latest fashions from London – as if the rich trying to outdo each other was a practice unheard of anywhere else, at any other period.

Elsewhere, he explains that ‘Christians’ spurned the rewards of this world because they believed in a place called ‘heaven’ where all their good behaviour would be rewarded for ‘eternity’ – as if nobody had ever heard of these ideas before.

In fact, he often sounds precisely like a politically correct American university professor lecturing 18 year-old American students who appear to have no idea what an ‘aristocracy’ or ‘status symbols’ or ‘deference’ are, what Christianity or any other belief system is, until they step into his lecture hall. He takes absolutely no prior knowledge for granted. Sometimes it grates on those of us who do know what a society based on deference means, and have read a bit about Christianity.

Clean slate

But then this is all part of his strategy – which is to step right back from the period, from all the well-established narratives, legends and myths, and from the blinkered traditions of seeing the story only in terms of heroic, white, male Patriots striving for ‘liberty’ – to step right back, to reconsider all the sources, and to tell what actually happened, across the entire continent, to all of its inhabitants – not just to the handful of rich, white men who have usually dominated the story, but to all the different Indian nations, to the half of the population which was female, to the enslaved blacks, free blacks, and even black leaders, and also to the other European nations – specifically France and Spain – who are generally kept out of the story.

American Revolutions is a sweeping, brisk and often blunt account which debunks every conceivable legend about the origins of the United States, giving clear-eyed, unillusioned portraits of all the so-called Founding Fathers, setting all the events in the widest possible economic, social and political context right across the continent to include considerations of the Spanish rulers and French generals who played a role in shaping the new nation even after the War of Independence was concluded – of the Indians who shaped policy throughout the period, fighting on one side then the other – and of the important role played by slaves, primarily as forced labour, but also as freedmen fighting for one side or the other and, periodically, rising up in slave rebellions to seize ‘liberty’ for themselves…

The Haitian rebellion

To give an example, Taylor describes the slave rebellion which started in 1791 in the French colony of Haiti. This uprising forced the French revolutionary government to decoy troops away from the European front to sail half way round the world to put down the revolt.

But the French troops were badly mauled by the black freedom fighters over a series of engagements which dragged on for a decade, while governments came and went in Paris. Eventually, having lost over half their forces to disease and finding it impossible to stamp out the rebels guerrilla tactics, the french abandoned the effort to recapture Haiti in 1803.

Taylor then produces a great coup d’imagination by showing that it was this experience of having his forces pinned down and worn down in the Americas, which prompted the new French ruler, Napoleon, to also dispense with his other territory in the continent, the vast territory known as Louisiana, which he knew he would never have the resources, money or manpower to defend. So Napoleon sold it to President Jefferson in 1804, doubling the size of America at a stroke.

In traditional tellings, this development comes from left field, as an unexpected bonus. But it is the main purpose of Taylor’s account to present a fully integrated history of early America and all its peoples, across the entire region, showing how America was never a land apart, but always intimately linked to the three major European empires and the extraordinarily tangled network of trade in raw materials, goods and people which criss-crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the centuries leading up to Independence.

So that Taylor presents the wide perspective which allows us to understand that it was the slave rebellion in Haiti which persuaded Napoleon to sell Louisiana to the Americans – to put it another way, it was the efforts of black rebel slaves which enabled America to more than double its territory in 1804.

Again and again Taylor’s broad views and panoramic understanding allows him to shed drastic, and exciting, new light on familiar events.

America is not exceptional

Above all American Revolutions makes you realise that – as per Foner’s insight quoted at the start of this review – America is just another country like any other – and that even in its founding period it was characterised by the same kind of poverty, exploitation, corruption, hypocrisy and violence as was to be found in the very European nations it claimed to be superior to.

Except that it also carried the additional burden of bearing, from birth, the twin Original Sins of

  1. the mass enslavement of black Africans
  2. the calculated wiping-out of the native American peoples

Sins which will dog American politics and culture for as long as there is an America.


Related links

Other posts about American history

Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion by Gareth Stedman Jones (2016)

The Marx constructed in the twentieth century bore only an incidental resemblance to the Marx who lived in the nineteenth. (p.595)

This book is marketed as a biography but it is much, much more than that. It is more like an encyclopedic summary of all the books and thinkers which influenced Marx, of all the books and pamphlets which Marx wrote, of all the books and pamphlets written against him, of his defences and replies to them – in short, it is the biography of a whole climate of thought.

Stedman proceeds in straightforward chronological order, starting with the family background of Karl (as Jones refers to him throughout), his Jewish roots (Karl’s Jewish father adopted Christianity and Karl himself was raised a Christian), his time at school, his student years, his engagement to Jenny von Westphalen, marriage and children.

There’s a vivid description of how, exiled in London’s Soho, Karl got their maid pregnant. The entire household- Marx himself, his wife, his pregnant maid and a horse of five or so small children – was living in just two small filthy rooms. Karl’s adult life was plagued by poverty and ill health which Stedman lists and explains in the relevant parts of the story.

But for the purposes of this book, Karl’s actual life is just background, lightweight, details.

Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion is really about Karl’s intellectual odyssey, the intellectual development of one of the most influential thinkers of all time.

A book of summaries

The characteristic mode of the text is not the anecdote or letter or diary: Jones isn’t much interested in Karl’s psychology. It is the précis or summary of major philosophical, economic or political texts. Countless times Jones mentions the book Karl is writing, or a book which influenced him, only to give us a 1-, 2- or 3-page summary – for example, the two pages devoted to summarising Feuerbach’s interpretation of Hegel, or Proudhon’s book on property – before Jones goes on to explain how Karl reacted to this new input, how it influenced (or not) his own intellectual development.

Since Marx sits at the intersection of three distinct intellectual disciplines – politics, philosophy and economics – a decent grasp of all three is required to really understand him.

This book goes a long way to summarising both the intellectual background of the three disciplines, as they existed and developed before Marx – and then how he took and developed ideas from the various traditions, rewiring them, transmuting them, making them his own.

For example, there is a longish passage of 30 or so pages, starting around page 100, which goes into great detail about the influence of the German philosopher Hegel (died 1831) on Karl and his generation. This is no easy matter since Hegel wrote a series of ambitious philosophical texts which a) frequently contradict each other b) were very diversely interpreted by his followers.

I had to read this 30-page passage three times to begin to get even the shape of it clear in my mind (see the summary of Hegel, below).

Das Kapital

Similarly, around page 375 there begins a long section which explains the background to Karl’s most ambitious book, Capital: Critique of Political Economy (1867).

To explain it, Jones goes back to the founders of economics, Adam Smith and David Ricardo to summarise the ideas of theirs which Karl took up, analysed and argued with.

Stedman looks in great detail at specific aspects of the economic theory of the day – at the theory of value, money, circulation, production, wages, and so on – showing how they had developed over the 80 years or so prior to Capital.

He then explains how these ideas changed and evolved in Karl’s own thinking over the 20 years or so, since he first crystallised the central themes of his thought in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, the so-called Paris Manuscripts.

Jones shows how the shape of Capital was based on the schema for the unfinished Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy, before showing how key terms and ideas developed through eight or so drafts. And he explains the real world constraints which hampered Karl – his own chronic illness, his acute poverty which sometimes meant he didn’t even have materials to write with, his problems with publishers – all of which led the final work to have the shape it does.

For all these reasons – which can be summarised as his difficulties in working through to his own satisfaction all the implications of his vast theory of economics, history and politics – Karl decided to make the work into a trilogy, at the last minute consigning some of the most problematic issues to the subsequent volumes. He then told Engels and his closest collaborators that he was working on these ideas and all would be explained in the subsequent volumes. But they were never published during his lifetime and when, after his death, Engels came to look at his drafts and notes, he was horrified at the lack of progress Karl had made.

Having explained in great detail the intellectual and practical origins of Capital, Jones then proceeds to critique it, highlighting what was new in Marx’s economic thought, what was new in Karl’s own intellectual development, and pointing out its many shortcomings, namely the failure to properly work out a theory of value, and the decision to drop the teleological schema adopted from Hegel, in favour of a more scientific approach (explained below).

This extended account of Capital goes on for about 60 pages (pp. 375 – 430) and I found it very difficult.

At the centre seemed to be the problem of ‘value’, which I didn’t realise gave economists so much trouble (pp. 396-400). What is something worth? The cost of its raw ingredient? Plus the cost of the labour? What about the capital cost of machinery involved? Or the buildings where it’s made and the overheads involved? Or, conversely, is a product only worth what someone will pay for it? And if that’s measured in money, what if the value of money goes up and down (as exchange rates do every day)?

Karl not only wanted to prove that the capitalist exploits the ‘surplus labour’ of the worker (which turns out to be harder than it sounds) but link this up with his historical theory that this new system of production and distribution (capitalism) which was spreading so fast around the world, would eventually create the economic conditions for its own collapse.

Linking these two ideas proved impossible. Karl asserts that it will happen but he nowhere proves it. And this inability, and his knowledge that he couldn’t do it, explains why Karl was never able to complete volumes two and three of Capital, and why they were never published in  his lifetime. (His close ally and subsidiser, Friedrich Engels the Manchester factory owner, oversaw their publication in 1885 and 1894, respectively.)

Contemporary history

So if we take Karl’s biography, and then the strands of text investigating the origins and development of philosophy, economics, and radical political theory as four key strands in the text, there remains a very important fifth one – which is Jones’s account of the contemporary history of Karl’s time, especially as it resulted from and affected the radical thinkers and theoreticians of the day.

If we take Karl’s adult life to span from 1836 (when he turned 18) to 1883 (when he died) he lived through the most turbulent years of the Victorian era, in terms of the domestic political affairs of the European nations, and of a number of key international wars – but Jones only deals in detail with the ones which affected his political thought.

Thus, some of the major historical events of the era are mentioned only briefly because they aren’t politically important. The biggest example for me was the Crimean War, quite a big deal at the time, but it didn’t much affect the political, economic or philosophical theory of Karl and his partners and opponents in Europe’s many radical movements.

Similarly, Jones makes passing reference to the American Civil War and to the Indian Mutiny, and these are described in some of Karl’s voluminous political journalism, but they don’t affect his political theory.

By contrast, Jones describes at length the key events which did affect the way political theorists thought about European societies, the development of radical politics and the chances of a real working class revolution:

1815 – Napoleon is defeated and the Congress of Vienna restores all the old kings to the countries they’d been removed from. But Napoleon’s armies had spread republican thought and the new idea that people should think about themselves not as subjects of particular dynasties, but as ‘nations’ joined by common languages, customs and traditions who ‘deserved’ to rule themselves. These seeds sprouted after the 1848 revolutions, into a movement Jones describes as ‘transnational republicanism’.

1830 – Revolution in France removes King Charles X, the Bourbon monarch, replacing him with his cousin Louis Philippe, Duke of Orléans. The Poles rise up seeking an independent nation (only to be crushed by Russia which rules them). A new kingdom of Belgium is established, independent of the Netherlands which had ruled it.

1848 – Revolution in France topples Louis Philippe and establishes a republic. After various constitutional manoeuvres, an election for president is held which, to everyone’s surprise, is won by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, nephew of the famous emperor. Four years later, he has enough support in the country (especially the countryside and the Catholic Church) to overthrow the republic and declare himself emperor, inaugurating the Second Empire period of French history (1852 to 1870).

1870 – The Franco-Prussian War, in which the Prussians thrash the French then besiege Paris. After peace is signed with France the Prussians withdraw, but a radicalised National Guard seizes control of the capital and, in a very confused sequence of events, radicals declare the city under control of the revolutionary government which comes to be called ‘the Commune’. The conservative French government, based in Versailles, sends loyal troops to Paris who fight their way street by street through the city from the west towards the working class heartlands in the east, massacring so-called communards along the way. Karl writes an essay defending the Commune and declaring it a herald of a new era of working class power.

This skimpy summary cannot do justice to the depth and clarity with which Jones describes, explains and evaluates these historical events, then traces their impact not only on Karl but on other leading left-wing thinkers of the time, for example, Feuerbach in the earlier, philosophical, period of the century; Proudhon, Karl’s main antagonist in the 1850s and 60s; and then the Russian anarchist, Bakunin, in the 1870s.

I particularly benefited from Jones’s detailed account of the series of events in France, Belgium, in Switzerland and in the various states of Germany, during the revolutionary year of 1848, what they were trying to achieve, the euphoria among radicals which they prompted, their eventual defeat, and then the slow counter-reaction which led, unexpectedly, to the economic boom years of the 1850s in which working class radicalism almost disappeared – failures and setbacks which Karl and his comrades found so hard to accept.

The 1850s and 1860s

I found Jones’s depiction of the 1850s and 1860s particularly interesting.

It’s so easy to look back and make generalisations about ‘the Victorian era’, but the long 19th century had phases and decades every bit as distinctive as those of the 20th century. Thus the 1850s were characterised by:

a) The ebbing of the revolutionary hopes of 1848. Many radicals had thought this was it, the triumph of ‘the people’, ‘the proletariat’ etc, but 1849 ushered in a counter-revolution where liberal-aristocratic coalitions secured their hold on power. Radicalism everywhere was comprehensively defeated.
b) However, the 1850s also saw the dynamic spread of capitalist technology and economic relations around the world at a breath-taking pace. Railways, in particular, were built all across Europe, in the new republics of South America, and across the vast United States. Factory production spread like wildfire.

This was the backdrop to the 1860s when a new generation of radical and working class leaders came on the scene.

Jones shows how Karl and his generation had based their dreams of a radical, utopian transformation of society on the French Revolution of 1789, and in particular on the key year of 1792, when the Jacobin extremists had come to power. These hopes, and much of the rhetoric of 1792, had been revived by the stirring events across Europe of 1848, and especially the way they happened all across Europe, as if a new era really was starting.

But Jones explains how, during the 1850s, capitalism transformed the world (railways, the telegraph, steamships) so that by the 1860s political radicalism took an entirely new shape. In a word this was trade unions. Established first in Britain, where they enjoyed greater freedom than anywhere else on the continent, the coming together of working men in every type of trade, and their solidarity (i.e. supporting brother workers in other factories or trades when they went out on strike), began to establish a completely new political force in all European countries.

Jones describes in detail Marx’s surprisingly central role in the establishment of the International Workingmen’s Association in 1864, created in the aftermath of another failed rising by Polish nationalists in 1863. The IWA held congresses across Europe designed to hammer out a common platform for working men across the continent. At its peak the IWA is estimated to have had 5 million members. Initially an obscure member, Marx manoeuvred his way into writing the fundamental documents of the new organisation, namely the Address to the Working Classes.

Early Marx (1840s) and later Marx (1860s and 70s) differ in a host of ways, but this is one of them: early Marx worked in the context of a relatively small clique of intellectuals who thought the revolution would be precipitated by the acuteness of their intellectual critique; from the 1860s Marx was involved in a really international organisation of the working class, with much larger numbers, much more complicated organisations, which had to adopt strategies suited to the changing political realities in the key countries where revolution was hoped for (Britain, France, Germany).

Jones shows how this difference is mirrored in the shift in Karl’s thinking from the dominance of the abstract German philosopher Hegel in the 1840s, to a more modern interest in science and materialism in the 1860s. This may be the moment to explain a bit more about Hegel.

The influence of Hegel

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 to 1831) was a key figure in the strand of philosophy known as German Idealism. He is sometimes credited with creating the biggest, most all-encompassing system of any philosopher.

Hegel conceived of all history as the expression of a ‘World Spirit’ which was continually evolving onwards and upwards. There were half a dozen key moments in history when the nature of its expression changed:

  • when the Roman world changed from being a republic into an empire, a seismic shift which coincided with the advent of Christianity and the end of the pagan world
  • the Middle Ages with their feudal social system of king, knights, serfs, the Church
  • the Reformation (which, importantly for all these German thinkers was, of course, a German invention) introduced a new, more personalised version of Christianity
  • the Enlightenment, the term given to a century or so of intellectuals promoting the triumph of Human Reason (during the 18th century)
  • the French Revolution, which threw up all kinds of ideas about politics and human nature and could be interpreted as a catastrophe or a beacon of hope, depending on personal preference

Having a good sense of these decisive moments of European history is important because the subsequent generation of German philosophers returned to them again and again, to reinterpret them according to their changing philosophical schemes.

Jones gives us detailed summaries of the changing interpretations of history generated by German thinkers, and followers of Hegel such as Arnold Ruge, Bruno Bauer and Ludwig Feuerbach.

All these German thinkers took from Hegel the idea that the ‘World Spirit’ (or ‘Humanity’ or ‘Man’ or whatever abstract term they each preferred) has a teleology, i.e. it is moving purposefully towards a knowable end. Hegel himself thought the World Spirit had reached a natural climax in the establishment of the royalist Prussian state of his day, after the defeat of Napoleon.

However, his young devotees experienced for themselves the growing repression of this ‘ideal’ Prussian state and disagreed. They thought the World Spirit had a bit more evolving to do and that this would probably involve the overthrow of the Prussian state and the reactionary forms of Christianity which bolstered it.

And so the young generation of philosophers, the ‘Young Hegelians’ as they came to be known, almost all students of Hegel who had attended his lectures and been completely dominated by the beauty and power of his huge system, argued and debated fiercely about what the World Spirit was, where it was heading, how it expressed itself, what the different eras of history marked out by Hegel really meant, and so on.

Bruno Bauer and the gospels

For a spell from 1839 to the early 1840s, Bruno Bauer made the running and was the most notorious of the Young Hegelians. He published studies of the four gospels which set out to prove that the ‘incidents’ described in them are utterly fictional and were invented by the authors to express the advent of a new kind of ‘religious consciousness’.

On one level this was a contribution to the newish factual study of Christianity and its core documents, an area where Germany led the field for much of the century. On a social level, Bauer’s books served as an attack on the conservative, reactionary and very religious post-war regime in Prussia (with the result that Bauer and the other Young Hegelians were initially banned from working in the state’s universities, and eventually had prices put on their heads and were forced to flee Germany).

And on a third level, Bauer’s secular interpretation of the gospels was part of the ongoing exploration, adaptation and extension of the Hegelian legacy of ‘History conceived as the progress of Spirit’ which dominated this generation of German thinkers.

Karl, initially as excited as the others in the group by this radical thinking, became frustrated that Bauer insisted on limiting his interpretation to Christianity. Karl and others wanted to extend the insights to all of society.

Feuerbach and alienation

It was at this point that Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72) enters the scene. Feuerbach took a sociological view of Christianity. He argued that in the polis or city state of the ancient world, individuals had had a direct relationship with each other, an ‘I and Thou’ relationship.

Christianity had swept that away by encouraging people to turn away from ‘society’ and concentrate all their efforts on God. They became alienated from each other. Feuerbach developed the idea that in each of the historical eras of Hegel’s timeline, Man had alienated part of his intellectual life into fetishes – inanimate wooden objects (on the analogy of African religious fetishes which, we deduce, must have been known about in Young Hegelian circles).

According to Feuerbach men had created God but had then given him their powers, in fact given him a dream of total power. They had alienated to him their own agency. They preferred to worship things instead of having a healthy relationship with their fellow citizens.

Feuerbach expressed this theory of alienation in The Essence of Christianity (1841) and Karl was profoundly taken with it.

Karl applied Feuerbach’s concept of alienation to economic theory, where he tried to prove not just the fairly common sense idea that workers in factories are ‘alienated’ from their work and their produce in a way that handicraft workers in cottages were not – in not having control about what they make, how many, in what timeframe, or for whom.

But the more philosophical idea that workers in the capitalist system alienated to the commodity the power and agency which should be theirs. Capitalism sets up the product of the working class as a fetish which is more important – and more valuable – than the downtrodden workers that made it.

Das Kapital 20 years later was to take the paradoxical nature of ‘the commodity’ as the starting point for its investigation of capitalism as an economic and social system.

At a more meta level, the entire system of capitalism alienates the sense of control and agency which humans ought to have over their own lives. People are beaten down and think, ‘There’s nothing I can do’ to end poverty, change the system, end abuses – ‘That’s just the way it is’. People under capitalism are emasculated, dehumanised.

This is just one example of the way Karl took an idea developed by a Young Hegelian (Feuerbach) itself derived from the historical worldview developed by Hegel, and incorporated it into his own theory of capitalist development.

(Feuerbach angrily disagreed with the way Karl had applied an idea developed solely to explain the phenomenon of religion, into a broader critique of capitalism as an economic practice and a social system.)

Materialism in the 1860s

So much for the powerful Hegelian influence on the young Karl Marx and his entire generation of German intellectuals.

But Jones shows that the 1860s were culturally, politically and philosophically very different from the Hegelian 1840s. Specifically, the younger generation of radicals knew nothing and cared less about Hegel. For them the ‘new thing’ was the flowering of scientific thought which had accompanied and helped the boom of capitalist technology in the 1850s.

Darwin’s theory of evolution was published in 1859, which provided a completely materialist explanation of the evolution of all life on earth, including humans, and he was to apply his theories to human beings in the Descent of Man (1870). Various other discoveries in the fields of chemistry and physics meant that a new scientific and materialistic approach to the world, to life, to the intellectual realm, completely eclipsed the ideas of a World Spirit which Hegel had first formulated fifty years earlier.

Even Karl’s best buddy, Engels, was writing to warn him in the mid-1860s that the intellectual world had moved on. Nobody read Hegel any more (p.400). Their worldview needed to be updated.

Jones thinks this realisation influenced the final version of Capital. He shows how, in the Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy (1858) which Capital is based on, and in the successive drafts of Capital which Marx made through the 1860s, Karl had expended considerable effort trying to incorporate his fundamentally Hegelian view that History evolves through set phases of human development and self-awareness into the actual historical epochs described in the history books.

However, in the final version of Capital, the philosophical theory underpinning the idea of an inexorable progression is largely left out (Jones shows how, in private, Marx’s version of Hegelianism had evolved into a rather eccentric notion that history moved in a series of widening spirals; good idea to drop that bit, Karl).

Instead, in Capital, the different types of society and the social relations between the classes are stated and analysed as static categories. This was more in tune with the times, more scientific, more like an analysis of chemical compounds or the formulae of physics: but it was done at the cost of losing a fully theorised explanation of why history is inevitable and why the pressures building up within capitalism itself must bring about its collapse.

The failure of inevitability

This, if I understand Jones, is the crux of Marx’s failure.

Marx never abandoned his roots in Hegelian philosophy, a philosophy with a truly global perspective, which saw the human race evolving through set phases or eras.

It is clear that when attempting to organise his material (for the Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy, 1858) Karl’s first resort was Hegel. (p.389)

Karl had adapted Hegel’s schema to his communist beliefs, to come up with the idea that the owners of modern means of production and finance (the capitalists) would continue to grind the workers (the proletariat) into the dirt, crushing all peripheral artisans and small producers along the way, until the number of the proletariat was so overwhelming, and the number of the super-rich bourgeoisie had become so small, that almost by a law of physics, the workers would realise their strength, rise up, abolish the bourgeoisie and inaugurate a new era devoid of class conflict.

The history of the human race, which had hitherto been a history of class conflict, would come to an end in a new classless utopia of the ‘free association’ of people who worked as and when they wanted, to fulfil only their needs and not to produce the unnecessary tat required by commodity capitalism, ‘plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart’ (Inaugural Address to the IWMA, quoted p.470).

This is the vision expounded in The Communist Manifesto of 1848 and, although buried or elided, it also underlay Capital and all Karl’s his later writings.

However, the opposite happened.

During the 1850s and more so into the 1860s, the working class, organised into new centralised trade unions, was able to negotiate better conditions and better pay in scores of industries, in all the industrialised countries.

Their economic power was even translated into political power when Disraeli, in Britain, extended the franchise with the Representation of the People Act of 1867, which doubled the number of voters from 1 million to 2 million (out of 7 million adult males in England and Wales). Disraeli’s intent was purely cynical, to steal the thunder of his arch-enemy Gladstone and also in the hope that the newly enfranchised upper working classes would vote for him. 18 years late a further reform act increased the electorate to 5.5 million.

The political parties of the time underwent alignments completely contrary to Karl’s predictions. When there was an economic slump in the 1850s Karl hoped that the good old Chartist movement which had so dominated the 1840s would be revived. Instead, in 1859 the anti-Corn Law campaigners Cobden and Bright joined with Whigs, Peelites (a wing of the Tory party) and rebellious Irish MPs to form the Liberal Party, soon to be led by William Gladstone.

In other words, the working classes proved reluctant to carry out the role allotted to them by Karl’s economic Hegelianism, a role whereby they submitted to greater and greater immiseration before rising up to overthrow the bourgeoisie, end the history of class conflict and usher in a new phase of history whereby human consciousness ceased to be alienated from itself.

Instead, the working classes allied itself with the bourgeoisie to create reformist parties, parties concerned with here-and-now policies like reducing the working day to 8 hours, establishing weekends and holidays free from work, extending the franchise and so on.

As Jones puts it, the working class didn’t want to overthrow the political system – it wanted more say in it. Thus the British working classes were slowly and steadily co-opted into capitalist society, allowed to vote and, eventually, allowed to create the Labour Party. Although some of its intellectuals and some of its members thought the Labour Party was a revolutionary organisation, in fact it overwhelmingly represented the interests of the assimilationist trade unionists – better pay, better job conditions and so on – policies which were, from a revolutionary perspective, conservative in impact, because they underpinned and cemented in place bourgeois exploitation.

The Labour Party has never wanted to overthrow capitalism, it just wants a better deal for the working classes.

Much the same went for the International Workingmen’s Association. This was the scene of dramatic arguments about the direction radical political thinking should take between the followers of Marx, those of Proudhon and those of the Russian anarchist Bakunin. All these arguments tended to raise the spectre of apocalyptic and violent social revolutions – but in practice the IWMA sought the much more modest aim to extend the benefits of the well-established and well-organised British trade unions to the more backward continent.

The fundamental aim of the IWMA, as it was conceived by the English Trade Society leaders, was to bring the benefits of British social legislation (limitation of working hours, restriction of juvenile employment) and the achievements of the new ‘amalgamated’ model of trade unionism to the other nations of Europe and the world. (p.458)

In fact the main achievement of the IWMA was to spread across Europe a new language of social democracy, spreading English terms like ‘strike’, ‘meeting’, ‘trade union’ and ‘solidarity’ to more repressive societies like France and Germany (p.462).

Jones shows how, contrary to the teachings of 20th century ‘Marxism’ with its belief in the central role of ‘the Party’ spearheading a violent insurrection, during the 1860s Karl actually put his hopes in the work of organised international labour to consolidate class identity and activity. Hence the large amount of time he devoted to his administrative work and writings for the IWMA.

Bakunin and the end of the IWMA

Bakunin’s influence within the IWMA grew and so did the theoretical and practical divide between what came to be seen as the ‘Marxists’ and the ‘anarchists’.

Central was the way that Karl never lost his essentially Hegelian belief in the primacy of the state. In his view the state under capitalism had evolved to a high level of centralised bureaucracy and power – just as the bourgeoisie had taken the means of production to unprecedented levels. Both would be overthrown by the proletariat who would then use this state machinery to create a better society.

Bakunin radically disagreed. He also had been a young devotee of Hegel but had moved in a completely different position, coming to believe that everyone had the right to live as they wanted to, untrammelled or controlled by any external forces. In practice, people needed to co-operate to produce the necessities of life so he advocated small communes or co-operatives which lived in loose federations. But he categorically rejected the idea of ‘the state’, any state, be it bourgeois or proletarian.

Thus Bakunin and his followers opposed tooth and nail Karl’s view of the proletariat seizing control of the state and then using the state to guide society towards greater fairness.

Bakunin thought this would lead to a dictatorship worse than the current bourgeois state, which at least granted some men the vote, in which laws some could be changed, in which organised strikes had impact. Bakunin thought that in a communist dictatorship nothing would change and everyone would be oppressed.

Jones describes in detail the sequence of IWMA congresses in which the disagreements of the two parties (and others as well, it was always a very fractious body) led to Karl’s drastic suggestion that the organisation’s HQ be moved to New York! And then to its formal dissolution in the early 1870s (even the date of its closure varies depending on whether you follow the Marxist account or the Bakuninite account, since the anarchists went on to hold a few more congresses after Karl’s bloc had left).

The creation of ‘Marxism’ in the 1880s

Arguably the juiciest, because the most relevant to today, part of the book is the final 40 or so pages where Jones shows how the long evolution of Karl’s thought (beginning in rarefied Hegelianism, struggling in the 1850s to produce a really coherent synthesis of radical economics, all too often ignoring the moderate wishes of the actual working classes in favour of abstract theorising, his failure to produce the knock-out masterpiece which would really bring in converts, and the failure of the proletariat revolution he had been predicting since the early 1840s) how this long evolution unexpectedly underwent a revival in a new ‘scientific’ guise, in the 1880s and 90s.

There was a general cause and a specific cause.

The general cause was the advent of a prolonged depression which started in manufacturing in 1873 and spread to agriculture in the following years. Cheap grain from the American mid-west undercut British farmers, cheap goods from around the world began to blow back into the pioneer of the industrial revolution, for the first time undercutting British manufacture. In different ways (due to their radically different political and economic policies) the depression also impacted the other leading industrial nations, France and Germany.

In this climate, a generation which knew nothing of Hegel and the doctrinal disputes of the 1830s, for whom the revolutions of 1848 were distant history, and had grown up in societies with well-established trade unions, looked for a theory or critique which explained why this depression had come about, and why it proved so difficult to budge – why, in other words, the global capitalist system seemed to have a logic of its own which no government, of whatever stripe, could budge.

Enter Karl. Or, more precisely, enter his lifelong friend and propagandist, Friedrich Engels. They had been closely collaborating since they met in the 1840s, with Engels generally deferring to Karl’s greater intellectual achievement (although, as Jones points out, it was Engels, with his personal experience of factory conditions in Manchester and with deep research of the classic The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1845, who prompted Karl to begin to put an economical base to his philosophy.)

The specific cause was a pamphlet written by Engels in 1878. Eugen Karl Dühring was a German professor who, despite being a materialist, was also a positivist, who wrote books expounding his optimistic view of the evolution of man towards higher states of consciousness. In political terms, he believed in the ultimate harmony of bourgeoisie and proletariat who could be brought together in a national patriotic union.

As such, Dühring was a strong critic of Marx and – here’s the point – his views were taken up by a number of the leading radical party in Germany, the Social Democrats. As with previous ideological enemies (such as Proudhon and his followers, or Bakunin), once again Karl and Engels decided that Dühring needed to be refuted.

Now Karl, in his final decade, after the end of his work with the now defunct International Working Men’s Association, had, theory, returned to his intellectual research and reassured Engels and all his friends that he was hard at work on volumes II and III of Capital. In reality, as Jones shows, he made very little headway in solving the conceptual problems which had troubled him in the early 1860s. In fact, in the last five or six years of his life Karl became increasingly secretive about his work, not even telling Engels and upon his death it became clear why.

(Jones shows in his final chapter that this may have been because his thinking underwent a major revision in the late 1870s: after the successful defeat of the Commune, the 1870s saw the triumph of political counter-revolution across Europe, not least in the way the governments of Britain, France and Germany co-opted sections of the working class into the suffrage, into political parties, into trades unions and so on. Karl withdrew more and more from the vision of an abrupt and violent revolutionary overthrow of bourgeois society, writing at different times that the bourgeoisie might, instead, be subtly transformed from within by the pressure of the proletariat organised into trade unions. In fact, in his final years he became attracted to the idea – proposed by a series of scholars – that Europe’s ancient Celtic and Germanic societies had once been propertyless communes. This fed into the intriguing question of whether the primitive commune-like world of Russia‘s backward serfs [only ‘liberated’ in 1861] might skip the destructive phase of bourgeoisification, and go straight from primitive commune to sophisticated commune. Jones quotes Karl’s correspondence with some Russian radicals who wanted his opinion on this very question.)

But Karl’s inability to complete Capital and this late-in-life change of opinion about the viability of primitive communal society weren’t made public at the time or until long afterwards. Instead, on the assumption that Karl was busy with his important ‘revolutionary’ work, it fell to Engels to write a pamphlet refuting the worrying influence of this Professor Dühring.

And this book – sarcastically titled in German, Herrn Eugen Dührings Umwälzung der Wissenschaft or Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science – which became known as the Anti-Dühring – turned out to be the most influential book written by either Karl or Friedrich. It deliberately set out to be a comprehensive summary of the development and content of Marxist theory. Friedrich called it an attempt ‘to produce an encyclopaedic survey of our conception of the philosophical, natural-science and historical problems.’

It was from this little summary that the new generation of radicals learned the meaning of what Friedrich now termed ‘scientific socialism’.

The book had three chapters. A few years later chapter one (the one which dealt in detail with Dühring’s beliefs) was dropped and chapters two and three were reprinted as Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. A French edition appeared in 1880, a German edition in 1882.

The pamphlet thereafter became the most popular source for the understanding of ‘Marxism’ for the following twenty years. (p.560)

Engels placed Karl alongside Darwin as the founder of a new science. Karl’s importance rested on two ‘scientific’ discoveries, the materialist conception of history, which saw all human history as a sequence of class struggles, and the theory of ‘surplus value’ which he had revealed as the hidden motor of capitalism.

Engels pointed out how the bourgeoisie had destroyed feudal and artesan labour, the labour of small masters and apprentices, forcing all workers into factories where they had to work collaboratively, and where the ‘surplus value’ of their labour was stolen by the bourgeoisie.

But, reflecting the political and social changes of recent years, Engels then went on to claim that the new technologies pioneered by the bourgeoisie had to some extent been taken over by the state in Britain, Germany and France. In these countries the state had already taken over key industries such as the telegraph, the post office, some railways and so on.

In other words the proletariat only had to seize control of the state to find it had already accomplished half the work of nationalising industry: the workers would simply be completing a process Engels saw happening in modern society anyway.

It is in this little book that Engles concludes with a vision, not of the state being overthrown in a violent revolution like the Jacobin revolution of 1792, which had so dominated the imagination of radicals of his generation: instead the state, once in the hands of the proletariat, would die out or wither away.

These arguments were taken up by August Bebel, the foremost leader of the German Social Democratic party. They were included in the 1891 constitution of the Party, the so-called ‘Erfurt programme’ of 1891.

Karl had died, worn out by years of illness and also the severe illnesses of his (now adult) children, in 1883. In his graveside oration Engels again compared Karl to Darwin for his ‘scientific’ discoveries which explained all of human history, the growth of capitalism, and ‘scientifically proved’ how capitalism was crippled by its own internal contradictions and would soon pass away, giving way to the free association of free and happy men and women.

It was this view, essentially drafted and curated by Engels, of Karl as a scientific materialist, which went on to influence later generations. It was taken up and assiduously promoted by Karl Kautsky in his radical paper Die Neue Zeit, which from 1883 to 1914 was the theoretical journal of the German Social Democratic Party and the leading journal of the Second International of Working Men (1889 to 1916).

Among the radicals it influenced was Georgi Plekhanov (1856-1918) one of the founding fathers of Russian Marxism, who was in personal touch with Engels from 1883 and went on to found a radical organisation called ‘the Emancipation of Labor Group’. In 1895 Plekhanov published In Defence of Materialism: The Development of the Monist View of History, which despite its daunting title put forward a Marxist view based on the Anti-Dühring. Among the early members of the Emancipation group was the young Vladimir Ulianov, who later gave himself the revolutionary name ‘Lenin’. In 1900 Plekhanov and Lenin were among the founders of the revolutionary newspaper, Iskra or The Spark.

Later, after he had founded the breakaway section of the Russian Social Democratic Party which became known as the Bolsheviks (in 1912), Lenin was fiercely criticised by Plekhanov on the classical Marxist basis that Russia was still a backward nation not ready for revolution because it hadn’t industrialised or produced a bourgeois class.

Lenin disagreed, believing that there were sufficient workers to justify a violent revolution which would seize power in the name of both workers and peasants. Despite his criticism of Plekhanov, Lenin never ceased praising his role in disseminating ‘scientific Marxism’ and insisted that his texts be taught in schools after the revolution of 1917.

Thus a direct thread runs from Engels’ creation of a new ‘scientific Marxism’, updated to suit the age of Darwin, through its dissemination among leading German and Russian radicals, to the Russian revolution itself.

But it was a Marx who was carefully tailored to the new age of scientific rhetoric. Jones devotes his last few pages to showing just how different the ‘scientific Marx’ of 1900 was from the ‘Hegelian Karl’ of 1840 or 1850, the actual, living, breathing, thinking Karl who we have accompanied through these 600 enthralling pages. Hence his conclusion:

The Marx constructed in the twentieth century bore only an incidental resemblance to the Marx who lived in the nineteenth. (p.595)

Summary

On every page of this staggeringly well-informed work, we learn new things about the thought and politics of the era, about the many radical thinkers of the day as they wrote articles, pamphlets, books, argued and squabbled with each other about the precise definition of ‘human consciousness’ or ‘civil society’ or ‘democracy’ and so on. And then, into the more politicised 1850s and 60s, we learn masses about the conflicting theories of political action proposed by the likes of Proudhon and Bakunin; and then on to the crystallising of ‘scientific Marxism’ in Karl’s final years and after.

Jones helps us see how Karl weaved the various fragments and influences together into what would become known, after his death, as his doctrine of ‘dialectical materialism’, and provides detailed critiques of every stage of Karl’s thought, presenting summaries of his key writings and then assessing their success and failure.

Jones provides unparalleled detail on the key political events of the Karl’s lifetime as they affected his work and the work of other radicals – giving the reader a really deep understanding of the dynamics which flowed from 1815, through the revolution of 1830, to the continent-wide disruptions of 1848, into the two long decades of capitalist conquest and the rise of trade union militancy in the 50s and 60s, through the shocking events of the Paris Commune, and on into the gritty 1870s. This historical strand by itself presents a bracing, thrilling panorama of an age.

In its scope, its breadth and depth of scholarship, and in the confidence with which Jones deals with economic theory, abstruse German philosophy, or the key historical events of the era, Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion feels like an unprecedented synthesis of knowledge and insight.

On the cover the Economist magazine is quoted as saying, ‘There is no better guide to Marx’, and it is really difficult to see how a more thorough and compendious account could ever be written of the man’s life and thought.


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Karl Marx

Communism in Russia

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Communism in Germany

Communism in Poland

  • Warsaw 1920 by Adam Zamoyski (2008) How the Polish army stopped the Red Army from conquering Poland and pushing on to support revolution in Germany.
  • 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, specifically the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which was Orwell was fighting with and he only just managed to escape arrest, interrogation and probable execution.

Communism in England

The Vanquished by Robert Gerwarth (2016)

‘Everywhere counter-revolutionaries run about and swagger; beat them down! Beat their heads where you find them! If counter-revolutionaries were to gain the upper hand for even a single hour, there will be no mercy for any proletarian. Before they stifle the revolution, suffocate them in their own blood!’
(Hungarian communist Tibor Szamuely, quoted page 134)

The sub-title sums it up – Why the First World War Failed to End 1917-1923. We Brits, like the French, date the end of the Great War to Armistice Day 11 November 1918, and the two-minute silence every year confirms our happy sense of finality and completion.

But across a wide swathe of Eastern Europe, from Finland, through the Baltic states, all of Russia, Poland, down through the Balkans, across Anatolia and into the Middle East, the violence didn’t end. In many places it intensified, and dragged on for a further four or five years.

Individual studies have long been available on the plight of individual nations – revolutionary Russia, post-Ottoman Turkey and so on. But Gerwarth claims his book is the first one to bring together the tumult in all these places and deal with them as symptoms of one deep cause: losing the war not only led to the break-up of Europe’s defeated empires – the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire – it undermined the very idea of traditional governments and plunged huge areas into appalling violence.

Gerwarth categorises the violence into a number of types:

  1. Wars between countries (of the traditional type) – thus war between Greece and Turkey carried on until 1923 (200,000 military casualties), Russia’s invasion of Poland in 1920 (250,000 dead or missing), Romania’s invasion of Hungary in 1919-1920.
  2. Nationalist wars of independence i.e. wars to assert the independence of ethnic groups claiming a new autonomy – the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs, Ukrainians.
  3. Revolutionary violence i.e. the attempt to overthrow existing governments in the name of socialist or other political causes. There were communist putsches in Berlin, Munich and Vienna. Hungary became a communist state under Bela Kun for 115 days in 1919.
  4. Civil wars – the Russian civil war was the biggest, with some 3 million dead in its three year duration, but Gerwarth also describes the Finnish Civil War, which I’d never heard of, in which over 1% of the population died and whose ramifications, apparently, continue to this day.

The lesson is best summarised in a blurb on the back of the book by the ever-incisive Max Hastings. For many nations and peoples, violent conflict had started even before 1914 and continued for another three, four or five after 1918 — until, exhausted by conflict, for these people, order became more important than freedom. As the right-wing Waldemar Pabst, murderer of Rosa Luxemberg and Karl Liebknecht and organiser of Austria’s paramilitary Heimwehr put it, the populations of these chaotic regions needed:

the replacement of the old trinity of the French Revolution [liberté, egalité, fraternité]… with a new trinity: authority, order and justice.’ (quoted on p.141)

The communist coups in all these countries were defeated because:

  1. the majority of the population didn’t want it
  2. the actual ‘class enemies’, the landowners, urban bourgeoisie, conservative politicians, were able to call on large reserves of battle-hardened officer class to lead militias and paramilitaries into battle against the ‘reds’

No wonder T.S. Eliot, in 1923, referred to James Joyce’s use of myth in Ulysses as the only way to make sense of ‘the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history’.

Gerwarth’s book gives the detail of this panorama, especially in the relatively unknown regions of central and eastern Europe – Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania – and with special attention to the catastrophic Greek invasion of Turkey and ensuing war.

Turkey

Turkey experienced the Young Turk revolution against the old rule of the Sultan in 1908. During the ensuing confusion across the Ottoman Empire, Austro-Hungary annexed the Ottoman territories of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Then in 1911, across the Mediterranean, Italy invaded and seized modern-day Libya from the Turks. The Balkan Wars of 1912 to 1913 led to the loss of almost all of the Empire’s European territories, and was followed by a series of coups and counter coups in Istanbul.

All this upheaval was before Turkey even entered the Great War, which it did with an attack on the Russian Black Sea coast in October 1914. Skipping over the Great War itself – which featured, for Turkey, the Armenian genocide of 1915 and the Arab Revolt of 1916 – defeat in the war led the Allies to dismember the remainder of the Ottoman Empire by the Treaty of Sèvres of 1920.

Opposition to this treaty led to the Turkish War of Independence led by Mustafa Kemal (later given the surname ‘Atatürk’) and the final abolition of the sultanate and the old Ottoman forms of government in 1922.

At which point the Greeks invaded, hoping to take advantage of Turkey’s weakness and seize the Aegean coast and islands. But the Greek attack ran out of steam, the tide turned and Turkish forces under Atatürk swept the Greek forces back down to the sea. Greek atrocities against Turkish villagers was followed by counter-reprisals by the Turks against the Greek population of the coast, which escalated into the mass exchange of populations. Hundreds of thousands of Greeks were forced to flee the Turkish mainland.

The point is that by 1923 Turkey had been in violent political turmoil for some 15 years. You can see why the majority of the population will have opted, in Max Hasting’s words, for Order over Freedom, for any party which could guarantee peace and stability.

Brutalisation and extermination

Gerwarth questions the ‘brutalisation thesis’, an idea I had broadly subscribed to.

This theory is that the Great War, with its four long years of grindingly brutal bloodshed, dehumanised enormous numbers of fighting men, who returned to their respective societies hardened to violence, desensitised, and that this permanently brutalised European society. It introduced a new note of total war, of the killing of civilian populations, the complete destruction of towns and cities, which hadn’t existed before. Up till now I had found this thesis persuasive.

Gerwarth says modern scholarship questions the brutalisation thesis because it can be shown that the vast majority of troops on all sides simply returned to their societies, were demobbed and got on with civilian lives in peace. The percentage who went into paramilitaries and Freikorps units, the numbers which indulged in revolutionary and counter-revolutionary violence, was very small.

But he partly contradicts himself by going on to say that the violence immediately after the war was new in nature: all the parties in the Great War were fighting, ultimately, to wring concessions from opposing regimes which they envisaged staying in place and legitimacy. This is how war had been fought in Europe for centuries. You defeat your enemy; he cedes you this or that bit of territory or foreign colony, and things continue as before.

But in the post-war period a completely new ideology appeared – something unprecedented in history – the wish not just to defeat but to exterminate your enemy, whether they be class enemies (hated by communists) or ethnic enemies (hated by all brands of nationalists) or ‘reds’ (hated by conservatives and the new fascist parties alike).

This extermination ideology, mixed with the unprecedented collapse of empires which had given rise to a host of new small nations, created a new idea – that these new small nations emerging in and after the war needed to feel ‘cleansed’ and ‘pure’. Everyone not genuinely German or Czech or Hungarian or Ukrainian or whatever, must be expelled.

This new doctrine led to the vast relocations of peoples in the name of what a later generation would call ‘ethnic cleansing’, but that name doesn’t really capture the extraordinary scale of the movements and the depths of the hatreds and bitternesses which it unleashed.

For example, the final peace in the Turko-Greek war resulted in the relocation of some 2 million civilians (1.2 million Greeks expelled from Turkey, 400,000 Muslims expelled from Greece). Huge numbers of other ethnic groups were moved around between the new post-war nations e.g. Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, Czechoslovakia etc.

And of course Britain experienced none of this. Between the wars we found Europe east of Germany a dangerous and exotic place (see the pre-war thrillers of Eric Ambler for the noir feel of spies and secret police they convey) but also left us incapable of really imagining what it felt like to live in such completely fractured and damaged societies.


The ‘only now…’ school of history

Although the facts, figures, atrocities, murders, rapes and violence which plagued this period are hard to read about, one of the most striking things in the whole book comes in Gerwarth’s introduction where he discusses the ebb and flow of fashion, or waves of historical interpretation regarding this period.

He dismisses traditional French and especially British attitudes towards Eastern Europe and the Balkans as a form of ‘orientalism’ i.e. the racist belief that there is something intrinsically violent and brutal about the people of those regions. Part of this attitude no doubt stemmed from Great War-era propaganda which portrayed the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires as somehow intrinsically despotic and repressive. Part from the political violence which plagued these countries in the post war era, and which generally ended up with them being ruled by ultra-conservative or fascist regimes.

Modern scholarship, Gerwarth says, has switched to the opposite view, with many modern historians claiming those regimes were more liberal than is often claimed, more stable and more open to reform than the wartime allies claimed. As he puts it:

This reassessment has been an emphatic one for both Imperial Germany and the Hapsburg Empire, which appear in a much more benign (or at least more ambivalent) light to historians today than they did in the first eight decades after 1918. (p.7)

That last phrase leapt out at me. He seems to be saying that modern historians, working solely from written documents, claim to know more about these empires than people alive at the time, than contemporaries who travelled through and experienced them and encountered and spoke with their rulers or populations and fought against them.

Quite casually, it seems to me, he is making a sweeping and quite unnerving statement about the control which historians exert over ‘reality’. Gerwarth’s remark echoes similar sentiments I’ve recently read by historians like Rana Mitter (China’s War with Japan 1937–1945) and Chris Wickham (The Inheritance of Rome) to the effect that only now are we getting to properly understand period A or B of history because of reasons x, y or z (the most common reason for reassessments of 20th century history being the new access historians have to newly-opened archives in the former Soviet Union and, to a lesser extent, China).

I am a sceptic. I don’t believe we can know anything with much certainty. And a fan of later Wittgenstein who theorised that almost all communication – talking, texts, movies, you name it – are best understood as games, games with rules and regulations but games nonetheless, which change and evolve as the players do, and are interpreted differently by different players, at different times.

Currently there are some seven and a half billion humans alive on the planet – so there’s the potential for at least seven billion or so interpretations of anything.

If academic historians produce narratives which broadly agree it is because they’re playing the same academic game according to the same rules – they share agreed definitions of what history actually is, of how you define ‘evidence’, of what historical scholarship is, agreement about appropriate formats to present it in, about style and voice and rhetorics (dispassionate, objective, factual etc).

But the fact that the same set of evidence – the nature of, say, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, can give rise to such wildly divergent interpretations, even among the professionals, only fuels my profound scepticism about our ability to know anything. For decades historians have thought the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a repressive autocracy which was too encrusted and conservative to cope with changes in technology and society and so was doomed to collapse. Now, Gerwarth informs me, modern scholarship claims that, on the contrary, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was more flexible and adaptive than its contemporaries or anyone writing in the last 80 years has thought.

For contemporary historians to claim that only now can the truth revealed strikes me as, to put it politely, optimistic.

  1. Unless you are a religious zealot, there is no absolute truth
  2. There are plenty of dissenting voices to any historical interpretation
  3. If there’s one thing we can be certain of, it’s that future historians will in turn disagree and reinterpret everything all over again a) because fashions change b) because they’ll be able to do so in the light of events which haven’t happened yet and trends which aren’t clear to us c) because they have to come up with new theories and interpretations in order to keep their jobs.

When I was a young man ‘we’ i.e. all the students I knew and most of the liberal media and political commentators, all thought Ronald Reagan was a doddery imbecile. Now I read books about the Cold War which claim he was among the all-time greatest American Presidents for playing the key role in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of communism.

Which story is true ? Or are they both true and will more ‘truths’ be revealed in the future? If Vladimir Putin unleashes a nuclear war, will the collapse of communism – which 20 years later has given rise to a new aggressive Russian nationalism – come, in time, to be seen as a bad thing, as the prelude to some disastrous world war?

History is, in the end, a matter of opinion, a clash of opinions. Historians may well use evidence scrupulously to support thoroughly researched points of view – but they can only access a subset of the evidence (no historian can read everything, no historian can read every human language, no book can reference every text ever written during a period) and will tend to use that evidence selectively to support the thesis or idea they have developed.

Therefore, I don’t believe that any of the history books I’m currently reading reveal the only-now-can-it-be-told truth.

But I do understand that academics are under more pressure than ever before to justify their salaries by churning out articles and books. It follows that historians, like literary critics and other humanities scholars, must come up with new interpretations, or apply their interpretations to new subjects, simply in order to keep their jobs. It’s in this context that I read the pronouncements of only now historians – as the kind of rhetoric which gets articles published and books commissioned, which can be proclaimed in lecture theatres, at international conferences and – if you’re lucky and manage to wangle a lucrative TV deal – spoken to camera (as done by Mary Beard, Niall Ferguson, Ruth Goodman, Bettany Hughes, Dan Jones, David Reynolds, Simon Schama, Dan Snow, David Starkey, Lucy Worsley, Michael Wood).

In other words, I read statements like this as reflections of the economic and cultural climate, or discourse, of our times – heavily embedded in the economic necessity of historians to revise and review their predecessors’ findings and assumptions in order to keep their jobs. Maybe these new interpretations are bolstered by more data, more information and more research than ever before. Maybe they are closer to some kind of historical ‘truth’. But sure as eggs is eggs, in a generation’s time, they in their turn will be outmoded and outdated, fading in the sunlight outside second-hand bookshops.

For now the new historical consensus is a new twist, a new wrinkle, which appeals by its novelty and its exciting ability to generate new ideas and insights. It spawns new discourse. It creates new vistas of text. It continues the never-ending game of hide-and-seek which is ‘the humanities’.

History is a cousin of literature with delusions of grandeur – at least literature knows that it is made up. And both genres, anyway, come under the broader rubric of rhetoric i.e. the systematic attempt to persuade the reader of something.

Notes and bibliography

One of the blurbs on the back says Gerwarth’s achievement has been to synthesise an unprecedented amount of primary and secondary material into his new narrative and this is certainly supported by the elephantine size of the book’s appendices. The book has 446 numbered pages but no fewer than 161 of these are made up of the acknowledgements (5 pages), index (22 pages), bibliography (62 pages) and endnotes (72 pages). If you subtract the Introduction (15 pages), Epilogue (19 pages) and the three blank pages at the start of each of the three parts, then there’s only 446-198 = 248 pages of main text. Only 55% of the book’s total pages are actual text.

But it’s the length of the bibliography and endnotes which impresses – 134 pages! I think it’s the only set of endnotes I know which is so long that it has 8 pages of glossy illustrations embedded within it, rather than in the actual text.


Conclusion

As with so many histories of the 20th century I am left thinking that humanity is fundamentally incapable of governing itself.

Bumbling fools I can see why so many people believe in a God — because they just can’t face the terrible thought that this is it – Donald Trump and Theresa May, Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin, these are as good as you’re going to get, humanity! These are the people in charge and people like this will always be in charge: not the terrifyingly efficient totalitarian monsters of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but bumbling fools, incompetents and paranoid bullies.

The most ill-fated bumblers in this book must be the rulers of post-war Greece who decided (egged on by the foolish David Lloyd-George) to invade the western coast of Turkey in 1921. The book ends with a comprehensive account of their miserable failure, which resulted not only in appalling massacres and bloodshed as the humiliated Greek army retreated to the coast and was shipped back to Greece, but led to the expulsion of all Greek communities from Turkey – some 1.2 million people – vastly swelling the Greek population and leaving the country almost bankrupt for decades to come.

Hats off to the Greek Prime Minister who supervised all this, Eleftherios Venizelos. Well done, sir.

Intractable But half the reasons politicians appear idiots, especially in retrospect, is because they are dealing with impossible problems. The current British government which is bumbling its way through Brexit cannot succeed because they have been set an impossible task.

Similarly, the Western politicians and their civil servants who met at Versailles after the Great War were faced with the impossible challenge of completely redrawing the map of all Europe as well as the Middle East, following the collapse of the Hohenzollern, Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires, with a view to giving the peoples of Europe their own ‘nation states’.

Quite simply, this proved too complicated a task to achieve, and their multiple failures to achieve it not only led to the Second World War but linger on to this day.

To this day ethnic tensions continue to exist in Hungary and Bulgaria about unfair borders, not to mention among the statelets of former Yugoslavia whose borders are very much still not settled.

And what about the violent can of worms which are the borders of the Middle East – Iraq, Syria, Jordan – or the claims for statehood of the Kurds, still the cause of terrorism and counter-terrorism in eastern Turkey, still fighting to maintain their independence in northern Iraq.

If the diplomats of Versailles failed to solve many of these problems, have we in our times done so very much better? How are Afghanistan and Iraq looking after 15 years of intervention from the West? Are they the peace-loving democracies which George W. Bush promised?

Not easy, is it? It’s so simple-minded to ridicule diplomats and civil servants of the Versailles settlements for making a pig’s ear of so much of their task. But have we done much better? Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

Reading this book makes you begin to wonder whether managing modern large human societies peacefully and fairly may simply be impossible.

Rainbow nation or pogroms? Reading page after page after page describing how people who were essentially the same flesh and blood but happened to speak different languages or have different religious beliefs or wear funny hats or the wrong design of jacket, proved not only incapable of living together, but all too often turned on each other in homicidal frenzy — reading these 250 pages of mayhem, pogroms, genocide, mass rape and massacres makes me worry, as ever, about the viability of modern multicultural societies.

People from different races, ethnic groups, languages, religions and traditions living alongside each other all sounds fine so long as the society they inhabit is relatively peaceful and stable. But put it under pressure, submit it to economic collapse, poverty and hardship, and the history is right here to prove that time and again people will use the pettiest differences as excuses to start picking on each other. And that once the violence starts, it again and again spirals out of control until no one can stop it.

And sometimes the knowledge that we have created for ourselves just such a multicultural society, which is going to come under an increasing number of economic, social and environmental stresses in the years ahead, fills me with fear.

Petersburg. Belgrade. Budapest. Berlin. Vienna. Constantinople. The same scenes of social collapse, class war and ethnic cleansing took place across Europe and beyond between 1918 and 1923


Related links

Great War-related blog posts

Abstract Expressionism edited by David Anfam (2016)

This is the catalogue or book of the 2016 Royal Academy exhibition of Abstract Expressionism – ‘arguably the most significant movement of the twentieth century’ (Christopher Le Brun) – the first large retrospective in this country since 1959.

It’s a massive hardback book, 320 pages long, and containing:

  • four long essays – by exhibition curator David Anfam, Susan Davidson, Jeremy Lewison, Carter Ratcliff
  • a twenty-page chronology of the movement
  • followed by 200 pages of illustrations of paintings and sculptures, then a further section of watercolours and sketches, and then key photographs from the era

Several thoughts arise from a slow careful perusal of this enormous tome.

Earlier than realised

Although I associate it with the 1950s, and the style did indeed dominate that decade, the creation, labelling, and publicising of Abstract Expressionism all happened in the 1940s. It was as early as 1946 that the art critic Robert Coates, writing in The New Yorker, first used the term ‘Abstract Expressionism’, perceptively describing how the new school took the anti-figurative aesthetic of modernist French and Dutch artists but combined it with the emotional intensity of the German Expressionists.

It was even earlier, in 1943, that Jackson Pollock was talent spotted by the rich heiress Peggy Guggenheim, signed up to her gallery and given his first one-man exhibition, invited to paint a mural in the entrance to her New York apartment (Mural – ‘the first outstanding large-scale painterly abstraction ever created in America’, p.33). This was seen by umpteen influential visitors including the critic Clement Greenberg who promptly wrote an article declaring Pollock ‘the greatest painter this country had produced.’ To step back a bit, this was all happening in the same year as the Battle of Stalingrad i.e. the first decisive defeat of Nazi Germany, and the Allied invasion of Italy. The Second World War hadn’t even finished yet. Nobody knew about the Holocaust.

It was still only in the 1940s that Abstract Expressionism was reaching a mass audience – August 8, 1949 to be precise – when Pollock was given a four-page spread in Life magazine that asked, ‘Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?’ and which projected him to nationwide superstar-artist fame. The next year he dropped his trademark ‘drip’ technique, which in fact only lasted the short period from 1947 to 1950, in order to explore new styles. Neither the critics nor buyers were interested. They wanted more drips. ‘Play us the old songs, Jackson.’ Given the pressures and the spotlight, it’s surprising that he soldiered on till 1956 before dying in a drunken car crash which might have been suicide.

This all lends support to the revisionist view of Stephen Polcari, that the Abstract Expressionists were not responding to the crises of the Cold War – though that is how they were marketed and perceived at the time – but in fact had their roots in the social, economic, and political crises of the 1930s, when they were all impressionable young men. If they shared a tragic sense it was shaped by the Great Depression, the rise of Fascism, the war in Spain and then the descent into darkness of the entire continent whence ‘civilisation’ supposedly originated.

It was well before the Cold War and the A-Bomb, way back in 1943 that Rothko and Gottlieb wrote a letter published in the New York Times which expressed the kind of doom-laden intensity which all the AEs seem to have shared, asserting that:

the subject matter is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. (quoted p.21)

Is Abstract Expressionism a good label?

As usual with many art ‘movements’, many of the key players weren’t particularly happy with the label imposed on them – Abstract Expressionism – and others went the rounds, like ‘the New York school’ or ‘Tenth Street painters’. But AE stuck. They never produced a manifesto or exhibited together, and there’s no one photo with the main players together. But people – curators, collectors, galleries, journalists, and us – the poor uninformed public – we all need labels to hang on to, especially in the middle of the century when art movements came and went with such dizzying rapidity.

And the artists certainly all knew each other, lived in the same area of Downtown Manhattan, hung around in the same taverns and bars, and were subject to the same washes of influence as America experienced the Depression, the great influx of refugee artists from the Nazis, reacted (in different ways) against the naive nationalist art of the 1930s, against Regionalism and Social realism, but engaged in highly individual struggles to find a new idiom, new ways of seeing and doing art.

The paintings

This brings us to the actual art and the obvious conclusion that the mature styles of the four or five main players were very different and extremely distinctive. There were a lot of second string artists floating around, who produced good work or influenced the Big Boys in one way or another – and the generous selection in the RA exhibition and this book goes out of its way to include works by Adolph Gottlieb, Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Joan Mitchell, Conrad Marca-Relli, Jack Tworkov, Milton Resnick, some 20 artists in all.

But leafing through the beautiful reproductions, again and again the works of five key names stood out for me, emerging as titans above the crowd. (In essay four, the gallery owner Betty Parsons who played a key role in promoting AE, is quoted describing Pollock, Rothko, Still and Newman as ‘the Four Horsemen’.)

A word about aesthetics

It’s challenging and entertaining to try and put into words what it is that makes some paintings canonical and some redundant or not-quite-there. The latter phrase gives a clue to my approach. I find that, for most art or museum objects I see, some give the sense of being finished and completely themselves. Thus among my favourite works of art anywhere are the Benin bronzes at the British Museum. They seem to me to have set out to do something and to do it perfectly and completely. They are completely themselves, impossible to alter or improve. Similarly, the famous helmet from Sutton Hoo completely (ominously, threateningly) says what it sets out to, bespeaks an entire world and civilisation.

So if I have any aesthetic theory it is not the application of any external guidelines of beauty, requiring a work of art to conform to this, that or the other rule. It is something to do with a work coming entirely into its own, its own space and design. Having suggested a certain form or subject or shape, then delivering on that idea, completely. Fulfilling its premises.

Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956)

Pollock’s best drip paintings dominate the era and all his contemporaries as clearly as Andy Warhol dominated Pop Art. Possibly others were better artists, showed more consistent artistic development and certainly others have their fans and devotees – but nobody can deny Pollock and Warhol’s works are immediately recognisable not just as art, but as icons of a particular period and place.

And, in my opinion, they fulfil my theory of completeneness – that an artist has a moment when they crystallise a signature style by fully developing the tendencies implicit in their approach (as discerned in their earlier developing works).

Thus it is very obvious that there is a long run-up of pre-drip Pollock (Male and Female 1942, Eyes in the heat 1946) as he groped his way in the dark from works whose size and shape was influence by his mentor, Thomas Hart Benton the mural-maker, but whose content is often dominated by Guernica-period Picasso — and there is a hangover of post-drip Pollock (when he experimented for a while with just black – Number 7, 1952). Both of them are interesting, but so-so.

But then there is drip PollockBlue Poles (1952) is a masterpiece, a completely immersive experience, as completely itself as the huge lily ponds of Monet. Immersive because it is vast and its size is an important factor. After splatting the surface with a preliminary network of black, white, yellow and red loops, Pollock used the edge of a plank dunked in blue paint to create the eight poles. Like Matisse’s dancing cutouts, this is an example of perfect taste, perfectly ‘getting’ the possibility of a visual rhythm. It isn’t classical or symmetrical or figurative of anything – it is a pure design which, for some reason to do with perceptual psychology, just works. Close up you can appreciate the extraordinary lacework of other colours dripped across the canvas, trademark yellow, red and whites, to create a dense tapestry weave of texture and colour. It is entirely itself. It is a summation of everything implicit in the drip approach to painting. And it is this sense of completing all the potential of the method which gives it its thrilling excitement, which makes it a masterpiece, and also a ‘classic’ of this style.

Along with works like Summertime (1948) and Number 4 (1949) these seem complete expressions of what they’re meant to be, of a certain Gestalt. Once you’ve thought of dripping raw paint across the canvas, then it turns out that certain levels of complete coverage and a certain level of complexity of the interlinking lines is somehow optimum, others less so. Too much and it is just mess; too little and it looks empty. At his peak Pollock produced a string of works which experiment with colours, shape of canvas and so on, but which all display an innate feel for just how to do this kind of painting.

Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970)

Rothko, also, is up there in the recognisability stakes in the sense that his final, achieved style is instantly distinctive. He too struggled to find his way from a sort of blocky blurry realism (Interior, 1936) on a journey via a completely different look in a work like Gethsemane (1944), which looks like washed-out surrealism, before coming to the brink of his mature style with experiments in big blotches of soft-edged colour (No.18 1948, Violet, Black, orange, Yellow on White and Red, 1949).

But then – bang! – he hits it, he finds his voice, he claims his brand, he crystallises his vision, he stumbles upon the formula of big rectangular blocks of shimmering colours which will last the rest of his life, what Anfam calls his ‘chromatic mirages’ (p.21).

Rothko left the murals he’d prepared for the restaurant in the new Seagram building to London’s Tate Gallery. There’s a darkened room containing all of them in Tate Modern and you can sit staring into them for hours. Critics saw in them the same kind of existentialist anxiety (all those massive blocks terrifying threatening the viewer, all the anxiety of those unknown fraying edges) that they saw in Pollock — but these days they are more like aids to calm reflection and meditation, and the audioguide plays very quiet meditative music by American experimental composer Morton Feldman. From Cold War angst to post-modern pleasure.

But however you read them, there’s no denying that Rothko stumbled upon (worked his way through to) an entirely new way of conceiving of coloured paint on canvas, a discovery and a formula – and then spent twenty years working through hundreds of variations, exploring and stumbling across further discoveries. Big, bright, abstract, moody. And a world away from Pollock’s splats. the casual viewer could be forgiven for asking how the two could ever be bracketed together, where the one is very much about the dynamic power of vibrantly interlacing lines and the other is very much about the calming meditative effect of enormous blocks of shimmering colour.

Clyfford Still (1904 – 1980)

The much-told story about Still is that he was prickly and difficult, went his own way, argued with all the other AEs, in the early 1950s terminated his contract with a commercial gallery and ended up neither exhibiting nor selling any of his pieces, but working away steadily in provincial obscurity in Maryland. He died in possession of 95% of everything he’d ever painted and made a will leaving his life’s work to whichever organisation could create a museum dedicated to housing and showing it. After numerous negotiations this turned out to be the City of Denver and it was only in 2011 that there finally opened a museum dedicated to Still, and that this vast reservoir of work was made available to critics and the public. In the short time since then his reputation has undergone a major revaluation and the room devoted to his work at the Royal Academy exhibition was, arguably, even more impactful then the displays of Pollock and Rothko. Still was a revelation.

Like the others, Still took a long journey, and his early work is represented by another semi-figurative work from the 30s, PH-726 (1936). But by 1944 he has stumbled upon his formula – sharp rips or tears against solid fields of colour, PH-235 (1944), all done in a really thick impasto or thick layer of paint which adds to the sense of presence and impact.

What are they? Wikipedia says his mature works ‘recall natural forms and natural phenomena at their most intense and mysterious; ancient stalagmites, caverns, foliage, seen both in darkness and in light lend poetic richness and depth to his work.’ Because the commentary goes heavy on his upbringing in the mid-West and of the associations of Denver, Colorado, I saw in several of them the pattern of cattle hides, the tans and blacks and beiges which you see in some Indian art, teepees, shields. Just a fancy.

Barnett Newman (1905 – 1970)

Newman had his first one-man show in 1948, the year he broke through to his mature style with the Onement series. Again, his was a long journey out of 1930s figurativism, until he made a discovery / stumbled across an idea / achieved a mature style (delete as applicable), creating what Anfam calls his ‘transcendent spatial continuums’ (p.21). Once he’d found it, repeated it through countless iterations.

A classic Barnett Newman has a vertical line – or ‘zip’ as he himself called them – dividing a field of colour – initially drab colour but becoming brighter and brighter as the 1950s progressed. The zip defines the picture plane, separates the composition yet binds it together, sunders it yet gives it a weird tremulous unity.

Why does it work? I’d give good money to read an analysis by a psychologist or expert in the psychology of perception, of shapes and colours, who could explain the effect they have on the mind of the viewer.

According to this book, among the big-name AEs, Newman was rather overlooked in favour of the brasher bolder works of his peers. Also, Pollock and Still, to name two, used highly expressive brushwork and thick or spattered layers of paint. Standing close you can see the thick clots of oil on the surface. Newman’s paintwork is flat and restrained. In fact his colourfulness and geometric designs link him more to the school of ‘post-painterly abstraction’ which emerged in the 1960s and are almost connected to the cool understatement of minimalism.

Franz Kline (1910 – 1962)

Kline’s breakthrough moment is much mythologised. Working as a commercial illustrator in New York while struggling to work his way towards some kind of abstract language, Kline was visited by Willem de Kooning who suggested he use a projector to blow up & project his complicated paintings onto the wall and then select small details to reproduce as full scale canvases. Taking this insight, Kline quickly worked out a style of broad black brushstrokes on white, which continually seem to gesture towards something yet are abstract. Are they fragments of larger designs and shapes? Or references to Japanese calligraphy (which Kline always denied)? Or dramatic actions in themselves?

Like all the other AEs, Kline’s work is big, really really BIG. Whatever the differences in style and approach, the AEs had this one thing in common – their work is huge and immersive. (A sign at Barnett Newman’s second exhibition at the Betty Parson’s Gallery in May 1951 actually requested visitors to stand close up to the picture; visitors had been requested to do the same at the Pollock exhibition which immediately preceded it – p.93.)

Kline is further evidence for my theory that artists often reach a recognisable defining style and produce a number of works which somehow express the quintessence of their voice or vision, only after a journey upwards and, alas, sometimes a later decline or wandering away… Having perfected the black and white calligraphy style – so instantly recognisable – by the time he was just 40, after a while at the top of his game, Kline had nowhere to go except back into colour, and these later colour works, although fine in their own way, represent a really noticeable falling away of the energy which the stark black-and-white contrasts produced. For some reason this style looks terribly dated, very late 50s early 60s, whereas the black and white calligraphic works look timeless to me.

Willem de Kooning (1904 – 1997)

De Kooning is the one big AE I couldn’t get on with at all, and the more I saw the more I disliked his stuff. Partly because I think he never did develop a defined style. To me, all of his stuff looks like messy sketches on the way towards something better, they all look like the dispensable journey works on the way to… nowhere. The same horrible messy scrawl effect is his one signature effect.

All the other AEs strike me as having a purpose, a direction. Pollock’s works are far more artful than they appear, Rothko’s are careful experiments, Newman achieved a kind of classic restraint and Still’s jagged compositions are unerringly ‘right’, conveying something much bigger than the images seem to warrant.

Only de Kooning’s works, out of the whole show and this long book, consistently look to me like a slapdash mess, a dog’s dinner, victims of what Anfam calls his ‘lacerating sweeps’ (p.21). And the series of depictions of women  – his ‘wrenching engagements with the female sex’ (Anfam, p.22) – which are often singled out by the critics for praise, to me could hardly be uglier and more repellent if they tried.

Adolph Gottlieb (1903 – 1974)

Apparently Gottlieb is perceived as a second string AE, his career weaving through a series of styles, including surrealism in the 1930s, a spell in the Arizona desert simplifying images to a primal essence, and the development of ‘pictographs’ representing psychologically charged shapes and patterns. It was as late as 1956 that he developed the ‘burst’ style, dividing the canvas into two halves, with a round sun-like object above and a busy earth-like mass below – creating a dialectic between calm and busy, with the use of bright colours to interfere and resonate.

Hundreds of bursts resulted and I can see why critics looking for world-shattering angst and grand existentialist statements might deprecate them, but I like him for devising a new ‘look’ and then producing fascinating variations on it.

Neglected women

One of the most pressing concerns of our times, in the arts and elsewhere, is restoring the reputations, the overlooked achievements and untold stories, of neglected woman. Four women artists worked in and around Abstract Expressionism and are included here:

Janet Sobel (1894 – 1968) began painting at the mature age of 43 when her son left home leaving behind his copious art materials. She progressed from figurative paintings featuring dreamy rather Chagall-like faces enmeshed in zoomorphic patterns, through to pure abstraction and eventually the technique of dripping paint. Some scholars claim it was Sobel who arrived at the drip technique before Jackson. That’s one for the scholars. All her works have a lightness. Maybe it was the light decorative effect as opposed to the Big Boys’ existentialist histrionics more than the fact she was a woman which wrote her out of the story for so long.

Lee Krasner (1908 – 1984) Krasner evolved through a series of styles. During the heyday of the AEs she tended to be overlooked by virtue of the fact that she was married to the top dog, Jackson Pollock. But the works included here show she had a related but distinct vision of her own.

Just living with Jackson sounds like a demanding job, but creating alongside him, in a related but clearly distinctive style, is little less than heroic. The next two are to one side for the simple reason that they were of a younger generation

Joan Mitchell (1925 – 1992) You can see the importance of the gesture but, a little like de Kooning, I don’t see it going anywhere.

They’re big, one of the simplest criteria for being an abstract expressionist. But arriving at Salut Tom at the end of the exhibition felt like we’d moved a long way from late-40s existentialism into a brighter more decorative world. Same style, different world.

Helen Frankenthaler (1928 – 2011) She painted onto unprimed canvas so that the paint soaked into it, thus creating a very flat surface.

Peggy and Betty

The fourth essay in the book is in many ways the most interesting, telling the complementary stories of two hugely important gallery owners who promoted the work of the Abstract Expressionists from the first – the Jewish millionairess Peggy Guggenheim and the scion of a wealthy WASP family, Betty Parsons. Peggy lived in Paris between the wars, becoming fantastically well-connected among the city’s avant-garde, arranging exhibitions and starting her own staggering collection, before fleeing ahead of the Nazi invasion in 1940, back to New York, where in 1942 she set up The Art of This Century Gallery.

Like Peggy, only without the millions, Betty went to live in Paris, where she herself pursued a career as an artist, taking lessons, before losing her money in the Wall Street Crash and being forced back to the States, to teach, and then to work in commercial galleries. She learned the trade, becoming popular among artists for her good taste and business sense (i.e. selling their pictures and making them money). In 1945 she set up the Betty Parsons Gallery which ran till her death in 1982. When Guggenheim returned to Paris after the war, Parsons took on many of ‘her’ artists, and the article turns into an impressive roster of the exhibitions she put on for one after another of all the key artists of the time, working hard to promote them and get them sales.

The essay is a fascinating insight not only into the achievements of these two vital women, but into the art world in general. It’s shocking to learn how little the artists sold at these shows – they’d display a dozen or 16 new works, for between $250 and $1,400 – and quite frequently none would sell at all. Or only small watercolours would sell to what turn out to be friends of the artist or the gallery owner herself. Works which now fetch tens of millions of dollars at auction.

In a fascinating detail, the book mentions several times that one problem was the paintings’ sheer scale: it was one thing to create a fourteen foot square canvas in the space of a half derelict loft-cum-studio, quite another thing to expect even quite rich people in New York to find enough wall space to hang it, back in the cluttered 1940s and 1950s. It was only well into the 1960s and more so in the 1970s that ideas of interior design changed significantly, that clutter was thrown out and rooms knocked together to create large airy spaces, often painted white, in which the vast canvases of the Abstract Expressionists suddenly made sense.

But by this point the AEs were up against the equally large creations of Post-painterly Abstraction, Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism and so on and New York was established as the centre of a fast-moving, big money art culture.


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Reviews of other American art exhibitions and books

The Royal Academy summer exhibition 2016

The pleasures of the annual summer exhibition at the Royal Academy are:

  1. The sheer scale – 1,240 exhibits this year.
  2. The variety – it is not a show of One Major Artist, where you’re meant to pay close attention to the artistic development of a Matisse or a Georgia O’Keeffe – it’s such an enormous ragbag of styles, formats and artists, confusing and inspiring by turn, that so you can just like whatever you like.
  3. The prices – most of the exhibits are on sale and the exhibition booklet gives prices: it’s always amusing to be shocked and outraged at the outrageously large prices of the whoppers, but also touched by the affordability of some of the simpler works.

I’ve been to half a dozen summer shows and this seemed to me a rather dull one. Maybe I’m getting used to them, but too many of the oil paintings in particular, were just ‘meh’. Oil paintings of the canals of Venice, of a nude model in the artist’s studio, of a mantelpiece or a flight of stairs in someone’s house. Haven’t these subjects been done to death? Haven’t I seen them done a thousand times before, and much better?

Installation view of the Summer Exhibition 2016 © Stephen White

Installation view of the Summer Exhibition 2016 © Stephen White

Likes

I learned about Jane and Louise Wilson from their black and white photos of ruined WWII concrete defences on the Normandy coast. Several of their other large format photos are currently on display at Tate Britain. For this show, they’ve hung six massive colour photos taken in the city of Pripyat, abandoned and never repopulated after the catastrophic nuclear accident at the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

Atomgrad, Nature Abhors A Vacuum VII by Jane and Louise Wilson  © Jane & Louise Wilson

Atomgrad, Nature Abhors A Vacuum VII by Jane and Louise Wilson © Jane & Louise Wilson

They are powerful depictions of derelict ruins and set off a theme which runs, here and there, throughout the rest of the show, of ruin and collapse. Immense and atmospheric though they are, the impact is slightly undermined by the perspex cover on each image, which reflects the overhead lights so it’s hard to see an entire image without a patch of shiny reflection. (As luck would have it, I recently read a gripping thriller set in the Exclusion Zone around Chernobyl, Martin Cruz Smith’s Wolves Eat Dogs, which powerfully conveys the eeriness of the abandoned city, so the photos brought to life Cruz Smith’s wonderful text.)

Old favourites

You only have to visit a few of the Summer Exhibitions to begin to recognise old favourites who exhibit year after year. These include:

  • Allen Jones made his name in the 1960s with female shop window mannequins dressed in sexy underwear and posed to form a coffee table or chair. A retrospective of his work here at the Academy last year showed that his later work has included a lot of paintings of sexy women in leather boots etc in a kind of nightclub ambience of yellow and green washes of colour. There are half a dozen of these paintings in this year’s show, plus one life-size mannequin of a pert-breasted lovely with a splash of yellow paint across her. A snip at £210,000.
  • Anthony Green exhibits each year faux-naive paintings generally of himself, his wife, their house and garden, done in a cartoonish style and often with the frame cut out around the shape of the main image, for example Self-portrait for Gaston Lachaise £6,000. Reassuringly familiar.
  • Norman Ackroyd displays wonderful black and white etchings of the isles off Scotland, as seen rising from the sea, often beswirled by seagulls, with titles like Cow Rock, County Kerry (£1,100), Midsummer Sunrise, Sound of Mull £570, Skellig Revisited £570.
  • Very similar, but done in intaglio and so with darker blacks and a hint of blue, was a series of depictions of the landscape of Iceland and Antarctica by Emma Stibbon.
  • Mick Moon paints peasant fishermen scenes onto what looks like planks or cross-sections of weed. Evening Fishing £25,200.
  • Michael Craig-Martin makes very soothing big paintings of everyday objects in striking, unshaded primary colours. Space II is very big and costs £170,000.
  • Tracey Emin’s sketchy sketches of what is probably her own naked body on a bed go for £1,850 a pop.
Installation view of the Summer Exhibition 2016 © Stephen White

Installation view of the Summer Exhibition 2016, featuring a typical large work by Michael Craig-Martin © Stephen White

Novelties

  • Allora and Calzadilla displayed a life size petrol pump emerging from a block of grey stone, titled 2 Hose Petrified Petrol Pump. Powerful. Not for sale (NFS)
  • My son like the enormous Böse Blumen by Anselm Kiefer, a vast grey slab of lead, with daubs and blodges of oil paint and, incongruously, a relief sculpture of a big leather bound book. NFS.
  • Beard Aware is the name of a huge mock-stained glass work by pranksters Gilbert and George, depicting the artists bending over to moon us, but their bottoms concealed by swathes of barbed wire. One of an extensive series which is something to do with security, apparently.
  • In the same room is a raised dais bearing a large rectangle of paper on which are two carbonised skeletons, blackened bone fragments, some of the teeth with gold fillings. Self Portrait as Charcoal on Paper by Zatorski and Zatorski, £42,000.
Installation view of the Summer Exhibition 2016, featuring Beard Aware by Gilbert and George, andSelf portrait as charcoal on paper by Zatorski and Zatorski © Stephen White

Installation view of the Summer Exhibition 2016, featuring Beard Aware by Gilbert and George, and Self portrait as charcoal on paper by Zatorski and Zatorski © Stephen White

  • The Small Weston Room is devoted to 30 or so black and white photographs by the husband and wife team of Bernd and Hilla Becher. They spent decades photographing isolated and often derelict industrial buildings with Teutonic precision – always on the same kind of grey, overcast day in spring or autumn (never summer) to avoid shadows, and always using a camera placed on a tripod at human eye level. These images are then arranged into squares or rectangles of prints showing the same type of building – gas tanks, cooling towers, water towers, stone works and cooling towers. My son liked the cooling towers since they had the most variety on the central design, and also often looked like space ships.
  • In the room devoted to Landscape, I liked Black Sea by Lee Wagstaff, a simple depiction of waves (£3,500) and a big colour photo of a Coal Mine, Outer Mongolia by Richard Seymour (£4,200).
  • Gillian Ayres has had a long career. She is represented here by two colourful woodcuts on paper, which channel Matisse’s late paper cutouts – Scilla and Achiote (£5,760 and £6,600 respectively).

Architecture in the room of shame

As usual one room is devoted to architects’ fanciful, space-age plans for buildings which might as well come from another planet. If architects are in any way responsible for the inhumane, rainy, windswept heartless streets and concrete rabbit warrens which so many Londoners are forced to endure, they whole profession should hang its head in shame.

Slick, clean, plastic or wooden models show the utopian world of these fantasy planners, a world where it never rains, it’s never windy, and where cars, buses, vans, lorries, cabs, coaches and diesel trains don’t – apparently – emit any toxic gases – a world free of CO2, CO, sulphur dioxide or diesel fumes. By rights this room ought to be pumped full of car and bus fumes so that visitors quickly feel sick and ill, in order to convey the awful, car-choked reality of the shiny plastic dreams peddled by so many architectural fantasists.

Themes

Room VI claimed to house works devoted to ‘the role of art in healing a shattered world’. Sentimental tripe. Art may record the appalling devastation humankind is wreaking on the planet, but I’m not aware of it forming the keystone of any notable peace agreement. In Chechnya, former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Iraq – is there a lot of healing art?

One example among scores – Christopher Hughes’ sketch of the utterly devastated landscape of Homs in Syria, depicting how actual buildings often fare in the actual world, instead of in the utopian fantasies of dreamy architects.

Room IX featured a lot of work by the Sensation artists, the Young British Artists who shot to fame with the Sensation show in 1997. (Surely they should be celebrated next year – will there be a tenwtieth-anniversary show?) As a totality, this room instantly made more visual impact than most of its predecessors. It felt like it was the product of people who were savvy with the actual, image-saturated culture we live in – compare and contrast with the very tired-feeling oil paintings of Venice or a garden.

I liked All The Fish In The Sea by David Mach (£56,000).

Transformer-Performer Double-Act VIII by EVA & ADELE (2015) Photo courtesy of Nicole Gnesa Gallery

Transformer-Performer Double-Act VIII by EVA & ADELE (2015) Photo courtesy of Nicole Gnesa Gallery

Towards the end of the show, the Lecture Room has a lot of big sculptures in it, including David Mach’s Silver Hart, a stag’s head made out of shiny coat hangers (£48,000) – though nothing will top the gorilla made of coat hangers which he exhibited a few years ago.

My son liked Wood Burner II by Guy Allott, which looked like a tea urn with space rocket fins attached.

Leila Jeffreys contributed two big colour photos of cockatoos (£2,160). There was a big b&w photo of people at a nightclub dancing – a rare window into the actual everyday world where millions of people live – the daily commute to work, meeting friends down the pub, playing football and other sports, clubbing, cafes, taking kids to school, homework, shopping, cooking – which is almost entirely ignored by the world of art and architecture alike.

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