The Crisis of Imperialism 1865 to 1915 by Richard Shannon (1974)

The Crisis of Imperialism 1865 to 1915 was written to be the eighth in the ‘Paladin History of England’ series. I read it at university back in the 1980s as background to the literature of the period.

A month ago I took it off my shelf to remind myself about the run-up to the Edwardian period (1901 to 1914) and insofar as it sheds light on the worldview of the noted Edwardian satirist, Saki, who I’ve been reading and whose stories often refer to social and political events of the 1900s.

This is a slightly odd, rather idiosyncratic book which I found strange but beguiling.

Shannon’s view of history – desperate men grappling with blind forces

Most histories describe the major events which took place during the period they cover, explain their origin and build-up, with pen portraits of the key figures involved in each issue, explaining in more or less detail who did what, what happened, what its after-effects were and why it matters. That’s the approach taken in, say, Crossroads of Freedom by James M. McPherson.

Shannon’s approach is strikingly different. If you know the board game Risk you’ll know it consists of a board representing the entire world, divided up into 40 or so territories. The aim of the game is for the 2, 3 or 4 players to seize all the territories and push the other player(s) off the board. Winner takes all.

Shannon applies a Risk approach to history. Key incidents from this crucial half century (for example, the rise of trade unions at home, the annexation of Egypt abroad, Britain’s response to Bismarck’s wars, the issue of educating the poor which became more pressing everywhere in the second half of the century) are mentioned only fleetingly, often only in passing, often barely explained, because they are not at all where Shannon’s interest lies. Shannon’s interest lies overwhelmingly in the Great Game played by the most senior political leaders throughout the period of winning power and staying in power.

Disraeli’s calculations logically centred on…immediate parliamentary advantage. (p.66)

Shannon doesn’t see politics as a set of logical and understandable events which can be clearly explained, which were clearly understood at the time, and to which rational solutions were offered. Instead he sees human history as the product of blind, inchoate forces – economic, industrial, financial, cultural and demographic – which propel societies forward, willy-nilly, whether planned or understood or not.

The aim of politics, in Shannon’s view, is to harness chaotic human events in order to stay in power.

From time to time Shannon does sound for a few pages like a ‘traditional’ historian. He gives a brisk summary of some of these social changes, with an appropriate blizzard of statistics, particularly in the short opening introduction which is a handy anthology of stats about population increase, migration abroad or into British cities, the rise in agricultural wages and productivity, the doubling of GNP per capita and much more, during his chosen period. It is, for example, striking to learn that during the 1860s, in the UK, agricultural workers and the labouring poor ceased to make up the majority of the population for the first time in any country, ever; for the first time in human history (p.30). All very interesting, but then he gets back to his real, underlying worldview:

These were the blind forces at work, unconscious and undirected. Conscious or directed aspects of the social system – broadly, ‘politics’ – did not relate to these blind forces in a neat one-to-one ratio. Very often indeed the relationship was at best tangential…


The picture as a whole is not that of a society moving surely and confidently in self-possession of its destiny. Rather, it is the story of a society at odds with itself, the blind forces working very often at cross-purposes with the conscious wishes and efforts of those who felt it their task to define the ends, the purposes, to which the ‘movement’ would best be directed…


During the fifty years before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the forces of conscious purpose and design in Britain struggled to avert the threats of the blind, largely uncontrollable internal forces and of the dangerously uncontrolled external forces. (Pages 15 to 16)


Domestic debate ceased comparatively to be free as the blind forces moving society imposed irresistible pressures. (p.36)

Why I mention Risk is because, for any one of the five decades his book covers, Shannon’s focus is almost entirely on the highest of high politics and on the handful of men who clawed their way to the top of the main political parties (being the Conservative and Unionist Party and the Liberal Party) only to find themselves caught up in the melée, in the maelstrom of these ‘blind’ forces and thrown into the high stakes game of risk management, opportunity and gamble, which is how Shannon conceptualises all high politics. He sees all of political history as a very complicated game of Risk. All tactics are permitted. Winner takes all.

Shannon’s fundamental idea is that people like Gladstone and Disraeli (the famous antagonists from the early part of his period) came to power with little or no idea what to do with it. They came to power by exploiting the forces at large:

  1. internationally
  2. within British society with its changing and emerging economic and political forces
  3. within British political society i.e. within the complex and often contradictory traditions and ideologies of the nation’s two ruling parties
  4. within the intensely power-hungry, jostling Machiavellian milieu of Parliament itself (made up of the very different institutions of the House of Commons and the House of Lords)

Gladstone, Disraeli and their successors were caught up in a game much more complicated than Risk, more byzantine than three-dimensional chess, a terrifyingly complex game in which the rules are continually changing and all the goalposts move overnight. Shannon makes a number of references to chess, talking about the pieces ‘on the political board’ and how those who had scrabbled into positions of power sought to move them to their best advantage.

For example, the book opens with the death of Lord Palmerston in 1865. Palmerston’s death ‘opened up the board’ after 10 years of his political dominance.

Palmerston acted as checkmate. His position on the political board was such that so long as he remained a force no other forces were either strong enough or sufficiently motivated to free the board for manoeuvres. (p.20)


This situation on the political board is the key to all the complicated manoeuvrings of 1866 and 1867. (p.22)

So what makes this book unusual, distinctive and even a little odd are two things: one, Shannon’s casual disinterest in what actually happened (i.e. the events of the period) in preference for extended descriptions of the Great Game of Westminster politics.

And the second thing is Shannon’s extreme scepticism about the effectiveness of these Westminster politics, his belief that society is moved by blind, inchoate social forces which no-one understands, least of all the men who manipulate their way to the top of the greasy pole.

Shannon goes to great lengths to show that even when they get there, Britain’s politicians often had no idea what is really going on, generally act according to old fashioned ideas, out of date notions, either their own or their party’s, in the search for a correct alignment or balance of social forces which repeatedly turns out to be a chimera, a delusion.

Disraeli imagined that there was a ‘normal’ posture of things which could be got back to without too much trouble. The story of Disraeli’s great ministry is how both kinds of normality evaded him… (p.102)

Lowe’s misguided fears of 1866 were the consequences of applying middle-class intellectual calculations to working-class situations. (p.104)

They certainly take advantage of political opportunities to create new coalitions and alliances, to co-opt elements of broader society or of the seething Westminster cauldron to secure power and then try to pass laws or formulate foreign policy. Shannon describes at length the continual manoeuvring and regrouping of political forces, of conjunctions and alignments of different interest groups, he even talks at one point about ‘the Gladstonian matrix’ (p.53).

And then he tries to assess whether their ‘solutions’ are adequate to the challenges and problems thrown up by a society undergoing continual massive social and economic change. And concludes, on the whole, that no, the politicians were heirs to complex political traditions and alliances, moved in a world of sophisticated political theorists and commentators (John Bright, John Stuart Mill, Walter Bagehot) and yet routinely failed to understand what was really going on or to solve the problems they faced. It is a chronicle of bungling and muddling through.

Like dinosaurs at the onset of a new and uncongenial epoch, the generation at its prime in the 1860s, still at the head of affairs in the 1870s and 1880s, groped about in the wreckage of their familiar landscape, already being transformed and imposing new conditions of adaptation and survival. (p.199)

Domestic versus foreign affairs

At several points Shannon distinguishes between the relative limitedness of the chaos in the domestic as opposed to the international sphere. Put simply, there was less scope for choice or disagreement about domestic policy: by 1870 something quite obviously needed to be done about educating the general population, extending the vote, regulating the power of trade unions, about providing sewerage and clean water to the unhygienic cities and so on. In the big picture, the squabbles between parties about these were often trivial.

It was in foreign affairs that there was real scope for differing opinions. As Shannon puts it, Britain was not ‘free’ to begin to lay the foundations of what later became known as the welfare state (all European nations were doing something similar; something similar obviously had to be done here) in the same way that it was ‘free’ to choose whether to go to war in  South Africa in 1899 or with Germany in 1914, in both of which we had the ability to say No right up till the last minute (p.36).

This greater scope in foreign affairs for a variety of choices and actions is one reason why the period from the 1880s to 1914 saw foreign affairs acquire a greater and greater importance and intrude its issues and decisions more and more into domestic political considerations.

A token of this was the rise of the word ‘imperialism’, which only took on its modern meaning during this period, specifically in the 1890s, and whose claims became a major dividing line between the parties, and between different factions within each of the parties (p.77).

Above all, Shannon presents the high politics of the period not as something carried out by powerful men in full command of the facts who had a well-worked-out series of policies to enact; but as the shambling attempts of men under tremendous pressure to keep their parties and supporters onside while responding to events whose significance they often didn’t understand at all.

They were almost always motivated by the quixotic attempt to restore some kind of equilibrium or political stability which they remembered from their youths, but in most instances were laughably out of date and irrelevant. Thus:

An analysis of British foreign policy between 1865 and 1885 reveals essentially the persistence of received traditions and attitudes, attempts to reassert policies based on assumptions inherited from the past… [There was] an inability to understand why policies which had hitherto appeared to answer requirements with complete satisfaction had suddenly ceased to carry conviction and credibility. (p.41)

Documenting the search by politicians of this period for this illusory balance or equilibrium is the key theme of Shannon’s account.

Avoiding teleology

The 1860s, 70s and 80s were not straining to become the 1890s and 1900s. They had no idea what the future held in store. With hindsight many things are obvious to us, now. Nobody knew them, then. Shannon’s attempt is to recreate the mindset of each decade, each year, in order to make clear the context in which the politicians fought for power.

One must above all be careful to avoid teleological assumptions about the nineteenth century… It is obvious, looking back from the twentieth century, that the blind forces at work in the nineteenth century inevitably caused profound changes in political behaviour… But this was not at all the context of consciousness in which the debate of 1866-7 took place… 1867 was not a promise to the future that happened; it was an attempt to settle questions left over from the past, and a promise in another sense to a future that aborted, that never happened. (p.59)

Their concerns are not our concerns. In fact we struggle to make sense of their concerns. The debates around the extension of the franchise in 1867 didn’t see it (as almost all of us today do) as a stepping stone to the nirvana of universal suffrage, but instead were around finding a new equilibrium which would generate the best outcomes for the ‘national interest’ and avoid pandering to narrow class interests. One recurring argument put by people on all sides was that the 1832 settlement had produced a nice balance between the interests of the landed aristocracy, the new business-based bourgeoisie, and the skilled working class. It wasn’t extending the franchise to the lower middle classes and rest of the working class they objected to, it was upsetting this delicate balance by giving too much prominence to one particular part of the population.

Shannon sheds a brilliant bolt of light on our present situation by saying that almost all mid-19th century thinkers would have been appalled at the late 20th and 21st century assumption that democratic politics is about governments bribing particular sections of the electorate with promises of tax cuts or benefit increases and so on. That would have been seen as the ultimate in political immorality.

Their debates were about how best to arrive at the best expression of the ‘national interest’, debates which, of course, clashed over the notion of what the national interest was and who was best qualified to identify it and to implement it. Disraeli knew what it was: the landed aristocracy who he had glamorised in his novels of the 1830s:

Like Palmerson, Disraeli wanted to be able to call on the support of many interests as a means of preserving the one great interest, ‘the national interest’, which he identified centrally with land. (p.68)

I was very interested to learn that the famous social philosopher John Stuart Mill (who himself became an MP) did not want universal suffrage; he wanted a limited suffrage arranged in such a way that the balance of power would shift from (what he regarded as) a limited, unintelligent and reactionary landed aristocracy to a well-educated, modern, business-minded intelligentsia.

Shannon’s warning not to think teleologically makes explicit the notion that we live amongst the countless ruins of the plans and ideas and schemes and manifestos to build a better country and a better political system which have been worked out and proposed with such passion and sincerity by so many of our ancestors, and which came to nothing. So many futures, which never took place.


We can illustrate Shannon’s approach in his portrayal of Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881; leader of the Conservative Party from 1868 till his death in 1881). Shannon paints Disraeli as a man who started his political career facing one central political challenge which was how to repair the catastrophic fragmentation of the Conservative Party caused by the highly divisive campaign to repeal the Corn Laws which reached its climax in 1846 (p.48).

Conditions…since 1847 had made a Conservative majority virtually impossible. (p.73)

The Corn Law campaign had split the Conservative Party down the middle and the chaotic political scene which ensued was exploited by Lord Palmerston who rose to become Prime Minster for the next 9 or so years. Palmerston had combined elements of different political traditions in order to create a very distinctive power base held together by the force of his personality. When he died this particular matrix of forces collapsed leaving a vacuum which presented a complex opportunity for his successors (most notably the two ‘coming men’ of the younger generation, William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli) to reorganise and redefine the various political strands and traditions into new combinations.

Disraeli wanted to be a politician, he wanted to be a success, he wanted to be prime Minister, but following Palmerston’s death, he faced the huge challenge of trying to give the Conservative Party a new identity or direction whereby it could once again represent the entire ‘nation’ and represent what Shannon calls the ‘national’ policy.

Disraeli’s task was to manoeuvre the Conservative Party into the posture of natural and legitimate exponent of the ‘national’ policy. (p.52)

In the coming years, Disraeli would scavenge solutions to this challenge from anywhere; he would use any opportunity to try and repair the breaches among the ruling class opened the Corn Law debacle and create a workable majority in the House of Commons and consolidate the in-built Conservative majority in the House of Lords.

For Disraeli, and therefore for Shannon, it doesn’t matter what these issues are, whether it be the administration of India after the great rebellion of 1857, the correct line to take towards the American Civil War (1861 to 1865) or to Bismarck’s series of wars starting with Prussia’s war with Denmark in 1864.

Disraeli’s approach wasn’t about taking a consistent or principled line. It was about analysing each event or crisis and assessing what was the best outcome for the Conservative Party and for himself. What would play best among the (still very limited) electorate? How would a given policy play to the landed aristocrats in the House of Lords? Could it be reconciled with the need to win over support among the factory owners in the House of Commons?

The governing Liberals were traditionally the party of small government and non-intervention abroad. Classical Liberalism, as defined by the Manchester school of Richard Cobden and John Bright, thought that left to itself, universal free trade would connect all nations in fair and equal economic arrangements and thus war would not be required. That is why they had founded the Anti-Corn Law League in 1838, in order to abolish the restrictive tariffs which kept the price of corn artificially high (in order to benefit the landed aristocracy) thus making the price of food substantially cheaper in order to feed the populations of the new industrial cities.

By contrast with the Liberals’ boring ideas of universal free trade, as the 1860s turned into the 1870s Disraeli realised there was a big opportunity here to position the Conservatives as the party of imperial adventure and derring-do. Thus Disraeli is most remembered for two flashy, publicity-seeking gestures, buying up shares in the Suez Canal when the owner, the Khedive of Egypt went bankrupt in 1875, and awarding Queen Victoria the title Empress of India, much to her satisfaction, in 1876. Both hugely popular, both the swift seizure of opportunities.

But none of this implies that Disraeli had a fully-worked out foreign policy. Far from it. These were mere chance opportunities which he grabbed with the instinct of a true opportunist. Only later would succeeding leaders and theorists of the Conservative Party (Disraeli died in 1881) concoct the convenient idea that Disraeli had formulated some Grand Theory of Imperialism. Disraeli had no such thing. And his heirs only did this because this fiction helped them in their times (the 1880s through the 1900s) try to make sense of the ‘blind forces’ at work in the domestic and international spheres of their era. They were looking backwards for clues and ideas, just as Disraeli had been, in his day.

Similarly, when the Liberals brought forward plans to extend the franchise (the vote) from about 1.4 million men to 2.4 million men in 1866, Disraeli again spotted an opportunity, first of all to defeat the Liberals by assembling coalitions of reactionary forces against them. And then, quite hilariously, once the Liberal government resigned after losing a vote on the  reform bill, and the Queen was forced to appoint Disraeli her Prime Minister, he brought forward more or less the same bill, this time persuading reactionaries in the Commons and Lords that a carefully defined and carefully managed extension of the vote wouldn’t hand it to the illiterate mob but would do the opposite; would win over for the Conservatives the grateful lower-middle-class and skilled working class who would benefit from it. And that is, in fact what happened, once the new Reform Act was passed in 1867.

So Victorian politics wasn’t about ‘principle’, having grand theories and manifestos. It was all about shrewdness and adaptability, and adeptness at climbing to the top of what Disraeli very aptly described as ‘the greasy pole’ – and then using any event, and harnessing whatever social forces, and rethinking whatever traditions and schools of thought necessary, to stay in power.

A propos the 1867 Reform Act I was a little staggered to learn that in the election which followed, in 1868, only about half the seats were contested by both parties. We are talking about in which the interest of the Conservatives in country constituencies and of the Liberals in urban constituencies, was so definitive, that it wasn’t even worth contesting half the seats (p.73). Although it later came to be seen as highly symbolic that the high-minded, if eccentric, Liberal John Stuart Mill, lost his Westminster seat to W.H. Smith, the news agent, a harbinger of the rise of the new suburban middle and lower middle class vote which was to become a mainstay of Conservative elections and flavour much of national culture going into the 1880s and 1890s (p.73).

Power politics

Hopefully this example gives you a flavour of the way Shannon’s book takes you right into the heart of power, assessing how leaders like Gladstone and Disraeli (and later on, Lord Rosebery, Campbell-Bannerman and the rest) struggled to:

  1. understand what was going on
  2. fit events into the framework of their own personal ‘beliefs’
  3. fit events into the framework of the ideologies and traditions of the parties they purported to lead (often at odds with their own personal beliefs)
  4. and then try to manage coalitions and constituencies of voters out there in the country, and their representatives in Parliament, in such a way as to a) take meaningful action b) all the time ensuring they remained in power – in a process of endless risk and gamble

That is what this book is about; it is less about the actual events of the period than how the successive leaders used these events to claw their way to power and then how they manipulated the traditions and ideologies, assembled and broke coalitions, recruited this or that member of the party into their cabinet, kept important players onside by offering them this or that reward, and so on.

Gladstone himself, in a note written at the end of his life, in 1896, tried to analyse what it was that distinguished him from the other politicians of his time. He wrote that what it boiled down to was the way Providence had endowed him with a special gift of being able to see, to analyse, right into the heart of situations.

It is an insight into the facts of particular eras, and their relations to one another, which generates in the mind a conviction that the materials exist for forming a public opinion, and for directing it to a particular end. (Quoted p.71)

This book focuses exclusively on the highest of high politics, which explains why there’s little or no social history, very little about people’s lived experiences, little or no gossip about kings and courtiers, very little about new technologies or food or sport or fashion, very little about the regions, or even Scotland or Wales (although Ireland bulks large for obvious reasons).

Instead, the focus is very narrowly on Westminster and the power politics played out between a tiny handful of men at the top, detailing their schemes and strategies to gain and hold on to power. So if you’re looking for any kind of social history or lots of colourful anecdotes this is emphatically not the book for you. To give a fashionable example, in the Edwardian section of the book, there is almost no mention of the suffragettes or any kind of portraits of their leaders or their cause; the emphasis is entirely on the how they were just one of 3 or 4 social and political issues which Edwardian leaders were trying to assess and juggle in order to pursue the endless quest to stay in power.

Preserving the balance

So little or no social or economic history, then. What the book is good on is political theory. At what you might call the academic end of the spectrum, Shannon gives accounts of the political thought of Liberal ideologues such as John Bright and John Stuart Mill, showing how the latter in particular derived from his Utilitarian mentors and then evolved to reflect the times (not least in Mills’s powerful defences of women’s rights).

Shannon refers to the at-the-time well-known collection Essays on Reform, published in 1867 as ‘part of the propaganda of the “advanced party” for a “more national Parliament”‘. In the Essays leading political commentators made suggestions about how to improve the franchise and the voting system. Shannon dwells on the contribution of John Morley (1838 to 1923), nowadays a forgotten figure, but who was not only an influential journalist and editor but went on to be a reforming politician in his own right from the 1890s through to the 1920s, and who in the 1880s consciously positioned himself as the heir to Mill (who had died in 1873) as chief ideologue of classical Liberalism (p.98).

Some of the writings in Essays on Reform turn out to be disconcertingly relevant today, 150 years later. Shannon quotes Lesley Stephen, in his essay on reform, proposing that England is an essentially conservative country with an instinctive liking for the established order of things which led all the upper classes, a lot of the middle classes and a surprising number of the working classes instinctively deferential and reluctant to change. This leapt right off the page and spoke to me now, in 2021 as I read endless articles about why Labour lost the 2019 election so badly and why so many people continue to support the Conservative Party despite it so obviously being led by corrupt fools and incompetents. Reading Stephen’s words suggest the short answer is because it’s always been like that; because that’s what England is like.

But theorising and essay writing wasn’t only done by intellectuals and the higher journalists. Politicians also made speeches or wrote articles, and thus Shannon liberally quotes from speeches or articles by the likes of Disraeli, Gladstone and their heirs, to indicate what they said they believed and what they thought they were trying to do.

The thing is, though, that Shannon rarely takes them at face value. In line with his basic credo about the ‘blind forces’ driving society, Shannon is not shy of pointing out when these figures got it completely wrong.

In practically every respect Gladstone’s assumptions about the shape of the future were belied by events, just as were Disraeli’s assumptions about the possibilities of perpetuating a traditional Palmerstonian past. (p.70)

It would take nearly twenty years for Gladstone to reconcile himself to the inadequacy of his assumptions of 1868. (p.79)

The politicians of the period were engaged in what Shannon calls:

A contest in misapprehension. (p.70)

Or, more likely, were writing articles and making speeches not to convey eternal political truths, but to play the game and position issues or ideas in such a way as to maximise the author’s appeal, not necessarily to the bulk of the population (who couldn’t vote), but to key stakeholders or constituencies or even to specific individuals whose support they need.

As well as 1. intellectual ideas and 2. the strategic ideas promoted by politicians for political gain, there is a third category, 3. underlying commonplaces and beliefs.

These are the ideas which aren’t necessarily articulated in their own day and yet exist as widely accepted commonplaces and traditional values in all political parties (or social organisations such as the Anglican Church). Shannon is very good at  bringing these underlying Victorian beliefs out into the open and so helping you understand not just what the Liberal and Conservative leaders said they stood for, but what the crusty old supporters of both parties actually believed they stood for, which was often very something completely different.

Put more simply, Shannon is a really interesting guide to the ideologies and values which underpinned not only high politics but also the political culture of the times, and which was often not very well expressed at the time.

For example, I found his summary of Matthew Arnold’s 1869 book, Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism, very useful. Arnold, Shannon explains, like so many of his contemporaries, didn’t want to leap forward into a radical future, he wanted to preserve the best elements of the past in troublesome times.

Arnold’s fear was that Britain was moving away from reliance on the disinterested morality of the landowning aristocracy and at the same time losing its religious faith, and that this collapse risked the triumph of the Philistines, the name he gave to the rising middle classes, the factory owners and entrepreneurs who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Arnold’s solution was that literature, art and culture should be promoted as the way to defeat the tide of philistinism and preserve the ‘sweetness and light’ of traditional culture, which he defined as ‘the best that has been thought and known’. In effect, ‘culture’ was to replace religion as the great binding glue and underpinning ideology of society (p.33).

This notion was to have a phenomenal impact and arguably to hold sway across the arts until well into the 1960s. I think it affected the way I was taught my literature degree in the 1980s. But reading it in the context of Shannon’s hard-headed exposition of power politics gives it a whole new meaning.

Arnold is just one of many Victorians who were looking backwards, who were trying to preserve what they idealised as a kind of balance or equilibrium between forces in society, which they hoped would solve all social issues and return life to the idyllic days of their youths.

Shannon shows in detail that Gladstone and Disraeli were, in this way, just the same, both men trying to return Britain to an imagined land of peace and plenty of their youths. Both men only promoted supposedly ‘radical’ policies (such as extending the franchise or extending state support for education in the 1870 Education Act) because they thought it would shut down dissent, end the debate, and restore this mythical equilibrium.

The essence of the question of reform [in 1867]…was a problem of striking a settlement that would satisfy the country and provide the point of rest and stability for a reconstituted Victorian equilibrium. (p.62)

The second stage of the Liberal effort to create a new Victorian equilibrium in the Liberal image fulfilled itself in the great programme of reforms between 1869 and 1873. (p.76)

The essence of the conduct of affairs in the decade 1874-85 was the effort of both Conservative and Liberal governments to operate on the basis of a desired and assumed Victorian equilibrium. Conservatives interpreted this equilibrium to mean a return to ‘normal’ procedures as defined in Palmerstonian pre-1867 terms… Liberals of most strains interpreted the equilibrium in terms of a revised dispensation required by the country to fulfil the potential of 1867… (p.101)

Some later Victorian schools of political thought

Maybe ‘theory’ is too grand and French a word to use for British political thinking, which has always been pragmatic, ad hoc and short term. As I read some of Shannon’s summaries of Victorian schools of thought, it crossed my mind that it might be useful to list and briefly summarise them:

Matthew Arnold

Arnold believed religion had been wounded by science, old aristocratic ideals damaged by democracy. He suggested replacing them with a new national ideology based on Culture which he defined as the best which has been thought and written, meaning, essentially, English literature.

John Stuart Mill

Mill helped define the ‘harm principle’ of freedom, namely that citizens should be free to do just about anything so long as it doesn’t harm, or cause harm to, others. He strongly defended complete freedom of speech on the basis that society could only progress if all ideas were freely expressed and openly discussed, confident that good opinions would defeat bad opinions. (p.32) Under the influence of his wife he became a fervent advocate of women’s rights, and spoke in favour of votes for women in the 1860s.

But Shannon takes us beneath the popular image of Mill as champion of modern human rights, to show how odd and of his time much of his thought was. For Liberals in the 1860s the issue wasn’t about steering the country towards universal suffrage: the pressing concern was to wrest power from the landed aristocracy, the estimated 10,000 or so families who essentially ran Britain, not in order to create a mass democracy, but to relocate power to the Most Intelligent people in the nation who Mill, not surprisingly, identified with himself and his friends.

In other words, Mill didn’t want to abolish the mindset of deference as so many Radicals did. He simply wanted to shift the focus of the population’s deference from the (in his opinion) worthless aristocracy, to the forces of liberal industry and economy and intelligence.

Leslie Stephen

Stephen believed that occult and unacknowledged forces kept England a predominantly aristocratic society, the majority of the population liking to keep things as they are and to defer to their betters. (p.28) (If you wanted to think big, you could say this attitude goes back to the Norman Conquest and the establishment of a two-tier society which, in many occult and unacknowledged ways, endures to this day. Being able to speak French or drop French tags into conversation, for example.)

Whig aristocrats

believed that only possession of land could guarantee independence and freedom. A tenant is forced to vote the way his landlord tells him. The owner of vast acres can, by contrast, stand up against almost any authority (including, back at the origin of the Whig Party, during the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the king himself). English freedom therefore depends on the existence of a well-educated and independent aristocracy, and their existence depends on respect for property. From this perspective, any attempt to tax, confiscate or redistribute someone’s land represents not an attack on them or even the propertied class, but on the entire basis of English freedom and this explains the attitudes and speeches of most MPs and ministers from the landed aristocracy (p.26).

The Manchester School

The Manchester school of economic and political theorists, led by John Bright and William Cobden, believed that free trade between nations would maximise everyone’s wealth and guarantee peace, because eventually every nation would be so tied  together by international trade that war would wreck their own economies. After the death of Palmerston in 1865, the Manchester School thought that Britain’s foreign policy should be one of complete non-intervention, showing the rest of the world by the example of how free trade led to prosperity. The Manchester School passively supported the attempts by peoples across Europe to liberate themselves from foreign (generally reactionary) oppressors, such as the struggle for Italian Unification, completed by 1871, because this would lead them all, in time, to have a constitution and economy as glorious as Britain’s, but we must on no account intervene in those struggles (p.43)

Castlereagh’s foreign policy

The Conservative view looked back to the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars when Britain had a vested interest in never letting a continent-wide dictator arise again, and so was active in creating and supporting a supposed ‘balance of power’ in Europe, creating a ‘concert of powers’ between France, Prussia, Austro-Hungary and Russia, without ever actually joining sides. (pages 43 and 47).

Unfortunately, the illusion of this concert was seriously damaged by the Crimean War (1853 to 1856) in which a lot of Britons were surprised to find themselves fighting with Muslim Turkey against Christian Russia. And then Bismarck definitively wrecked this model by defeating Denmark, Austria and France in order to create a unified Germany in 1871, from which point the old theories became increasingly irrelevant and British leaders, both Conservative and Liberal, had to cast around for a new model and a new role for Britain in Europe (p.45).

Beneath the surface of a general retraction of diplomatic initiative following the Denmark fiasco, the phase from 1865 to 1874 is characterised by a great deal of manoeuvring and regrouping of political forces… (p.53)

The Crimean System

The Crimean War was fought to contain Russian expansionism, to prevent Russia extending its control right through the Balkans to threaten Constantinople and the Straits i.e. the Bosphorus, where the Black Sea joins the Mediterranean.

If Russia attained control of the Straits it would allow her navy to enter the Mediterranean at will and hugely shift the balance of power in the Eastern Mediterranean and Eastern Europe. Therefore Britain found itself fighting alongside Turkey and propping up the Muslim Sultan against a Christian European power. Many people at the time thought it was a mistake in principle and the actual mismanagement of the war confirmed their worst expectations.

The war ended with the 1856 Treaty of Paris and this goal of propping up Turkey in order to contain Russia became known as the Crimean System, which British politicians then tried to maintain for decades, way after it had become irrelevant to the changing realities on the ground.

Shannon’s theory of drag – the way politicians look backward, trying to maintain or recreate the systems and equilibriums they fancy existed in their youths – explains why, 20 years after the war, Disraeli, when Turkey carried out a brutal suppression of Bulgarians seeking independence in 1876, could only conceive of maintaining the ‘Crimea System’ and so continued to prop up a Turkey which had become notably more feeble and maladministered in the interim. Which in turn gave Gladstone the opportunity to score a massive public hit with his speeches giving gruesome details of the Turkish massacres of Bulgarian villagers, the so-called ‘Bulgarian Atrocities’, and decrying Disraeli’s immorality in defending them.

Politics isn’t about principles. It is about attacking your opponent at their weakest point until they collapse. It is about seizing opportunities for political gain.


One of the fundamental ideas of Liberalism, of the classical kind advocated by Cobden and Bright, was that different social groups and forces can, ultimately, be reconciled, not least by the growing science of society – sociology – by the use of reason and good will. It is optimistic about society’s prospects for eventually finding balance and peace (p.31), and the same belief in extends into a foreign policy which believes that free trade between nations is the best way of ensuring peace.


It is difficult for many moderns to grasp the importance of religion in British politics until relatively recently. Certainly it was of vast importance in the Victorian period. The religious scene still bore the marks of the civil wars and the 1688 revolution which followed it. Basically the Church of England was the settled theological and organisational basis of the Establishment, of most of the landed aristocracy, of Oxford and Cambridge and the elite professions it produced.

After the restoration of Charles II in 1660 an Act of Uniformity and a series of Test Acts were put in place to ensure that nobody could hold any formal office or take a degree unless they swore to uphold the theology of the Anglican church and enforcing episcopal appointment of all ministers of religion.

Now the civil wars of the 1640s and 50s had brought out into the open, and into public life, a large minority of devout Christians who could not swear to the theology of the Anglican Church. They either disagreed about the entire idea of an ‘established’ church, or disagreed with the fact that its leaders, the bishops, were appointed by the civil power i.e. the monarch, or disagreed on a wide range of theological points. Before and during the wars they were known as ‘Puritans’ but the wars’ freedom to debate and define their positions led to a proliferation of sects then and in the decades after 1660, including Presbyterians and Congregationalists, plus Baptists, Quakers, Unitarians and (originating in the 18th century) Methodists.

Because they refused to ‘conform’ to the Act of Uniformity and the various Test Acts they became known as the Nonconformists and came to form a distinct element of British society, large in England, probably a majority in Wales. There’s a lot of ongoing debate about whether the Nonconformists caused the industrial revolution, but there’s no doubt that, because they were excluded by law from holding civil posts (in local or national government) or entering any of the professions, Nonconformists were forced into business and into the worlds of science and industry.

The Test Acts were repealed by 1830 in what amounted, in its day, to a social and political upheaval, alongside Catholic Emancipation i.e. the removal of similar restrictions from Roman Catholics.

The point of all this for our period is that the Nonconformists, despite being split into various sects and subsidiary groupings, by and large formed a large part of British society.

A census of religion in 1851 revealed Nonconformists made up about half the number of people who attended church services on Sundays. In the larger manufacturing areas, Nonconformists clearly outnumbered members of the Church of England. (Wikipedia)

And this large body of Nonconformists constituted a bedrock element of the Liberal Party which they hoped would continue to remove obstacles to their full legal rights, many of these hopes focusing on the (utopian) wish for the disestablishment of the Church of England, so that it would become merely one more religious grouping among many.

But their presence in large numbers meant that the Liberal leader who emerged after Palmerston’s death, Gladstone, had to always take the Nonconformist vote into account when devising his policies and strategies.

You might have thought the Nonconformist influence, like religious belief generally, was slowly declining during the nineteenth century, but it was the opposite. The 1868 general election led to an influx of Nonconformist MPs, the largest cohort ever, who from now onwards had to be taken into all political considerations, and added a substantial layer of complexity to a host of policies, especially regarding Ireland, the disestablishment of the Anglican church in Ireland and then all the discussions about Irish Home Rule.

With the result that 40 years later the coming man in the Liberal Party, David Lloyd George, still had to cultivate and maintain Nonconformist support in the 1900s.

I was really surprised to learn about the tremendous complexity of passing the 1870 Education Act which was caused because of the conflict between the Church of England which ran the majority of state schools and the Nonconformists who wanted more state schools to be set up but not run by the Church and certainly not funded from local rates, a very English, very muddled situation which led to an unsatisfactory and patchy solution, the establishment of ‘Board schools’ which ‘became one of the great shaping factors of later nineteenth century society’ (pp.86 to 92).

In summary, it is impossible to understand a lot of political events between 1868 and the Great War unless you have a good feel for the importance of the Nonconformist interest in politics and in Britain’s broader cultural life.

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825 to 1895)

Although famous as a vigorous defender of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, Huxley was solidly on the side of the angels and made speeches and wrote articles (notably Evolution and Ethics) pointing out that just because nature works through violent competition and extermination, doesn’t mean that humans have to. In fact humans have the capacity to do the exact opposite and use the reason evolution has handed us in order to devise rational and compassionate solutions to social problems which transcend the whole vulgar notion of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’.


Shannon credits Gladstone with realising that politics had to move on from the old notion that it was about balancing categories of ‘interest’ (for example, trying to frame policies which reconciled the landed interest and the industrial interest, and so on) to categories of ‘morality’ (p.55).

In making this shift of the basis of politics the essential task of the Liberal party Gladstone made it into a vehicle of political moralism. (p.55)

Hence the intensely moralising tone Gladstone adopted as he came to political prominence from the 1860s onwards, the increasing emphasis on judging government policies and bills on the grounds of social morality and hence Gladstone’s long, high-minded lectures which many found inspiring, but many (including, famously, Queen Victoria herself) found patronising and infuriating. Maybe Gladstone was the first mansplainer.

Reasons for losing

The Liberal government, convinced of its own virtue and its mission to reform and rebalance society, was flabbergasted when it lost the 1874 general election badly. Lots of commentators and the Liberal leadership itself were deeply puzzled why this had happened. Gladstone took it very personally and resigned the Liberal leadership in 1875. Journalist and soon-to-become politician John Morley wrote a book, On Compromise, giving his explanations for the defeat:

  • the example of French demagogy i.e. populism; appealing to the vulgar mob
  • the intellectual trend of the ‘historical method’ which had undermined the moral authority of the Bible
  • the corruptions of the popular press
  • the influence of the reactionary Church of England

But the deepest cause, Morley thought, was the material prosperity which had mushroomed during these years and had impaired ‘the moral and intellectual nerve of our generation’ (p.98). A generation later, the Liberal commentator Charles Masterman would attribute Tory victory to flag-waving jingoism and imperialism which rallied the uneducated masses to the Conservative cause.

Sound strangely familiar don’t they, these excuses for losing an election, 150 years later. No reflection on your own policies: instead, blame the electorate for being uneducated, venal and easily corrupted.

The Victorian balance unravels

Between 1865 and 1915 a devil of a lot of things happened, but from Shannon’s narrow focus on power politics, he places almost everything within the context of one overriding thesis.

This is that the High Victorian period (1850 to 1870) had been characterised by balance, by a synthesis of opposing forces, by what you could call the Liberal conviction that conflicting beliefs, ideas, ideologies, policies and political movements would, in the end, be reconciled, and the less interference by government, the quicker these solutions would come about.

Thus in the realm of culture, even critics of traditional Christian theology thought that the shocks of the Higher Criticism originating in Germany academia and, in a later generation, the discoveries of Charles Darwin and the geologists, could be absorbed by society, maybe into a new science of society, maybe into the new ideas of positivism articulated by August Comte. Scientific optimism.

In society at large the rise of working class militancy (the Chartists) was largely contained, an extension of the franchise in 1867 drew the sting from anti-establishment protest, a new education act in 1870 looked set to address long-running concerns about the shameful illiteracy of the underclass.

In foreign affairs Britain’s navy had unparalleled control of the seas, underpinning British possession of a huge range of colonies, while affairs on the continent of Europe remained mostly peaceful (apart from the relatively small skirmishes surrounding Bismarck‘s campaign to unify Germany under Prussian control) and the blundering shambles of the Crimean War which didn’t take place in Europe.

The entire worldview was underpinned by the immense pomp and circumstance surrounding Queen Victoria who was made empress of India by a grovelling Disraeli in 1877.

But by the 1880s this optimism was under strain in every direction. Working class militancy increased. Journalism and charitable work exposed the appalling poverty in Britain’s cities.

Abroad, trouble in the Balkans as the power of the Ottoman Empire declined led to flashpoints at the meeting points of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Britain watched and then became involved in various attempts to set up alliances and pacts to ensure security, all of them unstable.

The colonies grew restive. There was a religious uprising against British rule in Egypt led by Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah in 1881. The Indian National Congress was founded in 1885.

The really big colonial issue was on Britain’s doorstep as the pressure for Irish Home rule grew relentlessly, and this brings us to a really big theme of the period, which is, the splitting up of the major parties by huge political issues.

Even more than the first half, the second half of the book views all the political developments through the lens of attempts to retain or restore this mythical social and political ‘balance’.

Shannon’s view is that social and political events presented a challenge and that the two main political parties, and their successive leaders, struggled to address these challenges. It explains the structure he gives to the last three parts of his book as he first of all enumerates the problems facing later Victorian society and then weighs the responses of, first the Unionist Party, then the Liberals, and finds them both, in the end, inadequate to the task.

Part III: The forming elements of a modern society

  • Social dynamics 1886 to 1895
  • The politics of Unionism and Home Rule 1886 to 1895
  • New directions in external problems 1886 to 1895
  • Victorianism and Modernism: cultural themes and variations in the 1880s and 1890s

Part IV: The search for adequate responses: the Unionist version 1895 to 1905

  • The Unionist domestic bid 1895 to 1902
  • Unionist efforts to save the external situation 1895 to 1905
  • The Unionist impasse 1903 to 1905

Part V: The search for adequate responses: the Liberal version 1905 to 1915

  • The Liberal domestic bid 1905 to 1911
  • Liberal responses in foreign affairs 1905 to 1911
  • The Liberal impasse 1912 to 1915

As the Victorian equilibrium and Liberal confidence that social problems would, basically, sort themselves out, both unravelled in the 1880s, two really major themes come to dominate the book, namely the ruinous impact of trying to conceptualise and implement Irish Home Rule from the 1880s onwards, and the equally divisive attempt led by Joseph Chamberlain to create an Imperialist party and policy, which coalesced around the policy of tariff reform in the early 1900s.

The really striking thing about both issues is the extent to which:

  • they dominated political discussions and calculations from the 1880s through the 1900s
  • they ended up fatally dividing existing political parties, with the Liberals splitting over Home Rule and the Conservative party splitting over tariff reform
  • and that both issues ended in abject failure

The failure of Liberalism

The 1885 general election resulted in a parliament where Home Rule MPs from Ireland held the balance of power. This helped crystallised the great leader of Liberalism, William Gladstone’s, conviction that Ireland deserved home rule, in effect a revision of the terms under which Ireland formed part of the United Kingdom since the merger of the kingdoms in 1800. Gladstone made Irish Home Rule a central policy of the Liberal Party.

But a large number of traditionalist Liberals disagreed and, in 1886, broke away to form the Liberal Unionist Party which soon found a leader in the charismatic figure of Joseph Chamberlain. Eventually, the Liberal Unionists formed a political alliance with the Conservative Party in opposition to Irish Home Rule. The two parties formed the ten-year-long coalition Unionist Government 1895 to 1905 but were swept to defeat by a Liberal landslide in the 1906 general election.

But not only did the precise nature of Home Rule stymie Gladstone in the final years of his political career (he died in 1898) but it returned as a major political crisis at the end of the Edwardian era and it is always striking to be reminded that, as Europe rushed towards war in August 1914, the British cabinet was far more concerned about the possibility of real civil war breaking out in Ireland between the nationalist majority and the Protestant die-hards of Ulster.

In other words, long and very complicated and tortuous as the issue of Irish Home Rule was, the liberal Party failed to solve it.

The failure of Unionism

The Conservatives successfully positioned themselves as the party of the British Empire during Disraeli’s leadership (mostly, as we have suggested, out of sheer opportunism). Imperial ambition reached its peak with the attempt from the turn of the century by Joseph Chamberlain to promote a policy of Tariff Reform designed to bind together the major Anglo-Saxon colonies (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) into a protectionist trading bloc.

The policy had a rhetorical or branding appeal to the imaginations of many, but it hit at least two very big rocks which were:

  1. It would almost certainly lead to higher prices for basic foodstuffs for most Britons; hence its opponents could set up lobbying groups with names like the Free Food organisation.
  2. Chamberlain organised a series of conferences attended by the Prime Ministers of the Anglo colonies, but they never got anywhere near agreeing trading terms – it was a nice idea, but never fleshed out in practice.

A third aspect was the disastrous showing of the British army in the Boer War, 1899 to 1902. This had the effect of discrediting the Unionist government which was in power at the time and, although Britain ultimately defeated the Boers on the battlefield, in the years that followed, the Boers won back all their political rights and more. It was a colossal moral defeat.

Obviously there’s a lot more detail, but overall it was widely felt, by 1906, that the Imperial project of the Unionists had failed. This is what is explained in detail in Shannon’s chapter, ‘The Unionist impasse 1903 to 1905’.

High numbers

The naive and simple minded think that democratic politics is about ideals and principles. This is why they are continually disappointed by actual political events, because what politics is really about is numbers.

From 1885 to 1915, Shannon’s history shows how a huge amount of political energy went into detailed political calculations about how to win and maintain power and that these boiled down again and again to the numbers: will you get enough votes in a general election? (GEs were held in 1885, 1886, 1892, 1895, 1900, 1906 and twice in 1910). Will a high enough percentage of voters turn out?

Is it necessary to do deals with other parties, as the young Labour Representation Committee did in the 1906 election when the LRC won 29 seats because of a secret pact between its leader, Ramsay MacDonald, and Liberal Chief Whip, Herbert Gladstone, to avoid splitting the anti-Conservative vote between Labour and Liberal candidates?

If you extend the franchise (as the UK did in 1867 and 1884 and 1918), how will it affect your vote? This was one of the elements in the government’s calculations about whether to bow to suffragette pressure and extend the vote to women. If so, which women and how many and what would be the impact on the balance of power? It wasn’t about principle. It was about calculating the numbers.

Would the growth of trade unions affect the working class vote? Would legalisation of trade unions garner support for the party (Liberal or Conservative) which did it, or would it lead to the creation of a new radical party?

And you may be able to form a government, but do you have a big enough majority to pass all the laws you want to? Will you have to make alliances with other parties (as the Liberals did with Irish Nationalists and the small Labour Party in 1910 to get is social policies and radical budget passed)?

If the House of Lords refuses to pass laws which have been approved by the House of Commons, will having a second general election (as there was in 1910) increase or decrease your majority? Will you be able to persuade then king to create so many new Liberal peers that they will swamp the House of Lords and guarantee the passage of your bill (as the Liberal government threatened to do in 1910 to get its contentious Finance Bill past an obstructive House of Lords)?

And within so-called parties, will you be able to win round some groups or elements in an opposition party to your way of thinking, without alienating too many members of your own party?

High finance

Another way in which politics is obviously all about numbers is the finances and the basic, entry-level question: how are you going to pay for your fancy policies?

This is why almost all policies are, in the final analysis, subject to the control of the Treasury and the Chancellor of the Exchequer and why there often end up being such fierce rivalries between the Prime Minister, who is in charge of policy and strategy and creating alliances and support for policies; and his Chancellor who has great power to wreck all these plans if the figures don’t add up.

If you plan mighty new policies who is going to pay? Take the famous naval rivalry between Britain and Germany which took a leap in intensity after Britain launched its first Dreadnought class warship in 1906. The initial dreadnoughts cost £1,783,000, compared to £1,540,000 for the previous largest ships, but eight years later the new Queen Elizabeth class was costing £2,300,000 each. Who was going to pay for them?

In 1909 David Lloyd George wanted to complete the Liberal agenda of tackling poverty in the shape of caring for the elderly and for the unemployed, so he introduced the so-called People’s Budget. Half the attention given to it by historians concerns the way its provisions began to lay the foundations for what, a generation later, would be called the Welfare State. But Shannon is more interested in the numbers, namely who was going to pay for this new state largesse? A central point of the budget was that it introduced unprecedented taxes on the lands and incomes of Britain’s wealthy (it introduced higher rates of income tax, higher death duties and a 20% tax on increases in value when land changed hands).

No wonder the members of the class very obviously targeted by these changes, who populated the House of Lords, rejected it, which led to a great constitutional crisis, which pitted the House of Commons and ‘the will of the people’ against the representatives of the landed elite.

Déjà vu all over again

One of the pleasures of reading history and, in particular, fairly recent history (i.e. not medieval or ancient history) is to read the past through the prism of the present, or read the past with the issues and pressures of the present in mind. In this respect, it never fails to amaze me how some things never change. Thus we read that:

1. Why did we lose?

The high-minded Liberals just couldn’t understand how they could lose the 1874 election to the elitist, land-owning and greedy and reactionary Conservative Party. The best reasons they could come up with was that the voting public had been corrupted by a new, more aggressively populist press and by a new and unprecedentedly high standard of living. They were wallowing in luxury and had forgotten their high-minded responsibility to build a better, fairer society, instead the sustained prosperity of the 1850s and 60s had caused:

‘a general riot of luxury in which nearly all classes had their share…[in which] money and beer flowed freely.’ (p.97).

Which sounds to me very like the excuses the Labour Party made about losing three successive elections to Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s and, again, about their thumping defeat in the 2019 election.

2. The progressive coalition in disarray

As Shannon is at pains to demonstrate, the Liberal Party had only recently been founded – the conventional date for its establishment is 1859 – and was made up of a diverse coalition of forces: the traditional land-owning Whig aristocracy; urban Radicals; Irish nationalists; high-minded Anglicans like Gladstone but also a very large number of Nonconformists who Gladstone conscientiously courted. During its ministry from 1868 to 1874 the Liberal government had achieved much but also alienated many of these key constituents.

3. Cosmopolitans versus patriots

I was fascinated to read that in his landmark speech at Crystal Palace in 1872, Disraeli attempted some political positioning and branding, by accusing the Liberals of being elite and out of touch with the ordinary voter, but in particular of being ‘cosmopolitan‘, meaning too quick to truckle to foreigners, not willing to defend the ‘national’ interest, which, of course, Disraeli strongly identified himself and the Conservatives with (p.53). The Conservatives had lost touch with the people and ‘cosmopolitan’ doctrines had been imported from the continent and foisted on the innocent British public under the guise of ‘Liberalism’. The Liberals had tried to ‘substitute cosmopolitan for national principles’ (p.95).

During this period Disraeli tried to reposition the Conservatives as the party which would defend a) the constitution and the great historic institutions of England, b) our national interests, our place as a Great Power, and combine these with c) a comprehensive programme of social reform.

The combination of flag-waving patriotism with the promise of robust reform and prosperity for all sounds very reminiscent of the 2019 Conservative Party under Boris Johnson, another unprincipled but eerily successful chancer.

4. Working class conservatism

Shannon emphasises that British trade unions didn’t want to overthrow the system, they just wanted a greater say in the fruits of the system and a share in its profits for their members (p.29). The majority of the great unwashed just wanted to be left alone, without a nanny state sticking its nose in their business and insisting they were ‘improved’, whether they wanted to be or not (p.103).

Again, resentment at the tendency of high-minded Liberals to poke their noses into people’s private affairs and educate and inform them and force them to become more progressive sounds eerily similar to the resentment in at least some parts of the 2019 electorate towards the urban, college-educated cadres of the modern Labour Party who want to force everyone to be more aware of racial issues and feminist issues and transgender issues and LGBTQ+ issues and take the knee and defund the police and fight for justice for Palestine. Many people, then as now, just want to be left alone to get on with their lives and not be continually hectored and lectured, thank you very much.

5. The sorry state of English education

In the 1860s education in England lagged far behind standards on the continent, especially by comparison with Germany, especially in the area of technical education. Lots of committees wrote lots of reports. Lots of commentators agonised (including the wordy school inspector, Matthew Arnold) (pages 86 to 95). 160 years later, has much changed or does the UK still languish behind the best in Europe in its maths and literacy and technical education?

6. Ireland

Obviously Irish nationalism evolved throughout the 19th century, taking many forms, and characterised by different leading elements from Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Association and Repeal Association of the 1840s to the violent tactics of the Irish Republican Brotherhood led by Michael Davitt.

It is a vast subject with a powerful mythology and huge literature of its own which I don’t have any space to go into. I’m just making the point that I’m reading about Gladstone’s attempts to solve the Irish Question in the 1870s and 1880s in July 2021 at the same time I am hearing on the radio about the issues caused by Brexit, the Northern Irish Protocol and its possible breaches of the Good Friday Agreement. In other words, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the ‘Irish Question’ will be with us (and the Irish) forever.


The Crisis of Imperialism 1865 to 1915 by Richard Shannon was published in 1974 by Hart-David, MacGibbon Books. All references are to the 1976 Paladin paperback edition.

Related links

The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design by Richard Dawkins (1986)

I hope that the reader is as awestruck as I am (p.37)

I first read this book 25 years ago and in the intervening years I had forgotten how naive, silly and embarrassingly earnest Dawkins can be.

The blind watchmaker

The basic premise is easily summarised. In a theological work published in 1802 – Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity – the English theologian William Paley said that if you were out for a walk and stumbled over a stone, you wouldn’t think anything of it, it is so obviously part of the natural world and you unthinkingly accept it as a product of impersonal geological forces.

But if you were out for a walk and stumbled over a watch, particularly if it was an 18th-century, ornately fashioned pocketwatch, you would immediately deduce that something so wonderfully crafted, with so many carefully calibrated inner workings clearly designed for a purpose, presupposed a designer – a craftsman who consciously and deliberately designed and built it.

Well, says Paley, same for the natural world about us. When we look at the countless examples of marvellous design in the world about us – our own eyes, the interaction of insects pollinating flowers, the perfect design of fish for swimming and birds for flying – who can look at all these marvels and not be prompted to declare that there must, on the analogy of the watch, be a conscious designer, an all-powerful entity which created the entire world and all the creatures in it so that they would all perform their functions perfectly? In other words, God (and, since Paley was an Anglican clergyman) the Christian God.

In fact Paley’s book was just the latest in a very long line of works promoting, describing and explaining what is called Natural Theology, the view that the existence of an all-powerful loving God can be deduced solely from observation of the world around us, without the need of any holy books or revelations. This line of argument is recorded as far back as the Biblical psalms and is believed by many people right up to the present day.

Dawkins’s book is a refutation of this entire way of thinking as it relates to the natural world i.e. to living organisms.

As Dawkins points out, it was reasonable to hold Paley’s beliefs in his day and age, it was a reasonable hypothesis in the absence of any better explanation for the origin and diversity of life we see around us.

But since Charles Darwin published On The Origin of Species in 1859, all forms of natural theology have been rendered redundant. We now have an infinite simpler, more satisfying and more believable explanation for the origin, spread and diversity of life forms on earth, which is Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection.

Thus Dawkins’s 340-page book amounts to a sustained argument against natural theology, and against the whole crew of Christians, Creationists, theists, bishops and poets and philosophers who still espouse it, because they are wrong and Richard and the other evolutionary biologists he cites are right.

The book combines a battery of supposedly ‘philosophical’ arguments with an overview of natural history, biology and – in particular – what was then, in 1986, the latest thinking about genetics and DNA – in order to ridicule, rubbish and refute every possible variation of natural theology and to promote Darwin Darwin Darwin.

One long argument

To describe The Blind Watchmaker as argumentative is an understatement. The book is expressly not a straightforward exposition of Darwin’s theory, it is more a series of arguments which Dawkins has with proponents of the views he wishes to demolish, as well as with other biologists whose theories he disputes, and sometimes even with himself. If it moves, he’ll argue with it. It is like an explosion in an argument factory.

And Dawkins is addicted to making elaborate and often far-fetched analogies and comparisons to help us understand evolution. In other words, you have to wade through a lot of often irrelevant argumentation and distracting analogies in order to get to the useful information.

Another key part of Dawkins’ approach, something I found initially irritating about the book, then found ludicrous, and ended up finding laugh-out-loud funny, is the way he makes up people to argue with.

He will invent a naive believer of this or that aspect of natural theology, someone who can’t credit evolution with explaining everything about the natural world, put words into their mouths, and then gleefully demolish their made-up arguments.

I think it’s the purest example of an author using convenient straw men to set up and knock down that I’ve ever read. Thus in the first 40 pages he invents the following figures:

  • a distinguished modern philosopher who he once sat next to at dinner and revealed to a horrified Dawkins that he didn’t understand why the evolution and diversity of life required any special explanation (p.5)
  • a ‘hypothetical philosopher’ he invents and claims would, at this stage of Dawkins’s exposition, be ‘mumbling something about circular argument’ (p.8)
  • a hypothetical engineer who starts ‘boring on’ about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts (p.11)
  • he creates another engineer (‘our engineer’) to act as a foil for his explanation of how bat echolocation works in chapter 2
  • with similar condescension he refers at various moments to ‘our mathematicians’ in order to dismiss their arguments
  • the second half of the book is littered with references to ‘creationists’ and ‘creationist propaganda’ and ‘anti-evolution propaganda’ which he doesn’t actually quote, but whose views he briefly summarises before pulverising them

On page 13 he dismisses ‘readers of trendy intellectual magazines’ saying that, if you read them you might have noticed that:

reductionism, like sin, is one of those things that is only mentioned by people who are against it.

This thought then rapidly gets out of control as he goes on to say that calling yourself a reductionist is the equivalent, ‘in some circles’ of admitting that you eat babies.

He then goes on to compare the hypothetical simple-minded ‘reductionist’ who he’s just invented with his own, more sophisticated, materialist reductionism, and then writes:

It goes without saying – though the mythical, baby-eating reductionist is reputed to deny this – that the kinds of explanations which are suitable at high levels in the hierarchy are quite different from the kinds of explanations which are suitable at lower levels.

You can see that he’s making a serious point, but can’t help wondering why it required inventing a straw man and then attributing him the bizarre characteristic of eating babies!

This is just one tiny snapshot of Dawkins’s technique, in which serious and often interesting points are surrounded by relentless argufying and quarrelling, more often than not with entirely fictional, made-up figures who are often given ridiculously caricatured views and qualities.

In among the vast army of people Dawkins picks fights with are some real Christian or anti-evolutionary figures who he briefly invokes before subjecting them to withering criticism.

  • the ‘distinguished sceptic’ who refused to believe Donald Griffin when the latter first explained the secret of bat echolocation at a 1940 conference (p.35)
  • Bishop of Birmingham, Hugh Montefiore (1920-2005) whose book The Probability of God Dawkins credits with being an honest attempt to prove God but which he quickly dismisses for its widespread use of what Dawkins calls The Argument From Personal Incredulity i.e. ‘I find it hard to understand…it is difficult to see how…’ etc which only goes to show the ignorant the author is (p.37)
  • Francis Hitching (b.1933) author of The Neck of the Giraffe or Where Darwin Went Wrong (1983) which appears to be a sustained attack on Darwinism
  • The Duke of Argyll who, apparently, supported Darwin but with the modest proviso that the loving Creator God did, of course, intervene in evolution to create new species and generally give evolution a helping hand (p.248)
  • the editor of Creationist magazine Biblical (p.251) who is quoted leaping onto the controversy surrounding the (then) new theory of punctuated equilibrium in order to claim it undermined the entire Darwinian edifice

The remorseless battering of opponents, real or hypothetical, builds up to a climax in the final chapter where Dawkins tackles head-on half a dozen or so alternative explanations for the existence of complex life forms including the Big One, Christian Creationism.


There’s a stunning moment before the book’s even properly begun which reveals Dawkins’ amazingly earnest naivety about the real world.

He describes taking part in a formal debate (organised, apparently, at the Oxford Union). Afterwards he is seated at dinner (the book includes lots of anecdotes about conversations over dinner; Oxford is that kind of place) next to the young lady who argued against him in the debate, and made the creationist case – and Dawkins is horrified to discover that she doesn’t necessarily believe all the points she made!!

Indeed, Dawkins reveals to his shocked readers, this young lady was sometimes making arguments simply for the sake of having a debate! Richard is horrified!! He himself has never uttered a word he didn’t believe to be the complete truth! He cannot credit the notion that someone argued a case solely for the intellectual challenge of it!

At first I thought he was joking, but this anecdote, told on page two of the Preface, establishes the fact that Dawkins doesn’t understand the nature of intellectual debate, and so by implication doesn’t understand the worlds of law or politics or philosophy or the humanities, where you are routinely asked to justify a cause you don’t particularly believe in, or to argue one of any number of conflicting views.

When I told my son this he recalled being made to take part in school debates when he was 11. Learning to debate different points of view is a basic teaching, learning and cultural practice.

Philosophical simple-mindedness

Dawkins likes to brandish the word ‘philosophy’ a lot but none of his arguments are truly philosophical, they are more rhetorical or technical. For example, early on he asks ‘What is an explanation?’ before giving this definition of how he intends to use the word:

If we wish to understand how a machine or living body works, we look to its component parts and ask how they interact with each other. If there is a complex thing that we do not yet understand, we can come to understand it in terms of simpler parts that we do already understand. (p.11)

This isn’t really philosophical, more a straightforward clarifying of terms. And yet in chapter 2 he refers back to the opening chapter in which this and much like it occurred, as ‘philosophical’. Quite quickly you get the sense that Dawkins’ idea of ‘philosophy’ is fairly simplistic. That it is, in fact, a biologist’s notion of philosophy i.e. lacking much subtlety or depth.

Same goes for his attitude to the English language. Dawkins is extremely proud of the care with which he writes, and isn’t shy about showing off his rather pedantic thoughts about English usage. For example, he stops the thrust of his argument to discuss whether it is better to write ‘computer programme’ or ‘computer program’. Towards the end of the book he mentions ‘the great Japanese geneticist Motoo Kimura’

whose English prose style, incidentally, would shame many a native speaker (p.303)

There is no reason for this unnecessary aside except to let everyone know that he, Richard Dawkins, is a first class judge of what constitutes good English, and isn’t shy about letting you know it. As with the ‘philosophy’, Dawkins’s comments about the English language are fairly obvious, but presented with a great hoo-hah and self-satisfaction.

Dawkins’s sense of humour!

Way before he has given any kind of account of Darwin’s actual theory, Dawkins is assailing us with his sense of humour, sometimes with short squibs, sometimes with extended ‘humorous’ passages.

You can tell when he’s made a joke, or said something he’s really proud of, because he rounds off the punchline with an exclamation mark!

It’s quite a while since I’ve seen quite so many exclamation marks in a text and it made me realise that their cumulative impact is to make you feel the author is poking you in the ribs so you will laugh and/or marvel at the wonderful anecdote they’ve just told!

Here’s an example of the way that genuinely fascinating natural history/science is buried in Dawkins’s rib-nudging approach. Chapter two is about echolocation in bats, and moves from:

  1. a detailed description of how bat echolocation works – which is riveting
  2. to pondering what it is like to be a bat and live in a bat’s body and live and perceive the world entirely by echolocation and sonar – which is sort of interesting, but speculative
  3. to an extended passage where Dawkins imagines a conference of scientific bats – he does this in order to imagine his scientific bats listening to one of their colleagues presenting a paper with the flabbergasting discovery that humans use a previously unknown sense called ‘sight’, employing two bulbous receptors in their faces called ‘eyes’ in order to analyse light signals which appear to create in their brains 3-D models of the world which help them navigate around – almost as well as bats!!

Now this final passage is sort of helpful, maybe, if you’re in the mood, and sort of humorous. But it is at the same time more than a little ludicrous in what purports to be a serious scientific book. Above all, it gives you a powerful whiff of Dawkins’s world, a world of self-important Oxbridge academics. It does this in two ways:

  1. the choice of an academic conference as the setting for his imaginary fantasy tells much you about the milieu he inhabits
  2. the fact that he thinks he can spend an entire page of his book sharing this extended joke with his readers tells you a lot more about his supreme, undentable self-confidence

Unintentional autobiography

Dawkins likes to think he is making ‘difficult’ science more accessible by giving the poor benighted reader plenty of analogies and examples from everyday life to help us understand these damn tricky concepts. But it is one of the most (unintentionally) enjoyable aspects of the book that many of the examples he uses betray a comic out-of-touchness with the modern world.

I laughed out loud when on page 3 he writes:

The systematic putting together of parts to a purposeful design is something we know and understand, for we have experienced it at first hand, even if only with our childhood Meccano or erector set.

He explains the Doppler Effect by asking the reader to imagine riding a motorbike past a factory whose siren is wailing. Motorbike? Wailing factory siren? This sounds like a W.H. Auden poem from the 1930s. He goes on to explain that it is the same principle as the police use in their radar traps for speeding motorists.

Elsewhere he begins to explain the unlikeliness of organic molecules coming into existence by asking us to ponder the number of his bicycle lock (and later assures us that ‘I ride a bicycle to work every day’, p.84). On almost every page there is an unreflecting assumption that we will be interested in every detail of Professor Dawkins’s life, from his bicycle lock to his personal computer.

He suggests that the advantage even a slight improvement in the ability to ‘see’ would give an evolving species can be considered while ‘turning the colour balance knob of a colour television set’ (p.84).

He explains that the poor Nautilus shellfish has developed the hollow orb of a primitive ‘eye’ but lacks the lens facility that we and all mammals have, making it rather ‘like a hi-fi system with an excellent amplifier fed by a gramophone with a blunt needle’ (p.85).

Gramophone? Later he refers to ‘hi-fidelity sound amplification equipment’ (p.217). It’s possible that Dawkins is the most fuddy-duddy author I’ve ever read.

When describing the transmission of DNA he suggests it might help if we imagine 20 million ‘typists’ sitting in a row. When I asked my daughter what a ‘typist’ is she didn’t know. Reading the book now is like visiting a lost world.

The common brown bat Myotis emits sonic clicks at the rate of ten a second, about the same rate, Dawkins tells us, as a Bren machine gun fires bullets. An analogy which seems redolent of National Service in the 1950s.

His comic-book enthusiasm bubbles over when he tells us that:

These bats are like miniature spy planes, bristling with sophisticated instrumentation. (p.24)

Spy planes. Gramophone players. Factory sirens.

If you put to one side the science he’s trying to explain to us, and just focus on the analogies and stories he uses so liberally, a kind of alternative world appears – a portrait of an incredibly earnest, other-worldly, high-minded Oxford don, a man whose secure upper-middle-class childhood gave him an enduring love of toys and gadgets, and who has the sublime self-confidence of thinking he can change the world by the sheer power of his boyish enthusiasm and the secrets of his bicycle lock.

At the end of chapter 8 (which has been about positive feedback loops in evolution) he digresses into a lengthy description of the new-fangled ‘pop music’, which is introduced by what he describes as the ‘mid-Atlantic mouthings of disco jockeys’ on the radio, and reflected in something which he fastidiously refers to as the ‘Top 20’.

The whole sub-culture is obsessed with a rank ordering of records, called the Top 20 or Top 40, which is based only upon record sales. (p.219)

His point is that records are often bought by young people based on their popularity alone, not on their intrinsic artistic merit and that this is a form of arbitrary positive feedback loop, such as may also be true of some characteristics exaggerated in the course of sexual selection, such as the peacock’s tail.

But the real impact of reading this page-long digression is to make you realise that Dawkins is a real-life version of the stereotypical out-of-touch judge who has spent so long in the bubble of the legal profession (as Dawkins has spent virtually his whole life in the bubble of an Oxford college) that one of the barristers has to patiently explain to him that ‘The Beatles’ are a popular rhythm-and-blues group.

Elsewhere he refers to this new thing called ‘the mass media’. He refers to bodybuilders as members of a ‘peculiar minority culture’ (p.289). It doesn’t seem to occur to him that being a don at an Oxford college is even more of a ‘peculiar minority culture’.

Hi-fidelity gramophones. Factory sirens. Mid-Atlantic mouthings.

Then there are the directly autobiographical snippets – the references to his idyllic childhood in Africa (where he played with his Erector Set or admired a huge swarm of soldier ants), to his High Anglican public school, and on to the rarefied atmosphere of Oxford, where he spent his academic career from 1970 to 2008, and has had so many stimulating conversations over High Table which he is not shy about repeating for our benefit.

Thus, in the middle of an explanation of different theories about the speed with which evolution works, he stops because he:

cannot help being reminded here of the humiliation of my first school report, written by the Matron about my performance as a seven-year-old in folding clothes, taking cold baths, and other daily routines of boarding-school life: “Dawkins has only three speeds: slow, very slow, and stop.” (p.245)

Similarly, he begins Chapter 8 with a reminiscence of a schoolmaster of his who became uncontrollably apoplectic with rage, as an example of ‘positive feedback’.

This is followed by the story of a recent experience he had of attending Oxford’s Congregation, at which the hubbub of the large crowd slowly died away into silence – which he gives as an example of negative feedback.

My point is that The Blind Watchmaker is characterised by many pages of self-indulgent autobiography. It is an obtrusive element in the book which often gets in the way of the factual content he wants to convey. Dawkins is so in love with the sound of his own analogies and whimsical digressions, and so keen to share with you his ripping boyhood memories and High Table anecdotes, that it becomes at times, almost physically painful to read him.

Distracting analogies

But the real problem with all these analogies and reminiscences is that too often they get in the way of actually understanding his scientific points.

For example, chapter seven has an extended explanation of what arms races are in the context of evolution i.e. when predators and prey develop characteristics designed to help them outdo each other. So far so good. But then he goes off into an extended comparison with the race to build dreadnoughts before the Great War, and then to a description of the actual arms race between the USA and USSR building larger and larger nuclear weapons during the 1970s and 1980s.

My point is that the analogy takes on a life of its own, goes on at unconscionable length, and becomes steadily less useful and increasingly distracting and misleading.

Same goes when he asks us to imagine 20 million typists sitting in a row copying out a message as if that makes it at all easier to understand DNA, instead of puzzling and distracting.

Or when he spends a couple of pages calculating just how many monkeys it would take to type out the complete works of Shakespeare, as a demonstration of the power of cumulative selection i.e. if evolution really did work at random it would take forever, but if each version typed out by the monkeys kept all the elements which were even slightly like Shakespeare, and then built on that foundation, it is surprising how few generations of monkeys you’d need to begin to produce an inkling of a comprehensible version of the complete works of Shakespeare.

He thinks he is a scientific populariser but the examples he uses to explain scientific ideas are often out of date or far-fetched as to be harder to understand than the original scientific idea.

In the worst example in the book, chapter 8 about punctuated equilibrium doesn’t start with an explanation of what punctuated equilibrium actually is – instead, it starts with a two-page-long extended description of the ancient Israelites spending forty years wandering in the wilderness after fleeing Egypt.

Dawkins then invents (as so often) a hypothetical figure to mock, in this case a hypothetical historian who, he says, takes the story of the Biblical exodus literally and so calculates that, since the distance from Egypt to the Holy Land was only 200 miles and the Bible says it took them 40 years to cover, this must mean that the Israelites covered just 24 yards per day or 1 yard per hour.

‘Is the attitude of the Bible historian I have just invented ridiculous?’ asks Dawkins. ‘Yes, well, that’s how ridiculous the theory of punctuated equilibrium is.’

This example is at the start of the chapter, setting the tone for the entire discussion of punctuated equilibrium. And it lasts for two solid pages.

It is a classic example of how Dawkins is so in love with his own wit and that he a) never really gets round to clearly explaining what punctuated equilibrium is, and b) really confuses the reader with this extended and utterly irrelevant analogy.

(The theory of punctuated equilibrium takes the extremely patchy fossil record of life on earth as evidence that evolution does not progress at a smooth, steady rate but consists of long periods of virtual stasis or equilibrium, punctuated by sudden bursts of relatively fast evolution and the creation of new species. Some Creationists and Christians seized on the publication of this theory in the 1970s as evidence that Darwin was wrong and that therefore God does exist. Dawkins devotes a chapter and a host of ideas, sub-ideas and extended analogies to proving that the theory of punctuated equilibrium does not undermine the Darwinian orthodoxy – as Creationists gleefully claim – but can be slotted easily into the existing Darwinian view that evolution takes place at a slow steady pace: the core of Dawkins’s argument is that the fossil record appears to suggest long static periods interspersed with periods of manic change, solely because it is so very patchy; if we had a fuller fossil record it wold vindicate his and Darwin’s view of slow steady change. In other words, the theory of punctuated equilibrium is an optical illusion produced by the patchiness of the fossil record and not a true account of his evolution works.)

The whole tenor and shape and flavour of the book is dominated by Dawkins’s analogies and similes and metaphors and witty ideas but I can’t help thinking it would have been so much better to have devoted the space to killer examples from the natural world. Too often Dawkins’s long comparisons take the reader away from the wonders of life on earth and push you into the broom cupboard of his oddly sterile and unimaginative analogies.

To give another example, it is fascinating to learn that many bat species have scrunched-up gargoyle faces (which have terrified generations of humans) because their faces have evolved to reflect and focus their high-pitched echolocation signals into their ears. But when Dawkins tries to make this fact more ‘accessible’ by writing that bats are ‘like high-tech spy planes’, his analogy feels not only trite but – here’s my point – less informative than the original fact.

I have just read E.O. Wilson’s stunningly beautiful and inspiring book about the natural world, The Diversity of Life, which is all the more amazing and breath-taking because he doesn’t impose anecdotes about his own childhood or love of gadgets between you and the wonder’s he’s describing: the wonders are quite amazing enough without any kind of editorialising.

The Blind Watchmaker computer program

This un-self-aware, naive enthusiasm comes over most strongly in chapter three of the book which is devoted to the subject which gives the book its title, the computer program Dawkins has devised and titled The Blind Watchmaker (and which is advertised for sale at the back of the book, yours for just £28.85 including VAT, post and packaging).

At this early stage of the book (chapter 3) I was still hoping that Dawkins would give the reader a knock-down, killer explanation of Darwin’s theory. Instead he chooses to tell us all about a computer program he’s written. The program begins with a set of nine stick figures or ‘genes’, as he calls them, and then applies to them a set of instructions such as ‘double in length’ or ‘branch into two lines’ and so on. Here are the basic ‘genes’.

Basic ‘tree’ shapes developed by Richard Dawkins’ Blind Watchmaker programme

The idea is that, if you invent rules for transforming the shape of the basic ‘genes’ according to a set of fixed but arbitrary rules and then run the program, you will be surprised how the mechanical application of mindless rules quite quickly produces all kinds of weird and wonderful shapes, thus:

More advanced iterations produced by Dawkins’s Blind Watchmaker program

The point of all this is to show how quickly complex ‘creatures’ can be created by a few simple rules and endless iterations.

Having explained his program Dawkins artlessly presents it as a strong proof for Darwin’s theory. He calls the multi-dimensional cyberspace thronged with a potentially endless sequence of mutating life forms stretching out in all directions Biomorph Land, and the metaphor is invoked throughout the rest of the book.

Dawkins boyishly tells us that when he first ran the program and saw all the shapes appearing he was so excited he stayed up all night!

It’s difficult to know where to start in critiquing this approach, but two things spring to mind.

  1. At the point where he introduces the program the book still hasn’t delivered a clear exposition of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. During this chapter I began to realise it never would, and that instead the book would be all about Richard’s own ideas and inventions.
  2. Does Dawkins really think that a dyed-in-the-wool, Christian fundamentalist would be the slightest bit persuaded to change his or her lifelong beliefs by a lengthy explanation of a toy computer program which Richard has developed at home on his Dell computer? If he does, he is fabulously self-deluded and, as I’ve said, above all, naive about the ways of the world and how human beings actually think and live.

Dawkins’s declared intention is to change the world, or the way people think and what they believe about the world and the diversity of life around us – and yet virtually every word he writes – certainly extended passages like the long chapter devoted to the self-written computer program which gives the book its name – show you how completely inadequate his view of human nature is.

The book may well have explained and elucidated various concepts around evolution and genetics to an educated, secular audience which had hitherto (in 1986) had relatively few if any popular accounts to read on the subject. But given Dawkins’s fierce anti-Creationist rhetoric all through the book, his invention of all kinds of Christian or just ignorant critics of evolution throughout the book who he can pulverise with his arguments and analogies – it would be fascinating to learn if The Blind Watchmaker ever converted anyone to abandon their Christian or theist beliefs and become an atheist.

Précis of the contents of The Blind Watchmaker

Chapter 2 Bats and echolocation

Chapter 3 Cumulative changes in organisms can have massive consequences when subjected to non-random selection.

Chapter 4 Creationist propaganda often mocks the theory of evolution by pointing out that according to the theory exquisitely complicated features such as eyes must have evolved from next to nothing to their present stage of perfection and What is the point of half an eye? But Dawkins robustly replies that even 1% of an eye is better than no eye at all, and there are many animals with what you could call half or a quarter or less of a wing (i.e. bits of stretchable skin which help with gliding from tree to tree), which function perfectly well.

Chapter 5 ‘It is raining DNA outside’ as Dawkins describes the air outside his study window being full of down and dandelion seeds, innumerable flower seeds floating past on the wind. Why Life is more like a computer programme (i.e. DNA is a transmissible digital code) than pre-Darwinian ideas about blobs of matter and life forces.

Chapter 6 The idea of ‘miracles’ considered in the context of the 4.5 billion years the earth has existed, and a detailed summary of A.G. Cairns-Smiths theory of the origin of life (i.e. that replicating organic molecules originally took their structure from replicating inorganic clay crystals.)

Chapter 7 Genes are selected by virtue of their interactions with their environment, but the very first ‘environment’ a gene encounters is other genes, within the cell, and then in sister cells. Cells had to learn to co-operate in order to form multi-celled organisms. Cumulative selection produces arms races between rivals in ecosystems.

Chapter 8 Positive feedback and sexual selection, compared to steam engines, thermostats and pop music.

Chapter 9 Is devoted to taking down the theory of punctuated equilibrium put forward by the paleontologists Niles Eldridge and Stephen Jay Gould and opens with two pages about a hypothetical and very dense scholar of Biblical history.

Chapter 10 There are countless ways to categorise living things, as objects, but there is only one true tree of life based on evolutionary descent. Although in this, as everything else, there are different schools and theories e.g. phyleticists, cladists, pheneticists et al.

Chapter 11 A summary of various alternatives to Darwin – Lamarckism, neutralism, creationism, mutationism – are described and then demolished.

What is really striking about this final chapter is how cursory his dismissal of Christian creationism is – it only takes up a couple of pages whereas his analysis of Lamarckism took up ten. It’s as if, once he finally comes face to face with his long-cherished enemy, it turns out that he has… nothing to say.

Conclusion and recommendations

Back in the mid-1980s this book had a big impact, garnering prizes and making Dawkins a public intellectual. This suggests 1. the extent of the ignorance then prevailing about Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection and 2. the low bar set in the Anglo-Saxon world for the definition of ‘public intellectual’.

Then again, not many people actually had computers in 1986. I think the impact of the book came less from his countless and tiresome anti-Christian arguments, and more from the crisp modern way he compared DNA to a computer program. That was a genuinely innovatory insight thirty-five years ago. He was there right at the beginning of the application of computer technology to genetics and biology, a technology which has, ironically, rendered almost everything he wrote out of date.

– If you want to really understand Darwin’s theory there is no replacement for reading On The Origin of Species itself because, although many of the details may have changed and Darwin’s account notoriously contained no explanation of how variation came about (because he lacked any knowledge of genetics), nonetheless, the central idea is conveyed with a multitude of examples and with a persuasive force which really bring home what the theory actually consists of, far better than any later summary or populist account.

– If you want to read an up-to-date book about genetics and its awesome possibilities, I’d recommend Life At The Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life by Craig Venter.

– If you want to read about the wonders of the natural world, you could do a lot worse than E.O. Wilson’s wonderful and inspiring book The Diversity of Life.

The Mr Bean of biology

Having ground my way through this preening, self-important book, I came to the conclusion that ‘Richard Dawkins’ is best seen as a brilliant comic creation, a kind of super-intellectual version of Mr Bean – filled with comic earnestness, bursting to share his boyish enthusiasm, innocently retailing memories of his first Meccano set or his knowledge of spy planes and motorbicycles, inventing fictional ‘distinguished philosophers’ and ‘sceptical scientists’ to demolish with his oh-so-clever arguments, convinced that his impassioned sincerity will change the world, and blissfully unaware of the ludicrous figure he cuts.

It’s a much more enjoyable book to read if you ignore Dawkins’s silly argufying and see it instead as a kind of Rabelaisian comedy, told by an essentially ludicrous narrator, with characters popping up at random moments to make a Creationist point before being hit over the head by Mr Punch’s truncheon – ‘That’s the way to do it!’ – interspersed with occasionally useful, albeit mostly out-dated, information about evolution and genetics.


The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins was published by the Harvard University Press in 1986. All references are to the 1994 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other science books






Human evolution


Origins of Life

Particle physics


Life At The Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life by J. Craig Venter (2013)

The future of biological research will be based to a great extent on the combination of computer science and synthetic biology. (p.204)

Who is Craig Venter?

The quickest way of getting the measure of this hugely clever, ambitious and visionary man is to quote his Wikipedia entry:

John Craig Venter (born October 14, 1946) is an American biotechnologist, biochemist, geneticist, and businessman. He is known for leading the first draft sequence of the human genome and assembled the first team to transfect a cell with a synthetic chromosome. Venter founded Celera Genomics, The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) and the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), where he currently serves as CEO. He was the co-founder of Human Longevity Inc. and Synthetic Genomics. He was listed on Time magazine’s 2007 and 2008 Time 100 list of the most influential people in the world. In 2010, the British magazine New Statesman listed Craig Venter at 14th in the list of ‘The World’s 50 Most Influential Figures 2010’. He is a member of the USA Science and Engineering Festival’s Advisory Board.

So he’s a heavy hitter, invited to Bill Clinton’s White House to announce his team’s successful sequencing of the first human genome on 2000, founder of a thriving biochem business, a number of charities, pioneer of genomics (‘the branch of molecular biology concerned with the structure, function, evolution, and mapping of genomes’) and mapper of an ambitious future for the new science of synthetic biology.

In Schrödinger’s footsteps

Life At The Speed of Light was published in 2013. It originated as a set of lectures. As he explains in the introduction, in 1943, the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger had fled the Nazi-controlled Continent and settled in Ireland. Schrödinger was invited by the Taoiseach of the time to give some public lectures and chose the topic of life – the biology and physics of life. Schrödinger’s lectures were then published in the little book What Is Life? (1944) which inspired generations of young people to take up science (in his memoir The Double Helix James Watson describes how the book inspired him; Addy Pross named his book about the origins of life, What Is Life?, as a direct tribute to Schrödinger’s text).

Well, 49 years later Venter was invited by the Taoiseach of the day to deliver a new set of lectures, addressing the same question as Schrödinger, but in doing so, making clear the enormous strides in physics, chemistry, biology, biochemistry and genetics which had been made in that half-century.

Twelve chapters

The twelve chapters are titled:

  1. Dublin, 1943-2012
  2. Chemical synthesis as proof
  3. Dawn of the digital age of biology
  4. Digitizing life
  5. Synthetic Phi X 174
  6. First synthetic genome
  7. Converting one species into another
  8. Synthesis of the M. mycoides genome
  9. Inside a synthetic cell
  10. Life by design
  11. Biological transportation
  12. Life at the speed of light

Each chapter contains a formidable amount of state-of-the-art biochemical knowledge. The first few chapters recap relevant forebears who helped figure out that DNA was the vehicle of heredity, beginning right back at the start with Aristotle, who made the primal division of living things into animal, vegetable or mineral, and then going on to namecheck other pioneers such as Robert Hook and, of course, Charles Darwin.


But the real thrust of the book is to get up to date with contemporary achievements in sequencing genomes and creating transgenic entities i.e. organisms which have had the DNA of completely separate organisms stitched into them.

In order to do this Venter, of course, has to describe the molecular mechanisms of life in great detail. Successive chapters go way beyond the simplistic understanding of DNA described in James Watson’s book about the double helix, and open up for the reader the fantastical fairyland of how DNA actually works.

He explains the central role of the ribosomes, which are the factories where protein synthesis takes place (typical human cells contain about a thousand ribosomes), and the role of messenger RNA in cutting off snippets of DNA and taking them to the ribosome.

It is to the ribosome that transfer RNA (tRNA) brings along amino acids, which are then intricately assembled according to the sequence of bases found on the original DNA. Combinations of the twenty amino acids are assembled into the proteins which all life forms are made of – from the proteins which make up the cell membrane, to collagen which accounts for a quarter of all the proteins found in vertebrate animals, or elastin, the basis of lung and artery walls, and so on and so on.

I found all this mind-boggling, but the most striking single thing I learned is how fast it happens, and that it needs to happen so unrelentingly.


Venter explains that protein synthesis requires only seconds to make chains of a hundred amino acids or more. Nowadays we understand the mechanism whereby the ribosome is able to ratchet RNAs laden with amino acids along its production lines at a rate of fifteen per second! Proteins need to ‘fold’ up into the correct shape – there are literally millions of possible shapes they can assume but they only function if folded correctly. This happens as soon as they’ve been manufactured inside the ribosome and takes place in a few thousandths of a second. The protein villin takes six millionths of a second to fold correctly!

I had no idea that some of the proteins required for life to function (i.e. for cells to maintain themselves) exist for as little as forty-five minutes before they decay and cease to work. Their components are then disassembled and returned to the hectic soup which is contained inside each cell membrane, before being picked up by passing tRNA and taken along to the ribosome to be packaged up into another useful protein.


It is the absolutely relentless pressure to produce thousands of different proteins, on a continuous basis, never faltering, never resting, which makes the mechanisms of life so needy of resources, and explains why animals need to be constantly taking in nutrition from the environment, relentlessly eating, drinking, breaking food down into its elementary constituents and excreting waste products.

After a while the book began to make me feel scared by the awesome knowledge of what is required to keep ‘me’ going all day long. Just the sheer effort, the vast amount of biochemical activity going on in every one of the forty or so trillion cells which make up my body, gave me a sense of vertigo.

Every day, five hundred billion blood cells die in an individual human. It is also estimated that half our cells die during normal organ development. We all shed about five hundred million skin cells every day. As a result you shed your entire outer layer of skin every two to four weeks. (p.57 – my italics)

Life is a process of dynamic renewal.

In an hour or even less a bacterial cell has to remake all of its proteins or perish. (p.62)

Venter’s achievements

Having processed through the distinguished forebears and pioneers of biochemistry, Venter comes increasingly to the work which he’s been responsible for. First of all he describes the process behind the sequencing of the first human genome – explaining how he and his team devised a vastly faster method of sequencing than their rivals (and the controversy this aroused).

Then he goes on to tell how he led teams which looked into splicing one organism’s DNA into another. And then he explains the challenge of going to the next phase, and creating life forms from the DNA up.

In fact the core of the book is a series of chapters which describe in minute and, some might say, quite tedious detail, the precise strategies and methodologies Venter and his teams took in the decade or so from 2000 to 2010 to, as he summarises it:

  • synthesise DNA at a scale twenty times faster than previously possible
  • develop a methodology to transplant a genome from one species to another
  • solve the DNA-modification problems of restriction enzymes destroying transplanted DNA

Successive chapters take you right into actual meetings where he and colleagues discussed how to tackle the whole series of technical problems they faced, and explains in exquisite detail precisely the techniques they developed at each step of the way. He even includes work emails describing key findings or turning points, and the texts he exchanged with colleagues at key moments (pp.171-2).

After reading about a hundred of pages of this my mind began to glaze over and I skipped paragraphs and then pages which describe such minutiae as how he decided which members of the Institute to put in charge of which aspects of the project and why — because I was impatient to get to the actual outcomes. And these outcomes have been dramatic:

In May 2010, a team of scientists led by Venter became the first to successfully create what was described as ‘synthetic life’. This was done by synthesizing a very long DNA molecule containing an entire bacterium genome, and introducing this into another cell … The single-celled organism contains four ‘watermarks’ written into its DNA to identify it as synthetic and to help trace its descendants. The watermarks include:

    • a code table for entire alphabet, with punctuations
    • the names of 46 contributing scientists
    • three quotations
    • the secret email address for the cell.

Venter gives a detailed description of the technical challenges, and the innovations his team devised to overcome them, in the quest to create the first ever synthesised life form in chapter 8, ‘Synthesis of the M. mycoides genome’.

More recently, after the period covered by this book (although the book describes this as one of his goals):

On March 25, 2016 Venter reported the creation of Syn 3.0, a synthetic genome having the fewest genes of any freely living organism (473 genes). Their aim was to strip away all nonessential genes, leaving only the minimal set necessary to support life. This stripped-down, fast reproducing cell is expected to be a valuable tool for researchers in the field. (Wikipedia)

The international nature of modern science

One notable aspect of the text is the amount of effort he puts into crediting other people’s work, and in particular the way these consists of teams.

When Watson wrote his book he could talk about individual contributors like Linus Pauling, Maurice Wilkins, Oswald Avery, Erwin Chergaff or Rosalind Franklin. One of the many things that has changed since Watson’s day is the way science is now done by large teams, and often collaborations not only between labs, but between labs around the world.

Thus at every step of his explanations Venter is very careful indeed to give credit to each new insight and discovery which fed into his own team’s work, and to namecheck all the relevant scientists involved. It was to be expected that each page would be studded with the names of biochemical processes and substances, but just as significant, just as indicative of the science of our times, is the way each page is also freighted with lists of names – and also, just how ethnically mixed the names are – Chinese, Indian, French, German, Spanish – names from all around the world.

Without anyone having to explain it out loud, just page after page of the names alone convey what a cosmopolitan and international concern modern science is.

A simplified timeline

Although Venter spends some time recapping the steady progress of biology and chemistry into the 20th century and up to Watson and Crick’s discovery, his book really makes clear that the elucidation of DNA was only the beginning of an explosion of research into genetics, such that genetics – and the handling of genetic information – are now at the centre of biology.

1944 Oswald Avery discovered that DNA, not protein, was the carrier of genetic information
1949 Fred Sanger determined the sequence of amino acids in the hormone insulin

1950 Erwin Chargaff made the discoveries about the four components of DNA which became known as Chargaff’s Rules, i.e. the number of guanine units equals the number of cytosine units and the number of adenine units equals the number of thymine units, strongly suggesting they came in pairs
1952 the Miller-Urey experiments show that organic molecules could be created out of a ‘primal soup’ and electricity
1953 Watson and Crick publish structure of DNA
1953 Barbara McClintock publishes evidence of transposable elements in DNA, aka transposons or jumping genes
1955 Heinz Fraenkel-Conrat and biophysicist Robley Williams showed that a functional virus could be created out of purified RNA and a protein coat.
1956 Arthur Kornberg isolated the first DNA polymerizing enzyme, now known as DNA polymerase I

1961 Marshall Nirenberg and Heinrich J. Matthaei discover that DNA is used in sets of three called ‘codons’
1964 Robert Holley elucidates the structure of transfer RNA
1960s Werner Arber and Matthew Meselson isolate first restriction enzyme
1967 DNA ligase discovered, an enzyme capable of linking DNA into a ring such as is found in viruses
1967 Carl Woese suggests that RNA not only carries genetic information but has catalytic properties

1970 Hamilton O. Smith, Thomas Kelly and Kent Wilcox isolate the first type II restriction enzyme
1970 discovery of reverse transcriptase which converts RNA into DNA
1971 start if gene-splicing revolution when Paul Berg spliced part of a bacterial virus into a monkey virus
1972 Herbert Boyer splices DNA from Staphylococcus into E. Coli
1974 first transgenic mammal created by Rudolf Jaenisch and Beatrice Mintz
1974 development of ‘reverse genetics’ where you interefere with an organism’s DNA and see what happens
1976 first biotech company, Genentech, set up
1977 Boyer, Itakura and Riggs use recombinant DNA to produce a human protein
1977 Carl Woese proposes an entire new kingdom of life, the Archaea

1980 Charles Weissmann engineers the protein interferon using recombinant-DNA technology
1981 Racaniello and Baltimore used recombinant DNA technology to generate the first infectious clone of an animal RNA virus, poliovirus
1982 genetically engineered insulin becomes commercially available
1980s discovery of the function of proteasomes which break up unneeded or damaged proteins
1980s Ada Yonath and Heinz-Günter Wittman grow crystals from bacterial chromosomes
1985 Martin Caruthers and his team developed an automated DNA synthesiser
1985 Aaron Klug develops ‘zinc fingers’, proteins which bind to specific three-letter sequences of DNA

1996 proposed life on Mars on the basis of microbial ‘fossils’ found in rocks blown form Mars to earth – later disproved
1996 publication of the yeast genome
1997 Venter’s team publish the entire genome of the Helicobacter pylori bacterium
1997 Dolly the sheep is cloned (DNA from a mature sheep’s mammary gland was injected into an egg that had had its own nucleus removed; it was named Dolly in honour of Dolly Parton and her large mammary glands)
1998 Andrew Fire and Craig Cameron Mello showed that so-called ‘junk DNA’ codes for double stranded RNA which trigger or shut down other genes
1999 Harry F. Noller publishes the first images of a complete ribosome

2005 The structure and function of the bacterial chromosome by Thanbichler, Viollier and Shapiro
2007 publication of Synthetic Genomics: Options for Government
2008 Venter and team create a synthetic chromosome of a bacterium
2010 Venter’s team announce the creation of the first synthetic cell (described in detail in chapter 8)
2011 first structure of a eukaryotic ribosome published

Life at the speed of light

Anyway, this is a book with a thesis and a purpose. Or maybe two purposes, two sides of the same coin. One is to eradicate all irrational, magical beliefs in ‘vitalism’, to insist that life is nothing but chemistry. The other is for Venter to proclaim his bold visions of the future.

1. Anti-vitalism

The opening chapter had included a brief recap of the literature and fantasy of creating new life, Frankenstein etc. This turns out to be because Venter is a fierce critic of all traditions and moralists who believe in a unique life force. He is at pains to define and then refute the theory of vitalism – ‘the theory that the origin and phenomena of life are dependent on a force or principle distinct from purely chemical or physical forces.’ Venter very powerfully believes the opposite: that ‘life’ consists of information about chemistry, and nothing more.

This, I think, is a buried motive for describing the experiments carried out at his own institute in such mind-numbing detail. It is to drill home the reality that life is nothing more than chemistry and information. If you insert the genome of one species into the cells of another they become the new species. They obey the genomic or chemical instructions. All life does. There is no mystery, no vital spark, no élan vital etc etc.

A digression on the origins of life

This is reinforced in chapter 9 where Venter gives a summary of the work of Jack W. Szostak into the origin of life.

Briefly, Szostak starts with the fact that lipid or fat molecules are spontaneously produced in nature. He shows that these tend to link up together to form ‘vesicles’ which also, quite naturally, form together into water-containing membranes. If RNA – which has been shown to also assemble spontaneously – gets into these primitive ‘cells’, then they start working, quite automatically, to attract other RNA molecules into the cell. As a result the cell will swell and, with a little shaking from wind or tide, replicate. Voilà! You have replicating cells containing RNA.

Venter then describes work that has been done into the origin of multicellularity i.e. cells clumping together to co-operate, which appears to have happened numerous times in the history of life, to give rise to a variety of multicellular lineages.

Venter goes on to describe one other major event in the history of life – symbiogenesis – ‘The theory holds that mitochondria, plastids such as chloroplasts, and possibly other organelles of eukaryotic cells represent formerly free-living prokaryotes taken one inside the other in endosymbiosis.’

In other words, at a number of seismic moments in the history of life, early eukaryotic cells engulfed microbial species that were living in symbiosis with them. Or to put it another way, early cells incorporated useful microbes which existed in their proximity, entirely into themselves.

The two big examples are:

  • some two billion years ago, when a eukaryotic cell incorporated into itself a photosynthetic bacterial algae cell which ultimately became the ‘chloroplast‘ – the site where photosynthesis takes place – in all successive plant species
  • and the fact that the ‘power packs’ of human cells, known as mitochondria, carry their own genetic code and have their own way of reproducing, indicating that they were taken over whole, not melded or merged but swallowed (it is now believed that human mitochondria derived from a specific bacterium, Rickettsia, which survives down to this day)

This information is fascinating in itself, but it is clearly included to join up with the detailed description of the work in his own institute in order to make the overwhelming case that life is just information and that DNA is the bearer of that information.

It obviously really irritates Venter that, despite the overwhelming weight of the evidence, people at large – journalists, philosophers, armchair moralists and religious believers – refuse to accept it, refuse to face the facts, and still believe there is something special about life, that humans, in particular, have a soul or spirit or other voodoo codswallop.

2. Creating life

The corollary of Venter’s insistence that there being nothing magical about ‘life’, is the confident way he interprets all the evidence he has so painstakingly described, and all the dazzling achievements he has been involved in, as having brought humanity to the brink of a New Age of Life, a New Epoch in the Evolution of Life on Earth.

We have now entered what I call ‘the digital age of biology’, in which once distinct domains of computer codes and those that program life are beginning to merge, where new synergies are emerging that will drive evolution in radical directions. (p.2)

The fusion of the digital world of the machine and that of biology would open up the remarkable possibilities for creating novel species and guiding future evolution. (p.109)

In the final chapters of this book Venter waxes very lyrical about the fantastic opportunities opening up for designing DNA on computers, modeling the behaviour of this artificial DNA, fine-tuning the design, and then building new synthetic organisms in the real world.

The practical applications know no limits, and on page 221 he lists some:

  • man-made organisms which could absorb the global warming CO2 in the air, or eat oil pollution, turning it into harmless chemicals
  • computer designing cures for diseases
  • designing crops that are resistant to drought, that can tolerate disease or thrive in barren environments, provide rich new sources of protein and other nutrients, can be harnessed for water purification in arid regions
  • designing animals that become sources for pharmaceuticals or spare body parts
  • customising human stem cells to regenerate damaged organs and bodies

Biological transformations

The final two chapters move beyond even these sci-fi goals to lay out some quite mind-boggling visions of the future. Venter builds on his institute’s achievements to date, and speculates about the kinds of technologies we can look forward to or which are emerging even as he writes.

The one that stuck in my mind is the scenario that, when the next variety of human influenza breaks out, doctors will only have to get a sample of the virus to a lab like Venter’s and a) they will now be able to work out its DNA sequence more or less the same day b) they will then be able to design a vaccine in a computer c) they will be able to create the DNA they have designed in the lab much faster than ever possible before but d) they will be able to email the design for this vaccine DNA anywhere in the world, at the speed of a telephone wire, at the speed of light.

That is what the title of the book means. New designs for synthesised life forms can now be developed in computers (which are working faster and faster) and then emailed wherever they’re required i.e. to the centre of the outbreak of a new disease, where labs will be able to use the techniques pioneered by Venter’s teams to culture and mass produce vaccines at record speeds.

Scientific myopia

I hate to rain on his parade, but I might as well lay out as clearly as I can the reasons why I am not as excited about the future as Venter. Why I am more a J.G. Ballard and John Gray man than a Venter man.

1. Most people don’t know or care Venter takes the position of many of the scientists I’ve been reading – from the mathematicians Alex Bellos and Ian Stewart through to the astrophysicists Stephen Hawking and Paul Davies and Paul Barrow, to the origin-of-life men Cairns-Smith and Addy Pross – that new discoveries in their fields are earth-shatteringly important and will make ordinary people stop in their tracks, and look at their neighbour on the bus or train and exclaim, ‘NOW I understand it! NOW I know the meaning of life! NOW I realise what it’s all about.’

A moment’s reflection tells you that this simply won’t happen. Einstein’s relativity, Schrödinger and Bohr’s quantum mechanics, the structure of DNA, cloning, the discovery of black holes – what is striking is how little impact most of these ‘seismic’ discoveries have had on most people’s lives or thinking.

Ask your friends and family which of the epic scientific discoveries of the 20th century I’ve listed above has made the most impact on their lives. Or they’ve even heard of. Or could explain.

2. Most people are not intellectuals This error (the notion that ordinary people are excited about scientific ‘breakthroughs’) is based on a deeper false premise, one of the great category errors common to all these kind of books and magazine articles and documentaries – which is that the authors think that everyone else in society is a university-educated intellectual like themselves, whereas, very obviously, they are not. Trump. Brexit. Most people in western democracies are not university-educated intellectuals.

3. Public debate is often meaningless Worse, university-educated intellectuals have a bad habit of believing that something called ‘education’ and ‘public debate’ will control the threat posed by these new technologies:

Opportunities for public debate and discussion on this topic must be sponsored, and the lay public must engage with the relevant issues. (p.215)

Famous last words. Look at the ‘debate’ surrounding Brexit. Have any of the thousands of articles, documentaries, speeches, books and tweets helped solve the situation? No.

‘Debate’ hardly ever solves anything. Clear-cut and affordable solutions which people can understand and get behind solve things.

4. A lot of people are nasty, some are evil Not only this but Venter, like all the other highly-educated, middle-class, liberal intellectuals I’ve mentioned, thinks that people are fundamentally nice – will welcome their discoveries, will only use them for the good of mankind, and so on.

Megalolz, as my kids would say. No. People are not nice. The Russians and the Chinese are using the internet to target other countries’ vital infrastructures, and sow misinformation. Islamist warriors are continually looking for ways to attack ‘the West’, the more spectacular, the more deaths, the better. In 2010 Israel is alleged to have carried out the first cyberattack on another nation’s infrastructure when it (allegedly) attacked a uranium enrichment facility at Iran’s Natanz underground nuclear site.

In other words, cyberspace is not at all a realm where high-minded intellectuals meet and debate worthy moral issues, and where synthetic biologists devise life-saving new vaccines and beam them to locations of epidemic outbreaks ‘at the speed of light’. Cyberspace is already a war zone.

And it is a warzone in a world which contains some nasty regimes, not just those which are in effect dictatorships (Iran, China) but even many of the so-called democracies.

Trump. Putin. Erdogan. Bolsonaro. Viktor Orban. These are all right-wing demagogues who were voted into power in democratic elections.

It seems to me that both the peoples, and the leaders, who Venter puts his faith in are simply not up to the job of understanding, using wisely or safeguarding, the speed of light technology he is describing.

Venter goes out of his way, throughout the book, to emphasise how socially responsible he and his Institute and his research have been, how they have taken part in, sponsored and contributed to umpteen conferences and seminars, alongside government agencies like the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, into the ‘ethics’ of conducting synthetic biology (i.e. designing and building new organisms) and into its risks (terrorists use it to create lethal biological weapons).

Indeed, most of chapter ten is devoted to the range of risks – basically, terrorist use or some kind of accident – which could lead to the release of harmful, synthesised organisms into the environment – accompanied by a lot of high-minded rhetoric about the need to ‘educate the public’ and ‘engage a lay audience’ and ‘exchange views’, and so on…

I believe that the issue of the responsible use of science is fundamental… (p.215)

Quite. But then the thousands of scientists and technicians who invented the atom bomb were highly educated, highly moral and highly responsible people, too. But it wasn’t them who funded it, deployed it and pushed the red button. Good intentions are not enough.

Related links

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The Environment

Genetics and life

Human evolution


Particle physics


Socialism: Utopian and Scientific by Frederick Engels (1880)

Modern Socialism is, in its essence, the direct product of the recognition, on the one hand, of the class antagonisms existing in the society of today between proprietors and non-proprietors, between capitalists and wage-workers; on the other hand, of the anarchy existing in production. (Opening sentence)

I bought my copy of Socialism: Utopian and Scientific in a cheap Chinese edition from the Marxist bookshop under Brixton railway arches in the 1980s. It cost 45p. Neither the Chinese editions nor the bookshop exist any more.


A feature of the texts by Marx and Engels is the way they come festooned with prefaces and introductions. This is because:

  1. The societies they were describing in such detail, kept evolving and changing: the Europe of 1848 for which the Communist Manifesto was written had changed a lot by 1868, and out of all recognition by 1888.
  2. More subtly, socialism itself kept changing, in the hands of socialist and communist parties spread right across the continent, some of which were banned, some of which (e.g. in Germany) entered Parliament, some of which (e.g. in England) were tempted to join forces with the increasingly well-organised trades unions who weren’t interested in overthrowing capitalism at all; they wanted to keep it in place, but with better pay and conditions for their members.

And thus Marx and Engels found themselves having to tag new introductions and prefaces to all their works in order to keep up with the changing realities of European society, and also the changing nature of socialist belief, which included the continual eruption of new and heretical brands of socialism.

This text has a foreword by Marx, two prefaces by Engels and then an introduction by Engels which is nearly as long (30 pages) as the original text (56 pages).

Origins and impact

Socialism: Utopian and Scientific is such a short text because it is an extract from a longer work Engels wrote in 1878, entitled Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science or the Anti-Dühring, as it became known.

During the 1870s the German philosopher, positivist, economist, and socialist Eugen Karl Dühring (1833–1921) published a sequence of books in which he enunciated a ‘positivist’ philosophy, on which he based a form of ‘ethical communism’, along with an economic theory which suggested there would eventually be a harmony of the interests of capitalists and labourers. Things, in other words, could only get better. Dühring’s extensive erudition across numerous fields, and his ‘soft’ form of communism, made his ideas influential in left-wing circles.

Marx and Engels were naturally alarmed because Dühring’s views undermined their insistence on the necessity of class warfare, and the inevitability of a violent revolution in which the radicalised proletariat would overthrow bourgeois capitalism. Dühring denied all this.

Also, it happened that both Marx and Engels had for some time being mulling over the fact that Marx’s great masterwork, Capital, was impenetrable to ordinary readers and that they should probably write a more accessible summary of their philosophical, political and economic theories for the man in the street.

Thus the need for a handy summary of Marxism combined with the urge to refute Dühring’s views inspired Engels to write his lengthy Anti-Dühring – and then to extract three chapters of it into the present work.

Socialism: Utopian and Scientific went on to become probably the most influential single work written by either Marx or Engels. It was quickly translated into over ten European languages, and widely distributed. It became the main vehicle publicising their socialist ideas in the key decades from 1890 to 1910.

In his epic biography of Marx, Gareth Stedman Jones quotes contemporaries testifying to its impact. According to the communist David Riazanov, founder of the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow after the revolution (and then a high-profile victim of Stalin’s show trials in the 1930s):

Anti-Dühring was epoch-making in the history of Marxism. It was from this book that the younger generation, which began its activity during the second half of the 1870s, learned what was scientific socialism, what were its philosophical premises, what was its method… all the young Marxists who entered the public arena in the early 1880s – Bernstein, Kautsky, Plekhanov – were brought up on this book.

And Karl Kautsky, the Czech communist and torch bearer of orthodox Marxism between Engels’ death in 1895 and the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, said:

Judging by the influence that Anti-Dühring had upon me, no other book can have contributed so much to the understanding of Marxism. Marx’s Capital is the more powerful work, certainly. But it was only through Anti-Dühring that we learned to understand Capital and read it properly. (quoted in Jones, p.560)


Overall the book aims to distinguish Marx’s communism from all other previous and current versions of socialism, which Engels dismisses as ‘utopian’. Those other theories were or are based on morality – on moral feelings of outrage, sympathy for the oppressed, appeals to ‘justice’, and so on and so on.

Marx’s communism alone was scientific in the sense that Marx claimed to have uncovered the economic laws which underpinned the development of human civilisation and to have shown that a communist revolution will come regardless of anyone’s feelings or intentions.

Marx’s sociology had revealed that all previous societies have been based on class conflict. More than this, Marx had shown how societies evolve through the process of Dialectical Materialism, namely that at any given epoch there is a master narrative or ideology which, of necessity, contains within it the seeds of opposition and of its eventual overthrow. Within the slave society of ancient Rome lay the seeds of the feudal system. Within the feudal system lay the guilds and the seeds of the mercantilism which superseded it. Within mercantilism lay the seeds of the more organised, competitive capitalism.

And the capitalist system now triumphing in the West contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction. For, by concentrating more and more wealth and power in the hands of the bourgeoisie, the system inevitably, and unstoppably, created a larger and larger and larger class of powerless, impoverished, immiserated people – the proletariat – which sooner or later, must inevitably realise their superior strength, rise up and overthrow their capitalist masters and thus give rise to the communist society where everyone carries out productive labour, as they wish, and where everyone is equal.

This process was reinforced by the fundamental instability of capitalism – this was caused by the endless clash of rival companies and their products, an economic chaos which created day to day social anarchy, led inevitably to regular financial crashes and depressions and, at its highest level, gave rise to wars between rival capitalist empires fighting over raw materials and new markets in the third world.

This ‘system’, Engels explains, is simply not sustainable and will sooner or later crash under the weight of its own ‘contradictions’.

Chapter one

Engels begins the book by describing the thought of some characteristic ‘utopian’ socialists, starting with Saint-Simon, before going on to Charles Fourier and Robert Owen. He shows how their versions of socialism contained many insights but, at bottom, merely reflected the personal opinions of the authors.

Saint-Simon had the genius as early as 1802 to enunciate the principle that ‘all men must work’; to realise that the French Revolution had been a struggle not only between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie but also the propertyless poor; and by 1815 was predicting that politics would soon boil down to issues of production: politics, in other words, would morph into economics – ‘the administration of things and the guidance of the processes of production’.

Fourier declared that humanity had progressed through four stages – savagery, patriarchy, barbarism and civilisation – each of which, including the bourgeois society of his time, partaking of the same tensions and stresses.

Robert Owen set up a model cotton factory at New Lanark in Scotland where he made the workers work shorter hours, and not the then customary seven days a week, provided hygienic accommodation and invented the infant school for the children. With the result that there was no drunkenness, no crime – and yet his investors still made sizeable returns on their money. Owen developed the idea that the wealth the working class produced ought to be retained by the working class instead of being siphoned off to support the aristocracy and the endless war against Napoleon. As his attacks on private property, religion and marriage became more strident, so Owen was dropped by his initial supporters.

According to Engels, each of these three political thinkers had valid and sometimes insightful contributions – but mixed up with hobby horses, personal views and experiences. The net effect was to contribute to a confused and confusing mish-mash of opinions welling up from the obvious injustices of society, and a thousand different schemes to put them right.

By contrast ‘scientific socialism’ derives from the close study of reality. It is based on a materialist conception of human history, and on the premise that the most important feature of any society is its level of technological achievement. The technology, and the economic system which derives from it, are the basis of the classes into which any given society is based, and underpin the ideology which is the collective value and belief system of that society.

  • The economic basis of society.
  • The instability of the capitalist system, constantly forced to seek out greater profits, new markets, resulting in periodic gluts and recessions.
  • The inevitability of class conflict between factory owners and workers.
  • The unstoppable triumph of the proletariat.

Chapter two

This is a short but genuinely interesting attempt to explain what dialectical materialism is.

Engels starts by asking you to reflect on your own experience and thoughts, how they are a constant flood of impressions and mental leaps and connections. Similarly, a moment’s reflection suggests that all organisms, people, objects, are in a constant state of flux. The Greeks knew this. They called it the dialectic, the acceptance of flow and change.

It was only from about the 16th century that western philosophers began to develop what became the natural sciences, whose central methodology is to isolate and define entities. This led to the triumph of Newtonian cosmology, which was reflected in the eighteenth century effort to define and categorise everything into static categories. Fixed entities. Unchanging mechanisms. The opposite of flow and change.

Engels sees the philosophy of Hegel as a rebellion against this mechanistic view of the universe and people. Hegel wanted to re-establish the impermanence of all entities and of all thought as the central feature of existence.

Engels goes on to claim that, as the 19th century had progressed, all the sciences had tended to prove Hegel right. We now know that planets and solar systems and even galaxies aren’t static, but come into and out of existence. The very landscape of the earth has changed out of all recognition over billions of years and is continually changing. Charles Darwin had proved that species are in a permanent state of flux. Even biology had proved that individual human beings – and all life forms – consist of cells which are continually dying, being sloughed off and replaced.

We are all of us, at the same time, something and not something. We are all processes.

This is the rebirth of dialectical thinking based on up-to-date science. This is a dialectic of matter. This is dialectical materialism, a worldview based on the idea that all things are in a state of flux, including humans and including human societies.

There is no such thing as a static society, there are no such things as static social ‘values’. A scientific study of history (such as the kind Marx and Engels claimed to have pioneered) shows that all previous societies have been in states of flux, always changing and evolving.

What Marx has proven in Capital and other writings is that these changes are not random, but the product of certain historical laws – laws which show that:

  • all societies are based on the technology of the day
  • the technology is owned and exploited by a ruling class which is always pitted against those it exploits, whether slaves or serfs or workers
  • the ruling classes produce an ‘ideology’ which contains the ideas used to justify and bolster their power – ‘religion’, ‘morality’, ‘the sanctity of marriage’ etc

But each era has not only had a dominant class, but contains within itself seeds of the opposing class which will rise up and overthrow it.

From that time forward, Socialism was no longer an accidental discovery of this or that ingenious brain, but the necessary outcome of the struggle between two historically developed classes – the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Its task was no longer to manufacture a system of society as perfect as possible, but to examine the historico-economic succession of events from which these classes and their antagonism had of necessity sprung, and to discover in the economic conditions thus created the means of ending the conflict. But the Socialism of earlier days was as incompatible with this materialist conception as the conception of Nature of the French materialists was with dialectics and modern natural science. The Socialism of earlier days certainly criticized the existing capitalistic mode of production and its consequences. But it could not explain them, and, therefore, could not get the mastery of them. It could only simply reject them as bad. The more strongly this earlier Socialism denounced the exploitations of the working-class, inevitable under Capitalism, the less able was it clearly to show in what this exploitation consisted and how it arose.

Lacking a proper understanding of a) dialectical thinking i.e. the constant process of becoming, and b) the material basis of society and human nature, the reformers Engels mentioned in chapter one – Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen – certainly had ‘inspired moments’, but were unable to effect any real change.

The theory of surplus labour

Added to this philosophical breakthrough is another insight, just as important, in the field of economics, which is Marx’s discovery of how capitalism works.

Capitalism works through squeezing out of each worker the ‘surplus value’ of his labour. Vampire-like, capitalism accumulates wealth by stealing the worker’s productive labour.

The more strongly this earlier Socialism denounced the exploitations of the working-class, inevitable under Capitalism, the less able was it clearly to show in what this exploitation consisted and how it arose. For this it was necessary to present the capitalistic mode of production in its historical connection and its inevitableness during a particular historical period, and therefore, also, to present its inevitable downfall; and to lay bare its essential character, which was still a secret.

This was done by the discovery of surplus-value.

It was shown that the appropriation of unpaid labour is the basis of the capitalist mode of production and of the exploitation of the worker that occurs under it; that even if the capitalist buys the labour power of his labourer at its full value as a commodity on the market, he yet extracts more value from it than he paid for; and that in the ultimate analysis, this surplus-value forms those sums of value from which are heaped up constantly increasing masses of capital in the hands of the possessing classes. The genesis of capitalist production and the production of capital were both explained.

These two great discoveries, the materialistic conception of history and the revelation of the secret of capitalistic production through surplus-value, we owe to Marx. With these discoveries, Socialism became a science.

Chapter three

Applies Marx and Engels’s materialist view to history.

The materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that the production of the means to support human life and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure; that in every society that has appeared in history, the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or orders is dependent upon what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products are exchanged. From this point of view, the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men’s brains, not in men’s better insights into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange. They are to be sought, not in the philosophy, but in the economics of each particular epoch.

This passage introduces a lengthy description of the way capitalist production arose out of medieval, feudal production, of how individual cottage producers gave way to workshops and then to factory owners who could produce goods cheaper than individual artisans and craftsmen, who drove them to of business, and forced them to become wage-slaves working in their factories.

But, remember – according to Hegel’s dialectic, any system is always changing, always contains within itself the seeds of its own overthrow.

For example, the capitalist, by creating a huge labour force of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of workers – creates the very force that will overthrow him, a huge mass of exploited workers who are capable, because of their new proximity to each other, of discussing and understanding their plight, of organising and educating and, eventually, of rising up and ending their exploitation.

The joy of paradoxes

Marx and Engels enjoy paradoxes. In fact their argument often proceeds by paradoxical reversals rather by than strict logic. For example, there’s a long, involved passage where Engels explains that new technology and new machinery – which ought to make everyone’s lives more pleasant – is twisted by the capitalist system (i.e. the ravenous competition between capitalists, the need to keep costs down) into the very thing which oppresses the worker. For the spread of new technology leads to the laying off of workers, who then create a pool of unemployed labour, ready and willing to be re-employed and the cheapest rates, which allows the capitalist to reduce wages to his existing staff.

Thus it comes about, to quote Marx, that machinery becomes the most powerful weapon in the war of capital against the working-class; that the instruments of labor constantly tear the means of subsistence out of the hands of the laborer; that the very product of the worker is turned into an instrument for his subjugation.

This is given as an example of dialectical thinking, although to the literary-minded it could also be interpreted as a love of ironic reversals and paradoxes, a love of binaries which Marx and Engels again and again collapse into their opposites.

But the chief means by aid of which the capitalist mode of production intensified this anarchy of socialized production was the exact opposite of anarchy. It was the increasing organization of production, upon a social basis, in every individual productive establishment

Accumulation of wealth at one pole [among capitalists] is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole, i.e., on the side of the [workers].

In the trusts, freedom of competition changes into its very opposite – into monopoly.

The rise of monopolies

Engels points to a number of trends in contemporary capitalist society where, he claims, you can see the dialectical opposite of capitalist production already appearing.

For example, there is a tendency to monopoly in a number of industries e.g. railways or telegraphs. By an irony the tendency of a handful of big companies to buy up all the smaller ones repeats on a higher level the way early capitalists drove out small, cottage producers. Now it’s a lot of the capitalists who are turned into a ‘reserve army’ with nothing much to do all day except count their dividends.

At first, the capitalistic mode of production forces out the workers. Now, it forces out the capitalists, and reduces them, just as it reduced the workers, to the ranks of the surplus-population…

One step further along this line, in many European countries the state has bought out the monopoly capitalists, nationalising the railways and some other industries. This move is at one and the same time the peak of capitalist monopoly control but also – a forerunner of the way the state run by the workers will abolish all companies and run everything themselves.

The capitalist relationship is not abolished, rather it is pushed to the limit. But at this limit it changes into its opposite.

There is something powerful, slick, and magically persuasive about this rhetoric, like the famous phrases in The Communist Manifesto which describe the constructive/destructive impact of capitalism:

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…

It is a very effective way of thinking and makes for a powerful rhetoric.

The communist utopia

Having explained why previous socialist thinkers were mere rootless dreamers, having explained how Hegel’s theory of the dialectic can be allied with modern science to generate a theory of how things change, having explained how a materialist view of history throws out all fancy talk about God and Sin and Justice and focuses on the changing nature of production and the class antagonisms this throws up – and having looked in detail at why capitalist production is so unstable and gives rise to regular crises and recessions – Engels has prepared his reader for a vision of what a communist state should look like.

Namely that the means of production should not be used to enslave people and to create an unregulated chaos of competition – but brought into the ownership of the state, a state acting on behalf of everyone, so as to plan work and production, so as to maximise human life, health and happiness.

This solution can only consist in the practical recognition of the social nature of the modern forces of production, and therefore in the harmonizing with the socialized character of the means of production. And this can only come about by society openly and directly taking possession of the productive forces which have outgrown all control, except that of society as a whole. The social character of the means of production and of the products today reacts against the producers, periodically disrupts all production and exchange, acts only like a law of Nature working blindly, forcibly, destructively. But, with the taking over by society of the productive forces, the social character of the means of production and of the products will be utilized by the producers with a perfect understanding of its nature, and instead of being a source of disturbance and periodical collapse, will become the most powerful lever of production itself.

And the state, which has hitherto all through history been nothing more than the legal instrument through which the oppressing class dominates society – once it is identified with the great mass of the oppressed class, once it becomes truly representative of all of society – will die out. The state will wither away. Because its repressive function is no longer required in a society where production is controlled and planned by the whole population.

Insofar as the (repressive) government of persons is replaced by the (fair and just) administration of things. of the products of industry – so the entity which repressed people (the state) will simply vanish 🙂

It is here!

Engels has one last point to make, which is that the time for revolution is now, not because this, that or the other activist thinks so: but because it is objectively the case in the economic development of the West. In the early industrial revolution the amount produced by factories was barely enough to maintain subsistence living among the immiserated proletariat. But in the past forty years the amount of output, the wealth and variety and richness of industrial products, have reached new heights.

The socialized appropriation of the means of production does away, not only with the present artificial restrictions upon production, but also with the positive waste and devastation of productive forces and products that are at the present time the inevitable concomitants of production, and that reach their height in each new economic crisis.

Further, it sets free for the community at large a mass of means of production and of products, by doing away with the senseless extravagance of the ruling classes of today, and their political representatives.

The possibility of securing for every member of society, by means of socialized production, an existence not only fully sufficient materially, and becoming day-by-day more full, but an existence guaranteeing to all the free development and exercise of their physical and mental faculties – this possibility is now, for the first time, here. It is here.

With the seizing of the means of production by society, production of commodities is done away with, and, simultaneously, the mastery of the product over the producer. Anarchy in social production [i.e. chaotic competition between capitalists which leads to regular crises] is replaced by systematic, definite organization.

The struggle for individual existence disappears. Then, for the first time, man, in a certain sense, will finally be marked off from the rest of the animal kingdom, and emerge from mere animal conditions of existence into really human ones.

The whole sphere of the conditions of life which environ man, and which have hitherto ruled man, will now come under the dominion and control of man, who for the first time becomes the real, conscious lord of nature, because he has now become master of his own social organization.

The laws of his own social action, hitherto standing face-to-face with man as laws of Nature foreign to, and dominating him, will now be used with full understanding, and so mastered by him.

Man’s own social organization, hitherto confronting him as a necessity imposed by Nature and history, will now become the result of his own free action.

The extraneous objective forces that have, hitherto, governed history, will pass under the control of man himself.

Only from that time will man himself, more and more consciously, make his own history – only from that time will the social causes set in movement by him have, in the main and in a constantly growing measure, the results intended by him.

It is the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.


Wow. This is mind-blowing rhetoric, a heady, drunken mix of German philosophy, English economics, underpinned by the latest scientific theories and brought to bear on the great social issues of the age.

You can see why scads of people, from illiterate workers to highly educated intellectuals, would be roused and inspired by this vision. It is, at the end of the day, a wish for a better society, a wish every bit as utopian as the wish of Saint-Simon or Owen – but it is dressed up in a battery of ‘scientific’ and philosophical and economic arguments which pummel the brain like a heavyweight boxer.

Without doubt Marx brought an incredible rigour and thoroughness to left-wing thought across Europe, and then around the world, and his insights into how capitalism works, why it seems condemned to periodic crises, and into the way a culture’s ‘ideology’ masks the true nature of class conflict or exploitation of the poor by the rich, all these remain fertile insights right down to our own time.

But the entire prophetic and practical aspect of his creed failed. The most advanced economies – America, Britain and Germany – instead of experiencing a millennial revolution, managed to co-opt the workers into the fabric of bourgeois society by offering them the benefits of a welfare state – shorter hours, better working conditions, health benefits, pensions.

Exploitation continued, strikes and riots continued and the entire fabric of the West came under strain during periods of depression and seemed to many to have completely collapsed during the Great Depression, and yet…  even amid this ruinous failure of capitalism, the promised communist uprising never took place.

Instead, the revolution occurred in the most economically and socially backward society in Europe, Russia, and even then, less as a result of the inevitable triumph of capitalism magically morphing into its opposite – the process so beguilingly described by Engels in this entrancing pamphlet – but by straightforward social collapse brought about by prolonged war and starvation.

A political vacuum in which Lenin and his zealots were able to carry out a political and military coup, which then took years of civil war and immense suffering to settle down into the kind of prolonged totalitarian dictatorship which would have horrified Marx and Engels.

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  • Warsaw 1920 by Adam Zamoyski (2008) How the Polish army stopped the Red Army from conquering Poland and pushing on to foment revolution in Germany.
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  • 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.
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