Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers @ the Photographers’ Gallery

The Photographer’s Gallery is a tall, narrow building on a corner of Ramillies Street (numbers 16-18, to be precise) just behind Oxford Street, a hundred yards east of Oxford Circus. It’s an enjoyable maze, with exhibition spaces on the 5th, 4th and 3rd floors, a café on the ground floor and a shop of photography books and film cameras in the basement.

Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers

I came to see the large exhibition of rare vintage photos of men and women cross-dressing, entitled Under Cover.

The exhibition is drawn from the personal archives of French film-maker and photograph collector Sébastien Lifshitz. For over 20 years he’s been building up an extensive collection of amateur photographs from Europe and the US documenting the surprisingly widespread practice of adult cross-dressing. The very earliest photos are from the 1860s and the collection goes on through to the 1960s.

Man in makeup wearing a ring. Photograph from a photo booth, with highlights of color. United States, circa 1920.© Sébastien Lifshitz Collection courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Man in makeup wearing a ring. Photograph from a photo booth, with highlights of color. United States, circa 1920.© Sébastien Lifshitz Collection courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

The photos are all ‘found’ – meaning none were commissioned or taken by Lifshitz, but are largely anonymous photos of unnamed and unknown figures which he has picked up at flea markets, garage sales, junk shops and on Ebay, among other non-specialist sources. As the exhibition introduction puts it:

These photographs of men and women posing for the camera, using the clothes and gestures traditionally assigned to the ‘opposite sex’ offer a moving and candid view into the hidden worlds of countless individuals and groups who chose to ‘defy gender conventions.’

Lifshitz’s initial impulse was simply to document the act of cross-dressing, limiting his aim to accumulating photographs which showed men dressing as women and vice versa.

But as the collection grew, he began to detect different themes among the images, themes which began to suggest more interesting ways of categorising and explaining cross-dressing culture.

A group of 12 cross-dressing women in America, 1912

A group of twelve cross-dressing women in America, 1912

The historical prevalence of cross-dressing

I’m not all that surprised that lots of men have enjoyed dressing up as women because I was raised on the TV sitcoms It Ain’t Half Hot, MumThe Dick Emery Show and the Kenny Everett Show in which men routinely dressed up as women, albeit for comedic purposes.

Drag queen Danny La Rue was all over the telly in my boyhood. He was awarded an OBE. Later on came the popular success of Lily Savage and the ongoing career of her creator, Paul O’Grady, who was awarded an MBE in 2008. Somewhere in between was Julian Clary who dresses fairly modestly now but was on TV throughout the 1980s wearing in the most outrageous outfits.

As a teenager I read biographies of Oscar Wilde and his gay circle which included cross-dressers. Also accounts of the ‘decadent’ Paris of the Second Empire or the ‘decadent’ Germany of the Weimar Republic, where men dressed as woman, wore lipstick and so on, and women wore men’s clothes, smoked cigarettes. And so on and so on.

In fact it’s a strange thing about the present generation of art curators that they sometimes give the impression of thinking that they’ve invented ‘deviant’ sex – homosexuality, bisexuality and all manner of other sexual practices – as if all these things are somehow new or can ‘only now’ be brought to public attention. This ‘now it can be told’ tone was also apparent in the recent exhibitions of Queer Art at Tate Britain and Outsider Art (featuring plenty of transvestites and transsexuals) at the Barbican.

As if there aren’t records of this kind of thing happening among the ancient Greeks or among the Romans, as if we don’t have records of it in Hindu and Moghul societies, as if Shakespeare’s comedies aren’t packed with cross-dressing gender ambivalence, or as if playing with gender roles hasn’t even been recorded among tribal societies. My point is that there is good evidence for so-called ‘deviant’ sexuality having been a permanent feature of the human race for as long as we have records.

  • From Sappho to Sand: Historical Perspective on Crossdressing and Cross Gender (1981) This paper reviews the history of cross-dressing, commencing with the Great Mother Cult through the Greco-Roman period and Judeo-Christian times, followed by the Renaissance period up to the 19th century to illustrate that cross-gender behaviour and cross-dressing are not new phenomena but have been present since the beginning of recorded history.

What, I suppose, is new about this treasure trove of material which Sébastien Lifshitz has collected is not the fact of extensive cross-dressing – it is that it has been so extensively documented in photographs.

The photographs provide a treasure trove of incontrovertible visual evidence, as opposed to all previous accounts which are based on the more slender and unreliable evidence of written records, anecdote, autobiography etc.

What photography does that written journalism or history or ethnography can’t is to say Here we are: we were real people, we had lives like you, we were short and tall and fat and thin and had freckles and spots and imperfections, we were flesh and blood like you and this is what we liked to do. You can’t deny or block or repress us. We were here and this world is our world, too.

Themes and chapters

The most interesting thing about the exhibition is not the news that for hundreds of years men have liked dressing up as women and women dressing up as men. That in itself is boring. What I found fascinating was the themes or areas into which Lifshitz divides his material.

There are about a dozen of them, each introduced by a lengthy wall label and they are as well-ordered and thoughtful as the chapters of a book.  They include ‘the New Woman’, cross-dressing in prison camps, cross-dressing in cabarets and vaudeville, the phenomenon of ‘drag queens’, cross-dressing in turn-of-the-century in American universities, in circus and travelling shows, and many more.

Cross-dressing prisoners of war

It’s the specificity of many of these sub-sets which grabs the attention. Thus anyone who didn’t realise there is a great deal of homosexual activity in any army is naive, but a wall of photos here demonstrate the existence of cross-dressing cabarets in prisoner of war camps during both the First and Second World Wars, surely a very specialised category of activity and image. It is extraordinary that prisoners were allowed to take photos of each other dressed up, and that so many of these images have survived.

French prisoners of war in the German camp Königsbrück circa 1915 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

French prisoners of war in the German prisoner of war camp Königsbrück circa 1915 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Not a job for a woman

A section deals with the backlash against the ‘New Woman’, a term coined to describe a new vogue for independent and assertive (generally upper-class) women in the 1890s.

The usual type of panic-stricken cultural conservative predicted that if women started taking up masculine habits and activities they would soon stop menstruating, become infertile and Western civilisation would grind to a halt. You can read this kind of thing in any number of histories of feminism.

Lifshitz has found various photos which are designed as a satire on this fashion. They show women posing in the costumes of traditionally ‘male’ roles (the army etc) and are designed to show how ridiculous it is for women to do the work of men – but done in a comically stylish way which suggests the photographer was taking the mickey out of the conservative critics as much as the women. The sequence is titled ‘Women of the Future’.

Women of the Future © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Women of the Future © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

It’s a tiny window on the past and its popular prejudices, but also shows photographers and their audience quite capable of joking about the subject, about traditional gender roles and their ‘subversion’.

Cross-dressing weddings

Apparently, cross dressing was fairly common on women-only university campuses in America in the last decades of the nineteenth century. There were clubs in which women could openly wear mannish dress. What I’d never heard of before is that there was a fashion for carrying out wedding ceremonies with an all-female cast, many of whom – well, at least the groom – were dressed as men.

Mock wedding, United States, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Mock wedding, United States, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Were these a preparation for ‘adult’ life and marriage, or an odd fashion, or a satire on heterosexual norms?

The more of these sub-sets or sub-types of cross-dressing which Lifshitz presents, the more you realise that this apparently simple topic in fact covers or brings together a surprisingly diverse range of activities, attitudes and motives.

The nineteenth century growth of bourgeois conformity

Just to step back and remind ourselves of a little social history. The mid- and later-19th century saw a hardening of gender roles and stereotypes, and a concomitant a loss of psychological and sexual flexibility.

The flamboyant costumes which men commonly wore in the 16th, 17th and 18th century and which had endured into the Regency society which young princess Victoria grew up in – all those silks, ribbons, ruffs and bows – were steadily dropped as the century progressed in favour of increasingly plain, black, stiff and constricting clothes for men, and absurdly big, complex skirts with baffles and corsets, for women.

One of the complaints against Tory Party leader and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was that he dressed, oiled his hair and perfumed himself like the fashionable dandy which he’d been in the 1830s, long into the 1870s when such looks and behaviour had become frowned upon.

It is only in this particular historical context, in the setting of an increasingly ‘bourgeois’ concern for strict conformity to repressive social appearances, that all manner of previous types of ‘dressing up’ increasingly came to be seen as unfashionable, then undesirable, and then began to be perceived as a threat to social norms and conventions.

Why did all this happen? The conventional explanation is that the industrial revolution made life harder, more embattled and more intense for everyone, and that this was reflected in increasingly repressive cultural and social norms.

In the 18th century there had been the landowner who occasionally came up to Town and saw a small circle of bankers or courtiers, but mostly lived in reasonable agreement with the labourers who worked his land.

All this changed and kept on changing relentlessly throughout the 19th century as the new system of factories and industrialisation swept across the country. This turned rural labourers into an embittered and impoverished urban proletariat living in hastily thrown up terraced hovels, who periodically threatened to march on London or overthrow the entire political order.

In parallel was created a new class of arriviste factory owners who took advantage of their new-found wealth to try to and compete with the land-owning aristocracy in terms of lifestyle and attitude, but nervously aware of the fragility of their wealth and status.

All the classes of Britain felt more threatened and insecure. Britain had more wealth than ever before, but for many (many businessmen, factory owners and the bankers who served them) their wealth was more precarious that the wealth generated from land – as demonstrated by successive economic depressions and banking crashes through the later 19th century. These periodic economic depressions led to the steady sequence of violent socialist revolutions on continental Europe (for example, in France in 1848 and 1870) which put the fear of God into the English bourgeoisie.

In this socio-economic context, culture was permeated by a permanent anxiety, a dread that the existing state of affairs could easily collapse, from any number of causes. (I haven’t mentioned the dark cloud of anxiety created by the writings of Thomas Malthus who speculated that, if unchecked, the poorest of the poor would breed like rabbits and swamp society in illiterate thugs – yet another source for the widespread conviction that the uncontrollable sex instinct must be bridled, restricted and channelled into only the most strict, state-endorsed practices.)

And so the upper sections of society policed their own behaviour with ever-increasing anxiety that any lapse from the impeccably high standards of behaviour they set themselves might be it, the crack, the first tremor of the great social apocalypse they all feared.

The stress and anxiety about sexual deviation which had built up throughout the century into a permanent neurosis helps to explain the viciousness of the gaol sentence given to Oscar Wilde for homosexual behaviour (two years hard labour) since the judge and his class felt that an example must be made to terrify all other homosexuals into abandoning a practice which, according to their history books, had accompanied the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

Imperial dressing up

Speaking of empires, it might be illuminating to take a detour to the big exhibition about the British Empire and Artists which Tate Britain held a few years ago.

This had a section about imperialists dressing up. It made the point that throughout the 18th century and the first half of the nineteenth century, British men, in particular, had a fancy for ‘going native’ and dressing up in the costumes of their colonial subjects. Take, for example, this image of Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, wearing traditional Afghan Dress, by the painter James Sant (1842).

Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, lately a hostage in Caubool, in his Afghan Dress (1842) by James Sant

Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, lately a hostage in Caubool, in his Afghan Dress (1842) by James Sant (Tate Britain)

But the Indian Mutiny (or the First War of Independence as Indian historians call it) of 1857 changed all this. It introduced a new note of bitterness between ruler and ruled. After the British Government took over direct rule of India from the East India Company it enforced far more strict divisions between ‘natives’ and their colonial masters, divisions which, within a generation, had hardened into unbreakable taboos.

My point is that it wasn’t only in the realm of ‘sexuality’ that people (generally well-off, well-educated people) who had once felt free to dress up as natives or women or generally amuse themselves in fancy costumes, felt themselves, in the second half of the nineteenth century, increasingly constricted in all aspects of their behaviour. It became wise to keep quiet about their little hobby or fetish.

The strictness of the taboo reflected the profundity of the anxiety – the anxiety widespread among the ruling, law-making and judging classes that one millimetre of flexibility around these issues of ‘correct’ behaviour would open cracks and fissures, which would quickly see all the ‘civilised’ values of society snap and unravel, the natives throw off their imperial masters, the great mass of impoverished proles rise up and overthrow their frock-coated masters – just as the barbarians had overthrown Rome once it abandoned the high moral principles of the republic and declined into the Tiberius-Caligula-Nero decadence of the empire.

Dressing up, wearing lipstick – isn’t that precisely what the Emperor Nero had done!

More cross-dressing

Back to the exhibition, which continues to entertain and provoke by demonstrating the wide variety of meanings cross dressing can have.

Transvestite entertainers

Take the enormous subject of cross-dressing entertainers. The wall label usefully distinguishes between men dressing as women to entertain and the far more flamboyant tradition of burlesque, which is characterised not just by women dressing as men, but by the outrageous exaggeration of ‘female’ qualities of grandstanding, elaborate dress, vamped-up make-up and so on.

The exhibition has several sets of photos of entertainers from way back at the start of the 20th century, showing how simple, naive and innocent an activity men dressing as women can seem.

Five performers on a platform. Albumen print, Hungary, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Five performers on a platform. Albumen print, Hungary, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

It describes the different forms these entertainments took in different countries, from vaudeville, burlesque and music hall at the turn of the century, on to nightclubs and revue bars between the wars.

But the sweet innocence of the turn-of-the-century is a world away, in style, glamour and bombast, from the really outrageously flamboyant cross-dressing entertainers of the 1950s onwards, a hugely popular form of entertainment in post-War Germany and France, which in England was named ‘drag’ – hence ‘drag queens’ – which continued in English popular entertainment down to my day.

Straight or gay?

Not all these men need have been gay. Many cross-dressers have been happily heterosexual but just enjoyed dressing up as women. There is, quite obviously and supported by the evidence here, a spectrum of cross-dressing behaviours and motivations, from essentially straight men who just liked slipping into a comfortable floral dress and putting on a bit of lippy – all the way to the experience of transgender men who feel from puberty or even earlier that they are inhabiting a body of the wrong gender, and so have gone to various lengths to try and transition to the other gender.

Transgender

On this theme of tansgender – the story of Marie-Pierre Pruvot (born Jean-Pierre Pruvot, 11 November 1935) takes up a couple of walls but is well worth it.

Born a male in Algeria, Marie-Pierre became a French transsexual woman who performed under the stage name ‘Bambi’. Bambi was famous enough by 1959 to be the subject of a TV documentary. When her performing days were over she studied for a degree from the Sorbonne and became a teacher of literature in 1974.

There are several walls full of photos of her here because Lifshitz made an award-winning documentary about her in 2013. There’s no doubting that in her prime she was gorgeous, in that glamorous late 50s, early 60s way.

Bambi (Marie-Pierre Pruvot) in the early 1960s

Bambi (Marie-Pierre Pruvot) in the early 1960s

Bambi undertook her own gender reassignment in an amateur way, buying over the counter hormones, until she had enough money to arrange an operation and help from medical professionals. There are several photos of her nude showing well-formed ‘female’ breasts. She didn’t just want to dress as a woman; she wanted to become a woman.

My point is that the transgender experience of wanting to become another sex is completely different:

  • from the heterosexual who likes dressing up as the opposite sex, for a while, as a hobby or fetish
  • from the homosexual who is likewise happy in his or her own skin, but as part of their character or as occasional role-playing likes dressing mannishly or femininely
  • from the homosexual who makes a living as a flamboyant drag queen

The Washington cross-dressers

Off to one side is a room which exhibits what seem to be the photos taken and shared among a network of rather boring, homely men who lived in 1950s Washington D.C., and who liked to dress up as rather boring, homely women and meet up at each other’s houses for parties – as recorded in a trove of photos Lifshitz has come into possession of and puts on display here.

Nothing loud or garish about it. The opposite. Rather humdrum. ‘Hello Mr Peters’, ‘Hello Mr Philips’ – except that the men passing the time of the day are wearing tasteful 1950s dresses with matching handbags.

Washington cross-dressers © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Washington cross-dressers © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

This sequence immediately reminded me of the section at the Barbican exhibition about the Casa Susanna, a retreat in the Catskill Mountains of New York state, created solely for cross-dressing men.

The more you look, the more you see.

Women dressing as men

As to women dressing as men, some were famous lesbians who made a point of their mannish attire – I can think of a number of Weimar portraits of such aggressively masculine women who cultivated a louche bohemian image.

Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix (1926)

Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix (1926)

But for everyone one of these ‘notorious’ literary or artistic figures, there must have been thousands of essentially ‘straight’ women at American campuses who enjoyed dressing up as men (apparently). And then millions and millions of women who were in no way homosexual but just rebelled against wearing the ridiculously encumbering outfits society had assigned to their gender at the turn of the twentieth century, and so – without ceasing to be heterosexual women – just wore more practical, less ‘feminine’ clothes.

What I’m struggling to say is that, the more you look at these photos and the more you study Lifshitz’s fascinating wall labels which draw distinctions and categories and types and flavours of cross-dressing, the more you realise that this apparently ‘simple’ activity has in fact been carried out by a staggeringly wide variety of people, over a long period of time, and for all kinds of reasons, from trivial game-playing to profound identity crisis, from student high jinks to being the basis for a prime-time television career.

The photos

The long section on Bambi is a bit of a spoiler, really, because not many of the other people on display here are quite as drop-dead gorgeous as her.

In this respect the photos serve as a reminder (like most other collections of historic photos) of the way in which sitters for photographs (and the photographers themselves) have become steadily more savvy, more stylish, more self-aware, from the embarrassing lumpishness of 1900 –

Burlesque comedian Crun-Crun in Avignon, France, 1900, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Burlesque comedian Crun-Crun in Avignon, France, 1900, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

to the knowing, rebel fagginess of the 1960s.

Man dressed as a woman, Mannheim, Germany, c.1960, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Man dressed as a woman, Mannheim, Germany, c.1960, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

This latter photograph could have been taken today, a reminder that the world changed out of all recognition in the 60 years from 1900 to 1960, from the Boer War to the Beatles, whereas in the sixty years since then most aspects of culture – sex and drugs and rock and roll, package holidays, blockbuster movies and the ‘rebel’ look – have remained surprisingly static.

Interview with Sébastien Lifshitz

P.S. Size isn’t everything

Contrary to the impression given by the reproductions above, all of the images are quite small, certainly none of them are poster-size or painting size. The biggest ones are postcard-size being themselves old prints made from photographic film in the old-fashioned way.

Some are even smaller than that – there are whole walls of images no more than a few inches wide: for example, the iconic image of the man wearing lipstick at the top of this review is in reality only a few inches across and you have to lean right in to see it properly.

Installation view of Under Cover at the Photographers' Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Under Cover at the Photographers’ Gallery (photo by the author)

Somehow this makes the images seem all the more rare and precious. Not commercially-made images capable of being blown up and sensationalised, but hundreds of small, often intimate, snapshots of secret lives, secret pleasures, secret wishes and secret fantasies, preserved in this fragile format to come back and haunt our brasher, more loudmouth age.

P.S. Floof yourself

A room to one side of the exhibition contains a big fabric blob covered in felt stick-on glasses, beards, moustaches and so on. To quote the instructions:

“Soof the Floof is a genderless, gelatinous, hairy little blob. This installation invites visitors to question ideas of gender, how wear gender, how we can subvert, deconstruct and reimagine gender. Soof the Floof is large felt Floof with felt props you can mix and match and playfully challenge ideas of gender.”

The room was empty. Shame. I’d have liked to watch some gender subversion in action.

Instructions on how to floof yourself

Instructions on how to floof yourself


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Karl Marx: Surveys from Exile 1848-1863

Back in the left-wing, strike-ridden 1970s, Penguin launched a standard edition of the works of Marx and Engels. It was produced in collaboration with New Left Review magazine (founded in 1960 as a forum for new left cultural and political debate, and still going strong in 2018 – New Left Review).

Marx wrote a lot: he was, after all, a freelance journalist by trade. Articles, pamphlets, books, historical studies, economic theory, introductions to other people’s books, political commentary, speeches, as well as a copious correspondence poured from his pen.

Penguin assembled some of this into three volumes devoted to Marx’s ‘political writings’ i.e. the shorter, more ephemeral pieces combined with the handful of book-length commentaries he wrote on contemporary events.

This is Volume Two of the political writings, covering the years from 1848 – after Marx was forced to flee the continent in light of the failed revolutions in Germany and France of that year – through to 1863, half way through the American Civil War. Fifteen years of writing and thinking.

The shorter pieces are:

  • a book review and eight articles about contemporary politics in Britain
  • four articles about India (specifically the Indian Mutiny of 1857)
  • one about China
  • two about the American Civil War
  • a speech celebrating the anniversary of The People’s Paper
  • a ‘proclamation’ on Poland for the German Workers Educational Association

But the lion’s share of the book (250 of its 370 pages) is taken up by Marx’s two seminal works of contemporary political analysis, The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850 (four separate newspaper articles published in Germany in 1850 and spliced together into book form by Engels) and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (written as newspaper articles between December 1851 and March 1852).

These works represent Marx’s most sustained attempts to apply the theories about class conflict and the ‘inevitable’ triumph of the industrial proletariat over the capital-owning bourgeoisie, which he had laid out in The Communist Manifesto of early 1848, to specific contemporary historical events in France.

The book benefits from a very focused, densely intellectual introduction by the Marxist scholar David Fernbach.

Five levels

Marx is always very readable, and often a very enjoyable read. However, assessing the validity / importance / relevance of what he wrote is very difficult, for a number of reasons. As I read through the book, I realised that there are at least five distinct levels at play, or five areas to be aware of:

  1. Historical facts All the texts refer to historical events. You can’t really understand the essays unless you have a good grasp of the actual events he’s analysing. Wikipedia is the obvious first stop.
  2. Marx’s interpretation Clearly the essays themselves present Marx’s interpretation of historical events, an interpretation which sees them all in terms of the struggle between the industrial proletariat and the capitalist bourgeoisie (in western countries) and interprets events further afield (in India or China) insofar as those countries are ruled or dominated by western imperialist nations and are being dragged into the international capitalist system.
  3. Fernbach’s interpretation Fernbach is a very knowledgeable Marx scholar. His introduction gives the context to each piece before going on, very candidly, to assess their strengths and weaknesses. In other words, as you read them, you should bear Fernbach’s comments in mind (or frequently refer back to them, as I did).
  4. Stedman Jones I have just finished reading Gareth Stedman Jones’s vast and hugely erudite biography of Marx. The difference between Fernbach and Stedman is the difference in perspective between 1973 and 2016. Jones gives a more thorough account of the actual historical events than Fernbach has room to do, and also presents Marx’s texts in the context of his other writings and with regard to the controversies he was involved in with other, rival, socialist writers and thinkers. I deal with Stedman Jones’s interpretation of this period and these essays in a separate blog post.
  5. A rhetorical reading Marx was a very rhetorical writer. In his student days he wanted to be a poet (who didn’t?) and in his adult prose he deploys quite a range of rhetorical devices, from biting satire, to crisp antitheses, to sprawling lists, to withering personal abuse – all of which make his prose surprisingly fun to read, or at least, a pleasure to analyse. I deal with Marx’s prose style in a separate blog.

Levels 1, 2 and 3 in more detail

1. Historical facts

The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850 and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte give Marx’s interpretation of the extremely complicated sequence of political events in France between early 1848 and December 1851, the period of the ill-fated Second Republic.

Briefly, in February 1848 popular discontent reached a head when King Louis Philippe banned the ‘banqueting clubs’ under cover of which, for several years, radicals had been taking the opportunity to lambast the ineffectiveness of the king’s economic policy which, combined with a depression of 1847, had led to large-scale poverty and unemployment.

A particularly provocative banquet had been planned in a working class part of Paris for 21 February and, when it was banned, on 22 February, Parisians took to the streets and called for the resignation of Prime Minister Guizot. Guizot did in fact resign the next day but, as a large crowd gathered outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to celebrate, it was fired on by soldiers, leaving over 50 dead.

Parisians erected barricades, lit fires, marched on the royal palace with vengeance in mind. As a result of the escalating chaos, Louis Philippe abdicated and fled to England.

Lamartine in front of the Town Hall of Paris rejects the red flag on 25 February 1848 by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux

Lamartine (the slender figure in the middle standing on a green chair) in front of the Town Hall of Paris rejects the red flag in favour of the patriotic tricolour, on 25 February 1848 by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux

Louis Philippe was replaced on 26 February by a provisional government which announced the formation of the ‘Second Republic’. (The First Republic dated from when the French revolutionaries deposed King Louis XIV in 1792, until Napoleon declared himself emperor, in 1804.)

This led to a very complex sequence of events: the provisional government scheduled elections for March 1848, declaring universal male suffrage, and thus creating at a stroke an electorate of nine million voters. National Workshops were set up to provide work for the urban unemployed, the brainchild of the socialist Louis Blanc. Taxes were levied on rural voters (mostly the peasants) in order to subsidise these workshops, profoundly alienating them from the republic. When the national elections went ahead in April, the nine million voters elected a mainly conservative administration.

As 1848 progressed, the early hope of radicals were crushed as the elected government showed itself to be surprisingly reactionary, banning free association and introducing draconian press laws, etc. In May a crowd of Parisian workmen invaded the National Constituent Assembly and proclaimed a new Provisional Government. They were quickly suppressed by the National Guard and the leaders of the revolt imprisoned.

As you might expect, this attempt at a coup united the factions of the bourgeoisie into a ‘Party of Order’ which decided to close the much-hated National Workshops on 21 June. This would have ended the dole being given to some 100,000 unemployed Parisian working men, and so the decision sparked the ‘June Days’, when up to 170,000 working class people set up barricades all across Paris in opposition to the decision. The government put General Louis Eugène Cavaignac, fresh back from the conquest of Algeria, in charge of the Mobile Guard and the National Guard with orders to crush the rebellion and take the barricades. Which they did, with thousands of lives lost.

The working classes were defeated: up to 3,000 were killed and in the months that followed some 15,000 were sent to prison, including the main leaders of the proletariat. The June Days marked the exit of the working classes from the political activity of the Second Republic.

The political forces in the National Assembly realigned to maximise the Party of Order and to isolate any radical or working class factions. Cavaignac was appointed head of state, a position he held from June until 10 December 1848, when a full presidential election was held. Cavaignac was one of the four candidates who stood for the presidency but to everyone’s surprise the winner was a complete outsider, the semi-comical figure of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (nephew of the great general, Napoleon) who got 5,587,759 vote, compared with 1,474,687 votes for Cavaignac, and 370,000 votes for Ledru-Rollin (the candidate of the left).

Louis-Napoléon was a comic figure because he had been sent into exile as a boy after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, had done a variety of undignified odd jobs (working for a while as a police constable in London) but most notoriously, tried a few ridiculous coups, attempting to rally barracks full of soldiers behind his (and his uncle’s names) both times being easily defeated and, after the second attempt, in Boulogne, in 1840, imprisoned for 6 years.

Marx’s two long essays detail the convoluted political manoeuvring which took place from 1848, throughout 1849, 1850 and 1851, and in particular the two years leading up to ‘president’ Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte staging a coup in December 1851, declaring himself sole ruler of France, a position he consolidated when he formally took the throne as Napoleon III in December 1852.

This historical period in France thus saw a huge narrative arc from the revolutionary optimism of February 1848, through the bloody insurrection of June 1848, on to the surprise election of Louis Napoléon, and then to two years of cynical manoeuvring and backstabbing, which led to the utter failure of radical hopes and the seizure of power by a comic-book character whose empire represented the triumph of all the reactionary forces in French society.

Three things are going on in these two long essays.

1. Actual history It is impossible to understand them unless you have read a very good account of the actual historical events elsewhere because, although Marx often descends to day-by-day analysis, he assumes the reader already knows the story, so he is constantly alluding to historical characters, twists and turns in the story, which you have to know already.

2. Applying theory to reality From the point of view of understanding Marx’s theory, the obvious thing about both these long texts is that in them Marx was trying to apply the purely theoretical principles of his abstract texts, like The Communist Manifesto, to actual contemporary history.

To the reader who is not an expert in Marxist theory, the most obvious result of this is that, whereas in the Manifesto, and elsewhere, Marx and Engels confidently write about just two classes – the fiendish bourgeoisie which is reducing an ever-growing number of the population to utter poverty as part of the industrial proletariat – in the two French essays Marx is forced to concede that there are in fact lots of classes or political groups or factions or interests at work in France.

The immensely complicated squabbling of the Assembly and its deputies, the turnover of different administrations, the management of violence in the streets between mob, militia and army, the numerous newspapers and pamphleteers supporting various sides – in order to make sense of this kaleidoscope of events, Marx has to abandon the simple bourgeois-proletariat dichotomy of his theoretical writings and invent a raft of new ‘classes’ or class interests. these include:

  • the financial bourgeoisie – the bankers and stock market speculators, who were the ultimate seat of power
  • the industrial bourgeoisie – whose wealth and income are dependent upon the production and sale of goods, and weren’t numerous enough to seize power by themselves
  • the petty bourgeoisie – shopkeepers, teachers, generally conservative in tendency
  • the Montagne (or the Democratic Socialists) named after the similar group who came to prominence in the 1790s revolution, in 1848 this faction of the National Assembly came to represent the petty bourgeoisie
  • numerous types of royalist:
    • legitimists, or Bourbonists – who wanted the return of Louis XVIII, overthrown in 1830
    • Orleanists – who wanted the restoration of Louis-Philippe, descended from the Orleans branch of the royal family, hence their name

Marx has to account for the fact that a lot of the ‘street’, the rough elements of the Paris working classes, voted against their own interests when they voted for – and defended in street fighting – the ludicrous Louis Napoléon.

Obviously this can’t be the class-conscious proletariat of his theoretical writings, so he has to invent a new group, the lumpenproletariat (a term which Marx, apparently, invented), meaning worthless drunks and wastrels. Unlike the ‘heroic’ proletariat, the lumpenproletariat will follow anyone who offers them free beer and cigars, which Louis-Napoléon does. In fact Napoleon actually set up an organisation specially, called the December 10 Club – members becoming known as the ‘Decembrists’.

To the list above should be added the large ‘agrarian interest’ which Marx finds he needs to account for the fact that rural voters numbers more than all the urban classes put together. He divides the ‘agrarian interest’ into two great factions:

  • the wealthy landowners who had dominated French society from the Middle Ages down until the advent of the Industrial Revolution, small in number, big in power, but being squeezed out of representative assemblies by the urban bourgeoisie
  • the peasants – the largest single group in French society, who gave the decisive support to Louis Napoleon in the 1848 election

(As an aside: giving the vote to all adult males may have sounded progressive to Paris radicals but they forgot, like so many radicals in so many countries down to our own time – that the majority of the population does not want a violent and drastic overthrow of all existing social structures and values. They just want a return to prosperity, jobs and security, and will vote for whoever promises it, from Louis-Napoléon to Donald Trump).

The net effect of this proliferation of names and factions is that Marx is sometimes in danger of sounding like just any other historian, simply describing a complex world of multiple factions and interests. In order to maintain his separateness from being ‘just another chronicler’, he is at pains to continually remind the reader of the various groupings’ relationships to types of capital, the economic lynchpin of his entire theory (for example, in the distinction he makes between the industrial and the financial bourgeoisie). Quite often the proliferation of terms Marx is inventing gets very confusing.

Whether he convinces you that his fine-sounding socio-economic theories can be applied to complex contemporary history, is a judgement call every reader must make for themselves.

3. Wrong predictions As Both Fernbach and Stedman Jones point out, all Marx’s predictions in these texts turned out to be wrong. The revolutionary hopes triggered by the events of 1848 proved utterly illusory. Louis-Napoléon consolidated his grip on power and there followed ten years of relative prosperity, from which peasants and workers, as well as the bourgeoisie, industrial and financial, all benefited (there was an economic slump in the late 1850s which caused discontent but the emperor managed to weather it).

A slow legalisation of trade unions allowed working men into the power structures of the state. In fact, it was to be 22 long years before a situation remotely like the 1848 days reoccurred, when the workers rose up in the Paris Commune of 1871 – and that only happened because the disastrous Franco-Prussian War had caused the collapse of peacetime government in Paris – and even then the Commune only lasted a month or so before being brutally crushed.

2. Marx’s interpretation of French politics 1848-1852

1. Truth and reality

Putting to one side the difficulty Marx has in matching simplistic theory to complex reality, and the fact that history was to prove all of Marx’s predictions wrong – nonetheless these two books are rich in ideas, some of which only make sense within the realm of Marxist-Leninist discourse, but others which are open to anyone regardless of political orientation, and are very thought-provoking.

Take the opening page of The Eighteenth Brumaire:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under given circumstances directly encountered and inherited from the past. The tradition of all the generations of the dead weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem involved in revolutionizing themselves and things, in creating something that has never before existed, it is precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis that they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow names, battle cries and costumes from them in order to act out the new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise and this borrowed language. (p.146)

This is a richly metaphorical language: conjuring up spirits, costumes and disguises, it invokes a world of theatre and drama. But the actual idea expressed is simple and profound: we humans are free but not completely free; we are able to make our own lives and times, but that freedom is massively constrained by the accumulation of all the human history leading up to us.

This short passage also introduces an idea which is central to the Brumaire in particular, which is the distinction between mask and reality, disguise and true identity.

Previous historians had tended to take politicians, kings and diplomats at their word, or to point out where they were ‘lying’, by contrasting their words with other versions of events, other people’s statements and so on. For Marx all this is skating on the surface of things; he envisions a much bigger, much deeper sense of the notion of masks or disguises.

Because throughout his work Marx develops the notion that human culture is the contingent product of a particular stage of economic and technological development: it doesn’t float freely as the beautiful thoughts of ‘great’ thinkers and artists; human culture is profoundly influenced, determined and constrained by the social arrangements of the society which produces it, which are in turn dictated by the technological and economic base of that society.

A whole superstructure of different and specifically formed feelings, illusions, modes of thought and views of life arises on the basis of the different forms of property, of the social conditions of existence. The whole class creates and forms these out of its material foundations and the corresponding social relations of a people.

Note the word ‘illusions’. Especially in the modern bourgeois society of his time, maybe more than ever before, the ruling class was at pains to conceal the reality of their power and their program beneath high-sounding ideals. For Marx the mask isn’t a small, trivial thing which some individual politicians hide behind – it is the huge facade of fake ‘values’ and ‘morality’ which an entire class hides behind in order to conceal its control of production and distribution, which is in turn based on the exploitation of the proletariat.

This is why Marx is dismissive of parliamentary democracy: it is a smokescreen, a facade of high-sounding verbiage which conceals the economic i.e. class-based realities of society. It gives the population the ‘illusion’ of having some kind of control over events, when events are controlled behind the scenes by the ruling class. Class struggles cannot be solved in the parliamentary arena. He dismisses the belief that they can, with characteristic brusqueness, as ‘parliamentary cretinism’.

Similarly, in the writings about India and China, Marx points out that the entire rhetoric of imperialism, all the discourse about ‘the white man’s burden’ and the French mission civilisatrice were humbug, cant and lies designed by the imperialists to hide from their own peoples (and even from themselves) the brutal reality of the conquest and rape of far-off lands.

This explains the consistent tone of irony & sarcasm found throughout Marx’s writings, because it is so obvious to him that everything a king or ruling politician or their pet journalists say or write is a lie designed to conceal the true basis of their rule in a system which methodically exploits the labour of the working poor (or foreign peoples). Marx’s attitude is that of course they would say that, publish that, declare that – all lies lies lies to distract from their real economic and financial interests.

And this is why his sarcasm rises to such heights of vituperation whenever he describes the impostor Louis-Napoléon, because his rise and rule is a kind of climax of lies and deceptions. Louis-Napoléon claimed to rule ‘for all the people’, hence his success with the peasantry who were largely responsible for voting him into power – but Marx almost bursts with frustration at the obviousness of the way this preposterous fraud in the event ruled solely to protect and promote the interests of the bourgeoisie.

To some extent it may be due to the relatively limited number of metaphors available to a writer in the 1840s, but nonetheless it is striking how consistently Marx applies metaphors of the stage, of the drama, of acting, of masks and disguises and conjuring, to all the reactionary elements in society – to the crown, the various elements of the bourgeoisie, their paid lackeys in the press and so on.

For the entire duration of its rule, for as long as it gave its grand performance of state on the proscenium, an unbroken sacrificial feast was being staged in the background – the continual sentencing by courts–martial of the captured June insurgents or their deportation without trial.

Bonaparte, on horseback, mustered a part of the troops on the Place de la Concorde; Changarnier play-acted with a display of strategic manoeuvres; the Constituent Assembly found its building occupied by the military.

In this great comedy of intrigues the Montagne showed its lack of revolutionary energy and political understanding…

June 1849, was not a bloody tragedy between wage labor and capital, but a prison-filling and lamentable play of debtors and creditors.

And Louis-Napoléon especially is seen as the arch actor.

An old, crafty roué, Louis Napoleon conceives the historical life of the nations and their performances of state as comedy in the most vulgar sense, as a masquerade in which the grand costumes, words, and postures merely serve to mask the pettiest knavery. (p.197)

At a moment when the bourgeoisie itself played the most complete comedy, but in the most serious manner in the world, without infringing any of the pedantic conditions of French dramatic etiquette, and was itself half deceived, half convinced of the solemnity of its own performance of state, the adventurer, who took the comedy as plain comedy, was bound to win. Only when he has eliminated his solemn opponent, when he himself now takes his imperial role seriously and under the Napoleonic mask imagines he is the real Napoleon, does he become the victim of his own conception of the world, the serious buffoon who no longer takes world history for a comedy but his comedy for world history. (p.198)

All these groups and factions in society are associated with play-acting, because the only class which can strip away the lies and confront the economic and power realities of the day, is the proletariat.

The proletariat is the cure for the disease of endless amateur dramatics which characterised the brief Second Republic (1848-1852). Quite apart from all the economic, social and moral benefits which the revolution will bring, the triumph of the proletariat will also be the triumph of Truth over acting.

France now possessed a Napoleon side by side with a Montagne, proof that both were only the lifeless caricatures of the great realities whose names they bore. Louis Napoleon, with the emperor’s hat and the eagle, parodied the old Napoleon no more miserably than the Montagne, with its phrases borrowed from 1793 and its demagogic poses, parodied the old Montagne. Thus the traditional 1793 superstition was stripped off at the same time as the traditional Napoleon superstition. The revolution had come into its own only when it had won its own, its original name, and it could do that only when the modern revolutionary class, the industrial proletariat, came dominatingly into its foreground.

2. Marx’s political analysis

So Marx’s analysis is based on the idea that all of the jostling factions which contested power in France after the fall of Louis-Philippe in February 1848 represented class interests which can be defined by their economic and commercial situations.

The ordinary ‘liberal’ historian analyses the clashing parties of the Second Republic according to their stated aims and values: the radicals want ‘equality’, the royalists talk about ‘legitimacy’, the financial bourgeoisie and the industrial bourgeoisie for a while ally together to create ‘the party of Order’ which wants precisely that, and so on.

Marx spent 100 densely-written pages showing that they are all living a lie. Whatever airy values, customs and traditions they invoke (he singles out ‘property, family, religion and law’ as the siren call of the hypocritical bourgeoisie), each of these groups represents its own financial interests: the royalists want a return of the king so they can get back their cushy jobs in the administration; the industrial bourgeoisie wants better terms of credit and trade; the financial bourgeoisie is happy to see a kleptocratic president elected since he has to borrow off them at high interest rates.

And, when the republicans made the fateful decision of instituting universal suffrage, effectively handing power to the peasants, the largest single group in France, they, in their rural ignorance (Marx doesn’t like peasants) voted for the most deceitful idea of all, for simple-minded conservative values and the gloire they associated with the venerable name of Napoleon.

Economics

Marx also digs deeper into the broader economic and trade context of these years, to point out that the late 1840s saw an agricultural crisis caused by the potato blight, a financial crisis caused by the end of Britain’s railway boom, and an industrial crisis caused by temporary over-production of cotton goods. All these added urgency to the motivation of the differing elements of the bourgeoisie in 1848 and 1849.

Marx highlights the way that France’s economy (as the economies of most of Europe) was dependent on Britain in its role as workshop and financial centre of world capitalism: Britain sneezes, Europe catches a cold, and that was certainly among the causes of the initial unrest in France in early 1848.

Marx interprets the Second Republic as maybe the most suitable form of government for the French bourgeoisie, because it allowed the varying factions within it to thrash out their differences without violence. But nothing in Marx is that straightforward; he rarely makes a formulation without going on to turn it into a paradox – something Fernbach takes to be the application of his ‘dialectical’ thinking but which the neutral reader might be tempted to think was just an addition to witty paradoxes and pithy phrase-making.

For although the republic created a safe environment for business to proceed, unhampered by the often unpredictable monarchy of Louis Phillippe, it also (alas) let other classes of society into power (the petty bourgeoisie and the working classes) thus creating a new set of problems and power dynamics for the bourgeoisie to manage.

Universal suffrage had allowed the backward peasantry to elect Louis-Napoléon president, as a result of which universal suffrage was promptly repealed by the conservative National Assembly, but too late. His huge mandate added to an unstable economic and political situation by creating with two centres of power, a National Assembly clothing itself in the rhetoric of liberty (which in fact wanted to restrict the suffrage and close down the National Workshops and make France safe for business) and a president who clothed himself in the rhetoric of empire and grandeur, but in fact relied on the arms and support of the lumpenproletariat in Paris and the conservative peasants beyond it to remain in power.

It’s the instability of this situation which makes for a very complicated story, as all of the competing sides put forward laws, made political moves, tried to redraft the constitution, called their supporters out onto the streets, and so on, for the three years from Louis-Napoléon’s election in December 1848 to his coup in December 1851.

At a deep, psychological level, the chancer and trickster Louis-Napoléon was able to gain power because he represented everything to everyone.

At a practical level, Marx’s hundred pages are devoted to cataloguing the excruciatingly long, drawn-out sequence of political manouevring which created the conditions for Louis-Napoléon to carry out his coup in December 1851 (basically all his opponents fought themselves to a stalemate, leaving Louis-Napoléon as almost the only centre of viable authority left standing).

But at the beginning, middle and end of these essays Marx has continually to explain away the fact that the proletarian revolution which he and Engels expected any day, not only didn’t happen, but that its polar opposite – a capital-friendly empire – was put in place.

Marx’s basic excuse is that France wasn’t economically advanced enough. The industrial proletariat was in a distinct minority, outnumbered in the cities by the petty bourgeoisie (shop-keepers, teachers, junior lawyers and so on) and in the countryside by the peasants, who made up the vast majority of the French population. In a nutshell, France wasn’t ready.

The struggle against capital in its developed, modern form – in its decisive aspect, the struggle of the
industrial wage worker against the industrial bourgeois – is in France a partial phenomenon, which after the February days could so much the less supply the national content of the revolution, since the struggle against capital’s secondary modes of exploitation, that of the peasant against usury and mortgages or of the petty bourgeois against the wholesale dealer, banker, and manufacturer – in a word, against bankruptcy – was still hidden in the general uprising against the finance aristocracy.

Nonetheless, Marx claims that the confusing and short life of the Second Republic was a ‘necessary’ stage on the pathway to revolution:

  • It was necessary for the various elements of the Party of Order (the two types of royalists, the two types of bourgeoisie) to fall out with each other and help make the National Assembly so ineffectual that almost everyone was relieved when Louis Napoleon stepped in and dissolved it in December 1851.
  • It was necessary for the proletariat to be politicised in the street fighting of June 1848 (which they very bloodily lost) because it taught them that they needed greater numbers and strength to win eventual victory.
  • It was necessary for the peasants to vote for Louis-Napoléon so that they could become bitterly disillusioned by his inability to solve the deep structural problems of the French rural economy, disillusioned with the essentially bourgeois political system, and so prepared them to make an alliance with the urban proletariat when the great day comes.
  • It was necessary for the whole of French society, in other words, to be simplified into the primal antagonism which Marxist theory requires, between the vampire bourgeoisie and its countless helpless victims.

Thus Marx claims that all the tortuous political manouevring of these four years has ‘cleared the stage’ for the next development – The Red Revolution.

The only problem with this entire reading being, of course – that it didn’t. We know that nothing of the sort occurred and that, apart from the historical accident of the Commune, France was never to experience a proletarian revolution, even during the darkest days of the Great War.

Thus, clever though they generally are, Marx’s arguments and analyses often sound like special pleading. His incisive association of particular groups with particular economic and commercial interests is totally persuasive; but his argument that the squabbles among these groups is leading in a pre-determined direction, towards the inevitable victory of the proletariat now reads like science fiction.

The preposterous chancer Louis-Napoléon would in fact remain in power for 19 more years, longer than his famous uncle, and wasn’t toppled by any social revolution from within France but by the completely contingent actions of the Prussian Chancellor Bismarck, who wanted to seize Alsace and Lorraine in 1870 as part of his campaign to create a unified Germany, provoked war with France and promptly thrashed the French, capturing Louis-Napoléon and forcing him to abdicate. No dialectical materialism involved.

3. Fernbach’s interpretation of the other essays

Fernbach’s extremely knowledgeable introduction to the book explains the context to each piece before going on to candidly assess the strengths and weaknesses of Marx’s essays. He lists the insights of Marx’s writings, but is also clear where Marx glossed over areas of theory which he and Engels had not yet found a solution for – or where he was just plain wrong.

For example, Fernbach brings out the shortcomings of Marx’s essays about India and China (later in the book). Marx regarded both these vast nations as history-less blank slates on which the European colonisers could write. It was left to Lenin, in his writings about imperialism, to really explain the relationship between the metropolis and the colonies in the European imperialist systems. (Fernbach says Marx has a ‘Europocentric’ perspective, presumably writing before the expression ‘Eurocentric’ had become commonplace on the left.)

Indeed, Marx regarded the European colonising of India and China as a good thing because a) these countries had no history beforehand b) and were trapped in ‘rural idiocy’, in the strait jacket of the caste system and poverty c) Marx insisted that these countries had to develop according to his pre-ordained schema (the ‘textbook course of development’, as he called it, p.150). They had to have bourgeois industrialisation before they would be ready for the revolution of the proletariat, and being conquered and ruled by European nations  was the only way they could move forwards. Hence, in a roundabout way, imperialism was a good thing.

Thus, paradoxically, although he was a vitriolic critic of the brutally exploitative rule of European empires, Marx thought the technological and commercial nature of British imperial rule had produced ‘the greatest and, to speak the truth, the only social revolution ever heard of in Asia’, while its profit-seeking urges had destroyed the ‘solid foundation of Oriental despotism’ that had ‘restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass’. England may have been ‘actuated only by the vilest interests’ but these were essential for ‘mankind to fulfil its destiny’.

Marx was confident that the modernising forces of empire would end up undermining its own rule: by creating an Indian army, education system, press, and industrial base (with the inevitable industrial proletariat), the imperial rulers would lay the ‘material premises’ for their own downfall – they really would become their own grave-diggers.

The British Empire was, for a Marx, a kind of cruel necessity, which would drag non-European countries into the world system of capitalism, and thus push them quickly towards the promised land of proletarian revolution.

The first part of Marx’s prediction did indeed come to pass i.e. the oppressed Indian nation did rise up to seize the imperial infrastructure of its oppressors, albeit 90 years after Marx was writing about it (1857-1947). However, the Indians did not then proceed to have a proletarian revolution and create a communist society. Very much the reverse.

Pondering these short essays about India from a modern perspective makes you wonder, yet again, at the central paradox of Marx: he was wonderfully insightful about the dynamic power of capitalism in his time, an acute analyst of the way it restructured the means of production and social relationships in industrialised countries, and was completely right to see it as the agent of change and modernisation right around the world, dragging every single nation into the network of capitalist trade and finance – a vision which is as thrillingly global as it is excitingly insightful.

You only have to compare Marx’s writings with those of contemporary ‘thinkers’ – especially in philistine England – like Thomas Carlyle or John Stuart Mill or Benjamin Disraeli to be embarrassed at the obtuse stupidity of their ideas, their absurd vapourings about ‘the superior national character of the British’ or ‘the moral duty of the aristocracy’, and a thousand and one other formulas which all concealed the real commercial and power relationships, between classes and between countries, which Marx makes so dazzlingly clear.

But then, Marx proved to be entirely wrong in predicting that all these developments must inevitably lead to proletarian revolution. It’s 160 years since he wrote these essays about France, a long, long time. Reviewing those 160 years of history, and the events of our day – how ‘capitalism’ has survived two catastrophic world wars and the 70-year opposition of a huge bloc of communist countries, and continues to survive major global banking crises and depressions – makes you suspect that maybe the world will just stick in capitalist mode for the foreseeable future, until environmental calamity rewrites the rules of our tenure on planet earth.

Maybe there only is a capitalist mode; maybe there simply isn’t any viable alternative. Corrupt and cruel though ‘capitalism’ routinely is, maybe this is the only way humans can manage to have industrialised societies. All the evidence of the past 160 years points that way.

The same thought is prompted by the gaggle of Marx’s shorter pieces at the end of the book. Take his optimistic piece on the Chartists which predicted that the extension of universal suffrage would be the precursor to ‘the political supremacy of the working class’. Well… no.

Or the piece entitled Agitation Against the Sunday Trading Bill, where Marx optimistically describes a now long-forgotten mass protest in Hyde Park as the moment when ‘the English revolution began’. Er… nope. As Fernbach candidly comments:

Marx was never able to get to the root of the peculiarities of the British state (p.20)

an admission which arguably undermines his entire achievement, since Britain was the leading economic and technological power in the world.

What Marx couldn’t understand is why the most advanced capitalist nation on earth had no standing army and a relatively small bureaucracy, so that power was diffused to a thousand localities and actors – so very unlike the militarised Prussian state of his youth, and the centralised government of France.

Fernbach has a go at explaining why English society didn’t conform to Marx’s expectations: he explains that the settlement of 1688, after the Glorious Revolution, established a much collaboration between landed aristocracy, merchant adventurers, and (100 years later) industrial factory owners, than existed anywhere on the continent. In Germany and France the new industrial bourgeoisie had to fight hard to win any power from the obstructive feudal landowners and an aristocratic reaction. In England, the Glorious Revolution had prepared the way for a century of agricultural, commercial and imperial growth (the 18th century). New money slotted seamlessly into old, no bourgeois revolution (such as fizzled out in France in 1848 and never had chance to take place in Germany) was required.

After the failure of the Chartist campaign of 1848, labour leaders turned their energies from campaigning for grand utopian goals, and put their energy into developing model trade unions and settling disputes on a case-by-case basis. When it eventually became clear that these unions presented no threat to the powers-that-be, the franchise was widened in 1867 and again in 1884, and the English working classes proceeded to dutifully vote for the existing political parties, the Conservatives or Liberals.

Instead of growing into an unstoppable opposition to the bourgeois state, the English proletariat assimilated (fairly) smoothly right into it. Fernbach quotes Engels writing rather despairingly to Marx:

The English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie! (quoted on page 26)

Hopefully, this brief summary shows that Fernbach’s introduction is in many ways more useful than the rest of the book in highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of Marx as political analyst, and in going beyond Marx to give some really useful insights into British and European history.

Fernbach’s worldview

If Fernbach has a shortcoming it’s that he doesn’t write as an objective outsider but as a devout follower of Marx, one who has drunk deep of the faith and is every bit as doctrinaire as the Master. He takes sides. He is as much against the capitalists and imperialists as Karl himself. This is Fernbach’s own voice, picking up on Marx and taking him further, teaching us, lecturing us:

Since every propertied minority must rely on the exploited masses to fight its battles for it, it can only exert political power by presenting its own particular interest as the interest of society in general. It is thus always necessary for the propertied classes to appear on the political stage in ideological disguise. (p.12)

While the worst years of reaction saw the steady maturation of Marx’s general theory, and his critique of bourgeois economics, his political theory made little progress compared with the heady developments of the 1848 period. Revolutionary political theory can only develop in response to the new problems and tasks raised by mass struggle, and this was completely lacking in Marx’s England. (p.19)

Fernbach clearly himself thinks that Marxism (or ‘dialectical materialism’) is the Truth and the Way. This makes his own explanations – such as the page explaining Marxist-Leninist thinking about imperialism (page 27) – very useful and informative. But it does result in some controversial and out-of-date pronouncements which pull you up short.

In the most glaring example, Fernbach thinks that Czechoslovakia and East Germany were fortunate to have carried out their ‘socialist revolutions’ under the protective umbrella of the Soviet Union, and so managed to avoid being dominated by the capitalist West.

After the socialist revolution in Russia it became possible for countries that made anti-imperialist revolutions to escape from the tyranny of the world market, and industrialise within socialist relations of production. (p.27)

This ignores the fact that both Czechoslovakia and East Germany had communist dictatorships forced on them by the Soviet occupying forces after the second World War. And it sees the state of having had a ‘revolution’ as fortunate and blessed.

Compare and contrast this utopianly doctrinaire Marxist view with the detailed description of the takeover of East Germany by the Soviets given in Anne Applebaum’s history, Iron Curtain, and the wretchedly repressive, Stasi-ruled society which resulted.

I wonder if Fernbach is still alive. I wonder if he has repented his devoutly Marxist defence of the Soviet Union and its imperialist conquest of Eastern Europe.

In summary, Fernbach lucidly explains what is important about the development of Marx’s theory as shown in these political writings from the 1850s, clarifies what is enduring about Marx’s insights and highlights their shortcomings – but we are constantly aware that his own perspective comes from a now antediluvian world.

Conclusions

Marx and his followers are:

  • too clever and right about some things (the economic base of society, the technological innovativeness, the radical cultural breaks and the violent political impact of capitalism) to dismiss
  • but too profoundly wrong in all their ‘scientific’ predictions (Germany going communist in 1848, Britain teetering on brink of communist revolution in 1860 etc) to take seriously
  • and their social theories proved so catastrophically wrong when put into practice in Russia, China and the rest of the communist world, that is impossible not to feel periodic bouts of nausea and horror at the casual way Marx dismisses entire classes and groups of people

Because less than forty years after his death, entire classes and groups of people would start to be dismissed with bullets and mass starvation by the tyrants he had directly inspired.


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Communism in Spain

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

Communism in England

Disraeli or the Two Lives by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young (2014)

The  Conservative party

The British Conservative Party has traditionally lacked any real intellectual or ideological underpinning, thinking of itself as the party of British values and traditions, which applies reform only on an ad hoc basis, as required.

In Disraeli’s day the Tories were the party of the landed aristocracy and their subservient squires, extraordinarily snobbish toffs at the core of a network of landed gentry mainly interested in fox hunting and farms. Traditionally philistine and reactionary, the Tory party emphasised the values of Monarchy, Hierarchy and the Established Church – as opposed to the Whig party with its more urban traditions of religious toleration and individual freedom. The Tories opposed the Great Reform Bill of 1832 and opposed attempts at further reform in the 1850s and 60s. Their leader Lord Derby saw his role, in his son’s words, to block change, to keep things exactly as they were i.e. everything run by the landed aristocracy.

The authors

The joint authors of this book come from from the very heart of the Conservative establishment and this book strongly reflects that bias or position, in a number of ways.

Douglas Hurd – or Baron Hurd of Westwell, CH, CBE, PC to give him his full title – is the son and grandson of Conservative MPs who himself became a Conservative MP. Hurd attended Eton College, before serving in the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major from 1979 to 1995. He is most remembered as the Foreign Secretary who refused to authorise British aid to the Bosnian Muslims being massacred by Serbs during the Yugoslav civil wars in the 1990s, and also refused to allow Bosnian refugees from the war entry into Britain.

Edward Young is young. After getting a First at Cambridge he worked as a speechwriter for David Cameron – the man history and our children will hold responsible for calling the Brexit referendum and so turfing us out of Europe. Young also worked as Chief of Staff to the Conservative Party Chairman. He stood as the Conservative candidate for York Central in the 2017 General Election but he lost to the Labour candidate. Young is currently the Corporate Communications Director at Tesco PLC.

These two men, therefore, come from the core of the modern Conservative Party, understand its day to day working as well as its traditions. Once you get into it you realise that their book is not intended to be a straightforward biography of Disraeli – it is a systematic debunking of his reputation. But it also concludes with a surprising assessment of Disraeli’s relevance to our time and the modern politicians who have inherited his mantle.

For many modern Conservatives – and even politicians from other parties – Disraeli is the founder of modern Conservatism, the inventor of compassionate ‘One Nation’ Conservatism, a pioneer of reforming legislation and a dazzlingly successful Parliamentarian. This book is meant to debunk all these ‘myths’. It assumes that the reader is already fairly familiar with Disraeli’s life, career and reputation, and with the way his name and these ‘ideas’ have been invoked by Tory leaders such as Stanley Baldwin in the 1920s (Harrow and Cambridge) or R.A. Butler in the 1950s (Marlborough and Cambridge), down to David Cameron (Eton and Oxford).

In many ways this book is really an extended pamphlet, a ‘think piece’ aimed at Conservative Party insiders and knowledgeable Parliamentarians.

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881)

I bought this book when I visited Disraeli’s house, Hughenden, just north of High Wycombe and now a National Trust property. The ‘two lives’ of the title is just another way of restating the hoary old cliché about ‘the man and the myth’, a phrase that used to be tacked onto the title of almost every biography I read when I was a lad.

Briefly, the authors claim that Disraeli has come to be associated in the modern Conservative Party with a string of ideas and quotes which many Tories think are the basis of the modern party. But a closer examination shows that he never said half the things attributed to him, or was an active opponent of half the policies nowadays attached to his name.

All the way through there is a very characteristically Conservative absence of ideas or ideology, theory or intellectual activity. They leave no stone unturned to undermine Disraeli’s reputation, to show him up as a completely unprincipled social climber greedy for power, with a devastating turn of phrase, sarcasm and invective which has left us with scores of memorable quotes – but all too often the authors can themselves be accused of simply moving round empty rhetorical tokens without much meaning. You are continually reminded that Young was a speechwriter, a master of the ringing but utterly vacuous soundbite. Take the conclusion of their introduction:

We have called our book Disraeli, or The Two Lives because the life he lived was markedly different from the myths he left behind. These contradictions do not mean that he was phoney. At the heart of Disraeli’s beliefs lay the thought that imagination and courage are the indispensable components of political greatness for an individual and a nation. That conviction, rather than any particular Bill, book, speech, treaty or quotation, is the true legacy of Benjamin Disraeli. (p.xxvi)

So: what a politician – what a nation – needs, are imagination and courage! You can see why words like ‘trite’ and ‘platitudinous’ continually spring to the reader’s mind. These sentences could have been written a hundred years ago by any number of British imperialists. They are the opposite of thoughtful, intelligence or insightful. They lack any facts, data, statistics, any evidence or proof, any analysis or sustained line of reasoning, to back them up. They are all too reminiscent of much recent empty Conservative phrase-making.

Remember David Cameron and his call for ‘the Big Society’ – ‘the flagship policy of the 2010 UK Conservative Party general election manifesto’? Or Theresa May’s catchphrase ‘strong and stable leadership’? As the book progresses Disraeli not only loses the credit for the fine-sounding policies often invoked in his name, but comes to look more and more like a pioneering example of the Conservative tradition for flashy phrase-making concealing a bankruptcy of ideas or policies (see below, the story of his first Cabinet).

Disraeli myths and refutations

Since the aim of the book is to undermine the myths about Disraeli, it might be useful to state what those myths are, along with their refutations.

One Nation Conservatism

Myth Disraeli pioneered the idea that the Conservatives are a compassionate party which represents the whole nation (not just the rich – which is the common accusation made against them).

Fact Disraeli in no way wanted a classless society. In his novels (Disraeli began his working life as a novelist and wrote novels throughout his life) he champions an absurdly antiquated vision of a medieval England where people know their place. In the early 1840s he was elected leader of ‘Young England’, a group of handsome young chaps from Eton (that is how the authors describe them) who thought the cure for a Britain undergoing the seismic upheavals of the industrial revolution was a return to medieval feudalism (p.95). Disraeli shared their belief that the cure for Britain’s ills was to restore its fine old aristocracy to its ancient duties of building almshouses and holding jousting tournaments.

Quite literally, a more stupid, ignorant and fatuous analysis of the technological, industrial and economic situation of Britain during the industrial revolution cannot be conceived.

It was Disraeli’s 1845 novel Sybil, or the Two Nations which popularised the idea that England was divided into two nations – the Rich and the Poor (not, perhaps, the most profound of analyses) and this phrase – ‘the two nations’ – was picked up by newspapers and commentators for some time afterwards. But at no point does this long text, or anywhere else in Disraeli’s speeches or articles, does he use the phrase for which he is nowadays mostly remembered, the phrase ‘One Nation‘, which has been recycled in our time into the idea of the ‘One Nation’ Conservativism.

The words ‘one nation’ had never appeared in Disraeli’s lexicon and certainly had never been developed as a meaningful political creed. (p.11)

He never said it. And he would never have agreed with it.

Parliamentary success

Myth Disraeli was one of the most successful Victorian politicians.

Fact Disraeli lost six of the general elections he fought as leader of the Conservative Party and won only one, in 1874. He was ridiculed for his long-winded maiden speech in Parliament and made a complete shambles of his first Budget as Chancellor, which was ripped apart by Gladstone.

Social reformer

Myth In his one and only administration, Disraeli presided over a range of important social reforms e.g. the 1875 Public Health Act, which later Conservatives have used to claim a reputation as the reforming and improving party. One of his many quotable quotes is ‘Power has only one duty – to secure the social welfare of the People.’

Fact Disraeli wasn’t in the slightest interested in these reforms and fell asleep when they were discussed in Cabinet. More, this book is devastating in its indictment of Disraeli’s amorality. All he wanted was power. All he wanted was to climb to the top of ‘the greasy pole’. Once he had finally made it he had no plans, no policies and no ideas. The authors quote Richard Cross, an MP Disraeli barely knew who he appointed Home Secretary, who was amazed when he attended his first Cabinet meeting to discover that despite the power and conviction of Disraeli’s phrase-making and speechifying in the House and on the election stump around the country, his leader in fact had no policies or ideas at all. At the first Cabinet meeting he chaired, Disraeli sat asking his Cabinet members – many of them in power for the first time – if they had any ideas or suggestions about what to do next (p.240). From this and scores of other examples the reader is forced to agree with the radical MP John Bright, who Disraeli spent some time trying to butter up in the 1860s, that Disraeli was

‘an engaging charlatan who believed in nothing.’ (quoted page 199)

The non-Conservative reader might have no difficulty applying this damning description to numerous contemporary Conservatives – not least Theresa May, who just last week reached out to the opposition parties by asking if they had any ideas on what to do next.

Disraeli’s complete lack of ideas or policies was no secret, it was well-known at the time. A Punch cartoon captures it perfectly.

'Deputation below, Sir, want to know the Conservative programme.' Right Honourable Benjamin Disraeli: 'Eh? Oh - Ah - Yes - Quite so! Tell them, my good Abercorn, with my compliments, that we propose to rely on the sublime instincts of an ancient people.'

‘Deputation below, Sir, want to know the Conservative programme.’
Right Honourable Benjamin Disraeli: ‘Eh? Oh – Ah – Yes – Quite so! Tell them, my good Abercorn, with my compliments, that we propose to rely on the sublime instincts of an ancient people.’

1867 Reform Act

Myth Disraeli demonstrated that the Conservatives are on the side of the working man and ‘the people’ by passing the Second Reform Act (1867), which for the first time enfranchised some of the (male) working class, doubling the electorate from one to two million adult men (out of a total seven million adult males in England and Wales).

Fact Disraeli supported the Reform Act solely to steal the thunder of the ruling Liberal government and to help the Conservative Party’s electoral chances. A reform act of some kind had been in the air from some years, a draft version had been prepared by Gladstone’s Liberals, when Disraeli set out to steal their thunder. The best part of this 350-page-long book is where the authors give a fascinating, day-by-day, meeting-by-meeting account of how Disraeli a) cobbled together a patchwork of legislation which could be sold to his own (reluctant) party and b) laboured to assemble an alliance of radicals, dissident Whigs and cowering Tories to eventually pass the act and ‘dish the Whigs’.

This section (pp.191-214) gives a vivid insight into the nuts and bolts of Victorian politicking – I’d forgotten how utterly chaotic it was. Lacking the modern idea of well-drilled political parties, the House of Commons consisted of groups and factions which had to be laboriously assembled into voting majorities. Governments could easily be overthrown if a majority was cobbled together to vote against them, prompting the Prime Minister to resign. But quite commonly the leader of the opposition grouping would then himself struggle to create a working majority, sometimes managing to create an administration which rumbled on for a year or two, but sometimes failing altogether and forcing the Queen to offer the premiership back to the Prime Minster who had just resigned.

It makes for a very confusing picture and helps to explain why, even as Britain was becoming the most powerful country in the world, it’s quite hard to name any of the Prime Ministers of the Victorian era. At a pinch most educated people could probably name Gladstone and Disraeli solely because of their longevity and because they became famous for being famous – rather like Boris Johnson in our own day is a politician everyone’s heard of without, until recently, holding any significant position in government.

Anyway, after the immense labour and scheming which Disraeli put into ensuring it was the Tories who passed a reform act in 1867, it was – in strategic terms – a failure, because the Tories went on to lose the subsequent 1868 general election.

Imperialist

Myth Disraeli was a staunch supporter of the British Empire and this endeared him to the generation following his death (in 1881) as the British Empire reached its height accompanied by a crescendo of imperialist rhetoric and pageant.

Fact The authors show how on both occasions when Disraeli was Chancellor of the Exchequer he was positively anti-Empire, horrified at the cost of the Royal Navy which he tried to cut. He went so far as to suggest Britain abandon all its entrepots and territory on the African coast and dismantle the African Squadron of the Navy. This image of ‘imperial Disraeli’ is a product of his final years and of his one and only administration, during which he was able to make some typically flashy gestures thus concealing his basic lack of policy or strategy (see above).

Probably the most famous of these gestures was when Disraeli, soon after becoming Prime Minister, pushed through Parliament the Royal Titles Act 1876 which awarded Queen Victoria the title ‘Empress of India’. She loved it and the ‘people’ loved the elevation of their queen to an empire. Flashy and popular – but hollow. It was, after all Disraeli who said: ‘Everyone likes flattery; and when you come to Royalty you should lay it on with a trowel’ and lay it on he did, inches thick. And it worked.

In August of the same year Queen Victoria awarded Disraeli the title of Earl of Beaconsfield. The absurdity of these leaders awarding each other titles was not lost on contemporaries. The contemporary humorous magazine, Punch, satirised it as ‘one good turn deserves another’.

Punch cartoon showing Queen Victoria - who Disraeli had recently awarded the title Empress of India - awarding Disraeli the title Earl of Beaconsfield

Punch cartoon showing Queen Victoria – who Disraeli had recently awarded the title Empress of India – awarding Disraeli the title Earl of Beaconsfield, in August 1876

Foreign affairs supremo

Myth At the Congress of Berlin, Dizzy plucked diplomatic success from a convoluted situation like a magician plucking a rabbit from a hat, and surprised the world by gaining Cyprus for the British Empire and winning ‘peace with honour’.

Fact In 1877 the Russians invaded the neighbouring territory of the Balkans, under the control of the Ottoman Empire – and advanced towards the Ottoman capital of Constantinople. In the second of the two really detailed analyses in the book, the authors give a fascinating account of how the crisis unravelled week by week.

Initially British sentiment was against the Turks because they had massacred Orthodox Christian Bulgarians who had risen seeking independence from the Ottomans. But Russia’s relentless advance into the Balkans (after the Russian declaration of war in April 1877) eventually swung public sentiment round behind the Turks (exactly as it had 33 years earlier, at the start of the Crimean War).

Hurd and Young’s account brings out just how irresponsible Disraeli’s attitude was: bored to death of the nitty-gritty of domestic policy, he thought foreign affairs was the last great arena for a man of imagination and style and so, like so many rulers addicted to words like ‘honour’ and ‘glory’ and ‘prestige’, Disraeli repeatedly threatened to send the fleet through the Dardanelles to attack the Russians and start another Crimean War (he is quoted as claiming that, although it might last three years, it would be ‘a glorious and successful war for England’, p.283).

The British diplomats on the ground and Dizzy’s own Foreign Secretary were horrified at the lightness and rashness of his intentions:

I dissented but said little; being in truth disgusted by his reckless way of talking. (Lord Derby, quoted on page 283)

Once again hundreds of thousands of men might have died in misery because of the idiocy of their leaders, specifically this preening peacock of a run-of-the-mill romantic novelist. Luckily Disraeli’s own cabinet repeatedly blocked his war-mongering intentions until, before he could attack anyone, the Russians made peace with the Turks by themselves. It was only when the Russians consolidated their gains in the Caucasus theatre of the war that the British, feeling threatened in India, sent army forces into Turkey. At this point the Russians agreed to a Great Power peace conference at Berlin (in deference to the new arbiter of the Balance of Europe, the Prussian Chancellor, Bismarck).

The authors show how the ageing Disraeli adored the Congress of Berlin, mainly because it involved hob-nobbing with the royalty of Europe, with Russian princes, and European emperors and ambassadors, pashas and doges and counts and innumerable lords and ladies.

As to the actual work, Disraeli had no diplomatic experience, had only a shaky grasp of the map of Europe, spoke no foreign language, and had only once been abroad. When it came to the detail of the negotiations about Ottoman territory he was completely at sea. He was a romantic novelist who thought in terms of the worst literary clichés. This is not my view – it is the authors’.

Disraeli, the novelist turned politician, believed in a world of empires, sustained and manipulated by the skill of bankers, priests, beautiful women and secret societies. (p.252)

Disraeli proved almost comically inept at diplomacy. He never grasped the details of the discussions, showing ‘a perfect disregard for the facts’. He had never even seen a map of Asia Minor so had no idea what was being negotiated. His own Foreign Secretary noted that Disraeli

has only the dimmest idea of what is going on – understands everything crossways – and imagines a perpetual conspiracy. (p.287).

Luckily, Lord Salisbury negotiated an effective if complicated set of treaties. All that mattered to Dizzy was that Britain come out of it with some showy gestures. Thus he supported the separate convention by which Britain took permanent control of Cyprus from the Ottomans. And once peace was secured, Disraeli could claim – however duplicitously – to have been the moving force behind it. In his speeches he spoke about ‘peace with honour’ which the newspapers gleefully picked up and repeated.

Thus Disraeli found himself a hero and was greeted by adoring crowds back in London when he arrived as Charing Cross station to find it decked out with flowers in his honour. The crowds cheered him back to Downing Street, where he read out a telegram of congratulations from Her Majesty. Dizzy was given the freedom of the City of London and Victoria offered him a dukedom.

Once again bravado, a sense of the dramatic and a gift for phrase-making gave the appearance then, and in the decades after his death, that Disraeli had brought off some kind of diplomatic coup. But, as the authors emphasise, the peace had already been made; if she lost some territory in the Balkans, Russia was left with all her acquisitions in the Caucasus; and Cyprus was a useful way station for the Royal Navy but hardly ‘the key to the Middle East’ as Disraeli flamboyantly claimed. The Eastern Question was far from solved and would rumble on for forty more years before providing the spark for the First World War.

What really emerges from Hurd & Young’s account is how close Britain came to going to war with Russia and how, once again (just as in the Crimean War) tens of thousands of men would have died to justify Disraeli’s reckless addiction to glamour and prestige and power. His opponents in Cabinet who blocked his wish for war were the true wise ones. But history, alas, forgets quiet wisdom and remembers flashy showmanship.

The Disraeli reality

The book makes clear that Disraeli was consumed with ambition and would do almost anything, betray any mentor (as he shafted his mentor Robert Peel in the 1840s), change any position, say almost anything, in order to succeed. This is why the pompous High Anglican Liberal leader, William Gladstone, didn’t just dislike him, but detested him, seeing in Disraeli the embodiment of all the money-seeking, amoral, flashy, superficial, irreligious chicanery which was bad about Victorian society.

Disraeli emerges from these pages as a splendiferous writer – of superficial and overwrought ‘silver fork’ novels, of passionate love letters to his numerous mistresses, sucking-up letters to Queen Victoria, and chatty epistles to the many ageing spinsters he cultivated in the hope of being named in their wills – of vast speeches in the House, and of any number of dinner table bons mots. But he also emerges as easily the most untrustworthy, slippery and amoral leader this country has ever had.

Having demolished almost all of the Disraeli myth, do the authors leave anything, does he have claim to any ‘ideas’? Yes, but they were preposterous. Disraeli thought that Britain needed a stronger aristocracy, recalled to fulfil its ancient duties by the rebirth of a vague and undefined national ‘faith’. And that what mattered to Britain internationally was to maintain its ‘prestige’, its ‘reputation’, its ‘honour’ – without any  concrete plan for administering, reforming or expanding the empire, without any knowledge of its myriad farflung territories, which he never visited or made any effort to understand.

An unintended insight from this book is it makes you sympathise with what the imperialist soldiers, administrators and merchants on the ground in Africa, India or China when you see the sheer empty-headed, unprincipled, ignorant and knee-jerk political culture back in London which they had to put up with. It makes the scorn and contempt for politicians of a writer like Kipling a lot easier to understand and sympathise with.

Contemporary relevance

In the introduction the authors say their book will be an investigation of how Disraeli became ‘the subject of such an extravagant posthumous mythology’. Well, it’s true that immediately following his death a thing called the Primrose League was founded to preserve his memory, and that it grew astonishingly until by 1910 it had some 2 million members (p.xxii). The Primrose League venerated this man of flash and rhetoric, the image Disraeli created through his style and extravagant gestures. Disraeli has more entries in the Oxford Book of Quotations than any other British politicians. He was always ready with the quotable quip and the memorable phrase.

  • There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.
  • Never complain; never explain.

But today, in 2017, would you say he is ‘the subject of such an extravagant posthumous mythology’? The only group of people who have reliably heard of him are members of the Conservative Party and maybe other Parliamentarians who have taken the trouble to study their history. Neither of my children (19 and 16) had heard of Disraeli.

The fact is the authors need to erect an image of a dominating and significant Disraeli in order to knock him down – their claims for his important and contemporary relevance are simply the straw man they need to erect in order to knock it down, the scaffold they require to justify their long biography – it doesn’t really reflect any reality around me. It is pre-eminently a book for political insiders. A lot of names are lined up on the cover giving the book fulsome praise, but who are these enthusiastic reviewers?

  • Dominic Sandbook (Malvern and Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Matthew Paris (Clare College, Cambridge and Conservative MP)
  • Sam Leith (Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford)
  • Lady Antonia Fraser (the Dragon School and Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford)
  • Michael Gove (Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, Conservative MP and now Environment Secretary)
  • Jesse Norman (Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford, Conservative MP and Under Secretary of State for Roads, Local Transport and Devolution)
  • Boris Johnson (Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, Conservative MP and Foreign Secretary)

Once I started looking them up I was shocked by the narrowness of their backgrounds. If the quotes on the cover are any indication, its true target audience is Conservative MPs and public schoolmen.

(And – incidentally – confirmation, if any was needed, that London’s book world – like its politics – is run by a tiny interconnected metropolitan elite.)

Boris Johnson

In the last few pages, the authors declare that Disraeli’s final, ultimate, enduringly great achievement was to make politics interesting; he emitted memorable phrases, scathing put-downs, he was entertaining, he made politics lively, colourful and so made it accessible to a very wide popular audience. Hence the cheering crowds at Charing Cross.

Alas, laments Baron Hurd, politicians nowadays are a grey lot reduced to spouting pre-agreed party lines in tedious television interviews. That, the authors suggest, is why politicians are held in such low public regard.

In the final pages they ask whether there is there any political figure of our time who compares with Disraeli for dash and brio? Astonishingly, the authors say Yes – Boris Johnson. Similarly rash, colourful and undisciplined but immensely entertaining, a man who has survived countless scandals which would have sunk a lesser man, and is probably one of the few politicians everyone in the country has heard of.

(This is the same Boris Johnson who is quoted on the book’s cover describing it as ‘superb and sometimes hilarious’, who went to Baron Hurd of Westwell’s old school, and now follows in the Baron’s footsteps as this country’s Foreign Secretary. It’s a small incestuous place, the Conservative world.)

But I venture to suggest that the authors are wrong. The reason most of us plebs despise politicians is not because they are grey and boring; it is because they are lying incompetents. Tony Blair came to power promising a moral foreign policy then sent British troops into war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gordon Brown claimed to have abolished boom-and-bust economics on the eve of the greatest financial crash in world history. The LibDems promised to abolish tuition fees and then, once in power, trebled them to £9,000 a year (the single broken promise which sums up all ‘politics’ and ‘politicians’ for my teenage children: for them ‘politician’ simply means faithless liar).

And the Brexiteers, led by that very same Boris Johnson and his creature, Michael Gove (both of them quoted praising this book on the cover) campaigned to leave the EU and then turned out to have no plan, no plan at all, for how to manage the process. They still don’t.

And then Theresa May came along promising ‘strong and stable’ leadership and called the most unnecessary general election in modern history.

Looking back at the past twenty years of Britain’s political life do the authors really believe that the issue has been that British politicians are grey and boring? No. It is that they are inept, incompetent, lying wankers. What the British people are crying out for is basic competence. The notion that what British politics needs is more politicians with Imagination and Courage, and that the solution to this problem is Boris Johnson, tells you everything you need to know about the modern Conservative Party, dominated by men from elite public schools who have never had proper jobs outside politics, and – as this book amply demonstrates – whose best ideas and quotes derive from a 19th century charlatan.


Credit

Disraeli or The Two Lives by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young was published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson in 2013. All quotes and references are to the 2013 Phoenix paperback edition.

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