The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875 by Eric Hobsbawm (1975)

The astonishing world-wide expansion of capitalism in the third quarter of the [nineteenth] century…
(The Age of Capital, page 147)

Eric Hobsbawn (1917 to 2012) was one of Britain’s leading historians. A lifelong Marxist, his most famous books are the trilogy covering what he himself termed ‘the long 19th century’, i.e. from the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 to the Great War in 1914. These three books are:

  • The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789–1848 (1962)
  • The Age of Capital: 1848–1875 (1975)
  • The Age of Empire: 1875–1914 (1987)

To which he later appended his account of the ‘short’ 20th century, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914 to 1991 (1994).

The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875

The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875 does what it says on the tin and provides a dazzlingly panoramic overview of the full economic, political and social events right across Europe and indeed around the world, from the famous year of revolutions (1848) through to his cutoff point 27 years later.

In his preface Hobsbawm says that the end of the era can be taken as 1873, which marked the start of what contemporaries came to call the Great Depression, a decades-long slump in trade and industry which is usually taken to have lasted from 1873 to 1896. Maybe he and the publishers chose the slightly later date of 1875 so as to end it precisely 100 years before the book’s publication date. Certainly nothing specifically important happened in 1875, it’s just a convenient marker.

General response

When I was a student in the 1980s I much preferred Hobsbawm’s rip-roaring and colourful trilogy to his dry economic volume, Industry and Empire: From 1750 to the Present Day (1968). Now the situation is reversed. I like the earlier book because it is more factual, which makes the central proposition of its first part – that the vital spur to the industrial revolution was Britain’s position at the centre of a complex global network of colonies which allowed it to import raw materials from some and export finished products to others at great profit – all the more powerful and persuasive.

By contrast, The Age of Capital is much more overtly a) Marxist and b) rhetorical and, after a while, both these aspects began to seriously detract from my enjoyment.

1. Very dated Marxism

Hobsbawm loses no opportunity to bang on about the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. These are both foreign words, French and German, respectively, and, for me, they began to really stick out from the text. I began to circle them in pencil, along with his other buzzwords, ‘capitalism’ and ‘revolution’, and this helped to visually confirm my sense that some passages of the book are entirely constructed from this dusty Marxist rhetoric. ‘The demands of the bourgeoisie…’, ‘The bourgeois market…’, ‘The business and domestic needs of the bourgeoisie…’, literally hundreds of times.

Back in the 1980s it didn’t stick out so much because a) as a humanities student I moved in an atmosphere permanently coloured with excitable student rhetoric about ‘the revolution’ and the overthrow of ‘capitalism’ and so on, and b) this reflected the rhetoric’s widespread use in the public domain, where you heard a lot more of this sort of terminology coming out of the 1980s Labour Party in the era of the Miners Strike and the Militant Tendency and so on.

But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, all the steam went out of international socialism. Up till then the rhetoric of revolution had a genuine sense of threat or menace – not that there was necessarily going to be a revolution tomorrow, but there had been, and there could be again, and so it felt like some kind of communist revolution was, at the very least, a real, conceptual possibility. And this sense of possibility and threat was reinforced by the number of genuinely communist governments around the world, all 15 Soviet states, all of China, half of Europe, much of south-east Asia, as well as the various Marxist guerrilla groups across Africa and Latin America. It was a rhetoric, a set of ideas and a mindset you couldn’t help engaging with every day if you watched the news or read newspapers.

File:Communist countries 1979-1983.png

Communist countries 1979 to 1983. Source: Wikipedia

These terms had real-world presence and possibilities because they were the official rhetoric of half the governments of the world. The Soviet Union, Chinese or Cuban governments routinely made pronouncements condemning the ‘capitalist countries’, attacking ‘bourgeois liberalism’, criticising ‘western imperialists’ and so on.

Now, decades later, all this has disappeared. Gross injustice there still is, and sporadic outbreaks of left-wing-sounding movements for fairness. But they lack the intellectual cohesion and above all the sense of confidence (and funding) and threat which ‘revolutionary’ movements were given in the 1960s, 70s and 80s by the vast presence and threat of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. John Le Carré’s thrillers had such an impact because behind the small number of spies battling it out there was the real sense that a war might break out, that espionage might play a role in the actual undermining of the West.

What I’m driving at is that Hobsbawm’s relentless focus on the political movements of the workers of his era, of the proletariat and radicals and socialists and so on of the 1860s and 1870s, now looks quaint and dated. Of course 1848 to 1875 was the era of the triumph of capitalism and the response of workers and workers parties and liberals and intellectuals all across Europe was often couched in terms of socialism and even communism, and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were alive and organising and writing, yes, of course.

But this book’s relentless focus on the plight of ‘the workers’ and the formation of ‘the proletariat’ is not only obviously biased and parti pris but now, in our post-communist era, comes over as dated and contrived. He was writing in the mid-1970s to a widespread acceptance of very left-wing politics which was common not only among academics but in trade unions and major political parties all across Europe and which has now… vanished.

And comes over as boring. I got bored of the way Hobsbawm casually labels the working classes or the populations of non-western countries as ‘victims’, as if absolutely everyone in 1860s China or Persia or Egypt or Africa were helpless children.

I’m just reading a passage where he lambasts the Victorian bourgeoisie for its ‘prejudices’ but his own worldview is just as riddled with prejudice, clichés and stereotypes – the ‘bourgeoisie’ is always 100% powerful exploiters; everyone else is always 100% helpless ‘victims’; only Karl Marx understood what was going on; the holy quest for ‘revolution’ went into abeyance during these years but was to revive and flourish in the 1880s, hurrah!

He repeats certain phrases, such as ‘bourgeois liberalism’, so many times that they eventually become empty of meaning, little more than slogans and boo words.

‘Here is the hypocrite bourgeois in the bosom of his smug family while the workers slave away in his factory’, BOO!

‘Here are the socialist intellectuals and more educated workers seeking to organise labour and planning for the revolutionary overthrow of bourgeois society and the seizure of the means of production by the workers’, HOORAY!

‘Here are the Great Thinkers of the period, Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer, whose writings supported raw capitalism, racism and eugenics’, BOO!

‘Here are Karl Mark and Friedrich Engels, noble humanitarians who were the only ones to grasp the scale of the socio-economic changes the industrialised world was undergoing’, HOORAY!

2. Hobsbawm’s superficial treatment prevents understanding

This brings me to the other major flaw in the book which is that it reads to me, now, as so superficial on almost all the specific events it covers, as to be actively misleading.

As a starry-eyed and fairly uneducated student it came as a dazzling revelation to learn just how many huge and momentous events took place during this packed 25-year period. It was my first introduction to the 1848 revolutions and the Paris Commune, to the Taiping Rebellion and the American Civil War and so on, all of which stretched my historical understanding and broadened my perspectives on world history.

However, rereading it now, 30 years later, I think Hobsbawm’s presentation of many of these subjects is so brief and is so skewed by the way he forces everything into his Marxist worldview – everything is shoehorned into the same framework of capitalism and proletariat and bourgeoisie – as to be actively misleading.

Because every event he covers is described in terms of the triumph of the liberal-capitalist bourgeoisie over either their own proletariat or entire foreign nations (for example, China or India) everything ends up sounding very samey. He doesn’t distinguish between the enormous cultural, economic, legal and historical differences between nations – between, for example the ‘bourgeoisie’ of America, Britain and Germany, all very different things – he doesn’t pay attention to the complexities and unexpected turns and ironies which defy Marxism’s neat patterns and limited repertoire of concepts.

This generalising tendency makes a lot of the events of the era sound the same and this actively prevents a proper understanding of history’s complexities and strangeness. It was only when I read specific books on some of the events he describes that I came to really understand the complexity and specificity of events which Hobsbawm, for all his verve and rhetoric, often leaves badly unexplained.

For example, I’ve just read Hobsbawm’s description of the Paris Commune (pages 200 to 202) and am profoundly unimpressed. He skimps on the historical detail or the actual events of the Commune, preferring to give a shallow, teenage account of how much it scared the European bourgeoisie and how they took fright at the sight of workers running their own government etc.

Its [the Commune’s] actual history is overlaid by the enormously powerful myth it generated, both in France itself and (through Karl Marx) in the international socialist movement; a myth which reverberates to this day, notably in the Chinese People’s Republic… If it did not threaten the bourgeois order seriously, it frightened the wits out of it by its mere existence. Its life and death were surrounded by panic and hysteria, especially in the international press, which accused it of instituting communism, expropriating the rich and sharing their wives, terror, wholesale massacre, chaos, anarchy and whatever else haunted the nightmares of the respectable classes – all, needless to say, deliberately plotted by the International. (p.201)

See what I mean by rhetoric? Heavy on rhetoric and references to Marx, the International, communist China, revolution, bourgeois order and so on. But where are the facts in that passage? There aren’t any.

Hobsbawm fails to explain the context of the Franco-Prussian War or the complex sequence of events which led to the declaration of the Commune. He glosses over the way the workers’ government came into being, the disagreements among various factions, the executions of hostages which introduced a note of terror and violence into the situation, which was then amply repaid by the French government forces when they retook Paris arrondissement by arrondissement and the mass executions of communards which followed. I only came to properly appreciate the Commune’s grim complexity when, many decades later, I read The Fall of Paris by Alistair Horne (1965)

Same with the Crimean War, which Hobsbawm dismisses as a notorious fiasco and more or less leaves at that (p.96). It wasn’t until I read The Crimean War by Orlando Figes (2010) a few years ago that I for the first time understood the long-term geopolitical forces at work (namely the Ottoman Empire’s decay and the fierce ambition of Russia to seize the Straits and extend their territory all the way to Constantinople), the complicated sequence of events which led up to the outbreak of war, and the multiple ways in which it was, indeed, a mismanaged disaster.

Same with the American Civil War (pages 170 to 173). Hobsbawn gives a breath-takingly superficial sketch (‘For four years the civil war raged’) and, surprisingly for such a left-wing writer, doesn’t really give slavery its due weight. He is more interested in the way victory for the North was victory for American capitalism, which was the view of Marx himself.

Anyway, it wasn’t until I read James McPherson’s epic history of the American Civil War, decades later, that I really understood the long-term causes of the war, the huge conceptual frameworks within which it took place (I’m still awed at the ambition of some of the southern slavers to create a new and completely separate nation which would include all the Caribbean and most of Central America), the terrible, appalling, mind-searing horrors of slavery, the strong case made by the southern states for secession, and the technological reasons (development of better guns) why it went on so long and caused such immense casualties (620,000 dead).

Here are books on specific events or figures from the period, which I would strongly in preference to Hobsbawm if you really want to fully understand key events from the period:

Same on the domestic front. By limiting his description of British society to concepts of capital, capitalists, bourgeoisie and proletariat, Hobsbawm, in his concern with identifying the structural and economic parallels between all the capitalist nations of the West, loses most of the details which make history, and life, interesting.

I came to this book immediately after reading Richard Shannon’s book, The Crisis of Imperialism, 1865 to 1915 which is a long, sometimes rather turgid, but nonetheless fascinating and detailed analysis of the high politics of Britain during the period, which views them almost entirely in terms of the complicated challenges faced by successive British leaders in trying to keep the various factions in their parties onside while they negotiated the minefields of domestic and international politics. Among other things, Shannon’s book brilliantly conveys the matrix of intellectual and political traditions which politicians like Gladstone and Disraeli sought to harness, and how they both were trying to preserve visions of a past equilibrium or social balance which probably never existed, while the world hurried them relentlessly onwards.

By contrast, Hobsbawm’s account gives you no idea at all of the characters and worldviews of the leading politicians of the day; they are all just representatives of the ‘bourgeoisie’, taken as, for all intents and purposes, identical, whether in America, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and so on. (The one possible exception is Bismarck, who emerges with a very clear political agenda, all of which he achieved, and so impresses Hobsbawm.)

The book’s strengths

Where the book does score, what made its reputation when it was published and has maintained it ever since, is the bravura confidence with which Hobsbawm leaps from one continent to another, mimicking in the structure of his text the phenomenal spread of the industrial revolution and the new capitalist ways of managing production, new social relations, a new economy, and new trading relations, new and unprecedented ways of doing things which spread like wildfire around the world. The first half of the book is crammed with raw facts and statistics about the West’s astonishing feats of industrialisation and engineering. Here are some highlights:

1848, the ‘springtime of peoples’

1848 saw political revolution across Europe. I have summarised these in a review of 1848: Year of Revolution by Mike Rapport (2008). The revolutions of 1848 generated a huge amount of rhetoric, primarily by middle class nationalists and liberals, but also from ideologists for the new ideas of socialism and communism.

But the key thing about the 1848 revolutions and the so-called ‘springtime of peoples’ is that they failed. Within a year, year and a half at most, they had all been crushed. Some political gains were made, serfdom was abolished in Hungary, but broadly speaking, within two years the kings and emperors were back in control.

All except in the most politically unstable country of Europe, France, which overthrew its king, endured three years of unstable democracy and then elected a buffoon, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, to become their emperor, Napoleon III (Napoleon counted his father as Napoleon II, hence the way he named himself the third Napoleon). The French replaced an inept king with a populist buffoon. The left was decisively crushed for nearly 40 years, only reviving in the harsher environment of the 1880s.

The labour movement [across Europe] had not so much been destroyed as decapitated by the failure of the 1848 revolutions and the subsequent decades of economic expansion. (p.133)

Boom years of the 1850s

The 1848 revolutions were bitterly fought, there was a lot of bloodshed which amounted to civil war in some parts of Europe, but apart from the fact that they all failed in their aims of establishing liberal republics, the other key thing about them that Hobsbawm brings out is they were the end of a process, not the beginning.

The 1840s are often referred to as the Hungry Forties because of the malign impact of industrialisation on many populations, combined with a run of bad harvests. BUT 1850 saw all this change, with a sudden industrial boom which lasted most of the rest of the 1850s and a run of good harvests.

With the result that the ‘working class militancy’ so beloved of a Marxist like Hobsbawm fizzled out. Chartism, which had at one point threatened the state in Britain, disappeared and the same with the other movements across Europe. All except for the nationalist movements in Germany and Italy, which were by no means socialist or for the workers. The unification of Germany was brought about by Bismarck, the opposite of a socialist.

1848 gold rush

Much more important for the global economy was the discovery, in the same year, 1848, of gold in California. This is the kind of thing Hobsbawm is good at, because he has the figures at his fingertips to show how dramatically the gold rush drew the Pacific world closer together. An unprecedented number of Chinese crossed the sea to find their fortunes in California, part of the huge influx of migrants who boosted San Francisco’s population from 812 in 1848 to 35,000 just 4 years later (p.79).

Crews of ships docking in San Francisco regularly absconded in their entirety, leaving the wooden ships to rot, many of them eventually being torn up and used as building materials. Such was the pull of gold and the mushroom wealth it created, that fleets and food were attracted up the coast from faraway Chile.

The gold rush also acted as a financial incentive for the completion of the transcontinental railways being built at the time (the line right across America was completed in 1869). Previously California had been cut off by the huge Rocky mountains. Now there was the incentive of gold to complete a transport link to it, allowing the traffic of food from the mid-West.

Globalisation

The gold rush in California (shortly followed by one in Australia) is a good example of one of the overall themes of the book, which is that this era saw the advent of Globalisation.

The interdependence of the world economy could hardly be better demonstrated. (p.79)

Due to the railway, the steamer and the telegraph…the geographical size of the capitalist economy could suddenly multiply as the intensity of its business transactions increased. The entire globe became part of this economy. This creation of a single expanded world is probably the most significant development of our period…for practical purposes an entirely new economic world was added to the old and integrated into it. (p.48)

In this industrial capitalism became a genuine world economy and the globe was therefore transformed from a geographical expression into a constant operational reality. History from now on became world history. (p.63)

No wonder that observers saw the economic world not merely as a single interlocking complex, but as one where each part was sensitive to what happened elsewhere, and through which money, goods and men moved smoothly and with increasing rapidity, according to the irresistible stimuli of supply and demand, gain and loss and with the help of modern technology. (p.82)

…the ever-tightening network of global communications, whose most tangible result was a vast increase in the flow of international exchanges of goods and men… (p.85)

For the historian the great boom of the 1850s marks the foundation of a global industrial economy and a single world history. (p.88)

… the extraordinary widening and deepening  of the world economy which forms the basic theme of world history at this period. (p.207)

Second industrial revolution

There are varying opinions about how many industrial revolutions there were. From Hobsbawm’s accounts here and in Industry and Empire it seems clear the first industrial revolution centred on cotton production, took place in Lancashire, and relied on British dominance of international trade, since 100% of the raw material was imported (from the American South) and a huge percentage was then exported (to Africa and India).

There was a slump in the textile economy in the 1830s and Hobsbawm briefly entertains the counter-factual possibility that the process of industrialisation, which had, after all, only touched a relatively tiny part of the world’s surface, might have sputtered out and died altogether.

But it was saved by a second wave of renewed industrial activity leading to phenomenal growth in production of coal and iron, with accompanying technical innovations, which were catalysed by the new technology connected with the railway (which Hobsbawm tells us Karl Marx thought of as capitalism’s ‘crowning achievement’, p.48).

Railway mania

Hobsbawm explains how the railway mania, at first in Britain, then in other industrialising nations, was driven by financial factors, namely the need for capitalists who had acquired large amounts of capital for something to invest in.

Hobsbawm has some lyrical passages, the kind of thing most readers of this book long remember, describing the astonishing feats of finance and engineering and labour which flung huge lengths of iron railroad across the continents of the world between the 1840s and the 1870s, connecting coasts with hinterlands, linking the world together as never before. Many readers remember Hobsbawm’s awed descriptions of the astonishing achievements of individual railway entrepreneurs such as Thomas Brassey, who at one point was employing 80,000 men on five continents (pages 70 to 73).

Such men thought in continents and oceans. For them the world was a single unit, bound together with rails of iron and steam engines, because the horizons of business were like their dreams, world-wide. (p.74)

He points out that Jules Verne’s famous novel of 1873, Around the World in Eighty Days, was fantastically topical to its time. In effect its protagonist, Phileas Fogg, was testing and showcasing the spread of the new railway technology which had girdled the earth (p.69).

Map of the trip

Map of Philea Fogg’s route in Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne (Map created by Roke. Source: Wikipedia)

The electric telegraph

Even more dramatic than railways was the development of the electric telegraph which Hobsbawm describes in detail on pages 75 to 78. It was the telegraph which created the first and definitive communications revolution. In 1848 you had to wait months for letters to arrive from another continent. By 1875 news could be telegraphed from England to America in minutes. It was a transformation in human relations, perception and psychology.

Hobsbawm goes on to make the interesting point that this globalisation was still very limited and focused on high profit areas and routes. Only a hundred miles from the railway and telegraph, billions of people still lived with more or less feudal technology, the fastest vehicle being the ox-cart.

Right from the beginning the process of globalisation created an even bigger zone of unglobalisation, what is now often called the ‘left behind’. So Phileas Fogg’s famous journey has this additional interpretation, that it was a journey along the frontier between the newly globalised and the still untouched. In the novel Phileas travels a kind of borderline between the deep past and the ever-accelerating future.

Production figures

Britain produced 2.5 million tons of iron in 1850, in 1870 6 million tons, or about half the world’s total. Over the same period world production of coal increased by two and a half times, world output of iron four times. Global steam power increased from an estimated 4 million horsepower in 1850 to 18.5 million HP by 1870. In 1859 2,000 million barrels of oil were produced in the USA, in 1874, 11 million barrels. The book ends with a dozen pages of tables conveying these and many other examples of the explosion in productivity and output, and maps showing the spread of trade routes and emigration movements around the world.

The industrialisation of the German Federation between 1850 and 1870 had major geopolitical implications, creating the industrial might which helped Bismarck win three wars in succession and create a united Germany, which has been a decisive force in Europe ever since (p.56).

World fairs

As their economic system, businesses and military might spread around the world, what Hobsbawm calls the ‘liberal bourgeoisie’ celebrated in a series of world’s fairs, starting with the famous Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London at which no fewer than 14,000 firms exhibited (1851), followed by Paris 1855, London 1862, Paris 1867, Vienna 1873 and Philadelphia 1875 (p.47).

Mass migration

The third quarter of the nineteenth century saw the largest migrations in human history to that point. Between 1846 and 1875 more than 9 million people left Europe, mostly for America (p.228). Between 1851 and 1880 about 5.3 million people left the British Isles (3.5 million to the USA, 1 million to Australia, half a million to Canada).

More subtly, maybe, there was large scale inner migration from the countryside to the new mushroom towns and cities of the industrial revolution, creating vast acreages of appallingly squalid, over-crowded slums without any sanitation, water etc. These were to be the settings for the poverty literature and government reports of the 1880s and 1890s which brought about sweeping changes in town planning at the end of the century and into the 1900s.

The challenge to the developing world

The corollary of the notion that industrial ‘liberal capitalism’ spread its tentacles right around the world during this period, drawing all nations and peoples and places into its ravenous quest for profit, was the challenge this represented to all the non-Western nations and other cultures. Hobsbawn has sections describing the responses of the Ottoman Empire, the world of Islam, the Chinese Empire, the Persian Empire and the Japanese to the growing challenge from what he glibly calls ‘the West’.

His passages on these nations suffer from the same shortcomings I’ve listed above, namely that they are brief and superficial. To really understand what happened in China during this period, I would recommend The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 to the Present by Jonathan Fenby (2013). For an overview of why the non-Western empires and cultures proved incapable of matching the West’s dynamism, I recommend the outstanding After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires 1400 to 2000 by John Darwin. For descriptions of the internal crises the transformation sparked, generally leading to the overthrow of the old regimes, in the Ottoman Empire, China, Japan in a controlled way, I would recommend you to find books specifically about those countries.

Wars

It was an era of wars. Which era hasn’t been?

  • The Second Carlist War (1846 to 1849) was a minor Catalan uprising
  • The Taiping Rebellion aka the Taiping Civil War or the Taiping Revolution, 1850 to 1864
  • The Crimean War, October 1853 to February 1856
  • American Civil War, 12 April 1861 to 9 April 1865
  • The Unification of Germany involved:
    • The Second Schleswig War aka Prusso-Danish War Feb to October 1864
    • The Austro-Prussian War or Seven Weeks’ War, June to July 1866
    • The Franco-Prussian War War, 19 July 1870 to 28 January 1871
  • The Unification of Italy involved:
    • The Second Italian War of Independence aka the Austro-Sardinian War, April to 12 July 1859
      (2 months, 2 weeks and 2 days)
    • The Third Italian War of Independence between the Kingdom of Italy and the Austrian Empire, June and August 1866
  • The Paraguayan War aka the War of the Triple Alliance, 1864 to 1870
  • The Third Carlist War, in Spain, 1872 to 1876

Famines

Less newsworthy than wars, less painted, less celebrated, producing fewer statues and medals, but many times more people died in famines than conflicts. As Hobsbawm points out, one of the fundamental differences between the ‘civilised world’ and the rest is that the industrial world can (by and large) feed its populations, whereas the undeveloped world is susceptible to failures of harvest and distribution.

  • 1848: Java ravaged by famine
  • 1849: maybe 14 million died in the Chinese famine
  • 1854 to 1864 as many as 20 million died in prolonged famine in China
  • 1856: one in ten of the population of Orissa died in the famine
  • 1861 to 1872: a fifth the population of Algeria died of starvation
  • 1868 to 1870: up to a third the population of Rajputana
  • 3 and a half million perished in Madras
  • 1871 to 1873: up to 2 million, a third the population of Persia, died of starvation
  • 1876 to 1878: 1 million in Mysore

Hobsbawm tries to reclaim human dignity i.e. give these catastrophes some semblance of meaning, by blaming some of this on the colonial powers (especially the British in India; as a British Marxist he is duty bound to reserve most of his scorn and contempt for the British authorities). But the effect of this list is not to make me ‘blame’ anyone, it just overwhelms me with the misery and suffering most of humanity have experienced throughout most of human history.

American states

In the post-civil war era, America continued to grow, adding states to its roster, having now settled the central issue of the war, which was whether they would be slave states of free states. The North’s victory in 1865 meant they would all be ‘free’ states.

  • Wisconsin became a state in 1848
  • California 1850
  • Minnesota 1858
  • Oregon 1859
  • Kansas 1861
  • West Virginia 1863
  • Nevada 1864
  • Nebraska 1867
  • Russia sold America Alaska 1867
  • Colorado 1876

Colonies

The original European colonial powers were Portugal and Spain. Spain lost control of its colonies in Central and South America in the early 1800s. Portugal hung on longer to a handful of territories in Latin America, a few coastal strips in Africa and Goa in India (p.145). The Dutch created a sizeable foreign empire in the 17th and 18th centuries. The French had ambitions to control North America and India but lost out during the 18th century to the British. So that the nineteenth century belonged to Britain, which ruled the world’s oceans and developed an unprecedented web of international, ocean-carried trade and this, Hobsbawm argues, was the bedrock reason for Britain pioneering the industrial revolution.

In a nutshell, the idea is that a fully developed capitalist system must be continually looking for new markets in order to maintain its growth. Where markets don’t exist in its native country, the system creates needs and markets through advertising. Or it conquers new parts of the world and new populations which it can drag into its mesh of trade and sales, extracting its raw materials at the cheapest cost, and turning them into manufactured items which it sells back to colonial peoples at the maximum profit.

Although there continued to be expeditions and territorial claims during this period, it was really a prelude to the frenzy of imperial conquest which characterised the final quarter of the nineteenth century, and which is the subject of the third book in the trilogy, the sequel to this one, Age of Empire.

In a word

Hobsbawm’s book impressed when it was published, and still does now, with its sheer range and scope, with its blizzard of facts and data, with its rhetorical conjuring of a world for the first time embraced and joined together by new technologies (railway, steamship, telegraph).

But its strength is its weakness, for its breadth means it sacrifices subtlety and insight for dogma, and becomes increasingly bogged down in sweeping generalisations about the wicked bourgeoisie and hypocritical capitalists (‘In general capitalists of the first generation were philistines…’, p.334).

By the end of the book I was sick to death of the sight of the word ‘bourgeois’. Hobsbawm sounds like a fairground toy: put a penny in the slot and watch it jerk to life and start spouting endless slogans about the vicious, hypocritical, exploitative ‘bourgeoisie’, especially in the long and profoundly dim final  sections of the book in which, God forgive us, an ageing Marxist historian shares with us his banal and  predictable views about the intellectual and artistic achievements of the period. For example:

  • The novel can be considered the one genre which found it possible to adapt itself to that bourgeois society….p.326
  • When one considers the orgy of building into which a prosperous bourgeois society threw itself…326
  • Few societies have cherished the works of creative genius… more than that of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie. p.327
  • The demands of the bourgeoisie were individually more modest, collectively far greater. (p.330)
  • The business and domestic needs of the bourgeoisie made the fortunes of plenty of architects… (p.330)
  • The bourgeois market was new only insofar as it was now unusually large and increasingly prosperous. (p.330)
  • We can certainly discover those who, for various reasons, resisted or tried to shock a bourgeois public… (p.332)
  • For bourgeois society [the artist] represented ‘genius’…
  • Bourgeois tourists could now hardly avoid that endless and footsore pilgrimage to the shrines of the arts which is still in progress along the hard floors of the Louvre, Uffizi and San Marco. (p.335)
  • [Artists] did not have to conform to the mores of the normal bourgeois… (p.335)
  • Here again Richard Wagner showed a faultless appreciation of the bourgeois artist. (p.335)
  • Did the bourgeois actually enjoy the arts? (p.335)
  • Aestheticism did not become a bourgeois fashion until the late 1870s and 1880s. (p.336)
  • The bourgeoisie of the mid-nineteenth century was torn by a dilemma which its triumph made even more acute. (p.340)
  • At best the bourgeois version of ‘realism’ was a socially suitable selection… (p.340)
  • [Naturalism] normally implied a conscious political critique of bourgeois society… (p.340)
  • The insatiable demands of the bourgeoisie, and especially the petty-bourgeoisie, for cheap portraits provided the basis of [photography]’s success. (p.341)
  • Torn between the idealism and the realism of the bourgeois world, the realists also rejected photography… (p.342)
  • The Impressionists are important not for their popular subject matter – Sunday outings, popular dances, the townscapes and city scenes of cities, the theatres, race-courses and brothels of the bourgeois society’s half world – but for their innovation of method. (p.344)
  • If science was one basic value of bourgeois society, individualism and competition were others. (p.345)
  • [The birth of the avant-garde] represents the collapse of the attempt to produce an art intellectually consistent with (though often critical of) bourgeois society… (p.346)
  • This breakdown affected the marginal strata of the bourgeois world more than its central core: students and young intellectuals, aspiring writers and artists, the general boheme of those who refused to accept (however temporarily) to adopt the ways of bourgeois respectability… (p.347)
  • [French artists] were united, like the Romantics before 1848, only by a common dislike of the bourgeoisie… (p.348)
  • Until 1848 these spiritual Latin Quarters of bourgeois society had hope of a republic and social revolution…. (p.348)
  • Flaubert’s Sentimental Education (1869) is that story of the hope in the hearts of the world-storming young men of the 1840s and its double disappointment, by the 1848 revolution itself and by the subsequent era in which the bourgeoisie triumphed… (p.348)
  • With the collapse of the dream of 1848 and the victory of the reality of Second Empire France, Bismarckian Germany, Palmerstonian and Gladstonian Britain and the Italy of Victor Emmanuel, the western bourgeois arts starting with painting and poetry therefore bifurcated into those appealing to the mass public and those appealing to a self-defined minority. They were not quite as outlawed by bourgeois society as the mythological history of the avant-garde arts has it… (p.349)
  • [Music] could oppose the bourgeois world only from within, an easy task, since the bourgeois himself was unlikely to recognise when he was being criticised. (p.350)
  • Richard Wagner succeeded…in convincing the most financially solvent cultural authorities and members of the bourgeois public that they themselves belonged to the spiritual elite… (p.350)
  • Prose literature, and especially that characteristic art form of the bourgeois era, the novel, flourished for exactly the opposite reason. (p.350)
  • It would be unfair to confine the discussion of the arts in the age of bourgeois triumph to masters and masterpieces… (p.351)

Eventually, by dint of endless relentless repetition, the word ‘bourgeois’ becomes almost entirely emptied of meaning, and the endless conflating of everything bad, vicious, exploitative, hypocritical and philistine under this one mindless label eventually obliterates all Hobsbawm’s attempts to analyse and shed light. It does the opposite.

He nowhere makes clear that, since it is a French word implies, this venomous hatred of the ‘bourgeoisie’ had special French origins and significances in a politically unstable country which had a revolution more or less every generation throughout the century, which just weren’t the same and couldn’t be applied in the same way in Germany, Britain let alone America. Tennyson didn’t hate the English ‘bourgeoisie’, Dickens didn’t despise the English ‘bourgeoisie’, as much as their French counterparts, Baudelaire and Flaubert hated the French ‘bourgeoisie’. The hatred, the concept and the cultural context are all French and have never made nearly as much sense in Britain, let alone in America, as Marx learned to his bitter disappointment.

The passages describing the astonishing achievements of entrepreneurs, inventors, engineers and industrial innovators during this period remain thrilling and eye-opening, but they make up a minority of the text. Struggling through the long, doctrinaire Marxist and tediously banal second half is like being trapped in a corner of a party by a slobbering bore who asks you to hang on while he just tells you 20 more reasons why the Victorian bourgeoisie were so despicable. ‘Yes, grandad. I get it.’

The Age of Capital is arguably, in its overall tendency and rigidly doctrinaire interpretations, more a relic of its own time, the right-on, Marxisant 1970s, than a reliable guide to the era it claims to describe.

Ad hominem

On one occasion only have I been in a traditional London gentleman’s club, when a TV producer invited me to lunch at his club, the Garrick. He pointed out a few famous members in the packed dining room, including the distinctive features of the agèd and lanky Hobsbawm over at one of the tables.

It struck me how very English it was that this fire-breathing, ‘radical’, ‘Marxist’ historian enjoyed all the benefits of the English Establishment, membership of top clubs, numerous honours (Companion of Honour, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Fellow of the British Academy and so on), enjoying a tasty lunch at the Garrick before strolling back to the library to pen another excoriating attack on the hypocrisy, philistinism, greed, ruthlessness and cruelty of the ancestors of the jolly chaps he’d just been sitting among, confident that his ‘bourgeois’ publishers would do a good job producing and promoting his next book, that the ‘bourgeois’ bookshops would display and sell it, that the ‘bourgeois’ press would give it glowing reviews, and he would be awarded another chestful of honours by a grateful monarch.

It’s not really even hypocrisy, it’s something odder: that academic communities across the Western world happily employed, paid and promoted humanities academics and writers who systematically castigated their employers, their nations and their histories, and cheerfully proclaimed their allegiance to foreign powers (the USSR, China) who made no secret of their intention to overthrow the West in violent revolution.

Well, history has had its revenge on the Marxist historians. As I slotted Age of Capital back onto my shelf I thought I heard the sound of distant laughter.


Credit

The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875 by Eric Hobsbawm was published in 1975 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All references are to the 1985 Abacus paperback.

Hobsbawm reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And:

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

And:

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

And:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Domestic versus foreign affairs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avoiding teleology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disraeli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Power politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preserving the balance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A contest in misapprehension. (p.70)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some later Victorian schools of political thought

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

Matthew Arnold

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

John Stuart Mill

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

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

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

Leslie Stephen

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

Whig aristocrats

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

The Manchester School

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

Castlereagh’s foreign policy

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

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

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

The Crimean System

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

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

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

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

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

Liberalism

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

Nonconformism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825 to 1895)

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

Gladstone

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

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

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

Reasons for losing

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

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

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

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

The Victorian balance unravels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part III: The forming elements of a modern society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The failure of Liberalism

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

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

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

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

The failure of Unionism

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

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

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

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

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

High numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High finance

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

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

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

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

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

Déjà vu all over again

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

1. Why did we lose?

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

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

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

2. The progressive coalition in disarray

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

3. Cosmopolitans versus patriots

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

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

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

4. Working class conservatism

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

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

5. The sorry state of English education

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

6. Ireland

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

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

Credit

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


Related links

The Unbearable Bassington by Saki (1912)

The spirit of mirthfulness…certainly ran riot in the boy, but it was a twisted wayward sort of mirth

‘Comus,’ she said quietly and wearily, ‘you are an exact reversal of the legend of Pandora’s Box. You have all the charm and advantages that a boy could want to help him on in the world, and behind it all there is the fatal damning gift of utter hopelessness.’

Saki published two novels. This is the first one, relatively short (47,720 words) and cast in 17 chapters. It has a slim plotline which I will now summarise:

Executive summary

Francesca Bassington is a member of London’s High Society. She is 40, a widow, and living in a very nice house in Blue Street, surrounded by her precious possessions. The house was left to her by her friend Sophie Chetrof when she died, but only till Sophie’s daughter, Emmeline marries, at which point it will revert to Emmeline (and her husband). Emmeline is still only 17 but that gives Francesca only 4 or five more years of possession and it makes her anxious.

Francesca has one cherished hope which is that she can persuade her only son, the difficult tearaway Comus Bassington, to marry Emmeline.

Once this is all explained, we get a chapter showing Comus at his boarding school where he is shown gleefully thrashing Emmeline Chetrof’s brother, Lancelot, thus permanently turning Emmeline against her. Oh well, so much for that plan.

Jump forward two years and Comus is now 19 and a dashing, slender, good looking addition to London society. He comes to the notice of the fabulously rich Elaine de Grey and the most of the rest of this short novel is devoted to describing the rivalry between young, selfish Comus, and twenty-something handsome Courtenay Youghal for her hand.

This basic premise is spun out via scenes depicting classic activities of the class Francesca and Comus belong to – dinner parties, society gossip, riding in Hyde Park, the opening of a new art show at a fashionable gallery and the first night of a new play, all of which give Saki ample opportunity to display his knowledge of Edwardian High Society, and its refined gossip and malice.

In the event quite a trivial argument with Comus (he asks Elaine for yet another loan to cover his gambling debts, while they’re sitting in deckchairs by the Serpentine) is the straw that snaps Elaine’s patience, and she stalks off by herself. Later she goes out for dinner with Youghal and says yes to his proposal of marriage.

News of this gets back to Francesca, who has a confrontation with her son in which she says that, since he has blown all his opportunities for advancement in London (first with Emmeline, then with Elaine) there’s nothing for it but to throw himself into the Empire. Her brother, Henry Greech, has news of an opening ‘in West Africa’. Comus accepts this meekly but with great misery. He attends the first night of a play, drinking in the sights and (bitchy) sounds of London society, knowing it is the last time he’ll ever see them.

There are three remaining scenes. In one, we see Francesca on honeymoon in Vienna, discovering that Youghal is every bit as selfish and self-centred as Comus, when he forces her to go to a masked ball and has a whale of a time, leaving her bored and disconsolate.

In the second scene, we find Comus in some God-forsaken hole in West Africa, fiercely hot, exhausted, mildly feverish, and oppressed by the pointlessness of being so utterly outside his own set of values and identities. The Africans seem to him like so many teeming ants and he hangs his head in genuine despair.

In the final, short scene, Francesca is in her lovely house in Blue Street, surrounded by her lovely belongings, when she receives a telegram saying Comus has died of illness. Everything turns to ashes. She would give all her wretched belongings just for him to walk through the door. The rest of her life will be misery and anguish.

Despair

Bleak, isn’t it? It leaves a real taste, not of mere unhappiness, but of powerful despair in the mouth. Suddenly the text felt like an echo of Joseph Conrad’s stories about white men who go to pieces in the Tropics and a harbinger of Graham Greene’s despairing novel, The Heart of the Matter. Comus’s utter abandonment reminded me of the end of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Black Mischief. In fact maybe it fits into the tidy little tradition of English fiction describing how horrible a posting to the colonies was. (Would Orwell’s Burmese Days be included?)

Room for psychology

What’s interesting about Saki’s first novel is he has taken advantage of the extra legroom provided by the form to write in a far more leisurely, expansive and descriptive style than he allowed himself in his short stories.

All of chapter 1 is devoted to a thorough description of Francesca’s home, its furnishings, how they match her personality, and then a leisurely tiffin of tea and cucumber sandwiches with her brother, Henry. Normally, his short stories are cut back to the bone, sometimes barely more than short scenes or snippets of dialogue. Some of the stories in Chronicles of Clovis contained longer descriptions, especially of the countryside. In this novel Saki is able to develop that side of his writing.

Something else happens as a result of the extra legroom, which is that it becomes considerably less funny. If you’re writing a dialogue between two characters whose sole purpose is to set up a series of one-liners, nothing hinders the quest for comedy. If you’re essaying a long paragraph describing the interior of a middle-class woman’s home, well, there’s scope from some dry remarks, but it would be self-defeating to try and do it all in a series of quips. The prose, by virtue of aiming to be descriptive, must be flatter. Not without Saki’s characteristic droll, ironic inflection. But without the quotable gags.

Same goes for description of character. Here’s a typical description of young Comus:

Gaiety and good-looks had carried Comus successfully and, on the whole, pleasantly, through schooldays and a recurring succession of holidays; the same desirable assets were still at his service to advance him along his road, but it was a disconcerting experience to find that they could not be relied on to go all distances at all times. In an animal world, and a fiercely competitive animal world at that, something more was needed than the decorative abandon of the field lily, and it was just that something more which Comus seemed unable or unwilling to provide on his own account; it was just the lack of that something more which left him sulking with Fate over the numerous breakdowns and stumbling-blocks that held him up on what he expected to be a triumphal or, at any rate, unimpeded progress.

And a comic description of the errant Comus:

In seventeen years and some odd months Francesca had had ample opportunity for forming an opinion concerning her son’s characteristics. The spirit of mirthfulness which one associates with the name certainly ran riot in the boy, but it was a twisted wayward sort of mirth of which Francesca herself could seldom see the humorous side.

The boy was one of those untameable young lords of misrule that frolic and chafe themselves through nursery and preparatory and public-school days with the utmost allowance of storm and dust and dislocation and the least possible amount of collar-work, and come somehow with a laugh through a series of catastrophes that has reduced everyone else concerned to tears or Cassandra-like forebodings. Sometimes they sober down in after-life and become uninteresting, forgetting that they were ever lords of anything; sometimes Fate plays royally into their hands, and they do great things in a spacious manner, and are thanked by Parliaments and the Press and acclaimed by gala-day crowds. But in most cases their tragedy begins when they leave school and turn themselves loose in a world that has grown too civilised and too crowded and too empty to have any place for them. And they are very many.

As you can see, that description is not only longer than we’re used to from the short stories, but also more serious. Almost a requiem for the generations of boys turned out by Britain’s public schools, who are heroes and stars at school and quite unprepared for the long disappointment of real life, a querulous note found throughout early and mid-20th century English literature.

Detailed plot synopsis

Chapter 1

Introducing Francesca Bassington and her beloved house in Blue Street, W. filled with her beloved possessions, but how the whole thing hangs be a thread because she only has the house

Chapter 2

At their public school, young Comus and colleagues thrash Lancelot Chetrof, young brother of the heiress Francesca was hoping Comus could be set up to marry.

Chapter 3

Francesca Bassington attends a high society party given by her friend Serena Golackly, and spies up and coming star, Courtenay Youghal:

a political spur-winner who seemed absurdly youthful to a generation that had never heard of Pitt. It was Youghal’s ambition—or perhaps his hobby—to infuse into the greyness of modern political life some of the colour of Disraelian dandyism, tempered with the correctness of Anglo-Saxon taste, and supplemented by the flashes of wit that were inherent from the Celtic strain in him…

She spies a politicians who has just been made governor of a Caribbean island and engages him in conversation:

Sir Julian Jull had been a member of a House of Commons distinguished for its high standard of well-informed mediocrity, and had harmonised so thoroughly with his surroundings that the most attentive observer of Parliamentary proceedings could scarcely have told even on which side of the House he sat. A baronetcy bestowed on him by the Party in power had at least removed that doubt; some weeks later he had been made Governor of some West Indian dependency, whether as a reward for having accepted the baronetcy, or as an application of a theory that West Indian islands get the Governors they deserve, it would have been hard to say. To Sir Julian the appointment was, doubtless, one of some importance; during the span of his Governorship the island might possibly be visited by a member of the Royal Family, or at the least by an earthquake, and in either case his name would get into the papers.

Her plan is to get to know him over several meetings and slowly plant the seed of the idea that her son, Comus, would make a wonderful personal secretary in his new position. Next morning this careful scheme is wrecked when, next morning at breakfast, she sees her son has written a witty letter to the Times disinterring some old speeches of Jull’s in which he is ignorant and rude about the West Indies. Once again, Comus has scuppered Francesca’s best-laid plans!

Chapter 4

A wall of ice slowly grows between the mother, trying her damnedest to get Comus a good position in life, and her son who seems hell-bent on wrecking everything. The are both invited to dinner at the home of the ageing Lady Caroline Benaresq:

She came of a family whose individual members went through life, from the nursery to the grave, with as much tact and consideration as a cactus-hedge might show in going through a crowded bathing tent.

And:

Lady Caroline was a professed Socialist in politics, chiefly, it was believed, because she was thus enabled to disagree with most of the Liberals and Conservatives, and all the Socialists of the day. She did not permit her Socialism, however, to penetrate below stairs; her cook and butler had every encouragement to be Individualists.

Hard not to love Saki’s permanent tone of wit and irony bordering on the rude. Anyway,

Chapter 5

Introduces us to the fact that, when he was 16, Courtenay Youghal was seduced by an older woman ‘some four or five years his senior’, Molly McQuade. Since then they have maintained a flirtatious friendship. Now they are meeting in their familiar trysting place of the London Zoo, where Youghal delicately breaks the news that he is planning to get married (to Elaine de Frey). They are both people of the world now, and Molly is relieved to hear the lady has money. Saddened that this phase of their relationship is coming to an end but she begs him to come visit her and her husband in the country for hunting once he’s bedded in to the new marriage. It is nowhere indicated that this is a sexual relationship, maybe we are meant to be sophisticated enough to take this as read.

Chapter 6

Elaine de Frey sits in her stately garden and lets her two suitors, the up and coming politician Courtenay Youghal and the spoilt schoolboy Comus Bassington, spar wittily for her affections. Things crystallise when Comus pettishly takes the silver bread and butter tray down to the lake to feed the swans and then refuses to give it back because he wants it, the spoilt schoolboy.

Chapter 7

In Bond Street Francesca bumps into the tiresome Merla Blathlington before shaking her off and continuing to a bridge party at Serena Golackly’s, where there is gossip and catty competition, not least with Ada Spelvexit, a tiresome do-gooder among the poor (‘Hostesses regarded her philosophically as a form of social measles which everyone had to have once’) and Lady Caroline Benaresq, an ageing Socialist and demon bridge player.

The gossip turns towards the up and coming politician Courtenay Youghal and the women speculate who would make a good wife for him when they are joined by dapper George St. Michael who tells then Youghal is pairing off with the fabulously rich Elaine de Frey

Chapter 8

Out riding in the country, Elaine is forced out of the main road because a circus is passing by and is astonished when the man who greets her turns out to be the once-famous adventurer and traveller, Tom Keriway, who was struck down by illness and retired to an obscure farm. And here he is. It is a beautifully kept place but Keriway reveals it is the seat of all kinds of Darwinian struggles and can’t conceal that he is bitterly unhappy. The countryside often brings out the really bestial (wild animals eating children) and tragic in Saki, as in the Hardyesque short story, The Hounds of Fate.

Chapter 9

Late June in Hyde Park. Courtenay Youghal is riding his ‘handsome plum-roan gelding Anne de Joyeuse’ up and down. He is buttonholed by Lady Veula Croot and they have a sly political duel, being of opposite parties, before being interrupted by a dimwit named Ernest Klopstock.

Not far away Elaine de Frey and Comus Bassington are sitting on deckchairs. She likes him but is getting bored by his selfishness and he oversteps the bounds when he asks her to lend him £5, partly to pay a £2 gambling debt. Elaine agrees but gets up rapidly and says she is leaving, for Comus not to accompany her. It is a snub.

She bumps into Courtenay and insists he takes her to luncheon, which he does, at the Corridor, with its fatherly maitre d’ who discreetly asks Courtenay whether he is engaged to the young lady. ‘Tell him yes,’ said Elaine, on impulse.

Chapter 10

At the Rutland Galleries for an exhibition of Mervyn Quentock’s collection of Society portraits. Comus regards Quentock’s portrait of his mother and sees in it an expression he hasn’t seen for years, now that he permanently irritates and mortifies her. It inspires him to be nicer and above all fulfil his mother’s plan to marry Elaine de Grey. Amid other gossip a little flurry is caused over by the doors when Courtenay arrives. Pressing closer Comus overhears others gossiping the news that Courtenay and Elaine are now engaged.

Chapter 11

After lunch with Courtenay, Elaine returns to the house in Manchester Square where she is staying with an aunt, and reflects on her decision to accept Courtenay. She feels ‘an unusual but quite overmastering hankering to visit her cousin Suzette Brankley’ who has also recently announced her engagement. She pops round the two women bitchily try to outdo each other, Elaine winning and damping her cousin’s mood, specially when her young man appears, the boring Egbert, who speaks pompously to the visible embarrassment of Suzette and her mother, who is also present.

All this time Elaine had been pondering a long and soulful letter to Comus explaining her reasons, but on returning to her aunt’s place she finds a message from him has been delivered briskly acknowledging the news and returning the fiver she’d lent him, along with the notorious bread-and-butter dish which caused the big argument in chapter 6.

Reading the letter again and again Elaine could come to no decision as to whether this was merely a courageous gibe at defeat, or whether it represented the real value that Comus set on the thing that he had lost.

Chapter 12

Francesca is desperate to know the latest about Comus and Elaine but fritters the morning away with a few female friends wittering endless gossip. And then a walk in the Park after lunch leads to her bumping into the dreaded Merla Blathington, who witters on about chickens, and then George St. Michael arrives who in a few swift words confirms Francesca’s worst fears: Comus has blown it with Elaine.

Comus himself turns up and they have an argument. Having failed to bag an heiress, Francesca can see nothing for it but for Comus to disappear off to some colony. Her brother Henry told her the other day he can get Comus a little job in West Africa. Comus says they needn’t be that drastic, he can get a job in England, at, say, a brewery. But Francesca knows that remaining in England will mean Comus is always vulnerable to the lure of the West End, of racing and gambling and sponging off her till she dies. No. West Africa it must be.

Chapter 13

That evening Comus goes to the theatre which is an opportunity for Saki to satirise the upper class types one met there in the Edwardian era, lords and ladies, an archdeacon, the ageing gossip Lady Caroline Benaresq (who is a recurring character throughout the book, as are Serena Golackly and Lady Veula), the authoress of ‘The Woman who wished it was Wednesday’ (is that a jokey reference to G.K. Chesteron’s novel, The Man Who Was Thursday (1908)?) with much chat about the church and politics. It is comically taken for granted that the play is an irritating intrusion into the true function of theatre which is to allow upper-middle-class people to meet and gossip and display themselves.

Everyone is there, but Comus sits through it all in a daze of misery, knowing that he is seeing it for the last time before being consigned to the Dark Continent. Lady Veula is the only person who acknowledges him, with her lovely smile and sad eyes.

Chapter 14

Francesca hosts a farewell dinner party for Comus. It is not a happy affair and is dominated by two show-off men, Henry Greech MP, her brother, and Stephen Thorle, brought by Serena Golackly because he is alleged to ‘know all about’ tropical Africa, but turns out to have loud opinions about everything. Lady Veula is present again, and shakes Comus’s hand goodbye. The mood is bleak, Francesca spills her champagne when she tries to make a toast, she can’t wait till everybody leaves. Comus adjusts his toilette and heads out for a night on the Town for one last time.

Chapter 15

Elaine has married Courtenay. They are on their honeymoon in Vienna, staying at the Speise Staal. Elaine is disillusioned and bored. At lunch she is irritated by three Germans talking endlessly about food, and the even worse party of Americans comparing everything unfavourably to the fabulous cherry pie they make back home. Two of Elaine’s extensive collection of aunts are staying at the hotel, a younger blameless one, and the older, shrewder Mrs. Goldbrook. They act as chorus to her obvious unhappiness.

Courtenay has arranged for them to go to a masquerade ball that night. Courtenay has a wonderful time dressed as harlequin, but Elaine is bored, ending up chatting inconsequentially with a Russian who a) tiresomely compares her to the same Leonardo painting that everyone does b) explains that Russians like culture so much because it is an escape from their real life, which is grim. (Interesting point coming from Saki who had been a foreign correspondent in Russia and, indeed, written a book about Russian history.)

The next day the aunts hear the two newly-weds sharply diverging accounts of the night before and conclude that Elaine is going to be unhappy.

Chapter 16

Cut to Comus in blisteringly hot West Africa where he is profoundly depressed by the sense that Africans are like ants and their life is the life of the teeming ant nest, going on with endless repetition, no variation, no progress, and no meaning.

The procession of water-fetchers had formed itself in a long chattering line that stretched river-wards. Comus wondered how many tens of thousands of times that procession had been formed since first the village came into existence. They had been doing it while he was playing in the cricket-fields at school, while he was spending Christmas holidays in Paris, while he was going his careless round of theatres, dances, suppers and card-parties, just as they were doing it now; they would be doing it when there was no one alive who remembered Comus Bassington. This thought recurred again and again with painful persistence, a morbid growth arising in part from his loneliness.

And:

Here a man simply made a unit in an unnumbered population, an inconsequent dot in a loosely-compiled deathroll. Even his own position as a white man exalted conspicuously above a horde of black natives did not save Comus from the depressing sense of nothingness which his first experience of fever had thrown over him. He was a lost, soulless body in this great uncaring land; if he died another would take his place, his few effects would be inventoried and sent down to the coast, someone else would finish off any tea or whisky that he left behind—that would be all.

And:

He would pass presently out of the village and his bearers’ feet would leave their indentations in the dust; that would be his most permanent memorial in this little oasis of teeming life. And that other life, in which he once moved with such confident sense of his own necessary participation in it, how completely he had passed out of it. Amid all its laughing throngs, its card parties and race-meetings and country-house gatherings, he was just a mere name, remembered or forgotten, Comus Bassington, the boy who went away.

He dreams of London where life had a meaning, where he had a place in it, where people had souls and complex personalities and purpose. Now he knows he has just become a dwindling memory, ‘Comus Bassington, the boy who went away’. He watches some native boys playing, fighting and chasing each other, then joined by some girls. He can never take part in their life, he is exiled forever. He puts his head in  his hands and sobs.

Chapter 17

A few days before Christmas Francesca receives a telegram saying Comus is severely ill. Then another one saying he is worse. She goes out for a walk round St James’s Park and dwells on her relationship with her son, all the false turnings and arguments right up to the ill-fated farewell party.

She returns home to the telegram waiting in the hall and takes it into her drawing room and, now, she hates every article in it because dashing, laughing, mocking Comus is there no more. She realises she hates it all, would give it all if only her beloved son would walk through the door.

Who does walk through the door is her irritating brother, Henry, bearing the ‘bad news’ that the big painting she’s so fond of is not in fact by the well-known artist Van der Meulen but is a good copy. He notices the anguish in her eyes and pats her hand and tells her not to be downhearted. Francesca clutches the telegram tighter in her hand in her anguish and begs for her brother’s inconsequential consolation to end.

It is an image of real, genuine, tormented anguish and a very dark, grim and upsetting note to end this light, mocking novel on.

Themes

In the middle part of the novel it is about a woman who has to decide between two lovers, a very old plot. And basing a novel on the theme of making a good marriage or marrying for money is as old as the genre, if we take the first English novel to be Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740) by Samuel Richardson.

Mother-son relationship

It is a prolonged and sometimes very insightful meditation on the intensity, the loves and hate, the Freudian ambivalence inherent in the mother-son relationship.

London high life

Plenty of scenes show off Saki’s knowledge of London high life – a gallery opening, first night at the theatre, riding in Hyde Park, dinner parties and so on, all conveyed with effortless insider knowledge, and generously spiced with malice and gossip which seemed to be the upper class’s main occupation.

Politics

Hector Munro’s first real job was writing political sketches which blossomed into a full-length satire on Westminster Alice in Westminster. This gives his mockery of British politics real authority.

It is striking to see how many of our political concerns, in 2021, were thoroughly understood and shared by the bien-pensant liberals of 1911. The aim of levelling up and increasing equality and being ‘for the many never’ goes out of fashion. It is a permanent interest of a steady proportion of the educated classes. Munro mocks and satirises gabby, well-meaning intellectuals, as is the wont of authors from his class and education.

Henry Greech had made an end of biting small sandwiches, and settled down like a dust-storm refreshed, to discuss one of the fashionably prevalent topics of the moment, the prevention of destitution.

Ah destitution, how ghastly it must be!

‘Talk is helpful, talk is needful,’ the young man was saying, ‘but what we have got to do is to lift the subject out of the furrow of indisciplined talk and place it on the threshing-floor of practical discussion.’ The young woman took advantage of the rhetorical full-stop to dash in with the remark which was already marshalled on the tip of her tongue. ‘In emancipating the serfs of poverty we must be careful to avoid the mistakes which Russian bureaucracy stumbled into when liberating the serfs of the soil.’

It’s the same kind of satire of high-minded ‘socialists’ which you find in John Buchan’s third Richard Hannay novel, Mr Standfast, which opens with extended satire on vegetarian, sandal-wearing socialists; or, later, in many passages of Aldous Huxley’s 1920s satires.

Christianity

As in all his stories, Christianity is presented as a joke, an affair of doddery old churchmen whose values the entire society pays ritual obeisance to but utterly ignores.

‘The dear Archdeacon is getting so absent-minded. He read a list of box-holders for the opera as the First Lesson the other Sunday, instead of the families and lots of the tribes of Israel that entered Canaan. Fortunately no one noticed the mistake.’

The British Empire

Saki has a pretty negative view of the British Empire.

What the woke and anti-racist and progressive commentators of our time (2021) tend to forget in their hurry to condemn all British history for its imperialism and racism is that for a lot of the time, a lot of people deprecated the Empire. The British were the first nation to ban the slave trade and then had the navy to enforce a very effective international ban on slave trading. Paradoxically, the two nations which were the last to ban slavery, Cuba and Brazil, are regularly held up as beacons of cool multiculturalism, while the earliest nation to ban it,m Britain, is held up for condemnation.

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there were very vocal opponents of the British Empire – the entire Liberal Party in the 19th century, and most of the Labour Party in the 20th. For many educated people, the British Empire was a scandal and an embarrassment, as were the gung-ho public school types who went off to run it.

Whereas when the French tried to give Algeria independence in the 1950s it nearly triggered civil war, several coup and assassination attempts, Britain granted independence to India with almost no domestic opposition, and went on to grant independence to its African and Caribbean colonies with barely any comment.

Insofar as the entire novel ends with its protagonist packed off to a colonial hell-hole where he dies in utter misery, it ends with a blazing symbol of the futility and inappropriateness of ’empire’ and this retrospectively highlights the anti-imperial comments which run through the novel.

‘Courtenay Youghal said it in the House last night. Didn’t you read the debate? He was really rather in form. I disagree entirely with his point of view, of course, but some of the things he says have just enough truth behind them to redeem them from being merely smart; for instance, his summing up of the Government’s attitude towards our embarrassing Colonial Empire in the wistful phrase “happy is the country that has no geography”.’

‘West Africa,’ said Comus, reflectively; ‘it’s a sort of modern substitute for the old-fashioned oubliette, a convenient depository for tiresome people. Dear Uncle Henry may talk lugubriously about the burden of Empire, but he evidently recognises its uses as a refuse consumer.’

There was nothing individuals like Francesca or Comus could do to alter the geo-political realities of their day, but they didn’t approve of the empire. Comus and Courtenay both think it’s an embarrassing joke.


Related links

Saki’s works

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.


Related links

Related blog posts

Marx

Communism in Russia

Communism in China

Communism in Vietnam

Communism in Germany

Communism in Poland

  • Warsaw 1920 by Adam Zamoyski (2008) How the Polish army stopped the Red Army from conquering Poland and pushing on to support revolution in Germany.
  • The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953) A devastating indictment of the initial appeal and then appalling consequences of communism in Poland: ‘Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups…’

Communism in France

Communism in Spain

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

Communism in England

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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