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 Toys of Peace by Saki (1919)

Beryl, Mrs. Gaspilton, had always looked indulgently on the country as a place where people of irreproachable income and hospitable instincts cultivated tennis-lawns and rose-gardens and Jacobean pleasaunces, wherein selected gatherings of interested week-end guests might disport themselves.
(For the Duration of the War)

‘I’m afraid there is nowhere for you to sit,’ I said coldly; ‘the verandah is full of goats.’
(The Guests)

Biographical sketch

Saki, or to give him his proper name, Hector Hugh Munro, volunteered for the army as soon as the Great War broke out in August 1914. Born in December 1870, he was 43 at the time and so, officially, over-age to enlist. It took a lot of effort and pulling strings before he managed to secure a place in the Second King Edward’s Horse. Finding a cavalry regiment too demanding for his age, Hector later transferred to an infantry regiment, the the 22nd Royal Fusiliers, and finally made his way to the Western Front in 1916.

The most striking fact about Saki’s war service was that although, because of his class and education, he was repeatedly offered the chance of a commission or a cushy job at the rear, he turned all these offers down and preferred serving as a common private, and then lance sergeant, among the men he grew to love. He was shot through the head at Beaumont-Hamel on the morning of 14 November 1916.

All this and more is detailed in a biographical note by Rothay Reynolds which stands at the head of this collection of 31 of Saki’s short stories which was published posthumously in 1919. And it adds considerable bite to the first story in the set, which gives its name to the entire volume and is about the pointlessness of denying men and boys’ natural instinct for war.


The stories

For each of the stories I give the briefest possible summary and sometimes add a quote which exemplifies Saki’s dry and macabre humour, often, especially when casually dealing with exotic animals, bordering on the surreal.

The Toys of Peace

The title is quite literal. Eleanor Bope complains to her brother, Harvey, that her sons (‘Eric, not eleven yet, and Bertie, only nine-and-a-half’) only ever play at war, with soldier toys. Next time he visits can he please bring some toys which emphasise the virtues of peace? So, in a comic scene, on his next visit, Harvey unveils to the two boys such delights as models of the Manchester branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association, of a school of art and a public library, and little figures of John Stuart Mill, Robert Raikes (the founder of Sunday schools), a sanitary inspector, a district councillor and an official of the Local Government Board. He leaves the boys with their perplexing toys of peace, to take a break in the library. Half an hour later Harvey returns to find the boys have converted the models into forts and castles, repainted the figures as soldiers with lashings of red paint for blood, and are acting out gruesome battle scenes.

Louise (Clovis)

Jane Thropplestance is the most forgetful woman in the world. When she returns from a shopping expedition her sister, the elderly Dowager Lady Beanford, asks her what she has done with her niece, Louise. ‘Good gracious,’ Miss Thropplestance replies, ‘I must have mislaid her!’ and then proceeds to review all the shops and social calls she made during the afternoon, where she might, possibly, have mislaid, poor inoffensive Louise.

It’s an inadvertently hilarious list, bringing out Jane’s flaky superficiality, with plenty of humorous phrases where mislaying a niece is placed on the same level as losing your keys.

The comic punchline comes when the butler informs the two ladies that Louise, in fact, never went out with Miss Thropplestance in the first place and has spent the afternoon reading an improving book to a sick servant upstairs. Silly billies.

Tea

James Cushat-Prinkly is a dim 34-year-old and his extended family of females think it really is time he settled down and proposed to someone. His female family and friends settle on Joan Sebastable as being the perfect match. So one afternoon he sets off to walk across Hyde Park to the Mayfair residence of Miss Sebastaple to propose.

But when he glances at his watch he notices it is 4.30 which means the dreaded hour of afternoon tea is approaching. James hates afternoon tea with its rituals of tinkling tea glasses and endless stupid questions about whether you’d prefer milk or cream and how many lumps and so on. In order to avoid confronting his beloved crouching behind the wretched tea things, he drops in on an acquaintance who happens to live en route, ‘Rhoda Ellam, a sort of remote cousin, who made a living by creating hats out of costly materials.’ Rhoda is serving up tea (this is England, after all) but is much more relaxed about the whole thing, asking James to grab a mug if he can see one and quickly knocking up some bread and butter.

Result: James strolls home and informs his astonished womenfolk that the proposal went well and now he is engaged to be married to…Rhoda Ellam! In fact that isn’t the end of the story. The very end comes when, after getting married and going on honeymoon etc, the couple return to London and at their first tiffin, James discovers to his dismay, that Rhoda has arranged best quality tea things in exactly the way all other women do, has become completely conventional. You can’t beat tiffin!

The Disappearance of Crispina Umberleigh

Two English chaps, a Journalist and a Wine Merchant, are in a train heading from Hohenzollern into Hapsburg territory i.e. from Germany into Hungary. News of a picture being stolen from the Louvre leads the Wine Merchant to tell the story of the mysterious disappearance of his fearsome aunt, Mrs Crispina Umberleigh, ‘born to legislate, codify, administrate, censor, license, ban, execute, and sit in judgement generally.’

‘As a nephew on a footing of only occasional visits she affected me merely as an epidemic, disagreeable while it lasted, but without any permanent effect.’

Her unexplained disappearance leaves a large hole in family life. After a while a ransom demand appears stating that the aunt has been kidnapped and is being held in Norway and will be returned unless a ransom payment of £2,000 is made, this, of course, being a comic inversion of the usual definition of a ransom which is where you pay to have someone returned. The uncle coughs up and this goes on for eight years.

Then one day the aunt reappears. Turns out she had never been kidnapped at all but suffered a complete loss of memory, wandered for a while and ended up working in domestic service in Birmingham. Then one day, eight years later, her memory returned and she came storming back into the lives of her astonished husband and family.

And the ransom demands? Had been made by an enterprising servant of the family :).

The Wolves of Cernogratz

All the starved, cold misery of a frozen world, all the relentless hunger-fury of the wild, blended with other forlorn and haunting melodies to which one could give no name, seemed concentrated in that wailing cry.

A quietly moving and/or vitriolic story. Nouveau riche Baroness Gruebel and her husband have bought and live in the ancient castle somewhere in central Europe. She is telling her brother Conrad, a banker from Hamburg, about some of the romantic old stories attached to the castle, for example how the local wolves are supposed to start howling when anyone dies in the castle, when she is unexpectedly interrupted by the governess, Fraulein Schmidt, who reveals the real legend is that the wolves howl only when a member of the Cernogratz family is dying.

She then astonishes everyone by revealing that she is herself a member of the Cernogratz family. The family fell on hard times, was forced to sell the castle, she went into domestic service and ended up with the Gruebel family. It is a cruel irony which has brought her back here to the home of her ancestors.

That night, while the Baroness’s over-dressed, flashy rich guests are enjoying dinner, they are disturbed by the howling of wolves. They go to the governess’s bedroom and find the window flung open even though it is the depths of winter. The governess knows she is dying but wants to hear ‘the death-music of my family’.

Despite its society satire surface this is a strangely powerful story, like a fairytale. It is clearly linked to The Interlopers (see below) by being a) set in Eastern Europe b) featuring wolves c) being about authenticity and identity, contrasting the shallowness of human concerns with something deeper and more primeval.

Louis

Lena Strudwarden refuses to go abroad on holiday with her husband this year, insisting they go (yet again) to Brighton or Worthing. Her real reason is that their circle of acquaintances in Brighton and Worthing, though boring, show an admirable instinct to fawn on Mrs Strudwarden. In these sorts of arguments Lena always relies on excuses concerning her little dog, Louis, ‘the diminutive brown Pomeranian that lay, snug and irresponsive, beneath a shawl on her lap’, Louis couldn’t possibly go abroad, he couldn’t possibly be quarantined, he couldn’t survive without me, etc etc.

When Strudwarden complains to his sister, she, with unladylike brutality, suggests they just kill Louis. (The text acknowledges this fact: ‘“Novels have been written about women like you,” said Strudwarden; “you have a perfectly criminal mind.”)

So the next time Lena is out of the house, Strudwarden and her brother place the dog in a box and fix the only hole in it over the gas bracket. In other words, they set out to gas the dog to death. But in doing so they make an ironic discovery: Louis isn’t a real dog at all, he is a mechanical toy. All this time Lena has been using the little toy as an emotional lever to get her way with her husband.

The Guests

Annabel thinks the view from the room she’s sharing with her sister, Matilda, is English and pastoral but rather boring. Matilda has recently returned from India and tells her sister she loves boring, it’s a great relief from extravagant adventures abroad. Take the time when she was living in remote India and the Bishop of Bequar paid a surprise visit just as the river Gwadlipichee overflowed its banks, forcing the servants and all the livestock into the main house. It was chaos and socially embarrassing.

‘I’m afraid there is nowhere for you to sit,’ I said coldly; ‘the verandah is full of goats.’

The Penance

Octavian Ruttle thinks his neighbours’ cat is stealing his chickens, so he nerves himself to do away with it. Unfortunately, the neighbours’ three young children, lined up along the wall, witness the act, and in unison call him ‘Beast!’ They send, via servants, a sheet with BEAST childishly scrawled on it. This pricks Octavian’s already guilty conscience and he sets out to appease them by buying luxury chocolates, sends them next door, but later in the day finds them scornfully thrown back over the wall.

One day when Octavian is meant to be minding his two-year-old daughter, Olivia, the three children kidnap her. He sees them trundling her pushcart at top speed across a meadow and gives chase. He catches up just as they deposit the toddler into the muck of a massive pigsty and she starts sinking. Octavian can’t make it over to her in time and so begs the children to save her, he’ll do anything.

So they order him to do penance: to stand by the grave of their dead cat dressed only in a white sheet  holding a candle and repeating: ‘I’m a miserable Beast’. Only when he actually does this, do the three children pin another piece of paper up with the message ‘Un-Beast.’

The Phantom Luncheon

Member of Parliament Sir James Drakmanton informs his wife that she must take for lunch the rather beastly Smithly-Dubbs whose family come in handy at election times. Exasperated at this tedious chore, Lady Drakmanton decides to pull a practical joke. She contacts the three Smithly-Dubbs ladies to invite them for lunch,  then does her hair in an unusual style and dresses in not her usual manner before going to meet them in their hotel foyer and whisking them off to the Carlton where she encourages them to choose all the most expensive dishes on the menu.

Then she drops a bombshell by claiming not to be Lady Drakmanton at all, but another woman altogether who keeps having fits of memory loss, then it comes to her: she is in fact Ellen Niggle, of the Ladies’ Brasspolishing Guild.

At that precise moment (as she had arranged) another woman enters the Carlton dining room who looks and is dressed exactly like Lady Drakmanton, who she points out to the three appalled young women as the real Lady Drakmanton, thus confirming her story.

And before they can recover their composure, Lady D thanks them for a lovely meal and sweeps out, leaving the discombobulated Smithly-Dubbs to pay the (very large) bill.

A Bread and Butter Miss

A story about horse-racing. The guests at a country-house party are eagerly discussing the upcoming Derby when it is discovered that one of them, young Lola, has dreams which come true and last night dreamed of a horse race and dreamed that the crowd cheered when ‘Bread and Butter’ wins.

There is no horse named Bread and Butter in this year’s Derby so a furious debate ensues about which actual horse she could be referring to. They desperately want her to fall asleep and dream a bit of clarification but, it turns out, with comic frustration, when she’s not dreaming dreams which come true, Lola has bad insomnia and, sure enough, despite the comical welter of suggestions to help her get off to sleep, she passes a sleepless night and morning.

Next day, as the race is underway, she lets slip one more vital detail in her dream which helps the guests guess correctly the name of the winning horse which does, indeed, win, but by then it is too late for any of them to place a bet.

Bertie’s Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve in the household of Luke Steffink, Esq. complete with posh guests. When a couple frivolously recall the Eastern tradition that on Christmas Eve, animals in their stalls can talk, the guests all troop down to the cow house to see if it’s true.

However, Luke’s disgruntled nephew (‘Bertie Steffink had early in life adopted the profession of ne’er-do-well’) is angry at everyone because the family has decided it is going to pack him off to Africa in an effort to find him gainful employment. So, out of spite, Bertie locks them all in the cow house, and invites some passing revellers into Luke’s house to drink all his champagne and raucously sing out of tune Christmas carols. It’s a kind of sketch or scene rather than an actual story.

For someone interested in social history, the most interesting part comes at the beginning where Bertie’s loser status is established by describing the family’s attempts to set him up with jobs in various colonies, a passage which vividly conveys the way the Commonwealth and Empire were conceived as a sort of dumping ground for the useless upper-middle-classes.

At the age of eighteen Bertie had commenced that round of visits to our Colonial possessions, so seemly and desirable in the case of a Prince of the Blood, so suggestive of insincerity in a young man of the middle-class. He had gone to grow tea in Ceylon and fruit in British Columbia, and to help sheep to grow wool in Australia. At the age of twenty he had just returned from some similar errand in Canada, from which it may be gathered that the trial he gave to these various experiments was of the summary drum-head nature. Luke Steffink, who fulfilled the troubled role of guardian and deputy-parent to Bertie, deplored the persistent manifestation of the homing instinct on his nephew’s part, and his solemn thanks earlier in the day for the blessing of reporting a united family had no reference to Bertie’s return. Arrangements had been promptly made for packing the youth off to a distant corner of Rhodesia, whence return would be a difficult matter…

Forewarned

Alethia Debchance has spent her entire 28 years at the remote rural house of her aunt near Webblehinton. She is as naive and unworldly as it is possible to be. Thus when she goes to visit a distant relation, Robert Bludward, who is standing for election, she is astonished at the extreme criticism directed at him by two gentlemen she overhears in a train and by an article she reads in the paper. She makes up her mind to tell his opponent, Sir John Chobham. But as she sets out to do so, she hears the same kinds of comments made, and reads an equally damning article, about him, too.

Bewildered and appalled at the terrible men abroad in the world, she retreats back to her aunt’s rural hideaway and immerses herself in the breathless women’s novels that she consumes like smarties.

It is both a satire on a certain kind of unworldly English spinster, but also on the casually vituperative discourse surrounding English politics, a subject Saki was an expert on after years of being a parliamentary correspondent for the newspapers.

The Interlopers

Somewhere on the eastern spurs of the Karpathians, a patch of forest land has been disputed between three successive generations of two families of neighbouring landowners. The current rivals are Ulrich von Gradwitz and Georg Znaeym.

One day they both happen to be out with parties of their own men, wander away from them, and encounter each other in the depths of the forest. As they go to raise their rifles to shoot each other there is a loud crack and half a beech tree plummets down, pinning them both helplessly to the ground.

Over the next hour or so, as they come to acknowledge their plight, both injured and cold and pinned by the fallen tree to the ground with various broken bones, they slowly come to reassess the stupid rivalry which has dominated their lives. Eventually Ulrich offers his wine flask to Znaeym which the other grudgingly accepts and they decide to put the feud behind them and become friends. They agree to shout for help from their respective men, but the calling only attracts… a pack of wolves!

A gruesome parable about…what? The stupid pettiness of human concerns, petty rivalries and feuds which don’t, placed in the larger perspective of the human condition, matter a damn. Or the vanity of human presumption, showing that both men’s claims to ‘own’ the woods are ridiculous. The true owners of the forest are the wolves; both humans are merely the ‘interlopers’ of the title.

Quail Seed

Mr Scarrick rents out the rooms over his suburban grocery store to an artist and his sister. He complains that business has fallen off woefully because shoppers are attracted by the sales gimmicks of big stores in town, which include music played on gramophones and tickertape news about sports.

So the artist comes up with the idea of staging what would nowadays be called performance art, namely he, his sister and a local boy they hire will play the parts of strange and exotic figures, mysterious strangers who seem to be leaving codes messages for each other, about grand plans and feverish rivalries. Intrigue and gossip. Maybe spies!

It works a treat. Word spreads and soon Mr Scarrick’s shop is full of local housewives waiting to witness the next bizarre episode in the fictional drama.

Canossa

A nonsensical satire on the trivial silliness of political life, indicated by the initial setup which is that Demosthenes Platterbaff, the eminent Unrest Inducer, is on trial for blowing up the Albert Hall on the eve of the great Liberal Federation Tango Tea, the occasion on which the Chancellor of the Exchequer was expected to propound his new theory: ‘Do partridges spread infectious diseases?’

The point is that there is a by-election set for the constituency of Nemesis-on-Hand the day after the jury are scheduled to deliver their verdict and the view is that a guilty verdict will lead to the government losing the seat in a protest vote by working men supporters of Platterbaff. Therefore the story is about the contortions the government ties itself up in, in order to find him guilty but not let him go to gaol.

More precisely, he is allowed to go to gaol for precisely one night after the guilty verdict is brought in but then (the Prime Minister and Home Secretary feverishly decide) will be released early enough the next morning for his release to be telegraphed to the by-election constituency and broadcast to his supporters who will then, hopefully, support the government.

This already ridiculous story turns into farce when Platterbaff announces that he will not physically leave the prison unless there’s a brass band to play him out. He always has a brass band.

We are then witness to the comic panic of the Prime Minister and senior cabinet members as they try to arrange this at very short notice, hampered by the fact that there is a musicians’ strike on (strikes were a surprisingly ubiquitous element of Edwardian life which Saki is here satirising).

In the farcical climax of the story, the Prime Minister and colleagues are forced to borrow knackered old instruments from the prison recreation room and themselves batter out an out-of-tune rendering of the pop hit of the moment ‘I didn’t want to do it’ (which, incidentally, dates this story to the second half of 1913).

And the comic punchline of the entire story? The government loses the by-election anyway, because the trade unions ordered their members to vote against the cabinet for acting as strike-breakers (for playing musical instruments during a musicians’ strike).

So it is a satire on the extreme contortions to which modern politicians are forced to go in the name of democracy, of bending over backwards to accommodate even terrorists in order to win their supporters’ votes, but how even the most humiliating obeisance won’t be enough to satisfy the sky-high demands of the new militant working class electorate.

As to the title, Canossa is the site where the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV did penance in 1077, standing three days bare-headed in the snow, in order to reverse his excommunication by Pope Gregory VII. It’s the kind of factual element which would benefit from a note of explanation.

The Threat

One of Saki’s anti-suffragette satires. Sir Lulworth Quayne (a recurring character in these stories), sat in the lounge of his favourite restaurant, the Gallus Bankiva, describes to his nephew, recently returned from abroad, an evermore absurd list of (fictional) strategies adopted by the suffragettes (for example, enlivening the state opening of Parliament by releasing thousands of parrots, which had been carefully trained to scream ‘Votes for women’).

The joke in the story is that the leading suffragettes come up with a plan which outdoes all the others, converting their hitherto negative strategies into a positive one. They threaten to erect exact replicas of the Victoria Memorial at key locations all around the capital. ‘No, no, anything but that!’ The government gives in to their demands.

Excepting Mrs. Pentherby

Reggie Bruttle has inherited a big but not particularly practical mansion named ‘The Limes’. He has the brainwave of converting it into the venue for a kind of continuous, rolling country-house party. However, Major Dagworth points out that the womenfolk will give trouble, within days they’ll be bitching and arguing.

On the whole, the major is proven wrong, except for Mrs Pentherby. Within days all the other women have come to loathe her casual condescension and come to Reggie with their complaints.

Reggie listened with the attenuated regret that one bestows on an earthquake disaster in Bolivia or a crop failure in Eastern Turkestan.

But then the comic reveal: It turns out Reggie has invited Mrs Pentherby precisely to be the official quarreler, to act as a lightning rod, attracting to herself all the bitching energy of the other women, in order to unify the others in their dislike and make them pleasant to everyone else. Cue feminist outrage.

Mark

Augustus Mellowkent is an up-and-coming novelist. His agent suggests he changes his name to ‘Mark’ which sounds more manly.

But the story itself concerns the visit, one morning in December, of a tiresome encyclopedia salesman, one Caiaphas Dwelf. At first Mark puts up with Dwelf’s tiresome sales pitch, but then has a brainwave. He takes down one of his own novels and starts reading an excerpt to the salesman, telling him what an excellent resource a Mark Mellowkent novel is if one is trapped at a boring country-house party. The salesman replies with a dithyramb on the useful geographical knowledge contained in his encyclopedia. Mark replies with the opening of his classic work, The Cageless Linnet and so it goes on, a duel of bores.

Eventually the salesman is forced to abandon his spiel, closes his sample volume and leaves Mark’s house, and ‘a look of respectful hatred flickered in the cold grey eyes.’

The Hedgehog

Every year a mixed doubles tennis match is held at the rectory garden party hosted by Mrs Norbury and every year a quartet of old ladies sit in judgement on the players, not least the bitchy Mrs. Dole and Mrs. Hatch-Mallard. They argue and contradict each other about everything.

When it is announced that a young lady, Ada Bleek, who happens to be a clairvoyante, is coming down to the house party, they even argue about whose ghost she will see, Mrs Dole insisting she will see the ghost of Lady Cullompton, murdered by one of her ancestors, Mrs Hatch-Mallard insisting she will see the ghost of her uncle, who committed suicide in the house in the most tragical of circumstances.

In the event Miss Bleek does see a ghost but not one belonging to either of the rivals, instead a giant white hedgehog which slithers across her bedroom floor! Social satire gives way to the genuinely weird.

The Mappined Life

The Mappin Terraces at London Zoo were opened in 1914, so they were very recent when Saki made them the subject of a story. Mrs. James Gurtleberry and her niece start off by discussing whether the animals penned in this slightly larger caged area have any illusory sense of freedom. But the story evolves into an impassioned and deeply depressing diatribe from the niece about how we are, all of us, trapped in the Mappin Terraces of our own narrow, blinkered and utterly unfree little lives.

Of course there ought to be jungle-cats and birds of prey and other agencies of sudden death to add to the illusion of liberty…

Surprisingly serious and surprisingly pessimistic.

Fate (Clovis Sangrail)

Rex Dillot is nearly twenty-four and almost continually penniless. He scrapes a living by betting shrewdly on the little sporting competitions at the country-house parties he frequents, but he is ambitious to make one really big killing wager.

His opportunity comes when cadaverous old Major Latton is scheduled to spend an evening playing billiards against cocky young Mr. Strinnit. Dillot bets more than he actually has on the major to win but the game goes against expectations and Strinnit is advancing his score in leaps and bounds.

Too distraught to watch the climax of the game and his own ruination, Dillon wanders off upstairs to the guest bedrooms. Here he overhears the snores of Mrs Thundleford who had retired to her room in a huff when all the other houseguests declared themselves more interested in watching two men knock about ivory balls than listen to her simply fascinating slideshow and lecture about the architecture of Venice.

Dillot opens her bedroom door. Sure enough Mrs. Thundleford has nodded off sitting very close to the reading lamp. If only a kind fate had had her nudge or knock it over, thus starting a fire, thus causing an outcry, thus interrupting the game, thus saving Dillon from ruinous losses. Well… sometimes one has to make one’s own fate…

And thus it is that a few moments later Dillot comes thundering into the games room carrying a startled Mrs. Thundleford whose dress is (slightly) on fire, dumps her on the billiard table and announces the house is on fire, leading to screams and shouts and the dousing of the flames with soda water and rugs and cushions. And the game? Oh called off, of course. Oh dear, what a shame!

But then, as Clovis remarked, when one is rushing about with a blazing woman in one’s arms one can’t stop to think out exactly where one is going to put her.

The Bull

Tom Yorkfield is a small farmer with a small herd of cows serviced by his pride and joy, a bull named Clover Fairy. The bull is probably worth £80 though Tom tells himself he’d hold out for at least £100.

Tom has never gotten on with his half-brother, Laurence. When the latter pays a visit he is tactless enough to be a) underwhelmed when Tom takes him to see his pride and joy, b) and then to boast about a painting of a bull which he recently sold for £400. And, he assures his angry brother, will continue to climb in value while Clover Fairy slowly loses all value till she’s sold for the price of his pelt and hooves.

Tom snaps, loses his temper, makes to hit Laurence who backs then runs away, and all this commotion excites the bull who promptly tosses Laurence then goes to trample him. Luckily Tom pulls him off and spends the next few weeks tending him back to health among many apologies.

A recovered Laurence duly returns to work as an artist and grows in popularity of a painter of animals ‘but his subjects are always kittens or fawns or lambkins—never bulls’.

Morlvera

Two impoverished cockney kids, Emmeline, aged ten, and Bert, aged seven, stop in front of a posh toy emporium and are attracted by an overdressed doll (an ’embodiment of overdressed depravity’) which they immediately start attributing all kinds of bloodthirsty crimes to. The children’s malevolent imaginations and cockney accents are very enjoyable.

Then along comes a chauffeur-driven car out of which emerge spoiled little Victor in his sailor suit and his commanding mother. Our two backstreet kids overhear their conversation. The mother is nagging Victor that they need to buy something for his friend, Bertha, as she bought him a beautiful box of soldiers on his birthday.

Once inside the shop, with infinite reluctance Victor allows himself to be persuaded by the sales assistant into selecting the malevolent-looking doll Emmeline and Bert had been surveying. The cockney kids watch as Victor emerges clutching the thing, gets into his car with his mother, and very carefully throws the doll out the back window just as the vehicle is reversing. The car’s back wheel gently crushes the doll to smithereens. Emmeline and Bert are thrilled and delighted.

A delicious story about children’s utter lack of innocence, their wild violent imaginations, but which also captures the class divisions of Saki’s day.

Shock Tactics (Clovis Sangrail)

‘People yield more consideration to a mutilated mealtime or a broken night’s rest, than ever they would to a broken heart.’

A Clovis story. The mother of Clovis’s friend Bertie, 19 years old, insists on opening all his letters and reading them, much to his chagrin. Clovis conceives a hilarious prank. He gets delivered to Bertie’s house a series of letters in which he poses as an utterly fictitious young lady named Clotilde and hints that she and Bertie are involved in unspeakable goings-on which involve the suicide of a serving girl and some jewels.

Astounded and enraged, Bertie’s mother rushes upstairs, banging on Bertie’s (locked) bedroom door and insisting he explain each of the successively more scandalous revelations until… a final letter arrives from Clovis explaining that, since Bertie told him that someone nosy in the household was opening his letters, Clovis has conceived the idea of sending deliberately fake letters in order to sniff the shameful culprit out.

Bertie’s mother is mortified and humiliated and from that moment onwards never opens another of Bertie’s letter.

The Seven Cream Jugs

Anything that was smaller and more portable than a sideboard, and above the value of ninepence, had an irresistible attraction for him, provided that it fulfilled the necessary condition of belonging to someone else.

Mr and Mrs Peter Pigeoncote are paid a visit by their relative Wilfred. Wilfred is a common name in their extended family and so they imagine this Wilfred is the one known widely in the family as ‘Wilfred the Snatcher’ because he is a kleptomaniac.

This stresses the couple because it just so happens to be the date of their silver wedding anniversary and friends and family far and near have bombarded them with silver gifts. Reluctantly, they show ‘Wilfred the Snatcher’ their gifts, including no fewer than seven silver cream jugs.

Wilfred is polite and complimentary, then it is time for bed. After he’s gone upstairs, Mrs and Mrs count up all the silver presents and become convinced that one of the cream jugs is missing and convinced that Wilfred must have stolen it. Next morning when he’s in the bathroom, they sneak into his bedroom and rifle through his suitcase and find… the missing silver cream jug! They take it back but decide to say nothing about it.

Half an hour later, when he comes down for breakfast, Wilfred immediately announces that one of the servants must be a thief because someone has stolen the silver cream jug from his suitcase. He goes on to explain that he and his mother had carefully selected the silver jug as a silver wedding anniversary for the pair but he forgot to give it earlier in the evening and when the couple showed him the presents they’d received to date and laughed at the fact that they’d already received seven cream jugs, he felt too embarrassed to proceed.

During this explanation several facts tumbled out which made the horrified couple realise that this Wilfred Pigeoncote is not the famous Wilfred the Snatcher but a much more remote relative, a Wilfred who is very high up in the Foreign Office! My God! They’ve made a disastrous mistake! Mrs Pigeoncote feels faint and dispatches husband Peter to fetch her smelling salts.

The situation is retrieved when, while her husband is out of the room, Mrs P confides in a low tone that the culprit is none other than her husband! ‘My God,’ says Wilfred the Foreign Office; ‘What, you mean like Wilfred the Snatcher!? My God, it must run in the family.’ ‘Yes,’ says the wife, ‘It is most tragic,’ handing him back the stolen cream jug, ‘and we’d be most grateful if you could keep it to yourself!’

The Occasional Garden

Elinor Rapsley is moaning that her back garden is too big to be ignored but not big enough to make a statement and she’s stressed because Gwenda Pottingdon has invited herself to lunch, and is ‘only coming to gloat over my bedraggled and flowerless borders and to sing the praises of her own detestably over-cultivated garden.’

The Baroness (a recurring character we’ve met in previous stories) advises her to subscribe to the OOSA, the Occasional-Oasis Supply Association. If you’re having a social event and have a scrappy back space, the OOSA will supply the garden of your dreams for the day, and tailor it to your guests, as well. Or you can pay extra and get the EON or Envy of the Neighbourhood service.

So Elinor pays for a de luxe garden to be installed ahead of Gwenda Pottingdon’s lunch visit and the latter is suitably overawed and silenced. Unfortunately, a few days later, when the OOSA has been back to remove the temporarily hired garden, Gwenda Pottingdon pays a surprise visit, barges her way into the living room and is immediately startled to see the previously luxurious garden completely absent. What happened?

‘Suffragettes,’ is Elinor’s brilliant, one-word reply, the one-word explanation for any kind of vandalism and hooliganism.

The Sheep

The Sheep is in fact the nickname of a very bad bridge player: ‘Being awfully and uselessly sorry formed a large part of his occupation in life.’ His bridge partner and prospective brother-in-law, Richard, thinks of him as one of the world’s many sheep, bumbling foolishly through life while all the time imagining himself a big, brave fellah. What makes it so galling is that, having lost his son, Robbie, fighting in India, Richard has no heir so, when the Sheep marries his sister, Kathleen, it’ll be only a matter of time before the inept bumbler inherits the family home and raises more ‘sheep’.

When the Sheep and Richard are on the way back from a day’s shooting during which he has pitifully failed to bag anything, the Sheep is suddenly confronted by a large bird lifting off the ground and flying slowly towards them and hits it with both barrels. Unfortunately, it is a very rare honey-buzzard which Richard’s family have been going to great lengths to protect for the last four years.

The local MP has died and Richard throws himself into a round of canvassing for votes which leads up to a packed meeting to be addressed by their candidate the night before the vote. Richard is due to give thanks to the Chairman but has a sore throat and (foolishly) asks the Sheep to do it. He makes the required customary sentence or two but then decides to give the meeting the benefit of his own opinions which turn out to be wildly destructive and unpopular. His remarks travel all round the constituency and lose the election.

Then Richard and Kathleen and the Sheep go for a winter holiday in the Alps. The Sheep insists on going too near to the thin ice on the lake which all the skaters have been amply warned against. No surprise when there’s a cry and he disappears into an ice hole. Richard immediately skates to the land where he’d seen a ladder which can be used to reach across the dodgy ice to save him. But as he reaches for it a huge guard dog leaps on him and keeps him pinned down during the vital moments when the Sheep might have been rescued, but in fact drowns.

As a result, Richard buys the guard dog and it becomes his loyal and much-loved companion :).

The Oversight (Clovis Sangrail)

Lady Prowche goes to enormous lengths to ensure that the guests to her prospective country-house party cannot possibly disagree about anything (after a run of parties which each ended in appalling rows). With her friend Lena Luddleford she goes carefully through a list of the many issues which divided Edwardian society, eliminating anyone who would be liable to fall out about any of them, and eventually whittles her list down to the only two possible men she can invite.

But first she tasks Lena with the all-important job of ascertaining the two men’s views align on the hot topic of the day, vivisection. A day or two later back comes the signal that they do agree on this issue and so Lady Prowche goes ahead and invites them.

With lamentable consequences. Despite all her efforts the two men do, in fact, fall out, and the party ends in a big row. Why? Because they support opposite sides in the recent Balkan Wars: ‘One of them was Pro-Greek and the other Pro-Bulgar.’ Damn! So close!

Hyacinth

Hyacinth is the name of an intelligently malicious boy. He is the son of Matilda who insists on taking him along for the election campaign of her husband who is up against the newly appointed Colonial Secretary (who has also brought his three little children along for the campaign) much against the advice of her good friend Mrs. Panstreppon who knows just what Hyacinth is like.

After the polls have closed, Hyacinth phones his mother to explain that he has kidnapped the three charming little children and locked them in a local pigsty with a very angry huge sow locked outside. If their father wins the poll, he will unlock the door and the big angry sow will devour the children. If his (Hyacinth’s) father wins, he’ll let the children go.

This results in the kids’ father, Jutterly the Colonial Secretary, rushing round to the town hall begging them to query and invalidate as many of his votes as possible in order to save his children’s lives. It works. He manages to lose, his defeat is communicated to Hyacinth, who lets down a ladder into the stye which allows the three terrified toddlers to climb to safety.

‘Told you so’, says Mrs. Panstreppon. Hyacinth wouldn’t be out of place in a modern Mexican election, she points out drolly; but maybe leave him at home for the next domestic one.

This story contains both animals and children, vectors of Saki’s satire on the absurd pretensions of the adult world, continual revealers of the spite and violence at the heart of nature.

The Purple of the Balkan Kings

The first of two ‘stories’ about the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913.

Luitpold Wolkenstein, financier and diplomat on a small, obtrusive, self-important scale, sat in his favoured cafe in the world-wise Habsburg capital, confronted with the Neue Freie Presse and the cup of cream-topped coffee and attendant glass of water that a sleek-headed piccolo had just brought him.

Austrian cafe expert, podgy inexperienced and smug, Wolkenstein is horrified at news of the Balkan War which heralds the rise of new nations on his border, new nations who’ll want to teach the old Great Powers a thing or two! The Ottoman Empire has lost almost all its possessions in Europe, while a significantly enlarged Serbia has begun agitating for a union of all the Slavs in south-east Europe.

As you can see, this is more of a character profile heavy with political interpretation i.e. condemnation of Austria’s smug bourgeoisie, than a ‘story’.

The Cupboard of the Yesterdays

The second of two ‘stories’ about the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 is a dialogue between the abstract figures of the Wanderer and the Merchant.

The Merchant holds the conventional liberal view that the Balkan Wars are a tragedy, all that death and waste etc. Whereas the Wanderer holds a completely different view: he thinks the tragedy is that, with the expulsion of the Ottomans from Europe and the establishment of modern nation-states with clearly defined borders, a lot of the old glamour and mystique of the murky Balkans will disappear.

‘The old atmosphere will have changed, the glamour will have gone; the dust of formality and bureaucratic neatness will slowly settle down over the time-honoured landmarks; the Sanjak of Novi Bazar, the Muersteg Agreement, the Komitadje bands, the Vilayet of Adrianople, all those familiar outlandish names and things and places, that we have known so long as part and parcel of the Balkan Question, will have passed away into the cupboard of yesterdays, as completely as the Hansa League and the wars of the Guises.’

He uses words like magic and charm:

  • ‘It seemed a magical region, with its mountain passes and frozen rivers and grim battlefields, its drifting snows, and prowling wolves; there was a great stretch of water that bore the sinister but engaging name of the Black Sea—nothing that I ever learned before or after in a geography lesson made the same impression on me as that strange-named inland sea, and I don’t think its magic has ever faded out of my imagination…’
  • ‘There is a charm about those countries that you find nowhere else in Europe, the charm of uncertainty and landslide…’

But now that many of these nations have gained nationhood, in fifteen years the whole region will be about as glamorous as Bexhill! As the Wanderer himself admits, his version of the Balkans exists primarily to ‘to thrill and enliven’ our humdrum existences, to fire our slothful imaginations.

So it’s not really a story at all, it’s more the exposition of a worldview, the late-Victorian worldview which found glamour and excitement in tales of derring-do in far-off, exotic places. In this respect, it’s not unlike the opening passage of Bertie’s Christmas which gave the impression that the entire British Empire and Commonwealth existed solely for the entertainment and gainful employment of the English upper middle-classes. Maybe it did.

For the Duration of the War

The Reverend Wilfrid Gaspilton finds himself removed from the fashionable parish of St. Luke’s Kensingate to the immoderately rural parish of St. Chuddocks, somewhere in Yondershire. His wife finds it dire and buries herself in translating an obscure French novel.

Wilfrid also finds it unbearably boring until he has an idea: to concoct a literary hoax. He makes up:

Ghurab, a hunter, or, according to other accounts, warden of the royal fishponds, who lived, in some unspecified century, in the neighbourhood of Karmanshah

and attributes to him fragments of poetry allegedly discovered by the Reverend’s own son, currently serving in Mesopotamia.

The reverend then sends these fictional fragments of Persian poetry to the Bi-Monthly Review in London which publishes them and they quickly become popular, taken up and quoted, and a Ghurab-of-Karmanshah Club is founded whose members refer to each other as Brother Ghurabians.

War brings many unintended consequences.


Themes

The role of animals in Saki’s short stories

The previous collection of short stories, Beasts and Super-Beasts, was aptly titled, since rogue animals play a key role in many of them, the more bizarre or encountered in bizarre circumstances, the more savage and violent, the better.

Like the werewolf in Gabriel-Ernest or the hyena which eats a gypsy child in Esmé or the polecat which kills Conradin’s aunt in Sredni Vishtar. Violent, beast-related and gruesome, it’s no accident that those three stories are among Saki’s most celebrated.

In this collection, there are some exotic beasts, but not so many:

  • The Wolves of Cernogratz
  • Louis centres on a mechanical lapdog
  • The Guests describes an overflow of goats and a leopard! during a flood in India
  • The Penance involves a domestic cat and a big pig
  • The Mappined Life contrasts the lives of zoo animals with humans
  • Bertie’s Christmas Eve involves farmyard cows
  • The Interlopers features the forest wolves at the end
  • The Hedgehog in which a young woman has a vision of a giant white hedgehog
  • The Bull is about a prize bull which tosses and tramples the artist
  • Hyacinth which features a potentially murderous sow

It is no accident that the two most haunting stories in the set, The Interlopers and The Wolves of Cernogratz, both feature animals at their most intense and symbolic, symbolic counterpoints to the superficialities of human wealth and culture.

The other stories mostly feature domestic or pretty plain farm animals (cat, cows, pig) in relatively humdrum settings but nonetheless, The Animal plays a role in Saki’s fiction as a kind of wild card, thrown into otherwise banal social settings to create an element which punctures the polite pretensions of human society and its timid conventions (satirised in the story about afternoon tea).

The role of ‘abroad’

Another thing about the two wolf stories is that they are not set in England.

It is a critical platitude about Saki that his stories mock the Edwardian English upper classes and, indeed, many of them are set in London drawing rooms or at country-house parties. But it’s arguable that the best of them (obviously the two wolf stories, but also the two at the end ‘about’ the Balkan wars, or the three animal stories from earlier collections) do not.

There is a consistent strand of Saki stories which are not set in England at all, and he has a penchant for Eastern Europe or Russia where he himself spent some years as a correspondent. The appeal of these, at the time, fairly remote destinations is made explicit in The Cupboards of Yesterday: they are remote and untamed, full of casual violence and risk which thrills the bourgeois imagination in a way life in Bexhill emphatically can’t.

The notion that animals speak on Christmas Eve in Bertie’s Christmas Eve derives from Russia, precisely the kind of peasant superstition you’d expect from what the Edwardian readers thought of as a charmingly backward peasant society.

The tension between the two – tame England and exotic abroad – comes out a little in the story Louis, where Mr Strudwarden wants to holiday in (exotic) Vienna while his wife insists on going, yet again, to Brighton, precisely because that is where she will find the dull, unimaginative people who find her interesting.

In this respect ‘abroad’ provides another dichotomy or pole against which to set ‘the normal’ existence of the Edwardian middle classes, to bring it into more vivid focus and to critique it, just as ‘animals’ do, and…

Children

…just as children do. In Saki’s world children are emphatically not the innocent angels of conventional thinking. For me the funniest story is Morlvera with its brilliantly funny depiction of the two backstreet London kids, their heads full of lurid, bloodthirsty imagining, but there are also:

  • the two boys in Toys of Peace who can turn even the blandest present into a vehicle for violence and blood
  • the three children in Penance who are prepared to let Octavian Ruttle’s 2-year-old daughter drown in pig poo
  • the ghastly Hyacinth, prepared to let other children be eaten alive

So animals, abroad, and children, are all perspectives or devices which Saki uses to highlight and mock the shallow, silly world of his contemporary society.

Not limited to Edwardian upper classes but told in an upper class tone of voice

Saki’s stories are not really set among the upper classes. I’ve just read Bull, which is about a farmer and his struggling artist brother. Not set in London and very much not among aristocrats. Or take Quail Seed, which concerns a shopkeeper and an impecunious artist he’s rented rooms to in some suburb or small town.

Maybe I’m making the simple point that Saki’s stories are more varied, in setting, class, character and subject matter, than is ordinarily accepted.

At which point, I realised a fairly obvious truth. The characters, settings and subject matter of the stories may not be narrowly upper class – but the tone is. The tone of the narrator, and the character it implies in pretty much all of the stories, is that of the exaggeratedly playful, carelessly privileged, upper class idler, a tone of calculated indifference, sophisticated insouciance, a lofty, mocking detachment from anything serious.

This tone is embodied from time to time in the recurring figure of the useless son or nephew who is failing to get a job or a career or a focus in life, such as Bertie Steffink (Bertie’s Last Christmas) or the useless young Bertie Heasant in Shock Tactics.

And from time to time crystallises in the character of the youthful, playful, witty prankster and bon mot artist, Clovis Sangrail (although Clovis appears in only four of these 31 stories). Clovis has the same playfully amoral wittiness of Oscar Wilde’s protagonists, and many of the snappy one-liners to match:

  • Susan Lady Beanford was a vigorous old woman who had coquetted with imaginary ill-health for the greater part of a lifetime; Clovis Sangrail irreverently declared that she had caught a chill at the Coronation of Queen Victoria and had never let it go again.
  • ‘When you wear a look of tragic gloom in a swimming-bath,’ said Clovis, ‘it’s especially noticeable from the fact that you’re wearing very little else.’
  • But then, as Clovis remarked, when one is rushing about with a blazing woman in one’s arms one can’t stop to think out exactly where one is going to put her.

So it’s not Clovis himself who predominates, it’s his tone, the tone of amused, ironic malice which pervades the stories at every level, no matter where their setting or what their subject matter:

As long as the garden produced asparagus and carnations at pleasingly frequent intervals Mrs. Gaspilton was content to approve of its expense and otherwise ignore its existence. She would fold herself up, so to speak, in an elegant, indolent little world of her own, enjoying the minor recreations of being gently rude to the doctor’s wife and continuing the leisurely production of her one literary effort, The Forbidden Horsepond.

‘Being gently rude to the doctor’s wife’. An understated tone which glosses over ironical comparisons and unexpected juxtapositions which are always amusing and sometimes very funny.

The Rev. Wilfrid found himself as bored and ill at ease in his new surroundings as Charles II would have been at a modern Wesleyan Conference… With the inhabitants of his parish he was no better off; to know them was merely to know their ailments, and the ailments were almost invariably rheumatism. Some, of course, had other bodily infirmities, but they always had rheumatism as well. The Rector had not yet grasped the fact that in rural cottage life, not to have rheumatism is as glaring an omission as not to have been presented at Court would be in more ambitious circles.

Political stories

The Edwardian period was one of surprising political stresses and crises and a number of the stories  directly invoke the world of politics. Except that, true to form, what interests Saki is not the issues themselves but the  way the issues, and the political process itself, can be mocked and ridiculed. To my daughter the feminist, the suffragettes are the subject of burning zeal. To Saki, they are the punchline of a joke.

It may be worth listing the stories which contain at least some politics:

  • The Disappearance: in the world of politics Edward Umberleigh is considered a strong man
  • The Phantom Lunch: MP Sir James Drakmanton insists that his wife lunches with the ghastly Smithly-Dubbs women because they and their uncle help him at election time
  • Forewarned is entirely about how the standard level of abuse and vitriol thrown about in a local election strikes an utterly innocent outsider
  • Canossa is a satire on Parliamentary politics
  • The Threat is an anti-suffragette satire pitched at the highest level where upper class suffragettes hobnob with the Prime Minister, leading up to the passage of an Act of Parliament
  • Hyacinth is another satire on the ridiculousness of local elections
  • The Sheep the final part of which is about the nuts and bolts of canvassing for a local election
  • Hyacinth is about a local Parliamentary election

The political stories confirm the impression derived from reading his polemical, alarmist novel, When William Came, that after 15 years as a political correspondent Saki was heartily sickened and disillusioned by British politics. Who isn’t? His disillusion comes from a solidly patrician, right-wing perspective. But his withering satire on the business of politics is just as destructive.

Suffragettes

Saki was clearly against the suffragettes who he associates with unreasonable demands and violent, vandalistic behaviour. Sometimes he mounts a direct attack, as in The Threat, which features a suffragette who comes up with a cunning new strategy. Other times it is a throwaway remark which, in its own way, is more revealing of the way the suffragettes were regarded by some in Edwardian England.

Thus when, in the comic story, The Occasional Garden, Gwenda Pottingdon pops in unexpectedly on her ‘friend’ Elinor Rapsley and is startled to discover that the sumptuous back garden she had displayed just four days earlier has vanished, Elinor has the presence of mind to explain with one word: Suffragettes, which says enough, and the way it says enough speaks volumes about its place in the respectable, middle-class discourse of the day.

In Louis the brother and sister conspiring to kill Lena’s insufferable dog for a moment consider making up a story that suffragettes had invaded the house and killed it by throwing a brick at it. No act of wanton violence was too outrageous not to be assigned to the violent suffragettes.

And in The Oversight one example of many guests who’ve got into frightful rows is Laura Henniseed, by implication one of the votes for women women. As remarks: ‘Of course the Suffragette question is a burning one, and lets loose the most dreadful ill-feeling.’ Maybe it was as divisive as Brexit has been in our own day.

Real alienation

The least humorous of the stories is the most bitter and may be, in some sense, the most psychologically ‘true’. In The Mappined Life, after they’ve visited London Zoo’s pathetic attempt to give its caged, constricted animals the illusion of wildness and freedom by building a pathetic little concrete area named the Mappin Gardens, her niece reduces Aunt Gurtleberry to tears by saying that they, too, are cabin’d, cribb’d and confined into narrow little lives of utter predictability and emptiness.

Its tone borders on suicidal despair and (this is pure speculation) makes you wonder whether, after fifteen years of chronicling the political scene and upper class life in Edwardian England, Saki, like so many others, welcomed the Great War as a chance to cleanse and redeem themselves from the sordid littleness and petty compromises of English life.

An annotated Saki

Probably the expense would never be justified, but it would be lovely to have an annotated edition of Saki’s stories because some of them contain a veritable blizzard of what are obviously references to contemporary events which it would be entertaining and informative to have properly explained.

For example, The Oversight is a story all about the subjects people find to argue about at country-house parties: religion (Church of England or non-conformist), politics (for or against Lloyd George), votes for women (for or against), vivisection, the Derby decision (‘the Stewards’ decision about Craganour’), the Falconer Report (into the Marconi scandal), and taking sides during the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913.

I was able to look up Mappin Terraces at London Zoo, which were brand new when Saki wrote his story about them, but there are many more fleeting references to contemporary people or events which flash by with the mention of just a name or fleeting reference which you know is important but cannot identify. When, in The Disappearance of Crispina Umberleigh, he casually refers to ‘the feminine cycling craze’ it would be nice to learn more.

And it is a minor but interesting note that the troubled situation in Mexico (then experiencing the start of its long drawn-out revolution) is referred to in no fewer than three stories (The Threat, The Mappined Life and Hyacinth) so was obviously having an impact on educated opinion, but what impact, exactly?

Ignoring this steady stream of contemporary issues has the net effect of making Saki’s stories seem more timeless and ahistorical than they actually are. It’s true that half or more of the stories are set in the timeless world of upper-middle-class twits which to some extent anticipates P.G. Wodehouse’s. But even these sometimes contain sharp references to very recent, headline-making political and social events, which indicate the depth of Saki’s engagement and commitment.

Comic similes

He brought her a large yellow dahlia, which she grasped tightly in one hand and regarded with a stare of benevolent boredom, such as one might bestow on amateur classical dancing performed in aid of a deserving charity.

[The Salvation Army] used to go about then unkempt and dishevelled, in a sort of smiling rage with the world, and now they’re spruce and jaunty and flamboyantly decorative, like a geranium bed with religious convictions.


Related links

Saki’s works

Karl Marx: Surveys from Exile 1848-1863

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

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

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

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

The shorter pieces are:

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

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

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

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

Five levels

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

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

Levels 1, 2 and 3 in more detail

1. Historical facts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three things are going on in these two long essays.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Truth and reality

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

Take the opening page of The Eighteenth Brumaire:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Marx’s political analysis

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

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

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

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

Economics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Fernbach’s interpretation of the other essays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fernbach’s worldview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

Marx and his followers are:

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

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


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