Knowing more

Rosalind Mitchison

  • Poets, Polities and the People by V.G. Kiernan, edited by Harvey Kaye
    Verso, 239 pp, £29.95, June 1989, ISBN 0 86091 245 0
  • For King and Conscience: John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee by Magnus Linklater and Christian Hesketh
    Weidenfeld, 244 pp, £16.95, June 1989, ISBN 0 297 79540 6

Victor Kiernan is here presenting essays produced over the last 45 years: the texts are only occasionally given recent additions. The topics include three essays on literature but are otherwise historical: on English patterns of protest, the expansion of literacy among working men, political aspects of religion, and Communist activity in the Thirties and after. The writing is elegant and, mostly, cool.

It is all from within the Marxist fold, for Kiernan calls Marxism the ‘highest achievement of Western thought’: but there is no attempt at proselytism. Marxism here is an assumption, not a method of argument. Kiernan states that Marxists were ‘almost the only sort of people’ he got to know at Cambridge, and once fastened into a particular armour of dogma, shows no particular concern to persuade others to put on the same plating. It seems to me, who do not share this conviction, that the result of this approach is not to show the reader another world but rather to reveal a certain naivety, which contrasts with the wide historical knowledge that Kiernan can call upon.

Marxism, which is a very exciting discovery for history students at university, and which gives valuable insights for the 19th century – less so for other periods – need not involve this intellectual apartheid. It is particularly a pity that someone with Kiernan’s energy for work should already as an undergraduate have cut himself off from other strains of thought. Some of his remarks, made, presumably, for the faithful, are not easily understood by those unconverted: for instance, the comment on Wordsworth as ‘living at the end of the pre-Copernican epoch in political thought’ is only meaningful for those who share the faith.

Kiernan is deeply knowledgeable in the history of countries other than England. He is also steeped in literature and historiography. There are places where this combination can produce an impressive synthesis. His handling of the development and eventual abandonment by Wordsworth of concern for the people is masterly. An assessment, largely numerical, of the types of human relationship in Shakespeare’s plays is interesting, if not totally convincing. His examination of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King in the light of Victorian colonial wars is a leisurely discussion of acquiescence in imperialism. But there are occasional remarks, presumably inspired by Marxist assumptions, which not all will share, and which are not supported in a way to carry conviction. Victorian society is described as ‘emotionally starved and bewildering’, yet its deep sense of religion should be seen as supplying an important emotional component. To enforce Kiernan’s statement, we are given instances of those who supported the role of violence, Carlyle, Ruskin and T.E. Lawrence – hardly a representative sample and not strictly contemporary. One absent theme, striking to those aware of modern historiography, is the experience of women. In a long exposition of the development of socialism, which carries an updating of 1987, there is no recognition of the fact that attempts to get at women’s history, though these have sometimes been beguiled into doctrinaire byways, have been immensely stimulating.

One of the interesting themes discussed inconclusively by Kiernan is the rise of private property. ‘Socialism, in its human essence,’ he says, ‘was a fact long before it was an idea.’ Elsewhere he says that ‘collective ownership of land may never really have existed.’ Much effort in the late 19th century was put into attempts to establish a past of collective ownership: this informed the Napier Commission’s approach to the issue of Highland land, but the Commission had to admit that there was no hard evidence. As one who is sympathetic to the idea, I think it worth a more serious exploration than two contradictory statements.

A somewhat surprising venture is an essay on the later Covenanters, published originally in 1985, a smooth and assured piece of writing. For the most part Kiernan, like other English-trained historians working in Scotland, has regarded Scottish history as out of bounds, and this is reflected in his lack of acquaintance with recent work on Scottish social history. Dogma has to supply the place of information. The essay is an example of the tendency of Marxist historians to see a happy golden age for society, neighbourly and secure, two or three generations before the period of their own expertise. To Kiernan, peasant society, held together by mutual trust, had the experience in the later 17th and early 18th century of the landowners, ‘the privileged’, ‘taking over from the unprivileged’. In offering a vision of enhanced exploitation of the peasantry. Kiernan is following another Marxist tradition: knowing more than is known. Those few estates which have been studied in detail for this period do not show an enhancement of rent, and what we can see from the evidence of grain prices is that people had better access to food after 1660 than before. Claims of immiseration in the later 17th century fly in the face of the little that is known. Kiernan writes of the Covenanters as humble folk who took up arms only in self-defence. This might suggest some lack of acquaintance with their more bloodthirsty statements – for instance, the ‘Apologetical Declaration’.

The trouble with Kiernan’s image of the ‘humble’ and ‘passive’ dissident Covenanters persecuted by the state is its total unreality. The limited capacity for policing of Early Modern governments, very different from the resources of modern police states, meant that those who really wished to avoid the attention of government could usually do so. With religion and politics inextricably linked, the trouble came from the fact that passivity was not an acceptable way of life. The Covenanters renounced the legitimacy of the royal authority, and no state then or now has been prepared to accept this.

A welcome and better-informed picture of the Covenanting issue is supplied in the new life of Graham of Claverhouse, later Viscount Dundee, For King and Conscience by Magnus Linklater and Christian Hesketh. This book examines dispassionately the involvement of Claverhouse in the attempt to impose conformity on the South-West of Scotland, starting with his military defeat at Drumclog by those Kiernan labels as practitioners of passive resistance, and shows how, combining civil and military powers, he gained outward conformity for a while. In the later disturbances, the so-called ‘killing time’ of James VII’s reign, he acted as the repressive instrument of a clumsy administration, and carried out two summary executions as well as numerous arrests. The full but distorted historiography of Scottish Presbyterianism has developed an alleged folk-memory of him as ‘bloody Clavers’ and attributed to him much brutality for which he was not responsible. In the powerful later chapters of this book Dundee is shown as having a place in Jacobite historiography as the one general who could use Highland troops effectively in the Jacobite cause. The book’s perception of Highland society and Highland aims and methods in warfare makes possible this evaluation without falling into the alternative bog of Highland myth.

At least Kiernan does better on the Covenanters than his editor, Harvey Kaye, who thinks that what they were fighting for was the National Covenant of 1638 instead of the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643. I would not like to be dogmatic and state that confusing these two very different assertions is the biggest howler possible for 17th-century Scottish history, but off-hand I can’t think of a bigger.

In a retrospective piece on Cambridge in the Thirties Kiernan vividly displays the enclosed and protected world of privileged youth. He points out that the Cambridge of his day was busy exploring new aspects of mathematics and physics, as well as moving to political commitment by scientists. He himself and his friends – the intellectual cream of the undergraduates, he holds – set up cells and passed on Marxist ideas, inspired by the example of the USSR, and even struggling to read Capital. The Spanish war was the polarising issue of the day. One wonders what would have been the experience of students at Moscow University if they had shown a similar response to events abroad. It seems odd to one who also read some newspapers of the Thirties that there is no mention in this account of any reaction to the information, limited though it was, that they conveyed about the state trials of that era.

The cool tone of the essays disappears completely in a relatively recent piece, written in 1987 for the London Review of Books, ‘On Treason’. This contains a more pungent attack on the conservative establishment of Cambridge between the and a passionate defence of those who did not think it necessary, then or later, to observe the official practice of secrecy or reticence, coupled illogically with an angry denunciation of various occasions of government spying. Kiernan offers homage to Guy Burgess, one of those who brought him into the Communist Party, sympathy to those such as Blunt who set out ‘to help a hard-pressed ally’, Russia, during the war, and a miscellaneous collection of jibes at non-Communist policies since 1945 – the Korean War, entry into the Common Market, the selling-off of the family silver, government espionage on the citizenry, and the so-called ‘Special Relationship’.

This attack moves from a proposal many would sympathise with, the adoption of a public Right of Revocation, similar to that enjoyed by Scottish kings after the end of their minorities, by which they could regain property looted from the Crown by those nominally protecting their interests, to a general attack on Western policy. On the Anglo-American view, ‘human rights are essential for socialist countries, but can be dispensed with in Latin America, South Korea and elsewhere because the people enjoy the supreme felicity of free enterprise.’ There are lots of nasty regimes in the world. Just at the moment China is probably the winner on points, but the two parts of Korea, irrespective of their capitalist or Communist character, have been runners-up for some time. It has to be said that it is very risky to go thowing bricks around in a world full of glass structures.

The belief that it is sufficient damnation of a regime to call it capitalist leads to much blanket condemnation of what Kiernan calls ‘the falsity engrained in the entire fabric of capitalist society’. This means that when he attacks our present government he has no adequate scale by which to measure its offences. ‘Morally,’ he states, ‘the “treason” of the Thirties cannot for a moment be compared with its mass of crooked dealings and indifference to national welfare.’

Apart from being rude about Mrs Thatcher’s voice, the essay carries no conviction that the same criticism would be directed at regimes of a different colour with a similar record. What, for instance would his judgment be on either China or Romania? Like St Augustine, Kiernan is too ready to label all but the ideal government as latrocinia, and this weakens his punch in dealing with one that really does come under that heading. I would have liked to see him use his historical expertise, which is great, to show how, for all its nominal praise of Victorian values, our present government has for the last ten years been systematically destroying two of the most important achievements of Victorian society: the professional ethic in many branches of government and service, and the collectivist structures which did so much to make for an enhanced quality of life in Britain. Criticism of Mrs Thatcher’s use of her vocal chords is a poor substitute.