Monday, 16 August 2010



RICHARD BAXELL'S TALK [7TH, August] on his book 'Anti-Fascistas', containing a collection of voices from British volunteerS in the Spanish Civil War, culminated in questions about such things as the 'May Days' (the suppression of the POUM & undermining of the CNT in May 1937) about 'How much the International Brigade volunteers knew?'; the execution of dissidents and deserters eg 'How widespread were these?', etc. My question was on his methodology: asking how he selected his material for inclusion in the text and how this kind of work differed from a journalistic account such as George Orwell's in 'Homage to Catalonia'?

Mr Baxell's reply was quite subversive arguing that he published what to him appeared 'poignant or what jumped-out at me'. His use of the word 'poignant' in the selection process is revealing and my Reader's Digest Universal Dictionary defines it as meaning: 'Appealing to the emotions; affecting; touching: poignant sentiment'. This was a honest reply and one that did not seek to invoke superior knowledge or some grand methodology only known to initiated into the historical community or belonging to some special interpretive community of historians. What Baxell, who also wrote the valuable 'British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War' [2004], was saying was that his editorship was intuitive endeavour, a subjective thing that was more art than science and that anyone, given a bit of time and effort could do.

How different is this response to that of an historian like Paul Preston who attacked George Orwell's 'Homage to Catalonia' declaring that 'I would rank "Homage to Catalonia" alongside Spike Milligan's "Adolf Hitler: My part in His Downfall", another interesting book by someone who was a foot-soldier playing a tiny part in a much wider conflict'. What the swaggering swanking historian of Professor Paul Preston's demeanour is claiming here is that he as a distinguished historian and member of the community of scholars at a southern university can embrace a level of knowledge that far surpasses that of the ordinary member or eyewitness to events: it implies that the little people like Orwell and Milligan and the rest of us cannot grasp the 'wider conflict' which will only be available to the great scholar. It is this claim to historical superiority and special knowledge that, I suppose, comes with the job of Professor at the London School of Economics and is a kind of occupational disease; which for people like Preston there is no known cure: note here that one of the best books in English on Spain written in the 20th century - 'The Spanish Labyrinth' - was authored by a man, Gerald Brenan, who was an auto-didact and no academic background of note.

The social sciences suffer from a severe inferiority complex generally and they try to make up for this by the kind kind of long-haired supercilious swaggering scholarship portrayed by Professor Preston in his remarks on Orwell and Spike Milligan. Thank God, there have been challenges within the social sciences to these superior claims by academics like Paul Preston from sociologists like Harold Garfinkel in his 'Studies in Ethomethodology' [1967]. Fortunately younger historians like Richard Baxell and the Cornish man, Louis Mates, now living up in the North East, and who recently published 'The Spanish Civil War & the British Left' about the impact of that war on the North East of England, are thankfully more modest in their claims. As a social science history and the historians have much to be modest about.

1 comment:

Rachel said...

I’d love to think that Paul Preston will read this insightful post by Bammy on a blog authored by the kind of plebs he clearly considers beneath him?

I have spent the last three years working on a history degree and have to be fair and say that a majority of my tutors were very open-minded and actually applauded my use of grassroots and non-academic historical analysis. However, there was still the underlying concern that ‘the moderators’ might not be so accommodating unless I backed it up with the musings of the academic ‘big guns’ like Preston et al.

This kind of snobbery was also evident when I applied for PhD funding, where my referee was obliged to point out that whilst my writing has been extensively published in a number of papers and on websites (Freedom, Northern Voices, etc), and I have produced and edited several independent publications, none of this was in ‘peer-reviewed’ academic titles. That my chosen field of specialisation is largely ignored or dismissed by most academics is surely a fault with their research not mine and as anyone who has ever written something for an anarchist paper (especially NV) will tell you, the ‘peer-reviewing’ by anarchists is about as vigorous as it gets!

However, I also find it hard to accept Bammy’s role as the self-proclaimed defender of grassroots history and ‘telling it like it is’, especially when he reduces his arguments against Preston to the kind of ridiculous regionalism he’s been more than usually obsessed with of late. Are we really to take it as a rule of thumb that anyone born or living in the south (Preston is actually from Liverpool) is automatically less credible than a northerner born and bred or someone, like Lewis Mates, who has come over (or up) to the side of t’angels?

What’s more, Bammy has consistently argued against the inclusion of certain groups in histories where HE happens to believe they are invisible, especially in the case of women’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War, and even where he does deign to mention them, it’s usually stereotypical at best.

Ultimately, every historian, whether an academic, an eyewitness or otherwise, writes from the perspective they wish to see prevail, even if every effort is made to achieve balance and we, as anarchists, are no exception. Would we really be as willing to overlook or offer explanations for some of the more unpalatable aspects to the likes of Orwell, William Morris and Kropotkin if they were not anarchists or sympathetic to anarchism?

Perhaps something from Raya Dunayevskaya might be relevant here:

If you want to have a successful historical movement for total liberation it MUST involve all people. There is no such thing as black history that is not also white history. There is no such thing as women’s history that is not the actual history of humanity’s struggle toward freedom.