'Truth spoken without moderation reverses itself'
This blog is a source for intellectual exploration. It includes a list of alternative resources and a source of free books. The placement of an article does not imply that I agree with it, merely that I found it thought-provoking. There are also poems and book reviews. Texts written by me are labelled. Readers are free to re-post anything they like.
Wednesday, November 9, 2016
Sheila Rowbotham - Lessons in liberation: the top 10 books of radical history
History began for me
with my mother’s tales of Alfred burning the cakes and Robert the Bruce and the
spider. Next came Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall’s Our Island Story –
more kings, a few queens, some religious martyrs and the Empire. I gazed at the
illustrations and wondered about lives long ago. One rainy day on a
seaside holiday in 1957 aged 14, I bought Rosalie Glynn Grylls’sWilliam
Godwin and his World. A good bargain at 5s, it introduced me to Mary
Wollstonecraft and the English Jacobins. It proved to be the opening through
which I stumbled towards the historical perspectives of those who had opposed
the status quo.
While at university in
the early 1960s, the iconoclastic historian of the French revolutionary army, Richard
Cobb, plunged me into studies of the crowd. I read Eric Hobsbawm, EP
Thompson and Christopher Hill, whose writings were turning history upside down. Gradually, I realised
that since the 19th century, the labour movement had awakened interest in what
earlier generations of workers had done and thought, and campaigns for women’s
suffrage had resulted in both chronicles of emancipation and research into the
lives of poor women.
It became evident that
participation in rebellion fostered new ways of seeing the past. As early as
1909, the anarchist Peter
Kropotkin produced a history of the French revolution that focused on
popular action rather than on leaders. When the women’s
liberation movement started in the late 1960s, I began looking for the women,
as well as men, who had been hidden from history. Fifty years on, I am still at
it. The following books are drawn from a great host of books I admire
1. The Black Jacobins
by CLR James (1938) James, an exploratory
Trotskyist who loathed imperialism, racism and class power in equal measure,
writes graphically about the 1791 slave rebellion in the French colony of San
Domingo (later Haiti) led by Toussaint L’Ouverture. With calls for the French revolutionaries’
liberty and equality to apply to the colonised, they overcame the whites who
enslaved them, a Spanish and a British invasion and then the army sent by
Napoleon Bonaparte. The memory of this revolt and of its historian have proved
resilient. When I mentioned L’Ouverture and James to a Haitian cab driver in
New York I was given a free ride!
2. Primitive Rebels by
Eric Hobsbawm (1959) Packed with bandits, mobs,
anarchic millenarians and wandering journeymen, this delighted me as a student.
Hobsbawm, being a sage member of the Communist Party, warned against their
utopianism, but I took to them like a fish to water.
Making of the English Working Class by EP Thompson (1963) A wonderful treasure trove of
stories about working class people rescued from the condescension of posterity,
this book also presents a dynamic perspective of class and class consciousness
which has influenced left history in many countries. I loved it in 1963 and
love it still – though I do think he was a bit mean to the Methodists!