Wednesday, 2 August 2017

A People's History of England by A.L.Morton

I mentioned this book in my last post, in connection with The Left Book Club.  I dug out my previous review of the book, reproduced below.

A find from the Salvation Army bookshop.   It cost 10p, but I had difficulty buying it even at that price, because the volunteer behind the counter showed a preference for putting it into the rubbish bin.  I expressed horror, and he tried to placate me by saying that actually it would be recycled.  I continued to declaim against pulping books.  Was it perhaps a literal interpretation of the wording on the cover: “Not For Sale to the General Public” – that caused his attempt to prevent me buying the book?

I persisted, and ultimately, giving me the impression that he was doing me a great favour, he let me pay 10p for it, so I shut up about the sin of pulping books in case he changed his mind.

It is true that, on the cover, the words "NOT FOR SALE TO THE PUBLIC" appear in bold capitals.  However, the book was published in 1938, and has passed through at least one second-hand store, as there is a price of 50p pencilled on the flyleaf.  I doubt whether such scruples were the cause of the problem, more the ancient and run-down condition of the tome, perhaps lowering the tone of the “Sally Ann”.

Anyway, I finished it.  Oh, how glad I was to come to the end.  I had to force myself to persevere to the last page.

The book, from which I had high hopes of learning what it was like to be a peasant or a woman throughout history, (under-represented, I agree, in conventional histories)  disappointed me hugely on this score.

It presents English history entirely in terms of class struggle.  This interpretation was muted in the first eighteen centuries of the Christian era, since the classes then struggling against their persecutors were, in turn, the upper middle, then the merchant and then the bourgeois class.

For none of these will a true leftie will have the slightest sympathy. In fact the author can barely disguise the disgust with which he is forced to acknowledge their role in paving the way for the only people worth anything, the industrial working class.

By the time we got to the industrial revolution, I was considering suicide.  I realised that I was suffering from survivor guilt.  It was hard, in fact, to understand quite how the human race has survived at all, given the poverty, exploitation and general misery described. One begged for mercy, as one traced the steps by which the ruling class tramped on, starved and extracted wealth from the rest of mankind.

The increasingly frequent cycles of bust, following increasingly short and fragile periods of boom, present a further cause for ongoing anxiety. It was only huge wars, World War One in particular, (the book was completed in 1937), which interrupted this process of terminal decline.  The economic theory underpinning the book insists that capitalism really does not have any future. But wait, isn't that what the left is really all about? The book is propaganda, after all, not history.   And only members of the “oppressed working classes” count as the “People” of the title.  Anyone who is not oppressed by a minority elite is not a person at all.   This is a book written in a single key – the tone-deaf propaganda of the hard left.