Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Culture of Power and the Power of Culture. By TCW Blanning.

As the author concisely states: “This book is a comparative study of the development of political culture in Europe from the late seventeenth to the late eighteenth century…the focus is chiefly on Great Britain, France and the Holy Roman Empire. Its central thesis is that during this period a new cultural space developed, which posed new challenges to regimes and their ruling orders. Alongside the old culture, centered on the courts and the representation of monarchical authority, there emerged a ‘public sphere’, in which private individuals come together to form a whole greater than the sum of the parts … ‘public opinion’ came to be recognized as the ultimate arbiter in matters of taste and politics. These changes presented regimes with both a challenge and an opportunity” (p. 2).

Tim Blanning’s introductory framework is a restatement of Jurgen Habermas’s ideas, from The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. But, there are important disagreements between the two. Blanning attempts to depart from Habermas by “clear[ing] away” his predecessor’s “insistence on the ‘bourgeois’ nature of the public sphere” and “its allegedly oppositional orientation” to 18th Century regimes (Blanning, p. 14). That he fails to clear away either will be explained in the course of this review. But he does provide a significant history. His examination is richly informative and applies public sphere theory to an expanded range of political environments. Habermas focused his initial examination on France. Blanning surveys France, Britain and the Holy Roman Empire. By doing so, he is able to exhibit how other early modern authorities dealt differently with this newly formed cultural space.

An important revelation is that the challenge of the public sphere did not have to result in violent revolution, as it did in France. Great Britain was able to adapt to public opinion. It had a monarch who projected a moral character admired by middle and working class subjects, and a Parliament that prided itself on liberty to an extent not mirrored in France. There were factors ignored by Blanning: Part of the island’s advantage over 18th Century France was in having an economy where, thanks to imperialism and industrialism, fewer commoners went hungry. While these conditions were immediately harmful to subjects, slaves and colonies, they gave the government time to acclimatize to democracy.

The Holy Roman Empire is a more problematic example. Blanning’s focal point is Frederick II’s Prussia. This historian sees Frederick as Frederick saw himself: as an enlightened despot. Certainly, Frederick II deserves credit for fostering the arts, censoring publications less than France did, surrounding himself with Philosophes and talking a good game. But he didn’t “create” the Prussian public sphere as Blanning claims (Blanning, p. 227). Neither did he make “contributions to the formation of a public sphere” (Blanning, p. 223). This arena was evolving in his nation in spite of monarchy; not because of it. One should be more judicious in evaluating this king: Frederick allowed “some freedoms of the press” (Blanning, p. 224). He joined the liberalizing Freemasons (Blanning, p. 226). He wrote articles that were widely read. Some credit is due. It may even be true, as the historian claims, that Frederick II “was a genius…as a political theorist, historian, poet, dramatist, composer and flautist, he would deserve his niche in any cultural history” (Blanning, p. 227). But a careful reader needs to look past Blanning’s colossal man crush to examine the workings of power. A monarch has privileges of action and expression that others do not. The public sphere is an arena of thought experiments and debate. But the only times that the author quotes someone criticizing Frederick’s ideas is when that person is outside of Prussia. Moser disagrees with the king over Shakespeare from the safety of Osnabruck (Blanning, p. 251). Writers for the Hamburgische Neue Zeitung dispute Frederick’s evaluation of German literature from their free city (Blanning, p. 262). No evidence is shown of Prussians debating their king over literature. Also, what is not publicly spoken is as important as what is spoken. Literary criticism is one thing, but the menace of authority would not permit one to excoriate governmental shortcomings in Prussia. Frederick did not contribute to the growing public sphere; he controlled it in some areas and usurped unrivaled privileges of expression in others.

Part of the author’s misperception of monarchical government lies in a basic misunderstanding of power. Blanning’s Introduction states “in 1679, Louis XIV obliged Frederick William…to return to Sweden all the territory conquered…not by force of arms…but by his aura of authority” (Blanning, p. 5). Earlier, he says it was “the success of the British and Prussian states in adapting their political cultures which enabled them to achieve success in war” (Blanning, p. 3). While factors like an aura of authority or a modern political culture may contribute to success, the ability to do violence and visceral fear are far more persuasive motivators. Frederick William knew that France had the largest modern army in Europe and immense wealth to support a protracted war. Power is not as intellectual a force as Blanning presents. So he depicts Frederick as an enlightened participant in the public sphere without seeing how his threat gave him control. He shows British government reasonably bending to public opinion, without understanding that behind this civility loomed their memory of Civil War, and numerous bloody revolts, which produced a taste for compromise and stability.

When examining history, one must look forward as well as backward from an event to understand it in context. The history of the public sphere is one of a public applying pressure to authoritarian governments to produce changes. The scope of Blanning’s book only shows the period of 1660 - 1789. So he neither sees back to the series of the aforementioned armed conflicts in England, nor ahead to the results of public sphere pressure. The history of British monarchical & aristocratic government is one of bending so far that it was eventually bent-over. The UK gradually achieved full suffrage, between petitions and revolts, because government eventually accommodated over three centuries of pressure. In the German principalities consistent pressure, memories of the French Revolution and occurrences like the Revolution of 1848, eventually led to government concessions. Public opinion favoring democracy, educated over years of legal and censored writing, along with the Kaiser’s loss in World War I, produced Germany’s first republic. In the long view, a persistent, inextinguishable public voice desiring equal participation (along with the threat or actuality of violence), won in Europe.

Blanning’s failure to see the dominance of the bourgeoisie in the public sphere is puzzling. Monarchs and aristocrats did write, and create institutions, outside of the court. But the institutions they produced were fairly exclusive. The author’s own statistics regarding European musical events, show that middle class individuals attended middle class venues and aristocrats attended aristocratic venues. When liberal aristocrats opened their events to the populace, few subjects could afford tickets (Blanning, pp. 172-3). If institutions are not available to the public, they cannot impact the public sphere. Concerning publicity and writing, aristocrats were a small minority of the participants. Many of them supported ideas that would improve conditions for the middle class. In general, public sphere publicity benefitted the middle class and diminished aristocratic power. Saying that the public sphere was not bourgeois is like saying that Black Lives Matter is not an African American cause, because a minority of white people are involved.

Though Blanning fails to disprove Habermas with his notions, that the public sphere was neither bourgeois nor antagonistic to the traditional power structure, his study has a great deal of merit. His central thesis, quoted at the outset, remains intact. This study is broader, though not deeper, than Habermas. He examines more nations, showing how they avoided revolution through accommodation and usurpation of public sphere vehicles. It is unfortunate that a writer, with “power” in his title, does not understand how power over people is different from power with people. But the author’s survey is thoughtful and coherent. He remains on-point throughout a lengthy project. More importantly, one can understand him. As Blanning observes, “even native German speakers have difficulty deciphering [Habermas’s] tortuous prose” (Blanning, p. 6). Readers of English who have found translations of Habermas to be a scrum of concepts, should pick-up The Culture of Power. Habermas may have had an original and brilliant theory, but Blanning explains and exemplifies it with superior clarity. Able writing, coupled with broader application, make this work a valuable contribution to history and public sphere theory.

Blanning, TCW. The Culture of Power and the Power of Culture. Old Regime Europe 1660-1789

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. By Patricia Buckley Ebrey.

For a historian writing a book that covers a great swath of time or region, there are pitfalls which are difficult to avoid. The mass of information can overwhelm an author to such a degree that marshalling facts like significant dates, names of rulers and wars, result in a text composed of desolate rote data.  But that data is important evidence which cannot be disregarded.

Patricia Buckley Ebrey has performed a masterful job of solving this problem. Her subject, China, is lengthy in history, wide in regional influence, vast in geographical proportions, incomparable in population and important in modern geopolitical power. Fortunately, she has structured her narrative with such balance that it breathes with humanity. All the necessary mechanical facts are present, interwoven with a plethora of information on culture, individuals and experiences of the Chinese people. Ebrey gives special attention to artistic and intellectual developments. She highlights movements and personages responsible for social, political and cultural change. She provides snapshots of daily peasant life and emphasizes conditions for women during each age; in a society with a notable history of suppressing both of these groups. Ebrey emphasizes that China is a collection of many conquered and amalgamated ethnic groups with distinctive attributes. Her presentation of softer realities (culture, humanity and transformation), within a framework of hard chronological facts, is a balancing act that will provide readers with a holistic picture of China’s history.

Ebray does fall down near the end of her study. The last two chapters, from China’s revolution to the present, compress too many sociopolitical changes and events into 66 pages. The author is unable to present a form or conclusion during this bombardment of information. The reader is presented with chronology, but superficial analysis. In this circumstance, the reader is as flattened as the author under the weight of an unmanageable rush of developments. Clearly, the author’s forte is the presentation of history. Her ability to present current events, or the connection between current events and history, is in question.

But the structural breakdown that befell the last two chapters does not detract from Ebrey’s stellar accomplishment. She has presented the history of an immense topic in an effective manner. For a non-fiction reader to benefit from an extensive text, there must be something human on which to adhere. When a historian presents humanizing information within a chronological framework, it gives the audience an experience of empathy with the topic. This empathy enhances one’s ability to remember facts. If one feels empathy towards women subjected to foot-binding, one is more likely to remember the time period in which it occurred or the class of Chinese who practiced it. If one develops an appreciation of Chinese painting, one is more likely to remember what was happening in the environment in which it was produced. These humane keys are scattered throughout Ebrey’s narrative, giving the reader a means to manage the volume of information and connect to China’s past. This technique also encourages lifelong learners to pursue further improvement and education by looking for materials that address subjects they found interesting in the text. In general, readers will retain substantial information and develop greater interest in China because of Ebrey’s technique. More historians should examine what she has done if they wish to inspire interest in their topic.

Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Savage Beauty. The Life of Edna St Vincent Millay. By Nancy Milford.

Most poets do not make a living from their writing. This was especially so for female poets in the 1920s. Undoubtedly, the road was even harder for one from an impoverished family in Maine. But Edna St Vincent Millay was recognized by the literary world for a salient talent by the time she was nineteen. She entered a national contest for poets and, although she did not win, she caught the attention of a New York socialite named Caroline Dow. A Vassar College alum, Dow convinced her alma mater to accept this gifted young woman and prodded her New York alumnae circle to pay the tuition.

Millay’s poetry is not flowery or sentimental. It more reflects the cynicism in her life regarding relationships:

I shall forget you presently, my dear,
So make the most of this, your little day,
Your little month, your little half a year,
Ere I forget, or die, or move away,
And we are done forever; by and by
I shall forget you, as I said, but now,
If you entreat me with your loveliest lie
I will protest you with my favorite vow.
(Milford, p. 175)

Millay knew whereof she spoke. She had so many simultaneous lovers, both men and women, that it is surprising she was able to keep her personal life from the public spotlight. But even when her poetry alluded to what would have been scandalous indiscretions for that era, her fans seem far more interested in her ability, her presence and the passion with which she writes.

As with any personality, one must contend with some unlikeable traits. Millay is vain, self-absorbed and emotionally impervious to the harm that her recklessness causes others. This is particularly so late in life before she learns to control her addiction to opiates and alcohol. But even in college, her letters home are crassly insensitive: She lists all the clothes that Ms Dow is buying for her just when her impoverished mother and sisters are being evicted from their rental property (Milford, p. 120). Also, the narrative records complaints of friends and acquaintances used by Millay for personal or professional gain, then ignored after they have outlived their usefulness. But there are appealing qualities to balance these negative traits. Millay had a sparkle that made people want to know her whether she was at Vassar, in Greenwich Village bohemia, or in the Midwest on reading tours. One roots for her to succeed and lift her family out of poverty. Her verse, honest, self-revealing, well-written, allows a reader access to appreciate her. This biography presents so much of her poetry chronologically, in context with events of her life, that it exposes her struggles, her triumphs and her development as a poet.

Nancy Milford’s book is an absorbing, pleasurable meditation on personality and inner life by an author who has researched her subject in a deep, personal way. It was helpful that she had unique access to Edna’s private papers and letters which had been jealously guarded by Millay’s sister, Norma. This younger sibling had hoped to write her own biography of Edna, but never got around to it. Milford formed a friendship with Norma and cajoled both the papers and much intimate family information out of her. Because of its sensitivity, its revelation of the internal and its many intersecting personalities, Savage Beauty reads like a Jane Austen novel come to life. Milford’s offering is a master writing course for biographers. This is how it is done.

Milford, Nancy. Savage Beauty. The Life of Edna St Vincent Millay. New York: Random House, Inc., 2002.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Problem of Abstract Expressionism. Inspired by reading Robert Hughes.

In Europe of the early 1900s, abstraction of a visual image permitted painters to express additional emotion or features that a simple representative painting might not. It was part of the constant experiment of thesis-antithesis that permits artists to innovate, rejecting what came before and creating something new. Witness how German Expressionism in the hands of Oskar Kokoschka produces a scrumble of paint in the flesh of his figures to show conflicting emotion. Some movements, like Cubism, were an attempt to come to terms with a fast paced society where, in a newly invented car, for example, a rider will see the front, right and back, of a walking pedestrian, all in the matter of two seconds. Cubism was an experiment to communicate this experience visually on a two-dimensional surface in a fixed time. But in the hands of US artists in the 1940s and 50s, these attempts at new means of communication and expression to an audience evolved to exclude the audience. The first original art movement created on US soil, Abstract Expressionism, eliminates any image onto which a viewer could latch. It encompassed a collection of motives, some useful for the development of painting. Pollack’s drip paintings are a freeform play with technique that liberates the painter from the fist and brush. It results in often aesthetically pleasing patterns, but for a viewer who has not read that Pollack is only playing with technique and not attempting to communicate, it can be confusing. Robert Motherwell produced conceptual works. He wrote volumes on his ugly shapes of black washes on white canvas that look as if they could have been applied with a dish sponge. There is not one person who could look at his famous “Elegy to the Spanish Republic” and see anything that vaguely resembles its title. But his concepts have inspired generations of artists, even representational artists, to create and invent.

It would be authoritarian, and potentially censorious, to say that these works are not art. Such pronouncements are too often used to squelch creativity that is either not understood or not approved by an establishment. If we wish artistic expression to remain an unrestricted process, an open-ended definition such as “Art is an expression using a medium” is required. It prevents art Nazis from defining and controlling what is, or is not, art.

However, there is nothing wrong with saying that a kind of art has difficulty communicating with a viewer, especially when it is not the intention of that work to communicate. Let’s take, for a moment, the black-and-white lines applied to paper by Franz Kline. Some conceptualize his works as “A Unique Existential Act.” Others claim that his inspiration came from Zen Calligraphy. And still others state categorically that his “work had nothing to do with … Zen Calligraphy” (Hughes, p. 481). It is possible that, given the many contradicting opinions on Kline’s work, that no one can grasp what he is doing. Maybe he is describing the taste of cauliflower. He doesn’t say. It is an internal monologue not meant to communicate.

Then, of course, there are those artists who are simply attempting to deceive the viewer. About his abstract “zip” paintings (visually, a canvas painted all one color with one contrasting color stripe down the middle), Barnett Newman once said that a friend “challenged me to explain what one of my paintings could possibly mean to the world. My answer was that if he and others could read it properly it would mean the end of all state capitalism and totalitarianism.” The critic Robert Hughes responded “Such utterances are the very definition of bullshit: empty depth” (Hughes, p. 494). But these utterances are so common that they have become a written prelude to most art shows. The art world is now open to a greater number of posers and con men than ever before.

So how does an art lover approach work that is entirely abstract? Should we follow the advice of knowledgeable, well-read critics and art historians? The same generation of critics who could not agree on the line paintings of Franz Kline also panned the drip paintings of Jackson Pollack in 1948; then in 1949, when Clement Greenberg wrote that Pollack was a genius, they all started to praise the artist. The critics don’t know any more than the casual observer. The only solutions appear to be either 1) to keep one’s self up to date by reading the volumes of sincere and insincere writings that artists and critics have produced on individual painters, democratically making one’s own judgments, 2) Look at the specific works in galleries and museums with an emotional/gut approach concerning how you feel about the work, or 3) Forget about abstract art and look at representational forms. This is art; not survival. How you approach the topic is entirely up to you.

Hughes, Robert. American Visions. The Epic History of Art in America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

A Brief History of the Vikings. By Jonathan Clements

Jonathan Clements’ A Brief History of the Vikings chronicles the rise and fall of this seafaring culture. He begins in the 5th Century as the Romans are abandoning Brittania and Gaul. At that time, many Northern European tribes, including the forebears of the Vikings, were asserting themselves by raiding the edges of the beset Empire. He ends with the Viking defeat by Godwinson at Stamford Bridge in Northumbria, in 1066; followed three weeks later by Godwinson’s loss to the Norman descendents of Vikings at Hastings.

It is understandable that the author should begin and end his Viking narrative with their maritime roving and predation; particularly beginning and ending in Britain: Clements was born in the United Kingdom. Despite family genealogy connecting him with Scandinavia, he has views of one raised outside of that region. The traits that he and non-Scandinavian Europe associate with the Vikings involve pillage of their territories. But what of the culture itself? What of the unique internal qualities and creativity that distinguish a culture? Clements does describe their ship-building and their sagas. He does credit their navigation and exploration; their establishment of far-flung trading posts and colonies from the rivers of Russia to the shores of North America. However, most of the book is a chronology of pillage, wars and conquest.

Like most civilized scholars, Clements struggles with his perspective on Viking violence. He resists the efforts of “Latter-day apologists” and “some museum curators” to “soften the image” (Clements p. 11). But then, one is left only with the violence and a lot of explaining. Why does a set of tribes from one area become the pillagers of Europe? Clements’ explanation, that those who sailed from their homes “were the rejects of Scandinavian society—forced to travel further afield to make their fortune” is not entirely satisfying (Clements p. 12). The label “rejects” and the description of them separating from the rest of society, makes a pretense that the pillagers were different from the decent folk of Scandinavian settlements. However, the fact that slaves and goods, captured in Ireland and Brittania, were traded through Scandinavia, down Russian rivers, to the Muslims, indicates that the pillagers were part of the Scandinavian economy. Also, many of the marauders had families at home whom they were supporting. Finally, many voyagers returned to their homelands to settle, and some even became rulers. Clearly, these plunderers had little or no stigma attached to their actions which might prevent them from leaving, communicating or re-settling. It was a job, and one that profited their people. They were integral to their societies.

Perhaps one would not take such a dangerous job under circumstances where one was prosperous in situ. Clements points to population growth as a pressure that made jobs, land and inheritance scarce. The author’s later comment, is uncomfortable to accept but closer to a reasonable conclusion: “Almost everyone was atrocious back then…The Angles, Saxons, Irish and Scots were just as bloodthirsty with each other, and with their Scandinavian foes” (Clements p. 12). The only differences between the Vikings and these other tribes were that ability, geography and technology, offered them better opportunities to exploit their enemies. Scandinavians had better ships and navigation skills with which to invade distant lands. Angles and Saxons lived next to each other and raided mutually. If population pressures had forced the Angles to develop long distance navigation skills and raiding ships, perhaps they would have taken the risks associated with marauding far from home.

Clements deserves credit not only for facing the brutality of early medieval life, but also for his straight-forward approach to the historical record. He cuts through the hyperbole of the sagas where a lesser historian would simply quote from them for narrative color and leave their claims untouched. So when the saga of Floki Vilgerdason states that he cast ravens from his ship and observed their flight to find land, Clements points-out the suspicious similarity to the biblical Noah myth (Clements p. 140). The author also employs modern science to de-bunk claims. For example, he exposes the legend that skin from murdered Danes covered the doors of Westminster Abbey, citing that modern forensic evaluation of the “Daneskin” found it to be “perfectly normal leather” (Clements p. 167).

Clements’ book provides some important perspective on the Vikings. His anglocentric approach does go too far in portraying the Vikings as invaders and outcasts among their own people. This prevents him from seeing their contribution to their society and prevents him from examining the culture of their settlements. His information on Viking art, innovation or other contributions is limited. But there are no romantic elegies to a vanished fraternity of seafaring adventurers singing heroic sagas. His skepticism, and his unvarnished approach to the darker elements of human nature, are useful traits in this context.

Clements, Jonathan. A Brief History of the Vikings. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd., 2005.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Assassination of Fred Hampton. How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther. By Jeffrey Haas.

On Thursday, December 4, 1969, the Chicago Police broke into the apartment of Black Panther Chairman, Fred Hampton, and murdered him. Attorney Jeffrey Haas was part of a legal team that won damages for the families of Hampton and other Panthers killed and wounded in the raid. Damages were paid by the Chicago Police, by the FBI (whose informant supplied a floor plan of the apartment showing where Hampton slept and was killed) and by Cook County (whose State’s Attorney [Edward V. Hanrahan] ordered the raid). This book is Haas’s version of the chronology which exposed the criminal collusion of those three government bodies.

Haas is aware throughout, that this book will be read by people who have little sympathy for the revolutionary rhetoric of the Panthers. He honestly presents Fred Hampton’s support of violent tactics: When Hampton is asked “Do you feel that a legitimate means of obtaining what you are after is armed violence or armed revolution,” Hampton responds “I believe if we tried anything else we would end up like Dr. Martin Luther King” (Haas, p. 51).

In order to make his case to a readership where some are likely to be skeptical of his clients and conclusions, Haas relies on evidence from the FBI and government sources. When he wants to present FBI collusion with police in the murder, he employs the transcript testimony of FBI agent Roy Mitchell, who admitted under oath that he obtained the floor plan of Hampton’s apartment from his planted informant inside the Panther organization, then passed it on to the Chicago Police (Haas, pp. 195-7). When Haas wishes to show that the police murdered Fred Hampton while he lay face-down and helpless in his bed, he uses the evidence from FBI ballistics specialist Robert Zimmers, and pathology reports of the Federal Grand Jury, which reveal the downward trajectory of the bullets into Hampton’s prone body (Haas, p. 124). When Haas wants to demonstrate that the FBI wanted Hampton dead, he uses the FBI’s anonymously written letter from its own files, to a Chicago street gang leader, attempting to convince him to kill Hampton (Haas, p. 224). All these pieces of evidence were obtained from the FBI via legal discovery, documented in the public record and presented in the trials against the FBI, the Chicago Police & Edward V. Hanrahan.

Haas was a young lawyer in 1969. His demeanor was frequently self-righteous and unprofessional. Haas put in writing to the appellate court that “FBI racial counterintelligence was a star-spangled blueprint for genocide” (Haas, p. 361). Such strident language, used often by Haas, is common in street protest, but does not constitute evidentiary language in a legal argument. Experienced NAACP civil rights lawyer James Montgomery, (Haas’s one-time co-counsel), told Hampton’s parents that “he no longer wanted to work with [Haas] and that [his] tactics only led to infuriating the judge” (Haas, p. 312). When Haas and his co-counsel defend in court their labeling of opposing attorneys ideas as “’fascist’ mentality,” Judge Fairchild admonishes them to “focus on the facts…not the abstract labels (Haas, p. 322). All of this is described in the book without any self-criticism or self-awareness on the part of the author.

Despite Haas’s prior lack of polish and current inability to self-reflect, his book accomplishes what it set-out to do: Using legal facts supplied by FBI and government records, it exposes FBI , Chicago Police and State's Attorney General, collusion in the murder of a political figure.

Haas, Jeffrey. The Assassination of Fred Hampton. How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2010.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

George Jacob Holyoake. By Joseph McCabe.

George Jacob Holyoake (April 13, 1817 – January 22, 1906) was a significant activist in the British Secular and Cooperative Movements. He created the term “secularism,” and stopped using the description “atheist,” not out of any rancor towards atheists, but because “he wanted to describe what he was, not what he declined to be…he wanted men to give all their devotion to the problems of this world (saeculum)…Secularist was the best name to adopt” (McCabe, p. 31). He worked all his life alongside people who described themselves as atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, secularists, etc., to reform the UK to be more secular in government and education. His activism with the Cooperative Movement involved support for business ventures that were owned and democratically managed by their members. Most of his work was as a newspaper editor and a lecturer. The latter activity resulted in his prosecution for “Blasphemy,” a religiously-motivated form of legal censorship that was not eliminated in British law until 2008.*

Joseph McCabe’s biography of Holyoake is itself a piece of history. It is part of the “Life Stories of Famous Men” series, created by secularist publisher Charles Albert Watts, and issued for the Rationalist Press Association. Like the Little Blue Book Series in the United States (for whom McCabe also wrote), this book was intended as brief, low-cost propaganda aimed at working class readers. The writing is ghastly. McCabe’s bio has all the sobriety and rationalism of an eager choir boy’s school report on his favorite nun. He characterizes secularism as “the noblest struggle on which the sun has ever shone” and Holyoake’s advocacy as setting out “to slay dragons” (McCabe, p. 31). But a modern reader does not approach this book for its content. It is to be examined as a historical, propagandistic document. Given the elements that its author emphasizes, this book is more valuable for what it reveals about the UK of 1922, than what it tells us about Holyoake. So what does it reveal? What are the points that McCabe leans upon to press his case?

First, it is significant that this book and series are aimed at the working class, given that this is a group whose political influence is on the rise in 1922. Before World War I, aristocracy was highly regarded in Britain. Herbert Henry Asquith, Earl of Oxford, was the Prime Minister who led the United Kingdom into that war. While the Great War was patriotically regarded by the populace at large, there was a great deal of criticism for the way that aristocratic generals conducted campaigns. Aristocratic officers with no experience but great titles, sent thousands of working class soldiers over the tops of trenches to die for a few feet of soil, only to see those conquests re-captured the next day. It was this perception of aristocratic responsibility for the slaughter which prompted Parliament to finally give the sacrificing working class universal suffrage. By the time that McCabe had written this biography, the Labor Party had surpassed the Liberal Party as the primary opposition to the Conservatives in Parliament. Of course it did help that George Jacob Holyoake had working class roots and that he was a leader in the Cooperative Movement, both good reasons to select him for the series. But the constant emphasis on his roots does show the growing political importance of the working class at the time of the writing.

Second, this book, a piece of secularist propaganda, ironically displays the importance of religion in UK society. Language is used in reference to Holyoake that evokes religious feeling. Phrases like “Holyoake was touched by the sacred fire” (McCabe, p. 14) and “then his real martyrdom began” (McCabe, p. 19) show that religious feeling still exist and can be evoked to support even the cause of secularism. Throughout the book, this reformer is shown inviting theists to join his society (McCabe, p. 32) or being praised by clerics (i.e. “even Bishops avowed the same esteem as Ingersoll” [McCabe, p. 95]). These examples are meant to express to readers who have grown-up in Christian households, that it’s okay to see the good in a secularist and even join-in with them. Such encouragement would be unnecessary were religion unimportant to the target audience.

Third, there is a marked attempt to secure the interest of women in the Secular Movement. Women who were householders obtained the right to vote in 1918. There was significant feminist agitation for the franchise to be extended to all women, which succeeded in 1928. As the women’s movement is increasingly important in the public sphere, Holyoake’s support is emphasized: “the woman movement (sic)…round him gathered the little band of early pioneers in the struggle. Harriet Martineau admired him enthusiastically” (McCabe, p. 35).

Fourth, in spite of a growing egalitarianism in Great Britain, big names still impress circa 1922. Litanies of socially prominent admirers are a frequent occurrence in this biography. For example: “Sir Wilfrid Lawson writes: ‘I have long thought that you are one of our few original thinkers and writers.’ Jacob Bright says: ‘I value highly your judgment.’ The Marquis of Ripon says: ‘I am glad to see your handwriting again.’” It goes on for a page and a half (McCabe, p. 111-2). Regardless of how progressive and educated society has become, the rich and famous remain a source of public fascination.

The purpose of this evaluation is not to single-out secularists for criticism. Whether secular or religious, left-wing or right-wing, all movements use propaganda. Examining propaganda allows a reader to step back from a document and see both how it is attempting to influence, and what it shows about the values of the society it is directed towards. This kind of analysis helps one understand the historical uses of this technique, and makes one more mindful of its use in our own time. The biography George Jacob Holyoake is useful for some factual information on the activist’s life, for what it shows about 1920s Britain and for its exemplification of propaganda.

McCabe, Joseph. George Jacob Holyoake. London: Forgotten Books, 2015.

*Ruth Geller. "Goodbye to Blasphemy in Britain". Institute for Humanist Studies. Archived from the original on 2008-06-07