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

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Jewish Feminist Movement in Germany. The Campaigns of the Judischer Frauenbund, 1904-1938. By Marion A. Kaplan.

Marion Kaplan offers a rare history. It is a portrayal of the Jewish Feminist Movement in Germany prior to World War II. Her narrative centers around an organization called the Judischer Frauenbund (JFB), which existed from 1904 to 1938. At its height, in the late 1920s, the Frauenbund had a membership of 50,000 women (Kaplan, pp. 10-11). It networked with Germany’s largest feminist organization, the Bund Deutscher Frauenvereine, of which many JFB organizers were members. Chief among the issues addressed by the Frauenbund were sexual slavery, equality in Jewish communal affairs and career training for women. It is the unique position of this feminist organization which permits the author to focus upon “the convergent spheres of German, Jewish and women’s history” (Kaplan, p.3).

After a standard introduction, describing the organization and its cultural environs, a chapter is then devoted to its founder and primary organizer for most of the group’s history: Bertha Pappenheim. A fascinating and dynamic personality, Pappenheim was friends with the philosopher Martin Buber. The most shocking revelation of this chapter is that Bertha Pappenheim is also “Anna O,” one of Sigmund Freud’s most famous case studies and a patient of his protégé Josef Breuer (Kaplan, pp.31-2). As a result of Freud’s and Breuer’s notes, we know a great deal about this activist’s inner life. Kaplan does an admirable job of countering Breuer’s and Freud’s patriarchal interpretations of women, as well as picking-up the chronology of Bertha’s life after she leaves therapy. The author presents the external elements of this woman’s life so that she is not simply a psychological case study, but a vibrant, curious, adventurous catalyst in politics and life.

Kaplan’s depiction of the Frauenbund is not that of an idealized, modern organization. Throughout her book, the author reveals issues that her 1979 feminist readership, might regard as backward. German Jewish prejudice against Ostjuden (Jews from Eastern Europe) was common. JFB members tended to be middle class Germans and Ostjuden were primarily working class immigrants escaping Eastern pogroms. “Ostjuden remained recipients of, rather than collaborators in, the JFB’s social work” (Kaplan, pp 7-8). In addition, the social work to which Kaplan refers involved training immigrant women to become domestic servants; an aim at a low horizon, and not a little self-serving given that affluent Frauenbund members employed such help. Kaplan describes the JFB as “a case study of a group whose ‘feminism’ displayed a strange amalgam of internalized patriarchal values and woman-oriented concerns. A typical JFB member would be a housewife and mother who accepted her status in the private sphere and performed traditional voluntary social work” (Kaplan, p.6). Such members were not strong proponents of “suffrage or legal equality.” Here, both internal pressures of a traditional religious community and external pressures of anti-Semitic threat conspired to subdue member radicalism.

The author is also not afraid to present the Jewish Community with all of its blemishes. One particularly staggering chapter discusses the number of Jews involved in trafficking women. Jewish activists against sexual slavery were acutely aware of their people’s involvement: “The First Jewish International Conference on White Slavery released its own survey. In Germany, 182 traffickers were listed, among whom were 19 Jews. Austria counted 101, including 65 Jews. Of 93 known South American traffickers, 80 were Russian or Polish Jews. In Galicia, 38 of the 39 known traffickers were Jews, while 104 of the 124 Russian traffickers were Jews and 68 of the 105 known Hungarian traffickers were also Jews” (Kaplan, p.111). Perennial history readers understand that dislocated populations escaping violence are prone to develop criminal elements; but this does not excuse the behavior. Marion Kaplan deserves grateful acknowledgement for placing honest historical reportage above concerns about how her own ethnic group or political foremothers might appear. To learn from history, information must prevail over image.

The Jewish Feminist Movement in Germany is an original, prolifically footnoted, representation of history. Its significance lies in what it preserves: the memory of a German Jewish culture and aspiring movement that were annihilated in the Holocaust. But it also preserves its own 1979 feminist perspectives, permitting a reader to examine traits of that era as well. In addition, it benefits those in the future, when memories of 1904 and 1979 will be more faded. Kaplan supplies unique and diverse information that maintains our western legacy.


Kaplan, Marion A. The Jewish Feminist Movement in Germany. The Campaigns of the Judischer Frauenbund, 1904-1938. Westport: Greenwood Press, Inc., 1979.

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Future of Our Past. From Ancient Greece to Global Village. By H.J. Blackham.

In The Future of Our Past, H.J. Blackham examines what he calls “‘universals’ of history.” Universals are cultures, religions or empires that can “claim to be a model for the human race.” In Western Civilization, these so-called “universals” have their origins in Classical Greece, Judea and the Roman Empire (Blackham, p. 8). After acquainting the reader with this view, Blackham presents a chronology divided into four parts.

Part One is sub-divided into three sections, “Hellas,” “Zion” and “Romanitas,” which describe the history of each culture and its contribution to Western Civilization. Part Two discusses the Middle Ages in Europe after the fall of Rome, with an emphasis on what information from the three universals was lost, what was preserved, and what was rediscovered at the end of that period. Part Three begins with the Renaissance, a re-awakening for which Blackham credits the rediscovery of Greek philosophy and culture. It ends with the secularization of Europe at the completion of the 19th Century. Part Four is devoted to the 20th Century, its various difficulties, and what the author calls “the final universal model…the One World which the West has brought about and organized as a consequence of technological innovation, and has inescapably laid on all humanity…a shared human self-awareness that is a new version and vision of what humanity is” (Blackham, p. 9).

A little ethnocentric? Discussing the development of Europe is a fine topic of history. But offering Europe’s so-called universal forebears as “a model for the human race,” and claiming in the end that the final universal is a model created by the West and “laid on all humanity” is a bit blinkered. He presents his theory as if the other continents on the planet are just passive receptacles of western gifts, rather than participants in the evolution of culture. This is nowhere more apparent than in his ignoring of Medieval Islam. When the West was experiencing a dearth of education, Islam was preserving a great deal of the Greek legacy, which it passed-on to the Christian West. In addition, Blackham inaccurately states that “The Greeks originated the scientific approach” (Blackham, p. 8). The Greeks employed empirical observation of the physical world; but observation alone is not scientific method. Most historians of science recognize Ibn al-Haytham (965 AD – 1040 AD), a Persian Muslim, as the first individual recorded to have performed experiments according to the scientific method. These too were passed-on to the West.

The most significant failure in the book is that Blackham drops his thesis less than half way through. After discussing the debt that the Renaissance owes to Greece, the author loses his thread connecting the three model universals to the following history. From that point on, the originality of the document, however flawed with traditionalism and ethnocentrism, reverts to a standard recap of events between the Renaissance and the present.

This recap has value. It optimistically depicts an evolution of culture from religious ignorance to science and rational secularism, with all the technological and medical benefits that accompany that change. Blackham understands that the prior “uniformity of Christendom…implied a rigid orthodoxy…enforceable if necessary by totalitarian power.” The freeing of thought, along with related scientific, political and cultural developments, “opened the door of obedience to the intrusion of questions” (Blackham, pp. 110-111).

As the narrative reaches the 20th Century, a chaos of wars, injustices, religious extremisms, ecological crises and other problems, threaten to drown the theme of civilized development. It is here that the author attempts to establish his “final universal”: “Responsibility for consequences, good and ill, is at last recognized as being global and shared…Everyone has the moral obligation to work out and undertake his or her appropriate part in the collective tasks…In fulfilling this obligation, one enacts one’s personal human identity. This is the bond of human union and the final historical universal that supersedes the claims of Hellas, Zion, and Romanitas to universality” (Blackham, p. 381). An inspiring goal for humanity. If only there was some confirmation that this so-called universal was anything more than a personal wish of the author’s. He offers no evidence of a worldwide trend or force moving in that direction. If anything, most of the final section makes the point that the activities of the 20th Century are driven by greed, violence and selfishness, rather than a sense of global cooperation. Blackham reached the end of his book, after having dropped his universals in the Renaissance, and attempted to cobble together a final universal that had no foundation in the modern portrait he had just presented.

Readers who undertake The Future of Our Past, will be rewarded with an effective presentation involving the currents of Hellas, Zion and Romanitas, which aided Western Civilization through Medieval times and affected the Renaissance. In addition, an encouraging synopsis of secular development in Europe between Renaissance and 19th Century, is exhibited. If one is mindful of the pitfalls of ethnocentrism and unsubstantiated theory, one will benefit from the information.


Blackham, H.J. The Future of Our Past. From Ancient Greece to Global Village. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1996.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The History of Spain. By Peter Pierson.

Peter Pierson’s The History of Spain is a no-nonsense guide covering Spain’s evolution from the re-conquest of Muslim al-Andalus, to the end of the 20th Century. It begins with an orienting chapter of basic geography and current regional social studies. Next is a highly condensed chapter of 11 pages that rockets a reader from Neanderthal excavations through the end of Muslim control. Pierson presents the Muslim Empire as a comparatively positive cultural and intellectual influence, given its’ relative tolerance towards non-Muslim perspectives as compared to Christian Europe. Unfortunately, this rich influence is presented in less than four pages. The true subject of the book is Western development.

The next four chapters are an uninspired chronicle of kings, wars and dates. For almost half of the book, a reader is bombarded with a dizzying pantheon of never-to-be-remembered royal names. There are tiny bits of Spanish pride in cultural advance and the arts. A couple of artists’ names slip into the text. But the Colonial period apex of Spanish culture, often called the Golden Age, is reduced to four sentences. The victims of Spain during this time (native Western Hemisphere populations, Jews and impoverished peasants) are handled progressively, though briefly. Their oppression is presented in a factual manner, and seen as sad occurrence in Spain’s history. However, these groups remain a faceless, voiceless mass. Their presentation contrasts sharply with that of the kings. Frequently, monarchs are accorded personality and details that individuate them. A personal letter from King Frances I to King Charles V (Pierson, p. 60) is one example of this frequent, imbalanced practice. It is not uncommon for a prominent monarch to receive a miniature biography. Presentation of rulers with personality, but non-elites as masses is inaccurate history. Reading this section on Imperial and Colonial Spain, one would think that the people had no thoughts, no ambition, and simply toiled for Spain’s rulers. One may argue that Pierson’s book relies upon secondary reading material to present his overview, and much of that is biased against populations. However, there are a multitude studies by historians of niche groups, subcultures, non-aristocratic individuals and movements. This is what historians do: they excavate primary material from archaeology and research to depict past life. Pierson could have employed a few of these. A chronicle of kings may easier to come by, but it fails to present a whole picture of a period.

As the book moves into the mid-18th Century, the balance improves. The improvement has little to do with Pierson’s efforts. Both historians and reporters of that time were becoming aware that classes below the aristocracy were vital to societies. The middle class was developing a sense of itself and creating a liberal agenda to promote its political and economic concerns. Working class people were becoming more aware of themselves as a class and agitating for recognition. As a result, the general historical material that is Pierson’s main source of information becomes more holistic. Names and quotes from individuals who are not elite begin to emerge in this historian’s text and his work begins to breathe with the vivid life of a whole culture involved in defining itself and determining its course. This changed, balanced view, proceeds through an immensely tumultuous 18th & 19th Century where Spain’s prominence as an international power falls, colonies are lost, and domestic divisions between national groups or classes become prominent. It is a difficult, frequently violent trajectory from these conflicts, through the 20th Century’s Civil War, Franco’s Fascist dictatorship, and Spain’s eventual transformation to democratic republic. Pierson handles the material with an unembellished, factual account of development. The second half of the book is an improvement over the first half. For readers seeking a brief overview of 18th through 20th Century Spain, this book provides a satisfactory narrative.


Pierson, Peter. The History of Spain. London, Greenwood Press, 1999.

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Medieval Underworld. By Andrew McCall.

Author Andrew McCall defines the Medieval Underworld as “those people who were unwilling or unable to comply with the laws of medieval society” (McCall, p.12). The laws to which he refers are biblical. They are based upon “The idea of a Chain of Being” where each element of God’s creation (from angels to kings, to aristocrats, to peasants, to animals, to plants to rocks), has “an appointed place and function in the Christian hierarchy…Let anyone try to step outside his appointed place…then here was the seed of disaster” as well as defiance of the Lord’s will (McCall, pp.14-15). The groups presented as members of this underworld include criminals, prostitutes, lesbians, gays, heretics, sorcerers, witches, and Jews.

While the topic is fascinating, McCall’s book provides only a small amount of information about this underworld. The first chapter is devoted to defining the Middle Ages. The second chapter examines the roles of Royal and Ecclesiastical courts in prosecuting behaviors considered criminal. The last chapter provides a medieval depiction of hell based on Dante’s Inferno. In addition, there are many pictures that cover half a page or a full page. Therefore, the sub-cultures which comprise the underground are covered in 175 pages. Of those few pages, half discuss thieves and armed robbers of various stripes. The rest of the groups, actual cultures of non-conformists with interesting worldviews, divide the remaining pages.

McCall claims that his book “looks at the period from the point of view of the outsider,” through the eyes of underground members (McCall, p.18). This assertion is most assuredly false. Almost all of the information employed by the author is from the perspective of the persecutors of these sub-cultures: the Royal and Ecclesiastical Courts that tried these groups. Little is written by members of the underground about themselves. Even with groups like Jews and heretics, both of whom left numerous written documents, the majority of the book’s evidence concerns legal decisions and recorded mob violence against non-conformists.  It is surprising that the voices of the people within these sub-cultures are so poorly represented, given that entire books have been written on each of the non-conformist groups to whom McCall dedicates only a few pages.

In spite of its meager quantity of information, almost all of which is presented by those prejudiced against underground sub-cultures, the book does have value: It provides an overview of Church legal repression and violence against groups who failed to conform. Although that overview is remarkably superficial, it constitutes a starting point, or outline, for non-fiction readers who wish to explore further. In addition, it is informative to have a confession from the Church, in its own documentation, describing its persecution of people who were different.


McCall, Andrew. The Medieval Underworld. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1979.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Rosa Luxemburg. Abridged Edition. By J.P. Nettl.

If we only read about individuals whose worldview confirms our own, we learn little. By this logic, the assemblage of contradictions which produce a portrait of Rosa Luxemburg will be vastly instructive. She was an independent woman, whose sheer personal drive led her to create national organizations, edit leading periodicals and influence Marxist party politics in several nations. All of this was accomplished during a time when women were considered by men to be intellectually inferior and hardly worth hearing. In spite of this independence, she “was not interested in any high-principled campaign for women’s rights.” In her mind, “the inferior status of women was a social feature which would be eliminated only by the advent of Socialism” (Nettl, p. 415). At times, Luxemburg expresses the purest motives of a life dedicated to serving what she sees as a noble purpose; a purpose for which she sacrificed her life. At times, she reveals stark personal ambition and strategy with comments like “in a year or two…I shall occupy one of the foremost positions in the party” (Nettl, p. 90). There are passages in Rosa’s writings where she counter-intuitively justifies her acceptance of worker suffering for her revolutionary goals as evidence of her compassion: Her chilly prediction, that advocacy of a 1905 general strike will mean that “the masses will die of hunger” and “some blood will be spilt,” is explained away with the rationalization that people who worry about such consequences “haven’t got the least contact or feeling for the masses” (Nettl, p. 212). However it is not only her contradictions that will invite a reader to expose themselves to a differing worldview. Few Western readers are Marxists; especially during a period where the Soviet Union has fallen and most existing, self-described “Communist” nations (Vietnam, China, Laos) are simply dictatorships fostering Capitalist economies. Examining an idealistic individual, who saw economic injustice and believed that Marxism was the answer, permits access to a mindset quite different from our own. It is our willingness to understand (whether or not we agree) that permits intellectual and personal growth.

Peter Nettl completed an academic, two-volume study of Luxemburg in 1966. But between his pre-1966 research and 1969, the political zeitgeist had changed. The United States was in the midst of upheaval concerning an imperialist Vietnam War, a more militant Civil Rights Movement and a general mistrust of authority. It was in this context that Nettl revised his book, cutting its length in half and providing commentary relevant to the late-Sixties protest movements. In the abridged edition, released in 1969, he is clear in his intention to foster and instruct dissent. “The purpose of this shortened version of my  work is to enable a wider audience to have access to her life and ideas…I unashamedly address this edition to anyone interested in using this rich fund of ideas, this rich life of action and experience, for their own purposes” (Nettl, p. xiii). In spite of his “for their own purposes” claim, Nettl speaks to protesters with an eye to converting them to Marxism. “Youth, mostly students; racial minorities, a few dissident intellectuals—these form the new ‘proletariat’ … there is no good reason why such groups should not form, and act like, a proletariat in a perfectly Marxist sense” (Nettl, p. x). His conclusion reiterates this goal: “Those…who hold that the revolutionary steps to progress must lead directly from highly developed capitalism to Socialism…will all find no better guide for inspiration than the life and work of Rosa Luxemburg” (Nettl, p. 499). In service to these ends, Nettl emphasizes elements in this earlier activist’s views that would resonate with his 1968 audience. He devotes long passages to her anti-imperialism (Nettl, p. 163), and her objections to authoritarianism (Nettl, p. 198). A reader’s ability to examine the period in which Nettl is writing and his objectives, adds a meta-biographical dimension to one’s understanding of this book. It can be read both for its’ late-19th/early-20th century biographical content, and for the understanding one may glean about the 1960s.

Because the purpose for this project was largely political and polemical, there is a dearth of illustration regarding the subject’s personal life. We learn the details of her childhood, her relationships, her friendships and the progress of her existence, but that is all. Nettl’s comprehension of Luxemburg’s life events and thought is extensive, but presented in a punctilious manner. In his narrative, Rosa moves but she does not breathe. This is not a book for the sentimental; it is a book for the intellectual who is concerned with theory, historical development and political process. Readers inclined towards the latter mode will find this work satisfying.


Nettl, J.P. Rosa Luxemburg. Abridged Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Birth of the Beat Generation. Visionaries, Rebels and Hipsters. By Steven Watson.

“The Beats conducted their lives in a state of counter-cultural experiment.” (Watson, p. 6). They expressed non-conformity within a society of the 1940s & 50s that was dedicated to conformity. They valued intense experience when most US citizens spent most of their waking hours at mundane work that was either corporate, industrial or domestic. They enacted iconoclastic creativity while most North Americans were fixated on copying their neighbors. Every period has its foil, its critics. Between the early 40s and the late 50s, that role belonged to the Beats.

Stephen Watson captures the excitement and ethos of that group. He follows their development from the first meetings among the central figures (the writers: Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac; as well as the inspirational icons: Neal Cassady, Herbert Huncke and Carl Solomon). Though these men generally ignored or exploited the women unfortunate enough to become attached to them, Watson does a superb job of presenting women’s voices, views and writings. After presenting relational development and first adventures (including collective epiphanies, sex, slumming, arrests, drug experiences and key events of communion), the author follows the evolution of chief writings. He chronicles the development of these works, with special attention to how the writers influenced each other. Watson understands of the importance of artists “circles” for support and inspiration. He continues with this theme throughout the book while the circle is struggling against a hostile mainstream, battling censorship and widening artistic community in New York and San Francisco. Finally, the author presents the disintegration of this group, resulting from a banal commercialization of the Beat image, combined with a natural disposition of the key writers to shy away from media-fueled straitjackets having little to do with individual expression.

Watson occasionally over-emphasizes the importance of the Beat Generation. He calls Allen Ginsberg the “most iconic figure” of “the Love Generation” during the 1960s, when there are too many contenders for that title. (Watson, p. 302). He credits Burroughs with the phrase “heavy metal” used to identify a rock genre, when Burroughs used the term to describe creatures in one of his books, not music, and the term had been in use for decades prior by physicists. (Watson, p. 307). Certainly, the Beats made valuable contributions. Their censorship trial victories are immeasurably important to the freedoms we have today. Their example of living and expression enriched our art, provided a precursor for later counter-cultural movements and made many yearn for greater personal freedom. Some on the periphery (and even in the center) of this circle were self-destructive, thieves, grifters, posers, hacks and parasites. But the constellation of individuals has, in general, made a lasting contribution.

Oddly, the book never discusses the relationship of the Beats to important events of their time. Monumental occurrences like World War II, McCarthyism, race relations and the Bomb, have little effect on the narrative. Some combination of the author lacking interest in the interplay between political events and the Beat world, or the Beats being too self-absorbed to care, seem to be at play. The exclusion of crucial historic occurrences is puzzling in a history.

Despite these flaws, The Birth of the Beat Generation does a fine job of presenting a group of artists and their circle. Watson is skillful at balancing the lively influential events of these people’s lives with the internal processes of creative individuals. He describes both elements with enthusiasm and vivid imagery. As a result, his work is both a portrait of the Beats in their age, as well as a representation of the outsider artistic dissent and creativity that innovates culture in every age.


Watson, Steven. The Birth of the Beat Generation. Visionaries, Rebels and Hipsters. 1944-1960. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Nineteenth Century Europe. The Revolution of Life. By Leo A. Loubere.

The stated goal of Leo Loubere’s Nineteenth Century Europe, is to “to provide the reader with a general descriptive and analytical text for the period of 1814-1914” (Loubere, p. xi). In the Introduction, he writes “the theme of this book is modernization” (Loubere, p. 1). These statements set the stage for explicating his liberal-progressive view of history. Employing modernization, or what some historians call progress, Professor Loubere depicts advancement in democratic representation, rights for minorities & women, and secular challenges to institutionalized Christian clergy. He also presents the opposition to modernization/progress: autocratic governments and their supporters (aristocracy, wealth and clergy).

Politically, the author shows how “governments became increasingly liberal, that is, they both granted and safeguarded individual freedoms…managed to curtail the once absolute power of rulership” with “parliamentary bodies” and “broadened” voting rights which included women after 1914 (Loubere, pp. 1-2). Despite this cheery picture of progress, Loubere does not lose sight of oppressed industrial workers or agricultural peasants. In a passage, typical of his sympathy for the poor, he states “peasants lived off the land, and the nobles and clergy lived off the peasants” (Loubere, p. 72). Sympathy for workers and peasants results in a significant focus on the rise of Socialism, culminating in Chapter 18, “The Second Coming of Socialism.” Loubere’s emplotment, regarding the evolution of democracy, is romantic. Discussing the failed revolts of 1848, which attempted to replace monarchies with republics, he writes “Austrian generals could win battles, but they could not win the war because the real war…consisted of changing social structures and the growing power of new ideas” (Loubere, p. 131).

Loubere spends considerable time on women’s issues. Because of industrialization, “family structure, human relations, the position of women and everyday life, became transformed beyond recognition” (Loubere, pp. 2-3). However, women are not presented as simply passive leaves being blown in the wind of 19th Century forces. Throughout his narrative, the professor describes active female participation in transforming their societies and themselves. He interjects women’s issues into conversations about work, education and role expectation. He provides sections entitled “Women: Bondage and Liberation” and “Condition of Women” within his chapters.

Throughout the book, the Christian religion is presented as a regressive, harmful force in European society. While discussing science and medicine, Loubere adds the following gloss: “The immaterial, the soul or spirit, was a fiction perpetrated on society by advocates of traditional beliefs stemming from ages of gross ignorance about the world” (Loubere, p. 214).  His argument against religion is not confined to the problem of spreading superstition and ignorance. He also catalogs actions by the “alliance between altar and throne” which logistically attempts to restrain democratic progress (Loubere, p. 55). He describes how the “rural population” was “kept in check by religion” (Loubere, p. 76). He examines how in Prussia (Loubere, p. 221), France (Loubere, p. 222), and Russia (Loubere, p. 263), when reform or revolt were beaten back by absolutist force, the clergy was given the task of purging schools and universities of innovative faculty and ideas; replacing them with dogma counseling passivity. This backward thinking and action was not limited to the public sphere. Loubere characterizes “the middle class wife after about the 1870s” as “a remarkable, enlightened person” who no longer “accepted infant mortality as the will of God” (Loubere, p. 246). But he goes on to describe how churchmen attempted to counter this growth by preaching that “an educated woman was a dangerous creature” (Loubere, p. 247). Later in the century, during the land grab in Africa by European powers, clergy were right there with the soldiers “Christianizing all the heathens” (Loubere, p. 337).

Throughout his narrative, Loubere bears witness to the destructive power of violence. He sardonically describes the pattern of leftist “political revolutions, whose violent phases lasted only a few days followed by months of debate, and ending in a violent reckoning of accounts” with military reaction (Loubere, p. 70). Of course he is equally critical of establishment violence to repress society’s advance. Also, his chapter on imperialism stands as in indictment of greed-driven war against native African and Asian populations. Finally, the coda of the book, the unnecessary destruction that was World War I, concludes his criticism of “nation states…ruled by men whose minds had not yet evolved to…recognize war as a menace” (Loubere, p. 333).

Loubere is not a historian with ingenious theoretical insight. Even his emphasis on the people from a liberal-progressive perspective is nothing new; Howard Zinn beat him to it by about a decade. What Loubere offers is breadth. He presents both the activities of the rulers and those of the people, thereby offering a more whole picture than most historians. Loubere is a dissenter from those who write only about traditional power politics, the lives of the wealthy, or the dominant institutions. A reader will come away from Nineteenth Century Europe with a broader perspective.


Loubere, Leo A. Nineteenth Century Europe. The Revolution of Life. Engelwood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1994.

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Sixties. Years of Hope, Days of Rage. By Todd Gitlin.

The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was the largest US peace organization during the Vietnam War. It began as the student department of the League for Industrial Democracy, an Old Left democratic socialist organization that, by the 1960s “was not much more than a letterhead and a budget” (Gitlin, p. 110). Al Haber took this relic’s barely existent student branch, methodically organized it into a breathing entity concerned with social justice, and attracted activists from a number of campuses. Though concerned with a number of issues, this group coalesced at a time when US interference in Vietnam’s civil war was escalating, making peace a central focus of the SDS program.

A swirl of activism, from peace and civil rights quarters, later magnified by feminist and LGBT organizers, combined with establishment reaction and the era’s zeitgeist. What resulted was a culture-wide tornado that eventually pulled the SDS apart, ended a war, and left greater freedom and cultural innovation on the newly-swept US landscape.

Todd Gitlin was elected president of the breakaway SDS in 1963. This book is not simply a chronology of a change-filled decade’s events. It is the author’s searching attempt to make sense of what happened to him, his generation and his nation. “This is part historical reconstruction, part analysis, part memoir, part criticism, part celebration, part meditation” (Gitlin, p.4). His conclusions about politics, human behavior or outcomes, are sometimes triumphant, sometimes tragic; but most often ambiguous. Given the number of strong forces moving people at the time, ambiguity is frequently the most honest response. There is no blueprint to recreate what happened in the 60s. We cannot plan the next burst of freedom. The most we can control in this whirl of chaotic forces are our own actions; and as Gitlin’s chronology demonstrates, even those choices are mined with unintended consequences: The war ended, but the peace movement blew apart. Some organizers burned-out, some joined the Weather Underground and turned to violence, some did the slow work of continued organizing for peace. Also unintended and ambiguous: as the war steadily lost popularity in the late Sixties, so did the anti-war movement” (Gitlin, p. 262).

Gitlin spends a great deal of time portraying African American Civil Rights, and Women’s Rights, activists. But he admits that his experience is white, middle class, New Left and male. The journey of that demographic which he represents is common in the Western literary tradition; it most resembles the archetype of Comedy: They begin with college-age innocence and idealism. Privileged, scrubbed white kids advocating American ideals of freedom and fairness.  They continue through disillusion as these young liberals face four innocence-shattering forces: 1) A managerial Liberal government who reneges on the peace and racial justice ideals of Liberalism; 2) Excessive, repeated police/FBI violence & surveillance; 3) Expected but still shocking reactionary conservative violence; 4) Immense socio-cultural dislocation with the breaking of 1950s behavioral taboos. As is common with Comedy, there is a renewal at the end of Gitlin’s journey. A now scarred, experienced generation of activists, along with younger inheritors of their legacy, are depicted in the final chapter entitled “Carrying On.” It is 1987. The author catalogs a multitude of peace, social justice and environmental organizations. But ever the honest skeptical observer (despite his romantic goals), Gitlin cannot resist one last ambiguity which defies comic renewal: “And still there are no guarantees that noble purposes will produce the best of all possible results.” He understands that the general public is not composed of activists, not enthusiastically following their lead, and is turned-off by the Movement’s attitude. But “those who deplore the mess and wildness of social movements should ask themselves whether the world’s managers, left to their own devices, can be trusted to cease torturing and invading peoples who are inconvenient to them…to sustain the planet Earth…On one side, there remains the perennial trap of thinking the old dilemmas can be outmuscled by the good luck of youth; on the other, the trap of thinking the future is doomed to be nothing more than the past; between them, possibly, the  space to invent” (Gitlin, p. 438).


Gitlin, Todd. The Sixties. Years of Hope, Days of Rage. New York: Bantam Books, 1987.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Liberal Awakening. 1815-1830. By Elie Halevy

When Elie Halevy wrote about a “liberal awakening,” he did not mean liberalism as it is currently understood. During the period of 1815 to 1830, liberalism was a political trend that favored middle class advancement. It was based upon the principles of capitalist economy and representative republic. Its goals were to remove obstacles to capitalism, expand the voting populace to include more prosperous untitled males, and make governments represent the interests of middle class men in parliament. Only later, when most of these goals were accomplished, did liberalism evolve to include notions of economic and social justice for all.

Though liberal goals were meant to serve middle class members of society, this book’s narration is from the point-of-view of the politicians in British government: members of parliament and ministers of the cabinet. It is useful to have a history of the ideas and actions of British government concerning reform. But one must bear in mind that this is a part, and not even the greater part, of the forces that resulted in reform. Certainly the pressure for reform came from commoners in the United Kingdom, not from government aristocrats and privileged gentlemen who were already enfranchised. The latter group would have preferred no reform.

But the perspectives and actions of middle class reformers are almost entirely excluded from Halevy’s account. It appears as if the government is pondering, worrying and acting, with minimal outside influence upon them. Though Halevy would find it impossible to ignore all public action by the middle class, their activities are either examined regarding how they affect parliament, or ignored.

This is also true for agricultural and industrial workers. While they were excluded from the liberal agenda, they were influenced by it. Workers certainly felt that, if the middle class deserved representation and consideration by government, they did as well. Again, while Halevy cannot ignore their activities, he reports them in the context of their influence upon parliamentary opinion and legislation. There are sporadic observations of protests repressed, publications censored and public gatherings attacked by troops. But there is little illustration of the organizers of protests, writers silenced or people involved in the gatherings. When Halevy addresses the Peterloo Massacre or the Manchester riots, we still never hear from the commoners massacred or rioting. The view we obtain is how government officials felt afraid when unrest happened, and the repression or concessions with which they responded. Never do we hear from a wife whose husband was shot by the troops at Peterloo, or a loom operator who saw his children go hungry on the wage he was making. As readers, we are not presented with the motives for unrest or reform. This creates an artificial half-history, wherein the state is surrendering concessions and power to a people who barely exist in the narrative. It’s like watching a boxing match where we see one boxer clearly getting hit or landing blows, while the opponent flickers in and out of existence. This view presents reform as if it is handed-down from beneficent powers above, rather than demanded from an active populace below.

Halevy’s puzzling illustration of reform, is explained by his sarcasm when approaching events outside of legislation and motions. He is particularly annoyed when individuals inspire protest which intrudes upon an otherwise orderly parliament: William Cobbett “published with noisy advertisement” a book criticizing the Protestant Reformation while the issue of Catholic Emancipation was being debated (Halevy, p. 219). Henry Hunt, a reformer in the countryside, is called “the fanatical demagogue.” (Halevy, p. 16). Those in Ireland agitating for emancipation are labeled “Irish demagogues.” (Halevy, p. 272). This petulance towards activists reveals a law and order perspective. It explains why he wrote an account of reform primarily from the view parliament and cabinet. Halevy’s version of change is an organized, quiet, top-down order. This interpretation represents neither history nor human nature.

Though Halevy reveals an annoyed, subjective attitude towards agitators from below, his descriptions of parliament and cabinet are positively robotic. Halevy was an academic historian dedicated to truthfully representing leadership with dispassion. His descriptions are dry. To be fair, the English version is a translation from the French, which may have beaten even more caffeine out of the project. Also, British parliamentary motions do not provide the most gripping read. But Halevy does bear responsibility for how he presents a topic. For example, the ascendency of Canning caused upheaval in the British cabinet, involving intense partisan acrimony and a parade of resignations. But Halevy’s description drones like a biblical set of begats as Canning cronies take over positions: “Another of Canning’s friends, Sturges Bourne, received the Home Office at the Ordnance, and the Duke of Portland succeeded Lore Westmoreland as Lord Privy Seal. W Lamb, a supporter of Catholic emancipation, replaced Goulburn as Chief Secretary for Ireland” and so on.  (Halevy, p. 252). Happily, The Liberal Awakening will not interrupt a restful night if read before bedtime.



Halevy, Elie. The Liberal Awakening. 1815-1830. Watkin, E.I. (trans.) New York: Barnes & Noble Inc., 1961.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Magnus Hirschfeld. The Origins of the Gay Liberation Movement. By Ralf Dose.

Born in 1868, Magnus Hirschfeld was so far ahead of his time regarding LGBTQ issues that our 21st Century Western Culture has only caught-up with him in the last decade. His view was that “homosexuality is a natural variant of human sexuality” (Dose, p. 42). Further, he was certain that sexual identity was biological, and “appealed to the findings of genetic research” (Dose, p. 43). It was not only being freely gay or lesbian that Hirschfeld supported. He also supported liberation concerning transgender identity. He invented the term “transvestite” (Dose, p. 46), and supported research into hormone therapy for sexual reassignment (Dose, p. 73). He advanced these views during a time when most of Western Civilization thought of LGBTQ people as (at best) socially degenerate or (at worst) sinful. But Hirschfeld was a medical doctor, whose motto was “through science to justice” (Dose, p. 42).

Dr Hirschfeld’s wide-ranging work included not just research, but also counseling, publishing, political activism against sodomy laws and the founding of an Institute for Sexual Science. The Institute provided classes, counseling and lectures, on sexual topics that spoke to the needs of both LGBTQ and heterosexual visitors. In addition, it sponsored parties and gatherings that fostered LGBTQ community (Dose, pp 97-103). Concerning activism, Hirschfeld founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, whose purpose was to work for “the abolishment of Paragraph 175 of the German civil code pertaining to homosexuals” (Dose, p. 73). If all of the above were not enough to define Magnus Hirschfeld as far in advance of his time, he also networked with other peace and social justice advocates around an extensive number of issues he supported: birth control, abortion rights, women’s suffrage, pacifism, prostitution reform, anti-censorship efforts, and divorce/marriage reform (Dose, pp 46-48).

There are few books in English on Magnus Hirschfeld. Of those, a minority have informational or literary merit. Ralph Dose’s offering is one of the few worth reading. Co-founder and Director of the Magnus Hirschfeld Society in Berlin, Professor Dose is a writer and lecturer on topics of sex education, LGBTQ issues/politics and the history  of sex research. His book is succinct, at little more than 100 pages. But Dose wastes no space. He moves crisply though the chapters, entitled in the following order: “His Life,” “His Work,” “His Impact & Influence,” and “Epilogue: Magnus Hirschfeld in North America.”

While Dose is undoubtedly a fan, whose work and interests mirror those of his subject, this book is no hagiography. Throughout, Professor Dose is critical of the doctor’s performance as an expert witness (Dose, p. 45), his “high-handedness” with aligned political organizations (Dose, p. 48), his disastrous testicular transplant experiments (Dose, p. 74), and his advocacy of eugenics (Dose, p. 78). Dose presents Hirschfeld as a great and flawed pioneer; and pioneers rarely place every footstep on solid ground.

As the Nazis ascended to prominence, Hirschfeld (an outspoken gay, Jewish, leftist activist with unconventional theories), became an endangered species. He survived one near fatal beating when his assailants thought he was dead. Then, on May 6, 1933, The Institute for Sexual Science was ransacked by a mob of “National Socialist physical education students” (Dose, p. 65). Hirschfeld was out of the country, concluding a worldwide lecture tour. He never returned to Germany and died in Nice, in 1935.

Magnus Hirschfeld. The Origins of the Gay Liberation Movement will acquaint a reader with the life, work and ideas of a surprisingly forward-thinking individual. In spite of its dreary endgame, the doctor’s life is an inspiring example. It reveals that, despite being born into unenlightened, unsupportive circumstances, one has the capacity to grow and act in a manner that is far in advance of one’s environment.


Dose, Ralf. Magnus Hirschfeld. The Origins of the Gay Liberation Movement. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2014.

Monday, January 2, 2017

An Outline of Psycho-Analysis. By Sigmund Freud.

Sigmund Freud did not invent the concept of the human unconscious. That idea had been conceived in a variety of mythologies which preceded him by thousands of years. But he did offer a comprehensive theory of its form and function. Freud also gave humankind a tool for accessing unconscious motivations: psychoanalysis. With this tool, repressed Western societies were able to experience the alleviation of emotional suffering.

An Outline of Psycho-Analysis comes from the pen of Freud, through the translator, to us. Condensed in the space of 90 pages are the key features in Freud’s theory of mind. The Viennese doctor wrote this survey “for professionals, or intelligent laymen willing to pay close attention” (Freud, p. xxi). He begins with a Part One, describing how he views “the psychical apparatus;” involving his division of the unconscious into id, ego and super-ego. The remainder of Part One is parsed among chapters on the interactions of these structures in healthy and unhealthy psyches, along with an elucidation of the value of dream interpretation.

Part Two addresses the technique of psychoanalysis, exemplifying how an analyst is to view and work with a patient. Contained in this section are several ideas about personality that remain in use by mental health professionals today: repression, narcissism, sibling rivalry and so on. However, Freud also expresses the majority of his unsubstantiated analytical legends which say more about his personal psyche than that of the general human population. He discusses the Oedipal Complex, Castration Complex, Female Penis Envy and a number of other propositions which have not withstood psychological exploration over time. It is important to remember that, while many of the doctor’s individual conclusions are now seen as quaint or wrong-headed, Freud’s lasting contributions involve his development of a comprehensive theory regarding the unconscious and his creation of a method to access that unconscious. The reader is fortunate to have this primary document to exemplify a step in the historical development of an idea. Few progenitors of new disciplines get everything right at the beginning. Just look at how medical science has advanced from the theory of bodily humors and the practice of bleeding, to a profession that has cured various cancers. But these excuses aside, Freud’s parents must have been the Lord and Lady Macbeth of the Viennese Jewish community.

Part Three ends the book with “a survey of the increases in knowledge” credited to Freud’s profession, along with consideration of “paths” opened by psychology “for further advances” (Freud, p. 81). Admirably, Dr. Freud includes some self-criticism regarding the limits of understanding during his time. For example, he describes the operation of the unconscious as “a complicated set of simultaneous events” that are improperly described “successively,” thereby presenting these workings inaccurately (Freud, p. 94). The writing of this book commenced in 1938, when Freud was 82 years-old. Though technically it was never finished, a non-fiction reader will gain from it a complete understanding of the essentials of Freudian theory and psychoanalysis.


Freud, Sigmund. An Outline of Psycho-Analysis. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1989.