Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Book Review: The Blood Never Dried: A People's History of the British Empire by John Newsinger

'We want you to get up the arse of the White House and stay there'. Not something that one normally hears in polite conversation, but nevertheless, that was what Christopher Meyer was told by Blair's chief of staff when he was appointed British ambassador to the US in 1997. This was bad enough when Bill Clinton was in the White House, but when Clinton was replaced by George Bush well, one might have thought that it was time for Britain to extract itself from Washington's posterior. Yet, for all his talk of standing 'shoulder to shoulder' with the US, Blair has actually maintained the anatomical position of British foreign policy ever since the disastrous Anglo-French invasion of Nasser's Egypt fifty years ago.

Today as we watch the American Empire reach the limits of its power, few are drawing parallels with the moment the British Empire too faced imperial 'overreach' and then went into its decline and fall. Yet here too, the Middle East played an important role, with a massive popular revolt against British colonial dictatorship in Palestine from 1936-1939. This heroic uprising has been described as 'the most sustained phase of the anti-imperialist struggle in the Arab world before the Algerian war of Independence' and it is just one of the many hidden mass movements against British imperialism that John Newsinger describes in his brilliant new book:

'While the outbreak was inevitable, given the accumulation of Palestinian grievances, what finally precipitated the revolt was an attack by Arab guerillas...on 17 April 1936. A bus was stopped near Nablus and two Jewish passengers were killed. Two days later Revisionist gunmen killed two Arab shepards in reprisal. These sparks were enough to ignite a massive conflagration...a general strike was called and quickly spread throughout Palestine with local committees being formed to supervise the stoppage. This was very much a spontaneous affair...the general strike was to last for 175 days, the longest in history. It was inevitably accompanied by considerable violence and in the countryside armed bands were formed that clashed with the British and the Zionists.'

How did the British respond to this 'outbreak of democracy'? 'The British responded by blowing up 237 houses, ostensibly on public health grounds, leaving thousands of people homeless...with the armed reoccupation of the towns and cities, the revolt's centre of gravity shifted to the countryside where the armed bands were in control. Volunteers came from other Arab countries to bolster the armed struggle...the British responded to what was becoming a guerrilla war with mass arrests, shootings, torture and the blowing up of houses. By the time the general strike was finally called off on 10 October 1936, 37 British troops and police had been killed, 80 Jewish settlers and over a thousand Palestinians.'

Given this British barbarism - what was the response of the Labour Party back in Britain? Did they perhaps condemn the actions of the Tory British Government of the day? Er, not quite. 'With the outbreak of the Great Revolt, Labour took its stand with the Zionist settlers, condemning the general strike and armed insurrection as "fascist" and urging the government to stand firm...Herbert Morrison, one of the party's leaders, was not alone in his enthusiastic celebration of Zionist colonisation: "The Jews have proved to be first class colonisers, to have the real good, old empire qualities, to be really first class colonial pioneers". This Labour support for Zionism was to continue into the Second World War. In 1944 the party was actually to propose the removal of the Arab population from Palestine "on humane grounds...Let the Arabs be encouraged to move out, as the Jews move in".'

In September 1937, the guerilla war -come- class struggle flared up again after a British clamp down on Arab leaders after the assassination of the district commissioner of Galilee by Palestinian revolutionaries. Throughout the winter of 1937 and into 1938, the countryside was taken by rebels, 'with revolutionary courts set up and a revolutionary administration beginning to emerge at a local level. At the height of the revolt there were between 10,000 and 15,000 rebel fighters in arms. As their hold on the countryside tightened, the rebels moved down into the cities, occupying Jaffa, Beersheba, Gaza, Jericho, Bethlehem, Ramallah and other centres. In October 1938 they took over the Old City of Jerusalem, driving out the police. The rebels proclaimed a moratorium on all debts, something very popular with the poor...'

The British were hated and their situation was dire. In an echo perhaps of modern Iraq, Hugh Foot, an assistant district commissioner remembers they were facing 'a full scale rebellion...all ordinary administration ceased. Every morning I looked through a list of disorders and destruction - telephones cut, bridges damaged, trains derailed, convoys ambushed, fighting in the hills. For two years I never moved without a gun in my hand - we soon learned it was useless to have a gun in the holster.'

Once the British under Chamberlain had concluded the Munich agreement ('Peace in our time') with Hitler in September 1938, the British got to work regaining control of the cities through mass arrests, internment without trial, ID cards introduced along with routine torture and collective punishments. As one British policeman wrote home, 'any Johnny Arab who is caught by us in suspcious circumstances is shot out of hand'. Inevitably, 'from late 1938 into 1939 the Great Revolt was relentlessly ground down. Villages were bombed (Arthur Harris of Second World War fame, the RAF Commodore in Palestine, advocated "one 250lb or 500lb bomb in each village that speaks out of turn"). While the fascist bombing of Guernica in Spain caused outrage in Britain, British aircraft were bombing Palestinian villages with hardly a murmur.' Bombing civilians was called 'pacification'. By the end of the conflict, 5,000 rebels had been killed.

This is just one episode out of thousands of equally or even more bloody episodes which shows that the British Empire was no better - or worse - than any other Empire, committed to the military and economic domination of other nations. Yet this fundamental truth is one that a veritable army of apologists for the British Empire continually try to deny. As future Labour leader Gordon Brown noted in 2005, 'We should celebrate much of our past rather than apologise for it. And we should talk, and rightly so, about British values that are enduring, because they stand for some of the greatest ideas in history: tolerance, liberty, civic duty, that grew in Britain and influenced the rest of the world. Our strong traditions of fair play, of openness, of internationalism, these are great British values.'

If the vast majority of people who experienced British colonial rule had been asked what they thought of the 'great British values' of 'fair play', 'openess' or 'internationalism', they would doubtless have replyed as Gandhi did when asked what he thought of 'Western Civilisation' on a visit to Britain: 'It would be a good idea'. Colonial subjects only got a glimpse of the ideas of 'tolerance, liberty, civic duty' when they took up arms against the British. One of the strengths of Newsinger's book is his description of the hidden history of anti-imperialist revolts like the revolt in Palestine above - whether in Jamaica in 1831, or in India in 1857 - as well as his exposite of the bloody hidden crimes of the British in Ireland, China, Egypt, Kenya, Malaya etc etc. It is too easy to forget that while British troops are currently occupying Afghanistan and Iraq - they are only following in the footsteps of other British troops in recent history. Nor, while Britain joins with America to threaten Iran, is this a new development.

Newsinger's book is therefore urgent, essential reading. There is a current campaign in England being promoted around the place by various well meaning celebrities and politicians saying 'History Matters - Pass It On'. Yet one look at the organisers of this campaign - the 'National Trust, English Heritage, the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Council for British Archaeology, Heritage Link, Historic Houses Association and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings' - instantly reveal which sort of 'History' the organisers want people to 'pass on'. It is not an internationalist history, one that can help us understand the current world crisis at all - rather it is an attempt to get us to visit more English stately homes and look up to the aristocrats who lived in them as if only the ruling class 'matter'. As John Game has written, there is 'an attempt to transform world history into an adjunct of the British heritage industry' reflecting the 'current crisis of national identity in this rather small country seeking to re-assert its relevence in the era of globalisation. One should take care with such parochial agenda's as we have recently seen where such re-assertions might lead us in both Iraq and Afghanistan.'

Newsingers book The Blood Never Dried is not a comprehensive history of the British Empire, just as his work on George Orwell, Orwell's Politics, was not a comprehensive biography. Yet like his work on Orwell, it is valuable - indeed essential, just the same. There has always been a disgusting history of support for Empire from some 'socialists' in Britain, from the Fabians to the leaders of the British Labour Party, a tradition which has reached its nadir in Tony Blair. It is often said that the British Labour Party was influenced more by Methodism than by Marxism. This is very true, but it is also the case as the legendary Trinidadian and Pan-Africanist George Padmore once noted, the Labour Party was always influenced 'more by Rudyard Kipling than Karl Marx'. With Blair's talk of spreading 'civilisation and democracy' through waging what Kipling called 'the savage wars of peace', New Labour is truly taking up the 'White Man's burden' with a vengeance. Newsinger shows that support for the war crimes of the British Empire has run throughout the history of the British Labour Party, both Old and New.

Newsinger returns to another tradition on the British Left which has always opposed the British Empire and its lies. The title itself comes from the inspirational Chartist leader and socialist Ernest Jones, who when supporters of the British Empire boasted that it was an Empire 'on which the sun never set', added '...and the blood never dries'. This tradition was championed by the great socialist novelist William Morris, who when the British were losing in Sudan to the Mahdi in 1885, wrote to his daughter that 'Khartoum has fallen - into the hands of the people it belongs to'. Throughout, Newsinger takes inspiration from those who resist Empire - including, and perhaps most importantly, that resistance inside the metropolis itself. I will end with another quote from William Morris:

'England's place­ - what is England's place? To carry civilisation throughout the world? Yes indeed the world must be civilised, and I doubt not that England will have a large share in bringing about that civilisation... I begin to doubt if civilisation itself may not be sometimes so adulterated as scarcely to be worth the carrying­ and how it cannot be worth much, when it is necessary to kill a man in order to make him accept it.'

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At 6:50 pm, Blogger Ellis said...

Sounds brilliant. The Palestinian revolt of 1936-39 has been more or less written out of history. It's interesting that having played his part in violently suppressing Irish republicans in the 1920s,"Field Marshall" Montgomery "of Alamein" went on to play a central role in crushing Arab resistance to British imperialism and Zionism in Palestine in the 1930s. No wonder BBC reporters stand close to the statue of this bastard in Whitehall when they offer up their apologias for what's happening in the Lebanon. I'm rushing out to buy this book NOW!

At 2:53 am, Anonymous Imran said...

Hi, thank you for the review. Really helpful. :)

Can anyone recommend any books on the East India Company/British rule of India till partition?

At 10:33 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Hi Imran,

There is a chapter on the Indian uprising of 1857 in Newsinger's book, where he highlights in particular Marx's writing on 'The first Indian war of independence'.

For the early British rule in India, Chris Bayly has written a lot but I don't think he is a particularly radical historian. Victor Kiernon's work is probably worth trying to track down if you can - as he is a Marxist who has written a lot on India. The Subaltan Studies group in India is also worth following up. I will go and have a think - but I would encourage any other readers to come forward...

At 8:35 pm, Anonymous Imran said...

Hi Snowball.

Thank you!

Is John Newsinger's book 'The Blood Never Dried' fully footnoted AND does it also contain a Bibliography?

Kindest Regards

At 3:38 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Imran - It is fully footnoted but does not contain an autobiography.

At 7:52 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

...or a bibliography.

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At 5:18 pm, Blogger pedro velasquez said...

George Bush's 'War on Terror' has inspired a forest of books about the bet basketball new American Empire. But what about Britain's role in the world? "A People's History of the British Empire" challenges the claim that the British Empire was a kinder, gentler empire and suggests that the description of 'Rogue State' sportsbook is more fitting. How many people today know about Britain's deep involvement in the opium drug trade in China, or that Tony Blair's hero Gladstone devoted his maiden parliamentary speech to defending his family's march madness slave plantation in Jamaica? John Newsinger has written a wonderful popular history of key episodes in British imperial history. He pays particular attention to the battles of the colonised to free themselves of its baleful rule, including Rebellion in Jamaica; The Irish Famine; The Opium Wars; The Great Indian Rebellion; The Conquest of Egypt; Palestine in Revolt; 'Quit India' and the struggle for Independence; Suez; Malaya; Kenya and Rhodesia; and, Britain and American Imperialism.


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