Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Lord Bragg and the Whig School of History

Lord Melvyn Bragg has come up with a list of 'The Twelve Books Which Changed the World' for a new TV series. Here they are:

Principia Mathematica by Isaac Newton (1687)
Married Love by Marie Stopes (1918)
Magna Carta by Members of the English Ruling Classes (1215)
The Rule Book of Association Football by a Group of Former English Public School Men (1863)
On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859)
On the Abolition of the Slave Trade by William Wilberforce in Parliament, immediately printed in several versions (1789)
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft (1792)
Experimental Researches in Electricity by Michael Faraday (3 volumes, 1839, 1844, 1855)
Patent Specification for Arkwright's Spinning Machine by Richard Arkwright (1769)
The King James Bible by William Tyndale and 54 Scholars Appointed by the King (1611)
An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith (1776)
The First Folio by William Shakespeare (1623)

An eclectic list of world changing books at first sight - but there is a catch. Lord Bragg's 'Twelve Books which Changed the World' is actually only his top twelve British books. Initially the Honourable Lord had thought about looking beyond the English Channel for inspiration with respect to world-changing books:

'I thought, well, obviously the Koran, obviously Confucius, and I looked all over the world, and I thought it's going to end up with religious books and the Greeks; you'd perhaps throw in a Darwin, and that would be it, and I don't really want to do that.'

Indeed not. Lord Bragg is a member of New Labour and their objective is creating a new pride in 'Britishness' after all - not some sort of new internationalism. And in any case, we couldn't possibly have some Muslim, Greek or Chinese writers on the list could we? What on earth would say they know about Western Civilisation? Yet Lord Bragg is an intellectual, and tries to rationalise his patriotism intellectually:

'The great thing about narrowing it down to the British Isles was that I could then broaden it out. I thought I could introduce things like the women's movement, like leisure, which is why I brought football in, what happened in industry and manufacturing - the industrial revolution was arguably more important than the French revolution, and it started here, so what documents are there? Is there a book?'

The Honourable Lord of course was quite right in playing down the importance of the French Revolution, which merely did more than anything else to inspire the overthrow of the 'ancien regime' across feudal Europe. How could anything associated with that possibly compare with the publication of the 'Patent Specification for Arkwright's Spinning Machine' (1769), which is still widely commemorated today across the world as being a truly historic event. By 'narrowing things down to Britain' and then 'broadening it out', Lord Bragg was able to include often overlooked minority groups of British society. These included the 'Members of the English Ruling Classes' and 'a Group of Former English Public School Men'. Writers representing 'narrow' groups in Britain, that always traditionally dominate these sort of lists, like say the working class movement, on the other hand were rightly omitted. Who needs the likes of radical Levellers pamphleteers, Tom Paine, William Godwin, William Morris or James Connolly when they are household names already?

Lord Bragg of course does not omit 'the industrial revolution' - and which British writer wrote better about that event than Adam Smith, Gordon Brown's favourite thinker, writing before it even really got going ? Victorians who pointed out the negative consequences of industrialisation after the event, such as say, Charles Dickens, hardly resonate in modern British society. Victorian Britain was characterised by deep wells of poverty, a growing gap between rich and poor, and Governments which moralised and divided the working class between those who were deemed 'deserving', 'respectable' and hard working and an 'anti-social' underclass who were fit only for exploitation or prison. The 'new Britain' of New Labour is truly a world away from that.

Certainly it is a relief that Bragg in compiling his list of books which changed the world made sure that did not 'end up with religious books' like the Koran, isn't it? Instead, the list is full of rigourously scientific and rationalist works like, er, the King James Bible (1611).

In keeping with this spirit of science, and as a keen supporter of New Labour, it is no surprise to read that Lord Bragg 'relied on the opinions and experiences of an invented focus group' to devise his top twelve. Quite how one organises 'an invented focus group' is a bit of a mystery, but Bragg fortunately explains how they work:

'I thought of a bunch of people at an airport going on holiday. They would all have to travel by jet - Newton; electricity - Faraday. There would be women there as well as men - Mary Wollstonecraft and Marie Stopes. Their ideas about where life came from would be coloured by Darwin. They would not, on the whole, be able to tolerate black people being slaves - Wilberforce. I thought well, it might not go down very well in the literary world, but it's a hard test.'

What a relief that 'a bunch of people at an airport going on holiday' in the 21st century would 'not, on the whole, be able to tolerate black people being slaves'. What an enlightened lot we are today! Perhaps even we might one day be able to imagine black people being part of the 'bunch of people at an airport going on holiday' as well - but then again, for the likes of Melvin Bragg, perhaps that is a step too far. They should be thankful they are not still slaves, and are able to get jobs as baggage handlers at international airports.

However the phenomenon of 'invented focus groups' does cast some light on how New Labour makes its policy. 'Listening' to the British public is always easier when the public in question exist only in the imagination of the Blair regime. Perhaps this is how the decision to go to war came about, with Tony Blair going:

'I thought of a bunch of people at an airport going on holiday. They would all have to travel by jet - I thought of the Terrorist threat and the need to get cheap oil. There would be women there as well as men - I thought of how useful someone like Claire Short might be to try and sell the war for me. Their ideas about war would be coloured by the mass media - I thought of Rupert Murdoch. They would not, on the whole, be able to tolerate a war for oil - I thought of the idea of lying about Weapons of Mass Destruction. I thought well, it might not go down with the mothers of the soldiers who got killed fighting, but well, there is always a blood price to be paid for being best friends with George Bush.'

Ultimately, I suppose as a Marxist I should not be that surprised by an English Lord like Bragg thinking of Magna Carta, Wilberforce, and the King James Bible when picking the top twelve works which changed the world. After all, it fits into the world view of English Lords from Magna Carta onwards - the 'Whig School of History' - where progress always comes handed down from above by enlightened British Lords, like er, Lord Bragg himself. It would be more surprising if Lord Bragg saluted the real heroes of democracy in Britain, such as the radical preacher John Ball (leader of the English Peasants Revolt), or the real heroes of the anti-slavery campaign like Olaudah Equiano, or the real heroic writers of the English Revolution like John Milton or John Lilburne.

If we have to limit ourselves to twelve British books which changed the world, and it is a big if in any case, couldn't we do a lot better than some of those in Bragg's selection? Feel free to leave possible alternative suggestions below, but personally, I find George Orwell's novel 1984 tells us more about today's world than pretty much anything in Bragg's list. In selecting the Magna Carta writers, King James, Adam Smith and Tory MP William Wilberforce as 'world changing' authors, Lord Bragg reveals only the bankrupt historical philosophy of New Labour. Orwell's work, for all its pessimism, still gave us some sort of solution as well, when he noted that 'if there was hope, it lies in the proles'. For New Labour, hope no longer lies in the proles, if for them it ever did. Hope for them now lies only with Warlords, the oligarchs, the new rulers of the world.

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At 9:35 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Any list of important books which does not include 1984 is utter nonsense.

As you rightly point out, it is a damning indictment of current politics in Britain and America but it DOES end on a positive note and does point to a way out of this mess.

Orwell's postscript to 1984 is a short description of how language was systematically altered by the powers-that-be to suit their own ends.

However, this description is written in the past tense in modern day English. This suggests that the changes that were being brought about in 1984 - the reduction of language to a narrow functionality, the stifling of expression and the invasive nature of government - were just temporary.

So not only is the book a frighteningly accurate account of what is going on at the moment but it also delicately hints that if a society looks at itself properly and subjects everything to analysis and allows free expression (writing, speaking and discussing etc) then society will stay more or less on the right track.

So I agree with you entirely - an unaccusomed position for me - I shall go and have a bath.

p.s. Why not ask your legion of fans to suggest their own set of books on your blog ?

At 9:28 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Thanks GOM, and well spotted about the post script to 1984.

I did kind of ask my legion of fans to suggest their own set of books (British or World) at the end of my post:

'If we have to limit ourselves to twelve British books which changed the world, and it is a big if in any case, couldn't we do a lot better than some of those in Bragg's selection? Feel free to leave possible alternative suggestions below'...

At 10:38 pm, Blogger Anders Chydenius said...

1984, wasn't that about your 'socialist' hero's, you knobheads?

At 8:26 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, the fallacy at the heart of Bragg's list is that it's books that changed the world, yes, the world, but, as you say, they're all British books. If you were a martian, that would look very odd, wouldn't it? You arrive in, say, Beijing and pick up on your antennae that someone has devised a list that explains the world, you connect with Bragg and read his list. You show the list to your hosts in Beijing. They burst out laughing. You ask them why...

At 11:15 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Anders Chydenius - if you are not sure what 1984 was about, why don't you go away, read it, try and come to some sort of informed opinion and then come back?

Saying that, I won't be all that bothered if you don't come back to be honest.

At 12:39 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting to drop in to the world of woolly thinking.
Please define how 1984 CHANGED the world; the mere fact that its newspeak now looks prophetic is evidence that it changed sod all.
If you think Arkwright had no effect, you need a simple lesson in industrial history.
Yes, its a series about British books. You take the premise of the series, and then criticise it for not being something else; that's a bit like taking a cheese sandwich from someone and criticising them for not putting any ham in it.
Yes, a series about international books that change the world would be great (nb books - not events -the French revolution wasn't a book); now try to get a TV broadcaster to give you the commission ( nb first hand experience lies behind this comment). Welcome to the real world of TV - please aim your brickbats in the right direction, not at those programme makers who still try to get thought and ideas onto the screen.
Ho hum.

At 2:49 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Hang on Scriblerus - there is very little 'ham' in Bragg's 'ham' sandwich - that is the point - which isakofsky made better than me above. If Bragg wanted to avoid criticism it would have been very simple - he just had to call his TV show/book 'Twelve British Books Which Changed the World'.

As for 1984 'changing the world' - well, it has changed the way millions of people think about the world, in particular the power of the media, CCTV, and some of the ways in which a narrow dictatorial political elite maintains control. As well as bringing us indispensable TV shows like Big Brother and Room 101.

Of course Arkwright's invention was important - but it seems a little arbitrary to take one invention and say - that's how the industrial revolution started. What was it about England that encouraged the development of industrial capital in the 18th century? Could it have something to do with the English Civil War that took place the previous century? And what was the relation of Arkwright's invention to the struggle of the emerging working classes at that time? Perhaps Bragg will contextualise it fully - but who knows?

At 5:58 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

He’s certainly a character this Lord Bragg.

The works he suggests seem all to be, somehow, besides the point. He could, for instance, have pointed up David Ricardo’s Principles of Political economy, since Ricardo’s argument on free trade is still deployed today, completely unchanged. I can only think it’s excluded precisely because it is both relevant and contestable.

Lord Bragg’s last thing was a programme where people could vote on who was the best philosopher from a list of twelve, I think (why twelve? Some kind of astrological fixation?), neglecting to allow the audience to vote on whether J Derrida, say, was wholly or partially wrong. The operative philosophy seems never to be a subject of debate.

As a concept, the “books that changed the world” presupposes both a valid idea and that the idea was taken up, as if to imply that all valid ideas are immediately subsumed into some kind of World Spirit. Or something. It might be more interesting to draw up a list of books with valid ideas that were never put into practice.

Adam Smith, I think, was basically intellectually honest, but as you say, he died before the start of the 19th C.

All the best,



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