Return to Reviews menu
Review: The Roberts Boys 

D.R.O’Connor Lysaght.

6 August 2007

Andrew Roberts, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 2006. E36.75; £25.00.

Geoffrey Roberts, Stalin’s Wars: from World War to Cold War 1939-1953, Yale University
Press, New Haven and London, 2006.

These books seem at first sight to have nothing in common save the fact that both concern twentieth century history and are written by men called Roberts. The one is a panorama of the whole century, the other is limited to fourteen years therein. The one is, at least in intention, a hymn of praise to democratic capitalism, the second an attempt to set the record straight on the bloodiest dictator to rule in the name of socialism. In turn this expresses the difference between the authors; Geoffrey was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain: Andrew would probably take a cold shower were he ever to imagine joining such a body. Nonetheless, beneath the surface the two express an attitude that is all too common in politics today, and one that has to be opposed.

As befits its larger area, Andrew’s book is the bigger: nearly twice as long as Geoffrey’s. It is well written and thoroughly researched; the dust jacket summarises his investigations as involving ‘the private papers of over two hundred individuals in thirty archives on three continents’ and he interviewed personally over one hundred. The author himself is an honorary senior scholar at Cambridge where he took a first in Modern History, he has written a prizewinning biography and is a fellow of the Royal society of Literature. Given all these assertions, the result is the worst book of history this reviewer can remember reading.

The basic argument is straightforward. In the twentieth century the world has been hegemonised by the states of the English-speaking peoples, first the mother country, Britain, and then the United States of America. Far more controversially, the author asserts that this has been beneficial, because of these peoples’ form of capitalism (‘superior to French, Swedish, social democratic, Japanese corporatist and various other models’ P.40), based on the limited liability company (‘the fundamental drive for self-improvement’ P.38), and itself inspired by Protestantism (P.195-7). ‘The price for falling behind in American society has always been comparatively high and thus a constant inducement to hard work’ (P.21) This has overcome three major challenges since 1900, ‘Wilhelmine Germany, the Axis powers, Soviet Communism’ and is facing ‘Islamic fundamentalism.’(P.635). As for imperialism, ‘the amount America receives in debt-service payments from the Third World is a minute proportion of her GDP; all loans were voluntary’(P.638).

Given this necessarily condensed summary, the casual reader will be tempted to conclude that the reviewer is influenced by political bias. Certainly the politics of this work do not appeal, but there are plenty of similarly biased histories that are nonetheless factually accurate compared to this. In this case, the bias dictates the method. The book is written overwhelmingly as if the writer’s viewpoint is the only possible reasonable one. Every fact that might strengthen his case is included; any that does not is ignored; for example, although footnotes abound there is not one such reference in his defense of Pinochet. Opposing viewpoints are mentioned rarely and then even more rarely without contempt. Of the hundred interviewees listed, only one can be described as being on the left, and that is because he is a critic of Mao DzeDong. When this is backed by the author’s qualifications and his research claims, the effect is not one of trying to persuade, but rather of bludgeoning the reader into accepting the book’s assertions.

This could be a matter of over-confidence. After nearly thirty years in which left-wing retreat became a rout, Andrew Roberts could be forgiven for believing that there is unlikely to be opposition to his thesis. Nonetheless, there is evidence in the text that part of the bluster covers a certain confusion of thought due to the author’s being torn between his democratic pretensions and less enlightened inclinations.

For example, Andrew Roberts maintains that the benevolence of the English-speaking hegemony is cultural, rather than racial. One of his better passages is one in which he praises the courage of the West Indian volunteers in the First World War. Yet he seems uncertain about whether the English-speaking semi-colonies in Africa can be considered part of the common culture, and quotes approvingly (PP. 459-61) from the correspondence between the two prime ministers, MacMillan and Menzies, justifying bans on immigration of non-whites.

This is connected to a more general ambiguity. His belief in an essentially cultural union is challenged by a hankering after the empires of yesteryear. On several occasions, he quotes Macauley’s 1833 speech on India as evidence that Britain was acting merely as a trustee to educate the people of that country for ‘European institutions’. Not only did such institutions cover a rather wide but certainly not a democratic range in 1833, but it is doubtful whether the later Viceroy, Lord Curzon, one of this book’s heroes, would have agreed with Macauley. More significantly, the author himself remarks of the ending of the Raj, ‘to believe ceding power is better than exercising it is an infallible sign of national degeneracy’ (P.398).

This view is not restricted to the British or American empires. For Roberts, ending the Ottoman Empire was ‘one of the worst of Woodrow Wilson’s well-meaning blunders’ (P. 1330; actually, it had been planned in the secret treaties between the Entente powers before Wilson led America into the war.  A few pages later, he asserts that it is ‘easy, and indeed understandable to mourn the extinction of the Habsburg, Romanov and certainly the Ottoman Empires’ (P.141). On page 156, he quotes a passage praising the absolutism of the Habsburg Emperor as a force for order in central Europe and implies that the ending of his monarchy would leave his subjects ‘increasingly prone, as the years went by, to the lure of fascism.’ (Later on, he seems to have second thoughts; ‘any system of government would have been superior to the untrammeled authority of a single man’(P.322); it is unclear where this leaves his heroic proconsuls like Curzon.). Finally, he quotes Hugh Trevor-Roper: “great empires in history have been the best protection of vulnerable minorities’ (P.399). This apostle of capitalism is also an opponent of the nationhood that capitalism creates.

The author’s thesis joins with his prejudice in favour of empires in his attitude towards Ireland. On page 112 he quotes approvingly the English failed socialist Roy Kerridge that ‘Irish patriotism’ is something of a sham. As of old, the Irish have a warrior class, now known as the IRA.  Far from being proudly independent patriots, they are willing to be ruled by any foreigner as long as he’s an enemy of England.’ This utter crassness ignores the fact that Ireland did not enjoy the luxury of being oppressed by any nation other than England, but to acknowledge this would be rather too much for Kerridge or Roberts to swallow. Instead, after mentioning the ‘theocracy and political subservience to prelates.. for a short period in’ the south (P.10), Roberts opens his twentieth century chronology of Ireland with Queen Victoria’s 1900 Dublin visit when ‘she received a rousing reception’ (P.15). The next mention is a denunciation of the nationalist United Irish League which he portrays as an oppressive force that might have been crushed had the British had the will (P.P 46-7). On page 52, he mentions the 1904 Limerick anti-Jewish boycott as exceptional in the twentieth century English-speaking world, but does not mention the more subtle, but equally anti-Semitic Aliens Act passed by the Unionist government. Pages 112 to 113 trash the Easter Rising comparing the small numbers involved with the masses who volunteered to join the British Army. Again, there is no mention of the fact that perhaps a majority of this number joined because they believed that Ireland had the reality of Home Rule. 

The next mention tells the reader that ‘the partition of the island of Ireland into two separate political entities happened under the Government of Ireland Act of 1920.... Sinn Fein forcibly resisted this and attacked not only the British forces but also those Irishmen in the south who did not support their campaign for a united Ireland entirely shorn of any British presence’. (P.166). The rest describes the treaty establishing the Irish Free State and implies that this gave the green light for ‘ethnic cleansing’ (P.167) of Protestants. (On page 196. he does admit that ‘the Dublin government was not involved in these allegedly sectarian attacks.) The election that gave Sinn Fein its mandate for a republic two years before the British act is not mentioned, but then the author does not mention Irish election results at all, leaving the unwary reader (or, rather, the mug at whom this book is aimed) to assume that the Irish majority was really unionist, but was intimidated into supporting Home Rule or worse. The Black and Tans are not mentioned, nor are the Belfast pogroms that inspired the anti-Protestant and anti-RIC actions in the south. As for Bloody Sunday, on page 579, the film Michael Collins is criticized because, in it ‘a British armed car is shown firing on an audience in a sports stadium (which never happened)’, as if the inaccuracy applies to the massacre rather than merely the form it took. On page 172, Andrew Bonar Law had ‘established a fine reputation as a statesman of resolve’ on Irish Home Rule, which might seem a euphemistic way of declaring his party’s support for a military putsch against it, until it is remembered that Andrew Roberts seems to approve of putsches (not revolutions), for the right aims. Though, on the positive side, he does mention if only in so many words, ‘religious discrimination in Northern Ireland employment practices’ (P. 198.). 

For the rest, however, he continues to regurgitate the complaints of unionists and revisionists. He attacks (P.232) Articles 2 and 3 of the 1937 Constitution, (which he claims justifies the IRA campaigns). He mentions De Valera’s support for Munich, but not his attempts to head off the situation that led to Munich (P.248). He attacks Irish Second World War neutrality (P P.256-8 and at intervals afterwards), his visit to the German embassy on Hitler’s death (PP 368-9) and the destruction of Nelson’s pillar (Nelson he regards as having protected Ireland ‘from invasion’, P.410). Finally, and surprisingly, given his previous lack of balance, Sinn Feiners might ponder the fact that, though he criticizes President Clinton’s tolerance of Sinn Fein fund collections in the USA after the IRA ceasefire (P.577), he welcomes, critically, the results of the Peace Process, recognizing it as ‘a clear-cut victory for Unionism over republicanism in Northern Ireland’ (PP. 592-3). All this comes from one who made his reputation as a writer of histories of these islands.

Of course, Ireland may be merely his weak spot and his history may be accurate on other matters. It is as well to reserve judgment until other points have been examined, in particular the ‘four distinct attacks on the security of the English-speaking peoples.’ It is worth noting that only one of these attacks, that of the Axis, was directed militarily against the values that Andrew Roberts ascribes to those peoples. (Significantly, his account of the Second World War is his most successful.) That of ‘Wilhelmite Germany’ was a power struggle with little cultural significance, despite what propagandists on both sides claimed. Those of Soviet Communism and Islamic fundamentalism are pre-eminently cultural rather than military. Nonetheless, the author treats them alike, and apart from the Axis struggle, with similar extreme selectivity to that he shows in regard to Ireland.

On the First World War, he ignores a very big elephant in the room. For him, it is all about the German occupation of Belgium. He shows that this is true as far as British consciousness was concerned. The trouble is that this analysis ignores entirely the Eastern Front. The cause of national self-determination to which Britain and France declared themselves committed was tied to that of Tsarist Russia which had no truck with such a universal principle, and had been so tied since 1907. Germany had every reason to consider itself encircled, and its clumsy militaristic response was all too understandable. As the author himself shows (P.64),  the Russian Army numbered 5.1 million against Germany’s 4.1 million and the west expected the ‘Russian steamroller’ to end the war swiftly. To ensure this and other alliances, it signed secret treaties that partitioned the central empires in complete neglect of national principles, the empires involved including Andrew Roberts’ much mourned Ottoman Empire. (So far from being ‘one of the worst of Woodrow Wilson’s well-meaning blunders’, the actual peace agreements were an improvement on what had been proposed secretly; it was not the least of the Bolsheviks’ services to have exposed the Entente’s planned carve-ups, and, thereby, put some manners on it.) All in all, it can be said that had either side to win before 1917, (when tsarism fell and America entered the war), the lesser evil would have been an Entente defeat. Finally, it is typical of the author’s double standards that he should denounce the central empires’ decision to go to war as one made ‘by a few individuals at the top’ (P.78) only to declare of the secret military decisions made before the war by Britain in the Entente, ‘When vital national interests are at stake, the English-speaking people have rightly tended to put security and national efficiency before collective cabinet responsibility’ (P.84).

His account of the threat from Soviet Communism is similarly skewed. The author sees the Bolshevik revolution in the traditional conservative manner as an attempt ‘to create [an anti-parliamentary, dictatorial one-party state.’ (P.132). On the same page, he praises the subsequent wars of intervention as a ‘most noble cause’, ignoring the possibility that they might have contributed to such a state more than the Bolsheviks’ intentions. The American, Lincoln Steffens’ account of how Lenin came to suppress civil liberties is dismissed offhand as ‘gullibility’ (P.2 14) and placed in the middle of an attack on those who defended Stalin. Yet Steffens’ approach was broadly correct; those who deny this should explain at least how it was that Djerjinski, founder of the Soviet secret police entered the original Bolshevik cabinet as Commissar not for Justice or Security but Transport.

Stalinised Communism is given the world revolutionary aims of Stalin’s predecessors, ignoring Stalin’s own aims of ‘socialism in one country’. This helps the author to interpret the movement as monolithic worldwide, even after the breach between China and Russia. This interpretation enables him to accept the myth of the domino theory justifying the American-Vietnamese war as one to prevent the whole of south-east Asia, and possibly Australasia going red. He ignores the fact that the Vietnamese’ struggle was in part one of national reunification (It was spurred by the reneging of the South Vietnamese Government and the Americans on their agreement to hold all-Vietnamese elections.) Accordingly he cannot seem to imagine that its spread to Thailand, Burma and further afield would have been resented as colonization. (Actually, had it spread to Burma, it would certainly have given the inhabitants a better deal than that of the present kleptocracy.)

His analysis of the threat from Islamic fundamentalism is weakened not only by his failure to distinguish between Sunni and Shia. It is the last part of his incapacity to analyse the history of the people from which it springs. He seems to believe that the breaking of his beloved Ottoman Empire was followed by its division into nation states. In fact, the Arab provinces were divided into mandates and then semi-colonies of the dominant victors, an arrangement which facilitated the English-Speaking peoples’ exploitation of the area’s oil reserves. On top of this came the creation of Israel, ostentatiously to save the Jews from their ‘almost 2,000-year-long nightmare of statelessness and recurring persecution’ (P.489), but really to act as a garrison for super-exploiting powers and a lightning rod for the Arabs from whom the Jews had taken the land, not just since 1948, as the author seems to believe, but since the 1920s. The first result of this was Arab nationalism, of which the author’s opinion is expressed by his support for the 1956 Suez War against Egypt. It was ground down only to be replaced, in the absence of any serious Marxist alternative, by the Islamic terrorism that the author sees as the new military threat. That it has taken strength from such military action against the people of the area, in particular, most recently from the crushing of the relatively secular Saddam regime, seems beyond Andrew Roberts’ comprehension. His praise for the formal achievement of democracy in Iraq is ill-advised because Iraq is not a homogeneous nation, but a part of a single Arab nation divided against itself by religion and attached to part of a partitioned Kurdistan. The divisions exposed are creating a resistance that cannot succeed but which will cause maximum suffering to the people of colonies and colonisers and strengthen the regressive prejudices among the latter.

A book of over 600 pages cannot be all bad. Andrew Roberts can’t go wrong on the atrocities of Hitler and Stalin. He praises the civil rights movement in the USA, (‘in the established politics of the English-speaking peoples’ tradition of protest’) though insisting that its success could only work ‘against the governments of the English-speaking peoples, which respected law P.439; he ignores the fact that Eisenhower regretted having respected the law in that case). He is correct on British appeasement of the greater Serb chauvinist regime in what was Yugoslavia, though he gets Hurd’s’ ‘level playing fields’ remark spectacularly wrong. Sadly, these are minor mercies that cannot redeem the total.

There is a final point. On his last page of narrative, the author anticipates ‘another power - such as China holding global sway’. Before that happens, the English-Speaking peoples may find that the event is hastened by their involvement in a new struggle with the peoples of Europe, if his
Europhobic tone is allowed to influence too many and too powerful.

It is quite a relief to turn from Andrew Roberts to Geoffrey Roberts, even given that author’s subject matter. He cannot revive the pre-Khrushchev picture of Stalin, but, at the same time, he denies that Stalin was simply ‘a paranoid, vengeful and blood thirsty dictator’ (P.xii). He asserts:
‘in these pages you will find many Stalins: despot and diplomat, soldier and statesman, rational bureaucrat and paranoid politician. They add up to a complex and contradictory picture of a highly talented dictator who created and controlled a system that was strong enough to survive the ultimate test of total war. The failure in the long run of the Stalinist system should not blind us to its virtues, not least its vital role in winning the war against Hitler. Rather than trumpet the west’s victory in the cold war we should remember the Soviet Union’s role in preserving the long postwar peace.’(P.xiii)

However much it is possible to disagree with this, Geoffrey has produced a much better piece of history than Andrew. It could be argued that this is because his time frame is more limited, but, in the circumstances, the limitation is a handicap, rather than an advantage. It is not enough to deal with Stalin in his prime, as it were, without analyzing his bloody rise to power. For example, simply to praise ‘the Stalinist system’ for ‘its vital role in winning the war against Hitler’ begs the question as to why it was necessary to have a war against Hitler at all., and how far Stalin contributed to putting Hitler in a position to wage war. Again, was Stalin’s system the only possible way to run the Soviet Union, or, for that matter, the world Communist movement? It is not really possible to understand Stalin’s international wars without understanding the earlier civil war that he waged against his own people.

In fact Geoffrey scores because, unlike Andrew, he is prepared to present facts, as distinct from opinions, that contradict his argument. He declares his subject ‘a skilled politician, an intelligent ideologue and s superb administrator’ (P.xii), yet he provides evidence that qualifies, if it does not negate each of these.

He is strongest on the last. He does valuable work reminding readers of the ’tremendous economic and organizational achievement’ (P.163) involved in the economic survival and expansion of Russian industry after the Germans had seized most of its coal, iron and steel production. Stalin is given credit for setting up the evacuation committee that moved industry far behind the front. However, the author admits ‘Stalin largely left matters of wartime economic management in the hands of his economic experts, intervening when he deemed it necessary to achieve urgent targets but usually restricting his role to maintaining the priority of supplies for the military...’(P. 164) In the postwar period, it is stated that ‘Stalin’s continuation of his wartime practice of non-interference in economic affairs led to a much more orderly and structured running of the economy.’ (P.324) It seems, then, that Stalin’s capacity as an administrator in the period of the book was most positive in that he had learnt when not to administrate, which raises questions as to his administrative abilities before 1939.

Stalin’s skills as a politician are challenged, too by the evidence here. He was undoubtedly a master intriguer, but this had been most notable in the period before that of this book. There are cases in internal affairs where he is shown to shine, as in his 1941 October anniversary speech that may well have played a small but decisive role in preventing the Axis from taking Moscow. Otherwise, his political talents are displayed in his relations with foreign powers, friendly and hostile. Geoffrey Roberts clears him of the charge, made by Solzhenytsin, amongst others, that he was completely fooled by Hitler, and gives convincing reasons for his reluctance to prepare for war with Germany. Once the war had begun he recognized that ‘the Grand Alliance with Britain and the United States was as much a political alliance as a military coalition’ in which ‘the frantic Soviet pressure on the Anglo-Americans to open a second front in France had political as well as military purpose: to get the western allies to commit their troops to a bloody battle that would copper-fasten their commitment to prosecute the war against Germany through to the very end’.(P. 165). 

The author describes him as ‘the complete master of his foreign policy brief’ at Yalta (P.228) where ‘he had every reason to be pleased with the results’ (P.242).  Yet the overall picture of the Grand Alliance gives a less positive impression. It is clear that Stalin was able to get his way as far as he did as long as the western powers needed to keep Russia active against Hitler. Geography rather than political or personal weakness ensured the much denounced surrender of Eastern Europe to Soviet hegemony; the western powers’ mistake was to assume that they would be allowed any influence there even to the extent that they allowed Russia influence in the west through its Communist Parties. However, Stalin allowed himself to believe that, after victory, the Grand Alliance could be maintained. When it broke down, he reacted in ways that diminished his support by such measures as the alienation of Yugoslavia, the Berlin blockade, the Korean War and, of course the new show trials. Stalin was not deceived by Hitler, but he allowed himself to be deceived by Churchill, Roosevelt and Truman. He had political skills, but they were certainly flawed.

Finally, there is the claim that Stalin was ‘an intelligent ideologue’ and that the story of the years after 1939 was one ‘of a powerful politics and ideology that strove for both utopian and totalitarian ends’ although Stalin was ‘prepared to compromise, adapt and change, as long as it did not threaten the Soviet system or his own power’(P.xii). In fact Stalin’s pragmatism was set within wider ideological limits. In the only reference to his subject’s pre-war political positions, the author admits that from 1931, ‘Stalin’s attitude towards the Greater Russians underwent a radical change. A specifically Russian patriotism was rehabilitated and Russian patriotic heroes from the pre-revolutionary past were admitted into the Bolshevik heroic pantheon’ (PP.20-21). This was a departure from his predecessor, Lenin, which the author explains as being caused by the fact that ‘with war coming a degree of russification was seen as necessary to bind together the hundred or so nationalities that made up the USSR’ (PP.21-2). 

Yet, in 1931, it was still possible that war would not come as soon as it did; Hitler’s party was large but not in power and in any case, the German Communists were inspired by Stalin to refuse to seek any alliance with the Social Democrats as the latter were seen as, if anything, more dangerous than the Nazis in what was then an offensive struggle to win Germany for Communism. In fact russification was a natural result of Stalin’s quest for the achievement of a socialist society in a single country. This made it all the easier, too, for Stalin to downplay his specifically Communist claims between 1941 and 1944 his readiness to abandon the Comintern in 1943 as well as his expectation that his allies would tolerate Communist political influence in postwar capitalist Western Europe. (This last has been assumed to have been caused by fear of the American atomic bomb, but Geoffrey Roberts, shows that it preceded that and that, anyway, like many who should have known better, Stalin tended to underestimate the bomb’s potency.). In turn, these moves contributed to a political culture leading to the beginning of the “depoliticisation” of communists’ (P.326) after the war.

At the same time, while Geoffrey Roberts’ avoidance of the ideological frame allows him to justify these moves as expedient, he blames ideology for many of Stalin’s more egregious errors. His subject ‘was bunkered by his ideology’ (P. 48) so as to expect that the Finns would accept his puppet government in 1939. ‘Marxist dogma’ influenced the Russians to believe in a pro-Russian group of German capitalists who might influence Hitler to delay his attack. (P.66) ‘The Messianic tendencies of Soviet ideology’ (P.72) helped the Russian Army assume that the German war would be fought on the offensive from the start and would continue to disorient it until Stalingrad turned the tide. Finally, the cold war was made more frigid by Stalin’s ‘view that the class struggle continued under socialism in one country! and his fear of the negative impact on the Soviet people of capitalist influences’. (P.332)

It is in this matter that the author’s failure to deal with the pre-1939 Stalin handicaps his analysis. He accepts Stalin’s political errors as the inevitable results of his Marxism, rather as the results of choices made against opposition from other, and, yes, more ‘intelligent ideologues’ (more accurately, theoreticians).  Aided by Zinoviev and Kamenev, Stalin revived the strategy of revolutionary stages, first formulated but ultimately discarded by, Lenin. He made it a strategic schema binding on all Comintern affiliates.  Bukhann inspired him to believe in the German revisionists’ vision of a socialist society in a single country. He himself formulated the idea of the class struggle intensifying under socialism. These became the dogma of the majority of the Leninists of the world, leading them into a political wilderness, and to the final destruction of the Bolsheviks’ great experiment. Geoffrey Roberts’ book accepts not only that this had to happen, but that it was in accordance with orthodox Marxist teaching. It contains two references to Trotsky, one concerning his relationship with Isaac Deutscher (which ended two years before Trotsky’s death), and his murder, the second concerning soviet abuse of Tito as “Trotskyist’. The author accepts implicitly not only that Stalin was perceived to be the great Marxist (as he was by most people), but that he was indeed such a person and that Marxists should build upon his teachings rather than rejecting them as a diversion. This would seem to be a contribution to a Stalin legend which could well trouble Russia and the world as the Napoleonic legend troubled France and Europe in the early nineteenth century.

Beyond this, however, the argument brings him close to his long lost cousin Andrew.  For Stalin’s Wars depicts its subject as a great man despite the Marxism he professed. By not investigating his version’s real weaknesses, it demotes Marxist theory as a whole. The reader is encouraged to look for salvation on the fag ends of ethical socialism or more probably subscribe to Andrew Roberts’ world view of capitalist empires clashing with each other ad infinitum, with the only choice for the citizens of the world being that of the milder ones.

Happily humanity can find another way forward. World socialism is possible but it will be achieved by means seemingly unimaginable to the Roberts boys.



Return to top of page