History in a Nutshell Ann Arch explains The Industrial Revolution, The Cuban Revolution and McCarthyism in language even Now or Never! readers will understand
The French Revolution
The French Revolution happened because there were some rich people horribly exploiting lots of poor people. The exploited rose up and killed the aristocracy and then just carried on killing lots of people until the situation was really quite grim. Old women sat doing their knitting around the guillotine and lots of people described the situation as The Terror. A woman called Charlotte stabbed one of the leaders of the revolution called Robespierre and then The Terror ended and gradually France became more normal. The ideals of the French Revolution passed into modern democratic thought and the call of Solidarity, Fraternity and Equality has become iconic and in all places still an ideal.
Without the French Revolution the essential political and socio-economic structure that we take for granted in Europe may have been very different. For although we still live in a hierarchical and oppressive state of affairs, it is better than being subsistence peasants starving! Viva La Revolution!
The Industrial Revolution
A few hundred years ago people really increased the use of machinery to make things. They had already revolutionised technology used on the land: this had increased productivity, ‘liberated’ people from gruelling manual labour and been named the Agricultural Revolution.
The Industrial Revolution was a similar concept but set in factories. A negative side effect was that it liberated people from their cottage industry jobs, which some people didn’t want to be liberated from. The first industrial revolution became the 2nd and if you want more detail go to www.wikipedia.org. All in all it seems like a pretty good thing apart from the child labour and exploitation of the masses.
The Suffragettes? What was that all about?
In a nutshell...
Some women wanted the right to vote and they started campaigning for it. They tied themselves to railings, broke windows, got beaten up by police, got arrested and often went on hunger strike in prison. They kept this up for a good few years and then decided to help out with the whole war thing. Afterwards realising it would look churlish not to make some concession for all of their hard work, propertied women over 30 got the right to vote in 1918. 10 years latter they got equal rights with men and all women over 21 rich and poor could vote. I guess that was a kind of sop to equality but I’ve just been at work all day and come home to cook the dinner and put the washing on, so I’m just wondering how much has really changed.
Written on a man’s laptop by ‘feminist by day and downtrodden by night’.
The Spanish Conquest of the Americas
IN 1492 COLUMBUS sailed the ocean blue. He got to what we now know as the Bahamas while searching for a route to the East Indies. He never realised that he had discovered a new continent but it was apparent to those back in Spain that these people lacked protection from their weaponry and so his legacy was a stream of ships heading to the New World to find religious converts and that gold stuff that Europeans were so obsessed with. In 1493 South America was divided up between the Portugal and Spain by the Pope and approved settlers nipped over with shiny things like mirrors or beads to con the natives into not killing them. They proceeded to establish vast tracts of lands with what was basically a serf style system. This was horrific because it is estimated that about 70 million people died within the first hundred years of Spanish rule due to exploitation and European diseases. Forced mass conversions to Christianity were commonplace but the real God that was served was that of greed, built on feudalist presumptions namely that the people belonged to the land and the land belonged to an owner who could use it as he believed he should. The natives were used and abused and it wasn’t until 1537 that Pope Paul III declared that the ‘Indians’ were true humans. The European Conquistadors were completely preoccupied with gold and silver and as soon as either was discovered they set up mines where conditions were notoriously hard. When there was nothing to mine all that was left to exploit was the land and the people, so this is what they did. The natives were stuck between the gold hungry Conquistadors and the soul hungry priests and missionaries. Sometimes they were protected from one by the other but more often they were oppressed by both. The saddest thing about this portion of history is that there has been no happy ending in that part of the world.
The Cuban Revolution
Let’s start by turning the globe around and having a look at South America. Scholars should call it ‘the half that got a raw deal’; politicians call it ‘a free trade zone’; tourists ‘a hot, cheap destination’ and anyone with any feeling, sobs that it is in fact – ‘a sad tale of woe, longer than the poem of Hiawatha and sadder’.
All sorts of unpleasant things had been happening to ordinary people since Columbus stumbled upon the continent. Despite all sorts of inventions and advances, by the 20th century things hadn’t really improved for people. Peasants and workers were continually forced into dissidence and revolutions by harsh dictatorships and then crushed by the same or similar harsh dictatorships.
But all this was to change...perhaps! In the 1950s some people thought it would be a good idea to have another revolution. A choice place seemed to be Cuba. In order to achieve this they spent some time training themselves in the jungle. After they felt trained up enough they had a couple of goes at paddling over to Cuba and seizing power - and after a guerrilla war, actually managed to achieve this. This was a bit of a surprise because it was a relatively little band of revolutionaries albeit with peasant support. Fidel Castro was pretty pleased about the whole thing and decided he would reward himself with a life time presidency. The other big cheese we all know as Che Guevara got bored of admin and firing squads and went off to continue the fight elsewhere. He got himself killed. And so quite literally he went there, he did it, we got the t-shirt.
America was none too pleased that Cuba was now ‘Communist’ so it tried to overthrow the government, placed an embargo on the country and still hasn’t given up hope that it can crush its little floating neighbour. Luckily for the Cubans the embargo decreased the use of fertilisers and pesticides and effectively turned the whole country organic, which was good for the environment and the people.
Other good side effects of the revolution were the social and economic programmes that were implemented. Examples include the massive increase in the literacy rate, the land reforms and the declaration that the government was atheist.
But it wasn’t all fun and games and sadly lots of people faced the firing squads, the jails or exile – some had been supporters of Batista, the previous regime, while others just didn’t support the new regime. There was, in the aftermath of the revolution, a brief hope that dismantling capitalism in Cuba would lead to freedom. The State quickly saw to it that it tightened control and became another type of dictatorship.
It seems fair to say that Cuba seems one of the better places to live in South America for ordinary people but it’s by no means the type of society we should be trying to work towards. Sadly the left tend to be blinkered to this sad truth and left-wing intellectuals feel they can’t criticise the bad stuff in Cuba or Castro won’t invite them back for tea.
The McCarthy Period
The McCarthy period was a time of anti-communist hysteria in the United States. It happened just as Russia was re-establishing its control over Eastern Europe post World War Two. It lasted for about a decade from the late 1940s to the late 1950s. The phrase McCarthyism was coined to criticise the actions of Senator Joseph McCarthy – who was seen as the ringleader of the anti communist gang. Although, since FBI files were opened in the 1970s, some say that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was so powerful during the crusade that the period should by rights be called Hooverism. This conjures up wonderful images of vacuum cleaners sucking up anyone who wasn’t right wing enough. This is no doubt a technology the increasingly right wing governments around Europe should be looking into creating.
Despite sharing a Christian name with Stalin, McCarthy himself was never actually accused of communist sympathies. But thousands of others were, and were subjected to investigation and questioning by committees and agencies. Prime suspects were government employees, teachers, anyone in Hollywood and union activists. People were sacked, imprisoned, blacklisted and spied on. There was fun for all the family in organising this and lots of people got involved in the commie hunt, including ‘The Minute Women of the USA’ who organised housewives into study groups and letter writing campaigns in an attempt to expose communists. Like most groups who hated communists, they extended this dislike to all atheists and socialists as well. They also had a penchant for defending constitutional limits and opposing social welfare programmes. They believed that anyone not opposed to these must of course be a communist and therefore deserved to be hunted down and sacked.
There was some opposition to what became known as the ‘witch hunt’ and Arthur Miller wrote his play ‘The Crucible’ using the Salem witch trials as a metaphor for McCarthyism, to demonstrate that mass hysteria and persecution can happen regardless of time and place. Sadly his message has been somewhat lost and today we see the hunt for ‘terrorists’ in place of ‘communists’ and nobody bats an eyelid. Although the play does seem to have highlighted the unfair labelling of witches and there has been a recent resurgence in pardoning ‘witches’ persecuted in the 16th and 17th centuries. In Scotland, in 2004, 81 people were pardoned and in August 2008 the Swiss Parliament granted an official pardon to the last person to be executed as a witch in Western Europe. So perhaps in a couple of hundred years there will be a campaign about all the people wrongly arrested under the Terrorism Act for peaceful protest or visiting Pakistan.
Christianity started as a Jewish sect in the Middle East about 2000 years ago and was based on the teachings of a chap called Jesus. The religion quickly spread helped by the tireless work of missionaries like Paul who went around setting up churches and writing letters telling people how to behave. By the 4th Century Christianity was adopted by the Roman Empire as its official religion and this helped it to spread throughout Europe. The Europeans kindly shared their beliefs with the rest of the World especially the Americas and Africa, and as a result Christians can be found all over the place. The religion has grown despite major and minor splits such as that between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholics in the 4th Century and between the Roman Catholics and the Protestants in the 16th Century. Christianity has had an enormous influence on the development of Western civilisation and although it is said to be based on the teaching of Jesus, most of what he said has been ignored, which is kind of sad because he had some nice things to say. Instructions such as: ‘if you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor’ (Matthew 19.21) and ideas about inclusiveness, generosity, simple living and communal communism have sadly fallen by the wayside and we are still waiting for Christians Worldwide to put these into practice. Older ideas of enslavement, murder, rape and pillage seem to be a little more popular and when combined with conquest and forced conversion have formed the backbone of Western European empire building. Christianity has proved to be a particularly popular tool to keep people in their place and teachings such as: ‘if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also’ (Matthew 5:39), ‘blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the Earth’ (Matthew 5.5) and ‘it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 19.23) have ensured that people have been conned out of a decent life in the here and now with the promise of reward in the hereafter.
Despite the oddness and somewhat defunct nature of the book, The Bible and Christianity are still going strong and today, out of the estimated 6.782 billion people on the planet, it is thought that maybe 2.1 billion of them are Christians.
The Luddites, despite their cave dwelling like name, actually lived in the nineteenth century and spent their time not smashing up animals but smashing up machines. They were artisans who felt the industrial revolution and the mechanicalised looms it had brought threatened their way of life. Their somewhat short-lived existence was to spark the imagination of artists for the next two hundred years. They themselves weren’t immune to a bit of imagination – they named themselves after Ned Ludd, who if he existed at all, was said to be an eighteenth century weaver from Leicestershire who, in a fit of rage, smashed up two knitting frames.
Luddism, which began in Nottingham in 1811, spread across Britain for about two years. It was an exciting life being a Luddite. They would often meet on the moors outside industrial centres to prepare, before going off to damage a cotton or wool factory, intimidate the factory owners and possibly question the first stirrings of the Free Market. Sadly the Frame Breaking Act in 1812 threatened the Luddites’ way of life and despite even Bryon standing up to defend them, several of them were executed and many more sent to Australia. Shortly afterwards Luddism petered out. Although some say it was important because it paved the way for later nineteenth century working class discontent, it’s clear that their main legacy has been the many tears and cheers provoked, from the folk music it has spawned, around campfires all across Britain.
Old Ned Ludd
“Old Ned Ludd He smashed the looms He did so with a mighty boom For weavers weavers everywhere He smashed them up because he cared. The Luddists followed in his stead Artisans who really thought That looms were awfully dreadfully bad Who likes machines when you can have A simpler nicer way of life Without factories or workers rights.”
Flying around on broomsticks for generations, now beloved of
many, thanks in part to J.K Rowling – witches haunt the imagination of those
wishing for some supernatural control over their lives. Unfortunately it would
appear that science has shown us the error of our ways and witches have
vanished along with God, the flat earth and the milkman. The question is why
did we believe in them for so very long?
Think medieval Europe: a time of hempen
shirts, crusader knights and of course witches. Up until 1235 one could get
away with a cauldron and a few muttered curses with only a wee bit of
persecution but then Pope Gregory IX decided that an Inquisition would make for
better reading of the history books. The result: heretics silenced, lone women
intimidated, land and resources grabbed and a scapegoat for social problems
Shakespeare played up to James I’s morbid fascination with
witchcraft, resulting in an enduring image of the three witches on the ‘blasted
heath’ cackling “double, double toil and trouble; fire burn, and caldron
bubble”. He conjured up the quintessential image of the witch and his artistic
interpretation lingers still.
A good few burnings, torture chambers and centuries later we
skip to the Enlightenment and immediately think of Salem and the grotesquely
famous witch trials popularised through The Crucible by Arthur Miller.Again the result: hysterical fear of women,
greedy desire for land and an unhealthy obsession with religion.
The last real witch trial in England
was in 1712 and the early nineteenth century saw the cessation of the execution
of witches in Europe. Scholars debate the reasons for
the witch madness. Some say it was due to the Counter Reformation, others suggest
harvest failures, religious fear, criminalisation of midwifery, anti-birth
control tactics or gender struggles.
Whatever the reasons, the phrase ‘witch-hunt’ has gone down
in the dictionaries to denote a frenzied, hysterical attack, persecution and
unreasonable trial, imprisonment or death of any one group.
Now one would like to believe that this history in a
nutshell covers only past events but sadly torture and death of those accused
of witchcraft continues today in countries all over the world from Papua New
Guinea to Saudi Arabia; India to The Gambia.
The Vietnam War - An American Bloodbath
The Vietnam War has seeped into the collective mind; widely immortalised through street protests, peace songs, literature, films and of course images of flowers in riffle barrels. We all know America went in guns blazing, dropping Agent Orange all over the country and killing the inhabitants of Mai Lai. We know too that anti-war protest was fashionable in America during the ’60s and ’70s and that Bob Dylan thought the war was a pretty bad idea but what else do we know about it?
Well let me sum it up for you… what was the Vietnam War and why did it happen?
The Vietnam War (1955-1975) was between the communist North and the anti-communist Catholic South but its roots go back to the 1850s. Once the French had tired of equality, fraternity and the guillotine, they tried to colonise Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. It’s never really a good idea to invade another country – it almost always belongs to someone and they usually want it back. The Vietnamese did want it back and they made that pretty clear but despite this a century of French bread, bistros and bullying went on. Then in 1941 a new group sprung up called the Việt Minh – they weren’t much different from the other anti-colonial groups but they did have the support of China and the US and this proved to be quite useful. Within a few years they had taken control of their country and were embroiled in a nasty war with the French. After a decade the French got tired of being shot at, called a ceasefire and saw that independence was finally granted to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
That would have been an end to it perhaps, but instead Vietnam was temporarily partitioned into the Catholic South and the communist North I mentioned before, which basically led to refugees fleeing in huge numbers and Uncle Sam muttering about the domino effect and how the whole world would become communist if they didn’t step in. They messed about for a few years – helping out, or some would say occupying and infiltrating the South. Then in the ’60s they decided that sending in a whole bunch of conscripted young men with guns would probably solve the problem. Alas no! Bombs were dropped, massacres were perpetrated and bloodshed abounded. Lots of people died. Lots. In 1975 Saigon fell and the US, due to public pressure, or a realisation they were fighting a crazy war, completely pulled out leaving the communists victorious. So there you have it – a century long war fought by the French turned into an odd American anti-communist massacre. The Americans determined to stop France retaining its hold over Vietnam, ended up fighting the very nationalistic communist forces they had helped to create – as a result Vietnam is still a communist state today. Funnily enough for the other communist countries, Vietnam didn’t cut it and there were fights with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and a Chinese invasion to prove it.
There is a lesson in there somewhere… don’t fight someone else’s war…. don’t invade other countries… blame the French… oh yeah that’s right – don’t literally paint the map red because you’re scared that it might get painted red by someone else.
Read more on this subject: by getting a book!
The idea of free love has probably got you all excited. Well I’m here to pop that bubble. Historically free love has little to do with promiscuity or multiple simultaneous partners. Late in the 18th century, when people were throwing around the idea, they were talking about a social movement that rejected marriage as bondage. Those who advocated it wanted to both enter into and end a relationship with a monogamous sexual partner freely and when they chose. This freedom was to be the preserve of the individuals involved and to be totally separate from the state. In fact the state was to have nothing to do with sex, birth control or marriage at all.
Emma Goldman said of free love in the early 20th century "Free love? As if love is anything but free!” but back in the 18th century women had a pretty rough deal. Love may be born free but everywhere it was in chains. In 1792 Mary Wollstonecraft argued in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, that in marriage women are “often legally prostituted”. She talks of girls being “prepared for the slavery of marriage” when they should instead be educated. She hoped to see a new society where men and women choose partners based on “motives of affection”.
The idea that relationships should be ties of mutual affection that could be dissolved at any time was popular among radicals, although many of the proponents of free love actually got married – Godwin and Wollstonecraft perhaps being the most famous example.
The real trick to making free love universal was to improve conditions within marriage and allow economic freedom for wives. Hand in hand with this was the necessity to facilitate a get-out clause so marriage wasn’t “’til death do us part”. And all important was birth control.
Economically the 1870 Married Women's Property Act was a milestone. It allowed women to own the money they earned and to inherit property. Admission to high office was limited in the extreme. Over the pond in 1872, a divorced Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to try to run for presidency but the US has yet to see a female President elected. It wasn’t until 1975 that Britain got a female PM. Virginia Wolfe asserted in 1929 that “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write” but by then it was almost possible to live independently of men.
The 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act allowed men to divorce their wives on the grounds of adultery, but it was not until the 1937 Matrimonial Causes Act that women were granted the same privilege. Divorce may have been possible but it wasn’t always easy.
The reason many wanted to divorce wasn’t that they weren’t in love anymore, rather it was that inside marriage, conditions were very bad for many women. As Voltairine de Cleyre pointed out in her 1890 lecture Sex Slavery; marriage allowed men to rape their wives without consequences. She argued that “Within the silence-shade of a marriage certificate, adultery and rape stalk freely and at ease” and was livid that women could “control no property, not even her own body”. It wasn’t until 1991 that marital rape was declared illegal in the UK.
Birth control has been a bit of a sticky subject; in 1826 Richard Carlile was sent to prison for advocating it. By the 1870s feminists were fighting for “voluntary motherhood” and finally birth control became more acceptable during the 1920s because Marie Stopes made it sound scientific and progressive. Abortion wasn’t made legal until 1967 but when it was women finally gained control over their bodies.
Many of the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s rejected the notion of marriage but sadly the concept of free love became synonymous with promiscuity. Due to massive changes in the law and the behaviour of both men and women, marriage has generally become about mutual affection. However, despite the widespread access to birth control, education and the ability to earn and keep their own money, marriage has held women back. The majority of childcare and housework is still done by women, even though they also work outside the home. Female equality may be enshrined in law but not always in practice. In 2010 a crime survey revealed that ¼ of women still experience domestic abuse.
Marriage may not be bondage but it is still under the firm grip of the law and is intrinsically linked with economics. The fight for free love continues while this is the case. Will modern women reject marriage, call themselves Ms, refuse a joint account and tie themselves down with only love not law? Until we do, it would appear that the last great battle is with ourselves.
The English Civil War
Charles I shared his father’s view that Kings were little Gods on Earth; the many Puritans in his Parliament did not share that view. It’s this sort of thing that always leads to regicide.
Although he ascended a peaceful throne Charles wasn’t adverse to a bit of strife and he set about following these six bullet points.
1. Annex Scotland and Ireland.
2. Get involved in European wars – unnecessarily.
3. Appoint someone to sort out these wars – make sure it’s someone everyone hates – Buckingham will do.
4. Marry a Roman Catholic. Introduce her to a Protestant population.
5. Set about ensuring High Anglicanism is practiced – this will annoy those pesky Catholics but it’s just Catholic enough to annoy everyone else.
6. Dismiss Parliament – load of trouble makers who never want to give you any money.
It was all going so well until he was forced to call Parliament back together again as bullet point 1 and 5 backfired. Parliament had a whale of a time. It had been ages since they’d all been together like that and they had a good lot of complaining about him to do. Pretty soon everyone was complaining about him so much that it seemed a good idea to go to war.
And so war raged for almost a decade and was dealt out in three rounds of Roundheads verses Cavaliers. Despite their silly name the Roundheads won and Charles was put on trial for treason. Treason! Yes I know! And he was a King and everything! There is only one outcome to a treason trial and sure enough he got killed. His son vamoosed pretty quickly over the Channel to safer regions.
It seemed a new era was dawning when Oliver Cromwell set about ruling England. But despite all his equalitarian politics he was a bit boring – as in he liked upright chairs and he didn’t like theatre and singing and it would seem that this wasn’t awfully popular with everyone. After a few years Cromwell died and tried to pass the rule of England on to his son. This was a mistake. The English decided if they were going to have hereditary rulers they might as well have one with a bit of style and curly hair so Charles II came back from the continent where he’d been hiding out and became the King. Since then the English have been loath to commit regicide again but Sue Townsend’s godsend of a novel about the royal family living on a council estate has given us a modern solution to an ancient problem. I would say the story isn’t over yet. Watch this space.