Commentary Magazine


Troublemaker by Kathleen Burk

Troublemaker: The Life and History of A.J.P. Taylor
by Kathleen Burk
Yale. 491 pp. $35.00

At the height of his productive life, from the 1940’s through the 1960’s, Allan John Percivale (A.J.P.) Taylor was the best known as well as the most controversial of English historians. His fame rested not only on his prodigious bibliography—23 books, over 600 essays and articles, and nearly 1,600 book reviews—but also on frequent appearances on radio and television. His reputation for controversy derived from something else: his habit of expressing opinions that starkly contradicted the consensus and of indulging in eye-catching but often frivolous statements on weighty matters. A highly skilled writer and speaker with an inborn talent for narrative history, Taylor undermined his status by always insisting on being contrary. In the end he had everything he coveted, except the respect of his peers. When he died in 1990, at the age of eighty-four, he was a bitter man, denied the professorship he had yearned for and dismissed by his profession as undeserving of serious attention.

The envy of others undoubtedly played a part in thwarting Taylor’s academic career. Professors are notoriously intolerant of colleagues who earn more than they or acquire greater fame, scorning and ostracizing them as “popularizers,” “vulgarizers,” or, worst of all, “entertainers.” Taylor earned exceedingly well and acquired great celebrity. As his meticulously kept accounts indicate (they are reproduced in this book), at the peak of his fame, in the year 1967, he earned £9,441, or in today’s terms, over $150,000—this, at a time when the typical British university salary was counted in the hundreds of pounds sterling. In his biographer’s estimate, Taylor’s lifetime income from writing and lecturing amounted to the equivalent in today’s terms of nearly $3 million. In addition, throughout his life he made a great deal of money from investments, financed partly by his earnings and partly by his inheritance.

But as Troublemaker makes clear, wealth and celebrity were not the main reason Taylor was rejected by his profession. The main reason had to do with his work as a historian.

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Taylor discovered early in life that he had an uncommon talent for public speaking. He could mount a classroom platform and deliver a fluent lecture with minimum preparation and without notes. In time, he attracted huge audiences and became Britain’s most acclaimed radio and television personality.

This skill did not serve his scholarship well. Public speaking, especially delivered through the mass media, and serious writing are not natural companions. Speech requires simplification because the human ear is not as retentive as the human eye, and does not accommodate readily the kinds of nuances and qualifications demanded by scholarship. Good speakers, therefore, rarely make good writers. As I can attest from personal observation, Isaiah Berlin, whom few could match in fluency of speech, agonized over his writing, while Edmund Wilson, an accomplished writer, had an abhorrence of public speaking.

Taylor was good at both, but his writing bore clear marks of rhetorical inspiration. He wrote as he spoke, in measured cadences and balanced oppositions, of which the following, taken from his English History, 1914-1945, may serve as an example:

The British people were the only people who went through both world wars from beginning to end. Yet they remained a peaceful and civilized people, tolerant, patient, and generous. Traditional values lost much of their force. Other values took their place. Imperial greatness was on the way out; the welfare state was on the way in. The British empire declined; the condition of the people improved. Few now sang “Land of Hope and Glory.” Few even sang “England Arise.” England had risen all the same.

There is nothing wrong with these statements. But the bluntness that captivates the imagination also overrides subtleties in a manner that is troubling in a professional historian.

The more Taylor felt rejected by the profession, the more he provoked it by deliberately shunning scholarly caution. In time, this need to shock became a compulsion, fatally damaging his professional standing. He acquired the habit not just of simplifying complex matters but of tossing out unsound and preposterous opinions. Here are a few:

  • In May 1939, he assured the political journalist Malcolm Muggeridge that there would be no war because Hitler would never start one.
  • In the course of a televised debate after the war, he asserted that the 1938 Munich agreement signed by the British and French prime ministers with Hitler had been “a triumph for all that was best in British life,” a “triumph for all those who had preached enlightenment, international conciliation, revision of treaties, the liberation of nationalities from foreign rule, and so on.”
  • In 1942, he insisted that after the war, the “peoples of Europe [could] enjoy freedom only under the joint protection of England and Russia.”
  • In 1946, calling on Britain to dissociate itself from the United States, he asserted that the American economy stood on the brink of collapse, while that of the Soviet Union “went from strength to strength.”

An outstanding example of Taylor’s penchant for aggressive wrongheadedness was his most controversial book, The Origins of the Second World War, published in 1961. Here, still another of his shortcomings came into play, namely, his indifference—indeed, his blindness—to the human factor in history.

The narrative of this book reflects Taylor’s historical philosophy: that statesmen do not act, but only react. They “are too absorbed by events to follow a preconceived plan. They take one step, and the next follows from it. The systems are created by historians. . . .” Quite apart from the logical absurdity of this idea—since in order to react, someone else must act—as applied to World War II it was so patently wrong that only neo-Nazis and a few honest but misguided souls could be persuaded by it.

It was, in any event, in line with this central proposition that Taylor held that Hitler did not want war, but stumbled into it. Although Hitler did have “strategic goals,” he had “no predetermined master plan as to how and when” to reach them; lacking such a precise timetable, he “took opportunities as they arose.” From which it followed, as Hugh Trevor-Roper pointed out in a devastating review of Origins, “that Hitler was a traditional statesman, of limited aims, merely responding to a given situation.”

Taylor’s argument set up a straw man, or rather two straw men. On the one hand there is the hypothetical statesman who, knowing always what he wants, pursues his objective without regard to circumstances. On the other hand there is the no less hypothetical statesman who, taking account of circumstances, presumably lacks an objective. Neither model fits reality. To be sure, Hitler improvised, but he improvised to a purpose. Whereas Western leaders largely wanted at all costs to preserve the status quo, Hitler was no less determined to upset it, and to this end he used a combination of blackmail and violence.

Of course, in pursuing his goals, Hitler maneuvered and exploited opportunities as they presented themselves, notably the pusillanimity of England and France and the determination of Stalin to ignite World War II. Of course, if he could have achieved mastery over Europe by peaceful means, i.e., by blackmail alone, he would have done so. (As a contemporary joke had it: “Does Hitler want peace?” “Certainly: a piece of Czechoslovakia, a piece of Poland. . . .”) But as he had also made unmistakably clear, he loved war; and when blackmail ceased to work, he felt no hesitation resorting to it.

Hitler stated his objectives plainly in Mein Kampf. But Trevor-Roper called attention to the fact that Taylor “hardly ever refers to Mein Kampf.” The reason, as we now learn from his biographer, was that he had not yet read it when he wrote Origins: an omission that caused him to miss the whole ideological and emotional frenzy of National Socialism.

Taylor’s neglect of, or refusal to deal with, this aspect of Nazism was rooted in still another feature of his philosophy of history: the postulate that human beings with their ideas and passions are of no consequence. Instead, he viewed historical events as driven by the operations of the balance-of-power principle, a principle that for him, as Kathleen Burk puts it, “worked almost automatically, like the laws of economics.” He admitted in moments of candor that he had no interest in the non-political forces that motivated human beings: history was guided by politicians, and politicians were guided by events, and everything else was secondary or irrelevant. In his own words:

Political history provides the acts of the drama; and the rest—culture, economics, religion, and so on—are refreshing interruptions, like drinks at the bar during the intervals.

This blunt, unqualified, and absurd notion underlay Taylor’s ignorance of and indifference to everything that lay outside the workings of politics.

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Taylor’s methodology had its own political aspect. He was born into an affluent family of Communist fellow-travelers who from the moment the Bolsheviks seized Russia in 1917 had enthusiastically supported their cause. Suffice it to say that when his father, whom he adored, died in 1940, the family had the coffin draped in a red flag, “emblazoned with hammer and sickle.”

Taylor himself briefly joined the Communist party, leaving it in 1926 for its failure to support the British general strike. He knew little about Russia and showed little interest in learning more, but despite his ignorance—or rather because of it—he consistently expressed admiration for the Soviet Union and its achievements. When in 1932-33 a gruesome famine struck that country, in large part as a result of Stalin’s deliberate policies, Taylor, writes his biographer, “only reluctantly admitted that the famine might be a fact, but judged it in any event to be ‘irrelevant’; what mattered was the survival of the ‘Workers’ State.’ ” Later on, he justified the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939 on the grounds that it was a purely defensive measure and bore no relation to the Nazi attack on Poland that followed within a week. “Both Hitler and Stalin imagined that they had prevented war, not brought it on,” he insisted. One hardly knows how to react to such balderdash.

The implied political conclusion of The Origins of the Second World War was that just as Hitler had not set out on a course of conquest in the 1930’s, neither had Stalin after World War II. The cold war, therefore, rested on a misperception, and a hard line vis-à-vis the Soviet Union was profoundly mistaken. Indeed, in Taylor’s opinion Britain should not confront Russia but enter into an alliance with it. As a corollary, Britain should also end its dependence on the United States, and cease serving as America’s “economic and military satellite.”

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The writing of history calls for the same qualities that are required in any other branch of learning: perseverance, objectivity, and, last but not least, imagination. But the historian’s imagination is of a special kind, being circumscribed and hence disciplined by facts. He is like a person endeavoring to solve a connect-the-dots puzzle, but with this difference: the historian’s “dots”—historical facts—are infinite in quantity and can be combined in any number of ways.

Taylor had a natural flair for this kind of work, and he delighted in it. But he treated it as a sport—that is, as an end in itself. He once made the startling admission that in writing history he “was more interested in [the] writing than in the history” Late in life, wondering what he had accomplished, he came up with the paltry formulation that “the first function of the historian was to answer the child’s question, ‘What happened next?’ ” Why things happened, and what they meant, was presumably beyond his purview.

Had he been able to restrain his ego, Taylor could have been a good historian, but he could never have been a great one. For greatness he lacked moral vision: he was at heart a nihilist. Writing to his third wife in 1972, he confessed: “I’ve had an empty frivolous life and not done much that I wanted to do, writing in the void without any real belief in anything. . . . I don’t like other people much.” On another occasion: “When I am asked to contribute to volumes entitled ‘What I Believe,’ I can only reply: I don’t believe anything.”

Kathleen Burk, who teaches at University College in London, identifies herself as Taylor’s last research student. In Troublemaker she makes a valiant effort to portray her teacher as a significant historian. But on the basis of the evidence she herself candidly supplies, this is not a feasible task. He simply was not human enough to write convincingly about human beings.

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About the Author

Richard Pipes is professor of history emeritus at Harvard and the author most recently of Russian Conservatism and Its Critics (Yale).




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