Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A. J. P. Taylor on War

I never heard of  A. J. P. Taylor until I read this earlier today from Gary North:
In academia, it is not considered polite to be rhetorically confrontational, unless you are a Marxist. There aren't many Marxists anymore. Yet some of the most famous scholars have been devastatingly rhetorical. In historiography, A. J. P. Taylor was legendary for his scathing and contemptuous book reviews in academic journals. No historian ever wanted to be "Taylored." But Taylor wrote so many first-rate books, that he could get away with it. In his autobiography, he included a photograph of himself in front of an entire bookcase that was filled with books he had written. He cranked them out.
North also directs his readers to this graphic he created:

So I googled around a bit and
came across a New York Review of Books November 1971 book review by Taylor where he had these very sound observations about war:
Twentieth-century man is supposed to be more rational than his forefathers. He attempts to solve his problems by rational discussion. By the use of rational processes he has achieved almost unlimited power over nature. He understands the working of the universe. According to the psychiatrists he can even understand himself. Yet his greatest energies, no doubt most rationally directed, are devoted to the irrational activity of war. Twentieth-century wars have been more expensive and more destructive than all their predecessors put together. The more enlightened a government is in its social policy and the more democratic in its institutions, the more it spends on war or, as it is laughably called, defense. What is the explanation of this paradox? How does it happen that man, who can remove almost all other evils, is more entangled than ever with the worst social evil of all?

The easiest way out is to invoke original sin. Only the clever people who write history or sociology are truly rational. They know that war is evil and would like to avoid it. Their thin pipings are drowned by the roar of the multitude. Aggression and violence are intrinsic to man’s nature. The masses are captivated by irrational passions—nationalism, imperialism, class hatred. High-minded governments are swept into war much against their wills.

Of course this is all nonsense. Men do not fight in modern wars because they like it. They fight because they are told that it is their duty to do so. The clever people invent the excuses for war.

The below is from a 1965 Taylor review of  Winston Churchill: An Intimate Portrait by Violet Bonham Carter:
The great stories of the world flourish on repetition. In the market place at Marrakech, the storyteller holds his own against the snakecharmers and fire-eaters. He sits, surrounded by children, and tells the same stories, over and over again, in the same words, Any deviation or hint of doubt would be met with indignant cries. Legendary figures are given the same treatment. Serious historians may try to find the truth behind the legend. Most readers, it seems, prefer the story as they have been told it before. Who, for example, wants to know that the siege of Troy was really a war about trade (if it was)? Homer has survived the laborious archaeologists of prehistoric Greece. Winston Churchill was the legendary hero of the Second World War, opposed to the equally legendary Satanic figure of Hitler. His funeral had the splendor of a historic triumph, to the universal satisfaction of the British people. Now many typewriters are hammering away to present the legend in literary form.

Lady Violet Bonham Carter (recently transformed into Lady Asquith) is early in the field. As the daughter of Asquith, Liberal Prime Minister from 1908 to 1916, she saw politics during those years from inside. Her life has been largely devoted to her father’s memory, despite the crumbling of the party which he led. It is at first sight a bit awkward for her that Churchill, though a prominent member of her father’s government, became an even more stalwart supporter of Lloyd George, the man who ruined and supplanted Asquith. Her book is in part a rescue operation or take-over bid, designed to separate Churchill from Lloyd George. While both men are presented as erratic and difficult, Churchill’s eccentricities are made endearing, Lloyd George’s discreditable. The one is skillfully quoted against the other. When Lady Violet said of Lloyd George that “he never sold his soul—he sometimes pawned it,” Churchill expostulated: “Draw it mild, my dear—draw it mild,” and then added reflectively: “My father would have said it. He would not have hesitated to say it.” On the other hand, Lloyd George warmly approved someone’s description of Churchill as being “frank without being straight”—a remark which Lady Violet repeats with prim disapproval. As a matter of fact, both remarks, though not untrue, are trivial and shed little light on the two men, one of whom, Lloyd George, was certainly great and the other, Churchill, was at any rate unusual.

Lady Violet Bonham Carter’s book would be welcome if it were full of good stories, or even spiteful ones. These however are in short supply. Despite the Intimate Portrait of the subtitle and the general air of “I knew Winston Churchill” most of the book has been put together by copying passages from other books, and the better known the passage the more certain it is to appear. Lady Violet provides a few pages which only she could have written.



  1. RW - Its unfortunate that you never heard of Taylor. He was a great objective observer of human history. His books on WWI and WWII are very revealing of the choices and decisions that lead to both conflagrations. I didn't discover Taylor until well after my university years and don't believe he is very popular in public school or university history courses. His writing can get a little tedious in its attention to the minutia of human action. It is a little disheartening to see Taylor offer some cover for "High-minded governments" and even foot soldiers who were told "...it is their duty..." As if the individuals in these groups had no brain of their own. But then his only other answer for this apparent paradox of rational humans falling into war's irrationality is "original sin" (I prefer the phrase original genetic structure). And this is unacceptable to Taylor who certainly believed in free will. I, like von Mises, believe that people have a limited free will within the limitations of human nature (or original genetic structure). And we all struggle with Jekyll and Hyde characteristics. So there is no paradox, just human nature.

  2. David Gordon, in his online lecture series on the history of political thought, calls A. Taylor the "greatest of all book reviewers".