Malcolm and the Masses
- Malcolm Muggeridge: A Life by Ian Hunter
Collins, 270 pp, £6.95, November 1980, ISBN 0 00 216538 4
Even those of us who don’t know Malcolm Muggeridge personally can be certain that the charm to which his friends attest would quickly enslave us too, should we be exposed to it. One would probably soon give up quarrelling with him. But his public persona invites quarrel and not much else. He is not really very illuminating even when he is right. As a writer and television performer he has always had the virtue of embodying the questioning spirit, but he has been even more valuable as an example of what happens to the questioning spirit when it is too easily satisfied with its own answers. Self-regard makes him untrustworthy even in the pursuit of truth. Life has been brighter for his having been around, but for a long time his explanations have not done much more than add to the general confusion. From one who makes so much noise about being hard to fool it is hard to take being fooled further. There he is waiting for you up the garden path, all set to lead you on instead of back.
Ian Hunter, billed as Professor of Law at Western University in London, Canada, was born in 1945, which makes him about half the age of his hero. Blemishes can thus partly be put down to exuberance. Professor Hunter still has time to learn that when you discomfit somebody you do rather more than make him uncomfortable. On page 109 a passage of French has gone wrong and on page 138 ‘exultation’ should be ‘exaltation’, although it is hard to be sure. Referring to ‘the historian David Irving’ is like referring to the metallurgist Uri Geller. There were, I think, few ballpoint pens in 1940. On page 160 the idea that the USA passed straight from barbarism to decadence is praised as if it had been conceived by Muggeridge, instead of Oscar Wilde. When Professor Hunter finds time to read other philosophers he might discover that such an example of an epigram being borrowed, and muffed in the borrowing, is characteristic of Muggeridge’s essentially second-hand intelligence. But on the whole Professor Hunter does not fail to be readable.
What he fails to be is critical. Instead he has allowed himself to be infected by Muggerridge’s later manner, so that for much of the time we have to put up with an old fogey’s opinions being endorsed by a young fogey. This callow enthusiasm sometimes has the advantage of revealing the fatuity underlying the master’s show of rigour, but the reader must work hard to stay patient. When Muggeridge goes on about the futility of liberalism or the gullibility of the masses, you can just about see why he should think such things, but when Professor Hunter does the same, you know it is only because he has been influenced by Muggeridge. Professor Hunter is a born disciple.
Not that Muggeridge, on the face of it anyway, was a born prophet. He made a quiet start, enjoying a sheltered upbringing among Fabians. Early insecurity might have been a better training for life, whose disappointments can easily seem to outweigh its attractions unless one learns in childhood that the dice are rolling all the time. As a young adult, Muggeridge lost one of his brothers in bitterly casual circumstances. Later on he lost a son in a similarly capricious way. These events perhaps changed a tendency to bless fate for being kind into an opposite tendency to curse it for being cruel, but you can never tell. For all I know, solipsism is genetically determined. What is certain is that Professor Hunter drastically underestimates Muggeridge’s capacity for being fascinated with his own personality and its requirements. Our infatuated author honestly thinks he is dealing with a case of self-denial.
But Muggeridge is a clear case of self-indulgence. On his own evidence, he indulged himself in fleshly pleasures while he still could. At the same time, he indulged himself in heated warnings against the frivolity of all earthly passion. These warnings waxed more strident as he became less capable. Finally he was warning the whole world. Professor Hunter has not been at sufficient pains to distinguish this behaviour from ordinary hypocrisy. If he had been, he might have helped Muggeridge to sound less like a Pharisee and more like what he is – a victim of rampant conceit, whose search for humility is doomed to remain as fruitless as Lord Longford’s. Like his friends and mentors Hugh Kingsmill and Hesketh Pearson, Muggeridge mocked the world’s follies but never learned to be sufficiently humbled by the turmoil within himself. He could detect it, but he blamed the world for that too. Self-indulgence and severity towards others are the same vice. The epigram is La Bruyère’s. It could just conceivably have been Kingsmill’s. It could never have been Muggeridge’s.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 3 No. 5 · 19 March 1981
SIR: I like the witty and trenchant ways of British criticism and enjoyed above all Clive James’s snobby review of Ian Hunter’s very provincial biography of Malcolm Muggeridge (LRB, 5 February) and Hans Keller’s piece on ‘Hitler and History’ (LRB, 5 February). In the latter, however, I found one unfortunate error, which should be corrected. Hans Keller makes fun of the Barneses’ ignorance about the German presidency in 1932. ‘Hitler got his German citizenship just in time to run for the Presidency of the Weimar Republic,’ said the Barneses, but they were simply right! On 25 February, Hitler was made a Regierungsrat (and thus became a citizen of the German Reich) in the Land Braunschweig, where his party was governing in a coalition. He was now eligible for the presidential election which took place on 13 March (first turn) and 10 April (second turn). At the second turn Hitler was beaten by Hindenburg, who got 19.35 million votes against 13.41 million. Already at the first turn the Catholic Zentrum Party and the Social Democrats had appealed to their voters to vote for Hindenburg, who felt quite uncomfortable at this new support from what for him was the ‘far left’. But only in that way could Hitler’s victory at the presidential elections be avoided.
Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main
Vol. 3 No. 10 · 4 June 1981
SIR: May I be allowed a late reply to Clive James’s review of Ian Hunter’s life of Malcolm Muggeridge (LRB, 5 February)? After briefly skating through Malcolm Muggeridge’s early life, which James perhaps rightly sees as ordinary enough, and in which the themes of socialism and religion first make their appearance, he pauses to attack the biographer for daring to cast doubt on Keynesian economics – a dismissal which James affects to find a bit daunting. Well, it is certainly not more daunting than witnessing the supercilious nonsense talked by James and Gore Vidal in their television chat about the credit and debit side of Christian civilisation.
Whatever opinion, if any, James holds about Christianity, we learn here that he admires Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, and it soon becomes apparent that he is himself something of a social Darwinist. It is the impersonal forces of nature that have shaped our world. ‘We probably do best to follow Darwin’s example and look for harmony outside ourselves … but the universe cares little for us as a species and nothing for us as individuals. That much is entirely up to us. Some people will always find this an inspiring thought. Others it will reduce to despair. Muggeridge is plainly among the latter.’
The political legacy of this heroic individualism has been worked out in the 20th century. Characteristically, St Paul’s admonition that the flesh lusteth against the spirit means nothing to James: ‘There is no point in being shocked that God gave healthy male human beings ten times more lust than they can use. He did the same to healthy male fiddler crabs. He’s a deity, not a dietitian.’ A determinism which is, however, subject to swift modification when the subject of abortion arises: ‘Nor has he ever been able to grasp that the alternative to legal abortion is not Christian chastity or even the edifying responsibility of bringing up an illegitimate child. The alternative to legal abortion is illegal abortion.’ So James decisively concludes. Yet, with eminent medical men fully prepared to accept the blame for arranging the death of Mongol children, need he continue to feel qualms about a return to ‘back-street abortionists’?
An intellectual line of descent from this 19th-century social philosophy would most likely have placed James alongside the Webbs, Shaw and Wells had he lived in the decades before the Second World War. Unlike them, however, he finds the concept of the masses unacceptable and settles instead for ‘free institutions’. Consequently, if we wish to account for Hitler’s rise to power via the free institutions of Weimar, we need only have recourse to James’s equation ‘that some things go wrong of their own accord, and often as a direct consequence of other things going right.’ Elsewhere James’s comments on the political climate of the Thirties scarcely suggest that he has made a deeper study of these events than (as he alleges) Professor Hunter. His comment that ‘the Left intelligentsia was unable to take the centre with it’ appears at variance with the seemingly endless unmaskings of past and present members of the Establishment as Russian spies. Equally perplexing is the attempt to discredit Muggeridge’s insight in reporting the atrocities of the Soviet regime when James goes on to imply some sort of equivalence between the setting up of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the founding of the Welfare State. ‘But in the long run he undid his share of the good work by expanding his contempt for the Soviet Union into an indiscriminate attack on any form of social betterment whatever.’ The politics of Europe in the present century has been mass politics, the politics of the collective will. James becomes preoccupied with seeking to avoid the consequences of his own philosophy. ‘Stalin’s example was not enough to teach him [Muggeridge] that there is no such thing as the masses.’ Or, somewhat later on: ‘But there is no such thing as the herd. There are only people …’ Alas, repeated assertion does not make it so. I doubt if there are many Europeans who would derive much benefit from these platitudes. Probably most would think Lenin’s postulate ‘Who whom?’ a much more valid comment on their recent history.
A French strand is also apparent in James’s thought: he imagines like Voltaire that if the Deity didn’t exist it would be necessary to invent Him, which it seems Muggeridge did. James continues: ‘self-indulgence and severity towards others are the same vice. The epigram is La Bruyère’s. It could conceivably have been Kingsmill’s. It could never have been Muggeridge’s.’ But, then, The Thirties could never have been James’s – a book which he has clearly never read. Had he done so, he would never have fallen into the error of thinking that Muggeridge lacks an historical sense, as James so clearly does. Instead, he finds his explanations in the notion of progress – a lazy man’s substitute if ever there was one. The article on the monarchy, mentioned by James but probably not read by him, made its impact by a careful historical analysis of the British monarchy since the 18th century, underlining the erosion of its power-base, its raison d’être. In the event, this makes his talk of slit noses an irrelevance.
Probably the most extraordinary part of James’s review concerns his comparison of Mother Teresa and Jonas Salk: ‘Mother Teresa cares for those who suffer, which fits Muggeridge’s idea of God’s plan for the world. He would find it hard to express the same admiration for, say, Jonas Salk.’ It must be pretty obvious to James that a person’s moral and spiritual standing bears some relation to the actual physical circumstances of their daily life – when, for instance, one contrasts the squalor of Calcutta’s teeming slums with the remote calm of some Californian Institute of Virology.
SIR: According to Clive James, Malcolm Muggeridge has contemplated his navel endlessly without drawing much enlightenment from it. One day, in contemplating his own navel, Clive James may discover the real reason for his hostility towards Muggeridge, and the enlightenment he will acquire will at last set him free from the sophisticated secularism he clings to. And he will then understand that Muggeridge is infuriating simply because he is a master at penetrating the defences of that sophisticated secularism.