Disarmers and the War
SIR: Karl Miller spoils his Diary item on the Falklands War (LRB, 3 June) by claiming that ‘so far, with the impressive exception of E. P. Thompson, Nuclear Disarmers have had very little to say on this subject.’ This is not true. The Ad Hoc Committee for Peace in the Falklands was initiated and has been organised by Nuclear Disarmers in the peace movement and the Labour movement in London, and the same is true of the various committees in the provinces. The protests and demonstrations against the war have been dominated by Nuclear Disarmers all over the country. The CND Council passed a long resolution against the war when it began. The enormous CND demonstration in London on 6 June, which had been arranged long before the crisis to protest against further nuclear armament in Western Europe at the time of the United Nations Special Session on Disarmament and the American President’s visit to Britain, was marked by many banners, slogans and speeches saying a great deal on the subject of the Falklands. It is indeed instructive that the anti-war sentiments of the minority of the population had very little early appeal to the SDP or any other Parliamentary party, and it is most instructive that the campaign against the war has been carried on almost entirely by the people who have been carrying on the Nuclear Disarmament campaign for 25 years.
Credit, as well as discredit, where they are due.
Fair enough. But at the time that diary was written I was aware of very few protests and demonstrations against the war, let alone of their domination by Nuclear Disarmers.
Editor, ‘London Review’
SIR: May I add something to Professor Williams’s fine discussion on the culture of distance (LRB, 17 June)? It is not only that a distance is imposed upon us by our culture and through military secrecy, but that we come to depend on this distancing process. We need, it seems, to create a distance between ourselves and the political events so as to facilitate a moral distance which in turn enables us to form opinions without troubling our consciences: opinions which have no reference to any other reality than the gratuitous voyeurism of our television screens and newspapers.
The British are very good at voicing opinions and the opinion poll has come into its own in the present crisis. At one time we were hearing the results of the latest poll almost every day, though when the conclusion to these events seemed beyond question it was thought to be beyond opinion, too. These polls give a false sense of a public informing the political scene. If the public had been allowed to voice an opinion before the task force was sent, I am sure that it would have been very different to the one it was later to adopt – though I don’t think it would necessarily have been any more honourable. But the media caught the hysteria of Parliament – full of blame and counter-blame – and this rubbed off soon enough onto a public which sought any way of rediscovering the heroism it believed it had once possessed and had been told for so long it would regain. To applaud the heroism of others is to be in ourselves heroic; to thrill to the daring tasks and wondrous precision of machinery allows us to forget our declining national significance, which in turn has been so often and so needlessly equated with our own personal adequacy.
Whoever was asking the questions in the opinion polls had a fine sense of the culture of distance. One question asked in a poll carried out early on in the conflict for Weekend World was: ‘How many British soldiers’ and sailors’ lives would you be prepared to see lost in order to regain the Falkland Islands?’ Later in the conflict, when the loss of life had already been recorded, the public was asked: ‘Do you think that the recovery of the Falkland Islands is worth the loss of more servicemen’s lives, if that should prove necessary?’ It would appear that these are questions that could only have emerged from a culture of alienation. It is not only that they suffer from the usual oversimplification of opinion polls, but that the very phrasing of the questions distances us from what should really be asked. The easy passivity of the words ‘would you be prepared to see lost’ suggests that all we need do is sit back and think of England to inspire us with the moral courage to bear the loss of other people’s lives. Further, we did not ‘see lost’ any lives: we read about them just before, or even after, we turned to the soccer results.
It is easy to moralise about the criminal action of the Argentine invasion of our land (if we disregard the ambiguities of rightful possession) and to voice our opinion that aggression should not be seen to be successful in the world (though it often is and very often, as in this case, because we have handed over the tools of that aggression): it is less easy to ask a pertinent and undistanced question that should have conditioned our response to the sending of the task force. For the polls should have asked us this: ‘Are you prepared to die in order to regain the Falkland Islands?’ It is only when we confront this question that the political theorising and attitudinising is seen as an abstraction, a mental indulgence that distances us from the realities of war, and alienates us from our own humanity.
SIR: It is a pity that such a distinguished historian of French culture as Douglas Johnson (LRB, 20 May) should have found so little to say about the publication of the Pléiade edition of Sartre’s fiction. In a lengthy article replete with anecdotal claptrap (do we really need whole paragraphs about Oxford imbeciles or Foucault’s imagined dance techniques?) and careless factual errors, I find only one sentence devoted to a criticism of this important volume: ‘The editorial work that has gone into this volume is remarkable.’
Indeed it is. The five years of documentation on the part of four eminent Sartrean authorities (Idt, Contat, Rybalka, Bauer) have produced what is probably the most useful and scholarly edition in the Pléiade series to date. The documentary, critical and bibliographical material which accounts for a good six hundred pages of the text marks a new departure from and a definite improvement on the already high standard of the Pléiade house-style. Some serious consideration, if only for the sake of informing his readers, should have been given to the exceptional quality of this enterprise.
As for Sartre’s involvement with the French Maoists, it is misleading to refer to ‘his Maoist phase’. Unlike the frivolous and dangerous charade of oriental expertise propounded by Sollers and the Tel Quel group (where one can talk of a Maoist phase), Sartre’s published comments on Mao’s China were cautious to a degree, and he repeatedly pointed out how little was actually known in France about the complex realities of the Cultural Revolution. As a reading of On a raison de se révolter would make clear, but as Douglas Johnson already knows since he quotes Georges Michel to this effect, Sartre ‘made himself available’ to these young turks. He shared neither their ideas (such as they were) nor their methods and made this clear to them: but he did recognise, and respond to, their need for counsel and for the prestige which his name afforded them.
On the subject of names, the chief of these Maoists was not Paul Victor, but Pierre Victor. Contrary to the romance invented by Professor Johnson, Victor was not a convert to the Jewish faith and did not publish (until the final three interviews in Le Nouvel Observateur) under the name Benny Lévy. Benny Lévy is his name and he always was Jewish; Pierre Victor was the nom de guerre he chose to avoid difficulties with certain anti-semitic elements of the extreme Left. Note: the transliteration chosen, in English or French, by this writer is with a ‘y’ in both names and not, as Professor Johnson hazards, ‘Benni Lévi’.
I should be very surprised to learn that Foucault greeted the news of Sartre’s death in the manner described by Johnson. The emotional and intellectual immaturity, not to say infantilism, of the Oxford pair of Johnson’s opening paragraph rings too true, alas, to be readily disbelieved. But it would have made for a more thoughtful introduction had Johnson analysed the world-view implied by such behaviour. How on earth he finds this malice ‘endearing’ is beyond me. Perhaps he found Clive James’s obscene remarks on Sartre’s partial blindness equally ‘endearing’ when the latter tastelessly chortled the news of Sartre’s death in his Observer column?
University of Alberta
Douglas Johnson writes: The letter from Mr Wilcocks has all the violence, and the inability to recognise irony, that one expects from the enemies of Sartre. As, however, this letter is meant to support Sartre, then I welcome it, and I certainly subscribe to his praise of the Pléiade edition of the novels. On the subject of Victor, of course I knew what his real name was. In La Cérémonie des Adieux, one of the books I was reviewing, Simone de Beauvoir writes ‘Benni Lévi – le vrai nom de Victor’ and speaks of him as having greatly changed after he had become Sartre’s secretary. ‘Comme beaucoup d’anciens maos [sic], il s’était tourné vers Dieu; le Dieu d’Israel, puis qu’il était Juif.’ What I did not know was that Victor, the name by which he was known to everyone (including his philosophy teacher Althusser), was a nom de guerre, adopted because of ‘certain antisemitic elements of the extreme Left’. It would be interesting to have precisions about this. I apologise for having, like Simone de Beauvoir, spelled ‘Lévy’ as ‘Lévi’. This is about as culpable as it would be to spell ‘Wilcocks’ as ‘Wilcox’.
New Economic History
SIR: David Cannadine’s response to my comments on new economic history (Letters, 17 June) is yet another example of his injudicious punching. So eager is he to claim a victory on points that he has failed to see just where and why the fight is taking place. Because I find so many faults with the work of new economic historians, Dr Cannadine believes I concede his case and am left defending a ‘scuppered citadel’. If he had understood my letter, he would have realised my purpose was not to defend the works of wayward cliometricians, but to identify the methodological strength of new economic history.
The strength lies in the clear expression of ideas and underlying premises: to reiterate, ‘it is in the formulation of questions that new economic history most clearly breaks with the old. Assumptions are made explicit and hypotheses are framed in ways that can be tested by the application of coherent economic models.’ In other words, pictures and stories are not taken at their face value, the ‘facts’ are not allowed to speak for themselves, but, instead, they are consciously moulded into the analytical framework provided by the historian. So much is true of some old economic history: what the new does is boldly display this analytical framework, in the belief that only by revealing the inner workings of the subject can sense be made of the questions asked and answers gained. Instead of hiding their assumptions about ‘the really important historical questions’ like ‘What is the dynamic interaction between different factors of production?’ in a maze of ‘heroic’ and ‘exciting’ stories, these new practitioners make explicit the models of dynamic interaction they appeal to, and the elements of interpretation, extrapolation or guesswork they resort to in order to reconstruct missing links in the chain of causation. If the models or guesses are inappropriate and the links malformed, they deserve (and receive) detailed and trenchant criticism from those who possess the skills necessary to understand the subtlety of the original argument.
Dr Cannadine, of course, does not indulge in this skilful criticism of the specific form the links in the chain take: rather, he doubts that the chain leads anywhere. New economic history, he says, is ‘better able to tilt at defunct windmills than to make constructive arguments’. The reason for this is the ‘ominously ahistorical nature’ of an enterprise wedded to neoclassical theory. The problem with framing testable hypotheses is that the models used to test them are crass. Agreed, many economic models are so simple as to be impotent (and neoclassical models do not have a monopoly here), and this is why I suggested that economic historians should be much more questioning of the models they use. If new economic history is at times emasculated, not by its methodological awareness, but by the imperfection of the analytical tools it borrows from the economists’ work-box, then it needs to hone these tools to a finer point, not dismiss the methodology and return to the cosy and vague eclecticism of old economic history. But the weakness of the models is often overstated. Even simple demand theory, for instance, tells us a great deal about market behavious. Downward-sloping demand curves might be a starting-point for any assessment of changes in consumption patterns in the late 19th century, and would encourage a discussion of price and income effects. Did the chip shops spread across the country because the price of their goods fell, because real income rose, or because of a fundamental change in tastes? The questions are explicit, and the alternative hypotheses are testable with a simple economic theory that even historians have heard of. Yet there is not a hint of such analysis in the work of W. Hamish Fraser, whom Dr Cannadine strangely associates with Clapham, Ashton and Postan as a practitioner of ‘good old-fashioned economic history at its best’ (a rather cavalier approach to the historiography, surely?). The great weakness of so much old economic history is that it has no sense of the underlying processes that condition economic activity, and makes little attempt to gain an understanding. It is content to tell stories rather than ask questions.
Dr Cannadine seems happy to listen to these stories rather than explore the epistemological sophistication of new economic history. He finds the subject unexciting because he cannot or will not raise his sights above the level of chip-shop counters and smoking chimneys to recognise the intellectual challenges of this new approach to economic history. It is a subject for thinkers, not raconteurs.
Nuffield College, Oxford