SIR: A.J. Ayer (Letters, 17 March) asks me to ‘identify, in plain English prose, two “important issues” which [my] article on Heidegger and Paul de Man addressed, and indicate briefly what light it threw upon them’. Professor Ayer knows as well as anyone that talk of ‘plain English’ is often a rhetorical ploy, a pretext for the kind of short-cut argument and anti-intellectualism that have marked some of the more dismal episodes in our island history. Perhaps I can save your readers’ time by pointing to the other letters you have received on this topic, most of them distinctly hostile but none of them – Ayer excepted – suggesting that this is a trivial business, or professing a total inability to grasp what my article said. Most likely he is just teasing and doesn’t really expect me to boil down a long and complex argument into one or two sentences of Basic English. Or perhaps the message hasn’t yet got through: that the Verification Principle failed its own test and so became the single most spectacular case of a self-deconstructing philosophic doctrine.
But this is to reduce the whole debate – as perhaps Professor Ayer would wish – to the level of knockabout polemics. So let me say once again: these are serious matters and not just the latest excuse for resurrecting old philosophical feuds. The discovery of de Man’s writings in Le Soir has caused great pain to his friends, colleagues and students, and also given rise to a widespread campaign of distorted coverage in the American and British press. Journalists have picked up the ‘facts’ of the case at second or third hand, and retailed them without the least effort to check their documentary sources. It has often been suggested that all or most of de Man’s articles for Le Soir – some hundred and seventy discovered to date – were either overtly anti-semitic or designed to lend support to Nazi cultural propaganda. In fact, just a handful of these pieces can possibly be read in such a light, and only one – his thoroughly obnoxious piece on the Jewish influence in contemporary literature – be said to warrant the charge of downright racialist sentiment. Of those remaining, many are reviews of various local artistic events – symphony concerts, chamber recitals, poetry readings and so forth – which occasionally touch on the question of national identity vis-à-vis the war and the current upheaval in European politics, but which cannot in all fairness be accused of exploiting those events for propaganda purposes.
De Man has a good deal to say about the shifting balance of power in Europe over the past two centuries, mostly by way of reflecting on the French collapse and the rise of post-Bismarck Germany as a nation state with the strength to assert its hegemonic claims. But he also makes a point of insisting, over and over again, that any workable programme of post-war reconstruction in Europe will have to make terms with the fact of cultural-linguistic diversity, a fact most apparent (then as now) in the divided condition of his own native Belgium. In particular, he argues that ‘French’ cultural values – reason, lucidity, disinterested critical thought – must somehow be brought into balance with the ‘German’ virtues of profundity, wisdom and greatness of soul. Of course there is something decidedly suspect about this habit of thinking in typecast nationalist terms. But it does help to pinpoint the deep ambivalence that runs through many of these articles.
In the years immediately preceding the war de Man had been involved with a journal, Les Cahiers du Libre Examen, whose editorial policy was squarely opposed to the line later adopted in Le Soir. The proper business of criticism – so de Man and his colleagues affirmed – was not to give way to short-term political pressures, but to hold out for the freedom of disinterested judgment and preserve a space for enlightened public debate. And furthermore, they pledged the journal to a continued defence of such values specifically against any violent imposition of dogmatic creeds and ideologies. Les Cahiers turned out to be a short-lived venture, since the Nazi occupation (just two years after its inaugural number) made it impossible for any publication openly to espouse such views.
That de Man went on to write his pieces for Le Soir may seem all the more an opportunist and cynical act of self-betrayal. But I think those later articles do make a genuine if muted attempt to envisage how the European nations might yet survive an all-out German victory while to some degree preserving their cultural identity intact. And this feeling is at its strongest when de Man touches – as he very often does on the topic of l’esprit Français and its role in the history of European thought. There is a piece on Charles Péguy (6 May 1941) that offers perhaps the most pointed example of these tensions in de Man’s thinking. Péguy was a young French socialist and Catholic intellectual who began writing in the mid-1890s, became passionately involved with political events (including the Dreyfus affair), and died in action during the Battle of the Marne. De Man clearly admires his work, especially as founder and editor-in-chief of Les Cahiers de la Quinzaine, a journal that pursued a fiercely independent line and attracted the hostility of right and left-wing factions alike.
Any reference to the Dreyfus case must of course raise the question of anti-semitism and the resistance to it mounted by writers like Péguy and, most famously, Zola. De Man – it is worth noting – praises Péguy for having ‘remained a Dreyfusard to the end’, one who impressed his comrades as a ‘passionate thinker, imbued with the ideas of socialism and egalitarian justice’. It may be overgenerous to suggest, as some have done, that de Man was conducting a kind of cryptic resistance campaign through these writings, with one plain message for the cultural watchdogs and another for those who could read between the lines. But there is a strong sense, in this article and others, that de Man is still signalling his allegiance to the ideals set forth with such clarity and vigour in Les Cahiers du Libre Examen. Thus he makes a point of adverting to the title of Péguy’s review and its connections with ses cahiers d’école, si propres, si bien tenus. And what he singles out for praise in Péguy’s work is its spirit of liberal enquiry, a spirit that allowed him to range freely over topical questions ‘without any governing interest or constraint’.
In fact, there is evidence that de Man’s sympathies were not only divided but complex to the point of downright political confusion. What is one to make of the article published on 14 July 1942-anniversary of the French Revolution – where de Man nominates the Surrealist movement, and especially the work of Paul Eluard, as by far the most impressive recent sign of French cultural vitality? It is all the more remarkable that he ventured this estimate while reviewing a journal (Messages) known for its links with the French Resistance as well as with Communist or left-leaning elements in the Surrealist group. One could interpret such passages as indicating either a very weak grasp of political realities on de Man’s part or perhaps – more generously – a will to keep the channels of communication open and to risk what must have been, by this late date, the very real threat of reprisals from the Nazi censorship. The same might be said of his occasional admiring references to Kafka and other Jewish authors who had long since been condemned as decadent modernists by the Nazi cultural hacks. However one reads them – as courageous or naive – these passages must at least complicate our sense of de Man’s ‘collaborationist’ activity. Furthermore, it now appears (according to his son, Marc de Man) that he also wrote articles for the Resistance paper Les Voix de Silence. So there is good reason to suspend final judgment until more of this conflicting evidence becomes available.
University of Wales, Cardiff
SIR: Wolfgang Holdheim’s response to Christopher Norris (Letters, 17 March) seeks to explain Paul de Man’s views on language and meaning as a guilty reaction to his writing for collaborationist newspapers at the beginning of the Nazi occupation of Belgium. The views Holdheim mentions, however – the critique of the assumption that history is a coherent narrative, critique of the author or subject as the determining source of meaning, emphasis on the ambiguities of language and on the rhetorical subversion of existential claims and categories in texts – resemble conclusions reached independently by other thinkers whose historical experience was quite different from de Man’s, such as Jacques Derrida, an Algerian Jew, and Roland Barthes, a Frenchman who spent the war undergoing treatment for tuberculosis in a sanatorium.
When one looks at what is distinctive in de Man’s theorising, one finds, for instance, an account of the interdependency of blindness and insight: his book Bilndness and Insight shows that for a range of thinkers from Husserl and Lukacs to Derrida, their best insights depend on assumptions that those insights disprove (and thus on their blindness). But far from excusing his own youthful blindness, de Man’s account would rather indict it: in his wartime juvenilia, there is no insight made possible by blindness. One might say that his subsequent discovery of his blindness produced insight, but that is quite different, quite explicitly not the structure he discovers in other critics, where insights are made possible by a blindness that the insights expose.
The wartime writings, mostly book reviews produced by a young man of 21 and 22 with no formal literary training, are a very mixed bag. Highly evaluative, with the callowness of a youth enjoying the role of cultural arbiter, they combine a desire to map European literature, a conviction that one can grasp the inexorable laws of literary history, with diverse critical impulses that make him appear, not surprisingly, a young man experimenting with various idées reçues. There are certainly columns one finds objectionable: one of the 169 columns in Le Soir, written early in his employment there for a special anti-semitic section at the insistence of his editor, adopted the language of anti-semitism to argue that European literature had not been corrupted by the Jews but remained fundamentally healthy; other columns of early 1941 praise Germany’s discovery of its identity and its importance for the future of Europe. But another, on Charles Péguy, sketching the intellectual context in which he wrote, affirms the innocence of Dreyfus and praises Péguy’s commitment to the Dreyfusard cause. Yet another celebrates Surrealism as the indispensable basis of modern poetry and especially Paul Eluard, whose Communist affiliations were well-known.
However severely one may wish to condemn the act of collaboration itself, one must recognise that the reviews do not adhere to some party line. The most consistent note, as Christopher Norris had seen, is an organicist language: nations find or fail to find their identity; they have a destiny; literature develops according to its own strict evolutionary laws.
De Man ceased writing for Le Soir in the fall of 1942, when the Nazis extended censorship to the cultural section of the paper, and abandoned critical writing for a decade. For the remainder of the war he worked in publishing (among other things, he arranged for the publication of a volume of Resistance poetry, Exercises du Silence, edited by Georges Lambrichs, that could not be published in France). When he resumed writing about literature, as a graduate student at Harvard, it was to initiate the critique of organicist and narrative figures through which he had sought to master literature for journalistic purposes. Here, then, one can see de Man’s work as in part a reaction against the assumptions of his wartime writing. The organicist figures used to describe language and literature are generated by a misreading of romanticism, whose greatest works, he came to argue, provide the instruments for their undoing. ‘Pseudo-historical period terms such as “romanticism” or “classicism”,’ he later wrote, ‘are always terms of resistance and nostalgia, at the furthest remove from the materiality of actual history.’
Another distinguishing feature of de Man’s writing has been a critique of the aesthetic ideology and his linking of it to violence, as in his essays on Kleist and Schiller. Walter Benjamin called Fascism the introduction of aesthetics into politics, and de Man cites in a late essay, as an example of the most grievous misappropriation of the aesthetic ideology, the comparison, in a novel by Joseph Goebbels, of the Führer to an artist, who shapes the masses as a sculptor shapes stone. De Man’s critique of the aesthetic ideology now resonates also as a critique of the fascist tendencies he had known and their deadly adoption of a language of unity, presence, and the elimination of difference.
The discovery of de Man’s wartime writings will block an inclination to idealise the man and will prevent him from being cited simply as an authority but it also gives a new dimension to de Man’s attempt – from his critiques of Heidegger in the Fifties to his critiques of phenomenality in the Seventies and Eighties – to undo totalising metaphors, myths of immediacy, organic unity, and presence, and combat their fascinations. His later writings offer some of the most powerful tools for combating the ideology with which he had earlier been complicitous.
SIR: In a letter published in your issue of 31 March, Mr Simon Critchley accuses me, by implication, of philosophical insularity. I regret that, in order to rebut this charge, I have to blow my own trumpet, I hope not too loudly. Since the war, I have received and accepted invitations to lecture in 32 foreign countries, 18 of them in Europe. I have lectured frequently in French, occasionally in Spanish and German. If there were such a thing as ‘the Continental tradition’, and its adherents believed that I treated them unfairly, it is unlikely that I should have been elected President of the International Institute of Philosophy. Among the works which I commissioned when I edited Routledge and Kegan Paul’s International Library of Philosophy and Scientific Method were English translations of Lucien Goldmann’s Le Dieu Caché and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phénoménologie de la Perception. I have been able to count many other foreign Marxists and Phenomenologists among my personal friends. I do, however, admit that I have not so far found anything to admire in what I know of the work of either Jacques Derrida or Martin Heidegger.
SIR: Your issue of 3 March has the neatest face-off I have come across in years of attention to your lively journal: Cox, page 20, Foot page 21, of course. I vote, hands down, for Cox, in good part because Foot’s pieces in your review are always sure that the only hypocrites are on the other side. Cox does have the advantage in her direct sense of Stalker. It was more than a coincidence that he became the policeperson that he did.
SIR: One was grateful for Gabrielle Cox’s well-informed review of the Stalker saga which questioned the false consolation to be derived from accepting the ‘whiter than white’ John Stalker created in curious collusion between his own and the public imagination. John Stalker was the victim of an official cover-up in Northern Ireland, which disrupted both his professional and personal life. With popular support, he made a song and dance (and then a book) about it; we await the musical, where it is to be hoped the chorus of citizens will be allowed the prominent part they played in his vindication. But we would do well to remember that this latter-day Robin Hood spent most of his career in the service of the Sheriff of Nottingham. The real outlaw in the story is Steven Shaw, as a direct result of the ministrations of police officers under John Stalker’s command at and after the Battle of Britain at Manchester University in 1984. Steven Shaw has taken refuge abroad rather than face prosecution for the crime of bringing a charge against the Police. And who can blame him, given the appalling story of the harassment to which he was subjected at the hands of the ‘law’, and reflecting on the usual outcome of such cases? Conveniently for the Police, the report which might throw further light on the whole episode remains – like the Stalker/Samson report – unpublished, under the sub judice rules. John Stalker found the Manchester public a useful friend at his own moment of crisis. It is not too late for him to do his bit, as a private citizen, in the Justice for Steven Shaw Campaign.
SIR: There was a time when Victorian values ruled against unctuous self-celebration as demeaning and hypocritical. And in any case, slow cascades of grease flow from all the yellow press upon Douglas Hurd, his colleagues and their mistress, without LRB adding to it (LRB, 17 March). What is more, Mr Hurd himself knows there is no ‘renaissance of Britain’, knows also that Mr Baker can create no causal connection between his reforms and ‘teachers’ influence in favour of respect for traditional morality’ – itself a decidedly uncertain quantity. But by this stage in his litany, cant and lying have become unstoppable. ‘Now the heartbeat of an enterprise economy is good and firm …’ ‘We reject a soft-centred vision of the world where the collective dominates the individual.’ The function of criticism at the present time, as an eminent Victorian once pointed out, is to identity what is unspeakable about such publicly-spoken rubbish. If you wanted evidence of the collapse of academic standards, Mr Hurd’s piece would do fine. Was this the LRB’s point? If so, for the sake of good government, please will you drop the coding and speak in clear?
University of Bristol
SIR: After warning us against over-dramatising particular events, Douglas Hurd does precisely that. He takes ‘the violent disturbances in small cities and market towns which ushered in the New Year of 1987’ and goes on to assert that crime in the inner cities is not due to deprivation, unemployment and Thatcherism. How can he make this assertion? Because the people who took part in these brawls were ‘white, employed, affluent and drunk’. According to Douglas Hurd, this violent behaviour is caused by teachers who do not encourage ‘respect for traditional morality, for the law and for the rights of other people’; by the Churches who fail to preach a gospel of individual behaviour and values; and by parents who have opted out. It could be that the teachers, the Churches and the parents are, by and large, trying to do the things that Douglas Hurd says they are not doing, but that their messages are being swamped by even stronger messages. Just look at the videos for hire in the local off-licence and see the sexist and violent images that are available to young people; go into any pub and see young people gathering to drink without hindrance; read the tawdry lies in the tabloids which teenagers feed on; observe the politicians scheming and distorting the truth in the interests of party and power; listen to the raucous heckling in broadcasts from Parliament; watch the cheap and shoddy games shows on TV which offer prizes to people who will demean themselves; look at the scandalous tax-dodges of the very rich; see the way pollution is tolerated because to prevent it would cost money; listen to the Asian community’s complaints that racist attacks are not taken seriously by the Police; and finally look at the way the poorest in our society are treated in a cold and uncaring way. Is it any wonder that in Thatcher’s Britain there are young people who are violent, greedy, cold and undisciplined? It is not the teachers or the Churches that are transmitting these messages.
SIR: R.W. Johnson, in his review of Reagan’s America (LRB, 3 March), makes some mis-statements of perhaps no great importance individually, but which may tend to reinforce the skewed ideas about America that seem to be endemic among English reviewers. You can put my words into their proper context by noting that I am a middle-of-the road Democrat, not a Republican apologist. Mr Johnson writes: ‘The early Sixties saw the rise of Goldwater, a Jewish supermarket millionaire from the far West, while the Nixon Administration brought to Washington a veritable mafia of getrich-quick Floridians and Californians.’ Senator Goldwater is a distinguished public servant of great integrity, however one may disagree with his conservative views. He served very visibly in the Senate for many years and only ‘rose’ to run against Lyndon Johnson for the Presidency in 1964. His father, who was Jewish, founded the well-known department store bearing his name in Phoenix, Arizona. His mother was a Wasp and the Senator is a born-rich Episcopalian. There were no get-rich-quick, get-rich-slow or other types of Floridians in the Nixon Administration, Mr Bebe Rebozo, real-estate-rich Floridian, was merely a social friend of Mr Nixon. The Californians numbered primarily two of consequence, John Ehrlichman and John Haldemann, both young then, eager and not-yet-rich, nor, as far as I know, to-be-rich. Their sins were not an excess of greed, but, as Talleyrand warned, an excess of zeal. The Nixon crowd was never blamed, or praised if you want to be cynical, for enriching themselves during that ill-fated Presidency. The Nixon Administration was truly an aberration of American history, whereas the Reagan Administration is both an aberration and an accident.
If the Iranians had not been holding Americans hostage at the end of President Carter’s term, Reagan would never have succeeded him. In Nixon the voters got a surprise package. With Reagan they got what they thought they wanted, some of them anyway: an All-American charmer who stepped out of a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover and promised to turn the clock back to a time that never was. You can’t be too hard on an electorate that has such sweet dreams. I think their alarm radios are now playing ‘Sleepers, Awake’. As the long-suffering Brooklyn Dodger fans used to say, wait till next year.
Englewood, New Jersey
SIR: By means of a piffling and invalid syllogism Professor Cohen (Letters, 3 March) appears to think that he has disposed of my arguments for not calling British/Asian citizens ‘black’. He justifies the practice by saying that there are political reasons to sustain it. No doubt the National Front would also argue that there are political reasons for calling black people ‘niggers’, but all decent civilised human beings would reject that as a defence, because it gives offence to those so described. It is my experience that the vast majority of Asians here do not wish to be called ‘black’. We either respect this wish or we do not. Cohen’s argument that ‘black’ is justified because there exist ‘left-wing Asians’ who wish to use it in this way is no argument at all. The fact is that the word is being used in this way by a large number of public institutions, including many local education authorities and the Commission for Racial Equality – though the latter organisation changes its nomenclature according to its mood. This is happening now and will not be decided by ‘future history’, as Cohen asserts.
Ann Dummett (Letters, 12 November 1987) continues to defend the suppression of vital research by the Swann Committee. She has previously told us that she was not present when the decision to suppress was taken, but there can now be little doubt how she would have voted if she had been present. It is not possible to understand the significance of this unless the context from within which Dr Mortimer proposed his research is understood. The Swann terms of reference included the following injunction: ‘Review in relation to schools the educational needs and attainments of children from ethnic minority groups, taking account, as necessary, of factors outside the formal education system relevant to school performance, including influences in early childhood, and prospects for employment.’ This is in keeping with what is known about factors affecting school performances. There is now a consensus that educability is crucially influenced by the kind of home the child comes from, the attitudes of parents to education, family cohesion and stability, and so on. Secondly, the Rampton Report (essentially the first stage of the Swann Report) made a specific plea for research into the home background and parental attitudes of West Indian children; ‘Schools can, however, only go so far in this respect; parents must also appreciate and understand the role that they must play in supporting teachers. The NFER review of research drew attention to the concern, which has been frequently expressed to us by teachers and others whom we have met on our visits, that West Indian parents need particular help in recognising their responsibility in this respect … We intend to look at the whole question of home background in respect of all ethnic minority pupils in our main report.’ More specifically, Rampton took the view that there was a need for information relating to those youngsters who had done well in school; and to obtain this there was a clear need for research which looked at ‘the particular factors which have led some West Indians to succeed and the obstacles which they have had to overcome’.
In short, it was Swann’s own terms of reference and the first stage of the Swann Report which formed the basis of Dr Mortimer’s intention to evaluate the effect of family background on West Indian educational performance. It should be borne in mind, too, that Dr Mortimer was selected by the Swann Committee to carry out the research it said was essential. By suppressing Mortimer’s essential work, the Committee not only contradicted itself: it succeeded in depriving the public of vital information regarding the key issue. We know no more about the reasons why West Indian youngsters on the average do less well than other groups than we did before the Swann Committee had its first sitting. Ironically, the Swann Report itself recognises the importance of the information Dr Mortimer was prevented from gathering.
No amount of feeble special pleading by antiracists like Ann Dummett can disguise this simple truth: a government committee which spent over £600,000 of public money, and look nearly six years to deliberate, engaged in the suppression of research which it had itself claimed was essential.
SIR: Professor Cohen’s latest self-righteous outburst addressed none of the serious issues concerning the identification or amelioration of racism in Britain. However, both its content and tone perfectly exemplified his methods of argument and standards of evidence in consideration of this question; their banality and vacuousness provoke a reply.
Several of your correspondents doubted the legitimacy of calling brown people ‘black’ (Letters, 3 March) He responded, ‘there exist in Britain today left-wing Asians who call Asians “black” to emphasise the oppression they share with Afro-Caribbeans,’ but he cited no corroborative evidence. It does exist – in very small quantities. However, as a sociological generalisation it is as worthless as the observation that ‘there exist in Britain today left-wing academics who call academics “workers” to emphasise the oppression they share with the working-class.’ They do exist. They are similarly unrepresentative. Until Cohen can prove that a majority or substantial minority of Asians call themselves ‘black’, then my sociological generalisation holds: that the best reason for non-Asians to refrain from so describing these variegated peoples is that the vast majority does not wish to be so described.
Secondly, Cohen asserted that Britain is a racist society. Perhaps. But that assertion is not corroborated by the juxtaposition of a tautological definition – a society in which ‘a person’s race makes a massive difference to his or her life chances’ – with the vacuous words ‘surely that is true.’ That is not evidence. The assertion remains sociologically worthless.
The PSI survey of 1984 established that socio-economic disadvantage is not randomly distributed amongst ethnic groups in Britain. But the same report also established that when data are analysed by area, for inner London, Birmingham and Manchester, ethnic minority groups are no more under-privileged, according to key socio-economic criteria, than the local indigenous population. This might suggest that the most disadvantaged non-indigenous persons are more the victims of a comprehensive form of urban deprivation than of racism. We cannot, as yet, be sure. Similarly, we cannot be sure that certain of the socio-economic disadvantages endured by some groups are not more the products of endogenous cultural, rather than exogenous ‘racist’, causation. The c. 10-15 point disparity of median income between non-indigenous and indigenous persons in this country is principally due to the relatively greater concentration of un and semi-skilled persons amongst those populations. However, whilst this skill and employment profile has remained and will (for the foreseeable future) remain static amongst Afro-Caribbeans, it is changing amongst Indian Asians. Amongst the latter group, the present cohort aged 16-24 has, on average, out-performed the indigenous population in schooling and access to tertiary education. The progress of this generation of Indian Asians in shifting the balance of skilled advantages towards themselves has not been even remotely matched by Afro-Caribbeans. Even when all exogenous socio-economic factors have been equalised, they have continued to fail to acquire socially valuable skills in the same proportion as either the indigenous population or Indian Asians. This form of cultural ‘lag’ is very worrying, but it cannot be blamed upon racism. They are treated no differently in British schools than Indian Asians. It might be due to the relative failure of Afro-Caribbeans to sustain stable nuclear domestic enviroments in the same proportions as either the indigenous population or Indo-Asians. If so, this failure also cannot be blamed upon ‘racism’. It is a serious problem which must be tackled honestly: i.e. without degeneration into hysterical ‘anti-racist’ rhetoric which matches uncorroborated assertion to simple prejudice.
All Souls College, Oxford
Toby Forward’s Diary
SIR: The ill-tempered reactions to the Reverend Toby Forward’s pseudonymous short stories, Down the Road, Worlds Away, seem wilfully indifferent to a basic consideration: is Forward’s stuff any good, are his stories worth reading? Instead, the whole ‘argument’ has turned on the question: is a white man entitled to impersonate a young Asian woman writer – or even to write about Asian Britons at all? It’s worth recalling that both the BBC and Virago thought well enough of Forward’s material in the first instance. There was indeed something of a consensus about the stories’ merits. It is not words on the page, however, which seem to concern Raffat Khan (Letters, 17 March) – only what a sample group of Asian women think about what Forward did. Khan, one notes, distributed among them copies not of Forward/Rahila Khan’s short stories but of the apologia which Forward published in the London Review of Books. The verdict has been returned that in publishing stories under the pen-name Rahila Khan the vicar behaved outrageously. The literary qualities of the stories seem not to have been an issue here. No indication is given that Raffat Khan or her respondents have even read them. Khan’s vox pop also yielded the observation, from an Asian woman, that In my Own Name by Sharan-Jeet Shan is ‘boring and badly written’. That, in my view, is a gratuitous slur on a good book. In my Own Name, a poignant memoir of a forced marriage, was appreciatively reviewed in New Society by no less a figure than D.A.N. Jones – who on that occasion paid particular attention to the author’s writing.
Time to think again
SIR: Michael Neve (LRB, 3 March) is right to draw the attention of modern Conservatives to the poverty of Disraeli’s political philosophy, and their much greater intellectual debt to the third Marquis of Salisbury. He is mistaken, however, in saying: ‘For Salisbury, the entire form of democracy hustings, speeches, the call for a mandate – was a barbarism.’ On the contrary, the elaboration of the notion of the mandate at the end of the 19th century in fact owes much to its adoption by Salisbury, who saw that it could become a powerful weapon in a conservative armoury. Certainly Salisbury had fought bitterly against extensions of the franchise in 1867 and 1884, and against the secret ballot in 1872, and was deeply pessimistic about their consequences. Above all, he feared the manipulation of ‘the masses’ by radical agitators. But he was also a realist, and came to recognise that ‘democracy’ was a weapon that could be wielded by conservatives quite as well as by radicals. Indeed, in the last three decades of the 19th century, conservatives wielded it rather better. The failure of Gladstone’s appeal to the electorate in 1886, after the defeat of his first Home Rule Bill, and again in 1895 after the Lords’ rejection of his second, demonstrated to Salisbury and other thinking Unionists that in some respects ‘the masses’, under their conservative description as ‘the nation’, were a conservative force.
Socially Salisbury may have ‘loathed people’: but his articles in the Quarterly Review show that, in politics, his real loathing was reserved for those politicians who, he believed, were planning to subvert property, the Church and aristocratic government. He deplored the deficiencies of the British constitution which left traditional institutions at the mercy of the legislative whim of the House of Commons, and offered no safeguards against fundamental change. It was his realisation that the electorate might be called into play to redress the executive power of the legislature and the executive which fuelled his interest in mandate theory. As early as 1872 he had objected to Gladstone’s Ballot Act on the ground that it had not been submitted to ‘the nation’ at the previous general election. Such arguments had little force before 1886, but in that year a specific and radical measure, Home Rule, was laid before the people for their approval, and was rejected. ‘Democracy’ had saved the Union, and thereafter Unionists argued that fundamental change should not be carried without a mandate. It is no argument to say that Salisbury played this ‘democratic’ card cynically. The adoption of political theory by politicians, whether of the left or the right, has always been directed to their own political interests. What is significant in Salisbury’s is his recognition that the new democratic electorate was not inevitably an instrument of change, but could also be relied upon to defend many of the old institutions which he believed to be under threat: the monarchy, the House of Lords and the Established Church, as well as the union with Ireland.
The notion of ‘mandate’ which Michael Neve perhaps had in mind, and which Salisbury would indeed have regarded as ‘barbarism’, was an idea quite foreign to British politics in Salisbury’s lifetime. This notion, which I have called elsewhere the ‘prescriptive’ mandate, was advanced by a few ‘wild men’ like Henry Labouchére, and asserted that the electorate could instruct the legislature to pass certain specific measures. By contrast, the notion of mandate which in fact occupied politicians in the late 19th century was a ‘permissive’ mandate: the idea that politicians were obliged to put measures involving fundamental change to the electorate for their approval. Salisbury wholeheartedly endorsed this latter notion, believing that many of the radical changes which he feared most deeply would be refused such a mandate.
SIR: My friend and former colleague D.A.N.Jones (LRB, 17 March) makes a natural mistake when he quotes the description of a napalm victim which I used as a running reminder on every page of my 1968 book of poems, Out Loud. It was not from a Vietnam War news report, but from a Korean War report by that fine journalist, the late René Cutforth. Part of the tragedy was that masters of the human race had read Cutforth’s horrific, compassionate description of the effects of napalm and went on using this Dow Chemical obscenity.
Gentleman Jack from Halifax
SIR: Pace your correspondent sceptical about the authenticity of Anne Lister’s diaries (Letters, 17 March): as a native of Lightcliffe near Halifax I was aware even forty years ago of Anne Lister, who had lived at our nearest ‘hall’ (Shibden, owned and managed by Halifax UDC, now in ‘Calderdale’). I also knew she had been friendly with Caroline Walker of Lightcliffe, and that Anne had built the 1830s addition to the hall. It was several years ago that we heard of the existence of the diaries which were in the keeping of the Calderdale archivist and many of us looked forward to their code being cracked. Only the private sexy bits were encoded. It needed a devoted editor to transcribe them and I have bought and read the Virago edition with great interest. I do wish, however, that Helena Whit-bread hail told us how she cracked the code. It looks exceedingly difficult. But she is to be heartily congratulated on producing a selection of Anne Lister’s diaries, for they might have lain for another 140 years without her patient endeavours. America is not the only country to produce lesbian writers.
June Wedgwood Benn
SIR: Roger Lonsdale’s interesting article on John Bampfylde in your issue of 3 March deserves our gratitude, and still more, no doubt, will his edition of Bampfylde’s poems: yet I would cavil at the description of it as a ‘strange’ case. It appears to have been an-all-too-ordinary case of dementia, which quite often strikes in the twenties and whose victims are often intelligent people with creative talents and urges. The supposed rationality of the 18th century could not ward off diabetes or Parkinson’s disease, so why wonder that it could not prevent madness, which is only another organic disorder?
The word ‘strange’ was applied editorially, in titling the piece. The thought was that this was the kind of case that would soon be rated strange, by romantics.
Editor, ‘London Review’
SIR: One would have hoped that you could handle Nicholas Penny’s discussion of Richard Wollheim’s book (LRB, 18 February) better than merely to chop off the last few paragraphs! There he was, turning an effete backwater into a fascinating read, when, just as he was gathering himself for some final, devastatingly quiet denunciation, you cut him off. The missing paragraphs please! Just why is it so outrageously silly to think of paintings and bodies as containers?
Chiang Mai, Thailand