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A Day at the Races

Perry Anderson (LRB, 20 December 1990) called me Isaiah Berlin’s panegyrist, and in one respect his critique pleased me. Characteristic of his prodigious industry, he has read virtually everything Berlin has written or said in ephemeral interviews; and he is serious – not one snide personal remark. Yet Berlin has long been a thorn in his flesh. More than twenty years ago Anderson wrote an article explaining why no Marxist interpretation of British culture existed: indeed, why no sociology of any kind illuminated the scene. The explanation was that the wrong kind of émigré had decided to stay here. America got real radicals like Marcuse and his Frankfurt colleagues. Britain got reactionary liberals, or worse, like Namier, Hayek, Popper, Gombrich, Wittgenstein – and Berlin. The Establishment fawned on them, whereas Isaac Deutscher, ‘the greatest Marxist historian in the world’, was ‘reviled and ignored by the academic world’.

In 1990, Anderson revised his account of British culture in two long articles. He had changed his tone, which was no longer contemptuous. Sociology now flourished, stalwart interpretations by the Left had been made of every branch of humane studies, and the failure of Labour governments and the depredations of Thatcher had radicalised the by now far more numerous intelligentsia. Mysteriously, however, socialism had collapsed in Europe, and even more mysteriously, capitalism displayed a saucy resilience. No mention of Deutscher now. Nor of Berlin. But it looks as if Anderson has a need somehow to get Berlin out of his system – and out of ours. Has he succeeded?

His first step is to declare Berlin an anachronism. Quentin Skinner and other scholars followed Butterfield’s injunction to study the past in its own terms and reveal what concepts such as liberty meant to Hobbes and Locke. But Berlin played the game of ‘swooping pedigrees through time’: in other words, believing in the continuity of ideas through social change. Nor was he above wrenching a phrase from Kant out of context. This is a curious argument for a Marxist to use. Skinner’s method is as inimical to Marxist as to Whig interpretations of political thought. Is Anderson appointing himself clerk of the course and ruling that some historians of ideas should not come under starter’s orders?

But the horse Anderson wants to nobble is pluralism. How does he do it? He first accuses Berlin of inconsistency. Pluralism means accepting diversity of values and the conflicts such diversity brings. He says Berlin believes such conflicts can be resolved by trade-offs. Whereas Weber admitted that the conflict of ends was inescapable, Berlin pretends it isn’t. But Berlin says no such thing. Sometimes some conflicts can be resolved by trade-offs. Sometimes not – and the parties agree to let each other live. That presupposes some minimum common ground exists between them. But at other times as in Northern Ireland, no common ground exists. Then authority has to step in and others judge how humanely it acts.

Lastly Anderson produces an argument to clinch matters. Let us allow that trade-offs are possible within a nation. But when rival nations clash there can be no trade-offs. There can be only stand-offs. The disaster of the Great War was caused, he says, by a liberal civilisation plunging Europe into war and the 20th century into ‘modern barbarism’. That, and not ‘the obscure eddies in tiny circles of socialist émigrés’, should have been Berlin’s concern.

Well, really! So liberalism and Berlin’s cautious pluralism were responsible for 1914! The ‘liberal’, civilisation of Wilhelmine Germany, Franz-Josef’s Austria-Hungary, the Sultanate of Turkey, Tsarist Russia! Where is the barbarism in Weimar Germany, the France of Poincaré and Blum, the Britain of Baldwin and Churchill? If we are to search for the progenitors of barbarism, where better than in those émigré circles in which Lenin moved and which were to institute the barbarism of Stalin’s regime and its antidote Hitler?

Anderson believes in ideological systems, and like a warder in a lunatic asylum is determined to put Berlin in a straitjacket. But Berlin does not believe in such systems. He never intends to square the circle and distrusts those who do so whether they are Ayer, Condorcet or Marx – though he has written with much sympathy about each of them. Instead of trying to prove that Berlin’s pluralism is really monist, should not Anderson reconsider the validity of his system, which, wherever it has been put into practice, has brought tyranny, has ignored what people want, and has been indifferent to the health of the industrial workers whom allegedly the state exists to protect?

Noël Annan
London NW8

Perry Anderson’s lengthy discussion of the work of Isaiah Berlin brings to mind Anderson’s 1969 essay ‘Components of the National Culture’, in which he notes of Berlin’s work that ‘the end-product is typically a mythical genealogy in which ideas generate themselves in a manichean morality tale, whose teleological outcome is the present struggle of the free world against totalitarian communism.’ Quite.

Anderson now describes Berlin as a man of the ‘moderate Left’. I do not sense that Berlin’s ideas have changed all that much these last 20 years. But as for Anderson: what went wrong, comrade?

Whenever I read a piece by Ken Jones, author of ‘The National Curriculum’ (LRB, 20 December 1990), the same question comes to mind. Yes, there has been a lot to defend in education these last ten-odd years. And perhaps those on the left, like Jones, have ended up having to defend what in happier times might have been subjected to stringent criticism. The very concept of a national curriculum, for example. But it goes further than this.

In the Seventies Jones amongst many others was associated with a view of education which was very critical of state provision from above and none too happy about the Labour Party’s role in it either. There is still a lot of this feeling in what Jones writes: when he refers to ‘informed popular involvement’ in children’s education, for example. But the whole emphasis has changed from democratic radical education from below to progressive policy from the top. And Jones as an educational commentator is, sadly, the worse for it.

Keith Flett
London N17

That’s Hollywood

I was interested to read my article in the LRB (LRB, 20 December 1990). Not being an academic, I don’t have to apologise for the disorderliness of my mind, and the other half of a clearly divided personality had various subsequent thoughts.

In the case of Donnie Brasco, the actors were right. Their instincts were better than mine. It was idiotic to try to set up a film about the Mafia half-way between GoodFellas and Godfather III. I’ve always thought that casting a film was 95 per cent of my job, for on a good day an actor can dance through the text like Gascoigne passing to Platt. I was taught to cast by Miriam Brickman in a shed behind the Royal Court. When on a Friday night, we were trying to persuade some poor sod to play Metellus Cimber in Julius Caesar, Peter Gill would say: ‘He’s lucky to be offered it.’

I remember being sent to Hackney on the opening day of rehearsal and being told not to come back without Stephen Moore (I didn’t). One day Peter Gill said there was a girl in the Daily Mirror who’d just made her first record and would be very good as Nicol Williamson’s daughter in Inadmissible Evidence. The girl auditioned (for the non-speaking part), got the job, came to the read-through; her name was Marianne Faithful. That week her record went up seven places in the charts and she disappeared. We went down to the ABC Café in Kingsway (next to the Thames Television studio where she was recording Ready Steady Go), and Andrew Loog Oldham, her manager, explained the facts of life. Money was never any help at the Court. Leading actors got £30 a week. Olivier got £50 for Archie Rice.

People like to hear stories which fuel their anti-Americanism: tales of censorship, stupidity, immorality, corruption. But if such things happen in Hollywood, they’re kept well away from me. I can see that people there are nervous and work ridiculously hard, that they are more welcoming to foreigners than we are, that you need to be both stoical and crusading to work there. The people I meet are by and large intelligent, grifters, people for whom I naturally have an affection, small con-artists, people like me.

Meanwhile in Paris, Jacques Lacan and Juliette Binoche have holed up in the Hôtel Heidegger on the Rue Noel Annan while outside an old woman in a van …

Stephen Frears
London W2


Reading Claude Rawson’s powerful essay on Burke (LRB, 20 December 1990), and in particular what he had to say about ‘Burke’s purplest passage’, I was reminded of an ancient discontent with the sentence in that passage that begins ‘Without force, or opposition’ and ends: ‘[This mixed system of opinion and sentiment] compelled stern authority to submit to elegance, and gave a domination vanquisher of laws, to be subdued by manners.’ It would be surprising if so famous a passage contained an undetected corruption, but ‘a domination’ is very odd. I have heard ‘dominating’ conjectured, but my own guess is that Burke wrote ‘a Domitian, vanquisher of laws, to be subdued …’

I write in the hope that people learned in Burke will wish to comment on the plausibility of this reading, propose alternatives, or defend the received text.

Frank Kermode

Distaste for Leavis

As co-author of the ‘crappy little Cambridge emission’ referred to in your mercifully evenhanded letters page (Letters, 20 December 1990), my first reaction is to feel that the best way of dealing with the Leavises and the attitudes that they spawned is humour, but since your correspondents obviously find humour about Leavis more wounding than anything else, I had better spell out one or two serious points underlying what may have seemed a piece of flippancy. The allusion to the Pythons’ gangsters was intended to suggest that there was something bullying, not to say thuggish, about the Leavisite tendency, and that David Craig’s original letter unwittingly demonstrated this. Although the anecdote about Craig, Mrs Leavis and the insult over tea was compressed, it was not misread: to repeat to a person in apparent seriousness an insulting remark which someone else has made about him is to compound the insult.

According to Robert Watson, even Noel Annan and Frank Kermode arc concerned with ‘belonging to the right gang’; they need no defence from me, a freelance historical writer who has no connection whatsoever with the Cambridge English Faculty, but I would suggest that Watson’s letter, with its misplaced accusations and its attempts to coerce the editors of this paper, reveals that if there is a ‘gang’ it is that of the Leavisites – which was precisely the point of the Piranha allusion.

Hilary Gaskin

I am sorry that David Craig and Robert Watson were not amused by the comparison of Dr and Mrs Leavis to the Piranha Twins. Rereading some Leavis recently, I was struck above all by its humourlessness. Johnson, Hazlitt and Empson are the greatest English critics of their respective centuries not least because they are the funniest.

Jonathan Bate
University of Liverpool

Kipling’s Lightning-Flash

Barbara Everett quotes several passages from Kipling’s Something of Myself in her discussion of ‘Mrs Bathurst’ (LRB, 10 January), but not the sentences in which Kipling describes the genesis of that story: ‘All I carried away from the magic town of Auckland was the face and voice of a woman who sold me beer at a little hotel there. They stayed at the back of my head until ten years later when, in a local train of the Cape Town suburbs, I heard a petty officer from Simon’s Town telling a companion about a woman in New Zealand who “never scrupled to help a lame duck or put her foot on a scorpion”. Then – precisely as the removal of a key-log in a timber-jam starts the whole pile – those words gave me the key to the face and voice at Auckland, and a tale called “Mrs Bathurst” slid into my mind, smoothly and orderly as floating timber on a bank-high river,’

This suggests a mechanical modernity to add to others which Everett identifies. A cinema show drives the plot in ‘Mrs Bathurst’; Kipling’s telling of the story, and telling of how the story was made, are montages. He was famous for cutting his stories like a copy editor, but he also cut them like a film editor. He loved machines, and modernity was, in some degree, an appreciation (or at least a prefiguration) of the effects of picture-taking technology on the way tales are told and understood.

Everett refers to Kipling’s lightning-flash. D.W. Griffith said something to the effect that the cinema was history written with lightning. Kipling often forces readers to make connections and accept ambiguities which are commonplace in the movies.

Peter Campbell
London WC1

Pro-Russian Past

Paul Foot (LRB, 25 October 1990) describes the late Lord Rothschild, who died in March, as ‘a former intelligence chief who was prepared to go to any lengths to deflect attention from his own pro-Russian past’. During Rothschild’s lifetime, Dale Campbell-Savours and other MPs, protected by Parliamentary privilege, made similar accusations. Now Foot, protected by Rothschild’s death, repeats them. What is Foot’s evidence for asserting that Rothschild ‘had a pro-Russian past’?

Kenneth Rose
London W8

The photograph used on the cover of the London Review of Books, Volume 12, Number 16 (30 August 1990), was taken by Warren Faidley.

Editors, ‘London Review’