Lefter than thou
Without wishing to revive the polemics of yesteryear, I would be unhappy if a new generation were to be left with Christopher Hitchens’s roseate view of the International Socialists in the Sixties and Seventies (LRB, 6 January). Of all the leftist sects that emerged in that period to take advantage of the global revolutionary upheaval that shook established institutions in every country, the IS was possibly the most pernicious, the most arrogant, and the most blindly sectarian. Inspired by deranged fakirs, of whom Peter Sedgwick was but one outstanding example, the IS dragged half a generation into a one-way alley of political despair, mixing half-baked Marxist incantations with sentimental appeals to a vanishing labourism. This, says Hitchens, was politics ‘without illusions’. Maybe. But the result of their final disillusionment is a world now peopled with ex-IS graduates, a cynical, sardonic, amoral generation, without faith or optimism and prey to the enthusiasms of the Thatcher era – and plentiful in the higher reaches of the media.
I recall returning to England in the early Seventies, after a long, interesting and in many ways inspiring stint with the ‘illusioned’ revolutionaries of the Third World – in Latin America, Africa and Indochina – to find a billet in Richard Crossman’s New Statesman. There two brilliant young recruits from Oxbridge were already installed, Christopher Hitchens and James Fenton, preaching the gloomy and pessimistic gospel according to the IS. Their life seemed to consist of speeding off to Plymouth to support some IS endeavour (a strike at the Fine Tubes factory) and rapidly returning to take tea with Sir Maurice Bowra at Wadham – an unmatched couple of effete onanists, to use Hitchens’s terminology.
In those days, I had no revolutionary ideology to sustain me, nothing but a simple belief that Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh, Mao Tsetung and Agostinho Neto, were admirable men who had been doing interesting things, that their passion and concern for the peasant was well-judged, and that their preoccupation with the struggle for land had had far-reaching and significant political consequences. For the IS, such beliefs were heretical. The peasant was destined for the dustbin of history, the leaders of their struggles could already be dismissed, sight unseen, as embryonic Stalinists. History was not to be made in such distant and difficult parts of the globe but on the picket line in Plymouth and in the tea-rooms of Oxford. Other revolutionary thinkers who enlivened debates in those stirring times, Marcuse or R.D. Laing, were dismissed with equal contempt, as Hitchens recalls with relish.
Of course, in the perspective of decades, all is vanity. Doubtless we were wrong to have hopes and illusions, doubtless we all ploughed the sea. But looking back I find that the old Stalinists – the Eric Hobsbawms and the Christopher Hills and Edward Thompsons – shine more brightly in the firmament than the forgotten gurus of the Trotskyist IS, who left their more intelligent votaries with nothing better to do with their brains than to survive as gadfly columnists for the well-named Vanity Fair. Curiously enough, the IS’s successor organisation, the Socialist Workers Party, with the ever-faithful Paul Foot to the fore, seems to have taken on a new lease of life since the defection of the intellectuals in the Seventies. Its stand on both the Gulf War and on Bosnia has been well nigh exemplary.
Guardian, London EC1
Can your reviewer of Paul Foot be the same Christopher Hitchens who once offered me an iced bun to join International Socialism? A trifle sad, though, that Christopher’s warm memory of Peter Sedgwick should be tinged by residual animus towards others who survived him. Most of the Sixties Left were decent and entertaining young folk – as (presumably) were Lenin and Trotsky, had one but known them personally.
I was saddened to read Chris Hitchens’s review of the two Socialist Workers Party books, In the Heat of the Struggle (edited by me with an introduction by Paul Foot) and Why You Should Join the Socialists (by Paul Foot). Not because the review was critical. That was to be expected, since Chris has not agreed with our political analyses for the best part of two decades. But because it was marked by a greater degree of amnesia and distortion than one would expect from one of the best radical journalists around.
Chris describes the Eighties as a time when workers ‘who were doing jobs that nobody really wanted done’ were ‘hit’ by Thatcherism, with the Left defending ‘a way of life that was historically redundant’. Such glib journalistic phrases are hardly adequate to describe what happened in a long period of reaction on both sides of the Atlantic. Increasingly confident ruling classes set out to reverse the gains made by organised workers in the long post-war economic boom. Alongside this went onslaughts on all those whose conditions had improved so long as union strength forced governments to adopt some form of consensus politics – particularly the unemployed and the poor, the sick and the elderly. There were repeated attempts to roll back advances made by ethnic minorities and women. Finally, there were the renewed efforts to reimpose the Western ruling classes’ sway over the rest of the world – the Carter-Reagan-Bush arms build-up, Thatcher’s war in the South Atlantic, the Israeli and US incursions into the Lebanon, the bombing of Libya and the occupation of Panama, the blitzkrieg of Baghdad and the butchery on the road to Basra.
Fighting back against all these things was hard and often dispiriting work for the Left. We lost many more battles than we won. A lot of socialists dropped out of the struggle, worn out, beaten down and, in the case of thousands of worker activists, victimised. Some of those who dropped out became disillusioned with the possibility of social change; a handful, known and disliked as much by Chris as by ourselves, chose to join the other side. But this is no reason for forgetting, as Chris seems to, that the struggles took place or for seeing them as a result of some romantic nostalgia.
Amnesia also afflicts Chris when he writes about the British Nazis in the late Seventies. He says the Socialist Workers Party’s leadership deliberately overstated their importance, in the hope ‘of picking up some impressionable young members’ by engaging in ‘street theatre’. I don’t know where Chris was in the summer of 1977. I lived in one of the many less fashionable parts of Hackney (as I still do) and I wasn’t alone in looking over my shoulder as I walked down the street, knowing the fascists had received more than 100,000 votes in the GLC elections, that racial killings were averaging one a fortnight, and that white socialists were regularly being beaten up. The NF were not, of course, in the position to make a bid for power. But they were capable of making the sort of impact on British politics that Le Pen has since made on French politics – and, in the process, raising the level of racism to terrifying proportions. Surely, the success of the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism in stopping their advance was a cause for celebration, not for bemoaning the initiative of the SWP as Chris does.
Chris claims that ‘worst of all’ we supported ‘near Baader-Meinhof elements’ in Portugal in 1975. He is completely wrong. Those who went there for Socialist Worker, like Nigel Harris, Laurie Flynn, Paul Foot and myself, found a country where enormous revolutionary spirit was being dissipated by the most Stalinist of Communist Parties, on the one hand, and Nato-backed social democrats, on the other. We also found socialists attempting to counter this by arguing, with a limited degree of success, for workers’ and soldiers’ councils – and getting denounced by the Stalinists for their efforts. Whatever the mistakes of analysis and activity, this was a far cry from the assassinations and the kidnappings that characterised the Red Army Faction in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy.
One final insinuation sticks in my throat. Chris implies that the old international Socialists were characterised by bold and innovative thinking, but that the Socialist Workers Party today merely repeats dogma by rote. In fact, if he followed our publications he would know that we have continued to question the dogmas of the fashionable Left. We recognised a downturn in the class struggle in the late Seventies long before most of the Left and a decade later we opposed the nostrums of Marxism Today, with their claim that the class struggle no longer mattered. We were as enthusiastic as Chris about Solidarnosc at a time when most of the Left regarded it as a CIA front. But we insisted, as against people like Kuron, that moving from state capitalism to market capitalism would neither improve the mass of people’s appalling living conditions nor provide a guarantee of real democracy. And for three bitter years we have been denouncing the Governments of Serbia and Croatia, but also refusing to fall into the trap of believing that somehow Western intervention can do any more good in former Yugoslavia than it did in Central America, Lebanon, the Gulf and Somalia.
Chris may believe that the Socialist Workers Party today is intellectually arid and that the future lies with ex-members of the IS and the SWP (presumably, by that, meaning those like himself who have stayed on the left, as opposed to the real defectors like former News of the World editor Wendy Henry, Daily Mail leader writer Roger Rosewell, Sun columnist Garry Bushell and the Daily Express’s Peter Hitchens). I doubt if that will be the opinion of anyone who actually reads the range of debates in our monthly Socialist Review and our quarterly journal, still called International Socialism and more exciting if anything than when I edited it in Chris’s youth.
If we are all to cope with the real issues confronting humanity as the new world order reveals its real face, then the different sections of the Left have to learn to work together and to engage in serious intellectual debate without name-calling. That’s why the tone of Chris’s review was so disappointing. I trust it won’t stop us fighting alongside each other on many occasions in the future.
Socialist Worker, London E3
Not for the first time, Tony Cliff is credited with pioneering the view of Soviet Russia as state-capitalist rather than Communist – this time by Christopher Hitchens. But the view is much older. Lenin himself, of course, said that state capitalism would be a step forward for Russia, and as early as 1921 the German Communist Otto Rühle characterised it in those terms. The prize for being first off the blocks, however, should probably go to the still-extant Socialist Party of Great Britain – an organisation containing neither gurus nor non-gurus of the kind that Hitchens assures us Cliff is – which didn’t manage to be fashionable even in the Sixties. Russia is described as state-capitalist in an article in its journal the Socialist Standard for July 1920. Credit where it’s due.
University of Bristol
Memory suggests that Christopher Hitchens never was all that keen on his Saturday-morning Socialist Worker sale, and this may explain why he looks for theoretical debates in an anthology of 25 years of that paper. Socialist Worker is, after all, love it or hate it, an agitational paper. Mr Hitchens will find the theory where it always was, in the SWP’s theoretical journal, International Socialism.
Equally, while I have no doubt that ex-members of the IS/SWP have a role to play – the ex-editor of Socialist Worker, Roger Protz, is an enthusiastic campaigner for real ale, while Mr Hitchens himself writes excellent pieces for the London Evening Standard – surely even Hitchens must recall, even if only vaguely, that the point is not to interpret the world but to change it. For this you need not brilliant individuals, useful though they are, but socialist organisation.
Future Historian A:
Future Historian B:
James? Ah, James was on the periphery of the group Hitchens was in.
The group that Hitchens left?
Oh, I think we should rather say that the group left him.
And indeed there are those who might argue – as against Christopher Hitchens’s faintly bizarre, not to say solipsistic, analysis – that the SWP’s donation of organisation and troops to the Anti-Nazi League was that faction’s single most substantial non-sectarian gift to the wider public good, and thus in this respect very nearly as valuable to British political life as the companionship its predecessor the IS provided for young Master Hitchens and chums in the dear, dead days. And if, as Hitchens sourly insists, this movement/party did indeed give so much to the ANL for so little recruitment benefit to itself, well, all the more remarkable and praiseworthy. Or so, from their benighted perspective, they might argue. Cheers.
Why is Christopher Hitchens so habitually condescending? He even condescends to himself at times – to the self he was when he joined the International Socialists back in the late Sixties. As a current member of the International Socialist Organisation (the US sister organisation of the British Socialist Workers Party), I was of course dismayed by the tone as well as the inaccuracies and misrepresentations of Hitchens’s article. But even readers with no commitment to the politics of the SWP/ISO might have been turned off by the self-congratulatory ex-member’s confidence ‘that, in what we used to call “the coming period”, the best contribution is likely to come from among the ex-members.’
The Annual MLA Disaster
I rather think that Professor John Sutherland’s choice of the surgeon for the many chronic and highly infectious ailments of the MLA is not quite the right one (LRB, 16 December 1993). Mr Gorbachev’s hand is far too gentle for the hide in question: what that body needs is the more drastic and daring touch of Mr Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Especially so as the MLA’s annual academic peep-show now has a fast-growing teeny-bopper version as well, which is mounted annually by the academic lesser fry, the ‘graduate student’ community. Indeed, the latter even have their own learned journals, where they publish their own ‘peer-reviewed’ papers and thus ‘keep their bibliographies active’. (It is just a matter of time before the five-to-seven-year-olds will be in the lucrative educational market, with their own professional papers on ‘Deconstructive Perspectives in Runny Noses and Voluble Behinds’.) The numerous advertising lines, such as the ‘Theme School’, the ‘Study Skills Centre’, the ‘Cultural Studies Unit’, the ‘University International Project’, the ‘Centre of Excellence’, the ‘Cross-Disciplines Fertilising-Scheme Unit’, and countless other perversities of this kind that, in the service of marketable innovation, are fast replacing intelligent, humane and meaningful inquiry across campuses in North America: these too are ‘products’ spawned by the relentlessly professional paradigm of the MLA and, needless to add, other organisations of this kind.
It could well be argued that academic ideals – if fast manufacture of fake and counterfeit knowledge and its relentless flogging at the so-called ‘scholarly conferences’ can ever be termed ‘ideals’ – espoused, encouraged and propagated by institutions such as the MLA, are very largely responsible for the mess that is university education, in the humanities and the social sciences at any rate, in North America. Despite their endless learned conferences; despite the endless clamour for research and more research; despite those hundreds of learned journals where the ‘results’ of the said research are dished out for all to see – despite so much ‘productivity’ and the dinning noise about it, the actual pedagogical outcome of these frenzied goings-on makes a sad and pitiful tale: 1. Close to 60 per cent of the wards and pupils of the MLA-and-type professoriate cannot think logically for more than two minutes. 2. Close to 70 per cent cannot write a single coherent paragraph. 3. Close to 70 per cent cannot express a mildly complex idea in their mother tongue. 4. Despite four years of ‘taking courses’ in literature, language and literary theory, close to 85 per cent have difficulty making sense of two lines of verse. 5. One particular case: out of a class of 42 students reading English in the Honour School, at a university much in the news for ‘innovative research’, not one student knew the meaning of words such as ‘austere’, ‘etymology’, ‘connotation’, ‘cognate’, ‘impressionism’ etc. 6. Close to 60 per cent of graduate students – the ‘publishing scholars’ of the teeny-bopper variety – have no idea whatsoever of the sequence of literary history – or, for that matter, any history. 7. More than 70 per cent never buy, borrow or read any book other than the texts prescribed for university/college courses – which texts (plays and novels included) they proceed to get rid of within days after the final examinations. 8. Few ever go to see a serious film; ever go to a play without offer of a mark for reward; are ever seen in art galleries.
It is a veritable graveyard the professoriate leaves behind as it embarks on its ‘research projects’, or takes off to confer with the other ‘learned’. Needless to say, the peculiar plight of the young is not at all their fault: their innate intelligence, their passion, their sensitivity, their receptivity, their industry, all are of the highest order. It is the air they breathe on the campus, the unsavoury wind released by the much-researching/much-publishing/much-conferencing/much self-serving professoriate that suffocates them, turns them into degree-wielding semi-literates.
Nor are these conditions confined to the New World. Exchange students from the Old tell the same sorry tale. Thanks to the mystical ‘special relationship’, the monkeying is already in full swing in the green and pleasant land. Walls of departmental offices at North American universities are often plastered with notices inviting customers to a quick fix in Shakespeare in Anne Hathaway’s cottage; ten days of British Heritage in an old castle; a week of deconstruction at this ‘ancient’ seat; a week of feminism at that one. O, ye, listen, if you want Booker Authors we have them all – all products authentic, coming to you from some very reputable firms – Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Bristol, Durham.
One wonders if there’s any other walk of life in which one could get away with so much patent tomfoolery and grotesque negligence in the name of knowledge and research.
I gather from Brian Vickers’s letter (Letters, 6 January) that I owe him an apology for overestimating his proximity to retirement, and congratulate him on the continuing vigour of which he boasts – although, speaking as someone who was still at infant school when Vickers published his first book on Shakespeare, the observation in my review of Appropriating Shakespeare (LRB, 18 November 1993) that its author ‘belongs to an older generation of Shakespearians’ still doesn’t seem to me all that wide of the mark.
Otherwise, I am afraid, Professor Vickers’s letter has done little to make me wish to revise my description of his book; it seems only characteristic, for example, that on the strength of a review largely devoted to the praise of R.A. Foakes (a review, moreover, which acknowledges my ‘emphatic’ agreement with Appropriating Shakespeare at many points) I stand convicted as the slavish, deluded disciple of discredited Parisian ideologues, cynically distorting Shakespeare in my relentless struggle for power. Vickers may be right in his general allegation that the less talented Shakespeare critics of today include many intolerant wielders of stereotypes, but this kind of rhetoric, developed at such length in the book, hardly looks like the antidote. It seems especially striking that Vickers regards my remark that his critical position is merely one possible critical position among many as a ‘dismissive smear’. If the only way of proving one’s independence of mind and freedom from the taint of Jacobinism is to pronounce Appropriating Shakespeare to represent not one more invested polemic about the politics of the Shakespeare industry but the only possible perspective on the subject available to any sane observer, then I am happy to remain, in the terms with which his letter concludes, part of Vickers’s problem.
How he came to know this
Alan Bennett’s quote (LRB, 16 December 1993) from Rosencrantz’s words (‘The single and peculiar life is bound / With all the strength and armour of the mind / To keep itself from noyance’) is a splendid example of how Shakespeare comes to seem so wise; or, as Bennett puts it, ‘how he came to know this’. The words are supplied by Shakespeare: the wisdom by the reader. For the Danish diplomat is actually discoursing at some length on the importance of the King’s looking after himself (‘Never alone / Did the king sigh, but with a general groan’). Rather more banal, in fact, than the perception that we each guard our single and peculiar lives with a more than Larkinian determination.
Shakespeare the novelist, whom we call to mind every day in the manner in which Bennett brilliantly recalls this fragment, is for this reason far more interesting than Shakespeare the dramatist, who would have survived much less well without this mysterious ancillary power. Never mind that Shakespeare, like Falstaff, was witty in himself. He is the unconscious cause of wit in others.
It was a pity that Paul Foot fell at the final fence in his otherwise impeccable canter over the course of the Lockerbie scandal, as set out in Trail of the Octopus, the book I wrote with Lester Coleman (LRB, 6 January). In the last paragraph of his review, I am accused of making assertions before I prove them, of inventing conversations to which neither Lester Coleman nor I could have been privy (that’s the serious one) and of making too much use of flashbacks.
In controversial matters, I usually follow standard advocate’s procedure by first stating my position and then supporting it with the available evidence. In a case bedevilled by five years’ worth of political manipulation, lies, special pleading and confused media coverage, I felt readers were entitled to know unequivocally where I stood and then to judge for themselves to what extent that position was justified by the facts.
In all 320-odd pages of Trail of the Octopus, there is not one word of manufactured dialogue. The use of direct speech in the way Foot wrongly ascribes to me is, to my mind, as reprehensible a practice as reviewing a book without reading it properly. I report only one verbatim conversation in which Coleman did not actually take part, and that was a brief exchange between his mother and an FBI agent, relayed by her to Coleman in precisely the terms set down. I feel entitled to a retraction on that one. The quite groundless suggestion that I touched up the facts could well taint a reader’s response to the rest of the evidence set out in the book. As for the use of flashbacks, for better or worse, to provide the book with a narrative frame, I chose to interleave chapters of Coleman’s story, told chronologically, until the one merged with the other.
But I have to say my disappointment was offset to some degree by Foot’s magisterial put-down of David Leppard who, without declaring a personal interest, recently criticised Bloomsbury in the Sunday Times for daring to publish Trail of the Octopus at all.
Attila Hoare (Letters, 16 December 1993) tries to equate the fate of Jews in the Independent State of Croatia, a German creation where the Jews were destroyed by local Croatian Fascist Ustashe, and in wartime Serbia, which was occupied by the German Army. Mr Hoare is imputing to the Serbs crimes which they did not and even could not commit. In the Semlin Jewish concentration camp near Belgrade, which was run by the Gestapo, guarded by the German 64 Police Battalion, and whose Jewish inmates were gassed by two SS non-commissioned officers in a gas van brought from Berlin, Mr Hoare alleges that ‘Serbian guards were used by the Nazis to push Jewish victims into mobile gas vans.’ This could not have happened because the Semlin camp was not on Serbian territory but on the left bank of the Sava River, annexed to Croatia. Christopher Browning has established that the Germans decided on 28 October 1941 to establish a new camp on the exhibition grounds across the Sava from Belgrade and states: ‘As this side of the Sava was Croatian territory, Benzler asked the German Embassy in Zagreb to inquire if the exhibition grounds could be used, for a transit camp to which at first Jewish women and children should be brought … The Croatians agreed, provided the camp was guarded by Germans, not Serbs, and supplies came from Serbian, not Croatian territory.’ No history of the Holocaust has ever recorded any Serbian participation in the gassing of 7500 Jewish women and children in the Semlin camp. It was exclusively a German Nazi crime. Hoare refers to ‘the anti-Jewish decree of 31 May 1941 in Serbia … enforced by the Nedic regime’ without mentioning that it was a German decree and that the Government of the quisling Nedic was established by the Germans to fight Tito’s partisans only on 28 August 1941, three months after the decree was passed.
It was not the Metropolitan Josif, acting head of the Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church who officially prohibited conversions of Jews to Serbian Orthodoxy, as Hoare alleges, but the German commanding officer in Serbia. This German order was transmitted to the Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs, which recommended that all registrars be informed and the Metropolitan Josif acknowledged receipt of the order.
The ‘Police for Jews’ in occupied Belgrade was not a ‘Serbian police force’, but a section within the Metropolitan Police staffed by several Serbian policemen but headed by a German, Otto Winzet, and under the command of the Gestapo.
Hoare states that even before the Nazi occupation (in October 1940) ‘anti-Jewish legislation was passed in Serbia.’ That is incorrect. It was passed in Yugoslavia under German pressure to which a coalition government yielded. The Yugoslavian Prime Minister was a Serb and his deputy a Croat.
It is incorrect to state that in August 1942 Nedic’s Government ‘claimed all Jewish property for the Serbian state’, as Hoare alleges. According to research done by the Federation of Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia, the Germans ceded all Jewish property to the Serbian authorities with the proviso that they be paid a specified sum as ‘war reparations’. ‘The result of this transaction was that the State Mortgage Bank delivered to the Germans all the proceeds of the sales of Jewish property and the sum of 364,868,368 dinars in addition.’
For us Jews of Yugoslavia the quisling Nedic regime in occupied Serbia and the Fascist Ustashe regime in the wartime Independent State of Croatia are not ‘different shades of black’, as Mr Hoare asserts. The main task of the Nedic regime was to fight Serbs who were rebelling against the Germans; he had no authority in the Jewish question, which the Nazis were determined to resolve alone in their murderous way. Historians have not discovered a single speech made by Nedic devoted to vilifying Jews, while Croatia was the only puppet state which murdered the majority of its Jews with its own hands on its own soil. Even Slovakia did not do that: it handed its Jews to the Germans, who sent them to the death-camps in Poland.
Wendy Doniger mistitles Clement Moore’s ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ (LRB, 16 December 1993), as well as misattributing the poem to Samuel Clemens. Moore’s poem was published anonymously in 1823, 12 years before Clemens was born. Clemens, whose wit could turn on paradox (‘Wagner’s music is better than it sounds’), would probably revel in the notion of a prenatal entry in his bibliography.
Michigan State University,
Allen Curnow (Letters, 16 December 1993) must be some poet; he knows his feet. Regarding the particular matter of Robert Hughes, Eliot, Jesus, and Jesus’s feet, I would like to make it clear that the mistake was mine. Hughes did not misquote Eliot; I misquoted Hughes quoting Eliot. My apologies to all concerned.