Vol. 3 No. 6 · 2 April 1981

Search by issue:

The Macmillan Years

SIR: No doubt Austin Mitchell’s notice of Harold Evans’s Downing Street Diary (LRB, 5 March) was meant rather lightheartedly, but it does call to a mild comment.

The thesis is that the British economy has been going steadily downhill since about 1960 and that this is entirely due to Harold Macmillan. I thought that this was a right-wing Tory view dating back to the ‘little local difficulty’ of 1958. Is Mitchell really among this now diminishing group?

Macmillan was (and is) a remarkable man but I doubt if even he was as dominant as this implies. Mitchell ought to tell us why the Labour Party, which after all was in power from 1964-70 and 1974-79, was quite unable to shake off this baleful influence. Does he ever expect a new ball game, or will Macmillan be the perpetual losing pitcher?

Mitchell says that Macmillan ‘stood for nothing’. This is nonsense. Anyone who knew him at that time knows that in economics he stood for full employment, passionately: for an incomes policy to cope with cost inflation and for international co-operation against world recession. One could stand for a lot of worse things.

London SW1


SIR: Harold Lever’s article (LRB, 19 March) illustrates the immorality of the British electoral system. The holder of any opinion has a right to express it and to try to persuade others to share it. What he has no right to do is to seek to impose his opinion on a majority who are not so persuaded. But our X-vote system puts us in exactly the opposite position.

A member of a party who holds what he knows to be a minority opinion can be deterred from expressing it openly and honestly by fear that this will turn voters against his party. But no such fear exists to prevent him from working behind the scenes to get members of his minority into positions where they control the selection of candidates and thus decide the actions of that party when it achieves office.

To avert the dangers to which Harold Lever points, what we need is to transfer to the voters control over which individuals become MPs. Instead of having, for instance, Bristol divided into five single-member constituencies, let it be one five-member constituency, voting by numbering candidates in the order of the voter’s preference. Any party can then have any number of candidates without risk of splitting its vote. Therefore any group can insist on having a candidate to voice its particular opinions; those whom that candidate persuades to agree will vote ‘1’ for hin, while those who dismiss him as a dangerous eccentric will give preference to the more orthodox. Not only will each party win seats in proportion to its popular support, but those seats will be filled by whichever of its candidates the voters prefer.

To avert the danger of measures imposed on the country against the wishes of the majority of electors, all we need is to change our electoral system to ensure that the majority will always win.

Enid Lakeman
The Electoral Reform Society, London SE1

Hitler and History

William Vaughan
Department of History of Art, University College, London

SIR: In Vol. 3, No 4 of the LRB Hans Keller, in a manner even more lofty than that adopted in his original review, dismisses out of hand Kate Graham’s criticism of his position. In his reply to her letter he suggests that ‘the source’ of Wagner’s anti-semitism is to be found in the attitude of his wife Cosima. Having thus constructed a neat myth of exculpation, Keller goes on to deal with one of Wagner’s anti-semitic remarks by writing that ‘Cosima … no doubt “amended" his remark before she recorded it.’ If this were indeed the case, it might lend some support to Keller’s views. But there is no evidence that it was the case. Faced with such speculations one can only observe that ‘no doubt’ is a rather misleading way of saying ‘perhaps’.

In fact, when it comes to Wagner’s anti-semitism we do not have to rely on what Cosima says he said in private. We have Wagner’s own words – and a great many of them too. In 1881 he wrote to the King of Bavaria, Ludwig II: ‘I regard the Jewish race as the born enemy of pure humanity and everything that is noble in it; it is certain that we Germans will go under before them, and perhaps I am the last German who knows how to stand up as an art-loving man against Judaism that is already getting control of everything.’ This remark is in no sense an isolated aberration and its tenor goes some way towards explaining the deep affinity which Hitler felt for Wagner. According to his childhood friend Kubizek, Hitler ‘looked for much more than a model and an example in Wagner. He literally appropriated Wagner’s personality as if he wanted to make it an integral part of his individuality.’ Once again it must be said that this does not establish the case that ‘Hitler has a specific history in German Romanticism.’ But Kate Graham in her very reasonable letter never endorsed such a vague and inclusive view: her concern was only to counter the delusory notion that there was never any connection between German Romanticism and German anti-semitism.

It is disturbing that in addition to denying such a connection Hans Keller evidently believes it is both reasonable and useful to characterise Hitler as ‘a stupid, semi-literate paranoiac’, a ‘psychotic idiot’ and ‘a raving half-wit’. Hitler was none of these things. Nor does it make any sense to write about National Socialism as an eruption of ‘natural evil’ brought about by what Keller calls ‘collective regression’. It must be suggested that the only purpose served by such pseudo-medical explanations is to defend a limited and inadequate concept of human nature. Such a limited concept is frequently apparent in discussions of anti-semitism and behind it there often lies an ideologically purged version of history. Only when we cease to be bound by this narrow ideological view can we begin to recognise that, up to the time of the Second World War, anti-semitism, far from being an occasional alien intruder into our culture, had always existed in intimate relation to our most revered orthodoxies – not only to Christianity but also to many areas of our literary and artistic tradition.

To adopt such a view of history is not to engage on the project which Hans Keller describes, in which ‘the white-washing of Hitler goes together with the soiling of his past.’ It is rather to refuse that dangerous consolatory mythology in which Hitler and National Socialism, having been identified with the forces of ‘anti-culture’, come to be seen as the repository of all evil: a modern Antichrist onto whom we may indiscriminately project our own violence and indeed the hidden violence of our own social structure. The danger of such a mythology – one whose psychological function is so similar to the mythology of anti-semitism – is that it encourages the discipline of history to commit the most serious of all its possible crimes: that of whitewashing the present. It is against that crime, and not against any of the imaginary sins of history which Hans Keller catalogues, that we need to be eternally vigilant.

Richard Webster

‘Coriolanus in Europe’

SIR: With the greatest respect to G.R. Wilson Knight, his review (LRB, 19 February) of David Daniell’s account of RSC’s Coriolanus in Europe does justice neither to the production nor to the book. It might be supposed that one could not discuss a production adequately without having seen it – as Professor Wilson Knight candidly admits that he did not, in this case. But that is just the supposition which Dr Daniell’s book corrects; and that in order to bring study and stage into a more fruitful conjunction, to encourage the reader of Shakespeare to put himself among an audience, to endeavour to explain some of the dynamics of dramatic performance. To state that ‘there appears to have been comparatively little difficulty’ on the score of interpretation for the French and German-speaking audiences of the tour is to ignore the wealth of evidence in Chapters 3-9 that too often political preconceptions and various adaptations of Shakespeare obscured the play itself for many of those who saw it, with what Dr Daniell calls ‘the loss of possibility’. When Professor Wilson Knight notes, in this context, that some saw Alan Howard’s manner as classical, others as romantic, the contradiction does not alert him to the fact that pleasingly understated critical comments are passing him by. His impression that ‘no exciting visual effects, as far as I can see, were aimed at’ is simply wrong. His surmise that the costumes were perhaps ‘designed to fit the play’s atmosphere’ virtually ignores the entire aspect of stage design whose importance in production the book stresses. Nor do the conversations with the principal actors on their interpretations fare much better; and the author’s casting of himself as ingénu is taken literally, and with a vengeance.

Barbara Pankhurst
London SE9


SIR: Richard Rorty’s exposition of Foucault contains at least two glaring circularities which undermine his verdict, ‘a philosopher of the first rank’ (LRB, 19 February).

The first stems from his embrace of the ‘Wittgensteinian philosophers of science’. Foucault’s ‘episteme’ is unimpressive as a ‘fleshed-out’ version of an already widely discredited and – my point – self-defeating notion. If knowledge is wholly limited by (or equivalent to) its episteme, as is certainly implied in Rorty’s account, how can Foucault be supposed to be giving us an account of its historical changes? If he is, he must be relying perforce on some trans-epistetmic meta-rationality – the existence of which he is committed to denying. Rorty tries to escape this conclusion, or nullify it, by describing Foucault’s intent as not to supply a theory, but a history or ‘genealogy’. But if the weltanschauungen philosophers of science have taught us anything, it is the ‘theory-ladenness’ of facts. Theory as a partial determinant of facts is inescapable, and much the worse for being wholly implicit. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that here Foucault is simply unwilling to live up to his full responsibility qua philosopher (historian, what-have-you) to consciously and consistently theorise.

The second circularity is related to the first, insofar as Rorty would reply to the above that the point of Foucault’s ‘theory’ is really to liberate those ‘caught “in the fine meshes of the webs of power" ’. But Rorty has already characterised Foucault’s position as non-Rousseauistic or non-Marxist – i.e. that power is unavoidable, and that without social pressures ‘there is nothing much to us.’ In that case, is all that Foucault wishes to see the replacement of old slaves by new? Perhaps my question is wholly rhetorical, given the unpleasant sentiments of Foucault which even Rorty must note, towards the end of his review.

The same conclusion follows in any case, since by Foucault’s lights, his own work must be, in essence, only a ‘part of the apparatus of social control which forms our society’. If that’s all it is, there is no reason why we should find it more interesting (or ‘liberating’) than any other. If that’s not all it is, his work constitutes its own refutation.

The remarkable thing about all this is how unattractive and unsatisfactory Foucault sounds with respect to both knowledge and power. His real interest seems to be much more sociological than philosophical – as the crest on the present wave of the trendy pragmatist and relativist revival. It is also interesting to notice how many of his (unacknowledged) problems could be cured by a dose of despised critical and fallibilistic realism, à la Popper and Lakatos. Pace Rorty’s litany, one of these philosophers is even still alive.

Patrick Curry
London W14

Defence of Shelley

SIR: Audrey Williamson’s eccentric outburst (Letters, 19 March) seems to have been provoked by my review of a volume of Mary Shelley’s letters, but turns out to be a review of my books on Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft. A retrospective survey of one’s work is of course flattering, but it is difficult to believe from her remarks that Miss Williamson has actually read my books. She complains, bafflingly, that I have ‘little interest in the political ideas of the time that motivated both Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft’. Even a cursory reading of the books would have made it plain that this is the reverse of the truth: both treat their subjects’ political ideas and influence with entire seriousness. The confusions of Miss Williamson’s letter grow more impenetrable as it proceeds. ‘According to Ms Tomalin’s own biography, Mary Wollstonecraft left England for Paris solely to find a man!’ writes Miss Williamson. This ‘ludicrous theory’, as she describes it, is, however, not mine. It is Mary Wollstonecraft’s own little joke (‘at Paris, indeed, I might take a husband for the time being’), which I quote and characterise as such.

Miss Williamson demands ‘foolproof evidence’ for my ‘assumption’ that Shelley was the father of Claire Clairmont’s child. I make no such assumption. I merely examine the evidence for and against many theories about the Neapolitan baby, and say which I find most plausible: an elementary duty of a biographer.

Claire Tomalin
London NW1


SIR: Penelope Lively (LRB, 19 February) calls for a ‘Who’s Who’ of the Bloomsbury Group: I am delighted to be able to say that some time ago we commissioned just this book and it is in an advanced state of preparation. We hope to publish it at the end of the year. Its author is Andrew McNeillie, Anne Olivier Bell’s assistant in editing Virginia Woolf’s diaries. In addition to the biographical entries, there are sections on key societies such as the Apostles, two main family trees, lists of houses and locations, who lived where when, and notes on relationships. A gallery of portraits, both fuzzy and clear, supplements the text.

John Spiers
Harvester Press, Brighton

Kathleen Woodward

SIR: We are interested in the work of Kathleen Woodward, author of Jipping Street. I should be pleased to hear from any of your readers who could help me trace the person who owns the copyright in her books, or who administers her literary estate.

Ursula Owen
Editorial Director, Virago Press, Ely House, 37 Dover Street,London W1X 4HS

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Read More

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences