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Vol. 9 No. 16 · 17 September 1987

Search by issue:

On the rant

SIR: What E.P. Thompson’s long and violent review of my Fear, Myth and History (LRB, 9 July) seems to suggest is that the orthodox views of the Ranters of Hill, Morton and McGregor are sacrosanct and that to challenge them is automatically to cast oneself as a sneering parasite, intellectually mediocre, tedious and politically suspect. The travesty of my book around which his review runs is hardly worthy of Mr Thompson at his polemical best, and the lurid association of myself as anti-History with Thatcher and Tebbit (as presumably anti-Christ or anti-Marx) has a gruesome comedy to it, reminiscent of Thomas Edward’s depiction of anti-Christ, rather than of one of this century’s best and most widely respected historians. I wrote my book because I was not persuaded by the standard accounts of the Ranter phenomenon. Despite Mr Thompson’s abuse, I remain unpersuaded. If the penalty for such scepticism is to be condemned to the Gulag of Mr Thompson’s anti-history, I know of no court of appeal except the good sense of my fellow historians. But the voice of heresiographers – celebratory or condemnatory – should never of itself convince.

J.C. Davis
Massey University, New Zealand

SIR: At the very least J.C. Davis’s Fear, Myth and History is brief and to the point. E.P. Thompson’s review, aptly named ‘On the rant’, is neither. Indeed, as a long-time admirer of Professor Thompson’s political work against nuclear weapons, I hope he may now devote himself entirely to this and resign his other hat, as a professional historian, altogether. For Thompson’s piece is about present-day politics, not 17th-century history, and a function of Davis’s book is to direct us to the lamentable consequences of confusing the two. For all of its commissioning by a ‘prestigious university press’ and the favourable reviews it has received, Davis’s work is, Thompson would have us believe, a ‘meagre bit of anti-history’ which should never have been written. Its ‘meagreness’ in Thompson’s eyes may result from the possibility, left open by the review, that he has missed the wider point of the book altogether.

Davis’s very small book is so potent precisely because by focusing on a tiny area of 17th-century history it raises what is probably the major problem facing the practice of professional history today. All professional historians have a choice. On the one hand, they can choose to exercise their historical imagination to travel to another time and place, and to another way of thinking. Such (mental) travel in time is just like travel in space and involves the same choices; we can opt for the package tour (‘20th-century meals served’), or decide to go the whole hog and slum it with the indigenous inhabitants. I use this metaphor conscious of its practical limitations: the imaginative attempt at such travel is, nevertheless, the very essence of the historian’s craft. It is in this way that historians can attempt to broaden both their own experience and that of those with whom they are paid to share it. This is the only peculiar educative function history has to offer as a discipline, and one by-product of it should be greater tolerance of variety and difference between people, as well as across time. This is also, by the way, the only way historians can contribute as historians to Professor Thompson’s avowed political goal: a withdrawal from the precipice of nuclear annihilation. This is a human rather than a technological problem, which can only be solved when ignorance is replaced by some sort of readiness to tolerate difference. Readiness to tolerate difference is a quality conspicuously absent from Professor Thompson’s review.

The other choice for historians is to use the records of the past simply to confirm and bolster present political positions and prejudices. This is the real meaning of anti-history, because it involves no engagement with the dimension of time, no attempt to stand outside the assumptions of the present, and no exercise of the historical imagination whatever. Of the two choices it is much the easier and much the more likely to result in public popularity in the present. It can, however, teach us nothing at all: it can only make us more articulate and entrenched in our ignorance. And one by-product of this choice is that it also makes the work of professional historians much more difficult by the distortion, misuse and misrepresentation of the historical record which it entails. The 17th-century historiographical landscape is an appalling, and at times almost impenetrable, litter of mythology and misinformation heaped up in this way, by both ‘Left’ and ‘Right’. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find a window through the complications of the historiography that will allow us the slightest view of the history.

Davis’s book takes just one small aspect of this mess to demonstrate irrefutably a wider problem: that those who live by the sword will die by it (and we must take care not to die with them); that the propaganda-makers of today will find their evidence principally in the propaganda-makers of yesterday; and even that the ‘left-wing’ historians of today will find themselves swallowing hook, line and sinker the ‘right-wing’ propaganda of a previous age. It is hardly surprising that this irony makes Professor Thompson hopping mad. It is bad enough to accuse someone who has put their history at the service of their politics of being historically mistaken. To accuse them of unsound political cohabitation in the process is the last straw.

The reason that left-wing historians end up swallowing right-wing myths, and vice versa, is that, from the point of view of the practice of history, there is no difference between them. And, pace Thompson, Davis is patently not attacking ‘left-wing’ historians from a ‘right-wing’ stance. He is issuing a general caution to historians who use the past principally for the political service of the present that they both beggar the present and get the past wrong in the process. Every serious professional historian – particularly those struggling to rescue the political thought of the 17th century from the political thought of the 20th century – will applaud every page of this message.

It is indeed a miserable comment on what Professor Thompson calls ‘these latter days’ that to publish such a book required from Davis not only meticulous scholarship but also some courage. He has duly reaped his measure of abuse. Davis’s point, however, remains entirely intact and fundamentally historical: and that abuse remains predictably and irrelevantly political. People interested in the practice of history and its future must now read Davis’s book for themselves and think these issues through. People interested in present-day politics in England will recognise in the terms Thompson sees fit to apply to Davis’s work – ‘a tebbit-like sneer’ and ‘the encroaching thatcherism of the upwardly-mobile historical mind’ (what extraordinary class snobbery is this?) – signs of a contemporary political frustration which may be understandable but which has nothing to do with these historical concerns.

Jonathan Scott
Victoria University of Wellington,


SIR: Mr Frank Palmer (Letters, 3 September), in attacking my review of the book he edited, Anti-Racism – An Assault on Education and Value, says that I have been ‘active in promoting the kind of anti-racism the book criticises’. I fear he has not taken the main point of the review, which was to ask just what kind of anti-racism it was criticising. The book appeared to me to have lumped together many distinct, and often conflicting, views as if they formed a single creed, the whole of which was subscribed to by all opponents of racism. This is not just an oversimplification of a complicated picture: it is dangerously false. My review pointed out the dangers in it, as well as criticising some follies which are committed in the name of anti-racism. Mr Palmer seems to have skipped most of this analysis, or else he read it with such a fixed certainty in his mind that anyone opposed to racial discrimination must conform to his picture of anti-racism’ that he calls me an extremist, suggests I have a totalitarian mentality, and compares me to a religious fanatic.

Mr Palmer raises many points. One of them is his statement: ‘To imply as she does, that to value education as an end in itself is to be preoccupied with “the three R’s" is plain silly.’ This presumably refers to a passage in the review which listed the characteristics of ‘two radically different ideologies arguing against each other and using racial politics as a weapon’. One of these ideologies approved ‘free-market values, social discipline and a sound, academic education built up from the three R’s’. After describing these two rival ideologies, the review said: ‘There are undoubtedly many people in this country who find some elements in each of these pictures of Britain true or attractive and others repulsive.’ How Mr Palmer has transformed this passage into his claim that I believe ‘to value eduation as an end in itself is to be preoccupied with the three R’s’ is a mystery. I do not expect him to be aware of the many occasions when I have spoken and written in favour of a soundly-based, academic education, and the desirability of teaching English grammar, correct spelling and punctuation, along with respect and love for the language and its literature, but I do think he might have read the review more carefully.

I owe him an apology for the slip of the pen where I referred to Roger Scruton’s chapter on ‘cultural relativism’ wrongly as on ‘cultural pluralism’. Also, I seem to have implied that Mr Palmer attacks the Swann Report in exactly the same terms that Mr Ray Honeyford uses, saying that it will oblige all teachers to undergo racism-awareness training. However, while the direct statement in the book is Mr Honeyford’s alone, Mr Palmer in his letter appears to endorse it, and the statement is not correct. The only reference in the Swann Report’s recommendations to RAT is on page 775, and it says: ‘We recommend that the DES should fund an independent evaluation of the content and effectiveness of the various Racism Awareness Training programmes which are currently available.’ I can find no evidence in the body of the report for his claim that the Committed wanted RAT ‘extended’, and the passage from which he quotes goes on to suggest, in preference to RAT, a different kind of course.

The book as a whole, however, is to be condemned less for such misrepresentations than for its indifference to racism. Such indifference is manifest in Mr Hastie’s letter in the same issue. He admits only two instances of racism in this country: the ‘criminal behaviour of a few’ who carry out racial attacks, and – as a concession – some retrogressive change in British racial attitudes which ‘has been concurrent with the growing power and influence of the race industry itself’. It is extraordinary that anyone living here over the last twenty-five years has observed no other evidence of unequal treatment. Does Mr Hastie suppose that our immigration laws are applied so as to treat everyone alike, regardless of race, or that the massive evidence on racial discrimination in jobs and housing, collected by the independent Policy Studies Institute and its predecessor PEP, is sheer invention, or that all the County Court and tribunal judgments which have found discrimination under the Race Relations Acts have been consistently wrong?

It is nearly as odd that someone whose chapter in the book stresses the importance of intellectual honesty, of checking evidence, detecting bias and looking at the whole picture should confuse concurrence with causation in an attack on the multifarious collection of official and unofficial bodies which Mr Hastie lumps together as the ‘race industry’. Mr Hastie’s chapter is devoted to detailed criticism of one publication by a single unofficial organisation, the Institute of Race Relations, whose own history sufficiently illustrates the divisions of opinion among those who combat racism. It makes no attempt to survey the activities and publications of others in the field or to provide a whole picture. He says the ‘race industry’ consists of ‘community relations personnel, multi-ethnic inspectors and advisers, vote-hungry local politicians, members of local government committees and agencies set up, for example, to monitor police attitudes to blacks, ambitious leaders of immigrant pressure groups and the like’. He then compares the ‘industry’ with the Nazis, ‘the last people to make race a key social and political issue’, and is worried that the industry will be a Trojan horse ‘from which will spring the totalitarians who will tyrannise over us all, black and white alike’. Anyone who compares the Nazis with community relations personnel etc is, I think, on shaky ground when accusing others of perverting history. Indeed, it is an insult to the millions of victims of Nazism to compare their agonies with Mr Hastie’s shallow complaints.

Ann Dummett


SIR: It would be wrong to say that King’s College, Cambridge welcomes only homosexuals and other perverts, Communists and other potential traitors. The same accusation was made against the British Foreign Office, which is now, I hear, trying very hard to recruit straight girls and boys. However, V.G. Kiernan does not help to restore the reputation of his college when he says he honours the memory of Guy Burgess, who ‘did what he felt it right for him to do’ (LRB, 25 June). Not to speak of Kiernan’s bold assertion that ‘an innocent could live in left wing Cambridge without suspecting that [homosexuality] existed outside of Classical Literature.’ Anthony Blunt, apparently, was right to sell his country’s defence secrets to the Soviet Union, and himself to any innocent at hand. Spycatchers are somehow morally in the wrong.

Of course, it is possible to express these opinions in a more or less free country like Great Britain (though not in the Communist countries to which the King’s men gave their loyalty). Most people would disagree with them and say that no man, not even a King’s man, can serve two masters. If you are taking one country’s money, honours and career benefits, you should not work for that country’s enemies. I know it is difficult for British Communists in particular and Marxists in general to grasp this tenet and put it into practice, just as it is hard for Kiernan to admit that under Thatcher Great Britain has more vitality than it has had for years (whether it has an acceptable morality or not is another question).

What Kiernan is not entitled to do is to drag the name of Herbert Norman into his rogue’s gallery of ‘good traitors’. Cambridge was the undoing of this quiet Christian socialist scholar who arrived at Trinity as a graduate (from Toronto) and was so distracted by the ‘cells’ that he left with a poor Medieval History second, and crossed the Atlantic immediately to do some serious postgraduate work. Unfortunately, Norman’s mind had been so warped that his Japan’s Emergence as a Modern State (1940) not only contains a lot of Marxist claptrap but may well have radicalised the post-war US administration in Japan to the extent of encouraging the ‘loony Left’. This was unfortunate for Japan, because the country soon sought refuge in the arms of the Liberal Democrats and still cannot offer an intelligent social-democratic alternative. It was worse for Norman because McCarthy’s loonies got on to him and their colleagues gave him a rough time in Toronto (1950) and had him sacked from the American desk (1952). Fortunately for his career as a diplomat, Norman was able to show in his other writings a contempt for the moral dishonesty of Communism and the fustiness of Marxist ‘thought’, and became High Commissioner to New Zealand, Ambassador to Egypt and Minister to the Lebanon. He killed himself for a number of reasons, one of which was that his disastrous Cambridge experience had kept him out of Japan, the country he loved more than any other, and forced him to serve Canada a long way from home. Kiernan should not undervalue that word ‘serve’. It was important to Norman in a way it was not to the King’s men of his day.

Roy MacGregor-Hastie
Osaka Gakuin University College, Japan

V.G. Kiernan writes: Professor MacGregor-Hastie is the author of a recent biography, dedicated to Mrs Thatcher, of a popular hero of Victorian imperialism. From this the rest of his thinking might easily be deduced. It belongs to an atavistic ideology in which Britain has for too long been cocooned and suffocated. From the distance of Osaka it may be possible to believe that ‘under Thatcher Great Britain has more vitality than it has had for years’; for anyone living here, other than a Tory propagandist, it is a great deal more difficult. Of Herbert Norman and his work a far better balanced estimate will be found in the collection of essays edited by Dr R.W. Bowen and written by scholars and others who knew him, both Western and Japanese. The connection with King’s College, Cambridge which Professor MacGregor-Hastie appears to credit me with in his letter is quite imaginary.

Douglas Hyde writes: SIR: The experience of Professor V.G. Kiernan, at the hands of an American author J. Barros, who ’had the bad taste to thank me for some small assistance I gave him before I discovered what he was up to’ (LRB, 25 June), prompts me to think that a recent experience of my own, this time at the hands of another right-wing US author, may be of some interest. Twenty-five years ago, at a missionary, seminar in Washington DC, I gave some lectures under the title of ‘Dedication and Leadership Techniques’ which brought a positive approach to Communism – not necessarily what was universally expected of a former Communist. With the best of intentions, an American friend taped the lectures, which he transcribed and circulated in cyclostyled form. Before long, still cyclostyled, this had been put into soft covers and was selling at $2.00. Then came another unauthorised edition in hard covers. Later, travelling in Latin America, I found it on sale in Spanish translation. In 1963 I was asked to put approximately the same material into book form. This, after some delay, was published by Sands of London in 1966 as Dedication and Leadership: Learning from the Communists. The University of Notre Dame Press, Indiana, brought it out in paperback that same year.

It would not have occurred to me that there was still a demand for it today. I was surprised, therefore, when in February of this year I received a note from a Mr David W. Dunham, publisher, Dominion Press, Fort Worth, Texas, sent on to me by Notre Dame Press. It read: ‘Our firm would be very interested in discussing the possibility of publishing your work Dedication and Leadership Techniques. Please call or write so that we can discuss this matter further.’ My reply to this brief letter was a much longer one because, rereading the book for the first time for many years, I found that, whilst I would still stand by much of what I said twenty-five years ago, there were passages which no longer reflected my position, and the emphasis was different from what it would be were I writing it today. The sort of leadership courses and training about which I had written had been largely discontinued, less was demanded of their members in terms of total dedication. ‘In short,’ I wrote,

the book is out of date and would present, were it to be published today, a false picture of Communism as it is. It would now be unhelpful where once it was helpful. Sadly, therefore, I must accept that no more editions of this book should be published. It did considerable good in the context of its time, and was in fact ahead of its time, and with that I, and I fear you, must be satisfied.

The reply to this letter came, not from Mr Dunham, but from a Gary North PhD, President, American Bureau of Economic Research, with a box number in Tyler, Texas, the author of Marx’s Religion of Revolution: The Doctrine of Creative Destruction. He wrote: ‘Because I asked Mr Dunham to contact you, I am now in the position of having to rethink my original strategy. I want to train Christians in leadership. I am interested in showing them the successful approach that the Communists took a generation ago.’ He suggested that I should simply write a brief update explaining what I had said in my letter. He went on:

Understand, I intend to use your materials for training. I may have to buy the old book from Notre Dame. I may take advantage of the fact that your less well-known Dedication and Leadership Techniques was never copyrighted, and thus is public domain material. I would like to get your co-operation in this, but if I cannot, I will re-publish the uncopyrighted version, with insertions of my own referring to other classics of Communism of that era, such as Meyer’s Moulding of Communists.

Perhaps Professor Kiernan’s Mr J. Barros should meet my Dr Gary North. They would, presumably, have a lot in common.

Golden Age of Criticism

SIR: I’m pleased to learn that Gerald Graff (Letters, 3 September) regards his position as sympathetic to the view of critical theory I expressed in ‘The Golden Age of Criticism’ (LRB, 25 June), but chagrined at the possibility that I may have misrepresented his views as more antagonistic to theory than they actually are. If I have been guilty of a misrepresentation, I hereby apologise. Certainly Graff is the best judge of his own intentions, and I accept his present expression of them. I hope he will also accept my assurances that no distortion of his views was intended: I was simply trying to identify some recurrent features in the negative view of critical theory expressed in Criticism in the University, and I picked out those moments in his essay that seemed to fit that pattern, no doubt with insufficient regard for the particular differences among many of the contributors. On at least one point, however, I think Graff misunderstands me. When I characterised Criticism in the University as ‘single-minded’, I did not claim that all the contributors shared a single ideology: I did mean to say that many of them (despite other differences) agreed in regarding ‘the university and the appropriation of criticism by academic culture’ as the ‘villain’. The title of Graff’s article (‘The University and the Prevention of Culture’) and many of his statements (‘the university’ is charged with ‘blocking or muffling’ real critical communication and conflict) do make it seem that Graff shares Donald Davie’s sense that academic institutions are the real problem. Graff does, unlike him, have some proposals for reformation of the university to remedy what he sees as the university’s ‘failure to bring specialisations into relation with one another in any planned way’. We could argue about exactly what shape this master-plan is to take, and who might be qualified to impose it. I’m sceptical about the feasibility and desirability of institutional solutions to intellectual problems, but I’m willing to listen.

With regard to Graff’s claim that I misrepresent his view of theory as a private enclave as something unique to theory: it is true that Graff makes the (contestable) claim that ‘all academic fields’ are esoteric enclaves to the ‘lay public’, but he also goes on to qualify this point by suggesting that the more traditional fields still have a ‘sentimental pretence’ that they have an ‘audience outside the field’, in contrast to critical theory, which has ‘simply abandoned this pretence’, and delights in ‘flaunting its difficulty and esotericism’. I took this to mean that some enclaves (particularly critical theory’s) are more enclave-ish than others. Graff does seem to agree with my claim that he ‘laments’ the ‘assimiliation’ of criticism as a field among others. What I’m wrong about, evidently, is the source of the lamentation: Graff seems to want theory to provide the overall structure for reformation of the university, so that real communication and conflict may be brought about in a ‘planned way’. Perhaps some theory, somewhere, some day may accomplish this feat; again, I’m sceptical. But I fail to see how theory can leap to the task of overall reformation of academic institutions without first taking the modest step of establishing itself as a field or specialty, with all the hazards that entails. I don’t agree with Graff’s certainty that ‘the assimilation of theory as a field’ leaves the ‘rest of the faculty free to ignore the issues’ it raises. Would a refusal to treat theory as a ‘field’ force colleagues to confront it? Or would it simply make theory a nonexistent category in the practical affairs of literary study?

I plead guilty, then, to an oversimplification of Graff’s position, and to a possible misunderstanding of his ideological position vis-à-vis the ‘conservatives’ he wants to distance himself from. But I do hope it is clear how Graffs all-or-nothing rhetoric can invite such misunderstandings (not to mention his earlier, much less qualified attacks on theory in Literature against Itself). I’m delighted to see the leopard can change his spots.

W.J.T. Mitchell
University of Canterbury, New Zealand

Seeing Modernism off

SIR: Jonathan Raban, in his landmark survey of contemporary British verse (LRB, 23 July), refers to the ‘State of Poetry’ symposium that appeared in the final issue of the Review. He is amused at the way some contributors – he quotes Roy Fuller and Julian Symons – fumed over American Modernists and their Liverpudlian acolytes. But Mr Raban neglects to mention that he, too, was a contributor. Like this: ‘American poetry sometimes seems given over to telling (rather than showing) us that it’s tremendously powerful stuff … the Liverpool Scene … like the Wimpyburger, was a dim English emulation of the way they do things in the States, and was largely famous for being famous.’ Or this: ‘It’s surely clear now that the wham-bang, big-time American style of poetry, whether Black Mountain, West Coast, New York School, or whatever, has been a matter of bold election promises, little more.’ Or again: ‘As a community of poetry readers we’ve proved ourselves to be flibberty-gibbets and sad-sacks, bedazzled by dollars and Cadillacs.’

Mr Raban’s prose has come on a little since 1972, but not his taste. Does he think that a weak poem by Miriam Waddington and a feeble parody by Gavin Ewart settle the question? Reading Mr Raban, I again wondered why it is considered a trifle philistine, even in England, to complain about modern art, but civic-minded to deplore modernist poetry. (Because there is no Painter Laureate, perhaps?) Actually, I am wrong: the exemplary Philip Larkin hated Modernism right across the board, gloomily detecting a ‘compulsion on every modernist to wade deeper and deeper into violence and obscenity’. Filthy Mondrian.

Geoffrey Minish

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