Vol. 12 No. 7 · 5 April 1990

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In defence of Raymond Williams

In your issue of 8 March Robin Blackburn claims The Golden Notebook as a product of the milieu of the New Left. This is quite untrue unless the New Left is now retrospectively to be expanded to include ideas which in fact it was impossible to discuss with any of the people I knew, most of whom were much younger that I was, and who I thought of as intellectual socialists. The Golden Notebook was not reviewed in the New Left Review. The young woman who asked to review it and was refused complained for several hours of a long wet journey to Wales about the attitudes to women in this milieu, particularly the New Left Review.

Doris Lessing
London NW6

Raymond Williams saw himself, inter alia, as a political activist. He can be so judged. I well remember an occasion in the Sixties, in the Town Hall in Cambridge, where he was the main speaker at a big meeting. He spoke in inspiring style about democracy, the people’s future, Jerusalem and all the trimmings, and ended with a rhetorical question: ‘What, then, shall we do?’ We waited in euphoric expectation for the answer and it came: ‘Vote Labour at the General Election.’ The anti-climax! All he had to offer was brilliant rhetoric. Lloyd George, Bevan, Griffiths, Williams, Kinnock – how well the Welsh beguile the English! And how we seem to love it!

Years later, in London, I joined his post-1968 enterprise – Mayday Manifesto – an exercise in injecting some new life into the then ageing New Left. I soon found out that he was being serviced by King Street (then the headquarters of the CP) and tried to warn him about that kiss of death. As an ex-CP member I knew just what was going to happen. He took no notice and I quit, but not before writing to him to underline the message that if he didn’t stand on his own two feet, his brave enterprise would be as dead as the dodo in no time. And it was.

Might he and others like him have done anything else? The answer has to be affirmative. The period 1956-68 saw the birth and decline of the New Left as a strictly parliamentary exercise and of non-violent direct action, of the genus of people’s power, in the form of the Committee of 100. Reinforced by Bertrand Russell’s name and personal example the idea went round the world, but Raymond Williams and the leaders of the New Left (with one or two honourable exceptions) passed by on the other side. The thing eventually collapsed because the circumstances of Britain have been such that non-violent direct action has never had occasion to develop into non-violent insurrection and the displacement of an existing government in the fashion that has become commonplace over the last six months in Eastern Europe. The subject was born in Britain in the Sixties, but perished in its infancy. In the USA it was different. The civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King took to non-violent direct action in historic fashion. John Rawls wrote a theory of civil disobedience, in a near-free and near-just society, into his A Theory of Justice and Murray Bookchin made post-scarcity anarchism respectable.

Raymond Williams was one of a special breed. Others are, or have been, Fenner Brockway, Stuart Hall, Eric Hobsbawm and Bruce Kent – good people who have a genius for human relations and consensus, an ability to use language beautifully to tell people what they want to hear and so send them home with their batteries charged and a song in their hearts. But everything is left exactly as it was. Eventually, politically at least, they get found out. The sad thing is that in this century we have not produced a single political thinker of commanding stature since 1945. Raymond Williams, licensed rebel and excellent teacher, was never a candidate.

Peter Cadogan
London NW6

What’s so good about Reid?

Galen Strawson’s article ‘What’s so good about Reid?’ (LRB, 22 February) will be welcomed by admirers of Thomas Reid for making accessible to common readers some of Reid’s interesting and important philosophical views. Even so, Strawson misrepresents some of the most important facets of Reid’s philosophy. Strawson makes it appear that because Hume and Reid agree that our basic concepts and beliefs are forced upon us by ‘the constitution of our nature’ and have an irresistible authority over us, they are in no fundamental disagreement. He quotes with approval the exchange between Sir James Mackintosh and Thomas Brown. Mackintosh remarked that Reid and Hume ‘differed more in words than in opinion’, and Brown replied: ‘Yes, Reid bawled out, We must believe in an outward world; but added in a whisper, We can give no reason for our belief. Hume cries out, We can give no reason for such a notion; and whispers, I own we cannot get rid of it.’ In fact, Hume and Reid are in fundamental disagreement on this matter. One, but not the only, matter in contention is their very different conceptions of common sense. Hume thinks of common sense as a blind mechanical instinct operating in the imagination through non-cognitive rules of association of ideas; the beliefs produced by this instinct are non-rational, even irrational, on Hume’s account. Reid rejects Hume’s view of common sense, and regards common sense as the lowest common office or degree of reason – that lowest common degree of reason that entitles people to the denomination of reasonable creatures and without which a person is mentally defective. If Reid is right, then contra Hume, the dictates of common sense, such as our basic external world beliefs, are ipso facto dictates of reason. Reid rejects Hume’s narrow conception of reason as a mere calculative faculty that cannot give rise to any ‘original’ (i.e. constitutional) ideas. Indeed, Reid thinks that the faculty of reason produces a great many concepts and beliefs a priori, e.g. the concepts of premise, conclusion, inference, fallacy and various of our logical beliefs based upon such concepts. None of these can be traced to the only other source of concepts or beliefs, viz sense-perception.

Many people are now strongly inclined to think that Hume’s assimilation of common sense to mechanical instinct is less philosophically helpful or fruitful than Reid’s view of common sense as an office/degree of reason. Certainly, believing in the existence of realities distinct from and independent of the mind does seem more like the intellectual act of affirming a proposition than like anything that can reasonably be understood as mechanically instinctive like breathing, sucking or swallowing, and just as surely Hume’s inclusion of this belief with hunger, lust, benevolence, the love of life, kindness to children, and the desire for punishment of our enemies, as instincts, renders his conception of instinct problematic if not downright suspect.

Finally, it is clear that Hume’s doctrine that we can give no reasons in support of our external world beliefs is entirely sceptical. For Hume, our inability to give any reasons for believing in an external world is itself ground for doubt. But for Reid our inability to doubt that there is an external world makes the sceptical effort to doubt irrational; it is always irrational to attempt to do something that one knows to be impossible. For Reid, rational doubt is evidence-based doubt. The mere logical possibility that some contingent propositions are false (that there are other minds, that there is an external world etc) is not only not good evidence that such propositions are false, or even might be: it is no evidence at all. That is partly why Reid regards scepticism as unreal, pretended doubt.

D.D. Todd
Simon Fraser University,

Possible Heideggers

Richard Rorty’s eulogy of Martin Heidegger (LRB, 8 February) is shamefully tasteless, insensitive, infantile, and vulgar in the extreme. He seems to think that one should not be angry with Heidegger because, despising democracy, as does every good intellectual, he also worshipped at the phallic shrine of Nazism, joined the Party (in both senses of the word), and betrayed his colleagues and his country to support a movement which, in one of its few instances of sanity, had the good sense to reject him in favour of an even greater mind, Alfred Rosenberg, whose position as the ideological and doctrinal theoretician of the most obscene, banal, puerile, and maniacal system ever devised in the entirety of human history Rorty’s hero coveted. The Nazi Heidegger was not a hypocrite; Nazism was Heideggerism authentically made flesh. To be a hypocrite would require Heidegger to think one way and act another, but surely all of Nazism is contained within the deranged, demented putrescence of his Teutonic furz, his Gesamelte Werke.

Sidney Halpern
Temple University, Pennsylvania

The Kosovo Question

I am replying to Branka Magas’s letter (Letters, 22 March) about my Yugoslavian Diary. First of all, apologies to all lovers of Kosovian minutiae: it was indeed the Party and not the Government headquarters which saw the first demonstrations of the latest Kosovo unrest. As for the number of people who turned out: 30,000 was the figure widely accepted in Kosovo – indeed by the various horses’ mouths referred to by Branka Magas. Ms Magas is wrong on some other points: local Communist leader Rahman Morina was prevented from being heard at this same demonstration, which Ms Magas calls largely silent. To talk about unprovoked (her italics) police action is a bit rich from someone who denigrates a journalist’s attempt to provide a ‘little local colour’: certainly these police actions against stone-throwing kids can be called unjustified, but hardly, in view of the stone-throwing, unprovoked.

Ms Magas says a solution to the Kosovo question is obvious. It is a matter, for her, of giving democratic rights to Yugoslavia’s ‘third-largest minority’. But the problem remains one of trying to convince Yugoslavia’s largest minority, the Serbs, that they should accept such a solution. Ms Magas’s ‘solution’ may be the most desirable one, but it is politically unviable. Serbian nationalists would not accept it. I feel considerable sympathy for the rest of her arguments. Ultimately she is more optimistic about the future of Yugoslavia than I am. I hope very much that she is right.

Sam Miller
London W11


Thank you for reproducing one of Don Bachardy’s Last Drawings of Christopher Isherwood in the 22 February issue of LRB. Still, I cannot help wondering what ‘Herr Issyvoo’ would think of having his time-worn body and pudenda exhibited to your entire readership in a full-page reproduction of one of Bachardy’s drawings. It seems a pity you chose to print it without a worthy accompanying essay.

Jacques Burdick
New York

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