On the Eve of the Millennium: The Future of Democracy through an Age of Unreason 
by Conor Cruise O’Brien.
Free Press, 168 pp., £7.99, February 1996, 0 02 874094 7
Show More
Show More

Few things are harder to write than a sincere treatment in the style of ‘more sorrow than anger’. The sincerity is bound to get in the way of both the sorrow and the anger, and vice versa. One will be suspected, perhaps, of masking (beneath the regret) a covert relish. The fulsome style of the obituarist may creep in, causing one to be sanctimonious about the virtues in order to appear generous about the backslidings. Hypocrisy waits at every intersection. But it remains the fact that Conor Cruise O’Brien has been one of the great stylists of our time, whether writing about France, Britain, Ireland or Africa. It further remains a fact that his has been a voice attuned to the discourse of reason, and that when he has been ‘mobbish’ (his own preferred term for a bit of polemical exaggeration; no harm in it; no malice; the fellow needed a bit of a start anyway) then even this mobbishness has been generous, and a pleasure to read. O’Brien has been an internationalist, a wit, a polymath and a provocateur. I can still remember the excitement with which I discovered a copy of Writers and Politics, in a provincial library in Devonshire thirty years ago. Nobody who tries to write about either of those subjects, or about ‘the bloody crossroads’ where they have so often met, can disown a debt to the Cruiser. I hope that this is enough by way of sorrow and sincerity, though I could certainly have amplified it. Because the plain fact is that his latest book is a disgrace. Even if it doesn’t make one angry, it is a cause for disgust and depression. It fouls his reputation both for writing and for reasoning.

Ostensibly, what we have here is an extended rumination on the next horizon of our species: the oncoming hieroglyphic of the year 2000. O’Brien fears that there will be an increase in mania and fanaticism as this appointment draws nigh, and though he eschews the pun, he also fears that this increase will be secular. It’s not that he ignores the religious dimension: more that he correctly fears the overflow of the superstitious into the quotidian. This is a good subject for a man of his range (even if one is slightly fed up in advance at the prospect of how much one may have to read, and even perhaps to write, about the onset of the millennium). But O’Brien has made the mistake of confusing the condition of the cosmos with the state of his own liver.

He begins with – what else? – Yeats’s ‘Second Coming’. Then he recapitulates the writing of Jules Michelet, who recalled the panic and terror of the year 1000 in his History of France. O’Brien has written well in the past about both Yeats and Michelet. But in this instance he is content to lard his tired prose with a few rough beasts and mere anarchies, much as any hack might do. And he ignores the large body of more recent work by medievalists, which argues that Michelet was simply repeating some 16th-century fabrications about the last millennium.* This serves as a weak introduction to his attack on the present Pope. Of course it is true, as O’Brien says, that John Paul II is an authoritarian and an obscurantist. (It could almost be said that these qualities come with the territory.) It is likewise the case that the Vatican and the Muslim extremists made common cause at the world population conference in Cairo. Yet there is no linear progression, of the sort he suggests, between these findings and a sort of reverse-ecumenical counter-enlightenment brought on by the millennium. And there is no reason at all to suppose, as O’Brien preposterously argues, that while ‘John Paul II is not about to embrace Islam’ nevertheless ‘he is not averse to giving the impression that he may be about to do so.’ Remind me. When did he start giving this impression? By overstressing the importance of the year 2000 in his explication (the Pope ‘hopes, as he has told us,’ O’Brien notes significantly, ‘to be presiding over the destinies of the Catholic Church when that great turning point is reached’) he goggles at the date just as one of Michelet’s peasants might have done. A safer prediction might be that the Pope will not make it to the turn of the century, and nor will his National Security Adviser, Mother Teresa, and that nothing in any case can save their Church from the crisis of allegiance being undergone by its faithful. An instance of this – the divorce referendum in O’Brien’s native Ireland – occurred too recently to be considered by him.

At first I thought that this was just a shaky start. But in the second chapter (this book originated as a series of lectures) came a point of decline which rapidly disclosed itself as inaugurating something irreversible. Discussing Europe on the eve of 1914, O’Brien correctly says that Lenin did not foresee the coming of the European war:

When the chain of events that led to the war was set in motion by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo, Lenin was sceptical: ‘I cannot believe that Franz Joseph and our Nikolashka will give us that pleasure.’

   Pleasure: Russia’s revolutionary destinies were now in the hands of a man who thought of the coming First World War as a pleasure.

Say what you will about O’Brien, his work has been infused with irony and paradox. That he should so heavily and sarcastically miss the point of a black joke is a sorry thing. And note the leaden, ordinary prose. (‘Chain of events’ is a cliché, and you can’t easily have a chain of any sort ‘set in motion’.)

Not only is O’Brien being crass here, he is also being reactionary. He sounds like one of those paranoid pamphleteers against the man Ronald Reagan unfailingly called ‘Nikolai Lenin’. Lenin, incidentally, also couldn’t believe the news that the German Social Democrats had voted for the war – a truly vertiginous moment in modern history – but if you go on mentioning the number of things that he couldn’t credit then it becomes harder to go on about his supernatural ‘ruthlessness’ and ‘coldness’. The traditional next stages in polemics of this kind are a. some incantation about 1984 and b. some growls about ‘appeasement’. O’Brien does not disappoint. Arguing that the present ceasefire in Ireland ‘will bring Ireland closer and closer to civil war every day that it continues’, he says as if coining the thought for the first time that ‘the year 1994 is more like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four than the real 1984 was. In 1994, we are beginning to understand the full force of the Orwellian slogan, “Peace Means War.” ’ Oh, please. In the first place, the famous Ministry of Truth slogan was ‘War Is Peace.’ In the second place, we are now (as could have been predicted) in 1996, which means that the lucky coincidence of one digit is of no literary use. Does that make O’Brien reconsider his argument? Not at all. Does it make him question the usefulness of numerology in his analysis? Fat chance. Indeed, when he comes to consider the case of Haiti – and to take another crack at the Clinton who has offended him by meeting Gerry Adams, and so can do nothing right – he has his deadly thrust at the ready: ‘The year 1994 is a lot more like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four than the chronological 1984 was. Operation Restore Democracy is a masterpiece both of Newspeak and Doublespeak.’

Anyway, on to appeasement. Hitting on the analogy of Munich as if he has stumbled across a wholly new historical trope, O’Brien employs it to impugn any government which seeks to gratify the assumed popular fondness for ‘peace’. (Not much 1914 here.) To his dead-obvious recitation of the record of Chamberlain and Daladier he adds at least one new factoid:

Throughout the Thirties, Nobel Peace Prizes went to pacifists, mostly British and French pacifists whose activities were consistently – although altogether inadvertently – beneficial to Hitler... The peace process, from 1936 on, meant that the West had to fight, three years later, a Germany grown immensely formidable, through the yearning of the West for peace.

Bet you didn’t know that. But then O’Brien doesn’t seem to know that the Nobel Peace Prize in 1935 went to Carl von Ossietsky, a German anti-militarist whose award outraged the Nazis and got him sent to a camp. (There were no French winners. The three British ones were a mixed bag.) And he seems to have forgotten what he once knew, which is that Munich represented not so much a weak-kneed capitulation to Hitler as a spirited attempt to make an agreement with him. The later ‘spin’, the ‘inadvertently’ lenient one of invertebrate naivety, was furnished retrospectively in order to suit the requirements of the Cold War. Of course Hitler, like Lenin, must always be presented in these sorts of minatory discourse as if he was the only person who had any idea of what he was up to: ‘Hitler, that great propagandist, knew what he was doing when he announced his Thousand Year Reich. He understood the magical resonances that adhere to the idea of a thousand years: the heady echoes of the Book of Revelation which linger even in consciously secular minds.’ Enough to make your flesh creep, with its ‘heady echoes’ and all. No doubt Churchill was aiming for the same effect when he spoke of the thousand-year empire in his ‘Finest Hour’ address.

What is true in O’Brien’s argument is not original, and what is original is not true. Proceeding with his bilious view of the state of democracy, he makes the point that the American founding documents represent a civil religion. Some truth, I’d say, in that oft-repeated observation. But is it the case that

the Declaration of Independence is the supremely sacred scripture of the American civil religion. Jefferson’s role as the man who wrote down the scripture is analogous to the role of the Prophet Muhammed taking down the Blessed Koran at the dictation of an angel of God ... The effect of the cult of Jefferson, therefore, is to invest the secular and ostensibly wholly rational Enlightenment with an aura of revelation and the numinous.

Nobody believes the proposition advanced in the second sentence above. And the only people who applaud the general argument are those in the Christian Right movement who tried, a few years ago, to have ‘secular liberalism’ denominated as a religion so that they could demand ‘equal time’ with it in the schools. This sinister nonsense was seen off with hardly any trouble at all and (though it can be imprudent to underestimate these Protestant fundamentalists) it hasn’t been resurrected. In writing with heroic exaggeration that Jefferson is ‘the secular patron saint of modern liberal intellectuals’, O’Brien makes the astounding discovery that Jefferson owned slaves and insinuates that there has been a liberal cover-up here. Well, I find it’s tolerably well-known that the Sage of Monticello had some unpaid help on his estate. The late I.F. Stone, indeed, who used to describe himself as a ‘Jeffersonian Marxist’, was always expecting trouble on the Marxist bit, but got himself roundly abused for identifying with a holder of people as property. Finally, O’Brien correctly notes that Jefferson chose ‘Author of the Declaration of Independence’ as his epitaph but fails to add that he also chose (instead of ‘Twice President of the United States’) his authorship of the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom. This last, which institutes the separation of church and state and prevents the establishment of any government-endorsed faith, is unlikely to have been dictated by an angel of any kind and thus leaves O’Brien’s analogy looking perfectly stupid.

Of course, O’Brien doesn’t especially care about the slavery business or any of the other distractions he intrudes into the discussion. What matters to him is that Jefferson was a lifelong antagonist of Edmund Burke. And this, you must know, is not to be pardoned. Now (and here I return to my more-in-sorrow mode) we all know more about Burke – how to think about him and how to read him – as a result of O’Brien’s labours. In school we were taught about Burke the Tory versus Paine the incendiary, where the only text was the Reflections, but from O’Brien we learned about Burke’s solicitude for the Thirteen Colonies, his outrage at the depredations of Warren Hastings in India, and his willingness to spend time on matters of principle. We also learned of the fascinating, occluded, red-haired Irishman, who hoped by careful husbandry of his counsel to be allowed to plead for his stricken homeland. In the ironic and ambivalent figure of Burke, indeed, it didn’t seem too fanciful to detect something of O’Brien himself. As he wrote in his own Preface to the Reflections:

The contradictions in Burke’s position enrich his eloquence, extend its range, deepen its pathos, heighten its fantasy and make possible its strange appeal to ‘men of liberal temper’. On this interpretation, part of his power to penetrate the processes of a revolution derives from a suppressed sympathy with revolution, combined with an intuitive grasp of the subversive possibilities of counter-revolutionary propaganda, as affecting the established order in the land of his birth ... For him, the forces of revolution and the counter-revolution exist not only in the world at large but also within himself.

As George Orwell really did say in another context, it would almost be worth being dead to have something like that written about you. And in The Great Melody, O’Brien expanded upon some of these themes, without actually expanding them very much. Yet here we have Burke presented as a straight, unambiguous Tory; either the adamant foe of Jefferson or the moaning defender of Marie Antoinette. This is a real and sad declension.

One of the signal achievements of the French Revolution was the abolition of slavery, and one of the horrors of Bonapartism was its restoration. This drama took place largely on the soil of Haiti, which is the site of another O’Brienish rant. As his dull attribution to Orwell made plain, O’Brien is no fan of the Clinton policy, which he takes to be another exercise in hypocrisy. There’s a lot to be said (believe me) on that side of the case. But to argue as O’Brien does that the removal of the Cédras junta had but one objective, and that objective the ignoble one of stemming the flow of Haitian emigration, is to be reductionist. (At one point, he refers to it as ‘a black political force’; the best but not the only misprint inflicted on him by the yawning editors at the celebrated Free Press.) Like the US intervention in Bosnia, the restoration of the elected President Aristide – never mentioned by the Cruiser – was compounded of a mixture of realpolitik, imperialism, democratic rhetoric, moral promises and political opportunism. It was also part of the price that the United States pays for being ‘top nation’ at the UN; again something you might think the author of The United Nations: Sacred Drama might have found room to discuss. But here is what it was not, and here is what O’Brien, stupefyingly, says it was: ‘an example of degenerative processes affecting the intellect: processes which, if they continue to develop as they are now doing on the eve of the third millennium, may well destroy our Western civilisation by around the third century of that millennium.’ Let nobody say that O’Brien does not take himself, or his own argument, with due seriousness. On the very next occasion that he mentions Operation Restore Democracy (not many pages away) he asserts: ‘That way madness lies, quite literally. If that level of wishful fantasy should become the norm, and should then perhaps even be surpassed, our whole Western culture will be going out of its collective mind, probably within the first quarter of the third millennium.’

Pray, why so vague? (And yet, so exact? Dost know hawk from handsaw?) Why need we wait three hundred years for the vindication of a judgment so self-evident in the present? On other matters, O’Brien is not even this temperate. He worries about the future of Britain without a Crown and says, in full chiliastic mode but with a shorter time-line, that ‘I doubt whether the monarchy can survive until the end of the next century. And I fear that its disappearance may wrench the fabric of British society in such a way as to endanger British democracy and even – in conjunction with other forces – endanger democracy in the West in general.’

Which would be in nice time for the subsequent collapse, post-Haiti, of civilisation itself. O’Brien obviously likes this idea well enough to be brooding on it, because in a flash of inspiration a few pages later he confides: ‘For these reasons, I think it unlikely that the British monarchy can survive to the end of the next century. Its fall will have very serious implications, not only for Britain, but also for the whole of the West.’ In speaking of ‘degenerative processes affecting the intellect’, O’Brien has given a large hostage to fortune. I scarcely need to add that he blames the monarchy’s trouble on ‘the tabloid press’, and dilates on the need for some kind of restraint, for all the world as if C and D (I’m sorry, I just can’t give them either their titles or their familiar names) had not each enlisted a gutter on either side of Fleet Street. There, if he cared to look for it, the Cruiser might unearth a clue about the Ancien Régime. As it is, he really does vindicate Paine by mourning the plumage and forgetting the dying bird.

What else might one expect from the autumn of such a patriarch? Well, an attack on pornography and a hard-hitting critique of political correctness would be in order. These duly arrive – porn being blamed for the destruction of the Bourbons, and PC being courageously and uniquely defined as ‘that fascinating late development of Orwellian Newspeak which is known as “politically correct” ’. I might add that our boy fears that this, too, ‘may be a symptom of a wider degeneration within the Western mind, and related to other symptoms, such as those indicative of deep malaise within the democratic system’. Which takes care of all that. (The real symptom of a PC bore, by the way, is a tendency to stress the fact that Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder.) There is barely a ‘quotable’ passage in the whole book, as you may guess from what I have unselectively quoted, though one might make an exception for this: ‘British diplomats, constantly exposed to American political-ethical rhetoric, find their professional skills tested to the limits by the need to keep a straight face. For illustrations of what I mean, study the photographs of the expressions worn by Mr Douglas Hurd at any international conference involving all the Western allies.’ This recalls O’Brien’s statement, delivered just between his sacking from the UN and his writing of Murderous Angels, that ‘as a result of the policy of Macmillan’s Government, Great Britain presents in the United Nations the face of Pecksniff and in Katanga the face of Gradgrind.’ Otherwise, these pages crumble before the eye like yesterday’s (or today’s) effusion from Paul Johnson.

And this would be all knockabout stuff if it were not for the fact that – like the writing of the aforesaid Johnson – it has calcified around an increasingly nasty core. The early chapters of this little book are mostly and merely stupid, or mostly and merely boring. But a gruesome little light is switched on behind the glaucous eyes when O’Brien comes to his closing stave, which is a veiled tribute to Nietzsche. Quoting himself from an earlier incarnation, he writes in a synthesis of the worst of Camus and the worst of Sartre:

The advanced world may well be like, and feel like, a closed and guarded palace, in a city gripped by the plague. There is another metaphor, developed by André Gide, one of the many powerful minds powerfully influenced by Nietzsche. This is the metaphor of the lifeboat, in a sea full of the survivors of a shipwreck. The hands of survivors cling to the side of the boat. But the boat has already as many passengers as it can carry. No more survivors can be accommodated, and if they gather and cling on, the boat will sink and all be drowned. The captain orders out the hatchets. The hands of the survivors are severed. The lifeboat and its passengers are saved.

Even when I read this ABC of utilitarianism in 1970 (when O’Brien to the delight of all was holder of the Albert Schweitzer Chair in the Humanities) I was compelled to notice the choice of the word ‘passenger’ in the fifth and the last sentences. Guess, in other words, who is in the boat and who is in the water. You can’t help but observe that the person so ostentatiously chewing the moral knuckle is also the ‘tough-minded’ person who is, in imagination and reality, well inside the boat. Try it the other way about. The steerage and the cooks have got to the boats first, and the paying customers are flailing in the foam? I don’t think so. Had he only written ‘the lifeboat and its occupants’ we might have been faced with an exercise in strict moral neutrality. (And then, perhaps, have inquired whether anyone had thought to jettison the golf-clubs or the safe-deposit boxes.) As it is, O’Brien is playing the pseudo-Swiftian role of asking us to face difficult choices, while actually taking a modest proposal – to lop off the limbs of fellow creatures – as literally as he takes Lenin and Hitler. In his update of this argument, the vicarious enthusiasm for what he suggestively terms ‘bracing fierceness’ is barely masked by any affectation of repugnance. As he phrases it, this time uttering his own thoughts without mediation: ‘In reality, the Third World ghettoes – such as the townships of South Africa – are the centres of an intensified and accelerated process of natural selection.’ Worth knowing, if you are bracing yourself for fierceness. You flick back to the earlier O’Brien attack on the Pope, and suddenly notice that his argument is entirely, or better say simply, Malthusian. Birth control, in other words, is not to be advocated because it increases the sum of health and freedom, and teaches people how to limit family size in a decent and voluntary way, but only because there are too many of them. And we know, do we not, who they are. (Who cares that planetary resources are used up far more promiscuously, and very much more rapidly, by the citizens of rich countries? We’re talking lifeboats here.)

How was such a noble mind o’erthrown? One becomes less intrigued by this question as the long day wanes, but it seems clear that by the time of his book, The Siege, the Cruiser had surrendered to the termites within. Conor Cruise O’Zion was one thing; empurpled defender of the proprietary rights of Jewish settlers in Palestine. Camera Crews O’Booze was also a discrete entity, bracingly fierce in his guarding of Derry’s Walls against Popery and terrorism. But Afrikaner Cruise O’Brien was a bit much. Having identified these three minorities as encircled members of the community of the oppressed, O’Brien had mastered the trick of presenting overdog causes in underdog rhetorical yowls. He wrote of Mandela’s ANC that it was ‘a political movement whose sanction, symbol and signature is the burning alive of people in the street’. (There’s a warning there, and not just against infelicitous alliteration.)

At least, in presenting these lost causes in those ways, O’Brien could posture as one who swam ‘against the current’. He also knew a lot, in those days, about the bad intellectual habit of coming up with pretty names for violence and cruelty. How he must mourn the fact that he could not, then, have depicted himself with due rectitude as ‘politically incorrect’. How he must deplore the incautious conduct of the South African National Party, and the Israelis, in having deferred to the existence of another people on ‘their’ besieged national territories. And how he chirrups for the Orangemen when they prove his point by denying this salient fact. Never have the Romantic and the Rejectionist been compounded in such a frightful macédoine. Seldom can witless sneering and empty cynicism have been so hastily wed to a show of idealism. At the close, O’Brien writes – much more, no doubt, in sorrow than in relish – that ‘Fascism, like its ancestor Nietzscheanism, is unfortunately an appropriate ideology for a guarded palace in a city gripped by the plague.’

One has to love and respect that placing of the word ‘unfortunately’, by one who has just exhausted himself in trying to suggest that we do inhabit such a ‘palace’. O’Brien can speak for himself. I will not elect to be Pangloss just because he has chosen to be Spengler. But one can’t help noticing that those with axe in hand are the Michael Portillos and Alan Clarks and Pat Buchanans and Ross Perots (who don’t choose to share any of their palaces with me or anyone else) and that those with their hands on the gunwale are the Ken Saro-Wiwas and others. A difficult choice? Not all that difficult. Lest I be thought queasy and irresolute, however, I can make a modest proposal of my own which could yet give the vessel a breathing space. The Cruiser should be made to read this book, which would quite possibly be for the first time. Then he should be asked to eat it. Then he should agree, without sentimentality or sickly compassion, to make a utilitarian sacrifice for suffering humanity, and pitch himself over the side.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

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.

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