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Letters

Vol. 18 No. 23 · 28 November 1996

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Vieux Jeu

Mark Kishlansky complains that Christopher Hill ‘has been immune to criticism – a habit of mind that has caused much misery in our century’ (LRB, 31 October). Well, if the criticism Hill’s work has encountered were all of the quality of Kishlansky’s shabby attack who could blame him for ignoring it? The insinuation that refusing to follow the tide of historiographic fashion is morally equivalent to sending dissidents off to the Gulag Archipelago is typical of a critique which proceeds by insult and innuendo rather than by anything resembling careful argument.

Kishlansky’s considered judgment is that Hill’s work is ‘precisely anachronistic and profoundly unhistorical’. He considers it a telling point against Hill that ‘Milton may have been a republican, but he was no democrat.’ This will hardly come as news to those who have read the books – notably Milton and the English Revolution and The Experience of Defeat – in which Hill explores the political dilemmas faced by those Commonwealth-men whose distrust of the people led them to advocate the dictatorship of the ‘elect’. Hill’s historical work, Kishlansky assures us, has been ‘swept away by changing fashions or subsequent investigations’. The priority given to fashion here is revealing. Kishlansky admits to feeling some nostalgia for the time at the end of the Sixties when Hill’s influence on historians was greatest. Now, however, he regards Marxism and ‘the history of the dispossessed’ as vieux jeu, and excoriates Hill for stubbornly refusing to acknowledge this. Invoking fashion to settle the merits of any intellectual inquiry is, quite simply, worthless.

The test most worth applying to Hill’s work, as to that of any historian, is whether it continues to pose questions suggesting fruitful lines of research. There is, for example, an interesting discussion to be had about the interrelation between his work and that of Edward Thompson: arguably The World Turned Upside Down (acknowledged even by Kishlansky to be Hill’s ‘masterpiece’) helped set the agenda for Whigs and Hunters and Thompson’s later work on the 18th century. Considerations of this kind could provide a starting-point for a serious appraisal of Hill’s contribution to our understanding of Early Modern England. Kishlansky’s clumsy and resentful piece suggests he is incapable of providing such an appraisal.

Alex Callinicos
University of York

Blame it on the claret

I haven’t read Billington on Pinter, but I gather from Michael Wood’s review (LRB, 14 November) that Billington says I must have been the victim of spite or delusion in making a reference to Pinter’s visible rage at a dinner party. Pinter never displays anger but only ‘impassioned integrity’. No doubt; and I yield to none in admiration for the playwright and his integrities. On this occasion, however, his face was red, and his voice loud enough to make Nadine Gordimer, in whose honour the party was held, shrink back in her chair. It is only fair to add that St Anne’s College’s claret – the party was being given by the Principal, Ruth Deech – was first-class, and that my face was probably red too. The evening was warm, as was the discussion; so perhaps what seemed like rage over the Israel-Palestine question was just the symptoms of good fellowship.

Michael Wood’s review raised – brilliantly – a still more interesting question. He pointed out that Pinter’s dramatis personae have, as it were, no before and after. The playgoer does not know what they will say when they come on, nor what they will do when they leave. Post-Modernism prides itself on having no past or future, and this may well be the secret of a Pinter character’s dramatic impact. Very effective it is too, but drama can just as well do the opposite. Shakespeare seems to encourage his audience to speculate about his characters’ previous lives, and what might happen to them, if they survive. How many children had Lady Macbeth?

John Bayley
Oxford

Outgunned

I can scarcely believe that I have laboured through Edward Luttwak’s article (LRB, 14 November) on central bankism and find hardly a mention of the money markets. Surely, the principal reason why central banks and their religion of hard money have become tyrannical is that the money markets make them so. Thanks in part to round-the-clock trading made possible by new technology, flows of currency are far greater than they were even twenty years ago. The currency men and women can outgun governments. They like what they see of the Bundesbank, which painfully built up the Deutschmark’s credibility over decades and helped foster Germany’s economic success. They have a choice where to invest and now punish mercilessly any country which opts for a soft money policy.

Victor Smart
European

Old enough to be his mother

Eric Hobsbawm’s review of Orlando Figes’s A Peoples Tragedy (LRB, 31 October) overlooks a number of important inaccuracies and errors of interpretation. These are not simply factual mistakes – although there are plenty of those. On page 146, to take one example, Figes gives the publication date of Lenin’s The Development of Capitalism in Russia as 1893: in fact Lenin did not start work on the book until January 1896; it wasn’t published until 1899.

More worryingly, Figes’s errors are often the result of his desire to make a case against the Russian Revolution in general and Lenin in particular. Here, for instance, is a typically dubious piece of research used for polemical purposes. In his Reminiscences of Lenin Maxim Gorky records Lenin saying after listening to Beethoven’s Appassionato: ‘I can’t listen to music often, it affects my nerves, it makes me want to say sweet nothings and pat the heads of people who, living in this filthy hell, can create such beauty. But today we mustn’t pat anyone on the head or we’ll get our hands bitten off; we’ve got to hit them on the heads, hit them without mercy, though in an ideal world we are against doing any violence to people.’ Clearly Lenin is saying that in a dangerous world one is obliged to be hard in spite of one’s instincts. But for Figes this remark proves that ‘Lenin had no place for sentiment in his life,’ and to sustain this interpretation he simply alters the quotation from Gorky so that it reads: ‘It makes me want to say kind, stupid things, and pat the heads of people. But now you have to beat them on the head, beat them without mercy.’ Lenin now looks as if he is simply interested in beating people over the head for the sheer hell of it. Moreover Figes makes this alteration without indicating in the conventional way that he has done so.

This is not an isolated slip of the pen. Take Figes’s treatment of the Bolshevik organiser Shliapnikov’s comment that the Bolsheviks became a ‘vanguard of a non-existent class’. Shliapnikov made the statement in 1921, after the Civil War, the international blockade, military intervention by more than a dozen foreign armies and famine had decimated the Russian working class. Figes makes it seem as if the statement had been made in 1918, so bolstering his contention that mass support for the October Revolution evaporated almost immediately. Or what of the claim that the music produced during the Civil War was ‘rather comical’? Perhaps, but it is not a contention that can be proved by citing Shostakovich’s Second Symphony, as Figes does, since it was written in 1927, years after the Civil War had ended. Neither can Zamyatin’s We be used as evidence of New Economic Policy discussions of Taylorism since, although it was not published until later, it was written in 1920, four years earlier than Figes claims.

Where Figes isn’t distorting the record, he often flatly contradicts himself. For instance, on page 460 we are told that ‘the October Revolution was a coup, actively supported by a small minority of the population.’ But on the previous page we have been told that ‘the revitalisation of the Soviets … coincided with their radicalisation from below, as factories and garrisons recalled the Mensheviks and SRs in favour of those Bolsheviks, Anarchists and Left SRs calling for the assumption of Soviet power.’ Figes admits that by August 1917 the Bolsheviks had already won control of the Soviets in lvanovo-Voznesentsk (the Russian equivalent of Manchester), Kronstadt (the key naval base outside Petrograd), Ekaterinburg, Samara and Tsaritsyn. In September, Riga, Sartov and Moscow followed. Then came Petrograd, where Trotsky replaced the chairman. This was the mass base of support for the Revolution, even though the Government had so few supporters by October that very little force was needed for the Soviets to take power.

Figes’s case against the Bolsheviks is often maintained less by historical argument than by personal innuendo. We are told, for instance, that Lenin was a ‘physical coward’, a ‘demagogue’, someone who never admitted that he’d married his wife in church (he did so in order to enable her to accompany him in exile), ‘ignorant of everyday work’, a ‘cultural philistine’ who used ‘crude and violent language’. In one passage we are told that ‘Lenin did weight training to build up his muscles. It was all part of the macho culture (the black leather jackets, the militant rhetoric, the belief in action and the cult of violence) that was the essence of Bolshevism.’ Figes mentions the Bolsheviks’ black leather jackets seven times – compared to just three references to, and no quotation from, State and Revolution. Other Bolshevik leaders are damned by the same method. It is supposed to be relevant that Alexandra Kollantai, the Bolshevik Commissar for Social Welfare, had a partner younger than she was; ‘she was old enough to be his mother,’ sniffs Figes.

John Rees
International Socialism

Full and Horrible Detail

There is no way of knowing what is in my book from Greg Dening’s review (LRB, 31 October), which describes Far-Fetched Facts: The Literature of Travel and the Idea of the South Seas only by negatives and insinuations. Many misrepresentations result from this method but one is particularly offensive. Dening describes the massacre of Marquesans by their Spanish discoverers in the 16th century and comments that ‘the terrible violence islanders suffered’ does not ‘feature greatly’ in my book because ‘ “literature" is [my] concern.’ He then describes another massacre, of Tahitians by the guns of the Dolphin in the 18th century, remarking that such atrocities were ignored in ‘literature’ and therefore by myself, ‘a literary man reading “literature" ’. This is misleading, to say the least. Dening knows very well what he never tells the reader of his review: that I treat the writings of the 16th-century Spanish and 18th-century British voyagers at length, and quote their descriptions of these two massacres in full and horrible detail. Although Dening never says so, Far-Fetched Facts is about the writings of sailors and travellers (such as Columbus, Dampier, Cook), political theorists and philosophers (Montaigne, Rousseau, Diderot) as well as the works of authors of ‘literature’ in Dening’s narrow sense (Defoe, Melville, Stevenson). My concern is not ‘literature’, as Dening would have it, but the literature of travel.

Neil Rennie
University College London

Big Bang to Big Crunch

John Leslie is either trying a version of Zeno’s Paradox on us (Letters, 17 October) or, with respect, missing an important condition mentioned in my letter. I can well believe that the centimetre-sized universe was expanding during the super-inflation period (say from 10-43 to 10-35 secs) at rates well ahead of light-speed, but in referring to ‘early universe’ I did say ‘post-galaxy formation’, i.e. the universe at about one-tenth of its present age, since that is the universe from whose galactic inhabitants we are told we are now receiving the light. But from that stage to the present, the rates of furthest galactic recession have been presumably (a) never faster than they are now, and (b) at a snail’s pace compared to light-speed. Hence the question – why are ‘we’ only seeing them now?

L.C. Laming
Imperial College

Arafat’s Palestine

The list of PEN signatories who address themselves to Yasser Arafat in the matter of Edward Said’s books being banned (Letters, 17 October) is really remarkable: Derrida, Sontag, Ginsberg, Grass, Vidal etc are citizens of Western liberal democracies whose postwar operations in the Middle East include weapons sales, cultivation of client regimes after destabilising others, and the support of governments who believe that ‘the Islamic wave can be defeated in the torture chamber,’ as Hossein Oweidah wrote in a letter to the Independent earlier this month. Adonis, Darwish and Mafouz, on the other hand, belong to peoples who are, and have been, at the receiving end of imperialist pressures which we Westerners, purveyors of a commodity-oriented culture of materialism, are pleased to call ‘democratic liberalism’. In Culture and Imperialism Said explains the relations between coloniser and colonised as follows: the ‘dominant society comes to depend uncritically on natives and their territories perceived as in need of la mission civilisatrice’. How is it that he finds himself the subject of a letter, addressed to the leader of his own people, the intent of which is precisely an example of that mission civilisatrice? Is it because, if the West practised the principles which its citizens are at liberty to preach, the Palestinians might not be suffering their current humiliations?

David Kuhrt
London N8

Scrolloping

Gerald Long (Letters, 17 October) is quite right in asserting that the expression off limits pre-dates 1952. H.H. Jenkins’s Diction of ‘Yank’ cites references from 1942 (‘It’s even off-limits for the MPs’) and from 1943 (‘We were bush-whacking in the off-limits weeds’). However, off limits can in fact be traced sixty years earlier than this. The draft revision of the OED’s entry includes this reference from West Point Tic Tacs of 1878 (uncovered by the crack word-watcher David Shulman): ‘Off limits – to go outside of cadet limits – to run it.’

John Simpson
Chief Editor, OED

Mistake

Fredric Jameson would like us to say that the science fiction writer he mentioned in his review of Ein weites Feld was Terry Bisson, not Bissell (LRB, 17 October). And while we’re about it we would like to apologise for the socialist who, implausibly, made her way into The First Wives ’Club: a socialite of course was intended (LRB, 14 November).

Editors, ‘London Review’

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