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Letters

Vol. 23 No. 16 · 23 August 2001

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Who was Silvestri?

In the very last days of the war in Europe the roulette of military postings took me, as a young RAF sergeant, to Rome. There I had a memorable meeting with Ignazio Silone, about whom Martin Clark wrote in the last issue (LRB, 9 August). It was a chastening encounter. Silone was for me, as for many teenagers in the 1930s, an anti-Fascist icon; the humanity, courage and stoicism that informed his novels, the directness and freedom from rodomontade that enveloped them, the innocence and simplicity that pervaded them, all found resonance in the political idealism of our adolescence; we were enchanted.

I immediately told Silone how indebted I and many young men and women were to him. He did not modestly brush aside my obeisances; on the contrary, when I told him I would be filing an account of our meeting in Tribune, he encouraged my encomiums. I winced as I observed him lapping up praise with such eagerness, and was embarrassed by the histrionic style in which he addressed, rather than talked to me. Silone then launched a diatribe against the Italian Communist Party which was so vicious, so out of kilter with the mood of hope and tolerance among the young Italians with whom I was then associating. His young Irish wife realised the appalling impression he was making on me and plied me with charm, tea and pastries; but there was no stopping him. I felt there was something sick in his politics, something overdetermined, unbalanced, and reflecting personal travail rather than political reality. He was everything his novels were not, arrogant and narcissistic. After detaining me longer than I had anticipated, he called our meeting to an end with a final flourish and a display of name-dropping: he was leaving that evening for Paris to meet the recently released Léon Blum. I was happy to escape.

Leo Abse
London W4

Extenuating Circumstances

In his review of Paul Steinberg’s Speak You Also: A Survivor’s Reckoning, Adam Phillips (LRB, 19 July) quotes Steinberg’s remark: ‘I heartily recommend to future candidates for deportation that they enter the medical and paramedical professions, which lead to cushy camp jobs and various perks.’ Phillips adds: ‘This might not seem a very good reason to become a doctor, but it was clearly a lucky choice of profession for those doctors who found themselves in Auschwitz.’

Although the percentage of survivors among prisoner doctors was much higher than among the general population of the camp, and although the ones who worked in the hospitals (most of them intermittently) did benefit from slightly better living conditions, a very large number still perished. I know from my father, a physician who survived almost three years in Auschwitz, and from the testimonies of others like him, that in the camp hospitals prisoner doctors worked under demoralising conditions, fighting epidemics with grossly insufficient medication, only to see most of the patients who did not die in the hospital sent to their deaths by Nazi physicians during selections. On the other hand, it has been estimated that half of all concentration camp survivors owed their lives to prisoner doctors. Theirs was hardly a ‘cushy job’, even if working indoors did contribute to their survival. This is why my uncle, an orthopaedic surgeon who survived ten years of Soviet gulag, forced his son to become a doctor.

Claude Romney
University of Calgary

Adam Phillips implies that Levi would not have made as much of luck and being lucky as does Steinberg. Yet Levi wrote (in If Not Now, When?): ‘To be lucky is a good thing, a guarantee for the future; to deny your own luck is blasphemy.’

Axel Harvey
Montreal

Kuhnian Raindance

Peter Lipton concludes his review of my book Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History of Our Times (LRB, 19 July) by saying that ‘it’s not enough to investigate the causes and effects of Kuhn’s claims … we need to figure out whether they’re right.’ Would that the task were so simple! Lipton overlooks the fact that Kuhn’s pronouncements were subject to a very wide range of interpretations, virtually all of which he disowned – and rightly so. Moreover, most of those who interpreted Kuhn sympathetically ended up disappointed by the subsequent turns in his thought, as he increasingly avoided the radical-sounding social and political terms introduced in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Yet it is this comedy of errors that has led us to take Kuhn so seriously. I do not see how a purely philosophical analysis of Kuhn’s ideas could illuminate this point. Even if it turns out that Kuhn’s unpublished final work is revolutionary, that would not justify our having taken his work so seriously in the first place. At most, it would demonstrate that widespread confusion and misunderstanding eventually led us to a better account of science. Epistemologically speaking, this is no better than chancing on rain after a sufficiently long raindance.

Steve Fuller
University of Warwick

Hysteria

I am concerned about the responses to Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen’s piece (LRB, 24 May). Articles criticising psychoanalysis can usually be relied on to generate a torrent of abuse, which generally makes more or less sophisticated connections between the inadequacies of the author’s arguments and the inadequacies of his personality. Typically, this generates further correspondence, with the first letter-writers now becoming the objects of contempt. Non-participants can then have the pleasure of trying to discern the writers’ personal ‘shortcomings’ from the faults that they identify in their precursors.

But this time it hasn’t happened. Borch-Jacobsen was really very rude (again) about psychoanalysis. In response, Chris Oakley calls MBJ a revisionist historian; Adam Roberts says that the LRB is faddish and neurotic; and Daniel Eisenstein accuses Borch-Jacobsen of being vehement and fashionable. Apart from this, they simply point out, rather mildly, that he appears to have got the wrong end of the stick. don’t these people care anymore?

Lucy Scott-Moncrieff
London NW3

Church on Time

Charles Nicholl (LRB, 19 April) writes of the Church of the Assumption in Most, northern Bohemia, that it was ‘moved, brick by brick’, when the old town was demolished to open up the coal mines fifty years ago. Can there be a more dramatic way of moving a church? In this case there was. The church was helpfully close to the railway line and a short branch line was constructed linking the two. A wheeled undercarriage was then built beneath the church and it was moved, I think, some five hundred metres or more to an area of town near the railway station, which was being preserved. The former Gymnasium, where my father was a pupil at the end of the 19th century, is among the buildings that remain. There is another open-cast mine where the village of Ervenice, in which my mother spent her childhood, once stood.

Henry Schermer
Stoke-on-Trent

Superstates

David Runciman’s review of Jürgen Habermas’s Post-National Constellations (LRB, 19 July) gives an unfair representation of Habermas’s views. His rejection of them is persuasive only because he has caricatured them as the ideas of a crazed Euro-communitarian intellectual with cosmopolitan delusions and a dubious conception of politics derived from the Nazi philosopher of law Carl Schmitt, though the idea Habermas supposedly ‘borrowed directly’ from Schmitt – that any political democracy must have a criterion of membership – is a truism that he could as well have borrowed directly from Aristotle or Kant.

For Habermas, modern politics arises from two sources: from the idea of the state as ‘an association of free and equal citizens constituted only by means of positive right’, and from the assumption by the citizens that, united in political representation, they can collectively shape and influence their social environment. Once this is grasped, it becomes clear why he brings together two questions that are prima facie very different: the substantive and live question of European integration and the theoretical question of the possibility of a cosmopolitan political world-order. Habermas claims that, broadly, economic globalisation and the shrinking of the capacity for action of Western liberal states have led to a situation in which the causes of, and hence also the solutions to, pressing social, political and economic problems (economic migration, poverty, mass unemployment and ecological disaster) lie beyond the reach of national politics. Global political problems require international political solutions. The institutions of the European Union and those of international law and justice are two different arenas in which the solutions might be sought.

For example, European economic and social policies might be able to mitigate some of the harmful effects of regional competition between member states. For this to happen, the EU must devise policies and implement laws that sometimes go against the interests of individual member states. Such policies can only be justified on the basis of an appropriately defined European collective interest. But citizens of the EU can only be expected to adhere to, say, its redistributive policies to the extent that they are capable of recognising that other citizens in other European nations have an equal stake in them. If such policies are to succeed, their legitimacy must be perceived: they must be supported by a Europe-wide process of what Habermas calls ‘democratic will formation’.

That said, European politics is really just an extension, not a transformation, of the politics of national self-interest, and hence in practice unequal to the task of solving most global political problems. Regional competition and its attendant problems are simply displaced to the transnational level. Europe vies with its competitors, the US and the Asian trading bloc. Thus, Habermas argues, if lasting political solutions to global problems are to be sought, they must be sought at a global level, which is why he goes on to consider the prospects for an inclusive and egalitarian world-politics. He is all too aware that the prospects are not good, because of the paucity of global political institutions and because of the feebleness of the institutions that exist. Global political consensus is desperately hard to find and inherently unstable.

These are the views that Runciman condemns not just as wishful thinking, but as the misplaced opinions of a cosmopolitan intellectual delivered ex cathedra to unreceptive national electorates. Whatever the legal framework and moral discourse of international human rights may deliver, they cannot, Runciman writes, provide ‘a sense of identity, of the kind that political parties think that it is worth fighting for’. Exactly. Habermas does not dispute this fact: he attempts to explain it. His point is that the re-regulation of the world economy in line with international justice is a normative political ideal, which seeks support and finds expression not in people’s national and cultural identities but in the moral self-understanding of individual citizens, in citizens’ initiatives and in social movements. Furthermore, this is an ideal that is consonant with the modern concept of the state.

J.G. Finlayson
Department of Philosophy, University of York

Losing Your Barings

Salah el Serafy seems to be uncertain of his Barings (Letters, 19 July). Lord Cromer (1841-1917) was Evelyn Baring and, incidentally, first served in Egypt from 1877 to 1880. Maurice Baring (1874-1945) was his nephew.

J.F. Darycott
Staines, Middlesex

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