Vol. 28 No. 12 · 22 June 2006

Search by issue:

Do euphemisms help?

Alex Fox takes Ian Hacking to task for describing John Kennedy’s sister Rosemary as ‘severely retarded’ and suggests the LRB adopt ‘currently widely accepted labels’ (Letters, 8 June). Hasn’t he noticed how fast euphemisms date? And do they help much anyway? Rosemary Kennedy seems to have had mild brain damage from birth, but was capable of travel and a social life, until her parents had her lobotomised and institutionalised. Earlier she had been a pupil at the Coletta School for Exceptional Children. The coyness did not, I suppose, make her life easier to bear.

Hilary Mantel

Hungary, 1956

Peter Fryer argues on the authority of the journalist Endre Marton, who in turn got the information from unnamed sources, that far from having Imre Nagy, the leader of the Hungarian revolutionary government, murdered as I claimed, Janós Kádár, his successor, was ‘desperate … when Nagy was abducted and when he was executed eighteen months later’ (Letters, 11 May). At worst, in going along with the trial and execution of his former comrade, he was merely following the orders of his Soviet masters.

This view is archivally insupportable. But, more important, it misses the essential point that Kádár’s legitimacy and that of his regime depended on an interpretation of the 1956 revolution in which Nagy was seen as a traitor to the Hungarian people whose only possible fate was that common to traitors: death.

Kádár knew that the Soviets would not honour the safe-conduct he offered Nagy on 21 November 1956, a day before he was kidnapped from the Yugoslav Embassy, and a month later told the Party leadership that the Yugoslavs had been told as much. A year later, in December 1957, while preparing for Nagy’s trial, he justified his position to a closed meeting of the Hungarian Central Committee by saying that Tito’s all too independent government had had no right to grant Nagy asylum in the first place. Since the investigation of Nagy had ‘brought to light many new facts’, he insisted that there were further grounds for ‘denouncing’ the agreement.

Even in early December 1956 Kádár had come to see the events of the previous October not as a general crisis of the Hungarian polity but as a counter-revolution, possible only because of an alliance of native reactionaries with foreign imperialists. By the end of January 1957 Kádár had decided that Nagy should be put on trial and a dossier of his crimes going back to 1948 was compiled. In a 2 April meeting of the HSWP Provisional Executive Committee Kádár reported that he had raised the Nagy question with the Soviets and that they had endorsed dealing with what could only be regarded as ‘a mass of genuine criminal acts’ with ‘suitable severity’. He sought his comrades’ collective approval for the view that it was their duty to show the Hungarian people, as well as their enemies, that ‘a counter-revolution cannot be staged without being severely punished.’

There is no evidence that the Soviets played a direct role in bringing Nagy to trial and execution. There is evidence, however, that in late 1957 and early 1958 they sought postponements for international political reasons and that Khrushchev himself might have been happier with a death sentence followed by a reprieve. Kádár would have none of this. He told the head of the British Communist Party in March 1958 that had the Hungarians not been so sensitive to foreign Communist sensibilities ‘we would have done away with the Nagy gang a long time ago.’ He said the same thing to many others.

Nagy was hanged on 16 June 1958. Since he was unwilling to confess to his purported crimes his trial was kept secret. He refused to plead for mercy. In the absence of any evidence of Nagy’s counter-revolutionary treachery, only his death could validate the founding myth of the new regime. No wonder, as István Rév writes in the book I reviewed, that Kádár was afraid ever again to say Imre Nagy’s name lest the utterance of the necronym raise his ghost.

Thomas Laqueur
University of California, Berkeley

The Israel Lobby

Daniel Pipes denies that Campus Watch was established to discourage academics ‘from engaging in open discourse about the Middle East’, and points LRB readers to its mission statement, according to which the project merely ‘reviews and critiques Middle East studies in North America, with an aim to improving them’ (Letters, 8 June). This ‘mission statement’ does not date back to the project’s inception.

When Campus Watch was launched, a year after the 11 September attacks, its website described its founders as a group of ‘highly qualified American academics that have banded together in defence of US interests on campus, which includes continued support for Israel’. It spoke of ‘profound mistakes of interpretation’ in Middle East Studies, as well as elements in academia who ‘reject the enduring policies of the US government’. It asked students to supply information about professors who were ‘hostile’ to America or Israel, listed such professors on its website and included ‘dossiers’ of information about them.

After Campus Watch in its original incarnation met with widespread disgust, Pipes made cosmetic changes. The dossiers were dropped in favour of a ‘Survey of Institutions’ (‘For me, “dossier" was just a Frenchword for “file",’ Pipes explained), and the new mission statement no longer spoke of ‘band[ing] together in defence of US interests on campus’, or of listing those who ‘actively dissociate themselves from the United States’, but rather began with the words Pipes repeats in his letter: ‘Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum, reviews and critiques Middle East studies in North America, with an aim to improving them.’ The defence of Israeli policies and ideological support for the ‘enduring policies of the US government’ were quietly subsumed into what now purported to be a critique of methodological and pedagogical standards.

Campus Watch continues to indulge in McCarthyite swagger and innuendo; when called on it, however, Pipes and his colleagues take refuge in the anodyne language of the ‘mission statement’. The fact is, Campus Watch’s raison d’être has nothing whatever to do with academic standards. I challenge Pipes to name one instance in which Campus Watch has ever praised, defended or even grudgingly acknowledged the academic integrity of anyone who disagrees with him about US policy towards Israel, or an occasion on which he has found fault with the methodology or pedagogy of any scholar who shares his ideological views on this or related matters.

Curtis Brown
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Quite a few of the attacks on John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, Daniel Pipes’s among them, refuse to accept the possibility that a lobby might lack central organisation yet nonetheless produce apparently co-ordinated action. The Free and Open-Source Software (FOSS) movement has exactly these characteristics. It is made up of individuals, groups and organisations that all subscribe to more or less the same principle: in this case, open-source software or freely available content generally. There is no central co-ordinating body or hierarchy of committees, but an attack on any one organisation or individual within FOSS may get a response from many different groups. In spring 2004, Ken Brown of the Alexis de Tocqueville think-tank published a report in which he claimed to make a prima facie case that the Linux operating system is based on plagiarism. Brown’s case was very rapidly exposed as a sham by the FOSS community. And it may well have appeared to him, and to others, that that response was co-ordinated.

John Beattie

Why read Jaspers?

‘Who now still reads Karl Jaspers?’ Martin Jay begins his review of Suzanne Kirkbright’s biography of the philosopher (LRB, 8 June). Well, we psychiatrists do, or at least we older ones did. His philosophy may have been expressed in ‘turgid idiom’, but his psychiatric masterpiece, General Psychopathology (1913), was not. Most Anglophone readers think it worth buying for the fifty-page introductory chapter alone. If Jaspers’s philosophy was preoccupied with those ‘aspects of the human condition that defied rational understanding’, then it is unsurprising that he was so well suited to the exploration of mental illness. His work is outstanding for its vivid and penetrating descriptions of the seemingly alien experiences his patients struggled to communicate. Jay emphasises the value Jaspers accorded relationships and this is most evident in his insistence on psychiatry as an interaction between two individuals, rather than simply as the exercise of trained observation. His comments may be even more important now, as psychiatry risks drifting into an impoverished and mechanistic scientism.

Tom Burns
Warneford Hospital, Oxford

Authoritative Discourse

Sheila Fitzpatrick describes my position in Everything Was For Ever, Until It Was No More, as ‘postmodern’, which she takes to be the belief that there is no reality outside language or discourse (LRB, 25 May). In fact, my book argues the exact opposite: not only that there is a real world outside language, and that it is impossible for language ever to account for that world in full, but that this is precisely why alternative realities and internal displacements were part of late socialism yet remained ‘invisible’ (unaccounted for in language) until the collapse of the Soviet state. Some ‘postmodern’ theories reduce reality to language and Soviet socialism to postmodernism (e.g. Mikhail Epstein’s model), but I argue that Soviet people were able ‘to engage in the production of new forms and meanings of reality that were tangible, multiple and grounded in the real world … Contrary to Epstein’s claim that “reality that differed from the ideology simply ceased to exist," that different reality, in fact, exploded into the Soviet world in powerful, multiple and unanticipated forms.’ Fitzpatrick is incorrect, too, that the book’s object is to study the causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union. She claims that ‘one would have to be very committed to a belief in the “primacy of language" [her phrase] to accept the notion that the “profound internal displacement" [my phrase] within the Soviet system that led to its collapse had only discursive causes.’ In fact, my book neither argues for the primacy of language nor claims that the internal displacement of the late Soviet system had ‘only discursive causes’. Instead, it argues that this displacement was a product of a particular relationship between authoritative discourse and the forms of social reality for which it could not fully account. Furthermore, the book’s object of analysis is not ‘the causes for the collapse but … the conditions that made the collapse possible without making it anticipated’. The question is not what led to the collapse, but why it was not expected.

Finally, according to Fitzpatrick, I claim that ‘the Soviet collapse was a totally hermetic, circular process.’ The book does not make this claim, which she nonetheless goes on to dispute: ‘The perestroika that Gorbachev initiated was surely an intervention, not part of a circular process.’ In fact, the point of the book’s theoretical argument is that perestroika was not part of the circular process. Gorbachev, I wrote, ‘unwittingly broke with the circular structure of authoritative discourse’ and reintroduced ‘the voice of an external commentator or editor of ideology who could provide expert metadiscourse grounded in “objective scientific knowledge" located outside the field of authoritative discourse.’

It is Fitzpatrick’s slighting of theory that causes these problems. To understand major social ruptures – in this case, why the Soviet collapse was so unexpected, not only by Soviet citizens but also by external analysts and scholars – requires both empirical investigation and theoretical consideration, not the one rather than the other.

Alexei Yurchak
University of California, Berkeley

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