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Vol. 28 No. 23 · 30 November 2006

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Hungary 1956

Eric Hobsbawm writes two and a half pages on Hungary 1956 without once using the phrase ‘workers’ council’ (LRB, 16 November). Yet to contemporary observers it was the workers’ councils which constituted the most distinctive feature of the uprising. Peter Fryer, the Daily Worker correspondent in Hungary (whose reports were suppressed by the CPGB leadership), wrote:

In their spontaneous origin, in their composition, in their sense of responsibility, in their efficient organisation of food supplies and civil order, in the restraint they exercised on the wild elements among the youth, in the wisdom with which so many of them handled the problem of Soviet troops, and, not least, in their striking resemblance to the workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ councils which sprang up in Russia in the 1905 Revolution and in February 1917, these committees, a network of which now extended over the whole of Hungary, were remarkably uniform.

It is disingenuous of Hobsbawm to write that ‘the armed freedom fighters numbered no more than 15,000’ without a single mention of the many thousands of workers involved in the councils.

Ian Birchall
London N9

Eric Hobsbawm argues that ‘contemporary history is useless unless it allows emotion to be recollected in tranquillity.’ Yet his article contains judgments that seem to reflect more emotion than sober reflection. He mentions, for example, that ‘the armed freedom fighters numbered no more than 15,000’; but in a population of 9.9 million people (which Hungary had in 1956), the UK equivalent at the time would have been 75,000. Not bad, for a short-lived revolution in a small country. Later on, he mentions in passing that ‘some 40,000 students were involved.’ That figure corresponds to 200,000 students in the UK at the time, a figure which would have been high even for a country with large numbers of students, such as Italy in the 1970s.

Hobsbawm then writes: ‘What is especially striking, given Central European anti-semitism, is the relatively high number of Jewish members’ of the Hungarian Communist Party. Given Central European anti-semitism, the presence of Jews in the Hungarian CP would have been quite logical. But, as it happens, Gati himself has disputed the well-known assumption (shared by Hungarian Stalinists, radical right-wingers and David Irving) that Hungarian Stalinism was predominantly Jewish and that therefore the Hungarian revolution was anti-semitic. Gati has shown that, if anything, Hungarian Jews (when given the choice) were less inclined to vote Communist than the rest of the Hungarian population.

Guido Franzinetti
University of Eastern Piedmont, Alessandria, Italy

Liars v. Hypocrites

David Runciman scarcely conceals his admiration for Tony Blair as a bold and effective liar (LRB, 2 November). Lying has, lately, drawn the attention of neuropsychiatrists, who have used functional neuro-imaging (fMRI) to demonstrate that lying, like facial recognition or the naming of common objects, has a part of the brain – on the outer surface of the frontal lobes – dedicated to it. Without it we can’t lie. Sean Spence, at the University of Sheffield, suggests that this capacity is adaptive in group situations: without flattery, or carefully contrived excuses, we might not survive socially. We really are all born liars.

Anthony Fry
Department of Psychiatry, London Bridge Hospital

Former Selves

Neal Ascherson isn’t quite right to call Günter Grass a ‘scourge’ of those who were less than forthcoming about their activities during the Third Reich (LRB, 2 November). At the elections in 1969 it was not Kiesinger’s dishonesty about his Nazi past that made Grass furious and ashamed – Kiesinger never misled anyone, as far as I am aware – but the fact that he should have been able, despite his past, to rise to the highest office. Grass’s 1972 letters to Karl Schiller, which Ascherson quotes from a recent edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine, can be read in a different light too: far from feeling that he was asking Schiller to do something he had not done himself by discussing openly his career under the Nazis, Grass would have felt that, for all the differences between someone born in 1911 and someone born in 1927, he had shown people such as Schiller the way to ‘own up’. Guilt and shame had been the motors for his writings. When Oskar Matzerath at the beginning of The Tin Drum asks for 500 sheets of ‘unschuldiges’ – that is, innocent, virginal, guilt-free – ‘Papier’ it is because he plans to sully them with his often rather squalid reminiscences. Grass had always said that it was ‘guilt’ that got him writing in the first place: surely we always knew that he had something to feel guilty for.

Had Grass been an elected politician, the news that the military unit he had joined as a 16-year-old in 1944 had been part of the SS, as distinct from the Wehrmacht, would surely have led to his resignation. But the point about Grass is that he has never been elected: he commands attention only for the consistency of what he says, perhaps because no one else says it, and because it resonates with the public.

Julian Preece
University of Kent, Canterbury

Lost Cause

‘A couple of decades or so ago, after more than one Oxford-based historian had produced a work bulging with detailed description but almost devoid of efforts at analysis or explanation,’ Stefan Collini writes (LRB, 2 November), ‘it was joked that Oxford, having been the home of lost causes, was now the home of lost causality’. Can he be referring to his own review of Raphael Samuel’s Theatres of Memory, published in the TLS in 1995, which he said brought to mind the ‘old joke about Oxford history as the “home of lost causality"’? Or is there an older origin still for this pun?

William Whyte
St John’s College, Oxford

Apparently it’s emetic

A.C. Grayling’s analogy of astrology with theology is in principle a forceful one (Letters, 2 November). He uses it to suggest that religion, like astrology, consists of ‘pre-scientific, rudimentary metaphysics’ which reflect ‘ancient ignorances’. But in some ways it is also unjust. In ancient Israel astrology was an offence, and was rejected as a source of knowledge, as were all other kinds of divination, magic generally, and consultation of the dead. Ancient Israelites believed (according to Genesis) that the sun, moon and stars were merely ‘lights’. Israel’s pre-scientific perceptions deserve some credit for their long-range anticipation of what Grayling has lately concluded ‘on the basis of rational investigation’.

Jim Stewart
University of Dundee

A.C. Grayling and James Wood don’t seem to have understood Terry Eagleton’s tone in his critique of Dawkins (Letters, 2 November). Eagleton presents what his tutor Raymond Williams would have called a structure of feeling, implying a reflective stance that recognises the enormous power and importance (for good and ill) of traditional doctrines, and the vacuity of the atheism with which Dawkins would replace ‘the richest, most enduring form of popular culture in human history’.

John Hodgson

When I was a student we’d all have a corking
Good row about God – or on Eagleton-Dawkins –
But now I’ve a family, I must insist
There’s a chance, just a chance, that a God does exist.
And besides, when I’m in a more pragmatic mode
There’s a jolly good C of E school down the road.

Jenny Chamier Grove
Kew, Surrey

Meet up, move on

John Lanchester puts the cart before the horse when he writes that ‘Howard Dean’s campaign in 2004 was the product of a campaign by MoveOn, an internet-based campaigning movement which is close in spirit to the left blogs’ (LRB, 2 November). Howard Dean’s campaign was propagated by his own Meet-Up groups, his own blog, his own visibility events and his own rapid responders. I know, because I participated in all of them. MoveOn came later.

Joy Matkowski
Enola, Pennsylvania

Transatlantic Divide

Enlightenment is due to Martin Holladay and other Americans who might have been confused by Ian Gilmour’s reference to George Wigg’s being ‘had up for kerb-crawling’ (Letters, 16 November). The term ‘kerb-crawling’ is best taken as literally as possible: the kerb being the edge of the pavement (or sidewalk), the term means to be on all fours in the gutter. This position is taken so commonly by present-day politicians it passes largely without comment. However, go back a few decades and, rather quaintly, you might well be had up for it, meaning held to account in a court of justice. These days the latter phrase has suffered a role reversal: politicians can now be seen to have ‘had it up’ the justice system in so many and various ways it would make a bishop blush.

Martin Ward

Thatcher’s Menage

R.W. Johnson shows how Mark Thatcher might have been purpose-designed as Margaret’s offspring: it’s hardly surprising she holds him in such high esteem, despite his many obvious character flaws (LRB, 16 November). It’s indicative of her suspect judgment that she failed to recognise these and quite extraordinary that she suffered so little fall-out from his many nefarious escapades. His sister, of course, trades heavily on the premise that she is not part of this menage.

Gordon Petherbridge

From L to C

Andrew O’Hagan’s doggedly cheerful passe-en-revue of ‘the funniest book currently available in the English language’ made no comment on the really scary part: the title (LRB, 16 November). Doesn’t an opus called Life in the United Kingdom: A Journey to Citizenship seem to suggest not just that the distance between L and C is rather long, but also that, if L is the starting point, there are no alternative destinations?

Alex Drace-Francis

Ava Stays at Home

Aram Saroyan details Artie Shaw’s role in the starry rise of Ava Gardne (Letters, 19 October). For most ordinary chaps, it’s not his band nor his marriage to Ava Gardner, lovely though she was, that is the principal fascination, but his marrying so many beautiful women. P.G. Wodehouse, in The Mating Season, has movie star Cora (Corky) Pirbright give the following speech, referring to one of her fan’s in-depth knowledge of the 1940s Hollywood scene:

She even knows how many times Artie Shaw has been married which I’ll bet he couldn’t tell you himself. She asked if I had ever married Artie Shaw, and when I said No, seemed to think I was pulling her leg or must have done it without noticing. I tried to explain that when a girl goes to Hollywood she doesn’t have to marry Artie Shaw, it’s optional, but I don’t think I convinced her.

Bill Sanderson
Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire


Timothy Rood’s The Sea! The Sea! should have been acknowledged at the head of Henry Day’s piece on Xenophon (LRB, 2 November) and more fully in the text, which made more use of the book than would be apparent to an uninformed reader.

Editor, ‘London Review’

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