In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Where’s the omelette?Tom Nairn
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
Iron Curtain: From Stage to Cold War 
by Patrick Wright.
Oxford, 488 pp., £18.99, October 2007, 978 0 19 923150 8
Show More
Show More

In Europe’s Inner Demons, Norman Cohn described the medieval witch craze as a ‘supreme example of a massive killing of innocent people by a bureaucracy acting in accordance with beliefs which, unknown or rejected in earlier centuries, had come to be taken for granted, as self-evident truths’. Of course popular beliefs had to fall into line with the bureaucracy’s position, and Cohn provides plenty of examples to show that they did: rural and small-town societies were rich in resentments, ancestral curses and fears of the unknown. But the dreadful machinery of retribution proceeded essentially from on high. ‘The power of the human imagination to build up a stereotype’ was exploited and channelled by ‘the authorities, notably the magistrates’. Doubt and scepticism were dispelled, until everyone felt the presence of the devil on the doorstep each day, just waiting his chance.

Patrick Wright evokes Cold War stereotypes very concretely, beginning in Fulton, Missouri, where in 1946 Churchill first claimed to discern the curtain that had ‘descended from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic’. His speech aimed at creating a special Anglo-American relationship that would stand against everything on the other side of the curtain. This aspiration endures, but it is now undisguisable as anything other than ‘cringing submission to American power’. Wright describes in detail the theatrical origin of the literal iron curtain: it was a fire precaution intended to separate audiences from the stage, where conflagrations were most likely to start. It doesn’t seem to have been very effective.

In The Village that Died for England (1995) Wright quoted Dennis Potter on patriotism: ‘The trouble with words is that you never know whose mouth they’ve been in.’ A philological story like this must carry us from one mouth to another, showing that meaning is an end-product: a tongue that speaks through us, via the intimacy of accreted customs, familiar allusions and feelings, things taken for granted. Wright reminds us at length of the tedious distortions that came about during the Cold War, in order to help us shake it off. Far from being coined by Churchill, the term Iron Curtain was already in use soon after the 1917 Revolution, when both the new Soviet regime and those attempting to stifle it were trying to recruit impressive ideological justifications for their aims. By 1946 Churchill was a hardened practitioner of such devices, as well as a devotee of the purple phrase and resonant vista. At Fulton he was rolling out old ideas, not inventing new ones.

Wright is at his best when he evokes such tales and precedents, from the ‘cardboard thrillers’ of Churchill’s childhood model-theatre days, with their ‘clear division between the good and the bad’, down to 1945, and the deployment of iron curtains by both Joseph Goebbels and the CIA director Allen Dulles. My favourites are the accounts of what delegations from the Labour Party to the USSR were shown: they usually lapped everything up, putting down shortcomings as ‘cost of revolution’ on the ‘great 20th-century bridge which will in its due time lead us into another world’. Wright’s heroine in much of the narrative is Vernon Lee (whose real name was Violet Paget), an expatriate Briton who was, as one obituarist declared, ‘cosmopolitan from her birth, without any single national tie or sympathy’. She denounced the nationalistic divisions between Germany and the Anglo-French alliance before the First World War as a precursor of the later, more general curtains of mutual ignorance and hatred. In 1915 she spoke of ‘war’s monstrous iron curtain’ which ‘cut us off so utterly from one another’, and offended ‘the undying needs of our common humanity’.

Wright’s style carries the reader into heartfelt sympathy with one personality or episode after another. Just as he conjured up Tyneham, the village that ‘died for England’ by being turned into a military exercise area, here he makes us identify with, among others, the Greek-Romanian writer Panaït Istrati. ‘Waiter in a cabaret, pastrycook, locksmith, coppersmith, mechanic, workman, labourer, wharf porter, servant, sandwich man, sign painter, house decorator, journalist, photographer’, as Romain Rolland described him, Istrati was a critic of Soviet society who was denounced by the Comintern denigration and, like Victor Serge, abused as an ‘anti-Moscow anarchist’. Visitors to the Soviet Union touring ‘their own ardent preconceptions’ were often reminded that eggs have to be broken to make an omelette. It was Istrati who came up with the best riposte: ‘All right. I can see the broken eggs. Where’s this omelette of yours?’ Iron Curtain’s merit lies partly in its rediscovery of such characters, who refused to conform to the stereotypes on either side of the curtain.

Gratitude must be qualified, however, by disappointment at Wright’s unwillingness to take a longer view – or, one could say, a more anthropological view of ideological division. His tactic is to reveal larger issues through the unexpected or overlooked detail. Light is cast outwards from endearing (and often comic) miniaturisations: these concrete embodiments of grand abstractions suggest meanings different from the ones statesmen or philosophers wished to impart. Such meanings in turn call for new and better abstractions, but Wright often appears reluctant to take them on.

As opposed to Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘short 20th century’, Wright’s hypothesis is of ‘the long Cold War’, of an Iron Curtain mythology decades in preparation, formalised by Churchill’s Missouri speech, and lingering on in a new century. Globalisation remains haunted by its pernicious influence, in spite of the manifest victory of one Cold War side in the 1980s. As he points out, today a new curtain is being clanked down, between legitimate globalised capitalism and the realm of a supposed terrorism, the by-product of an Islamic fundamentalist worldview bent on imposing itself. The blurb of Wright’s book describes this mindset as a ‘psychological state’ fostered by the post-Second World War generation, but still refusing to die away. It’s as if neither the victors nor the aspiring members of the international community can be happy without a war – or at least a cosmic melodrama – to give them real meaning, and intimations of ultimate victory. George W. Bush’s policy after September 2001 ‘has been closely shaped by the memory of the Iron Curtain’, Wright maintains, while its legacy has helped liberals and ex-Marxists to switch a ‘polarising habit of thought to a new enemy named “Islamofascism”’. The dying fall of his final chapter suggests an inability to forsake the memory of the Cold War, and a wish for a theatrical revival, for new curtains to keep up the morale of politicos and plebs alike.

No doubt such folklore is observable, but Wright may be exaggerating Iron Curtainism in retrospect, and conceding too much influence to its relics. ‘Intellos’ and speechwriters have certainly reanimated standard apocalyptic imagery since 2001, but its content isn’t really the same. Nor is any new mega-division likely to result from blather about ‘civilisational conflict’, or denunciations of God and globalisation. Armageddon may not yet be off the agenda, but it’s heading that way. This is a world in which Henry Kissinger has joined a group preaching the surrender and destruction of all nuclear armaments, including US ones. It shouldn’t be forgotten that dread of nuclear war was the most important factor in keeping the Iron Curtain mentality going for so long, and in generating the clichés and stale jokes Wright deplores. He doesn’t pay enough attention to the background, in that sense: something extremely serious persisted behind the melodramatics of stage management. During the 43 years between the Fulton speech and 1989, some mistake or crass misjudgment could have brought the house down, triggering the end for both sides; and once or twice it almost happened.

Wright also fails to take another factor sufficiently into account. This might be called the collapse of short-cut-ism – that is, of the belief in an alternative socialist route to the level of development foreseen in the Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital. Iron Curtain lunacy owed a lot to the peep-shows, hypocrisy and wish-fulfilment so well detailed here. But its deeper motivation was determination that the show begun by the earlier 20th-century revolutions must go on – from Russia in 1905, via 1917, to China in 1949, to Cuba, Korea and even less likely scenarios of salvation. Roberto Unger and many others have recently been calling for alternatives to the pensée unique that has taken over most of the stage after 1989. Have they forgotten that the Iron Curtain universe was founded on projected alternatives, most of which turned out to be let-downs and dead-ends?

When reliable news of events in Russia reached Turin in the winter of 1917, an obscure diagnosis appeared the day before Christmas in the Socialist Party paper Avanti! The title of Antonio Gramsci’s piece was ‘The Revolution against Capital’, and his argument was that ‘events have exploded the critical schemas whereby Russian history was meant to develop according to the canons of historical materialism.’ The Bolsheviks were breaking all the rules prescribed for ‘the normal course of events’ (italicised in the original) by embarking on a wilful project to ‘bring itself up to the standards of production in the Western world in a short space of time’. That is, by a short cut or forced march demanding extremes of willpower, organisation and (later) ‘public relations’.

Such extremes appealed to Gramsci. All had not been well with the founding fathers. He perceived the ‘positivist and naturalist incrustations’ that Marx had fallen foul of – the very things that a few years later would be seized on by Stalin as rules for the new Iron Curtain Soviet Union. One of the century’s greatest pieces of journalism, this essay found few readers at the time, and caused its author embarrassment later, when he became leader of the Italian Communist Party and the piece had to be marginalised as over-exuberant juvenilia. Gramsci’s former comrade Benito Mussolini knew better, however, and had him imprisoned to silence his acrid, disturbing voice. Mussolini aspired to make Fascism part of the ‘normal course of events’, like Stalinism and liberalism. Hijackers of history have to make their versions look like normality. And after Fascism’s defeat the older idea-teams settled down once more to misrepresentation and braggadocio.

Wright doesn’t sufficiently stress just how run-down and rusty the whole business had become by the 1970s. Nor does he attend to the holes shot through it in the 1960s, on both sides. In 1968 and after, fires were started on various stages, from Prague and Paris to universities on every continent. And again the fireproof curtains proved futile, as panic quickly spread from the classrooms and streets to the magistrates and office-holders. They could no longer drown or burn people as witches, yet repression was threatened on both sides in an attempt to control ungrateful bourgeois malcontents to the west, bitter losers to the east, both resentful of short cuts and pretend socialism. The ‘normal course of events’ was lost from sight, and Gramsci’s revolution against Das Kapital had failed. The 1848 drawing-board would have to be got down from the attic. In the meantime, the curious moment of détente led the way towards globalisation.

‘At its core, détente was a mechanism for domestic fortification,’ writes Jeremi Suri, another unorthodox Cold War historian, with ‘a powerful domestic component that exceeded a mere agreement to avoid nuclear armageddon’. The tedious fire-screen recovered some of its utility as a defence against the ‘uncompromising, unpredictable and unorganised’ dissidence of utopia-minded arsonists. ‘Co-operation among the great powers became a substitute for both domestic and international reform’ and ‘unreasonable public expectations’. In fact Ostpolitik and its successors buttressed reasonable expectations, and colluded in outlawing demons on both sides. By 1987 comforters like John Lewis Gaddis could write that the Cold War and the Iron Curtain had been a ‘way of life’ for more than two generations, with the result that ‘it simply does not occur to us to think about how it might end or, more to the point, how we would like it to end.’

The Iron Curtain was by now a double-sided ‘spectacle’ in the sense described by Guy Debord. At the very moment the new managers in the East hoped to ‘demonstrate its superiority on the terrain of capitalism’, socialism ‘reveals itself to be a poor cousin of capitalism’; while capitalism’s ‘pseudo-freedom’ meant what the 1968 rebels had denounced: ‘liberty to choose from an unlimited range of spectacular pseudo-alternatives’. Both now needed the curtain-spectacle as an ideological frontier: ‘It obliterates the boundaries between self and the world by crushing the self besieged by the presence-absence of the world’ and supporting ‘the real presence of the falsehood maintained by the organisation of appearances’, Debord wrote. The greater the ‘agonising feeling of being at the margin of existence’, the stronger the need for spectacular reassurance – for mini-Churchills and displays of rhetoric and ‘vision’.

Fortunately, the rehabilitation of the curtain didn’t last long. Blair, Bush and Berlusconi have done their pitiable best, only to end up as ridiculed as the old beast itself. Some readers may conclude that the curtain is fated to keep on turning up in new versions. Wright fears such life after death, and asks readers to reject it. But the contraption is falling apart of its own accord, and no anthropological reflex dooms humanity to seek out polarisation (as distinct from diversity). Dosages of monotheist faith have of course been stepped up, to boost the bipolar cosmos. But Satan-creation has been fitful, and its prospects as a staple industry seem poor. Manicheanism accords badly with the aggressive one-worldism of economists and neoliberal pundits.

Here, the way in which the original East-West partition ended may also be significant. There had been a general conviction that it was eternal stage scenery, certain to continue, short of nuclear war. In 1976, however, Emmanuel Todd published La Chute finale, an essay on the decomposition of the Soviet Bloc. He argued that these societies were collapsing internally as a result of their own social modernisation, undermined by much deeper factors than the failure to compete economically with capitalist manufacturing and consumerism. Universal literacy and employment had given women a new importance, and a power of assertion that had resulted in dramatic falls in birth rates and had weakened the rigid authority of state regulation and party-political status. These were the last days in which the East kept trying to bring ‘itself up to the standards of production … in a short space of time’. It was taking too long, and the standards were too high. While office-holders and magistrates redoubled their prayers to the curtain and socialism, implosion was gaining momentum.

Todd, with Yousef Courbage, recently published another critique, Le Rendez-vous des civilisations, putting forward quite similar arguments about the Arab world and Muslim society.* As Ernest Gellner maintained nearly thirty years ago in Muslim Society, extreme Islamicism can be at bottom an expression of panic at internal changes, based on dread of over-hasty threats to a rigidly paternalist social structure – ‘modernisation’, whether in American or other garb. It can be another of Suri’s ‘mechanisms for domestic fortification’, with fanaticism keeping uncertainty at bay. The resultant Muslim nationalism may have even less chance of catching up than state socialism did last century. There won’t even be time to get a new curtain up and working. Globalisation is now moving too fast and disruptively for populations to get used to stage sets, stable vistas and that comfortable, settling-down sensation.

It’s true that, even since Iron Curtain was published, noisy revivals have been attempted – most notably in and around Georgia. As terrorism has faded, expeditions to the basement have dragged out the wretched remains of the Iron Curtain apparatus: there are gloomy hints of possible Cold War revenants, with differing varieties of capitalism contesting the global future. Authoritarian economics versus the heirs of neoliberalism, for example, with social democracy assuming the role of non-alignment. From Todd’s perspective, these are shallow political devices aimed principally at reviving popular support in the wake of neoliberal failure, rather than expressions of the deeper shifts the globalisation process is bringing about. They are attempts at what Umberto Eco ridicules as ‘turning back the clock’, in his recent book of the same title.

In Age of Extremes, Eric Hobsbawm pointed out that after the Cold War’s end capitalism was for the first time ‘on its own’: deprived of older forms to exploit, it would have to invent new ones, including new versions of nationalism. The rules for these are being worked out in such sites as Chechnya, and now Georgia and Ossetia. But the process can’t help providing opportunities for older political elites to grab the clock-hands and restore ‘stability’, normally with assistance from London – the past-master of clock-management, stalling and dithering. Any such restoration is likely to be temporary and counter-productive: clamorous reminders of former glories, rather than an advance to new ones.

It’s appropriate, perhaps, that Wright’s last touch to his portrait of paralysis and ruin should be a return to ‘Fulton’s Backside’. He discovers an Afro-American community down the road from ‘the gleaming Churchill Memorial’. It’s a reminder that modernising changes are still to come in Missouri, as well as in Eastern Europe, Mesopotamia, Burma, Africa and Britain. And in the end they will come from the bottom upwards, possibly more easily in a world less divided by curtains.

Send Letters To:

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

letters@lrb.co.uk

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.