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Letters

Vol. 37 No. 8 · 23 April 2015

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The Suitors

Stephen W. Smith’s excellent piece on China’s power, both hard and soft, in Africa touches on Beijing’s Confucius Institutes (LRB, 19 March). African academics starved of resources may well feel they have no choice but to accept Chinese gold. But there are also 25 such institutes in Britain – for example at the universities of Edinburgh and Sheffield and at SOAS – and they have no such excuse. Christopher Hughes, professor of international relations at the LSE, has expressed concern about his institution taking Chinese state money (it isn’t so long ago that it was caught up in a scandal over its acceptance of Qaddafi’s gold). He worried, too, about the LSE’s Confucian Institute being a ‘divisive’ and ‘illegitimate’ propaganda organisation, citing an online language teaching-aid video about the Korean War. The animated film, which is entitled ‘The War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea’, claimed that the US manipulated the UN Security Council to act against Korea, and described how Chinese ‘volunteers’ joined the fight and ‘crushed the imperialists’ aggressive ambitions’.

Thanks to Freedom of Information requests, we now know that the LSE has received £863,537.91 from the Chinese state for housing its Confucian Institute and gets a further $33,000 per year for teaching Chinese government officials in Beijing via BHP Billiton, a mining conglomerate not hitherto celebrated for fearless intellectual inquiry. The $33,000 is such a trivial sum that one wonders whether it masks a bigger and more complicated ‘cash-for-reputation’ trade. What does the LSE teach these government officials?

John Sweeney
London SE11

Stephen W. Smith refers to Chinese women selling beignets in Kinshasa. It is probably unwise to say something has never happened in that vast and varied city, but I think this is almost certainly an urban myth. Beignets, or mikate as they are called in Lingala, are popular in Congo – generally eaten with peanut butter and/or chillies. The maman mikate who cook them at the side of the road are a symbol of small-scale women’s economic activity: rather like lollipop ladies in the UK, they stand for something virtuous. The idea of the Chinese selling mikate was brought up humorously in a popular song by the group Wenge Maison Mère. From there I believe it has entered popular discourse as a motif for the way the Chinese are getting everywhere. As in Zambia, the Congolese are pretty hostile to the Chinese, and they freely associate the influx of Chinese running small shops with the support offered by the Chinese government to a regime that many perceive as illegitimate. This is understandable but unfair: Chinese with small shops selling plastic buckets are not responsible for their government or for the current miserable predicament of ordinary Congolese, just as Pakistani shopkeepers in the UK were not responsible for mass unemployment in 1980s Liverpool, however warm the relations between Thatcher and General Zia.

Joe Trapido
London N16

The Hobsbawm File

In her piece about MI5’s surveillance of Eric Hobsbawm, Frances Stonor Saunders doesn’t point out how little this seemed to stand in the way of Hobsbawm’s professional success (LRB, 9 April). He taught at Birkbeck for 35 years, starting at the peak of the Cold War in 1947. He was a member of the Cambridge Apostles, the Athenaeum and, from 1978, the British Academy. He was a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge from 1949 to 1955. He published some of his most important articles in the Economic History Review between 1949 and 1957 and broadcast on the BBC’s Third Programme during the same period. His reading, teaching and collaboration with the Communist Party Historians’ Group and the journal Past and Present laid the foundations for his later work. It is true that Hobsbawm’s attempts to gain a Cambridge lectureship were blocked, but there is no denying that despite the MI5’s best (?) efforts, it was a productive time for Hobsbawm. Perhaps the most serious obstacle in his way was the political censorship of the BBC: such figures as Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams rarely broadcast on the BBC not only during the 1950s, but long afterwards.

David Herman
London SW13

On the matter of Eric Hobsbawm’s criticisms of the CPGB, Frances Stonor Saunders writes that he made ‘his grievance public, writing an article in World News calling for an overhaul of party rules so as to improve “Communist Party democracy"’. There was in fact a significant movement to improve CP democracy, which came to a head in April 1957 with the Report of the Commission on Inner Party Democracy, within which was a dissident Minority Report. This Minority Report contains a detailed critique of democratic centralism, the organisational form favoured since 1917 by nearly all communist and Trotskyist parties and groups the world over. One of its co-authors was Hobsbawm’s fellow historian Christopher Hill. The Minority Report was of course squashed and Hill, who stood by its analysis, left the party along with several thousand others, including my parents.

Saunders also writes, in respect of MI5’s monitoring at the BBC, that ‘many employees have testified over the years that their careers were unexpectedly interrupted or impeded by the Christmas tree’ – a symbol on their file suggesting political ‘unreliability’. As someone whose Christmas tree and career termination was announced in the Observer in the mid-1980s, I would question whether this happened to ‘many employees’. The authors of that Observer article, Paul Lashmar and David Leigh, outed just six of us.

Michael Rosen
London E8

Frances Stonor Saunders lambasts MI5 for keeping an eye on Eric Hobsbawm: far from being ‘on the phone to Moscow’, he was ‘not a very good’ communist, arguing for changes in party rules ‘after privately criticising the nomenklatura for supporting the Soviet invasion of Hungary’ in 1956. At the time, Hobsbawm publicly toed the party line on the subject, if only just. In a letter to the Daily Worker published on 9 November 1956 (conscientiously clipped and filed by MI5), he wrote:

All Socialists ought to be able to understand that a Mindszenty [i.e. independent] Hungary, which would probably have become a base for counter-revolution and intervention, would be a grave and acute danger to the USSR … If we had been in the position of the Soviet government, we should have intervened … [But] the suppression of a popular movement, however wrong-headed, by a foreign army is at best a tragic necessity and must be recognised as such. While approving, with a heavy heart, of what is now happening in Hungary, we should therefore also say frankly that we think the USSR should withdraw its troops from the country as soon as this is possible. This should be said by the British Communist Party publicly if the British people is to have any confidence in our sincerity and judgment; and if they have not, how can we expect them to follow our lead? And if they don’t follow our lead, how can we hope to help the cause of the existing Socialist States on which we know that Socialism in the world, and in Britain, largely depends?

Faced with such evidence of Hobsbawm’s willingness to put aside personal qualms in the interests of democratic centralism and helping the Soviet cause, Curzon Street might be forgiven, in the depths of the Cold War, for taking him at his word.

Peter Zombory-Moldovan
London N1

Learning My Lesson

Like Tom Hennessy, I’m a university administrator with an academic background (Letters, 9 April). Like him, I know that some academics can be high handed and unco-operative, though I’m sure he finds, as I do, that most are courteous, and grateful for any help with their administrative duties. But even if they all complained, I’d still be unsympathetic to Hennessy’s argument. Those of us on pay grades comparable to those of academics aren’t scrutinised in the same sector-wide way, and bureaucracy is not peer reviewed. Though ‘surplus generation’ is mentioned ever more regularly, it is not a widespread administrative duty, in the way that getting grants is becoming. I suspect we’re also more likely than academics to be on a permanent contract. I have never known an administrator on a higher pay grade have to fill in a timesheet or regard weekend and evening working as normal. Maybe that’s because prospective students don’t choose their universities on the basis of the quality of the bureaucracy. Perhaps that’s because there aren’t any league tables for it. Yet.

The discrepancies between administrators and academics are small beer when it comes to the real tragedy of higher education. Of course there was a time when a small minority of academics used their position to act without accountability, treated budgets as a windfall for their vanity projects, set arbitrary rules for those in their power and treated students as grist to the mill of their self-aggrandisement. However, it is unjust and iniquitous to target academics today when these things are also true of so many middle and senior managers, especially when those managers earn so much more and the results of their actions are so much worse. And not just for learning and research, but for our culture as a whole.

Anonymous
Birmingham

I wonder about Marina Warner’s characterisation of the enemy (LRB, 19 March). The ‘new managers’ feature in her story as fraudulent oligarchs, indifferent if not actually hostile to values that can’t be monetised. Passing allusions dismiss them as academic failures or align them with domestic abusers. The trouble with this enjoyable demonisation is that it imposes a simple opposition – academic goodies and managerial baddies – on a much more compromised situation.

In my experience the ‘disfiguring of higher education’ is being carried through largely by reputable senior academics. They do understand that the humanities are different from the sciences, and they don’t think that a university has the same criteria of success as a hedge fund. But they are consumed with anxiety that the institution for which they are responsible might fall behind others in the endless struggle for resources, and so lose its capacity to sustain precisely the activities that Warner admires. It is this imperative that pushes them, and us, into the familiar spiral of false economies and crass performance indicators. In short, they have not trapped us; they are with us in the trap.

I don’t say this in a spirit of general niceness. If anything, the situation is still bleaker if we have been led into it by people with good intentions. But I doubt whether it’s good politics to underestimate the pressures that shape their decisions. Any realistic attempt to limit the damage requires co-operation within and between universities. Allies are harder to find than villains, but more useful.

Peter Womack
University of East Anglia, Norwich

The New World Disorder

‘Many people in Eastern Europe feel nostalgia for the societies that existed before the fall of the Soviet Union,’ Tariq Ali writes (LRB, 9 April). I was reminded of a series of interviews I conducted last summer in the southeasternmost part of the former East Germany. (I am researching memories of the collectivisation of agriculture from 1952 onwards.) When I asked two of my interviewees, a couple in their late eighties, how life after 1989 compared to what came before, the husband started to tell a very positive story, but his wife broke in: ‘You know, filching, stealing, no bus anymore and to go shopping you have to drive till God knows where. Doctors, that’s getting less and less as well. Hospitals, closed.’ Her husband and I had been slightly nodding away at these familiar complaints when she concluded with a most unexpected epitome: ‘Slaughterhouses, all gone.’

Klara-Maeve O’Reilly
Dublin

Dialling for Dollars

US law favours the rich in nearly all the ways Deborah Friedell recounts (LRB, 19 March). But she isn’t right when she says that ‘capital gains taxes are as low as they’ve been since the Great Depression.’ In fact, the top rates were significantly lower under George W. Bush. Obama’s refusal to extend all of Bush’s tax cuts, combined with a new tax on investment income levied to pay for Obamacare, has brought the top rate on capital gains up from Bush’s 15 per cent to nearly 24 per cent. Of course these rare progressive victories may not last. The Republican senator and presidential aspirant Marco Rubio was widely celebrated on the right last month for his ‘brilliant plan’ to tax capital gains at 0 per cent.

Marcus Thorngrove
Andes, New York

Not Too Kind

Anne Diebel writes that I am ‘frustratingly circumspect’ in my Life of Scofield Thayer concerning Freud’s diagnosis of his mental illness (LRB, 9 April). I am not so much circumspect as less curious about this than Diebel; a formal psychiatric diagnosis seems to me less descriptive of a mental breakdown than the vast amount of erratic, fearful, suspicious, obsessive, hyperactive, disorganised, vainglorious and depressive behaviour exhibited by Thayer that I describe in the book. For the record, I did contact Thayer’s last psychiatrist, who declined to speak about his former patient. This didn’t bother me too much, since I felt the book presented more than enough evidence of Thayer’s mental collapse. I was further persuaded to rely on description rather than diagnosis by the mercurial nature of psychiatric nomenclature. During the 1920s, the diagnosis of ‘dementia praecox’ was being replaced by that of ‘schizophrenia’; today, there are those who believe the term ‘dementia praecox’ should be reinstituted. All in all, I concluded that the physician’s certificate from Arthur H. Ruggles, M.D., superintendent of Butler Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, which was used when Thayer was declared ‘an insane person’ in 1937, would suffice. It described Thayer as suffering from ‘chronic and incurable mental disease which renders him incapable of taking care of himself or attending to any business matters’.

Diebel also suggests that I am too kind to my subject, citing Thayer’s displays of misogyny and anti-Semitism. Well, I am the one who brought to light these (and many other) character flaws. And while I believe that a biographer does indeed nurture an empathy towards his subject, I can’t say I feel at all kindly towards Thayer’s imperfections. He was indeed a bigot. His attitude towards Jews seems to have mellowed during his stay in Vienna, but his view of women never evolved, though women who knew him intimately, even those who were ‘progressive’ in their thinking, were greatly fond of him. In the end, I see Thayer as I tried to describe him in the book: generous, envious, intellectual, petty, aesthetic, arrogant, condescending, snobbish, prescient, ignorant, and evidently paedophilic.

James Dempsey
Worcester, Massachusetts

In Stock

Kitty Burns Florey compares the ‘sensible and elegant italic script’ taught in UK schools to the ‘ridiculous’ Palmer Method taught then as now in US schools (Letters, 9 April). Florey misses the character-building dimension of Palmer. I had four years of Palmer Method handwriting and failed every time, so I had to take it over again and again. When I graduated the vice principal called me into his office and claimed I was the only pupil in Howland Elementary’s hundred-year history to fail Palmer not just once but repeatedly. He scratched his head: this was, he said, a ‘logical impossibility’. I didn’t know what a logical impossibility was but left his office unchastened and vaguely, well, proud.

Clancy Sigal
Los Angeles

All about Me

In his piece about Don Bachardy, Kevin Kopelson writes that he’s not been ‘able to discover’ who Dana Woodbury is (LRB, 9 April). Kopelson will find him mentioned several times in Christopher Isherwood’s The Sixties: Diaries Vol. II, 1960-69. There is a good index prepared by Christopher Phipps and, in the glossary, the following information:

Woodbury, Dana. A neighbour of Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell; he lived across the street from them on Norma Place in West Hollywood, and they introduced him to Isherwood. Bachardy painted his portrait several times.

Katherine Bucknell
London W11

Smart Dude

It’s unfair of Christian Lorentzen to anoint his Harvard classmate Tom Cotton the ‘philosopher-king-in-waiting’ of the Tea Partying right (LRB, 9 April). What about the claims of another youngish Republican senator, Ted Cruz? He can quote Friedrich Hayek with the best of them and, according to the blogger Josh Marshall, who was at Princeton with him, struck everyone there as ‘a really, really smart dude’ as well as a ‘total raging asshole’.

Colin Taylor
Manchester

Not Just Any Place

David Robert Mitchell’s film It Follows is as elliptical as Michael Wood suggests, but a broken sign at the swimming baths in the finale does eventually confirm that it is set in Detroit (LRB, 9 April).

Fatema Ahmed
London SE5

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