Malcolm and the Masses

Clive James

  • Malcolm Muggeridge: A Life by Ian Hunter
    Collins, 270 pp, £6.95, November 1980, ISBN 0 00 216538 4

Even those of us who don’t know Malcolm Muggeridge personally can be certain that the charm to which his friends attest would quickly enslave us too, should we be exposed to it. One would probably soon give up quarrelling with him. But his public persona invites quarrel and not much else. He is not really very illuminating even when he is right. As a writer and television performer he has always had the virtue of embodying the questioning spirit, but he has been even more valuable as an example of what happens to the questioning spirit when it is too easily satisfied with its own answers. Self-regard makes him untrustworthy even in the pursuit of truth. Life has been brighter for his having been around, but for a long time his explanations have not done much more than add to the general confusion. From one who makes so much noise about being hard to fool it is hard to take being fooled further. There he is waiting for you up the garden path, all set to lead you on instead of back.

Ian Hunter, billed as Professor of Law at Western University in London, Canada, was born in 1945, which makes him about half the age of his hero. Blemishes can thus partly be put down to exuberance. Professor Hunter still has time to learn that when you discomfit somebody you do rather more than make him uncomfortable. On page 109 a passage of French has gone wrong and on page 138 ‘exultation’ should be ‘exaltation’, although it is hard to be sure. Referring to ‘the historian David Irving’ is like referring to the metallurgist Uri Geller. There were, I think, few ballpoint pens in 1940. On page 160 the idea that the USA passed straight from barbarism to decadence is praised as if it had been conceived by Muggeridge, instead of Oscar Wilde. When Professor Hunter finds time to read other philosophers he might discover that such an example of an epigram being borrowed, and muffed in the borrowing, is characteristic of Muggeridge’s essentially second-hand intelligence. But on the whole Professor Hunter does not fail to be readable.

What he fails to be is critical. Instead he has allowed himself to be infected by Muggerridge’s later manner, so that for much of the time we have to put up with an old fogey’s opinions being endorsed by a young fogey. This callow enthusiasm sometimes has the advantage of revealing the fatuity underlying the master’s show of rigour, but the reader must work hard to stay patient. When Muggeridge goes on about the futility of liberalism or the gullibility of the masses, you can just about see why he should think such things, but when Professor Hunter does the same, you know it is only because he has been influenced by Muggeridge. Professor Hunter is a born disciple.

Not that Muggeridge, on the face of it anyway, was a born prophet. He made a quiet start, enjoying a sheltered upbringing among Fabians. Early insecurity might have been a better training for life, whose disappointments can easily seem to outweigh its attractions unless one learns in childhood that the dice are rolling all the time. As a young adult, Muggeridge lost one of his brothers in bitterly casual circumstances. Later on he lost a son in a similarly capricious way. These events perhaps changed a tendency to bless fate for being kind into an opposite tendency to curse it for being cruel, but you can never tell. For all I know, solipsism is genetically determined. What is certain is that Professor Hunter drastically underestimates Muggeridge’s capacity for being fascinated with his own personality and its requirements. Our infatuated author honestly thinks he is dealing with a case of self-denial.

But Muggeridge is a clear case of self-indulgence. On his own evidence, he indulged himself in fleshly pleasures while he still could. At the same time, he indulged himself in heated warnings against the frivolity of all earthly passion. These warnings waxed more strident as he became less capable. Finally he was warning the whole world. Professor Hunter has not been at sufficient pains to distinguish this behaviour from ordinary hypocrisy. If he had been, he might have helped Muggeridge to sound less like a Pharisee and more like what he is – a victim of rampant conceit, whose search for humility is doomed to remain as fruitless as Lord Longford’s. Like his friends and mentors Hugh Kingsmill and Hesketh Pearson, Muggeridge mocked the world’s follies but never learned to be sufficiently humbled by the turmoil within himself. He could detect it, but he blamed the world for that too. Self-indulgence and severity towards others are the same vice. The epigram is La Bruyère’s. It could just conceivably have been Kingsmill’s. It could never have been Muggeridge’s.

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