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.

Later on, in his memoirs, Muggeridge pretended that Cambridge had been a waste of time. At the time, as Professor Hunter reveals, he thought being up at Selwyn frightfully jolly. All memoirists simplify the past to some extent but Muggeridge tarts it up at the same time. He turns changes of heart into revelations, probably because he has always seen himself as being on the road to Damascus, if not Calvary. It became clear to him that the socialists at whose feet he had once sat had got everything wrong. The world could never be as they wished it, since suffering was inevitable. Professor Hunter gaily sings a descant to these opinions, as if Muggeridge had actually provided a serious commentary on intellectual history, instead of just a cartoon. Celebrating the young Muggeridge’s failure to carry out his planned study of economics, Professor Hunter sums up a century of economic debate. ‘Fortunately, like so many of his schemes at this time, nothing came of it, and the dismal science was left to Keynes and his contemporaries to wreak their particular brand of havoc through recessions, deficits and inflated, worthless currency on an unsuspecting world.’ Students of law at Western University in London, Canada, will be familiar with Professor Hunter’s wide sweep, but for those of us in the provinces it is all a bit daunting.

Working for the Manchester Guardian in the early Thirties, Muggeridge learned to distrust, not just socialism in particular, but liberal thought in general. No doubt there were good reasons at the time to be contemptuous of a newspaper whose leader columns were always assuring ‘moderate men of all shades of opinion’ that ‘wiser counsels’ would ‘prevail’. But it was typical of Muggeridge, and went on being typical, to extend his loathing from the cliché to the idea behind it. Professor Hunter enthusiastically backs him up, without pausing to consider the likelihood that without an appropriate supply of moderate men and wiser counsels there would be no stage for Muggeridge to strut his stuff on.

But Muggeridge, before passing on once and for all to the higher realms of spiritual insight, made at least one contribution to moderation and wisdom. He was right about the Soviet Union. Professor Hunter takes it for granted that nobody else was, but once again this can be put down to the demands that the study of law must make on his time. In his memoirs Muggeridge makes himself out to have been, before his visit, completely sold on the Soviet Union’s picture of itself. Professor Hunter shows that Muggeridge was in fact less gullible than that, but typically neglects to raise any questions about Muggeridge’s habit of reorganising his past into an apocalyptic drama. Muggeridge saw forced collectivisation at first hand, wrote accurate reports of it, and aroused, in the brief time he could get them published, the hatred of fellow-travelling propagandists. Muggeridge fought the good fight and deserves admiration. But he was not alone in it, and would not have been alone even if he had been the only writer to raise his voice on that side of the argument. The liberal reaction against Marxism had already become so deep-seated that the Left intelligentsia was unable to take the centre with it. Muggeridge disdains and disclaims the title of intellectual, but he shares the intellectual’s tendency to overestimate the importance of formal intellect in politics. At the time, Muggeridge performed a valuable service in helping to reveal how the majority of the Left intelligentsia worshipped power in one form or another. But in the long run he undid his share of the good work by expanding his contempt for the Soviet Union into an indiscriminate attack on any form of social betterment whatever. The Soviet Union, according to the early Muggeridge, had claimed to be paradise but had turned out to be hell. Yet the Welfare State, according to the later Muggeridge, was a kind of hell too. Do-gooding attempts to make the masses happier were misguided at best and at worst were the machinations of those driven crazy by the will to power. In a way, the Welfare State and the New Deal were even worse than the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, which at least disciplined their citizens. Eleanor Roosevelt was a bigger threat than Hitler. Suffering was man’s fate. To pretend otherwise was to defy the natural order. Eventually Muggeridge roped God in, so that the natural order could be backed up by a heavenly dispensation.

There are good arguments to be made against welfare ideology but Muggeridge has always gone out of his way to make bad ones. He succeeded in convincing himself, for example, that if the masses are mollycoddled they become bored. He has always been able to read the collective mind of entire populations. Stalin’s example was not enough to teach him that there is no such thing as the masses. Nor was Hitler’s. Operating as a spy in Africa, Muggeridge was apparently responsible for the sinking of a German submarine. He was decorated for his achievements but subsequently played them down, preferring to find his clandestine activities farcical. Such reticence would have been admirable on its own but less so was his growing habit of prating about the decline of civilisation, as if the war, instead of saving it, had merely helped seal its doom. For most people of any sense, the combined effect of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany had been to convince them of the absolute value of free institutions. But for Muggeridge it was somehow impossible to reach this conclusion.

One reason was that Muggeridge finds it either unpalatable or impolitic, or both, to express any opinion that the majority of reasonable people happen to hold. But another reason is more interesting. Muggeridge just doesn’t believe that anyone in an official position, even if he has been elected to it, can be acting from any other motive except the will to power. Hence the idea of a free institution has small meaning for him, since it must inevitably express itself in the form of what he sees as manipulation, with the masses at the receiving end. Adherence to this view has always given him ample latitude to play the gadfly, but its flexibility does not make it true. It is, in fact, a lazy man’s charter. Muggeridge’s critique of modern society is too ill-founded to be very informative. He assumes that things have gone wrong because powerful men have willed it so. There is no suggestion that some things go wrong of their own accord, and often as a direct consequence of other things going right. Muggeridge thinks he is being sophisticated when he rejects the vulgar idea of progress, but really his idea that there is no such thing as progress is equally vulgar. Muggeridge was subject to a hail of abuse when the tabloid press misrepresented him as having attacked the Monarchy. There was a time when the same circumstances would have earned him a slit nose and cropped ears. It might not be much of an advance, but it is an advance, and one brought about by those men of all shades of moderate opinion whose labours Muggeridge finds it convenient to forget. Helping him to forget is his comprehensive lack of a historical view. He has small idea of how civilisation got the way it is, beyond a vague notion that it somehow all depends on Christianity, and must necessarily collapse now that Christianity is no longer generally believed in.

Unable to believe in either the incarnation or the resurrection, Muggeridge can only loosely be described as a Christian himself, yet except in a cantankerously paradoxical mood he would probably be ready to admit that he is fairly civilised. The question of how he got that way would have given him pause long ago if he had ever been any good at self-examination, but the evidence suggests that he can contemplate his navel endlessly without drawing much enlightenment from it. He can read God’s mind better than he can read his own. He knows that God regards things like contraception and legal abortion as gross interference. Muggeridge, it will be remembered, could tell which women were on the Pill by the dead look in their eyes. Those 19th-century women who had a baby every year until they were worn out doubtless had a dead look in their eyes too, but Muggeridge was not around to see it. Nor has he ever been able to grasp that the alternative to legal abortion is not Christian chastity or even the edifying responsibility of bringing up an illegitimate child. The alternative to legal abortion is illegal abortion. Contraception and legal abortion were brought in to help eradicate manifest injustices. They might have created other injustices on their own account, which leaves us with the not unfamiliar problem of how to stem the excesses that arise from freedom, but only a fool would have expected life to grow less complicated just because fate had been made less capricious.

Dealing in the millennium, Muggeridge never feels obliged to admit that for mankind there is no natural order to go back to, and never has been. Human beings have been interfering with nature since the cave. That’s how they got out of it in the first place. Most religions of any sophistication find some way of attributing humanity’s meddlesome knack of creativity to a divine impulse, but Muggeridge would rather preach hellfire than allow God the right to move in such mysterious ways. While reading Professor Hunter’s book I also happened to be renewing my acquaintance with Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, and was often struck by the superiority not just of Darwin’s intellect but of his religious sense. Humbled but not frightened by nature’s indifference to our fate, Darwin still marvels at the way purpose works itself out through chance – as if it were trying to discover itself. With due allowance for scale, if our wish is to contemplate reality while staying sane at the same time, then we probably do best to follow Darwin’s example and look for harmony outside ourselves. If there is a divine purpose, then our attempts at understanding are perhaps part of it and might even be its most refined expression, but the universe cares little for us as a species and nothing for us as individuals. That much is entirely up to us. Some people will always find this an inspiring thought. Others it will reduce to despair. Muggeridge is plainly among the latter.

These things come down to personal psychology in the end, which means that they are the opposite of simple. One gains little by objecting to a man’s mental condition if his mental condition is what gives him his worth. But Muggeridge’s career would have been worth more had he not set his hopes on being vouchsafed an answer. Muggeridge’s real quarrel is not with the modern age but with his creator. For all the looseness of its formulation, his concept of the supreme being is painfully narrow. God is not allowed much dignity. When invoked, he seems to resemble a less tormented version of Muggeridge, whose torment arose in the first place from an incompatibility between his spiritual pretensions and the physical material they had been given to work with. ‘Fornication,’ Professor Hunter quotes Muggeridge, ‘I love it so.’ Muggeridge struggled heroically, if unsuccessfully, with his baser desires, but apparently without ever quite seeing the joke. There is no point in being shocked that God gave healthy male human beings ten times more lust than they can use. He did the same to healthy male fiddler crabs. He’s a deity, not a dietitian.

Muggeridge’s seriousness is incomplete. In God’s name he is able to react against a popular fallacy, but he can never give the Devil his due. The result is that he is not even good at attacking a specific abuse. He is concerned but irresponsible. ‘Shadows, oh shadows.’ Thus Muggeridge on the subject of other people. America is full of people ‘aimlessly drifting’. Most people look as if they are aimlessly drifting if you don’t know what their aims are. Muggeridge rarely stops to find out. In his later phase he has been heard to contend that whereas the West leads nowhere, the Soviet Union might at least lead somewhere. ‘The future is being shaped there, not in the lush pastures of the welfare state.’ What does he think the Soviet Union has that the West hasn’t, apart from a certain neatness? Perhaps he means belief. But what kind of belief? He can’t even remember his own lessons.

If you are talking to aimless drifting shadows you can say anything. Muggeridge canes television for its superficiality but he never seemed to mind being superficial when he appeared on it. ‘Television,’ opines Professor Hunter, ‘a medium that inevitably takes first prize in the fantasy stakes.’ On the contrary, the television personality who condescends to his audience soon unmasks himself. Despite his undoubted and much-missed willingness to say irritating things, Muggeridge stood revealed on television as someone who would rather make a splash with a bogus epigram than worry at the truth. Remorse struck only to the extent of making him blame the medium for his own histrionics. Similarly he never drew the appropriate conclusions from the fact that a good number of those old Manchester Guardian leading articles about moderate men and wiser counsels had been written by himself. ‘Already I find leader writing infinitely wearisome,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘but it is easy money, and the great thing to do is just not worry about it.’ Times were hard and Muggeridge had every excuse to do what paid the bills. It is even possible to imagine George Orwell doing the same – but not to imagine him not worying about it, or regarding such an injunction as good advice. No real writer can think of his writing as something separated from his essential being. It shouldn’t be necessary to state such an obvious truth, but when dealing with Muggeridge you find your values sliding: you have to spell things out for yourself. Like many people who have lost their innocence, he can make you feel stupid for wanting to be elementary, Yet without a firm grasp of the elementary there can be no real subtlety. When Muggeridge tries to make a resonant remark the facts don’t fit it.

Muggeridge forgives himself for doing second-rate work in the press and television by calling them second-rate media. This self-exculpatory technique has been found to come in handy by those of his acolytes grouped around Private Eye. Already absolved from trying too hard by a public school ethos which exalts gentlemen above players, the Private Eye writers are glad to have it on Muggeridge’s authority that if a thing is not worth doing then it is not worth doing well. Recently I found myself being praised by Richard Ingrams for my radio quiz performances, which evinced, he said, a properly contemptuous attitude for the job. I have no such attitude, but I have no doubt that Ingrams, despite his notoriously eager availability for such assignments, has. He burns to be on the air and yet he despises the whole business. The conflict would be hard to live with if Muggeridge had not already provided such a conspicuous example of how to become a household name while expressing the utmost contempt for the means by which one attains such a position.

Nevertheless Muggeridge deserves praise for having, while on television, been himself, even if that self is so shot through with falsity. At least he resisted the usual pressure to wheel out a mechanical persona. If he camped it up, he did so in his own manner. As a prose stylist he also deserves some praise, although not quite as much as the doting Professor Hunter thinks. Muggeridge has always overworked the trick of Biblical pastiche. Hacks think him a good writer because he writes a refined version of what they write. Nor have his jokes been all that funny. There is some wit to be attained through knowingness but not as much as through self-knowledge. The human comedy begins in the soul but for Muggeridge it begins somewhere outside. In this he is like his mentors Kingsmill and Pearson, just as his Private Eye disciples are like him. ‘Laughter belongs to the individual, not to the herd,’ Professor Hunter explains, ‘and is therefore repugnant to the herd and to those whose concern is the welfare of the herd.’ But there is no such thing as the herd. There are only people, and until we have made some effort to prove the contrary it is usually wiser to assume that they are like us.

People who will say anything are often the victims of diminished self-esteem, but Muggeridge suffers from the opposite condition. He is stuck on himself. It isn’t all that easy to see why. He is, after all, only a literary journalist. Even his obviously heartfelt admiration for Mother Teresa of Calcutta has its component of arrogance. Mother Teresa cares for those who suffer, which fits Muggeridge’s idea of God’s plan for the world. He would find it hard to express the same admiration for, say, Jonas Salk. Indeed he would probably regard immunisation as part of the modernising process which has led the herd astray. Yet when you think of what polio can do, to forestall such pain seems no lesser an act of mercy than to care for the dying. Preventive medicine is surely a development that the modern age has a right to be proud of, even in the light of some of its unintended consequences.

From the law of unintended consequences no human activity is exempt, not even holiness. Muggeridge has consistently belittled many original people who have brought lasting benefits to mankind. He has been helped in this by the fact that the benefits have brought liabilities in their turn. But benefits always bring liabilities. Christianity is a clear enough proof of that.

Original people do great things. Ordinary people do the world’s work. Both kinds of people are apt to lose track of what their efforts add up to. The news they make needs to be made sense of as it happens. If the literary journalist thinks himself too grand to do that, he is unlikely to be much good for anything. The literary journalist keeps faith with himself by saying what is so and betrays himself by saying anything less, however powerful his reasons. Not many writers are prophets, and those who are foretell the future by the accuracy with which they report the present.