Wild Words

Stuart Hampshire

  • A History of the Modern World: From 1917 to the 1980s by Paul Johnson
    Weidenfeld, 832 pp, £16.50, April 1983, ISBN 0 297 78226 6

Coolidge is a hero in Paul Johnson’s eyes, and Franklin Roosevelt a villain. The former is quoted with approval: business ‘has for its main reliance truth and faith and justice. In its larger sense it is one of the greatest contributing forces to the moral and spiritual advancement of the race.’ About Roosevelt Mr Johnson writes: ‘In terms of political show-business he had few equals and he had an enviable knack of turning problems into solutions.’ About William Temple he writes: ‘a jovial, Oliver Hardy figure, with an appetite not merely for carbohydrates, but for social martyrdom’. About the Bloomsbury group: ‘the influence of Bloomsbury had reached upwards and downwards by the 1930s to embrace almost the entire political nation. Among the Left intelligentsia, the patriotism which Strachey had so successfully sought to destroy had been replaced by a primary loyalty to Stalin.’ There is an exasperated tension in Mr Johnson’s beliefs and the excitement keeps the narrative going, however unbalanced the judgments become. In fact, Keynes and Leonard Woolf, the only politically active members of Bloomsbury, were always very strongly anti-Communist, particularly Woolf, and that sinister upwards and downwards movement is a mere fever of fantasy, as those of us old enough to read the papers in the Thirties well know.

About Nixon’s Watergate manoeuvres Mr Johnson comments: ‘The Courts resisted McCarthyism, unlike their behaviour twenty years later when they became strongly tinged with Watergate hysteria.’ The affair is described as a ‘juridical witch-hunt’ and as ‘a media putsch’. Nixon is of course good. Of Kennedy: ‘Like F.D.R., he turned Washington into a city of hope: that is to say, a place where middle-class intellectuals flocked for employment.’ Now we know why there were pictures of Kennedy in bars and public places in Europe, as of Churchill, and previously of Roosevelt, but not of any other President on anything like a similar scale. About the missile crisis: ‘It was an American defeat: the worst it had so far suffered in the Cold War.’ Pinochet of Chile is a force for good, and his economic policies are praised, which makes very odd reading now: ‘Opposition to Pinochet, though noisy, came chiefly from abroad. It was cleverly orchestrated from Moscow.’ Reflecting on the regimes in Thailand, South Korea and Taiwan, Mr Johnson concludes: ‘Economic and political liberty were inseparably linked. Freedom of the market led to erosion of political restraints.’ Eisenhower’s notion of a ‘military-industrial complex’ in the USA is dismissed as ‘mythic’. Of Gandhi it is remarked: ‘His teachings had no relevance to India’s problems and aspirations.’ Gandhi ‘was a year older than Lenin, with whom he shared a quasi-religious approach to politics, though in sheer crankiness he had much more in common with Hitler, his junior by twenty years’. After these examples of Mr Johnson’s political thought, I was not surprised to find, on the penultimate page, that he believes sociobiology in its latest form to be an exact science.

When one considers this book as a sign of the times, and specifically of one of the intellectual fashions of 1983 – and this seems to me the most helpful way of approaching it – it is interesting that Mr Johnson should return so often to Bloomsbury: this comes to seem an obsession, an obsession both typical and revealing. In the world as a whole, Maynard Keynes was probably the most influential thinker that Britain has produced, at least since John Stuart Mill, and in addition he exhibited a variety of talents and achievements which together amounted to genius. Wherever 20th-century English literature is discussed, whether in America or elsewhere, Virginia Woolf’s novels and voluminous other writings are unavoidable, as are Forster’s. Why then does Mr Johnson write the following sentence: ‘What is perhaps even more striking is the low productivity of Bloomsbury, so curiously akin to Britain’s exhausted industries’? I think the explanation is partly his own uneasiness and partly a bitter envy which is not peculiar to him: it is the envy of a pigmy generation in a pigmy Britain, now trotting tamely along behind President Reagan, and remembering the more spacious past in which Britain was a source of innovation, and an example to the world in the application of intellect and imagination to public affairs. The author’s uneasiness appears in repeated references to middle-class intellectuals as somehow shameful specimens of humanity; and this is the familiar uneasiness of the middle-class intellectual exalted by his own bold radicalism, whether of Right or Left. Mr Johnson how represents the Right, having once represented the Left, but he has preserved the shrill tone of Gollancz’s Left Book Club in the Thirties, in which middle-class intellectuals expressed the shame that they felt for being middle-class intellectuals.

It is surprising that Mr Johnson does not make more of the Left Book Club, which certainly had much more influence in British politics, and specifically in the Labour Party, than Lytton Strachey ever had. The whole account here of the policy of appeasement in Britain, of the failure to resist Nazi expansion, is defective, and I suspect that the defect comes from naive Conservative partisanship. Liberal and social democratic ideas are dry rot in the body politic; invoke ‘the market’ or the ‘free market’, or the ghost of Adam Smith, and you are among the good guys, with Presidents Reagan and Pinochet and Professor Hayek. Adam Smith would surely be as surprised to hear that he had looked forward to the Anglo-American Corporation or IBM or General Dynamics or Mitsubishi Industries as Marx would be to hear that he had looked forward to Stalin’s Russia. The talk of the free market and Adam Smith is mere slogan-throwing, not even to be dignified as an ideology. Worthwhile judgments about the relations between political liberty and a free-market economy require an investigation of the amount of government planning of industrial output in a particular country, the influence of government contracts, the degree of monopoly, or near-monopoly, of price-fixing, and so forth. The economic conditions that are associated with political liberty in Austria or Scandinavia are very different from those which are, or might be, associated with political liberty in Central or South America or Taiwan. Mr Johnson roundly declares that it has ‘seemed no longer possible to define socialism itself, or even to decide whether such a thing did or could exist’. This would surprise Palme in Sweden or Papandreou in Greece or even Mitterrand in France or Gonzalez in Spain. Mr Johnson prefers ‘welfare capitalism’ to ‘social democracy’ as a more realistic label, but he does not try to analyse and to distinguish the varieties of state intervention and planning, and the redistributive policies, which have prevailed in Europe and elsewhere – and sometimes with long-lasting effects.

A more serious deficiency in this history is the account of foreign policies in Britain leading up to the Second World War. More than half the Conservative Party, and probably half their supporters in the country, were ready, even determined, after 1933, to overlook Hitler’s gangsterism, and the clear programme of expansion set out in Mein Kampf, because Hitler seemed to be a useful instrument in containing Communism. Mr Johnson mentions Rhodes James’s edition of Channon’s Diaries among his sources: the Diaries show that leading social figures in London, and prominent Conservatives also, were very far from opposed to Hitler and to Fascism; they were ready to listen to Ribbentrop, absurd though he was, and to believe that the Nazis were not too bad. There is also a quotation from Chamberlain which makes the same point. Discussing the possibility of Hitler’s overthrow with General Gamelin in September 1938, Chamberlain wanted to know: ‘Who will guarantee that Germany will not become Bolshevistic afterwards?’ Daladier similarly thought that, if Hitler was successfully resisted, ‘the Cossacks will rule Europe.’ Mr Johnson recognises this disastrous betrayal but leaves the implications unexplored.

Conservatism, in Britain as in the USA, exists primarily for the protection of property, and of the right to accumulate private wealth, against political threats. Sometimes political liberty is a by-product of the protection of private wealth; very often, as in Latin America, the by-product of the essential purpose is brutality from the Right, and the total suppression of liberty. Just as President Reagan and his supporters are ready to help any totalitarian government of the Right, however murderous, against a threatened socialist advance, so were most British Conservatives before the war. This mentality, taken together with the pacifist traditions of the Labour Party, explains the failure to resist Hitler. The talk here about Bloomsbury and Lytton Strachey is mere fluff and camouflage.

This particular rewriting of history is not trivial, because we presumably need to know what the forces making for peace and for war now are, using the past as some guide in our emergency: for surely there are some near-constancies, such as this Conservative mentality and the lingering traditions of pacifism on the left. Mr Johnson’s analysis of events stretching up to the present indicates no possible path for the Western alliance to follow: he does not for example, use Dr Kissinger’s conservative balance-of-power methods of analysis, which at least point to various possibilities of avoiding war, if the right calculations are consistently made. This is intelligent conservatism, not lamentation and despair.

Mr Johnson’s wildest statements, and his most lop-sided moralising, are directed against the Third World, the likely area of collision, and, above all, against Hammarskjöld for his efforts in Africa as Secretary-General of the UN. He writes of Hammarskjöld’s relativistic morality, his desire for revenge when he was frustrated, and his foolish illusions, as of one who belonged to the Bandung generation. In fact, Hammarskjöld was a man of absolute moral principles, resting on a religious foundation, and about as far from a moral relativist as it is possible to be, as his journal, Markings, shows. He was also immensely intelligent, and of independent mind, perhaps excessively calm and detached, but also impressive in the extraordinary range of his knowledge. Mr Johnson’s outburst against him altogether subverts any confidence in his objectivity: I find that I cannot reasonably believe any of his descriptions of persons unknown to me, and his history is written largely in terms of personalities as causes. The least unconvincing, and the most interesting, section of the book seems to me to be the account of Franco’s policies in Spain.