Making things happen

Ross McKibbin

  • Heroes and Villains: Selected Essays by R.W. Johnson
    Harvester, 347 pp, £25.00, July 1990, ISBN 0 7450 0735 X

This Johnson is an energetic essayist. His energy is not simply physical, though he has plenty of that: it is mental too. He seems to write quickly – how else the productivity? – but he writes also with a kind of cerebral force, apparent in all these essays, which are themselves the tip of an intellectual iceberg: he has also written standard books on both South Africa and the French Left which combine contemporary political description with historical analysis in an admirable and often memorable way. Nor is he afraid of controversy, rather the reverse. He wrote a celebrated/notorious explanation of the shooting-down of the South Korean airliner KAL 007 which so many well-placed persons dismissed as impossible as to suggest that the explanation might well be true. His purpose, furthermore, though sometimes playful, as these essays demonstrate, is always serious. This collection is prefaced by a thoughtful introduction on the nature of individual political engagement (that is, the political engagement of intellectuals) and of the role of individuals as political instruments, as people who set things in motion.

He has no doubt that individuals do matter in politics, ‘at least within certain limits’ and ‘at what one might term the heroic level’, or, at any rate, can matter, even if the majority who turn to politics as a vocation do not. Most of the essays, therefore, are in one way or another about individuals who set things in motion. Not all of them, however, actually do so at the heroic level: many of those who populate these essays grub around in the murkier recesses of the Western intelligence organisations or of French fascism: ‘making things happen’, but in a destructive and occasionally demented fashion. The essays are also concerned with intellectual judgment and truth-telling. Just as Johnson has no doubt that individuals can matter, so he has no doubt that intellectuals should intervene in politics. They are qualified to do so and it is one of their legitimate functions. But they must also tell the truth as they see it – in the (now) old-fashioned phrase, ‘without fear or favour’. In Johnson’s case, this means Orwellian truth-telling: the once defensible commitment of the radical intellectual to this or that left-wing cause has, he seems to suggest, been rendered indefensible by the collapse of the old Labour movement. The proper role of the intellectual in politics is thus to expose ‘untruth’. It is pretty clear where all this comes from and, in any case, Johnson makes it quite explicit:

In practice, Orwell’s path is a hard one to follow, and yet he is the first really modern intellectual, the first to achieve a transcendence of the classic Gramscian categories. What Orwell is saying is that you have to be committed and you have to tell the truth. And telling the truth is not just telling lies about your enemies: it is talking straight to your friends. It means the avoidance of bad faith ... The Gramscian intellectual, facing a moral dilemma over truth-telling within a political organisation, will feel that the cause and the organisation must always come first. But the Orwellian will feel that the truth must always come first.

Readers, and indeed the subjects of these essays, should, therefore, know what to expect: the shade of Orwell looms over a number of conspicuously truth-telling pieces.

The 32 essays in this collection span the last decade, though the bulk are from its last three years; most were published originally in the London Review of Books. The heroes and villains of its title are almost all British, French or South African, although Americans are not unrepresented, and there are many more villains than heroes. They are grouped into four parts: politicians; intellectuals; ‘spies, merchants of death and other monsters’ (mostly the intelligence ‘community’, but also an odd and unexpected piece on the vampire myth whose inclusion in this section is presumably a Johnson joke); and, finally, ‘blacks and whites’ – largely South Africa. The essays vary in length: some are substantial review articles, while others are slight or mere vignette – though their being vignette is no fault. A couple of the South African essays, ‘Laughing till it hurts’, for example, gain their force precisely from the brevity and sharpness of the observation. How far these groupings in practice provide unifying themes is debatable; only ‘blacks and whites’, it seems to me, really holds together. Each essay is preceded or appended by a short comment which puts it in context and reflects on the way in which time has treated it. On the whole, time has treated all of them rather well.

By choosing Orwell as his exemplar, as he admits, Johnson has given himself a hard row to hoe. He must not merely combine commitment with truth-telling: he must try to do so in a style which is peculiarly attractive but not easily imitated. Much of Orwell’s power as an essayist is, in fact, linguistic – a high austerity of style seductively modified by surprising demotic touches. Truth-telling, furthermore, is itself problematic. It is not so much that truth is many-sided – the truth is normally the truth – as that one man’s truth can be another man’s obsession. Orwell was himself constantly pursued by idées fixes: the preoccupation with Roman Catholic-Stalinist-Fascist-Pacifist intellectuals is one of them. While what he says about them may be ‘true’, it is just that in the wider scheme of things they were not worth all that truth-telling. Orwell, of course, also had much bigger targets in his sights, and he often hit them right in the middle, but it is nonetheless the case that much of his writing, particularly during the war years, is curiously wearing – ‘banging on’ (a favourite Johnson phrase) yet again about intellectuals whose sins seem in retrospect venial.

Orwellian truth-telling has one other conceivable problem, and that is in historical explanation. Orwell’s political categories are essentially moral: they consist in the reaffirmation of the moral values of the ‘decent’ man against the power-political values of modern institutions and the individuals who dominate and exploit them. These are important categories: it is always necessary that someone should say that many of those who govern us, or who wish to govern us, who are adulated by their supporters, and who are indeed grovelled to by a good part of the educated classes in all countries at all times, are often unintelligent bullies to whom in other circumstances most of us would not give houseroom; that in any contemporary political system the ruling élites perpetually conspire to protect and promote their own authority and will do so unscrupulously if they must. If this can be said by an Orwell it is even better. Nor are these categories of only negative utility: a moral critique of this sort carries with it a particular imperative which political and bureaucratic systems find difficult to resist. Yet its utility can also be limited. How often can we say that x or y is a moral or political cretin without some kind of diminishing return? And how does it help us to understand the way we are or why these often odious institutions behave the way they do?

These essays have, therefore, all the exhilarations and dangers of truth-telling. All of those I remember at the time thinking would set cats among pigeons are here, together with others which, though less likely to offend, have much straight talking. How do they read now? The reader should probably start with ‘Tony Benn, Neil Kinnock and the Travails of Labour’ (a review of Benn’s 1963-67 diaries and Hilary Wainwright’s Labour: A Tale of Two Parties) and ‘Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson’. The first began, I imagine, simply as a critique of the Bennite Left and ended (famously) as a critique of Neil Kinnock. It argued that the political judgments and electoral sociology upon which the Bennites had based their strategies were demonstrably wrong and often absurd – and also, in the case of the GLC, self-serving. It went on to conclude that the Labour Party could never win an election under Mr Kinnock because he is ‘quite irretrievably’ just a ‘student union politician’. He is also ‘vacuous, verbose and comprehensively not up to it. The notion of him at Number Ten has much the same surrealist feel as the idea of Jesse Jackson in the White House ... If Labour is serious about winning, Kinnock has to go.’

This was truth-telling with a vengeance. Since, Johnson concluded, the British electorate were used to authority-figures with an Oxbridge background the Labour Party could do worse than turn to Bryan Gould (the last Oxford don on the Labour Front Bench – and this essay was, as I remember, cheekily entitled ‘Going for Gould’ by the editors of the LRB). In his preamble to this piece, Johnson says that after he wrote it there was ‘an avalanche of similar criticism about this essentially nice man, and I felt a little guilty about apparently having started this snow into action.’

As to the Bennites, his strictures are unanswerable and all that has happened in the last three years has confirmed them. Even now, their delusions still appear almost unbelievable, and I do not suppose Johnson would wish to change a word. As to Kinnock, it is not clear whether he still adheres to what he said then. At the time, there was a sense of ‘Bill saying what everyone else thinks’, though events in this case have probably not confirmed these judgments. Labour may very well not win the next election, and it is possible that Kinnock’s leadership may in part be responsible. But he has shown great pertinacity and considerable political courage over the years, and the stable-cleansing which was, as Johnson would presumably concede, necessary for any Labour recovery could probably have been done only by him – certainly not by Gould. He is verbose and diffuse – that is unlikely to change – but also, as Johnson concedes, plainly nice, and he has common sense: in short, the kind of ‘decent’ man an Orwellian might wish to support. What is interesting is the extent to which an Oxbridge-dominated media – witness the recent Panorama programme – should regard him as fair game. We should also remember that the last Oxford-educated man to lead the Labour Party was Michael Foot and that its last Oxford-educated prime minister was Harold Wilson. About Wilson’s leadership people can differ – I think it was by no means as bad as many have argued – but Foot’s leadership, as Johnson points out, was disastrous.

Reflections on Michael Foot lead us to Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson, one of whom, Thompson, has succumbed to dementia footica. This essay caused much pain and considerable correspondence. In his preface to it Johnson says – which must certainly be right – that on most political issues he is in agreement with both of them, but that, nonetheless, we are all too influenced by the ‘politics of solidarity’: this causes one’s side ‘to blunder into avoidable errors’ and ‘dammit, there must be no higher loyalty than the truth.’ This is the most self-consciously Orwellian essay in Heroes and Villains. In it he accused them (Williams more than Thompson) of self-delusion and of encouraging self-delusion in others, of self-inflation (dementia footica, references here to wind-blown prose, hair and dress) and of a real intellectual dishonesty, particularly in Williams’s treatment of the miners’ strike. This essay, as Johnson must have guessed it would be, was much resented. I happen to think he was both right and right to say what he did. How he said it is perhaps a different matter. The essay is written with great polemical vigour, but without restraint: in that sense it is not Orwellian. The effect is to diminish arguments which are otherwise blameless: see also the essay ‘Tom Nairn and the Monarchy’.

A more impressive example of Johnson’s truth-telling is his review of Hugo Young’s One of Us, ‘Thatcher’s New Order’, and there are several reasons for this. First, it is obviously a book he admires; second, he is able to add to it a good deal of interesting and suggestive evidence of his own; third, it is written in a consistently taut style; finally, he makes the point (at a time when few were making it) just how disastrous the economic policies of the Thatcher Government actually were. In the introduction to this essay, written last year ‘in this hour of Thatcherite triumph’, he predicts that ‘we will come to look back on Thatcher in much the same rueful, wryly acknowledging, but ultimately ignominious way that Spain now remembers Franco.’ How wry or rueful it will be I do not know, but that it will be ignominious I have no doubt. Johnson has always been absolutely right about the present government – I hope he is enjoying the present discomfiture of those who hitched their wagon to its star, for he has every right to do so. By extension, he has been right about Reagan and his ism; the reader will be entertained and heartened by his review of Garry Wills’s Reagan’s America, ‘Doctor Feelgood’.

Eight of the essays here are about intelligence organisations, and their activities have long been one of his preoccupations. After reading them I am still not quite certain where he stands. But they make fascinating reading and there is no doubt what he thinks about many of the individuals whose bizarre activities he recounts. Furthermore, he does not subscribe to the benign ‘cock-up’ interpretation of them: he will subscribe to a conspiracy theory any day, and he would regard it, I suppose, as a sign of the feebleness of British political analysis that so many would accept the former. Johnson here, in his assumption about the malign character of élites, is very much in the same radical tradition as someone like Edward Thompson. What he thinks we ought to do about this I do not know – particularly, as he points out in ‘Rainbow Warriors’ if public opinion regards it as perfectly legitimate (as French public opinion did) for the intelligence organisations to behave as discreditably as the French did in (and to) New Zealand.

When we have told the truth, what then are we to do? Continue to tell it is one obvious answer. And yet that surely cannot be the whole answer. Individuals can indeed ‘make things happen’ but they usually do so within structures and contexts which inhibit their freedom of manoeuvre; when men behave ‘foolishly’ (though less so than when they behave wickedly), they often (surprisingly often) find that as individuals they can do little else. The problem with truth-telling is that the truth is often rather apparent: we also need to know why people choose to ignore it when they do, or why institutions are so successful at marginalising those who do not ignore it – as French institutions did to Pierre Mendés-France, subject of a moving essay in this book, and undoubtedly a hero.

It is the exhilarations rather than the dangers of this collection which leave the longest memory. Hardly any of Johnson’s judgments have been invalidated by time – quite the contrary. Furthermore, in a country where untruth has been institutionalised and delusion has become almost a way of life, I can see no circumstances where someone who says so with such engaging trenchancy is likely to become redundant.