A Ripple of the Polonaise
- History of the Present: Essays, Sketches and Despatches from Europe in the Nineties by Timothy Garton Ash
Allen Lane, 441 pp, £20.00, June 1999, ISBN 0 7139 9323 5
Western curiosity about other lands has a long history as a literary phenomenon – its fashionable origins are generally dated to the Grand Siècle, the time of the voyages to Mughal India of François Bernier or Thomas Coryate. Distinctions between the more advanced European cultures in the volume or quality of travellers’ tales would be difficult to make for most of the modern period. In the Enlightenment, for every Cook there was a Bougainville or Georg Forster; somewhat later, at a higher level, Humboldt or Custine. But in the 20th century, one society seems to have outproduced all others, across the genres. Between the wars, there was a strong strain of exoticism in French writing, variously surfacing in Gide, Morand, Saint-Exupéry, Michaux, Leiris, Malraux and others, to which Tristes Tropiques can be seen as a melancholy quietus. Little comparable followed. On this side of the Channel, where the tradition was always less philosophical, no such break is visible. The literature of travel appears to have become something of a British speciality.
Why this should be so is not at first glance clear. But two powerful – opposite, yet not unrelated – impulses may supply much of the explanation. On the one hand, the stifling parochialism and puritanism of an insular middle-class culture, with all its weight of boredom and repression, made escape abroad an instinctively attractive option for restless spirits: a motive that can be traced back to early Victorian times, when George Borrow’s fascination with Spanish or Gypsy low life was bred of detestation for native ‘gentility’. On the other hand, Britain’s Imperial primacy – whose memory long outlasted its reality – inevitably encouraged dreams of daring exploits in remote lands and stirring encounters with alien peoples, without necessarily unsettling loyalty to the values of the Home Counties. The horizon of Empire habituated Englishmen to the idea of overseas adventures.
Between these two banks an abundant stream of writing poured forth, with any number of undertows, eddies and crosscurrents. If we confine ourselves to the first half of the century, a number of features are noticeable. Geographically, the Middle East, the Mediterranean and the Danube basin were for a long time privileged zones – the terrains of St John Philby and Robert Byron, of Norman Douglas and Patrick Leigh-Fermor, of R.W.Seton-Watson and Rebecca West. Sorties farther afield – like Peter Fleming’s expeditions to the Gobi or Matto Grosso – were fewer. Paradoxically, the vast expanse of the Empire itself was not fertile soil for this kind of writing. There, British power was too close at hand. It generated another set of forms altogether: memoirs, morose or nostalgic, of colonial functionaries like Orwell or Woolf, or avowedly scientific monographs by anthropologists such as Firth or Evans-Pritchard.
In principle, three types of author were professionally distinguishable – the journalist, the writer, the scholar. In fact, Seton-Watson, most unambiguously a scholar – chairs in history at London and Oxford – made his name as a periodical correspondent in Eastern Europe; Leigh-Fermor, by any definition a writer, was no less interested in the distant past of his obscure finger of the Peloponnese than in its present; Evelyn Waugh set out for the Horn and the Levant as a mercenary for Northcliffe, but who imagines he ceased to observe or write as a novelist? In the postwar period, the enormous growth of the media and the dwindling number of authors with ‘independent means’ have made resort to journalism of one kind or another a necessity, even for relatively successful writers; and this has encouraged journalists to think of themselves as writers, if not – on receipt of institutional grants – as interim scholars.
Another kind of taxonomy would take as its focus neither local subject nor alien object but the relationship between them. Here the range of possible aims and attitudes behind a literary engagement with unfamiliar cultures is much wider. It is interesting that systematic hostility should be rare (and the exceptions often light-hearted), in contrast to the notorious ambivalences of biography, showing perhaps that it is more difficult to turn against a society than an individual. For the most part, the stances adopted have not been those of the critic, still less the foe. They are, rather, those of the adventurer, the admirer and the advocate. These positions may be combined, but should not be confused – though there are no watertight divisions between them. An advocate is likely to be an admirer. An admirer may easily also be an adventurer. An adventurer – this is much more unusual, but possible: Malraux in Indochina – can be an advocate, without being an admirer.
Where the roles blend in any given individual, it is rarely hard to see which is dominant. Evelyn Waugh in Ethiopia was an adventurer sans phrases. Wilfred Thesiger, although unquestionably adventurous, was an admirer. In 1916, at the age of six, he had watched Ras Tafari’s triumphal entry into Addis Ababa, his enemies hauled behind him in an atrocious procession. ‘I believe that day implanted in me a life-long craving for barbaric splendour,’ he later recorded, ‘for savagery and colour and the throb of drums, and that it gave me a lasting veneration of long-established custom and ritual.’ In 1930, watching Ras Tafari’s coronation as Emperor Haile Selassie, Thesiger regretted that Waugh, ‘the one person present with a gift for writing, was blind to the historical significance of the occasion, impercipient of this last manifestation of Abyssinia’s traditional pageantry’. His vision of Waugh is a violent declaration of distance between the two species.
I disapproved of his grey suede shoes, his floppy bow tie and the excessive width of his trousers; he struck me as flaccid and petulant and I disliked him on sight. Later he asked me, at second hand, if he could accompany me into the Danakil country, where I planned to travel. I refused. Had he come, I suspect only one of us would have returned.
Thesiger, passionately attached to Ethiopian feudatories, Arabian bedouin, dwellers in the Iraqi marshes, saw the worlds he admired dissolve in his lifetime: Haile Selassie deposed by the Dergue, Nuri al-Said felled in his palace, the Imam of the Yemen – for whose slave-holding tyranny Thesiger fought in old age – defeated in his bid for a counter-revolution. But his books contain little or no advocacy; they are virtually pre-political. St John Philby, his senior in exploring the Empty Quarter, offers an ironic contrast. An outspoken enemy of British imperialism after the First World War, who encouraged Ibn Saud to cut deals with American oil companies to assure the latter’s independence of London, he died a self-declared socialist – who never hesitated to advocate unpopular causes in his own country – under secure Saudi protection.
The figure of the British enthusiast for the cause of an oppressed people abroad goes back to Byron in Greece. Lawrence and Philby, espousing rival dynasties in the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, brought it to the Middle East. But its more natural stage was always Mediterranean or Balkan, where buried identities or ancient unities of European civilisation could more readily be invoked. Rebecca West’s massive and idiosyncratic Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, an emotive cry for the Serbs as the Wehrmacht swept through Yugoslavia, belongs in this tradition. Its greatest representative, however, was the elder Seton-Watson, who not only wrote the first modern histories in English of the Czechs, Slovaks and Romanians (he did not live to complete a companion study on the South Slavs) but played a key role in the wartime ideology and diplomacy that led to the creation of all three states of the Little Entente. This was advocacy at its highest – historically most effective – level.
After the Second World War, conditions changed. The figure of the explorer, still significant in the interwar literature – Fleming, Thesiger, Saint-Exupéry – soon became defunct, as the inventory of the globe closed. Distance was banalised by television and mass tourism. ‘Primitive’ societies were enrolled in modern markets. The world became a universal political battleground. In this setting, the heroic strain in the earlier literature – its Foreign Legion side – was more difficult to sustain. Not that drama was missing. But it was now typically modern and political, calling for professional skills of a different kind. The representative figure became the journalist with specialist knowledge of a given country or region, reporting or analysing the events of the day, from some longer historical or cultural perspective. The literature of overseas engagement is now dominated by this form.
Among its most fluent practitioners are the three Anglo-musketeers regularly featured in the New York Review of Books: Neal Ascherson and Timothy Garton Ash (spurs won in Eastern Europe) and Ian Buruma (in East Asia). United by common liberal convictions, the trio are otherwise quite distinct. Garton Ash, a generation younger than Ascherson, followed his path from Germany to Poland as lands of primary reportage. In 1982-83, both wrote passionately committed books about Solidarity. Thereafter, Garton Ash immersed himself much more deeply and single-mindedly than Ascherson in the politics of Eastern Europe during the final years of the Cold War. The period may have something to do with the difference. As the Eighties unfolded, the East European oppositions to Communism were steadily drawn into the magnetic field of the West’s dominant ideology – the uncompromising doctrines of the Right proclaimed by Reagan and Thatcher. For Garton Ash, then an editor and contributor at the Spectator, this was a natural and desirable evolution. For Ascherson, no friend of Thatcherism, it must have posed more difficulties. Probably, too, domestic considerations weighed in their own right. Ascherson and Buruma mix Scottish and Dutch with Jewish origins; both have expressed sharp dislike of standard British identities and their customary supports – leading, in Ascherson’s case, to direct involvement in Scottish national politics. The English credentials of Garton Ash, by contrast, appear to be unalloyed. When he set out in 1978 for Berlin in his blue Alfa Romeo, Britain was not in question. Undistracted by doubts about the home country, he could throw himself more completely into patriotic causes beyond the Elbe.
The result has been an impressive oeuvre, widening over two decades. After initial reportage on life in East Germany based on his time as a postgraduate there, serialised in Der Spiegel, and a detailed account of the rise of Solidarity in Poland (The Polish Revolution), came The Uses of Adversity – subtitled ‘Essays on the Fate of Central Europe’ – in the spring of 1989, extending his range of testimony to Hungary and Czechoslovakia. In these years, slipping intrepidly from one underground to another, he developed an incomparable set of friendships with dissident intellectuals in the last three countries (by now he was banned from the DDR) that enabled him to chart the erosion of Communism in the region more vividly and acutely than any other journalist of the time: a process he expected to take the form of a prolonged ‘Ottomanisation’ – loosening and decay – of Soviet power in Eastern Europe.
When, a few months later, sudden collapse came instead, he was perfectly placed to provide the best snapshots of the victors. The Magic Lantern (1990) offers a slide-show of the heroes of the hour, caught in dazzling close-up: Adam Michnik, Jacek Kuron, Leszek Balcerowicz, Bronislaw Geremek in Warsaw; Árpád Göncz and Viktor Orbán in Budapest; in Berlin, ‘the greatest street-party in the history of the world’; and finally, the climax in Prague with Havel – ‘it was extraordinary the degree to which everything ultimately revolved around this one man’ – which Garton Ash observed as a participant alongside Václav Klaus or Jirí Dienstbier in the headquarters of the Civic Forum, ‘the very heart of the revolution’, as the old order disintegrated around it. Adventurer and admirer have seldom been so dramatically or effectively at one.
After this triumph as a reporter, Garton Ash went back to his intended startingpoint as a scholar, with a major historical study of the origins and outcome of German Ostpolitik. Based on careful archival research, as well as extensive interview material, In Europe’s Name (1993) traced Bonn’s oblique and often camouflaged path to German unification: a goal pursued by ambiguous invocation of the unity of Europe and tenacious cultivation of relations with Russia, but relished by neither France nor Britain. Garton Ash’s own reservations about the process attach to actors or episodes judged culpable of backsliding from Western values in dealing with Communist rule in Eastern Europe – principally, Social Democrats from the time of Schmidt’s coolness to Solidarity onwards. But the book, his most substantial achievement to date, is scrupulously balanced and fair in its overall judgment of the upshot of West German strategy towards the East. The File (1997), his quest, via their Stasi dossiers, for those who spied on or informed against him as a student in East Berlin in 1980, can be read as an autobiographical coda. What could easily have been a formulaic inquest becomes, as memory is startled into life by disturbing encounters, the most self-questioning and humane of his writings.
Historically, Garton Ash belongs to the last levy of the Cold War, a cohort fired by an uncomplicated anti-Communism. His staunchness made him a natural candidate for recruitment to MI6, which propositioned him early on, as it had Ascherson in his time. Though not unattracted by the idea of this kind of clandestine work, he eventually decided against it on the grounds that he did not want to be controlled from above: it was better to be a freebooter than a functionary in the battle against totalitarianism. After his book on Solidarity came out, he was invited to become deputy director of Radio Free Europe in Munich; again he declined. Repeated approaches of this kind were logical enough. Politically, his credentials as a Cold Warrior of the liberal Right were impeccable. According to George Urban, the best inside source, he could be counted, by the mid-Eighties, among the select group of academics – Hugh Thomas, Brian Crozier, Norman Stone, Leonard Schapiro and others – lending extra-mural advice and assistance to Mrs Thatcher.
Urban’s refreshingly forthright memoir, Diplomacy and Disillusion at the Court of Margaret Thatcher, also makes clear that Garton Ash was a courtier with quirks of his own. Looking round the table at Chequers, with the Prime Minister at its head, Urban noted of his neighbour:
Tim is an excellent analyst; he is young and has already made a name for himself. I can see in him a future R.W. Seton-Watson or a politician of the first water. He is rational, can think on his feet and his heart is in the right place – with one or two exceptions: he made misjudgments about Nicaragua and has a soft streak in him when it comes to the Third World, but on Eastern Europe he is sound and has written some excellent stuff.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 22 No. 1 · 6 January 2000
No writer should complain about receiving the kind of extensive, serious and probing treatment that Perry Anderson (LRB, 25 November 1999) gives not just to my most recent book, History of the Present, but to my work over the last twenty years. I appreciate it. However, he makes some criticisms that need to be answered. Seasoned readers may recognise the continuation of a debate between us in these columns some three years ago (LRB, 8 and 22 February, 7 and 21 March, 18 April 1996). He charges me with a lack of ‘self-reflection’ in History of the Present. The trouble with ‘self-reflection’ is that it can so easily become self-importance. But since he has raised the issues so prominently, let me start with a few more personal comments before addressing the substantive argument.
1. He calls me a Cold Warrior, of the final generation. I plead guilty, and happily so. He goes on, with some vestiges of old thinking, to identify me as on ‘the Right’ (albeit ‘the liberal Right’) and an adviser to Margaret Thatcher. This is misleading. Throughout these twenty years I have consistently been an independent liberal, belonging to no political party, with friends on liberal Left and liberal Right – inasmuch as those terms still have any clear meaning. I make no apology for having written for the Spectator as well as continuing to write for those well-known right-wing journals, the Independent and the New York Review of Books. I only advised Margaret Thatcher once, at the (in)famous March 1990 Chequers seminar on German unification. Since other attendees included the liberal New York historian of Germany, Fritz Stern, and the Stanford historian Gordon Craig, it seems a fair assumption that we were gathered for our knowledge of Germany rather than our ideological soundness. So whatever this argument is, it has nothing to do with Left v. Right.
2. He detects ‘a ripple of the Polonaise’ in the scoring of my European themes. I would never deny a very special concern for Poland. But I also have a special concern for the British, the Germans, the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Hungarians and, as he testifies, the Bosnians, Kosovars, Serbs, Croats and Macedonians. No one, but no one, can know about and care for all the peoples of Europe equally. This does not, however, mean that my overall analysis ignores the other parts. We should not, please, fall back into the bad old habit, so characteristic of Cold War polemics, of addressing people’s motives rather than their arguments. Let us be judged on our arguments.
3. He contrasts my notion of ‘history of the present’ unfavourably with a more conventional contemporary history, based on the retrospective study of all available sources – such as, he kindly observes, I practised in In Europe’s Name, my history of Germany and the divided continent. But I nowhere suggest that the former is a substitute for the latter, or that it can perform exactly the same task. I do maintain, however, that the work of an alert and sensitive eyewitness, particularly if he or she has an eye for the historian’s questions, is a necessary complement to, even a precondition for, the more conventional scholarly history; that the contemporary witness sees things that are otherwise lost to the historian; and that, for a number of reasons, such work has become more not less important in our time. Far from aiming to erect a pretentious barrier between scholarly history and higher journalism, one purpose of History of the Present is to knock a hole shaped like a question-mark through the wall between the two.
4. Anderson chides me for becoming ‘stuffily reverential’ in writing about European leaders, because of too great a proximity to them. His case can be made only by highly selective quotation. Completely ignored is my criticism of Walesa, Thatcher and Mitterrand, to name but three. Yes, I praise Helmut Kohl, at the moment of his retirement; but one of the central arguments of the book is a frontal assault on the European priorities he set. Yes, I praise the Pope; but Anderson parodies my argument for his importance in the end of Communism. I go on to say that the Pope’s teaching on contraception has resulted in ‘much needless, avoidable suffering’ bringing ‘unwanted children into lives of misery’. As for the European leader I know best, Václav Havel: at the heart of the book is a fundamental critique of his position on the relationship between politician and intellectual.
Anderson is curiously dismissive of my exemplars of intellectual independence, Orwell and Aron, but I’ll stick with them.
His most important substantive criticism concerns Western policy towards Central Europe and the Balkans. He objects to my contention that West European leaders set the wrong priorities after the end of the Cold War, as they concentrated on perfecting the existing arrangements in Western Europe through monetary union rather than setting out to build a ‘liberal order for the whole of Europe’ (please note: ‘whole’); that, in short, they fiddled in Maastricht while Sarajevo began to burn. Instead, he suggests that I myself am responsible for Western Europe’s failure in the Balkans, because I argued in the late Eighties and early Nineties that priority should be given to Central Europe: ‘A tireless lobbyist for aid and attention to be conferred on “Central” Europe, he remained oblivious to the Balkan crisis. If the voice of any individual in the public realm bears a measure of responsibility for the tragic inversion of priorities as Yugoslavia slid towards the abyss, it would be his.’ Here is a grave and extraordinary charge. If we make the reasonable assumption that politicians are ‘individuals in the public realm’, Anderson seems to be suggesting that my voice was more important than those of Bill Clinton, Helmut Kohl, François Mitterrand or John Major …
Stripped of the hyperbole, there is a serious point, which I will answer as if it were made more temperately. First of all, I regret that I did not write more and sooner about the bloody collapse of Yugoslavia. I wish that I had raised my voice earlier, louder, more eloquently to say that something must be done, and to work out what the West should have done. Probably it would have made little difference. After all, many eloquent voices were raised, and they had little effect on Western policy. But I still wish that I had tried. And I feel guilty – particularly after travelling extensively through the Balkans in the second half of the decade and seeing the results in human suffering.
However, the reason that I did not do this in the early Nineties is not that I was tied up in ‘tireless lobbying’ for exclusive priority to be given to Central Europe. The reason is that I was engaged in the writing and afterbirth of the large, scholarly book of contemporary history which Anderson is kind enough to praise. In fact, in the years from the autumn of 1990 to the autumn of 1995, I wrote only a handful of commentaries containing ‘policy advocacy’, several of them co-authored with Michael Mertes and Dominique Moisi. It is these that Anderson repeatedly quotes, and he surely overstates their impact.
For, second and more important, it is simply not the case that West European leaders gave the priority to eastward enlargement of the European Community (subsequently Union) that I hoped they would – starting with the post-Communist countries most advanced and nearest to us, but certainly not stopping there. In fact, they did remarkably little even for Central Europe. Anderson waxes indignant about how all the EC/EU aid went to Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia, but the truth is that they did not get much. It was hard enough to persuade West European leaders to give even that – and we still have not opened our markets to the Hungarians, Poles and Czechs as they have opened theirs to us. Far from there being a ‘Western Drang nach Osten after the Cold War’, there was a huge Western inclination to stay exactly where we were. Less Drang than drag.
Becoming what I suppose he would call ‘stuffily reverential’, Anderson avers that ‘the Western leader who did most to force through monetary union, François Mitterrand, was actually the only one with a unitary vision for Eastern Europe as a whole.’ Well, I was one of those invited to launch Mitterrand’s European Confederation in Prague in 1991, and I briefly describe that singular event in the book. Far from being a manifestation of a true vision for all the countries of post-Communist Europe, this was a device to put them all in a long-term waiting-room and talking-shop, while keeping an unenlarged, tight little European Community with France still at its centre.
Think back to the early Nineties. Was the ‘European debate’ in Britain, France, Germany or Italy dominated by Central Europe? Was this what the referendums were about in France and Denmark? A glance at the newspapers of the time will show that the debate about Europe was consumed by the Maastricht agenda. This was not the only reason for our failure in the Balkans, but it was a much more important one than my own (and other people’s) not very successful advocacy of enlargement.
Third, underlying his critique is an assumption that Central Europe was somehow going to be all right anyway. But what Central Europe had in 1990 was an almighty mess. it’s tempting today, but quite ahistorical, to believe that Central Europe was foredoomed to make a successful transition to some version (however tawdry and corrupt) of democratic capitalism. In fact, this is precisely the kind of mythopoeic idealising of ‘Central Europe’ that Anderson wrongly ascribes to me. He critically quotes, slightly out of context, my observation in The Magic Lantern – better known in this country as We the People – that ‘1989 was not a year of acute national and ethnic conflict in Eastern Europe.’ (It’s clear from the context that ‘Eastern Europe’ here refers, as was usual at that time, to the six states of the Soviet bloc.) He doesn’t quote my comment in the same chapter that one could ‘with a rather high degree of analytical plausibility’ paint for the former Eastern Europe in the Nineties a dark prospect: ‘less Central Europe than Zwischeneuropa, a dependent intermediate zone of weak states, national prejudice, inequality, poverty and Schlamassel’. My overwhelming concern was that even the best-placed post-Communist states would not make it, and I don’t think this fear was unfounded.
In advocating a priority for Central Europe, Mertes, Moisi and I argued that you simply could not do everything at once, and that a democratic, prosperous, stable and secure East-Central Europe might in time ‘become a magnet for South-East Europe, for the Baltic states, the Ukraine and, yes, for the European parts of Russia’. Looking at the positive role Poland now plays in relation to her eastern neighbours, looking at Slovenia and the prospects for Croatia after Tudjman, I think the magnet is just beginning to pull.
I repeat: morally and emotionally, I feel guilty about not having raised my voice louder, sooner, for the suffering of former Yugoslavia. But intellectually and politically, Anderson’s indictment is delivered to the wrong address.
Finally, he confuses not writing reportage from Russia with not seeing that Russia matters. (History of the Present also has little reportage from France, Spain or Italy – that doesn’t mean I think they are unimportant.) In another bold rhetorical manoeuvre, he says: well, Garton Ash doesn’t write much about Russia, but ‘another Polonist’, Zbigniew Brzezinski, does. He then devotes three columns to identifying me, on no evidence at all, with the view he attributes to Brzezinski, that Europe is America’s geopolitical bridgehead against Russia. This is like saying ‘Perry Anderson is a rich man on the left. So is Geoffrey Robinson. Anderson doesn’t say much about tax reform, but Robinson did, so for Anderson read Robinson.’ I am very happy to conduct a further debate with Perry Anderson about the global geopolitics of the post-Cold War world, but that is the subject of Brzezinski’s book, not mine. If we have a right to be judged on our arguments rather than our motives, we have an even more basic right to be judged on our own arguments, not other people’s.
Timothy Garton Ash
St Antony’s College, Oxford
Perry Anderson slightly disfigures an otherwise magnificent essay by an offhand repetition of the commonest misrepresentation of George Orwell. Far from ‘supplying officialdom with a secret list of suspect acquaintances’, Orwell showed a friend an open list of what he considered to be suspect public figures. One could hardly get more errors – or innuendos – into so few words. The friend – actually a former object of Orwell’s love – was a woman of the Left who worked for the Foreign Office. But Orwell showed his list to anyone who asked, and published its corollary opinions whenever he had the chance. Almost nobody on the roster was known to him personally. I suspect that the word ‘list’ (as in ‘blacklist’) is what does the subliminal damage here: it was actually more of a party game, played by himself and his friend Richard Rees. The public exchanges, with those on the ‘list’ like J.D. Bernal, were of course properly acid and serious. At exactly the same period, Orwell helped initiate a statement by the Freedom Defence Committee, signed by another ‘list’ of himself, E.M. Forster, Fenner Brockway, Henry Moore, Harold Laski and others, which said that any government employee suspected of Communist or Fascist sympathies should be entitled to an open hearing, and should have the right both to be accompanied by a lawyer or a trade-union representative, and to cross-examine hostile witnesses. The statement explicitly said that information from the ‘security’ services should not be taken unless independently corroborated.
The statement was published in the Socialist Leader on 21 August 1948 and in Peace News on 27 August. Together with all of Orwell’s private correspondence and public activity of the time, it shows that he was resolutely opposed to any sort of inquisition. The entire list appears as Appendix 9 in Vol. XX of the Complete Works of George Orwell (1998).
Perry Anderson mentions Robert Seton-Watson, and his influence in shaping Western views of East-Central Europe. But he makes no mention of Henry Brailsford, whose understanding of the Balkans proved much better founded than Seton-Watson's idealised picture. Brailsford was undoubtedly less influential, but his critique of the facile enthusiasm for the creation of new states and the break-up of old empires (outlined in A League of Nations, 1917) proved remarkably prescient. Many of the most lasting analyses of East-Central Europe between the wars were produced by leftists or left-liberals (which included Seton-Watson in his youth) whereas after the Second World War most leftists produced ideological or scholastic analyses. During the Cold War, there was no time for the kind of sober analysis which Brailsford had been able to provide in Macedonia: Its Races and Their Future (1906), which scholars still refer to.
Also omitted in Anderson's overview is any discussion of alternative views to the soft liberal consensus on Eastern Europe epitomised in the articles by Garton Ash collected in The Uses of Adversity (1989) and We the People (1990). Anderson predictably mentions Bahro. But there was no shortage in Eastern Europe of alternative views to the soft consensus. In Poland, Jadwiga Staniszkis's interpretation of the dynamics of change in Eastern Europe proved much more accurate and prescient than the picture Garton Ash provided. In Hungary, Tamas Bauer produced interesting analyses. Not everybody in Eastern Europe was guilty of the illusion of immediacy.
Vol. 22 No. 2 · 20 January 2000
Timothy Garton Ash protests that statesmen like Clinton or Major surely bear more blame for the fate of Yugoslavia than a commentator like himself (Letters, 6 January). Of course. But my judgment that ‘if any individual voice in the public realm bears a measure of responsibility for the tragic inversion of priorities as Yugoslavia slid towards the abyss, it would be his’ does not confuse rulers with powers of political decision over the action of states, and writers with influence on public opinion. Heads of government do not act as individuals, and are not mere voices. They command massive material forces. As it happens, no one called as repeatedly and outspokenly as Garton Ash for aid and attention to be concentrated on ‘Central Europe’ at the expense of the Balkans, in the first half of the Nineties. But this is itself not relevant to the verdict in question, which is clearly a comparative judgment about publicists rather than politicians. It can be argued that no individual voice, his or any other, could have had any effect on the fate of Eastern Europe in these years. That is why the sentence is a conditional. Such a conclusion, however, would obviously be self-defeating for a political writer.
Garton Ash also objects to my discussion of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s vision of Europe, as without place in a review of his own work. On no evidence at all, he writes, I have identified his own opinions with those of Brzezinski. Here his reading has failed him, since I expressly pointed to differences between the two. The reason Brzezinski’s Grand Chessboard has a direct bearing on History of the Present is not that they are equivalent, but that the former confronts issues that the latter avoids, yet programmatically entails. Garton Ash expresses satisfaction that the ‘argument for Nato enlargement has been won’. But his book offers no word to explain why this fateful expansion was necessary. At the same time, it ends by telling us we must ‘see Europe plain and see it whole’, while saying nothing at all about the premier European power, the United States. In this double silence, we have a right to ask: so what were the arguments that won the day for pushing Nato forward to the Bug – who made them, in the name of which logic? The answer to that question takes us directly to the case made most cogently by Brzezinski, for the calculus of American power in Europe. If Garton Ash fundamentally disagreed with it, he has had plenty of opportunity to express his differences. A reader of History of the Present would search in vain for them. But if we are told to see Europe whole, we are entitled to take the injunction seriously: that is why it is not out of order, but fairand accurate, to say of The Grand Chessboard that ‘by and large this is the outer frame of the landscape sketched in History of the Present, in the real world.’
Christopher Hitchens demurs at another point I touched on. It is a canard, he writes, to say that George Orwell ever supplied officialdom with a secret list of suspect acquaintances: ‘one could hardly get more errors – or innuendos – into so few words.’ For the list was open, not secret; shared with friends, not sent to officials; and included virtually nobody Orwell knew personally. Indeed, far from being of any ominous intent, ‘it was actually more of a party game, played by himself and his friend Richard Rees.’
The facts are these. On 29 March 1949 Celia Kirwan, a former flame, visited Orwell in Cranham. Employed by British Intelligence (the Information Research Department set up by the Foreign Office for ‘an effective counter-offensive against Communism’), she reported to her superiors the next day that she had ‘discussed some aspects of our work with him in great confidence, and he was delighted to learn of them’. Case-officer Lt Colonel Sheridan annotated her account. A week later, on 6 April, Orwell wrote to Richard Rees asking him to locate and send from his former residence ‘a quarto notebook with a pale-bluish cardboard cover’ containing ‘a list of crypto-Communists and fellow-travellers which I want to bring up to date’. Once in possession of the notebook, Orwell wrote on 2 May to Kirwan, ‘I enclose a list with about 35 names,’ adding: ‘I don’t suppose it will tell your friends anything they don’t know. At the same time it isn’t a bad idea to have people who are probably unreliable listed.’ Fearful of disclosure, since ‘even as it stands I imagine this list is very libellous,’ he insisted it be returned to him without fail.
It is thus quite clear that Richard Rees first learnt of the existence of the notebook from Orwell’s letter to him; that Orwell had promised Kirwan to produce a list from it as assistance to ‘her friends’, of whose identity as an apparatus of surveillance he was in no doubt; and that he was very anxious to keep the list hidden. In this he was successful. To this day, the target-list he sent Kirwan of his prime suspects is a state secret (or, as the editor of his Complete Works delicately puts it, ‘a card has been placed in the PRO file holding Orwell’s correspondence with Celia Kirwan indicating that a document has been withheld by the Foreign Office’). In that sense, we don’t know exactly how many personal acquaintances of Orwell it contained. But that we can be sure it included a good number is clear from the larger list that fills the notebook, which abounds with fellow writers for Tribune, London literary figures, political trouble-makers of all kinds, with unequivocally personal judgments attached. Who doubts that Orwell knew Stephen Spender, C. Day Lewis, Isaac Deutscher, Tom Driberg, Kingsley Martin etc? With 99 suspects laid out in Volume XX of the Complete Works before us, we are still not privy to the full scope of Orwell’s vigilance, since the editor in turn has withheld another 36 names for fear of contemporary libel.
The nature of the list, even with truncations, speaks for itself. Enumerating his suspects, Orwell did not just classify degrees of political unreliability. Racial origin, national outlook, sexual orientation, even physical deficiency, feature as well. Chaplin is ‘Jewish?’; Deutscher a ‘Polish Jew’; Mikardo ‘Jewish?’; Zilliacus ‘Finnish? Jewish?’; Zuckermann ‘an English Jew’; Cedric Dover a ‘Eurasian’; Robeson a ‘US Negro – very anti-white’. Priestley and A.J.P. Taylor are ‘anti-American’; Hugh McDiarmid ‘very anti-English’. Spender tends towards ‘homosexuality’ and Driberg is a ‘homosexual’; G.D.H. Cole is not just ‘shallow’ and a ‘sympathiser’, but a ‘diabetic’ to boot. Of course, the sheer outlandishness of a roll-call in which such improbable figures as Orson Welles, Janet Flanner, P.M.S. Blackett, not to speak of Fiorello LaGuardia and Senator Claude Pepper from Florida, even make an appearance, could be regarded as mitigating the gravamen of the list. But annotations such as these would have been familiar fare to the functionaries who filed them. It is a case where the French phrase invites a North American response: si ça marche comme un canard et ça crie comme un canard, camarade, c’est bel et bien un canard.
The political convictions that led Orwell to his collaboration with British Intelligence are no mystery – he was trying to get the Voice of America and the US Army of Occupation in Germany to finance the dissemination of his work at the same time. Many would regard his action as no more than patriotic duty. But it is quite possible to respect his memory – Christopher Hitchens has often written warmly of him – without approving his service to the secret state, just as one can admire Raymond Aron, a more substantial thinker, despite his collusion with the Algerian War. What isn’t possible is to wish away the record. Neither will stand up as examples of intellectuals who had no truck with power.
Vol. 22 No. 3 · 3 February 2000
Perry Anderson (Letters, 20 January) scorns to notice the contradiction between the sources he scrutinises and the conclusion he draws. If Orwell, by conducting his own freelance annotation of contemporary fellow-travellers, was in the ‘service of the secret state’, then why was the dreaded list already prepared in the sinister form of a quarto notebook? And surely, by asking Richard Rees to hunt it out for him on behalf of a former flame, he illustrated the truth of Rees’s later avowal that this was ‘a sort of game we played – discovering who was a paid agent of what and estimating to what lengths of treachery our favourite bêtes noires would be prepared to go’.
What sort of lengths might those have been? Take the case of Peter Smolka alias Smollett, who appears on the list. A Beaverbrook press person and an OBE, he also toiled in the wartime Ministry of Information. He was, it can now be asserted, the official of that ministry who intervened with Jonathan Cape to prevent the publication of Animal Farm in 1944 (which would surely constitute an interference by the ‘secret state’ against Orwell). And he was later revealed, though from other sources, as an agent of the KGB. He is also the only person on the entire list against whom the charge of being an agent is directly laid. And even then the exact words are ‘almost certainly’. Anderson doesn’t care to notice it, but perhaps a third of the entries consist of notes such as ‘Probably not’ or ‘Sympathiser only’, even in the relatively innocuous matter of Communist Party membership. Where round accusations are made – such as J.B. Priestley’s vast earnings from Soviet editions of his works – they are correct. This is also true of the irrelevant details: Anderson invites us to snort at the idea that Hugh McDiarmid was ‘very anti-English’ when, after all, and as Orwell may or may not have known, McDiarmid listed ‘Anglophobia’ as one of his occupations in Who’s Who. To read that Stephen Spender was ‘inclined to homosexuality’ is to earn a free belly-laugh from the past, I admit, but much of the private gaucherie of the notebook holds up surprisingly well, and is also surprisingly lenient. Nobody came to harm from its circulation, and unless Anderson wants to say plainly that Orwell was a racist it is no more bizarre to find a question-mark after ‘Jewish’ in the case of Zilliacus than after ‘Finnish’. (Both incidentally correct.) Louis Adamic is identified – why not? – as ‘born in Slovenia not Croatia’. The entry for Richard Crossman – ‘?? Political climber. Zionist (appears sincere about this.) Too dishonest to be outright F.T. [fellow-traveller]’ – could hardly be bettered for succinctness even now. It was from Perry Anderson, incidentally, that I learned of the relevance and interest of national and ethnic provenance in the cases of Namier, Berlin, Gombrich, Malinowski, Popper, Melanie Klein and indeed Isaac Deutscher, by means of the convenient chart he published in ‘Components of the National Culture’ in New Left Review (1968) and republished in English Questions (1992). I defended him back then from ill-intentioned critics who affected distrust for the necessary taxonomy, and I defend him still.
To the issue of how well Orwell ‘knew’ people, I reiterate that surmises like those above, even when correct, do not denote a list of ‘acquaintances’ in the customary sense. He had certainly met Kingsley Martin, who had suppressed his reports on Stalinism in Spain for the New Statesman, and famously knew him well enough to dislike even the sight of him, but does Anderson quarrel with Orwell’s view that Martin was a ‘decayed liberal, very dishonest’ with nonetheless ‘probably no definite organisational connection’? And does he think this would have come as a dynamite disclosure to Robert Conquest, Celia Kirwan’s colleague in the Information Research Department?
This brings us to the insinuation that Orwell hoped to get his stuff published. Here, Anderson is on firmer ground. State intervention had prevented the publication of Animal Farm in wartime: in the postwar period Orwell was to see copies of it impounded and burned by American occupation troops in Germany. We tend to forget how much the ruling establishment of that period hoped to please or conciliate Joseph Stalin, which was Orwell’s point to begin with. He certainly co-operated with those, in power and out of it, who were prepared to print or distribute his censored work. And so he should have done. This doesn’t mean he wasn’t choosy: he publicly declined invitations to speak on League for European Freedom platforms because the incipient Cold Warriors had nothing to say against British imperialism.
I join with Anderson in finding the continuing bureaucratic and legalistic secrecy to be absurd, though I can’t find that this is Orwell’s fault. But I know some of the unpublished names, as I’m sure does he, and I doubt that there are many surprises. Finally, though, a slight change of emphasis. We now have the benefit of another tranche of newly released documents, concerning Stalin’s preparations for a show-trial in Spain. In these papers, dated 13 July 1937, the names of Orwell and his wife appear as those of ‘pronounced Trotskyists’ operating in Barcelona with clandestine credentials and maintaining contact with opposition circles in Moscow. Had he and Eileen not escaped from Catalonia a few steps ahead of the NKVD, they might well have shared in the fate of many other left oppositionists who were done to death in ways and in circumstances that are no longer – at any rate in point of fact – controversial. Informing, and heresy-hunting, and applause for judicial murder, were political obligations for a large number of the people who feature on Orwell’s list. The obligation was largely observed between about 1936 and about 1952, and in many instances for rather longer. Orwell had lost close friends in that struggle, and was dealing with Celia Kirwan shortly after the Stalinisation of Czechoslovakia, in which many plausible ‘non-Communists’ had also participated. In view of this, it is rather striking to see the absence of malice or misinformation in his notes, and salutary to be reminded of the difference between an alleged witch-hunt that never took place, and the real, bloody, historical thing.