The End of the Gift of Language?

Geoffrey Bennington, Professor of French Literature at Emory University, Atlanta

In November 2010 one of this country’s subtlest interpreters of French thought gave a lecture in the capital on Aristotle and his critics. Geoffrey Bennington’s rare London appearance was billed ‘Political Animals…’ but his actual topic was The Death of Aristotle’s Political Animal. I sat there wishing Derrida’s old friend and collaborator might just be plain wrong. There had to be a good argument against his drift. After all, if we lose our gift for rational language, what lesser way of deliberating on the useful and the just are we left with? And that was eight years ago, before we had a President of the United States whose political utterances are tweets!

When Aristotle defined us as political animals he meant we had the gift of reason, or language, the two translations of the Greek ‘Logos’. Christianity wrapped up the Aristotelian heritage with ‘In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was God.’ These post-God days, in political communication at least, we reckon the Word on its own will do fine. A dominant strain in French postmodernism however declined to agree.  Jacques Derrida and his friend Jean-Francois Lyotard, for instance, both of them now dead, were more inclined, like Eliot, to see words slipping all over the place, playing havoc with any real meaning in public life. They used the slipperiness of the post-divine word to present a huge obstacle to political talk. For Lyotard the politics he detested was pure rhetoric. For Derrida towards the end of his life the Logos – and with it politics – was like the human body subject to a collapse in its auto-immunity. It could be healthy, but lurking round the corner was always the will and the means to destroy itself.

Well they were prescient. And I think that’s a better explanation of the connection between Trumpian post-truth and postmodernism than that the likes of Derrida somehow inspired it. I published a letter, headlined ‘Postmodern Pangs’, in the Times Literary Supplement making this point on August 3, 2018. I was taking issue with what Michiko Kakutani had claimed a fortnight earlier.

Bennington’s analysis, as I suggested, made gloomy listening, with its evidence of a new style of anti-politics underway. In Washington, he said, they called it ‘the game of the game of politics’ and in Paris ‘la politique politicienne’. How do you translate a phrase meaning ‘political politics’? Well I know what it means. It means politics was/is disappearing up its own backside, so riddled is it with posturing and manoeuvering, by way of delivering half-truths.

For Lyotard, as for Bennington, the one chance of doing anything about the horrible debasement of politics in a wickedly gabby age was to undo Aristotle’s distinction between the political and other animals. If Logos was what enabled human beings to live in a polis, now it was evident humans used their gift so badly perhaps it was the time to rediscover reason and language ’s excluded other. Not Logos should be our topic then but phoné,  a matter of inarticulate crying or vociferating.

In his 1988 book The Inhuman Lyotard seems to have thought that to resist the inhumanity of globalism politics had to return to the primitive cry. The globalized, over-articulate world silences what we really feel. The task is to re-centre politics on what the silence covers.

Should we then welcome to the arrival of Munch’s ‘The Scream’ to the political forum? Or even Trump himself? I noted in 2010 that with the primitivist agenda twenty-first century politics threatened to become one vast nutty tea-party, dangerously populist.


All I can do, from the sidelines, is observe the rise of the value of illiteracy, in postmodern times.

The 1990s may yet go down in literary history as the decade which saw the rise of the ‘illiterate protagonist’ as a positive force ranged against the all-enveloping corruption of public language. Two novels raise the question of how we can possibly think truly morally about salient issues when political rhetoric is primed to lead us astray.

In Bernard Schlink’s The Reader (‘Der Vorleser’, 1995, in the German original) a lawyer discovered that his one time teenage lover, an illiterate older woman who used to have him to read great books to her out loud, had been a concentration camp guard. His job was to prosecute for crimes against humanity, but her case halted him in his tracks. Critics at the time objected that Schlink used her illiteracy to reduce the enormity of her crime. But buried in Schlink’s text were a handful of sentences which seemed to adumbrate exactly what the philosophers in favour of a return to the animal over the rational in politics, phoné over logos, were getting at.

The geological layers of our lives rest so tightly one on top of the other than we always come up against earlier events in later ones, not as matter that has been fully formed and pushed aside, but absolutely present and alive. I understand this. Nevertheless I sometimes find it hard to bear.

For Schlink what was ‘absolutely present and alive’ was alone what was morally and politically true, beyond the rhetorical posturing. I take it that the point of his novel was, to borrow a phrase from Bennington, to counteract at least one instance of ‘the kinds of investment that political rhetoric attracts’.  Schlink didn’t just mean ‘Holocaust’ was an overworked word. He meant the moral reality it pointed to was no longer reliable. That’s why he had to write a novel, and not just a column. It’s terrible, of course, if what he is saying is true. But it’s even more of an indictment of the kind of society in which even the unspeakable is manipulated for partisan political gain.

If the fear of a totally mediatized (un-)reality was also hallmark of the postmodern French philosophy written in Schlink’s formative years, Philip Roth was no slouch in keeping up with European thinking. He only felt it had to be transformed by being threaded through everyday American life to make a satisfactory American novel.  And so he came to take up the theme of illiteracy in The Human Stain (2000). He tackled in in both major and minor keys.

The novel is the epic tale of humanist professor Coleman Silk, destroyed by unjust accusations that he used a pejorative word to describe black students. In the background to his undoing we hear of his saintly daughter Lisa, who has abandoned her career to teaching reading to children who can’t master it. She is desperate:

I have days when I think, Today was good, but most days I want to jump out the window. I struggle a lot as to whether this is the right program for me…I want to do it the right way and there is no right way – every kid is different and every kid is hopeless, and I’m supposed to go in there and make it all work…What do you do with a kid who can’t read? Think of it… (The Human Stain, Vintage paperback edition, 2001, p.58)

Here is a real, apparently insoluble, first-world political problem. I’ve suggested elsewhere that Roth’s forte was to realize some of the themes of modern European writing as real social problems in America, and here he seems to be doing just that.

But the major theme of The Human Stain unfolds when Silk, the cultivated academic who has built a career on the integrity of his work in the service of the logos, is ousted on a trumped-up charge of politically misspeaking. Lonely and banished, not unlike Oedipus the King, for crimes he is alleged to have committed, but over which he has no control, he has a passionate love affair with an illiterate cleaner at his old college, an establishment nicely named as ‘Athena’.

Silk’s lover is called Faunia Farley, and the truth of her condition is held out to us in contrast to the terrible falsehoods in which the politically correct and self-deceiving university has embroiled itself. When the narrator tells Silk’s story his sister exclaims:

Sounds from what you’ve told me that anything is possible in a college today. Sounds like the people there forgot what it is to teach. Sounds like what they do is something closer to buffoonery…What happened to Coleman with that word “spooks” is all a part of the same enormous failure. In my parents’ day and well into yours and mine, it used to be the person who fell short. Now it’s the discipline. Reading the classics is too difficult, therefore it’s the classics that are to blame. Today the student asserts his incapacity as a privilege. I can’t learn it so there is something wrong with it. (The Human Stain pp.328-331)

The university itself has fallen on its knees in deference to ignorance. (This in fact is the extraordinary dialectic informing the whole novel asking, from shifting viewpoints, what the value of literacy is.)

On another level the name Faunia picks up the Dionysian theme that runs throughout The Human Stain. It is redolent of forces that, just as they undid the Apollonian Greek culture in Nietzsche’s judgement, substituted for its Aristotelian rationality the cry of the satyr. The narrator of the novel, early in his encounter with Silk, joins him in a satyric dance to show his sympathy.

But then it turns out that Faunia, who has suffered a life of abuse, has actually feigned illiteracy as a last-ditch political stand:

The illiteracy had been an act, something she decided her situation demanded. But why? A source of power? Her one and only source of power? But a power purchased at what price? Think about it. Afflicts herself with illiteracy too. Takes it on voluntarily. Not to infantilize herself, however, not to present herself as a dependent kid, but just the opposite: to spotlight the barbaric self befitting the world. Not rejecting learning as a stifling form of propriety but trumping learning by a knowledge that is stronger and prior. She has nothing against reading per se – it’s that pretending not to be able to feels right to her. It spices things up. She just cannot get enough of the toxins: of all that you are not supposed to be, to show, to say, to think but that you are and snow and say and think whether you like it or not. (The Human Stain, p.297)

To conceive a raging passion for this woman, in her plight, and in her last-ditch political cunning, is a matter of the humanist Coleman Silk’s final, utterly self-destructive, awakening to the possibilities of ill-literacy in the present age so destructive of the logos. Faunia is the phoné incarnate.

Literacy under threat then, even as we pay lip-service to it. ‘Community’, suggested Bennington, in his extraordinary London talk, was a word and a value similarly at risk. It’s another one of those terms we have to get around, if we are ever to get back to the real issue. Politics, in short, if it is to survive as a literate endeavour, has to overcome the destructive power of its own rhetoric. But how can it, when its means of expression are totally mediatized? Only dropouts and pilgrims, those who have been involved in politics and been disillusioned and hurt, and stigmatized, and scapegoated (as Coleman Silk was), seem likely to take up the task, wandering through the world self-blindfolded, abjuring the old language, self-undefended. As I write this I realize there’s even a line joining Silk, exile from the university, to ‘John the savage’ in Huxley’s Brave New World. John who is in the care of dissident Bernard Marx, ends up exiling himself to the unmodernized countryside, outside the totalitarian grip of the city.

But then that was another French postmodern theme: that, though political totalitarianism is no longer with us in the forms practised by Stalin and Hitler, we shouldn’t imagine there is not a new form of totalitarianism abroad, affecting our lives, and our judgement, in the total mediatization of language.

All this is expressed in extreme form: but that is what literature is for.



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The genius of The Human Stain

Would they have given Philip Roth a Pulitzer prize for such an indictment of the state of America as his great novel, The Human Stain, turned out to be? It wasn’t published until 2000 but maybe it was in gestation when Roth collected his award for American Pastoral (1997).

Pastoral, a patriotic epic, though hailed a masterpiece, is not my favourite Roth. It seemed to me to have a strange chronology, reaching back into the 1960s, when the small-town life of craftspeople and tradesmen still provided America with a moral focus, but otherwise to have the feel of ‘now’. Roth’s study of a middle-class daughter turned terrorist, against this good America, was a puzzled, negative meditation. Why? And why, in her father’s and in the narrator’s eyes, destroy her femininity, when she had been such a lovely little girl? From a writerly point of view I suspected then that Roth was melding old, unused material with a new idea and the two sources didn’t quite mesh to create a novel of the late 1990s.

Stain is quite different. I recently re-read it in tribute to Roth who died in May 2018. Setting aside one small quibble it strikes me as that one novel of his that will indeed be read in years to come. In 2011 the writer and feminist publisher Carmen Callil objected to Roth winning a lifetime Booker Prize. She thought him an inferior artist, unmade to last, though many thought, criticizing her, that she rejected him because of his attitude to women.  Either way her intervention seemed like just the kind of ideological partisanship Roth was satirizing in Stain.

Stain tells the story of the fate of Roth’s intellectual and culturally liberal but still male-dominated generation; essentially how that European-minded golden age of the 1950s/1960s, and which had such great hopes of a liberal America, came to an end; and it tells it magnificently.

Roth, born in 1933, from the outset wanted to write American literature informed by the Jewish-American community in which he grew up in New Jersey. But the influence of Thomas Mann, and of the Greek tragedians, was so strong, and was so much part of the culture of secular emancipation that came his way by virtue of family and education, that they had to become part of his work. The European influence was complex, pessimistic and Freudian. The writer Erica Wagner recently quoted Roth in an interview with her in 2009 as saying that the novelist as an artist must ‘not deny…the tormented human being’ but ‘allow for the chaos…otherwise you produce propaganda.’ Of course there were other literary influences, Jewish and Russian above all, but it was Mann and the Greeks who delivered the high-minded vitalist pessimism at work in the Stain.

My 2000 book on Freud

What is ‘The Human Stain’? It’s racism, to be sure: ‘the great American menace’ (The Human Stain, Vintage Books edition 2001, p.106) But it’s also ‘nothing to do with grace or salvation or redemption.  It’s in everyone. Indwelling. Inherent. Defining. The stain that is there before its mark. …the stain so intrinsic…that precedes disobedience… and perplexes all explanation and understanding. It’s why all the cleansing is a joke. A barbaric joke at that. The fantasy of purity is appalling. It’s insane. What is the quest to purify, if not more impurity?’ (p.242) Link that with the novel’s epigraph from Sophocles and you have the genesis of a plot in which America finds a scapegoat for its racist stain. Because of America’s obsession with purity, Athena College sets about finding it in a man of Roth’s generation, a man born in the same east coast state as Roth, Coleman Silk.

Silk is a Harvard-educated professor of classics and a humanist. He belongs to that generation which looked to its European-minded elders, like the literary critic Lionel Trilling and the art critic Meyer Schapiro, for its culturally inflected individualism. Of that secular religion of private intellectual responsibility Silk recalls: ‘Not the tyranny of the we and its we-talk and everything that the we wants to pile on your head. Never for him the tyranny of the we that is dying to suck you in, the coercive, inclusive, historical moral we with its insidious E pluribus unum. Neither the they of Woolworth’s nor the we of Howard [Howard college, c 1950, for black students only]. Instead the raw I with all its agility. Self-discovery – that was the punch to the labonz. Singularity. The passionate struggle for singularity. The singular animal. The sliding relationship with everything. Not static but sliding. Self-knowledge but concealed. What is as powerful as that?’ (p.108)

It’s not how most people understand individualism today, alas, bamboozled as they are by a kind of harmless neo-socialist communitarianism which sanctifies fitting in. But fifty years ago it meant something quite different and quite worth emulating. Roth makes its ancient philosophical value as self-scrutiny plain: self-scrutiny in the face of all markets and all fashions.  Moral and political fashions above all.

From his oeuvre as a whole we know one of Roth’s alter egos was an academic, and another was a writer, Nathan Zuckerman. Here in The Human Stain the two possible Roths come together again, individualists both. Zuckerman, we are told, writes Coleman Silk’s story. In fact Zuckerman’s involvement is the only quibble I have. It shows up the raw stitching of the novel in a way that Silk’s thrilling story does not. The polite outsider voice of the friend is forensic and detached, so much in contrast with Silk’s.  In narrative terms Zuckerman is just a means to tidy up the stray ends after Silk dies. He’s not a character but the author. Yet I can imagine Roth, described by Erica Wagner as lonely in his old age, insisted on including himself hardly disguised.  Feeling already like a visitor in a messy world approaching the millennium, he issued this last plea to America not to give in to its primeval desire ritually to punish and to purify, by force, any transgressor.

The scapegoat of course is an old Jewish theme, and the way Coleman Silk, having risen to the height of his profession, is overnight cast out of the community of Athena College for alleged racism, is a story of a mightily wronged black America, but also one heavily inflected with age-old Jewish woes. In fact Silk is Jewish through his father, though he has been able to conceal it, through a contraction of the family name (Silberzweig two generations earlier) and a fashion among secular Jews around the time of his birth not to circumcise their sons. But more important what he has also been able to conceal is that he is black. His mother, sister and brother are black. The Silks are a black family, not a Jewish family, but among them Coleman was born looking white. Nature made him such that he could create his cultural self as a white self, and so he did, and his success was vast.

So that when a college rival accuses him of racism towards the end of his stellar career it’s not just a matter of politically correct fashion seeking a public victim. It is a private, Sophoclean story of hubris and nemesis.

There are marvellous pages in this raging, capacious novel which hymn the value of Greek tragedy in teaching us how thin is the line between success and catastrophe; how apparently accidentally the course of a whole life can be made and unmade in a moment; how we can do nothing about what the gods have in store for us. Coleman Silk’s suppression of all those outer marks of racial distinctiveness that might have made him a victim of twentieth-century America is a paean to the individualist and secularist dream. His whole life long he seems to thrive on a secret which ought to make him vulnerable but over which he triumphs, out of the strength of character he has made his own. Add to that self a powerful educated charm, an athletic body, long-lashed green eyes. Coleman Silk, like the dream he embodied, had an almost infallible attractiveness.

Delphine Roux, a French academic making her career stateside, falls for him despite herself. She’s twenty-six to his seventy-one and in her creator’s view she’s so wedded to post-humanist deconstruction  that she can’t see where her true passions lie. Roth has some charitable fun speculating on her want of a good-enough man to match her soaring Parisian education, her Ph.D from Yale, her petite figure and fine dress sense. He seems to like her and she is perhaps the most likeable character in the book, from the pen of a writer who rightly doesn’t care whether we warm to his human inventions or not. Delphine’s crime against herself, and the gods, is to have become so confused about the values underlying her work that she falls for a stupid tale of victimhood. Silk, calling the register, wonders where two absent students are. They’ve never attended his class. He’s never seen them and knows nothing about them. He wonders out loud whether they are ghosts. Or, to use the word that kicks off the plot, spooks. When the absentees learn what they have been called they insist on an obscure meaning of spook to mean ‘black’ and with Roux’s help Silk is undone. Colleagues deny him as surely as Peter denied Christ. The cock crows, it turns out, whatever the religion.

Ousted, excluded, excommunicated, Silk wanders in his wounded state through what turn out to be the last two years of his life. You can almost picture him as Oedipus the King, driving through New Jersey. At the same time Roth invites us to picture him as Thomas Mann’s Gustav von Aschenbach in his novella Death in Venice. In that multi-layered tale the Apollonian forces that have enabled Aschenbach the writer to shape his disciplined life, and to make of himself a paragon of morality, fall prey to their Dionysian counterweight. The personality of a resolute and moderate self-reflective man serving a vision of beautiful civilized order is engulfed by irresistible sexual passion. It was Nietzsche’s insistence in The Birth of Tragedy, despite the long German classical tradition of believing in the Greeks as noble and harmonious, that Dionysian frenzy underlay the Apollonian vision and barely kept it at bay.

Vintage cover of a German edition of Death in Venice

Think again then of the chaos that in 2009 Roth told Erica Wagner no writer worth his or her art should exclude from the human narrative. That other humanizing value, of chaos, is what Roth learned from Nietzsche and Freud and Mann. You have to acknowledge it. It is also our human existence. Silk engages in a two-year orgy of physical love with Faunia Farley, a college cleaner. It is most certainly a redeeming love they have for each other, though the choice doesn’t fit his college self at all. The cultural hallmark of Faunia, repeated over and over, is her illiteracy. I want to write about that lack of basic learning separately so I won’t dwell on it here. But in Stain illiteracy may be the punishment of the gods for the way America has re-formed itself since the Vietnam War. It has not acknowledged the chaos but hidden behind its monuments.

Political correctness over race, and patriotic lies covering the tragedy and the terrifying futility of defeat by the Vietcong, are intertwined in the Coleman/Faunia story as surely as their limbs are threaded together, and their ecstasy is the only antidote. She doesn’t care whether he’s white or black. He doesn’t care whether she’s a whore, whether she can’t read, whether she caused the death of her children in a fire. Faunia’s victimized life is almost impossible to lead, but, like Silk’s after his ousting,  its redeeming quality is it’s not a lie.

So Coleman Silk, Harvard educated professor of classics, joins the millions of victims of American society. ‘These are people whose fundamental feeling about life is that they have been fucked over unfairly right down the line.’ (p.80) Yet it’s a comparison that makes Silk almost land a punch on his ‘lilywhite’ lawyer, for it buries the tragedy in sententious moralizing.

Roth’s contempt is for an America driven by ‘what the Europeans unhistorically call American puritanism, that the likes of a Ronald Reagan call America’s core values…it’s not as though Marx or Freud or Darwin or Stalin or Hitler had never happened… it’s as though not even the most basic level of imaginative thought had been admitted into consciousness to cause the slightest disturbance. A century of destruction unlike any other in its extremity befalls and blights the human race…and here in America either it’s Faunia Farley or Monica Lewinsky!…This, in 1998, is the wickedness they have to put up with.’ (pp.153-54)

The distant background to the novel is the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, but that’s not what leaves Roth aghast.

Bill Clinton’s portrait by artist Nelson Shanks contains a shadow representing Lewinsky’s semen-stained dress

He surely was a difficult and not always likeable man, indelibly stained. His sometime Anglo-Jewish wife the actress Claire Bloom was evidently coy and submissive but did him no favours in portraying him as an egotistical misogynist in her memoir Leaving a Doll’s House (1996).

But this essay is not about a man but about a magnificent work of literature. I’ve talked about the potential historical resonance of The Human Stain in an America that even now is troubled by the perverted political uses of victimhood.  This novel exposes that manipulation of cultural values as emanating from the once liberal universities themselves.

As for the novel’s literary texture I can do no more than answer the accusation of my friend, the novelist and critic Gabriel Josipovici, in What Ever Happened to Modernism? (2010), that Roth was ‘a false friend of modernism’ by quoting from Roth’s essay on his fellow great American writer Saul Bellow in 2000:

Now Bellow’s special appeal, and not just to me, is that in his characteristically American way he has managed brilliantly to close the gap between Thomas Mann and Damon Runyon, but that doesn’t minimize the scope of what, beginning with Augie March, he set out to do: to bring into play (into free play) the intellectual faculties that, in writers like Mann, Musil, and him, are no less engaged by the spectacle of life than by the mind’s imaginative component, to make rumination congruent with what is represented, to hoist the author’s thinking up from the depths to the narrative surface without sinking the narrative’s mimetic power, without the book’s superficially meditating on itself, without making a transparently ideological claim on the reader, and without imparting wisdom, as do Tamkin and King Dahfu [characters in Bellow’s novels Seize the Day and Henderson the Rain King respectively], flatly unproblematized. (Philip Roth ‘Saul Bellow’ in Shop Talk A Writer and His Colleagues and Their Work (2001), p.149)

Now, not only is this a sentence, in English, of Mannian proportions. It seems to describe and almost physically to evoke, with that sustained metaphor of what must be dragged to the surface and interwoven with the unintellectual quotidian, the task Roth set himself as an American writer mindful of the most powerful European literary heritage. Writing ostensibly of Bellow in the year in which The Human Stain was published, and when his own great trilogy meditating on American life was complete, Roth seemingly got so carried away by his own literary passion that his description of it almost failed to cohere. I still have trouble with that ‘flatly unproblematized’ every time I read it. Yet I think  it refers to ‘making transparently ideological claims’ and therefore repeats the point Roth made in that 2009 interview, that the literary art cannot be a matter of propaganda but must let in the chaos from the nasty human depths. It is almost a sociological reading of Nietzsche and Freud and Thomas Mann, and a European modernist must see that as a deviation. It is a travesty for the European modernist literary product, in which the agony is formal, and a matter of individual consciousness, to be democratized into an American epic where the tensions are puritanical and racial. And yet one might say that in the year 2000 Roth re-embodied the Apollonian-Dionysian tension in a great novel for the first time in decades, and so enabled that tradition to live on, like the great-grandchild of one of Hitler’s long ago German exiles, like Mann himself, on the other side of the Atlantic.

Thomas Mann 1875-1955

Author Philip Roth sitting at typewriter seen through panes of window, at Yaddo artist’s retreat. (Photo by Bob Peterson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

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John Le Carré’s Legacy: Passion in Germany and the Maze of Betrayal

In possibly his last novel, A Legacy of Spies (2017) John le Carré, aged 86, has done what writers and artists long to do, not for their audiences but for the sake of their own soul. He’s found the perfect form to accommodate the contrary longings of a life he hopes has been well spent but may not be quite sure. A Legacy is a great read.  It sacrifices nothing of what le Carré has offered the reader since 1963, when The Spy who came in from the Cold  entranced millions worldwide. The Spy struck novelist Graham Greene as the greatest espionage story he had ever read. But what exactly is le Carré’s art, beyond the capacity to tell a great story? The trick he pulls off is to hint at something quieter and more satisfying called reality, just out of reach of those intricate plots that so entertain us. That’s how I see it. What nags away in the reader’s mind is the sense that the spy is ultimately deprived of reality’s satisfactions. The clandestine, secretly brutal profession is a scourge to the souls of damaged men and women leading scarred and diminished lives. All of them suffer a chain of new identities, compromised friendships and shifting addresses that never quite seem like home.

Vintage le Carré weaves pacy narrative and urgent dialogue together so artfully that he leaves over a sense of what a real life for each of them would be like, if they weren’t in danger. But they are. As much at the mercy of their own side as the enemy. As the author embroils them in the West’s underground hostilities over much of the twentieth century, British readers at least can paste le Carré’s characters into their own experience of the last half-century of history.  Were they ‘fighting’ for us? At what cost to themselves? Meanwhile the causes weren’t what they seemed, and were anyway betrayed.

For Le Carré’s men and a few women of covert action there are occasional glimpses of, if not happiness, then at least respite. But they can never secure it. Just the mere hint of a farm in Brittany and the time to attend to the needs of a delicate, introverted child, and we know this is a dream foregone, or half-lived, at best. When George Smiley is defeated he takes himself off for a week of coastal walking in Cornwall, and then never speaks of the pain again. We get, perhaps above all from landscape, signs of the peace of mind ringmaster Smiley and his acrobatic henchmen Peter Guillam, Alex Leamas and Jim Prideaux, would so relish in bucolic retirement, if only the treacheries of the Cold War, past and still present, would let them rest. What was it that stirred le Carré himself out of octogenarian relaxation, a couple of years ago, to remind us of the pain of the congested heart, sworn to secrecy and betrayal, in this perhaps final novel?We can only guess whether it’s the moral itch, or the narrative drive, or the desire to take a last bow in the limelight in exchange for a lifetime’s efforts as an entertainer. In fact, surely all three.

Alec Guiness as George Smiley in the BBC series Smiley’s People (1982)


A Legacy darts back through the decades to when a certain Operation Windfall went horribly wrong. With three deaths on his hands, Smiley was never the same again. He had recruited these agents and viewed them as his children. When tragedy struck he silently took himself from his opaque upmarket London address in Bywater Street, Chelsea, and powered his legs and opened his lungs walking by the sea. What was he to do with the realization that there was a leak on his own side at the highest level? Late late le Carré chose a brilliant point at which to re-enter his old old story of Smiley. And in that moment he offered us a little bit of reality. This was back in the days when upmarket Chelsea meant simply civilized and discreet, while no one could begrudge the chief a holiday in Cornwall. In the meantime,though Cornwall hasn’t changed that much, the  understated chic of 1950s-1970s Chelsea turns out to have provided a cover for almost anything.

Devoted le Carré readers remember how subsequently the traitor was unmasked; how he was arrested and how ultimately it was  Jim Prideaux dealt with the situation. I  can still hear the click of Haydon’s neck, after his quiet assassin slips inside the perimeter of an obscure detention centre for traitors of the highest order.  We meet Prideaux again in A Legacy, now playing a role in the life of a minor public school, plotting revenge for a ruined life from an old caravan in the grounds.

In le Carré’s world the good men and women would follow due process if they could trust it; but trust is a luxury. A bare handful of souls otherwise out of touch with each other assemble for one last campaign. That they trust each other has surely kept them from suicide.

Another Smiley, this time Gary Oldman in the 2011 film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Smiley always had an extra consolation in his love of German literature. Goethe’s lyric poetry consoled him the way his errant wife Anne never could. In truth they were always an odd match, the cerebral recluse and the worldly beauty, and there perhaps is a bit more reality to anchor us, for all marriages are strange in some way, and in the secrets of a marriage betrayed perhaps we can feel the pathos of the spy’s life. How did George and Anne get together in the first place, we wonder, unless it was one of those marriages born at an Oxford College, featuring brains for her and glamour for him. Yes, this is upper-class, educated England of a certain generation, and why not still, and it is entirely believable.

And Smiley’s nemesis Bill Haydon, played by Colin Firth

But it’s not Smiley’s own life, but the immeasurable power of his never really expressed grief, that features as the background to A Legacy of Spies. Front of stage are Peter Guillam and Alec Leamas, polyglot masters of the pan-European disguise, and the women they love and rescue; love and betray; or, finally, lead astray unwittingly. Both are handy with their fists, but their first weapon is charm. Liz Gold, the daughter of left-wing central

European Jewish refugees in England before the war, is looking for a politically meaningful life when a partnership with Leamas is engineered. Peter Guillam, and a German woman agent codenamed Tulip, have such a physicality about them that the operation that brings them together for one snatched night transforms what is left of their lives. Tulip, run by Leamas from Berlin to be seen to provide providing a rich harvest of intelligence, is the last victim Smiley and Guillam have to count on their conscience. For Operation Windfall was a fake, from start to finish, to try to trap the traitor.

In the context of le Carré’s oeuvre one striking feature – and strikingly successful device — of this late novel is its use of intertextuality. Guillam, obliged by the latest, supremely unsympathetic generation of the security services to cooperate or else, spends the best part of 250 pages reading through top secret memos filed half a century ago. The jejune new minders who have hauled Guillam out of francophone retirement require his daily presence at a once and future safe house. They want to know what Windfall was or wasn’t.

But what do we want? To know where the house is. That Victorian pile, complete with security-cleared housekeeper and corporately accounted-for cat, where Guillam turns up to order is located somewhere in central London. Again the cover story is so topographically gripping that it seems to me every reader is ready to risk tailing the untiring professional spy to find out where that house is, in ‘reality’, in upmarket, discreet, low-key London, and thus to feel the elusive unreality of the spy’s life.

Wherever it is in the London A-Z it’s hardly a safe place for Guillam, given the sullen distrust of the latest espionage generation towards their grandfathers, and the overt dislike the old men feel for the inhabitants of the garish new headquarters at Vauxhall, on the south bank of the Thames. All the more welcoming then, for the reader, is the bond of trust between Guillam and that austere housekeeper who knows her trade. Having practised it for half a century, she’s a match for the bullies she now serves.

Like many writers, le Carré’s early narrative was sumptuous in the wealth of its description of the places and the people and the institutions that framed his wonderful tales of betrayal. Like most writers, the detail grows less dense in the late work. But that thinning out of the narrative texture shows just what a great writer of fiction he is. Bedevilled at various stages of his career by moderate ill-wishers who wanted to confine him to the achievement of ‘genre writing’, le Carré has deliberately avoided any confrontation with literary prizes, not to be humiliated. I remember a publisher of mine telling me ten years ago that surely le Carré was not of the top category. I should have protested more.

What A Legacy reveals is the trope at the heart of le Carré, and that’s why his work is really worth reading. It’s a trope embedded in the most ancient of stories, as when Theseus leads Ariadne out of the Maze, rescuing her from the Minataur by trailing behind him a piece of string. Couple that then with the passion of Theseus as Ariadne’s lover. The transformation, the almost Nietzschean transvaluation of all values,that Guillam and ‘Tulip’ undergo in their single night together is so intense, that, despite less than half a page of description, it is the novel’s key passage.

Supposing you believed in love and trust, and found, as you entered your final years, that your life had been devoted to betraying them. You might reach for your writerly gift one more time, to spell it out: the problem of belonging, and identity, and of the Establishment, and of the group within a group, set in a political context dependent on the rhetoric of freedom and justice, in which you have to go on believing, although life to date hasn’t exactly shown them to be flourishing, even on the better side in the Cold War.

That I suspect is le Carré’s private legacy, along with a deep, deep knowledge of what made grey, remote and mysterious East Germany tick. It was never Russia he knew, but, as a linguist, and a secret commentator and connoisseur, the GDR.

Posted in Britain Today, Cold War, english literature, novels, Writing | Tagged , , , ,

The Skripal Affair and the Problem of Russia


A few nights ago on the BBC the Russia expert Andrei Illarionov, once a Putin confederate and now at Washington’s Cato Institute, was asked about Britain’s best response to the latest attempt to murder Russian state enemies on British soil. He replied that Britain – and the West – should decide what they want Russia to be. Veteran journalist Anne McElvoy meanwhile reported in London’s Evening Standard that the British Embassy in Moscow these days was more like an outpost of BP (British Petroleum).

What have we got ourselves into, doing such close business with a country we know we can’t trust?

The West would like Russia to be a reliable partner but that’s just wishful thinking. Most recently in the Skripal affair Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson declared himself exasperated by Russia ‘tearing up the international rulebook’ on chemical weapons, a view endorsed by the US, France and Germany.

With the attempt to assassinate Colonel Skripal, a former spy, it’s the issue of trespass that offends, together with the indiscriminate threat to human life.On the other hand we’re never going to undo the prevailing Russian mentality which finds such action legitimate, so we need to understand it.

Consider the the historical tradition.

As soon as there were Russian intellectuals with the education and courage to criticize the tsarist state, from around the time of the French Revolution, law was always the issue. A tiny, Westernized section of the population wanted a constitution that would lay down subjects’ rights and protect them from the arbitrariness of the tsars, not to mention the cruelly indifferent bureaucracy that administered their rule through the nineteenth century. The famous critics of tsarism from those days were either exiled in the east or allowed to escape abroad. The golden generation of Alexander Herzen, who published his anti-tsarist periodical The Bell from his base in London, and Lenin’s own generation, agitating from Switzerland, seem not to have been pursued by murderous thugs intent on silencing them, because, at the time, with poorer communications, it was enough that they were abroad. But I always remember the case of the less well-known Sergei Kravchinsky, a Ukrainian-born Populist who in 1878 assassinated a particularly odious general on a St Petersburg street before managing to flee and eventually settle in Britain. Taking the surname Stepniak he found a welcome among cultural friends of Russia and, witnessing the mostly slow and decorous progress of socialism in that country, with smartly turned out workers marching peacefully through the streets, fell in love with a country he found civilized, compared with what he had left behind. Stepniak was lionized in high society. George Bernard Shaw nicknamed him ’Steppy’ and admired him. Meanwhile his old country, where he had committed a capital crime, lay in wait. They didn’t kill him, but they arranged for an article to be published spelling out that bloody offence he couldn’t disown. We’ll never know if fear of being unmasked in his beloved Britain made up his mind, but Steppy walked in front of suburban London train soon after.

The Skripal story is less nuanced. It seems to be a straightforward attempt at the ultimate punishment for betraying the Russian state. And yet the most heinous feature of the present Moscow regime is the way it insists on killing all manner of its political opponents. It kills not only spies who betray its secrets and flee abroad, not only any Steppys who might still happen in this world, driven to violence out of desperation, but also internal critics who remain in the country and follow due political process. The list of courageous and tragic Russian state victims in the present century, from Galina Starovoitova, to Anna Politkovskaya, to Sergei Magnitsky and Boris Nemtsov, cynically murdered on Russian streets, is sickening and unending. Alexander Litvinenko, formerly of the KGB, was active as a British agent, when he was poisoned in London in 2006. But Nemtsov was a liberal politician while Politkovskaya was Putin’s greatest critic in Chechnya. We shouldn’t be tempted to confuse these different targets, although we can observe that the Russian tactics were the same whichever kind of victim was in the frame. The murders of Politkovskaya and Nemtsov were carefully staged to occlude evidence, and finally blamed on individuals who, if they were involved at all, most likely carried out orders. Colonel Skripal, whom it seems the Kremlin tried to kill in the British cathedral city of Salisbury last week, was a former spy. But his daughter Yulia was not. The attempt to kill her, and possibly the successful murder of her brother a couple of years ago, was meant as punishment to deter all those who dare defy Russian state authority. Any lives serve to deliver the message. Moreover the state can nominally be excluded as the perpetrator, in the latest case by use of a toxic substance difficult to trace to any administering hand.

Now it was the first, honest Russian response to the Salisbury incident, only hours after it happened, when a prominent Russian tv presenter announced: we don’t do traitors. Don’t betray Russia and not expect to die! That was the moment when, in a way, Russia owned up. We should have paid more attention.

For we ought to have learnt, by now, that official Russia is a strange communicator, given to oblique references and what used in Soviet times to be called ‘rejoinders’. The press then was full of shadow responses and vague clues to whatever concerned Russia’s reputation in the West. Kremlinology came to an ignominious end when it was blamed for not foreseeing the end of the Soviet Union. But what it had learned to do was read all the actual, interim communications that indicated Russia was talking to the West, even accepting responsibility, but always in its own indirect, defensive and peculiarly twisted way. Famously Soviet Russia used to criticize the United States for suffering from a ‘military psychosis’. All Soviet watchers knew, and marvelled at the fact, that it was actually talking about itself just as much; that it had this kind of self-knowledge, but shrugged it off, turning it into blame of the other. A minor instance of this mirror-image confusion of self and other happened just a few hours before I sat down to write this piece, when Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov accused Britain of a ‘boorish’ response to the present crisis. British Defence Minister Gavin Williamson’s unfortunate outburst telling Moscow to ‘shut up’ notwithstanding, we are not usually bad mannered in our diplomacy. Treacherous, slippery, whatever you want to call it, yes, but not ill-mannered, unlike the Russian side which has been shouty since Lenin. Everyone of a certain age remembers then President Khrushchev taking of his shoe at the UN and banging on the table. Knowing they are ‘boorish’ (an old-fashioned enough word, retained from former times), the strategy of the Russians is to turn it against their enemy. And with that, moreover, we’re reminded of another fact, namely that Russia can only define itself against the West, imitating the West while trying to outdo it in its own peculiar way. We need the Russians’ money, but they need our superior political, legal and civic arrangements, to map out an alternative twenty-first century achievement of their own. And so they respond to the suspicion that they have committed murder on British soil by not denying it, just warning other Russians not to invite the same retaliation. Start with absolute loyalty and civility might follow.

How strange a project this alternative Russian civilization is! The British Labour Party leadership – Jeremy Corbyn and his close allies — seems to think that the Russian Way might be, following on from its earlier attempt under the name of Communism, a viable project, worth equivocating over murder for. But not many in Britain, or elsewhere in the West, agree.

Official Russia’s insistence that it has to go its own way, according to its own standards, is nevertheless the reason why it attaches so much importance to the loyalty of its citizens, in exile or not. Russian patriotism has been sentimentalized as attachment to the Motherland for the last two centuries, but beneath the thin, occasionally poetic and sometimes nastily religiously gilded surface, it’s an oath of obedience which is imposed at birth, never sworn. It comes unchosen with Russian nationality. We saw a variation on that theme in the recent BBC tv drama McMafia, which, had it been better acted, might even have homed in on what I would call the Russian tragedy.

Back in real life, a certain Mrs Sobchak, wife of a once prominent Putin ally, possibly himself murdered, and the mother of the only candidate daring to oppose Putin in upcoming elections, said on camera of that tragedy recently, ‘It’s terrible to live in our country.’ The sentence is better in Russian. Zhit’ u nas strashno, she said and it immediately recalled for me the title of a famous long poem of the mid-nineteenth century by the writer and would-be social reformer Nikolai  Nekrasov. His title was ‘Komy v Rusi zhit’ khorosho?’  Who can live well in Russia? Or even, who enjoys living in Russia? The poem, with its generous sweep through all ranks and classes, suggested no one could. Perhaps not even the leader himself. Sobchak was Putin’s friend and he cried for him. But wasn’t it possible he also had something to do with his death?

Russia is a Motherland-to-itself, held together, made to exist, by loyalty rather than law. (This is the thesis of a book I wrote ten years ago, Motherland A Philosophical History of Russia.)And that is part of what makes it an Otherland to the most rest of the world. Many well-meaning people just wish it would go away. We don’t know what to do with a place that lives in a bubble of its own primitive ordering. No matter that now, compared with Soviet times, its borders are open, what the attempted and successful murders on British soil show is that those physical borders don’t matter any more. A Russian culpable in the eyes of his native state can always be reached.

We have to go on trying to understand that Motherland-to-itself, neverthelesss. It won’t do just to wish it away. My adviser, in extremis, is the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev whom Lenin forced out of Russia after the Revolution of 1917, on the undoubtedly right grounds that he, and seventy or so others like him, would never come round to the Bolshevik way of thinking. As Trotsky wrote in the press on the eve of those deportations in 1922, at least we gave them the choice.  Although the philosophers were spared – Berdyaev died of old age at his desk — the long arm of the Soviet Russian state did extend into the exiled and self-exiled community. The abduction of a white army general from a Paris street around 1931 was sufficiently scandalous for Vladimir Nabokov to turn it into a short story. But Berdyaev himself survived to publish books on the Russian mind in the same vein as he had been writing before his life in the old country was forcibly terminated. In them he said two things which have always stayed with me. One, in 1909, was to accuse the intelligentsia, of which he was also a member, of often being as extreme as the state they were critiquing, and in particular for not caring to distinguish between true and false (and thus between good and evil). The other observation, drawn from his country’s immediate history, was that Russia lurched ‘between the red and the black’ – between Communism and Fascism.

The only defence of Russia I can ever muster is its need for internal coherence. I do believe that the other side of the highly organized state, bound together by ruthlessly enforced loyalty, is anarchic indifference: total lawlessness, that would be, also within Russia itself. In the nominally highly regulated Soviet Union there was always an undercurrent of actual absence of law, which is why when I fictionalized it twenty years ago I called the country ‘Bezzakonia’, a country without law. In the post-Communist 1990s, under the drunkard Boris Yeltsin, the anarchy ripped through the substance of daily life. Chaos was the other formative experience for the Putin generation, alongside humiliation, as the economy disintegrated and Soviet institutions were mocked. So they, the neo-tsars, the post-Soviets, repressed the disorder and rediscovered their Russian pride. It’s that pride they once again have to offer the West, along with their mineral wealth and their financial heft.

So what do we do? Live with it? Wish it away? Tell it, like Mr Williamson, to shut up? At the very least we must cut down on the financial loopholes that have lured wealthy Russian businessmen, in and out of Putin’s favour, to London to keep their money safe by investing in British property. There will be other, less visible measures, but the obvious one is to be less greedy for Russian money, and ourselves take the financial hit, while modestly priding ourselves on our relative lawfulness.

Posted in Arc of Utopia - my latest book, Britain Today, Cold War, Current Affairs, Russia | Tagged , , , ,

The Sculptor, the Spy and a Moment of Political Sincerity

The story of how the highly distinguished art historian and former Cambridge Apostle Anthony Blunt was unmasked in 1979 as having been a spy for Soviet Russia, has a peculiar appeal for my generation and roundabout. I imagine John le Carré, presiding genius of the espionage thriller,  might even have wished he’d invented it. David Hare, British theatre’s chronicler of good causes gone astray, could have dramatized it, had not rival playwright Alan Bennett got there first. It’s a tendency in our British lives where the left-right political right doesn’t seem to matter. We’re all of us transfixed by the imperial British institutions we were educated to love and trust, only to have watched them crumble in our lifetimes. Ours is the post-war generation taught to respect the establishment only to have experienced it, including very nearly the royal family itself, fall apart under democratic pressure. Blunt, gay and in the service of Communist Moscow, had royal connections by birth. In 1945,  he was named Surveyor of Pictures to King George VI, and continued in service to Queen Elizabeth II, as Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, until 1972.  A chair at London University and Directorship of the Courtauld Institute of Art followed his royal appointment. My generation is disillusioned, and yet spellbound, because in our time we’ve learnt what was really going on inside Whitehall, and Downing Street, and British Intelligence, in the military, and at Oxbridge, and maybe even the great galleries, while we believed in a decent and honest ‘Establishment’.

Bennett reminded us how Alan Turing, hero of wartime decoding, was driven to suicide when his homosexuality led to his hounding by the authorities. Le Carré has filled our libraries and our tv screens full with double-crossings and betrayals among friends and colleagues, and their spouses, some highly educated, like his great protagonist George Smiley, and grand (like, one feels, Anne, Smiley’s errant wife), some not. The image of a nasty, ruthless, public school-educated underworld will now forever underlie our officially glorious picture of men and women who live and die in service to their country. Hare meanwhile has dissected the press, the church and parliament in turn. He’s less nostalgic, less affected by the mystique of patriotically justified secrecy. His disappointment is with the Left and, not least the parliamentary Left. Those of us more entranced by the culture that was once held out to us as a model have our trouble with the stiff upper lip. For it turns out that what old-fashioned Brits learnt in their preparatory schools — those expensive, smooth-mannered institutions that separated them aged eight from their mothers’ kindness, was the ability to dissemble and deceive and suppress their emotions in order to remain socially plausible at the highest level. The reward was, at university and ever after, to collect life’s Glittering Prizes (see Frederick Raphael’s huge literary success of 1976). But at what concealed price!

My dates and even my universities are right. But I didn’t go through this training. What was the reason? My social background wasn’t sufficiently exalted? I was a woman?  So, educated to love and respect my country, I sit and devour spy stories.

There’s a variant explanation I sometimes try out. Why I love my generation’s stories of betrayal in high places is that I too might also have dissembled, for love, or out of conviction, had I been given the chance. Am I saying I wanted the chance? Maybe. (I gave the heroine of my novel Anyone’s Game the chance to refuse.) On the other hand I just never felt part of the Establishment that would have issued the invitation. Not at Oxford and not after.  And somehow they knew that. Though then close friends received the call — one accepted, one didn’t — THEY didn’t get in touch with me.

I was visiting recently Tate Britain’s Winter 2017-18 exhibition Impressionists in London French Artists in Exile 1870-1904, which received some very qualified reviews. The main complaint was that the title of the show was already misleading. Was it a series of Impressionist paintings of London we were to expect, or was it the varied, not always top-class work of disparate political exiles, wrenched from their Paris habitat after the Commune of 1871 and bound to make a living with new work dreamed up in the British capital? I went prepared to enjoy the Monets and Pissarros of the penultimate room, and I wasn’t disappointed. The sheer gorgeousness of the Thames, rendered in a mass of choppy turquoise and white brushstrokes, and the neo-gothic turrets of the Houses of Parliament vanishing into the mist, and the majestic views either way from Waterloo Bridge, were a rich homage to London, rivals to Turner. Still I want to put on record my private dalliance in another room, which showed the work of the sculptor Aimé-Jules Dalou, because he was a favourite of Antony Blunt’s.

Dalou (1838-1902) was a convicted Communard under French law. He had to get out, for his part on the violent seizure of Paris by ‘the people’ in opposition to the conservative national government. During the Commune, Dalou, a respected practitioner, was a member of the Federation of Artists headed by Gustave Courbet, and had been appointed, on 16 May 1871, as one of the curators in charge of protecting objects at the Musée du Louvre. He only held the post for seven days. During the famous  Semaine sanglante (the Bloody Week, 22-28 May 1871), and with Paris burning, he fled with his wife to England.

Dalou was a socialist who evidently also did love the working class. (Those two sentiments haven’t always gone together.) He produced many works of baroque inspiration though it was his skills as a naturalist gave him an appreciative audience in his country of exile. His modelling technique made him the envy of British art schools, where he taught. They  transformed their teaching under the impact of Dalou’s  eight years away from Paris.

Like so many foreigners before and after him, Dalou had to balance his gratitude for England’s political tolerance and its policy of open doors with queasiness over resident artistic taste.  He needed to earn his living in London but found himself obliged to chose sentimental subjects to please his patrons. It offended the artist in him to have to produce so many sweet and innocent mothers and children. Perhaps he complained of that to his best friend, the painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema, another not quite English artist living in London with his family. Three generations later the art historian Nicholas Pevsner, in exile from Nazi Germany, would equally have to torture himself to accept saccharine and over-decorated English native taste. England is not an easy place in which to be a foreign artist. (I’ve written about Pevsner’s travails in my book A Shoe Story.)

How good was Dalou? The terracotta heads and figures on show at Tate Britain suggest an extraordinary capacity for realistic detail, ready movement and naturally graceful form. Auguste Rodin, a few years his junior, regarded him as a serious rival, and sculpted a bust of wiry shrewdness and intensity, presently on show at Tate. Dalou, who amassed public, aristocratic and royal commissions during his time as a London refugee, left a considerable reputation behind him when he returned to France.

Blunt therefore might have grown up with his name in the cultured air. His mother after all was a lifelong friend of May Teck, whose on marriage to King George V in waiting became the future Queen Mary. But it seems all the more likely that this privileged upper middle class boy encountered Dalou on his boyhood visits to the Louvre. His father Stanley was Anglican priest to the British Community in Paris from 1912-1921.  Though Anthony was sent home to be educated at Marlborough College (much detested) from 1918 and thence acquired a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, the habit of loving French art had been early implanted. Blunt began his career as an art historian as art critic to the Spectator in 1932, before starting out at London University as a lecturer the following year.  Yet – and this almost spoils my story — still no reference to Dalou.

In her prizewinning biography Anthony Blunt His Lives (2001) even Miranda Carter declined to pick up the Dalou thread. There’s a touching reference in Carter as to how the elderly Blunt, vilified and ostracized from polite society after his unmasking for espionage in 1979, dependent on the love and loyalty of a few friends, when he knew he was dying, bequeathed a cherished little head by Dalou to his friend since Cambridge Dennis Proctor. That was in 1983. Nothing more.

The only substantial reference to Dalou comes in Blunt’s 1937 essay ‘Art under Capitalism and Socialism’. (See Cecil Day Lewis, ed., The Mind in Chains (London, 1937), pp. 103-122.)  I came across it when I was researching art historical writing in the 1930s and how political events in the Soviet Union influenced views in the West. Carter treats that essay as an aberration: an extreme moment in which Blunt, for all the subtlety and coolness of his personal aesthetic judgement, submitted to Marxism. Thus he ‘repeated the orthodox line which equated artistic achievement with ideological purity. ‘ ‘His vision of art’s future under Communism was a combination of dogma, naivety, and woolliness.’ (Carter, p.202) In fact the great embarrassment of this time is that it compelled Blunt to attack Picasso as ‘the last refinement of a dead tradition…a lovely decay.’ (p.203)

It’s clear from the 1937 essay however how deep Blunt’s Communist sympathies ran. In passing Carter suggests two contributory factors that might have prepared him for such a doctrine. One was the austerity to which his mother was wedded by choice, and which Marlborough College perpetuated as a perverse punishment of the upper-class young, in the form of miserable food and freezing temperatures. Another was the respect for science in the 1920s, at a time when the Soviet experiment was also seen as scientific. But there was evidently something else, something to do with a directness of human sympathy, that possibly all his life this apparently cold and dessicated man, isolated also by his homsexuality, longed to feel.

Carter (p.268) sees Blunt in 1937 as a kind of talent-spotter for a future Soviet-style socialist utopia. By 1940 he was however acting as a Soviet agent, passing classified documents to Moscow. It was surely Hitler’s war that provided the final incentive, Stalin’s pact with Hitler notwithstanding. And yet all the time real conviction was there. It was I think not so much the chief message of the 1937 essay, highlighted by Carter, that given ‘the present state of capitalism… the position of the artist is hopeless.’ (The Mind in Chains, p.108) It was what followed from that for a man of Blunt’s already alienated psychology. ‘Now that the class struggle has grown more acute and has become the dominating factor in the world situation, any artist who cuts himself off from his class is automatically excluded from the possibility of taking part in the most important movement of his time and is therefore forced to take some sort of escape to find some consolation in his art for the reality with which he has lost touch in his life.’ One could be forgiven, for substituting the word ‘art critic’ for artist here and reading the sentence in a double sense, one indeed descriptive of the predicament of the socially minded artist, and the other autobiographical. Blunt realized he had taken refuge in art history, and in the context of his admired revolutionary politics didn’t like himself for hiding, and taking no social responsibility. ‘The most important movement of the time’ was evidently world communism, with, in Blunt’s common view, the founding Soviet leader Vladimir Iliych Lenin in the vanguard. (Stalin, whose vicious purges of inconvenient lives were in progress, and mounting in 1937, was not mentioned, because his crimes were not yet known in the West.)

Blunt was in the 1937 essay ordering his own artistic tastes to welcome a new world order organized in favour of, and led by the tastes and needs of, the proletariat. And he was prepared to embrace that order. He didn’t worry for his beloved Renaissance painters, for they had classical and museum status and the revolution was likely to leave them that way, albeit as potential relics. What mattered though was the art of the nineteenth century, French art mainly, in which Blunt discerned a distinct line to the present revolutionary day. He wrote, still mindful of that problem of the creative soul out of touch with social reality: ‘The only artists during the nineteenth century who did not feel this isolation were those few who sprang from the proletariat or the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie and kept their contact with it. In the early part of the century the most important of these was Daumier; later came Courbet, whose contact was less certain, van Gogh who lost grip when he came to Paris, and Meunier and Dalou who kept it all through their lives. All these men hated the society in which they lived, but they found support in the most revolutionary classes of the time and were therefore saved from the complete isolation which had overtaken the bourgeois artists of the period.’

Is this not in a cri de coeur from an aristocrat who feels – or longs to feel — sympathy for other human beings, and has found a creed that will bind him to the working class, through the example of artists he respects, like Dalou? It is also a passionate confession of loneliness, not least from a gay man whom the criminal law of the day forces to keep his loves secret.

But let’s stay with Dalou, of whom Blunt notes ‘had to do smart sculpture for the less respectable members of Second Empire Society in order to keep his family, which makes it all the more remarkable that he should have been able to preserve his honesty of outlook enough to produce the superb designs for his Workers’ Monument at the end of his life.’ (The Mind in Chains, p.112)

Dalou’s was a realism that, as the critic Herbert Read noted, commentators struggled to call modern because it didn’t make sufficient break with the art historical past. But for Blunt it was Dalou’s politics that were radical, which in turn gave a kind of guarantee to the quality of his art. Thus Dalou ‘was still capable of depicting serious subjects in a serious manner’ (p.113) when the art world around him had become decadent. The contrast  with his ‘New Realism’ was with artists like Picasso and Matisse, sucked into a market of colossal prices and at the command of middle-class taste; and with the surrealists, who were subversive, but to no useful political end. ‘The New Realism seems to be far less revolutionary at first sight, But at bottom it is something new and progressive…it derives from the only tradition of proletarian realism in the nineteenth century…it can be still of course be objected that this is not a culture sprung spontaneously from the proletariat, but one evolved partly by bourgeois intellectuals who feel themselves in sympathy with the progressive sections of the proletariat, But there is a difference between forcing the proletariat to accept what it does not like and offering it what it seems to want and what it takes to willingly. This is an example of the progressive members of the middle classes helping the proletariat to produce its own culture.’ (pp.117-118)

New Realism was a great proletarian art tradition founded in the work of Daumier and Courbet, the young van Gogh, and Dalou, that was the claim.

I doubt many art historians can even identify that tradition today, still less agree. (Again, I write about it A Shoe Story, in the context of the many manifestos offering new definitions for art in 1936-7, from Walter Benjamin to Heidegger to Trotsky).

But the proposition that Blunt made seems to me today at once extraordinarily truthful of his hopes for society in 1937 and directly revelatory of his own political and social passions. Moreover here was a British answer to the ‘socialist realism’ that was currently being enforced as ideological orthodoxy in the Soviet Union. Soviet socialist realism was not unrelated to the totalitarian art the Nazis in Germany were also encouraging. At the same time the Nazis –  that other obvious reason why Blunt fell in with the Soviet Communists, for the sake of the future of the West – were outlawing as degenerate all that was modern in art in the sense of experimental. That it was not only Blunt’s beloved world proletariat, but also German peasants, in the eyes of the National Socialist Party,  — were poised to reject the mixture of extreme psychology, surreal dream-consciousness and  abstraction that had become the domain of middle-class modern art, has to make us pause for thought. How was a refined art connoisseur with a social conscience to make his or her way through what was also a political minefield, in his desire to define the modern, and the future? Totalitarianism lay to left and right.

The little Dalou bust Blunt cherished might be seen as symbolic of all that he hoped for in his young days; all in a way that might have made him a happier man, more emotionally at ease with himself. At the end of his life, just a few days from his actual demise, and when he knew he was dying, he gave the work away to Dennis Proctor, that friend from university who never let him down, and who had gone on to become Chairman of the Tate Trustees. Anthony Blunt, otherwise in disgrace to the last, with that gesture took the secrets of a politically wounded heart with him to the grave.

Posted in A Shoe Story, Anyone's Game - my latest novel, Art History, Britain Today, Cold War, Russian Revolution 1917, Writing | Tagged , , , , , ,

The Russian Revolution and British Society


The Russian Revolution set British society on fire from the moment in February 1917 when its first instalment happened. From the moment the tsar abdicated and Alexander Kerensky’s Provisional Government took over from the chic salons of Bloomsbury to the political leaders in the palace of Westminster everyone was talking, and in various measures worrying and exulting in the future of a liberated Russia.

The intensity of interest was stimulated by a period of Russomania that had begun pre-war.  The publication of  Constance Garnett ’s translation of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov in 1912 was seminal.  Garnett (1861-1946) introduced a generation to Russian literature with her translations of Tolstoy and Chekhov. Her version of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment followed in 1914, and perhaps especially because of how that radically religious and self-consciously Russian novelist became known,  it seemed to spawn a widespread Western notion of the Russian soul as close to the earth, downtrodden, sincere, thinking about first and last things. The West generally, in the two decades before the great political upheaval of 1917, acquired a sense of the Russian people as possessing a deep knowledge of suffering.

The novelist Virginia Woolf  (1882-1941) was reading The Brothers Karamazov on her honeymoon the autumn of 1912 and her Russian immersion continued indefinitely. She wrote  in 1919: ‘the assumption that in a world bursting with misery the chief call upon us is to understand our fellow-sufferers, “and not with the mind — for it is easy with the mind — but with the heart”— this is the cloud which broods above the whole of Russian literature… We become awkward and self-conscious…we cannot say ‘brother’ with simple conviction.’ (See ‘The Russian Point of View’, The Common Reader (1925). ) Woolf set the scene for a certain emotional sympathy for ‘the Russian people’ which has endured in Britain country ever since.

Another Russophile who in many ways anticipated Woolf was  Jane Ellen Harrison (1850-1928). Harrison, like Garnett, was a classicist by training. Having fallen in love with Russia at an early age because of her father’s extensive business dealing with Russian timber merchants, she took up the study of Russian to get at the literature, and in October 1914  wrote that Russia ‘still cares more than any other nation for things of the spirit’. The trajectory that led her from the study of Greek vases to contemporary Russia also led her to embrace primitive religion, a point of fascination for cultural anthropologists of the day. In short, despite Woolf’s reservations about the British ability to say ‘brother’ and mean it, the phenomenon ‘Russia’ fitted with an upsurge of counter-cultural emotionalism that would only be exacerbated in the aftermath of the first world war.

Britain’s famous enthusiasm for the Russian ballet, the ballets russes, fitted the same mould. Tamara Karsavina  (1885-1978) danced Stravinsky’s Firebird in 1910. Diaghilev’s company of whom she was part made their London debut in 1911 at Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and returned for seasons in 1912, 1913 and then again after the war. Listen to the Firebird and you can hear how revolutionary that music was, in its earthy elementalism and its extraordinary vitality. Elgar, our greatest living composer at the time, was shy and sentimental by comparison.

A combination of modernism in literature and primitivism as it was then identified by the anthropology of the 1890s spilled over into new modern forms of sculpture to create a cultural climate in which the Russian revolution might seem like the apotheosis of a new age of mankind [1]  This was really a revolution from Darwin onwards which coincided with Russia’s political upheaval, itself accompanied by an extraordinary artistic outpouring. For this artistic explosion in its philosophical context see my latest book, published to coincide with the anniversary of 1917, Arc of Utopia The Beautiful Story of the Russian RevolutionThe conventional boundaries of psychology, religious belief and polite society were being deconstructed. A probing psychological newness was unearthing new cultural energy. Unearthing seems right because there was something wild and improper in those ferocious pulses by Stravinsky to the leftover Victorian mentality. Raw Russian literature and vibrant Russian dance:  the visceral exuberance of the ballet and the empathetic range of Russian literature presaged a stepping-outside of the stultified cultural  and social hierarchies of the past.

This expectation of new cultural freedom already coloured political attitudes to Russia. When Kerensky and his liberal party took over after nearly three centuries of tsarism, The Times on March 16 1917 expressed the hope ‘that Russia would emerge from the ordeal with the new strength of a united people who are led by a constitutional government of their own choosing [my emphasis LC]’.  The left-leaning Manchester Guardian carried an interview with a Russian Jewish commentator who stressed that it had never been possible to view the tsar as a champion of liberty and democracy but that the revolution promised a more worthy partner in Russia for the Allies and especially the US ‘The Comittee of Rights’, if only reaction didn’t set in. (April  19, 1917). Amongst those who evidently agreed with were Jane Harrison and Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard. They experienced ‘a strong sense of good riddance to the tsarist regime.’[2] And it was with that liberal sentiment in mind, and also as a counterweight to social and political conservatism in London that Leonard Woolf founded The 1917 club in Gerrard Street in London’s Soho that same year. Future Labour Prime Minister  Ramsay Macdonald was its best-known political member, alongside writers  H G Wells[3], E.M. Forster, Aldous Huxley, and the philosopher future Brains Trust panellist C E M Joad.  It was a membership drawn mostly from the Labour and Liberal parties, and the Bloomsbury set.

What was discussed at the 1917 Club was likely to be in tune with the views of Bloomsbury-ite John Meynard Keynes who declared, of the Russian Revolution, that ‘I was immensely cheered and excited by the Russian news. It’s the sole result of the war so far worth having…’ A Russian prince in exile and an eminent literary figure, Dmitry Mirsky, who socialized with the Woolfs and their friends after the war said they had ‘an idea that Russia, lying outside the cultured world, cared more for things of the spirit’.[4] They had this ‘idea of Russia as apart, different, preserving primordial spiritual values that had been lost in the West.’

But just like this painting by Vanessa Bell called The Memoir Club, of Bloomsbury fifteen years on,

the 1917 Club was limited in terms of British class. Black Jamaican poet Claude McKay (1889-1948) who arrived in London via the US in 1920 and joined the Soho club because of its socialist credentials found it far too posh and nice.[5] The Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917 would be a step too for what were essentially tea-time socialists.

Once Nicholas II had abdicated another major problem presented itself. In a kind of replay of the issue that the First World War had been for the would-be internationalist British left, the British government intensely desired to keep Russia in the war against Germany. That became, across the political spectrum, the patriotic position, and to that end the British government sent  Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst in July 1917 to Moscow. The Guardian rediscovered the story fifty years later, with a tart report on August 3 1967, ‘She was to use her glamour and prestige as a woman revolutionary to appeal to Russian women to keep their men fighting against the Central Powers of Darkness…She told journalists…once a socialist herself, she had been repelled by the narrow, stifling materialism of Marx.’ While ‘Kerensky found her mission incomprehensible’ Russian friends implored her to dress more simply, lest she be taken for a bourgeoise and attacked in the street.

What this story tells us, I think, is how confused the ideological battlelines were, not least because Britain was such a different country from Russia. Intellectuals and politicians  flirted with Communist theory but rarely in a way that transcended national interests. For the British upper class emancipated womanhood was a major issue, of the kind embodied in independent clever women like Constance Garnett and Jane Harrison and for them the newness of Russia correlated with their own hunger for and readiness to take new opportunities for intellectual understanding and social and political action. However for Lenin’s Russia, of course,  it was the proletarian who was to be liberated from capitalist state ownership of his labour. How far apart, in fact, Russian and British society were, in facted reflected their radically different historical experience, as what the philosopher Bertrand Russell would note in the opening paragraph of his report on Soviet Russia in 1920. Russell said Robert Smillie, the miners’ leader, and one of the most militant figures on the British socialist scene at the time, had more in common with prime minister David Lloyd George  — as did indeed, we might add, Mrs Pankhurst with both  —  than any of them had with Lenin. Mrs Pankhurst indeed realized the distance between the situation of the two countries when she  ended up telling reporters that she had fought for women to be fully part of society, not to destroy that society. (It’s worth noting that her mission included meeting Maria Bochkareva, the commander of the Women’s Batallion of Death, formed during the time of the Provisional Government. Bochkareva had intended to shame Russian men into continuing the war against Germany, and this was also the cause that the British Government had entrusted to the great British suffragette. Both women were of course ultimately unsuccessful, when Lenin’s Russia pulled out of the first world war early by signing the treaty of Brest-Litovsk.)

Pankurst on the right

Jane Harrison as painted at her Cambridge College (Newnham) by Augustus John

As to what was actually happening in Russia immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution on 26 October, when the issue of Revolutionary Russia’s withdrawal from the war became all the more pressing in London, the diplomat with particular Russian expertise, and self-confessed adventurer Robert Hamilton Bruce Lockhart was the man of the moment, unafraid to send home telegrams that refused to cater to London’s whims.[6]  He told London politicians that ‘I had long foreseen the inevitability of the Bolshevik revolution. I could not share the general belief, stimulated by the opinion of nearly all the Russian experts in London, that the Lenin regime could not last more than a few weeks…still less could I believe that the Russian peasant would return to the trenches…I was successful [at least in this] when I argued that it was madness not to establish some contact with the men who at that moment were controlling Russia’s destinies.’[7] Lockhart looked back from his compelling Memoirs of a British Agent (1932) to a time when, ‘Hate of the revolution and fear of its consequences in England were the dominant reactions of Conservatives…I found the same fears among the Labour patriots.’[8]

Lockhart became the man whom Prime Minister David Lloyd-George despatched to Russia in March 1918, unofficially, to make contact with Lenin and Trotsky. [9] London, so preoccupied with the war, feared they were German agents and the mission was ‘unofficial’. It coincided with the return of British Ambassador  George Buchanan, though as a gracious Lockhart emphasized,  ‘[Buchanan] understood the wild men’ perfectly well. [10] Indeed, the cost of understanding them in ‘the first ten months of the revolution [had] added ten years to his life.’ What London wanted to do was fudge the issue of whether it was in contact with the Bolsheviks or not. The whole devious affair of despatching Lockhart was, as he said,  ‘arranged over the luncheon table at a Lyons’ shop in the Strand…[where] …on the rough linen of a standard Lyons’ table, [the Russian ambassador Maxim] Litvinov wrote out my letter of recommendation to Trotsky.’[11]  Just as his own mission was ambivalent, so Lockhart found, when he got to Russia, that the British Embassy in Petrograd was thoroughly divided as to whether to recognize the Bolshevik regime or not.[12]

On the side of non-recognition, he could report that the majority of Russian bourgeois wanted British or even German intervention to suppress Bolshevism and thus, they hoped, secure peace in Russia.[13]  And that indeed became British policy. So when in August 1918 a British force attacked and occupied Archangel, in northern Russia, to support the White Army of General Wrangel the Bolsheviks promptly imprisoned Lockhart in the Kremin, having lost almost all faith in him. In fact he had made friends among them and friendship was remembered in certain kindly concessions. Further, when he was released in October 1918 and returned to London, he was full of greater sympathy for the Bolsheviks than his masters could imagine. He had shared with them ‘a mixture of banter and seriousness’ and admired their selflessness and dedication. ‘I had no special sympathy for the Bolsheviks…[but] I could not help realising instinctively that behind its peace programme and its fanatical economic programme, there was an idealistic background to Bolshevism…For months I had lived cheek by jowl with men who worked eighteen hours a day and  who were obviously inspired by the same spirit of self-sacrifice and abnegation of worldly pleasure which animated the Puritan and the early Jesuits…I was living in a movement…likely to assume even greater proportions in history than the French Revolution.’[14]

Again, I’d like to add that this is the attitude I also take in Arc of Utopia.

Anti-Bolshevik, revolution-fearing London, was meanwhile increasingly full of white refugees, a number of whom found their social counterparts in Bloomsbury. Bertrand Russell’s earlier mistress and lifelong friend Ottoline Morrell entertained the mosaicist Boris Anrep at Garsington. Anrep who had studied in Paris and Edinburgh and was steeped in Russia’s Silver Age of Theatre and poetry and painting. A friend of the poet Anna Akhmatova, he was in charge of the Russian section of Roger Fry’s 1912 post-impressionist exhibition and introduced British audiences to the avant-garde painting of Goncharova and Larionov. He fought in the Russian army during WW1 but settled in England after 1917. The parents of the future British actor Peter Ustinov (1921-2004)  meanwhile arrived in 1920, Peter’s mother-to-be Nadia Benois, a relative of the theatrical designer for the ballets russes Alexander Benois and a distinguished artist and stage designer in her own right. British diplomat Henry James Bruce had meanwhile turned up in Lockhart’s Moscow, married Karsavina  and brought her back to live in Oxford.[15]

Devoted to human rights, Claude McKay was meanwhile in search of something more serious than champagne socialism as a focus for his isolated Bolshevik sympathies. His credo was impressive: ‘Bolshevism… has made Russia safe for the Jew. It has liberated the Slav peasant from priest and bureaucrat who can no longer egg him on to murder Jews to bolster up their rotten institutions. It might make these United States safe for the Negro.’[16]  And he turned to fellow members of the International Socialist Club to share it. But unfortunately their Bolshevism didn ‘t preclude racism. In 1921 Mckay wrote to Trotsky that even the newspaper of the Communist Party of  Great Britain, which must have been The Communist, founded in 1920, was racist.[17]

Britain, like Russia, was, one might say, its own place, with its own political and social tensions, and a fair amount of hypocrisy to boot.  What we might want to say is that an English emotional rebelliousness finally and painfully liberated by the first world war wanted to pour its new-found soul into a revolutionary politics but had to back off in the face of the extreme nature of Bolshevism. The causes of the left remained disjointed. Here was Robert Smillie, petitioning on behalf of the miners; pursuing the Labour party cause which was to extract more money from the economy on behalf of the working-class but was far from fomenting revolution. Here was Emmeline Pankhurst, who, as she said, had fought for the right of women to participate in sociey, not to destroy that society. And here was Jane Harrison who according to the Russian émigré and Bloomsbury visitor D.S. Mirsky framed for herself, concomitant with her love of Russia, an ‘historic mission: the destruction of the morality on which the mentality of the ‘governing people’ […] of England was based’. [18]

‘The heterodox and unacademic Miss Harrison’ transposed the vitalism she associated with Russian culture into a transformed, unstuffy, unregulated and socially and sexually more open British future. And if, as we can say with hindsight, the actual politics of that country remained moderate and small c conservative until after the second world war, never again would those politics be free from consideration of capitalism as a moral problem and concomitant with strife between different socio-economic classes, a political theme therefore that ever after Russia 1917 blended with the cultural legacy.[19]

The economist Keynes, who had meanwhile fallen in love with a celebrated Russian émigré ballerina Lydia Lopokova, felt that this turn under the influence of Red Moscow was not in any sense scientific, as Marxism claimed, ‘not a stage in the development of capitalism, but the emergence of a new world religion; not based on changes in the real world but engendered in the minds of the leaders, Lenin and his associates.’[20] Bolshevism stood for the opposite of what he himself believed in: ‘How can I accept a doctrine which sets up as its bible, above and beyond criticism, an obsolete text-book which I know to be not only scientifically erroneous but without interest or application for the modern world? How can I adopt a creed which, preferring the mud to the fish, exalts the boorish proletariat above bourgeois and the intelligentsia who, whatever their faults, are the quality in life and surely carry the seeds of all human advancement? Even if we need a religion, how can we find it in the turbid rubbish of the red bookshop? It is hard for an educated, decent, intelligent son of Western Europe to find his ideals here, unless he has first suffered some strange and horrid process of conversion which has changed all his values.’[21] ‘Like other new religions, Leninism derives its power not from the multitude but from a small minority of enthusiastic converts…’ But it was this new egalitarianism and the influence of those Bolsheviks, ‘whose zeal and intolerance make each one the equal in strength of a hundred indifferentists’ was now about to transform British society, piecemeal over the next century.

The important battle for and against Bolshevism was thus happening not in government but in British cultural circles, whose leading figures, not concerned with the twists and turns of late imperial politics,  and the realities of war and trade, were considering the values which a transformed twentieth century Britain might live by. [22]

The British government however did finally turn its attention to understanding the new Russia when the Red side prevailed in the Civil War and inward travel resumed in the second half of 1920. August 1920 was when it asked Betrand Russell to undertake his journey and write a report. In his autobiography, Russell mentions that he found Lenin disappointing, sensing an ‘impish cruelty’ in him and comparing him to ‘an opinionated professor’. His experiences, he wrote, destroyed his previous tentative support for the revolution though he was unable to dissuade his twenty-four companions – an official Labour Party delegation — all of whom came home thinking well of the régime. When he told them that he heard shots fired in the middle of the night and was sure these were clandestine executions, his companions sympathetic to the Bolsheviks maintained that it was only cars backfiring. [23]   Russell avowed: ‘I went to Russia believing myself a communist; but contact with those who have no doubts has intensified a thousandfold my own doubts, not only of communism, but of every creed so firmly held that for its sake men are willing to inflict widespread misery.’

In what seems to me now to have emerged as a defining moment for moderate and left-wing British public opinion vis a vis Russian Communism Russell wrote of ‘the profound difference between the theories of actual Bolsheviki and the version of those theories current among advanced Socialists in this country. Friends of Russia here think of the dictatorship of the proletariat as merely a new form of representative government, in which only working men and women have votes and the constituencies are partly occupational, not geographical. They think that “proletariat” means “proletariat,” but “dictatorship” does not quite mean “dictatorship.” This is the opposite of the truth. When a Russian Communist speaks of dictatorship, he means the word literally, but when he speaks of the proletariat, he uses the word in a Pickwickian sense. He means the “class-conscious” part of the proletariat, i.e., the Communist Party. He includes people by no means proletarian (such as Lenin and Chicherin) who have the right opinions, and he excludes such wage-earners as have not the right opinions, whom he classifies as lackeys of the bourgeoisie. The Communist who sincerely believes the party creed is convinced that private property is the root of all evil; he is so certain of this that he shrinks from no measures, however harsh, which seem necessary for constructing and preserving the communist state.’[24] 

Russell added: ‘Marx has taught that communism is fatally predestined to come about; this fits in with the Oriental traits in the Russian character, and produces a state of mind not unlike that of the early successors of Mahomet. Opposition is crushed without mercy, and without shrinking from the methods of the Czarist police, many of whom are still employed at their old work. Since all evils are due to private property, the evils of the bolshevist regime, while it has to fight private property, will automatically cease as soon as it has succeeded.These views are the familiar consequences of fanatical belief. To an English mind they reinforce the conviction upon which English life has been based ever since 1688, that kindliness and tolerance are worth all the creeds in the world—a view which, it is true, we do not apply to other nations or to subject races.’

Admirably he concluded: ‘My objection is not that capitalism is less bad than the Bolsheviki believe, but that socialism is less good, at any rate in the form which can be brought about by war… For these reasons chiefly I cannot support any movement which aims at world revolution.’

Russell’s lover Dora Black (1894-1986), a British author, feminist and socialist campaigner, visited Russia independently and at the same time as Bertie, after he inexplicably set off without her. She was rather angry to be left behind. Another Cambridge graduate with a passionate left political leaning, Dora was less circumspect than her lover. The sentiment she expressed to Claude McKay’s friend the poet, linguistician and publisher C R Ogden in September 1919 was  ‘I wish we could all be Bolshevik quick and have done with it.’[25] (Ogden, who had founded the anti-traditionalist Heretics Society at Cambridge, was at the centre of the counter-culture that included Harrison and the Woolfs and Russells, and also McKay) In contrast to Bertie, Dora was enthusiastic about the Russian revolution. In this she was close to the Labour Party. Yet her general remarks were in the romantic cultural mould of Woolf and Harrison about the birth of a new culture and her love of the Russian people. But there was something special about her, in my view, for on her visit to Russia she grasped something mainly European, and especially German visitors to Soviet Russia were thinking about, namely Russia’s culture compared with that of America, and the nature of the machine age. Her plan, never fulfilled, was to write a book, Religion of the Machine Age, because ‘I knew the trade union and Labour element…hadn’t a clue; the communists were in blinkers imposed by their ideology; and here was Bertie, usually so right about most things, reacting like an old-fashioned liberal to a great people in torment and travail to bring forth their future.’[26] Of the Bolshevik version of Marxism, she wrote, ‘here was the creed which might civilize industrialism and tame it to be the servant of mankind.’[27] In contrast to a Nazism that was still in the crucible, one would want to add.

Dora Russell

So Dora Russell earns my admiration for her response to 1917, as does the sculptor Clare Sheridan, the nearest history came to giving us a female counterpart to Bruce Lockhart.  Sheridan too was an adventurer who strayed out of her upper class confines and travelled to Russia, spurred on by the tragedy of losing her husband in 1915 and being left to provide alone for two young children. Sheridan found she could earn her living as a sculptor and it was as an artist that she approached the representatives of Bolshevism in London in person at a time, in August 1920.  Chief among them was Lev Kamenev who, against all we came to believe of Bolshevism subsequently, at that time  had an office in Bond St. For Sheridan turning up at Red Russia’s London W1 HQ was her way of finding out ‘what in their lives [of Kamenev and his staff] had made them into Bolsheviks and what sort of mentality it was and whether the scheme it upheld was a workable concern.’ [28] Whisked off to Russia by an adoring Kamenev with whom she had lunched at Claridges and dined at the Café Royal and picnicked on a white fur coat on Hampstead Heath, all the while conversing in French, the beautiful young Sheridan was treated with as much care and concern as nascent Bolshevik institutions could muster.

Sheridan in the fur hat that was a gift from the admiring Kamenev

Lodged in the Kremlin ‘ as a guest among people who have been much talked about, [29]she shivered and wept, until finally they found her an aromatic old fur coat in which to keep warm. ‘There are moments in life when it is necessary to have blind faith,’ she reminisced.[30] The least of her problems was learning to eat black bread for her breakfast. Someone asked whether she wasn’t Sylvia Pankhurst, of Emmeline’s three suffragetist daughters the only Communist.[31] Soldiers from the Red Army carried Sheridan’s artists’ materials into Kremlin apartments where she sculpted. The subjects who sat for her in turn were the outstanding members of the first Politburo,  Zinoviev, Lenin, Kamenev and Trotsky. Her Russian experience, the most intimate with Bolshevism in every sense that could befall an English visitor, made her a witness of the names of Lloyd George and Winston Churchill being ridiculed at the Bolshoi Theatre and gave her great insight into the nature of Russia, where, ‘it is the deep religious feeling…that has prevented a greater chaos.’ It seems possible that she had a love affair with the handsome and charismatic Trotsky, whose sexual attractiveness to women was immediately apparent to Bertie Russell that same summer. Sheridan wrote: ‘I am not a Bolshevik but overwhelmingly interested in the spirit of Communism.’[32] And, all the more tellingly, for that living dialectical encounter between England and Russia that these revolutionary years produced, she told Trotsky: ‘Russia with its absence of hypocrisy and pose, Russia with its big ideas, has spoilt me for my own world.’[33]

Her sculptures, remarkable especially of Trotsky, and Kamenev, men to whom she responded emotionally, and the circumstances of their creation, plunged her into deep social difficulty when she returned to London, for not only was she a Bolshevik sympathizer but she was Winston Churchill’s cousin. Winston, whom she didn’t flatter in her 1921 volume by noting that he was ‘of the stuff that Bolsheviks are made of’[34], imposed on her the condition that they would never mention again between them what she had done, sculpting ‘those bloody Bolsheviks’.[35] An immediate visit to New York took the edge off the shock of her return to a hostile society. Looking back from 1942, when Russia was once more Britain’s ally in the second world war, she observed: ‘It is easy to be the friend of Russia when all your world is with you. But when I was the friend of Russia my world resolutely turned its back on me.’[36]


(This post is an edited version of a talk I gave at the National Portrait Gallery, London, on 2nd November, 2017)

[1] See Helen Southworth, ed. Leonard and Virginia Woolf, The Hogarth Press and the Networks of Modernism The Hogarth Press (London, 2010). Also Rebecca Beasley, 2017, forthcoming.

[2] Southworth p.161. Also for Jane Harrison.

[3] Wells, who visited Russia in Sept-Oct 1920, published Russia in the Shadows in 1921.

[4] G.S. Smith, D.S. Mirsky (Oxford, 2000), p.98. Smith p.99 cites an observation by Virginia Woolf: “[…] it is no longer within the power of the English mind – the gift may be enjoyed perhaps in Russia – to see fur grow upon smooth ears and cloven hoofs where there are ten separate toes”.

[5] West Indian intellectuals in Britain, ed. Bill Schwarz, (Manchester, 2003) p.79.

[6] Vice-consul in Moscow  in 1912, and again from 1914, at home in London on ‘sick leave’ because he had been having an affair and was close to a nervous breakdown, in autumn 1917, he returned to Russia as Britain’s unofficial agent in March 1918. Of his lover at the time Moura Budberg he described her as “A Russian of the Russians … She was an aristocrat. She could have been a Communist. She could never have been a bourgeoise.”

[7] Memoirs of a British Agent pp.196-7.

[8] Labour had internal divisions, with Henderson the avant-garde labour (Snowdenite) man and  O’grady and Thorne circumspect.

[9] Memoirs, p.200

[10] Memoirs, p.187.

[11] Memoirs, pp.201-03.

[12] Memoirs, p.220

[13] Memoirs, p.213.

[14] Memoirs, p.288.

[15] Memoirs, p.290

[16] Schwarz, ed., West Indian Intellectuals, p.73.

[17] Schwarz, ed. West Indian Intellectuals, p.83

[18] See Marilyn Schwinn-Smith ‘Bears in Bloomsbury’, downloaded 31 Oct., 2017

[19] Antonio Negri: He [Keynes] realised that the Russian revolution had completely changed the political economy of capitalism, the market was definitively broken, and that ‘one divided into two’ (as a Communist leader would later say) (3). The fact that capitalist development was traversed and prefigured by class struggle and its movements had to be acknowledged, and Keynes definitely expressed a first sign of this realisation when he wrote: ‘Lenin is said to have declared that the best way to destroy the Capitalist System was to debauch the currency. […] Lenin was certainly right. There is no subtler, no surer means of overturning the existing basis of society’ (4). So he scientifically tackled this political problem: how to use currency and finance to defeat communism. On Keynes’ trail this became the main question of political economy for the whole of the 20th century. Deriding the ‘hegemony of real production’, Keynes believed that when confronted with production – production intended here as ‘civil society’ – finance could become the mediation of opposite class interests, the construction of a new model of capitalism. Against Bolshevism Keynes refuted the slogan ‘power to the workers’ and its corollary legitimisation ‘he who will not work shall not eat’ (7). He also realised that socialism and communism went beyond the prospects of constructing a new order of labour and these primitive watchwords and banal political objectives. According to Keynes, communism could represent the totality of abstract labour extracted from the totality of workers in society, every citizen, and hence all socialised human beings. Accepting these paradoxical exclamations, we could now say that communism is the form of the ‘biopolitical’, intending by ‘biopolitical’ the fact that not only society but also life has been put to the work of commodity production and that not only social relations, but the relationship between minds and bodies has been made productive. With great foresight, Keynes seems to have understood the advent of what we now call ‘the communism of capital’. …His response to the Soviet revolution was adequate and representative of the hegemonic urge to bring class struggle under the control and development of capital, but no more than that.

[20] Quotations from JMK A Short View of Russia (London, 1925)

[21] The commentary at claims that Keynes had no sense of the historical development of society and showed little appreciation of the problem which faced Russia, as it does all countries in the early stages of capitalism, of accumulating capital to build up large-scale industry. His advice to the Russian government was to lower the wages of town workers, and “get itself into a sufficiently strong financial position to be able to pay the peasant more nearly the real value of his produce. ” As the town workers were a small minority and the peasants the vast majority of the population, it certainly wouldn’t have solved the problem. It was about as useful as telling a starving man that what he ought to do is to get hold of a large sum of money without telling him how.


[23] He wrote a four-part series of articles, titled “Soviet Russia—1920”, for the US magazine The Nation.  See also his book The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism published the same year.

[24] Ibid. p.122

[25] Dora Russell The Tamarisk Tree My Quest for Liberty and Love (London, 1975) p.65

[26] The Tamarisk Tree p.104.

[27] The Tamarisk Tree, p.94.

[28] Clare Sheridan, Russian Portraits (London, 1921),  p. 11

[29] Russian Portraits, p.8

[30] Russian Portraits, p.39.

[31] Russian Portraits, 68.

[32] Russian Portraits, p.172

[33] Russian Portraits, p.145

[34] Russian Portraits, p.134.

[35] To the Four Winds, (London 1957) p.151

[36] To the Four Winds, p.147

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The Arc of Utopia in the anniversary year of Russia 1917

Not much enthusiasm has been directed towards the Russian Revolution in this year of its centenary, 2017. At least that’s the case in the British press. Before the fall of Communism in 1989 and the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 of course that wasn’t the case. Successive British post-war governments emulated the command economy. Nor was the competition between the superpowers all a matter of nuclear weapons. Far Left culture guru Raymond Williams in The Long Revolution (1961), a loved book many times reprinted and most recently in 2011, took the ideological minutiae of socialist realism and loyalty to the Party immensely seriously, and his text contained recommendations for the transformation of British society. Penguin Books published whole pocket volumes on Soviet Education (1968), and a translation of the old Bolshevik Bukharin and Preobrazhensky’s ABC of Communism (1969).

Into the 1970s the Brits worried the Soviets had ‘a significant and distinctive model of a political and economic system’ that warranted a considerable expansion of Soviet studies in British universities (See: The British Study of Politics in the Twentieth Century, ed. Hayward et al. (Oxford, 2003, p.361) Now all that’s in the past. As a former British ambassador to Moscow wrote in the press a few months ago, anyone who admires that great shift in Russian twentieth-century society is a flat-earther who just can’t accept that our planet is round. But what a strange way to assess a vision for global humanity, to assume that it can be right or wrong like a mathematical calculation! What a complete ditching of the possibilities of imagination!

The Revolution took a severe humanitarian toll. Its casualties endured through generations and are unquantifiable, including all those who died in Russia’s 1919-1921 Civil War, on both sides, and in between; all those who died in labour camps subsequently, or were otherwise victims of the political police, right into the 1980s, when dissidents in all the Moscow-led East Bloc countries were still suffering arrest and the wilful harming of their family lives. To approach that unquantifiable figure you’d need to focus on the terrible show trials in Stalin’s Russia, and in Communist Czechoslovakia after the putsch in 1948. The violence with which the system was imposed was like a series of parallel civil wars, across Russia and in the subjugated East Bloc countries that just went on and on. Would they have been better off, in sheer human terms, without Communism? Or, better, without Russian domination? Surely. Even when the right-wing (Poland) and even fascist regimes (Hungary, Romania) of the interwar years are brought into the equation? Surely.

But it’s equally impossible to deny that Communism expanding West from the Soviet Union also had millions of faithful; believers in a more egalitarian and welfare-based future for expanding mass societies. In Czechoslovakia they elected a Communist government.  And there are enough people, elderly today, in Berlin, in Prague, in Moscow, and innumerable other former Communist cities and towns and villages who remember that dream of equality fondly. It was socially a feeling of ‘we’re all in this together’, and unlike the coalition-led bunkum of post-2010 austerity in Britain, working for a better society through modesty and cooperation meant something. Although there was small-scale corruption and meanness everywhere – most Communist citizens felt it their right, their duty even, to steal from the all-owning State – – social cooperation rather than individualistic competition was more than a flat-earth illusion. And echoes of it used to reach us in Britain as late as the 1970s. Not the resentful materialism of our trade unions flexing their industrial muscle is what I remember, but a certain deference to communitarian ideals: a kind of ‘Let the Bus Go First’ principle that was wiped out in the Thatcherite 1980s, when, vis à vis the East Bloc, the West was simply winning the war.

But let me come back to those victims. When I first started visiting Russia in the early 1970s and the Communist bloc from 1980 to its end, in fact the murderous decades were over. Still that regime didn’t want its people to flourish; it denied them educational opportunities if they didn’t tow the political line; they weren’t allowed to travel freely; they lived in poor conditions, with bad diets and primitive medicine, compared with the West. Still that shouldn’t be understood as a critique based on consumerist superiority. It was on my visits to the East Bloc that I realized that for me Communism wasn’t the issue. I didn’t so much care what was or wasn’t in the shops. I minded about lives that were stifled, about talents that were blocked, and in that sense people’s humanity denied. I was a Romantic individualist who had read the Frankfurt School, and particularly Herbert Marcuse, whose spiritual attacks on Western consumerism had helped inspire but also confuse the issues that came to a head in the West with the student protests of 1968 . I wasn’t anti-capitalist, I wasn’t anti-communist. (See my book In the Communist Mirror, 1990) I was in my mid-twenties, sizing up what life could do to thwart peoples’ hopes and dreams. I found those Communist regimes antipathetic and immoral because they destroyed a vision of humanity that was once beautiful.

Lesley Chamberlain In the Communist Mirror (1990)

The sub-title of Arc of Utopia The Beautiful Story of the Russian Revolution is in one sense of course deeply ironic. Civil war is the worst kind of war. Suffering is not beautiful. Murder has no aesthetic appeal. But what I was reaching back to, to tell my story, was the origin of that vision of humanity as I knew it from German eighteenth-century philosophy.  From Kant and the German Enlightenment, die Aufklärung, there was a dream of universal unity and moral decency. Kant envisaged a cosmopolitan world that would uphold the rights of man recently fought for in neighbouring revoltionary France. He imagined every individual would use his newly gained political freedom in tandem with his metaphysical freedom to do the right thing, according to some imagined moral law that was also reflected in works of high art. For Kant the harmony and grace of the work of art classically conceived exuded and exemplified the freely chosen moral order that would inform the future progressive society, in which all individuals would be free to do their duty and become fully themselves, through the realization of their talents. This latter kind of freedom, after that moral law idea inherited from Christianity was observed, was really a matter of indivuals freeing themselves from religious superstition – always one of the most useful tools of political dictatorship – and finding the scope of their lives through the application of reason. Nowadays the tendency is to look back at the Enlightenment and say that reason was just another religion. In which case I would say, judge all ‘religions’ by their human outcome. Do they make people kinder and wiser and more creative and less bellicose? For me Kant had the right recipe by any name. In another time he would of course have written he/she, not just he.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)


The generation of German philosophers after Kant took his ideas and ran with them. The German Romantics were already less measured, less modest and less grounded in social reality than Kant. They (Schelling) reinvested a dark poetic extremism into the vision of Oneness and Harmony. Or, like Hegel, the converse feeling that philosophy could – and eventually would inevitably — entirely elucidate the future good society was so strong that Reason became a potential dictator. That’s why people would one day say that the Russian Revolution, which built on the German heritage of a hundred years earlier, was the West’s idea of Enlightenment taken to a typically Russian extreme. In fact Carl Schmitt said it, that Russia was ‘this extremist brother took the European nineteenth century at its word.’ [1] I agree with him wholeheartedly. (Schmitt of course was another dubious character politically and there’s no getting away from them in the extreme histories of both fascism and communism. That doesn’t mean that he didn’t understand what was happening in his time. His observation was brilliant.)

How did the German legacy reach Russia? This topic has fascinated me all my life. Between 1790-96 Schelling and Hegel were co-seminarists, studying theology in the German university town of Tübingen, and trying to balance their enthusiasms for theoretical doctrine with what was now the legacy of France from 1789. They planted a tree to honour that moment of freedom, and when I first imagined telling this story I thought of the ‘127 Years of Yearning’ that spanned the period from 1790 in Tübingen to October 1917 in Petrograd. Something of that yearning I’ve fondly read into the facial expression of the soldier on the cover of Arc of Utopia. The idea would be that he has come upon a beautiful work of art, radiating those Kantian properties of freedom and harmony, and what he saw was part of the moment of revolution. It is a kind of fictional story in itself. The soldiers in reality were rough and drunk – when they drank the cellars of the Winter Palace dry Lenin had to impose a statutory ban on the consumption of alcohol – but what I was imagining was a certain journey in the history of ideas coming to fruition.

The in-between stages of the journey meant the ideas were modified, passed on and transformed by Karl Marx (rewriting Hegel) and by such great Russian political activists as the anarchist Bakunin, the religious idealist Dostoevsky and the quasi-Kantian Marxist Plekhanov, among the first in Russia to take the philosophical message to the factory gates. How Lenin harnessed this Romantic revolutionary legacy and reshaped it lies outside the confines of Arc of Utopia.  The arc that took off in 1790 touches the earth again in October 1917.

Nevertheless, I build into that moment the fact that there was not one revolution in Russia but three: 1905, through the duration of the whole year and into the next, February 1917 and October 1917.  The three-in-one revolution was a continuing struggle against the tsarist autocracy that had ruled the country for nearly three hundred years. In that time it had never properly dealt with serfdom, and the blight of its legacy since statutory abolition in 1861. It was a cruel and arbitrary system of government which held the country together through censorship of Western ideas and ‘administrative exile’ to Siberia for any potential troublemakers who might try to organize others to think differently. When the censorship was relaxed in 1906 and the country given a constitution, there was a cultural explosion that was a revolution in its own right, and went on recurring. The poet Mayakovsky dreamt of Fourth and Fifth Internationals of the Spirit, as the political process went bad after 1917. Suddenly, say 1895 – 1929, and with that huge upsurge 1905-1922,  poetry, painting, philosophy, drama and street art came alive in a way Russia had never seen before; and the style was radically modern and post-bourgeois, in a way that would captivate the more settled West for a century to come.

The Arc of Utopia lands in that moment, because what began as an eighteenth-century political vision embodied in the classical work of art now found its twentieth-century  counterpart in works of art that were no longer just symbols of unity and harmony as notions in the mind but actively campaigned for social and political change. The readiness of artists like the painter Kasimir Malevich and that great lyricist Mayakovsky to invent new languages to suit a new social reality were finally Russia’s delayed artistic-philosophical answer to the French Revolution.

Kazimir Malevich Taking in the Harvest (1911)

Kazimir Malevich Suprematism (1915)

I don’t believe that looking back from 2017 we should separate the art from the political ambition of the moment. It’s possible, with Boris Groys[2], to see something inherently totalitarian and indeed Stalinist about the art that broke out of its chains after 1905 and continued until it was forcibly subdued by the state-imposed doctrine of socialist realism (which more or less coincided with Mayakovsky’s suicide and Malevich’s re-turn to figurative painting). In the century after Kant’s death art showed it had many other possibilities beyond perpetuating an ideal of classical moderation.

But what I have chosen to do in Arc of Utopia is cut off the moment in 1917 itself, so that we can just focus on that explosive event, as it happened, 127 years on.  For me it was modern Russia’s greatest moment of self-definition, after the reign of Peter the Great. At last that vast country, and its people, were free to express what they felt about the stifled European heritage and what they felt about themselves, and their answer to it. That answer turned out to be a genuine turn towards the egalitarian and the social, genuinely critical of the West, but a vision which could never be sustained without traditional autocratic control from above. Coupled with the need to industrialize and educate at an accelerated rate, to have Russia catch up with the West and emerge as a modern country in its own right, it led both forward and back, to a Russia which finally accepted the liberty, equality and fraternity of the West in 1789, and now set about reworking that legacy for enduring Russian political conditions. As I say, those conditions seemed to require rigid state control and, just around the corner from Communist internationalism bombastic Russian nationalism. In Russia it would be a message to do with the national spirit that would help make tight political control from above, and an excess of politically directed social organization, popular, because that was a perceived quality of Russianness, as it emerged in post-Petrine experience.

Boris Kustodiev The Bolshevik (1920)

I’ve puzzled over why British commentators have been so half-hearted about Russia 1917 where thirty years ago they would have been at least intellectually respectful. I think the change that has come over the West since the end of the Cold War has been most marked in the way it has branded the Enlightenment legacy negative. The Enlightenment was about humanity conceived in terms of unity, with that unity and humanity somehow contained in the very nature of reason, as our preeminent human faculty. Now under pressure of diversity we disbelieve in one humanity; and we also reject reason, persuaded as we are that it is ‘just another religion. Meanwhile many academics seem to buy the argument, most ironically for me, of the Frankfurt School, that Reason, latterly awarded a capital letter to show how much power it exercised over people’s minds, also in the West, amounted to totalitarianism in itself; so how could we praise Enlightenment’s outcome in a better organized, more humane Russia, any more than we might praise the outcome of its vision of mechanized rationality in Nazi Germany. (This topic for another day…)  I don’t like moments in contemporary intellectual history where everyone seems to switch direction in the same moment. That smacks of a new ideology to me, rather than anything truly understood. There is meanwhile still so much to understand about Russia, for better, for worse, in its rich, radical and terrible experience of 1917.


I’ve also been puzzled by contemporary Russia’s feeling towards its revolutionary heritage, in this ideologically pressurized centenary year. As the historian Sheila Fitzpatrick explains, Vladimir Putin’s regime is caught in an awkward place, because it can’t associate with the 1991 moment that destroyed the Soviet Union, nor does it want to associate with what the Bolshevik revolution became. Putin’s regime has spent nearly twenty years inventing its own nomenclature for a now postmodern Russia which openly and joyfully recognizes its tsarist and Orthodox Christian roots but also evidently owes a debt to Soviet structures of social and political control. Putin is a bombastic nationalist who has dropped the mantle of Communist internationalism; and yet he’s also the leader of a country that owes its rapid modernization and its scientific prestige to the forced decades that fuelled the Soviet powerhouse; meanwhile fraternity for him, never mind liberty, has been to give Russia’s 200,000 million citizens relative social and economic stability, after the turbulence of the 1990s. The Romanovs took the throne of Russia after The Time of Troubles. Russia has a history of liking stability, and continuity, and actually of keeping revolution out.

Finally, there’s something embarrassingly similar in both British and Russian post-Soviet attitudes to October 1917.  They both would prefer not to talk about it, to pretend it didn’t happen, for all that it reveals about their own changes of heart; their own ideological fudges; things that happen in us all at a far subtler level than assessing the evidence for whether the earth is flat or round.

[1] Quoted in Tony Judt, Past Imperfect French Intelletuals 1944-1956 [1992] (New York University Press, 2011), p.165.

[2] Boris Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism [Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin], (Princeton, 1992)

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