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.

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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

Posted in Arc of Utopia - my latest book, Britain Today, Russia, Russian Revolution 1917 | Tagged , , , ,

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)

Posted in Arc of Utopia - my latest book, Art History, Britain Today, Cold War, Philosophy and Philosophers, Russia, Russian Revolution 1917 | Tagged , , , , ,

The Seventh Function of Language

Laurent Binet, author of the remarkable novel (in French), The Seventh Function of Language, seems succinctly to describe his technique on p.333 of the English edition: ‘one fanatics gently’. But is that English? Is the original, ‘on forcène doucement’, French? ‘The subject seems like it ought to be French, but when Bayard turns to Simon, his partner makes a gesture that suggests he has no clue either.’ Superintendent Bayard is the policeman assigned to probe the death of master linguist and critic Roland Barthes, run over by a laundry van in Paris on 25 March, 1980. His co-opted helpmate is  young graduate student Simon Herzog, just beginning a university teaching career as a specialist in the latest theories of language that have gripped the French intelligentsia.  The pair’s baffled inquiry into a possible murder takes them from the intellectual circles of the Left Bank to the political intrigues of the Quai d’Orsai, where the Gaullist President Giscard d’Estaing faces an imminent challenge from the socialist Francois Mitterrand. It sends them hot foot over the border into a revolutionary-minded Italy and eventually across the Atlantic to Cornell University in New York state, where outside the little town of Ithaca they attend, as well as an orgy and a ferocious dog attack, a star-studded conference mockingly entitled ‘Shift into Overdrive in the Linguistic Turn’.

‘Gently’ isn’t exactly the way this rollicking, rumbunctious novel proceeds. Binet is a sort of Rabelais of the Saint-Germain-des-Prés intellectual scene, powering his fictitious characters along on a tide of fierce professional ambition and over-the-top carnality. Even the common-sensical policeman ends up having three-way sex with a prosthesis. On the other hand there’s always something loving about satire that works, and this tearing apart of ‘germanopritin’ affectations circa 1980 is nothing if not affectionate. Still what shall we make of the invented verb ‘forcener’ that a fictional character called Philippe Sollers uses as the departure point of his rhetorical tour-de-force in a linguistic duel held under the auspices of the secretive Logos Club in Bologna? As Sollers begins, ‘a wave of perplexity moves through the 175 feet of the room. The non-francophone spectators check that their simultaneous translation machine is tuned to the right channel.’ Sollers/Binet have fun: ‘Forcène…forcène…Fort….Scène…Fors…Seine…Faure (Félix Faure)… Cène’. Former French President Félix Faure ‘died of a blowjob and a heart attack’. ‘Cène’ suggests ashes. Or should the chain of associations read: ‘La force. Et le scène. La force sur scène.’ This riff is productive for a literary theorist of the day (who has of course read Marx and Freud too) because it brings in ‘power’ and ‘the stage’.  Actually to my mind ‘forcener’ (invented from the adjective forcené meaning fanatic) best of all simply echoes the everyday Italian: ‘forsé no’. ‘Perhaps not’.  My (freely imagined but why not) reading of the 45-year-old Laurent Binet is that he perhapsnotted gently, but spectacularly, about a French intellectual generation that shook the world.

Laurent Binet (b.1972)

Was Barthes not murdered for a document he had in his pocket concerning the seventh and perhaps ultimate function of language, namely its magic power to persuade? Binet told  Huff Post France in an interview published on 23 October 2015 that he was inspired to make his satire a detective story by the late Umberto Eco’s 1980 bestseller The Name of the Rose. Eco, an academic linguistician, broke new ground with his fictional debut. Like his French counterparts Eco owed a debt to the Russian philologist Roman Jakobson, founder of what became the discipline of semiology that so gripped a later generation. Semiology was about reading the world as an endless complexity of systems of signs, and signs, when what they point to is uncertain, when they are potentially meaningless, have the status of clues for any inquirer who thinks they might yet come to mean something, if he/she is brilliant, or diligent enough, to pursue the inquiry. So the police procedural links with the academic passions of Barthes, and also those of the arch-posthumanist Michel Foucault, and of the one-time Maoist Sollers and his Bulgarian wife Julia Kristeva, and the inventor of deconstruction Jacques Derrida, never really at home in the germanoprintin milieu. Binet, evidently with his heart in the right place, gives the gentlest and most heroic of roles to Derrida in the first of a series of denouements to the action, as it unfolds at Cornell.

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)

The real counterparts of a number of Binet’s characters, including a very unlovably portrayed Sollers and Kristeva, together with French philosophy’s lasting pin-up boy Bernard-Henri Lévy, are still alive, and one feels they might have considered suing, had they been born and bred Anglo-Saxon. But in fact that would have made fools of these sophisticated thinkers — ‘fanatics’, let’s say, overdue for a dose of ‘perhapsnotting’ — because it would have forced them into declaring they didn’t understand the difference between fact and fiction. The text itself takes up the philosophical problem of the ontological status of fictional characters, In what way do they ‘exist’?  Surely ‘I exist, Madame Bovary does not’. Well, yes and no. Binet maximizes the ontological ambiguity by having one Morris J. Zapp give a paper at the Cornell conference: ‘Fishing for supplement in a deconstructive world’. When the sleuths can’t quite understand what’s being said they seek a sort of simultaneous translation from a clever academic based in Birmingham, England, sitting next to them in the audience. Morris J. Zapp was in fact — in fact? — a character invented by professor, and novelist, David Lodge, famous for his trilogy of hilarious academic satires staring with Changing Places (1975).  Lodge, at the time, was, like Binet today, both someone who deeply appreciated contemporary linguistic theory and a novelist gifted enough to be able to laugh at the absurd academic practices, and dodgy private lives, that grew out of it.

David Lodge (b.1935)

Binet told Huffpost France :’I treated all my characters, real, alive or dead, fictional or non-fictional, as characters.  In the process of creation, I didn’t have Saint-Germain in mind. Saint-Germain is a complicated microcosm where everyone knows everyone else and which everyone finds important and where there are numerous alliances and emnities. My publisher left me great freedom and I’m grateful for that. It’s interesting to observe the reactions, diverse and contradictory, sometimes in regard to the same character; some people think I’ve caricatured this or that one too much while others think I’ve treated them with too much consideration. No doubt that’s just as it should be. As Kundera said, the novel is a place of ambiguity. A roman a thèse  [in which the real is barely masked] is a contradiction in terms. ‘ (This is my translation. You can check out the occasionally garbled original here.)

Another Anglo-Saxon character in the novel is the American philosopher John Searle, the Francophile in life but Anglo-Saxon analytical practitioner in philosophy who had a famous and bitter quarrel with Derrida and lost (although deluded American colleagues still think he won.) Read how the fate of Searle, ‘with the mentality of a cop’ (a piece of abuse Binet took from Derrida, if I remember rightly) works out in this prize-winning novel first published in France on 2015, the year of the centenary of Barthes’ untimely death. Bar a very few mistakes (‘phrase’ in French is not ‘phrase’ in English) the English translation by Sam Taylor makes for lively, gutsy reading. The result is a stylish, brainy Euro-romp through the year 1980 that also includes car-chases, scheming politicians, Italian anarchists and Bulgarian and Russian secret-service types. I loved it. Meanwhile I wrote about Searle and Derrida in my 2014 book A Shoe Story.

Posted in A Shoe Story, French intellectuals, French literature, Literature in Translation, novels, Philosophy and Philosophers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

A German Idealist on Globalization – and what he might have to say to an anti-Brexiteer


Rüdiger Safranski is one of the best-known philosophers in contemporary Germany. Together with his many prizes, the highly rated television programme, Philosophisches Quartett, ‘The Philosophical Quarter’, he has presented with Peter Sloterdijk, since 2002, has secured his name. In the anglophone world we know him more as a biographer than a philosopher. His monographs on Goethe, Schiller, Nietzsche and Heidegger, plus studies of German Romanticism, and of Schiller or the Invention of German Idealism, haven’t all been translated into English, but there can hardly be an anglophone reader interested in the topic who doesn’t know the English version of Safranski’s Ein Meister Aus Deutschland Heidegger und seine Zeit. I quote the German title here because its inspiration, an eerie quote, ‘A Master from Germany’, from a poem about Heidegger by Paul Celan, didn’t travel well into English. The book we know is rather Martin Heidegger Between Good and Evil, an evident companion  volume to Safranski’s Nietzsche A Biography of his Thinking.  It’s Safranski’s work on Goethe and Schiller meanwhile that is his ultimate anchor. It situates him as a connoisseur  of the greatest literary-philosophical era in German history, the time from 1749, the year of Goethe’s birth, to 1939, the date when Hitler destroyed an intellectual and artistic culture that had been the wonder and envy of less cerebral nations; and shows him wanting to rescue its astonishing creative individualism and perpetuate it.

Safranski has not only deeply immersed himself in a philosophical world that for forty years after the second world war, and in an anglo-american-led climate of analytic neo-positivism was regarded as deeply unattractive by most contemporary thinkers. He is also capable of thinking outside the box. To compare Heidegger in the early 1920s with the anarchic art European movement Dada, its hilarious mindset so scarred by the first world war that it disdained all the great cultural traditions that had upheld the West since the Renaissance, was to my mind a masterstroke. Well aware of Heidegger’s fatal attraction to Nazism, Safranski can still interpret a deeply German philosopher in the Romantic tradition without fear.

Born in 1945, Safranski was still in time to learn in person from the last living German Idealist, Theodor Adorno.  From 1965-1972 he was a student in Frankfurt am Main some years after Adorno returned from his wartime American exile, and then in West Berlin.  His  doctoral dissertation was concerned with working-class literary culture, which suggests to me he never entered a post-humanist phase, unlike his French counterparts, in the 1980s and after. Perhaps his most curious book is an essay of 2003 entitled Wieviel Globalisierung verträgt der Mensch? It was rendered into English as How Much Globalization Can We Bear? in 2006 and is a robust defence of German Idealist values in a new global age. As his publishers describe the project: ‘He suggests that the era ofglobalization should not be thought of as that epoch in world history in which all human beings will see themselves in the same, indistinct situation. There will always be, Sanfranski argues, some need for understanding one’s own situation by drawing boundaries and conceptualizing  “otherness” and individuality.’

Perhaps it’s not surprising that a German literary scholar of Safranski’s persuasions should see globalization as the risk of overstepping the human mark, of anxiously wondering whether there isn’t ‘too much or too much false globalization’ (p.13 of the German edition, my translation) such that we feel, as a species, uncomfortable and ‘wonder whether we are organizing ourselves in the right way any more’ (ob man sich überhaupt noch in der richtigen Veranstaltung befindet). He calls it an anthropological question, but it’s hard not to see it as metaphysical, as subsequent chapters quoting from Plato and Rousseu, Kant and Hegel demonstrate. In this context globalization,  which risks losing something sacred about human nature, begins to look like a Faustian question.  What for Safranski is threatened is what we make out of ourselves. What can we know? What can we build? How far should we push it? (p.10)

The international order of the latter half of the twentieth century, the global institutions that diminish the risk of war and defend human rights and boycott tyranny are the political good news, although, in the fifteen years since Safranski wrote his book, it’s clear that the backlash against ‘bad’ globalization has incited a new generation of populist agitators to attack the justification for just that good global order in the minds of their dissatisfied national publics. A major outcome of globalization was a new kind of inequality we were mentally ill-equipped to deal with, he wrote back in 2003. He seems to have got the history right even before it climaxed in populist rebellion. As globalization as a set of ideas tried to tackle vast differences in economic development across the globe (p.20), he argued, it tended to suppress those differences, thereby turning itself into an ideology. Economic neo-liberalism, anti-nationalism and global ecological awareness made the world outlook of the West as it entered the twenty-first century more of an aggressive assertion than a wonderful offering. What came out of the wave of ecological right-thinking was that ‘those who come last must bear the burden’. In 2003 he addressed that thought to developing countries being asked to bear the burden of ecological taxation. As we read him now we can extend that sentiment to cover whole Western populations coming to feel ‘left behind’ in their own countries: a feeling that they, the local working classes undermined and displaced by global economic activity, have been relegated to a third-class existence despite their first-world geography.

One of the great achievements of globalization has been its inherent anti-nationalism. It’s why European populations in the not so distant past, and still at Safranski’s time of writing, so enthusiastically espoused the European Union. Anti-nationalism had such strong moral reasoning behind it after 1945, in Europe, and especially in Germany.  But the great and growing differences in wealth and prosperity thrown up by globalization began to wreak havoc in Europe with the mass inward migrations  of 2015-2016.  As I write Britain, apparently not bound by moral anti-nationalism, is leaving the European Union to seek another form of globalization more favourable to its desire to trade among independent nations rather than from within an economic bloc. Britain wants to revert to being a world leader in an international marketplace where it can also set its own accompanying ethical-political rules.

Could anything Safranski argued fifteen years ago make the British decision seem right, or at least explain it to those of us in despair at leaving Europe? One thing he might have noticed is how neo-liberalism fitted the anglo-american glove so well because its prototype was the British Empire. In a way Britain never changed; or rather, it did its best to refloat Europe on the neo-liberal tide. I came across this example recently. Nineteenth-century Britons in India, on coming across the beautiful hand-woven patterns of Punjabi textiles, sent samples home to be copied by English factories. These mass-produced fabrics were then re-exported to India, where they destroyed local markets. The Brits aren’t anti-global. They just want globalism on their own robust terms, destroying other people’s localities if necessary, while protecting their own.

But British exceptionalism was never in Safranski’s purview, and his concerns for the future of human nature seem exceptionally German, or at least Continental, compared with a typical British point of view still based, after more than two centuries, on Adam Smith’s moral justification of self-interest. (I know Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments was more nuanced than his Wealth of Nations, but even so.) I have to try to sort this European/British distinction out for myself, as a Brit whose moral compass was created many years ago by precisely the German writers and philosophers Safranski has rediscovered for my German and English generations. His questions seem real enough to me. What kind of people are we turning ourselves into? What spiritual capacities for happiness are we stifling when we live in a real-time experience of everywhere and nowhere courtesy of globalization’s marriage with the internet?  Globalism, he writes on p.73, narrows us. He means that neo-liberalism and its attendant economic blitzes on less prosperous, less innovative regions of the world, combined with a culture over which technology, rather than human interaction reigns, thins out our personalities. Somewhere in there is also a worry I very much share, about our human relationship with nature, at the mysterious interface between our bodily and spiritual existence, being neglected if not totally ignored in the present day. It’s undoubtedly a moral lesson Safranski’s delivering, one that carries a Faustian warning not to stray too far from what we can humanly, as natural creatures, take the measure of; a warning not to let our technological prowess take over the moral substance of our lives. It’s also a lesson drawn from the Romantic heart of German literature, about the uninspiring character of materialism as a world outlook and the damage done to the human heart by the falsehoods embedded in progress.

He writes (in my translation from his German text):

‘In the nineteenth century forests were the place of the good, the beautiful and the true for some, while for others they were hiding-places for eerineness and mystery. But we should also think about the forests of nostalgia, the forests of the image and the symbol. [They] have been, from the forest tales of German Romanticism to Heidegger’s ‘forest paths’ a poetic-philosophical resource. The whole is a story of the long dismantling of mythical potential, of loss of magic and of the grubbing-up of trees, and of the growth of a desert. The world goes to the net and in the uniformity of globalization is trapped in a net. What disappears here is the external correspondence of the inner transcendence of the human being, a transcendence without metaphysical construction. In the impenetrability of nature outside us – for which the metaphor of the forest stands – we experience that we are also nature and a mystery to ourselves. The forests reflect back to us our own strangeness, which also plays a part in our relationship to ourselves. Whoever is prepared to expose themselves to this strangeness retains contact with the mystery of life.’

But it’s not only Germans who were once and are still  ‘searching for real reality’ – auf der Suche nach der wirklichen Wirklichkeit. (pp. 94-95) Henry David Thoreau in On Walden Pond was too.

It’s difficult to believe that Safranski’s idea of the human was not originally a metaphysical construct that has been passed down through centuries of Protestant belief. That was always the character of German Idealism. A fellow blogger and Safranski enthusiast focuses on a quote in How Much Globalization… from Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1796), where Safranski takes over Goethe’s ideal for the individual of  ‘eine regelmäßige Selbsttätigkeit.’ The phrase points towards  self-directedness or autonomy. ‘And a new sense of autonomy is exactly what Safranski prescribes for us,’ he writes. ‘We need new ways to filter the global stream of information, a new immune system to be able to function in the face of all these global processes.’

Safranski hopes for a better outcome for the mass of humanity in the twenty-first century than life in front of a screen or otherwise self-harming. Self-knowledge, and the ability to liberate oneself from the otherwise overwhelming technological exigencies of the day, needs to return to the heart of education, if the detrimental aspects of globalization are to be resisted. An education which tells its students that learning is the key to economic success is insufficient, and, to take up Safranski’s implicit metaphor, even Mephistophelian.  Education needs to show us how to construct a self, a rich inner life, a way of being a person through the amount of world we can transform into our own humanity.  He has a marvellous quote from the early nineteenth-century German educator Wilhelm von Humboldt: ‘Whatsoever man, when he is dying, can say to himself, “I have grasped as much world as I could, and transformed it into my humanity”- he has achieved his goal.’

Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835)

To be a person is not just to have an identity, and least of all a encrypted internet identity, or a flow of infinitely reproducible tweets and digital images. But this is me speaking now, finding where I can agree with the conservative but European Safranski, while still needing to engage with my own country and its post-Brexit future. This historic trading nation to which I belong by birth, selfish, self-possessed and powerful, and which insists on taking the utilitarian and materialistic path, chopping down quite a few German Romantic trees on its way, has taught me to be a little more sceptical than I once was about the nature of the human soul. I’m more inclined to see personhood with Hume as a bundle of impressions than a mysterious entity containing a divine spark. And yet all my work revolves around the ideas that Safranski still believes in without inhibition, and I’m grateful for his reminder.

Posted in Britain Today, Current Affairs, Europe, German Literature, Philosophy and Philosophers, Things German, Who are you? | Tagged , , , , ,

Wolfgang Tillmans and his Fragile alter ego

Though reviewers speak blithely of its beauty and the curators wax lyrical over the artist’s sense of the social and the communal, none of these qualities appear to the fore in Wolfgang Tillmans’s 2017 exhibition at Tate Modern. It’s not a retrospective but a series of installations, each room curated by the German-born photographer who in his teens named his creative alter ego ‘Fragile’. The curators tell us that’s also what we see in the work. Certainly the artist’s own anxieties do most of the speaking. Homosexuality is a large theme that would prefer to go by no name, but then advertises itself crudely in some of the images on show, while other images call for clubs where people can feel secure in their sexual identity. It’s not that any of this is objectionable, but that it isn’t to my mind artistic. It’s a personal crusade, expressed with a large degree of torment.

Thus not pleasure, not beauty, but deep unease emanated from these images. Room one, with a photograph juxtaposing a few remaining packets of asparagus in an industrial display unit with a display of printer ink in different-coloured plastic bottles, immediately assailed its viewers, wanting to drag them as fellow sufferers. It did its best to undo any comfort at being in the world that you or I might have managed to achieve. It was pure techno-misery. From there, for me, in room after room, none of the images gave any sense of home, or society, or community. A photograph of an anonymous group of men playing draughts on a hot Shanghai evening neither staked a claim for the artist’s belonging to them, nor to their belonging to each other. The proudly robed owner of some car or other, somewhere, was nothing more than photography’s equivalent of literature’s exotic cardboard cut-out. Tillmans’s outsiderdom was remorseless.

I would empathize with him, if only he could transfer some displaced human emotion into his work to help me get there. Instead he leads an ‘inner life’ that consists of introspecting the photographic process. He uses his body to intervene in the technical process. Or he takes apart a broken colour photocopier and displays it as if just like that it, this neutered pile of junk, has to mean something or interest us. The equivalent introspection of his own body is hinted at: at buttocks and testicles photographed close-up and as if on a slab. There’s also a photograph of male genitals after a sex change: a vagina-equivalent constructed on an operating table. Photography seems to be performing here not so much as art but as unkind witness. What it sees, and relays, might be the view of a doctor performing such an operation, if he or she were a robot. The extreme adherence to what is physically and functionally the case, German Sachlichkeit, may or may not be linked to Fragile’s fear of getting hurt.

There was one image, one alone, that stopped me in my tracks. It was a small photograph of the artist’s studio, what looked like a desk, with a couple of coloured canvasses leaning against it. The light was shaded in a friendly, atmospheric, inviting way. The room was orderly without being uptight. And what I felt immediately was the artist at peace with his art, at peace because of his art, a feeling many of us know, even if what we produce, to try to keep our inner life in balance, and express our  desires in some outgoing, creative form, is something less. It’s a lovely image, worthy of more than the banal and misjudged curatorial comment that it’s quite different from other artists’ studios in history. Really? Anyway, it’s worth all the rest of this show combined.

Most critics won’t agree with me, though Michael Glover in the Independent got it right, perhaps a tad unkindly, when he said that Tillmans wasn’t half as good as he thought he was. The fact is that many of the ideas surrounding this show, ideas that it wants to speak, are facile: sixth-form protests against this or that imagined status quo; invitations to exercise imagination which fall flat, because many of us ordinary mortals have already had such thoughts for ourselves.

Also it seems to me there’s a crucial dimension missing from commentary on this show, namely and that is Tillmans’ German heritage. He came to Britain in 1990, aged, 22, to study at the St Martins School of Art, but even so, we surely have to see him as part of that long line of German artists, from Josef Beuys through Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer still deeply scarred by the German past and, particularly in the case of Beuys, by the petty bourgeois normality of the first twenty-five to thirty years of post-war West German society that tried to forget all about it. Unlike Beuys Tillmans has no humour; unlike Richter he does not love his medium; unlike Kiefer he lacks all trace of the Romantic heritage, and has no sense of the mystical. Kiefer, reader of Heidegger, student of van Gogh, would have made so much more of that dismantled photocopier over which so much artistic use had passed before it shorted itself into a heap of junk. No, what binds Tillmans to the terrible German past seems to me to be the received memory of what the Nazis did to homosexuals and what they forebade in art. Those two painful historical facts justify the world Tillmans creates in his own art today, of gay loneliness and carnal isolation and techno-misery. As viewers he defies us to dislike his art, because that might seem to link us with the monsters that went before. I have to say I felt almost menaced by the ugliness and the pain Tillmans put on show, and I could have done with a braver, more distanced commentary than what Tate Modern’s accompanying booklet gave me to read.

Posted in Art History, Things German | Tagged , , ,

The Royal Academy’s show Revolution and the historic meaning of the 1932 Russian Artists’ exhibition

The Russian Revolution as seen through the history of its paintings and artefacts has delighted and confused visitors to London’s Royal Academy this early Spring. Despite many works by the much loved and admired Kazimir Malevich, and magnificent photographs by Alexander Rodchenko and others, what made the February 2017 show gripping was the historical moment, revealed in everything from apartment design to porcelain. Here, suddenly, in October 1917, was a modernist blueprint to change Russia, and indeed, the world.

Modernism expressed the rationalist impulse behind the revolution, to drive out the old myths and make life more efficient with new technology. The Marxist view of industrial capitalism as precisely what gave the new broom its power to sweep led to an exhilerating and gritty partnership between art and technology, poetry and the factory-floor. These unlikely partnerships reflected a total rethink. Magnificent in their intellectual and artistic scope, they divided the dynamic twentieth century from the feudal (in Russia) nineteenth.

Just for a moment imagine yourself living through the revolution as a purely aesthetic experience. In a different arrangement of the RA’s marvellous assembly of artefacts you might have hung Kazimir Malevich’s ‘Dynamic Suprematist Supremus’ (1915) on the wall of your functionalist apartment designed by El Lissitsky (1922), with curtains made of Andrey Golubev’s intricate red and white ‘Spinner’ fabric (1930).

malevich-suprematism el-lissitsky-apartment lnn1k3yftfl63pexzu2a

Such a scenario reminds us that the applied modernist revolution begun a century ago has stayed with us ever since, consistently in Continental Europe since the sister-age of Bauhaus in Germany, and intermittently in Britain, whenever native tradition has not been resurgent. The globalism of the last quarter-century has cleared a bigger space for modernism in the UK than ever before and maybe it accounts for the crowds surging into the RA to inspect its Russian beginnings. Many Londoners, indeed many urban-dwellers anywhere, would be delighted to live in an El Lissitsky-style flat today: the horizontal space beautifully organized, the furniture fitted to the flow of the room, with grand views of the city from generous double-aspect windows. They might be gratified too, to learn that in the grand scheme of modernist design history English socialism and American industrialism complemented that Russian impulse that became Soviet. Just look at that ‘Spinner’ pattern of Golubev’s. The repeating production line celebrated Fordism, or how to extract maximum efficiency from worker and machine. The basic motif, a woman seated in front of the four spindles of a ring spinning machine, was an industrial icon given an art nouveau styling. The English socialist and designer William Morris would have admired Golubev’s achievement, had he lived to see art move from nature to industry to derive its furnishing patterns.

The Russian revolutionary moment looks so impressive and so intense to us because its artists were combining European modernism and remnants of Symbolism, while reacting to the scientific revolutions after Darwin and Einstein, and the leap forward in technological capacity, and doing it all with that totalizing passion. The impact of Russia’s long delayed industrialization, packing into thirty-forty years what in Britain had taken a hundred to do, was a shocking stimulus. Add to that the removal of censorship from the arts after the first revolution of 1905, fruitful enough to generate Russia’s ‘Silver Age’ in painting, and poetry, and philosophy. It was no longer the heyday of the novel. Painting that was an imitation of nature or a direct reflection of society was outmoded not only by aesthetic fashion. Social realism had sat comfortably within tsarist and Russian Orthodox tradition. All the while Art in the grandest sense went on mattering immensely in Russian society. And so began the experiments with language and film, amongst other media, that you can see reflected at various points in the RA exhibition, albeit in an unfocused way that leaves you piecing together the significance yourself.

The art was total but if anything the politics was more dazzling, because, the devil take the hindmost, chort vosmi, it was direct and highly organised and ferociously fixed on its goal. The revolution axed the tsarist Russian past almost at one swipe. Bolshevik rule meant a radically different iconography and ethos, such that today, contemplating  porcelain left over from tsarist factories, but now decorated with Suprematist motifs in place of the Romanovs, we can almost feel that transformative breeze, and be grateful for it, as well as apprehensive that so much happened so fast, and, as we know, not with a humane outcome. The Bolshevik Revolution was so dangerous, and so ruthless, because ties with the past were completely severed. Just those old stocks of china clay could be carried over into the new world. Despite the irresistible enthusiasm and the tantalizing theory behind the artistic side of the story, once called, by the Futurist poet linguist Roman Jakobson ‘aesthetic Bolshevism’, moreover, there were already hints, visible to the writer Maxim Gorky and others, that the people would be kept in order, just as they had been by the tsars. Artists were people too, and the art an artist made was his or her  political ‘position’ and could be life-threatening. It’s significant that in the RA’s extensive show of social and domestic and political tools and celebrations, there is pride, and bravado, and humanist ambition, but nothing suggests peaceful, egalitarian coexistence. There is a kind of democracy, symbolized by the crowd; but the crowd is watched over by the Leader.

brodsky-lenin Three startling paintings tell the story of where Russia stands in the time of revolution, and as much as eight years after. Isaak Brodsky’s ‘Lenin and Manifestation’ (1919) shows the Bolshevik leader like God presiding from above, in what would otherwise be clouds, but is here more like a vast red flag or a theatre curtain, pulled back to reveal a crowd of demonstrators below. Its title is singularly ineptly translated, but the relationship with the people is clear. Lenin, an avuncular, lower-middle-class figure in his Sunday best, sits before an empty sheet of paper as the people gather, full of expectation. Their ranks include military figures to the fore and Breughelesque peasants towards the centre who seem more intent on having a good time. In the background rises a solitary factory chimney, token of the enormous work ahead still to industrialize Russia. From Lenin’s hand will issue an idea to guide the people and their new system. But nothing yet has been written on the paper.

kustodievBoris Kustodiev’s ‘Bolshevik’ (1920), used as the RA show’s lead image, sets up the same dramatic contrast between the people and their fate, this time under the boots of a fanatical giant, the bogatyr of Russian fairy stories, marching through the city with his red flag. This Bolshevik is at once a folk hero and a terrorist.

bb6f66947107a049ddb80c65a0cc6f1eKliment Redko’s ‘Revolt’ (1925) was one of those works which, no sooner painted, found its way into a cupboard of prohibited art, but, in this case, more fortunately, soon moved on into the safekeeping of collector George Costakis. Costakis was a Greek born in Moscow who, while he lived there and worked as a Canadian diplomat, assembled a marvellous collection of avant-garde art, half of which he was forced to give to the Soviet state when he left Russia in 1977. That is the year that Moscow’s Tretyakov State Russian gallery acquired the Redko. ‘Revolt’ imposed on a grid of Moscow streets a red star of fire, with roadblocks off-centre and violent incidents taking place in their murky light. The inclusion of later outcasts of the revolution like Trotsky meant it could never be shown in public in Soviet times, but surely that was not its only negative message. Except for the leader, surrounded by a white aura, and his henchmen, in various and diminishing sizes, the Russian people are tiny in this large and dramatic painting. They are almost stick figures, as they perform a kind of military drill while making music and showing off their industries. The light catches the brass instruments and the bayonets and the leader’s halo. Less well drilled, likely to cause random violence, are the armed citizens off-centre. Hundreds of anonymous unlit windows stare blindly out on to the proceedings.

The Russian Revolution was, in the philosophy driving it from various angles, in the spiritual hopes it drew together, and in the art that exploded with it at first almost coincidentally, and then, for a time, sympathetically, a fabulous combination of Enlightenment and Romanticism. The effect was to make the literal nuts and bolts and generators of Rodchenko’s industrial photographs as affecting as love stories.alexander-rodchenko-gears-web


You could feel that love too in Malevich’s cubo-futurist paintings of peasants binding their sheaves of corn, and his famous woman with pales, although these works from 1912 are not in this show.

Taking in the Harvest

Taking in the Harvest

The Woodcutter

The Woodcutter

The same artist’s ‘Black Square’ however immediately inspired aversion on the Bolshevik side, and has been equated by critics ever since with a spiritual point zero. As if the artist, who painted the first version in 1915, were issuing a warning to Russia, or falling victim to his own utopian doubts, or both. The art critic Jonathan Jones once compared this painting to a moment of utter nihilism in Dostoevsky (The Guardian, 28 August, 2013.) It was ‘an icon of emptiness’ that could destroy a person’s ‘faith in history, progress and art.’


It didn’t help inject sense and meaning into this exhibition to hang a late version of ‘Black Square’ high above the heads of visitors, alongside the much more wittily intended ‘Red Square’, in a room crammed with Malevich works just as they were shown in the Revolution’s art show tolerant of modernism, in 1932. That imitation of history told no story at all.

The story was, nevertheless, that as Soviet totalitarianism was consolidated under Stalin this was a deliberate political shutting-down of an unwanted, historically uncertain future as it had been reflected in avant-garde Russian art. Instead a protected present was invented on the basis of the safely contained past, and with it returned to state-sponsored prominence, perforce, a safe low-brow taste, of the kind Lenin’s Petrograd henchman Grigory Zinoviev, loathed by Gorky, had been insisting on since 1918. Lenin himself was thoroughly implicated in the rejection that year of a cubo-futurist statue of the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, created in response to his call for pieces of Monumental Art to decorate the new state, and then thrown out. (It’s shown here, right, with Boris Korolev’s partnering cubofuturist Karl Marx on the left.) Another work submitted for that call, Vera Muchina’s projected machine-gun like sculpture of the Bolshevik Yakov Sverdlov, is included in the present London exhibition. All this was far too formalist to be the new normal.21

Mikhail Nesterov’s double portrait of  ‘The Philosophers’ (1917) was something else. It was a token of the kind of symbolic Russian realism that would be welcomed back, if not with a religious content in future. At least Nesterov’s Russian intellectuals were old-fashioned human beings depicted in three dimensions. Nesterov would go on to a successful though tortured career as a Soviet painter, required to paint portraits of heroes. download-4The deliberate switch as Stalin tightened his grip on Russia meant that the only modestly distinguished painter Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin could be give a whole room of his own at the 1932 show. This wasn’t politically engaged pro-Communist work, but at least it wasn’t harmful.  Petrov-Vodkin’s boy on a horse soaring agonizingly skywards was indeed beautiful, the stuff of children’s stories and folk dreams, but it was rightly called ‘The Fantasy’ (1925). Perhaps it was already a symbol of what had already been lost.k5oeglqn5x0dqknuqc8p

I would have liked to know more about that 1932 show, ‘Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic’ and I think some more ample explanation of its ethos would have given the present London show the coherence it was left chasing after in the eyes of critics. Here is what Vassily Rakitin has to say in ‘The Avant-Garde and the Art of the Stalinist Era’ (in The Culture of the Stalin Period, ed. Hans Gunther, Hamburg, 1990, pp.178 ff.): ‘The decisive turning point in the attitude to the avant-garde had already occurred in 1933. The anniversary art exhibition “Artists of the RSFSR: 15 Years” first opened not in Moscow but in Leningrad on 17 November 1932. Its layout – its curator was N.Punin – was organised by groupings and directions. That is, it tried to give a realistic picture of artistic life. In 1933 the exhibition travelled to Moscow, the capital of the Soviet Union, where it opened on 27 June, and here the entire exhibit was markedly and fundamentally changed. It was no longer an objective showing of what had been done in 15 years. Its subject became the battle for the establishment of the new thematic realism. The space allotted to ‘left’ art was sharply reduced, and it was displayed as a negative example in a separate hall. According to one of the curators, G. Kaganskaya, this hall was immediately dubbed ‘the black room’. I remember that at that time ‘left’ works were usually hung in museums with negative explanatory plaques of the type: An Example of Art in the Age of Imperialism.’ It was this show, together with a book On Formalism in Painting, published by art criticism’s Generalissimo of the day, Osip Beskin, in 1934, that, by outlawing so-called formalism in art, ‘determined the selection of works for exhibitions, the system of government orders and prizes, and the character of museum expositions’ henceforth. Rakitin added: ‘In 1936 all “left” art was taken from the halls of the Tretyakov Gallery and the Russian Museum and put into reserves.’

How much one needed to have this spelled out. The London 2017 show confirmed that anarchist-modernist spirit that set the Revolution ablaze artistically was abruptly extinguished, but we needed to know how, and in what larger context. A couple of sentences in the accompanying booklet were not enough.

In one way the 1932 show was eerily prescient of the Nazis’ Decadent Art Show of 1937. It laid down a political marker for art in a totalitarian society. In another it was uniquely Russian. The Russians always did (and do) things there own way, however superficially tempting it is to compare the two abyssmal totalitarian systems of the first half of the twentieth century. Though in both cases murderous consequences might follow, the Nazis first chased modernist painters underground with thuggish laughter, while Stalin, the latest Russian autocrat, forged a series of new official definitions as a warning. I think the difference comes down to the fact that the twentieth-century Russian autocrats did think of themselves, however warped that seems to us, as democrats, albeit of a devastatingly cruel Russian kind. Their task was to serve the people and warn it against itself, when political order risked getting out of hand. Just like the banished philosophers of 1922, who were warned by Lenin personally to leave the country rather than remain in a country where they would have no place, 41q3qepdb-l-_sx324_bo1204203200_so the last remaining modernist, Malevich, was warned that the 1932 show at the State Russian Museum in Leningrad would be his last exhibition. He knew what was coming. He had been revisiting his cubo-futurist peasants and painting them with blank faces for some years now. When he magnificently reimagined Nikolai Punin, curator of the 1932 show, as a Renaissance maecenas, after himself being advised to return to portrait painting, he showed how a persecuted modernist artist might find a new home in historicism with a subtle

This RA exhibition assembled such interesting artefacts, but more attention to the ideas that drove these artists’s ambitions, and fates, and the fate of their country would have given us a better idea of what the Revolution was. It was far more complex than its chronology.


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