Life At The Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life by J. Craig Venter (2013)

The future of biological research will be based to a great extent on the combination of computer science and synthetic biology. (p.204)

Who is Craig Venter?

The quickest way of getting the measure of this hugely clever, ambitious and visionary man is to quote his Wikipedia entry:

John Craig Venter (born October 14, 1946) is an American biTotechnologist, biochemist, geneticist, and businessman. He is known for leading the first draft sequence of the human genome and assembled the first team to transfect a cell with a synthetic chromosome. Venter founded Celera Genomics, The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) and the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), where he currently serves as CEO. He was the co-founder of Human Longevity Inc. and Synthetic Genomics. He was listed on Time magazine’s 2007 and 2008 Time 100 list of the most influential people in the world. In 2010, the British magazine New Statesman listed Craig Venter at 14th in the list of ‘The World’s 50 Most Influential Figures 2010’. He is a member of the USA Science and Engineering Festival’s Advisory Board.

So he’s a heavy hitter, invited to Bill Clinton’s White House to announce his team’s successful sequencing of the first human genome on 2000, founder of a thriving biochem business, a number of charities, pioneer of genomics (‘the branch of molecular biology concerned with the structure, function, evolution, and mapping of genomes’) and mapper of an ambitious future for the new science of synthetic biology.

In Schrödinger’s footsteps

Life At The Speed of Light was published in 2013. It originated as a set of lectures. As he explains in the introduction, in 1943, the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger had fled the Continent and settled in Ireland. He was invited by the Taoiseach of the time to give some public lectures and chose the topic of life, the biology and physics of life. These are the lectures which were then published in the little book What Is Life? (1944) which inspired generations of young people to take up science (in his memoir The Double Helix James Watson describes how the book inspired him; Addy Pross named his book about the origins of life What Is Life? as a direct tribute).

Well, 49 years later Venter was invited by the Taoiseach of the day to deliver a new set of lectures, addressing the same question as Schrödinger, but in doing so, making clear the enormous strides in physics, chemistry, biology, biochemistry and genetics which had been made in that half-century.

Twelve chapters

The 12 chapters are titled:

  1. Dublin, 1943-2012
  2. Chemical synthesis as proof
  3. Dawn of the digital age of biology
  4. Digitizing life
  5. Synthetic Phi X 174
  6. First synthetic genome
  7. Converting one species into another
  8. Synthesis of the M. mycoides genome
  9. Inside a synthetic cell
  10. Life by design
  11. Biological transportation
  12. Life at the speed of light

Each chapter contains a formidable amount of state-of-the-art biochemical knowledge. The first few chapters recap relevant forebears who helped figure out that DNA was the vehicle of heredity, beginning right back at the start with Aristotle who made the primal division of living things into animal, vegetable or mineral, and namechecking other pioneers such as Robert Hook and, of course, Charles Darwin.

Biochemistry

But the real thrust of the book is to get up to date with contemporary achievements in sequencing genomes and creating transgenic entities i.e. organisms which have had the DNA of completely separate organisms stitched into them.

In order to do this Venter, of course, has to describe the molecular mechanisms of life in great detail. Successive chapters go way beyond the simplistic understanding of DNA described in Watson’s book, and open up for the reader the fantastical fairyland of how DNA actually works. He explains the central role of the ribosomes which are the factories where protein synthesis takes place (typical cells contain about a thousand ribosomes), and the role of messenger RNA in cutting off snippets of DNA and taking them to the ribosome. This is where transfer RNA (tRNA) then brings along amino acids which are intricately assembled according to the sequence of bases found on the original DNA. Combinations of the twenty amino acids are assembled into the proteins which all life forms are made of, from the proteins which make up the cell membrane, to collagen which accounts for a quarter of all the proteins found in vertebrate animals, or elastin, the basis of lung and artery walls, and so on.

I found all this mind-boggling, but the most striking single thing I learned is how fast it happens and that it needs to happen so unrelentingly.

Fast

Venter explains that protein synthesis requires only seconds to make chains of a hundred amino acids or more. Nowadays we understand the mechanism whereby the ribosome is able to ratchet RNAs laden with amino acids along its production lines at a rate of fifteen per second! Proteins need to ‘fold’ up into the correct shape – there are literally millions of possible shapes they can assume but they only function if folded correctly. This happens as soon as they’ve been manufactured inside the ribosome and takes place in a few thousandths of a second. The protein villin takes six millionths of a second to fold correctly.

I had no idea that some of the proteins required for life to function (i.e. for cells to maintain themselves) exist for as little as forty-five minutes before they decay and cease to work. Their components are then disassembled and returned to the hectic soup which is contained inside each cell membrane, before being picked up by passing tRNA and taken along to the ribosome to be packaged up into useful protein again.

Relentless

It is the absolutely relentless pressure to produce thousands of different proteins, on a continuous basis, never faltering, never resting, which makes the mechanisms of life so needy of resources, and explains why animals need to be constantly taking in nutrition from the environment, relentlessly eating, drinking, breaking food down into its elementary constituents and excreting waste products.

After a while the book began to make me feel scared by the awesome knowledge of what is required to keep ‘me’ going all day long. Just the sheer effort, the vast amount of biochemical activity going on in every one of the forty or so trillion cells which make up my body, gave me a sense of vertigo.

Every day, five hundred billion blood cells die in an individual human. it is also estimated that half our cells die during normal organ development. We all shed about five hundred million skin cells every day. As a result you shed your entire outer layer of skin every two to four weeks. (p.57 – my italics)

Life is a process of dynamic renewal.

In an hour or even less a bacterial cell has to remake all of its proteins or perish. (p.62)

Venter’s achievements

Having processed through the distinguished forebears and pioneers of biochemistry, Venter comes increasingly to the work which he’s been responsible for. First of all he explains the process behind the sequencing of the first human genome – explaining how he and his team devised a vastly faster method of sequencing than their rivals (and the controversy this aroused). Then he goes on to explain how he led teams which looked into splicing one organism’s DNA into another. And then explains the challenge of going to the next phase, and creating life forms from the DNA up.

In fact the core of the book is a series of chapters which describe in minute and, some might say, quite tedious detail, the precise strategies and methodologies Venter and his teams took in the decade or so from 2000 to 2010 to, as he summarises it:

  • synthesise DNA at a scale twenty times faster than previously possible
  • develop a methodology to transplant a genome from one species to another
  • solve the DNA-modification problems of restriction enzymes destroying transplanted DNA

Successive chapters take you into actual meetings where he and colleagues discuss how to tackle the whole series of technical problems they faced, and explain in exquisite detail precisely the techniques they developed at each step of the way. He even includes work emails describing key findings or turning points, and texts he exchanged with colleagues (pp.171-2).

After reading about a hundred of pages of this my mind began to glaze over and I skipped paragraphs and then pages which describe such minutiae as how he decided which members of the Institute to put in charge of which aspects of the project and why – in order to get to the actual outcomes. These have been dramatic:

In May 2010, a team of scientists led by Venter became the first to successfully create what was described as ‘synthetic life’. This was done by synthesizing a very long DNA molecule containing an entire bacterium genome, and introducing this into another cell … The single-celled organism contains four ‘watermarks’ written into its DNA to identify it as synthetic and to help trace its descendants. The watermarks include:

    • a code table for entire alphabet, with punctuations
    • the names of 46 contributing scientists
    • three quotations
    • the secret email address for the cell.

Venter gives a detailed description of the technical challenges, and the innovations his team devised to overcome then, in the quest to create the first ever synthesised life form in chapter 8, ‘Synthesis of the M. mycoides genome’. More recently, after the timescale of this book although the book describes this as one of his goals:

On March 25, 2016 Venter reported the creation of Syn 3.0, a synthetic genome having the fewest genes of any freely living organism (473 genes). Their aim was to strip away all nonessential genes, leaving only the minimal set necessary to support life. This stripped-down, fast reproducing cell is expected to be a valuable tool for researchers in the field. (Wikipedia)

The international nature of modern science

One notable aspect of the text is the amount of effort he puts into crediting other people’s work. When Watson wrote his book he could talk about individual contributors like Linus Pauling, Maurice Wilkins, Oswald Avery, Erwin Chergaff or Rosalind Franklin.

One of the many things that has changed since Watson’s day is the way science is now done by large teams, and often collaborations not only between labs, but between labs around the world. Thus at every step of his explanations Venter is very careful indeed to give credit to each new insight and discovery which fed into his own team’s work, and to namecheck all the relevant scientists involved. It was to be expected that each page would be studded with the names of biochemical processes and substances, but just as significant, just as indicative of the science of our times, is the way each page is also freighted with lists of names – and also, reading them carefully, just how ethnically mixed the names are – Chinese, Indian, French, German, Spanish – names from all around the world. Without anyone having to explain it, just page after page of the names alone convey what a cosmopolitan and international concern modern science is.

A simplified timeline

Although Venter spends some time recapping the steady progress of biology and chemistry into the 20th century and up to Watson and Crick’s discovery, his book really makes clear that the elucidation of DNA was only the beginning of an explosion of research into genetics, such that genetics – and the handling of genetic information – are now at the centre of biology.

1944 Oswald Avery discovered that DNA, not protein, was the carrier of genetic information
1949 Fred Sanger determined the sequence of amino acids in the hormone insulin

1950 Erwin Chargaff made the discoveries about the four components of DNA which became known as Chargaff’s Rules, i.e. the number of guanine units equals the number of cytosine units and the number of adenine units equals the number of thymine units, strongly suggesting they came in pairs
1952 the Miller-Urey experiments show that organic molecules could be created out of a ‘primal soup’ and electricity
1953 Watson and Crick publish structure of DNA
1953 Barbara McClintock publishes evidence of transposable elements in DNA, aka transposons or jumping genes
1955 Heinz Fraenkel-Conrat and biophysicist Robley Williams showed that a functional virus could be created out of purified RNA and a protein coat.
1956 Arthur Kornberg isolated the first DNA polymerizing enzyme, now known as DNA polymerase I

1961 Marshall Nirenberg and Heinrich J. Matthaei discover that DNA is used in sets of three called ‘codons’
1964 Robert Holley elucidates the structure of transfer RNA
1960s Werner Arber and Matthew Meselson isolate first restriction enzyme
1967 DNA ligase discovered, an enzyme capable of linking DNA into a ring such as is found in viruses
1967 Carl Woese suggests that RNA not only carries genetic information but has catalytic properties

1970 Hamilton O. Smith, Thomas Kelly and Kent Wilcox isolate the first type II restriction enzyme
1970 discovery of reverse transcriptase which converts RNA into DNA
1971 start if gene-splicing revolution when Paul Berg spliced part of a bacterial virus into a monkey virus
1972 Herbert Boyer splices DNA from Staphylococcus into E. Coli
1974 first transgenic mammal created by Rudolf Jaenisch and Beatrice Mintz
1974 development of ‘reverse genetics’ where you interefere with an organism’s DNA and see what happens
1976 first biotech company, Genentech, set up
1977 Boyer, Itakura and Riggs use recombinant DNA to produce a human protein
1977 Carl Woese proposes an entire new kingdom of life, the Archaea

1980 Charles Weissmann engineers the protein interferon using recombinant-DNA technology
1981 Racaniello and Baltimore used recombinant DNA technology to generate the first infectious clone of an animal RNA virus, poliovirus
1982 genetically engineered insulin becomes commercially available
1980s discovery of the function of proteasomes which break up unneeded or damaged proteins
1980s Ada Yonath and Heinz-Günter Wittman grow crystals from bacterial chromosomes
1985 Martin Caruthers and his team developed an automated DNA synthesiser
1985 Aaron Klug develops ‘zinc fingers’, proteins which bind to specific three-letter sequences of DNA

1996 proposed life on Mars on the basis of microbial ‘fossils’ found in rocks blown form Mars to earth – later disproved
1996 publication of the yeast genome
1997 Venter’s team publish the entire genome of the Helicobacter pylori bacterium
1997 Dolly the sheep is cloned (DNA from a mature sheep’s mammary gland was injected into an egg that had had its own nucleus removed; it was named Dolly in honour of Dolly Parton and her large mammary glands)
1998 Andrew Fire and Craig Cameron Mello showed that so-called ‘junk DNA’ codes for double stranded RNA which trigger or shut down other genes
1999 Harry F. Noller publishes the first images of a complete ribosome

2005 The structure and function of the bacterial chromosome by Thanbichler, Viollier and Shapiro
2007 publication of Synthetic Genomics: Options for Government
2008 Venter and team create a synthetic chromosome of a bacterium
2010 Venter’s team announce the creation of the first synthetic cell (described in detail in chapter 8)
2011 first structure of a eukaryotic ribosome published

Life at the speed of light

Anyway, this is a book with a thesis and a purpose. Or maybe two, two sides of the same coin. One is to eradicate all irrational, magical beliefs in ‘vitalism’, to insist that life is nothing but chemistry. The other is his bold visions of the future.

1. Anti-vitalism

The opening chapter had included a brief recap of the literature and fantasy of creating new life, Frankenstein etc. This builds up to the fact that Venter really has it in for all traditions and moralists who believe in a unique life force. He is at pains to define and then refute the theory of vitalism – ‘the theory that the origin and phenomena of life are dependent on a force or principle distinct from purely chemical or physical forces.’ Venter very powerfully believes the opposite: that ‘life’ consists of information about chemistry, nothing more.

This, I think, is a buried motive for describing the experiments carried out at his own institute in such mind-numbing detail. It is to drill home the reality that life is nothing more than chemistry and information. If you insert the genome of one species into the cells of another they become the new species. They obey the genomic or chemical instructions. All life does. There is no mystery, no vital spark, no élan vital etc etc.

A digression on the origins of life

This is reinforced in chapter 9 where Venter gives a summary of the work of Jack W. Szostak into the origin of life.

Briefly, Szostak starts with the fact that lipid or fat molecules are spontaneously produced in nature. He shows that these tend to link up together to form ‘vesicles’ which also, quite naturally, form together into water-containing membranes. If RNA – which has been shown to also assemble spontaneously – gets into these primitive ‘cells’, then they start working, quite automatically, to attract other RNA molecules into the cell. As a result the cell will swell and, with a little shaking from wind or tide, replicate. Voilà! You have replicating cells containing RNA.

Venter then describes work that has been done into the origin of multicellularity i.e. cells clumping together to co-operate, which appears to have happened numerous times in the history of life, to give rise to a variety of multicellular lineages.

Venter goes on to describe one other major event in the history of life – symbiogenesis – ‘The theory holds that mitochondria, plastids such as chloroplasts, and possibly other organelles of eukaryotic cells represent formerly free-living prokaryotes taken one inside the other in endosymbiosis.’

In other words, at a number of seismic moments in the history of life, early eukaryotic cells engulfed microbial species that were living in symbiosis with them. Or to put it another way, early cells incorporated useful microbes which existed in their proximity, entirely into themselves.

The two big examples are:

  • some two billion years ago, when a eukaryotic cell incorporated into itself a photosynthetic bacterial algae cell which ultimately became the ‘chloroplast‘ – the site where photosynthesis takes place – in all successive plant species
  • and the fact that the ‘power packs’ of human cells, known as mitochondria, carry their own genetic code and have their own way of reproducing, indicating that they were taken over whole, not melded or merged but swallowed (it is now believed that human mitochondria derived from a specific bacterium, Rickettsia, which survives down to this day)

This information is fascinating in itself, but it is clearly included to join up with the detailed description of the work in his own institute in order to make the overwhelming case that life is just information and that DNA is the bearer of that information.

It obviously really irritates Venter that, despite the overwhelming weight of the evidence, people at large – journalists, philosophers, armchair moralists and religious believers – refuse to accept it, refuse to face the facts.

2. Creating life

The corollary of there being nothing magical about ‘life’ is the confident way Venter interprets all the evidence he has so painstakingly described, and all the dazzling achievements he has been involved in, as having brought humanity to the brink of a New Age of Life, a New Epoch in the Evolution of Life on Earth.

We have now entered what I call ‘the digital age of biology’, in which once distinct domains of computer codes and those that program life are beginning to merge, where new synergies are emerging that will drive evolution in radical directions. (p.2)

The fusion of the digital world of the machine and that of biology would open up the remarkable possibilities for creating novel species and guiding future evolution. (p.109)

In the final chapters he waxes very lyrical about the fantastic opportunities opening up for designing DNA on computers, modeling the behaviour of this artificial DNA, fine-tuning the design, and then building new synthetic organisms in the real world.

The practical applications know no limits, and on page 221 he lists some:

  • man-made organisms which could absorb the global warming CO2 in the air, or eat oil pollution, turning it into harmless chemicals
  • computer designing designing cures for diseases
  • designing crops that are resistant to drought, that can tolerate disease or thrive in barren environments, provide rich new sources of protein and other nutrients, can be harnessed for water purification in arid regions
  • designing animals that become sources for pharmaceuticals or spare body parts
  • customising human stem cells to regenerate damaged organs and bodies

Biological transformations

The final two chapters move beyond even these goals to lay out some quite mind-boggling visions of the future. Venter builds on his institute’s achievements to date, and speculates about the kinds of technologies we can look forward to or which are emerging even as he writes.

The one that stuck in my mind is the scenario that, when the next variety of human influenza breaks out, doctors will only have to get a sample of the virus to a lab like Venter’s and a) they will now be able to work out its DNA sequence more or less the same day b) they will then be able to design a vaccine in a computer c) they will be able to create the DNA they have designed in the lab much faster than ever possible before but d) they will be able to email the design for this vaccine DNA anywhere in the world, at the speed of a telephone wire, at the speed of light. That is what the title of the book means. New designs for synthesised life forms can now be developed in computers (which are working faster and faster) and then emailed wherever they’re required i.e. to the centre of the outbreak of a new disease, where labs will be able to use the techniques pioneered by Venter’s teams to culture and mass produce vaccines at record speeds.


Scientific myopia

I hate to rain on his parade, but I might as well lay out as clearly as I can the reasons why I am not as excited about the future as Venter. Why I am more a J.G. Ballard and John Gray man than a Venter man.

1. Most people don’t know or care Venter takes the position of many of the scientists I’ve been reading – from the mathematicians Bellos and Stewart through the astrophysicists Hawking and Davies and Barrow, to the origin-of-life men Cairns-Smith and Addy Pross – that new discoveries in their fields are earth-shatteringly important and will make ordinary people stop in their tracks, and look at their neighbour on the bus or train and exclaim, ‘NOW I understand it! NOW I know the meaning of life! NOW I realise what it’s all about.’

A moment’s reflection tells you that this simply won’t happen. Einstein’s relativity, Schrödinger and Bohr’s quantum mechanics, the structure of DNA, cloning, the discovery of black holes – what is striking is how little impact most of these ‘seismic’ discoveries have had on most people’s lives or thinking. Ask your friends and family which of the epic scientific discoveries of the 20th century I’ve listed above has made the most impact on their lives. Or they’ve even heard of. Or could explain.

2. Most people are not intellectuals This error (thinking people are very bothered about scientific ‘breakthroughs’) is based on a deeper false premise, one of the great category errors common to all these kind of books and magazine articles and documentaries – which is that the authors think that everyone else in society is a university-educated intellectual like themselves, whereas, very obviously, they are not. Trump. Brexit.

3. Public debate is often meaningless Worse, they believe that something called ‘education’ and ‘public debate’ will control the threat posed by these technologies:

Opportunities for public debate and discussion on this topic must be sponsored, and the lay public must engage with the relevant issues. (p.215)

Famous last words. Look at the ‘debate’ surrounding Brexit. Have any of the thousands of articles, documentaries, speeches, books and tweets helped solve the situation? No. ‘Debate’ hardly ever solves anything. Clear-cut and affordable solutions which people can understand and get behind solve things.

4. A lot of people are nasty, some are evil Not only this but Venter, like all the other highly-educated, middle-class, liberal intellectuals I’ve mentioned, thinks that people are fundamentally nice – will welcome their discoveries, will only use them for the good of mankind, and so on.

Megalolz, as my kids would say. No. People are not nice. The Russians and the Chinese are using the internet to target other countries’ vital infrastructures, and sow misinformation. Islamist warriors are continually looking for ways to attack ‘the West’, the more spectacular the better. In 2010 Israel is alleged to have carried out the first cyberattack on another nation’s infrastructure when it (allegedly) attacked a uranium enrichment facility at Iran’s Natanz underground nuclear site.

In other words, cyberspace is not at all a realm where high-minded intellectuals meet and debate worthy moral issues, and where synthetic biologists devise life-saving new vaccines and beam them to locations of epidemic outbreaks ‘at the speed of light’. Cyberspace is already a war zone.

And it is a warzone in a world which contains some nasty regimes, not just those which are in effect dictatorships (Iran, China) but even many of the so-called democracies.

Trump. Putin. Erdogan. Bolsonaro. Viktor Orban. These are all right-wing demagogues who were voted into power in democratic elections.

It may be that both the peoples, and the leaders, who Venter puts his faith in are simply not up to the job of understanding, using wisely or safeguarding the speed of light technology he is describing.

Venter goes out of his way, throughout the book, to emphasise how socially responsible he and his Institute and his research have been, how they have taken part in, sponsored and contributed to umpteen conferences and seminars, alongside government agencies like the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, into the ‘ethics’ of conducting synthetic biology (i.e. designing and building new organisms) and into its risks (terrorists use it to create lethal biological weapons).

Indeed, most of chapter ten is devoted to the range of risks – basically, terrorist use or some kind of accident – which could lead to the release of harmful, synthesised organisms into the environment – accompanied by a lot of high-minded rhetoric about the need to ‘educate the public’ and ‘engage a lay audience’ and ‘exchange views’, and so on…

I believe that the issue of the responsible use of science is fundamental… (p.215)

Quite. But then the thousands of scientists and technicians who invented the atom bomb were highly educated, highly moral and highly responsible people, too. But it wasn’t them who funded it, deployed it and pushed the red button. Good intentions are not enough.


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Weimar: A Cultural History 1918-1933 by Walter Laqueur (1974)

The term ‘Weimar culture’, while generally accepted, is in some respects unsatisfactory, if only because political and cultural history seldom coincides in time. Expressionism was not born with the defeat of the Imperial German army, nor is there any obvious connection between abstract painting and atonal music and the escape of the Kaiser, nor were the great scientific discoveries triggered off by the proclamation of the Republic in 1919. As the eminent historian Walter Laqueur demonstrates, the avant-gardism commonly associated with post-World War One precedes the Weimar Republic by a decade. It would no doubt be easier for the historian if the cultural history of Weimar were identical with the plays and theories of Bertolt Brecht; the creations of the Bauhaus and the articles published by the Weltbühne. But there were a great many other individuals and groups at work, and Laqueur gives a full and vivid accounting of their ideas and activities. The realities of Weimar culture comprise the political right as well as the left, the universities as well as the literary intelligentsia (Publisher’s blurb)

Laqueur was born into a Jewish family in 1921 in Prussia. He emigrated to British-controlled Palestine in 1938, where he graduated from school then worked as a journalist till the mid-50s. In 1955 he moved to London, and then on to America where he became an American citizen and a leading writer on modern history and international affairs.

Laqueur is still going strong at the age of 96 and has had a prodigious career – his first book (a study of the Middle East) was published in 1956 and his most recent (a study of Putinism) was published in 2015.

This book is about twice the length of Peter Gay’s 1968 study of the culture of Weimar. It is more urbane and expansive in style, and less tied to a specific thesis. Gay’s aim was to show how, in a range of ways, the intelligentsia of Weimar failed to support, or actively sought to overthrow, the young German democracy.

The overall tendency of Laqueur’s book is the same – the failure of the arts and intelligentsia to support the Republic – but his account feels much more balanced and thorough.

Geography

I appreciated his description of the geography of post-war Germany and how it influenced its politics. It’s important to remember that, under the punitive Treaty of Versailles, Germany lost all her overseas colonies, 13% of her European territory and a tenth of her population (some 6 million people) who now found themselves living in foreign countries (France, Poland, the new state of Czechoslovakia).

Much more than France or Britain, Germany had (and still has) many cities outside the capital which have strong cultural traditions of their own – Hamburg, Munich, Leipzig, Dresden.

Laqueur emphasises the difference between the industrial north and west and more agricultural south and east. He points out that the cities never gave that much support to Nazism; on the eve of Hitler’s coup, only a third of Berliners voted for the Nazis. Nazism was more a product of the thousands of rural towns and villages of Germany – inhabited by non-urbanites easily persuaded that they hated corrupt city life, cosmopolitanism, rapacious capitalists, Jews, and the rest of the Nazi gallery of culprits.

The left

I benefited from his description of the thinkers based around the famous Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, founded in 1923. The aim of the Institute was to bring together Marxist thinkers, writers, philosophers in order to work on a cultural critique of capitalist society. The idea was to analyse literature, plays, the new form of cinema – to show how capitalism conditioned the manufacture and consumption of these cultural artefacts.

To us, today, this seems like an obvious project, but that’s because we live in a culture saturated with an analysis of culture. Newspapers, magazines, the internet, blogs, TV shows, books, university courses by the thousand offer analyses of plays, art, movies and so on in terms of their construction, hidden codes, gender stereotyping, narrative structures, and so on and so on. The Frankfurt School thinkers – men like Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin – more or less invented the language and approach to do this.

With Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, all these Marxist thinkers were forced into exile. Did they flee to the Workers’ Paradise of the Soviet Union? No. They may have been Marxists but they weren’t stupid. They fled to the epicentre of world capitalism, America. New York at first, but many passed on to California where, among the palm trees and swimming pools, they penned long disquisitions about how awful capitalism was.

What Laqueur brings out from a review of their different approaches is the complete impracticality of their subtle and sophisticated critiques of capitalist society, which were more or less ignored by the actual German Communist Party (the KPD). In fact it only slowly dawned on these clever men that the Communist Party merely carried out Moscow’s foreign policy demands and that clever, individualistic Marxist thinkers like them were more of a liability to its demands for unswerving obedience, than an asset. In the eyes of the Party:

Since they lacked close contact with the working class few of them had been able to escape the ideological confusion of the 1920s, and to advance from a petty-bourgeois, half-hearted affirmation of humanist values to a full, wholehearted identification with Marxism-Leninism. (p.272)

Their peers in the USSR were rounded up and executed during Stalin’s great purges of the 1930s. Life among the tennis courts of California was much nicer.

The right

Surprisingly, Laqueur shows that this political impractibility also goes for thinkers of the right, who he deals with at length in a chapter titled ‘Thunder from the Right’.

The right had, probably, a higher proportion of cranks than the left, but still included a number of powerful and coherent thinkers. Laqueur gives insightful pen portraits of some of the most significant figures:

  • Alfred Rosenberg the Nazi propagandist, thought that the Bolshevik revolution symbolised the uprising of racially inferior groups, led by the Asiatic Lenin and the Jew Trotsky, against the racially pure Aryan élite (the Romanov dynasty). Rosenberg wrote The Myth of the Twentieth Century (1930), the myth being ‘the myth of blood, which under the sign of the swastika unchains the racial world-revolution. It is the awakening of the race soul, which after long sleep victoriously ends the race chaos.’ Despite this feverish support for the Nazis, Laqueur points out that Hitler and the Nazi leaders didn’t bother to read this long work. Rosenberg was in fact, seen as ‘plodding, earnest, humourless,’ a figure of fun even on the right.
  • Oswald Spengler‘s famous tome The Decline of the West (1922) had been drafted as early as 1911, its aim being to describe the 19th century as a soulless age of materialism, which had led to rootless immoralism in the arts. According to Spengler history moves in enormous unavoidable cycles of birth and decay. The age of kings and emperors was over, a new age of mass society and machines was at hand. (Although Spengler attacked the Republic for being a business scam, he also had some hard words for the Nazis who in reply criticised him. But they let him live and he died a natural death, in 1936.)
  • Moeller van den Bruck wrote The Right of Young Peoples and The Third Reich, the latter arguing that the key to world history was the conflict between the new young nations (Germany, Russia, America) and the old imperial ones (Britain and France). He thought Germany’s leaders needed to adopt a form of state ‘socialism’ which would unite the nation in a new Reich, which would become a synthesis of everything which came before. Laqueur comments that van den Bruck’s two books are almost impenetrably obscure, but nonetheless full of high-sounding rhetoric, ‘poetic visions, enormous promises and apocalyptic forebodings’ (p.96). It is in this hyperbole which he represents the overwrought spirit of the times.
  • Edgar Jung was a leader of the Conservative Revolutionary movement who lobbied long and hard against the Weimar Republic, whose parliamentarian system he considered decadent and foreign-imposed. Jung became speech writer to the Vice-chancellor of the coalition cabinet, Franz von Papen. He wrote a 1934 speech which was fiercely critical of the Nazis for being fanatics who were upsetting the return to Christian values and ‘balance’ which is what he thought Germany required. With the result that Hitler had him arrested and executed on the Night of the Long Knives, at the end of June 1934.
  • Carl Schmitt was an eminent legal philosopher who developed a theory based around the centrality of the state. The state exists to protect its population, predominantly from aggression by other states. To function it has to be a co-ordinated community of interests. Liberalism undermines this by encouraging everyone to go their own way. Parliamentarianism is the (ineffectual) reflection of liberalism. The state exists to make firm, clear decisions (generally about foreign policy), the opposite of the endless talking-shop of parliaments. Schmitt was yet another ‘serious’ thinker who prepared the minds he influenced for the advent of a Führer. But what I enjoyed about Laqueur’s account is that he goes on to bring out nuances and subtleties in the positions of all these people. Despite being anti-parliamentarian and soundly right-wing, Schmitt wasn’t approved of by the Nazis because his theory of the strong state made no room for two key Nazi concepts, race and Volk. Also – like many right wing thinkers – his philosophy was temperamentally pessimistic – whereas the Nazis were resoundingly optimistic and required optimism from their followers.
  • Ludwig Klages was, after the Second World War, nominated for a Nobel Prize for his work in developing graphology, the study of handwriting. But during the 1920s he was a pessimist of global proportions and a violent anti-Semite. His key work was The Intellect as Adversary of the Soul (1929) which claims that the heart, the soul, the essence of man has been trapped and confined ever since the beastly Jews invented monotheism and morality, twin evils which they passed on to Christianity. His book was a long review of the way Western morality had trapped and chained the deep ‘soul of Man’. Although the work was ripe in rhetoric, fiercely anti-rational and anti-democratic in tone and purpose it was, once again, not particularly useful to the Nazis.

To summarise: There was a large cohort of eminent thinkers, writers, philosophers, historians, of intellectuals generally, who wrote long, deeply researched and persuasive attacks on liberalism and democracy. Laqueur’s account builds up into a devastating indictment of almost the entire intellectual class of the country.

But all these attacks on Weimar democracy begged the central question: What would become of individual freedom when there were no longer human rights, elections, political parties or a parliament? The answer was that many of these thinkers developed a notion of ‘freedom’ completely at odds with out modern, UN Declaration of Human Rights-era understanding of the term. But notions which came out of deep German traditions of philosophy and religion.

Spengler, for example, maintained that, despite its harsh outer discipline, Prussianism – an epitome of core German values – enabled a deeper, inner freedom: the freedom which comes from belonging to a unified nation, and being devoted to a cause.

Protestant theologians of the era, on the other hand, developed a notion that ‘freedom’ was no longer (and never had been) attached to the outdated, liberal concept of individual liberty (which was visibly failing in a visibly failing ‘democracy’ as the Weimar Republic tottered from one crisis to the next). No, a man could only be ‘free’ in a collective which had one focus and one share belief.

In numerous thinkers of the era, a political order higher than liberalism promised freedom, not to individual capitalists and cosmopolitans, but to an entire oppressed people. The Volk.

What emerges from Laqueur’s summary of Weimar’s right-wing thinkers is that they were responding to the failure of democratic politics in just as vehement a fashion as the Marxists. The main difference is that invoked a much more varied selection of interesting (often obscure, sometimes bonkers) ideas and sources (compared with the communists who tended to be confined, more or less, to slightly varying interpretations of Marx).

To summarise, common features of Weimar right-wing thinking included:

  • the favouring of German Kultur (profound, spiritual, rural, of the soil) against superficial French Zivilisation (superficial, decadent, urban)
  • a focus on deep cultural values – Innerlichkeit meaning wholesomeness, organic growth, rootedness
  • fierce opposition to the ‘ideas of 1918’:
    • political liberalism, social democracy, socialism, parliamentarianism
    • sexual lascivious dancing, jazz, nudity, immorality, abortion, divorce, pornography
    • cultural arts which focused on corruption and low moral values instead of raising the mind to emulate heroes
    • racial against foreigners, non-Germans, traitors and Jews

But just as the actual Communist Party didn’t think much of Weimar’s Communist intellectuals and were as likely to be repelled by avant-garde art as the staidest Berlin banker (as Stalin’s crack down on all the arts in favour of Socialist Realism was soon to show) – so Laqueur shows that the Nazis weren’t all that interested in most of the right-wing intellectuals, some of whom (as explained above) they even executed.

One of the themes which emerges from Laqueur’s long account of intellectuals of all stripes is that none of them seem to have grasped that politics is not about fancy ideas, but about power.

The Nazis had a far more astute grasp of the realities of power than the other right-wing leaders; they did not think highly of intellectuals as allies in the political struggle, and they made no efforts to win them over. (p.88)

The Nazis realised (like Lenin) that the intellectuals who supported them would rally to their cause once they’d won power; and that those who didn’t… could be killed. Simples.

The politically negative impact of the arts

As to the arts, Laqueur echoes Gay in thinking that every one of the left-wing plays and movies and pictures, all the scabrous articles by Kurt Tucholsky and the searing drawings of George Grosz – didn’t convert one conservative or bourgeois to the cause. Instead, their net effect was to alienate large sectors of the population from an urban, predominantly Berlin-based culture, a milieu which the conservative newspapers could all-too-easily depict as corrupt, decadent, immoral and unpatriotic.

Conservatives said: ‘Why do all paintings, plays, cabarets and movies seem to focus on criminals, prostitutes, grotesques and monsters? Why can’t artists portray ordinary decency and German virtues?’

Laqueur gives a long account of Weimar literature, the main thrust of which is that a) it was more varied than is remembered b) Thomas Mann was the leading writer. Indeed, Mann’s career, writings and changing political attitudes weave in and out of the whole text.

Weimar had possibly the most interesting theatre in the world with the innovations of Erwin Piscator standing out (projection of film onto the stage, facts, statistics, graphs; stylised stage sets; stage workings left exposed to view, and so on). But he, like the most famous playwright of the era, Bertolt Brecht, appealed ultimately to an intellectual, bourgeois audience (as they do today). There’s no evidence that ‘the workers’ saw many of these avant-garde plays. Instead ‘the workers’ were down the road watching the latest thriller at the cinema. Film was well-established as the populist art form of the era.

Art is much more international than literature or theatre, and Laqueuer makes the same point as Gay, that what we think of as Modern art was mostly a pre-war affair, with the Fauves, Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism all named and established by 1910, let alone 1914. In 1918 the survivors of these movements carried on, but Laqueur shows how the Expressionist impulse in all the arts – the harrowing sense of anguish, the apocalyptic visions, the strident imagery – was exhausted by 1923 or 4, and the more conservative, figurative (if still often stark and grotesque style) of Otto Dix and George Grosz was prevalent enough to be given its name of Neue Sachlichkeit well before the famous 1925 exhibition of that name.

Laqueur covers a lot more ground than Gay. There’s an entire chapter about German universities, which proceeds systematically through each of the subjects – sciences, arts, humanities, social studies and so on – explaining the major works of the era, describing the careers of key figures, putting them in the wider social and historical context. For example, art history emerges as a particular strong point of Weimar scholarship, from which America and Britain both benefited when Hitler came to power and all the art scholars fled abroad.

The main take home about universities is how shockingly right-wing the authorities and the students were, with plenty of learned scholars spending all their energy undermining the hated republic, and students forming all sorts of anti-Semitic and nationalist groups. I was genuinely surprised by this.

There’s a section on Weimar theology describing the thought of famous theologians such as Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann and the Jewish thinker Martin Buber. As so often throughout the book there is often a strong sense of déjà vu, as the reader realises that ideas first promulgated during the 1920s have, in essence, echoed down to the present day:

The religious socialists, best-known among them Paul Tillich, preached ‘socialism derived from faith’, attacking soulless capitalist society, the free market economy and the alienation of man in which it had resulted. (p.210)

This sounds like the more outspoken Anglican bishops since as far back as I can remember (the 1970s).

Comparisons with our time

In fact one of the book’s great appeals is the way it prompts the reader to stop and draw comparisons between the Weimar years and our own happy times. Here are some thought-provoking similarities:

  • The left was full of utopian dreams, often about advanced sexual morality (divorce and abortions in the 1920s, LBGT+ and trans people in our time), which alienated a good deal of broader conventional opinion from their cause.
  • The left was characterised then, as now, by bitter internecine fighting (in our time the splits in the Labour Party between Momentum+young people supporting Jeremy Corbyn against the Labour MPs and left-wing commentators [e.g. The Guardian] who bitterly opposed him). The net effect of all this in-fighting, then as now, was to leave the way clear for the right to take and hold power.
  • The Weimar left was overwhelmingly urban and educated and made the fundamental mistake of thinking everyone was like them and shared their values. But, now as then, the majority of the population does not have university degrees, nor live in big cities full of talk about ‘gender fluidity’ and ‘racial diversity’. This seems to be what took Vote Remain campaigners in the UK and Clinton campaigners in the US by surprise: the discovery that there are tens of millions of people who simply don’t share their views or values. At all.

Reading about: the obscene gap between rich and poor; the exploitation of workers; homelessness and dereliction; the in-fighting of the left; the irrelevance of the self-appointed avant-garde who made ‘revolutionary’ art, films, plays which were sponsored by and consumed by the bourgeois rich; while all the time the levers of power remained with bankers and financiers, huge business conglomerates and right-wing politicians — it’s hard not to feel that, although lots of surface things have changed, somehow, deep down, the same kind of structures and behaviours are with us still.

Reading the book tends to confirm John Gray’s opinion that, whereas you can definitely point to objective progress in the hard sciences, in the humanities – in philosophy, politics, art, literature and so on – things really just go round and round, with each new generation thinking it’s invented revolutionary politics or avant-garde art or subversive movies, just like the previous ones.

On a cultural level, has anything changed since the Weimar Republic produced Marxist culture critics, avant-garde movies, gay nightclubs, gender subversion and everyone was moaning about the useless government?

The peril of attacking liberal democracy

For me the central take-home message of both Gay and Laqueur’s books is that — If left wingers attack the imperfect bourgeois democracy they’ve got, the chances are that they won’t prepare the way for the kind of utopian revolution they yearn for. Chances are they will open the door to reactionaries who harness the votes and support of people which the left didn’t even know existed – the farmers and rural poor, the unemployed and petty bourgeoisie, the religious and culturally conservative – and lead to precisely the opposite of what the left hoped to achieve.

All across the developed world we are seeing this happening in our time: the left preaching utopian identity politics, supporting mass immigration and bickering among themselves – while the culturally and socially conservative right goes from strength to strength. I’m not saying there’s a direct comparison between Weimar Germany and now; I’m just pointing out that, reading this long and absorbing book, it was striking how many times the political or artistic rhetoric of the era sounded identical to the kind of thing we hear today, on both sides.

German values

Like Gay, Laqueur is German. Therefore his occasional, generally negative, comments about the German character are all the more noteworthy.

The esoteric language they [the members of the Frankfurt School for Social Research] used made their whole endeavour intelligible only to a small circle of like-minded people. This, incidentally, applied to most of the writings of the German neo-Marxists; the German language has an inbuilt tendency towards vagueness and lack of precision, and the Frankfurt School, to put it mildly, made no effort to overcome this drawback. (p.63)

The new trend [Modernism in all its forms] was in stark contrast to German innerlichkeit, wholesomeness, organic growth, rootedness. (p.85)

[Thomas Mann was] Weimar Germany’s greatest and certainly its most interesting writer. But he could not be its spokesman and teacher, magister Germaniae. For that function someone far less complex and much more single-minded was needed. With all his enormous gifts, he had the German talent of making easy things complicated and obvious matters tortuous and obscure. (p.124)

[The heroes of the most popular writers of the time, neither left wing nor modernist, not much known outside Germany] were inward-looking, mystics, men in search of god, obstinate fellows – modern Parsifals in quest of some unknown Holy Grail. They were preoccupied with moral conflicts and troubled consciences, they were inchoate and verbose at the same time, very German in their abstraction, their rootedness and sometimes in their dullness. (p.139)

Something that comes over very powerfully is that the Germans don’t appear to have a sense of humour. They have bitter sarcasm, biting satire and harsh irony – but lightness, wit, drollery? Apparently not.

[Before The Captain of Köpenick by Carl Zuckmayer] the German theatre had been notoriously weak in comedy. (p.152)

It is easy to think of many tragedies in the annals of German theatre and opera; the comedies which have survived can be counted on the fingers of one hand. There was no German operetta, not a single composer who could even remotely be compared to Johann Strauss or Offenbach, to Milloecker or Gilbert and Sullivan. (p.226)

Quite a few patriotic films dealing with heroic episodes of Prussian or German history were produced. Von Czerèpy’s Fridericus Rex, perhaps the first major film of this genre, was done so crudely, with such a total lack of humour, that it was acclaimed outside Germany on the mistaken assumption that it was anti-German propaganda. (p.231)

The absence during the 1920s of good comedies and adventure films helps to explain the tremendous popularity in Germany not only of Charlie Chaplin, but also of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and, later, Jackie Coogan. (p.243)

These are just a few examples, but Laqueur repeatedly describes the writers, thinkers, intellectuals and so on who he summarises as humourless, earnest, heavy and serious. I thought the notion of Germans being ponderous and humourless was a dubious stereotype, but reading this book goes a long way to confirming it.

The Weimar revival of the 1960s

In his final summary, Laqueur presents another very important piece of information, when he explains how and why the reputation of Weimar culture underwent a revival.

This, he says, happened in the 1960s. For 40 years the period had been forgotten or brushed aside as a shameful failure which preceded the Great Disaster. It was during the 1960s that societies across the Western world saw a swing to the left among intellectuals and the young, a movement which became known as the New Left.

It was as a result of this revival of interest in far left thought that much of Weimar’s experimental and left-wing achievements were revived, that saw an upsurge in interest in of Piscator’s modernist theatre stagings, Brecht’s theory of epic theatre, and the cultural Marxism of the Frankfurt School. This revival has never gone away. The Marxist theories of the Frankfurt School – a kind of communism-without-tears – has gone on to take over the thinking of most humanities departments in the Western world.

But, as Laqueur points out, the revival of interest in left wing and ‘radical’ thinkers, artists, writers of the period, systematically ignores both the conservative or right-wing thinkers of the period, as well as the middle ground of run-of-the-mill but popular playwrights, novelists or film-makers – the kind that most people read or went to the theatre to enjoy. These have all been consigned to oblivion so that in modern memory, only the radicals stand like brave heroes confronting the gathering darkness.

Laqueur argues that this has produced a fundamental distortion in our understanding of the period. Even the opinions of non-left-wing survivors from the Weimar years were ignored.

Thus Laqueur reports a conference in Germany about the Weimar achievement at which Golo Mann accused the Piscator theatre of being Salonkommunisten (the German equivalent of the English phrase ‘champagne socialists’), while Walter Mehring criticised Brecht’s Threepenny Opera for abetting Nazi propaganda by undermining the Republic. These kinds of criticisms from people who were there have been simply ignored by the generations of left-wing academics, students and bien-pensant theatre-goers and gallery visitors who have shaped the current Weimar myth.

The utopian left-wing 1960s sought for and boosted the thinkers and artists who they thought supported their own stance.

Just like Gay, Laqueur thinks that the latterday popularity of the novelist Hermann Hesse would have been inexplicable to those who lived through Weimar when he published most of his novels. Back then he was seen as an eccentric and peripheral figure, but in the 1960s he suddenly found himself hailed godfather of the hippy generation, and his books Steppenwolf, Siddhartha and Narcissus and Goldmund became bestsellers. In his final years Hesse was in fact driven to declare that his writings were being misinterpreted by the younger generation. But then, in 1962, he died and the hippies and their successors were free to interpret him according to their own needs and fantasies.

After the Second World War Bertolt Brecht’s plays and productions became the toast of champagne socialists everywhere.

The Bauhaus brand underwent a great efflorescence, the architects who had settled in America (particularly Mies van der Rohe) having a huge impact on American skyscraper design, while the works of Kandinsky and Klee were revived and made famous.

In the humanities, the Frankfurt School’s criticism of capitalist consumer culture fit perfectly with the beliefs of the ‘New Left’, as it came to be known in the 1960s. The obscure essays of Walter Benjamin were dusted off and are now included in all literature, culture and critical theory courses. (I was struck by how Benjamin was referenced in almost every one of the 14 essays in the book about Weimar Art I recently read, The New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic 1918-33. I wonder if you’re allowed to write an essay in a humanities subject which doesn’t mention Saint Walter.)

Laqueur’s point is that the New Left of the 1960s, which has gone on to find a permanent home in humanities departments of all universities, chose very selectively only those elements of Weimar culture which suited their own interests.

Right here, at the end of the book, we realise that Laquer has been making a sustained attempt to present a less politicised, a more factual and inclusive account of Weimar culture than has become popular in the academy – deliberately ranging over all the achievements in pretty much every sphere of cultural endeavour, whether left or right, popular or avant-garde, whether it had undergone a golden revival in the 1960s or slumped into complete obscurity – in order to present a complete picture.

Weimar: A Cultural History 1918-1933 is a big, rich, thorough, sensible and thought-provoking book, which prompts ideas not only about the vibrant, conflicted culture of its time, but about how the Weimar legacy has been appropriated and distorted by later generations.


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