The Roman Republic by Michael Crawford (second edition, 1992)

No, not the Michael Crawford, star of the 1970s TV series Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. His version of the Roman Republic would have been hilarious. “Ooooh, Brutus!”

No, this Michael Crawford is the English historian, born in 1939 and still with us, privately educated (like most classicists – St Paul’s and Oxford) who nonetheless takes a solidly socialist view of history. Page two of his preface states that:

I continue to believe that the principal reason for the destruction of Republican government at Rome was the neglect of the legitimate grievances of the population by the governing classes…

The use of ‘continue to believe’ implies that he valiantly persists in his views despite stiff opposition, an impression he goes on to compound by telling us, rather naively and over-earnestly:

…just as I continue to believe that a socialist framework offers the only eventual hope for the survival of our own world. (page vi)

‘Eventual’ is a funny choice of word and, like ‘continue’, hints at an embattled state of mind, of taking a heroic stand against a sea of opponents. (This is also an early indication of Crawford’s often idiosyncratic prose style and oblique way of describing important events.)

Crawford’s earnest socialism might have made sense in 1978 when the first edition of this book was published, but had gone out of style by 1992 when this second edition arrived – a year after the Soviet Union collapsed and the oppressed nations of Eastern Europe were freed from Russian tyranny. Mrs Thatcher had been stabbed in the back by her own MPs in late 1990 but it wasn’t until 1997 that John Major’s useless Conservative government was replaced by Tony Blair’s pazazzy New Labour – which proceeded to destroy forever the kind of socialism Crawford believed in, aligning the left with globalising neo-liberal economics, financial deregulation, public-private partnerships, university tuition fees and the galloping inequality which has brought us to our present happy situation.

Reading Crawford’s little preface makes me sad for all the good people who thought they could make the world a better place and have resoundingly failed. As a result, although the events he describes took place over 2,000 years ago, an air of forlornness hangs over the entire text.

The Roman Republic

It’s not a very good book. Crawford rushes. He squeezes too much information into gangling sentences or long paragraphs. Nothing is gone into in enough detail. Take this example:

Not altogether surprisingly, there were those in Carthage who did not regard the verdict of the First Punic War as final; the creation of an empire in Spain and the acquisition thereby of substantial military and financial resources were followed by Hannibal’s invasion of 218 (the Roman tradition attempted to make the entirely justified attack on Saguntum by Hannibal into the casus belli, in order to salve its conscience over the failure to respond effectively to the appeal by Saguntum to Rome). (p.50)

Bloody long sentence, isn’t it? And useless as factual exposition. With just a little bit more effort Crawford could have given us a separate sentence or two describing the establishment of the Carthaginian empire in Spain by Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar Barca, how Hannibal assumed the mantle of command when his father died in 228 BC, and how a series of clashes with the Romans eventually led the Carthaginians to conclude that the only way to solve the ‘Rome problem’ was a direct attack on Italy, which Hannibal launched in 218.

One more sentence could have explained the importance of the battle of Saguntum a lot more clearly. As it is Crawford devotes nearly 40 words to it but somehow manages to not only not explain what happened, but to make it more obscure than if he’d never mentioned it.

Most of Crawford’s book is like this: it contains plenty of facts but a) you can tell that a lot of context and explanation and details are missing, and b) it’s all told arsey-versey, meaning in a ‘wilfully confused and disorderly’ way.

Because I already know the outlines of the story from the other three histories of Rome I’ve read I am able to decipher Crawford’s clipped and contorted references, but it became very tiresome. He gives no sense of Hannibal’s campaign in Italy; he gives no sense of the civil war between Marius and Sulla; he gives no sense of why Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey) was such a spectacularly successful general; his account of Caesar’s command in Gaul is so brief as to be non-existent; his coverage of the Catiline conspiracy is risible; his explanation of Cicero’s exile is impenetrable unless you happen to already know the facts and issues; his mentions of Clodius give no sense at all of the street violence unleashed by his gangs or why it led to Pompey being awarded sole power to bring peace to the streets of Rome; and so on and so on. All this is mentioned but nowhere properly explained. As a narrative history of the Roman Republic, this book is rubbish.

The Fontana History of the Ancient World

This volume is the first part of The Fontana History of the Ancient World so maybe Crawford was given a specific period and a tight page limit and this explains the text’s cramped contortions. The book has just 200 pages into which to cram a history which theoretically covered 720 years from the legendary founding of Rome in 753 BC through to the rise of Octavian in the 30s. It also has to contain a timeline, four appendices, half a dozen maps, a list of further reading and 4 separate indices. Maybe that’s why it feels so rushed and superficial. But the lack of space doesn’t explain Crawford’s strange style and often crabbed and obscure way of trying to explain events. That’s just crap.

Schematic

If the book’s weakness is its lack of narrative depth or proper full explanation of events, its strongest parts are where it is most schematic – brief and pithy as a PowerPoint presentation. The chapter headings give a sense of this high-level, schematic approach:

  1. The sources
  2. Italy and Rome
  3. The Roman governing classes
  4. From Italian power to Mediterranean power
  5. The conquest of the East
  6. The consequences of empire – the governing classes
  7. The imperial power
  8. The consequences of empire – the governed
  9. Reform and revolution
  10. Rome and Italy
  11. The end of consensus
  12. The world turned upside down
  13. The embattled oligarchy
  14. The militant dynasts

Good titles, aren’t they? But each of these chapter is too short – 10 pages on the sources, 5 and a half on early Rome’s rise to eminence among the patchwork of Italian tribes, 8 and a half on the ruling class. And the same goes for the four appendices:

  1. The Roman assemblies
  2. The Roman army
  3. Equites
  4. The special commands

They look good but they are 3-and-a-half, one-and-a-half, two-and-a-half and one-and-a-half pages long, respectively. Too short, too allusive to explain anything properly.

Main themes

Crawford tell us his main idea is that the collapse of the Republic was caused by “the neglect of the legitimate grievances of the population by the governing classes” but already in the introduction he undermines his own thesis when he attributes the collapse to two other causes, both of which are more persuasive to me, namely:

1. “The failure to develop communal institutions for the maintenance of order” – when the Senate and the tribunes or popular assemblies fell out there was no institution or way to arbitrate the disputes. Together with the absence of any police force or independent judiciary, this meant whoever ruled the streets or led the biggest army could a) seize power, as in the civil war between Sulla and Marius in the 80s BC or b) more insidiously, create an atmosphere of lawlessness and hooliganism as created by Publius Clodius Pulcher in the 50s.

2. The mad competitiveness between very rich, very ambitious members of what Crawford, throughout the book refers to as the Roman ‘oligarchy’. (Oligarchy is defined as: ‘control by a small group of powerful people.’)

Crawford quotes Aristotle as saying that, so long as it remains united, an oligarchy is impossible to overthrow – but once members fall out with each other, then collapse can come very suddenly. In Crawford’s view, the collapse came about because of:

1. The wealth generated by the hugely expanded Roman empire was unprecedented and put unprecedented power for bribery and corruption into the hands of the super-rich.

2. The long periods for which eminent generals (Marius, Sulla, Lucullus, Pompey, Caesar) led their men created super-generals, super-leaders, whose rivalries involved entire armies, and, as per point 1, the Republic simply had no way to arbitrate between them (p.25).

In the last forty years of the Republic, the Senate found itself having to award more and more special commands to leading generals (Pompey received most) to allow them to deal with logistical or military problems which were too large, spread out over too long a time period or too far away, for the existing machinery of one-year consuls and regional governors to handle.

Thus Pompey was given a special command to deal with the ongoing pirate problem in 67, immediately followed by a special command to deal with the unending war against Mithridates VI in Asia. The growing reliance on special commands was symptomatic of how the institutions of the republic couldn’t cope with the challenge of running an empire.

Who was the Roman oligarchy?

So who were the “governing classes” which Crawford refers to in his introduction? Chapter 2 gives a pithy overview.

Soon after the overthrow of the monarchy in about 510 BC, the Roman ruling class decided to ensure they were never again ruled by the caprices of one man, so they took two steps:

1. they divided executive power between two officials, the consuls and

2. they had them elected, and for one year only – enough time to carry out official duties and for one military campaign season, then their time was up and someone else took over

Those seeking election generally had to have held more junior positions in what developed into a ladder or stepping stones of official positions. These offices of ‘magistracies’ evolved over the years but, given the human tendency to multiply bureaucracies, remained surprisingly few.

They were, in rising order of responsibility, the posts of quaestor, aedile and praetor. These positions were referred to collectively as the magistracies. This sequence of public offices was called the cursus honorum. Candidates for the magistracies had to canvas the people at annual hustings. They were elected by all adult males who had property enough to be included in the regular census carried out for this purpose which had originally been established to assign men to appropriate ranks in the citizen army.

Hence another elected post, that of censor, responsible for keeping the list of citizens a) eligible to vote and b) assigned to the appropriate rank in the army, up to date.

To be eligible to join the army a citizen needed to be a member of the assidui i.e. to achieve a basic property qualification (p.97). The assidui were divided into five classis or ranks, according to their assets, and it was the job of the censors to keep this list of citizens, their property and their ranking up to date.

The senate consisted of all the men who had previously held office as a magistrate. Senate derives from the Latin word senex which simply means old man, on the assumption that mature men who had held office gave good advice.

The single most important thing to grasp about Roman politics is that the senate did not make laws. It was a solely advisory body – although it arrogated to itself certain policies, specifically financial policy and military strategy. Anybody intending to create legislation was expected to consult the senate, which could and did hold extensive debates for and against legislation, suggesting amendments, improvements or that laws be rejected. But the senate didn’t actually pass the laws. It relied on the popular assemblies to propose and vote on actual laws.

Members of the same small group of families held magistracies and eminent positions in the state for hundreds of years. These were the patricians who monopolised the important magistracies and the various religious offices and half a dozen priesthoods (which were also elected).

The patricians distinguished themselves from the plebs or plebeians, who supposedly came from more recent, less ancient and venerable families. But within a century or so of the overthrow of the kings the plebs agitated to have a say for themselves, campaigns which eventually led to the creation of an assembly where the plebs could discuss their issues, the concilium plebis, and the creation of the post of tribune of the plebs. The tribune’s original function was to protect citizens from arbitrary actions by the (mostly patrician) magistrates. Over the years the number and powers of the tribunes slowly expanded.

In 342 BC the plebs broke through a glass ceiling and won the legal right to stand for the consulship  alongside patricians. The consequence was the growth of a mixed patrician-plebeian nobility because, by the 300s, the leading plebeian families were not at all common working people but had developed into a class of very wealthy families in their own right (‘the plebeian leadership was rich and ambitious’, p.28).

This mixed patrician-plebeian nobility is what Crawford means when he (frequently) refers to the ‘oligarchy’ (‘control by a small group of powerful people.’)

The history of the Roman republic is the history of the fierce rivalry between a relatively small number of men at the core of this patrician-plebeian oligarchy, as they were forced to express it through the channels of a) election to a magistracy b) success as a military commander c) success as governor of an overseas province.

It was a complicated and sensitive mechanism which, by its last century, was riddled with bribery and corruption and, as mentioned above, fierce competition between its members for power and status which repeatedly spilled over into street violence. In the final 50 years it escalated into armed rebellion and civil war between Roman legions loyal to rival Strong Men.

Roman flexibility

Although they went on about their legends and traditions, one of the most notable things about the Roman state and culture was their flexibility.

Constitutional flexibility As provinces were acquired and something like an empire came into being, the Roman oligarchy expanded the number of magistracies sitting under the consulship, increasing the number of quaestors and praetors i.e. they were flexible in adapting their constitution.

Cultural flexibility From about 200 BC onwards the Roman elite took an increasing interest in Greek art, architecture, literature and philosophy, and frankly copied it (as in the plays of Plautus and Terence), and slowly developed their own versions and distinct styles.

Citizen flexibility But both these aspects rested on the ancient Roman custom of incorporating peoples into their state. Thus the conquest of the many tribes of Italy by one city state didn’t result in their miserable subjugation, but by the carefully calibrated award of Roman citizenship to tribes and communities around the country. When Rome went on to conquer foreign lands (starting with Sicily in the 240s) she made no demands that the population change their religion, culture or laws – they simply had to offer up young men for the Roman army (p.74).

The openness of Rome to outsiders was one of the sources of her strength in Italy (p.78)

It was this ability to incorporate foreign lands, foreign peoples, the best of foreign cultures and even their gods and religions, which underpinned a thousand years of success.

The impact of empire on the Roman ruling class

It’s worth making the minor point that all the historians talk about Rome having an ’empire’ well before the end of the Republican period and before they had actual emperors. In the talismanic year 146 BC the Romans crushed Carthage in the west and Corinth in the East, thus confirming their hegemony over the Mediterranean. The defeat of Carthage handed over the latter’s territories in north Africa and Spain to Rome, and after Rome defeated the Achaean League in 146 BC she used Greece as a jumping off point for greater involvement in ‘Asia’ (modern day Turkey) and across the sea in Egypt.

An empire in fact well before it became an empire in name.

Extreme wealth

Crawford’s thesis is simple: the phenomenal wealth which could be extracted from these overseas territories (‘generals and governors abroad had almost limitless opportunities for illegitimate enrichment’, p.74), plus the prestige attached to military success and the public triumphs awarded to victorious generals, led to increasing disparities among the ruling elite: some became phenomenally rich and successful, others less so.

The enormous power wielded by Roman magistrates operating far from senatorial oversight led to grave abuses; the wealth acquired from office by some members of the oligarchy separated them spectacularly from the rest and enabled them to bribe their own way and that of other members of their family to further office. (p.84)

The conquest of the Greek East from 200 BC onwards provided ready access to Greek artistic and intellectual skills and techniques and to wealth on a staggering scale. (p.85)

He quotes the Roman saying that a provincial governor needed to screw not one but three fortunes out of his unfortunate subjects: one to repay the money he borrowed to pay his election expenses; one to bribe the jury at the trial for corruption he would inevitably face when he got back to Rome; and the third one for the traditional reason – to have the wherewithal to fund the conspicuously rich lifestyle demanded by his class (p.171), a particularly conspicuous example being the successful general Lucius Licinius Lucullus. By the 60s:

Provincial government not only provided men with wealth and connections on a scale unimagined a generation earlier; the great commands placed in their hands for a time almost regal power and led to their being showered with symbolic honours appropriate to that power. Here again Pompeius surpassed all his predecessors. (p.176)

So, as the first century BC progressed, at the very top of the Roman oligarchy, competition for the consulship, for governorship of a province or generalship of an army overseas, became increasingly fierce and bitter because the rewards became increasingly mind-boggling.

It was bitter rivalry about who would lead the Roman military campaign against Mithridates VI of Pontus in modern-day Turkey, which precipitated the civil war between Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla starting in 88 BC. It was failure to agree a mechanism whereby Caesar could lay down command of his army in Gaul and transition to being a consul in 49 which led to the civil war between Caesar and Pompey. It was the failure of the centuries-old institutions of the Republic to control and mediate the rivalry between these super-powerful men, and then between Octavian and Mark Antony after Caesar’s assassination, which led, after repeated collapses, to its complete replacement by the rule of one strong man.

Seen in this light, the domestic policies of the oligarchy throughout the 2nd century and into the 1st century, consisted of the oligarchy’s attempts to moderate and police itself, to hold this power in check. It had created a machine of awesome power which it could no longer control.

The decade 59 to 49 saw competition between the leading members of the oligarchy reach such an intensity that it destroyed the framework in which competition operated or had meaning. It burst out as the naked use of force. Might could only be met with might and could only lead to the triumph of one man only, Octavian.

The land problem

This much is maybe obvious. Crawford’s left-wing perspective comes out in his insistence that the ‘people’ played a leading role in the process. He claims they did this in two inter-related ways. First, was the land problem. In a nutshell, in the last 150 years of the republic the ordinary peasant farmer was driven off the land in ever-increasing numbers. The richest patricians relentlessly bought up land, exploiting the harsh money-lending and debt laws which penalised ordinary farmers.

This explains why there were so many attempts to redistribute land and to enact some form of debt relief over those 150 years. Take C. Laelius’s proposal in 140 that land be redistributed to the needy in order to raise them up to the property qualification required by recruitment into the army, thereby improving it, (p.91). Or Tiberius Gracchus’s proposals for redistributing land from the wealthy to the landless in 133. Crawford devotes a chapter to describing in detail the process of land appropriation by the rich and the various attempts by reformers to stem the tide (pages 94 to 106).

They mostly failed and the net result was the creation of huge estates (which came to be called latifundia) owned by very rich landowners, and the driving of hundreds of thousands of peasant farmers off the land and into the towns, where they created shanty towns and formed the mobs susceptible to popular rabble rousers.

Thus the rise of the super-rich not only destabilised their own class, the oligarchy, but indirectly contributed to the rise of the mob mentality which increasingly dominated Roman politics in the last 50 years of the republic.

The lynching of Tiberius Gracchus

Crawford goes along with all the other historians I’ve read who say that the public lynching of the reformer Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BC marked a turning point because for the first time laws, justice and deference gave way to brute violence. His younger brother was similarly massacred along with hundreds of his followers a decade later, but it was really the long and bitter Social War of the 90s which led directly into the civil war of the 80s, and to the appalling politically motivated murders commissioned by both Marius and Sulla, which made politicised street violence an accepted event.

A generation later, the street violence between the gangs led by Clodius and Milo destabilised politics throughout the 50s. And it was Mark Antony’s speech in the forum the day after Caesar’s assassination, displaying Caesar’s body and reading out his will, which roused the mob to a fury and to go off and torch the houses of the conspirators, thus driving them to flee from Rome, putting them on the back foot and guaranteeing that Antony and his group in the oligarchy would triumph.

The point is these successive outbreaks of constitutional collapse were partly enabled by the growth of a large class of urban proletariat, mobs of the unemployed or underemployed, former farmers driven off their land, embittered and ready for anything. It explains the appeal of Catalina’s vague promises to overthrow the entire state and start again to large numbers of the urban poor.

And we know from Cicero’s letters that even Octavian, who was to be the last man standing at the end of this series of ruinous civil wars, went out of his way to make himself liked by the mob.

In a sentence: the population displaced from the land and herded into the cities provided the raw material of aggrieved proles which the unprecedentedly powerful and homicidally competitive oligarchs were able to manipulate for their advantage.

Slavery

There was a third element: slavery. As conquest followed conquest in the 2nd century, as entire cities and peoples were conquered and some (not all) sold into slavery, there developed a tidal wave of slavery. This had two effects: one was that the economy didn’t need the peasant farmer any more; slaves could farm huge latifundia virtually for free. Second was a ratcheting up of the luxury living of the urban rich, and even the well-off middle classes, once their houses became full of slaves who did all kinds of work and services for free. The Roman historian Appian wrote:

‘So the powerful became very rich and slaves spread all over Italy.’ (quoted on page 102)

There was probably a third effect as well, which was the slave trade itself, which Crawford says really got going in the 140s i.e after the destruction of Carthage and Corinth. Easy to overlook the slaves and the simple fact that they created a vast amount of economic value for little overhead. The trade made slave traders very rich, but transformed the lives of Roman citizens of all but the lowest classes. (p.102).

‘When the Romans became rich after the destruction of Carthage and Corinth they used enormous numbers of slaves…’ (Roman historian Strabo quoted on page 131)

The growing use of slaves led to three slave wars or risings, in 135 to 132, 104 to 100, and 73 to 71. The Greek island of Delos became the centre of the slave trade in the eastern Mediterranean . It was said it could receive, sell and dispatch tens of thousands of slaves every day! (p.131).

Conclusion

This is a poor book, which I wouldn’t recommend to anyone. Its take-home message is straightforward: it is bad, sometimes fatal, to the peace and viability of a society to let some of its members become disproportionately rich or powerful. Extreme wealth not only corrupts individuals but destabilises entire societies. A largely ignored message still relevant to us inhabitants of the ‘advanced’ economies of the West.


Roman reviews

The State of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence by Martin Meredith (2005)

Meredith’s big book (770 pages) does what it says on the tin and tells the history of every African country from the run-up to independence, i.e. starting in the mid-1950s, to the time of writing, i.e. about 2004, covering half a century of tumultuous history. It’s a vast subject but Meredith’s book is an easy and pleasurable read. He writes a wonderfully clear, expressive prose which effortlessly conveys a huge amount of information and profiles countries, leaders and events with deceptive ease.

The narrative is chock-a-block with facts and dates, central figures and key events, but a handful of general principles emerge all too clearly.

Imperialism’s mistakenly long-term view

The colonial powers thought they were in it for the very long haul. As the Second World War ended, most thought the colonies they ruled wouldn’t be ready for independence for centuries, certainly not till the end of the twentieth century. This, in retrospect, was never viable. The idea that generations of natives would be happy to live out their entire lives as second class citizens, die, and hand on to their children who would themselves be content to live as second class citizens and so on indefinitely shows a poor grasp pf human nature.

Instead, as we know, the generation who came to maturity after the war insisted on independence now, in their own lifetimes.

Lack of provision

The fact that the colonial powers didn’t expect to hand over independence for a very long time goes some way to explaining why they made so little provision for education, political inclusion and other aspects of statehood. They didn’t think they needed to; they thought they had decades and decades to slowly, incrementally introduce the elements of a modern state, not least an extensive cohort of properly trained professional administrators, engineers, lawyers and so on.

Rush to independence

But instead of resigning themselves to waiting for decades or centuries, and inspired by the independence of India, Pakistan, Burma in 1948, native political leaders began lobbying hard for independence as soon as possible.

Independence became a shibboleth, an indicator of ideological purity, so that rival parties in colonial countries fell over themselves to demand it soon, sooner, soonest. You can see this at work in Congo where the conference called to discuss independence found itself being bounced into bringing the date ever forward, until it was set at barely 4 months after the conference ended (the first part of the conference ended in February 1960 and set the date of independence for June 30, 1960).

The mad scramble for independence, regardless of whether any of the conditions of statehood were actually in place, explains a lot of what came after.

A tiny educated elite

Thus when independence came, the educated and political class which clamoured for it was still small, a tiny elite (‘no more than about 3 per cent of the population’, p.169). This was to have important consequences. In fact it’s staggering to read Meredith explain just how ill-prepared African countries were to manage themselves. Most African societies were predominantly illiterate and innumerate. In all of black Africa, in the late 1950s as independence dawned, the entire population of 200 million produced 8,000 secondary school graduates. No more than 3% of children of secondary school age actually attended a school. Few new states had more than 200 students at university. In the former French colonies there were no universities at all. Hence the pitiful statistics about the handful of graduates available in countries like Congo or Angola at independence.

Utopian dreams of ‘independence’

Another fundamental fact was that no-one involved really understood what ‘independence’ meant or involved: what it actually took to run a) a functioning state b) a functioning economy.

The prophet of African independence, Ghanaian statesman Kwame Nkrumah, is quoted as stating that, once independence was granted, everything would flow from that i.e. freedom and prosperity for all; that once they had overthrown the colonial economy, they would create for themselves:

a veritable paradise of abundance and satisfaction (quoted on page 144)

You can tell from the phrasing that he has no idea what he’s talking about. Independence became identified, in every country, with everyone’s hopes and dreams, no matter how utopian. In David van Reybrouck’s history of the Congo, he describes how Congolese peasants and street people were led to believe that, at independence, they would all be given a big house like the Europeans lived in, with a free car and a rich white woman as a wife.

African socialism

Africa gained independence during the height of the Cold War. Many African leaders, such as Tanganyika’s Julius Nyerere, sought to distance themselves from both the capitalist West and the Soviet East, and hoped Africa could carve a middle way, a new way, an African way, but most were also swayed by the utopian rhetoric of socialism. As capitalism was associated with the (often brutal) rule of exploitative imperialists, it was no surprise that, given a choice, leaders rejected ‘capitalism’ for ‘socialism’ but socialism with African characteristics, African socialism. They thought rapid industrialisation of the kind carried out by Stalin in backward Russia, and just about to be carried out by Mao in backward China, would also provide a ‘great leap forward’ for backward Africa. Nkrumah declared:

‘Socialism is the only pattern that can within the shortest possible time bring the good life to the people.’ (quoted page 145)

Meredith quotes several leaders and thinkers who thought that ‘socialism’ was more in line with African traditions, in which there had been communal ownership of land, decisions were taken by consensus, in which members of tribes or kingdoms worked together, without an exploiting class severed from the mass of the population. In old Africa there hadn’t been the flagrant inequalities associated with white western capitalism, everyone was more equal.

You can see how the revival of African traditions, the rejection of white western capitalism, the promotion of new ways of doing things, the hope for a revolution in living standards, and socialist rhetoric about equality and wealth for all, were combined into a heady brew of nationalist and socialist slogans, posters, banners, speeches, books, announcements. In the mid-1960s African leaders and their liberal western supporters were brimful of optimism.

Economic reality

There were, unfortunately, quite a few problems with this millenarian vision, but the obvious one was economic: The majority of the population of most of Africa barely scraped a living by subsistence agriculture. In times of drought or conflict they starved, as their forefathers had. In fact Meredith gives a sober and bleak assessment of the economic state of Africa at independence in 1960:

Africa was the poorest, least developed region on earth. Its climate was harsh and unpredictable. Drought was a constant risk, bringing with it famine. Rainfall in half the continent was inadequate. African soil in many regions was thin, poor in nutrients, producing very poor yields. By far the majority of the population, over 80%, was engaged in subsistence farming, without access to even basic education or health care. Severe disease was common and the blight of tsetse fly, which spread sleeping sickness among animals as well as humans, prevented animals being reared or used as beasts of burden on a huge area exceeding 10 million square kilometers. Poverty and disease ensured death rates for children in Africa, in 1960, were the highest in the world and general life expectancy, at 39 years, was the lowest in the world.

The white colonists in all the colonies lived the life of Reilly only because they enjoyed the profit derived from the labour of huge numbers of African workers in plantations, fields and so on, slaving away to produce coffee, tea, rubber, groundnuts and other cash crops, which were gathered, processed, shipped abroad by companies set up and run by Europeans and on whose profits the Europeans lived their fabulous lifestyle, complete with big houses, swimming pools, chauffeur-driven cars, servants and maids and cooks.

That kind of lifestyle, by definition, was only available to a small minority who could benefit from the labour of a huge majority. When independence came, nothing changed in the economic realities of these countries. Instead two things happened:

1. White flight

The Europeans fled, taking their technical and administrative expertise with them. In the two examples I’ve been studying, Congo and Angola, the Belgians and the Portuguese fled in their entirety, leaving the mechanisms of the state but, much more importantly, the management of the economy, to people who had no idea how to do it. Hence, instead of a shangri-la of riches for all, newly independent countries more often than not, found themselves plunged into economic anarchy.

2. Failure of the post-independence elite to live up their promises

The small political/educated elite (a product of the imperialists’ failure to invest in education) found the task of ‘redistributing wealth’ in the socialist sense of the word completely beyond them. a) They found the task of keeping the economic and business models inherited from the Europeans very challenging and, even if they could, b) discovered that the kind of wealth the whites had enjoyed derived from the fact that they were a tiny minority exploiting the labour of an impoverished majority ie there could never be wealth for all.

It was very tempting, then, for the new leaders to abandon any thoughts of redistributing wealth and, instead, fight to keep it for themselves.

Arbitrary nature of African ‘countries’

The whole problem was exacerbated by one of the best known facts about Africa, which is that all the colonies had been arbitrarily carved out on abstract maps which completely cut across the sociological realities on the ground, ignoring the existence of traditional kingdoms or tribal or ethnic groupings.

Very often the imperialists, in their profound ignorance of peoples who lived in the ‘states’ they were creating, either:

  1. broke up homogeneous groupings into separate countries (such as the Bakongo who found themselves carved up between the French Congo, Belgian Congo and Portuguese Angola). ‘In all the new boundaries cut through some 190 cultural groups’ p.1)
  2. or forced together antagonistic groups, such as the rival kingdoms of Buganda and Bunyoro forced to coexist in Uganda or the profoundly different cultures, ethnic groups and religions of north and south Sudan forced into a very uneasy co-existence (p.2).

Secessions and civil wars

This simple fact explains the tendency for almost all the African colonies to experience civil wars, often long running and deeply destructive wars. Some of the wars resulted from two or more parties competing for power in a given state, such as the civil wars in Angola and Mozambique. Others took the form of secessionist movements where entire provinces and ethnic/tribal groups sought independence from a state they felt little or no attachment to, as in the attempt at secession of Biafra in Nigeria, and of Katanga in Congo.

The tendency of these made-up countries with their irrational borders bristling with rival groups to collapse into various types of secession, civil war and anarchy, quickly brought to the fore the only group which could hope to hold the state together, the army.

Inevitable failure of the first generation of independent leaders

So being handed often ridiculously unviable countries almost guaranteed that the idealistic, utopian, often socialist leaders who came to power in the first wave of independence in the early 1960s, would be confronted by a) the collapse of the economy b) the intensification of poverty leading to unrest c) fragmentation, secession and civil war, and so d) would be replaced by military strongmen who a) reimposed order through bloody repression, and b) grasping that the limited amount of wealth generated by their ailing economies would never be enough to lift their countrymen out of poverty c) quickly made the cynical but realistic decision to keep as much of the country’s wealth as possible for themselves and d) for their clients and supporters.

Net effect – military coups, strong men and kleptocracy

In a throwaway sentence, Meredith makes what I think is a major insight, possibly the central point:

The political arena became a contest for scarce resources. (p.156)

There very quickly emerged a dichotomy between the soaring rhetoric of African socialism and African nationalism and African unity on the one hand, and the sordid reality of strong men clambering to power via coups and revolutions, who saw the state not as a vehicle for governing in the best interests of the nation, but as a mechanism to steal as much wealth as they could for themselves, their clients, their hangers on, their clan and their tribe.

Hence unstable countries, characterised by recurring civil wars or civil strife, and recurrent military coups, almost always leading to the rule of Strong Men, Big Men, dictators of one sort or another, who quickly became kleptocrats i.e. stole from the state, creamed off international aid, lived lives of stunning luxury, while abandoning their people to lives of grinding poverty, often falling victim to the random violence of corrupt, generally unpaid, soldiers and police.

All the high-sounding rhetoric about African socialism gave way to a deeper African tradition, that of the chieftain, the king, the emperor, one-man ruler of a one-man state, who encouraged outsize personality cults, playing up the leader’s visionary, even magical, powers.

In practice it turned out that overwhelmingly illiterate populations put their faith not in sophisticated political theories or complex constitutional mechanisms, but in the Great Leader, the Helmsman: the Great Son of Africa, the Scourge of Imperialism, the Doctor of Revolutionary Science, as Sékou Touré, the autocratic ruler of Guinea, called himself (p.64), or the Man of Destiny, Star of Africa, His High Dedication of Redeemer which is how Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah lkiked his state-controlled media to refer to him – just two among the impressive cast of megalomaniacs, tyrants and dictators with which Africa has kept the rest of the world entertained for the past 60 years.

‘System? What system?’ retorted president Bourguiba, when asked about Tunisia’s political system. ‘I am the system!’ (p.169)

Summary

In some countries, such as Rwanda and Burundi, you can throw in vicious ethnic hatred and genocide; in some others, long wars eventually led to independence for seceding states (South Sudan, Eritrea). But the core narrative outlined above applies to most African countries since independence, explains their  troubled histories, and underpins the situation many find themselves in today. As Meredith comments, the odd, almost eerie, thing is how consistently almost all the African colonies followed the same pattern:

Although Africa is a continent of great diversity, African states have much in common, not only their origin as colonial territories, but the similar hazards and difficulties they have faced. Indeed, what is so striking about the fifty-year period since independence is the extent to which African states have suffered so many of the same misfortunes. (p.14)


Credit

The State of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence by Martin Meredith was published by The Free Press in 2005. All references are to the 2013 paperback edition.

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Another Day of Life by Ryszard Kapuściński (1976)

The image of war is not communicable – not by the pen, or the voice, or the camera. War is a reality only to those stuck in its bloody filthy insides. To others it is pages in a book, pictures on a screen, nothing more.
(Another Day of Life, page 108)

Ryszard Kapuściński

Ryszard Kapuściński (1932 to 2007) was a Polish journalist, photographer, poet and author. He received many awards and was at one point considered for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Kapuściński started working as a journalist soon after leaving Warsaw University in 1955. He was sent abroad and ended up developing an award-winning career as Poland’s leading foreign correspondent, working for the communist government-approved Polish Press Agency. By the end of his career, Kapuściński calculated that he had lived through twenty-seven revolutions and coups, been jailed 40 times and survived four death sentences.

In the 1960s developed a reputation for reporting from Africa, where he witnessed first-hand the end of the European colonial empires. But he was quite the globetrotter, reporting from central Asia in 1967, then from South America before moving to Mexico for a spell (1969 to 1972) and then returning to Poland.

In 1975 Kapuściński flew out to Angola to cover the chaos surrounding the country’s independence from Portugal after a long and bitter war for independence (1961 to 1974). He witnessed the wholesale flight of the country’s 300,000 Portuguese and the outbreak of civil war between the three largest independence movements: the MPLA based in the capital Luanda, the FNLA based in the north, and UNITA based in the rural east and south.

It was this trip and reporting which formed the basis for his first book, Another Day of Life, the first in a series of six or so book-length accounts of key coups and overthrows, which established his reputation in the English-speaking world (others in the series described the overthrow of Haile Selasse in Ethiopia and the Shah of Iran).

Another Day of Life

First things first, this is a very short book, weighing in at just 136 pages. It’s divided into five ‘parts’, topped and tailed by empty pages so it’s more like 120-something pages. So it feels both literally and content-wise a very light book. 123 pages of text.

This is reinforced by the almost complete absence of hard facts. Once you start reading, what becomes quickly obvious is that this isn’t traditional reporting. It doesn’t have the close description of actual events found in Fergal Keane’s book about Rwanda or the fact-heavy account by Daniel Metcalfe of his journeys through Angola. Both contained a lot of facts, dates, places, names. By contrast Kapuściński’s text has almost no dates, very few references to specific identifiable historical events.

And as for the names, there are named people in the text but they are suspiciously emblematic, idealised representations of the kinds of people you ought to find in the kinds of scenes he describes. They are often suspiciously like characters in a play, undergoing archetypal experiences such as you’d expect in a novel or play or movie rather than the ragged realities of life.

In fact by about page 30 I realised this is more like a fairy tale than either journalism or history. His stories are very pat, they fall just so, are very rounded and neat. They have the rounded perfection and the symbolic weight of allegory.

All this explains why you can read clean through the entire 136-page text and not be slowed down by a single fact. There are only two or three actual facts in the entire book. All the effects are literary and derive from his conceptualising of scenes as scenes, staged and arranged for literary effect.

Part one (25 pages)

In the first sentence he tells us he stayed in Angola for three months, in a room in the Hotel Tivoli. It is notable that he doesn’t say which months or the year, although after a few pages he mentions spending September there and we know he’s there I suppose we’re for the runup to independence ie September, October, November 1975.

Books of this sort always require eccentric neighbours so he supplies some, Don Silva a diamond merchant who has diamonds sewn into the lining of his suit but can’t leave town because his wife is in the final stages of terminal cancer and therefore deep in her deathbed.

Instead of facts, what Kapuściński conveys is mood and atmosphere. The stricken Silva’s are heavily symbolic of the entire white European culture which is coming to an end in Angola, rich but stricken and trapped.

Kapuściński describes the rumours circulating among the panicking Portuguese that the Holden Roberto’s guerrilla movement, the FNLA, has thousands of members hiding in the capital just waiting for the signal to attack the terrified whites and murder them in their beds. He describes everything as a novelist would:

Rumour exhausted everyone, plucked at nerves, took away the capacity to think. The city lived in an atmosphere of hysteria and trembled with dread. People didn’t know how to cope with the reality that surrounded them, how to interpret it, get used to it. Men gathered in the hotel corridors to hold councils of war. (p.6)

Because it is about panic-stricken people trapped in a city it reminds me a bit of The Plague by Albert Camus, but also because Kapuściński plays up the generic and allegorical aspects of the situation, as does Camus.

People escaped as if from an infectious disease, as if from pestilential air that can’t be seen but still inflicts death. Afterwards the wind blows and the sand drifts over the traces of the last survivor. (p.13)

Because it’s specifically about the slightly hysterical inhabitants of one building it reminds me of J.G. Ballard’s shocker High Rise (published the same year Angola’s independence cause the Great Flight).

You can tell almost immediately that Kapuściński’s prose is translated from another language. English is full of phrases and idioms. Very often all these get omitted by translators keen to translate the sense of the foreign text into smooth, untroubled English. Hence the rather rounded, smooth finish of the prose, which always plumps for the euphonious word and the mellifluous phrase. This is one of the reasons why reading Kapuściński is like eating ice cream in a nice restaurant. Smooth and pleasurable and flavoursome without any sharp angles or surprises.

Everybody was in a hurry, everybody was clearing out. Everyone was trying to catch the next plane to Europe, to America, to anywhere. Portuguese from all over Angola converged on Luanda. Caravans of automobiles loaded down with people and baggage arrived from the most distant parts of the country. The men were unshaven, the women tousled and rumpled, the children dirty and sleepy. (p.10)

He conveys the sense of bad-tempered bickering among the queues of hot impatient white refugees, with whites saying the country will go to the dogs once the blacks take over (as, indeed, it did), how they’ve worked here for forty years, given the best years of their lives etc etc. They argue about who should have priority onto the flights, pregnant women, women with babies, women with young children, women with children, women with no children, well, why not men, then? And so on.

He has an extended riff about crates, about how Luanda was transformed into a city of crates for people to pack their stuff into, big create, small crates, wide crates, narrow crates, crates for the wealthy, crates for the poor. In high allegorical style Kapuściński describes how the ‘city of stone’ (ie bricks and mortar, buildings, homes) was transformed into a city of wood (crates piled high in every direction. Then they were loaded onto ships and sent off into the blue.

Nowhere else in the world had I seen such a city, and I may never see anything like it again. It existed for months, and then it began suddenly disappearing. Or rather, quarter by quarter, it was taken on tricks to the port. Now it was spread out at the very edge of the sea, illuminated at night by harbour lanterns and the glare of lights on anchored ships. (p.17)

See what I mean by fairytale simplicity. Although it’s about a war and fighting and refugees somehow it  is told with the clarity and simplicity of a children’s story, or a certain kind of simplified science fiction story.

The nomad city without roofs and walls, the city of refugees around the airport, gradually vanished from the earth. At the same time the wooden city deserted Luanda and waited in the port for its long journey. Of all the cities on the bay, only the stone Luanda, ever more depopulated and superfluous, waited. (p.22)

See what I mean by ice cream? Kapuściński’s simplified, smoothed-out prose slips down a treat. Then he begins a new riff, based around the categories of basic worker who are leaving. First all the policemen leave, with a paragraph pondering what that means for a city. Then all the firemen leave, ditto. And then all the garbagemen. How do we know? Because very quickly the rubbish starts piling up in heaps. For some reason all the cats start dying. Luanda turns into an abandoned city from a science fiction story.

In a way what’s most interesting in this long enjoyable semi-fictional description is the absence of Africans. Kapuściński reports on a worldview in which, when the Europeans leave, Luanda is deserted. But of course, it wasn’t. Far more blacks lived in Luanda than whites. But they were confined to the black slums at the edge of the city, unknown slums renowned for their lawlessness and extreme poverty.

Two points. One: it is fascinating to enter, through this text, into a worldview of Africa where Africans are banished, invisible and don’t count even in their own country. Two: as a kind of spooky proof of this enormous conceptual divide, even after the whites have mostly left, the Africans don’t come pouring into the abandoned capital. They continue living in their slums even while properties throughout the city fall empty, while the nice, European part of the city become a ghost town.

Having just soaked myself in Dan Metcalfe’s travelogue of modern Angola which is, of course, populated almost entirely by black Angolans, it is striking, strange and mysterious to be taken back to the weeks of independence, not because of their political importance, but because they represented an enormous imaginative shift; from a capital city run by and for Europeans, to one which was inhabited, run by and for Africans.

Part two (11 pages)

Having watched the capital empty of its European owners, Kapuściński goes to be with the soldiers at the front, to the town of Caxito 60 km north of Luanda where MPLA forces have held off an attack by the FNLA.

Part two rotates around Commandante Ndozi of the MPLA, who explains the capital city is being threatened by the FNLA from the north and UNITA from the south. He has been fighting for a long time and Kapuściński portrays his experience through a sort of extended monologue in which Ndozi shares his experiences.

But the highlight of the little chapter, and one of the memorable moments of the book, is the insight into the way inexperienced soldiers fire so much and so loudly so as to drown out their own terror.

A green soldier fears everything. When he is transported to the front, he thinks death is watching him on every side. Every shot is aimed at him. He doesn’t know how to judge the range or direction of fire, so he shoots anywhere, as long as he can shoot a lot without stopping. He is not hurting the enemy, he is killing his own terror. (p.32)

This segues into a description of the MPLA commissar attached to the unit, Commandante Ju-Ju. Despite his name Ju-Ju is a white Angolan. Kapuściński explains that the way to be white and part of The Struggle is to have a beard, the bigger the better. Then the soldiers will call you camarada and assume you are someone important.

Kapuściński watches Ju-Ju politely question FNLA soldiers the MPLA captured. What comes over is how young, uneducated, illiterate and simple they are. A man of the Bakongo people explains that he, like many of his tribe, was pressganged in Kinshasa by Joseph Mobutu’s soldiers, then packed off to join the FNLA. He liked in the FNLA because they gave you something to eat, goat and rice during the week and beer on Saturdays. Better than starving. Another prisoner looks about 12, claims he’s sixteen, and explains that he was told that if he went to the front as a fighter, they’d let him go to school, which is what he really wants to do, so he can become an artist.

Walking round the little town Kapuściński comes to the compound where the 120 or so prisoners are being watched over by a dozen armed guards. They’re all very young men and they’re engaged in a good natured argument about football, as young men everywhere ought to be. Only these men are going to continue fighting and dying. (We modern readers know they would continue fighting and dying for another 27 years. It’s just as well we can’t see the future, isn’t it?)

Part three (18 pages)

Having visited the north, he wants to head south. A digression on the management of roadblocks, which are everywhere. There are 3 phases to the roadblock:

  1. the explanatory section
  2. bargaining
  3. friendly conversation

From a distance you can’t be sure which side is manning the roadblock. Since none of the 3 forces have regular uniforms but ragged combinations of whatever they’ve been able to purloin, it’s difficult to tell. If you hail the soldiers as camarada! and they belong to Agostinho Neto’s MPLA they will hail back. But if they belong to the FNLA or UNITA who prefer to call each other irmão or brother, then they’ll kill you. You need the right papers but it also helps if you take time to chat. Kapuściński gives an example of how he likes to distract the soldiers by telling them about Poland, basic facts which the mostly illiterate soldiery refuse to believe.

He travels all the way south to Benguela, through countless checkpoints, perfecting his essay on the metaphysics of the checkpoint.

There’s a passage which told me more about the physical terrain of Angola than anything in the Metcalfe book, which really brings out how hot and barren and dusty the landscape is.

The road from Luanda to Benguela passes through six hundred kilometers of desert terrain, flat and nondescript. A haphazard medley of stones, frumpy dry bushes, dirty sand, and broken road signs creates a grey and incoherent landscape. In the rain season the clouds churn right above the ground here, showers drag on for hours and there is so little light in the air that day might as well not exist, only dusk and night. Even during heat waves, despite the excess of sun, the countryside resembles dry, burnt-out ruins: It is ashy, dead, and unsettling. People who must travel through here make haste in order to get the frightening vacancy behind them and arrive with relief at their destination, the oasis, as quickly as possible. Luanda is an oasis and Benguela is an oasis in this desert that stretches all along the coast of Angola. (p.53)

Paints a vivid picture, doesn’t he? He finds Benguela even more deserted than Luanda and reflects on the strangeness of the way the blacks haven’t moved into the empty houses and flats abandoned by the whites.

Because it didn’t actually happen while he was there this enormous shift in imaginative possibilities is nowhere directly addressed, but it peeps out from cracks in the narrative.

Kapuściński meets Commandante Monti a white man who is MPLA commander here in Benguela. While he’s waiting to talk to the commandante, a four-man TV crew from Portugal arrives (p.55). They start squabbling about whether to proceed to the front or not. It’s dangerous. But then Monti assigns them an escort, the 20-year-old woman fighter, Carlotta.

Kapuściński is funny and shrewd about the way the Portuguese immediately start vying for her affections but, more than that, the way all five of them conspire to create a kind of collective myth about her, all conspiring to find her attractive and romantic and glamorous. Later on, Kapuściński develops the photos he took of her and realises she isn’t at all attractive. But at that time and that place they needed her to be.

In this slightly delirious mood, they agree when Commandante Monti rustles up a couple of civilian cars for them to be driven the 160 kilometers to the frontline town of Balombo. Through the landscape of war: a damaged bridge, a burned-out village, an empty town, abandoned tobacco plantations.

They arrive at Balombo, a village in the jungle which was taken by 100 MPLA only that morning. Almost all the ‘troops’ are 16 to 18, high school kids. The boys are driving an abandoned tractor up and down the high street. The camera crew film, Kapuściński takes photographs. The sun falls and they get impatient to get away. The jungle comes right up to the houses. The enemy could counter-attack at any moment.

As they climb into the waiting cars to drive them the 160km back to Benguela, all five foreigners remember it was exactly the moment when the driver put the car in gear that Carlotta decided she must stay with the fighters and gets out. Sad goodbye and they roar off into the deepening twilight.

Later they learn that UNITA counter-attacked, took the town and Carlotta was killed. Tough guy sentimentalism not a million miles from Hemingway. They insist they hadn’t been fleeing fighting, there wasn’t any fighting when they left. But if they’d heard gunshots would they have been brave enough to turn round etc?

So there probably is a village called Balombo and it probably was taken by the MPLA then retaken by UNITA and maybe there was someone called Carlotta, but the factual basis of the story has been rounded out, perfected in order to become allegorical, a symbol of the collective male delusions involved in war, and a sentimental tear for its sadness and waste.

Part four (23 pages)

Next day Kapuściński watches the plane carrying the camera crew fly out heading for Portugal. There happens to another small plane at the airport, but this one is heading south to collect a last bunch of white refugees from Lubango, which also happens to be base to the southern command of the MPLA. On an impulse Kapuściński blags his way onto the flight. Having landed, he moves through the desperate white refugees and finds someone who can take him to MPLA HQ. The man in charge is an Angolan white, Nelson, who scribbles Kapuściński a pass for the front and pushes him out the front door where a big, knackered old Mercedes lorry piled with ammunition and six soldiers is about to set off on the long drive south. Kapuściński crams into the cab and off they rumble.

The leader of the little troop, improbably named Diogenes, explains to Kapuściński that they are driving 410km south to the town of Pereira d’Eça, the MPLA’s most remote outpost. They hold the towns but the entire countryside is in the hands of UNITA who may attack at any moment. They have ambushed all previous convoys and killed the troops. Kapuściński conveys the enormous sterility of the Angolan desert very vividly, in fact I remember his invocation of the country more than the people.

Time is passing, but we seem to be stuck in place. Constantly the same glimmering seam of asphalt laid on laid on the loose red earth. Constantly the same faded, cracked wall of bush. The same blinding white sky. The same emptiness of a deserted world, an emptiness that betrays life neither by movement nor by voice. Our truck wobbles and rolls through this unmoving, dead landscape like a small tin car in the depths of a carnival shooting gallery. The owner turns the crank and the toy, stamped out of tin, bucks from side to side, and whoever wants to take a shot is welcome. (p.71)

You can see why the literary reviewers of the time compared him to Graham Greene or V.S. Naipaul the two British writers of the 1970s most associated with exotic settings and colonial conflicts. The text is packed with evocative literary descriptions like this.

After a long day’s drive of nail-biting stress, expecting bullets to fly at every bend in the road, they arrive at the dusty abandoned settlement of Pereira d’Eça which is run by Commandante Farrusco (another white Angolan). They are welcomed. The sun sets. They meet the commandante. Food, cigarettes, conversation. Backstory on Farrusco who during the independence war fought in a Portuguese commando unit, but on the outbreak of hostilities between the three independence armies, volunteered for the MPLA and showed them how to take Lubango and Pereira d’Eça.

Then there is one of Kapuściński’s highly finished, semi-symbolic incidents. A dishevelled man is brought in by the troops to face the Commandante. He is a Portuguese named Humberto Dos Angos de Freitas Quental. He fled with his wife and four children to Windhoek, capital of Namibia to the south. But his 81-year-old mother refused to leave. She is deaf and has run the town bakery time out of mind. All she told him was to come back with some flour, which is running low. So having settled his family in Windhoek, against his better judgement, the man returned with a carful of bags of flower and was picked up by the MPLA troops.

But he has something very important to say. In Windhoek and a couple of settlements on the road in Namibia, everyone is saying the South Africans are about to launch an attack into southern Angola in support of UNITA. Kapuściński realises this is Big News and asks Farrusco for help getting back to Luanda so he can file his story. But nothing moves along the road at night. He has to stay.

Next morning he is up and in a different vehicle, a Toyota being driven by 16-year-old Antonio, along with the Commandante, heading back along the 400km road to Lubango. En route the commandante explains a basic fact about the war which is that the territory is so vast and the number of troops in it so pitifully small that it is like no conventional war. There is nothing like a ‘front’.

On any road, at any place, there can be a ‘front’. You can travel the whole country and come back alive, or you can die a meter from where you’re standing. There are no principles, no methods. Everything comes down to luck and happenstance. (p.83)

Again, you have the feeling of an allegorical, metaphysical force behind these words, spoken by a character in a kind of modern version of Pilgrim’s Progress, with Kapuściński as Pilgrim, stumbling through panic-stricken cities, empty towns and the wide stony desert.

In a new section Kapuściński and the reader are rudely awakened by banging. He made it to Lubango safe and sound and slept in the building commandeered by Commandante Nelson. Now he’s being woken in the early hours because Nelson is going to be driven by his aide Manuel and whiskey-swilling colleague Commandante Bota, all the way back to Benguela. Only catch is there’s some kind of battle going on somewhere on the road.

Sure enough, a few hours later they start to hear bangs as of mortars, then some kind of grenade goes off raining shrapnel on the car roof. As the slow to avoid a parked lorry a soldier leaps out in front of them. He is MPLA and terrified. He tells them UNITA have them surrounded and he needs gasoline to fuel the vehicles to make an assault. Nelson tells him they have none to spare, to get some from the nearest town and then – heartlessly – Manuel the aide steps on the gas and they accelerate through the firefight, such as it is, seeing tracer bullets flying through the night sky. Then the road dips between walls of earth where there’s no firing and they encounter two young black soldiers who are running away from the fighting. They stop and Commandante Nelson tells them sternly to return. But he and Manuel and Kapuściński drive on.

As dawn rises they reach the town of Quilengues which is eerily, surreally empty, not only of humans but any form of life. They tiptoe through the town to make sure there’s no enemy soldiers, no sudden ambush. And then, suddenly confident, Commandante Nelson announces, “Another day of life” and starts to do a round of vigorous callisthenics!

Part five (46 pages)

The fifth part is by far the longest. After his adventures our hero is back in Luanda, in familiar room 47 in the Hotel Tivoli. After a night of feverish dreams he wakes determined to phone or telex his Big News Story about an impending South African invasion of southern Angola through to his employers in the Polish Press Agency. After days of intense travel he feels delirious and has a metaphysical moment:

I looked at the calendar, because I no longer had a feeling for time, which means that time had lost all sense of division for me, all measurability, it had fallen apart, it had oozed out like a dense tropical exhalation. Concrete time had ceased to signify anything and for a long while now the fact that it was Wednesday or Friday, the tenth of the twentieth, eight in the morning or two in the afternoon, had meant nothing to me. Life had propelled me from event to event in an undefined process directed towards an unseen goal. I knew only that I wanted to be here until the end, regardless of when it came, or how. (p.94)

Then he shakes himself and gives us one of those rarities in a Kapuściński narrative, namely a specific concrete fact. It is, he tells us, Saturday 18 October 1975. Four weeks before the date set for independence.

One of the hotel staff gives him a number to call. Secretive voices answer and switch to Spanish. They come round to his room, a big black guy and a stocky white guy, and reveal they are military ‘advisers’ from Cuba, sent to train the army, only they can’t find an army, only small units scattered over a wide area. Kapuściński tells them what he’s heard about the South Africans being about to launch an invasion, and they mull over the scenarios, then leave.

He tells us about Operation Orange which was South Africa’s plan to mount a three-pronged attack on the MPLA designed to seize Luanda by 6pm on 10 November i.e. the day before independence, in order to announce a western-friendly joint government by UNITA-FNLA. He describes how Commandante Farrusco drove south towards the border, until he suddenly encounters the South African column which opens fire, badly wounding him, his driver reverses and drives like a madman back to Pereira d’Eça.

Meanwhile, back in Luanda Kapuściński describes the weird atmosphere in the big empty city, abandoned by its European owners, as the stayers-on hear the sound of artillery fire from the north and  FNLA leaflets are dropped from a plane announcing Holden Roberto will be in the city centre in 24 hours.

He walks to the offices of a local newspaper where the journos tell him that all the FNLA forces, five battalions from Zaire plus mercenaries are attacking from the north. One of the reasons this last part is longest is because Kapuściński includes the texts of telex conversations he has with his managers back in Poland, as they offer to fly him out, he insists on staying but warns communications may be cut at any minute, no-one knows what is happening, anything might happen.

Kapuściński sardonically counterpoints the ‘grand plans, global strategies’ (p.108) he hears on radio discussions – call in the UN, convene a conference, get the Arabs to pay, get behind Vorster the leader of South Africa etc etc – and the cruder reality on the ground. For example the way, in the absence of working radio, one of the few people with any idea what’s going on is Ruiz who flies a beaten up old two-engine DC3 to various MPLA-held points of the country, dropping supplies picking up news and gossip.

He is woken in the middle of the night and has a fearful presentiment that it is the FNLA come to arrest him as a spy. In the event it is Commandante Nelson, along with Bota and Manuel, filthy and hungry and exhausted after a long drive from their southern outpost. They tell him the South Africans have rolled up all the MPLA’s southern positions and are at Benguela, 540km to the south.

Then the format of the text changes to diary entries for the last key week leading up to independence, a day-by-day account of life in Luanda starting on Monday 3 November 1975.

Monday 3 November 1975

The Cubans pick him up and drive him to the front line just beyond the city limits. Earlier in the book Kapuściński had a whole passage about the etiquette of roadblocks and checkpoints, the sussing out, the demand for papers, the drawn-out negotiations, the attempts to extort money of cigarettes. But all the Cubans have to do is say “Cubano” and they are waved through as though they have magic powers.

Kapuściński surveys the landscape all the way to the enemy lines. A message is brought to the Cuban that Benguela has fallen, all the Cubans there were killed. He sees lorries full of Portuguese troops. They have lost all discipline, have no belts, beards, they sell their rations on the black market and loot houses, packing everything into crates. They are scheduled to leave the day before independence and have nothing to lose.

Ruiz the pilot of the only plane the MPLA possesses flies south carrying sappers and explosives to blow the bridge over the Cuvo River which will cut the road between Benguela and Luanda. That night Kapuściński telexes Polish Radio the news.

Tuesday 4 November

Kapuściński is woken along with all the other guests and the hotel manager, Oscar, by armed men, who claim they are infiltrators, fifth columnists. They are sweating and tense and might shoot at any moment. While they wait for transport to take their prisoners away the MPLA press attaché arrives and sends them packing. Kapuściński clearly enjoys privileged status.

It is nowhere stated but I wonder how much this was because he was with the official press agency of an Eastern Bloc country, Poland i.e. a country controlled by the Soviet Union which the Marxist-Leninist MPLA needed as a backer for its attempts to become the new government.

A week earlier he had gone with four other journalists to the town of Lucala 400km east of Luanda which had recently been recaptured from the FNLA. The road to the town was strewn with corpses. The FNLA killed everyone and then decapitated or eviscerated them. Women’s heads littered along the road. Bodies with liver and heart cut out. Cannibals. Drunken cannibals. Hence the panic-fear in Luanda a week later that these are the people threatening to take the city by storm.

Wednesday 5 November 1975

A friend of a friend drives him to Luanda airport. It is almost abandoned and covered in litter and detritus, the wreck left by the hundreds of thousands of Portuguese who have fled. The friend, Gilberto, takes him up the control tower. And as they watch a pinprick of light appears in the dark sky and grows larger. then three more. Minutes later four planes land, taxi to a halt in front of the control tower and disgorge their passengers – scores of Cuban soldiers, battle-ready in their combat fatigues. Next day they are despatched to the front. Lucky Kapuściński happened to be there right at that moment. Or is it another one of his embellished, polished, symbolic fictions?

Right here at the end of the book he makes what is maybe a subtle self defence. He describes the challenges facing any journalist sent by their editor to Luanda and told to report on the fighting: the government will tell him nothing; the MPLA press office stays silent; he can’t get to any front because Luanda is a closed city and he is turned back at the first checkpoint; rumour is rife but there is no radio or any other communication with any part of the country. Brick wall. Hence the temptation to write the story his editors want to hear.

At this point he gives a page and a half long definition of the concept of confusão being a specially Portuguese notion of impenetrable, causeless, fruitless chaos, a handy explanation for all life’s screw-ups. Daniel Metcalfe liked this concept and explanation so much he quotes it in its entirety in his book about Angola written forty years later. Maybe every nation, or culture, has its own distinctive form of confusão.

Monday 10 November 1975

On Monday the last of the Portuguese garrison sailed away, ending nearly 500 years of Portuguese occupation. There is no love lost with the locals who look forward to freedom, but Kapuściński became friendly with some of the officers who he thought behaved with professionalism and courtesy. He notes that they at no point threatened the Cuban military advisers who, after all, were flying in to what was still Portuguese territory.

That night a lorry goes round Luanda removing all statues of Portuguese from their plinths, goodbye to the sailors and geographers and soldiers and administrators and kings, goodbye.

Tuesday 11 November 1975

At midnight it becomes Tuesday, independence day after 500 years of oppression. Kapuściński is with the big crowd assembled in Luanda’s central square. A handful of international dignitaries had flown in for the ceremony, not many because there were rumours one or other of the attacking forces would bomb the airport therefore making departure impossible. MPLA leader and Angola’s new president, Agostinho Neto, makes a short speech then the lights are put out for fear of air raids.

Kapuściński sends a dispatch back to Poland explaining that the FNLA and UNITA have come to a deal and declared their own independent government of Angola to be based at the inland city of Huambo.

He hops a lift with Ruiz and flies down to the southern front at Porto Amboim on the Cuvo River where the bridge has been blown up, leaving South Africa armoured units on the south side and MPLA bolstered by an ever-increasing number of Cubans on the north side. He investigates the front in a downpour of rain. Troops are leading women and children who’ve crossed the river from the south in search of food. That night he flies back in a plane carrying soldiers wounded in a firefight further up the river.

In one of his last dispatches to Warsaw he says the nature of the war has significantly changed in his time there. To begin with it was a conflict of pinpricks without a formal front, as explained by Commandante Farrusco. But the incursion of the South Africans changed that. They have armoured vehicles, artillery and good military discipline. They expect to fight battles. On the other side the MPLA army has been feverishly recruiting and is being whipped into shape by significant numbers of battle-hardened Cuban officers and trainers. In three short months it’s gone from being a desultory guerrilla  conflict to something much more like a conventional war.

He asks to come home. He’s shattered. His managers agree. He says his goodbyes, most notably to the new president, Agostinho Neto who, we learn at this late stage in the day, Kapuściński knows well enough to pop in on. Neto is, among many other things, a poet, and Kapuściński can quote some of his poetry by heart. They sit in the president’s book-lined room chatting. Friends in high places.

Next day he flies back to Europe, itself awash with troops and frozen in a Cold War which was to divide the continent from 1945 to 1990.

Coda

There’s a two-page coda dated 27 March 1976 i.e. four months later. He reports that the last South African units have left Angola, crossing a bridge over the Cunene River where they were reviewed by the South African Defence Minister Piet Botha. Kapuściński writes as if the war is over.

We, now, 45 years later, know that it was only just beginning. There were to be 26 more years of civil war in Angola, leaving 800,000 killed, 4 million displaced, and nearly 70,000 Angolans amputees as a result of the millions and millions of land mines planted throughout the land. Well done, everyone. Bem feito, camaradas.

Thoughts

No doubt most of this did happen. The big picture stuff certainly. Probably most of Kapuściński’s excursions also, yes. But the way he shapes the material, turning the ordinary ramshackle events of life into symbolic moments, turning ugly, stupid or drunk people into Emblems of War – this is all done with the artistry of the imaginative writer, the novelist or playwright. He paces his scenes so as to create maximum impact, giving his characters wonderfully lucid and meaningful dialogue to speak, and punctuating the narrative with profound asides about the nature not only of war, but of time, the imagination, fear and compassion.

At first sight only a skimpy 126 or so pages long, this book nevertheless packs a range of profound punches to the imagination and intellect.

Map of Kapuściński’s Angola

Locations mentioned in Another Day of Life in the order they appear in the text.

  1. Luanda – capital of Angola
  2. Caxito – 60km north of Luanda where MPLA forces have held off an attack by the FNLA
  3. Benguela – 540km south of Luanda, to the MPLA garrison run by Commandante Monti, where he hooks up with the Portuguese TV crew and Carlotta before driving on to…
  4. Balombo – the recently taken town where Carlotta is killed
  5. Lubango – where Kapuściński cadges a flight to, base of the southern command of the MPLA run by Commandante Nelson; and then further south to…
  6. Pereira d’Eça – (subsequently renamed Ondjiva, which is how it appears on this map) the MPLA’s most remote outpost, run by Commandante Farrusco
  7. Quilengues – the deserted town they arrive at having run the gauntlet from Lubango, where Commandante Nelson utters the sentence which gives the book its title and then does his callisthenics
  8. Lucala – town 400km east of Luanda where he sees evidence of FNLA cannibalism
  9. Huambo – city 600km south east of Luanda where the FNLA and UNITA set up their rival government to the MPLA
  10. Porto Amboim – where he hitches a ride to in Ruiz’s plane, 260km south of Luanda to the new southern front, to see the South Africans hunkered down on the other side of the Cuvo River
  11. Chitado – the crossing over the Cunene River where South African troops exit Angola at the end of the narrative

Map of Angola showing locations referred to in the text. Source map © Nations Online Project


Credit

Jeszcze dzień życia by Ryszard Kapuściński was published in Polish in 1976. It was translated into English as Another Day of Life in 1987. All references are to the 1987 Pan paperback edition.

Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions and memoirs set wholly or partly in Africa

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Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism by Michael Ignatieff (1993) – 2

As I’ve discovered in Croatia and Serbia, the four-wheel drive is the vehicle of preference for the war zones of the post-Cold War world. It has become the chariot of choice for the warlords who rule the checkpoints and the command posts of the factions, gangs, guerrilla armies, tribes that are fighting over the bones of the nation in the 1990s. (p.139)

In 1993 Michael Ignatieff was commissioned by the BBC to make a TV series in which he investigated what was already being heralded as the rise of a new kind of virulent nationalism following the end of Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union. With this aim he and his TV crew travelled to Croatia and Serbia, to recently reunified Germany, to Ukraine, Quebec, Kurdistan, and Northern Ireland. Each location produced an episode of the TV series and a chapter of this book.

Ignatieff introduces autobiographical elements into his text. We learn that he has personal links with Ukraine (where his Russian great-grandfather bought a farm), Quebec (his grandparents emigrated to Canada where he spent his boyhood), Yugoslavia (where his father was posted as a diplomat and Ignatieff appears to have spent 2 years as a teenager), Germany (where he has also lived) and Northern Ireland, because he had lived and worked in London through the later 1980s and 1990s, and Ulster was (and is) the UK’s biggest nationalist problem.

But the autobiographical elements are always dignified and restrained (for example, the moving and evocative descriptions of his great-grandfather’s long-ruined house in the Ukraine). More importantly, they always serve a purpose. They are chosen to bring out the broader political, sociological or historical points which he wants to make.

1. Croatia and Serbia

The key point about the wars in the former Yugoslavia is that, despite lingering memories of the brutal civil war between Croats and Serbs 1941 to 1945 within the larger Second World War, the wars which broke out across the former Yugoslavia were not inevitable. They were the result of the calculated efforts of communist leaders to cling onto power as the Soviet Union collapsed, especially Slobodan Milošević of Serbia; and of the over-hasty and thoughtless steps to independence of Croatia under its leader Franjo Tuđman which alienated the large (600,000) Serb minority within Croatia’s borders.

Another way of looking at it is that neither Serbia nor Croatia, nor Slovenia nor Bosnia, had time to develop anything like western levels of civic society before the slide to war began, at which point the crudest ethnic nationalism became the quickest way to maintain power, for someone like Milošević, and opened the way for opportunistic warlords such as Arkan (real name Željko Ražnatović, ‘the most powerful organized crime figure in the Balkans’ to take over entire regions).

Ignatieff reiterates the themes summarised in the introduction:

  • a slide towards anarchy inculcates fear; ethnic nationalism addresses that fear by providing safety and security among ‘your’ people
  • into the vacuum left by the collapse of civil society step warlords, whose rule revives the political arrangements of the late Middle Ages

He points out, in more than one chapter, the intense psychological and erotic pleasure of being a young men in a gang of young men wielding guns or machetes and lording it over everyone you meet, forcing everyone out of their houses, looting and raping at will, bullying people at checkpoints, making them lie on the ground while you swank around above them. Photos of Arkan and his tigers indicate what a band of brothers they were and how this kind of behaviour fulfils a deep male need. (Until you’re killed in a firefight or assassinated, that is; but who wants to live forever?)

Large parts of former Yugoslavia are now ruled by figures that have not been seen in Europe since late medieval times: the warlord. They appear wherever states disintegrate: in the Lebanon, Somalia, northern India, Armenia, Georgia, Ossetia, Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia. With their carphones, faxes and exquisite personal weaponry, they look post-modern, but the reality is pure early-medieval. (p.28)

(Which is why Beowulf is, in many ways, a much more reliable guide to life in many parts of the contemporary world than any number of modern novels.)

The warlord is not only the figure who naturally emerges when civic society collapses; the ethnic cleansing which was given its name in Yugoslavia is his natural strategy.

The logic of ethnic cleansing is not just motivated by nationalist hatred. Cleansing is the warlord’s coldly rational solution to the war of all against all. Rid yourself of your neighbours, the warlord says, and you no longer have to fear them. Live among your own, and you can live in peace. With me and the boys to protect you. (p.30)

Ignatieff gives a great deal of historical background, especially the long shadow cast by the Yugoslav civil war of 1941 to 1945. In this context he explains Tito’s great failing. Tito went out of his way to defuse ethnic tension in the region by carefully redistributing power between the national groups and seeding Serb communities in Croatia and Croatian communities in Serbia and so on. But he made two signal mistakes:

  1. He tried to bury and suppress the genocidal past, as symbolised by the way he had the notorious concentration camp at Jasenovach (where as many as 250,000 people, mostly Serbs, were taken to be murdered in the most brutal ways imaginable) bulldozed to the ground instead of acknowledging the atrocity and undertaking a truth and reconciliation process.
  2. Although Tito’s Yugoslavia gained the reputation of being more independent from Soviet control and therefore more liberal, Tito completely failed to develop any form of civic democracy. When the collapse came none of the constituent nations had any track record of real democratic debate, of addressing disputes through discussion. Instead the respective leaders (in Serbia and Croatia in particular) seized power for themselves with arrogant indifference to the large minorities within their borders (most notably the 600,000 Serbs who lived inside Croatia) which triggered a wave of paranoia, and then it only took a few sparks to ignite localised fighting, and then the leaders declared ‘It’s war!’

To summarise the road to war:

  • until recently the difference between Serbs and Croats were glossed over or ignored by people who lived together, intermarried, worked and played football together
  • they made up a community of interest where people concern themselves with jobs and pay and housing and schools
  • the collapse of Yugoslavia into its constituent states was a long time coming (Tito, who held the place together, died in 1980);
  • in the decade after Tito’s death the peoples off Yugoslavia underwent a sustained period of austerity imposed on them by the IMF and Western bankers as the price of repaying the massive debts Tito had run up in the 1970s
  • at the same time it became evermore obvious that the communist rulers were corrupt and creamed foreign money off to live a luxurious life; the combination of poverty and corrupt leadership led to widespread resentment
  • the trigger was the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the realisation by the communist rulers that their rule was destined to end soon
  • therefore they turned to ‘national identity’ to create a new ideology to underpin their rule
  • civic nationalism treats every citizen as equal, regardless of race, creed, colour, gender and so on, and citizens are united by a shared commitment to the rule of law and established institutions
  • however, the traditions and institutions of democracy and the civic virtues of tolerance and inclusivity take time to create and inculcate via education
  • for demagogues in a hurry it is much much easier to whip your population up using ethnic nationalism i.e. to tell people a) they are part of a distinct ethnic group b) that this group has historically been victimised and exploited but now c) it’s time to rise up, to stop being helpless victims, to stand up to the exploiter, to seize what is rightfully ours etc
  • ethnic nationalism provides all kinds of advantages to both the ruler and the ruled: for the ruler it is a quick way to whip up fervent support for a National Idea and cover up your own corruption; for the ruled the excitable fervour of nationalist belief makes you feel authentic, like you finally belong; it creates a community of equals, your tribe, gives opportunities to rise in the ranks and lord it over friends and neighbours who thought you were a loser: all the while this ideology explains that everything bad that’s ever happened in your life and to your country by blaming it on them, the others, the outsiders, who must be purged, expelled or plain liquidated from the territory you now consider your Holy Soil

Update

Ignatieff visited in 1993 and travelled through zones where different militias held neighbouring villages and had dynamited all the homes belonging to their ethnic adversaries. Reading his account you get the sense that some kind of uneasy peace had settled. But this was way wrong. The wars in Yugoslavia were to continue right up till 2001, centred on the cruelty and then Serb massacres of the Bosnian war, and then, when the Serbs refused to cease killing Kosovans, the 1999 NATO bombing campaign against Belgrade.

  1. The Ten-Day War (1991)
  2. Croatian War of Independence (1991 to 1995)
  3. Bosnian War (1992 to 1995)
  4. Kosovo War (1998 to 1999)
  5. Insurgency in the Preševo Valley (1999 to 2001)
  6. Insurgency in the Republic of Macedonia (2001)

2. Germany

Ignatieff’s prose is a little more purple and metaphorical in the chapter on Germany. This is because the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was the epicentre of the crisis which swept the Soviet regime and its east European colonies. So he uses descriptive prose to try and capture what East Germany felt like during the long years of drab, repressed communist rule, and then what it felt like in the ecstatic months of protest leading up to the demolition of the wall.

Now, four years later, all the euphoria has gone. The East Germans he speaks to are a shabby, disillusioned bunch, very conscious of the way the West Germans quickly took to looking down on them, accusing them of being workshy malingerers.

What happened was a massive experiment in political theory. Divide a nation in half. Keep them utterly separate, physically and psychologically isolated, for 45 years. Then suddenly remove all barriers and let them reunite. Then ask: to what extent does the people (an unchanging social and cultural group) make the state? Or how much does the state shape and mould the people? I.e. in those 45 years, how much had the wildly divergent West and East German governments managed to mould their populations?

Short answer: states mould the people. During the Cold War West Germans were quietly proud that East Germany was the most economically successful of Russia’s colonies. But when the wall came down and Western industrialists visit the East’s fabled factories they discovered they were a shambles, incompetent managers overseeing workshy workers. They would have to start again from scratch, inculcating Germany virtues: timekeeping, conscientiousness, hard work.

In reality, it was less a reunification than the West colonising the East. Ignatieff meets Helmut Börner, the tired manager of a museum in Leipzig, so conceived and run to flatter the East German authorities and their Russian sponsors and they both reflect on how quickly the new Germany will erase memories of the shameful East. Ignatieff visits a sweaty underground club full of pounding music which has the exotic twist that it used to be the torture rooms of the East German security police. He looks around. It’s only a few years after reunification but the kids don’t care. They’re dancing and getting off with each other. Life is for living.

Ignatieff interviews a neo-Nazi called Leo who cheerfully denies the Holocaust and yearns to reconquer Silesia, now part of Poland, where his family came from. Ignatieff thinks the resurgence of neo-Nazism is dangerous but not really worrying, when it amounts to gangs of skinheads fighting immigrants.

More worrying is the growth of right-wing anti-immigrant parties, exemplified by the retired prison officer and local politician, Herr K, standing for election for the Republikaner Party. He wants rights for immigrants restricted more than they already were in 1990s Germany (where a Turk could be born, educated, work, pay taxes, and yet never achieve formal German citizenship).

Because there’s no actual war in reunified Germany, this long chapter is the most varied and subtle. It is a beautifully observed essay on the contradictions and quirks of the German nation and its ideas of itself, something we Brits rarely hear about.

Update

That was a long time ago. Inequality between East and West Germany has proved an intractable problem, admittedly partly because the East is more rural than the dynamic, industrialised West. And the refugee crisis he discusses turned out to be just the harbinger of a central issue of the 21st century, which is what to do about the increasing numbers of refugees and migrants wanting to escape Africa and the Middle East and start new lives in affluent Europe. Which came to a head in the refugee crisis of 2015.

And the right-wing Republikan Party candidate Ignatieff interviews has been superseded by the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland, founded in 2013 and which now holds 83 seats in the Bundestag. Germany’s struggle with its past, with its national identity, and its multicultural present, is a microcosm of the problems which face all Western nations.

3. Ukraine

Ignatieff’s great-grandfather was Russian and bought an estate in the Ukraine in the 1860s when he was ambassador to Constantinople (over 1,000 miles away). Ignatieff flies in to Kiev and takes a bus then taxi out to the old estate, stays the night, interviews the priest in the village church and the manager of the collective farm.

What keeps coming over is his sense of the Soviet Empire, as he calls it, the largest empire of the twentieth century, as a magnificent and catastrophic failure. In the Ukraine Soviet failure and tyranny had disastrous effects.

Something like 3 million Ukrainians died of hunger between 1931 and 1932. A further million were killed during the collectivisation of agriculture and the purges of intellectuals and party officials later in the decade. An additional 2 to 3 million Ukrainians were deported to Siberia. The peasant culture of small farmers and labourers that my grandfather grew up among was exterminated. This was when the great fear came. And it never left… (p.91)

Like the communist officials in charge in Yugoslavia, the leaders of communist Ukraine realised they could transition to independence and still remain in power, so they deftly adopted nationalist clothes, language and slogans, despite the fact that only a few years previously they had been locking up nationalists as subversives. Ignatieff meets the Ukrainian president, Leonid Kravchuk, a smooth operator

He speaks to a Ukrainian journalist working for the Financial Times and a former nationalist, locked up in prison. Their fear is what happened to Russia will happen to Ukraine i.e. a relentless slide into economic collapse and anarchy.

He attends a service of the Ukrainian Uniate Church in St George’s Cathedral, Lvov, and has an insight. The nationalists dream that their entire country will be like this congregation:

Standing among men and women who do not hide the intensity of their feelings, it becomes clear what nationalism really is: the dream that a whole nation could be like a congregation; singing the same hymns, listening to the same gospel, sharing the same emotions, linked not only to each other, but to the dead buried beneath their feet. (p.95)

In other words nationalism can be a beautiful dream, a vision of unity and belonging, typically, as here, through religion, language and song.

Also, this passage mentions the importance of the dead and where the dead are buried. The land where the dead are buried. For the first time Ignatieff feels a stirring of that feeling for the land where his great grandfather and mother are buried, which he is the first member of his family to revisit since the revolution of 1917.

When he meets the Tartars returning to Crimea from their long exile in central Asia, they are even more obsessed about the land, about the soil, about the sacred earth of their ancestors (pages 99 to 103). Ignatieff begins to understand how our individual lives are trite and superficial, but acquire depth and meaning in light of these ancestral attachments.

Land is sacred because it where your ancestors lie. Ancestors must be remembered because human life is a small and trivial thing without the anchoring of the past. Land is worth dying for, because strangers will profane the graves… (p.93)

Update

In 2013, when the government of President Viktor Yanukovych decided to suspend the Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement and seek closer economic ties with Russia, it triggered several months of demonstrations and protests known as the Euromaidan.

The following year this escalated into the 2014 Ukrainian revolution that led to the overthrow of Yanukovych and the establishment of a new, more Europe-facing government. However, the overthrow of Russia-friendly Yanukovych led to the annexation of Crimea by Russia in March 2014 and the War in Donbas in April 2014.

4. Quebec

Ignatieff is Canadian, he grew up in Ottowa where his Russian grandparents had emigrated. As a boy he knew about the Frenchies up the road but he never actually met any. Now, as an adult, he realises he has never actually visited the French part of his own nation, Quebec. He thought he knew Canada, but realises now it was only a Canada of his imagining. Which leads him to realise that all nations are, in a sense, imaginary.

You can never know the strangers who make up a nation with you. So you imagine what it is that you have in common and in this shared imagining, strangers become citizens, that is, people who share both the same rights and the same image of the place they live in. A nation, therefore, is an imagined community.

But now he realises that during his young manhood he completely failed to imagine what it felt like for the other community in Canada. He recaps his definitions of nationalism, in order to go on and define federalism, for this chapter will turn out to be an investigation of the strengths and weaknesses of federalism. First nationalism:

Nationalism is a doctrine which hold (1) that the world’s people are divided into nations (2) that these nations should have the right to self-determination, and (3) that full self-determination requires statehood. (p.110)

Federalism is the antithesis of this idea of nationalism, for it holds that different peoples do not need a state to enjoy self-determination. Under federalism two different groups agree to share power while retaining self government over matters relating to their identity. Federalism:

seeks to reconcile two competing principles: the ethnic principle according to which people wish to be ruled by their own; with the civic principle, according to which strangers wish to come together to form a community of equals, based not on ethnicity but on citizenship. (p.110)

But federalism is not doing so well. He lists the world’s most notable federal states – Canada, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Belgium, India, the former USSR – and then points out that all of them are in deep trouble. The Czechs and Slovaks couldn’t live together; Yugoslavia collapsed in a welter of wars; India struggles with regional separatism. The very concept of federalism is in trouble around the world and so his long chapter on Canada treats it as a kind of test bed or laboratory to assess federalism’s long-term prospects for survival.

He gives a lot of detail about Canadian history, and the dawn of modern Quebecois nationalism in 1960, none of which I knew about. But out of this arises yet another definition or aspect of nationalism:

Nationalism has often been a revolt against modernity, a defence of the backwardness of economically beleaguered regions and classes from the flames of individualism, capitalism, Judaism and so on. (p.116)

Yes, this makes sense of the aggressive over-compensation of so many nationalists, who all speak a variation on the comic stereotype of the English provincial: ‘You come down here with your fancy London ways, with your multicultural this and your cosmopolitan that. Well, people round these parts live a more simple life, see, a more honest and authentic life than you la-di-dah city types.’ They flaunt their backwardness.

But this leads Ignatieff into a paradoxical development which he spends some time analysing. In the Canada of his boyhood the Quebec French really were discriminated against, weren’t served in shops unless they spoke English, were perceived as small-town bumpkins with a lower standard of education, dominated by an authoritarian Catholicism and with extravagantly large families (ten children!).

So, Ignatieff says, surely as these very real obstacles have been overcome, as Quebecois have become more urban, progressive, women’s liberation has led to much smaller families, they’re all less in thrall to the church, surely they would abandon their nationalism and become modern urban cosmopolitans like him? But no. Contrary to everything Ignatieff would have expected, Quebec nationalism has grown. The paradox is exemplified by a French Canadian Ignatieff interviews who is president of a very successful bank.

I had assumed that global players cease to care about nationalism. I was wrong. (p.115)

Historical grievances are never forgotten. The British won the Battle of Quebec in 1759 and Quebec nationalists are still unhappy about it. He talks to modern journalists and a group of students. All of them are proudly nationalistic and want their own Quebec. There’s a division between those who want an actual independent state with its own flag and seat at the UN, and those who just want almost complete autonomy. But they all see Quebec as not a part of Canada or a province of Canada but a separate nation and a separate people.

But the problem with nationalism is it’s infectious. If Quebecuois want a state of their own so they can be a majority in their own state and not a despised minority in English-speaking Canada, what about two other constituencies?

1. Ignatieff goes to spend time with a native American, a Cree Indian. There are about 11,000 of them and they reject all the languages and traditions and legal concepts of the white people from down south, whatever language they speak. The Cree think of themselves as a people and they want their own protection.

2. Then Ignatieff goes to spend time with some of the English-speaking farmers who live in Quebec, have done for hundred and fifty years. No-one tells their story, the history books ignore them, Quebec nationalists have written them out of their narrative.

Nationalism spreads like the plague, making every group which can define itself in terms of language, tradition, religion and so on angry because it doesn’t have a nation of its own. You could call it the Yugoslav Logic. Smaller and smaller nations become shriller and shriller in their calls for ethnic purity.

And, of course, increasingly anxious about all the outsiders, non-members of the language group, or religion or whatever, who remain inside its borders. Read about the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian  and Ottoman empires to see what happens next. Insofar as the Sudeten Germans found themselves in the alien state of Czechoslovakia, the Second World War was caused by the collapse of the Austrian empire into impractical ethnic nation states.

Ignatieff doesn’t state this explicitly but I see this nationalism as a malevolent virus which, wherever it goes, creates antagonism at best, sporadic violence, if you’re not too unlucky or, given enough economic collapse or social stress, war.

Ignatieff visits Dennis Rousseau, a working class guy who works in a local paper mill and plays ice hockey in Trois Rivieres which is, apparently, the working class neighbourhood of Quebec. In a long conversation Rousseau won’t budge from his position that he wants Quebec to be independent because Ontario (capital of English-speaking Canada) isn’t doing enough for the struggling papermill industry, for his town and his peers. No amount of evidence to the contrary can shift his simple conviction and Ignatieff wonders whether nationalist sentiment like Rousseau’s is, among other things, a way of avoiding the truth about the changing economic situation.

All round the developed world businesses are being exported and once prosperous communities are getting poor. This is a function of the super-charged neo-liberal global capitalism which has triumphed since the collapse of communism, all those manufacturing jobs going to China and India.

Apart from all its other appeals (the very deep psychological appeal of belonging, of having a home, having people around you who understand your language, your religion, your music, your jokes) this kind of nationalism provides simple answers to intractably complicated economic realities. Twenty years after this book was published Donald Trump would reach out to the tens of millions who live in those kind of communities where life used to be great and now it isn’t with his brand of whooping Yankee nationalism.

Update

Kurdistan

There are perhaps 40 million Kurds. The territory Kurdish mostly inhabited by Kurds and which Kurdish nationalists would like to be an independent Kurdish state straddles four of the fiercest nations on earth: Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Following the defeat of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War, the Kurds in Iraq rose up against his rule in the Kurdish intifada of March 1991. Hussein unleashed the full might of his army against them, driving hundreds of thousands of men, women and children up into the northern mountains until the Western allies intervened and set up a no-fly zone, preventing Saddam massacring any more of them.

It is this enclave which Ignatieff visits in 1993. With his typically intellectual perspective, he points out that it is something new: the first ever attempt by the UN to protect a people from the genocidal attacks of their national ruler. The enclave was far from being a state, but the Kurds had done as much as they could to make it like one, raising their own flag, holding elections. As in Ukraine among the Crimean Tartars, he realises how much the land, the actual soil, means in the mythology of nationalism:

At its most elemental, nationalism is perhaps the desire to have political dominion over a piece of land that one loves. Before anything, there must be a fierce attachment to the land itself and a sense that there is nothing else like this, nothing so beautiful, anywhere else in the world. (p.149)

Ignatieff travels and meets: representatives of the democratic party, the KDP, which has been run by the Barzani family for generations; then up into the mountains to see the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party, one of the last doctrinaire Marxist guerrilla groups in the world.

He is taken on a tour of Halabja, the town Saddam ordered his jets to fly over and bomb with a cocktail of chemical gasses, resulting in at least 5,000 dead. It is, of course, a horrific sight but, as always, with Ignatieff, he not only notes and records touching, moving, terrifying details: he also extracts interesting and useful points about nationalism and death. First is the way nationalist ideology gives a meaning to life and death, especially the latter:

Nationalism seeks to hallow death, to redeem individual loss and link it to destiny and fate. A lonely frightened boy with a gun who dies at a crossroads in a fire-fight ceases to be just a lonely frightened boy. In the redeeming language of nationalism, he joins the imagined community of all the martyrs. (p.148)

Thus the roads of Kurdistan are marked by portraits of killed peshmerga fighters staring down from the plinths which once carried portraits of Saddam. He goes on to make a point about genocide. He doesn’t phrase it like this, but you can think of genocide as the dark side of nationalism, the demonic brother. If a nation is defined entirely by ‘the people’, defined as one ethnic group, who occupy it, then anyone outside that ethnic group should not be there, has no right to the land, is a pollutant, a potential threat.

Before the experience of genocide, a people may not believe they belong to a nation. Before genocide, they may believe it is a matter of personal choice whether they belong or believe. After genocide it becomes their fate. Genocide and nationalism have an entwined history. It was genocide that convinced the Jews and even convinced the gentile world that they were a people who would never be safe until they had a nation state of their own. (p.151)

The Turks have been waging war against their Kurds since the foundation of modern Turkey in 1923. Its leader Kemal Ataturk envisioned Turkey as a modern, secular nation with a civic nationalism. Logically, therefore, there was no room for tribes and ethnic nationalism which destabilised his vision of a secular state. Hence the aggressive attempts to ban the Kurdish language in schools, erase their traditions and songs, even the word Kurd is banned; officials refer to the ‘mountain Turks’. To quote Wikipedia:

Both the PKK and the Turkish state have been accused of engaging in terror tactics and targeting civilians. The PKK has historically bombed city centres, while Turkey has depopulated and burned down thousands of Kurdish villages and massacred Kurds in an attempt to root out PKK militants.

For the only place in the book Ignatieff loses his cool when he is assigned a 24-year-old Turkish special forces agent who carefully chaperones him around the ‘pacified’ region of south-east Turkey, where the local Kurds obviously go in fear of their lives, and the agent carefully monitors everyone Ignatieff speaks to, while another spook photographs them all. The agent’s name happens to be Feret and this leads Ignatieff into the borderline insulting use of the word ‘ferret’ to refer to all such spooks and spies and security force agents and repressers and torturers (pages 158 to 161).

You can’t compromise when the very unity of the state is at stake. There is no price that is not worth paying. Pull the balaclava over your face; put some bullets in the chamber; go out and break some Kurdish doors down in the night. Pull them out of bed. Put a bullet through their brains. Dirty wars are a paradise for ferrets. (p.161)

Update

A lot has happened to the Kurds in the 28 years since Ignatieff visited them. The primary fact was the Allied invasion of Iraq in 2003 which led to the break-up of Iraq during which Iraqi Kurds were able to cement control over the territory in the north of the country which they claim. A Kurd, Jalal Talabani, was even elected president of post-Saddam Iraq (2005 to 2014). Kurdish fighters were also involved in the Syrian civil war (2011 to the present) and involved in the complex fighting around the rise of Islamic State. And low-level conflict between the Turkish-facing PKK and Turkish security forces continues to this day.

Northern Ireland

Like most English people I couldn’t give a monkey’s about Northern Ireland. I was a boy when the Troubles kicked off around 1970 and Irish people shooting each other and blowing each other up was the wallpaper of my teenage years and young manhood, along with glam rock and the oil crisis.

Decades ago I was hit by flying glass from a car showroom when the IRA blew up an army barracks on the City Road in London. Like the Islamist terrorists who drove a van into tourists on London Bridge then went on the rampage through Borough Market ( 3 June 2017) it was just one of those mad features of modern life which you cross your fingers and hope to avoid.

For the first time I get a bit bored of Ignatieff when he says he went to Ulster to discover more about ‘Britishness’. I’ve read hundreds of commentators who’ve done the same thing over the last 50 years and their clever analyses are all as boring and irrelevant as each other. Most English people wish Northern Ireland would just join the Republic and be done with it. The situation in Ulster doesn’t tell you anything about ‘Britain’, it just tells you about the situation in Ulster.

Ignatieff still makes many good points, though. He adds yet another category of nationalist conflict to his list: which is one caused – as in Ukraine, as in Croatia (as in Rwanda) – where there is a history of oppression of one community by another. The proximate cause of the Rwandan genocide was the conscious, deliberate, well worked-out plan for extermination devised by the ideologues of Hutu Power. But the deeper cause was the long period of time when the majority Hutus had been treated like peasants by the aristocratic Tutsis. Visitors to the country couldn’t tell the two groups apart, they lived in the same communities, spoke the same language, used the same currency. But deep in many Hutu breasts burned anger at generations of injustice and oppression. Breeding ground for virulent vengeful ethnic nationalism.

Same in Ulster where Roman Catholics were treated as second class citizens since partition in 1922, and were actively barred from various civil positions and comparable to the WASP prejudice against the Catholic French in Quebec, or to the much more vicious colour bar in the Deep South of America.

It is the memory of domination in time past, or fear of domination in time future, not difference itself, which has turned conflict into an unbreakable downward spiral of political violence. (p.164)

But much of Ignatieff’s discussion deals in clichés and stereotypes about Britain and its imperial decline which have been discussed to death during the extended nightmare of the Brexit debates.

He spends most of the chapter in the company of working class youths in a Protestant slum street in the build-up to the big bonfire night which inaugurates the July marching season. He notes how fanatical they are about the symbols of Britishness, pictures of the Queen, the Union Jack plastered over everything.

Which is when he springs another of his Big Ideas: Ulster Protestantism is like the cargo cults anthropologists have identified in the South Seas. The great white god arrives by ship, fights a battle, saves the local tribe and their religion from neighbours and rivals, then departs never to return. But generations of tribespeople wear out their lives waiting, waiting for that return, and turning the bric-a-brac the white man left at random into relics and cult objects to be worshipped at home-made shrines on special holy days (pages 182 to 184).

Same, Ignatieff claims, with Ulster Protestantism. It has become a weirdly deformed caricature of the culture of the homeland. While mainland England has become evermore secularised and multicultural, Ulster Protestantism has become evermore obsessed and hag-ridden by its forbidding religion, evermore furiously insistent on its ethnic purity, evermore angry at what it perceives as its ‘betrayal’ by the great white god across the water.

Apart from the historical accident of a handful of symbols (Queen, flag, crucifix) it has grown utterly separate from English culture and is an almost unrecognisable caricature of it.

Loyalism is an ethnic nationalism which, paradoxically, uses the civic symbols of Britishness – Crown and Union Jack – to mark out an ethnic identity. In the process the civic content is emptied out: Loyalist Paramilitarism, for example, makes only too clear what a portion of the Loyalist community thinks of the rule of law, the very core of British civic identity. In the end, the Crown and the Union Jack are reduced to meaning what they signify when tattooed on the skin of poor, white teenagers. They are only badges of ethnic rage. (p.185)

Update

The situation Ignatieff was reporting on in 1993 was superseded by the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998 and the 23 years of peace which have followed. Nowadays, there is much feverish speculation that the peace may be jeopardised by the complicated economic and political fallout of Brexit. Maybe a new generation of men in balaclavas will return and think they can achieve something by blowing up cars and shooting farmers.

The bigger picture, though, is that Ulster is now part of a United Kingdom substantially changed since Ignatieff’s time, because of the devolution of Scotland and Wales. Somehow, Scotland and Wales are still part of something called the United Kingdom but articles every day in the press wonder how long this can last.

Personally, I feel like I’ve been hearing about Scottish nationalism and Plaid Cymru all my adult life. Although they now have their own expensive parliament buildings and control over their healthcare and education systems, the basic situation doesn’t seem to have changed much – both Scots and Welsh nationalists continue to make a good living criticising the English politicians who pay for their nations to remain solvent.

I have no skin in the game. If they want to be independent nations, let them. Fly free, my pretties. According to a 2020 YouGov poll, my indifference is fairly representative of my people, the fat lazy English:

Less than half of English people (46%) say they want Scotland to remain part of the UK. Few want to see the nation pull away, however, at just 13%. Most of the rest (34%) have no opinion, saying that they consider it a matter for the people of Scotland to decide.

It seems unlikely that Scotland or Wales will ever become independent nations or that Northern Ireland will join the Republic, and for the same simple reason. Money. All three receive substantial subsidies from London and would become poorer overnight if they left. Try and sell that to your electorate.

Brief summary

Reviewing the six nationalist issues reviewed in the book prompts a simple conclusion which is that: none of these conflicts have gone away. Nationalism is like a terrible disease: once it has gripped a people, a tribe, a region, and once it has been used to set populations at loggerheads with other neighbouring groups or with the very state they find themselves in, it is almost impossible to extirpate. Nationalism is a virus which has no cure. Like COVID-19 we just have to learn to live with it and try to mitigate its effects before they become too destructive, before there’s an outbreak of another, more virulent variety.

The Cold War as the last age of empire

The Cold War was a lot of things to a lot of people but I am still reeling from one of the biggest of Ignatieff’s Big Ideas, which is that the Cold War amounted to the last phase of imperialism.

There was the early phase of Portuguese and Spanish imperialism; there was the rivalry between the French and British around the world in the 18th century; the Europeans grabbed whatever bits of the world they could bite off during the 19th century; and then the French, British, Dutch, Belgians and a few others hung onto their colonies through the catastrophic twentieth century and into the 1960s.

Then they left in a great wind of change. But they did so at exactly the same time as the spreading Cold War meant that huge areas of the world came under the direct or indirect control of the Americans or the Soviets. Although it wasn’t their primary goal, the CIA supporting their authoritarian regimes and the Soviet advisers to countless communist groups, between them they sort of – up to a point – amounted to a kind of final reincarnation of imperial police. Up to a point, they policed and restrained their client states and their opponents around the world. They reined them in.

And then, in 1990, with little or no warning, the imperial police left. They walked away. And instead of blossoming into the wonderful, democratic, peaceful world which the naive and stupid expected – chaos broke out in a hundred places round the world. The gloves were off and ethnic nationalism and ethnic conflicts which had been bottled up for decades, exploded all over.

Because this ideology, this psychology of blood and belonging and ‘kill the outsider’ – it’s easier for hundreds of millions of people; it provides a psychological, cultural and linguistic home, a refuge in otherwise poverty-stricken, war-torn, economically doomed countries.

It offers reassurance and comfort to stricken populations, it flatters people that whatever is wrong with the country is not their fault – and it offers an easy route to power and strategies to stay in power for demagogic leaders, by whipping up ethnic or nationalist sentiment and justified violence against the Outsider. Demonising outsiders helps to explain away the injustices and economic failure which somehow, inexplicably, despite their heroic leadership, continues.

Blame it on the others, the outsiders, the neighbouring tribe, the people with funny shaped noses, different coloured skin, spooky religions, use any excuse. The poison of ethnic nationalism is always the easy option and even in the most advanced, Western, civic societies – it is always there, threatening to break out again.

Concluding thoughts on the obtuseness of liberalism

Ignatieff ends with a brief conclusion. It is that his liberal beliefs have profoundly misled him. Educated at a top private school, clever enough to hold positions at a series of the world’s best universities (Harvard, Cambridge) and to mingle with the most gifted of the cosmopolitan elite, he thought the whole world experienced life and thought like him. Idiotic. The journeys he made for this book have made him realise that the vast majority of the human population think nothing like him.

This was crystallised by one particular type of experience which kept cropping up wherever he went. On all his journeys he saw again and again that most of the warlords and fighters are young men aged 18 to 25 (p.187). Until he met them at roadblocks and checkpoints he had not understood what masculinity is. An etiolated, lily-pink liberal with the impeccable manners handed down by his family of Russian diplomats, Ignatieff had no idea what men, poor men, uneducated men, out there in the world, are really like.

Until I had encountered my quotient of young males intoxicated by the power of the guns on their hips I had not understood how deeply pleasurable it is to have the power of life and death in your hands. It is a characteristic liberal error to suppose that everyone fears and hates violence. I met lots of young men who loved the ruins, loved the destruction, loved the power that came from the barrels of their guns. (p.187)

Only someone so phenomenally clever and immaculately well educated could be so remote from the world as it actually is, from human nature in all its appalling greed and violence. Meeting gun-toting warlords made him realise more than ever that the aim of civic society is to quell, control and channel this kind of male aggression which he had never experienced before.

I began the journey as a liberal, and I end it as one, but I cannot help thinking that liberal civilisation – the rule of laws not men, of argument in place of force, of compromise in place of violence – runs deeply against the human grain and is only achieved and sustained by the most unremitting struggle against human nature. (p.189)

And the best all-round way to prevent the outburst of ethnic nationalism and the almost inevitable violence which accompanies it, is the creation and maintenance of a strong stable state with institutions which distribute and diversify power, which act as checks and balances on themselves, which are permanently capable of correction and reform, including the most important kind of reform which is the ability to get rid of your political leaders on a regular basis.

The only reliable antidote to ethnic nationalism turns out to be civic nationalism, because the only guarantee that ethnic groups will live side by side in peace is shared loyalty to a state, strong enough, fair enough, equitable enough, to command their obedience. (p.185)

The fundamental responsibility of a government is not to promote ‘equality’ and the raft of other fine, liberal values. They’re nice-to-haves. It is more profound than that. First and foremost it is the eternal struggle to build and maintain civic nationalism – because the alternative is horror.

Credit

Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism by Michael Ignatieff was published by BBC Books in 1993. All references are to the revised 1995 Vintage paperback edition.


New world disorder reviews

Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism by Michael Ignatieff (1994) – 1

This is an outstanding book, bubbling over with ideas and insights on a subject which is as relevant today as when it was written back in the early 90s. It’s actually the book of a BBC TV series. In 1993 Ignatieff and his five-man TV crew travelled to Croatia and Serbia, recently reunified Germany, Ukraine, Quebec, Kurdistan, and Northern Ireland to see at first hand what was already being heralded as the rise of a new kind of virulent nationalism following the end of Cold War and fall of the Soviet Union.

The text he’s produced is the extreme opposite of the two books of journalism about the Rwandan genocide which I’ve just reviewed, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch (1998) and Season of Blood: A Rwandan Journey by Fergal Keane (1995).

What irritated me about those books was that the authors had travelled widely and had unparalleled access to loads of eye witnesses and key officials and yet were incapable of coming up with a single useful idea about what they had seen. The best Gourevitch could manage was repeated references to the Bible story of Cain and Abel and the best Keane could come up with at the very end of his book was the pathetic injunction ‘that we do not forget’ (p.191).

This is because they are journalists, paid to get to the trouble zone, report what they see, what people say, and leave it that. The lack of intellectual content worth the name explains why I find books by even very good journalists like John Simpson or Robert Fisk disappointingly empty of ideas.

By contrast, Ignatieff is a trained historian and political scientist, who has held a dazzling array of positions at academic institutions around the world, including a PhD from Harvard and senior research fellowship at Cambridge, before his writing and teaching became more involved with political theory, international law and human rights.

The result is that this book, although essentially a collection of travelogues and interviews just like Gourevitch and Keane’s, overflows with brilliant, invaluable insights into the origins and nature of the chaotic new nationalism and ethnic conflicts which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the imperial duopoly which had run the world from 1945 to 1990 (otherwise known as the Cold War).

Right at the start of the book, Ignatieff takes all he’s learned on his journeys and boils it down into a set of principles and insights which are laid out in his ten-page introduction. I think these ten pages are among the most intelligent things I’ve ever read on any subject. Here’s a summary.

Blood and Belonging

As it passes beyond a UN-held checkpoint in Pakrac between Serb- and Croat-held territory in the former Yugoslavia, the crew’s van is stopped by drunk Serbian paramilitaries who insist they are spies because they saw them talking to Croatians, and are about to hijack the van and drive it off who knows where, maybe to shoot them all, when one of the UN soldiers intervenes, persuades the drunk Serbs out of the van, and lets them drive on their way.

This was the moment in my journeys in search of the new nationalism when I began to understand what the new world order actually looks like: paramilitaries, drunk on plum brandy and ethnic paranoia, trading shots with each other across a wasteland; a checkpoint between them, placed there by something loftily called ‘the international community’, but actually manned by just two anxious adolescents… (p.2)

When the Berlin Wall came down Ignatieff, like other cosmopolitan liberals of his type, thought it heralded a new era of freedom and justice. This is because (as I keep banging on) Ignatieff and his class do not realise what a tiny tiny fraction of the world’s population they represent – highly privileged, affluent, super-well-educated, international liberals gaily flying around a world mostly inhabited by resentful peasantries crushed by poverty and trapped in failing states.

He says the Cold War was really an extension of the era of European imperialism but in which the world was ruled not by half a dozen European nations but by America or Russia. Cold War terror i.e. the fear of nuclear armageddon, produced peace and stability, of a sort. The fall of the Berlin wall signalled the end of this final phase of Western imperialism. But it wasn’t followed by a blossoming of civic nationalism of the sort Ignatieff and his fellow liberals hoped for (‘with blithe lightness of mind’), for the very simple reason that most people are not sensitive liberal playwrights like Vaclav Havel.

What has succeeded the last age of empire is a new age of violence. The key narrative of the new world order is the disintegration of nation states into ethnic civil war; the key architects of that order are warlords; and the key language of our age is ethnic nationalism. (p.2)

Three levels of nationalism

As a political doctrine, nationalism is the belief that the world’s people are divided into nations, and that each of these nations has the right of self-determination, either as self-governing units within existing nation states or as nation states of their own.

As a cultural ideal, nationalism is the claim that while men and women have many identities, it is the nation which provides them with their primary form of belonging.

As a moral ideal, nationalism is an ethic of heroic sacrifice, justifying the use of violence in the defence of one’s nation against enemies, internal or external. (p.3)

In the contexts Ignatieff is looking at, nationalism is about violence.

Nationalism is centrally concerned to define the conditions under which force or violence is justified in a people’s defence, when their right of self-determination is threatened or denied. Self-determination here may mean either democratic self-rule or the exercise of cultural autonomy, depending on whether the national group in question believes it can achieve its goals within the framework of an existing state or seeks a state of its own. (p.3)

Civic nationalism versus ethnic nationalism

Nationalisms talk a lot about ‘the people’ and sometimes invoke ideas of ‘democracy’ but this is deceptive, since ‘the people’ often turns out not to include a lot of the people who live in a particular area, in fact the exact opposite, it turns out that ‘the people’ refers to a restricted and highly defined set. To clarify this, Ignatieff defines another two types of nationalism.

Civic nationalism maintains that the nation should be composed of all those – regardless of race, colour, creed, gender, language or ethnicity – who subscribe to the nation’s political creed. This nationalism is called civic because it envisages the nation as a community of equal, rights-bearing citizens, united in patriotic attachment to a shared set of political practices and values. This nationalism is necessarily democratic because it vests sovereignty in all of the people. (p.4)

Ignatieff says this concept of civic nationalism was pioneered in Great Britain which by the mid-eighteenth century consisted of a nation state united by a civic and not an ethnic definition of belonging i.e. shared attachment to certain institutions: the Crown, Parliament, the rule of law.

Admittedly this was a civic model restricted to white, (straight) male landowners. The history of nations characterised by this kind of civic nationalism, such as the UK and USA, can be seen as one in which during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, those excluded groups fought for full civic inclusion.

As a result of their struggle, most Western states now define their nationhood in terms of common citizenship and not by common ethnicity. (p.4)

The other type of nationalism is ethnic nationalism. This is typified by Germany. When Napoleon occupied the German principalities in 1806 he unleashed a wave of patriotic fervour. German poets and politicians argued that it was not the state which created a people – since they did not then possess one unified state – but the people, the ethnic group, the Volk, which forms the state. Instead of the cold logic of the Napoleonic code with its abstract insistence on ‘rights’, German writers across the board insisted a nation was made out of feeling, a feel for and love for the people’s language, religion, customs and traditions.

This German tradition of ethnic nationalism was to go on and reach its acme in the hysterical nationalism of Hitler and the Nazis. But Ignatieff points out that it was this form of ethnic or cultural nationalism – not the civic nationalism of Britain or France – which inspired intellectuals in all the countries of Eastern Europe which, in the nineteenth century, were controlled by foreign empires (Poles and Ruthenians and Baltic peoples by the Russian Empire; Serbs, Romanians and Bulgarians under the Ottoman Empire; Croats by the Austro-Hungarian Empire).

Sociological realism

Which of these two types of nationalism, civic or ethnic, is a more realistic reflection of actual societies? Which has more sociological realism?

Of these two types of nationalism, the civic has a greater claim to sociological realism. Most societies are not mono-ethnic; and even when they are, common ethnicity does not of itself obliterate division, because ethnicity is only one of many claims on an individual’s loyalty. According to the civic nationalist creed, what holds a society together is not common roots but law. By subscribing to a set of democratic procedures and values, individuals can reconcile their right to shape their own lives with their need to belong to a community. This in turn assumes that national belonging can be a form of rational attachment.

Ethnic nationalism claims, by contrast, that an individual’s deepest attachments are inherited, not chosen. It is the national community which defines the individual, not the individuals which define the national community. This psychology of belonging may have greater depth than civic nationalism’s but the sociology which accompanies it is a good deal less realistic. The fact that, for example two Serbs share Serbian ethnic identity may unite them against Croats, but it will do nothing to stop them fighting each other over jobs, spouses, scarce resources and so on. Common ethnicity, by itself, does not create social cohesion or community, and when it fails to do so, as it must, nationalist regimes are necessarily impelled towards maintaining unity by force rather than by consent. This is one reason why ethnic nationalist regimes are more authoritarian than democratic. (p.5)

You can see why civic nationalism is harder to create than ethnic nationalism because it depends on two things: strong, functioning, well-established and long-lasting institutions, and an educated population. The UK has both, having had universal primary school education for 150 years, and a complex web of long-running institutions like the monarchy, Houses of Parliament, an independent judiciary, local governments, courts, police forces and so on. It has taken a long time and successive generations of hard-working, selfless public servants, politicians, activists and reformers to achieve the current state of British civic nationalism, and nobody agrees it’s perfect. In fact everybody has an opinion about where it is still far from perfect and what needs to be reformed. But all this exists within a broad framework of civic nationalism, namely everyone agrees that all British citizens are equal and entitled to equal rights.

1. Ethnic nationalism is easier

Compared with the complexity of mature civic societies such as Britain, America or France, you can see how ethnic nationalism is simpler: a certain ethnic group seizes power and defines itself and its members and rests its power precisely by who it excludes: everyone not part of the ruling ethnic group who quickly find themselves being attacked as traitors, then rounded up and imprisoned.

Leaving all morality to one side, you can see why government by ethnic nationalism is always going to be quicker to define, set up and manage, especially in states which have little if any experience of the complex web of power centres, rules and traditions which make up civic nationalism.

On this reading it should come as no surprise to anyone that ethnic nationalism, being the quicker, easier option, should be the one opted for by rulers who suddenly find themselves liberated from the rule of imperial masters and with big complicated countries to run.

Roughly speaking, this explains what happened:

  • in the early 1960s in Africa, when the newly liberated post-colonial nations found they had to be ruled somehow and in the absence of the deep-rooted institutions and traditions required by civic nationalism, reverted to authoritarian rule often based around the ruler’s ethnic group, which led to numerous wars of independence fought by ethnic groups who wanted their own nations, for example Biafra in Nigeria and Katanga in Congo, and the long-running war of independence in Eritrea
  • in the early 1990s in eastern Europe, where the new rulers of the 15 or so nations freed from Soviet hegemony discovered that the quickest way to establish and consolidate power was with forms of nationalism which invoked the supremacy of their people, their Volk, by shared allegiance to language and religion instead of to the more abstract institutions of civic nationalism, a creed which led to actual civil wars in the former Yugoslavia and Ukraine
  • in the early 2010s, when a raft of Arab countries threw off their long-standing dictators but found that, instead of automatically transitioning to civic nationalism as so many day-dreaming liberals hope, promptly plunged into chaotic civil wars based on ethnic or religious allegiance, most notably in Libya and Syria

The tendency to authoritarianism and extremism of government by and on behalf of ethnic majorities explains the genocides in Rwanda and Sudan. In countries based on ethnic nationalism, the most extreme nationalists have a nasty habit of floating to the top and then, in situations of stress – such as the invasion and war in Rwanda or the famine in Sudan – they resort to the most extreme form of ethnic nationalism imaginable, which is the sustained attempt to exterminate everyone who doesn’t belong to the ruling ethnic group.

2. Ethnic nationalism fills a political vacuum

When the Soviet empire and its satellite regimes collapsed, the nation state structures of the region also collapsed, leaving hundreds of ethnic groups at the mercy of one another. Since none of these groups had the slightest experience of conciliating their disagreements by democratic discussion, violence or force became their arbiter. (p.6)

So ethnic nationalism flourishes where there is no tradition of democratic discussion and no experience of the (admittedly often complex and sometimes borderline corrupt) bargaining involved in democratic politics.

3. Negative reason for ethnic nationalism – avoidance of fear

The sense of belonging to an ethnic group within a nation based on ethnic nationalism has many aspects, positive and negative. The most obvious negative one, is the escape from fear. In a society falling to pieces, you are afraid of everyone. This fear is considerably lessened if you know you can at least trust everyone of your own ethnic group. In this respect, ethnic politics are an improvement on a state of total anarchy, where you can’t trust anyone.

In the fear and panic which swept the ruins of the communist states people began to ask: so who will protect me? Faced with a situation of political and economic chaos, people wanted to know who to trust, and who to call their own. Ethnic nationalism provided an answer which was intuitively obvious: only trust those of your own blood. (p.6)

Belonging, on this account, is first and foremost a protection against violence. Where you belong is where you are safe; and where you are safe is where you belong. (p.6)

This was the very important conclusion which came out of the many books I’ve read about the Weimar Republic and the chaotic social and economic situation of so much of continental Europe between the wars. The scared human animal prefers security to freedom. Given a choice between the politician who promises a crackdown on lawlessness, a return to order and stability, with the temporary curtailment of some human rights, and the politician who insists on the primacy of human rights but can’t promise anything about the economy, jobs and violence on the streets, people will always vote for the former. This explains why in the economic and political mayhem between the wars, almost every European nation ended up being ruled by authoritarian or out and out fascist governments.

4. Positive reasons for ethnic nationalism – belonging

That’s the negative aspect, escape from fear of anarchy. But there are also numerous positive aspects of ethnic nationalism which Ignatieff encapsulates as the sense of belonging.

At Oxford Ignatieff studied under Isiah Berlin (wow) and quotes him here to the effect that to be among your own people is to be confident that you will be understood, without having to explain. It is to feel at home among people who share the same language, catchphrases, jokes and references, love the same music, can quote the same national epic and so on.

‘They understand me as I understand them; and this understanding creates within me a sense of being someone in the world.” (quoted page 7)

This explains why the issue of language is so central to disputes in ethnic nationalism over the centuries. If the ‘official’ language, the language of street signs and government forms, is not the language you speak, then quite clearly you are not at home. Hence the issue of which language street signs are in can end up being a matter of life or death.

It also explains why so many of the ethnic nationalists Ignatieff meets are so sentimental. In Croatia, Ukraine and Belfast he met members of violent paramilitaries who showed a consistent tendency to get maudlin drunk, burst into tears or burst into rousing renditions of their national anthem or rebel songs. Sentimental kitsch is the characteristic art form of ethnic nationalists. (He nowhere mentions it, but the idea of a self-pitying, over-armed, drunk sentimentalism reminded me of a certain type of nostalgia for the Confederacy in the American South.)

5. Irresponsibility

There’s another positive aspect of the kind of ethnic nationalism he describes, which is its irresponsibility. Time and again in his journeys he talks to militiamen, paramilitaries and their political leaders, and finds them all saying the same thing: it’s not our fault. This avoiding of responsibility takes at least three forms: 1. it’s all the other side’s fault. 2. we’re the victims. 3. it’s all history’s fault.

Their fault

Again and again, drunk, self-pitying militiamen explain it was the other side who started it, we’re the victims in all this, we only took up arms to protect ourselves, to fight back. Ignatieff doesn’t mention the Rwanda genocide because it hadn’t taken place when he made his tour, but this is exactly the excuse made by every Hutu nationalist interviewed by Philip Gourevitch or Fergal Keane: ‘The Tutsis started it, the Tutsis used to lord it over us, the Tutsis invaded our country: so that’s why we have to exterminate every Tutsi we can find, even the grandparents and the little babies. Why can’t you understand?’

We’re only protecting ourselves

Same view given to Ignatieff about why the Serbs had to bomb Sarajevo, in a siege which went on long after he’d left, in fact from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996. Lasting 1,425 days, this made the siege of Sarajevo the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare, lasting three times as long as the Battle of Stalingrad and more than a year longer than the siege of Leningrad. Talk to any Serb commander and they would patiently explain that they had to surround and bombard the city for 4 years in order to protect themselves.

History is to blame

All the militias knew far too much history. From the UDA and IRA in Belfast to the Serb and Croat militias, all these people know far too much about their country’s histories and the histories they know prove they are right. This disproves two great liberal nostrums which I’ve always queried:

  1. Those who ignore their own history are condemned to repeat it. Rubbish. It’s almost always the opposite, it’s the Serbs nursing their grievances going back to the Yugoslav civil war of 1941 to 1945 or, if you like, going all the way back to the famous battle of Kosovo in 1389, it’s the Croats nursing their grievance against wartime Chetniks; or the IRA celebrating their long tradition of martyrs or the UDA nursing endless grievance at the way they’re betrayed by the London government. For all these groups their history is a history of grievances and carefully tending it and memorising it traps them in the prison-house of their nationalist narratives and condemns them to repeat the same conflicts over and over. (It is in this spirit that James Joyce made his famous declaration, leaving Ireland to its endless squabbles in order to make a new life abroad, that ‘History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.’ Ethnic nationalists relive and re-enact the nightmare day after day but can never exorcise it.)
  2. History will prove us right. Rubbish. History is as contested as contemporary politics i.e. historians will argue about the significance and legacy of this or that event till the cows come home and very often are swayed by simple professional motivation i.e. the need to come up with a new angle, ‘shed new light’ and so on. The notion that there will eventually emerge one unanimous version of history is a fantasy.

But back to the main theme, blaming history is a way of avoiding taking responsibility yourself. Hence the drunken mumbling of some militia Ignatieff interviews that ‘history is to blame’. This is cognate with the white liberal guilt over empire which drives Gourevitch and Keane to lay blame for the Rwandan genocide on the Belgian authorities for introducing ethnic identity cards in the 1930s and thus hardening the divide between Hutus and Tutsis. This is where the objective study of history topples over into the crowd-pleasing activity of naming and blaming, of which there is no end.

6. Ethnic nationalism as career path = warlordism

Intellectual categorisation of ethnic nationalism risks overlooking another really obvious factor in the rise of ethnic nationalism, which is that it offers a career path to supreme power for men the world had otherwise overlooked and, especially, for latent psychopaths:

Nationalist rhetoric swept through these regions like wildfire because it provided warlords and gunmen with a vocabulary of opportunistic self-justification.

The anarchy of a collapsing state presents terror to most civilians but career opportunities for those brave and amoral enough to seize them. Hence warlordism, a version of the mafia. Local strong men emerge who dominate their area, who rule through fear and intimidation and violence but, if you are of the right ethnic group and follow the rules, they also bring peace and certainty. Which is why Ignatieff is taken on a tour of his fiefdom by one such local strongman and is impressed at the way his open-top car is greeted by cheering crowds, women offering their babies to be kissed, local businessmen giving him gifts.

Some people might find this easiest to understand this as a kind of mafia rule, but it reminds me of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf and its depiction of a Dark Age Europe made up of a patchwork of very localised regions ruled over by thousands and thousands of warrior kings who ruled by dint of winning battles and distributing loot to their soldiers. It’s this kind of historical perspective i.e. the unchanging link between Europe 500 AD and 2000 AD, which makes me think human nature, and the kind of social structures it creates, over and over again, in all times and places, doesn’t change very much.

Ethnic nationalism within civic states

Obviously, you can have ethnically chauvinist movements within civic nationalist societies, and this would include the movement for Catalan independence in Spain and Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland, who themselves spawn their opposites, Spanish nationalists within Catalonia, and the special case of the Unionists within Northern Ireland.

Cosmopolitanism and privilege

Finally, Ignatieff addresses the issue of his own perspective and makes the one cardinal point that I have made hundreds of times in this blog which is that cosmopolitan intellectuals have proved to be wrong, wrong and wrong again about the world they live in.

He devotes a fairly long passage to explaining why. He and his ilk of jet-setting intellectuals thought the rest of the world was like them, an associate professorship at Harvard, a research fellowship at Cambridge, a year-long teaching placement in Paris. Winners of life’s game flying round the world on expense accounts, eating out at fine restaurants, knowledgeable about wine and poetry. He and his friends thought the world was set to become ever-more cosmopolitan, ever-more multicultural, ever-more relaxed about race and ethnicity.

But Michael was the son of a Canadian diplomat, who moved his family around the world to different postings, so young Michael grew up naturally cosmopolitan, speaking numerous languages. He was sent to a top private school in Canada where he acquired the elite education and psychological confidence to feel right at home discussing definitions of liberty with Isaiah Berlin. Just like BBC correspondent and superstar Fergal Keane attended the leading boys private school in Ireland, works for the impeccably liberal BBC, and found himself at a complete loss to explain the Rwandan genocide.

Neither of them can comprehend the anger of being an outsider, the all-consuming rage caused by being a member of the poor, the exploited, the repressed, the ignored, the downtrodden, the humiliated, the shat-upon, the mocked and the ridiculed, told they are losers and deserve to be losers for the whole of their lives…

And how – when society starts to fall apart, when there’s an economic collapse, when an invading army turns everything upside down – then it’s your turn to get your revenge, to get your own back, to show them all you aren’t a slave and lackey to be ignored and humiliated but a man, a real man, a strong man, who can click his fingers and have whole villages exterminated, who can hold the life or death of prisoners in the palm of his hand, who distributes the pickings from the looted houses among his followers, likewise the kidnapped women and keeps the best for himself.

Neither Fergal nor Michael have a clue what that must feel like and so simply can’t comprehend what motivates so many of the ordinary soldiers, militiamen and paramilitaries they meet to carry out the murders, gang-rapes, tortures and massacres which their books describe.

But the big difference is Michael is aware of it. Not just aware, but places his own self-awareness of his privilege and ignorance within a dazzling intellectual, political and historical framework which does an enormous amount to clarify, define and help us understand the broader sociological and political causes of the new world disorder.

He acknowledges that the ‘privilege’ he has enjoyed is the reverse side of the coin of the plight of most people in the world. During the Cold War most of the world was divided up into American or Soviet spheres of influence, and these paymasters acted to restrain, up to a point, the behaviour of their clients in countries around the world. But when the Cold War ended, this support and this restraint disappeared from scores and scores of countries where fear of the Cold War master had kept an uneasy peace.

As a result, large sections of Africa, Eastern Europe, Soviet Asia, Latin America and the Near East no longer come within any clearly defined sphere of imperial or great power influence. This means that huge sections of the world’s population have won ‘the right to self determination’ on the cruellest possible terms: they have been simply left to fend for themselves. Not surprisingly, their nation states are collapsing, as in Somalia and in many other nations in Africa. (p.9)

So, with the imperial police withdrawn from large parts of the world, ethnic rivalries and enmities which had been kept bottled up for generations, could burst out anew: Yugoslavia. Rwanda. The new chaos only appears inexplicable to Ignatieff and most of his readers because they don’t grasp the fundamental geopolitical realities and, more importantly, are limited in their understanding, by their sociological situation.

Globalism in a post-imperial age only permits a post-nationalist consciousness for those cosmopolitans who are lucky enough to live in the wealthy West. It has brought only chaos and violence for the many small peoples too weak to establish defensible states of their own. (p.9)

And:

It is only too apparent that cosmopolitanism is the privilege of those who can take a secure nation state for granted. (p.9)

And:

A cosmopolitan, post-nationalist spirit will always depend, in the end, on the capacity of nation states to provide security and civility for their citizens. (p.9)

Thus when Keane gets into a tricky confrontation with border police, he can play his BBC and British government card. When Gourevitch gets into a tight spot, he can point out he’s an American and his government probably supplies arms to whatever ramshackle militia he’s dealing with. Or both can buy their way out of trouble with dollars, which the BBC or the New Yorker can provide by the suitcase full in order to rescue them. Both dip their toes in the chaos of failed states confident that they always can, if push comes to shove, buy their way out and get on the next plane home.

Neither of them seem to appreciate what it means to be someone who grows up in a society where there is no escape and where ‘kill or be killed’ is the only law and which has been drummed into you since childhood.

Ignatieff makes the dynamite point that many of the most senseless killings and brutal murders can be understood if you grasp the idea that they are fighting and murdering in order to bring a full, final and complete peace to their countries so that they can enjoy the same sense of security and safety which Gourevitch, Keane and Ignatieff have taken for granted all their lives.

Summary

It is Ignatieff’s mighty achievement to not only have created a conceptual framework which makes sense of the panorama of post-Cold War anarchy, extracting core principles and ideas which shed light on every aspect of the new nationalism; and not only to deliver high quality intellectual insights about all the conflicts this book goes on to investigate; but also to deliver an unblinking, candid and winning analysis of his own privileged position, which makes him such a fantastic guide to the new world disorder of the 1990s.

Credit

Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism by Michael Ignatieff was published by BBC Books in 1993. All references are to the revised 1995 Vintage paperback edition.


The new world disorder

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Berlin Wall came down and the countries of eastern Europe and central Asia were freed from Soviet tyranny, many Western politicians and commentators optimistically thought this marked the end of history and the dawning of a golden era of peace and democracy. Well, as any fool could have told them, they were wrong, very wrong.

Instead, relieved of the threat of socialist parties and movements (which found themselves suddenly deprived of moral, political and sometimes financial support by the Soviets) a new more virulent form of neo-liberal capitalism triumphed around the world. Workers and even middle classes in the developed world found their living standards steadily declining, and entire third world countries found themselves being exploited even more effectively by an international capitalist system evermore focused on supporting the lifestyles of westerners and a new class of international global super-rich.

Lacking political maturity (i.e. established democratic systems with a track record of the peaceful transition of power from one elected administration to another; the multifarious aspects of civil society such as a free press, charities) many newly liberated nations, afflicted with economic stress, political instability and unresolved nationalist-ethnic-border issues, not surprisingly, experienced major problems.

The specific causes were different in each case but instead of an outbreak of peace, love and understanding, the 1990s saw the Gulf War, the collapse of Somalia, civil war in former Yugoslavia and the Rwandan genocide, to name just the highlights.

The Islamic terrorist attacks of 9/11 added a whole new layer of misunderstanding and confusion to an already chaotic world, leading directly to the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and subsequent destabilisation of the entire region. And was followed by the so-called Arab Spring of 2011 which, once again, naive liberal commentators welcomed as an outbreak of democracy and equality but almost immediately led to chaos, civil war and the rise of regional warlords, in Syria and Libya to take the two most notable examples.

New world disorder reviews

The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett (1997)

Everything since independence has been a sick joke. (p.206)

The Catastrophist slowly builds into a gripping novel on the strength of Bennett’s powerful evocation of its historical setting, the Belgian Congo in the fraught months leading up to and following its independence on 30 June 1960, and in particular what David van Reybrouck calls the Shakespearian tragedy surrounding the murder of its first elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, in January 1961.

However, front and centre of the novel is the story of the narrator’s doomed love affair with a passionately political woman 13 years his junior which gives rise to numerous passages of purple prose and florid digressions on the nature of love which I found almost impossible to read.

Let’s deal with some of the negatives first, before getting onto the muscular strength of the positives.

A novel about a novelist

There are a number of reasons to dislike this novel. For a start it’s a novel told in the first person about a novelist who’s struggling to write a novel (p.12) and spends an inordinate amount of time worrying about the special problems of being a writer, about being so concerned about finding the right words that he is too self conscious to really live, to give himself to the world, to commit… and so on and so on – a subject so hackneyed and tiresome that several times I nearly gave up reading the book.

My third eye, my writer’s eye, monitors every word and gesture. It makes me fearful of my own censure. I can only hold back. (p.108)

Because he is so obsessed with his status and role as a ‘writer’ he feels like an ‘outsider’, like a permanently alienated observer of everything going on around him, and makes sure we know it by continually repeating the fact:

  • I am surrounded – always – by my own distance. (p.10)
  • I am the trained observer…
  • I am not truly part of this…
  • I move away to stand alone, apart, removed from the people…
  • …my ever-evasive presence…
  • [I am] the habitual onlooker… (p.49)
  • I have spent too much time in the cheerless solitude of my own ego.
  • Is this all I have ever been? A selfish, egotistical watcher? (p.268)

It feels like a very lived-in, worn-out, stereotyped character and attitude for a writer, for a fiction.

And my words, what worth have they? From my youth I have lived with disguises and…I have forgotten what my real words are. I have lived disguised from myself, in permanent doubt of my emotional authenticity; and since I am never alone with myself, since I am always watching the character playing my part in the scene, there is no possibility of spontaneity. (p.129)

Accompanying this tremendously narcissistic self-consciousness goes a self-consciously ‘poetic’ style, but of a particularly ‘modern’ variety. During the 1980s the ever-more popular creative writing courses spread the gospel of cutting back on style, removing adjectives, keeping it simple, understating feeling and description in order to produce a taut, clear, plain prose which, however, gives the impression of being charged with suppressed feeling. Less is more. Or at least that’s the intention.

When it doesn’t work, however, it comes over as just plain and boring, particularly if the author turns out not to have much to say, or lacks a real feel for the language. I’m afraid this is how Bennett reads to me:

I go down to the crowd and find myself next to Madeleine. The water-skiers weave and circle, a pied kingfisher hovers twenty feet above the water. There are men in military uniform on the far bank. (p.41)

I wake when she gets up to the bathroom. She urinates, then pads sleepily flat-footed back to bed. She yawns and lets out a small noise as she stretches. She breathes deeply, settling again under the sheet. (p.27)

There is a woman in London. Her name is Margaret. I am not proud of this. (p.49)

I pull out a chair for Madeleine. She takes up her things and comes over. She orders orange juice, coffee, toast and scrambled eggs. She leans back in her chair and crosses her tanned legs. She is wearing a black one-piece swimsuit under her robe. She draws on her cigarette and exhales a jet of smoke. I can’t see her eyes behind the shades. (p.77)

It’s not just that it’s pedestrian, it’s that it’s pedestrian with pretensions to be the kind of taut, understated, reined-in style which secretly conceals profound passion, which I described above as being the regulation, modern, creative-writing class style. It’s the pretentiousness of its deliberate flatness which I find irritating.

But just so we know he doesn’t always have to write this flatly, Bennett jazzes up his basic plain style with 1. occasional flashy metaphors and 2. with turns of phrase which are intended, I think, to come over as sensitive and perceptive, particularly when describing the ‘doomed’ love affair which is the central subject of the novel. 1. Here’s a few examples of his sudden flashes of metaphor:

The pitted sponge of jungle gives way to scrub and sand. The sun is red in the east. (p.9)

Jungle does not look like a sponge. Sponges are sandy colour. Jungle is a thousand shades of green. See what I mean by the deliberate understatement in fact concealing the wish to be taken as poetic.

I might have begun to resent my exclusion from the ribbons of her laughter had I not enjoyed seeing again her social display. (p.23)

‘Ribbons of her laughter’ feels like it is written to impress and it ought to impress but… I’m not impressed. In a way the numb, dumb, plain style is deployed precisely so as to be a background to occasional fireworks but I find Bennett’s fireworks too self-consciously presented for our admiration.

There was a piercing veer to the December wind… (p.72)

2. Here’s some examples of the turns of phrase which are meant to indicate what a sensitive, perceptive soul the writer is, how alert to the subtleties of human relationships, in other words a continuation of his self-pitying sense of his own specialness as a writer, an outsider, a ‘trained observer’.

She is not an early riser, but this morning is different. The air tastes of imminence, there are patterns to the clouds and she can see things. I sit on the bed, silent, feet on the floor. (p.29)

‘The air tastes of imminence.’ There are many phrases like this, rising from the numb, dumb, basic style to signpost the author’s sensitivity to mood and impression. Most of them occur around the subject of his doomed love for passionate, small, sensitive Inès.

Our disagreements are fundamental, our minds dispar, but I live in our differences: my blankness draws on her vitality. She exists me. (p.74)

This type of linguistic deformation wins prizes, literally and is clever and locally effective i.e it gives the reader a frisson of poetic pleasure. But I couldn’t help feeling it wouldn’t be necessary to use rare words or deform syntax like this if he had a more natural ability to express himself with words’ usual meanings and syntax. Instead, moments like this seem designed to show off his special sensitivity, the same sensitivity which condemns him to always be standing apart, at a distance from everyone else. ‘I am not truly part of this’. ‘I move away to stand alone, apart.’ Oh, the poor sweet sensitive soul!

Older man in love with passionate, idealistic, younger woman

It is 1959. James Gillespie is an Irishman living in London. He is a writer. He writes novels.

‘Zoubir tells me you’re a writer,’ de Scheut says. ‘What do you write?’
‘Novels,’ I say.

He has been having an affair with a passionate Italian journalist thirteen year his junior, Inès Sabiani (p.39). (When I was a schoolboy and student I ‘went out’ with girls. It was only at university that the public schoolgirls I met introduced me to the bourgeois domain where people ‘have affairs’, a phrase designed to make hoity-toity people’s lives sound so much more interesting and classy than yours or mine. The way Bennett describes James and Inès’s affair is a good example of the way people in novels often live on a more exalted plane than the humble likes of you and I. Indeed, part of the appeal of this kind of prize-winning novel for its Sunday supplement-reading audience is precisely the way it makes its readers’ lives feel more cosmopolitan, exciting, refined and sensitive.)

The daughter of a communist partisan (p.158), Inès is herself a communist, a passionate, fiery, committed idealist. (Of course she is. Why does this feel so tired and obvious and predictable?) James, her older lover, senses that he is losing her and pines like a puppy to restore their former intimacy. (Of course he does. It feels like I’ve read this tiresome story hundreds of times.)

Why did I react so acerbically? The answer is not hard to find. I am being squeezed out of her orbit. I have come a thousand miles to pin her down, but I see there is no chance of that in these crowded, coursing times. I am bitter. There is no place for me. (p.47)

Inès is a journalist and has been sent to the Belgian Congo to write magazine pieces about the countdown the growing political unrest and calls for independence. The main narrative opens as James flies in to Léopoldville airport, takes a taxi into town and is reunited with his passionate Italian lover. He immediately realises she has become passionately, idealistically committed to the cause of independence and, in particular, to the person of the charismatic Congolese politician, Patrice Lumumba. James is losing her to The Cause.

I look at her with the whole fetch of her story behind my eyes, but she will not yield, she will not soften. Why is she being like this? She used to love me. (p.91)

I wanted to give him a sharp smack and tell him to grow up.

James moves into Inès’s hotel room, they have sex, lie around naked, he watches her pee, they have baths, showers, get dressed, go to parties and receptions. But their former intimacy is somehow lacking and James is puzzled, hurt, frustrated and worries how to restore it. A wall separates them. But then, he realises they are completely different personality types. He is a realist, she is an idealist.

What is real to me is what can be seen; I understand above all else the evidence of the eyes. She is moved by things that cannot be described, that are only half-glimpsed, and when she writes… it is  not primarily to inform her audience, but to touch them. (p.47)

Inès is chronically late for everything, she has no sense of direction, she comically mangles English words and phrases (p.90). It’s almost as if Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus 🙂

His beloved is so special

Oh, but she is so special, this Inès, and inspires the narrator to special feelings about her specialness and his specialness.

She divides me. Her words divide me. Her language refuses the disciplines of the eye, of history, of the world as it is. Her imagination turns on symbol and myth. She lives in the rush of all-embracing sympathy, and sometimes, listening to her song, my lulled motions slip their noose and follow in the blind career of her allegiance… (p.45)

The prose does this, turns to mush, every time he thinks and writes about his beloved, turns into extended dithyrambs to Inès’ passion and intelligence and insight and way with words and commitment. She is small and fragile. She has small breasts. She has a ‘small, slight’ body (p.72), she is light as a feather (p.117), she has a little bottom (p.131). She is ‘small and trembling’ (p.224). She has a tiny hand (p.69), a tiny fist (p.116) just like Mimì in La bohème but her eyes are big and shining. Life is too hard for such a sensitive soul.

All this is contrasted with James’s stolid, pedestrian practicality. He is self consciously ‘older, wry and amused’ by her idealism, by her political passions (p.70). They first met in Ireland where she had come to do interviews and become passionately, naively excited about the IRA and their campaign for  Irish unification. James tells us he will bide his time before filling her in about the complicated realities of a divided Ireland. He thinks she lives in a simplistic world of good and bad, and feels his lack of commitment, his wry amusement at all types of political passion, is sadly superior.

This is the binary opposition they present in Congo: she young, idealistic and passionate about the cause of independence, increasingly and dangerously involved with the key people; he, older, disillusioned, sardonically superior to political engagement, incapable of any commitment, permanently standing to one side.

James’s sentimental worship of Inès, the committed journalist and passionate woman of the people, closely resembles the sentimental worship of his caring, altruistic wife, Tessa, by the older, jaded protagonist of John le Carré’s novel, The Constant Gardener. In both novels the attitude seems to me sentimental, maudlin, patronising and, arguably, sexist.

The Graham Greene paradigm

As to the setting, well, that is genuinely interesting. Not many anglophone novelists have written about the Congo except, of course, Graham Greene, in his gloomy 1960 novel A Burnt-Out Case. About ten of the many fulsome blurbs on The Catastrophist‘s cover compare Bennett to Greene. He must have gotten heartily sick of the comparison.

But what I find most Greeneian about The Catastrophist is not the ‘exotic’ setting but the extreme predictability about almost every aspect of the story. Jaded older man in love is with vivacious younger woman. Frank descriptions of love making undermined by sadness that he is losing her. These are straight out of Greene’s book-length account of a doomed romance in The End of The Affair (1951) and of the doomed romance in The Quiet American (1955).

A few chapters into the narrative Inès takes James to a swanky reception/garden party hosted by one of the most influential local Europeans, Bernard Houthhoofd (p.35). Here James meets a selection of European colonialists, colons to use the French word, who are straight out of central casting, the kind of chorus of secondary characters which seem super-familiar from Graham Greene’s later works, and from all novels of this type.

  • There is the rich host himself, sleek and unperturbed.
  • There is the snobby or arrogant or ignorant middle-class white woman, Madeleine, who thinks all natives or indigènes (as the French-speaking Belgians call them) are ghastly, they are children, they need a strong leader, they are nowhere near ready for independence etc (p.79).
  • There is the decent businessman, de Scheut, who is worried for the safety of his children in these dangerous times.
  • There is Zoubir Smail, a Lebanese-born diamond merchant (p.268).
  • There’s Roger who is, alas, not the lodger but the thoroughly decent English doctor.
  • There’s a journalist, Grant, the epitome of the English public schoolboy with his height, condescension and floppy haircut (p.113).
  • And there is the crop-haired, big-headed American, Mark Stipe (p.39) who may or may not be working for the CIA.

Could it possibly be more like a Graham Greene novel with a cast almost as stereotyped as an Agatha Christie novel? Or like his heir, John le Carré, with his descriptions of privileged ex-pat communities in places like Hong Kong (The Honourable Schoolboy) and Nigeria (The Constant Gardener).

The whole thing feels programmatic and predictable.

Symbolism

The garden party is a good example of another aspect of the novel which is that, although completely realist in style and conception, Bennett is careful to give his scenes symbolic resonance. Thus the garden party at Houthhoofd’s place doesn’t take place in Léopoldville, capital of the Congo (the city which, six years later, Mobutu would rename Kinshasa) but on the other side of the river, in the French colony of Congo (south of the river was the Belgian Congo, north of the river was the French Congo).

The point being that when all the guests become aware of a disturbance back on the Belgian side, some kind of protest which turns into a riot and then the police opening fire on the crowd, they observe all this at a great distance, only barely perceivable through a pair of binoculars one guest happens to have on him. It is a symbol, you see, of the great distance which separated the pampered lives of the European colons from the harsh lives of the locals.

This and various other moments in or aspects of the book feel as if they’ve been written with the Brodie’s Notes summary in mind, with events and characters written to order to fit into sections called Themes, Character, Symbolism, Treatment and so on, ready for classrooms full of bored GCSE students to copy out. All the way through, I had the sensation that I’d read this book before, because the plot, incidental events and many of its perceptions about love and politics feel not only familiar, but so schematic.

In its final quarter The Catastrophist develops into quite a gripping narrative but never shakes the feeling that it has been painted by numbers, written to order, according to a checklist of themes and ideas and insights which had to be included and checked off.

(The riot isn’t a random occurrence. Bennett is describing the protest march which turned into a massacre which led the Belgian authorities to set up a commission of enquiry – which predictably exonerated the police – but was important because it led directly Lumumba’s arrest and imprisonment for alleged incitement in November 1959.)

Sex in the bourgeois novel

Sex is everywhere in the bourgeois novel. One of the main reasons for reading middle-class novels is the sensitive, caring way in which elaborate, imaginative sex between uninhibited and physically perfect partners routinely occurs. Which is all rather unlike ‘real life’ in which my own experience, the experience of everyone I’ve ever slept with or talked to about sex, everything I’ve heard from the women in my life, from feminists, from advice columns, and newspaper articles and surveys, suggest otherwise. In the real world people struggle in all kinds of ways with their sexuality, not least the fact that people are often too ill, sick, tired, drunk or physically incapacitated to feel horny. Most women have periods, some very painful, which preclude sex for a substantial percentage of the time. According to the most thorough research, about 1 in 5 people have some kind of sexually transmitted disease. In other words, sex in the real world is often physically, psychologically and emotionally difficult and messy.

Whereas the way the male protagonists of novels by Graham Greene or David Lodge or Howard Jacobson or Alan Furst (the most eminent literary shaggers I can think of) or, in this case, Ronan Bennett, can barely exchange a few words with a woman before they’re between the sheets having athletic, imaginative sex with women who are physically perfect and have deep, rewarding orgasms. It’s hard not to conclude that this is the wildest male fantasy but at the same time one of the central appeals of the modern novel. Respectable sex. Wonderful and caring sex. The kind of sex we’d all like to have but mostly don’t.

The narrator tells us that Inès climaxes quickly and easily (p.131). Well, that’s handy. And also that Inès prefers to slow love-making right down, hold her partner in position above her, and then rub her clitoris against his penis until she achieves orgasm with short quiet yelps. Once she has climaxed, penetrative lovemaking can continue until the man climaxes inside her (p.72). Well, I’m glad that’s settled, then.

Setting – the Belgian Congo at independence

Anyway, to focus on the actual setting for a moment: the novel is set in the Belgian Congo in late 1959 and covers the period of the runup to independence on 30 June 1960 and then the 6 months of political and social turmoil which followed and led up to the kidnap and murder of the country’s first Prime Minister, the fiery speechmaker and anti-colonial activist Patrice Lumumba.

Bennett deploys a series of scenes designed to capture the tense atmosphere of the time and place. It’s an early example of Bennett’s realist/symbolical approach when he’s barely touched down and is being driven into town, when the car is hit by a stone thrown by an unseen attacker. It is a first tiny warning of  the resentment felt by blacks to privileged whites, an indicator of the violence latent in the situation. Later he and other guests emerge from a restaurant and see a menacing crowd of blacks at the edge of the white, colonial part of town, who escalate from chanting to throwing stones and then into a full-blown attack on shops and cars. Then there is the garden party scene I’ve described, where the guests witness a riot across the river and some of them spy, through the binoculars, the police throwing bodies of the protesters they’ve shot into the river.

Back in their hotel room after the party/riot Inès punches out an angry impassioned description of the protest/massacre on her typewriter to send to her communist magazine, L’Unità.

The American CIA character, Mark Stipe, steadily grows in importance, until he is nearly as central as the  American character, Alden Pyle, in Greene’s Quiet American. Having him work for some, initially unnamed, US government agency means he can quickly brief the narrator on the Real Situation, or at least as the Americans see it. Stipe lets James read their files about the general economic situation (Congo relies entirely on the raw resources mined by the Union Minière) and the leading political figures – Patrice Lumumba head of the MNC political party; Joseph Kasavubu, head of the Alliance des Bakongo (ABAKO) and chief of the Bakongo people; Antoine Gizenga, leader of the Parti Solidiare Africain.

Early on Stipe bumps into James in a bar and surprises him by taking him to see Lumumba’s (boring, ordinary) suburban house, but then driving on to a dingier part of town, where he locates a safe house, owned by one Mungul, where it turns out that Lumumba is actually hiding. Stipe briefly introduces James to Lumumba, before disappearing into another room for a private convo.

In other words, Stipe plays the role of Exposition, feeding the narrator all the important facts about the political situation so that he (and the reader) can quickly get up to speed.

But he also plays another important role, that of binary opposite to idealistic Inès. Stipe is the slangy, cynical, seen-it-all realist. After talking to him, James feels he knows what is really going on, and this makes him feel superior when he goes back to the apartment and talks to Inès who is all fired up about Freedom and Justice. With our Brodie’s Notes hat on, we could say the novel asks the question: who is right? Cynical Stipe or idealistic Inès? Which side should jaded old James commit to?

(This points to another way in which the conventional modern novel flatters its readers: it makes us feel we understand what’s going on. It makes us feel clever, in the know, well-connected whereas, in my experience of political journalism, no-one knows what’s going on. As the subsequent history of the Congo amply demonstrates…Novels which present neat moral dilemmas like this are almost by definition unrealistic, because most of us live our entire lives without being faced with really stark choices.)

Stipe and Lumumba share a driver/fixer named Auguste Kilundu (p.252). He is one of the rare African voices in the novel. Through him Bennett displays a lot of background information, namely about the évolués, the tiny educated elite which emerged in the last decade of Belgian rule. In 1952 the colonial administration introduced the carte d’immatriculation which granted blacks who held it full legal equality with Europeans. It required a detailed assessment of the candidate’s level of ‘civilisation’ by an investigating commission who even visited their homes to make sure the toilet and the cutlery were clean.

Bennett makes this character, Auguste, the proud possessor of a carte d’immatriculation and another vehicle for factual exposition for he can explain to the all-unknowing narrator the tribal backgrounds and rivalries of the main Congolese politicians. Having handily given us all this exposition, Auguste is then depicted as an enthusiastic supporter of Lumumba’s MNC party which aims to supersede tribalism and create a post-tribal modern nation (pages 85 to 88).

The plot

Part one: Léopoldville, November 1959

Middle-aged, Northern Irish novelist James Gillespie flies into the Belgian Congo in November 1959 to be with his lover, Italian communist journalist, Inès Sabiani. He quickly finds himself drawn into the drama surrounding the run-up to Congo’s hurried independence, forced along by growing unrest and rivalry between native politicians, with a small cast of characters European and Congolese giving differing perspectives on the main events. Central to these is the American government agent Mark Stipe.

James witnesses riots. He sees little everyday scenes of racial antagonism, the daily contempt of the colons for the blacks they insultingly call macaques or ‘monkeys’. He writes articles for the British press about the growing calls for independence and, as a rersult, is spat on and punched in restaurants by infuriated colons. His little cohort of liberal Belgians and ex-pat British friends support him. He grows increasingly estranged from Inès who is out till all hours following up stories, befriending the locals, getting the lowdown and then punching out angry articles on her typewriter for L’Unità. They both watch Lumumba being arrested by the nervous colonial police in front of a crowd of angry blacks following the October riot.

The narrative then skips a few months to the opening of the Belgo-Congolese Round Table Conference which commenced on 20 January 1960. Then skips to 27 February, the date on which the conference announced that full independence would be granted on 30 June 1960. They go out to watch a black freedom march but Inès helps turn it into a riot by walking arm in arm with Lumumba’s évolué driver, Auguste. The sight of a white woman walking with a black man prompts bigoted colons to wade into the crowd and abuse her, and to drag Auguste off and give him a beating. James wades in to protect Inès and has a brief punch-up with a big whitey, before managing to take her out of the mob, though he can do nothing to save Auguste who is beaten to the ground by a furious white mob.

For a period following the riot, Inès is ill, confined to bed, vomiting and losing weight. James is quietly pleased about this as she is restricted to contact with him, ceases her political activities and gives him hope their love will be rekindled. They hadn’t been sleeping together but now, on one occasion, they have sensitive soulful sex of the kind found in sensitive novels about sensitive people designed to thrill sensitive readers.

James and Inès attend an MNC rally in the Matongé stadium in the build-up to the pre-independence elections (held in May 1960). Stipe invites James to go on a long road trip with him and Auguste to the province of Katanga in the south-east. On the journey Stipe shares a lot about his personal life (unhappily married) and motivation.

On the journey it also becomes clear that Auguste is changing and is no longer so sheepish and submissive. Inès has told James that Auguste has not only joined Lumumba’s MNC but been appointed to a senior position. James is surprised; he thought him an amiable simpleton. On the road trip Stipe loses his temper with Auguste because, he admits, he doesn’t want him cosying up to Lumumba and getting hurt. En route they come across abandoned burned villages. The Baluba and Lulua tribes are fighting, a foreshadowing of the huge tribal divisions and ethnic cleansing which were to bedevil the independent Congo.

They meet with Bernard Houthhoofd at his beautiful property in Katanga. Bennett gives us facts and figures about Katanga’s stupefying mineral wealth. Over dinner Stipe and Houthhoofd list Lumumba’s failings: he smokes dope, he screws around, but chief among them is that he is taking money from the Soviets. A senior official from the MNC, the vice-chairman Victor Nekanda, is at this dinner and promises to betray Lumumba and set up a rival party, a symbol of the kind of two-faced African politician, all-too-ready to sell out to Western, particularly, American backers.

On the long drive back from Katanga to the capital they come to a village where they had stopped on  the outward journey, and find it burned to the ground in tribal violence, every inhabitant killed, many chopped up. They discover that the kindly schoolteacher who had helped them has been not only murdered but his penis cut off (p.175). Premonitions of the future which independence will bring.

On his return to Léopoldville (abbreviated by all the colons to Leo) James has a blazing row with Inès, throwing all the accusations he heard about Lumumba in her face (dope fiend, adulterer, commie stooge). She replies accusing him of lacking heart, compassion and morality and being the dupe of the exploiting colonial regime and its American replacement.

She also accuses him of denying himself and his true nature and for the first time we learn that James’s real name is actually Seamus and he that he has taken an exaggeratedly English name and speaks with an exaggerated English accent because he is on the run from his own past in Ulster, particularly his violent father who beat his mother. Aha. This family background explains why James sees the worst in everyone. Explains why he can’t afford to hope – it’s too painful, he (and his mum) were let down by his violent father too many times.

This blazing row signals the final collapse of their relationship. Inès moves out and James descends into drunken, middle-aged man, psycho hell. He drinks, he loses weight. Stipe and de Scheut take him for meals, offer to have him come stay. Just before the elections in May 1960 he can’t bear to stay in the empty apartment, moves to a rented room, writes Inès a letter begging forgiveness. Grow up, man.

Part two: Ireland and England

Part two leaps back in time to be a brief memoir about James’s aka Seamus’s Irish family – his father, William, a good-looking English graduate who swept his optimistic Catholic mother, Nuala, off her feet, and slowly turned into a maudlin, wife-beating drunk. Seamus serves in the army in the Second World War, goes to university, moves to London to complete a PhD about 17th century England. The narrative dwells on the unhappiness of his parents’ own upbringings and then the humiliations and unhappiness they brought to their own marriage. It is grim, depressing reading, conveyed in Bennett’s plainest, starkest prose.

One day, budding academic James picks up a novel in a second hand shop in London, starts reading, can’t stop, reads more, buys more novels, reads obsessively and decides to become a writer, abandons his PhD, meets a young publisher who encourages him, blah blah.

A novelist writing a novel about a novelist writing about how he became a novelist. Could anything be more boring? All painfully earnest, serious, sensitive, not one bloody joke.

Obviously, the purpose of this brief digression is to shed light on the narrator’s psychology and why he fell so hard for Inès and why he was so devastated when she permanently dumped him after their big argument. Those with an interest in unhappy Irish childhoods will love this section, but I was relieved to find it mercifully short, pages 187 to 202.

Part three: Léopoldville, November 1960

I.e. the Irish digression allows the narrative to leap six months forwards from May 1960 when we left it. It is now five months after independence was achieved (on 30 June 1960), after five months of chaos, army mutinies, riots, regional secessions, ethnic cleansing, economic collapse, all of which have led up to the first of Joseph-Désiré Mobutu’s coups, on 14 September.

The narration resumes five weeks after Mobutu’s coup. (It is important to be aware that Mobutu had himself been appointed the new Congo Army’s chief of staff by Lumumba himself and, when the troops mutinied 4 days after independence, he had been charged with dealing with the mutiny and then the series of nationwide crises which followed in quick succession. So Lumumba put his friend and former secretary into the position which he then used to overthrow, imprison and, ultimately, murder his old boss.)

As the chaos unfolded everyone told James to flee the country, as 30,000 Belgians did after the army mutiny and riots of July, but he stayed on and heard Mobutu declare his coup in September and arrest Lumumba.

Now the narrative follows James as he dines with Stipe, the American ambassador and other furtive Yanks, presumably CIA, who now dismiss Lumumba as a commie bastard. The historical reason for this is that Lumumba asked the UN for help putting down the secessionist movements in Katanga and Kasai and, when they sent a few peacekeepers but said they wouldn’t directly intervene, a panic-stricken Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union which immediately gave him guns and lorries and planes i.e. he wasn’t himself a communist, he was taking help from whoever offered it.

The conflict came to a head on the 14 September when the new nation had the surreal experience of hearing President Kasavubu on the radio sacking Lumumba as Prime Minister, followed an hour later by Prime Mininster Lumumba sacking President Kasavubu. It was this absurd political stalemate which Mobutu found himself called on to resolve. Hence he stepped in himself to take control and then, under pressure from the Belgians but especially the Americans, to place his former friend and boss under house arrest.

Knowing his days were numbered, Lumumba begged for UN protection, so – in the present which the novel is describing – his house is now surrounded by blue helmets, themselves surrounded by Congo Army forces. If the UN leaves, everyone knows Lumumba will be murdered, in much the way his followers are now being rounded up and liquidated.

Because this kind of schematic novel always reflects political events in personal events, it is no great surprise, in fact it feels utterly inevitable, when Stipe tells James that his lady love, Inès, is now ‘having an affair with’ Auguste, Stipe’s former chauffeur and friend, who has apparently risen to heights in Lumumba’s MNC having spent a month being indoctrinated in communist Czechoslovakia.

Right from the start of the novel we’ve been aware of James’s attraction to the solid, big-breasted, bigoted colon Madeleine. Now we learn that, on the rebound from Inès, James is fucking her shamelessly, alone in her big house, regularly. ‘Fuck’ is the operative word because Madeline enjoys BDSM and eggs James on to be rougher, harder, swear, shout abuse, slap her. Obviously he enjoys it at the time but later broods, despises himself and wishes he had Inès back.

The difference between the cruel sex with Madeleine and the sensual sex with Inès is as schematic as everything else in the novel and obviously signals the transition from the pre-independence spirit of optimism and the post-independence spirit of cynicism and violence.

Something happens half way through this final long section: the novel begins to morph into a thriller. Out of the blue Inès makes James’s deepest wish come true and contacts him… but not to beg forgiveness and say how much she loves him, but to turn up on his doorstep, collapsing from malaria and begging him to go fetch Auguste from the village outside Léopoldville where he’s hiding and bring him back into town so he can catch a secret flight from the airport which has been arranged by Egypt’s President Nasser to evacuate all MNC members (p.225).

So in the final 40 or so pages the novel turns into a thriller very much in the John le Carré vein, with fat bumbling, self-absorbed novelist suddenly finding himself in serious trouble with the authorities and forced to demonstrate something like heroism.

The tension is racked up for all it’s worth. Calling bland, imperturbable English doctor Roger to come and tend to Inès, James drives out to the village and finds Auguste, alright. He is disgusted when Auguste asks him to help him pack up his and Inès’s belongings from the room in the shanty house which they have obviously been sharing, where Auguste has been screwing her. James stares at the bed, his head full of queasy imaginings.

James hides Auguste in the boot as he drives back into town. He stops at Leo’s main hotel to phone Roger the doctor who is tending to Inès. It is in the hotel immediately after the call, that James is confronted by Stipe who for the first time is not friendly. He asks James twice if he knows where Auguste and both times James lies. Stipe knows James is lying but can’t prove it. James knows Stipe knows and becomes painfully self-conscious about every reply, wondering if his smile is too fake, if Stipe can see the sweat trickling down his brow. Stipe tells him he is being a fool, he is in way over his head, then says a contemptuous goodbye.

James walks back out the hotel to his car realising it’s too dangerous to take Auguste to his own apartment, which is probably being watched. He has a brainwave – Madeline! No-one would suspect the bigoted colon Madeleine of having anything to do with MNC freedom fighters (so Madeleine serves two narrative functions; symbolic dirty sex, and owner of safe house).

So James drives Auguste to Madeleine’s nice town house and, from there, phones his own flat and asks Roger to bring Inès there too. No-one will think of looking for them there. They’ll be safe till the plane arrives. Roger arrives with Inès. Good. Everyone is safe.

So, promising to return and take them to the airport, James drives back to his own house. And sure enough is greeted by a platoon of soldiers. He’s barely begun to protest his innocence before the captain in charge simply borrows a rifle from one of his men and hits James very hard in the side of his head with the rifle butt, kicking him in the guts on the way down, punching and slapping him till he vomits and wets himself. Stipe was right. He’s in way over his head.

He is thrown into the back of an army lorry, kicked and punched more, then dragged into a prison courtyard, along corridors and thrown into a pitch black cell, where he passes out.

He is woken and dragged to an interrogation room where he is presented with the corpse of Zoubir Smail, the Lebanese-born diamond merchant he met at Houthhoofd’s garden party. Smail has been beaten so that every inch of his body is covered with bruises and his testicles swollen up like cricket balls where they have been battered.

James is still reeling from this when the door opens and in comes Stipe, smooth as silk, to interrogate him. There’s no rough stuff, but Stipe psychologically batters him by describing in detail how Auguste fucks Inès, what a big dick he has, how Auguste once confided in Stipe once that he likes sodomy. Stipe forces James to imagine the sounds Inès must make when Auguste takes her from behind. It works. James is overcome with fury and jealousy but he repeatedly refuses to admit he knows where Auguste is. Not for Auguste’s sake, not for the damn ’cause’ – because he thinks being tight-lipped it will help him keep Inès.

Then, as abruptly as he was arrested, they release him, black soldiers dragging him along another corridor to a door, opening it and pushing him out into the street. Simple as that.

James staggers out into the sunlight and there’s Stipe waiting in a swish American car, offering him a friendly lift home, bizarre, surreal. But also telling him, in a friendly way, that he has three days to pack his stuff and leave the country. He apologises for subjecting him to the ordeal, but he was just doing his job.

Then, in the final chapter of this section, the narrative cuts to the scene the novel opened with. We learn that James was able to drive back to Madeleine’s, collect Inès and Auguste and drive them to the airport where they meet up with Lumumba and his people. Except no plane arrived from Egypt. Nothing. So the little convoy of MNC officials go int a huddle and decide to drive east, into the heart of the country, towards Lumumba’s native region where he will be able to raise a population loyal to him.

So they drive and drive, Auguste, Inés, James, Lumumba in a different car with his wife Pauline and young son Roland. But James is appalled at the way they dilly-dally at every village they come to, stopping to chat to the village elders, Lumumba unable to pass by opportunities to press the flesh and spread his charisma.

With the result that, as they arrive at the ferry crossing of the river Sankuru, Mobutu’s pursuing forces catch up with them, a detachment of soldiers and a tracker plane. Lumumba had successfully crossed the river with key followers, including Auguste, but leaving Pauline and Roland to catch it after it returns. But now the soldiers have grabbed her and his son. Everyone watches the figure on the other side of the river, will he disappear into the jungle or… then they see him step back onto the ferry and bid the ferryman steer it back over towards the soldiers. His wife shouts at him not to do it, Inès is in floods of tears, James is appalled.

And sure enough, the moment he steps off the ferry he is surrounded by soldiers who start to beat and punch him. The reader knows this is the start of the calvary which will lead, eventually, to one of Africa’s brightest, most charismatic leaders being flown to the remote city of Elizabethville, taken out into some god-forsaken field, beaten, punched and then executed his body thrown into a well.

James and Inès are released and make it back to Leo, where they immediately pack their things and take the ferry across the river to the freedom and sanity of the French Congo. Here they set up house together and live happily for weeks. Inès even deigns to have sex with poor, pitiful James.

But then one day she gets an AP wire that Lumumba has been murdered (17 January 1961). Mobutu had sent him to Katanga, allegedly for his own safety, but well aware he’d be done in. The official story is that Lumumba was set upon and massacred by villagers in revenge for the killing of their people by Lumumba’s tribe. But everyone knows the murder was committed by the authorities.

The final Congo scene is of Lumumba’s widow leaving the Regina hotel where she had gone to ask for her husband’s body back and walking down a central Boulevard Albert I with her hair shorn and topless, the traditional Congolese garb of mourning, and slowly the city’s civilians stop their work to join her.

James finds himself and Inès caught up in the crowd and then Inès lets go his hand and is swept away. It is another totally realistic but heavily symbolic moment, for the crowd is chanting Freedom and Independence and so it is perfect that Inès the idealist is carried away with it, becomes one with it – while James finds himself confronted by Stipe, furious that he lied to him, who punches him, hard, knocking him to the ground, where various members of the crowd stumble over him and he is in danger of being trampled. Always the clumsy stumbling outsider.

Until at the last moment he is lifted to his feet and dusted off by Charles, the reticent black servant who tended the house he had been renting in Leo. And with his symbolic separation from the love of his life, his near trampling by the Forces of Freedom, his beating up by the forces of capitalist America, and his rescue by one act of unprompted black kindness, the main narrative of the novel ends.

Part four: Bardonnecchia, August 1969

There is a seven page coda. It is 8 years later. James lives in Italy. He spends summer in this remote village up near the French border. In the evenings he dines at the Gaucho restaurant. The atmosphere is relaxed and the food is excellent. Of course it is. He knows the waiter and the owner and the pizza chef and the owner of the little bookshop on the other side of the railway line. Of course he does. Late in the evening he sits on chatting to some or all of them. In the absence of Inès his prose is back to its flat dulness.

This year Alan has come out to join me for a week. His reputation as a publisher has grown in tandem with mine as a writer. It is a moot point who has done more for whom. (p.306)

I help him aboard with his luggage and we shake hands. Alan has his ambitions, he can sometimes be pompous, but he is a good man. I am sad that he is going. (p.311)

Dead prose.

He tells us his most successful novel to date was the one about a middle-aged sex-mad novelist and his doomed affair for a passionately little Italian woman who climaxes easily. In other words, the one we’ve just read. A novel featuring a novelist describing how he wrote a novel describing the events he’s just described to us in his novel! How thrillingly post-modern! Or dull and obvious, depending on taste.

James is still obsessed by Inès. With wild improbability he hears her name mentioned by someone in the restaurant, asks about her and discovers she is now one of Italy’s premier foreign correspondents, writing angry despatches from Vietnam. People in novels like this are always eminent, successful, have passionate sex, know the right people, are at the heart of events.

Every morning he waits for the post but there has never been any letter from her. He is a sad sack. Why 1969? So Bennett can set this coda against the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland. His mother and sister have joined the marchers for civil rights. Young men are throwing bricks and bottles at British soldiers. We know now this was to lead to 29 years of bloodshed, strife, murders, bombings and lawlessness. The world is not as we want it to be. What we want to happen, doesn’t. Marches for independence, marches for freedom have a tendency to end not just in bloodshed, but decades of bloodshed.

The novel ends on a note for the sensitive. The sad narrator knows he will now never see Inès again. I know. Tragedy. Cataclysm. After waving Alan off on the train back to London he takes a walk up the hill to be soulful and solitary. Inèes told him she could always be found among the marchers for freedom and justice. But he is trapped in his own disbelief:

She encouraged me, beckoned me forward. She promised that was where I’d find her. But I could never join her there. I was always too much a watcher, too much l’homme-plume; I was divided, unbelieving. My preference is the writer’s preference, for the margins, for the avoidance of agglomerations and ranks. I failed to find her and I know this failure will mark the rest of my life. (p.312)

I can imagine some readers bursting into tears at this sad and sensitive conclusion, but as I’ve given ample evidence, I found this entire ‘sensitive writer’ schtick clichéd, tiresome, self-centred, hackneyed, old and boring.

Bennett has taken the extraordinary history of the Congo and turned it into a schematic matrix of binary characters and simplistic symbols. Active v passive; male v female; idealistic v cynical; radical v reactionary. The Catastrophist is a good example of why I struggle to read contemporary novels; not because they’re about contemporary society so much as because they tend to wear their sensitive, soulful credentials on their sleeves and humble-brag about their bien-pensant, liberal, woke attitude.

And in doing so miss the dirty, uncomfortable, messy complexities of actual life and politics which don’t fit into any categories, whose ironic reversals defy neat pigeon-holing and clever symbolism.

The catastrophist

is James. It’s another example of Inès’ shaky grasp of English. She says there’s an Italian word, catastrofista which perfectly suits James, and they agree that ‘catastrophist’ is probably the nearest translation into English. Anyway, a ‘catastrophist’ always sees the dark side and thinks nothing can be fixed and uses this pessimism as an excuse for never trying to improve the world, to achieve justice and equality. That’s what she thinks James is.

‘If you are catastrofista no problem is small. Nothing can be fixed, it is always the end.’ (p.131)

And maybe he is. Who cares.

Thoughts

The Catastrophist is a slick well-made production which wears its bien-pensant, sensitive heart on its sleeve. By dint of repetition we come to believe (sort of) in old, disillusioned James aka Seumus and his forlorn love for passionate little (the adjective is used again and again) Inès.

The issues surrounding Congo independence are skilfully woven into the narrative, the mounting sense of crisis is cleverly conveyed through the escalation of incidents which start with a stone being thrown at his car, mount through minor riots to the hefty peace rally massacre, on to the horrifying scene of tribal massacre in Kisai, a litany of violence which, I suppose, climaxes with James being beaten up in the interrogation room and being confronted with the tortured corpse of someone he actually knows (Smail).

The thematic or character structure of the novel is howlingly obvious: Inès is on the side of the angels, the optimists, the independence parties, the clamourers for freedom and justice. James is very obviously the half-hearted cynic who tags along with her for the sake of his forlorn passion.

But it is the steely, hard, disdainful colon Madeleine who won my sympathy. During an early attempt to seduce James, as part of their sparring dialogue, she says if the Congolese ever win independence it will be a catastrophe. And it was. Sometimes the right-wing, racist, colonial bigots who are caricatured and mocked in the liberal press, liberal novels and liberal arts world – sometimes they were actually right.

For me, personally, reading this novel was useful because it repeated many of the key facts surrounding Congo independence from a different angle, and so amounted to a kind of revision, making key players and events that bit more memorable. For example, Bennett confirms David van Reybrouck’s comment about the sudden explosion of political parties in the run-up to the independence elections, their overnight emergence and febrile making and breaking of alliances. And echoes van Reybrouck’s list of the common people’s illusions about independence. He has a good scene where an MNC candidate addresses a remote village and promises that, at independence, they will all be given big houses and the wives of the whites; that they will find money growing in their fields instead of manioc; that their dead relatives will rise from their graves (p.164).

So I enjoyed everything about the background research and a lot of the way Bennett successfully dramatises events of the period. You really believe you’re there. That aspect is a great achievement. The love affair between self-consciously writerly older writer and passionate young idealistic woman bored me to death.

Since the events depicted in the book, Congo underwent the 30-year dictatorship of Mobutu, more massacres and ethnic cleansing until the Rwandan genocide spilled out into the first and second Congo wars, the overthrow of Mobutu, the incompetent rule of Laurent Kabila and his assassination, followed by more years of chaos until recent elections promised some sort of stability. But the population of Congo at independence, when this novel was set, was 14 million. Today, 2021, it is 90 million and the median age is 19. The place and its people look condemned to crushing poverty for the foreseeable future.

The Catastrophist‘s imagining of the mood and events of the period it depicts are powerful and convincing. But in the larger perspective it seems like a white man’s fantasy about a period which is now ancient history to the majority of the country, and whose maudlin self-pitying narrator is almost an insult to the terrible tribulations the country’s population endured and continue to face.

Credit

The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett was published by REVIEW in 1998. All references are to the 1999 paperback edition.


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Congo: The Epic History of a People by David Van Reybrouck (2010) – 2

One reason van Reybrouck describes his history of the modern Congo as ‘epic’ is because so much happens that it becomes quite bewildering. Possibly you can break it down into two main parts:

Part one – pre-independence

Pre-history

The slow spread of Bantu tribes from central west Africa about 1,000 BC. The slow arrival of limited agriculture but without the pack animals or variety of farmed animals found in Eurasia resulting in subsistence farming. The permanent toll of fierce diseases carried by the tsetse fly killing humans and animals. The rise of the relatively small kingdom of Kongo around the mouth of the Congo River from the 14th to 19th centuries. It was this kingdom that the first Portuguese explorers encountered around 1500 and whose name came to be applied to the river and then the larger region.

European exploration 1850 to 1885

The tentative probing of David Livingstone into the region from the east, followed by the path-breaking expedition of Henry Morton Stanley which mapped virtually the entire length of the vast river. Followed by Stanley being commissioned by King Leopold of Belgium to open up the river by building a road, railway and importing steamships. And the rivalry with the French, represented by Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza who wanted the territory directly north of the river, which ended up becoming the neighbouring state of Republic of Congo.

King Leopold’s Free State 1885 to 1908

At the Berlin Conference King Leopold of Belgium managed to persuade Bismarck and the French to assign him the huge area of Congo as his own personal fiefdom. I’ve documented the abuses and atrocities carried out by the King Leopold’s Force Publique which terrorised the entire native population in order to extract the maximum ivory and then rubber in reviews of King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild (1999) and a review of the first part of this book. Eventually, Leopold was forced by public, political and international opinion to hand the Congo over to the Belgian state to run.

Colonial period 1908 to 1960

The long colonial period is interesting for what it says about European exploitation of its colonies in general, namely the continuation of the harvesting of raw materials by European companies, but the slow movement towards creating an educated native middle class, called the évolués, particularly after the Second World War (page 215 onwards).

Ironically, the creation of a very small educated class (numbering maybe 12,000 by 1954) went hand in hand with post-war affluence for the Belgian settlers. Between the wars it had still been a country for rough, tough male pioneers. After the war, new technological developments (in medicine and air conditioning) meant many more wives were brought over, affluent suburbs were created, gated communities with big houses, big lawns, big swimming pools, big chauffeur-driven cars. At just the moment that young educated Congolese began writing articles and books about their colonial status, a new kind of colour bar arose, whereby they were forbidden from entering whites only bars or swimming pools. Which created bitter resentment from the évolués who complained that they’d done everything the colonialists wanted, copied their clothes and manners but were still treated like second class citizens in their own country.

The rush to independence 1955 to 1960

Van Reybrouck’s account of Congo’s rush to independence is riveting (but then every section of this brilliant book is riveting). A number of themes come over very clearly:

Spirit of the age: between 1945 and 1949 the Phillipines, India, Pakistan, Burma, Ceylon and Indonesia won independence from their colonial masters. The wave of new thinking culminated in the 1955 Bandung Conference of free and wanting-to-be-free colonies in Indonesia. It was the same year that Belgian journalist Jef van Bilsen wrote an article demanding to know the precise steps which the Belgian government was going to put in place over the following decades for independence. In 1956 Sudan, Morocco and Tunisia gained independence.

Calls for independence were galvanised by riots, the most serious occurring on 4 January 1959, in which a mob murdered whites and trashed white property (p.248). The threat of mass violence heralded the end of trouble-free European superiority.

The Belgians, galvanised by van Bilsen’s article, agreed to independence in principle, eventually, but were thinking in timescales of 20 or 30 or 50 years; they were outflanked by new native political leaders who demanded it NOW.

As a result the authorities organised the first free democratic elections in the country’s history for 1957. The sudden arrival of the notion of independence, and the election, led to the creation of ad hoc political parties and the sudden emergence of spokesmen and leaders.

Almost immediately it became clear that these leaders came from and spoke for particular regions and ethnic groups; tribalism wasn’t a later addition, van Reybrouck shows how the politicisation of ethnic groups was intimately linked with the creation of political parties right from the start (p.252).

Thus the Alliance of Bakongo (ABAKO) headed by Joseph Kasavubu, which had established itself as the leading opponent of colonial rule was largely made up of people from the Bakongo ethnic group and openly denigrated the Lingala-speaking Bangala. The Centre du Regroupement Africain (CEREA) represented Kivu and Conakat. La Confédération des associations tribales du Katanga (CONAKAT) represented the mineral-rich province of Kitanga and was led by Moïse Tshombe. Bolikango spoke up for the Bangala, Jason Sendwe spoke up for the Baluba from Katanga, Justin Bomboko for the Mongo people and so on (p.252).

Another central figure who emerged was Patrice Lumumba, a former beer salesman and journalist who led the Congolese National Movement (MNC) which aimed to rise above tribal and regional affiliations and represent the entire country.

These parties began a kind of race to the bottom by outdoing each other in their demands for independence NOW. Anyone who didn’t want it within five years could be portrayed as a colonialist stooge; then 2 years; then one year; then 6 months. The Belgo-Congolese Round Table Conference which was held from January to May 1960 to thrash out the handover, which included half Belgian colonialists and half new Congolese leaders, found itself railroaded into agreeing the date of independence for June 30, 1960, less than 2 months after it ended (pages 256 to 259).

Van Reybrouck speaks to contemporary Congolese and some players in the political manoeuvres who lament, to a man, the mad rush to independence, realising in retrospect that the country was in no way ready for it, and blaming much of their troubles on what the Belgian King Baudouin had warned about in his radio broadcast of January 13, 1959, as ‘thoughtless haste’.

The result was that the country was completely unprepared, at every possible level: political, administrative, financial, managerial, technological, educational, industrial, agricultural.

On the day of its independence, the country had sixteen university graduates. And although there were hundreds of well-trained nurses and policy advisers, the Force Publique did not have a single black officer. There was not one native physician, not one engineer, not one lawyer, agronomist, or economist. (p.266)

One last theme is that in the short months leading up to independence the European big businesses who dominated every aspect of the Belgian economy, particularly the lucrative mining industry, made a series of deals with the fledgling local politicians (p.263).

Lastly, van Reybrouck details the pathetically utopian hopes of many common Congolese and even the educated leaders. At every level of society they thought that simply by getting rid of the oppressing white man would herald a brave new world of freedom and wealth and equality. Van Reybrouck tells stories of the less educated Congolese who sincerely believed that on day one of independence they would all be given a big European mansion, some of the Congolese hoping it would come with a lovely European wife thrown in, not to mention the big European car. Peasants buried boxes of stones in the belief that, at independence, they would magically change into gold. Many believed the dead would rise from the grave (p.27.

To put it mildly, all these hopes were to be bitterly dashed.

Part two – post independence 1960 to 2021

The period since independence takes up two-thirds of van Reybrouck’s book and is immensely complicated.

During the colonial period we had only had to deal with a handful of names, let alone the relative simplicity of the Leopold or Stanley eras. Now there is a blizzard of names of Congolese politicians and cultural figures and the acronyms of numerous political parties. Just as an example, the parties which attended the round table included the Association Générale des Baluba du Katanga (BALUBAKAT), the Association des Ressortisants du Haut-Congo (ASSORECO), the Centre du Regroupement Africain (CEREA), the Confédération des associations tribales du Katanga (CONAKAT),  the Federation Generale du Congo (FGC), the Mouvement National Congolais-Kalonji (MNC-K), the Mouvement National Congolais-Lumumba (MNC-L) led by Patrice Lumumba, the Parti National du Progrès (PNP), the Parti du Peuple (PP), the Parti Solidaire Africain (PSA). In the coming decades there were to be many, many more where they came from.

Initial chaos June 1960 to January 1961

In May 1960 elections were held to create the government which would usher in independence. Kasavubu was elected president and the rabble-rousing, crowd-pleasing Patrice Lumumba Prime Minister.

The electoral map of Congo in 1960, therefore, was largely identical to the ethnographic maps drawn up by the scientists half a century before…The three strongest figures to come out of the elections were Kasavubu, Lumumba, and Tshombe. Kasavubu held sway over the western part of the country, Lumumba over the northwest and center, and Tshombe over the far south. That corresponded with the major cities: Léopoldville, Stanleyville, and Elisabethville. The smaller parties divided among themselves the countryside that lay between. (p.264)

The really striking thing about Congo’s independence is how it started to go wrong within days.

Congo’s First Republic was an apocalyptic era in which everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Both politically and militarily, the country was plunged into total, inextricable chaos…The period between 1960 and 1965 is known today as the First Republic, but at the time it seemed more like the Last Judgment. The country fell apart, was confronted with a civil war, ethnic pogroms, two coups d’état, three uprisings, and six government leaders (Patrice Lumumba, Joseph Ileo, Justin Bomboko, Cyrille Adoula, Moïse Tshombe, and Évariste Kimba), two—or perhaps even three—of whom were murdered: Lumumba, shot dead in 1961; Kimba, hanged in 1966; Tshombe, found dead in his cell in Algeria in 1969.

On 4 July, 4 days after the independence celebrations, troops in Leopoldville mutinied for higher pay and promotions. The mutiny spread to nearby Thysville where the troops went on a rampage across the town, murdering whites and gang-raping white women (p.287). Within weeks an estimated 30,000 Belgians fled the country, catching whatever flights they could, abandoning their houses, cars and other property, fearful for their lives. on 10 July units of the Belgian army were flown in to secure key assets in the mineral region of Katanga.

It was chaos within a week and, in one sense, the madness has never stopped since. As van Reybrouck puts it, within 1 week Congo lost its army, within 1 month it lost almost everyone who knew how to run everything, from commercial companies to the electricity and water systems.

The abrupt transition from a monolithic, colonial administration to a democratic, multiparty system had included no intermediate steps, which was precisely why it resulted in a fiasco. (p.342)

From the actual date of independence to the murder of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. The events leading to Lumumba’s murder have, as van Reybrouck points out, something Shakespearian in scale and horrible inevitability.

The Katangan secession 1961 to 1963

On 11 July, Moise Tshombe leader of the local Confédération des associations tribales du Katanga (CONAKAT), who had missed out on a senior position in the new independent administration, declared the Republic of Katanga a breakaway state, independent from the rest of Congo (p.294).

Initially supported by Belgian and the big mining corporations who thought Tshombe would protect their interests, ongoing internecine fighting within the province led to invasion by United Nations Operation in the Congo (ONUC) forces, who Kusavubu and Lumumba called on for help the very next day after the declaration, and after a lot of bloodshed Katanga Province was reintegrated into Congo in January 1963.

Normally these kinds of interventions are viewed in isolation but van Reybrouck makes the good point that the Soviet Union was flying in supplies to the central government, America considered invoking NATO forces to reinforce Katanga. In other words, the situation could have become the flashpoint for superpower confrontation, possibly the cause of a nuclear war. Seen in that context it was a very real achievement of the UN Secretary General Dag Hammerskold in defusing confrontation and making the issue a peacekeeping one.

Kasai secedes August 1960

In August 1960 Albert Kalonji had himself crowned king of the province of Kisai. Kalonji was standing up for ‘his’ people, the Baluba, many of whom had migrated to Katanga for work and were heartily despised there. Back in Kisai, the Baluba faced off against the Lulua. There was violence, massacres, gang rapes, the usual behaviour (p.302).

Mobutu’s first coup September 1960

Lumumba was a rebel. He had given outspoken speeches criticising the colonial Belgians, within weeks of trouble kicking off he had appealed to the Soviet Union for help. The Americans came to think of him as a dangerous commie, but van Reybrouck shows that his behaviour was, in fact, erratic and difficult.

On 5 September 1960 President Kasavubu declared that he was dismissing Prime Minister Lumumba. An hour later Lumumba went on the radio and announced he was dismissing President Kasavubu. It was chaos (p.303). Into the fray stepped Colonel Joseph-Désiré Mobutu who was to emerge as the central figure of Congo’s modern history. On September 14, 1960, he carried out his first coup d’état, with the approval and support of the CIA.

The murder of Patrice Lumumba January 1961

All the forces aligned against Lumumba. He came to be seen as an agent of instability and potential commie stooge. US President Eisenhower authorised the CIA to assassinate him. Lumumba asked for UN protection and a troop of blue helmets surrounded his house protecting him. Nonetheless he realised he had to flee back to his tribal heartland and on 27 November, as a tropical rainstorm drew away his besiegers, he was smuggled into a chauffeur-driven car and driven east. However, he loitered too much at towns on the way to press the flesh and was captured by his enemies. On 1 December Mobutu’s troops captured him. He was taken to a barracks prison, tied up, thrown into a cell. He received various visitors. Van Reybrouck gives a detailed account of his last days. On 17 January 1961 he was bundled into a car with his two closest associates and driven into the countryside where, in the presence of Belgian officers, of rival Congolese politicians, President Tshombe, the ministers Munongo and Kibwe, and a few of their colleagues, a mix of Belgian officers and Congolese soldiers executed him and buried his body in a well (p.308).

Lumumba had been in power for less than two and a half months. News of his murder flashed round the world and he became a martyr for independence and anti-colonial movements everywhere. In modern accounts we can see he was a human being with plenty of human failings. But no-one deserves to die like that. And in political terms it was a failure because the anarchy continued. The country was falling apart into seceding provinces with local rulers who promptly set about massacring their ethnic enemies.

Mobutu’s second coup November 1965

The chaos continued. In elections held in March 1965, Prime Minister Moise Tshombe’s Congolese National Convention won a large majority but President Kasavubu appointed an anti-Tshombe leader, Évariste Kimba, as prime minister-designate. However, Parliament twice refused to confirm him and government ground to a halt.

Into this impasse stepped Joseph-Désiré Mobutu who carried out his second and more lasting coup on 24 November. He had turned 35 a month earlier. He was to rule Congo for the next 32 years.

Mobutu good guy 1965 to 1975

Mobutu banned all political parties and activities and declared himself leader of one, unified, national political party the Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution, or MPR. But in the context of Congo this was not a totally bad idea. Arguably, for the first ten years of his rule he was a good thing.

The first decade of Mobutu’s thirty-year reign was a time of hope, expectations, and revival. “Mobutu was electric,” the writer Vincent Lombume told me once. And not only because he brought in television and built hydroelectric power stations, but also because he himself delivered a moral jolt to a nation in disrepair. The period 1965–75 is remembered as the golden decade of an independent Congo (p.335).

One by one he neutralised his enemies. President Kasvubu retired to his native village, never to take part in politics again. Moise Tshombi was abducted and ended up dying in a prison cell in Algeria in 1969 (p.338).

Mobutu used white mercenaries to quell the various secessionist movements and from 1968 onwards was able to concentrate on improving Congo’s infrastructure and living conditions. He instituted a secret police, which was allowed to use torture. He promulgated a new constitution centring the nation on himself. Uprisings or protests were likely to be massacred. On the other hand, for the majority of the population, he brought peace and stability. He tried to stamp out tribalism: entrants in the Miss Congo contest had to come from all regions and ethnicities; the national football team had to include players from all groups.

After the total debacle of the First Republic, he put Congo back on the map. He won respect and gave the country new élan. Had the Americans landed on the moon? He invited the crew of Apollo 11, making Congo the only African country to welcome the moon travelers. Were the Europeans organising a Miss Europe contest? He convinced the organisers to hold the finals in Kinshasa, and to give them a native twist. The winner, including in the category ‘African Costume,’ was a ravishing blonde from Finland. Were Congolese women still seen as the most beautiful on the continent? He backed Maître Taureau in organizing the first national Miss Congo contest…In short, Mobutu made good on the promises that independence had awakened but been unable to keep. (

Recours a l’authenticité

Aided by political strategist Dominique Sakombi, Mobutu embarked on a policy they called the Recours a l’authenticité (p.351). In 1966 he renamed Congo’s cities, replacing their European names with African ones: Leopoldville became Kinshasa, Elisabethville became Lubumbashi, Stanleyville became Kisangani. In October 1971, he renamed the entire country the Republic of Zaire.

Mobutu disapproved of Christianity as a European imposition. Churches were shut down and Christmas was banned, while he encouraged the uniquely Congolese variant of Kimbanguism (p.355).

Every citizen was ordered to replace their European names with African ones. Priests were threatened with five years’ imprisonment if they were caught baptising a Zairian child with a European name. Western clothes were banned: men were forced to wear a Mao-style tunic known as an abacost (shorthand for à bas le costume, or ‘down with the suit’), women had to lock away their 60s mini-skirts and wear the traditional pagne (p.352).

In 1972 Mobutu renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga (meaning ‘The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.’). And he started wearing what became his trademark look: a tall man carrying a walking stick while wearing an abacost, thick-framed glasses and a leopard-skin toque.

Mobutu bad guy 1975 to 1990

But modern states rely on economic and financial realities. In 1967 Mobutu nationalised the huge mining company Union Minière du Haut-Katanga and the state began to benefit, for the first time, from the huge mineral resources it owned (p.345). Van Reybrouck makes the striking point that the global market for the many raw materials Congo could supply (copper, tin) was sky high because of the Vietnam War. As with the two world wars, war was good for Congo, or at least the people who mulcted the profits.

As the 1970s progressed it became more and more obvious that this meant Mobutu and his cronies. Examples slowly increased of the multiple ways he, his family and associates milked money from the state at every level. They set an example which ended up permeating Congo with corruption at every level. New words were invented to describe it. Clientelism. Kleptocracy.

In 1973 he announced a policy of Zairianisation, namely the expropriation of all small and medium sized businesses from non-African owners e.g. Greeks, Portuguese, Pakistanis. They were handed to cronies who didn’t have a clue how to run them and so this sector of the economy, also, collapsed (p.357). Unemployment rose. Everyone had to moonlight with second or third jobs. People began selling their belongings on the street.

The end of the Vietnam war in 1974 heralded a collapse in copper prices and the oil crisis also hit the country. Inflation soared. Food rotted in the fields for lack of infrastructure. The country became a basket case. His rule became more repressive. More arrests, secret police, clever new innovations in torture (p.386). Opponents disappeared. In 1970 and 1977 he was re-elected president with 98% of the vote; there were no other candidates.

He built classic vanity projects: a huge hydroelectric dam, the Inga Dam on the Congo, a vast steel foundry at Maluku. During the commissioning and building Mobutu and his cronies siphoned off huge sums. But after the European contractors had pocketed the last payments they walked away and the projects, lacking a workforce educated enough to run or maintain them, and lacking the infrastructure to move electricity or steel products around, lapsed into crumbling white elephants.

Van Reybrouck describes it as the rise of a state bourgeoisie, a new middle class which owed nothing to entrepreneurism, initiative or innovation, but was entirely based on family or tribal connections to the boss. As the general population displayed more poverty, as the official economy lagged and declined, Mobutu was able to ask the IMF or foreign governments for aid and loans which he then liberally dispensed to his extended ‘tribe’ of cronies and supporters. It was a kind of pyramid scheme. Between 1977 and 1979 alone Mobutu is calculated to have creamed off $200 million of state funds (p.375).

Meanwhile inflation soared to an annual rate of 60%. Most people struggled to feed themselves. Repeated reissuings of the currency did nothing to address the underlying failure of the economy. And yet Mobutu continued to be supported by the West: by France, as the largest Francophone nation in Africa, by America as a huge territorial bulwark against the prolonged communist insurgency in neighbouring Angola and an actual communist government in neighbouring Republic of Congo.

All the time he used the loans from the IMF and international banks to buy multiple properties in Belgium, the South of France, Switzerland, and the huge city-sized complex he built for himself at Gbadolite (p.380). In genuine monster mode, he had a big sexual appetite: he slept with the wives of his cabinet ministers, partly for fun, partly to humiliate them; wherever he travelled in the country he was offered the prettiest virgins to deflower (p.385). It was part of the cult of the supreme tribal chieftain and everyone else in the hierarchy followed his example. Schools became ‘sexual fishponds’ where local governors and administrators picked the prettiest girls (p.389).

Congo’s roads decayed and reverted back to tracks in the jungle. Soldiers sold their equipment. The air force sold off bits of planes as spare parts. The armed forces became a joke. The economy collapsed. Congo’s 15 million people tried to make a living any way they could amid the rubble.

Mobutu clings on 1990 to 1997

The Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. As it happened within days of the fall of the Berlin Wall Mobutu crushed some student protests with unnecessary violence which was reported around the world. This was the last straw for his western supporters. Suddenly Mobutu was no longer seen as a bulwark against communism (such as the communist forces in neighbouring Angola and French Congo) and no longer as welcome as he had been in the White House of Ronald Reagan and George Bush senior. In 1990 he was forced to appoint a transitional government with a promise of elections to come. There was an explosion of political parties and a newly freed press went mad.

In August 1991 the Sovereign National Conference opened but was immediately swamped in the kind of tribal and ethnic and political rivalries which had bedevilled the first republic. Things weren’t helped when soldiers in Ndjili mutinied then went on the rampage through the town, sparking universal looting.

In January 1992 Mobutu closed the conference and went on to cannily appoint then sack a series of Prime Ministers, playing individuals and parties off against each other. On 16 February a March of Hope was held through Kinshasa which was met by soldiers and ended in a bloodbath (p.403). The conference refused to shut down and issued messages of defiance at Mobutu the dictator. A decade or more of fear was coming to an end. Mobutu agreed to step back and accept a more ceremonial role. A genuine Prime Minister was elected.

But the country was still a basket, with a destroyed infrastructure incapable of distributing its rich agricultural produce, entirely reliant on its mineral exports most of whose profit was raked off by the kleptocracy. In 1994 inflation reached 9,769%.

In January 1993 soldiers who hadn’t been paid for months mutinied again and went on the rampage in every city and town where they were stationed. The Ndjili rampage became known as the First Plundering. This one was called the Second Plundering.

The Rwanda genocide 1994

Rwanda was mapped and defined by German colonisers. It contained three tribes, the Hutus who made up 85% of the population, the Tutsis 14% and the Twa 1%. The Tutsis had traditionally been the better educated elite of the country, a tribal division crystallised by the Belgians who assumed responsibility for Rwanda from the Germans after World War One (p.413).

In 1959, the Hutus overthrew the Tutsi monarchy and tens of thousands of Tutsis fled to neighbouring countries, including Uganda. A group of Tutsi exiles formed a rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which invaded Rwanda in 1990. Fighting continued until a 1993 peace deal was agreed. An estimated 20,000 were killed and 1.5 million civilians displaced (p.414). Bad blood and a fragile peace.

On the night of 6 April 1994 a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and his counterpart Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi was shot down, killing everyone on board. Both were Hutus and Hutu extremists immediately claimed the downing was an assassination preliminary to an uprising of Tutsis. They sent out instructions via press and radio to a bewildered nation of Hutus to kill the Tutsis before it was too late. Lists of government opponents were handed out to militias who went and killed them, along with all of their families, chief among them the youth wing of the governing party, the the Interahamwe, which was turned into a militia to carry out the slaughter. Machetes were cheaper and more available than guns (p.414).

In the space of just 100 days around 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered. The UN had forces in Rwanda but its troops were not given orders to stop the killing. America was well aware of events but it was only 6 months since the ‘black hawk down’ events in Somalia in October 1993, when a mission to intervene and capture a Somali warlord went disastrously wrong and led to 19 American soldiers being killed and dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. There was no appetite to put more American soldiers in harm’s way (p.417).

The French, predictably enough, were on the side of the genocidal government at least in part, van Reybrouck says, because the Tutsi rebels were based in the former British colony Uganda. It was these Tutsis in exile, the well-organised RPF, backed by Uganda’s army, which, in response to the genocide, did indeed invade Rwanda and fight their way to the capital, Kigali, which they seized on 4 July 1994.

The French forces helped the Hutu government which had organised the genocide, and hundreds of thousands of terrified Hutus to escape into neighbouring Congo, where huge refugee camps were established. Up to 2 million Hutus fled the conquering RPF. Some of the RPF followed them into Congo looking for the genocidaires, fighting spilled over in all directions.

The Rwandan invasion and the first Congo War, the fall of Mobutu

Van Reybrouck prepares us for all this with a detailed examination of the numerous tribal antagonisms which existed all over the eastern Congo, with low level massacres carried out by one side or another on an annual basis. He describes the rise of the Mai-Mai, Bantu nationalists, fierce Zairian patriots, who enforced a strict code of conduct and were merciless to all perceived outsiders, immigrants and refugees.

Tutsis who emigrated to Zaire before Congolese independence in 1960 were known as Banyamulenge, meaning ‘from Mulenge’ and had the right to citizenship under Zairian law. Tutsis who emigrated to Zaire following independence were known as Banyarwanda. The RPF in Kigali knew that most of the organisers of the genocide had escaped to the refugee camps in Congo where they were planning a counter-attack, and knew they had to strike first. In 1996 Mobutu signed an order expelling Tutsis from eastern Congo and this was the trigger for a general uprising.

President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Rwandan Minister of Defense Paul Kagame organised various Tutsis and anti-Hutu groups into a force designed to overthrow Mobutu in order to end his support for the Hutu.

Knowing their project would look like the invasion of a sovereign state Kagame and Museveni looked for a Congo citizen to front it and settled on the convenient figure of Laurent-Désiré Kabila, long term guerrilla leader and opponent of Mobutu. The army they assembled was named the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL).

The first step in the plan, and the key objective of the RPF government in Rwanda, was to eliminate the Hutu refugee camps where extremist elements were plotting to overthrow the Tutsi government.  This resulted in ‘massive carnage’ (p.423). Hutu refugees who had fled the initial attacks were gathered into further refugee camps, sometimes with the help of aid organisations, who were then banned from the area and ‘the ethnic cleansing could continue with impunity’. Ammunition is expensive, so the favoured weapons were machetes and hammers. The old, the sick, women and children and babies. No-one was spared.

As many as between 300,000 Hutu refugees were massacred by the AFDL and the Rwandan Defence Forces. In other words about a quarter as many Hutus massacred, as Tutsis in the original genocide. The more you read on, the more Congo ceases to sound like a country and more like a vast open air abattoir.

The Rwanda-Uganda-rebel Congo forces undertook the 2,000 mile trek all the way to Kinshasa, killing all the Hutus they could find along the way and massacring villages which held out. The gruelling trek lasted seven months and the invading forces were supported by the West, especially Bill Clinton’s America, which wanted to visibly sever links with the cynical old support for Mobutu, and also bought into Paul Kagame’s narrative of the Tutsis as victims of a terrible genocide (p.426).

Van Reybrouck includes a very useful map.

images

On 16 May 1997 peace talks chaired by South Africa Nelson Mandela failed and Mobutu fled into exile. Kabila’s forces proclaimed victory the next day. On 23 May 1997, Zaire was renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Mobutu went into exile in Rabat, Morocco, where he died on 7 September 1997 of prostate cancer. On the day he fled, Kabila became the new president of Congo. The campaign to overthrow Mobutu became known as the First Congo War 24 October 1996 to 16 May 1997.

Rule of Laurent Kabila 1997 to 2001

We had in fact met Kabila back in the 1960s when he lurked in the forest of eastern Congo ineffectually organising rebellion and secession. When Katanga had seceded under the leadership of Moïse Tshombe, Kabila organised the Baluba people in an anti-secessionist rebellion in Manono and established a new province, North Katanga, in September 1962. In other words he had been a political player as long as Mobutu. But he lacked real commitment. When his rebellion fizzled out, he took to smuggling gold and timber on Lake Tanganyika, then ran a bar and brothel in Tanzania. Now Kabila brought the same half-assed approach to being president and soon alienated most of his backers. Che Guevara of all people had been sent to the Congo to foment communist revolution and spent months in the east Congo rainforest with Kabila and his men, and we have his diary entries which record that Kabila was certainly charismatic and a natural leader but lacked commitment to the cause.

Second Rwandan invasion and Second Congo War

Congolese rivals and political commentators came to resent the swaggering presence of Rwandan and Uganda soldiers in the capital. To avert a coup, Kabila expelled all Rwandan, Ugandan and Burundian military units from the Congo on 26 July 1998.

Now the whole reason Rwanda and Uganda had supported Kabila was to have a biddable puppet in charge in Kinshasa. When the worm turned they launched a second invasion, but this time commandeered commercial jetliners to carry troops to an airport not far from Kinshasa.

The Second Congo War began in August 1998, little more than a year after the First Congo War (p.439). It lasted till July 2003, when the Transitional Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo took power. But violence continues in many parts of the country, particularly in the east, to this day.

Ultimately, nine African countries and around twenty-five armed groups became involved in the war. By 2008, the war and its aftermath had caused 5.4 million deaths, principally through disease and starvation. Another 2 million were displaced by the conflict.

Van Reybrouck divides it into 4 phases:

  1. The invasion August 1998
  2. The stalemate September 1998 to July 1999
  3. The dissension August 1999 to July 2000
  4. The anarchy July 2000 to December 2002

In the middle of it, on 16 January 2001, Kabila was shot and killed by a bodyguard, former child soldier Rashidi Mizele, at the presidential palace in Kinshasa. Typically, van Reybrouck speaks to an eye witness, an aide to the president, who was in the office next door when he heard the fatal shots and goes some way to explaining the disillusion and then enmity of the many child soldiers or kadogos who had made up a significant percentage of the AFDL forces (p.419)

Thoughts

It is a bombardment of facts, countless figures large and small, and a blizzard of complex alliances and conflicts. It made me realise that one reason authors write about the Victorian era of exploration is that it was soooooo much simpler: you had half a dozen named European heroes, a handful of named Congolese porters or slave traders, and all the other humans were faceless extras. Whereas from the 1950s onwards you are dealing with a ‘real’ country, with ever-increasing numbers of politicians,  political parties, ethnic groups, provinces, rebellions, wars and massacres to try and understand.

Also, it’s really easy to assign blame if you stick to the colonial period. White man bad exploiter, black man helpless victim. Simple enough to put on a t-shirt. By contrast, the modern period, beginning with the run-up to independence, is bewilderingly complicated, and although the woke can persist with the overall conclusion that the West and white people are still the wicked exploiters, the reality is far more complicated. You can blame Mobutu’s long rule on his western political and commercial backers but he was, in the end, an African man ruling an African nation and free to choose his methods and policies: and the ones he chose were rule by violence and fear, and the deployment of corruption and larceny on an epic scale. He was, in fact, applying traditional tribal chieftain tactics (something he consciously promoted) but to a country the size of western Europe.

And when the Rwandans invaded and triggered the first Congo War, the situation doesn’t only become complex and messy but the wish to assign praise and blame is nullified. In my opinion these are just people peopling, human beings doing what they have done throughout history, fight, kill, conquer, enslave, rape and loot.

The job of any government is to create enough security and rule of law so that countries or regions don’t collapse back into the barbarism which is always lurking in the human psyche. In this respect the modern history of the Congo is a kind of showcase example of the complete failure to achieve that security and peace. Shorn of the thousand and one details specific to the Congo, van Reybrouck’s epic account shows, at a more abstract level, just how difficult the precious state of peace and security is to achieve, and how easily it can be overthrown with cataclysmic results.

Credit

Congo: The Epic History of a People by David Van Reybrouck was published in Dutch by De Bezige Bij in 2010. All references are to the paperback version of the English translation by Sam Garrett, published by Fourth Estate in 2015.

Surprisingly for a contemporary book, Congo: The Epic History of a People is available online in its entirety.


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

Reflections on The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914 by Eric Hobsbawm (1987)

Critique of Hobsbawm’s Marxisant approach

In the third of his mighty trilogy of histories of the long nineteenth century, The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914, as in its two predecessors, Hobsbawm makes no attempt to hide his strongly Marxist point of view. Every page shouts his contempt for the era’s ‘bourgeois’ men of business, its ‘capitalists’ and bankers, the despicable ‘liberal’ thinkers of the period and so on. From time to time his contempt for the bourgeoisie rises to the level of actual abuse.

The most that can be said of American capitalists is that some of them earned money so fast and in such astronomic quantities that they were forcibly brought up against the fact that mere accumulation in itself is not an adequate aim in life for human beings, even bourgeois ones. (p.186)

Replace that final phrase with ‘even Jewish ones’ or ‘even Muslim ones’ or ‘even black ones’ to get the full sense of how deliberately insulting it is intended to be and how unacceptable his invective would be if applied to any other group of people.

Hobsbawm loses no opportunity to quote Marx (who died in 1883, saddened by the failure of his communist millennium to arrive) or Lenin’s views on late capitalism and imperialism (Lenin published his first political work in 1893), and he loses absolutely no opportunity to say ‘bourgeoisie bourgeoisie bourgeoisie’ scores of times on every page till the reader is sick of the sight of the word.

Hobsbawm’s highly partisan and politicised approach has strengths and weaknesses.

Hobsbawm’s strengths

On the up side, using very simplistic binary oppositions like ‘the developed world’ and ‘the undeveloped world’, the ‘bourgeoisie’ and the ‘proletariat’, helps him to make great sweeping generalisations which give you the impression you are gaining secret access to the engine room of history. If you ignore the complexity of the histories and very different cultures of individual nations such as America, Britain, France and Germany, and lump them altogether as ‘the West’, then you can bring out the broad-brush historical and economic developments of the era, grouping together all the developments in science, chemistry, physics, technology, industry and consumer products into great blocks, into titanic trends and developments.

This gives the reader a tremendously powerful sense of bestriding the world, taking part in global trends and huge international developments. Just as in The Age of Capitalism, the first half or so of the book is thrilling. It makes you feel like you understand for the first time the titanic historical forces directing world history, and it’s this combination of factual (there are lots of facts and figures about industrial production) and imaginative excitement which garnered the trilogy so many positive reviews.

Hobsbawm’s obsession with capitalism’s contradictions

Hobsbawm makes obeisance to the Marxist convention that ‘bourgeois’ ideology was riddled with ‘contradictions’. The most obvious one was the contradiction between the wish of national politicians to define and delimit their nations and the desire of ‘bourgeois’ businessmen to ignore all boundaries and trade and invest wherever they wanted around the globe (p.40).

Another ‘contradiction’ was the way the spread of ‘Western ideology’ i.e. education and values, to developing countries, or at least to the elites within European colonies, often led to the creation of the very Western-educated elites who then helped to overthrow it (he gives the London-trained lawyer Gandhi as the classic example, p.77, though he could as easily have mentioned Jawaharlal Nehru, educated at Cambridge, trained at London’s Inner Temple as a barrister).

Another ‘contradiction’ was the between the way the mid-century ‘bourgeois’ industrial and economic triumph rested on a mechanical view of the universe, the mechanical laws of physics and heat and chemistry underpinning the great technological advances of the later nineteenth century. Hobsbawm then delights in the way that, at the end of the century, this entire mechanistic worldview was overturned in a welter of discoveries, including Einstein’s theory of relativity, the problematic nature of the sub-atomic world which gave rise to quantum physics, and deep discoveries about the bewildering non-rational basis of mathematics.

These are just some of the developments Hobsbawm defines as ‘contradictions’ with the aim of proving that Marx’s predictions that capitalism contained within itself deep structural contradictions which would undermine it and lead inevitably to its downfall.

Why Hobsbawm was wrong

Except that Marx was wrong and Hobsbawm is wrong. His continual mentioning Marx, quoting Lenin, harking back to the high hopes of the revolutionaries of 1848, invoking the memory of the Commune (redefined, in good Marxist style, as a heroic rising of the downtrodden working classes, rather than the internecine bloodbath that it actually was), his continual harking forward to the Bolshevik revolution as somehow the climax of all the trends he describes, his insistence that we, he and his readers, all now (in the mid-1980s when he wrote this book) still live in the forbidding shadow of the Russian revolution, still haunted by the spectre of communist revolution — every aspect of his attitude and approach now seems dated and irrelevant.

Now, in 2021, it is 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites revealed:

  1. Their complete failure to build an economic and social system which could be a serious alternative to ‘capitalism’.
  2. The extraordinary extent to which communist regimes had to surveil, monitor and police every aspect of their populations’ behaviour, speech and thoughts, in order to prevent them relapsing into the ways of human nature – the prison camps, the psychiatric wards, the secret police. Look at China today, with its censorship of the internet and its hounding of dissidents, its suppression of Falun Gong and the Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang.

Seen from our contemporary perspective, Hobsbawm tendentious habit of naming every clash in policies, every development in cultural thinking as some kind of seismic ‘contradiction’ which will bring global capitalism tumbling down, looks like what it is, a biased obeisance to Marxist ideas which have long ago proved to be untrue.

The misleading use of terms like ‘bourgeois’

To some extent his attitude is based on one particular logical or rhetorical trick which can be proved to be false.

In the later chapters of the book, about the arts, the hard and social sciences, Hobsbawm repeatedly claims that this or that aspect of ‘bourgeois ideology’ of the mid-nineteenth century came under strain, suffered insoluble contradictions, underwent a crisis, and collapsed.

I think this is the crux of the massive mistake he makes. It consists of several steps:

  1. identifying every element of mid-nineteenth century political and cultural theory as some universal thing called ‘bourgeois’
  2. identifying this ‘bourgeoisie’ as the central and necessary figure of the capitalist system
  3. and then claiming that, because in the last few decades of the nineteenth century this ‘bourgeois’ ideology came under strain and in many ways collapsed, that therefore this shows that capitalism itself, as a system, must come under strain caused by its internal contradictions and therefore must collapse

Surely anyone can see the logical error here. All you have to do is stop insistently repeating that mid-nineteenth century ideology was identical with some timeless ‘bourgeois’ ideology which necessarily and uniquely underpins all capitalism, and simply relabel it ‘mid-nineteenth century ideology’, and then all your sentences stop being so apocalyptic.

Instead of saying ‘bourgeois ideology was stricken by crisis’ as if The Great Revolution is at hand, all you need say is ‘mid-nineteenth century political and social beliefs underwent a period of rapid change at the end of the century’ and the portentous sense of impending doom hovering over the entire system vanishes in a puff of smoke – and you are left just describing a fairly banal historical process, namely that society’s ideas and beliefs change over time, sometimes in abrupt reversals resulting from new discoveries, sometimes as slow evolutionary adaptations to changing social circumstances.

Put another way, Hobsbawm identifies mid-nineteenth century liberal ideology as if it is the one and only shape capitalist thinking can possibly take and so excitedly proclaims that, by the end of the century, because mid-nineteenth century ‘bourgeois’ beliefs were quite visibly fraying and collapsing, therefore capitalism would collapse too.

But quite obviously the ‘capitalist system’ has survived all the ‘contradictions’ and ‘crises’ Hobsbawm attributes to it and many more. It is still going strong, very strong, well over a century after the period which Hobsbawm is describing and when, he implies, it was all but on its last knees.

In fact the basic idea of manufacturing products cheap and selling them for as much profit as you can, screwing the workers who make them and keeping the profits to a) enjoy yourself or b) invest in other business ventures, is probably more widespread than ever before in human history, seeing how it’s been taken up so enthusiastically in post-communist Russia but especially across hyper-modernising China.

In other words, Hobsbawm’s use of Marxist terms like ‘bourgeois’ and ‘proletarian’ may have a certain explanatory power for the era he’s describing, but after a certain point they are too simplistic and don’t describe or analyse the actual complexity of even one of the societies he describes, let alone the entire world.

At some point (which you can almost measure in Hobsbawm’s texts) they cease to be explanatory and become obfuscatory, hiding the differences which separate America, Britain and Germany much more than unite them. Use of the terms simply indicate that you have entered a certain worldview.

Imagine a Christian historian identifying mid-nineteenth century ideology as the one and only expression of ‘Christian’ ideology, an ideology which divided the population into ‘believers’ and ‘unbelievers’, into the ‘saved’ and the ‘damned’. Imagine this historian went on to describe how the widespread ‘crisis’ in Christian belief at the end of the century indicated that the entire world was passing out of the phase of Christian belief and into infidel unbelief.

If you read something like that you would immediately know you are inside the particular worldview of an author, something which clearly means a lot to them, might shed light on some aspects of the period – for example trends in religious belief – but which in no way is the interpretation of world history.

a) Plenty of other interpretations are available, and b) despite the widespread laments that Christianity was dying out in the later nineteenth century, contrary to all their pessimism, Christianity now has more adherents worldwide than ever before in human history. And ditto capitalism.

The dominance of the key terms Hobsbawm deploys with such monotonous obsessiveness (capitalism, bourgeoisie, proletariat, liberal ideology) don’t prove anything except that you have entered the worldview of a particular author.

The system with the real contradictions, contradictions between a) its utopian claims for equality and the reality of a hierarchical society which privileged party membership, b) between its promises to outproduce the West and the reality of permanent shortages of consumer goods and even food, c) between its rhetoric of ‘freedom’ and the reality of the harsh repression of any kind of political or artistic unorthodoxy – was communism, whose last pitiful remnants lie rusting in a thousand statue parks across Russia and Eastern Europe.

The fundamental sleight of hand in Hobsbawm’s argument

Because Hobsbawm identifies the mid-nineteenth century worldview with the ‘bourgeoisie’ and the ‘bourgeoisie’ as the indispensable foundation of ‘capitalism’, he tries to pull off the conjuring trick of claiming that, since the mid-nineteenth century worldview drastically changed in all kinds of ways in the last decade of the century, these change invalidate the ‘bourgeoisie’, and that this, in turn, invalidates ‘capitalism’. Proves it is wrong and doomed to collapse.

You can see how this is just a three-card trick which moves vague and indefinable words around on the table at speed to bamboozle the impressionable. For despite the trials and tribulations of the century of extremes which followed, ‘capitalism’ in various forms appears to have triumphed around almost the entire world, and the materialistic, conventional, liberal ‘bourgeoisie’ which Hobsbawm so despises… appears still to be very much with us, despite all Hobsbawm’s protestations about its terminal crises and death throes and contradictions and collapse.

Victimology tends to tyranny

To anyone familiar with the history of communist Russia, communist China and communist Eastern Europe, there is something unnerving and, eventually, worrying about Hobsbawm’s very broad-brush division of the entire world into victims and oppressors.

The first half of the twentieth century was the era of totalitarian governments seeking to gain total control over every aspect of their populations and mould them into better humans in a better society. The first thing all these regimes did was establish goodies and baddies, and rouse the population to be on perpetual guard against the enemy in whatever guise – ‘the bourgeoisie’, the ‘kulaks’, ‘capitalist roaders’, ‘reactionary elements’, ‘the Jews’, and so on.

Dividing the entire huge world and eight billion people into simple binaries like ‘oppressors’ and ‘victims’, ‘bourgeoisie’ and ‘workers’, ‘exploiters’ and ‘exploited’, ‘white’ masters and ‘black’ victims, is worryingly reminiscent of the simplistic, binary thinking which the twentieth century showed leads to genocides and mass killing.

Hobsbawm criticises the nationalist parties of the late-nineteenth century for dividing up populations into citizens and outsiders, members of the Volk or aliens, a process of which the Jews were notable victims. And yet he enacts the very same binary oppositioning, the same outsidering of a (large) group of society, by objectifying and insulting the ‘bourgeoisie’ at every opportunity.

It’s the same old mental slum: if only we could get rid of the gypsies / homos / lefties / commies / bourgeoisie / capitalists / Catholics / Protestants / Armenians / Jews / Croats / Serbs / Tutsis / Hutus / men / whites / blacks / immigrants / refugees, then society would be alright. I call it ‘If-only-ism’.

If capitalism and imperialism were inevitable, how can anyone be guilty?

In Age of Capital Hobsbawm describes how the industrial revolution amounted to a lucky fluke, a coming together of half a dozen circumstances (of which the most important was, in his view, Britain’s command of the waves and extensive trading network between colonies) and this helps you realise that some people were able to seize the opportunity and exploit it and become masters of small firms and then of factories etc. Clever, quick, resourceful or well-placed men leapt to take advantage of new opportunities. Any history of the industrial revolution names them and gives biographies of individuals central to the series of inventions or who then set up successful firms to exploit them.

However, the tendency of Hobsbawm’s very high-level Marxist approach, his sweeping surveys which pull together evidence from Austria, or France, from north Italy or New York, is, paradoxically, to remove all sense of agency from the humans involved. Hobsbawm makes it seem almost inevitable that the first industrial revolution (textiles) would give rise to a second (iron and coal) which in turn would give rise to a third (steel, organic chemistry, electrics, oil).

And he makes it seem inevitable that, once the world was fully mapped and explored, then the other ‘western powers’ which by 1890 had more or less caught up with Britain in terms of industrialisation, would join the competition to seize territories which contained valuable minerals or exotic produce (tea, coffee, bananas). That an acceleration of imperial rivalry was inevitable.

But if it had to pan out this way, how can you blame anyone? If, viewed from this lofty godlike perspective, it was inevitable that industrialisation broke out somewhere, that it would spread to all similar regions and states, that the now numerous industrial nations would find themselves in competition for the basic resources (food) and more arcane resources (rubber, oil, rare metals) required to drive the next stage of industrial development – can you blame them?

You could call it Hobsbawm’s paradox, or Hobsbawm’s Choice. The more inevitable you make the entire process sound, the less reason you have to be so cross at the ‘bourgeoisie’.

The reality is that you can, of course, hold the western nations accountable for their actions, but only if you descend to a lower level of historical discourse than Hobsbawm’s. Only if you begin to look at specific actions of specific governments and specific men in specific times and places an you begin to make assessments and apportion praise or blame.

Responsibility and guilt can’t really exist at the level Hobsbawm is operating on because he goes out of his way to avoid mentioning individuals (with only a few exceptions; Bismarck’s name crops up more than any other politician of the period) and instead emphasises that it all unfolded according to almost unavoidable historical laws, implicit in the logic of industrial development.

If humans couldn’t avoid it, then they can’t very well be blamed for it.

In light of Hobsbawm’s theory, is equality possible?

The same set of facts give rise to a parallel thought, which dogged me throughout reading this book, which is — if what Hobsbawm says is true, if industrial and technological developments tend to be restricted to just a handful of certain nations which have acquired the technology and capital resources to acquire ‘liftoff’ to industrialisation, and if, within those nations, the benefits of industrialisation accrue overwhelming to a small proportion of the population; and if this process is so stereotyped and inevitable and unstoppable — then, well… is it even possible to be fair? Is it possible to achieve anything like ‘equality’? Surely the entire trend of the history Hobsbawm describes with so much verve suggests not.

Putting aside the issue of fairness in one nation aside in order to adopt Hobsbawm’s global perspective, he often repeats the formula that countries in the ‘undeveloped’ or ‘developing’ or ‘Third World’ (whatever you want to call it) were forced by the demands of consumer capitalism or The Market to turn themselves into providers of raw materials or a handful of saleable commodities – after all, this was era which saw the birth of the banana republic. But, I thought as I ploughed through the book… what was the alternative?

Could undeveloped nations have turned their backs on ‘international capitalism’ and continued as agrarian peasant nations, or resisted the western imperative to become ‘nations’ at all and remained general territories ruled by congeries of local sheikhs or tribal elders or whatever?

At what stage would it have been possible to divert the general trend of colonial takeover of the developing world? How would it have happened? Which British leader would have stood up and said, ‘This is wrong; we renounce all our colonies and grant them independence today?’ in the1870s or 1880s or 1890s? What would have happened to the sub-continent or all those bits of Africa which Britain administered if Britain had simply packed up and left them in 1885?

As to all the wealth accumulating in Britain, among its sizeable cohort of ship-owners, traders, factory owners, bankers, stockbrokers and what not. On what basis would you have taken their wealth away, and how much? Half? All of it and shot them, as in Bolshevik Russia?

Having seized the wealth of the entire ‘bourgeoisie’, how would you then have redistributed it to the bedouin in the desert or the native peoples of Australia or the Amazon, to the workers on the rubber plantations, in the tin and gold mines, in the sugar fields, to squabbling tribes in central Africa? How could that have been done without a vast centralised redistribution system? Without, in fact, precisely the centralising, bureaucratic tendencies of the very capitalist system Hobsbawm was criticising?

And who would administer such a thing? Having worked in the civil service for over a decade I can tell you it would take hordes of consultants, program managers, project managers and so on, who would probably be recruited from the host country and make a packet out of the process?

And when was all this meant to happen? When, would you say, the awareness of the wrongs of the empire, or the wrongs done to the ‘undeveloped world’ became widespread enough to allow such policies to be enacted in a democracy where the government has to persuade the majority of the people to go along with its policies? In the 1860s, 70s, 80s?

Live Aid was held in 1985, just as Hobsbawm was writing this book, and which I imagine brought the issue of Third World poverty and famine to the attention of even the dimmest members of the population. But did that global event abolish poverty, did it end inequality and injustice in in the Third World? No, otherwise there would have been no need for the Live 8 concerts and related charity efforts 30 years later, in 2005. Or the ongoing efforts of all the industrialised nations to send hundreds of millions of dollars of support to the Third World every year (hence the furore surrounding the UK government cutting back on its foreign aid budget this year.) Not to mention the continuous work of thousands of charities all across the ‘developing world’.

When you look at the scale of activity and the amounts of money which have been sent to developing countries since the Second World War, it makes you wonder how much would be enough? Should every citizen of every industrialised nation give, say, half their annual earnings to people in the Third World? To which people? In which countries? To India, which has invested tens of billions in a space program? To China, which is carrying out semi-genocidal policy of incarceration and mass sterilisation in its Xinjiang province? Do we need to take money from the British public to give it to Narendra Modi or Xi Jinping? Who would manage that redistribution program, for whatever civil servants and consultants you hired to make it work would earn much, much more than the recipients of the aid.

Student excitement, adult disillusion with Hobsbawm

When I was a student, reading this trilogy educated me about the broad industrial, economic and social forces which created and drove forward the industrial revolution in the Western world throughout the nineteenth century, doing so in thrilling style, and for that I am very grateful. Hobsbawm’s books highlighted the way that, through the 1850s and 1860s, capitalism created an ever-richer class of ‘owners’ set against a rapidly growing number of impoverished workers; how the industrial and financial techniques pioneered in Britain spread to other Western nations; how the industrial system evolved in the 1880s and 1890s into a) a booming consumer society in the West and b) the consolidation of a system of colonial exploitation around the world.

I had never had the broad trends of history explained so clearly and powerfully and excitingly. It was a memorable experience.

But rereading the books 40 years later, I am now painfully aware that the simplistic Marxist concepts Hobsbawm uses to analyse his period may certainly help to elucidate it, but at the same time highlight their own ineffectiveness.

The confidence that a mass working class movement which will rise up to overthrow the inequalities of the West and liberate the developing world, that this great liberation is just around the corner – which is implicit in his numerous references to 1848 and Marx and the Commune and Lenin – and that all it needs is a few more books and pamphlets to spark it off….goes beyond boring to become sad. Although the historical facts he describes remain as relevant as ever, the entire ideology the books are drenched in feels terribly out of date.

Democracy not the blessing it is cracked up to be

In chapter 4 Hobsbawm discusses the politics of democracy. Throughout he takes it for granted that extending the franchise to all adults would result in the revolutionary change he supports. He starts his discussion by referencing the powerful German Social Democratic Party (founded back in 1863) and the British Labour Party (founded in 1900) and their campaigns for universal suffrage, as if giving the vote to ‘the working class’ would immediately lead to a social revolution, the end of inequality and exploitation.

Only in the chapters that follow does he slowly concede that new mass electorates also helped to create new mass, populist parties and that many of these catered not to the left at all, but to right-wing nationalist ideas of blood and Volk. For example, the notorious Karl Luger, mayor of Vienna from 1897 to 1910, whose Christian Social Party espoused populist and antisemitic politics which are sometimes viewed as a model for Adolf Hitler’s Nazism.

In fact it had already been shown that universal male suffrage not only didn’t lead to socialist revolution but the exact opposite, when, in the aftermath of the 1848 revolution which overthrew the French monarchy, the French granted universal male suffrage and held a presidential election in which the opera bouffe candidate, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, promptly won with 74% of the entire male adult vote, and then went on to win the plebiscite held after his 1851 anti-leftist coup with 76%.

So any educated person knew in the 1850s that extending the franchise did not, in and of itself, lead to red revolution. Often the opposite. (This is a point picked up in Richard Shannon’s book The Crisis of Imperialism 1865 to 1915 which quotes umpteen later Victorian politicians and commentators arguing against extending the franchise precisely because they’d seen what it led to in France, namely the election of a repressive, right wing autocrat.)

Hobsbawm’s excited description of the way the ‘scary’ working class were ‘threatening’ bourgeois hegemony, were on the brink of ‘seizing power’ and righting the world’s wrongs, underplays the extent to which universal suffrage led:

  1. directly to the rise of populist nationalist anti-left wing governments
  2. and to the fragmentation of the left into ‘reformists’, prepared to compromise their radical principles and ally with liberal parties in order to get into parliament, and the die-hards who held out for radical social change

In other words, extending the franchise led to the exact opposite of what Hobsbawm hopes. Something borne out after the Great War, when the franchise was drastically extended to almost all adults in most European countries and the majority of European governments promptly became either right-wing or out-and-out dictatorships. Mussolini won the 1924 Italian general election; Hitler won the largest share of the vote in the Weimar Republic’s last election. Or Hungary:

In January 1920, Hungarian men and women cast the first secret ballots in the country’s political history and elected a large counterrevolutionary and agrarian majority to a unicameral parliament. (Wikipedia)

Switching from Hobsbawm altogether to the present day, 2021, any reader of the English left-liberal English press must be struck how, since the Brexit vote, it has stopped being a taboo subject to suggest that quite possibly a large proportion of the British electorate is thick and uneducated (terms you frequently meet in the Guardian newspaper). You can nowadays read plenty of ‘progressive’ commentators pointing out that the great British electorate was persuaded, in voting for Brexit (2016) and Boris (2019), to vote for populist right-wing demagoguery and against their own best interests as working people. I have read so many commentators pointing out that it is the very conservative working class communities who voted for Brexit who are most likely going to suffer the prolonged consequences of economic dislocation and decline.

In other words, right now in 2021, you can read representatives of the left openly stating that universal franchise, one person one vote, not only doesn’t lead to the socialist paradise Hobsbawm implies it will, but the opposite – rule by right-wing populists.

As far as I can remember, thoughts like this would have been utterly taboo in the 1980s, or have immediately identified you as a right-wing conservative. But now I read comments like this every day in the Guardian or New Statesman.

So – this is the recent experience and current political discourse I bring to reading Hobsbawm’s chapter about democracy and which makes me think his assumption, his faith, his Marxist belief, that simply expanding the franchise to all adults would of itself bring about social revolution and justice and equality is too simplistic.

  • It doesn’t correlate with the historical fact that, as soon as the franchises of most European nations had been radically expanded (after the Great War), lots of them became very right-wing.
  • It doesn’t speak to our present situation where, it’s true that no-one is openly suggesting restricting the franchise, but many progressives are questioning whether the universal franchise produces the optimum results for a nation and its working class. Trump. Brexit.

The world is not as we would like it to be.

My opposition to Hobsbawm’s teleology

I am a Darwinian materialist. I believe there is no God and therefore no purpose or direction to human lives or events. There is no plan, divine or otherwise. Shit happens, people try to cope. Obviously shit happens within a complex web of frameworks and structures which we have inherited, it takes a lot of effort to disentangle and understand what is going on, or what we think is going on, and sometimes it may happen in ways some of which we can broadly predict. But ‘events, dear boy, events’ are the determining feature in human affairs. Take Afghanistan this past week. Who knew? Who expected such a sudden collapse?

This isn’t a very profound analysis but my aim is to contrast my preference for a theory of the unpredictable and chaotic nature of human affairs with Hobsbawm’s profound belief in Marxist teleology, meaning the very nineteenth century, rationalist, scientistic belief that there are laws of history and that human societies obey them and that they can be predicted and harnessed.

Teleology: the doctrine of design and purpose in the material world.

Teleology is the belief that if you shave away all the unfortunate details of history, and the peculiarities of culture, and the impact of charismatic individuals, in fact if you pare away enough of what makes people people and societies societies, you can drill down to Fundamental Laws of History. And that Karl Marx discovered them. And that these laws predict the coming collapse of capitalism and its replacement by a wonderful classless society. And that you, too, can be part of this future by joining the communist party today for the very reasonable online registration fee of just £12!

Anyway, the teleology (‘sense of direction, meaning or purpose’) which is a vital component of Marxism, the confidence in an inevitable advent of a future of justice and equality, which underpins every word Hobsbawm wrote, evaporated in 1991 and nothing has taken its place.

There will be no Revolution. The ‘capitalist system’ will not be overthrown. At most there will be pointless local revolts like the Arab Spring, revolts which, more than likely, end up with regimes more repressive or anarchic than the ones they overthrew (Syria, Libya, Egypt).

This sort of thing will occur repeatedly in countries which did not enjoy the early or middle benefits of the technological revolutions Hobsbawm describes, countries of the permanently developing world, which will always have largely peasant populations, which will always depend on the export of raw materials (oil being the obvious one), which will always have unstable political systems, liable to periodic upheavals.

The environmental perspective

If there is One Big Thing we do know about the future, it is something which isn’t mentioned anywhere in Hobsbawm’s book, which is that humanity is destroying the environments which support us.

My son is studying biology at university. He says it amounts to having world-leading experts explain the beauty and intricacy of various eco-systems in beautiful places around the planet – and then describing how we are destroying them.

As a result, my son thinks that human civilisation, in its present form, is doomed. Not because of global warming. But because we are killing the oceans, exterminating all the fish, destroying species diversity, wrecking agricultural land, using up all the fresh water, relying more on more on fragile monocultures, and generally devastating the complex web of ecosystems which make human existence possible.

Viewed from this perspective, human activity is, overall, fantastically destructive. And the massive ideological divide Hobsbawm makes between the tradition of the nineteenth century ‘bourgeoisie’, on the one hand, and the revolutionaries, Communards, Bolsheviks and communists he adulates, on the other, fades into insignificance.

We now know that polluting activity and environmental destruction were as bad or worse under communist regimes as they were under capitalist ones. It was the Soviet system which gave us Chernobyl and its extended cover-up. Capitalist ones are at least capable of reform in a way communist regimes turned out not to be. Green political movements are a feature of advanced ‘capitalist’ countries but were suppressed, along with every other form of deviance, under communist governments.

But then again, it really doesn’t matter from a global perspective. Looked at from the planet’s point of view, all human activity is destructive.

So this is why, looking at them from a really high-level perspective, as of aliens visiting earth and reviewing the last couple of centuries, these books no longer make me angry at the wicked ‘capitalist’ exploitation of its workers and entire colonial nations and the ‘heroic’ resistance of the proletariat and the exploited peoples of the colonial nations.

I just see a swarm of humans ruining their habitat and leading, inevitably, to their own downfall.

Hobsbawm’s style

Hobsbawm is very repetitive. He mentions bicycles and cars and so on representing new technologies at least three times. I swear he points out that imperialism was the result of increasing competition between the industrial nations at least half a dozen times. He tells us that a number of Germany’s most eminent revolutionaries came from Russia, namely Rosa Luxemburg, at least four times. He repeats President Porfirio Diaz’s famous lament, ‘Poor Mexico! So far from God, so close to the United States’ twice. He tells us twice that western governments were keen to invest in medical research into tropical fevers solely because the results promised to help their officers and administrators survive longer in colonial outposts several times. He repeatedly tells us that Bismarck was the master of maintaining peace between the powers (pp.312 and 318).

The impression this gives is of rambling, repetitive and circular arguments instead of linear, logical ones.

Hobsbawm’s discussions are often very gaseous in the sense that they go on at length, use lots of highbrow terminology, but at the end it’s hard to make out or remember what he’s said. The discussion of nationalism in Age of Capital was long and serious-sounding but I emerged at the end of it none the wiser. The long discussion of sociology in chapter 11 of this book left me none the wiser about sociology except for Hobsbawm’s weird suggestion that, as a social science, it was founded and encouraged in order to protect society against Marxism and revolution. Really?

In a similar spirit, although he uses the word ‘bourgeoisie’ intensively throughout both books, I emerged with no clearer sense of what ‘bourgeoisie’ really means than I went in with. He himself admits it to be a notoriously difficult word to define and then more or less fails to define it.

On a more serious level I didn’t understand his discussion of nationalism in Age of Capital or his discussion of the increasing democratisation in the 1890s in this volume, because they were vague and waffly. It seemed to me that as soon as he left his home turf of economic development, his ideas become foggy and repetitive.

And sometimes he comes over as a hilariously out of touch old buffer:

By 1914 the more unshackled youth in the western big cities and resorts was already familiar with sexually provocative rhythmic dances of dubious but exotic origin (the Argentinian tango, the syncopated steps of American blacks). (p.204)

‘The syncopated steps of American blacks’. No wonder American capitalism was doomed to collapse.

Overall conclusion

Hobsbawm’s books are thrilling because of their scope and range and the way he pulls together heterogenous material from around the world, presenting pages of awe-inspiring stats and facts, to paint a vivid, thrilling picture of a world moving through successive phases of industrialisation.

But he is eerily bereft of ideas. This comes over in the later chapters of both books in which he feels obligated, like so many historians before him, to write a chapter about The Arts. This is not his natural territory and the reader has to struggle through turgid pages of Hobsbawm dishing up absolutely conventional judgements (Van Gogh was an unrecognised genius; the arts and crafts movement was very influential), which are so lame and anodyne they are embarrassing.

I had noticed his penchant for commenting on everything using numbered points (‘The bourgeois century destabilised its periphery in two main ways…’; ‘Three major forces of resistance existed in China…’, ‘Three developments turned the alliance system into a time bomb…’, and many others). Eventually it dawned on me that he produces these nifty little sets of issues or causes or effects instead of having ideas. Lists beat insights.

Considering how fertile Marxist literary and art criticism has been in the twentieth century (cf György Lukács, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Frederick Jameson) it is very disappointing how flat and untheoretical and banal Hobsbawm’s comments about the arts in both books are. In these later sections of each book it is amazing how much he can write without really saying anything. He is a good example of someone who knows all the names and terminology and dates and styles and has absolutely nothing interesting to say about them.


Credit

The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914 by Eric Hobsbawm was published in 1975 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All references are to the 1985 Abacus paperback.

Hobsbawm reviews

Related reviews

Reviews about Marx and communism

Karl Marx

Communism in Russia

Communism in China

Communism in Vietnam

Communism in Germany

Communism in Poland

  • Warsaw 1920 by Adam Zamoyski (2008) How the Polish army stopped the Red Army’s advance into Poland in 1920 preventing them pushing on to support revolution in Germany.
  • The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953) A devastating indictment of the initial appeal and then appalling consequences of communism in Poland: ‘Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups…’

Communism in Czechoslovakia

Communism in France

Communism in Spain

  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006) Comprehensive account of the Spanish civil war with much detail on how the Stalin-backed communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the Left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won.
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye-witness account of how the Stalin-backed communist party turned on its left-wing allies, specifically the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which Orwell was fighting with, and how he only just managed to escape arrest, interrogation and probable execution during the communist purges.

Communism in England

The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875 by Eric Hobsbawm (1975)

The astonishing world-wide expansion of capitalism in the third quarter of the [nineteenth] century…
(The Age of Capital, page 147)

Eric Hobsbawn (1917 to 2012) was one of Britain’s leading historians. A lifelong Marxist, his most famous books are the trilogy covering what he himself termed ‘the long 19th century’, i.e. from the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 to the Great War in 1914. These three books are:

  • The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789–1848 (1962)
  • The Age of Capital: 1848–1875 (1975)
  • The Age of Empire: 1875–1914 (1987)

To which he later appended his account of the ‘short’ 20th century, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914 to 1991 (1994).

The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875

The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875 does what it says on the tin and provides a dazzlingly panoramic overview of the full economic, political and social events right across Europe and indeed around the world, from the famous year of revolutions (1848) through to his cutoff point 27 years later.

In his preface Hobsbawm says that the end of the era can be taken as 1873, which marked the start of what contemporaries came to call the Great Depression, a decades-long slump in trade and industry which is usually taken to have lasted from 1873 to 1896. Maybe he and the publishers chose the slightly later date of 1875 so as to end it precisely 100 years before the book’s publication date. Certainly nothing specifically important happened in 1875, it’s just a convenient marker.

General response

When I was a student in the 1980s I much preferred Hobsbawm’s rip-roaring and colourful trilogy to his dry economic volume, Industry and Empire: From 1750 to the Present Day (1968). Now the situation is reversed. I like the earlier book because it is more factual, which makes the central proposition of its first part – that the vital spur to the industrial revolution was Britain’s position at the centre of a complex global network of colonies which allowed it to import raw materials from some and export finished products to others at great profit – all the more powerful and persuasive.

By contrast, The Age of Capital is much more overtly a) Marxist and b) rhetorical and, after a while, both these aspects began to seriously detract from my enjoyment.

1. Very dated Marxism

Hobsbawm loses no opportunity to bang on about the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. These are both foreign words, French and German, respectively, and, for me, they began to really stick out from the text. I began to circle them in pencil, along with his other buzzwords, ‘capitalism’ and ‘revolution’, and this helped to visually confirm my sense that some passages of the book are entirely constructed from this dusty Marxist rhetoric. ‘The demands of the bourgeoisie…’, ‘The bourgeois market…’, ‘The business and domestic needs of the bourgeoisie…’, literally hundreds of times.

Back in the 1980s it didn’t stick out so much because a) as a humanities student I moved in an atmosphere permanently coloured with excitable student rhetoric about ‘the revolution’ and the overthrow of ‘capitalism’ and so on, and b) this reflected the rhetoric’s widespread use in the public domain, where you heard a lot more of this sort of terminology coming out of the 1980s Labour Party in the era of the Miners Strike and the Militant Tendency and so on.

But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, all the steam went out of international socialism. Up till then the rhetoric of revolution had a genuine sense of threat or menace – not that there was necessarily going to be a revolution tomorrow, but there had been, and there could be again, and so it felt like some kind of communist revolution was, at the very least, a real, conceptual possibility. And this sense of possibility and threat was reinforced by the number of genuinely communist governments around the world, all 15 Soviet states, all of China, half of Europe, much of south-east Asia, as well as the various Marxist guerrilla groups across Africa and Latin America. It was a rhetoric, a set of ideas and a mindset you couldn’t help engaging with every day if you watched the news or read newspapers.

File:Communist countries 1979-1983.png

Communist countries 1979 to 1983. Source: Wikipedia

These terms had real-world presence and possibilities because they were the official rhetoric of half the governments of the world. The Soviet Union, Chinese or Cuban governments routinely made pronouncements condemning the ‘capitalist countries’, attacking ‘bourgeois liberalism’, criticising ‘western imperialists’ and so on.

Now, decades later, all this has disappeared. Gross injustice there still is, and sporadic outbreaks of left-wing-sounding movements for fairness. But they lack the intellectual cohesion and above all the sense of confidence (and funding) and threat which ‘revolutionary’ movements were given in the 1960s, 70s and 80s by the vast presence and threat of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. John Le Carré’s thrillers had such an impact because behind the small number of spies battling it out there was the real sense that a war might break out, that espionage might play a role in the actual undermining of the West.

What I’m driving at is that Hobsbawm’s relentless focus on the political movements of the workers of his era, of the proletariat and radicals and socialists and so on of the 1860s and 1870s, now looks quaint and dated. Of course 1848 to 1875 was the era of the triumph of capitalism and the response of workers and workers parties and liberals and intellectuals all across Europe was often couched in terms of socialism and even communism, and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were alive and organising and writing, yes, of course.

But this book’s relentless focus on the plight of ‘the workers’ and the formation of ‘the proletariat’ is not only obviously biased and parti pris but now, in our post-communist era, comes over as dated and contrived. He was writing in the mid-1970s to a widespread acceptance of very left-wing politics which was common not only among academics but in trade unions and major political parties all across Europe and which has now… vanished.

And comes over as boring. I got bored of the way Hobsbawm casually labels the working classes or the populations of non-western countries as ‘victims’, as if absolutely everyone in 1860s China or Persia or Egypt or Africa were helpless children.

I’m just reading a passage where he lambasts the Victorian bourgeoisie for its ‘prejudices’ but his own worldview is just as riddled with prejudice, clichés and stereotypes – the ‘bourgeoisie’ is always 100% powerful exploiters; everyone else is always 100% helpless ‘victims’; only Karl Marx understood what was going on; the holy quest for ‘revolution’ went into abeyance during these years but was to revive and flourish in the 1880s, hurrah!

He repeats certain phrases, such as ‘bourgeois liberalism’, so many times that they eventually become empty of meaning, little more than slogans and boo words.

‘Here is the hypocrite bourgeois in the bosom of his smug family while the workers slave away in his factory’, BOO!

‘Here are the socialist intellectuals and more educated workers seeking to organise labour and planning for the revolutionary overthrow of bourgeois society and the seizure of the means of production by the workers’, HOORAY!

‘Here are the Great Thinkers of the period, Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer, whose writings supported raw capitalism, racism and eugenics’, BOO!

‘Here are Karl Mark and Friedrich Engels, noble humanitarians who were the only ones to grasp the scale of the socio-economic changes the industrialised world was undergoing’, HOORAY!

2. Hobsbawm’s superficial treatment prevents understanding

This brings me to the other major flaw in the book which is that it reads to me, now, as so superficial on almost all the specific events it covers, as to be actively misleading.

As a starry-eyed and fairly uneducated student it came as a dazzling revelation to learn just how many huge and momentous events took place during this packed 25-year period. It was my first introduction to the 1848 revolutions and the Paris Commune, to the Taiping Rebellion and the American Civil War and so on, all of which stretched my historical understanding and broadened my perspectives on world history.

However, rereading it now, 30 years later, I think Hobsbawm’s presentation of many of these subjects is so brief and is so skewed by the way he forces everything into his Marxist worldview – everything is shoehorned into the same framework of capitalism and proletariat and bourgeoisie – as to be actively misleading.

Because every event he covers is described in terms of the triumph of the liberal-capitalist bourgeoisie over either their own proletariat or entire foreign nations (for example, China or India) everything ends up sounding very samey. He doesn’t distinguish between the enormous cultural, economic, legal and historical differences between nations – between, for example the ‘bourgeoisie’ of America, Britain and Germany, all very different things – he doesn’t pay attention to the complexities and unexpected turns and ironies which defy Marxism’s neat patterns and limited repertoire of concepts.

This generalising tendency makes a lot of the events of the era sound the same and this actively prevents a proper understanding of history’s complexities and strangeness. It was only when I read specific books on some of the events he describes that I came to really understand the complexity and specificity of events which Hobsbawm, for all his verve and rhetoric, often leaves badly unexplained.

For example, I’ve just read Hobsbawm’s description of the Paris Commune (pages 200 to 202) and am profoundly unimpressed. He skimps on the historical detail or the actual events of the Commune, preferring to give a shallow, teenage account of how much it scared the European bourgeoisie and how they took fright at the sight of workers running their own government etc.

Its [the Commune’s] actual history is overlaid by the enormously powerful myth it generated, both in France itself and (through Karl Marx) in the international socialist movement; a myth which reverberates to this day, notably in the Chinese People’s Republic… If it did not threaten the bourgeois order seriously, it frightened the wits out of it by its mere existence. Its life and death were surrounded by panic and hysteria, especially in the international press, which accused it of instituting communism, expropriating the rich and sharing their wives, terror, wholesale massacre, chaos, anarchy and whatever else haunted the nightmares of the respectable classes – all, needless to say, deliberately plotted by the International. (p.201)

See what I mean by rhetoric? Heavy on rhetoric and references to Marx, the International, communist China, revolution, bourgeois order and so on. But where are the facts in that passage? There aren’t any.

Hobsbawm fails to explain the context of the Franco-Prussian War or the complex sequence of events which led to the declaration of the Commune. He glosses over the way the workers’ government came into being, the disagreements among various factions, the executions of hostages which introduced a note of terror and violence into the situation, which was then amply repaid by the French government forces when they retook Paris arrondissement by arrondissement and the mass executions of communards which followed. I only came to properly appreciate the Commune’s grim complexity when, many decades later, I read The Fall of Paris by Alistair Horne (1965)

Same with the Crimean War, which Hobsbawm dismisses as a notorious fiasco and more or less leaves at that (p.96). It wasn’t until I read The Crimean War by Orlando Figes (2010) a few years ago that I for the first time understood the long-term geopolitical forces at work (namely the Ottoman Empire’s decay and the fierce ambition of Russia to seize the Straits and extend their territory all the way to Constantinople), the complicated sequence of events which led up to the outbreak of war, and the multiple ways in which it was, indeed, a mismanaged disaster.

Same with the American Civil War (pages 170 to 173). Hobsbawn gives a breath-takingly superficial sketch (‘For four years the civil war raged’) and, surprisingly for such a left-wing writer, doesn’t really give slavery its due weight. He is more interested in the way victory for the North was victory for American capitalism, which was the view of Marx himself.

Anyway, it wasn’t until I read James McPherson’s epic history of the American Civil War, decades later, that I really understood the long-term causes of the war, the huge conceptual frameworks within which it took place (I’m still awed at the ambition of some of the southern slavers to create a new and completely separate nation which would include all the Caribbean and most of Central America), the terrible, appalling, mind-searing horrors of slavery, the strong case made by the southern states for secession, and the technological reasons (development of better guns) why it went on so long and caused such immense casualties (620,000 dead).

Here are books on specific events or figures from the period, which I would strongly in preference to Hobsbawm if you really want to fully understand key events from the period:

Same on the domestic front. By limiting his description of British society to concepts of capital, capitalists, bourgeoisie and proletariat, Hobsbawm, in his concern with identifying the structural and economic parallels between all the capitalist nations of the West, loses most of the details which make history, and life, interesting.

I came to this book immediately after reading Richard Shannon’s book, The Crisis of Imperialism, 1865 to 1915 which is a long, sometimes rather turgid, but nonetheless fascinating and detailed analysis of the high politics of Britain during the period, which views them almost entirely in terms of the complicated challenges faced by successive British leaders in trying to keep the various factions in their parties onside while they negotiated the minefields of domestic and international politics. Among other things, Shannon’s book brilliantly conveys the matrix of intellectual and political traditions which politicians like Gladstone and Disraeli sought to harness, and how they both were trying to preserve visions of a past equilibrium or social balance which probably never existed, while the world hurried them relentlessly onwards.

By contrast, Hobsbawm’s account gives you no idea at all of the characters and worldviews of the leading politicians of the day; they are all just representatives of the ‘bourgeoisie’, taken as, for all intents and purposes, identical, whether in America, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and so on. (The one possible exception is Bismarck, who emerges with a very clear political agenda, all of which he achieved, and so impresses Hobsbawm.)

The book’s strengths

Where the book does score, what made its reputation when it was published and has maintained it ever since, is the bravura confidence with which Hobsbawm leaps from one continent to another, mimicking in the structure of his text the phenomenal spread of the industrial revolution and the new capitalist ways of managing production, new social relations, a new economy, and new trading relations, new and unprecedented ways of doing things which spread like wildfire around the world. The first half of the book is crammed with raw facts and statistics about the West’s astonishing feats of industrialisation and engineering. Here are some highlights:

1848, the ‘springtime of peoples’

1848 saw political revolution across Europe. I have summarised these in a review of 1848: Year of Revolution by Mike Rapport (2008). The revolutions of 1848 generated a huge amount of rhetoric, primarily by middle class nationalists and liberals, but also from ideologists for the new ideas of socialism and communism.

But the key thing about the 1848 revolutions and the so-called ‘springtime of peoples’ is that they failed. Within a year, year and a half at most, they had all been crushed. Some political gains were made, serfdom was abolished in Hungary, but broadly speaking, within two years the kings and emperors were back in control.

All except in the most politically unstable country of Europe, France, which overthrew its king, endured three years of unstable democracy and then elected a buffoon, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, to become their emperor, Napoleon III (Napoleon counted his father as Napoleon II, hence the way he named himself the third Napoleon). The French replaced an inept king with a populist buffoon. The left was decisively crushed for nearly 40 years, only reviving in the harsher environment of the 1880s.

The labour movement [across Europe] had not so much been destroyed as decapitated by the failure of the 1848 revolutions and the subsequent decades of economic expansion. (p.133)

Boom years of the 1850s

The 1848 revolutions were bitterly fought, there was a lot of bloodshed which amounted to civil war in some parts of Europe, but apart from the fact that they all failed in their aims of establishing liberal republics, the other key thing about them that Hobsbawm brings out is they were the end of a process, not the beginning.

The 1840s are often referred to as the Hungry Forties because of the malign impact of industrialisation on many populations, combined with a run of bad harvests. BUT 1850 saw all this change, with a sudden industrial boom which lasted most of the rest of the 1850s and a run of good harvests.

With the result that the ‘working class militancy’ so beloved of a Marxist like Hobsbawm fizzled out. Chartism, which had at one point threatened the state in Britain, disappeared and the same with the other movements across Europe. All except for the nationalist movements in Germany and Italy, which were by no means socialist or for the workers. The unification of Germany was brought about by Bismarck, the opposite of a socialist.

1848 gold rush

Much more important for the global economy was the discovery, in the same year, 1848, of gold in California. This is the kind of thing Hobsbawm is good at, because he has the figures at his fingertips to show how dramatically the gold rush drew the Pacific world closer together. An unprecedented number of Chinese crossed the sea to find their fortunes in California, part of the huge influx of migrants who boosted San Francisco’s population from 812 in 1848 to 35,000 just 4 years later (p.79).

Crews of ships docking in San Francisco regularly absconded in their entirety, leaving the wooden ships to rot, many of them eventually being torn up and used as building materials. Such was the pull of gold and the mushroom wealth it created, that fleets and food were attracted up the coast from faraway Chile.

The gold rush also acted as a financial incentive for the completion of the transcontinental railways being built at the time (the line right across America was completed in 1869). Previously California had been cut off by the huge Rocky mountains. Now there was the incentive of gold to complete a transport link to it, allowing the traffic of food from the mid-West.

Globalisation

The gold rush in California (shortly followed by one in Australia) is a good example of one of the overall themes of the book, which is that this era saw the advent of Globalisation.

The interdependence of the world economy could hardly be better demonstrated. (p.79)

Due to the railway, the steamer and the telegraph…the geographical size of the capitalist economy could suddenly multiply as the intensity of its business transactions increased. The entire globe became part of this economy. This creation of a single expanded world is probably the most significant development of our period…for practical purposes an entirely new economic world was added to the old and integrated into it. (p.48)

In this industrial capitalism became a genuine world economy and the globe was therefore transformed from a geographical expression into a constant operational reality. History from now on became world history. (p.63)

No wonder that observers saw the economic world not merely as a single interlocking complex, but as one where each part was sensitive to what happened elsewhere, and through which money, goods and men moved smoothly and with increasing rapidity, according to the irresistible stimuli of supply and demand, gain and loss and with the help of modern technology. (p.82)

…the ever-tightening network of global communications, whose most tangible result was a vast increase in the flow of international exchanges of goods and men… (p.85)

For the historian the great boom of the 1850s marks the foundation of a global industrial economy and a single world history. (p.88)

… the extraordinary widening and deepening  of the world economy which forms the basic theme of world history at this period. (p.207)

Second industrial revolution

There are varying opinions about how many industrial revolutions there were. From Hobsbawm’s accounts here and in Industry and Empire it seems clear the first industrial revolution centred on cotton production, took place in Lancashire, and relied on British dominance of international trade, since 100% of the raw material was imported (from the American South) and a huge percentage was then exported (to Africa and India).

There was a slump in the textile economy in the 1830s and Hobsbawm briefly entertains the counter-factual possibility that the process of industrialisation, which had, after all, only touched a relatively tiny part of the world’s surface, might have sputtered out and died altogether.

But it was saved by a second wave of renewed industrial activity leading to phenomenal growth in production of coal and iron, with accompanying technical innovations, which were catalysed by the new technology connected with the railway (which Hobsbawm tells us Karl Marx thought of as capitalism’s ‘crowning achievement’, p.48).

Railway mania

Hobsbawm explains how the railway mania, at first in Britain, then in other industrialising nations, was driven by financial factors, namely the need for capitalists who had acquired large amounts of capital for something to invest in.

Hobsbawm has some lyrical passages, the kind of thing most readers of this book long remember, describing the astonishing feats of finance and engineering and labour which flung huge lengths of iron railroad across the continents of the world between the 1840s and the 1870s, connecting coasts with hinterlands, linking the world together as never before. Many readers remember Hobsbawm’s awed descriptions of the astonishing achievements of individual railway entrepreneurs such as Thomas Brassey, who at one point was employing 80,000 men on five continents (pages 70 to 73).

Such men thought in continents and oceans. For them the world was a single unit, bound together with rails of iron and steam engines, because the horizons of business were like their dreams, world-wide. (p.74)

He points out that Jules Verne’s famous novel of 1873, Around the World in Eighty Days, was fantastically topical to its time. In effect its protagonist, Phileas Fogg, was testing and showcasing the spread of the new railway technology which had girdled the earth (p.69).

Map of the trip

Map of Philea Fogg’s route in Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne (Map created by Roke. Source: Wikipedia)

The electric telegraph

Even more dramatic than railways was the development of the electric telegraph which Hobsbawm describes in detail on pages 75 to 78. It was the telegraph which created the first and definitive communications revolution. In 1848 you had to wait months for letters to arrive from another continent. By 1875 news could be telegraphed from England to America in minutes. It was a transformation in human relations, perception and psychology.

Hobsbawm goes on to make the interesting point that this globalisation was still very limited and focused on high profit areas and routes. Only a hundred miles from the railway and telegraph, billions of people still lived with more or less feudal technology, the fastest vehicle being the ox-cart.

Right from the beginning the process of globalisation created an even bigger zone of unglobalisation, what is now often called the ‘left behind’. So Phileas Fogg’s famous journey has this additional interpretation, that it was a journey along the frontier between the newly globalised and the still untouched. In the novel Phileas travels a kind of borderline between the deep past and the ever-accelerating future.

Production figures

Britain produced 2.5 million tons of iron in 1850, in 1870 6 million tons, or about half the world’s total. Over the same period world production of coal increased by two and a half times, world output of iron four times. Global steam power increased from an estimated 4 million horsepower in 1850 to 18.5 million HP by 1870. In 1859 2,000 million barrels of oil were produced in the USA, in 1874, 11 million barrels. The book ends with a dozen pages of tables conveying these and many other examples of the explosion in productivity and output, and maps showing the spread of trade routes and emigration movements around the world.

The industrialisation of the German Federation between 1850 and 1870 had major geopolitical implications, creating the industrial might which helped Bismarck win three wars in succession and create a united Germany, which has been a decisive force in Europe ever since (p.56).

World fairs

As their economic system, businesses and military might spread around the world, what Hobsbawm calls the ‘liberal bourgeoisie’ celebrated in a series of world’s fairs, starting with the famous Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London at which no fewer than 14,000 firms exhibited (1851), followed by Paris 1855, London 1862, Paris 1867, Vienna 1873 and Philadelphia 1875 (p.47).

Mass migration

The third quarter of the nineteenth century saw the largest migrations in human history to that point. Between 1846 and 1875 more than 9 million people left Europe, mostly for America (p.228). Between 1851 and 1880 about 5.3 million people left the British Isles (3.5 million to the USA, 1 million to Australia, half a million to Canada).

More subtly, maybe, there was large scale inner migration from the countryside to the new mushroom towns and cities of the industrial revolution, creating vast acreages of appallingly squalid, over-crowded slums without any sanitation, water etc. These were to be the settings for the poverty literature and government reports of the 1880s and 1890s which brought about sweeping changes in town planning at the end of the century and into the 1900s.

The challenge to the developing world

The corollary of the notion that industrial ‘liberal capitalism’ spread its tentacles right around the world during this period, drawing all nations and peoples and places into its ravenous quest for profit, was the challenge this represented to all the non-Western nations and other cultures. Hobsbawn has sections describing the responses of the Ottoman Empire, the world of Islam, the Chinese Empire, the Persian Empire and the Japanese to the growing challenge from what he glibly calls ‘the West’.

His passages on these nations suffer from the same shortcomings I’ve listed above, namely that they are brief and superficial. To really understand what happened in China during this period, I would recommend The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 to the Present by Jonathan Fenby (2013). For an overview of why the non-Western empires and cultures proved incapable of matching the West’s dynamism, I recommend the outstanding After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires 1400 to 2000 by John Darwin. For descriptions of the internal crises the transformation sparked, generally leading to the overthrow of the old regimes, in the Ottoman Empire, China, Japan in a controlled way, I would recommend you to find books specifically about those countries.

Wars

It was an era of wars. Which era hasn’t been?

  • The Second Carlist War (1846 to 1849) was a minor Catalan uprising
  • The Taiping Rebellion aka the Taiping Civil War or the Taiping Revolution, 1850 to 1864
  • The Crimean War, October 1853 to February 1856
  • American Civil War, 12 April 1861 to 9 April 1865
  • The Unification of Germany involved:
    • The Second Schleswig War aka Prusso-Danish War Feb to October 1864
    • The Austro-Prussian War or Seven Weeks’ War, June to July 1866
    • The Franco-Prussian War War, 19 July 1870 to 28 January 1871
  • The Unification of Italy involved:
    • The Second Italian War of Independence aka the Austro-Sardinian War, April to 12 July 1859
      (2 months, 2 weeks and 2 days)
    • The Third Italian War of Independence between the Kingdom of Italy and the Austrian Empire, June and August 1866
  • The Paraguayan War aka the War of the Triple Alliance, 1864 to 1870
  • The Third Carlist War, in Spain, 1872 to 1876

Famines

Less newsworthy than wars, less painted, less celebrated, producing fewer statues and medals, but many times more people died in famines than conflicts. As Hobsbawm points out, one of the fundamental differences between the ‘civilised world’ and the rest is that the industrial world can (by and large) feed its populations, whereas the undeveloped world is susceptible to failures of harvest and distribution.

  • 1848: Java ravaged by famine
  • 1849: maybe 14 million died in the Chinese famine
  • 1854 to 1864 as many as 20 million died in prolonged famine in China
  • 1856: one in ten of the population of Orissa died in the famine
  • 1861 to 1872: a fifth the population of Algeria died of starvation
  • 1868 to 1870: up to a third the population of Rajputana
  • 3 and a half million perished in Madras
  • 1871 to 1873: up to 2 million, a third the population of Persia, died of starvation
  • 1876 to 1878: 1 million in Mysore

Hobsbawm tries to reclaim human dignity i.e. give these catastrophes some semblance of meaning, by blaming some of this on the colonial powers (especially the British in India; as a British Marxist he is duty bound to reserve most of his scorn and contempt for the British authorities). But the effect of this list is not to make me ‘blame’ anyone, it just overwhelms me with the misery and suffering most of humanity have experienced throughout most of human history.

American states

In the post-civil war era, America continued to grow, adding states to its roster, having now settled the central issue of the war, which was whether they would be slave states of free states. The North’s victory in 1865 meant they would all be ‘free’ states.

  • Wisconsin became a state in 1848
  • California 1850
  • Minnesota 1858
  • Oregon 1859
  • Kansas 1861
  • West Virginia 1863
  • Nevada 1864
  • Nebraska 1867
  • Russia sold America Alaska 1867
  • Colorado 1876

Colonies

The original European colonial powers were Portugal and Spain. Spain lost control of its colonies in Central and South America in the early 1800s. Portugal hung on longer to a handful of territories in Latin America, a few coastal strips in Africa and Goa in India (p.145). The Dutch created a sizeable foreign empire in the 17th and 18th centuries. The French had ambitions to control North America and India but lost out during the 18th century to the British. So that the nineteenth century belonged to Britain, which ruled the world’s oceans and developed an unprecedented web of international, ocean-carried trade and this, Hobsbawm argues, was the bedrock reason for Britain pioneering the industrial revolution.

In a nutshell, the idea is that a fully developed capitalist system must be continually looking for new markets in order to maintain its growth. Where markets don’t exist in its native country, the system creates needs and markets through advertising. Or it conquers new parts of the world and new populations which it can drag into its mesh of trade and sales, extracting its raw materials at the cheapest cost, and turning them into manufactured items which it sells back to colonial peoples at the maximum profit.

Although there continued to be expeditions and territorial claims during this period, it was really a prelude to the frenzy of imperial conquest which characterised the final quarter of the nineteenth century, and which is the subject of the third book in the trilogy, the sequel to this one, Age of Empire.

In a word

Hobsbawm’s book impressed when it was published, and still does now, with its sheer range and scope, with its blizzard of facts and data, with its rhetorical conjuring of a world for the first time embraced and joined together by new technologies (railway, steamship, telegraph).

But its strength is its weakness, for its breadth means it sacrifices subtlety and insight for dogma, and becomes increasingly bogged down in sweeping generalisations about the wicked bourgeoisie and hypocritical capitalists (‘In general capitalists of the first generation were philistines…’, p.334).

By the end of the book I was sick to death of the sight of the word ‘bourgeois’. Hobsbawm sounds like a fairground toy: put a penny in the slot and watch it jerk to life and start spouting endless slogans about the vicious, hypocritical, exploitative ‘bourgeoisie’, especially in the long and profoundly dim final  sections of the book in which, God forgive us, an ageing Marxist historian shares with us his banal and  predictable views about the intellectual and artistic achievements of the period. For example:

  • The novel can be considered the one genre which found it possible to adapt itself to that bourgeois society….p.326
  • When one considers the orgy of building into which a prosperous bourgeois society threw itself…326
  • Few societies have cherished the works of creative genius… more than that of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie. p.327
  • The demands of the bourgeoisie were individually more modest, collectively far greater. (p.330)
  • The business and domestic needs of the bourgeoisie made the fortunes of plenty of architects… (p.330)
  • The bourgeois market was new only insofar as it was now unusually large and increasingly prosperous. (p.330)
  • We can certainly discover those who, for various reasons, resisted or tried to shock a bourgeois public… (p.332)
  • For bourgeois society [the artist] represented ‘genius’…
  • Bourgeois tourists could now hardly avoid that endless and footsore pilgrimage to the shrines of the arts which is still in progress along the hard floors of the Louvre, Uffizi and San Marco. (p.335)
  • [Artists] did not have to conform to the mores of the normal bourgeois… (p.335)
  • Here again Richard Wagner showed a faultless appreciation of the bourgeois artist. (p.335)
  • Did the bourgeois actually enjoy the arts? (p.335)
  • Aestheticism did not become a bourgeois fashion until the late 1870s and 1880s. (p.336)
  • The bourgeoisie of the mid-nineteenth century was torn by a dilemma which its triumph made even more acute. (p.340)
  • At best the bourgeois version of ‘realism’ was a socially suitable selection… (p.340)
  • [Naturalism] normally implied a conscious political critique of bourgeois society… (p.340)
  • The insatiable demands of the bourgeoisie, and especially the petty-bourgeoisie, for cheap portraits provided the basis of [photography]’s success. (p.341)
  • Torn between the idealism and the realism of the bourgeois world, the realists also rejected photography… (p.342)
  • The Impressionists are important not for their popular subject matter – Sunday outings, popular dances, the townscapes and city scenes of cities, the theatres, race-courses and brothels of the bourgeois society’s half world – but for their innovation of method. (p.344)
  • If science was one basic value of bourgeois society, individualism and competition were others. (p.345)
  • [The birth of the avant-garde] represents the collapse of the attempt to produce an art intellectually consistent with (though often critical of) bourgeois society… (p.346)
  • This breakdown affected the marginal strata of the bourgeois world more than its central core: students and young intellectuals, aspiring writers and artists, the general boheme of those who refused to accept (however temporarily) to adopt the ways of bourgeois respectability… (p.347)
  • [French artists] were united, like the Romantics before 1848, only by a common dislike of the bourgeoisie… (p.348)
  • Until 1848 these spiritual Latin Quarters of bourgeois society had hope of a republic and social revolution…. (p.348)
  • Flaubert’s Sentimental Education (1869) is that story of the hope in the hearts of the world-storming young men of the 1840s and its double disappointment, by the 1848 revolution itself and by the subsequent era in which the bourgeoisie triumphed… (p.348)
  • With the collapse of the dream of 1848 and the victory of the reality of Second Empire France, Bismarckian Germany, Palmerstonian and Gladstonian Britain and the Italy of Victor Emmanuel, the western bourgeois arts starting with painting and poetry therefore bifurcated into those appealing to the mass public and those appealing to a self-defined minority. They were not quite as outlawed by bourgeois society as the mythological history of the avant-garde arts has it… (p.349)
  • [Music] could oppose the bourgeois world only from within, an easy task, since the bourgeois himself was unlikely to recognise when he was being criticised. (p.350)
  • Richard Wagner succeeded…in convincing the most financially solvent cultural authorities and members of the bourgeois public that they themselves belonged to the spiritual elite… (p.350)
  • Prose literature, and especially that characteristic art form of the bourgeois era, the novel, flourished for exactly the opposite reason. (p.350)
  • It would be unfair to confine the discussion of the arts in the age of bourgeois triumph to masters and masterpieces… (p.351)

Eventually, by dint of endless relentless repetition, the word ‘bourgeois’ becomes almost entirely emptied of meaning, and the endless conflating of everything bad, vicious, exploitative, hypocritical and philistine under this one mindless label eventually obliterates all Hobsbawm’s attempts to analyse and shed light. It does the opposite.

He nowhere makes clear that, since it is a French word implies, this venomous hatred of the ‘bourgeoisie’ had special French origins and significances in a politically unstable country which had a revolution more or less every generation throughout the century, which just weren’t the same and couldn’t be applied in the same way in Germany, Britain let alone America. Tennyson didn’t hate the English ‘bourgeoisie’, Dickens didn’t despise the English ‘bourgeoisie’, as much as their French counterparts, Baudelaire and Flaubert hated the French ‘bourgeoisie’. The hatred, the concept and the cultural context are all French and have never made nearly as much sense in Britain, let alone in America, as Marx learned to his bitter disappointment.

The passages describing the astonishing achievements of entrepreneurs, inventors, engineers and industrial innovators during this period remain thrilling and eye-opening, but they make up a minority of the text. Struggling through the long, doctrinaire Marxist and tediously banal second half is like being trapped in a corner of a party by a slobbering bore who asks you to hang on while he just tells you 20 more reasons why the Victorian bourgeoisie were so despicable. ‘Yes, grandad. I get it.’

The Age of Capital is arguably, in its overall tendency and rigidly doctrinaire interpretations, more a relic of its own time, the right-on, Marxisant 1970s, than a reliable guide to the era it claims to describe.

Ad hominem

On one occasion only have I been in a traditional London gentleman’s club, when a TV producer invited me to lunch at his club, the Garrick. He pointed out a few famous members in the packed dining room, including the distinctive features of the agèd and lanky Hobsbawm over at one of the tables.

It struck me how very English it was that this fire-breathing, ‘radical’, ‘Marxist’ historian enjoyed all the benefits of the English Establishment, membership of top clubs, numerous honours (Companion of Honour, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Fellow of the British Academy and so on), enjoying a tasty lunch at the Garrick before strolling back to the library to pen another excoriating attack on the hypocrisy, philistinism, greed, ruthlessness and cruelty of the ancestors of the jolly chaps he’d just been sitting among, confident that his ‘bourgeois’ publishers would do a good job producing and promoting his next book, that the ‘bourgeois’ bookshops would display and sell it, that the ‘bourgeois’ press would give it glowing reviews, and he would be awarded another chestful of honours by a grateful monarch.

It’s not really even hypocrisy, it’s something odder: that academic communities across the Western world happily employed, paid and promoted humanities academics and writers who systematically castigated their employers, their nations and their histories, and cheerfully proclaimed their allegiance to foreign powers (the USSR, China) who made no secret of their intention to overthrow the West in violent revolution.

Well, history has had its revenge on the Marxist historians. As I slotted Age of Capital back onto my shelf I thought I heard the sound of distant laughter.


Credit

The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875 by Eric Hobsbawm was published in 1975 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All references are to the 1985 Abacus paperback.

Hobsbawm reviews

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The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham (1957)

‘I say, sir, this is a bit of a facer, isn’t it?’ said Alan
‘I’m afraid it is,’ Zellaby agreed.
(The Midwich Cuckoos, page 80)

John Wyndham’s husband-and-wife teams

The Midwich Cuckoos opens as if it’s going to be another husband-and-wife story, much like The Kraken Wakes. Having read the 15 short stories in Jizzle I can now see that Wyndham is, by inclination, a whimsical and humorous writer. He slips into a homely, drawing room style whenever he writes about his nice middle-class couples, in which the woman is invariably the stronger, more determined one and the slightly-henpecked, narrating husband wryly acknowledges her superior qualities. The entire attitude is epitomised in one of many similar exchanges from Kraken:

‘Mike, darling, just shut up; there’s a love,’ said my devoted wife.

Like Kraken (whose couple are named Mike and Phyllis), Midwich (couple named Richard and Janet) is littered with throwaway jests about this or that aspect of married life, along with sardonic jokes about his or her jobs, stereotyped social attitudes to marriage, pregnancy and so on, pregnancy being, of course, the central subject of the story.

A village story

That said, after the opening scenes, Midwich Cuckoos quite quickly opens up to cover a far larger canvas than just a husband and wife. Indeed Richard and Janet disappear from the text for long stretches, as it focuses more on the household who live at Kyle Manor, namely the thoughtful but long-winded old author, Gordon Zellaby, his (second) wife, Angela, their fragrantly pukkadaughter Ferrelyn, and her fiancé, dashing Second-Lieutenant Alan Hughes, currently serving in the army.

But it’s more than just these half dozen upper-middle-class types; the novel opens out to include a larger cast of characters and to become a kind of portrait of an English village in the mid-1950s. Thus there are quite large speaking parts for the vicar and his wife, the village doctor and his wife, the landlord of the village pub (The Scythe and Stone), the village baker, half a dozen labourer families, and various pretty village girls and their sweethearts, not forgetting the striking inclusion of a pair of village lesbians, Miss Latterly and Miss Lamb.

Cast list

One aspect of the large cast of characters is the sense the novel gives you of the gentle but persistent class divide between the (presumably privately) educated, upper-middle-class types (the Gayfords and the Zellabies), the middle-to-lower-middle class professionals who service them and the other authority figures (the vicar, doctor, police chief, fire chief) and ‘the rest’, the ruck of villagers and rustics, ranging from small shopkeepers (pub landlord, baker, grocer) and local farmers down to the manual labourers and their harassed wives, with a floating population of pretty young things who are no better than they should be. It’s sweet.

The Posh

  • Gordon Zellaby, who Janet jokingly refers to as ‘the sage of Midwich’ (p.101), working away on his latest book, facetiously referred to as the ‘Current Work, lives at spacious Kyle Manor with his second wife, Angela
  • their posh daughter Ferrelyn
  • her fiancé Lieutenant Alan Hughes
  • the initial narrator, writer Richard Gayford and his wife Janet
  • Mr Arthur Crim OBE, Director of the Research Station located in the Grange (p.52)
  • Tilly Foresham, jodhpurs and three dogs

It’s worth noting that the Zellabies employ a cook and maybe other domestic staff, as breakfast, luncheon, tiffin, dinner and late supper all appear as if by magic, prepared by unseen, unnamed hands.

The admin class

  • the Reverend Hubert Leebody, the vicar (p.91) and his wife, Dora Leebody (who has a breakdown and is sent away to a rest home)
  • Miss Polly Rushton, their pretty young niece
  • Dr Charley Willers and his wife, Milly (p.89)
  • Nurse Daniels

The lower-middle class

  • Miss Ogle, an elderly gossip who runs the village post office and telephone exchange
  • Mr Tapper, the retired gardener
  • Miss Latterly and Miss Lamb the village lesbians (pp.82)
  • Wilfred Williams, landlord of the Scythe and Stone
  • Harriman the baker

The working classes

  • Mr Brant the blacksmith and his wife
  • Alfred Wait
  • Harry Crankhart
  • Arthur Flagg labourer
  • Tom Dorry, rating in the Navy
  • Mr Histon

As we hear more about all these figures and are given little vignettes about them, the village comes to seem more like an Ealing Comedy than a disaster movie. There are quite a few bits of dialogue which come straight from the lips of pukka chaps in 1950s movies (‘I say, I’ll have to step on it. See you tomorrow, darling’) or which you can imagine being voiced by Joyce Grenfell in one of the original St Trinian’s movies (which appeared over exactly the same period as Wyndham’s classic novels):

  • The Belles of St Trinian’s (1954)
  • Blue Murder at St Trinian’s (1957)
  • The Pure Hell of St Trinian’s (1960)

There are two schools of thought about this aspect of Wyndham. One is the well-known Brian Aldiss criticism that his novels portray all-too ‘cosy catastrophes’ in which decent middle-class types respond with improbable decency and moral rectitude to global catastrophes, never going to pieces or being corrupted. There’s a lot of truth in this rather brusque putdown.

But there’s the equal and opposite interpretation, that the catastrophes he describes are made all the more realistic and scarey for not having technicolor special effects and not having characters go into psychotic states as per J.G. Ballard’s stories, but remaining stiff-upper-lip, pukka Brits in the face of complete social collapse (Triffids and Kraken in particular).

Having met so many public school types, now, I’m inclined to think most of them would survive a world apocalypse very well, and put their experience of the officer training corps, running big organisations, and huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ to very effective use in post-apocalyptic scenarios.

Either way, The Midwich Cuckoos is obviously a science fiction yarn, but it’s maybe useful to flag up the way it is also a fascinating piece of 1950s social history.

Wyndham’s fateful nights

Of Wyndham’s four Big Novels, three start with ‘fateful nights’ when ‘the world changes forever!’

In Day of the Triffids, it’s the night of Tuesday 7 May when the whole world watches the spectacular meteor shower and, as a result, goes blind.

In The Kraken Wakes, it’s 11.15pm on the night of 15 July when Mike and Phyllis, on a honeymoon cruise, see the first fireballs fall into the sea.

And in The Midwich Cuckoos the novelist narrator and his wife are up in London celebrating him having signed a book contract with an American publisher, which means they’re not present in the nondescript, quiet little village of Midwich on the fateful night of 26 September!

(And, once you realise that The Chrysalids is set in the aftermath of a calamitous nuclear war, you realise it’s likely that that, too, took place on a specific day, maybe night, although, centuries later no-one has any way of knowing when.)

Brief plot summary

The Midwich Cuckkos is 220 pages long in the old Penguin classic edition I own, a comfy, sensible length for an adventure novel. The text is in 21 chapters divided into 2 parts, 15 in the long part one, five in the short part two.

The story is fairly well known, not least from the terrifying 1960 movie adaptation, Village of the Damned, so successful at the box office that it prompted a sequel.

 

 

During the ‘fateful night’ of 26 September all the occupants of the village of Midwich pass out. Everyone trying to enter a perfectly circular radius around the village also passes out, presumably due to what used to be called a ‘force field’. The authorities get wind of it and the village is sealed off. 24 hours later the mystery condition disappears and everything returns to normal. Except that, a few months later, all the women of childbearing age report that they are pregnant (which causes obvious difficulty among couples who have stopped having sex, or for single women).

Nine months later the pregnant women all give birth. Their babies are all perfectly healthy but, as they develop, have an eerie similarity of appearance, with platinum blonde hair and piercing golden eyes. The inhabitants knew something strange has happened, and realise the children aren’t natural. And as they grow it becomes clear that the Children can impose their wishes on their parents through some form of telepathy or mental control, which is eerie enough. But it’s only towards the end of the story that one of the leading figures, retired author Gordon Zellaby, comes to appreciate just how much of a threat they pose to all human life, and decides to take drastic action.

Detailed plot summary

Chapter 1 No entry to Midwich

Sets the scene, describes Midwich in the county of ‘Winshire’ (p.34) as an average English village with a handful of the usual historical episodes, including the dissolution of the local monastery, Cromwell’s men stopping over en route to some battle, a notorious 18th century highwayman, and so on.

The initial narrator of the story, author Richard Gayford, has lived in the village for just over a year (p.11) with his wife Janet. They are out of the village, up in London celebrating him signing a contract with American publishers on ‘the fateful night’ of 26 September.

On returning they find the village sealed off by the Army. Being naughty, they drive away from the roadblock but then double back, park at the entrance to a field and try to cut across fields to their cottage. Janet is making her way across a field when she suddenly drops to the ground unconscious. Richard runs forward and similarly blacks out.

Chapter 2 All quiet in Midwich

Quick overview of the village and what all its characters were up to on ‘the fateful night’ i.e. bickering in the pub, listening to the radio, trying to get a new-fangled television set to work, on the phone to a friend in London, relaxing in front of a nice roaring fire.

Chapter 3 Midwich rests

Briefly describes how a succession of early morning visitors to the village disappear, are heard from no more, including the baker’s van, local bus, an ambulance sent to find out what’s going on, a fire engine which goes to investigate reports of smoke, and so on.

Chapter 4 Operation Midwich

The army gets involved. Lieutenant Hughes finds himself consulting with the chiefs of the local fire brigade and police who are establishing a cordon round the village. Alan has the bright idea of getting a soldier to drive off to find a pet shop and requisition a canary in a cage which they can tentatively push forward into the ‘zone’ to see if it collapses. Then another soldier paints a white line on the ground and another indicates the perimeter on a map.

Richard and Janet are dragged by soldiers using a long hook a few yards from where they’re lying prone to just outside the ‘zone’ and immediately wake up and feel fine. They are driven along to the pub in the next door village, which they find packed with journalists, radio and TV people, and Richard is delighted to be hailed by Bernard Westcott, a colleague of his from back in the army days, who, it becomes clear, is now something in Military Intelligence.

Military Intelligence? Yes, they’re here not only because it’s an anomalous event, but because of The Grange. The Grange?

The Grange Upon investigation, it turns out that Midwich is not quite such a boring, average, run-of-the-mill village as the narrator initially implied. It is also home to an old grange building which has had a modern extension added which contains laboratories, amounting to a Research Station, supervised by Mr Arthur Crim OBE, Director of the Research. What kind of research goes on there? Well, a little surprisingly, we never really find out. And the entire question is, I think, a red herring, thrown in to complexify the early part of the story and make readers wonder whether the mysterious event is some kind of attack on the grange by ‘the enemy’. But by half way through it’s become clear that it wasn’t and the existence of the Grange is more or less irrelevant to the story.

But not here at the start. There is an impressive gathering of military and civil administrator types – army, air force Group Captain, chief policeman, head fireman and so on – who have a summit conference about how to deal with it. An airplane flies over and takes photos of the village. That and the patient perimeter work with the canary establish that the ‘zone’ comprises a perfect circle two miles in diameter., and at the dead centre sits a large object, which has a metallic appearance and looks like a convex spoon (p.36).

The Russians As in The Kraken Wakes there is much speculation about whether the event is an attack by the Russians, by ‘the other side’, by ‘those Ivans’ (p.38). This turns out to be irrelevant to the plot but it is a fascinating indication of how heavily the Cold War rivalry, and the threat from the Soviet bloc, and the constant fear of what new trick they might pull, weighed on the imagination of the West, or of western writers, or of western writers of science fiction, or of John Wyndham anyway.

Chapter 5 Midwich reviviscit

And then suddenly everybody wakes up. The advantage of Wyndham’s realistic style is he gives a very vivid description of what it feels like to wake up after 2 days suspended animation, in an unnatural position on the sofa or the floor, how you are utterly numb, the pain when the feeling slowly starts to return to your limbs and extremities.

Chapter 6 Midwich settles down

Describes how everyone concerned comes to cope with it, this strange event, which comes to be called the Dayout (p.47). No fewer than 11 people perished, several when their houses caught fire, several from exposure from lying out in the open for two days and nights (there’s a list on page 47).

Bernard Westcott pays a couple more visits to the village, specifically to check up on the Grange but drops into the Gayford cottage for chats. They invite Bernard for dinner and he asks Richard and Janet if they’ll be informal eyes and ears i.e. spy on the village. Janet is at first sceptical, what’s the need? Bernard points out there may be lingering after-effects: after all X-rays, radiation and so on are invisible. There’s no sign of those in the village, they’ve tested, but who knows what other after-effects there may be…

Chapter 7 Coming events

About two months later, in late November, Ferrelyn, after much nervousness, summons up the courage to tell Angela Zellaby, over posh breakfast at the Manor, that she’s pregnant. Angela astonishes Ferrelyn that shs is, too. What worries Ferrelyn, though, is that it isn’t Alan’s. It isn’t anyone’s. She’s a virgin. How can she be pregnant and she bursts into tears.

Briefly, the narrative explains how, over the next few days, women come forward to confide to the vicar, Mr Leebody, or the village doctor, Willers, that they are pregnant – from the oldest to the youngest, all fertile women in the village are pregnant!

Chapter 8 Heads together

Dr Willers calls on Gordon Zellaby to break the news that every fertile woman in the village is pregnant. Zellaby, in his detached intellectual way, considers the options, giving them smart Greek names:

  • parthenogenesis
  • some form of artificial insemination
  • xenogenesis

It is suggestive that the fertile women who spent the Dayout unconscious in the village bus are not pregnant because the bus was, for the duration, in plain sight of people outside the zone. Maybe whatever was done to the women inside the zone was not to be observed.

The Thinker Several points: Zellaby fulfils something of the same role as Bocker performs in Kraken Wakes and, up to a point, Uncle  Axel, in The Chrysalids – he is a figure peripheral to the main action, who can comment and analyse it. Exactly as Bocker is the first to realise that the fireballs in Kraken might come from another planet and is the first to grasp the threat they pose, so Zellaby in Cuckoos is the first to articulate the theory that the pregnancies are the result of conscious and co-ordinated action, the first to establish the Children’s telepath, and the first to grasp what a serious threat they pose.

But the role of all three characters (Bocker, Alex, Zellaby) is not only to crystallise the reader’s suspicions and move the plot forward, but to express intellectual ideas prompted by the book’s events. Thus Bocker not only warns about what is happening to earth, but speculates about what kind of intelligence has arrived on earth and interesting ideas about whether two intelligent but very different species can ever share a planet. (No, is the short answer).

Similarly, the central theme of The Chrysalids is ‘What is normality and what is deviance?’ and Uncle Alex is the mouthpiece of the author’s interesting ideas on the subject. For example, when Alex made his long sea voyage he discovered lots of communities which were ‘deviant’ in one way or another but each one regarded themselves as normal and all the others as the mutations. On a different but related trajectory, it is Alex who shares the speculation that, maybe David’s family and community, by trying to keep plant, animal and human lineage ‘pure’ and how they were before the nuclear holocaust, maybe they are setting themselves against biological change, when, in fact, evolution and change is the one constant of Life. So that maybe David’s mutation (he is a telepath) is an inevitable next step in human evolution and his family are trying to prevent the inevitable.

And so it is retired author and easily distracted Gordon Zellaby, his mind wandering on strange elusive patterns, who fulfils the same role in Cuckoos not only crystallising the action (I mean drawing together scattered events, making sense of them, as he explains them to Richard or Alan) but going on to express ideas and implications arising from the book’s premise.

Chapter 9 Keep it dark

This is a very interesting chapter because of the way the subject matter is treated. The plot level it is straightforward. Gordon and the doctor decide they must hold an Emergency Meeting of all the village’s womenfolk to explain to them what they think they’ve discovered, to bring it into the open and to air it.

What’s interesting is the extreme care they take to make it a women’s event – to invite only the women, and to ensure that the actual presentation is made by Angela Zellaby. It is a meeting for women, organised by women, and led by a woman. After she has made the initial presentation of the facts, she is emotionally shattered but insists to Gordon and the Willers (waiting in a room off to one side) that the next bit is the most important – it is absolutely vital that the women be given the space and time to talk about it, to talk it through and cultivate a feeling of communal solidarity.

Before and after Zellaby is given speeches, in his conversations with the village doctor, about how strange it is to be a woman and know your body is designed for childbirth, at the best of times, about the uncanniness of being so obviously an animal with a basic animal function of producing offspring, and yet fully human at the same time. A duality which men simply can’t understand, never fully.

This is also the chapter, at the meeting, where Miss Latterly, one of the pair of village lesbians gets up to storm out, outraged at the idea that she – who has never had anything to do with men – could be pregnant, only to be forced to stay when her lesbian partner, Miss Lamb mutely remain, dramatising in a surprisingly sensitive and effective way a) that the latter is pregnant b) her shame c) her partner’s mortification. It’s a good example of the way Wyndham’s terribly British way of handling these things conveys subtle shades of emotion.

Chapter 10 Midwich comes to terms

The Emergency Meeting leads to several outcomes. One is secrecy. No-one will tell anyone outside about it, not even the neighbouring villages, because Angela Zellaby made quite clear how hellish life would become if the world’s press were alerted and came to observe and report on every development during the remainder of the pregnancies.

The other is mutual support. Angela had made it plain that it is happening to all the women, regardless of married status, and so went out of her way to defuse stigma and shame and get all the other women to agree. Instead she led in setting up a programme of social activities and support and we are told the Zellabies themselves help out with money for the less well-off and for single mums.

Religion. In Triffids there was a conference of the survivors of the Great Blinding, held in a lecture room in Senate House during which a Miss Durrell expressed the Christian view that the catastrophe was God punishment of an immoral world. Similarly, in this novel, Mrs Dora Leebody, the vicar’s wife has a sort of breakdown and takes to preaching at the village war memorial that all the pregnant women have been cursed by God. A few days later she is found in the market square of the neighbouring town, dressed in sackcloth and ashes, preaching about God’s punishment. She is quietly brought home, sedated and then sent off by her husband to a rest home

But rather like the concern with the Russians expressed early in the novel, this brings home to the reader how prominent a factor in British culture Christianity was in the 1950s, in a way it probably wouldn’t be in the multicultural 2020s UK.

This comes out even more clearly in the final chapters where Zellaby engages in extended debates with the vicar about the morality of dealing with the Children, as they grow ever-more threatening.

Chapter 11 Well played, Midwich

Nerves hold up well through the spring until, in May, some of the heavily pregnant women start to crack under the uncertainty of not knowing what they are carrying in their wombs. Resilient and intelligent Angela Zellaby is given a speech declaring that men can never understand what it is like to be a woman, and not to have the faintest idea of the nightmare strain the pregnant women of Midwich are under (p.87).

Funnily enough, the first to have her baby is the lesbian Miss Lamb, who stumbles on a milk bottle on her doorstep, takes a fall and goes into labour. Hours later, having delivered the baby, the village doctor returns to his anxious wife and declares the baby is perfect in all respects. Over the coming month all the other babies are delivered, physically perfect specimens, but with golden eyes and blonde hair. 61 in total, 31 males, 30 females.

Chapter 12 Harvest home

The vicar falls into a stroll with Zellaby and assures him all the women have now had their babies. He is uneasy. Can’t shake the feeling it’s some kind of test. Zellaby makes remarks repeating his sense that, as men, they are hors du combat, outside the zone and cannot hope to understand what the women are going through.

Walking on Zellaby observes Mrs Brinkman pushing a pram and is a little surprised when she abruptly stops, takes the baby out, sits on the war memorial, unbuttons her blouse and starts suckling it. She is embarrassed when Zellaby draws abreast and explains that the baby made her do it. Walking up to the lodge, there’s a beep and Ferrelyn is in a car behind him. She too, flushed and upset, and says the baby made her come. Aha.

Chapter 13 Midwich centrocline

A centrocline is: ‘An equidimensional basin characteristic of cratonic areas, in which the strata dip to a central low point.’

Over the coming weeks every single mum who’d moved away from Midwich (for example most of the women researchers from the Grange who had been on secondments and gone elsewhere for their pregnancies and births) find themselves compelled to return

The text quotes a report Dr Willers submits to his superiors, outlining the sequence of births, the compulsion all the mothers felt to return and other matters, above all emphasising that some kind of official study should be being made of the children’s births, weights, development and so on.

Bernard turns up, goes for a chat with Zellaby, then comes for dinner with Richard and Janet, repeating some of Zellaby’s speculations. Apparently, Zellaby wonders whether it was a mistake that Homo sapiens is so very different from all other animal species, if our culture would be improved if we had to deal with at least one other intelligent life form on the planet. (This is one of the ideas floated in the Kraken Wakes.)

Chapter 14 Matters arising

Precisely half way through the book, Alan pays a call (he is currently stationed by the army a long way away, in Scotland, and can only get leave to visit Midwich occasionally).

Gordon takes him for a chat out in the garden of the manor. In garden chairs on the fine lawn under the old cedar tree, Gordon expounds his theory that the women have borne alien children. Earlier generations would have recognised them as changelings (p.106) – ‘deformed or imbecilic offspring of fairies or elves substituted by them surreptitiously for a human infant’. We moderns, Zellaby says, might think of them as cuckoos (p.106), laid in another species’ nests, force the mothers to work themselves to death to feed them, then exterminate all the true fledgelings.

That’s why he’s asking Alan to persuade Ferrelyn to leave the baby in his care and depart Midwich, go with him to Scotland. Nobody knows what it means or what might happen, but Zellaby introduces the idea that, if you were going to attack a civilisation and had plenty of time to plan it, might it not be a good idea to introduce a fifth column to work against the host nation from within. Maybe that’s what the babies are.

Chapter 15 Matters to arise

Months pass. The Grange is emptied and all its staff leave, but leaving four babies behind, in a new nursery. Over the winter pneumonia carries off some of the parents and three of the babies, leaving 58.

A dessicated couple called the Freemans move into the cottage vacated by Crim, and turn out to be officials sent to monitor developments, but they do it in a very ham-fisted way and become known as the Noseys.

Early in the summer Gordon pays Richard and Janet a visit and asks them to come with him to witness an experiment. The Children (everyone refers to them with a capital C, now) are barely a year old but look like healthy 2-year-olds. Gordon drops in on a family with one, asks the mum’s permission, then presents the child with a cunning Japanese wooden box with a sweet inside. The child struggles for a while, then Gordon shows him how to unlock it, relocks it. Given it again, the child unlocks it easily, but that’s not the point. Gordon takes them to see several other children and they all unlock it easily. Once one knows, they all know. Gordon presents his interpretation: they may have different physical bodies, but what if the Children compose one mind! He has christened it collective-individualism’ (p.123)

With typical intellectual sprezzatura Gordon speculates that maybe Homo sapiens is stagnating, the race limited to individuals with just the one mind, all jostling. Maybe the next breakthrough in evolution would be to combine the powers of individual minds into a collective. Maybe they are the progenitors of a new race. That’s why, he says, looking vaguely out the window at a bumble bee hovering over the lavender, he keeps thinking the collective boys and the collective girls should be renamed – Adam and Eve.

On the last page of Part One, Richard gets a job in Canada, leaving at once, and Janet follows soon after. She expresses relief to be shot of Midwich and its weird atmosphere and God, so grateful they were out of the village on ‘the fateful night’ and so she never bore one of those monster children.

Part two

Chapter 16 Now we are nine

Eight years pass. Richard and Janet live in Canada now, but occasionally pop back to the old country. On one such trip, Richard bumps into Bernard, who is now a colonel. They go for a drink and the subject of Midwich comes up. Richard has almost forgotten about it, says how are things going, Bernard says he’s scheduled to pop down for a visit next day, would Richard like to come?

The reader thinks this might be the first of several episodic visits, but in fact it turns into one continuous visit which leads to the climax of the story.

On the drive down Bernard tells Richard the Grange has been converted into a special school for the Children. Zellaby was right, what one boy learns they all learn, what one girl learns, ditto. The Children have developed at twice normal speed and now look 17 or 18. The news blackout has continued to be a success, the neighbouring communities regarding Midwich as ‘touched’ by the event, and the inhabitants retarded. The word they use is ‘daytouched’ (p.133). They consider the entire community a kind of open asylum. Some of the mothers were reluctant to let their children attend the new school but one by one the Children went of their own accord, to be together.

Bernard is driving down for a post-mortem on a local young man, Jim Pawle. Richard attends. It is a tense affair, with a very bad mood among the villagers attending, although nothing out of the ordinary is done or said. Zellaby greets Richard as if they’d only said goodbye the day before, invites him and Bernard to the Manor, describes what happened. He was an eye-witness. The local boy was driving his car along a lane when he hit one of a group of four Children by mistake. Zellaby watched as the other three focused their mental force on making the unhappy driver get back into his car and set off at top speed towards a wall, hitting it head on and dying.

Others saw it too. It gave Zellaby a very bad shock. Now he shares his feelings with Bernard and Richard. What if it had been him or Angela or Ferrelyn driving? He tells them Dr Willers died a few years earlier, suicide, overdose of barbiturates (p.143). Richard is surprised, he didn’t seem the sort. Gordon agrees, and wonders now whether… Whether the Children made him do it? Richard completes the thought. My God. Now for the first time, Zellaby says he is scared, thinking he should send Angela away.

Angela appears from the house, comes onto the veranda, joins the conversation, and mentions the incident of the dog – which bit one of the Children and promptly ran in front of a tractor – and the bull – which attacked one of them and promptly ran through several fields and drowned itself in a mill pond. She is in no doubt the children cause the deaths of anyone or anything which harms them.

The mother of the driver of the car wanted to attend and denounce the Children, but her other son and husband prevented her. What good would it do? The entire village is now living in fear.

Bernard and Richard say their goodbyes and leave, driving very carefully. They come on a group of four Children and Bernard slows down to let Richard appreciate just how much they have grown. Their golden eyes make them look like semi-precious stones. Both are stunned when a gunshot goes off and one of the Children falls to the ground. Richard gets out, a Child turns to look at him and he feels a gust of confusion and weakness flood through him.

Then they are aware of a high moaning keening sound and realise it is the other Children, a way off, expressing the same pain the shot one is feeling. And then they hear whimpering and another shot fired and screaming. Pushing through the hedge they come across a young man who has blown his own head off and his girlfriend, Elsa, next to him, hysterical. It’s the brother of the young man whose inquest they attended. He was taking revenge on the Children by shooting one of them and now they’ve killed him, too.

Local labourers come running, lift up the girl, take her home, the ones Richard hears vowing revenge against ‘the murderin’ young bastards.’ Richard and Bernard motor back to the Manor where Gordon hears the full story over a fortifying drink. Hmm. This is how blood feuds begin…

Chapter 17 Midwich protests

Shaken, Bernard and Richard return to Kyle Manor where the Zellabies graciously offer to put them up and invite them for dinner. They have barely withdrawn to the living room (the cook and other invisible servants having, presumably, cleared away the meal things) than the vicar, Leebody, enters in a fret. He warns that the situation is escalating.

Leebody and Zellaby engage in quite a high-flown debate about the morality of the Childrens’ activities. Leebody says they have the appearance of humans but, if they are not human inside, in their souls, then the laws of the Bible and conventional morality do not apply. Zellaby gives his view which is that the laws devised by one species to regulate its societies do not apply to a completely different species.

This high-flown talk is interrupted by Mrs Brant, who makes her apologies to ‘is worship Mr Zellaby, and then physically drags Leebody to the door, saying the Midwich men had been gathered in the pub, working themselves up into a fury, and have now set off in a body to burn the Grange to the ground and murder all the children. Only Mr Leebody can stop them, and she drags him, fluttering and stammering off into the night.

Zellaby, Bernard and Richard are about to follow, but Angela slams the door shut and stands in front of it, absolutely implacable. She knows there is going to be trouble and absolutely forbids any of them to leave. And they meekly accept her orders.

Chapter 18 Interview with a child

The Chief Constable of Winshire looked in at Kyle Manor the next morning, just at the right time for a glass of Madeira and a biscuit.

That gives you a sense of the sedate, well-mannered, upper-middle-class milieu we are operating in. We quickly learn that the attempt to torch the Grange backfired disastrously, as the Children made the attackers attack each other with the result that three men and a woman are dead and many others injured. Angela was quite right to prevent her menfolk going along.

What quickly transpires is the chief constable knows nothing about the Children, their special history or ability, and Zellaby, Bernard and Richard struggle to convey it to him.

The mildly comic scene where the phlegmatic policeman becomes more and more frustrated is interspersed with vignettes from the village. Passengers attempting to enter the village bus find their feet unable to move. Polly Rushton seeking to drive back to London finds herself stopping at the village perimeter and turning back. In other words, the Children have set up a kind of psychic boundary which the villagers can’t escape.

The Chief Constable goes up to the Grange where the current administrator, Mr Torrance, arranges an interview with one of the Children. This boy announces in forthright tones that the Children did make the village men attack each other in self defence because they knew the men had come to burn down the Grange. Well, why not just turn them back? asks the policeman. Because they needed to make an example to warn off other would-be attackers.

The Chief Constable is so appalled at the boy’s arrogance and the casual way he mentions the murder of four civilians that he starts abusing him and goes to stand, when he suddenly freezes, choking, then falls to the floor gasping and whimpering, vomits and passes out. Bernard watches all this in terror. He and Torrance call some of the police officers and have the CC carried to a car and taken away, still unconscious, then Bernard returns to the Manor.

Richard tries to leave but finds himself unable to, unable to shift gear or push the accelerator and so reluctantly turns back. Looks like he’s trapped along with the others.

Chapter 19 Impasse

Bernard returns to the Manor, has a couple of strong whiskeys and recounts what he saw. Gordon and Angela, Bernard and Richard sit down to another fine luncheon prepared by cook (p.178), and their conversation includes some major revelations. These last 40 pages of the novel become very wordy. There is more and more theorising and less and less action – up until the abrupt climax, that is.

Now, at this meal, Zellaby and Bernard both agree that they think the children are the result of the intervention of non-terrestrial aliens (p.188). But Bernard now makes the revelation of the book: that during the three or so weeks surrounding the Dayout, radar detected an unusual number of unidentified flying objects and that Dayouts happened at other communities.

He knows about incidences in the Northern Territory of Australia where, for reasons unknown, all the children died on birth. In an Eskimo settlement in northern Canada where the community was so outraged at the incident that it exposed the babies at birth. One at a remote community in the Irkutsk region of Mongolia where the local men considered their women had slept with the devil and murdered not only babies but mothers. And another in Gizhinsk. This is the important one.

For here the children were allowed to grow by the Soviet authorities who, after initially suspecting a capitalist trick, decided the children’s powers may be of some advantage in the Cold War. However, the Soviets eventually concluded their Children were a threat not only to the local community but to the state itself and – here’s the point – struck the town with atomic weapons. The town of Gizhinsk no longer exists.

And the other guests are electrified to learn that this happened only the previous week, just before the Children murdered Pawle. They knew. Somehow they knew about the murder of their peers in Russia and, from that moment, have escalated their actions, retaliating for even mild slights with immediate disproportionate violence.

After luncheon Bernard announces he is going back up to the Grange for a proper conversation with Torrance. He walks. However on the way he stops by two Children sitting on a bank. They are looking up. Bernard hears the drone of a jet plane passing high overhead. He sees five dots appear from it. For a moment I thought they were bombs and that’s how the book might end, but instead they are parachutes. The Children have made the five crew on the plane bail out, the plane will fly on till it crashes somewhere.

Bernard tells them that’s a very expensive plane, they could just have got to the pilots to turn back. The children calmly logically reply that that might have been put down to instrument failure. They must make their message plain.

‘Oh, you want to instil fear, do you? Why?’ inquired Bernard.
‘Only to make you leave us alone,’ said the boy. ‘It is a means; not an end.’ His golden eyes were turned towards Bernard, with a steady, earnest look. ‘Sooner or later, you will try to kill us. However we behave, you will want to wipe us out. Our position can be made stronger only if we take the initiative.’
The boy spoke quite calmly, but somehow the words pierced right through the front that Bernard had adopted. (p.196)

The Children explain in terms way beyond their years (and reminiscent of Zellaby who has, after all, been teaching them for years) that it is a clash of species. They explain that they know about the murder of the Children of Gizhinsk. And then they proceed to give a merciless analysis of the political and moral situation here in England. In Soviet Russia the individual exists to support the state and individuals can be arrested, imprisoned or liquidated if their existence or thoughts, words or actions threaten the state.

By contrast, here in the West, the State exists to support the wish for self-fulfilment and freedom of vast numbers of heterogenous individuals. No government could unilaterally wipe out a settlement like Midwich with all its innocent civilians. That’s why they’ve erected an invisible barrier and no-one can leave. The civilians are hostages. Any government which wipes Midwich out will never be re-elected. Meanwhile all kinds of mealy-mouthed do-gooders and experts on ethics will wring their hands about the Childrens’ rights. And they will use this time to get stronger.

Bernard becomes aware that he is sweating, panicking at hearing such cold-blooded sentiments coming out the mouth of a teenager. The Child moves beyond a shrewd analysis of the Realpolitik of the situation to a deeper, biological or Darwinian interpretation.

‘Neither you, nor we, have wishes that count in the matter – or should one say that we both have been given the same wish – to survive? We are all, you see, toys of the life-force. It made you numerically strong, but mentally undeveloped; it made us mentally strong, but physically weak: now it has set us at one another, to see what will happen. A cruel sport, perhaps, from both our points of view, but a very, very old one. Cruelty is as old as life itself. There is some improvement: humour and compassion are the most important of human inventions; but they are not very firmly established yet, though promising well.’ He paused, and smiled. ‘A real bit of Zellaby, that – our first teacher,’ he put in, and then went on. ‘But the life force is a great deal stronger than they are; and it won’t be denied its blood-sports.’ (p.200)

Chapter 20 Ultimatum

Meanwhile Zellaby takes Richard for a turn round his favourite Thinking Walk. Here he propounds at length his speculation that, we maybe describing the Children as aliens, but what if the human races are also alien interlopers? Impregnated into low-intelligence Neanderthals by the aliens, to create a step-change in evolution?

His evidence is the remarkable lack of fossil evidence for the evolution of Homo sapiens combined with the huge gap between us and any other living thing. What if we too were planted here by a Maker or a team of extra-terrestrial scientists carrying out experiments in evolution and the earth is their testbed? (p.205)

Bernard arrives back from his conversation with the two Children. They had concluded by presenting an ultimatum, hence the title of the chapter. More accurately, a demand. They want to be transported to somewhere where they will be safe. They will supervise all aspects of the transportation. They want Bernard to escalate it to his superiors and, ultimately to the Prime Minister.

Zellaby is not surprised. In the latest of his many speculations and formulations, he amuses himself by saying the they now face a ‘moral dilemma of some niceness’:

‘On the one hand, it is our duty to our race and culture to liquidate the Children, for it is clear that if we do not we shall, at best, be completely dominated by them, and their culture, whatever it may turn out to be, will extinguish ours. On the other hand, it is our culture that gives us scruples about the ruthless liquidation of unarmed minorities, not to mention the practical obstacles to such a solution.’ (p.208)

If you like moral dilemmas, this is the one at the core of the book. Do we have the right to ‘liquidate’ the apparently harmless, if we have good suspicions they will eventually come to pose a threat to us?

If absolute moral values can’t help us decide, then Zellaby invokes the classic Utilitarian argument for making decisions based on their practical outcomes.

‘In a quandary where every course is immoral, there still remains the ability to act for the greatest good of the greatest number. Ergo, the Children ought to be eliminated at the least possible cost, with the least possible delay. I am sorry to have to arrive at that conclusion. In nine years I have grown rather fond of them…’ (p.208)

And that is what he does. Bernard says his goodbyes and sets off to London to convey the Children’s ultimatum. Richard stays on at the Manor.

Chapter 21 Zellaby of Macedon

Next morning Gordon asks Angela to get a jar of bullseyes, the Children’s favourite sweet, from the shops in Trayne. He is preparing to give them one of his regular film shows, about the Aegean Islands. When Richard joins him on the veranda before luncheon, Zellaby calmly says life goes on, he’s happy to give the Children another film show and lecture, they enjoy it, he likes them despite everything. The key thing is they trust him.

Early that evening Richard helps load his projector gear into the car, a surprising number of surprisingly heavy boxes and then drives Gordon to the Grange, helps the Children unload and carry the equipment into the building. Richard asks to stay, since he is still recently enough returned to be fascinated by the Children but Gordon suavely asks him to go back to the Manor and be with Angela, her nerves are so high strung, poor thing. So Richard reluctantly drives off.

He has barely parked, entered the Manor, poured a drink and begun chatting to Angela who is expressing her fears about what the children will do next, when there is a flash, a colossal bang and then a shock wave hits the Manor and shatters all its windows. When Richard picks himself up and runs to the french windows he sees detritus all across the lawn, creepers ripped off the facade of the Manor, and flames rising from the Grange up on the hill.

Gordon had packed the projector boxes with explosive and has set it off, killing himself and all the children. From the endless stream of speculations and musings which dominate the final chapters, it appears there were real conclusions and a practical outcome endless. It was a war of species. The Children needed to be liquidated in order to preserve our species. And if moral speculation was no use, then utilitarian considerations provided a basis for action. Which he took, knowing that the Children’s trust was a unique quality which he alone of maybe the entire human race had. And so he abused it to murder them all. If it was murder (see the long discussion with the vicar about the morality of inter-species killing).

The Midwich Cuckoos is a gripping, thrilling read, which is strangely inflected between, on the one hand its jolly pukka, upper-middle-class, English characters and, on the other hand, the frequent and very thought-provoking debates about morality, the rights and wrong of eliminating a racial threat, the possibility that the entire human race is a galactic experiment, and other quietly mind-bending topics.


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