De republica by Cicero (54 BC)

The best possible political constitution represents a judicious blend of these three types: monarchy, aristocracy and democracy.
(De republica by Cicero, fragment of Book 2)

De republica was written by the Roman lawyer, orator, politician and philosophical populariser Marcus Tullius Cicero between 54 and 51 BC. It is variously translated into English as The Republic, A Treatise on the Commonwealth, On the state or On government.

Cicero was not himself a philosopher or political theorist of note. This work was one among nearly twenty in which he translated the best of Greek philosophy into Latin, pulling various Greek theories together into new texts and introducing or inventing Latin terms to translate Greek ideas. Because of the purity and eloquence of his Latin many of these texts were preserved throughout the Middle Ages as teaching aids, and were revived during the Renaissance. In this way Cicero’s works played a central role in preserving the philosophical, moral and political ideas of the ancient world into the modern era and shaping their revival.

The Republic is cast as a dialogue, the form immortalised by Plato (427 to 327 BC). Unlike a manifesto or treatise a dialogue isn’t a straightforward statement of views. Having a number of people debate various opinions makes it more of a teaching or heuristic form. Students can be asked to study the work, then to describe which viewpoint they support and why.

As with Cicero’s other dialogues, The Republic studiously avoided controversy by being set in the past among long dead characters. It is set in the country villa of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus Aemilianus (185 to 129 BC), known as Scipio Aemilianus or Scipio Africanus the Younger. Scipio was a Roman general and statesman who led the third and final war against Carthage, personally overseeing its siege, capture and utter destruction, as vividly described in Richard Miles’s history of Carthage. Scipio also restored order after assassination of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BC and mediated between the political factions.

The Republic takes place in Scipio’s estate over three consecutive days. Each day is described in two books, with an introduction by Cicero preceding the dialogue of each book, making six books in all.

  • Book 1 – Scipio outlines the three types of government (monarchy, aristocracy, democracy) and asserts the best type is a mix of all three
  • Book 2 – Scipio gives quite a detailed outline of early Roman history in order to show the evolution of the Roman constitution
  • Book 3 – Philus and Laelius engage in a set-piece debate about whether pragmatic injustice (Philus) or ideal justice (Laelius) are intrinsic to politics
  • Book 4 – is a discussion of education
  • Book 5 – considers the qualities of the ideal citizen in government
  • Book 6 – considers the character of the ideal ruler

The Republic survives only in fragments. Large parts of the text are missing. Books one to 3 survive in significant chunks, but the from the fourth and fifth books only minor fragments survive, and all the other books have a distressing number of missing passages.

The only part of the sixth book which survives is the final section, a relatively short passage in which Scipio tells his guests about a dream in which he was whirled up into space and shown the structure of the universe. This has survived because it was the subject of a commentary by the neoplatonist philosopher Macrobius and this part of the text, along with Macrobius’s commentary, became very popular during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, with their profound interest in astrology and astronomy.

The best preserved parts of the text discuss constitutions and political theory but it is important to realise that this was only part of Cicero’s aim. The discussion of constitutions fills only a third of the book. For Cicero ‘politics’ wasn’t a narrow profession but a branch of philosophy which dealt in a broader way with human nature and ethics as demonstrated in societies. This explains why the treatise deals with different types of constitution early on in order to get on to the more important subjects of what kind of citizen and what kind of ruler are required to create a perfect state. The best kind of state is not a dry technical question, comparable to modern debates about different voting procedures: the best kind of state produces the best kinds of citizens and the best kinds of rulers (optimus civis) and so must be considered in the broadest context.

The characters

The discussions take place between no fewer than nine named individuals who are given speaking parts.

Scipio was maybe the most pre-eminent figure in mid-second century BC Rome, a very successful general who, however, a) did not abuse his power as later generals such as Marius, Sulla, Pompey and Caesar did and b) was a noted patron of artists and writers such as the Greek historian Polybius. You can see why Cicero hero worshiped him.

Other characters

  • Gaius Laelius: close friend and associate of Scipio, consul in 140 BC, promoter of the study of literature and philosophy, practical and down to earth.
  • Lucius Furius Philus: consul 136 BC, orator, a man of great personal rectitude who takes on the defence of injustice, in book 3, for the sake of the debate
  • Manius Manilius: consul in 149 BC, a venerable legal expert.
  • Quintus Mucius Scaevola: Laelius’s son-in-law, a legal scholar and patron of the young Cicero.
  • Spurius Mummius: conservative and anti-democrat.
  • Quintus Aelius Tubero: Scipio’s nephew, tribune c. 129 BC. Legal scholar dedicated to Stoicism.
  • Gaius Fannius: consul in 122 BC, follower of Stoicism, historian and orator. Son-in-law to Laelius.
  • Publius Rutilius Rufus: a politician admired for his honesty, dedicated to Stoicism.

Book One

Missing its preface, the text we have starts in mid sentence and mid argument. Cicero is arguing against the Epicurean belief that the educated man should hold aloof from politics in order to preserve his calm. On the contrary, Cicero argues that the highest form of moral activity and of virtue consists of the practical application of morality in the practice of statecraft.

Then Cicero the narrator hands over to the supposed discussion held at Scipio’s house where his guests ask Scipio’s opinions.

The conversation starts with one of his visitors talking about the rare phenomenon of two suns being seen in the sky. But Scipio repeats the Greek idea (Aristotle) that there is little we can know about the workings of the cosmos whereas we very much can study human beings, how they behave, morality, epistemology and so on, and that’s what we ought to do.

Scipio follows his Greek predecessors in claiming that human beings seem to have an innate compulsion to live together in communities i.e. we are not a solitary species (Book I, section 39). When this happens there are three ways communities of humans organise their power: monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. Each has its merits:

Kings attract us by affection, aristocracies by good sense, and democracies by freedom. (I, 55)

Each has a dark side, when it becomes corrupt. Monarchy becomes despotism, aristocracy becomes oligarchy and democracy becomes mob rule (I, 44).

Personally, Scipio thinks a careful mixture of all three is best (I, 69), but if he had to pick just one it would be monarchy. This is because there is only one king god in heaven, Jupiter (I, 57). Every family has only one father and a king is like the father of his subjects (I, 54). There can be only one ruling element in the human mind, which is sovereign over all the other passions, and this is Reason (I, 60). Only one person can run a household, only one person can be in charge of a ship, only one person can treat us for illness. And when people are deprived of a just king they are like orphans.

But the weakness of rule by a king is that when they go wrong, they go really wrong and become tyrants. Therefore the most stable and also the most ‘just’ form of government is one which permits a balance of power between the different classes and so is ‘equally just to all ranks of society’ (II, 55). He thinks this has best been achieved by the Roman constitution with its balance between the powers of a king (vested for one year only in the role of the consuls), the moderating influence of the aristocracy (embodied by the wisdom and experience of the senate and a voting system heavily skewed towards the rich and ‘best’ in society) and the voice of the people (expressed in the office of tribune of the plebs and the voting power of the people’s assemblies).

Book two

Scipio/Cicero come to the bold conclusion that the best possible political constitution in the world is the one created by their Roman forebears and handed down to himself and his contemporaries, the inheritance of Rome, ‘the greatest State of all’!

This is as laughably self-centred as the great German philosopher Hegel pondering deeply and concluding that the best possible way to organise a society was…the constitution of the Prussian state of his day! Or the booming confidence of late Victorians that the British Empire with its constitutional monarchy was the best imaginable form of government.

He gives a deeply traditional and patriotic account of the founding of Rome by the wise and godlike Romulus and the cumulative constitutional innovations of the traditional and legendary seven kings of Rome, dwelling on each of them at some length and the great virtues of the Roman people:

The Roman people became strong, not by chance, but through their own good sense and their firm system of values… (II, 30)

The underlying point of book two is that the Roman constitution wasn’t created by one wise lawgiver (cf Lycurgus of Sparta or Solon of Athens) but developed and evolved over a long period, with successive rules adding processes, creating the complex voting procedures, organising the population into tribes but also, for voting purposes, into centuries, and setting up assemblies where they could debate. What struck me is how close this is to the justification of English traditionalists for the English constitution, which is nowhere written down but amounts to a tangle of precedents and traditions.

This is sort of interesting but it is history not philosophy or political theory, history with occasional comments. The notes to the Oxford University Press translation point out where Scipio differs from the more comprehensive account given by Titus Livius (Livy) in his history of Rome written 10 or 15 years later, which is indicative of the way the account of sort of interesting but mainly of academic interest.

At the same time as the thinking is fairly simplistic there’s also something hyperbolical and exaggerated about Scipio’s diction:

As soon as this king turned to a mastery less just than before, he instantly became a tyrant, and no creature more vile or horrible than a tyrant, or more hateful to gods and men, can be imagined ; for, though he bears a human form, yet he surpasses the most monstrous of the wild beasts in the cruelty of his nature. (II, 49)

The underlying thought is as simple minded as a fairy story, but the language has the vehemence of a rabble-rousing political speech. Either way, it often has neither the depth or sober objective language you might expect from ‘philosophy’.

In section 54 Scipio makes explicit why he is reviewing early Roman constitutional history in such detail: it is to point to examples of the wise men who created new and useful innovations. Publius Valerius emerges as a notable example, the man who demonstrated his wisdom by: moving house from the top of the Velian Hill where the kings had lived; passing a law forbidding a Roman citizen from being flogged or put to death without appeal; had a colleague elected as co-ruler, to be called consuls, and decided that they would rule on alternate months and be guarded by lictors only for that month.

This brings out something he’d mentioned earlier which is the aim of this discourse is not to debate the theoretical nature of an ideal state, as Plato did in his Republic, but to describe the practical reality of such a state and, especially, the qualities required of the Ideal Stateman to run it.

Towards the end of book 2 Scipio recapitulates:

I defined the three commendable types of States and the three bad types which are their opposites. Next I demonstrated that no single one of these types is the ideal, but that a form of government which is an equal mixture of the three good forms is superior to any of them by itself. As for my using our own State as a pattern, I did so, not to help me to define the ideal constitution (for that could be done without using any pattern at all), but in order to show, by illustrations from the actual history of the greatest State of all, what it was that reason and speech were striving to make clear.

The ideal statesman:

He should be given almost no other duties than this one (for it comprises most of the others) – of improving and examining himself continually, urging others to imitate him, and by the splendour of his mind and conduct offering himself as a mirror to his fellow citizens. (II, 69)

Here you can see how, lacking any knowledge of economics or class or social or technological developments, no financial theory and no knowledge of the vast amounts of data we have been collecting about ‘society’ since the industrial revolution and which underpin all modern politics – in this huge vacuum of knowledge Cicero, like Sallust and Plutarch, conceives of politics as being predominantly about individuals and, this being so, overly obsess about the character of the Ideal Statesman, completely omitting the proficiency in economics, law, and statistics which modern politics call for, and the way the huge structure of the state bureaucracy measures outcomes by data: inflation, unemployment, GDP, health outcomes and so on.

By contrast with the vast complexity of the modern state, Cicero’s image of the Ideal Ruler is closer to fairy tale than modern political theory: ‘…by the splendour of his mind and conduct offering himself as a mirror to his fellow citizens.’

I suppose it represents an enormous shift from a theory based on morality and ethics to one based entirely on utilitarian values: does it work, is it good for the economy, for most people, is it good for my core voters, these are the questions a modern politicians asks.

And the absence of the huge body of theory and statistical information which forms the basis of modern politics explains why political ‘philosophy’ from Plato, through the Dark Ages, Middle Ages, Renaissance and well into the modern era relied on analogies rather than data. They had nothing else to go on. So they compared the ideal state to a well-ordered mind, or to the human body where all the parts have to co-operate, or to the harmonious movements of the celestial bodies through the heaves; or compared Reason’s control over the mind to a father’s control over his sons or a master’s control over his slaves (III, 37) etc etc. Analogy rather than data.

All this is sweet and lovely but like a child’s colouring book compared to the complex technocracy of the modern state. Immersing yourself in a text like this continually reminds the reader of children’s books and fairy tales.

Book three

Fragments in which Cicero explains that despite our failings, humans have inside us the divine fire of Reason. He briefly sketches the invention of language (interesting) and maths before moving onto teachers or truth and moral excellence blah blah which, when put into practice, leads to the art of governing.

Comparison of philosophers, who teach moral excellence and best conduct through words alone, and statesmen, who promote moral excellence and best conduct through actions and laws. Clearly the latter are more effective and important (III, 7).

The 12 or so pages of fragments we have of book 3 indicate that it was conceived as a debate between Laelius and Philus about whether injustice is a necessary part of political rule, whether it is inevitable and unavoidable. What gives ancient books like this their flavour is the inclusion of myths and legends and fanciful imagery which, to repeat myself, are more like fairy tales than political analysis. Thus Philus kicks off his presentation of the case that injustice is an inevitable and necessary part of politics by asking his audience to imagine they are flying in a chariot of winged snakes:

If one could visit many diverse nations and cities and examine them, travelling about in Pacuvius’ famous ‘chariot of winged snakes’ one would see first of all in Egypt, a land which has escaped change more successfully than any other, and which preserves in written records the events of countless centuries, a bull, which the Egyptians call Apis, is deemed a god, and many other monsters and animals of every sort are held sacred as divine. (III, 14)

When he gets going, Philus makes a persuasive argument that there is no such thing as natural justice, nature does not implant justice in the human mind, there are no universal laws. On the contrary, the point of his metaphor of flying over the countries of the Mediterranean is to survey just how varied and irreconcilable all their laws, and customs and religions are with each other. QED: there is no one universal law or notion of justice.

No fewer than 80 leaves of book 3 are missing. From references and summaries in other, later authors we know some of the contents. Apparently Philus makes the anti-Roman point that empire is nothing but stealing other people’s lands and goods. Romans hold aggressive generals to be epitomes of valour and excellence (‘He advanced the bounds of empire’ is their highest compliment) when they are, of course, the same as all other aggressive conquerors of all other nations. The fact that the Romans have priests formally declare war just shows their hypocrisy in dressing up greed and criminality in fancy words.

When we come back to the actual text Philus makes the simple (and, to the modern mind, sympathetic) argument that the kind of mixed constitution supported by Scipio doesn’t derive from Virtue and Wisdom but from the simple fact that each rank (or class) fears the power of the others and so seeks to check it (a proto-Hobbesian view, maybe). The mother or justice is not nature or virtue but weakness and fear.

The good life is based, not on virtue, justice and selflessness, but on looking out for yourself and your family, on practical assessments of what will bring you most benefit. And as with families so with states: dress it up how you like, statecraft and international affairs are based on brute assessments of power and self interest. And they should be (III, 28).

This is thrilling stuff and the editor of the OUP edition (Niall Rudd) notes that, once Philus has finished his case, Laelius, who follows and argues the contrary case, can’t really rebut his analysis and so ignores his points to argue something slightly different, which is the importance of the notion of justice for the administration of a state.

It is symptomatic of the conservatism and narrow-mindedness of Roman thought that this negative, cynical and so unpopular point of view is attributed to a foreigner, a Greek, the philosopher Carneades and that when Laelius speaks, he roundly attacks it for its immorality and calls Carneades ‘a filthy scoundrel’ (III, 32).

Laelius proceeds to give a positive but very naive definition of law as a Platonic fact of nature, eternal and unchanging, which all men must obey, which sounds magnificent and is obvious tripe:

True law is right reason in agreement with nature. It is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting. It summons to duty by its commands, and averts from wrongdoing by its prohibitions… It is a sin to try to alter this law, nor is it allowable to attempt to repeal any part of it, and it is impossible to abolish it… We cannot be freed from its obligations by senate or people, and we need not look outside ourselves for an expounder or interpreter of it. And there will not be different laws at Rome and at Athens, or different laws now and in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and all times, and there will be one master and ruler, that is, God who is the author, proposer and interpreter of that law. (III, 33)

Laelius appears to go on to describe how this eternal law was embodied and followed by specific Romans from history, but we have only fragments.

Then Scipio comes back in as the main speaker, recapitulating his idea of the three types of government, asking which one is the ‘true’ meaning of a republic. The text breaks off abruptly just as the speakers were going to address the merits of the uncorrupted versions of the three types.

Book four

The subject of book four is clearly intended to be Education and address the question: what kind of education is best for citizens of the ideal state? As with the other books, Cicero does not proceed from philosophical first principles, as per Plato, but ranges far and wide through Roman and Greek history, comparing practices and laws. But the book is in, to quote Rudd’s words, ‘a pitiful state’, barely four pages of fragments. The longest fragment is where a speaker is made to explain at length why poets and playwrights should not be allowed to pillory statesmen and generals (IV, 11 to 12).

This, in my opinion, is the problem with all theories which start out by defining Virtue and Morality and The Good and so on – they always lead to strict definitions, which themselves inevitably lead to very strict rules about encouraging said Virtue and Suppressing Vice or anything which demeans or criticises Virtue or encourages Vice.

And so, by a few easy steps, these arguments all-too-often arrive, with the ‘noblest’ of intentions, at state censorship: the censorship of Cromwell’s England, revolutionary France, Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, Taliban Afghanistan and any number of authoritarian regimes in between. Anyone who sets out to define or justify Absolute Values ends up defending absolutist states. (Discuss)

Book five

This was evidently meant to address the character of the Ideal Statesman but is even more fragmentary than book four, with only sections 3, 5, 6 and 7 surviving (each book originally had up to 100 sections) and a handful of scraps barely making up 3 pages of a modern book.

What we have is a lament that in the olden days Rome was ruled by Great Men, Excellent Men, Men of Virtue who knew how to rule wisely, but the present age is ruled by the selfish and greedy who have let the excellent institutions they inherited decay and collapse.

What we have is a lament that in the olden days Rome was ruled by Great Men, Excellent Men, Men of Virtue who knew how to rule wisely, but the present age is ruled by the selfish and greedy who have let the excellent institutions they inherited decay and collapse. Where are the great men of yesteryear? This developed into a stereotyped genre or topic during the Middle Ages which was given its own name, the ubi sunt (‘where are they?’) topos.

Long before living memory our ancestral way of life produced outstanding men, and those excellent men preserved the old way of life and the institutions of our forefathers. (V, 1)

But:

What remains of those ancient customs on which he said the state of Rome stood firm? We see them so ruined by neglect that not only do they go unobserved, they are no longer known. (V, 2)

Oh woe. But then every generation feels it is living in a uniquely degraded era when the great institutions it inherited from the past are collapsing and where are the Great Leaders of yesteryear and the end times are upon us. But they never are. We muddle through and 20 years later people look back to that time as a golden age.

I spent most of the 1990s ashamed of living under the government of the bumbling poltroon John Major – and yet now I regularly read articles which look back to the 90s as a golden age. Plus ca change…

Book six

In even worse state than book 5, with barely a page and a half of disconnected fragments. What does survive intact is the passage which was intended to conclude the entire book. In current editions this is numbered sections 9 to 29. It is the concluding passage in which the main speaker, Scipio, tells his companions about a dream he had. In this dream he is whirled up into heaven and sees a) the structure of the solar system and the universe and b) the smallness of the earth and the littleness of human existence. This passage has survived because the 4th century AD Roman grammarian and philosopher Macrobius wrote an extensive commentary about it. This commentary became very popular during the Middle Ages, helping to define the medieval view of the cosmos and surviving in multiple copies. So, in this roundabout manner, these 20 sections of Cicero’s book survive.

In the Dream Scipio describes how his adoptive grandfather comes to him and predicts the future, namely that he will be elected consul, destroy Carthage and be given a triumph in Rome, before being sent to end the war in Spain and serving as consul a second time.

But this is just the beginning. He is introduced to the spirit of his father, Paulus, who explains how souls are derived from the stars (they are now standing in the middle of the sky among the stars) before being consigned to a body down there on earth. How can you escape from the body and join the other spirits? Here is the point of the vision and the climax of the book’s entire consideration of political theory: you get to heaven by doing your patriotic duty.

Respect justice and do your duty. That is important in the case of parents and relatives, and paramount in the case of one’s country. That is the way of life which leads to heaven and to the company, here, of those who have already completed their lives. (VI, 16)

Cicero shows his difference from the Greek philosophers he copied in his very Roman emphasis on the practical. After all the fine talk about constitutions and justice and the character of the statesman, what matters is doing your patriotic duty.

There is a kind of path for noble patriots leading to the gate of heaven… (VI, 26)

The true part of a man is his mind, not his body. The mind is immortal, godlike. The best way to employ this godlike mind is in activity for the safety of one’s country. Minds which have devoted themselves to this cause will fly more quickly to heaven (VI, 29). If Cicero was standing to attention saluting the flag with tears running down his face while the national anthem played, the intended conclusion of his book could hardly be more sentimentally patriotic.

Which makes sense because this is precisely how the entire book opens. The very first sentence reads: ‘Had it not been for his sense of patriotic duty […] would not have delivered our country…’ (I, 1) and goes on to assert:

I simply state this as a basic fact: nature has given to mankind such a compulsion to do good, and such a desire to defend the well-being of the community, that this force prevails over all the temptations of pleasure and ease. (I, 1)

So it might rope in a number of other subjects along the way, but De republica is fundamentally a work of Roman patriotism.

Thoughts

I found The Republic hard to read for two reasons. It really is very fragmented – the text is continually breaking off mid-sentence with parentheses telling you that 2 or 4 or 80 (!) pages are missing, so that you resume reading a lot further along in the original text, when the characters are discussing a completely different subject. It’s like listening to an old-style LP of a classical symphony that is so scratched that you barely get 20 seconds of melody before it skips 20 seconds or several minutes. Very disconnected. Snippets.

But there’s a deeper problem with the book which is its lack of sophistication, which makes it, ultimately, boring. The best preserved passage in Book One tells us there are three forms of government and each has a debased version, which makes for a neat, schematic table but is, ultimately, useless for our current needs, in Britain, in 2022.

When Scipio argues that monarchy is the best of the three types because there’s only one king of the gods, only one person can be in charge of a household, and only one element, Reason, which controls the mind…well, these are quaint ways of thinking – using child-like analogies rather than data, as I explained above – which have a sort of historical interest, but they’re not ideas anyone alive today would waste their time espousing.

And most of the contents are like that. Of antiquarian interest but nothing much to make you sit up and think. The actual history of the late republic, when Cicero was writing, is much more thought-provoking than this essay.

I appreciate that Cicero was writing a kind of abstract, a pedagogical text designed to raise the standard of political discourse in his own time – but in actual fact, nothing he wrote affected the fate of the Roman Republic in the slightest, and it is highly symbolic that the head that conceived these highfalutin ideas and the hands that wrote them were chopped off by Mark Antony’s bounty hunters. That was the utterly unscrupulous, deeply, immoral and justice-free reality of Roman politics.

A list of analogies

Once I’d realised that Cicero’s thought is guided more by analogies than data or statistics (of which he has almost no concept, apart from election results and the size of armies), it amused me to collect analogies from the last few books, although too late to compile a definitive list.

The mind rules over the body like a king over his subjects or a father over his children. The mind rules over its desires like a master over his slaves. (III, 37)

The sun is the mind and regulator of the universe. (VI, 17)

As the god who moves the universe is immortal, so the soul which moves the body is immortal (VI, 26)

Niall Rudd’s translation

A word of praise for this Oxford University Press edition. I described, probably at too much length, how strongly I disliked the prose styles and odd attitudes of A.J. Woodman, who translated Sallust, and Carolyn Hammond, who translated Caesar’s Gallic War, both for OUP, so that I abandoned reading both their translations. This edition restored my faith in OUP editions of the classics.

The introduction, mostly written by Jonathan Powell, is a model of lucidity, useful and to the point, as are the extensive notes, scholarly and interesting. There is a useful list of names and also an appendix giving a handy summary of the sometimes confusing Roman constitution.

The translation is by Professor Niall Rudd (1927 to 2015) and was first published in 1998. It is clear and unaffected – you feel you are engaging directly with the text. I cannot judge its fidelity to the source Latin, but it makes for a lucid, engaging read, as I hope you can tell from the many quotations I take from it. All round, it is a gold standard edition.


Credit

The Republic and The Laws by Cicero, translated by Niall Rudd with introduction and notes by Jonathan Powell and Niall Rudd, was published by Oxford University Press in 1998. All references are to the 2008 paperback edition.

Related links

Roman reviews

Scott-King’s Modern Europe by Evelyn Waugh (1947)

Nowadays it is not what you do that counts, but who informs against you.

Scott-King’s Modern Europe is a short, high spirited, at times farcically crude satire on the state of Britain and Europe just after the Second World War. I found it humorous and enjoyable all the way through and, as so often with Waugh, also packed with fascinating social and political history.

Waugh’s worldview

Born in 1903, Waugh had been to a good public school and Oxford, experiences which had trained him to be a snobbish, superior, social climber. In all the pre-war novels this attitude doesn’t come over as offensive because the aim of the novels is to mock, satirise, caricature and lampoon the pranks, foibles, eccentricities, cruelty and amorality of just these same upper classes.

However, the Second World War forced Waugh, like so many other people in the arts and the broader population, to really think about what they were fighting for. For a large part of the British population this crystallised into a determination that the country would never go back to the mass unemployment and poverty seen in the 1930s. The mood was captured in the famous Beveridge Report of 1942, which proposed widespread reforms to social welfare system in order to address the big five issues of ‘Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.’

So, well before the war ended the Labour Party made it known it proposed a programme of mass housebuilding, nationalising the medical profession to create a national health service, reforming and extending the state school system, and introducing comprehensive unemployment insurance and state pensions.

Sensible though these ideas might seem to you and me (and they were widely adopted in most other European countries at the time) someone like Waugh could only see the negative sides of these sweeping changes: beautiful countryside disappearing under horrible council estates; dictatorial state intervention into medicine and other professions; the promotion of ghastly grammar school types into the civil service and other professions; the triumph of the crude and common lower middle classes; all to be paid for by ruinously high taxes and, in particular, the introduction of death duties, designed by socialists to ensure the ‘redistribution of wealth’, meaning that old and venerable families, owners of the big estates and country houses so beloved of Waugh, would find themselves financially ruined and having to sell off their property in order to pay the new death tax.

So by mid-way through the war which he and his peers had so enthusiastically joined up to fight in (as described in Put Out More Flags and the Sword of Honour trilogy) Waugh and his peers could see which way the wind was blowing: in the direction of crushing the upper classes, the fox-hunting landed gentry and the high society party society he loved, and replacing it with a more meritocratic, grammar school-run, council housing and welfare state society, paid for by the ruination of everything he loved.

Brideshead Revisited

Thus, as he turned 40, Waugh hardened his heart against every aspect of the modern world and this finds its fullest expression in his longest novel, Brideshead Revisited, which amounts to a prolonged, often self-indulgent, over-written lament for the old ways. It is, in a way, a reprise of his first novel, Decline and Fall, but whereas that was written with all the carefree high spirits of youth, Brideshead is written in a grim mood of middle-aged melancholy. Brideshead is Decline and Fall without the lolz.

This trajectory of fall and collapse is clearly enacted in the main storylines:

  • the decline of Sebastian Flyte from high-spirited undergraduate in Oxford to wrecked alcoholic in North Africa
  • the long drawn-out decline of the Marchmain family through generations of infidelity (first Lord Marchmain’s and then Julia’s), symbolised by:
  • the death of old Marchmain and the inheritance of the estate by the eldest son who has married a ghastly middle-class (and barren, post-menopausal) woman
  • the way their pad in London, Marchmain House, one of the last grand old family houses in London (so the gloomy narrator tells us) is sold off to developers who tear it down to build yet another anonymous block of flats
  • and then The War and the way that their entire world of fine feelings, fine meals, fine wine and fine theological scruples is swept away in the vast deluge of the war in which the venerable old house is requisitioned by the army and treated appallingly, trees cut down, terrace badly damaged, interiors of all the rooms boarded over or desecrated, and all swarmed over by chavvy squaddies half-heartedly supervised by scruffy NCOs like the demon figure, Hooper, Hooper, the long-haired, unshaven, lackadaisical junior officer whose lack of backbone, discipline or morality comes to epitomise for the narrator the shabby new world which is taking over
  • and the other negative figure, the brash, confident Canadian careerist Rex Mottram, whose  admittedly impressive efficiency in dealing with the authorities, his loudmouth friends and political ambitions seemed to be going nowhere in peacetime but suddenly come into their own with the arrival of war

So in its outline and mood Brideshead is a surprisingly grim and downbeat novel – venerable old families decline and disintegrate to be replaced by the swarming mob of the new social welfare state. Nonetheless, there are many moments of humour and some passages recapturing Waugh’s old-style, high-spirited comedy.

A grumpy old man complaining about the modern world

But despite its gloom Brideshead can also be seen as beginning to include a new source of comedy, which is the pose of a grumpy-old-man complaining about all aspects of the modern world. As with grumpy old men in general, it’s not clear whether Waugh is genuinely vexed by elements of the modern world or playing up to the role of grumpy old man who can’t be doing with all these new-fangled gadgets and rules. There is an element of exaggeration for comic effect.

This new thread in his comedy is most obvious in the passage set in New York whither the narrator, Charles Ryder, has returned from a long trek through South America before boarding a transatlantic liner back to Blighty. He loathes American hotels and American service. He hates the way Americans, unbidden and uninvited, embark on long soliloquies about their lives on train journeys (‘Their matter passed clean through the mind, and out, leaving no mark, like the facts about themselves which fellow travellers distribute so freely in American railway trains’).

He loathes the way his New York hotel room is overheated but, if he opens the window to get relief, is assailed by the unceasing noise of New York’s streets. This growing dislike of America and Americans reflects the resentment of (some of) Waugh’s generation at the way American manners and idioms were infecting British culture at all levels, most obviously through the medium of the movies, the cinema, which he and his characters enjoyed in the 1930s but which came to symbolise the unstoppable rise of common, vulgar culture (he laments the modern townscape with its ‘close, homogeneous territory of housing estates and cinemas‘; the over-the-top party his wife arranges for him is, in a phrase obviously intended to convey contempt for shallow, meretricious glamour, ‘a cinema actor’s dream.’)

On this transatlantic liner all kinds of things vex the narrator, not least the impractical tackiness of the big ice swan containing caviar which his wife organises as the centrepiece of an overcrowded party. But his irritation with the modern world is maybe epitomised by the utterly trivial but symptomatic way that the ship claims to offer every convenience of the modern world and yet he can’t get a simple whiskey and soda without ice because all the soda water on the ship is iced, that’s the American way, sorry sir.

Scott-King’s Modern Europe

At just 50 pages in the Penguin paperback edition of the Complete Short Stories of Evelyn Waugh and 17,285 words long, Scott-King’s Modern Europe is longer than a short story but far short of being a novel. If anything it reads like a prose version for a screenplay for a particularly madcap Ealing Comedy.

The novella takes the thousand and one aspects of the horrible modern world which the grumpy old man described above detests, and plays them entirely for laughs, high spirited satirical laughs although (as always with Waugh) with an increasing sense of bite.

As to the plot, Scott-King is a dusty old failure of a dull-as-ditchwater classics teacher at some public school, Grantchester who the boys nickname ‘Scotty’ and the other teachers ignore. He has devoted his spare time to the fabulously pointless task of translating an epic poem by the unknown 17th century poet Bellorius into Spenserian stanzas (i.e. the stanza form used in the genuinely wonderful English epic poem The Faerie Queene by the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser). The key thing about this fictional poet Bellorius is he is made to come from the utterly fictional nation of ‘Neutralia‘.

Once Scott-King has completed his opus he sends it off to a few literary magazines who politely rebuff him and there the matter lies until he receives an unexpected invitation. A smart envelope contains an invitation with an embossed coat of arms from ‘His Excellency Dr Bogdan Antonic, international secretary of the Committee, Simona University, Neutralia.’ Turns out it’s the tercentenary of the death of the great Bellorius and, to his surprise, Scotty-King discovers that he has been invited to attend an academic conference about Bellorius’s Great National Poet. Fortunately the little week-long break falls during the school vacation and so Scott-King accepts the invitation, secures permission from the headmaster, packs his bags and reports to the airport for to collect the ticket which has been bought for him.

Neutralia

You won’t be surprised to learn that just about everything which can possibly go wrong, does go wrong. For a start, where is ‘Neutralia’? Waugh cleverly blends aspects of central, eastern and south-eastern (Balkan) nations, but when he says that the current military ruler of the country, The Marshall, shrewdly kept Neutralia out of the Second World War (hence its name) the reader suspects there’s a strong element of Franco’s Spain. Its capital:

Simona, stands within sight of the Mediterranean on the foothills of the great massif which fills half the map of Neutralia.

The text describes Neutralia’s history in a kind of St Trinian’s, Ealing Comedy caricature:

For three hundred years since Bellorius’s death his country has suffered every conceivable ill the body politic is heir to. Dynastic wars, foreign invasion, disputed successions, revolting colonies, endemic syphilis, impoverished soil, masonic intrigues, revolutions, restorations, cabals, juntas, pronunciamentos, liberations, constitutions, coups d’etat, dictatorships, assassinations, agrarian reforms, popular elections, foreign intervention, repudiation of loans, inflations of currency, trades unions, massacres, arson, atheism, secret societies—make the list full, slip in as many personal foibles as you will, you will find all these in the last three centuries of Neutralian history. Out of it emerged the present republic of Neutralia, a typical modern state, governed by a single party, acclaiming a dominant Marshal, supporting a vast ill-paid bureaucracy whose work is tempered and humanized by corruption.

At the airport Scotty hates being treated as a ‘VIP’. He hates being strapped into his plane seat like a chicken  in an oven, he hates the safety demonstration the smooth and insincere air stewardesses give.

She was a neat, impersonal young woman, part midwife, part governess, part shop-walker, in manner.

Dripping with grumpy old man condescension. Anyway, Scott-King befriends another British academic flying out, Whitemaid, but soon discovers he knows next to nothing about Bellorius and is along for the freebie. There’s a pushy woman journalist, Miss Bombaum, another type who rubs the grumpy old man up the wrong way:

She did not look a lady; she did not even look quite respectable, but he could not reconcile her typewriter with the callings of actress or courtesan; nor for that matter the sharp little sexless face under the too feminine hat and the lavish style of hair-dressing. He came near the truth in suspecting her of being, what he had often heard of but never seen in the life, a female novelist.

When you read a paragraph like that you realise that Waugh has concocted the character of a fuddy-duddy old Classics master in order to give his narrative maximum scope for grumpiness and complaint. And you realise the enormous scope the pose of grumpiness gives you. If you stop trying to keep up with all the changes in the modern world and resign yourself to settling into a kind of permanent sulk against everything – well, it’s surprisingly easy, it’s very reassuring, and by turning the attitude up a little you can soon have friends and family laughing at your grouchy soliloquies.

Viewed from another angle, you can see how Scott-King is a middle-aged version of the naive young Paul Pennyfeather in Decline and Fall, only stumbling into a world with far more shadows and darkness. So that thought gives rise to the question: was the external world, the world situation, significantly gloomier in 1946 than it was when Decline and Fall was conceived, in around 1927? I.e. is Waugh’s grumpy aversion to the world of 1946 genuinely justified ? Or purely a result of growing old and resenting change? Discuss.

It’s a darker vision than the earlier books because, beneath under the various running jokes and the comic mishaps of the various characters, is a half serious description of life under a modern dictatorship. The Marshall speaks, and so all the newspapers and media of Neutralia echo his speeches, about ‘Revolution and Youth and Technical Progress and the National Genius’, and all the Neutralians have to parrot the Party line about the wisdom of the Marshall and his regime.

But the shabby reality that Scott-King encounters is poverty and starvation, fear and political manipulation. The host of the motley group of academics and hangers on from all over Europe who assemble for the so-called conference are hosted by Arturo Fe, doctor of Bellacita University. On the bus journey from the airport into the capital Dr Fe casually tells them that Neutralia has lovely food, it’s a shame only the very rich can afford it. Dr Fe explains that everyone who is anyone has to have at least five jobs to keep their heads above water. Thus Dr Fe is not only a scholar,

he is also a lawyer, a judge of the Lower Court. He edits the Historical Review. He has a high position in the Ministry of Rest and Culture, also at the Foreign Office and the Bureau of Enlightenment and Tourism. He speaks often on the radio about the international situation. He owns one-third share in the Sporting Club.

Among the other guests at the reception and gala dinner is the very funny comic figure of an ice blonde from Sweden named Svenginen.

He had taken notice of her in London where she had towered some six inches above the heads of the crowd.
‘I come,’ she said.
Dr Fe bowed. ‘Fe,’ he said.
‘Sveningen,’ she answered.
‘You are one of us? Of the Bellorius Association?’ asked Dr Fe.
‘I speak not English well. I come.’
Dr Fe tried her in Neutralian, French, Italian and German. She replied in her own remote Nordic tongue. Dr Fe raised hands and eyes in a pantomime of despair.
‘You speak much English. I speak little English. So we speak English, yes? I come.’
‘You come?’ said Dr Fe.
‘I come.’
‘We are honoured,’ said Dr Fe.

There is plenty more comedy. The Brits are introduced to a range of comic foreign types, for example, Engineer Garcia (yes, definitely Spain) who once worked for seven years with the firm Green, Gorridge and Wright Limited at Salford and is convinced all the guests must have heard of it and know Salford well, an assumption in which he is sadly disappointed.

But at the same time the sky slowly darkens and things start to unravel. At the night of the gala dinner both Scott-King and Whitemaid get plastered as a result of having travelled all day and had nothing to eat. A few days later they are taken to Bellorius’s home town and forced to be present at the unveiling of a statue of Bellorius which turns out to be the worst thing Scottie has ever seen.

More sinisterly, they are driven some distance out of town to a vast memorial to the war dead and told to lay a wreath in honour of the national poet while being photographed by a rank of photographers – only realising too late that the photos are used by the Neutralian press to show ‘foreign dignitaries’ laying wreaths at the tomb of the dead in the most recent Neutralian civil war.

Slowly they realise the entire conference is a sham and an elaborate public relations exercise in which they are being used by the regime to bolster its international credentials. Scottie enters the hotel drawing room to find the other guests (from numerous European countries) in a dark mood:

The cause of offence emerged through many words and the haze of tobacco smoke. In brief it was this: the Bellorius Association had been made dupes of the politicians.

When he meets Dr Bogdan Antonic, the International Secretary of the Bellorius Association, who invited him, he discovers him to be a very anxious man, a Croat not a Neutralian at all, worried that the authorities are closing in on him, convinced there are spies everywhere. As another Neutralian attending the gala dinner tells him:

‘There is jealousy and intrigue everywhere.’

Two of the delegates to the ‘conference’, a Swiss Professor and a Chinese, go for a little drive in a rented car and are kidnapped by partisans, left over from Neutralia’s civil war. Chances are the two foreigners will be murdered.

In a similar dark vein, as Scott-King’s stay progresses Dr Fe comes under increasing pressure to deliver positive results. He tells Scott-King that there is a plot against his (Dr Fe’s) life and, towards the end of the story, is rumoured to have displeased the Marshal and so ‘disappears’.

Catastrophe

Unfortunately, with the disappearance of Dr Fe go all arrangements for Scott-King’s hotel stay and, more importantly, his return flight. He goes from one government office to another with no joy, in a sample of the bureaucratic obstructionism of new, model post war dictatorships.

Worse is to come because when Scott-King visits the British Consul (the contemptuously named Horace Smudge) he discovers that, since he didn’t register his visit with the British government and does not have all the requisite visas, he is not officially in Neutralia and so the Consul can do nothing to help. Well, how long will it take to apply for a visa, Scottie asks. Ooh could be a long time, old boy; 3, 4 weeks.

But Scott-King only has £75, nowhere near enough to live in the hotel where he’s staying. The consul tells him they’ve already had one sticky case, man named Whitemaid who tries to evade the money-changing laws. Tut tut. Very sad.

Scott-King staggers out of the Consul’s office a broken man. Well, maybe he’ll just stay at the conference hotel till his money runs out and then…?

Scott-King has another, longer meeting with depressed Dr Antonic, supposed host of the Bellorius conference, who takes him to see his even more pessimistic wife in their shabby flat in a tower block whose lift has, in the classic style, broken down. There Scotty sees Neutralian life in all its despair and paranoia:

Do you think,’ he asked, ‘that in Neutralia Western Culture might be born again? That this country has been preserved by Destiny from the horrors of war so that it can become a beacon of hope for the world?’
‘No,’ said Scott-King.
‘Do you not?’ asked Dr Antonic anxiously. ‘Do you not? Neither do I.’

This is coming across as bleak, and it is, but various moments are also very funny. Black humour. But also because it is a return to the clipped and often heartless dialogue of his best comic novels such as Vile Bodies, the comedy of hopelessness.

Anyway, luckily for Scott-King that evening in the hotel restaurant he bumps into Miss Bombaum, the go-getting modern lady journalist, tells her his problem, and she reveals the existence of ‘the Underground’. This is on the model of the underground networks which smuggled Allied airmen out of occupied Europe (or, further back, of the Underground Railway which smuggled slaves out of the American South into the free North)

Bombaum she takes him to meet a man who takes him to meet another man, who turns out to be a ‘major’ in the police, leading the breaking of one of his own laws in an acme of the kind of corruption which flourishes in this kind of repressive state. The policeman agrees to smuggle him out of the country in exchange for all his money, he does it all the time.

In a comically brutal aside, the major also tells Scottie that he has a deal with the government to help ‘disappear’ inconvenient persons.

‘I also have a valued connexion with the Neutralian government. Troublesome fellows whom they want to disappear pass through my hands in large numbers.’

So that’s how later that night Scott-King finds himself travelling in a packed charabanc with six other escapees all dressed up as Ursuline nuns (!). They are taken to a warehouse down by the docks in the port of Santa Maria where he waits for over a week in very hot, very unhygienic conditions. He gives a comically exaggerated but still very pungent sense of post-war Europe, which for several years after the end of the war continued in a state of chaos, with huge numbers of displaced persons (DPs) travelling in all directions:

There were a detachment of Slovene royalists, a few Algerian nationals, the remnants of a Syrian anarchist association, ten patient Turkish prostitutes, four French Pétainist millionaires, a few Bulgarian terrorists, a half-dozen former Gestapo men, an Italian air-marshal and his suite, a Hungarian ballet, some Portuguese Trotskyites. The English-speaking group consisted chiefly of armed deserters from the American and British Armies of Liberation. They had huge sums of money distributed about the linings of their clothes, the reward of many months’ traffic round the docks of the central sea.

One day there’s a panic when it becomes clear that a new police chief has been appointed who isn’t as corrupt as the old one (yet) and is on his way to raid the warehouse. With the result that all the waiting evacuees are rounded up and loaded onto the one boat moored for them in the harbour, far more than it was ever designed for.

Scott-King is locked below decks with this gang of desperados with no food or drink for three very long days as the ship sails the hot Mediterranean. At last the ship docks, the hatches are opened and Scott-King and the others stagger into the dazzling Mediterranean sun. But where is he?

There are soldiers; there is barbed wire; there is a waiting lorry; there is a drive through a sandy landscape, more soldiers, more wire. All the time Scott-King is in a daze. He is first fully conscious in a tent, sitting stark naked while a man in khaki drill taps his knee with a ruler.
‘I say, Doc, I know this man.’ He looks up into a vaguely familiar face. ‘You are Mr Scott-King, aren’t you? What on earth are you doing with this bunch, sir?’
‘Lockwood! Good gracious, you used to be in my Greek set! Where am I?’
‘No. 64 Jewish Illicit Immigrants’ Camp, Palestine.’

Home sweet home

And then, as in so many Waugh the text cuts drastically and completely and we are back in the common room at Grantchester and so, after no doubt difficult diplomatic complications, is Scott-King.

There’s a joke that all the other teachers are swapping yarns about the adventures they had on their summer holidays which all, of course, pale into insignificance to the trauma of what Scott-King has been through but is too shy, or traumatised, to mention. And so everyone carries on thinking what a dull dog ‘Scottie’ is.

Later the headmaster asks him into his study and informs him there’ll be fewer students for the classics class than ever before. Parents are going off the subject. ‘They want to qualify their boys for jobs in the modern world. You can hardly blame them, can you?’

But Scott-King does blame them. He is determined to teach classics for as long as he possibly can. For him they represent humane values, civilisation and culture. And as to preparing boys for the modern world, well after what he’s seen of the modern world this summer, he declares:

‘It would be very wicked indeed to do anything to fit a boy for the modern world.’

Grumpy old man

Scott-King is made to be exactly the same age as Waugh when he wrote this lampoon, 43. He serves several ends. As a fusty classics teachers he is a kind of grumpy old man par excellence, for whom every aspect of the modern world is displeasing. His retired situation also allows him to be naive and simple, a fool abroad, in the time honoured manner of this kind of comic picaresque.

Lastly, Scott-King can be made, however improbably, into a champion of the very best of Western culture – if, that is, you accept the notion that the literature and culture of ancient Greece and Rome represent the best of Western culture – so that his stubborn refusal to relinquish teaching classics, his determination to hold out for these values of clarity and civilisation as long as he can, and his disgust at the idea that education is about fitting boys to the disgusting ‘modern world’, can be depicted as heroic.

The pleasure of the text

Maybe Waugh’s attitude is risible but it has the merit of being a coherent worldview. Easier to analyse and argue with a worldview which is, at least, coherent, even if you disagree with it.

But also, opinions don’t necessarily matter if their ultimate purpose is to give rise to comedy. An artist may pain the same thing over and over again until you are completely familiar with the subject – take Cézanne’s obsessive painting and repainting of Mont Sainte-Victoire: the point is not that it’s a mountain, the point is the experiments in light and shade and tone and, ultimately, the pleasure of painting itself, the joy of technique.

Something similar with Waugh. On one level you can take issue with his politics, his religion and his general worldview, revealed with increasing grumpiness as he got older. But on another level, you can simply enjoy the absurdity of the farce and, above all, the pleasure of his prose. Almost everything Waugh ever wrote is a joy to read:

The little Mediterranean seaport of Santa Maria lay very near the heart of Europe. An Athenian colony had thrived there in the days of Pericles and built a shrine to Poseidon; Carthaginian slaves had built the breakwater and deepened the basin; Romans had brought fresh water from the mountain springs; Dominican friars had raised the great church which gave the place its present name; the Habsburgs had laid out the elaborate little piazza; one of Napoleon’s marshals had made it his base and left a classical garden there. The footprints of all these gentler conquerors were still plain to see, but Scott-King saw nothing as, at dawn, he bowled over the cobbles to the water-front.


Credit

Scott-King’s Modern Europe by Evelyn Waugh was published by Chapman and Hall in 1947. All references are to the 2011 Penguin paperback edition of the Complete Short Stories of Evelyn Waugh.

Related link

Evelyn Waugh reviews

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

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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 Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1984)

Like The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, this novel is sharply divided into seven distinct parts. Unlike that book it retreats a little from being a collection of fragmented stand-alone narratives, heavily interspersed with philosophical digressions, back towards something a bit more like a conventional novel, in that the same characters recur in every part.

That said, it is still not at all like a conventional novel. Conventional novels set scenes, paint locations, introduce characters, and explore them slowly by taking them through events, described in full, with plenty of dialogue.

Kundera’s novels feature characters, but they are more often than not presented through the author’s ideas about them. The ideas come first, and then the characters exist – or are invented – to flesh them out.

Thus the first two short sections of part one of this book present no characters or settings at all, but consist of a meditation on Nietzsche’s puzzling idea of Eternal Recurrence, an idea Nietzsche proposed in his last works before going mad. Kundera interprets to it to mean the notion that anything which happens only once barely happens at all. He quotes the German proverb: Einmal ist Keinmal: ‘once is nothing’. Only recurrence nails something down with weight and meaning. What occurs only once, has no weight, no meaning. Its lightness is unbearable.

And this dichotomy between lightness and weight will underpin much of the discussion which follows.

Part One – Lightness and Weight

Tomas is a surgeon. Since Tomas divorced his wife and abandoned his son (she was a rabid communist who gave him only very restricted access, and even then kept cancelling his dates to see his son – so Tomas eventually gave up trying), he’s had numerous lovers which he runs on a rule of three: Either three quick sex sessions, then never see them again; or a longer term relationship but scheduled at three-weekly intervals. (Putting it like this makes you realise how, well, crass a lot of Kundera’s male characters and their supposed sexual wisdom, can easily appear.)

And I’m afraid that the effect of reading five of his books in quick succession began to make me see through his plausible sounding words of wisdom.

Tomas came to this conclusion: Making love with a woman and sleeping with a woman are two separate passions, not merely different but opposite. Love does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman). (p.15)

Tomas is sent to a sleepy provincial town by his hospital to perform a tricky operation on a patient who can’t be moved. Here, in a sleepy local restaurant, he meets Tereza who is a waitress. They have sex. Weeks later, she turns up on his doorstep. He takes her in, they sleep together, he gets her suitcase from the station. All this goes against his principles, such as hating having women sleep over, preferring to drive them home after sex. Anyway, Tereza comes down with flu and Tomas is forced to look after her and, as he does so, has the peculiar sensation that she is like Moses in the cradle and he is the pharaoh’s daughter. Some higher power has decreed he must protect her. And so he finds himself falling in love with her. He gets his mistress, Sabina, to wangle her a job as a dark room assistant with a magazine.

And so they settle in to living together. But then Tereza discovers that Tomas has lots of other lovers. She comes across a stash of letters. She begins to have panic dreams, which Kundera vividly describes, one in which Tereza is one among a group of naked women who walk around a swimming pool performing kneed bends and exercises and if any of them hesitates or stumbles, Tomas, who is in a basket suspended from the roof, shoots them dead with the gun in his hand. Those kinds of dreams. Anxiety dreams.

He loves her and wishes to calm her feverish dreams, but can’t stop seeing his lovers, but then can’t make love to them without feeling guilty, so needs to drink to mask the guilt, but then Tereza smells the booze on his breath when he gets home, and has another one of her anxiety attacks. In fact she tries to kill herself.

Then, in his anxiety, Tomas’s longest-term mistress, the artist Sabina, catches him looking at his watch while making love, and takes her revenge on him. Oh dear. Can the poor man do nothing right?

Years go by. Tomas marries Tereza. He buys her a mongrel puppy, they name Karenin after the hero of the Tolstoy novel.

Then the Russians invade Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Tereza is by now a staff photographer on the magazine and spends the days after the invasion roaming the streets taking photographs of the occupying army, then handing the film over to foreign journalists.

Sabina has left for Geneva, Switzerland. A hospital manager from Zurich Tomas knows phones up and offers him a job. After hesitation he takes it and they drive to Switzerland. For some months she is happy and confident. Taking photos during the occupation gave her confidence. Then he gets home one day and finds a farewell letter from her. She can’t hack life in the West. She’s gone back to Czechoslovakia and taken the dog.

Initially Tomas feels liberated. Seven years with her were, in the end, a burden. But it only takes a day or two and then the terrible power of compassion kicks in – Kundera gives us a disquisition on the etymology and meaning of ‘com’ [meaning with] ‘passion’ [from the Latin word meaning ‘suffering’] – and he imagines Tereza alone in their flat in Prague. So, with a heavy heart, he resigns from the Zurich hospital, quoting the motif from a late Beethoven string quartet – Muss es sein? Ja, es muss sein. And drives back across the border to Prague, finding Teresa asleep in their old flat, and wondering if he’s just made the worst mistake of his life.

On this recording of Beethoven’s string quartet number 16, click to the final movement at 17:39. It’s here that Beethoven wrote the words Muss es sein? Ja, es muss sein before the music itself begins, indicating that the rhythm of the words was the basis of the musical motifs from which he then created the music. What do the words mean: ‘Must it be?’ ‘Yes. It must be.’ It seems like it should be a meditation on man’s fate, on whether we make real decisions or go along with a pre-determined fate. Except that the music itself is surprisingly light and airy.

Puzzling and teasing. And, in this, similar to Kundera’s texts which invoke all kinds of serious political and philosophical ideas, and reference well-known writers and musicians in order… to muse on the different types of philanderer (the epic or the lyric), or the four types of ‘look’, or why one character close their eyes during sex while another keeps them open, or to give a mock academic definition of the art of flirtation. Is the entire book a deliberate playing and toying with ideas of seriousness and triviality?

Part Two – Soul and Body

In which we learn a lot more about Tereza, namely her family background. Her mother married the least eligible of her nine suitors because he got her pregnant. After a few years of boring marriage, she ran off with another man, who turned out to be a loser. She took all this out on young Tereza, in the form of nudity. Tereza’s mother walks round the house naked, she refuses to have a lock on the lavatory, she parades her friends round the house and into Tereza’s room when she’s half dressed. For Tereza, nudity represents a concentration camp-style enforcement of loss of privacy.

Meeting Tomas was an escape. He had a book on the table of the restaurant where she served him on the occasion of him coming to the town to perform an operation. Books are symbolic of escape from narrow provincial life into a higher realm. (In this respect she reminds me of Kristyna the butcher’s wife who is enchanted with the higher learning and big city sophistication of ‘the student’ in part five of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, or of nurse Ruzena who longs to escape the narrow confines of her boring provincial town in The Farewell Party. The uneducated young woman trapped in a provincial town until rescued by a much more educated, big city-dweller, is a recurring trope.)

We re-see the birth and development of her love affair with Tomas through her eyes, including the night she danced with another man and made him jealous, then her discovery at discovering all his letters from his lovers, particularly Sabina.

She has a brainwave to control her jealousy which is to try and co-opt his lovers into their sex life. She has the idea to visit Sabina the painter and take photos of her (by this time she is a staff photographer on the weekly magazine). Which progresses to suggesting she photograph Sabina nude. As a heterosexual man I found this couple of pages stimulating, as I think they’re intended, but as wildly improbable as a porn film. It doesn’t come off, there isn’t a lesbian scene, the two women collapse in laughter.

We see how her exile in Geneva comes to a head when she takes her best photos of the Russian occupation of Prague to a magazine editor, who says, ‘Yes, they’re wonderful, but things have moved on, Is she any good at photographing plants, cacti, for example? Very fashionable at the moment.’

She protests that the Russian tanks are still on the streets of Prague, Czechs are still being sent to prison by the thousand. The editor gets a woman staff photographer to take her to lunch and explain the facts of life in the capitalist West to her, but the more she does so, the more Tereza feels patronised and disgusted.

In both these sections Kundera describes the fate of Alexander Dubček, the Czech leader who allowed the widespread liberalisation of communism which became known as the Prague Spring, and who was arrested and flown to prison in Russia after the Russians invaded in August 1968.

Initially, Dubček was told he was going to be executed, like Imre Nagy, leader of rebel Hungary, had been in 1956. But then he was reprieved, bathed and shaved and given a new suit and taken to a meeting with Leonid Brezhnev, where he was offered his life if he agreed to roll back all his reforms. Within days he was flown back to Prague and forced to make a nationwide address on the radio explaining his change of strategy.

For Kundera, the significant thing was Dubček’s pitiful performance, his long pauses, his gasps for breath. During those pauses, he says, the entire nation heard their humiliation. And both Tomas and Tereza revert to this example of humiliation as they consider their own lives.

And it occurs to me that whereas traditional novelists use symbolism with a kind of subtlety, burying it in the narrative and descriptions, Kundera’s distinguishing feature is that he makes his ‘symbols’ front and foreground of the text. They are not subtly worked into the text but very visibly added into it and then commented on at length. Each time they recur Kundera himself does all the commentary and critique, explaining how Dubček’s silences became symbolic of all kinds of other silences, in apartments bugged by the secret police, or between lovers who can no longer talk to each other.

Tereza realises she is utterly alone in the West. She packs her bags, takes Karenin, and catches a train back to the Czech border. Five days later Tomas joins her.

Who is strong here, who is weak? Is weakness bad? Was Dubček weak? No. Anybody is weak when they are set against vastly stronger forces. Weakness has no intrinsic meaning.

Part Three – Words Misunderstood

Part three introduces us to Franz, who is happily set up with his docile wife, Marie-Claude, who runs a private art gallery, and (somewhat inevitably) enjoys the favours of his artist-mistress. Artist? Like Sabina? Her name is deliberately suppressed but as soon as the narrator mentions a bowler hat we know that it is Sabina, Tomas’s mistress Sabina, since the bowler is a prop she used to wear (with little else) for her erotic encounters with Tomas in Part One. In fact Kundera treats us to an entire digression about the bowler hat, which used to belong to her grandfather, the small-town mayor, and how her bringing it into exile in the West has now loaded it with multiple layers of symbolism.

But the real purpose of this section is to form an extended example of one of the central themes of Kundera’s fiction – which is the profound mutual misunderstandings which can occur between two people, even if they are lovers, especially if they are lovers.

And for the first time this is given a formal structure, in that Kundera shepherds the completely opposite ideas and principles of West-born Franz and Eastern émigré Sabina into a humorous format, a Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words. This dictionary occurs in more than one of the sections and includes such subjects as: Woman, Fidelity & Betrayal, Music, Light & Darkness, the beauty of New York, Strength, Living In Truth, and so on – all areas where Kundera humorously shows us Franz thinking one thing and Sabina thinking the diametric opposite.

Take music. Franz would like to disappear inside a great orgasm of totally obliterating music. Whereas Sabina thought only under communism did musical barbarism reign until she came to the West and discovered the crudest pop music blaring and thumping from every public orifice. She hates its stifling omnipresence.

This is a clever, witty and funny idea – and another example of how Kundera pushes old fashioned ideas about ‘the novel’ to the limit. In your traditional novel these themes might have been embedded in fictional events, or maybe in dialogue, but to some extent dramatised. In Kundera, the narrative comes to a dead stop and the text comes close to becoming a Powerpoint presentation. At moments like this it comes close to being a collection of bullet points more than a narrative. The interesting thing is just how far Kundera can push all these tricks and experiments – and the book still feel like a novel, with a story and characters.

Parades For Franz, raised in the West, political parades are a release and a protest (and also, on a personal level, a relief to get out from the libraries and lecture halls where he spends his professional life). But Sabina was brought up in the communist East where, from earliest youth, she was forced to go on political marches and rallies, forced to march in rank with other Young Pioneers, forced to chant political slogans. Thus, he loves parades but she loathes them.

Lightness Franz feels that everything that happens in the West, and to him, is too boring trivial and easy. Too light. He was resigned to dissolving into the never-ending sea of words which is academic discourse. Which is why Sabina excites him so much as a mistress. In her country even the slightest phrase can be charged with superhuman weight, can consign one or more people to prison or execution. Now there’s meaning for you, drama and revolution and human adventure! Whereas for Sabina, of course, words like ‘revolution’, ‘struggle’ and ‘comrade’ are dirty, sordid, horrible reminders of the crushing of the human spirit.

Franz is worn out, psychologically and philosophically exhausted, by the West’s sheer profusion.

The endless vanity of speeches and words, the vanity of culture, the vanity of art. (p.110)

including the vanity of the endless pontificating about art which he hears on all sides at his wife’s press days and exhibition launches, and the insufferable loquacity of his cocktail-party-superficial daughter.

Franz finally plucks up the guts to tell his wife of 23 years that he has been seeing a mistress for nine months. He is horrified when Marie-Claude doesn’t buckle into tears (it turns out he had completely the wrong idea about her for this entire time – see the discussion in the Short Dictionary of his concept of ‘Woman’) but becomes very hard-faced. Becoming scared, Franz goes on to tell her the mistress is Sabina.

Next day he is on a flight to Amsterdam and feels wonderful light and airy and released from all guilt. He is living in truth. He has told Sabina, sitting beside him, that he’s told his wife everything about them, and so he feels light and breezy. But Sabina now is wracked with anxiety. No longer is she the free-spirited artist Sabina. Now she is ‘that painter who’s involved in the Franz and Marie-Claude divorce’. Now she’s going to have to decide how to play the role of ‘the mistress’. She feels weighted down.

This is just one of the many many ways the theme of ‘lightness’ is played out and dramatised throughout the book.

In fact during this trip to Amsterdam, while Franz feels lighter and lighter, Sabina feels so weighted down that she realises she can never see him again. They have a night of unbridled passion in Amsterdam, she giving herself up to physical ecstasy as never before. He thinks it’s because she is excited by their new life together and by the prospect of living in truth. But it is nothing of the sort. It is because she knows it is the last time. She knows she has to leave him. Thus they have completely opposed understandings and motivations. Complete misunderstanding, which is really Kundera’s central subject.

Back in Geneva, Franz shamefacedly packs a few things in front of his wife, then goes round to Sabina’s flat. The door is locked. There’s no-one home. He keeps going back like a lost puppy, no answer. After a few days removal men appear and empty it. She’s gone, and left no forwarding address. Initially he is devastated. When he goes back to his wife, she says ‘Don’t let me stop you moving out.’ On the face of it he’s lost everything. But in the event he takes a small flat in the old part of town. Moves in furniture which he, not his wife has chosen. Stuffs it full of books and becomes happy. One of his students falls in love with him and they start an affair. Deep in his heart he is grateful to Sabina for freeing him from the staleness of a 23-year marriage. Life is sweet. He is living in truth.

Meanwhile Sabina moves to Paris. She had hoped that the successive affairs and liaisons would weight her down and give her life significance. But she finds herself floating free and rootless in Paris. It is here that for the first time we read the title phrase of the book. She seems doomed to experience ‘the unbearable lightness of being’ (p.122).

One day she gets a letter telling her that Tomas and Tereza have died in a car crash in some remote mountain town in Czechoslovakia.

By this point I’m thinking that the way this novel has followed just a handful of characters through quite extensive twists and turns makes it unlike his previous works. It’s still stuffed full of soft philosophising about life, but… feels deeper, more deeply felt, simply from the old-fashioned device of letting us get to know the characters via a reasonably chronological narrative.

Part Four – Soul and Body

Part four picks up with Tomas and Tereza back in Czechoslovakia, after she fled from Geneva and the West, and he reluctantly followed her.

Tereza gets a job in a hotel bar. The receptionist is a former ambassador, who criticised the Soviet invasion. All the intelligentsia has been kicked out of their jobs. Tereza gets chatted up by various male customers, which prompts Kundera to give a typically pithy and pseudo-academic definition of the activity of ‘flirting’:

What is flirtation? One might say that it is behaviour leading another to believe that sexual intimacy is possible, while preventing that possibility from becoming a certainty. In other words, flirting is a promise of sexual intercourse without a guarantee. (p.142)

The men at the bar hit on her. One is a fat secret policeman who gets drunk and tries to blackmail her. He is being particularly obnoxious, when a tall stranger intervenes and tells him to shut his trap, she is immensely grateful. But with a kind of sinking inevitability this man then begins chatting her up in a friendly way.

Now a key thing to realise is that at the start of this section, Tomas had come back from window-cleaning and fallen into bed dog-tired just as Tereza was waking for her evening job but not before she smells… can it be… is it really?… yes, the smell of women’s privates in his hair. My God! What has he been up to? But alas, she knows only too well what he’s been up to.

And so her jealousy-anxiety dreams start to recur, especially a new one in which Tomas smilingly tells her to go up Petrin Hill, the big hill in the centre of Prague. She does so, finding it eerily empty. At the top are a few other lost souls like herself, and a suave gentleman with a rifle and several assistants. He politely informs her that he is there to execute them. But only of their own free will, if they want to. And she is so miserable at Tomas’s infidelities, that she lets herself be led to a tree by the assistants and the rifleman is lifting his gun to execute her, and she tries to steel herself but, at the last minute, she bursts out No No, she didn’t come of her own free will, and the rifleman sadly lowers his gun, and she turns to the tree and bursts into inconsolable tears (p.151).

This, like the dream of the naked woman walking round the swimming pool, has the eerie uncanniness of literary dreams (I dream a lot and remember my dreams and none of them are this well-rounded and pregnant with symbolism). And they add to the sense that this book somehow goes deeper than its predecessors. It includes just as much learnèd digression, but by portraying Tomas and Tereza and Sabina at such length, we feel like we’re ‘getting to know them’ much more than previous creations.

So Tereza lets the tall man, an engineer it turns out, invite her to his small apartment where, after the minimum of preamble, he begins unbuttoning her and then having sex with her.

All the way through the book Tereza is afflicted by a dichotomy between her body and her soul (hence the title of this part, Body and Soul) caused by her early experiences with her shameless mother. In many ways she wants to escape her body. She certainly has an ambivalent attitude towards it. Now, she lets herself be stripped bare and penetrated (‘penetrate’ is a verb which crops up regularly in Kundera’s descriptions of sex) but, like so many of his female protagonists, feels far distant from what is going on.

She becomes more disgusted the more he roots around in her body, eventually spitting in his face. Later she uses his horrible toilet with no toilet seat, perching precariously on the crude bit of cold plumbing. Tereza longs to escape from the crudity of bodies, the way Tomas seems able to have casual sex with more or less any woman. But it kills her.

Later, when the supposed engineer doesn’t get back in touch, she becomes paranoid. What if it was a set-up? What if she was somehow filmed or recorded having sex, compromising herself?

And her mind goes back to how, in the months following the Prague Spring, the new hardline communist authorities broadcast secret recordings made of émigrés and dissidents, obviously only the most shameful bits when, after a bottle of wine or so they were persuaded to turn on their colleagues or admit what a crappy country Czechoslovakia is, or admit to being wife-beaters or closet paedophiles or anything – anything the agents provocateurs could wheedle out of them which could then be carefully edited and broadcast on Radio Communism to destroy the images of all the would-be leaders of the people and cow the populace into even deeper passive stupor.

One of these was the well-known author Jan Prochazka, recorded slagging off his colleagues and then broadcast all over the airwaves. Tereza is horrified by this and all other examples of the complete lack of privacy under communism. For her it is tied to her mother’s insistence on going around naked and on parading her, Tereza, naked to her friends. The horror of it!

And the time when she was 14 and her mother found her secret diaries, recording her innermost adolescent secrets… and brought them out when friends were round for tea and insisted on reading out whole entries at which all the raddled middle-aged women cackled with hilarity and Tereza wanted to die.

For Tereza, the definition of a concentration camp is a place of absolutely no privacy, where privacy is abolished (p.137)

That’s why Tomas’s infidelity makes her want to die, and dream about ways of dying: because she thought with him, she had found something utterly private and safe and secure. She gives their love tremendous weight. And yet Tomas finds sex light and easy, no consequences, no angst. She cannot relate to the lightness of his attitude. His lightness is unbearable to her.

Part Five – Lightness and Weight

And now, Tomas’s experience of returning to occupied Czechoslovakia.

At first he is welcomed back to the hospital. He is the leading surgeon of his generation. But now we are told about an article he wrote a few years previously, during the general relaxing of censorship leading up to the Prague Spring. It took as its subject the Oedipus of Sophocles. When Oedipus realises what a terrible thing he has done, even though he did it in complete innocence, he blinds himself. Tomas writes a long essay accusing the Communist Party of having betrayed Czechoslovakia and, although many of them did it with good intentions, he compares their pleas for forgiveness and understanding, with Oedipus’s intensely tragic self-punishment. The article is accepted by an intellectual magazine, though Tomas is irritated that they severely cut it, making it seem much more harsh and aggressive than he’d intended.

Then came the Russian invasion. A year later the director of the hospital calls him in and says the communist authorities want him to write a note disclaiming the article and its criticism. This gives rise to some intense analysis by Kundera. He foresees his colleagues reacting in two ways: first the nods from all the others who have given in and signed; then the smug sneers of everyone who was too young to be implicated and so can take a moral high line with no risk. Tomas realises he will hate being the recipient of either kind of smile. He refuses to sign and is sacked.

He gets a job as a GP in a practice 50 k from Prague. One day the last patient is a smooth-talking and charming secret policeman. He takes Tomas for a glass of wine and sympathises with his plight, he never meant to write that article, the editors butchered it, of course the authorities want one of their leading surgeons to return to his métier. And he holds out another document for Tomas to sign, his one much harsher than the hospital one, this one declaring how much Tomas loves the Soviet Union and the Communist party.

I found this sequence fascinating, it has a John le Carré sense of the insinuating ways of power and corruption, for it took a while for innocent Tomas to realise he is being tempted. He refuses. More than that, he quits his job as a GP and finds work as a window cleaner. The authorities only make people of significance sign these disclaimers. Once you’ve reached rock bottom they lose interest. Tomas wants to reach rock bottom. He wants to be free (p.192).

The ensuing passages describe Tomas’s adventures as a window-cleaner in Prague. The underground grapevine goes before him and he often finds himself offered a glass of wine and assured he doesn’t have to do any work by former patients who happily sign the chit saying he’s done the work.

But, this being Kundera, there is of course sex. Quite a bit of sex. Because handsome saturnine Tomas is calling during the day on plenty of bored middle-aged, middle-class housewives. Kundera describes his sexual escapades, the one which drive Tereza to paroxysms of despair, as casual couplings which Tomas can barely remember by the weekend. And, being Kundera, there is a great deal of theorising about sex. Again.

Men who pursue a multitude of women fit neatly into two categories.  Some seek their own subjective and unchanging dream of a woman in all women. Others are prompted by a desire to possess the endless variety of the objective female world. (p.201)

and he goes on to call the obsession of the former lyrical, and of the latter, epical, and spends a couple of pages of entertaining theorising expanding on this premise. The lyricists seek an Ideal and are always disappointed. Some sentimental women are touched by their idealism. Epic womanisers garner no sympathy. They are interested in quantity not quality. And eventually they get bored and become interested in ever more specific quirks. They become collectors.

Kundera describes Tomas’s collector habits, and several encounters of great erotic intensity. However, after a few years the women begin to blur into one, he starts forgetting names. But the real purpose of all this is to make the distinction (and Kundera’s type of intellectuality is about making endless numbers of distinctions – heaviness and lightness, lyrical and epical, demonic and angelic laughter, and so on) between Tomas’s collector instinct when he’s out there, in the world, and his love for Teresa.

He doesn’t need to collect Teresa. She came to him. And her falling ill within an hour or so of arriving was a key moment, which is referred to again and again in the novel. It made her completely vulnerable and reliant on him, in a way none of his conquests are, in a way he’s careful to make sure they never are. Which is what makes her the Great Exception.

Anyway, all this merry philosophising about sex is bookended with another encounter with people who want him to sign something. One of the editors of the magazine where he sent his ill-fated article about Oedipus calls him to a surreptitious meeting at a borrowed flat where Tomas is unnerved to encounter his own son, the one he rejected and walked away from after his divorce nearly 20 years earlier,

Over the space of several pages they try to persuade him to sign a petition they’re getting up among intellectuals to protest against the maltreatment of prisoners in prison. Again we are in the world of politics and coercion, as when the secret policeman met him. Only now there is this weird personal element of his son coercing him. Initially Tomas is minded to sign, but when they remind him of the Oedipus article which screwed up his life, he is reminded of what prompted him to write it. It was looking down in Tereza, as she lay in bed with a fever from the flu that kicked in within hours of her arriving at his flat, and made him think of pharaoh’s daughter looking down on Moses in the basket made of bullrushes. And so he went to his book of ancient legends and came across Oedipus, another abandoned child who is rescued… and one thing led to another.

And in a moment of insight Tomas realises she is still the defenceless babe in the basket and he must do nothing to endanger her. And he looks at the two men facing him and realises that nothing he signs or says or does will make the slightest difference to political prisoners in Czechoslovakia – but it might endanger his beloved. And so Tomas tells them he will not sign. He knows they won’t understand. He gets up and returns to the only woman he cares for… But, at the same time, unbeknown to him, the one who he is torturing to death with his ceaseless infidelities…

The petition is duly published. The signers are rounded up. The communist press denounces them as wreckers and saboteurs. On it goes, the endless cycle of repression. Tomas reflects on the history of the Czechs, their apparently bottomless ability to screw up their lives and politics. He ponders how one decision (to stand up for themselves) led to total defeat in the Thirty Years War (1618-48) while the opposite decision (to be compliant to stronger powers, at Munich) led to total defeat by the Nazis. What is right? What is best to do? All alternatives seem to lead down to defeat.

If history were repeated multiple times we could try alternative answers and find out. But we can’t. Using these (not totally convincing arguments) Tomas concludes that History isn’t unbearable because of its crushing weight, but the opposite.

The history of the Czechs and of Europe is a pair of sketches from the pen of mankind’s fateful inexperience. History is as light as a feather, as dust swirling into the air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow. (p.223)

He’s been a windowcleaner for nearly three years, now. It’s gotten boring. The former patients no longer greet him with champagne and toasts. They just want their windows cleaned. The sight of intellectuals doing manual labour has become passé, and then embarrassing. And he is growing psychologically tired of all the sex. He can’t stop it, but it is wearing him out.

Tereza suggests they move to the countryside, get new jobs. She is obviously unhappy. He asks her why and she finally reveals that every day when he gets back from work she can smell other women’s private parts on his hair. Appalled, he makes to go and shower immediately but she says, It’s alright, she’s used to it and he is stricken with grief.

That night he wakes from a strange dream (lots of dreams in this book) about (alas) sex and the ideal woman, and wakens to find Tereza holding his hand, and vows to change.

Part Six – The Grand March

This is the shortest and the silliest part of the novel, in fact one of the worst things Kundera ever wrote. Although it is packed with serious themes it feels somehow the most superficial.

In a great hurry Kundera progresses through an anecdote about how Stalin’s son died, in a Second World War prisoner of war camp, arguing with British prisoners about his messy defecating habits. Then Kundera picks up this idea of human faeces and runs with it via references to various theologians and their ideas of the relation between the human body and its creator, the way they force a binary choice on us: that either man’s body is made in the image of God’s – in which case God has intestines, guts, and defecates – or it isn’t, in which case it isn’t perfect and godlike, and neither is creation.

This leads him on to a meditation on the meaning of kitsch, which he takes to be the belief that the world is perfect, that it is a world without shit. (The general drift of this definition reminds me of his definition of angelic laughter in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting i.e. that it is creepily unrealistic.)

Kundera then hurries on to rope in thoughts about ‘sentimentality’, defining sentimentality as The awareness of how much one is moved by the notion that the world is a perfect and beautiful world.

And then moves on to claim that this kitsch is universal among all politicians. All politicians want to be seen with babies because they identify with the kitsch notion that human life is an unmitigated blessing. This is demonstrated by the time when Sabina, by now a famous artist and living in America, is driven by a US senator to an ice rink, where kids are frolicking and makes an expansive gesture with his arm as if to incorporate everything that is Good In Life. But Sabina has had a tough life and sees in his rinky-dink smile exactly the cheesy smiles of the Communist Parties smiling down at the smiling masses of the Communist Faithful as they march past on a May Day Parade. Totalitarian kitsch is a world in which everyone is smiling all the time because everything is so perfect. Anyone who asks a question or expresses a doubt must immediately be shipped off to the gulag because kitsch admits of no imperfections.

Which brings us to Franz and his need to be seen. Which prompts Kundera to explain the four categories of ways we need to be seen.

  1. People who long for the look of an infinite number of anonymous eyes. Actors.
  2. People who have a need to be seen by many known eyes. Cocktail party hosts.
  3. People who need to be constantly before the eyes of the person they love.
  4. People who live in the imaginary eyes of those who are not present.

Franz is of this latter type and he undertakes the escapade which ends his life because of a futile sense that somehow, somewhere, Sabina the great love of his life is watching him.

This is a Mercy Mission to Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge ran Cambodia from 1975 to 1978 during which they managed to murder around a million of their fellow citizens, about a quarter of the population, in order to create their peasant-Marxist utopia. Communist Vietnam invaded in 1978 and expelled the Khmer Rouge, setting up their own puppet government.

In the novel a group of French doctors decide to mount a mercy mission by going to Thailand and marching to the Cambodian border and demanding admission. Soon the mission snowballs as a load of American intellectuals and actresses get involved. The French fall out with the Americans, the Americans are offended, can’t everyone see their motives are pure.

I think this entire episode is a rare example of Kundera striking a false note. The entire thing is meant to satirise the sentimentality of the liberal West and its obsession with Grand Marches and Noble Gestures, but… the horror of the Khmer Rouge seems, to me, too serious a setting for Kundera’s satire. It’s as if he was making facile or footling nit-picking pseudo-philosophical points in Auschwitz or Katyn. Don’t get me wrong. I believe you can laugh at more or less anything, I have no politically correct objection to universal mockery. But some things you can only laugh at if it’s a really, really, really good joke, sufficiently funny to outweigh your knowledge of the horror – and Kundera tying together the superficial narcissism of western protests, silly Hollywood actresses and snotty French intellectuals with…. the horrors of the Pol Pot regime – this strikes me as the first wrong step he’s taken in the five books of his I’ve read.

Kundera tries to redeem what even he may have suspected was forced material by piling in ‘tragic’ material about his characters. In particular we now learn that the son, Simon, who Tomas abandoned early on in the novel is now all grown up and is also working as a farm labourer. He starts writing letters to Tomas in which he explains that, in protest at the regime, he left an academic career and married a devout wife and became a Christian. Simon and Tomas exchange a few letters but remain (as all Kundera characters do) at cross-purposes. When he receives a letter that Tomas and Tereza have been killed in a car accident, crushed by a truck which rolled onto their car, Simon hurries to the funeral.

Hmm. I don’t mind Tomas and Tereza’s deaths being reported at one remove like this, and by a fairly new character, but… this ‘Simon’ feels like he’s been introduced too quickly to properly perform the task. We barely know him before he is carrying the freight of having the deaths of our two beloved central characters die.

Similarly, the Grand March of the French doctors and American celebrities to the Cambodian border descends into farce, that much was predictable. But there’s another oddly false note, when one of the hundreds of photographers accompanying the self-important marchers, steps off the road and onto a land mine and is blown to pieces, his body parts spattering all over one of the banners the Grand Marchers are carrying. Initially dazed, they look up and then… feel a surge of pride.

Then they timidly ventured a few more looks upwards and began to smile slightly. They were filled with a strange pride, a pride they had never known before: the flag they were carrying had been consecrated by blood. Once more they joined the march. (p.265)

That feels to me like bollocks. Satire has to have an element of truth to work, and this just feels to me like pure fantasy. Can you imagine a Hollywood actress being spattered by the blown-up body parts of a press photographer, then slowly breaking into a smile? It felt like Kundera was forcing his characters to fit his thesis and they snap.

Same with Franz. The Grand Marchers finally arrive at the border, and stand at one end of the slim bridge over the river which forms the border, staring across it into Cambodia. Everyone knows snipers are watching on the other side, and will shoot at the slightest provocation.

The interpreter calls out three times (as in a fairly tale) for the other side to let the doctors in, but each time there is only an ominous silence. Then the Marchers pack up and march back to their jumping off point, catch the bus back to Bangkok, and go off to restaurants or brothels as their tastes dictate.

It was a fiasco. But for me it doesn’t work as satire because it doesn’t contain any kernel of truth, it feels like contrived fantasy from start to finish. And then Franz is walking along a side street when he is mugged, smacked on the head and thrown into a deep hole where he breaks his back and blacks out. When he comes to, he is in hospital in Geneva unable to move his body or head and staring up into the benevolent eyes of the wife he abandoned. She is thrilled, because she is having her revenge, because

a husband’s funeral is a wife’s true wedding! The climax of her life’s work! The reward for her suffering! (p.275)

Maybe he’s just dramatising Marie-Claude’s feelings, here, but this still feels like utter bollocks. Contrived and glib. Franz wastes away and dies, full of hatred for his wife, and to her great delight.

It feels like this entire section was written by someone else, by someone parodying Kundera’s approach of throwing together historical, social cultural, psychological and philosophical elements and threading them together with fictional characters and who…. has somehow got it profoundly wrong.

Part Seven – Karenin’s Smile

Which is why the final part is a relief. It follows Tomas and Tereza’s life once they move out of Prague and become agricultural labourers. Admittedly communism has destroyed the old rural ties, closing the village hall, and banning church attendance and cancelling the traditional holidays. But Tomas and Tereza don’t mind and he takes to driving a tractor with gusto and she tends the cows and heifers with real affection.

At moments it’s almost like Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

This last section is very beautiful, quite sentimental and made me cry. Which is odd because it’s still packed to the gill with references to philosophers (we learn about Descartes’ theory that animals have no souls and no feelings, and are merely machines; and this view is compared with Nietzsche, who had his final nervous breakdown and collapse into madness, after he saw a man whipping a broken-down horse in the streets of Turin) along with plenty more philosophising on his own account:

We can never establish with certainty what part of our relations with others is the result of our emotions – love, antipathy, charity, or malice – and what part is predetermined by the constant power play among individuals. (p.289)

Comparing Adam and Karenin leads me to the thought that in Paradise man was not man, Or to be more precise, man had not yet been cast out on man’s path. Now we are long-time outcasts, flying through the emptiness of time in a straight line. Yet somewhere deep down a thin thread still ties us to that far-off misty Paradise, where Adam leans over a well and, unlike Narcissus, never even suspects that the pale yellow blotch appearing in it is he himself. The longing for Paradise is man’s longing not to be man. (p.296)

And much more in the same vein.

In among all these lugubrious lucubrations, some stuff actually happens, mainly that their beloved dog of ten years, Karenin, falls ill of cancer, and wastes away until Tomas -being a doctor – is forced to put him out of his misery with a lethal injection.

This event prompts a series of reflections about humanity and animals: that the measure of humanity is how it treats the absolutely helpless i.e. animals, and that in this respect humankind has undergone an absolutely catastrophic debacle. Our contact with animals was the last thread attaching us to Paradise, and look how we treat them. Factory chickens. Veal calves. Hormone-pumped cattle. Vivisection. How many rabbits have been blinded by mascara or beagles forced to smoke themselves to death?

So it’s no surprise how we treat each other. Kundera emerges from this final section as a vehement Animal Liberationist (reminding me of the South African novelist J.M. Coetzee).

This last section, about Karenin wasting away and dying, and how they eventually, finally, have to put him down and then jointly bury the little doggy corpse, is pretty obviously designed to be tear-jerking, the dog’s final hours and last whimpers, and then how they bury him in the garden in a plot chosen by Tereza, designed to wring the last drop of feeling from the sensitive reader.

But what made me cry was how, at long, long last, Tereza was finally reconciled with Tomas. She comes across him hiding letters and once again the old gnawing doubts bite into her. But then, one day, he reveals that they’re letters from his son who has become a Christian and works on the land not far away. Inevitably, they discuss his son more as an intellectual example of conversion to faith (given his mother was a rabid communist), than as a person – but the point is that Tereza finally realises that Tomas’s days of unfaithfulness are over. Finally, they are completely together. Finally her years of anxiety-jealousy nightmares can end.

And the book ends with them accompanying the jovial old director of the collective farm, and a young farm hand whose dislocated shoulder Tomas has fixed, to the nearest town where they get drunk and dance to the ludicrous accompaniment of an ageing pianist and equally old violinist, till they fall into bed together, finally, at last, HAPPY.

Thoughts

To read a Milan Kundera novel is to be bombarded with so many ideas about love and sex and marriage and fidelity and psychology and religion and politics that it’s difficult to keep them all in your head. Some will stick, some will go in one ear and out the other. Some kind of diagram would be needed to store them all and work out their web of interrelations.

They are dazzling, awesome intellectual feats of thinking, imagination and writing. But the downside is it can sometimes feel like you’re reading an encyclopedia; or a highly erudite author’s commonplace book where they’ve jotted down every thought and notion that’s ever occurred to them – and the concocted characters and a narrative which allows him to insert them at regular intervals.

I found it ultimately a very moving book, as mentioned above for the simple reason that we follow Tomas and Tereza’s story for longer, in more depth, and with more sympathy, than any of his previous characters. And because it ends with emotional closure, with them going to bed happy and contented so the reader can close the book with a big smile on their face.

But I also regularly experienced Idea Fatigue at quite a few places, where I just felt overwhelmed by yet another page of graceful and witty fancies and hypotheses, theories and thoughts, opinions and asides. It is possible to have too many postulates and paradoxes per page, in fact:

Questionable wisdom

Saul Bellow coined the term ‘reality instructor’ for people who take it upon themselves to explain what life is really like, what it really means. This kind of lecturing is a quintessential part of Kundera’s style. I think in small doses it can be very illuminating, but the more you read, the more you have the sense of being harassed.

An author can discuss philosophy without being a philosopher, psychology without being a psychologist. On the one hand it gives them the freedom to play with ideas and spin amusing and unusual insights. On the other hand, their little lessons risk lacking depth or evidence – of resting, ultimately, on assertion, often on rhetorical tricks, on paradox and wit, more than evidence. Here are some examples:

Dreaming is not merely an act of communication (or coded communication, if you like); it is also an aesthetic activity, a game of the imagination, a game that has a value in itself. Our dreams prove that to imagine – to dream about things that have not happened – is among mankind’s deepest needs. (p.59)

Is that true? Or does it just sound like it’s true?

The only serious questions are the ones that a child can formulate. Only the most naive of questions  are truly serious. They are the questions with no answers. A question with no answer is a barrier that cannot be breached. In other words, it is questions with no answers that set the limits of human possibilities, describe the boundaries of human existence. (p.139)

Is this deep? Or does it just sound deep?

An important point to make about all this intellectualising and philosophising is that… none of it is difficult. It’s clever… but none of it is hard to understand, if you pay attention.

If you think of the tradition of learnèd wit, epitomised by Tristram Shandy, in which the narrative is buried in spoof footnotes and fake academic papers and sermons and all sorts of other texts interrupting the story… Kundera is not like that. By intellectual, we don’t mean he literally references academic papers or abstruse findings. The opposite. Most of his reflections are very middle brow. Referencing the Garden of Eden or quoting Descartes’ opinion that animals are just machines, these are either part of common lore or only a little beyond it. Intelligent A-Level standard. An A-Level student should have heard of Don Juan. Or Beethoven. Or Adam. These are not really obscure intellectual references.

And his core subject – sexuality, love, fidelity and betrayal, affairs and mistresses – hardly high-brow, is it? Not difficult to grasp. The opposite, in many ways all-too-easy to grasp.

Similarly, he’s surprisingly un-hypertextual. His texts aren’t clever constructions pieced together from diaries and journals and letters and newspaper reports and eye-witness accounts and so on. They are just meandering musings, all spoken in the same voice, his characters all speak in much the same way, and they certainly stop and reflect about the meaning of fidelity or political marches or nudity or art or music in the identical, same manner as each other and as the narrator.

For long stretches they seem like extended essays with characters thrown in. At other moments the characters get the upper hand and for a moment you forget the ideas in reading about them sympathetically.

God, it’s just so full, so rich, like a Christmas pudding, so full of so many ingredients it’s difficult to get a real grasp of, or give an adequate review of, because it’s impossible to hold so many ideas, incidents and events in your head at once. Inevitably, some bits will appeal more to some readers than others – the politics or the philosophy.

Wisdom about men and woman

Sames goes, but that much more, for his sweeping generalisations about love and sex, men and women. Why that much more? Because the past forty years have seen a transformation in relationships between the sexes, and a massive shift in what is considered acceptable behaviour, especially around men and their speech and behaviour towards women. Sometimes, reading one of his countless reflections about ‘women’, it feels like a massive tide has gone a long way out and left a lot of what Kundera wrote about relations between the sexes seeming very dated.


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Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The Tragedy of Liberation by Frank Dikötter (2013)

People were encouraged to transform themselves into what the communists called ‘New People’. Everywhere, in government offices, factories, workshops, schools and universities, they were ‘re-educated’ and made to study newspapers and textbooks, learning the right answers, the right ideas and the right slogans. While the violence abated after a few years, thought reform never ended, as people were compelled to scrutinise their every belief, suppressing the transitory impressions that might reveal hidden bourgeois thoughts behind a mask of social conformity. Again and again, in front of assembled crowds or in study sessions under strict supervision, they had to write confessions, denounce their friends, justify their past activities and answer questions about their political reliability. (p.xiii)

For three-quarters of the twentieth century (from the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 to the death of Mao in 1976) China was the site of enormous turmoil, war, famine, tyranny and suffering.

Frank Dikötter is a Dutch historian, professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong, formerly of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. In the last twenty years China has become easier to visit and has opened many of its historical archives to academics for the first time. Dikötter has taken advantage of this to spend years researching provincial records and archives hitherto unseen by western historians. This research has resulted in a trilogy of books detailing the first three decades of communist party rule in China:

  1. The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Communist Revolution, 1945–1957 (2013)
  2. Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62 (2010)
  3. The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976 (2016)

The general drift of all three books is that communist rule in China was much, much more repressive, bungling and catastrophic for the people of China than previously thought.

The centrepiece of the trilogy is the second book, about the great famine of 1958-62, which charges that it was much more consciously and deliberately engineered by the communist leadership (i.e. Mao) lasted longer (1958-62), and resulted in more deaths from starvation, than previously estimated.

Dikötter gives the figure of 45 million premature deaths, of which between two and three million were victims of political repression i.e. people beaten or tortured to death or executed for political reasons.

The famine book won the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2011 and was widely praised for the originality of its research, though it is not without its critics who consider the numbers inflated. No-one doubts, however, that Mao’s communist party oversaw the greatest mass death event in human history.

The Tragedy of Liberation is the second to be published in the trilogy, but covers the earlier period, setting the scene for the famine story by recounting the end of the War in the Pacific (1945), the eruption of civil war between China’s Nationalists and Communists (1946), and the eventual victory of the latter, announced in 1949.

Chinese communist party poster depicting Chairman Mao Zedong

Chinese communist party poster depicting Chairman Mao Zedong

Timeline of the Chinese civil war

  • 6 and 9 August 1945 – the United States drops atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • 8 August – Stalin declares war on Japan and Soviet troops invade Manchuria. America sends hundreds of shiploads of lend-lease material and food to Siberia to support the Russians, including 500 Sherman tanks.
  • 21 August 1945 – A formal surrender between China and Japan ends the Second World War in the Pacific. Japan’s 1 million soldiers in China lay down their arms. The American army undertakes a massive airlift of Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist troops to all China’s main cities to take over from them, before the communists get there.
  • April 1946 – Soviet troops withdraw from Manchuria, having stripped it bare down to the last lightbulb and bath plug (p.15), and having helped Mao’s communist army take control of most of Manchuria.
  • June 1946 – Nationalists undertake a massive military campaign against the communists in Manchuria. The communists are saved by George Marshall, President Truman’s envoy, who insists on a ceasefire, allowing the communists to regroup and get more training and supplies from the Soviets (p.16).
  • September 1946 – July 1947 – US President Harry Truman, disillusioned with the corruption and maladministration of Chiang’s nationalists, imposes an arms embargo which – since the communists are receiving ample supplies and training from Russia – has the effect of boosting the communist army.
  • December 1946 to December 1947 – Nationalists pump their forces into Manchuria in a bid to crush the communists who, better armed and trained than before, turn Manchuria into a killing field wiping out repeated waves of Nationalist forces.
  • November 1948 – The communists succeed in capturing all of Manchuria after blockading and starving several major cities. Civilian deaths due to starvation run into the hundreds of thousands.
  • January 1949 – The communist army, now known as the People’s Liberation Army, much reinforced and battle-hardened, heads south out of Manchuria. On 22 January Beijing surrenders to the PLA. In the same month the nationalists lose the battle of Xizhou in central China, exposing the huge Yangtse valley to communist takeover.
  • May 1949 – Nanjing, the nationalist capital of the south bank of the Yangzi, falls to the PLA. After a lengthy siege Shanghai, financial capital of China, falls to the communists.
  • October 1 1949 – Mao declares the People’s Republic of China in Tiananmen Square.
  • December 1949 – Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and the remnants of his forces flee to the island of Taiwan, to this day an independent nation which China refuses to recognise. Realising their man had failed, the Americans were resigned to the eventual fall of Taiwan as well, but the situation was transformed with the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, when Chinese-backed North Korean forces invaded American-backed South Korea. America rallied the United Nations in a bid to create a coalition to repel the North Koreans and this spilled over into supporting Chiang, so that Taiwan’s nationalists were ensured of survival.

Mass deaths

The civil war involved a number of sieges of nationalist cities during which large number of civilians were deliberately starved to death. The six-month siege of Changchun resulted in between 150,000 and 300,000 civilian deaths. The massive Huaihai campaign resulted in at least 500,000 deaths on the nationalist side.

Dikötter’s text is larded (rather like Max Hasting’s history of the Pacific War, Nemesis) with eyewitness and first-hand accounts from all sources, civilians, peasants, students, soldiers on both sides and politicians. The overall impression is of death and destruction on a grand scale.

The communists in power

Dikötter’s book is a remorseless catalogue of the horrors of the civil war interspersed with the tyrannical policies of the narrow-minded, economically illiterate dictatorship. One of the clearest themes is that the communists achieved and maintained power through HATE at all levels. Categories of enemies were invented and then ‘discovered’ lurking at all levels of society.

An example he explains in detail is persecution of landlords. In Chinese the word landlord itself is an import from the Japanese language, because the thing itself was relatively rare. Dikötter shows that land in China was alienable i.e sellable, and was held by peasants and families under complex and highly detailed traditional contracts which also varied across the regions of China. But landlords, who owned land and raked off a profit by renting it to peasants, were relatively rare. Serfdom, on the Russian model, didn’t exist at all. But this didn’t stop Mao’s campaign to eradicate ‘landlords’ and so each province, region and local area was given quotas of landlords to identify and eradicate. With a gun in their hand and the ability to do whatever they liked, communist cadres across the country listened to the venomous vendettas which infest all rural communities, dragging unpopular villagers and their families in front of hurried kangaroo courts, where victims were abused and insulted before being showered in filth and, variously, shot immediately, beheaded, or flayed with knives, buried alive in sand or mud, hanged upside down or burned to death. Hundreds of thousands of peasants died this way and their – generally pitifully small – stocks of goods redistributed among the villagers. Obviously this didn’t lead to any particular improvement in agricultural production, in fact the disorder across the country disrupted resources, plans and distribution, so led to a drop in agricultural production.

But this is only one thread in the great tapestry of destruction. Another was the campaign against the ‘bourgeoisie’ in the cities, namely Nanjing and Shanghai. Once secure in the hands of the communists a curfew was imposed. Bars and nightclubs closed down. Decadent shops were closed down. Banks were nationalised. Capital could only be allotted by communist party cadres who were economically illiterate. Stocks and supplies ran short and so factories switched to part time work before closing down. Thousands of workers saw pay cuts and then were made unemployed. Convinced this was a conspiracy of reactionaries to discredit the party, the communist authorities took tighter control of the population, issuing identity cards and other papers, classifying every citizen into a series of categories e.g. student, professional, worker, peasant, with the workers and peasants in theory being the most advantaged. As the economic situation worsened, the communist authorities reacted with the only tool at their disposal, fear and terror, with increasing sweeps rounding up members of suspect professions and taking them for interrogation and torture and often execution.

In this and numerous other ways Dikötter’s book relentlessly catalogues the way the economically illiterate communists, blinded by the purity of their utopian doctrine, were forced to use the only strategy and language they understood, fear which was achieved by whipping up hysterical hatred of traitors, saboteurs, counter-revolutionaries, reactionaries, landlords, the bourgeoisie, intellectuals, and so on. These categories covered just about everyone, thus allowing the authorities to arrest and torture anyone into making confessions implicating strings of other people who were themselves tortured to confess, and so on.

‘You dare not speak with others about what was on your mind, even with those close to you, because it was very likely that they would denounce you. Everybody was denouncing others and was denounced by others. Everybody was living in fear.’ (Liu Xiayou, quoted on page 183)

Dikötter presents the evidence and estimates that the number of people killed in the first Great Terror, from 1950 to 1952, might be around 2 million. There were to be more waves of terror, many more. Two striking features of them are that:

  1. Mao’s orders which triggered these waves were always deliberately vague – this meant that cadres trying to carry them out tended to give them the broadest interpretation and arrest everyone, just in case.
  2. This was exacerbated by the use of quotas. Mao casually estimated that 1 in a 1,000 of each populated area should probably be executed. Once these orders were distributed to the cadres, they vied to gain the Chairman’s favour by exceeding the quota. Like quotas for steel or wheat production these were just more statistics to be reached and exceeded, the quicker the better. Authorities in different regions interpreted the lax definitions to suit themselves, and executed whichever groups were easily available and/or disliked, including ethnic minorities, petty criminals, anyone with any mark of suspicion against them.

Max Hasting’s history of the Pacific War, Nemesis, is made bearable because, amid all the unspeakable Japanese atrocities, we meet Americans and English who are, basically, humane and kindly. There are moments of light, reason and humanity. Dikötter’s book is almost impossible to read because of the stifling sense that the reader is trapped in a totally repressed society, where absolutely everyone lives in fear all the time that the slightest remark, look, or even thought could lead to their arbitrary arrest, torture and execution – where brutality is ubiquitous. There are no reports of anyone being forgiving, kind or generous. It is a landscape of unrelenting tyranny, fear and violence.

In the campaign against ‘corruption’ in the early 1950s, suspects had their hair pulled, heads forced into toilets, forced to squat with kettles of boiling water on their head, forced to strip, were beaten and whipped, were made to stand naked in snow, were paraded through the streets to be jeered and spat at, forced to kneel in hot ashes, beaten with ropes (p.162), forced to kneel on benches or to remain bent over for hours, stripped and forced into vats of freezing water, bound with leg irons, beaten with bamboo sticks, tied hand and foot and forced to make confessions in front of mass rallies,

‘Denunciation boxes’ were placed in every office so citizens could denounce each other. Lorries patrolled the streets with loudspeakers insulting the corrupt bourgeoisie and enemies of the workers.

During this period up to 4 million government employees were hounded like this, many committing suicide. Dikötter devotes some pages to describing the suicide techniques of those hounded beyond endurance. Again, Mao came up with a scientific quota: 1% of suspects should be shot, 1% sent to labour camps for life, 2-3% sentenced to ten years hard labour.

Speak Bitterness Meetings

Timeline of communist repression

‘Socialism must have a dictatorship, it will not work without it.’
(Mao Zedong, quoted page 237)

  • 1942 – With the war far from won, and the communists facing a far stronger nationalist enemy, behind the lines Mao institutes a purge of his own communist party, named the ‘Rectification campaign’. Every member of the communist party, including the highest leadership, had to write an autobiography, produce self-criticisms, confess to past errors and ask the party’s forgiveness. By 1944 15,000 spies and traitors had been unmasked, tortured and executed.
  • 1950-52 – The communists implement land reform in the south.
  • October 1950 – October 1951 – The Great Terror, known as the ‘Campaign to Suppress Counter-Revolutionaries’ leads, apart from the murder and intimidation of millions, to an explosion in the prison population and the creation of a chain of forced labour camps (pp.243-254).
  • 1951-53 – Land having been redistributed, peasants are organised into ‘mutual aid teams’.
  • October 1951 – the campaign to purge the civil service begins, alongside a thought-reform campaign to indoctrinate the educated elite into communist ideology.
  • 1952 – Mao declares war on the private sector in the ‘Five Anti Campaign’.
  • 5 March 1953 – Josef Stalin dies.
  • Spring 1953 – As a result of state-imposed communalisation of agriculture, productivity plummets and large swathes of the country experience famine, people resort to eating grass, leaves and bark, with case of children being sold for food.
  • 27 July 1953 – Ceasefire halts the Korean War.
  • November 1953 – The communist state imposes a state monopoly on grain. The state set the amount to be grown in each region (often wildly optimistic), confiscated it all, returned a fraction (a starvation rations) to the farmers, while confiscating the rest to a) feed the cities b) export to Russia in exchange for industrial goods and weapons. The result was starvation across the country, mixed with open rebellion which was put down with maximum violence.
  • 1953-55 – Peasant mutual aid teams are transformed into fully fledged communes which share all tool, animals and labour. In effect, country workers become serfs in bondage to local communist leaders.
  • 1954 – Senior communist leaders are purged for treachery and splittism. More than 770,000 people are arrested in a campaign against counter-revolutionaries.
  • June 1955 – For the third spring in a row famine struck the collectivised countryside and millions of starving peasants flocked to the cities as beggars. So Premier Zhou Enlai announced the extension of the urban system of ‘household registration’ to the countryside, to tie rural workers to their villages.
  • 1955-56 – The ‘Socialist High Tide’ campaign accelerates collectivisation in the countryside and nationalisation of industry in towns. In July 1955 about 14% of China’s 120 million rural families were members of a co-operative; by May 1956, more than 90% were members. Dikötter sees this as the final step in the systematic reduction of China’s rural population to landless serfs tied to the state. It is accompanied by widespread violence, terror and intimidation. In the cities 800,000 owners of businesses, large or small, were deprived of their property and overnight became dependent on the whim of local party officials.
  • February 1956 – Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gives his famous speech denouncing Stalin and the ‘cult of the leader’. This bolsters Mao’s critics in the Chinese communist leadership. The ‘Socialist High Tide’ campaign is abandoned.
  • October 1956 – Encouraged by Kruschev’s speech and resulting deStalinisation, the people of Hungary revolt against the communist government. After some hesitation, the Soviets invade, crush all opposition, and impose a new, tougher regime, sending hundreds of thousands of Hungarians to labour camps.
  • Winter 1956-spring 1957 – In a response to Kruschev’s speech and deStalinisation, Mao institutes the ‘Hundred Flowers’ campaign, a more open political climate designed to avoid the overflow of protest seen in Hungary. But it goes too far, leading to a wave of student protest and strikes across the country, at which point, in the summer of 1957, Mao reverses the policy and puts Deng Xiaoping in charge of an anti-rightist campaign. This reaction persecutes up to half a million students and intellectuals, many of them packed off to gulags in the countryside to do hard labour for the rest of their lives.
  • 1957 – The communist party re-establishes its authority and rallies around the Great Leader. He prepares to declare the ‘Great Leap Forward’, which will lead to four years of famine and the greatest man-made disaster in human history, and which is the subject of the second book in the trilogy.
A peasant 'landlord' confesses all before a People's Tribunal moments before being shot (July 1952)

A peasant ‘landlord’ confesses before a People’s Tribunal moments before being executed (July 1952)

How to run a Maoist hate campaign

The first step is to declare that there is a ‘struggle’ or ‘war’ in society between the virtuous and the wicked. We must all be vigilant and watch each other and report anti-social actions or words, or even funny looks. Children must report their parents. Culprits must be ‘called out’ on their anti-social activity and brought before a mass meeting where they must confess their crimes and beg for mercy. They must reflect on their past behaviour and pledge to become a ‘New Person’, promising to dress, think and talk like everyone else, and be unstinting in their praise of the New World and the Wise Leader. The correct climate of fear has been established when everyone is nervous of being ‘named and shamed’ for the slightest slip or error. And anyone speaking up for a bourgeois deviant and enemy of the people will, of course, themselves immediately be proved guilty by association: why else would they defend the guilty?

Thus is a society atomised, making everyone fearful of everyone else, restricting conversation to the blandest generalities. It is important to have a large vocabulary of hate but to be vague about definitions, so that the maximum number of people can be caught by one term of abuse or another.

Thus the Chinese communists castigated ‘the enemy’ as, among other terms, a:

  • backward element
  • bourgeois
  • bourgeois idealist
  • bourgeois sentimentalist
  • capitalist roader
  • Chiang Kai-shek roader
  • counter-revolutionary
  • degenerate
  • decadent
  • deviant element
  • exploiter
  • go-it-aloner
  • hoarder
  • hooligan
  • humanist
  • hypocrite
  • individualist
  • kulak
  • lackey
  • landlord
  • middle-of-the-roader
  • reactionary
  • rightist
  • right deviationist
  • running dog of imperialism
  • saboteur
  • schemer
  • servant of imperialism
  • speculator
  • spy
  • swindler

Dikötter’s conclusion

‘The first decade of Maoism was one of the worst tyrannies in the history of the twentieth century, sending to an early grave at least 5 million civilians and bringing misery to countless more.’ (p.xv)

Credit

The Tragedy of Liberation by Frank Dikötter was published by Bloomsbury Books in 2013. All quotes and references are to the 2014 paperback edition.


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