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On the Raymond Avenue Tragedy

Leslie Evans

USC and the nearby West Adams neighborhood where the double murder took place April 11 are still in shock. Police are hunting the cold-blooded killer in a widening manhunt, and a new wave of fear is settling into the neighborhood after two decades of reductions in local crime. As president of the Van Buren Place Community Restoration Association, the block club for the area where the murders happened, I want to express the most profound sympathy from all of our neighbors to the parents of Ying Wu, who lived among us, and of her male friend Ming Qu.

I met Ying Wu only once, in the home where she rented a room, four doors away from mine, and remember her as lovely and laughing. She had come from distant Hunan in China's interior to study electrical engineering at USC. She was living with a nurturing couple and their daughter who are among my closest friends and in whose home I have spent many happy hours. On the day we met I had visited to watch Sergio Leone's spaghetti western, Once Upon a Time in the West, with the homeowner, my friend David. As it was ending Ying Wu and her roommate came home. We were introduced and shared momentary pleasantries, they sampled the snacks I had brought and went up to their room. Yesterday the wanton violence of our celluloid afternoon became real and she was struck down at the age of twenty-three while talking in the rain in her boyfriend's car. She was shot in the chest; he in the face. Trying to save her, Ming Qu, mortally wounded, made his way from the car, up the walk to the house. He banged on the door to summon help, breaking two small glass panes before falling unconscious. He died on the way to the hospital, also twenty-three. Under China's one-child policy they were both only children.


Leslie Evans

USC and the nearby West Adams neighborhood where the double murder took place April 11 are still in shock. Police are hunting the cold-blooded killer in a widening manhunt, and a new wave of fear is settling into the neighborhood after two decades of reductions in local crime. As president of the Van Buren Place Community Restoration Association, the block club for the area where the murders happened, I want to express the most profound sympathy from all of our neighbors to the parents of Ying Wu, who lived among us, and of her male friend Ming Qu.

I met Ying Wu only once, in the home where she rented a room, four doors away from mine, and remember her as lovely and laughing. She had come from distant Hunan in China's interior to study electrical engineering at USC. She was living with a nurturing couple and their daughter who are among my closest friends and in whose home I have spent many happy hours. On the day we met I had visited to watch Sergio Leone's spaghetti western, Once Upon a Time in the West, with the homeowner, my friend David. As it was ending Ying Wu and her roommate came home. We were introduced and shared momentary pleasantries, they sampled the snacks I had brought and went up to their room. Yesterday the wanton violence of our celluloid afternoon became real and she was struck down at the age of twenty-three while talking in the rain in her boyfriend's car. She was shot in the chest; he in the face. Trying to save her, Ming Qu, mortally wounded, made his way from the car, up the walk to the house. He banged on the door to summon help, breaking two small glass panes before falling unconscious. He died on the way to the hospital, also twenty-three. Under China's one-child policy they were both only children.

A killer on the loose is a threat. Fear is also a threat. The killer will be caught, or will flee elsewhere. The fear can linger and paralyze a community, giving the forces of evil a victory they should not have won and did not deserve. A single bloody event can deliver a body blow to even the safest neighborhood. I attended graduate school and then held a staff job at UCLA from 1983 to 2005 and was in Westwood every day. There could hardly be a safer or more upscale community. Anchored by the university, Westwood is bounded by some of the most affluent neighborhoods in the country: Brentwood on the west, Bel-Air on the north, Century City and Beverly Hills on the east, West Los Angeles on the southwest. It was a thriving commercial center of vibrant restaurants and boutique stores. Then on a single day in January 1988 rival gang members who had drifted into town for a few hours got into a shootout in which Karen Toshima was killed - and Westwood turned into a ghost town.

More than half the stores went out of business. Empty storefronts and sparsely traveled sidewalks lasted more than a decade. There were still vacancies when I left UCLA in 2005, seventeen years later. This was the work of a single bullet. Westwood, once the rival of Old Town Pasadena, Melrose Avenue, and the Santa Monica Promenade, never again came close to those venues. Our West Adams neighborhood is far more fragile. It has seen more than one killing, though usually of gang members. It is not upscale, despite its wealth of turn-of-the-twentieth-century architect-designed homes. The majority of the residents are low-income Latinos and African Americans. There are gangs, not as once-in-a-lifetime transgressors but as a regular part of the scenery. So above all we need to stay sober and not panic over a single event, but look at where we are at.

Of course the students are frightened, as they should be in any community with a killer running free. The police, both LAPD and USC's Public Safety Department, have redoubled patrols and are hunting him. The police routinely warn students about petty theft, street robberies, and theft of their bicycles or car break-ins. That for years has been the main risks of the area. The advice is to not talk on the cell phone while walking, don't wear white iPod ear buds on the street, lock valuables in the car trunk, lock up your bicycle. Yesterday's violence should have us add: don't linger in automobiles after dark. Park and go directly to your indoor destination. That said, it is untrue that violent crime is common in this neighborhood. Without question there is too much panic mongering right now. I was disappointed when my Facebook friend, the well-known leftist journalist Marc Cooper, an associate professor at USC and director of the university's Annenberg Digital News, posted to his Facebook page:

"I have thought of renting a small place near campus to stay over some nights as I live 60-80 minutes away in Calabasas but... but...it's not really THAT attractive. An air mattress in my office might be a better choice."

My wife Jennifer and I have lived in this community for twenty-four years, since March 1988, and the idea that it is so unsafe that it would be preferable to sleep on an air mattress on an office floor than live out among us residents is frankly appalling and exactly the kind of panic-mongering that can do great damage.

As to the real state of affairs: If one were to read Agatha Christie and then respond as Marc does, every English village would be depopulated. It is true that South Los Angeles has more than its share of the city's killings - 40%. But these have been on a sharp downward slope for twenty years and are now lower than in the mid-1960s, despite a huge increase in population. There were 1,092 murders in Los Angeles in 1992. In 2011 there were 298. And of those the great majority were gang on gang killings or domestic violence. I can only speak from personal experience of a small part of the city, but that includes the block where the two killings took place yesterday, and is a major part of the neighborhood where USC students rent rooms in private homes west of Vermont Avenue. For the stretch between the 10 Freeway on the north, Jefferson on the south, Vermont Avenue on the east, and Normandie Avenue on the west, to the best of my knowledge the two killings yesterday are the first where the victims were not gang members or drug dealers since 1988.

We lived here during the worst of the gang war years, 1988 to 1992. There were numerous killings back then. In 1988 I know of two innocent victims in my neighborhood. After that, the killings were gang on gang, and these went into dramatic decline after 1992, and that is a long time ago. We didn't flee then, nor did our many good neighbors. Even UCLA in its cocoon of wealthy white neighborhoods is not violence free. In October 2009 Damon Thompson, a student in a chemistry lab, stabbed a woman fellow student five times and slashed her throat, almost killing her. He was arrested for premeditated attempted murder. That September two students were stabbed, one in the stomach, at a UCLA fraternity party near the campus. Four people were arrested and charged with attempted murder.

Community members have worked with USC for years to calm exaggerated student fears of the surrounding neighborhood. As crime, especially violent crime, has abated over the years, real progress has been made in strengthening ties between USC's administration, faculty, and students and the broader community in which the university exists. The events of yesterday are an atrocity and a tragedy. They are also an aberration from the usually calm daily life of our community and should not become the grounds for student flight to some far away refuge. Those of us who live out here in the neighborhood plan to stay.

The Magic of Lord Dunsany

 Leslie Evans

 

Edward Plunkett, Lord Dunsany

When the world is too much with you, the inanities of politics have you down, and the fount of insoluble crises discourages, it is a good time to read something by Lord Dunsany. An Edwardian Irish aristocrat, much of his voluminous work is long out of print, but what is available is mostly his early wonder tales, probably his best. Dunsany is usually described as a fantasy or science fiction writer, but such terms mislead. He is often compared to the more widely read H. P. Lovecraft, who readily acknowledged Dunsany's influence, yet their work shows more differences than similarities.

 

 I had a taste for Lovecraft in my teens, but reading him now I am put off by his sodden load of manipulative adjectives. The first page of "The Dunwich Horror" gives us "squalor," "dilapidation," "gnarled solitary figures," "crumbling doorsteps," "creepily insistent rhythms," "rotting gambrel roofs," "tenebrous tunnel," "malign odour," "stigmata of degeneracy and inbreeding," "unhallowed rites."

 

Dunsany's style changed several times over his lifetime, but it was always clear, simple, and relatively adjective-free. His early work owed much to the King James Bible, then came a poetic period in modern prose, and in the final laps, straight story telling. Accompanying this change of style there is a migration also from imaginary cities and countries to actual places and from magical or mystical forces to the merely extremely improbable.

 

Where Lovecraft sought to create an atmosphere of repellent horror, Dunsany's writing more often exudes a melancholy poetic beauty, though he delved into horror, more often when he used settings somewhere in the real world, rather than his dream lands. Their oeuvres run in parallel in their interest in strange forgotten gods, Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos and Dunsany's gods of Pegana, but Lovecraft's gods are always sinister, threatening to return to earth to the detriment of humanity, while the gods of Pegana are mostly far away and indifferent to humans, rather on the Gnostic model. Oddly, the Irish lord's outlook, something of a country squire lamenting the expanding evils of the machine age and its threat of destroying both Nature and humanity, his pervading sense of the fragility of civilization, and of Time as a wrecker rather than an engine of progress, a century later can seem to merge with today's fears of impending ecological cataclysm, though at an eerie remove. A leitmotif of his work is that humans are becoming ever more disconnected from and damaging to the natural world and in so doing both risk and deserve extinction.

 

 

Sidney Sime's frontispiece for The Gods of Pegana

There are not any individualized humans in The Gods of Pegana, Dunsany's first book. The personifications Fate and Chance cast lots to begin the Game. We never know which won, but he chooses Mana-Yood-Sushai as his player. Mana-Yood-Sushai in turn creates the gods, among them Skarl the Drummer. As Skarl begins to drum, Mana-Yood-Sushai falls asleep, the lesser gods create the worlds, and the play begins. When Mana wakes, "the gods and the worlds shall depart, and there shall be only Mana-Yood-Sushai."

 

There is creation but it doesn't start with origins as Genesis does. The Game in which we are tiny pawns begins "Before there stood gods upon Olympus, or ever Allah was Allah" but still long after when time and space came into being:

 

"When Mana-Yood-Sushai had made the gods there were only the gods, and They sat in the middle of Time, for there was as much Time before them as behind them, which having no end had neither a beginning." The gods in turn make the worlds, not for some grand purpose as the God of Genesis does but to amuse themselves. After a million years, through which Mana-Yood-Sushai slumbers, the god Kib creates the beasts of Earth to play with. After another million years "Kib grew weary of the second game, and raised his hand in The Middle of All, making the sign of Kib, and made Men: out of beasts he made them, and Earth was covered with Men." All this time Skarl beats on his drum so that Mana-Yood-Sushai will not wake, which would destroy the gods and their plaything worlds, including us, to begin a new Game.

 

The Gods of Pegana was published in 1905, an intriguing vision for an Edwardian Irish lord. It contained many more tales, of the doings of Kib, the Sender of Life in All the Worlds, of Sish, the Destroyer of Hours, Slid, Whose Soul Is by the Sea, and Mung, Lord of All Deaths between Pegana and the Rim. Many lesser gods are added. And then come human prophets, powerful figures in their human communities for their supposed influence with the gods, but generally ignored by the lords of Pegana.

 

In preparing publication Dunsany enlisted Victorian-Edwardian artist Sydney Sime as his illustrator. Sime was a prominent magazine illustrator, and did drawings for other authors of fantastic and macabre literature, such as William Hope Hodgson and Arthur Machen. The collaboration lasted until Sime's death in 1941, in most cases Sime producing drawings for Dunsany's stories, but sometimes the reverse, with Sime submitting a set of drawings and Dunsany inventing stories to explain them.

 

Dunsany (pronounced Dun-SAY-nee) followed with more tales of the Pegana universe in Time and the Gods (1906), its amused tone captured in the story "The Relenting of Sarnidac." Sarnidac is a lame dwarf shepherd boy, the butt of jokes in his home city. One day Sarnidac sees a line of tall strange figures walking southward on the dusty road. Out of curiosity he falls in behind them, marching on until they come to the neighboring city of Khamazan. There the people recognize the marchers as the gods of the Earth, but as they approach the city gates the figures begin to rise into the air, higher with each step until they are gone into the sky. The people call on the gods not to desert them, and then they are all gone except the lame dwarf who is seen to remain on the road. The lame boy is taken in triumph to occupy the king's palace. "And the Book of the Knowledge of the Gods in Khamazan tells how the small god that pitied the world told his prophets that his name was Sarnidac and that he herded sheep, and that therefore he is called the shepherd god."

 

Dunsany rarely returned to the Pegana gods. Indian-American literary critic Sunand Tryambak Joshi in his Lord Dunsany: Master of the Anglo-Irish Imagination, comments, "But the themes that were broached in these two books - fantasy as Nature, the glories of the unmechanized past, antihumanism, the awesomeness of Time and the power of art and dreams to combat it - would receive many distinctive variations and elaboration in his subsequent story collections, plays, novels, and poems."

 

Between 1908 and 1916 Dunsany produced five slim volumes of wonder tales, his most lasting work, beginning with The Sword of Welleran. There followed stories of the world war, plays (forty-seven of them), nine novels, and in his later years, the tall tales of Jorkens the London clubman, and several books of poems. For purists, including H. P. Lovecraft, Dunsany never surpassed his early naive, childlike tales, in The Sword of Welleran (1908) and A Dreamer's Tales (1910). His language does become flatter in the later work and an element of tongue-in-cheek creeps in already in the later of the stories in The Book of Wonder (1912). An example from this last is the opening of "The Hoard of the Gibbelins," which Wikipedia cites as most typical of Dunsany's prose. It does capture one side of him, when he is after a kind of ironic horror:

 

"The Gibbelins eat, as is well known, nothing less good than man. Their evil tower is joined to Terra Cognita, to the lands we know, by a bridge. Their hoard is beyond reason; avarice has no use for it; they have a separate cellar for emeralds and a separate cellar for sapphires; they have filled a hole with gold and dig it up when they need it. And the only use that is known for their ridiculous wealth is to attract to their larder a continual supply of food. In times of famine they have even been known to scatter rubies abroad, a little trail of them to some city of Man, and sure enough their larders would soon be full again."

 

Dunsany doesn't abandon his lovely or evil fantasy cities until his Jorkens books, and his second Irish novel, The Story of Mona Sheehy (1939).

 

Lord Dunsany, the scion of an ancient Irish peerage, was born in London on July 24, 1878, his proper name being Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett. Through most of his life he alternated living in England, at a small family estate called Dunstall Priory near Shoreham, Kent, and at Dunsany Castle, twenty miles northwest of Dublin. The family is said to have come from Denmark and to have settled in Ireland in the tenth century, before the Norman Conquest. They intermarried with the Cusacks, a Norman family, who built Dunsany Castle between 1180 and 1200, making it probably the oldest continually inhabited structure in Ireland. Edward inherited the title on his father's death in 1899 and signed all of his many published works Lord Dunsany. His life is chronicled in a 1972 biography by Mark Amory. S. T. Joshi's Lord Dunsany: Master of the Anglo-Irish Imagination (1995) offers a critical appreciation of his writings.

 

 

Dunsany Castle

Edward attended Eton, then Sandhurst, Britain's preeminent military academy. In 1899, at twenty, he joined the Coldstream Guards and served under fire in South Africa in the Boer War, where he was friends with Rudyard Kipling. He left the army in 1901. By this time he had acquired two of his lifelong interests: hunting and chess. He grew a deep love of nature, somehow reconciling that with all the killing he was doing, paired with a deepening abhorrence of industrial civilization. His hunting took him outdoors, where he spent endless hours in the woods, claiming he shot his own dinner from October to March. In later years he went on shooting expeditions to Africa, India, and the Middle East.

 

Dunsany, as he came to be known, was among the pro-British Irish. More typically these lived in Northern Ireland and were Protestant by religion. Lord Dunsany's Irish connections were in the south and whatever his religious views he was not a Christian. S. T. Joshi calls him an atheist based on the universe depicted in The Gods of Pegana. While strange and multiple gods predominate in his fiction, and there is also a pronounced sympathy for paganism in his few Irish-themed books, there are a few stories, such as "The Kith of the Elf-Folk" and "Where the Tides Ebb and Flow," that refer to a single god and Paradise, while "The Sailors' Gambit" concerns a traditional pact with the Devil for a crystal that allows its users to win at chess. Even in these few stories, gods singular or multiple have no real interest in humans except occasionally to punish them for their impudence, as in his play The Gods of Mountain (1910), where a band of beggars impersonate the seven jade gods of a mountain to get the credulous villagers to bring them food and gifts. The gods retaliate by turning the imposters into jade statues, which the villagers continue to worship, quite ignorant of the real import of the transformation.

 

Dunsany married Lady Beatrice Villiers in September 1904, he twenty-six, she just short of twenty-four. Beatrice proved to be level headed and literate, Mark Amory relying heavily on her diaries for his biography. In August 1906 their only child, Randal, was born.

 

Hunting and the military were conventional activities for a landed aristocrat. Writing strange fiction was not, and it took several years before Dunsany's reputation shifted from that of a lord who wrote on the side to a writer who also happened to be a lord. Some critics were never convinced that he was not a dilettante. Archaic as always, he did much of his writing with a quill pen on large sheets of paper in an oversized looping calligraphy, or he dictated to Beatrice, who took it down in shorthand.

 

As an increasingly prominent Irish writer, based at least part of the year near Dublin, he developed a prickly friendship with William Butler Yeats, though Beatrice came to dislike Yeats's patron, Lady Gregory, accusing her of stealing Dunsany's plots. Nevertheless, Yeats edited a collection of Dunsany's writings that appeared in 1912.

 

At Yeats's suggestion, Dunsany wrote his first play, The Glittering Gate, in 1909. Bill, a burglar, dies and finds himself facing a great golden gate, presumably the gate to heaven. His old friend Jim is there, unhappily locked out and continually opening beer cans lying on the ground, each one proving to be empty. Bill eventually goes to work on the gate with his burglar tools, forces it open only to discover empty space filled with stars.

 

The Irish Renaissance, or Celtic Revival, was in full swing, with authors such as W. B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, George Russell, J.M. Synge, Oliver Gogarty, and Sean O'Casey. They approached Dunsany, but he never really fit in, both because of his pro-British politics and because there was nothing Irish about his work. This distance continued for decades. In 1932 Yeats was instrumental in founding the Irish Academy of Letters, with George Bernard Shaw as its first president and Yeats as vice president. It had two classes of membership, the higher called "Academicians," the lower, "Associates." Academicians had to have done work "Irish in character or subject," Associates needed only to be of Irish descent. Dunsany was furious at being offered only an Associate membership and refused. Amory records that "Dunsany . . . writing over ten years later says only that he retaliated in private with a society to honour writers of the 14th century in Italy. 'Who, I asked, would they suggest? Dante of course was suggested; but I was shocked. "Most certainly not," I said, stroking my hair as Yeats used to stroke his. "Dante did not write about Italy, but of a very different place. Most unsuitable."' He went, however, to Yeats' memorial service to show no animosity remained."

 

The slight prompted him to write his first sustained Irish-themed piece, his novel The Curse of the Wise Woman (1933), considered one of his best works. The wise woman, Mrs. Marlin, curses a British development company that has brought earth moving equipment to drain the historic bog where she lives. A great storm of possibly supernatural origin buries their building site and saves the natural enclave. It won the Irish Academy of Letters' Harmsworth Literary Award as best Irish novel of the year and Dunsany was elected to full membership in the Academy.

 

Though Dunsany knew all the major figures of the Celtic Revival, most of his close friends were Unionists. The only one of the republican writers he became really close to was Oliver Gogarty, a romantic if overly plump figure, poet, medical doctor, gossip, and militant Nationalist. Among the Dunsanys' friends was Edith Nesbit, the English Fabian activist and children's' author, who was among his earliest readers. He contributed to her short-lived magazine Neolith, and on a visit to Dunsany Castle she played with him at building houses in the drawing room out of furniture and bric-a-brac, a central plot device in her 1910 The Magic City.

 

In early 1913 Dunsany and Beatrice went to Algeria, where he did his first big game hunting. He returned to Africa alone that fall, this time to Kenya, where he conducted a killing spree that would freeze the blood of any animal lover; fifty-five beasts including 4 warthogs, 6 zebras, 3 jackals, 8 impalas, a lion and a rhinoceros.

 

The heyday of his career as a dramatist ran from his 1909 Glittering Gate through the end of the Great War, with productions of such plays as King Argimenes and the Unknown Warrior (1910), Alexander (1912), The Queen's Enemies (1913), and If (1919). The Queen's Enemies is based on an account in Herodotus in which Egyptian Queen Nitokris invites her enemies to a banquet in an underground temple, then kills them by opening floodgates to the Nile. If is an early time travel story in which a mysterious man from the East offers the hero a crystal that allows him to go into the past to make changes in his life. It ran for two hundred performances in London in 1921-22, Dunsany's swansong when he briefly stood in the first rank of British playwrights. His exotic locales and royal protagonists lost their savor after the war and his plays were rarely performed.

 

When World War I broke out in 1914 Dunsany joined the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, where he was made a captain. He was slated to be sent to Gallipoli, but against his will, probably because of his age, was transferred to a reserve unit in Derry in the north of Ireland. He was on leave at Dunsany Castle when the week-long Easter Rising broke out in April 1916, during which the Nationalists captured Dublin and held it for a week, hoping to win Irish independence while England was tied down in France. Dunsany reported to British GHQ in Dublin and was sent with a group in a car to relieve an outpost in a Dublin neighborhood. They were ambushed by a Nationalist squad and a ricochet bullet hit him in the face. The Nationalist fighters who took him prisoner apologized and drove him to a hospital. At the end of the week pro-British forces recaptured the hospital. One side of his lip was paralyzed. His recovery was prolonged and he was not ruled fit for service until October, and then only for light duty.

 

A year later he was posted to France. Shortly after his arrival he wrote to Beatrice from Amiens:

 

"Imagine Waterloo, Sebastopol, Ladysmith, Pompeii, Troy, Timgad, Tel el Kebir, Sodom and Gomorrah endlessly stretching one into the other; and twisted, bare, ghoulish trees leering downward at graves; and scenes very like Dore's crucifixion and realities like the blackest dreams of Sime [Sydney Sime, Dunsany's illustrator]; tanks lying with their noses pointing upwards still sniffing towards an enemy long since stiff or blown away in fragments like wounded rhinoceros' dying. Imagine the wasted ruin of a famous hill that once dominated all this, now no more than a white mound with a few crosses on it, standing against the sky to show that Golgotha was once more with us."

 

In January 1918 he was transferred to the War Office in London, where he wrote propaganda for the home front and the world press, simple stories of soldiers' lives, incidents from the front. He wrote sharply against the Kaiser but his materials were singularly free of the animosity toward ordinary Germans that was so prevalent at the time. He also wrote two books about the war, Tales of War (1918) and Unhappy Far-Off Things (1919).

 

The war ended in November 1918. From October 1919 through January 1920 he made a triumphal tour of the United States. Many of his plays were being performed and he lectured in many cities. Two of his plays were running in New York when he was there, and while in New Hampshire he saw a performance of his Fame and the Poet by inmates at the Portsmouth Naval Prison. Yet he had been changed by the war. Mark Amory says of him and Beatrice, "before the war they had been young, now they were not. Dunsany's greatest friends were dead and he did not replace them." He lost touch with the Irish Renaissance group. Amory adds, "He believed as a matter of course that the task of an artist was to produce Beauty, but in the 1920s there was little demand for what was small and exquisite." Though short stories were his metier he turned in the interwar years to novels, publishing nine between 1922 and 1939.

 

Dunsany and Beatrice, as firm Unionists, were at risk after Sinn Fein declared Ireland independent in 1919 and waged its guerrilla war through 1921. Their gamekeeper at Dunsany Castle, Toomey, was a staunch Republican and helped to divert threatened attacks by his political cothinkers. The Anglo-Irish Treaty established the Irish Free State in the predominately Catholic twenty-six southern counties, breaking off Northern Ireland's six counties with their Protestant majority to remain part of Britain. The Nationalists split over acceptance of the treaty and a civil war followed with Eamon de Valera leading the anti-Treaty forces in a bitter struggle that lasted until 1923. An anti-Treaty band burned the Kilmessan station near Dunsany Castle and burned a train. Several of their neighbors and the local township were burned out. A car was commandeered from the Dunsany stables to be used as a car bomb, but was found abandoned. The raiders said they "heard his Lordship was a good man and they didn't wish to disturb him or his family."

 

Beatrice wrote in her diary on April 12, 1923, "it is little bits of personal cruelty that throw such a nasty light on the Irish character. When for instance they burnt the stationmaster's house at Kilmessan (Mrs. Preston and we had to refit them entirely with clothes and furniture last March) they would not let him run upstairs to save his dead wife's pictures and his money." In May they returned to England, where Dunsany wrote his second novel, The King of Elfland's Daughter, which still had eight editions printed between 1969 and 2001.

 

Chess had always been one of Dunsany's passions. In the spring of 1928 he played Jose Raul Capablanca, world chess champion, 1921-1927. The showy match pitted the Cuban grandmaster against twenty-one opponents in simultaneous play, three from each of seven countries. Dunsany fought the champion to a draw.

 

A shooting expedition took Dunsany to India at the end of 1929, lasting into the next year, where he killed more animals, this time from elephant back, accompanied by the Nawab Hamid Ali, ruler of the princely state of Rampur. On his return he plunged into his Jorkens period. Dunsany had invented Jorkens in 1925 with "The Tale of the Abu Laheeb." Jorkens is the star attraction of the somewhat seedy Billiards Club, a dimly lit male retreat in London. Plied with a few whiskeys, Jorkens entertains the members with accounts of his fabulous adventures. The Abu Laheeb, to begin with, was a legendary sort of Yeti, an intelligent giant sloth living in the reed marshes of the upper Nile in Sudan. Jorkens tells his audience that he had set out to hunt the Abu Laheeb, but after tracking it into the deep reeds saw that it had mastered the art of fire and that made it too close to humans to shoot it. The first of five collections of these stories, The Travel Tales of Mr. Joseph Jorkens, was published in 1931.

 

Dunsany changed his style several times, from the biblical prose of the Pegana books to the elegiac adventures in mythical cities or on remote English moors, and finally to the realistic locations of Jorkens' accounts in which improbable events take place. He prided himself on simplicity, and did not consider his work "literary" in any high-flown sense. He prized pure imagination, and so never did research for any of his locales. He loved to make up the names of people and places, an eclectic mixture of sounds pilfered from Latin, Arabic, and Greek. He had a great animosity for modern factories and smoky urban slums. Most of the imaginary cities he created had a vaguely Middle Eastern setting and were made of marble and onyx, with merchant bazaars where emeralds and diamonds were on plentiful display. The Jorkens tales differed in using as settings places he had been on his expeditions.

 

The Jorkens stories were clever but lacked the esoteric magical feel of his early short story collections or several of his novels. Those remain readily available while the Jorkens books are out of print except for a three-volume hard cover edition edited by S. T. Joshi issued by Night Shade Press in 2005, and even there the first volume can be found only used at exorbitant prices.

 

Still, Kipling thought highly of the bibulous raconteur. In a 1931 letter to Dunsany he wrote:

 

"At first I resented the introduction, as camouflage, of your Mister Jorkens. Now I begin to see why your imagination in vacuo (and you've got more of it than anyone I know) had to have that peg and the background of the Billiard Club's atmosphere. . . . For sheer 'cheek' the Mermaid yarn ["Mrs. Jorkens," in which Jorkens marries a mermaid, but she swims out to sea at the end.] is the best. I am not thinking for the minute of anything except the audacity of it."

 

World War II found the Dunsanys at Dunstall, just south of London on the flight path of German bombers. They took to sleeping in the cellar and invited the gardener's family to join them. Dunsany was sixty-one, Beatrice fifty-nine. He joined the Local Defence Volunteers.

 

The couple had one last great adventure. In September 1940 the British Council asked him to accept a professorship of English Literature in Athens. They were sent to Glasgow, where they took ship, which under wartime conditions kept its route and destination secret from the passengers. It landed them in Sierra Leone on the West African coast, the more direct Mediterranean route considered too unsafe. Then on to Cape Town, where they transferred to a plane that skipped up the east side of the continent, stopping in Mozambique, Kenya, and Sudan, ending in Cairo. While enroute, Greece, which had been neutral, had been attacked by Italy and was now in the war. They crossed the Suez Canal in a rowboat, then went by car and train up the Mediterranean coast to Turkey. They reached Greece at the beginning of January, arriving in Athens eighty-three days after leaving home.

 

Dunsany lectured two or three times a week, to a standing-room-only crowd when he spoke on Byron. On April 6 Germany declared war on Greece and began bombing the capital. On April 16 the Greek army line broke and refugees began to stream out of Athens. The Dunsanys were offered a no-food place in the hold of a Polish cargo ship leaving for Haifa. They took it. Dunsany slept on the deck while Beatrice and three other women slept on straw mattresses in a small cabin. Water was too scarce for bathing and bread was about the only food available. Dunsany was enjoying himself immensely, writing in a letter, "The lives of refugees are full of interest. One learns what a lot of places there are to sit down, and how to be comfortable, with the help of one's life-belt. And one learns what good food bread is; water is grand stuff too when you can get it."

 

Their ship joined a convoy with a cruiser, two destroyers, and two Greek submarines. Machine guns were mounted on their deck, which fired on a German Stuke. The Stuke bombed a nearby ship but didn't sink it. They reached Port Said on April 24. Their luggage came on another ship, which was sunk. They went on by ship to South Africa, where they remained the rest of the year, arriving back in Ireland only in March 1942 after a year and a half away.

 

They spent the next six years at Dunsany Castle. Gasoline was unobtainable so they traveled locally by dog cart. Lacking tea they brewed a drink from garden flowers. The castle did not have electricity until 1946. The lamp oil ration was just enough for cooking, so their cook made tallow candles for light and they used battery lamps for reading. Their son Randal had married a woman named Vera in Brazil just before the war, then served in the British army in India. In 1946 he returned to Brazil, where he first saw his six-year-old son Edward. Randal and his wife brought Edward to Ireland, then broke up the marriage, Randal returning to duty in India, Vera sailing for Brazil, while six-year-old Edward was left permanently with his elderly grandparents. Dunsany was sixty-eight, Beatrice sixty-six. "Little Eddie" did not speak English.

 

In 1947 Randal remarried, prompting the Dunsanys to deed the castle to him and return to their home at Dunstall in Kent. Little Eddie went with them. In England Dunsany was president of the Author's Society, he continued writing, and lectured widely. In August 1952 California poet and author Hazel Littlefield Smith visited them, inviting them to come to California. Beatrice had injured her leg, but Dunsany went. Smith wrote an account of their friendship, Lord Dunsany: King of Dreams. He returned to the United States twice more, in 1954 and 1955, including successful lectures during his visits.

 

Dunsany published a book almost every year: Collections of short stories, The Man Who Ate the Phoenix (1949), and The Little Tales of Smethers and Other Stories (1952); three more novels, one each between 1950 and 1952, and the last of the Jorkens, Jorkens Borrows Another Whiskey, in 1954. Two of his later novels involved men who lived in the bodies of animals. My Talks with Dean Spanley (1936) has the Dean, whose name suggests Spaniel and also Dean Arthur Penrhyn Stanley of Westminster, reminiscence about his previous life as a dog, a far superior animal to a human. This was one of the very few of Dunsany's books that made it to the screen, in a 2008 production with Sam Neill as Spanley and Peter O'Toole as his attentive audience. Dunsany returned to this idea in 1950 in The Strange Journeys of Colonel Polders, in which the colonel is forced to sequentially inhabit the bodies of many different animals, generally illustrating the evil treatment of animals by humans.

 

Edward Plunkett died on October 25, 1957, during a visit to Dunsany Castle. Beatrice lived on until 1970.

 

Many of his stories, including a good number written when he was only in his thirties, are of the devastation, by Time or the gods, of lost causes and doomed cities. "In the Land of Time" has Karnith Zo, the young king of Alatta, literally lead an army against Time's castle.

 

“From one of his towers Time eyed them all the while, and in battle order they closed in on the steep hill as Time sat still in his great tower and watched. But as the feet of the foremost touched the edge of the hill Time hurled five years against them, and the years passed over their heads and the army still came on, an army of older men. But the slope seemed steeper to the King and to every man in his army, and they breathed more heavily. And Time summoned up more years, and one by one he hurled them at Karnith Zo and at all his men. And the knees of the army stiffened, and the beards grew and turned grey, and the hours and days and the months went singing over their heads, and their hair turned whiter and whiter, and the conquering hours bore down, and the years rushed on and swept the youth of that army clear away till they came face to face under the walls of the castle of Time with a mass of howling years, and found the top of the slope too steep for aged men.”

A similar story is “Carcassonne.” Actually a city in the south of France, Dunsany chose the name only because one of his correspondents had quoted a phrase, “But he, he never came to Carcassonne.” In Dunsany’s rendition, Camorak the lord of Arn musters his knights to dare to challenge the prophecy of a diviner that he would never come to Carcassonne. Camorak sets out with his troops, fighting their way from fiefdom to fiefdom. Years go by and the knights become fewer and older until only Camorak and one other are left. “Then they drew their swords, and side by side went down into the forest, still seeking for Carcassonne. I think they got not far; for there were deadly marshes in that forest, and gloom that outlasted the nights, and fearful beasts accustomed to its ways.”

Then there are Dunsany’s misanthropic pieces. In his 1933 radio play The Use of Man a group of fox hunters debate which animals are the most useless and could be done without. Lord Gorse swears he will kill all the badgers in the county. Pelby raises the ante, declaring “if a thing’s no good, it doesn’t seem to me that it has any right to exist.” (A thought Bernard Shaw incautiously voiced in his less judicious moments.) Stags are to be allowed because their heads look good on walls. But the hunters can see no use in crows, mice, rabbits, and so on, the most useless of all being the mosquito.

A spirit wakes Pelby, leads him out among the asteroids, and in a gathering of the spirits of the animals asks him, “What is the use of man?” Pelby speaks of building cities, roads, and harbors. The spirits reply, “That is only for man.” He is told that if the animal spirits can find no witnesses in man’s behalf, humans will be eradicated. The dog speaks up, worshipfully, but his testimony is discounted. The crow, bear, and elephant tell how they have been treated by humans (Pelby’s effort to ingratiate the bear by saying he has seen many of them in zoos doesn’t help his cause). And so on through horses, cows, mice, cats, and many more. When the last three minutes is up and sentence is about to be passed one more creature asks for the floor. It is the mosquito.

“THE SPIRIT: What use is Man? Tell this assembly.

“MOSQUITO: I speak for Man. I, the mosquito. Man is my food.” And the sentence is stayed.

In a more pensive vein we have the brief prose poem “Charon,” here condensed to its essentials:

“Charon leaned forward and rowed. All things were one with his weariness. It was not with him a matter of years or of centuries, but of wide floods of time, and an old heaviness and a pain in the arms that had become for him part of the scheme that the gods had made and was of a piece with Eternity. . . . It was strange that the dead nowadays were coming in such numbers. They were coming in thousands where they used to come in fifties. . . . Then one man came alone. And the little shade sat shivering on a lonely bench and the great boat pushed off. . . . Then the boat from the slow, grey river loomed up to the coast of Dis and the little, silent shade still shivering stepped ashore, and Charon turned the boat to go wearily back to the world. Then the little shadow spoke, that had been a man. ‘I am the last,’ he said. No one had ever made Charon smile before, no one before had ever made him weep.”

Lord Dunsany’s legacy is undeservedly obscured. S. T. Joshi, in his preface to LordDunsany: Master of the Anglo-Irish Imagination, suggests the reasons:

“Dunsany lives, if at all, as a respected but ill-understood figure in the modern fantasy movement, an acknowledged influence on such later figures as H. P. Lovecraft, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula K. Le Guin, and others.” Joshi attributes this neglect to the ghettoization of fantasy and other genre fiction in reaction to “the dominance of cheap pulp magazines,” especially in America. “As a result, there developed a rather ignorant and small-minded unwillingness on the part of mainstream critics to consider any material of this type as falling within the realm of genuine literature. . . . Dunsany naturally suffered from this prejudice, even though he had never appeared in the pulp magazines.”

Dunsany is most of all an antidote to the addiction to politics, to over-absorption in questions of rulership and policy. A reminder that advocacy of protecting nature is not the same as experiencing the natural world. There is a beautiful little vignette, “The Day of the Poll,” in his A Dreamer’s Tales in which a poet persuades a dedicated voter to accompany him on election day to the top of a hill outside of town overlooking the sea.

“And for long the voter talked of those imperial traditions that our forefathers had made for us and which he should uphold with his vote, or else it was of a people oppressed by a feudal system that was out of date and effete, and that should be ended or mended. But the poet pointed out to him small, distant, wandering ships on the sunlit strip of sea, and the birds far down below them, and the houses below the birds, with the little columns of smoke that could not find the downs.”

Happily for us some possibilities remain. Skarl continues his drumming and Mana-Yood-Sushai sleeps on, at least for a while.

A French Philosopher Challenges Europe's Sympathy for Third World Despotisms

 

 

Pascal Bruckner

The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism - Pascal Bruckner. Translated from the French by Steven Rendall. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010 (original French version, 2006).

 

Leslie Evans

 

Pascal Bruckner is one of that inimitable French breed of public intellectuals: philosopher, academic, novelist, and polemicist. Born at the end of 1948, he is a veteran of the sixties, when he had a certain sympathy for Maoism. Today he is a firm liberal, in American terms perhaps a very moderate leftist. He is a leading figure among the New Philosophers who broke with Marxism in the early 1970s, others including Alain Finkielkraut, Andr̩ Glucksmann, Alain Badiou, and Bernard-Henri Levy, though even those grouped under this sobriquet share no common platform.

 

Bruckner presents an unapologetic defense of liberal democracy in its confrontations with religious and third world authoritarians. He endorsed the NATO intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo in defense of Muslims under attack by Serbian forces in the former Yugoslavia. He supported the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship in Iraq, though he was later critical of the U.S. conduct of the war. And, like Paul Berman in his Flight of the Intellectuals, Bruckner came to the defense of Somali exile Ayaan Hirsi Ali when she was contemptuously labeled an "Enlightenment fundamentalist" by leftist authors Ian Baruma and Timothy Garton Ash for her campaign against Islamic female genital mutilation, the two authors contrasting her unfavorably to the supposed Islamic moderate Tariq Ramadan. Bruckner dismissed Ash and Baruma as epitomizing the "racism of the anti-racists."

 

 

He has penned the most cogent argument I have seen to be skeptical of the often hurled charge of "Islamophobia":

 

"At the end of the 1970s, Iranian fundamentalists invented the term 'Islamophobia' formed in analogy to 'xenophobia'. The aim of this word was to declare Islam inviolate. Whoever crosses this border is deemed a racist. This term, which is worthy of totalitarian propaganda, is deliberately unspecific about whether it refers to a religion, a belief system or its faithful adherents around the world.



"But confession has no more in common with race than it has with secular ideology. Muslims, like Christians, come from the Arab world, Africa, Asia and Europe, just as Marxists, liberals and anarchists come or came from all over. In a democracy, no one is obliged to like religion, and until proved otherwise, they have the right to regard it as retrograde and deceptive. Whether you find it legitimate or absurd that some people regard Islam with suspicion ‰ÛÒ as they once did Catholicism ‰ÛÒ and reject its aggressive proselytism and claim to total truth ‰ÛÒ this has nothing to do with racism. Do we talk about 'liberalophobia' or 'socialistophobia' if someone speaks out against the distribution of wealth or market domination. Or should we reintroduce blasphemy, abolished by the revolution in 1791, as a statutory offence, in line with the annual demands of the 'Organisation of the Islamic Conference.'" (SightandSound.com, 3/1/2011)

 

In The Tyranny of Guilt Bruckner returns to a theme he advanced in The Tears of the White Man (1983 in French, 1986 in English), that European guilt over the continent's history of fascism, communism, imperialism, and other barbarisms has ended in passive isolationism, a loss of belief in the worth of people's own culture and history, and an unwarranted tolerance of foreign repressive and dictatorial movements and governments, mainly in the third world, often expressed in the name of multiculturalism. This goes hand in hand with a reflex anti-Americanism, and a hatred for Israel completely disproportionate to the actual relations between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East.

 

Though Bruckner's attribution to excessive remorse of the very real appeasement of despotism is largely his own idea, his general world view is shared by a current that ranges from moderate leftists to staunch liberals. Its exemplars include Christopher Hitchens, Paul Berman, Jonathan Chait, Oliver Kamm, Bernard-Henri Levy, Nick Cohen, Michael Ignatieff, Bernard Lewis, and the late Jean-Francois Revel and Francois Furet, as well as, historically, figures such as George Orwell.

 

Christopher Hitchens called them the anti-totalitarian left, and counterposed them to the anti-imperialist left. There is little point in arguing that this anti-totalitarian left, or liberal interventionist school, does not share some ground with neoconservatives. It does, though before any kind of conservatives claimed this ground there was a long and honorable leftist tradition of anti-fascism and, for many, anti-Stalinism, that did not shrink from foreign battles against totalitarians outside of the home country.

 

Today's split largely occurred when a considerable section of the left and of liberalism, particularly in Europe, rejected that tradition when the ultraright religious or secular movements or governments were ensconced in nominally underdeveloped countries - though their victims are no less numerous for that. Unquestionably the issue that more than any other provoked this split has been the attitude to take toward Islamic jihad, one side seeing it as a dangerous right-wing millenarian religious fanaticism that acts as part of a would-be world revolution aiming to destroy non-Islamic societies; the other seeing Islamism as a legitimate insurgency of the oppressed against American and European imperialism, or, for some, as a fairly harmless regional liberation movement, the threat in its verbiage about world conquest and occasional terrorist attacks greatly exaggerated by Western governments.

 

Bruckner's search for the origins of the self-disparaging guilt that he believes explains the moral paralysis in face of Islamicism and its similars looks beyond the contemporary argument about Islam or even the older politics of left and right, going still further back to the Christian doctrine of original sin. As this was secularized in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, he says, the doctrine of innate guilt remained intact, consolidating in new philosophical schools after the shattering experiences of Hitler and Stalin and the two world wars:

 

"From existentialism to deconstructionism, all of modern thought can be reduced to a mechanical denunciation of the West, emphasizing the latter's hypocrisy, violence, and abomination. In this enterprise the best minds have lost much of their substance. . . . one applauds a religious revolution [Islamicism], another goes into ecstasies over the beauty of terrorist acts or supports a guerrilla movement because it challenges our imperialist project. Indulgence toward foreign dictatorships, intransigence toward our democracies. . . . critical thought, at first subversive, turns against itself and becomes a new conformism, but one that is sanctified by the memory of its former rebellion."

 

He sums this up as "The whole world hates us, and we deserve it: that is what most Europeans think, at least in Western Europe." As a consequence, "the communist idea is becoming seductive again as the memory of the Soviet Union becomes fainter, Third Worldism is flourishing again as Maoism, the Khmer Rouge, and the South American guerrillas are forgotten. It is precisely the failure of these concrete utopias that explains the resurgence of the doctrine, which has suddenly been freed from the need to correspond to reality."

 

The guilt-stricken ventriloquize rational explanations for their attackers' behavior. 9/11 and such are reasonable responses to injustice, poverty, imperialist meddling. "It is true," Bruckner responds, that "when existing pathologies find no outlet, terrorism grafts itself onto them. . . . However, its ultimate motivation is fanatics' hostility to the principle of an open society in which formal equality is recognized for everyone. It is our existence as such that is intolerable for them. But this observation is intolerable for us: in order to remain within the bounds of reason and nourish the idea that 'even the enemies of reason . . . must be, in some fashion, reasonable' . . . we must at all cost provide arguments for the killers, even if in doing so we seem to justify their acts."

 

An extreme case is the British Trotskyists of the Socialist Workers Party, who have formed an alliance with Islamic jihadists. As Bruckner puts it, "A certain revolutionary fringe's hope that Islam might become the spearhead of a new insurrection in the name of the oppressed." Each side tries to deceive the other: "one side supports the Islamic veil or polygamy in the name of the struggle against racism and neocolonialism. The other side pretends to be attacking globalization in order to impose its version of religious faith. . . . it is not hard to predict which one will crush the other once its objectives have been achieved."

 

Europe, he concedes, "had given birth to monsters, but at the same time it has given birth to theories that make it possible to understand and destroy these monsters." He adds that the fixation on the history of European colonialism more often than not ignores comparable behavior by other peoples:

 

"All great civilizations - Persians, Mongols, Chinese, Aztecs, Incas - were colonizers. Muslims invaded Persia, India, Southeast Asia, Sudan, and Egypt, destroying the local religions and massacring those who resisted them. But in official history writing this fact is often neglected."

 

He could have said more about the Muslim conquests. Islamists remain bitter about the Christian Crusades, 1095-1291, which held a few cities of the Levant for a century and generally failed after that. The Muslims on their side conquered Spain in 718 and were not fully expelled until 1492. They held most of Greece as a colony from 1453 to 1821, Bulgaria from 1393 to 1878, as well as the rest of the Balkan states. Muslim armies waged two long bloody sieges of Vienna, in 1529 and 1683, in an effort to conquer Western Europe. The ledger hardly shows the Europeans to have been the greater villains, the Muslim colonization of Western countries having been infinitely more extensive, far more recent, and of vastly longer duration, even if we add the brief French and British mandates following World War I.

 

By extension Bruckner regards the aspiration of Saudi Wahabism and the Muslim Brotherhood "to take over European society" as a form of colonialism.

 

In contrast, Europeans, he insists, see only their own evil. In what is perhaps the central thesis of his book he writes:

 

"Barbarity is Europe's great pride, which it acknowledges only in itself; it denies that others are barbarous, finding attenuating circumstances for them (which is a way of denying them all responsibility). . . . Decolonization has deprived us of our power, our economic influence is constantly decreasing, but in a colossal overestimation we continue to see ourselves as the evil center of gravity on which the universe depends. We need our cliches about the wretchedness of Africa, Asia, and Latin America to confirm the cliche about the predatory, murderous West."

 

This syndrome is not at all limited to Europe. I encounter it endlessly from my Marxist friends, with the United States substituted for Europe as the global font of evil. This way of thinking is a form of ethnocentrism. I recall forty years ago in the American Socialist Workers Party trying to discuss Mao's Cultural Revolution with some of the older party leaders, who saw everything the Chinese Communists did as a response to some act of the United States. I knew enough about China to understand that the struggle between Mao and his technocratic opponents had practically nothing to do with America.

 

Tyrannical forces outside of Europe and America are not mere responses to imperialist crimes but active fighters for their own goals. Bruckner is particularly impatient with Islam's claims:

 

"It considers itself not the heir of earlier faiths but rather a successor that invalidates them forever. The day when its highest authorities recognize the conquering, aggressive nature of their faith, when they ask to be pardoned for the holy wars waged in the name of the Qur'an and for the infamies committed against infidels, apostates, unbelievers, and women, when they apologize for the terrorist attacks that profane the name of God - that will be a day of progress and will help dissipate the suspicion that many people legitimately harbor regarding this sacrificial monotheism. Criticizing Islam, far from being reactionary, constitutes on the contrary the only progressive attitude at a time when millions of Muslims, reformers or liberals, aspire to practice their religion in peace without being subjected to the dictates of bearded doctrinaires."

 

Bruckner is not championing Jesus against Muhammad:

 

"Let us add that Jewish and Christian fundamentalism are no less grotesque, and that seeing the Republicans in the United States court the most obscurantist and well-organized religious Right is a matter of concern. But apart from the fact that they are not setting off bombs all over the planet, these fundamentalists remain in the minority within their own denominations, where they are restrained by liberals and traditionalists."

 

What Islam demands of the West to salve Muslim "humiliation" is not negotiable. "We are not going to confine women to the home, cover their heads, lengthen their skirts, or beat up gay people, prohibit alcohol, censure film, theater, and literature, and codify tolerance in order to respect the overly sensitive whims of a few sanctimonious persons."

 

Where Europe has largely caved in to Muslim ire has been in its fear of offending, hesitancy to defend the right of the Danish cartoonists to portray Muhammad, and general apologetics for Islamic terror. Popular attitudes are quite different when it comes to the United States or to Israel and the Jews:

 

"For condemned Europeans, there remains one exit that will allow them to avoid decline: shifting the blame to two nations unworthy of European civilization, Israel and the United States, repudiating them in order to redeem ourselves." And if Israel is to be consigned to the outer darkness, "there still remains, to quench their thirst for the absolute, a final noble savage: the Palestinian. He is the great Christ-like icon, the oppressed of the oppressed, whose beatification has been proceeding for the past thirty years. And the fact that his situation has hardly improved makes it possible to keep alive the revolt he incarnates."

 

Bruckner explains the centrality of the Palestinians to European leftists as due to their poverty, that some of the Jews they are fighting came from Europe, and that the Palestinians are Muslims, "that is, members of a religion that part of the Left thinks is the spearhead of the disinherited." Of course, the final push is the dissipation of the more traditional vectors of leftist hopes: the collapse of communism, the growing conservatism of the proletariat. "What is surprising about this," he adds, "is that the preference of a minority has become a majority choice." And finally:

 

"People who support the Palestinians are not hoping to aid flesh-and-blood human beings but pure ideas: on the east coast of the Mediterranean, intellectuals, writers, and politicians are not so much engaged in inquiring into a specific antagonism - a real estate dispute involving two equally legitimate owners, as Amos Oz put it - as in settling accounts with Western culture."

 

There are, of course, legitimate grievances on the Palestinian side (as there are on the Israeli), but these are obsessively promoted by Europeans - and by American leftists - prodigiously disproportionately to the far more distressed peoples of Chechnya, Tibet, Darfur, and the Congo, listed by Bruckner. I could add Zimbabwe, North Korea, Burma, Somalia, and Syria, and probably a dozen other places where there is greater repression or blood-letting than in the occupied territories, even miserable Gaza, for whose suffering certainly Hamas with its actual and threatened violence must bear important though not sole responsibility.

 

Bruckner explains this, for Europe, as an opportunity to "clear itself of its past offenses against Judaism." Israel's Western critics have shown no second thoughts about the side they are supporting when high levels of the Arab and Iranian governments and commercial media accuse the Jews of fabricating the Holocaust, of secretly carrying out the 9/11 attacks, of creating HIV/AIDS to wipe out the Gentiles, of secretly hiring the Danish cartoonists, and even, Bruckner notes, of having caused the December 2004 tsunami, using a secret underground nuclear blast. There is also the flood in Arabic and Farsi of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and a large swath of old Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda materials. Anyone who follows the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) translation service would also find that government newspapers and television and very senior religious leaders regularly call for the physical extermination of the whole of the Jewish people, in and out of Israel, who are referred to as descendants of apes and pigs.

 

"Zionism," which by its Arab and leftist critics has been reduced to any defense of the right of Israel to exist, is little more than a swear-word, while "anti-Zionism" most often means not some dispute over the right of return or Israel's proclaimed status as an international homeland of the world's Jews, what the term has meant historically to Jews, but the much narrower call to disenfranchise the existing Jewish population of Israel, either by way of expulsion from the region or their submersion as a minority in an Islamic state.

 

In Europe, Bruckner writes, "the Palestinian question has quietly relegitimated hatred of the Jews. Here we can certainly agree with Bernard Lewis when he says that for many of their supporters, 'the Arabs are in truth nothing more than a stick for beating the Jews.'"

 

Bruckner quotes from a 1986 work by Vladimir Jankelevitch:

 

"Anti-Zionism is in this respect a rare Godsend, because it gives us the permission and even the right and even the duty to be anti-Semitic in the name of democracy! Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism justified, finally made available to everyone. It is the permission to be democratically anti-Semitic. What if the Jews themselves were Nazis? That would be great. We would no longer have to feel sorry for them; they would have deserved what they got."

 

The leftist Israel haters - and in Europe this current spreads much wider than the left - repeatedly deny that they are anti-Semitic, or that calling for the destruction of Israel has any anti-Semitic coloration, or even that any significant degree of anti-Semitism still exists in the world outside of a few right-wing fringe organizations. For anyone who believes this I would suggest a look at Robert S. Wistrich's A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad, which in its sections on Europe alone provides shocking evidence that a very large minority of the population of all the major countries (Italy and Spain are the worst but France is a runner-up, where thousands of Jews have fled the country to escape physical attacks and synagogue burnings by Muslim immigrants) harbor extreme hostility toward domestic Jews as well as toward the Jewish state. And in the United States a deep anti-Americanism on much of the far left has included a long campaign against all the currents of Israeli society except a handful of Jewish Marxists and the Arab sector. This has spread to a hostility to American Jews who support Israel, even critically, hardening into a widespread left-wing anti-Semitism.

 

Observing and opposing this current does not require prettifying the Israeli system as the American Right does. The settler movement is a blot on Israel's honor, the Netanyahu government has stalled the nominal peace process into deep freeze. At the same time, Hamas remains unremittingly opposed to even the presence of Jews in the region much less with a state in any borders, and there is no guarantee that Fatah will remain dominant in the Palestinian lands and not lose ground to Hamas as it did in Gaza. Still, the occupation has gone on too long and its persistence is untenable.

 

But opposition to the Israeli occupation by Western leftists and liberals has become pathological. There are many repressive regimes in the world, Israel's mainly in the occupied territories, not so much within the 1967 borders. The Israelis are repeatedly accused of being "Nazis." To Nazify the Israelis, Bruckner writes, "is to delegitimize the state of Israel, and it is also to Judaize the Arabs, shifting the ancient battle against ignominy to the banks of the Jordan. Ultimately, it is to justify in advance the possible disappearance of Israel, that 'usurping entity.'"

 

And:

 

"The counterpart of the extreme Right's ancient accusation that the Jews are cosmopolitans is the Left's claim that the state of Israel is illegitimate. So now the hatred of the West finds its vehicle in hatred of the Jews, who have become its emblematic community after having been, for centuries, its scapegoat. . . . And thus we also find an incredible tolerance among our intellectual, political, and media elites for Palestinian terrorism: attacks and suicide bombers are condemned, but only faintly, and even justified as acts of desperation. . . . In their view, no horror committed by candidates for suicide, with their grotesque mythology of the seventy virgins awaiting them in Paradise, will ever make up for the ignominy of the Israelis. The victims of these explosions matter little, and still less the culture of death spread among the youth of the West Bank and Gaza. Our indulgence is deeply imbued with condescendence; we don't ask whether the encouragements sent out by militants hiding in their European or American bastions isn't suicidal for the Palestinians themselves or burdens their desire for peace and decency."

 

In some cases this anti-Jewish tilt is not even justified as ideological belief but is crass politicking, as when Pascal Boniface, director of a major French think tank, advised the Socialist Party in 2001 to abandon support to Israel in order to court the French Muslim vote.

 

Leftist anti-Semitism in Europe is closely linked to anti-Americanism, the penance Europeans do to exculpate their own colonial past:

 

"The phobia of America, our last civic religion in Western Europe, allows us to escape our guilty conscience by affiliating ourselves with formerly colonized continents. France, Germany, Spain, and Italy, having become political dwarfs, seem to proclaim in the public eye: we are divorcing ourselves from the West in order to come closer to the South." He notes that this is also a concession to Ahmadinejad and Al Qaeda, who have promised to go lightly on Europe if it will break with the United States and Israel.

 

Judging America's place in the world order depends on how one views its adversaries. For those who see only the, now former, colonial world it looks one way. For Bruckner, the United States "As the victor, along with its allies, over Nazism and then communism, and as the leader of the fight against Islamism, it can be proud of its recent history, despite its flaws." Of course, essential here is how one regards jihadi Islamism, perhaps the single greatest touchstone of contemporary international politics.

 

Bruckner's instinct is for an interventionist part in global life. It is what he most admires about the United States, its postwar absence much of what he despairs of in contemporary Europe:

 

"[T]he true crime of old Europe is not only what it did in the past, but what it is not doing today - its inaction in the course of the 1990s in the Balkans, its scandalous wait-and-see attitude in Rwanda, its silence on Chechnya, its indifference to Darfur and western Sudan, and in general its indulgence, its kowtowing, its servility." It leaves "to the Yankee big brother to do the dirty work, while criticizing him harshly later on. Whatever America does, whether it intervenes or stands aside, it is always wrong." This could be said as well of much of the American left.

 

The Tyranny of Guilt was written in 2006, so perhaps could be modified a bit by the show of backbone in French and British aid to the Libyan opposition in 2011 and the EU's decision in 2012 to refuse to purchase Iranian oil.

 

George Orwell during World War II complained of the Europeanized British Left, unable even in a mortal national crisis to bring themselves to feel anything like patriotism to their country. This same mood of detachment from history and place numbs much of Europe today.

 

"[W]e refuse to defend our societies: we would rather abolish ourselves than show even a tiny bit of attachment to them. This is a double error: by erecting lack of love for oneself into a leading principle, we lie to ourselves about ourselves and close ourselves to others. It is a mistake to think that self-devaluation is going to open us up, as if by a miracle, to distant peoples. . . . In Western self-hatred, the Other has no place. It is a narcissistic relationship in which the African, the Indian, and the Arab are brought in as extras in an endless drama about settling scores."

 

And finally, "Let us beware of anyone who values the foreigner only out of disdain for himself."

 

Bruckner's plea for valuing the Western heritage rejects uncritical jingoism. "We are not talking here of falling into extreme nationalistic pride . . . of the kind defended by the extreme Right, which seeks . . . to provide a glorifying vision of history: this school asserts the grandeur of a country despite its crimes, but we have to be proud of ourselves against our crimes because we have recognized them and rejected them."

 

In the later part of his essay Bruckner critiques professional victimhood and the excesses of multiculturalism.

 

Each victimized people of course supposes that its sufferings have been the greatest the world has ever seen. And because the Holocaust is the gold standard of victimhood, it has been common, even for Holocaust deniers, to say that their people are undergoing a Holocaust, and at the very least a genocide. "It is as if other peoples, competing with Jews for the privilege of annihilation, were to shout: 'Auschwitz is us!'" In England, Sir Iqbal Sacranie, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, has declared that "Muslims feel hurt and excluded that their lives are not equally valuable to those lives lost in the Holocaust time." He asked that the Palestinians and the Iraqis killed in the U.S. war be included in a general "Day of Genocide."

 

Bruckner also cites numerous authors who project Nazism far into the past to describe many kinds of governmental atrocity of the eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries as prefiguring Hitler, the gold standard of evil. These excursions into hyperbole are generally claims to pride of place among victims, often staking out an ironclad claim to exemption from any responsibility for crimes or racist acts perpetrated by proclaimed victim people.

 

Our author similarly has little patience for present-day warriors against neocolonialism. Perpetually rehashing the crimes of the past is very different from having fought them at the time. "They make one think of those Japanese soldiers scattered around the Pacific islands who at the end of the twentieth century still didn't know that the Second World War was over. It is a vocation to be a hero once the fighting is over; it gives you the luster of being a sniper without exposing you to the slightest danger."

 

In today's globalized world, he says, the real danger for former colonial peoples "is not expansion but abandonment. . . . According to the economist Paul Bairoch's brusque formulation, 'The West doesn't need the Third World, which is bad news for the Third World.' In short, to the misfortune of being exploited corresponds the still greater misfortune of no longer being exploitable, of being abandoned. What threatens many deprived countries in the South is not the invasion of the capitalist octopus, but the inverse: no longer interesting either investors or large economic groups, being excluded from global circuits."

 

Bruckner turns to multiculturalism. If its originating idea is the worthy promotion of ethnic, religious, female, or gay pride, its unintended consequence has been to whittle away at what unites a people:

 

"Unless there is a federating national or supranational narrative that brings all the diverse components of a country together and gives them a common impulse, the country becomes an agglomeration of black, North African, Gypsy, Antillese, Corsican, gay, etc. tribes unified by their mutual dissensions and relying on the state only as a simple mediating authority. Then identity ceases to coincide with citizenship; it is in fact what makes citizenship impossible."

 

He explores this theme in its various dimensions. For immigrants - and this is a particular problem for Europe in its general failure to integrate the very large numbers of Muslim immigrants into the majority cultures - if nations are to survive they must have enough self-confidence to inspire allegiance to their general values, not simply provide some sort of housing and living for hostile enclaves within themselves, not a process of homogenization in which minority cultures are submerged but in which they also share core values with the other components of the national body.

 

On another axis, Bruckner sees a great obstacle for individuals to be seen for themselves if society has segmented itself into many distinct camps, most of them claiming recompense for some form of victimhood. "Individuals exist as such only when their singularity is more important than their nationality, the color of their skin, or their membership in a group." And further:

 

"All the ambiguity of multiculturalism proceeds from the fact that with the best intentions, it imprisons men, women, and children in a way of life and in traditions from which they often aspire to free themselves. The politics of identity in fact reaffirm difference at the very moment when we are trying to establish equality, and lead, in the name of antiracism, back to the old commitments connected with race or ethnicity."

 

The end result is usually the creation of "a micro-nationalism that is just as jingoistic" as the majority state from which it distinguishes itself, "a legal apartheid in which we find the wealthy once again explaining tenderly to the poor that money won't make them happy . . . you have the joys of custom, forced marriages, the veil, polygamy, and clitoridectomy. The members of these little congregations then become museum pieces, the inhabitants of a reservation whom we want to preserve from the 'calamities' of progress and civilization."

 

Bruckner calls for "a double battle," to protect minorities from discrimination, to preserve their languages where this applies, their cultures, but to at the same time protect individuals from within minorities who wish to break free of constraints from within or without the group that deny them an individual identity.

 

What, then, are we to make of Pascal Bruckner’s message? He challenges many of the beloved shibboleths of much of the American far left: the American evil empire, Israel’s uniquely ineradicable guilt, the beatitude of the Palestinian cause, the justification of jihad, the justness of the sectoral protest movements summed up in multiculturalism, the call for open borders and limitless immigration, and the celebration of Third World victims of imperialism. Is all of that overdone, one-sided, or outright wrong? I think so. The views Bruckner critiques, with the exception of left-wing anti-Semitism, which has deeper and darker causes, are left-overs from the sixties, the era when colonialism was just in process of collapsing, when white racism and male patriarchalism remained dominant paradigms in Europe and the United States, and the problem for members of minority groups of establishing identities as individuals not heavily defined by their race, religion, or sexual orientation not yet in the forefront.

It is natural that Bruckner would devote more attention to these flaws in a leftist world view than the claustrophobic truisms of the far Right. In France the Left has been dominant since 1945, the mirror image of the United States. In America the dominant, though declining, paradigm is that of the white religious Right. The whole of the Obama administration has been a defensive struggle against the very effective stonewalling by the ever more conservative Republican machine, while the current bizarre and extended Republican primary has been a contest over which candidate can present himself as the most religiously intolerant, the most ready to divert more money to the super rich, the most hateful toward gays and women, and the most hard-hearted toward the poor or even just the suddenly unemployed.

Curiously, in both countries the liberalism that Bruckner defends is repudiated by the predominant tendency. Speaking of France, Bruckner could just as well be talking about America when he writes: “One word synthesizes this feeling of dread, a word that has become indecent, like fascism or pedophilia: liberalism.”

In France it is the far Left that plays the obstructive role occupied by the Religious Right in the United States. “It is to the far Left that we have to justify ourselves, and it is the far Left that is preventing the development of a true social democracy on the English Labour Party model or the Scandinavian model: those who act or legislate must measure themselves against this ideological standard that has replaced the Church and moral authorities. All intellectuals bow down before it and embroider nice variations around its fundamental themes: no speech is accepted if it does not begin with a firm condemnation of the market.”

Bruckner concludes that both far Left and Right are obstacles to the necessary reforms: a regulated market economy funding a strong welfare state, as well as recognition that in today’s world, democratic countries face genuine threats: “Democracies have to be powerfully armed in order not to be defeated by the forces of tyranny.” In such a world a far Left that “supports any dictatorship provided that it is anticapitalist and anti-American” is a wholly negative element.

He sees the split between Europe and the United States as disastrous for the future of democracy. Europe must be taught “that battles are not won by compromise and incantation alone,” the U.S. “that it is not the only country on Earth, invested with a providential mission that makes it unnecessary for it to seek the approval of others, to listen and to debate, that trying to do what is good for people no matter what they want is a recipe for disaster.”

And finally, “If America were to collapse tomorrow, Europe would fall like a house of cards,” but if Europe were to be dismembered by internal and external predators, “America’s prospects would not be bright, either.”

Ideas that had some validity at some point in time become engrained in people’s minds and remain as new eras arise where they are falsified by events but still powerful. Marxists were among the first to grasp this fact with their theory of base and superstructure. Unfortunately the Marxists are as subject to such processes as every other current of thought. The truisms of progressivism of the sixties have in large part become problematic a half century later.

George Bernard Shaw: Can His Reputation Survive His Dark Side?

 

By Leslie Evans

 

It is with a certain sadness that I come to write this. George Bernard Shaw, through his plays, was one of my early heroes. I knew only the good of him then. More recently I have come to learn things, about his political views, that I could have known then but did not, and knowing, would have seen him differently. Learning them prompts me to want to know more about his contradictory character, to decide anew what we should think of him.

  

That kindly old gentleman pulling the strings attached to Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle on the cover of the vinyl album of My Fair Lady died in 1950 at the Methuselan age of ninety-four. Though remembered principally for his many plays, for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1925, Bernard Shaw (he hated George and didn't use it) was also an indefatigable essayist and public speaker. An early leader of the originally tiny Fabian Society, he was a lifelong socialist, but that narrow catechism could not contain his ebullient eclecticism. Shaw was not a Marxist but a Nietzschean, not an atheist but a believer in Bergsonian vitalism.

 

Always an iconoclast, Shaw's opinions, though generally on the left, ranged all over the map, were usually intended to shock, generally had a comic edge, and managed to infuriate almost everyone at some time. Unhappily, at an age when most of his contemporaries were dying off or in their dotage, beginning in his early seventies, and to the dismay of his friends on both the left and right, he lost faith in parliamentary democracy and lauded the famous dictators of the 1930s as leaders who could "get things done." Today the American right wing has discovered Shaw's more disreputable mouthings and found them to be a convenient club with which to beat today's liberals and the left. The reasoning is usually along the lines of those marvelous syllogisms so beloved by the Glenn Becks of the world: Shaw liked Mussolini, Shaw was a Fabian Socialist, Fabian Socialists are similar to liberals, therefore liberals like Mussolini, Mussolini was a fascist, Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama are liberals, therefore Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama are fascists. If you think I exaggerate, take a look at National Review editor Jonah Goldberg's book Liberal Fascism, which was #1 on the New York Times best seller list.

 

Glenn Beck has an Internet post entitled Who Are the Fabian Socialists? that opens with an accurate if disturbing quote in which Shaw intones, "if youre not producing as much as you consume or perhaps a little more, then, clearly, we cannot use the organizations of our society for the purpose of keeping you alive, because your life does not benefit us and it cant be of very much use to yourself."

 

Beck, in his usual manner, judders in an ever widening spiral of accusation, from Shaw's distasteful declaration, to all Fabian socialists, and from there to all progressives, a category to which Shaw did not even belong, and then to Hilary Clinton, who was three years old when Shaw died, in the kind of broad-brush indictment that Jon Stewart loves to mock:

 

"The progressives and the Fabian socialists want to deny or distance themselves, all the while Hillary Clinton says Im an early more than, early 20th century American progressive. Thats who George Bernard Shaw was hanging out with and they had the same elitist kind of ideas. It is where it is where the idea of eugenics, breed the perfect race, breed a better voter. So, heres the Fabian socialists, their plan. These are just their these are just their goals and, again, theres no Star Chamber here. These are all stated."

 

This incoherent babble, whose meaning is just barely discernible, is from Beck's own personal website. It runs from guilt by association to guilt without any association.

 

One liberal website was so eager to dissociate from Shaw to escape Beck's rant they disparaged Shaw as a "eugenics-supporting lunatic," hastily adding that "He was also an avowed socialist, which, despite Beck's insistence to the contrary, is not the same as a progressive," seeming to imply that eugenics-supporting lunatics are more likely to turn up among socialists than among prim progressives.

 

Glenn Beck may not be the best example, as he is in somewhat bad odor even among conservatives as himself a lunatic. Shaw's excommunication, however, is fairly broad on the right. His entry on Conservapedia, the right-wing alternative to Wikipedia, provides two brief sentences listing without further elaboration the titles of five of his plays, followed by a long page devoted to Shaw's endorsement of eugenics and his late-life praise of dictators.

 

If you want the worst, up front, from an unbiased source, we have Stanley Weintraub's "GBS and the Despots" in the August 22, 2011, Times Literary Supplement. Weintraub is a distinguished Shaw scholar, and editor of Bernard Shaw: The Diaries 1885‰ÛÒ1897.

 

In 1927 Shaw published in the London Daily News a letter titled "Bernard Shaw on Mussolini: A Defence." He came under sharp attack for this by both socialists and liberals, but persisted in his admiration of Mussolini throughout the 1930s. While sharply condemning Hitler's anti-Semitism, he spoke positively about the Nazis for renouncing the Versailles Treaty, which Shaw had opposed, and for their supposed economic reforms, writing in 1935, "The Nazi movement is in many respects one which has my warmest sympathy." As late as 1944, deep into World War II, when he was strongly supporting the British war effort against Germany, he still in print had something positive to say about Hitler's Mein Kampf. He claimed that he was a National Socialist before Hitler was.

 

He was well-disposed toward Oswald Mosley, Britain's home-grown fascist demagogue, declaring Mosley "the only striking personality in British politics." He turned against the German Nazis and Italian fascists during World War II, but never wavered from his adulation for the Soviet Union, first under Lenin, and then, undiminished, under Stalin.

 

As it happens, George Orwell in his 1946 pamphlet James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution does shed light on the Glenn Beckish claim that Shaw's dual embrace of communism and fascism was broadly typical of Fabians or other sorts of socialists:

 

"English writers who consider Communism and Fascism to be the same thing invariably hold that both are monstrous evils which must be fought to the death; on the other hand, any Englishman who believes Communism and Fascism to be opposites will feel that he ought to side with one or the other. The only exception I am able to think of is Bernard Shaw, who, for some years at any rate, declared Communism and Fascism to be much the same thing, and was in favour of both of them."

 

Shaw also made extreme and indefensible statements about euthanasia. Glenn Beck doesn't even quote the worst, such as a 1933 suggestion that chemists develop a "humane" poison gas for the extermination of those he regarded as social parasites, those who refuse to work and insist that society support them (including the idle rich as well as the deliberately idle poor).

 

Reactionary columnist Jonah Goldberg in his risible book Liberal Fascism, a 467 page tome written apparently because some lefty called him a fascist, and amounting to a "Nyah, nyah, you're the fascist!", spills four or five pages of vitriol on "liberal heroes" who "shared Shaw's enthusiasm" for eugenics. What is dishonest about all this stuff is not the quotes from leftists but the claim that eugenics was widely supported by leftists and the omission of all those on the right who were eager, and very well-funded, champions of eugenics - for some, poison gas and all.

 

The problem with the right-wing use of Shaw to pillory moderate socialists and nonsocialist liberal progressives is not only that very few of the latter held such views, but that this kind of cherry picking is ahistorical. It doesn't seek to understand how such now unacceptable opinions gained currency, or who held them and why. It is what Pascal Bruckner calls the sin of anachronism, which he contrasts to real history, which "forbids us to judge preceding centuries from the point of view of the present." Sympathy for Italian fascism, and even German Nazism, was widespread after the bloody debacle of World War I and the Great Depression, and far more so on the right than on the left, Shaw being an outlier here.

 

The very idea that there is such a thing as social change dates mainly from the Industrial Revolution, when it became obvious in daily life. Much of philosophy, social theorizing, and political organizing since has aimed to figure out to what degree we can have effective input into our own future, to guide the unfolding changes rather than simply submit to them. Many paths forward have been embraced only to prove disastrous later. Communism and fascism are the textbook examples. Darwin showed that there was biological change as well as political and economic change. Eugenics was an attempt to take charge of human evolution, which was ultimately found to be far more difficult and to involve a far greater potential for evil than its first advocates imagined.

 

Eugenics was generally thought of as a harmless way to take an active part in improving the "race." One of its main projects was simply to legalize and popularize birth control. That gave it a "progressive" tinge. But it was quickly harnessed to Social Darwinism and began to be invoked to bar immigration of Asians and other "undesirables," which was more popular on the right, along with some trade unions. It expanded in the United States to bar marriage or reproduction by those deemed mentally unfit, a category that began with the retarded and the mentally ill, and which expanded to swallow up many poor black women. These atrocious policies were widely enacted into American law through the lobbying of major foundations, which were generally more conservative than liberal.

 

Eugenics was supported by some leftists and liberals, such as H. G. Wells, John Maynard Keynes, Margaret Sanger, Sidney Webb, Virginia Woolf, progressive Republican Theodore Roosevelt, and Stanford University President David Starr Jordan. But similar advocacy was widespread on the right and center, where eugenics champions included, in Great Britain and Ireland, Conservative Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, Winston Churchill, W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, and Julian Huxley; in the United States, Alexander Graham Bell, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, John Harvey Kellogg (founder of the breakfast cereal company), and Clarence Gamble (heir to the Proctor and Gamble fortune). The main difference is that the Irish and Britons mainly talked about eugenics while the American corporate foundations poured large amounts of money into its implementation. In the U.S., thirty states adopted involuntary sterilization laws used to forcibly neuter 64,000 people between 1907 and 1963.

 

This was promoted by wealthy organizations such as the Rockefeller, Ford, and Carnegie foundations. The Rockefeller Institute prominently employed the pro-Nazi French biologist Alexis Carrel, who wrote:

 

"Those who have murdered, robbed while armed with automatic pistol or machine gun, kidnapped children, despoiled the poor of their savings, misled the public in important matters, should be humanely and economically disposed of in small euthanasic institutions supplied with proper gasses. A similar treatment could be advantageously applied to the insane, guilty of criminal acts." Notice how the criteria becomes more and more sweeping as the list grows, from murderers to armed robbers to mere swindlers and then to people who spread false information, and finally the mentally ill who step over some legal line.

 

The most prominent organizer of the eugenics movement in the United States was the apolitical zoologist and geneticist Charles B. Davenport (1866-1944), who headed the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, which was funded by the Carnegie Institute. Davenport's eugenics creed included the proviso, "I believe in such a selection of immigrants as shall not tend to adulterate our national germ plasm with socially unfit traits."

 

Notably the Conservapedia does not mention the association with eugenics of any of the conservatives. It does recount the state laws requiring sterilization of the "unfit," but sanitizes its account by referring to the whole movement as "radical" and omitting all but the Carnegie foundation and Davenport from its summary.

 

Exterminationist ideas of the sort Shaw voiced in the 1930s were then, as they still are today, more common than we like to recognize, and not particularly linked to eugenics. In the early twentieth century colonialism and empire were more often the springboard. On the left it was H. G. Wells, not Shaw, who talked about exterminating "inferior" races. On the right, novelist D. H. Lawrence said such things. The British conservative author George Chatterton Hill in his 1907 Heredity and Selection in Sociology wrote that "Nothing can be more unscientific, nothing shows a deeper ignorance of the elementary laws of social evolution, than the absurd agitations, peculiar to the British race, against the elimination of inferior races." The British "race," he said, "by reason of its genius for expansion, must necessarily eliminate the inferior races which stand in its way. Every superior race in history has done the same, and was obliged to do it."

 

American diplomat and international lawyer Henry C. Morris in his History of Colonization (1900) insisted that if the native population of a colony could not be induced to produce a profit for the colonialists, "the natives must then be exterminated or reduced to such numbers as to be readily controlled." The Illinois Institute of Technology Chicago-Kent College of Law to this day sponsors the Henry C. Morris Lecture in International and Comparative Law.

 

It is not clear even that Shaw's few comments about euthanizing the congenitally antisocial and those who refuse to work were connected to his support for eugenics. He doesn't say that the antisocial are biologically inferior, which would be the eugenics argument. The quotations usually circulated or cited here are a fairly close paraphrase of Saint Paul's Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, 1:10: "For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat." Shaw most likely picked the idea up from Lenin's State and Revolution, where it appears as "He who does not work shall not eat." The saint and the revolutionary don't spell out that the culprits will die, but generally not eating has that result. Yet, Shaw gives the premise a cruel activist twist that goes beyond his sources.

 

Of course, today loose exterminationist talk has, from overuse, lost much of its shock value. Its proponents only have to avoid the trigger word "poison gas." Right-wing radio talk host Michael Savage, with an audience of eight to ten million for his nationally syndicated show, The Savage Nation, in a July 21, 2006, broadcast on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad 's pending appearance at the United Nations urged, "I don't know why we don't use a bunker-buster bomb when he comes to the U.N. and just take him out with everyone in there."

 

Shaw's accuser, Glenn Beck, when asked about Iran, was superlative in his bloodlust: "I say we nuke the bastards. . . . In fact, it doesn't have to be Iran, it can be everywhere, anyplace that disagrees with me." (Premiere Radio Networks, The Glenn Beck Program, May 11, 2006).

 

Shaw is useful to the right as one of the extremely few well-known socialists who also said some positive things about fascism. He fits into the current bizarre campaign to rewrite history and fob off fascism as a left-wing movement. This is in part merely a cynical attempt to unload on the opposition the crimes of one's own ancestors. But in part it is sheer ignorance of history. Many of today's Tea Party enthusiasts, when judging some snippet they read or hear about the past, decide who was left and who was right by consulting their own private convictions and seeing if they match. They seem blithely innocent of any notion of the history of ideas and take as a given that their own recently acquired small-government panacea has always been the hallmark of conservative thought.

 

Liberals from the eighteenth through the early twentieth century were champions of capitalism, political democracy, free elections, human rights, and religious tolerance. Conservatives were supporters of the absolute monarchies, established religions, aristocracy, and strict social hierarchy. Obviously there have been shifts since, and there were always individual thinkers who broke the pattern, but conservatives through the end of World War II were more likely to be in favor of strong central governments than liberals, except on the issue of social welfare measures such as the New Deal, which flowed from their disdain for the lower classes, not from their fear of big government. As recently as Reagan and Bush junior we have had conservative presidents who claimed they favored small government while greatly expanding federal power and costs.

 

It was the conservative parties and politicians that were the allies of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco during their rise to power, and in Italy and Spain for the duration of fascist rule, not the liberal or left parties. The left has its own sins, in widespread illusions in Soviet Russia and the Lenin and Stalin dictatorships, but there is no grounds to foist on it responsibility for its adversaries' portion as well. In any case, many on the left and most liberals were opponents of Soviet communism.

 

The right-wing blogosphere, Glenn Beck, and the Conservapedia have a simple approach to someone like Bernard Shaw, apart from their attempt to use him to smear today's liberals: brand him as irremediably wicked and excommunicate him from polite society. The difficulty is that many significant figures in our history have these kinds of dark sides to them, and the typology is far from following any clear left-right cleavage.

 

The problem with deciding what we should think of Bernard Shaw is the problem of historical context. Judged by the standards of our own day, many of the outspoken figures of our past have inexcusable blemishes. Yet to cast them all out would leave us without a history or a culture. Churchill admired Mussolini, approved of colonialism, opposed Indian independence till the end, and was a staunch eugenicist. Kipling was an anti-Semite. Yeats supported the Blueshirts, the Irish fascist organization. Brecht, Langston Hughes, Charlie Chaplin, Dashiell Hammet, and Frida Kahlo were Stalinists, and far from the only ones. Henry Ford promoted the anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Mahatma Gandhi supported white apartheid in South Africa. Chaucer, Martin Luther, William Shakespeare, Immanuel Kant, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Karl Marx, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (the founder of French socialism), H. L. Mencken, Mark Twain, Joseph Kennedy (father of JFK), G. K. Chesterton, and T. S. Eliot all said some pretty awful things about Jews. Abraham Lincoln, despite the Emancipation Proclamation, was a racist. Even Jesus, when approached by a Canaanite woman asking him to heal her daughter, first refuses, saying "I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel," and calls the non-Jews "dogs." (Matthew, 15:22-26)

 

Everyone must make their own judgment on whether a political or literary figure of the past was so inexcusably far from an acceptable moral standard as to write them out of the historical canon. I am not prepared to give up Yeats or Kipling, Churchill or Gandhi. I am not so forgiving of Henry Ford, the profascist poet Ezra Pound, or Brecht. I still listen to Wagner, but cannot silence the small voice recalling that Nietzsche broke with him over Wagner's anti-Semitism, or that his music was played over the loudspeakers at Auschwitz.

 

If all I knew about Bernard Shaw was what I read on Conservapedia there would be no reason to refrain from burning his books, or at least encouraging libraries to discard them. But that is not how it was. In a certain sense I grew up with Shaw's plays. Somewhere I had seen the 1938 film of Pygmalion with Wendy Hiller and Leslie Howard, for whom I was named. My family were Republicans, but my mother (who after I left home became a liberal Democrat) was an avid follower of television drama, and Shaw was frequently on the bill in the fifties. Particularly memorable was a production of The Devil's Disciple in November 1955, when I was thirteen. Shaw's only play set in America, at the time of the American Revolution, it starred Ralph Bellamy, one of my favorite actors, as Pastor Anderson, and Maurice Evans as the clever and heretical Dick Dudgeon. Thought to be a useless wastrel, Dudgeon acts with matchless heroism when, while visiting the minister's home, he is mistaken for Pastor Anderson by General Burgoyne's soldiers, who have come to arrest Anderson to be executed as a hostage. Dudgeon lets himself be mistaken for the pastor to save the other's life.

 

The following spring there was Caesar and Cleopatra, with lots of clever dialogue between Cedric Hardwicke and Claire Bloom. Then came My Fair Lady. My mother took my sister and me to a rare outing, the 1957 West Coast touring company of the new musical, with Brian Aherne and Anne Rogers in the roles premiered by Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews. We bought the original cast LP, which my sister and I played until we knew every song by heart.

 

I was innocent yet of politics and caught only a whiff of the class divisions Shaw was satirizing. And it would be decades more before I could see something in Henry Higgins of Vandeleur Lee, the charismatic singing teacher and choral conductor who shared the Shaw home when Bernard Shaw was a child, phonetics substituted for voice instruction.

 

 

But my true fascination with Shaw came a year later yet, and this time it was focused directly on the playwright and his ideas.

 

Noel Swerdlow, a high school friend with advanced views, one day took me to Wallach's Music City in Hollywood, where he insisted that I buy the First Drama Quartet LPs of their reading of Don Juan in Hell, the lengthy dream sequence from Shaw's 1903 play Man and Superman. The cast was beyond superb: Charles Laughton as the Devil, Charles Boyer as Don Juan, Agnes Moorehead as Donna Ana, and Sir Cedric Hardwicke as the Statue. The LPs are long gone but you can still download the MP3 version from Amazon at a minimal cost.

 

In Shaw's rendering of the Don Juan legend the story picks up after the living statue, Donna Ana's father, has dragged the lothario off to hell. Here Don Juan debates the Devil on the meaning of life. Hell is not a pit of fire and brimstone but a palace of hedonism. Heaven, which remains off stage during the play, is some kind of workshop where people toil selflessly to improve humanity.

 

The talk - and it is all talk, no action of any kind takes place, but the play in not less gripping for that - ranges over art, music, love, human cruelty and cowardice, marriage, evolution, the Life Force, and the quest for a superior mind, the superman.

 

The Devil champions his realm of love, art, music, and beauty against the brutality of human life on the physical earth in one vast speech that in print is a single paragraph three pages long. Here is just the beginning of it:

 

"And is Man any the less destroying himself for all this boasted brain of his? Have you walked up and down upon the earth lately? I have; and I have examined Man's wonderful inventions. And I tell you that in the arts of life man invents nothing; but in the arts of death he outdoes Nature herself, and produces by chemistry and machinery all the slaughter of plague, pestilence, and famine. The peasant I tempt today eats and drinks what was eaten and drunk by the peasants of ten thousand years ago; and the house he lives in has not altered as much in a thousand centuries as the fashion of a lady's bonnet in a score of weeks. But when he goes out to slay, he carries a marvel of mechanism that lets loose at the touch of his finger all the hidden molecular energies, and leaves the javelin, the arrow, the blowpipe of his fathers far behind. In the arts of peace Man is a bungler. I have seen his cotton factories and the like, with machinery that a greedy dog could have invented if it had wanted money instead of food. I know his clumsy typewriters and bungling locomotives and tedious bicycles: they are toys compared to the Maxim gun, the submarine torpedo boat. There is nothing in Man's industrial machinery but his greed and sloth: his heart is in his weapons."

 

Don Juan concedes that human society is often brutal but he rejects the Devil and his proteges' escape into a ghostly world of beauty, art, and love, the aristocratic retreat into cultivated living. The Devil tries to tempt him, saying, "Here, I repeat, you have all that you sought without anything that you shrank from."

 

Don Juan rejects this:

 

"On the contrary, here I have everything that disappointed me without anything that I have not already tried and found wanting. I tell you that as long as I can conceive of something better than myself I cannot be easy unless I am striving to bring it into existence or clearing the way for it. That is the law of my life. This is the working within me of Life's incessant aspiration to higher organization, wider, deeper, intenser self-consciousness, and clearer self-understanding. It was the supremacy of this purpose that reduced love for me to the mere pleasure of a moment, art for me to the mere schooling of my faculties, religion for me to a mere excuse for laziness, since it had set up a God who looked at the world and saw that it was good, against the instinct in me that looked through my eyes at the world and saw that it could be improved."

 

Read that in your head in Charles Boyer's imperious French accent and see if you are not moved!

 

Naturally at sixteen I was attracted to what sounded like a life dedicated to such a higher purpose. I didn't fail to notice Shaw's particular take on this, that the job to be done was to aid the evolution of humanity toward the creation of the superman. I had read Thus Spake Zarathustra and grasped that this was a Nietzschean idea. But Nietzsche himself presents the search for the superman as a lonely personal spiritual and intellectual quest, not a government program in selective breeding. In any case I didn't feel I had to take seriously the goal of a biological superman to be inspired by the idea of a life of service to humanity in some form.

 

We now know some very negative things and a few positive ones about the old playwright. What else would I need to know about GBS, as he styled himself, to decide if his works are worth keeping and his life worth recalling? I turned to the fat one-volume edition of Michael Holroyd's magisterial biography.

 

Shaw was born on July 26, 1856, in Dublin. His father, George Carr Shaw, was an alcoholic. He married Lucinda Elizabeth "Bessie" Gurley for her money, but her father outsmarted him and put it in a trust that wouldn't come due for many years. It was a loveless marriage. Whatever small ability the pair had to display affection was exhausted on their two daughters. None was left for their third-born, George Bernard. When young George was around six, to make ends meet they shared a house with music impresario and voice teacher George Lee, who later called himself Vandeleur Lee. Lee was captivating and the household became a platonic menage a trois, with Lucinda Shaw far closer to the music teacher than to her useless husband. This was a pattern that GBS imitated many times in his life, in passionate but usually unconsummated love affairs with other men's wives.

 

Called Sonny as a boy, he did not get on in school but was a voracious reader, steeped in Shakespeare, Homer, Sir Walter Scott, Alexandre Dumas, Shelley, and Byron. By the time he was ten he lost his belief in religion. Through Vandeleur Lee he developed a love of music.

 

At fifteen he took a job as an office boy in a land firm. In June 1873, when Shaw was sixteen, Vandeleur Lee left their home in Dublin and moved to London; Shaw's mother Bessie followed. Her two daughters went with her, leaving Sonny behind with his father. The three women in London lived separately from Lee, Bessie and her younger daughter Lucy pursuing musical training with him. Missing her, as well as the music that had been so central to the household, GBS taught himself the piano, becoming a fairly accomplished classical pianist. Early in 1876 his older sister Agnes died of a wasting disease. Shaw took the occasion of her funeral to move to London, where he lived with his mother and Lucy, though as ever on remote terms.

 

Vandeleur Lee had not prospered in England. He hired Shaw to ghost write music criticism for a paper called The Hornet, which was the beginning of Shaw's first career, as a music critic. Lee unexpectedly proposed marriage, to Lucy rather than to Bessie, which led both Lucy and her mother to break all ties with him. Shaw continued the association, as writer and as piano accompanist in Lee's voice lessons.

 

Shaw had a striking appearance. When grown he stood six feet two, but weighed only 140 pounds, almost a stick figure. He grew a distinctive red beard to cover scars from a bout of smallpox. When he was twenty-nine he bought his first new suit, the then distinctive if faddish Jaeger woolen set, widely promoted for its purported health benefits. It included wool underwear, a tweed coat and waistcoat, and short breeches with long stockings. This became his trademark garb, more and more unfashionable as the decades passed.

The London GBS discovered was the one described by Charles Dickens, who had died at fifty-eight in 1870, only six years before Shaw’s arrival. The city’s slums were a cesspit of squalor and wretchedness whose like can be seen today only in third world countries, though they are making a comeback in the wake of the current world recession. Horror at this human misery led Shaw to hopes of reform and, after some years, to the budding socialist movement.

In the meantime he tried to break into the literary world. Between 1879 and 1883 he wrote five novels, all of them rejected by every publisher he approached. The first, Immaturity, did not see print for fifty years. The other four were eventually serialized in two socialist periodicals, between 1884 and 1888.

Following a brief stint at the telephone company, he spent the next eight years studying at the British Museum, supported by his mother, a favor he would return when he became a successful playwright. In this period he adopted vegetarianism, in part from his reading of Darwin, which led him to see animals as fellow creatures. He also abstained from alcohol, having seen his parents’ marriage ruined by his father’s drinking.

He trained as a boxer, had his first girl friend, and, in 1882, attended a lecture by the American reformer Henry George that set him on the road to political radicalism. He soon discovered Karl Marx and ploughed through Das Capital, not yet available in English, in a French translation. In September 1884 Shaw joined the Fabian Society, which had been founded earlier that year. For the next eight years, until his first performed play, Widower’s Houses, in 1892, he devoted most of his energies to the new organization.

The Fabians were opposed to forming a socialist political party. Instead they pursued a strategy of permeation, by which they meant patiently persuading influential figures and leaders of the existing Liberal and Tory parties. They advocated a range of moderate reforms that would come to be widely accepted in Europe and North America in the century that followed: a welfare state on the model of Bismarck’s Germany, women’s suffrage, slum clearance, for a national health service, a minimum wage. Of the various English socialist groups the Fabians were the least proletarian. Their views were the soul of moderation, their members thoroughly respectable, their outlook mostly local
and provincial. It would be years before they would even discuss their position on foreign policy and British colonialism.

Shaw quickly became one of the small group’s most effective platform speakers and pamphleteers. The leadership team that would cohere for the next half century was complete with the adherence of Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Shaw was the inspired propagandist, the Webbs the statisticians and careful researchers. In the thirty years before the bloody slaughter of the Great War, the Fabians were essentially the liberal wing of the great mass of Victorian believers in the inevitability of onward and upward progress. Portions of their list of reforms were often endorsed by Tory as well as Liberal politicians.

In 1900 Shaw drafted the Fabians’ first declaration on foreign policy, “Fabianism and the Empire.” It was anything but radical, viewing empires as a progressive step beyond narrow nationalism, rating the British empire as the most worthy, and endorsing the British side in the Boer War. By the late 1880s Shaw, and the Fabians with him, had rejected Marxist class struggle. Shaw envisioned the split in society as between those who worked at something for a living and those who did not. This differed from the
Marxian class theory in that it condemned only that part of the rich who lived off rents and interest, and with them those of the lower classes who chose not to work or who chose to be criminals.

The Fabians were instrumental in founding the Labour Party, also in 1900, and became the party’s brain trust for decades afterward, many British prime ministers ranked among their growing membership.

Meanwhile Shaw was establishing himself as a book reviewer and music critic, and even as an art critic. In February 1889 he became music critic for The Star under the pseudonym Corno di Bassetto, and then switched to The World, now signing himself GBS. During these years he gave a thousand unpaid lectures for the Fabians and was much sought after as a platform speaker and teacher.

During the 1880s he had several mainly platonic affairs: with Karl Marx’s youngest daughter, Eleanor, who was living with Edward Aveling and would commit suicide when Aveling married someone else; with later-famous children’s author Edith Nesbit, married to the Tory socialist Hubert Bland; and with May Morris, William Morris’s daughter. Morris, best remembered as a central figure in the Arts and Crafts movement and the Pre-Rafaelite artists, was an early socialist leader and headed the Socialist League, a more proletarian rival to the middle-class Fabians. Shaw admired Morris but counted him “a privileged eccentric and in no way an authority as to socialist policy.” Shaw’s biographer adds that this was “almost exactly in the same manner as the Labour Party was later to regard G.B.S. himself.” May, impatient with Shaw’s reticence, married, prompting Shaw to renew the attachment, on the pattern of Vandeleur Lee with his own parents. The marriage failed, but Shaw by that time typically withdrew again.

Shaw’s one seriously consummated affair was with Jane Patterson, an older woman and close friend of his mother’s. This lasted, with some interruptions, from April 1885 until the beginning of 1893. During one of the interstices he was offered a contract of terms for living together by Annie Besant, then a Fabian firebrand but later the head of Madame Blavatsky’s occult Theosophical Society. He turned her down.

A more serious affair led to a final break with Jane Patterson and helped redirect Shaw toward his ultimate vocation. In 1890 at May Morris’s home he met and fell in love with Florence Farr. She was then at the very beginning of a career that would make her a leading figure of the English and Irish stage. Shaw saw and reviewed for the press her performance in A Sicilian Idyll by John Todhunter. This event drew together several of the major strands of Victorian Irish culture. Todhunter was a close friend of Irish
poet and playwright William Butler Yeats, and a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the occult organization in which both Yeats and Farr would become prominent. Farr would be a frequent lead in plays by both Shaw and Yeats, and through her Shaw established his own links with Yeats’ Abbey Theatre in Dublin and a long personal friendship with Yeats and his patron, Lady Gregory.

Another influence on Shaw in the period was seeing Janet Achurch in 1889 in the first English production of Ibsen’s The Doll’s House, shocking in Victorian England when Nora dares to break free from her stifling marriage. Shaw saw the play five times. He was inspired by Ibsen to see the theatre as a venue for serious ideas, at odds with the drawing-room comedies and bedroom farces that were the staple of the Victorian stage. He was inspired enough to write one of his few nonfiction books, Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891).

Then, in 1892, his first play, Widowers’ Houses, opened. It ran for only two performances. Creaky though it was, it previewed much that became typical of Shavian drama. It took stock figures of Victorian theatre but inverted their characters. The young hero, Trench, falls in love with the daughter of a wealthy man. Discovering that his  prospective father-in-law is a slumlord, Trench demands that his fiancee reject any money from him. The reversal is that she refuses and breaks off the engagement. It is
discovered that Trench’s trust fund is equally tainted and the lovers reunite, accepting their unscrupulous financial foundation. Add witty dialogue and many humorous turns of phrase to coat the social problem under examination and you have a Shaw production.

His biographer, Michael Holroyd, makes a pithy summary of what distinguished his subject’s work:

“Shaw’s plays were not plays. Archer [an early collaborator] had no trouble in spotting this. His friend had dispensed with plot, with character, with drama and the red corpuscles of life, to demonstrate that argument squeezed into a well-built dramatic machine was as good as any play.”

His first three plays were not financial successes. Widowers’ Houses was followed by The Philanderer, the title suggesting the content and based loosely on some of Shaw’s own adventures in other people’s marriages, and then in 1893, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, in which Vivie Warren discovers that her genteel upbringing was financed by her mother’s brothel, with undertones of possible incest, as there is doubt about which of her mother’s several lovers is her father, and her own fiance is the son of one
of the possibles.

These plays were disturbing in their day and had a hard political message not far from the surface. Shaw resolved in future to write plays more about people and their situations, with more humor and less message. He published the three early efforts together as Plays Unpleasant. Afterward he arranged book-length collections of his further plays, setting a new pattern for play publication on both sides of the Atlantic, prefacing each play or volume with a lengthy essay on the social ill motivating the sparkling dialogue.

He followed with Arms and the Man, a romantic comedy with a feminist theme set in Bulgaria during the 1885 Serbo-Bulgarian war. This was his first well-received effort. He had written it for Florence Farr, who played Raina Petkoff, the female lead. Raina rejects her Bulgarian war hero fiance Sergius Saranoff to marry a Swiss mercenary, Captain Bluntschli, who had fought on the Serbian side. Bluntschli may have been an enemy but he at least respected her while her lout of a war hero was out with other women. In later years the play ran seven times on Broadway, and between British and American productions has had casts that included Ralph Richardson, Margaret Leighton,
Laurence Olivier, Marlon Brando, Len Cariou, Kevin Kline, Raul Julia, John Malkovich, and Helena Bonham Carter.

Having lived in poverty his first forty years, financial success came only with his eighth play,The Devil’s Disciple, which in 1897, mainly in America, earned him 2,000 pounds (about $272,000 in today’s dollars). In his long life he published no less than fifty-nine plays and was the most performed and honored playwright in the English language for several generations, second only to Shakespeare. Most of these works have not survived, but a core canon have remained staples of theatre companies in many countries: Arms and the Man, Candida, The Devil’s Disciple, The Doctor’s Dilemma, Captain Brassbound’s Conversion, Caesar and Cleopatra, Man and Superman and its dream sequence Don Juan in Hell, Major Barbara, Androcles and the Lion, Pygmalion, Heartbreak House, and The Apple Cart are all still performed on stage and for television. His most popular play was his vision of Joan of Arc, Saint Joan (1923).

The Internet Movie Database lists no fewer than 175 film and television productions of Shaw plays, in multiple languages, from a 1921 silent Czech film of his early novel Cashel Byron’s Profession to a 2009 Canadian film of Caesar and Cleopatra starring Christopher Plummer. The entries cluster between 1938 and 1985, a bit heavier in the 1950s and 1960s. On television he is well represented in the Hallmark Hall of Fame and the BBC Play of the Month.

Saint Joan was filmed by Otto Preminger in 1957 with Jean Seberg in the title role, screenplay by Graham Greene. On stage Shaw’s Joan has been played by Sybil Thorndike, Katharine Cornell, Wendy Hiller, Uta Hagen, Siobhan McKenna, Joan Plowright, Genevieve Bujold, Lynn Redgrave, Amy Irving, and Judi Dench. Unexpectedly for a man of the left, Shaw did not take the expected path of glorifying the rebel Joan and casting her interrogators and executioners as consummate imperialist and ruling class villains. In his only tragedy he insisted there were to be no villains, each side acting as their beliefs told them they must.

By 1894 GBS and Florence Farr ended their affair, her occultism grating too harshly against his Fabianism. He more and more in his writings and in his life began to elevate work above love. He formed repeated intense romantic attachments to women, usually prominent actresses, but withdrew from physical sex. His compulsorily chaste lovers included Janet Achurch, Ellen Terry, and Stella Campbell, stage stars of their day. His pattern included long walks, visits to museums, and always an extensive exchange of letters, many of them at least verbally passionate.

Then in 1898 at the age of forty-two he married for the first time. His bride was Charlotte Payne-Townshend. She was Irish, rich, six months younger than he, intelligent, and with a certain inclination toward radical politics, but plain of face and figure. And, perhaps essential to their marriage, deathly afraid of childbirth. They were happily married for forty-five years. It is said that the marriage was never physically consummated. He had lived with his mother, though not on very good terms, until their wedding. He and Charlotte in 1906 bought a house in the village of Ayot St. Lawrence in Hertfordshire, just north of Greater London. They lived there for the rest of their lives. They traveled widely together until quite late in life. After a time Shaw resumed his flirtations and heavy correspondence with other women, which Charlotte tried to ignore. He seems to have abstained from sex with them as well as with his wife, with the possible exception of a young American beauty, Molly Tompkins, who pursued him, then already  seventy, during several of his prolonged visits to Italy beginning in 1926.

As the nineteenth century closed, GBS continued his work with the Fabians on a reduced level. He spent six years as a local elected London official. In the British system he served in the St. Pancras Vestry as vestryman, a member of the elected parish council, changed to a borough in 1900. Here he worked effectively and amiably with moderate and conservative members of the local government.

He updated and published his nonfiction The Perfect Wagernite in 1898. A major change was taking place in his thinking. He was inspired by the Ring cycle, but unhappy that in Wagner the heroes are liberated only after death, by ascending to heaven. He needed an earthly salvation and wanted something more than ordinary politics as the sole vehicle to achieve the egalitarian future he hoped for. He began looking for an additional ally on that road. He believed he found it in his own interpretation of evolution.

It was typical of the Victorians to embrace Darwin but miss the point of what he was saying. Darwin’s natural selection made no promise as to outcomes, only stating that successive generations of organisms favor genetic variants and mutations that advantageously adapt them to their environment. Many Victorians chose instead to read “Evolution,” as a straight road to ever greater physical and mental perfection alongside the social and political perfectability they also believed in. Most of those who championed this ideological version of evolution thought of themselves as Darwinians. Some, looking for a more definite and rapid promise of improvement, professed versions of evolution that explicitly differed from Darwin. Marx and Engels rejected natural selection, with Marx instead endorsing a little-known crank geologist who claimed to be able to predict stages of steady improvement in animal species from changes in the earth’s soils. Shaw abandoned atheism and created a creed he called Creative Evolution in which the Life Force was an immanent power driving the human race toward rapid (by geological standards) improvement in mind and self-consciousness. This Life Force was a mystical biological field of some kind, whose strength was being added to the mere human efforts of social reformers such as the Fabians. Humans and other living things were said to be endowed with a self-determining essence separate from the physics and chemistry that ordinary science recognizes.

Looking back some years later, in his preface to the five Back to Methuselah plays, published in 1921, he acknowledged that he had intended the Don Juan in Hell dream sequence inMan and Superman to be the founding document of a new religion:

“Accordingly, in 1901, I took the legend of Don Juan in its Mozartian form and made it a dramatic parable of Creative Evolution. But being then at the height of my invention and comedic talent, I decorated it too brilliantly and lavishly. I surrounded it with a comedy of which it formed only one act. . . . Also I supplied the published work with an imposing framework consisting of a preface, an appendix called The Revolutionist’s Handbook, and a final display of aphoristic fireworks. The effect was so vertiginous, apparently, that nobody noticed the new religion in the centre of the intellectual whirlpool.”

GBS was never modest, but he is right that Don Juan in Hell was perhaps his most brilliant piece of writing, new religion of selective breeding of the superman at its core notwithstanding. The critic Max Beerbohm wrote of it, “In swiftness, tenseness and lucidity of dialogue no living writer can touch the hem of Mr Shaw’s garment. In Man and Supermanevery phrase rings and flashes.” Beerbohm became a close friend. In a letter decades later on Shaw’s ninetieth birthday he articulated what many thought:

“My admiration for his genius has during fifty years and more been marred for me by dissent from almost any view that he holds about anything.” For Beerbohm the secret of disentangling Shaw’s extremist preaching from his plays was his odd combination of seriousness and irrepressible frivolity, the comic side that invaded all his productions.

Shaw was no scientist. He appropriated the idea of Creative Evolution from the literature of his day that could offer support to his faith in a radical improvement in humanity and eliminate the evils of his own time. In part he seems to have found what he was looking for in the French philosopher Henri Bergson, whose 1907 book Creative Evolution advocated a form of vitalism in living organisms and coined the term that Shaw officially adopted in the preface to Back to Methuselah.

A more immediate influence was the novelist Samuel Butler, best remembered as the author of The Way of All Flesh and Erewhon. Butler was also a tireless adversary of Darwin, promoting his own version of evolution. Butler’s two key differences with Darwin were that Butler wanted to claim a role for some kind of innate intelligence in directing evolutionary change from within organisms, and he wanted to resurrect Lamarck’s idea of the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

Shaw at one point wrote: “What damns Darwinian Natural Selection as a creed is that it takes hope out of evolution, and substitutes a paralysing fatalism which is utterly discouraging. As Butler put it, it banishes Mind from the universe.” In a 1911 debate over religion with G. K. Chesterton, who would convert to Catholicism in 1922, Shaw staked out his own ground:

“As for my own position, I am, and always have been a mystic. I believe that the universe is being driven by a force that we might call the life-force. We are all experiments in the direction of making God. What God is doing is making himself, getting from being a mere powerless will or force. This force has implanted into our minds the ideal of God. We are not very successful attempts at God so far, but . . . there never will be a God unless we make one . . . we are the instruments through which that ideal is trying to make itself a reality.” (Cited by Holyroyd.)

Inheritance of acquired characteristics was a second arrow in the quiver for hastening evolutionary change. It proposed that building up muscles through exercise or energetic use of the brain through study, or other environmental influences on an organism could be passed on to offspring. Plainly if this were so, evolutionary change would be perceptible in a generation or two instead of the eons-long process of random genetic adaptation to particular environments. Accepting Butler’s revival of discredited Lamarckism led Shaw in the 1930s to give credence to Soviet claims about the agricultural miracles of the quack plant geneticist Trofim Lysenko, later shown to be fraudulent.

The point is not so much to show that Bernard Shaw believed things that were at variance with scientific knowledge – a great many Republicans do that – but that he was a man in a hurry to see the change he had aspired to from his early youth and was trying to enlist both supposed natural and mystical forces to bring it closer. Michael Holroyd describes Shaw’s new religion as “a moral commitment to progress thorough the Will, answering the need for optimism in someone whose observation of the world was growing more Pessimistic.” This turn toward a form of forced-hope mysticism took place in Shaw before the cataclysm of World War I, in his recoil from the more ordinary evils of poverty, injustice, inequality, and inertia of the political leaders of Victorian England. (The long-lived Victoria died only in January 1901, as GBS was formulating his response to the age to which she gave her name.) Pessimism would slowly gain the upper hand after the debacle of the war. His eventual turn toward what he thought of as strong leaders was part of the same process.

*   *   *

GBS wrote only one thoroughly Irish play, John Bull’s Other Island, 1904, focused on the conflict between a British land developer in Ireland and a priest who opposes him. Though the premiere was ultimately moved to London from the planned Abbey Theatre opening, over disputes on length and Shaw’s negatively realistic portrayal of his native Ireland, the episode cemented a lifelong friendship with Yeats and still more so with Lady Gregory, central figures of the Irish Literary Revival.

The world war marked the end of the long nineteenth century and with it much of the Victorians’ hopes for social improvement. Shaw was particularly shaken, as he took more seriously than most of his comrades the long-standing socialist credo of internationalism, which in the climate of feverish patriotism after August 1914 left him open to charges of being pro-German. The parties of the Socialist International had pledged before the outbreak of hostilities to refuse support to their own governments in the event
of war. They overwhelmingly turned patriotic when the artillery began to fire. A few in Britain, such as Bertrand Russell, declared themselves pacifists and went to prison. Shaw on November 14 published a long supplement to the New Statesman entitled “Common Sense About the War.” It earned him immediate obloquy.

He accused Britain’s rulers of being little better than their Prussian opponents, hypocrites who had planned war with Germany since the latter’s victory over France in 1870 and now played the innocent victim of Junker militarism. The Americans would have to come in, he said. “They will have to consider how these two incorrigibly pugnacious and inveterately snobbish peoples, who have snarled at one another for forty years with bristling hair and grinning fangs, and are now rolling over with their teeth in one another’s throats, are to be tamed into trusty watch-dogs of the peace of the world.”

He was immediately shunned as a traitor. Prime Minister Asquith’s son said he should be shot. Dramatist Henry Arthur Jones declaimed that Shaw’s mother was “the hag sedition.” In America, Theodore Roosevelt called him a “blue rumped ape.”

But he was not actually against Britain’s participation in the war. Instead he proposed, quixotically, that war aims be reconfigured along democratic and socialist lines. He demanded democratic rights for the troops, trade union representation in the army, an end to secret diplomacy, and a pledge not to take drastic reprisals against Germany at the war’s end. Finally, he agreed with the government that the German invasion of France, if not Belgium, merited Britain’s entry into the war:

“It left us quite clearly in the position of the responsible policeman of the west. There was nobody else in Europe strong enough to chain the mad dog.” And: “We must have the best army in Europe.” He quietly donated 20,000 pounds to the British War Loan, about $2.8 million in today’s dollars. The acrimony over his pamphlet was a measure
of the wave of heady war fever that swept Britain in the early days of the fighting. It would take several years for him to be forgiven. Churchill in his 1937 Great Contemporaries showed that he still bore a grudge. There were a few who took Shaw’s side. Bloomsbury author Lytton Strachey, who would later win fame for his Eminent Victorians, described Shaw as “our leading patriot.” In 1917 at the invitation of Douglas Haig, commander-in-chief of the British army, Shaw spent a week at the front in France.

He wrote only a few skits during the war, but followed afterward with several of his most successful plays: Heartbreak House in 1920, the five Back to Methuselah fantasy plays on Old Testament themes in 1922, and his triumphant Saint Joan in 1923. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1925. One newspaper dubbed him “the most famous author in the world.”

In this period he and Charlotte deepened their friendship with many prominent figures who crossed the whole political spectrum: John Galsworthy, G. K. Chesterton, Lady Gregory, Arnold Bennett, James Barrie, author of Peter Pan, and composer Edward Elgar. Of course Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb remained among their dearest friends. They were especially close to T. E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, a frequent house guest. Shaw had provided editorial help and Charlotte served as proofreader for his The
Seven Pillars of Wisdom
. She and Lawrence over the thirteen years before his death exchanged six hundred letters. Shaw added regular radio talks over the BBC to his other activities.

Shaw began his drift toward the dictators in the usual left-wing way, by imagining that the Russian Revolution of October 1917 was ushering in the egalitarian utopia he had dreamed of. A decade later he thought he saw almost comparable signs of progress in Mussolini’s corporatist state. The Fabian strategy of permeation seemed to be having meagre results. Labour was in power briefly in 1924, with Ramsay MacDonald at its head. Then MacDonald headed a second Labour government from 1929 to 1931, but, disastrously for the left, continuing as Prime Minister in August 1931 in a coalition with a Conservative and Liberal majority. MacDonald, the first Labour Prime Minister, was expelled from the party. Labour would not return to power until the end of World War II.

Where, Shaw asked, was the socialism? In part his disappointment rested in the ultamatistic concept of socialism he had been carrying around in his head since the end of 1910, when he wrote that he advocated “a state of society in which the entire income of the country is divided between all the people in exactly equal shares, without regard to their industry, their character, or any other consideration except the consideration that they are living human beings . . . that is Socialism and nothing else is Socialism.”

It would be hard to find any living socialist or even communist who would endorse this proposition. But as that is what he was looking for it would help explain his attraction to forceful extremists. He joined a large swath of the population throughout Europe that had lost faith in official parliamentary parties and their governments after the bloodbath of World War I and the prolonged economic collapse of the Great Depression.

It was the age of totalitarian fantasies. The dictatorships that came to power in Russia in 1917, in Italy in 1922, and in Germany in 1933 and their many followers shared a disdain for parliamentary democracy and personal liberty. They promised a new prosperity and security through a semi-militarized mobilization of the population and giving free rein to police agencies to suppress dissent. Millions who in the past had hankered after liberty found themselves equally willing to give up their liberty to be welcomed into the powerful national fold. These movements transcended the customary governmental limits of both left and right. The Soviet revolution of 1917 won a wide
following among workers and intellectuals in the West, while radical rightists in Italy and Germany were indisputably popular on their home ground and had large numbers of sympathizers abroad. Partisans who looked only at “left” and “right” saw these two rival currents as mortal enemies. There was an argument to be made, and it would get more of a hearing after the second world war, that they were similars. Shaw took the latter view, and as he already approved the Russian version he saw no reason to withhold at
least qualified endorsement of the other two.

In 1931, as he turned seventy-five, GBS visited the Soviet Union, accompanied by Conservative MP Lady Nancy Astor, a long-time friend and militant anti-Communist whose own views leaned more toward Hitler. He was met at the train station by Karl Radek and Anatoly Lunacharsky. Radek had been Vice-Commissar for Foreign Affairs in the early days of the Russian Revolution. A former Trotskyist, he was purged, then capitulated to Stalin in 1929, and was enjoying a brief rehabilitation when he met Shaw, before Stalin had him shot in 1939. Lunacharsky had been Commissar of Enlightenment, in charge of education and the arts, in the first Soviet government. He was already in semi disgrace and would escape the purges only by dying in 1933. His works would soon be banned in the USSR.

Shaw was given a staged tour of happy workers and peasants. He believed it all, imagining it to be Fabianism triumphant. Lady Astor was unimpressed, declaring, “I think you are all terrible.” She was applauded when her translator, no doubt deliberately, misstated her remarks. Stalin gave the pair a lengthy interview in which he succeeded in charming Shaw, who managed to miss all the brutality of the Soviet system. This trip converted him to communism.

Churchill, who always had a keen eye for such things, in his Great Contemporaries mocked GBS’s Soviet excursion:

“The Russians have always been fond of circuses and travelling shows. Since they had imprisoned, shot or starved most of their best comedians, their visitors might fill for a space a noticeable void. And here was the World’s most famous intellectual Clown and Pantaloon in one,  and the charming Columbine of the capitalist pantomime. . . . Arch Commissar Stalin, ‘the man of steel’, flung open the closely guarded sanctuaries of the Kremlin, and pushing aside his morning’s budget of death warrants, and lettres de cachet, received his guests with smiles of overflowing comradeship.”

For Shaw, all of this was a matter of abstract ideas, chimeras whose content bore almost no relation to the realities of life in Stalin’s Gulag or one of the fascist states. One right-wing website today calls him a murderer. That’s absurd. Probably the worst thing he did in life was to convert the Webbs to Stalinism when he returned to England, spoiling forever their reputation, which rested on their political convictions far more than his did.

Another figure who attracted Shaw for the next few years was Oswald Mosley. In November 1932 he described Mosley as “one of the few people who is writing and thinking about real things and not about figments and phrases.”

Mosley the previous month had founded the British Union of Fascists. That he still had credit anywhere on the left might seem surprising, but not if you know his trajectory over the previous fourteen years. Scion of an aristocratic family, Mosley was a decorated veteran in World War I. He was a Conservative Member of Parliament from 1918 to 1922, when he became an Independent, then joined the Labour Party, and still later the Independent Labour Party, an older group to the left of the official Labour Party. He served as a minister in Ramsay MacDonald’s 1929 Labour government. In early 1931 he formed the New Party, with a generally Keynesian program to help the unemployed
in the Depression. After a visit to Mussolini, Mosley lurched to the right and was converted to fascism. This was still before Hitler became chancellor of Germany, whose National Socialists never called themselves fascists, and there were still widespread illusions in Italian fascism on both the right and the left.

Not seeing much motion toward communism in England, Shaw now looked to fascism as the next best thing, calling it “the only visible practical alternative to Communism.” In retrospect one would have to say that Shaw was unusual, but not alone, in his day in seeing the striking similarity in methods and governmental forms of the two dictatorial systems, the hyperstatist extremes of left and right. Both professed an extreme populist rhetoric while busily eliminating all sources of opposition, especially from
the very people they claimed to champion.

Usually their partisans could see only the differences. If anything, Italian fascism, the only one then extant, was a noticeably less repressive form of government than Leninist or Stalinist Russia, which had very large partisan support among the European working class and intelligentsia. Hitler would permanently brand fascism as consummate evil, but that would become apparent outside of Germany only as World War II approached, inflated a hundred-fold with the revelations of the Holocaust later. The fever of the totalitarian virus was coursing through the blood of Western society and had not yet run its course.

Shaw did denounce Mosley’s anti-Semitism, and within a few years lost interest in him. What had briefly attracted him was the image of a charismatic leader. That seems to be mostly what he saw in Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, and, for a while, Hitler. When challenged by Beatrice Webb as to why he should see something positive in the rightist figures, who had “no philosophy, no notion of any kind of social organization,” he replied that it was their powerful personalities. These were men who broke through the paralyzing inertia of the parliamentary systems of their day.

Even in his late years, as misanthropy crept into his view of the human race, Shaw rejected racism and misogyny. He and Charlotte made a world tour by ship in 1933, stopping in South Africa, India, China, and the United States. The next year he published The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God (and Some Lesser Tales), where he proposed that “the next great civilization will be a black civilization,” and, as Holroyd summarizes, “that future gods may be female rather than male; and that the biological solution to the race war between black and white is intermarriage.” This, as can be imagined, created a great furor, in England almost as much as in apartheid South Africa.

In a certain way Shaw in his prolonged old age used his fancifully re-imagined dictators to threaten England: if you don’t carry out serious reforms these are the kinds of leaders who will do it for you. His plays were less widely performed in the 1930s. They were more modern sounding than Oscar Wilde but nevertheless had a certain Victorian mustiness about them. Intellectuals in particular were now looking on him as a figure out of the past. Holroyd says that The Apple Cart, finished in 1929, “was to be the last of Shaw’s plays to win a regular place in the standard repertory.” He wrote fourteen plays after that. He had begun in 1921 to prepare a collected edition of his works. The first volumes appeared in 1930. When it was finally complete the ultimate edition ran to thirty-seven volumes.

Shaw’s circle of friends in his late years expanded beyond theatre people and Fabians. He was close to world heavyweight champion boxer Gene Tunney and the Catholic Prioress of Stanbrook Abbey, Dame Laurentia McLachlan. He wrote admiringly of Einstein and Churchill, the latter returning the compliment.

In his last decades much of his thought and writing delved into fantasy and surrealism. This brought him closer to W. B. Yeats, whose work had always mined that vein. At the first meeting of the Irish Academy of Letters, in September 1932, Shaw was elected president, Yeats vice president.

He and Charlotte lived quietly at Ayot. A non-Christian, he made large contributions to the local church to repair the roof and the organ. He underwrote replacing the windows in the village school. Each year he sent the headmistress a check to pay for sweets for the children at the village shop. He received endless requests for donations, for aid, for letters of support or endorsement. He responded to many of them. One poet wrote to say his clothes had been destroyed in a fire. Shaw sent him a check for 400 pounds with a note saying how much he disliked the fellow’s poetry. One street person asked for a pair of boots. Shaw had them sent, then found that the man returned them
several times to be repaired.

A German actress wrote saying she had the perfect body and wanted to have his child so it would inherit his great brain. He responded, “What if the child inherits my body and your brains?” In a bookstore he noticed a copy of one of his books with a handwritten inscription. He bought it, packed it up, and sent it to the original dedicatee with a note, “With the author’s renewed compliments.” Invited to a party by a note saying the hostess would be “At Home” on a certain date he fired back, “So will G. Bernard Shaw.”

Years before, he had inherited a building in Ireland, which he donated to the Catholic Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin to serve as a school; it became the Technical College. Leonard Woolf described him as “personally the kindest, most friendly, most charming of men.”

After Hitler became chancellor in 1933 Shaw declared the Nazis “a mentally bankrupt party” and called for an anti-German pact between Britain, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union. He described Hitler as a new Torquemada and compared his anti-Semitism as akin to a case of rabies. These are significant qualifications on the few positive things he said about the Nazis. He still counted the Nazis as in the right in abrogating the Versailles Treaty and claimed that he was the only one in England who was still polite in writing about Hitler.

Shaw was far more sensible about the second global war than the first. He refrained from denouncing British “Junkers,” and for the first months limited himself to hopes for an early negotiated settlement. At the beginning of 1940 the BBC asked him to make a broadcast on the war. The Ministry of Information vetoed his script. Harold Nicolson, then Churchill’s official Censor, rejected the speech, saying, “Shaw’s main theme is that the only thing Hitler has done wrong is to persecute the Jews. As the Minister [Duff Cooper] remarks, millions of Americans and some other people [believe] that this is the only thing he has done right.”

Shaw came out for uncompromising war against Hitler and Mussolini. Early in 1941 he told an American reporter, “[T]here is a very dangerous madman loose in Europe who must, we think, be captured and disabled. If we are right, he is as dangerous to you as to us; so we ask you to join the hunt.”

Where he had been persona non grata during World War I, his plays experienced a major revival during the second war. There were many productions in the early years and by 1944 there were nine Shaw plays running simultaneously in London. Casts in the wartime period included Robert Donat, Vivien Leigh, John Gielgud, Edith Evans, Deborah Ker, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Sybil Thorndike, and Margaret Leighton. Traveling companies took his plays to rural towns, munition factories, and mining outposts.

His generation was dying off, even the long-lived ones. He had served as one of the pall bearers when Thomas Hardy, fifteen years his senior, died in January 1928. The others ranked around the coffin were James Barrie, John Galsworthy, the poet Edmund Gosse, A. E. Houseman, and Rudyard Kipling. T. E. Lawrence, thirty-two years Shaw’s junior, was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1935. Beatrice Webb, one of his closest friends since the 1880s, died in April 1943. Charlotte developed osteitis deformans, a debilitating bone disease that left her hunchbacked and unable to walk unaided. She began to hallucinate. She died that September. H. G. Wells followed in August 1946, and
finally Sidney Webb in October 1947.

For his ninetieth birthday, in 1946, the newly founded Penguin paperback publisher issued the “Shaw Million,” simultaneous publication in Britain of ten of his titles in editions of 100,000 each. The lot sold out in six weeks.

In his last years he suffered from anorexia; his weight, never much, fell to 126 pounds. On September 10, 1950, GBS fell in his garden, fracturing his thigh. He died on November 2. In his will he left art works to public galleries and theatres in Britain, Ireland, and the United States.

Before submitting the question we began with for your decision I want to call two of Shaw’s contemporaries for their views, one from the left, one from the right. First, George Orwell, who lived just half as long as GBS but whose years matched precisely the second half of Shaw’s life. Orwell was also a socialist, but unlike Shaw, one who understood better than almost anyone the horrors of totalitarianism.

Orwell seems never to have written a piece devoted solely to Shaw. His comments are scattered in essays with broader themes. He admired Shaw’s plays but not his politics. On the positive side he wrote:

“It would be an absurdity to regard Shaw as a pamphleteer and nothing more. The sense of purpose with which he always writes would get him nowhere if he were not also an artist. In illustration of this I point once again to Arms and the Man. . . . Nowhere is there a false emphasis or a clumsily contrived incident; the play gives the impression of having grown as naturally as a plant. There are not even any verbal fireworks; brilliant as the dialogue is, every word of it helps the action along. (Cited by Loraine Saunders, The Unsung Artistry of George Orwell.)

Orwell made a three-fold criticism of Shaw’s politics, grouping him with other writers who shared one or another of Shaw’s attitudes. First, that as rebels such authors failed to anticipate that if they were successful in shattering the status quo the results might be much worse rather than much better. Second, that most British authors of Shaw’s vintage were extremely provincial, which led them to magnify the evils of British society while not grasping the true scope of foreign repressive regimes toward which they were too tolerant. And finally, that those writers who embraced Soviet communism – or fascism – constituted a dangerous totalitarian current that other socialists
should be wary of.

The first criticism appears in his essay “Notes on the Way” in the British weekly Time and Tide of April 6, 1940, in the dark early days of World War II:

“[T]here was a long period during which nearly every thinking man was in some sense a rebel, and usually a quite irresponsible rebel. Literature was largely the literature of revolt or of disintegration. Gibbon, Voltaire, Rousseau, Shelley, Byron, Dickens, Stendhal, Samuel Butler, Ibsen, Zola, Flaubert, Shaw, Joyce — in one way or another they are all of them destroyers, wreckers, saboteurs. For two hundred years we had sawed and sawed and sawed at the branch we were sitting on. And in the end, much more suddenly than anyone had foreseen, our efforts were rewarded, and down we came. But unfortunately there had been a little mistake. The thing at the bottom was not
a bed of roses after all, it was a cesspool full of barbed wire.”

He developed his second theme in a BBC broadcast on March 10, 1942, titled “The Rediscovery of Europe.” He posed 1914 as the dividing line between two ages. Before 1914, “The  giants of that time were Thomas Hardy — who, however, had stopped writing novels some time earlier — Shaw, Wells, Kipling, Bennett, Galsworthy and, somewhat different from the others — not an Englishman, remember, but a Pole who chose to write in English — Joseph Conrad.” What strikes him about the prewar figures is their
provincialism on international issues and a naive trust in the future of middle-class reform:

“I think the basic fact about nearly all English writers of that time is their complete unawareness of anything outside the contemporary English scene. Some are better writers than others, some are politically conscious and some aren’t, but they are all alike in being untouched by any European influence.” The provincialism was not only geographical but historical as well. “To Bernard Shaw most of the past is simply a mess which ought to be swept away in the name of progress, hygiene, efficiency and what-not.”  

His point is that the writers of the prewar period took for granted the middle-class life of isolated England. Their rebellion against it was a narrow one, over issues that would look small after the trenches of France. He contrasts the whole lot of them to Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Huxley, Lawrence, and Wyndham Lewis: “To begin with the notion of progress has gone by the board. They don’t any longer believe that men are getting better and better by having lower  mortality rates, more effective birth control, better plumbing, more aeroplanes and faster motor cars. . . . All of them are politically reactionary, or at best are uninterested in politics. None of them cares twopence about the various hole-and-corner reforms which had seemed important to their predecessors, such as female suffrage, temperance reform, birth control or prevention of cruelty to animals.”

He contrasts this new cynicism to “the shallow Fabian progressivism of writers like Bernard Shaw.” What did it signify? “Partly that was the effect of the war of 1914-18, which succeeded in debunking both Science, Progress and civilized man. Progress had finally ended in the biggest massacre in history. Science was something that created bombing
planes and poison gas, civilized man, as it turned out, was ready to behave worse than any savage when the pinch came.”

He adds:

“One effect of the ghastly history of the last twenty years has been to make a great deal of ancient literature seem much more modern. A lot that has happened in Germany since the rise of Hitler might have come straight out of the later volumes of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Recently I saw Shakespeare’s King John acted — the first time I had seen it, because it is a play which isn’t acted very often. When I had read it as a boy it seemed to me archaic, something dug out of a history book and not having anything to do with our own time. Well, when I saw it acted, what with its intrigues and doublecrossings, non-aggression pacts, quislings, people changing sides in the middle of a battle, and what-not, it seemed to me extraordinarily up to date. And it was rather the same thing that happened in the literary development between 1910 and 1920. The prevailing temper of the time gave a new reality to all sorts of themes which had seemed out of date and puerile when Bernard Shaw and his Fabians were — so they
thought — turning the world into a sort of super garden city. Themes like revenge, patriotism, exile, persecution, race hatred, religious faith, loyalty, leader worship,  suddenly seemed real again.”

 

Orwell addressed his third charge, the totalitarian strain on the British left, in a passage worth recalling in his 1944 essay “Raffles and Miss Blandish”:

 

“The interconnexion between sadism, masochism, success-worship, power-worship, nationalism, and totalitarianism is a huge subject whose edges have barely been scratched, and even to mention it is considered somewhat indelicate. To take merely the first example that comes to mind, I believe no one has ever pointed out the sadistic and masochistic element in Bernard Shaw’s work, still less suggested that this probably has some connexion with Shaw’s admiration for dictators. Fascism is often loosely equated with sadism, but nearly always by people who see nothing wrong in the most slavish worship of Stalin. The truth is, of course, that the countless English intellectuals who kiss the arse of Stalin are not different from the minority who give their allegiance to Hitler or Mussolini, . . . . nor from that older generation of intellectuals, Carlyle, Creasey and the rest of them, who bowed down before German militarism. All of them are worshipping power and successful cruelty. It is important to notice that the cult of power tends to be mixed up with a love of cruelty and wickedness for their own sakes. A tyrant is all the more admired if he happens to be a bloodstained crook as well, and ‘the end justifies the means’ often becomes, in effect, ‘the means justify themselves provided they are dirty enough’. This idea colours the outlook of all sympathizers with totalitarianism, and accounts, for instance, for the positive delight with which many English intellectuals greeted the Nazi-Soviet pact.”

 

This concern appears to be why the dictatorship in 1984 is said to have arisen from a British socialist revolution, not a fascist one,  or the Russian socialist one, as a warning to his fellow socialists of this fatal train of thought. And then there is Mr. Whymper in Orwell’sAnimal Farm. Whymper is a man the pig ruler Napoleon hires as his agent to lobby for Animal Farm to the humans. Whymper is widely said to be based on Bernard Shaw.

 

Orwell and Shaw both died in 1950. Despite all that is worthy and memorable in Shaw’s writings, it is not surprising that in the sixty-two years since, Orwell’s reputation has grown larger while Shaw’s has greatly diminished.

 

I will call one last witness, staunch British bulldog Conservative Winston Churchill, who lived seventy-six of his ninety years in the same England as Bernard Shaw. Churchill did write a piece exclusively about Shaw, in his 1937 Great Contemporaries. He notes Shaw’s early poverty, his recoil while still in Ireland from forced conventionality, his embrace of all the “New” movements of the 1890s. He had dined with Shaw, saying of the occasion, “I possess a lively image of this bright, nimble, fierce, and comprehending being, Jack Frost, dancing bespangled in the sunshine, which I should be very sorry to lose.”

He held the plays in unreserved esteem:

CandidaMajor Barbara, and Man and Superman riveted the attention of the intellectual world.  Into the void left by the annihilation of Wilde he stepped armed with a keener wit, a tenser dialogue, a more challenging theme, a stronger construction, a deeper and more natural comprehension. The characteristics and the idiosyncrasies of the Shavian drama are world-renowned. His plays are today more frequently presented, not only within the wide frontiers of the English language, but throughout the world, than those of any man but Shakespeare. All parties and every class, in every country, have pricked up their ears at the coming and welcomed their return.”

Shaw, he argued, in his life was radically divorced from his own political views, not by a crude hypocrisy but by an odd ability to in all sincerity believe many contradictory things at the same time:

“Few people practice what they preach, and no one less so than Mr. Bernard Shaw. Few are more capable of having the best of everything both ways. His spiritual home is no doubt in Russia; his native land is the Irish Free State; but he lives in comfortable England. His dissolvent theories of life and society have been sturdily banished from his personal conduct and his home. No one has ever led a more respectable life or been a stronger seceder from his own subversive imagination. He derides the marriage vow and even at times the sentiment of love itself; yet no one is more happily or wisely married. He indulges in all the liberties of an irresponsible Chatterbox, babbling gloriously from dawn to dusk, and at the same time advocates the abolition of Parliamentary institutions and the setting up of an Iron Dictatorship, of which he would probably be the first victim. . . . He is at once an acquisitive capitalist and a sincere Communist. He makes his characters talk blithely about killing men for the sake of an idea; but would take great trouble not to hurt a fly.

“He seems to derive equal pleasure from all these contrary habits, poses and attitudes. He has laughed his sparkling way through life, exploding by his own acts or words every argument he has ever used on either side of any question, teasing and bewildering every public he has addressed, and involving in his own mockery every cause he has ever championed. The world has long watched with tolerance and amusement the nimble antics and gyrations of this unique and double-headed chameleon, while all the time the creature was eager to be taken seriously.”

Churchill adds some more bitter comments on Stalinist Russia beyond the passage quoted earlier on Shaw’s 1931 visit:

“In Russia we have a vast dumb people dwelling under the discipline of a conscripted army in war-time. . . . a people ruled by terror, fanaticisms, and the Secret Police. . . . where liberty is unknown; where grace and culture are dying; and where armaments and preparations for war are rife.” He writes: “Decent, good-hearted British men and women ought not to be so airily detached from realities, that they have no word of honest indignation for such wantonly, callously-inflicted pain.”

He upbraids Shaw for his role in World War I, describing him as the country’s chief jester:

“If the truth must be told, our British island has not had much help in its troubles from Mr. Bernard Shaw. When nations are fighting for life, when the Palace in which the Jester dwells not uncomfortably, is itself assailed, and everyone from Prince to groom is fighting on the battlements, the Jester’s jokes echo only through deserted halls, and his witticisms and commendations, distributed evenly between friend and foe, jar the ears of hurrying messengers, of mourning women and wounded men.”

Nevertheless, once peace is restored “we can be proud of our famous Jester.” He concludes with fulsome praise:

“Saint, sage, and clown; venerable, profound, and irrepressible, Bernard Shaw receives, if not the salutes, at least the hand-clappings of a generation which honors him as another link in the humanities of peoples, and as the greatest living master of letters in the English-speaking world.”

I think it best to leave this review here, a picture of a greatly flawed man with great gifts, who dreamed of a totalitarian future while making the present better in many ways. His principal contribution, apart from the obvious in lifting the spirits of several generations of theatre goers, was to have helped move the British public and government to give women the vote, to tend to the health of their people, to clear the odorous slums. He had fantasized about achieving more, but luckily, for him and for us, that more – the
messianic utopia of a society remade by dictatorial fiat through a murderous and supercentralized state – was denied him.

Christopher Hitchens and the Two Lefts

 

By Leslie Evans

 

I cannot help but feel deeply the loss of Christopher Hitchens. I never met him. I read a number of his books, many of his articles in Vanity Fair and in the online Slate magazine, and saw a few of his speeches on video. Contrarian though he was, he had become for me, with a few other similar thinkers, a political anchor in a time when the world was sorting itself into new and unexpected categories and many old convictions had become sterile and untenable.

 

 In 1965 at sixteen Hitchens joined the British Labour Party, where he became part of its left-wing youth. He was soon expelled for campaigning against the war in Vietnam. He joined the International Socialists, Trotskyist followers of Tony Cliff, in time to be thrilled by the global revolutionary outbreaks of 1968, above all the May-June worker-student uprising in France. Hitchens began to write for their press in 1970. I was then just completing several years as managing editor of the Intercontinental Press, the New York weekly news magazine of the Trotskyist Fourth International. In May of that year I became editor of the International Socialist Review, the monthly magazine of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party. In 1977 the British International Socialists changed their name to Socialist Workers Party. Despite the confusion of their identical names the two groups were not on friendly terms, though they shared a common ideological heritage in variations on Trotsky's Bolshevism.

 

Hitchens worked for most of the 1970s for the London left-wing New Statesman. He moved to New York in 1981, two years after I left there to go into the iron mines in northern Minnesota. In America he wrote for The Nation, excoriating, as we Marxists did, the evils of capitalism in general and American imperialism in particular.

 

He had an exceptional talent. Like Churchill, who he despised, he read rapidly and widely and had virtually eidetic memory, giving his carefully wrought journalism unusual sweep and depth. He was as much a literary critic as political scourge; erudite and pugnacious, with only a few fixed guiding stars, the most important a hatred of tyranny and of religious obscurantism.

 

The most shocking scene in his memoir, Hitch 22, was not about politics. In April 1973, his mother Yvonne abandoned his father, an austere British naval officer, and ran away to Athens with her lover, a defrocked pastor. There the pair committed suicide. Hitchens was summoned to the grisly scene, guiltily wondering if, had he spoken to her one more time, he could have forestalled the tragedy. While there a major military protest erupted against the right-wing junta. Hitchens filed a story with the New Statesman and launched his career as a foreign correspondent.

 

For the next twenty-nine years he was on the move for various leftist publications, covering events in sixty countries, including Pakistan, India, Chad, Zimbabwe, Uganda, the Darfur region of Sudan, and Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

 

For the politicized, Hitchens is best remembered for his militant atheism, admired on the left, and his break with the far left after 9/11 and support for the U.S. war in Iraq, from which leftists and most liberals shrank in horror. I never found his atheism particularly interesting. By the time I acquired Hitchens' God Is Not Great I had already read Sam Harris' and Richard Dawkins' anti-God books and did not take the time to read Hitchens' addition to the genre. I certainly agreed that militant religion had come to pose a mortal threat to liberal democracy, but felt that a political battle to set secular limits was more likely to have results than trying to change deeply held belief systems.

 

His support to the Iraq war was grounded in his hatred of totalitarianism and his conviction, already forming a decade before 9/11, that the Arab and Persian Middle East had become a cauldron of right-wing dictatorships and religious fanaticism that threatened democratic societies everywhere. I did not for a very long time pay much attention to that thread in his thinking either.

 

What drew me to Hitchens was his critique of the Marxist and anti-imperialist left in the age that dawned with the collapse of Communism. I felt by the turn of the millennium that the world lineups that had shaped my politics in the sixties and seventies had morphed into new forms that I was struggling to understand. With Tolkien's Galadriel I could sense that "The world is changed, I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, I smell it in the air." Hitchens was articulating what was different and I read him with rapt attention.

 

A major factor that had attracted both of us to the far left was revulsion at our respective governments' promotion of right-wing dictatorships in what we then called the colonial and later the third world. The litany included the CIA-backed Iranian coup against the liberal Mosaddegh government in 1953; toppling Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954; the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and the murder of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo in 1961; the U.S.-backed Pinochet coup against Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973; and above all the decades-long war in Vietnam.

 

The world that dawned with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 proved to be quite different from the Cold War realm, where a ruthless United States swatted down real and imagined pro-Communist governments wherever it found them. In fact, all of the imperialist sins in the standard list were blows struck against what Washington perceived, somewhat paranoically, as emergent Communist threats. The Manichean Soviet-Western split was gone and with it much of the motivation for the capitalist West's bad behavior toward emergent states.

 

The disappearance of the Soviet adversary was followed by several years of a drugged up high where the American establishment strutted as the hegemonic power on the planet. Those were the days of Francis Fukuyama's 1992 "The End of History and the Last Man" fantasy, where the American variety of mostly free market capitalism was now to be the unchallenged model for every country. The Republican right puffed itself up with self-congratulatory praise about the power of the United States. Perhaps because they took this stuff too seriously, much of the left succumbed to the illusion that the United States was now more dangerous than ever, king of the world - and hence bringing it low was the cardinal task of the age.

 

A more sober assessment was Samuel P. Huntington's lecture the same year on the Clash of Civilizations, framed as a reply to Fukuyama, which proposed that there are multiple civilizations, divided by firmly entrenched cultures, religions, and economic patterns that are not about to go away. He named the Anglo, European, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Latin American, and Islamic as the world's major civilizations. This was largely rejected at the time and caricatured as proposing inevitable war between the rivals. That is not at all what Huntington said, only that the other civilizations were not going to adopt the American pattern - the neocons were notoriously over optimistic here - and that the lines where they met were hot spots (famously: Islam has bloody borders).

 

Instead of American hegemony, multiple rival powers emerged, many of them, the optimism of 1991 notwithstanding, hostile to democratic institutions. There is the authoritarian and Mafia-ridden Russia of Medvedev-Putin; the numerous dictatorial failed states of Sub-Saharan Africa; the Communist dictatorships of China and Vietnam, which have turned capitalist and become America's economic rivals, along with rapidly advancing India; nuclear armed North Korea; and an increasingly prosperous Latin America distanced by history and inclination from the United States. The Arab and Persian Middle East has mostly been a spoiler in the world system: cripplingly undeveloped suppliers of oil, mired in a stifling religious miasma that ensures their continued backwardness, marked by dictatorships and fanatical Islamic movements locked in many variations of mutual combat, with the jihadis, in and out of power, aspiring to a world revolution that would exterminate modern civilization and replace it with a medieval totalitarianism. The Arab Spring offers hope here, though we need to await its further evolution.

 

Anti-imperialism was a cardinal element of Hitchens' as well as my politics. Beginning with the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, and deepening after the collapse of communism at the end of the 1980s, the political tectonic plates shifted. The most active opponents of U.S. and British influence became Islamic theocrats, narco terrorists like the FARC in Colombia, the North Korean nightmare state, and various unsavory dictatorships such as Robert Mugabe's kleptocracy in Zimbabwe, or repressive demagogues like Chavez in Venezuela.

 

Guided by the unreconsidered premise that American imperialism was the most evil force on the planet, much of the far left embraced any regime or movement that claimed the United States as its enemy. In the process many became champions of dictatorships, often of the far right, and of the ultraright religious totalitarians of the Islamic jihad. A common subtext here was endorsement of Hamas' and Hezbollah's drive to destroy Israel, leapfrogging from morally admirable opposition to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza to the patently anti-Semitic promotion of jihadi movements that call for the expulsion of the Jews from the region - including the Israeli majority whose families are refugees already expelled from a half dozen Arab states - and commonly for extermination of the Jews altogether.

 

For both Hitchens and myself the alarm began to sound with leftist support to the Islamist theocracy in Iran.

 

I began to break with the Socialist Workers Party in 1981, in part over a historical dispute on Lenin's politics, but contemporaneously over their coverage of the Khomeini theocracy in Iran. At a certain point after the 1979 Islamic Revolution the American SWP, in imitation of the Cuban government in Havana, which they hoped to influence, eliminated from their press any reports on the mullahs' crushing of the Iranian liberals, leftists, and unionists, portraying Khomeini solely as an anti-imperialist. At the time I called that kind of politics Third Worldist and rejected it, but did not yet see what it signified about changes in the world alignment of forces.

 

Hitchens hit the same roadblock a few years later. In a 2003 interview in Frontpage he recalled:

 

"The realization that we were in a cultural and political war with Islamic theocracy came to me with force and certainty not on 11 September 2001 but on 14 February 1989, when the Ayatollah Khomeini offered money in his own name to suborn the murder of my friend Salman Rushdie."

 

Hitchens, while having hopes for the beleaguered democratic forces in the Arab world, was one of the first on the left to recognize that the new multicentered world contained more newly risen enemies of democracy than victims of imperialist oppression. He derived his insight not from Huntington, but from his hero, George Orwell, who lived in the age of Hitler and Stalin, when it was obvious the world had irreconcilable regimes and that there were far worse things lurking than British or American imperialism.

 

At root for both Hitchens and Orwell, democracy was worth defending. For the Marxist left, "bourgeois" democracy is a fake, to be swept aside by a totalizing state power. For the narrow anti-imperialist, their own country is the irredeemable villain, while its democratic institutions do not weigh much in the balance. Orwell excoriated the British intellectuals of his own day who imagined that Soviet communism was a utopian alternative to Britain's evils, or saw little to defend in their homeland. In his The Lion and the Unicorn essay in 1940 Orwell wrote:

 

"[T]he really important fact about so many of the English intelligentsia - [is] their severance from the common culture of the country. In intention, at any rate, the English intelligentsia are Europeanized. They take their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow. In the general patriotism of the country they form a sort of island of dissident thought. England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during 'God save the King' than of stealing from a poor box. All through the critical years many left-wingers were chipping away at English morale, trying to spread an outlook that was sometimes squashily pacifist, sometimes violently pro-Russian, but always anti-British."

 

This not from a man of the right but from a still-convinced socialist. The people he disparages are of a type quite widespread in the wake of the sixties radicalization. They hardened their political views in the days of the struggle against the Vietnam War. I was one myself for many years. Of course, there was a parallel alienation on the right, in reaction to the upheavals of the sixties and the defeat in Vietnam, visible today in the Tea Party movement.

 

It was time, Hitchens felt, to accept responsibility to defend a society that is among the better ones in the world rather than campaign to scrap it in hopes that a superior one could take its place. The United States remains the strongest single player, but one clearly facing many unfriendly powers and in rapid relative and absolute decline. One measure of this is that, despite its vaunted technological and economic superiority, the U.S. has not unequivocally won any of the many wars it has waged since World War II (except for the invasion of tiny Grenada, which proves my point).

 

Of the various enemies of democratic society the most active and threatening in the last decade have been the Islamic jihadists. They do not hold state power outside of Iran, Gaza, and, arguably, southern Lebanon, but have a large following within the Muslim world - we will have to see as the Arab Spring evolves just how large. At the least, 9/11 and the Al Qaeda offshoots in Iraq, Algeria, and in Europe showed they can inflict traumatic damage.

 

Christopher Hitchens took this struggle to heart. In the introduction to his last book, Arguably, written just six months before he died, he says,

 

"The organizations that find and train men like [9/11 hijacker Mohammed] Atta have since been responsible for unutterable crimes in many countries and societies, from England to Iraq, in their attempt to create a system where the cold and loveless zombie would be the norm, and culture would be dead. They claim that they will win because they love death more than life, and because life-lovers are feeble and corrupt degenerates. Practically every word I have written, since 2001, has been explicitly or implicitly directed at refuting and defeating those hateful, nihilistic propositions, as well as those among us who try to explain them away."

 

He pursued this theme in many venues. In a July 2005 article in The Mirror he summarized the grievances put forward by Osama bin Laden in his various messages to the world, most of which can be found much earlier in the extremely influential writings of that father of modern jihad, Egyptian theorist Sayyid Qutb (see my article on Qutb's views):

 

"The grievance of seeing unveiled women. The grievance of the existence, not of the State of Israel, but of the Jewish people. The grievance of the heresy of democracy, which impedes the imposition of Sharia law. The grievance of a work of fiction written by an Indian living in London. The grievance of the existence of black African Muslim farmers, who won't abandon lands in Darfur. The grievance of the existence of homosexuals. The grievance of music, and of most representational art. The grievance of the existence of Hinduism. The grievance of East Timor's liberation from Indonesian rule."

 

In Arguably he describes a meeting where he spoke at the American University of Beirut in February 2009. He tried, he says, to highlight positive democratic currents in the Middle East: Egyptian dissident Saad-Eddin Ibrahim, who shortly afterward became an inspirer of the anti-Mubarak revolt; the Cedar Revolution against Syrian domination in Lebanon; the Kurdish struggle against Saddam Hussein and, since his fall, against the revanchist Baath and Al Qaeda "insurgents"; and Salem Fayyad's work to reform the Palestinian Authority. His audience, he said, including most of the Americans, were hostile, responding that revolutionary authenticity belonged to groups like Hamas or Hezbollah. Here Hitchens states his central life credo:

 

"For me this was yet another round in a long historic dispute. Briefly stated, this ongoing polemic takes place between the anti-imperialist Left, and the anti-totalitarian Left. In one shape or another, I have been involved - on both sides of it - all my life. And, in the case of any conflict, I have increasingly resolved it on the anti-totalitarian side."

 

Like his mentor, George Orwell, Hitchens remained on the left after his break with those leftists who placed anti-Americanism above anti-totalitarianism, and despite his opponents' fatwas of excommunication. His former comrades of the British Socialist Workers Party in 2004 formed a Marxist-Islamist alliance, launching the Respect Party, which includes supporters of Hamas and of the Muslim Brotherhood. It called not only for an end to the war in Iraq but for the destruction of Israel. The party elected one member to parliament in 2005 and won quite a number of local elections, until it underwent a devastating split in 2007.

 

The more venerable New Left Review in its May-June 2003 issue called for support to the "resistance" in Iraq and for solidarity with North Korea's Kim Jung Il in his stand against imperialism. The American SWP more recently sent a goodwill mission to the comrades in North Korea.

 

Hitchens' turn quickly earned the vituperation of the scabrous doyens of anti-Americanism: Noam Chomsky, Alexander Coburn, Norman Finkelstein, and Edward Herman and their coterie. George Galloway, one-time British Labour politician, inveterate enemy of Israel, and supporter of Saddam Hussein, quipped that Hitchens was "the first-ever metamorphosis from a butterfly back into a slug."

 

Hitchens, never one to duck a fight, responded in kind. In the afterword to Christopher Hitchens and His Critics he replied to the lot:

 

"[T]he years after the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1989 are marked by the recrudescence of danger from different forms of absolutism in Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Darfur, and North Korea, and, once again, a huge number of 'intellectuals' will not agree that the totalitarian principle, whether secular or religious, is the main enemy. There is, apparently, always some reason why this is either not true or is a distraction from some more pressing business or is perhaps a mere excuse for 'empire.'"

 

The anti-imperialist left underwent a certain devaluation in the last two decades, making a more moderate progressive politics increasingly attractive. Hitchens took this rather farther than I would, claiming a temporary alliance with the neocons and becoming a bit of a friend to neocon-in-chief Paul Wolfowitz. I would say in his defense that the American right is composed of many different currents, and the neocons are far removed from the Christian evangelicals (most of the neocons were Jewish), or even their cynical compatriots in the Bush-Cheney-Rove group. They are best summed up in John Gray's Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia as "armed missionaries" on a quest to export simulacra of the American political structure. They have been described as advocates of a right-centrist version of Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution. This is likely what Hitchens saw in them. Their welcome in the halls of Republican power was short lived.

 

Though he viewed the American military in Iraq as a means to free the Iraqi people from their fascistlike dictator it did not endear him to George W. Bush, of whom he said, "He is unusually incurious, abnormally unintelligent, amazingly inarticulate, fantastically uncultured, extraordinarily uneducated and apparently quite proud of all these things."

 

As usual Hitchens was not a sideline commentator. Terry Glavin in his obituary in the Ottawa Citizen recounts:

 

"Reporting from Pakistans borderlands while American bombers rained guided missiles down on Taliban strongholds, Hitchens learned that at least two American F-16 pilots were women, and he could barely contain the urge to rush to the Taliban embassy with the news: 'Its your worst nightmare, you bastards. Shes pissed, shes packing, and shes headed for you.'"

 

Glavin adds:

 

"But he wasnt about to flatter American conservatives, either. Invited by a cable news talk show to offer his views on the death of the American celebrity evangelist Jerry Falwell, Hitchens refused to play along, saying that if Falwell were given an enema he could be buried in a matchbox."

 

No doubt Hitchens after 2001 moved to the right of where he had been, but to the end he regarded himself as primarily a leftist. "He was brilliant and often exasperating," wrote Timothy Noah, a long-time collaborator on Slate, in his death notice in the New Republic, "even before 9/11 made him an unrepentant Iraq hawk; I won't say 'conservative' because even in his lefty days Hitchens had a conservative streak, especially in his literary taste, and even after he started writing for the Weekly Standard he remained in many ways a man of the left."

 

In his late writings I thought Hitchens was too soft on Trotsky, too hard on Churchill and Clinton. He wrote with great bitterness against the death penalty, submitted himself to water-boarding to prove that it really is torture, and mocked the sainted Mother Teresa and Christian fundamentalism. He went to Chile to testify against the Pinochet government and Henry Kissinger in the murder investigation of the killing of Charles Horman (the case portrayed in the film "Missing").

 

It is necessary to say something about Hitchens and the Iraq War. There were many good reasons why any democrat or humanitarian should have opposed Saddam Hussein's dictatorship. The main debate over the war has been whether they affected direct American interests enough to justify military intervention, and whether such intervention could succeed in stabilizing a less repressive regime. The well of American public opinion was poisoned at the outset by the Bush administration's decision to try to motivate an invasion by claiming Iraq posed an immediate threat to the United States and had some connection to the 9/11 atrocity. The charge that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction was based on the highly dubious testimony of the defecting Iraqi scientist code named Curveball and some limitations Saddam placed on UN inspections. The idea he was in league with Al Qaeda had an even thinner foundation. When neither proved to be true, Democrats en masse, not just the hard core anti-imperialist left, regarded the already unpopular Bush as a liar and opposed the whole operation. Support for the war never recovered from that false start.

 

There was a plausible case for the invasion, but it was more indirect and less likely to persuade a largely isolationist public. The Bushies included it in their motivation, but it was drowned out by the furor over the missing WMDs. The problem, as the neocons saw it during their brief ascendency in Washington, was to break up the status quo of economic stagnation, dictatorship, and religious fanaticism that made the whole region a petri dish for toxins that were repeatedly morphing into other parts of the world. This was really a long-term issue in which 9/11 was only the spark that provoked the concern. The aim was not to punish particular authors of the World Trade Center attack but to try to insert a foothold for a more moderate politics into the region. Where to do that? The states most tied to 9/11 were Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, both allies, if dubious ones. Corrupt Saudi princes lavishly funded Wahabi extremists, out of whose ranks came 15 of the 19 hijackers. At the same time they were officially friendly and the single largest source of oil on which the American economy depended. Pakistan's intelligence service had mentored the Taliban, with which it still maintained strong ties, viewing Afghanistan as a pawn in its conflict with India. Here we had another formal ally, and a nuclear armed one at that.

 

Iran, the largest open enemy, was Shiite, while all the hijackers were Sunnis, making the connection too remote. Its fifty million inhabitants were a daunting opponent, as it appeared that the Islamic government, while less popular than in 1979, still commanded the loyalty of some important portion of the people.

 

That left Iraq. Saddam was by far the most repressive of the Arab and Persian Muslim dictators. The New York Times said in his obituary that he had murdered as many as 1 million of his own people, many with poison gas, apart from the hundreds of thousands who died in his wars. He was also the most expansionist. He had waged a nine-year war against Iran (1980-1988) that left 1 million Iranians and 500,000 Iraqis dead or wounded. Then, only two years later, there came his invasion of Kuwait.

 

While Bush and Cheney chose to use far fetched and inflammatory claims to justify their pending invasion, the widespread notion that the choice of Iraq was arbitrary and that America had no special interest there since the end of the Gulf War years before is not the case. The U.S. after 1990 remained deeply and militarily involved in Iraq up to the moment of the 2003 invasion. Under three administrations, Republican and Democratic, it maintained, with the UK and France, the risky and costly no fly zones that covered more than half the country - in the north to protect the Kurds, and in the south to guard the Shiite Muslims. The U.S. alone by 1999 had flown over 200,000 sorties over Iraq, facing anti-aircraft fire from Saddam's batteries. The UN Security Council sanctions, imposed in 1990, by the time of the U.S. invasion in 2003 had resulted in as many as 500,000 deaths from malnutrition, mostly of children (some contested estimates are much higher). The sanctions, pursued by Clinton as well as the two Bushes, were having an unacceptable human cost. They could be withdrawn, or Saddam could be toppled. In the post 9/11 climate making a major concession to the Iraqi dictatorship was not a likely possibility.

 

Whether the American people could have been convinced on humanitarian grounds and to help reform Arab dysfunction in America's long-term interests will never be known. Probably not under Republican auspices. Bush's stupidity meant that the war's initial supporters were predominately on the political right, with the liberals and left firmly in opposition. There were, however, a few leftists with a history of defending Saddam's victims who endorsed the invasion. Christopher Hitchens was prominent among them.

 

As a British citizen and internationalist there was no reason for Hitchens to make paramount America's costs, the focus of the dispute in the United States (except for the hard anti-imperialists who had more fundamental disagreements). He and his closest cothinker, British journalist Nick Cohen, began from the interests of the Iraqis, particularly the threatened Kurdish minority. There are as many as seven million Kurds in Iraq, perhaps 20% of the population. A non-Arab people, religiously Sunni Muslims, there are altogether something between 28 and 35 million Kurds, the largest ethnicity in the world that does not have its own country, split between Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Hitchens spent several months in the Kurdish lands in 1991, just after the Gulf War, crossing over the Iraqi border into Free Kurdistan. He describes his experience in his book Love, Poverty, and War:

 

"I enlisted the help of an armed escort hardened by months of guerrilla fighting. Hoshyar Samsam, who knew this country well and had been the personal bodyguard of Jalal Talabani [a central political and military leader of the Kurds, today president of Iraq], was taking care of me. He calmly conducted me through bomb-shattered villages and deserted towns. He foraged for me in an area blighted by famine and helped me dodge Iraqi patrols."

 

The Kurds in Iraq's north, like the Marsh Arabs in the south, staged massive uprisings after the Americans in the Gulf War forced the Iraqi army out of Kuwait. Bush the Elder promised them support. It never came, and both peoples were massacred. For those who knew and cared about the Kurds this was an unpaid blood debt on America's ledger.

 

Both Hitchens and Cohen were friends with Kanan Makiya, a Kurdish emigre and Trotskyist who championed opposition to Saddam Hussein. Cohen in his What's Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way, says that Makiya was a hero of the left until the U.S. Gulf War, when criticism of Saddam was suddenly dropped and Makiya's liberal and leftist friends shunned him. On the whole, once the United States was involved in 2003 the American and British left refused to have anything to do with democratic, liberal, or leftist Iraqis for fear of seeming to endorse the U.S. invasion.

 

Orwell grappled throughout the thirties with the implicit disconnect between his socialist beliefs and the attitude he should take toward his country's battles. He finally concluded, as the war with Germany began, that England's democratic tradition justified public patriotism, that patriotism was not a monopoly of the political right, and that patriotism had to be toward the country as it existed, not the usual leftist subterfuge of claiming to be patriotic to the state that was to come into being after the present one is destroyed by the hoped-for revolution.

 

In Orwell’s shadow, Hitchens made the same journey at the turn of the millennium, while much of the international left went the other way. He was a strong advocate for the Clinton administration’s military intervention in the Balkans after the breakup of Yugoslavia, in defense of the victimized Bosniak Muslims.

Bush compounded his initial propaganda disaster by the post-invasion decisions to dissolve the existing Iraqi army and de-Baathify the government, the newly jobless soldiers and bureaucrats streaming into the ranks of the terrorist insurgency. The small progressive current in America and Britain that supported the war on humanitarian grounds included at the outset Christopher Hitchens, Paul Berman, Nick Cohen, Fareed Zakaria, Thomas Friedman, and a score of other prominent names. Most of the liberals fell by the wayside by 2005 or 2006 as the war dragged and the civil war erupted within it. Hitchens, Cohen, and Berman stuck it out.

I worked out my own views on the war in a long email correspondence with an unrepentant Trotskyist friend. She regarded the American government as malevolent and necessarily ill intentioned, viewing any military action by its forces as totally reactionary. At UCLA, where I worked at the time, I had gotten to know a young couple, Alicia Stevenson and Jonathan Dotan, UCLA seniors who had spent considerable time in Bosnia-Herzegovina as interns in the NATO occupation government set up to protect the Muslim population. Among their duties was to identify bodies excavated from mass graves in Srebrenica, from the 1995 massacre by the Serbs of 8,000 Bosniak Muslims. As editor of the UCLA International Institute’s website I published their account, in October 2003, many of the dead still anonymous eight years after the killing. There was no way that I could view the U.S. intervention as predatory. Christopher Hitchens had a still more intimate involvement in that conflict.

I would not have advocated the invasion of Iraq, but I rejoiced to see Saddam overthrown. The die had then been cast and the choice to hurriedly back out was not really there. Like Spain in the 1930s, it became a contest between the international jihadi right and their local Baathist thugs, opposed by the weaker if more numerous native forces defending a more democratic and pluralist future, if still one in which Islam would be a prominent feature. I felt from that moment, as Hitchens and his cothinkers did, that it was wrong to weigh the stakes too narrowly, only from the standpoint of U.S. public opinion. An Islamicist victory would give them a major territorial base in the Arab world, a large source of oil to fund their efforts, and embolden those forces on a global scale.

Many of my friends on the far left tried to shoehorn the Iraq invasion into the Vietnam pattern. Saddam was a despot even to his Sunni base, and a mass murderer toward the 80 percent of his people who were Shiites or Kurds. I started from that remnant of my Trotskyist training that made me an internationalist. We had gotten the Iraqis into this – again! – and our moral obligation was not to abandon them for a second time to the killers, unless they clearly wanted us to get out.

Iraq, like Yugoslavia, was a creation of the post-World War I redrawing of the map of Europe and the Middle East. Both countries, Yugoslavia, which dates to 1918, and Iraq, from 1920, were cobbled together from pieces of historic enemy peoples. They held together only so long as firm authoritarian leaders kept the lid on.

When these were gone, a free-for-all bloodbath ensued. In Iraq this was deliberately exacerbated by the swarm of foreign jihadi militants who flowed in. Notable of this type was Musab Al Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq. Al Zarqawi was a Jordanian who had run an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. His initial cadre infiltrated northern Iraq from Iran. Others came through Syria. They adopted a deliberate strategy of mass murder of Shiites to provoke a civil war that would, they hoped, make stabilizing the situation impossible. I do not believe that the crime here is in deposing the dictatorships that glued these places together. Rather, the ethnic warfare had to be worked through, stopped if possible. This is a cost that it seems to me unfair to debit to the American account. The accepted number of deaths of Iraqi civilians since 2003 is 104,000. The most authoritative source for such numbers, the Iraq Body Count website, reports that the U.S.-led coalition committed only 12 percent of these killings; the vast majority were by the Baathist and Al Qaeda death squads, the counter anti-Sunni killings by Muqtada Sadr’s Shiite militia, the roadside and suicide bombings. It can be said that the large majority of the deaths of the last eight years are the final installment of Saddam’s exactions from his people, more than some kind of wanton slaughter by the Americans.

From the beginning the Kurdish leadership welcomed the Americans, refrained from the mutual Arab Sunni-Shiite slaughter taking place in the south, and worked to build a peaceful and productive enclave in their northern quadrant.

Among the Shiite majority, the Americans were accepted by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, considered by some the most influential figure in present-day Iraq. Al-Sistani strongly supported the elections that were held under American protection, including urging participation by women, and promoted nonretaliation to the Sunni attacks on Shiites, attributing them to foreign Wahabis.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki may be ineffectual and corrupt, but he is not a monster. Elections are reasonably honest by the standards of the region, Sunnis and Kurds are elected to office and take part in the government, the regime tries to protect the safety of its people. It doesn’t have a clean record on torture by European or American standards, but it is far less repressive than either Saddam’s dictatorship or even Shiite Iran, with which it has friendly ties. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani promotes many of the more reactionary tenets of the Quran, but he believes in women’s suffrage, endorses abortion when the health of the mother is in danger, and does not accept the Iranian doctrine of rule by the mullahs.

American deaths in Iraq were 4,477, the price of bringing down the worst and most dangerous of the Arab dictators. In Korea, 36,000 Americans died to save only half the country, and that is widely and reasonably chalked up as worth it. I would ask those who think the Iraq war was a wholly negative effort to consider whether the world and the United States would be better or worse off if the North Korean regime, which bears a striking similarity to that of Saddam Hussein, controlled the whole peninsula today and there was no South Korea.

My stepson Eric for a while had a tag line on his emails that read “Not every problem has an American solution.” There are many dictatorships and failed states. The U.S. can’t do much about most of them. But the frequently heard argument that no military intervention can be fruitful in trying to depose a tyrant in someone else’s country is falsified not only by both World Wars, but in the Arab east by both Iraq and by the fate of Gaddafi in Libya. Sometimes even a very costly and risky deed should be undertaken.

Christopher Hitchens supported the American effort in Iraq, for his own reasons, which were humanitarian to the core. The war ended within days of his death, with an outcome closer to what he had hoped for than to the pessimistic expectations of most of the war’s critics.

Iraq was his most controversial commitment, but his canvas was almost incalculably broad. In his hospital bed as he lay dying he continued to write, to read, to be read to, and to engage, as he loved to do, in interminable conversations. His friend, novelist Ian McEwan, visited him regularly in his last weeks. The day after Hitch died McEwan in the London Guardian recounted one of his last visits:

“And this was a man in constant pain. Denied drinking or eating, he sucked on tiny ice chips. Where others might have beguiled themselves with thoughts of divine purpose (why me?) and dreams of an afterlife, Christopher had all of literature. Over the three days of my final visit I took a note of his subjects. Not long after he stole my Ackroyd [a copy of Peter Acroyd's London Under], he was talking to me of a Slovakian novelist; whether Dreiser in his novels about finance was a guide to the current crisis; Chesterton’s Catholicism; Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, which I had brought for him on a previous visit; Mann’s The Magic Mountain – he’d reread it for reflections on German imperial ambitions towards Turkey; and because we had started to talk about old times in Manhattan, he wanted to quote and celebrate James Fenton’s A German Requiem: “How comforting it is, once or twice a year,/To get together and forget the old times.”

McEwan concluded with the best tribute I have seen:

“His unworldly fluency never deserted him, his commitment was passionate, and he never deserted his trade. He was the consummate writer, the brilliant friend. In Walter Pater’s famous phrase, he burned “with this hard gem-like flame”. Right to the end.”

Tengo Kawana and Aomame's Adventures in the World with Two Moons

 

1Q84. By Haruki Murakami. Translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel. Audible audiobook edition: 10-25-2011. Narrated by Allison Hiroto, Marc Vietor, and Mark Boyett. 46 hours and 50 minutes. Paper edition: 944 pages. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, October 25, 2011.

 

By Leslie Evans

 

I first encountered Haruki Murakami's work only last year when I "read," as an audiobook, as I do most fiction, his 1985 novel "Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World." Literature began as oral storytelling and in our technological age it is to an important degree returning to those roots. It is common in works of fantasy for the conventions of the fantastic world, once established, to be presented with a strict faux realism to promote the suspension of disbelief. Murakami employs realism generously, but to a different end, long sequences of mundane detail are embedded in a world rich in surreal elements, whose rules and reasons are often never explained.

 

 A common device for Murakami is to alternate chapters between two characters who are either intimately connected in some unknown way, or are the same person in different aspects. Hard-Boiled Wonderland concerns a nameless Calcutec, an encryption savant, who works for the System, a mysterious governmental agency tasked with keeping data secure. The Calcutec accepts an illicit job for a scientist who is perfecting technology to prevent sound from propagating (his daughter, when rayed by his device, can speak but no sound travels outward). The scientist's laboratory is hidden deep in the sewers under Tokyo. This is the Hard-Boiled Wonderland. If it is bizarre the End of the World place is more so. The second character, in alternating chapters, also nameless, is a recent arrival in a strange walled town. No one who enters ever leaves. The town raises unicorns, who are left to die in the snow each winter. Every town dweller has had their shadow cut away from their bodies, the shadows soon dying, leaving the citizens with no shadow and, they say, no mind, but this seems to mean no affect, a condition that interests Murakami. This character, who has no memory of his previous life, is assigned to be a Dreamreader in the town library, where he spends his days placing his hands on the skulls of dead unicorns, which brings him visions that must be recorded. He makes secret visits to his dying shadow, which pleads with him for the two to try to escape.

 

We eventually find that the End of the World town is a construct inside the mind of the Calcutec, who in turn is informed that he has only days to live. Does the time his alter ego spends in the unicorn town come after his consciousness is extinguished in Hard-Boiled Wonderland so that is where he will go afterward, or do both of his variants expire when his time is up? It is never clear.

 

While the life of the Calcutec is frenetic, the chapters in the unicorn town are infinitely slow and meditative. The producers chose different readers for the two halves, the Dreamreader perfectly conveying the curious combination of a patient, memoryless man quietly exploring his new environment, and looking without haste for a way to escape it.

 

Murakami, who turns sixty-three in January 2012, is regarded as a postmodernist. He lived in the United States for nine years, between 1986 and 1995, where he taught writing at Yale and Tufts. He is criticized by the Japanese literary establishment for his many Western and American references. He has been prolific both as a novelist and as a translator, where he has done Japanese editions of F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Irving, Truman Capote, and numerous other authors. He has received many literary awards and prizes, but mostly from Western countries. Yet his most recent novel, 1Q84, sold a million copies in Japan the first month. It was published there in three hard-cover volumes in 2009-10. The English translation, by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, runs to 944 pages. It was released in the United States on October 25, 2011.

 

1Q84 is a love story, an account of a ruthless religious cult, and a tale of parallel worlds, in which none of these terms match conventional expectations. As in Hard-Boiled Wonderland the chapters alternate between different characters; in the first two volumes, between the young woman Aomame, a martial arts and sports trainer, and Tengo Kawana, a math instructor in a Tokyo cram school who is an aspiring novelist on the side. In the third volume another voice enters, the morally and physically ugly Ushikawa, tasked by the cult with hunting down Aomame and Tengo.

 

The story takes place between April and December 1984. It begins with Aomame, thirty, in immaculate business attire, in a taxi caught in a traffic jam on a Tokyo elevated highway. Aomame means "green peas" (think of edomame, the green soybeans you get as an appetizer in Japanese restaurants), said to be a very unusual name in Japan. The cab radio is playing Leos Janacek's 1926 Sinfonietta (now experiencing a surge in popularity due to 1Q84), which she inexplicably recognizes. We learn later that Tengo played timpani in a high school orchestra performance of this piece that Aomame knew nothing about. Ushikawa also listens to it, with a feeling that it has some significant meaning that he can't quite grasp. The novel is full of these kinds of surreal illuminations.

 

Aomame, late for an appointment, steps out of the cab and descends an emergency staircase to take a subway to her destination. This marks her entrance into the parallel world she comes to call 1Q84, the Q standing for Question Mark. The title is also a pun in Japanese, as the pronunciation of Q (kyu) is the same as the number 9, so that spoken aloud 1Q84 and 1984 are the same.

 

Arriving at a high-end hotel, we learn that Aomame is a part-time assassin, there to kill a viciously abusive husband. Posing as a hotel staff member there to inspect the air conditioner, she stabs him in the back of the neck with a special ultrathin ice pick that leaves no mark.

 

Meanwhile Tengo has been serving as a volunteer reader for submissions to a literary award contest. He is strongly impressed with a novelette written by a seventeen-year-old girl, Eriko Fukada, who signs herself Fuka-Eri, also not a recognizable Japanese name. He proposes it to his editor, Komatsu, as a possible winner. Komatsu agrees but thinks the writing too unpolished. He persuades Tengo to secretly rewrite Fuka-Eri's work in more literary style. This risky subterfuge works, the novelette wins first prize, then is published and becomes a best seller.

 

We are told that Fuka-Eri's book is a surreal fantasy. It is about the life of a ten-year-old girl who lives in a rural commune in a world with two moons. She tends goats, and is blamed when one goat that is very important to the commune dies. She is locked up with the dead goat, where, during the night, Little People come out of the dead goat's mouth and begin to weave an "air chrysalis," a cocoonlike structure in which a replicant human grows, this image lifted from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but somehow not as sinister when among the seven Little People, who leave the goat's mouth at two inches high and grow to two feet, one is a "keeper of the beat" who says nothing but an occasional "Ho ho!" Charles Baxter in the New York Review of Books writes that "It is as if the Seven Dwarfs had gradually made their presence known and their powers understood in a novel by James T. Farrell." Or Jack Finney!

 

This appears to be fiction until Aomame looks at the sky one night and sees two moons, the ordinary one, and a second, smaller, unevenly shaped, green moon. She is now in the world of 1Q84. The two worlds are almost identical, only a few small differences separate them: Tokyo police uniforms, a violent shootout between a cultish organization a few years back, and, mainly the Little People and the religious commune they dominate, a group called Sakigake (Forerunner), led, we eventually learn, by Fuka-Eri's father.

 

The menace of Sakigake shadows the whole of the book. It is never clear if the Little People are good, evil, or neither. They come from yet another world. But through them Tamotsu Fukada, the group's founder, is able to hear the Voice, which has become the most important thing in his followers' lives. Publication of his daughter's novel, which reveals the existence of the Little People to the world, even if no one takes it seriously, has stilled the Voice. It has created something like a disturbance in the Force in a Star Wars movie. This turns Sakigake's attention toward Fuka-Eri, and, when they discover his role in the book, toward Tengo.

 

Aomame crosses paths with the cult through her work as an assassin for an elderly dowager, in which she sends the most brutal husbands of the refugees in the dowager's home for abused women "to the other world." It appears that Tamotsu Fukada, known to Sakigake only as Leader, is raping ten-year-old girls. The dowager puts him on Aomame's transit list.

 

As children both Tengo and Aomame were denied love by their parents. Tengo's mother disappeared when he was a toddler. His father, a remote and hostile man who made his living as a door-to-door fee collector for the NHK, the national television network, showed the child no affection, but dragged him along on his rounds to gain sympathy from deadbeat clients. Aomame's parents belonged to a strict and self-isolating religious group, something like the Jehovah's Witnesses, and they also forced her as a child to go with them on their door-to-door proselytizing.

 

The two children were in the same class in elementary school. Tengo was an athletic and math prodigy; Aomame, because of her unpopular religious clothing and manner was an outcast. They never spoke, but once only in the fifth grade she grasped his hand for perhaps a minute. Somehow the two fell in love at that moment. She transferred to another school, and 1Q84 takes up twenty years later, when they both come to realize that they have been carrying this deeply buried love around for two decades. They then begin to search for each other.

 

There are several murders in the course of the year. The one with the greatest consequences is Aomame's murder of Leader. But nothing in 1Q84 is quite what it seems. A cardinal section of the novel is a long philosophical discussion Leader has with Aomame where she is alone with him in the hotel room where she had gone to kill him. He can read minds. He knows why she is there, and probably arranged it. He knows what Tengo feels for Aomame as well as what she feels for Tengo, even though the fated pair have hardly thought this through themselves. It is not clear that the ten-year-olds he has sex with are real people or the replicants created by the Little People, nor whether his actions have anything voluntary about them.

 

Throughout the book characters know things they had no means of knowing, or make deductions so improbably accurate that one has to suspect outside mental guidance. At other times they are, more realistically, frustratingly wrong in their surmises. There are occasionally scenes of explicit sex, but more often it will be descriptions of how Tengo's older mistress holds his penis while they abstractedly talk about something else.

 

Through much of the book Aomame, after killing Leader, is in hiding from the cult, long stretches where the story is filled with the minutia of daily life in the confines of a single small room with the curtains drawn against the outside world. Similarly for Tengo, who spends a lot of time in his tiny apartment. We learn what he had for breakfast, how he cooked his dinner. When he is told his father is in a coma and dying in another town he goes there and long passages have him reading by his father's bedside.

 

These scenes are reminiscent of the 1950s films by Yasujiro Ozu, such as Tokyo Story, depicting the extremely slow unfolding of daily life in tiny increments. In the case of Aomame and Tengo this is a rumination on loneliness and social isolation. The audio reading of this huge novel runs to just short of forty-seven hours. A substantial portion of that were these scenes in Tengo's apartment and at his comatose father's bedside, or at Aomame's hideout. In the right frame of mind I found these prolonged interludes among the most pleasing parts, getting into another person's skin at a time when nothing was happening and living it with them for a while. A little like an Anne Tyler novel.

 

For a while Fuka-Eri lives with Tengo, giving Murakami the opportunity to have a long digression in which Tengo reads her Chekhov's book on Sakhalin, his 1890 nonfiction investigation of prison conditions on the Russian island just north of Japan. Most of Chekhov's book deals with Russian prisoners, but Murakami has Tengo focus on Chekhov's account of the indigenous Oroks. Even when the Russians built roads, the Oroks wouldn't use them. They made their way across country, seeing no reason to become dependent on the alien construct. Fuka-Eri is fascinated by this point.

 

The air chrysalis fills with a replicant called a dohta. The dohta is linked mentally to its human model, the maza. The dohta is emotionally stunted. It is never clear if Fuka-Eri herself is the maza or a dohta. She lacks affect, is dyslexic, speaks little and then in an odd stilted way.

 

While her father, Leader, is genteel, his followers in Sakigake are coldblooded and ready to go to any lengths to reestablish a connection with the Voice of the Little People. They are the dark presence that defines the world of 1Q84, religious rather than Orwell's political tyranny of that year. Murakami returned to Japan from America shortly after the Aum Shinrikyo cult's sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway in 1995 that killed thirteen people and injured a thousand more. He interviewed 60 survivors of the attack, and then 8 members of the cult. He published the interviews in a nonfiction book, Underground. The Aum Shinrikyo interviews appeared separately in Japan but were included in the U.S. translation that appeared in 2000. The transmutation of Aum Shinrikyo into Sakigake also makes them less violent. Insofar as they are a threatening specter it is because they have frozen their lives into acolytes of the Voice, on which they have become desperately dependent for meaning.

 

Of their adversaries, the two lovers, Tengo was not even aware of the cult's existence when he worked on Fuka-Eri's manuscript. Aomame killed the cult's founder while knowing almost nothing about its beliefs, believing him to be a sexual predator on young children, which was probably not true in the magical circle dominated by the Little People with its incomprehensible rules. Still, 1Q84 was a world to escape from no matter how much it resembled the ordinary 1984.

 

I have revealed more than I should of the story. I will leave unsaid what happens to Aomame and Tengo in what is coming to be regarded as Haruki Murakami's masterpiece.

Anticapitalism, the Hyperstate, and the Current Crisis

 

 

By Leslie Evans

 

The Dragons of Expectation: Reality and Delusion in the Course of History, Robert Conquest. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005, 256 pp.

 

"The Return of an Illusion," John Gray. The New Republic, June 23, 2011.

 

The global economic crisis that began in 2008 has revived many salvationist dogmas that we should have thought were well past their shelf life. Most notably in the United States this has been Christian theocracy, but also, to some extent at least, the Marxist notion that the problems of inequality and declining living standards can best be solved by scrapping the whole existing system and abolishing private property tout court. Where the former has secured a commanding influence among Tea Party activists, the latter has been seeking, with a good deal less success, to persuade the Occupy movement campers.

 

 

The encouraging Occupy movement arose under the brilliant slogan, "We Are the 99%." Scanning a Google search for Occupy Wall Street signs shows the vast majority call for specific reforms: raise taxes on the rich, guarantee jobs and healthcare for all, rein in corporate power and profits, pass serious regulations for the financial sector, start a new WPA to repair America's infrastructure and create jobs. Many are funny and most are home made. At the edges a few proclaim "Capitalism is a crime," "Capitalism is a disease," or simply "Anticapitalist." No doubt these warm the cockles of my elderly Marxist friends' hearts, but we should stop for a moment and ask just what those slogans actually call for.

 

Slogans of an activist movement are words of power. And like any magic, you should be careful what you wish for.

 

Before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the disintegration immediately thereafter of the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe, and China's turn to capitalism, there was broad agreement on the meanings of the terms capitalist and anticapitalist. The counterpoint was between an economy that was based primarily on private ownership of the means of production and regimes where the great majority of productive property was owned by the state.

 

"Anticapitalist" had a clear and well understood meaning: nationalize the means of production, usually with a subtext about this being done under workers' control. With the global implosion of Communism - Cuba and the nightmare slave state in North Korea being the spars left floating after the ship sank, even Vietnam having followed China into the free market in 1986 - the Marxist screen on which was inscribed what comes next after capitalism went dark. Something vaguely better but unspecified is often all the antiglobalists and anticapitalists of today will venture.

 

By and large the demands of the Occupy movement could be satisfied by a European-style welfare state. These all have universal healthcare and better welfare and job protections than the rugged individualist and religious-sect-ridden United States.

 

Speaking about these options is complicated by the muddled meanings of the word "socialist." For the right wing, most of Europe is "socialist." Even the middle-of-the-road Obama is a socialist, when he isn't a secret Kenyan Muslim conspirator. On the left "socialist" is the self-identification both of democratic socialists and Marxists, the first being advocates of extensive but limited state intervention to reduce inequality and provide certain minimal protections for all citizens, the second mean by it the first stage of communism, which begins with the destruction of the capitalist state and its institutions. To convolute further, some call themselves Marxists who have drifted away from such fraught imperatives as the dictatorship of the proletariat, while others who remain as hard core as ever nevertheless like to think of themselves as champions of some kind of proletarian democracy superior to what actually exists in what are called the Western democracies.

 

Sweden, though currently governed by a center-right bloc, is the prime example of European noncommunist socialism. For most of the twentieth century the dominant party was the Social Democrats, a socialist party. It remains the largest party in parliament. The country boasts the greatest equality in Europe, including gender equality, universal taxpayer-funded healthcare, strong trade unions, and mass participation in politics. At the same time Sweden is a constitutional monarchy, its industry is primarily privately owned, and by any reasonable economic definition it is a capitalist country.

 

By contrast, in no country where the economy was entirely statized - those, that is, that really were anticapitalist - has there been any kind of free press, elections, or any citizen organization, including trade unions, except those controlled by the one-party state. All had large numbers of political prisoners, and the great majority of these states murdered outright or deliberately starved to death hundreds of thousands or millions of their own citizens. All have been marked by extensive poverty, total censorship, and a ubiquitous secret police. Not a single one came to power through an election or ever afterward submitted to validation of its rule by allowing a vote on anything that mattered, leaving us to take their word that they represent the will of their people.

 

With the sole exception of Cuba - a paternalistic police state with a lackluster economy brightened by some notable social welfare measures, and which has begun, with Fidel's retirement, to also dip its toe into the private enterprise stream - the Communist regimes were matched in savagery toward their own people only by the most zealous of the fascist states. Hitler Germany was worse, but fascist Italy was considerably less repressive than Stalinist Russia, China while Mao was alive, Pol Pot's Cambodia, the Kim dynasty's North Korean serfdom, or even the Soviet Union in its first years under Lenin. Since there have been no examples of a democratic nationalized-property state, opponents of capitalism who call for its outright abolition need to look more critically at the theory, propounded by Karl Marx, on why we should expect such a state to be liberating compared to the existing order.

 

The evils that face the United States today are real and serious. A vast increase in inequality; growth of corporate power; prolonged joblessness, at 9 percent with much higher rates for youths and ethnic minorities; a bitter political paralysis at both national and local levels; and the ominous turn of the Republican Party toward religious obscurantism, rejection of modern science, and a drive to dismantle the social safety net and the modern welfare state, which would return the United States to the immiseration of Charles Dickens' England.

 

Clearly there are big battles to be fought here. It is essential to clarify the goals. Robert Conquest's 2005 reflections on the lingering attraction of the Soviet model and John Gray's more fundamental critique of the Marxist enterprise are helpful here. They are both brief, meant as smelling salts to wake up day dreamers with a sudden jolt, not to provide a definitive account.

 

I picked up Conquest's book on the recommendation of Christopher Hitchens, in his most recent essay collection, Arguably. Conquest, a poet as well as historian, is best known for The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties (1968), considered by many to be the definitive work on the subject. If we focus on our own domestic evils, violations such as waterboarding suspected Al Qaeda militants, government wiretapping, the extraordinary inflation of CEO salaries, and threats to Social Security and Medicare loom large. Placing absolute, unrestricted power in the hands of government, as the Russian abolition of capitalist decentralization did, gave the state the power to do evil on a wholly different scale.

 

Conquest in The Great Terror put the number murdered or deliberately starved to death by the Soviet regime at 20 million. In the debates over such numbers, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of its secret archives, Conquest's estimate proved to be far from the highest. Political scientist R. J. Rummel, the leading authority on democide, the intentional killing of citizens by their own government, put the number of those deliberately killed by the Soviet government in the Stalin era at 43 million. There were several categories Conquest left out, including most of those who died in the Gulag before 1936 or after 1939, the huge death rates among ethnic minorities such as the Crimean Tatars forcibly deported to Siberia, and the extensive executions in Eastern Europe as the Soviet army established its control at the end of World War II, including anti-Nazi fighters who did not happen to be Communists as well as many who were.

 

The dragons Conquest wants to slay are ideological, tendencies on the political left to magnify the evils of capitalism while finding rationalizations to discount the awful human cost of the statist experiments as irrelevant to their calls to try that road again. Every age, he suggests, and every people and culture within it, has its fanaticisms, fixed perceptions of reality that a later time can only look back on with horror. The Spanish Inquisition, the French Catholic massacres of the Huguenot Protestants, Spanish and English slavery in the Americas, defended by references to the Bible, all had their devoted followers who believed they were doing God's work - and never changed their minds. Conquest treats the hopes placed in state totalitarianism as only the most recent of these terrifyingly false mass expectations. And as the most recent, this one still has a grip on the minds of living people, many of whom are as immune to evidence or argument as any deeply religious believer. As their predecessors did, the devotees convince themselves their sacrifices for the cause were service to humanity. I should know, as I was one myself for a good part of my life.

 

"Whatever feuds or attitudes exist in the democracies," Conquest writes, "they count for very little compared with the vast and essential conflict between 'Western' society and the worldwide fanaticisms facing it."

 

As political battles within the democracies become polarized there is a tendency for the partisans to look favorably on the totalitarian state or movement that appears to share some of their aspirations. We see "a preference for the more appealing totalitarians over opponents within their own culture, with whom they actually have far less real substantive disagreements. If the trouble is largely from a left, it is partly because of a certain reluctance to admit that Communism was not only physically lethal and mentally repressive but also a total failure."

 

Conquest rejects all versions of socialism that place the whole of economic life in the hands of the state. This, of course, is what is generally meant by the term anticapitalist. Who, Conquests asks, "is to run the economy after you have eliminated the capitalists? "

 

"The answer," he writes, "was that it would be done by 'society.' But who would represent 'society'? A simple enough point, but one that has proved refractory." Referenda have been tried since the days of Napoleon and had little effect. So it can't be society as a whole directly. It will be representatives of some sort and a professional governmental cadre. In fact, no state that went so far as nationalizing the great majority of productive property has ever relinquished power back to the people it supposedly represents, or submitted to any election to validate its claim to rule - except in the throes of collapse when the nationalized property was being reprivatized as well.

 

Marx in his Capital both predicted and advocated that "Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated." So it was in those countries where militant armed movements or the Soviet army carried this process out. But the resulting maw swallowed not only the capitalist expropriators but the proletariat, the peasantry, and all the intermediate classes as well. The state and the small cliques that came to control it were revealed as the greatest expropriators of all.

 

Conquest summarizes laconically, "Highly centralized and doctrinaire regimes have time and again proved deeply destructive." He was eighty-eight when he set out to battle old dragons. Hitchens calls the book "marvelous" and credits Conquest, rightly I think, with "invincible common sense and courage in the fight against totalitarian thinking." The book is also a bit the musings of a very old man irritated that what should have been long-settled issues return to plague him. He is beyond the point in his career where he needs to footnote every quotation or even name most of his targets. He does, however, take the occasion to weave in some of the most recent discoveries on his topic.

 

Stalin famously said to Churchill at Tehran, "When one man dies it is a tragedy, when thousands die it's statistics." Perhaps the camera has to zoom in from the numbingly large numbers to focus on a recognizable scene. Stalin, Conquest reports, personally signed orders for forty-four thousand executions. Only fairly high ranking party and army functionaries rated such personal attention.

 

Death warrants for the nomenclatura were the least of it. For the Soviet masses there were kill quotas, like burger goals in a MacDonald's franchise or a cop giving parking tickets. "We now have a set of decrees, starting in July 1937, ordering specific execution and imprisonment targets . . . in each province and republic. The largest single category was 'anti-Soviet elements.' This included former kulaks, former officials of the tsarist state and army, former members of non-Bolshevik parties [including the Marxist parties!], religious activists, 'speculators' . . . a significant proportion of the population." The anonymous victims were selected at random by their match to some sociological criteria. Bureaucrats who failed to find enough of this or that category were themselves shot, on suspicion of being soft on enemies of the state. A fictional account that captures the stifling air of this necrotic system better than any mere recital of facts is Victor Serge's The Case of Comrade Tulayev. Serge spent three years in a Stalinist prison before being expelled from the Soviet Union in 1936.

 

As in the rest of the Mordor economy, overfulfilling your quota was met with approval, even when it was a quota of corpses. A recently discovered document from the head of the Novosibirsk NKVD, the secret police, authorizes his agents to double their death quotas at will. Now, for any Republicans listening, that was a real death panel.

 

In 1935 the death penalty was extended to apply to twelve-year-olds.

 

Deaths from starvation and other such "indirect" causes were a politicized weapon. Infant mortality in 1943, admittedly a war year, was .47 percent for ordinary Russian mothers; it was 41.7 percent for the children of mothers in the camps.

 

There is a record that 170 "blind, legless, and otherwise disabled men" in Moscow were arrested and shot for begging. The justification was that they would be useless in a labor camp.

 

The regime lied about everything - about the standard of living in the West, about its own economic output, about the mass killings, and about individual state assassinations. Avram Slutsky, Stalin's chief of foreign intelligence, was given a hero's funeral when he reportedly died of a heart attack in February 1938. We now know that deputy people's commissar Zakovsky pinioned him while Alekhin, head of the poisoning department (yes, there was such a unit!) ran in and gave Slutsky a fatal injection. Zakovsky was in turn executed that August.

 

"Torture was massively employed throughout the Stalin period, as with the victims of the secret 1952 Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee trial."

 

A whole army of interrogators and clerks were employed throughout these years to concoct "page after page of ever more complicated falsehood" about what happened to the millions of victims and why. This reached every aspect of life. The whole of the social sciences were destroyed. Conquest concludes that the German Nazis were more brutal, but Stalin's Russia was by far a more thoroughgoing totalitarianism, where private thought reservations about the government were almost impossible to retain and a slip of the tongue could result in execution, which could come at the whim of any local bureaucrat.

 

In May 1937 Stalin had Mikhail Tukhachevsky, commander in chief of the Soviet Army, arrested along with seven other generals. They made outlandish confessions of being agents of Trotsky and Hitler, and were executed the following month. A special crime was put on the books, being a wife of an enemy of the people. Many were shot, including Tukhachevsky's widow. Many other such widows were sent to the labor camps, from which few returned. The Soviet command structure was still decimated when Hitler attacked the USSR in June 1941. Stalin had other senior commanders killed during the war.

 

Afterward as well. In January 1947 two generals, Gordov and Rybalchenko, were caught by a secret police bug saying to each other that the population was "beggared" and there should be "genuine democracy." They were arrested and shot.

 

"Dead bodies were a common product of the Stalinist system. But minds did not do well either. They had to endure a continuous barrage of untruth. It can be argued that the Soviet Union's main negative characteristic - with plenty to choose from - was falsification. One finds it right from the start. But in the 1930s, after the disastrous failure of collectivization, the disjunction was complete. Henceforth, two different Soviet Unions existed - the official one, a flourishing and happy country (beset, though, by traitors), and the real one, overrun by poverty, squalor, and terror, and with a crushed population."

 

Conquest cites a moment of black comedy in 1964 as the regime was beginning to "rehabilitate" some of its many victims. A local party committee had to publish a group photo that included Faizulla Khodzhayev, an Uzbek Communist leader who had been shot in 1938. Not certain whether or not he was soon to be posthumously pardoned, they left him in the picture but airbrushed a big black beard over his face.

 

The details here are new but the general picture of the Soviet regime has been known since the 1920s. Conquest's reason for writing his book was to counter the remnants of sympathy for the idea of drastic state centralism as the cure for capitalist injustice. This has survived the collapse of Communism, though even among the small choir who still call themselves Marxists many, unlike their Leninist progenitors, have become vague about just what "postcapitalist" society is to be.

 

"Over the past half century," Conquest writes, "Western minds that were diverted by the socialist idea largely abandoned it as a serious program. . . . Socialism has thus largely petered out. . . . But the cluster of social and other ideas that accompanied socialism persists. And the idea of using state power to impose them has, of course, flourished and more than flourished both as a mental habit and as a political reality. Its adherents are now no longer socialists but . . . remain implacably hostile to 'capitalism' without seriously advancing any real alternative."

 

The old Marxists had a clear goal: crush the capitalist class and its supporters and establish a state monopoly of the means of production under firm communist control. The generally monstrous experience with that experiment, and the evaporation of Communism, depriving such advocates of even a "deformed" example of what they advocate, leaves that section of the left that still champions anticapitalism with no generally accepted agreement on what the slogan entails. Conquest calls this "negative utopianism," adding, "it is a bit much to go on finding sub-Marxism and such still thumping away."

 

Such currents are broadly recognizable on the American and European left, though Conquest is less than specific about who his targets may be, spending a few pages on an obscure CNN book on the Cold War, on Simone de Beauvoir's lamentable embrace of the violent and cultish Maoist Cultural Revolution, and the ever floggable pro-Moscow historian Eric Hobsbawm.

 

Starting Again from the Enlightenment

 

With John Gray we encounter an intellect of a different order. Where Conquest largely limits his presentation to the past evils of hyper-statism, Gray rises immediately above the anecdotal. He confronts the rejuvenated hopes of the Marxist left that the global economic crisis offers a chance to emerge from their long sojourn in the wilderness:

 

"An intellectual revival of Marxism is one of the predictable consequences of the financial crisis. In the twenty years before the storm broke, the Marxisant intelligentsia was more marginal in politics and culture than it had ever been. This was not because Marxism had been falsified - an event that occurred a century or more before, when it became clear that no advanced industrial society was developing as Marx had predicted. Rather Marxist intellectuals had become unfashionable - an experience far more galling than the refutation of their theories."

 

You might suppose at this point that Gray is going to refute the Marxist catastrophists by promising a rapid economic recovery and a return to market stability, saving capitalist democracy. You would be wrong. John Gray, emeritus professor at the London School of Economics, is, if anything, at least as pessimistic about the future of capitalism as the Marxists, but sees the forces in motion as utterly different from those Marx expected and predicted.

 

Gray's philosophic roots lie not in the social engineering ambitions of Marxism and a section of liberalism inspired by the Enlightenment, but in the dissenting historical interpretation by that great Jewish-English liberal theorist Isaiah Berlin, whose world view Gray defended in his book Berlin (1995).

 

Berlin called his distinctive viewpoint "value pluralism," by which he signified that no human society could reach agreement on a single standard of right. This was a radical departure from the outlook of the European Enlightenment, which believed that reason would discover truth, that truth, like Newton's laws of motion, had only one solution to each equation, and that as ignorance was swept away by education, people would come to a common view of the social good.

 

When that did not happen, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a political current arose that sought to cut through the obvious failure to find agreement on how to achieve human improvement. The solution they hit on was to abolish electoral democracy by force, establish a statist dictatorship, and impose by violence their particular view of the social good

 

These movements arose on both the left and the right, sharing a common disdain for the corrupt and sluggish democratic institutions. The left called itself communist, the right fascist. Both outlawed all political parties but their own, dispensed with elections, crushed trade unions, executed real and suspected critics, imposed censorship and thought control, and nationalized industry or placed it under constrictive state tutelage. They silenced or did away with those they could not persuade - or who fit their profile of the inassimilable. One side chose the Jews and Slavs, the other the better off peasants and the well-to-do. Both agreed on destroying the intellectuals - and the Marxists. On the fascist side that meant all Marxists; on the Bolshevik side, all Marxists who were not members of Lenin's party, and quite a few of those who were.

 

If you think about it for a moment, does anyone really believe that the only obstacle to abolishing capitalism in the United States is the economic and military power of the 1%? If that were really so, the change could be accomplished under the existing electoral system, or at least that system could reveal that the 99% want something radically different. Yet the system to date has been unable to produce a majority vote for even the far more limited demands of the Occupy movement: for a more progressive tax system, for greater government regulation of corporations and banks, for strengthening and extending pensions and healthcare.

 

Why does Obama not just impose these things now? Obviously because a large percentage of the population, not just the wealthy 1%, vote Republican, and the Republicans in state and national legislatures oppose the reform agenda. And behind the Republicans are the very numerous adherents of authoritarian Christian fundamentalist sects. The United States, after all, was largely founded by dissenting religious fanatics fleeing the power of the more moderate state churches of England and Germany. It was an unusual conjunction that placed at the head of the American Revolution that amazing group of rationalists and deists who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Out in the hinterland were people who looked on with uncomprehending distrust, whose intellectual horizons were firmly girdled by holy writ. Uniquely among the developed countries today, 40% of Americans deny outright that humans are descended from other animals; 20% more say they are not sure.

 

Notably, the Republican base includes a majority of the industrial workers who are supposed to be the bedrock of the Marxist revolutionary class. Narrow majorities may shift here, allowing significant changes, but overwhelming agreement on total restructuring of the existing society comes up against the impenetrable obstacle of the plural and irreconcilable values Berlin insisted must be accommodated if democracy is to survive.

 

In the heyday of popular illusions in the magic of ruthless statism the advocates of radical social change were quite clear sighted about the impossibility of ending these differences of view by persuasion or by electoral means. Both left and right, communist and fascist movements, based their politics on the violent crushing not only of capitalism but first of all of electoral democracy, the independent press, and the existing intellectual class. Then they moved to create their centralist states where only a single viewpoint was permitted, solving by brute force the problem of the large swaths of the population that did not agree with them.

 

The original Marxist project for the abolition of capitalism rested on the expectation of increasing proletarianization and an emergent shared agreement on this course of action. That is, the Enlightenment perspective on the triumph of human reason wedded to theories of onward and upward progress powered by class struggle.

 

It is not so much the failure to appear on schedule of the economic crises Marx predicted as the failure to materialize of the anticapitalist social forces required to do anything about it. Isaiah Berlin is perhaps the most important theorist in grasping why that happened.

 

In a series of essays beginning in 1955, collected in his Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, Berlin carried out a then-shocking reevaluation of the Enlightenment, which was still hailed in liberal tradition as the movement in defense of reason against religious dogmatism and superstition, and the wellspring of a host of movements for human betterment, including Marxism itself.

 

Berlin said that the Enlightenment also had a dark side. That lay precisely in the social engineering dreams that were its hallmark, and its notion of a single universal human society superseding existing nations and cultures. Berlin popularized the term Counter Enlightenment for the thinkers that culminated in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in German Romanticism. On its face, seeing something positive here seemed unpromising. Figures such a J. A. Haaman championed intuition against rationalism, mysterious vitalism against biological science, and the idea of society as an organic whole, which regarded any organized attempt to impose universal improvement as destructive of irreplaceable human values. Though neither Berlin nor John Gray had much use for Hegel, this was a case where it could really be said that truth lay in a dialectical synthesis of two opposite schools of thought.

 

The extreme left wing of the Enlightenment imagined an entire world united along rationalist lines, in a universalist super government that was to expose religion as a vapid dream, leave national differences in the past, and erase ethnic and racial distinctions. For Marx, this meant the dissolution of national identities into universal humankind.

 

The thinkers of the Counter Enlightenment objected that what makes all real human communities function is their sense of place, of lineage, of a shared history, and traditions, customs, and culture, including religion, language, and ethnic or national identity. Strip people of these identifiers and they become atomized cogs in an impersonal machine, a change that most people will fiercely resist. Even a false propaganda hint of this prospect has the Tea Party in a frenzy, and they are tapping roots that run much deeper than their own ersatz movement.

 

John Gray, following Isaiah Berlin's lead, sees the collapse of Soviet and East European Communism and the hollowing out of its Chinese variant as due, not to economic backwardness or some technical unpreparedness for socialism, but to the artificiality of these presumed universals. In his New Republic article he writes:

 

"Like most nineteenth-century thinkers, Marx expected religion to fade away with the increase of prosperity and the advance of scientific knowledge. Instead religion is at the heart of politics and war, just as it has always been. Marx never doubted that the globalization of capital would occur in tandem with the decline of nationalism. In fact globalization has triggered a nationalist backlash in many parts of the world."

 

Scientific Socialism

 

Marx in his theory of communism did take one step beyond the other social engineering movements of the liberal Enlightenment, an extremely negative borrowing from the Enlightenment's critics. He grafted the Romantics' idea of organic unity, their idea of extending the values of real communities to embrace the whole of emergent nation states, onto his plan for the communist future.

 

"A fantasy of German Romanticism that enchanted not only Marx but also movements of the radical right," Gray writes, "the dream of organic social unity, has always been repressive in practice. And this is not because the ideal has been wrongly interpreted. Hostility to minorities is the very logic of organicist ideology. Marx located his ideal society in the future; but like that of the German nationalists who looked backward to an imaginary folk culture, his communist dream-world could be entered only by shedding particular identities (including that of Jews, who would be emancipated by ceasing to be Jews and becoming specks of universal humanity). In a society of the kind of which Marx - along with Herder and his disciples - dreamed, anyone who resists being absorbed into the social organism will be stigmatized as deluded or diseased."

 

Outside of his study of capitalism, where Marx was in his element, his and Engels’ projections for the future were speculative and deductive. In describing their theories about the future as scientific socialism they sought to claim the authority of modern science. In fact the revolutionary duo were totally wrong about two of most important discoveries of their time: Malthus’s theory of population and Darwin’s theory of evolution. In both cases their political prejudices and deductive method misled them.

Malthus’s basic observation was that population grows geometrically while food supplies expand only arithmetically, a fact observable in animal and even bacterial as well as human populations, for the same reasons. The consequences of this fact today confront the planet with the threat of mass starvation. Marx vehemently denied Malthus’s verifiable observation on the grounds that it let capitalist society off the hook. But one didn’t have to look very far into the future to see the outcome of human reproductive rates. England had a population of 14,866,000 in 1841 when its first census was taken. By 1861 this had grown to 18,776,000, a 26% increase. On the same principal as compound interest, a few centuries of unchecked growth like this would produce a mass of human bodies that covered every square inch of dry land on the earth.

Marxists frequently cite the few vague words of praise Marx and Engels uttered affirming an unspecified similarity between their historical materialism and Darwin’s theory of evolution to show that Marx and Engels were on the cutting edge of the science of their day. Between themselves, however, they rejected natural selection, Darwin’s essential discovery, which today is the foundation of biological science. Their reason was that Darwin explicitly said the idea of natural selection had been suggested to him by reading Malthus. Marx and Engels praised Darwin for his Origin of Species as a widely understood public symbol for the idea of “evolution,” but had their own and very different theory of evolution which was more supportive of their theories of social evolution than Darwin’s work.

Marx wrote sniffily to Engels: “It is remarkable how Darwin rediscovers, among the beasts and plants, the society of England with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘inventions’ and Malthusian ‘struggle for existence’.” (June 18, 1862). Engels, writing to P. L. Lavrov, astonishingly proclaims: “Of the Darwinian theory I accept the theory of evolution but only take Darwin’s method of proof (struggle for life, natural selection) as the first, provisional, and incomplete expression of a newly-discovered fact. . . . If, therefore, a so-called natural scientist permits himself to subsume the whole manifold wealth of historical development under the one-sided and meagre phrase, ‘struggle for existence,’ a phrase which even in the sphere of nature can only be taken with a grain of salt, such a proceeding is its own condemnation.” (November 12, 1875).

Marx praised, as far superior to Darwin, a book by the long-forgotten Pierre Tremaux (not important enough to even warrant a Wikipedia entry) which theorized that evolution’s motor was the geological, not biological, evolution of the earth’s crust, species being inextricably linked to specific soil types that appeared in sequence as the physical earth “evolved.” Tremaux’s crank theory appealed to Marx because it propounded a steady progression of ever higher stages, analogous to Marx’s historical materialism for human society.

Darwin’s natural selection in contrast did not contain a theory of progress. It stated only that individual organisms with some biological or behavioral advantage left behind more progeny in the competition for survival, leading to adaptation to their environments and eventually speciation. Darwin’s natural selection makes no predictions of future stages. It does not suppose that natural selection is in particular geared to higher complexity- only a tiny segment of life forms, such as the giant reptiles and the later mammals, are exceptionally complex – much less a drive toward intelligence or the appearance of humanity. From the standpoint of natural selection the HIV virus could be regarded as a more successful adaptation to its environment than homo sapiens.

“Evolution” leaving out Darwin’s natural selection became a term often commandeered by religious and political progressives in the nineteenth and early twentieth century to depict humans as the apex of the evolutionary tree and to concoct schemas to prove that humanity was continuing to evolve toward still greater perfection in the near future. In that usage it was not science but a bogus justification for the self-congratulatory Victorian belief in progress.

I write this not to pillory Marx. What he did was to choose the view that corresponded to his predilections rather than the one that was scientifically valid. Between the two he made an inspired – and mistaken – guess. Unhappily the guess he made reinforced his confidence that he had discovered the key to predicting future stages of social evolution, as Tremaux had done for the biological past. Had he understood Darwin’s natural selection he would also have understood much of the argument against trying to predict society’s future. Marx here, and in his expectation of a collectivist utopian future, was operating within the parameters of nineteenth century thought and its mental habits. His inheritors are the ones principally at fault for taking his theoretical constructs for reality.

John Gray, in his 2007 Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia,challenged conventional assumptions about human progress. Gray acknowledges obvious technical, scientific, and even administrative progress in human history. But he denies any concomitant moral improvement. Our biological inheritance, which has not changed in significant ways since Cro Magnon times, includes savagery as well as sociability. For Gray, greater technical and scientific progress has improved human health, but it has also put more destructive weapons in the hands of fanatical and authoritarian movements and regimes.

This sobering and rather pessimistic view does not lead Gray to see no distinction among existing human societies. Echoing Robert Conquest, he writes:

“The notion that the excesses of contemporary capitalism are on par with the crimes of Stalinism and Maoism is crazy. Contemporary Western capitalism has many faults, some of them conceivably fatal; but it cannot be placed in the same category with systems that perpetrated the mass murder of their own citizens, and which were responsible for the worst ecological catastrophes in modern times, possibly in all history.”

THE ANTI-STALINIST MARXISTS

Gray’s New Republic piece is a scathing review of Why Marx Was Right by British literary critic Terry Eagleton, and Eric Hobsbawm’s How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism, both published this year and both professing a certain nostalgia for Stalin’s Russia.

Gray rejects the common view that the evils of the Soviet system were mainly attributable to economic backwardness, Russia’s authoritarian traditions, and the early civil war.

“The repression that defined Soviet life from the beginning to the end flowed principally from the communist idea itself, which requires that any group that defines itself differently from the rest of society must eventually be destroyed. Interestingly, Eagleton does not deny this. Like many others, he writes as if repression became severe only under Stalin, which is nonsense.”

This last is a particularly sore point for the Trotskyists, with whom I had a long association. They have been among the most bitter critics of Stalin, his regime, and the later Communist states influenced at the outset by the Moscow pattern. At the same time they reject the modern capitalist welfare state in even its most humane guise, disparaging “bourgeois democracy” as a sham. Their attitude toward the now defunct Communist regimes was, nevertheless, ambiguous. Trotsky was among the first to reveal and denounce the crimes of Stalin, yet he continued to regard the Soviet Union as more progressive than the United States because of its retention of the purportedly advanced property relations from the days of the October Revolution.

Trotsky and his followers occupied an ultimately untenable ground on the outskirts of the far larger Communist movement. Trotsky was an attractive personality, a polymath who had served the Bolshevik regime as diplomat and founder of the Red Army, leading it to victory in the civil war. A gifted historian and orator, he was finally a martyr to Stalin’s assassin. In the early years of the revolution he was in its most authoritarian wing, championing the militarization of labor, defending the crushing of the Kronstadt sailors’ rebellion, and raising no objection to the mass killings by the Cheka.

Trotsky won credit in exile in publicizing the crimes of the Stalin government, often when the liberal press didn’t want to hear such things. But while he now advocated socialist democracy, this bore little resemblance to democratic institutions as they actually evolved in European and American history. He had helped to create the one-party state, with Lenin used the Soviets to consolidate Bolshevik power and then stripped them of any authority, helped to destroy the trade unions, and endorsed the arrest and imprisonment of the members and leaders of all the other political parties, including the widely popular far leftist ones.

As he envisioned it for the future, socialist democracy was plainly conditional on accepting all the essential positions of the predominant party that was to smash the capitalist state. In Trotsky’s program the monopoly of productive property was to remain the centerpiece, and the new government was to be unicameral, rejecting any separation of powers or independent judiciary. The government was to centrally control the press as well as industry and the land. Other parties were to be tolerated only insofar as they accepted these conditions. He did not promise the right of free speech but only of speech that agreed with all the essential features of the communist state. We have been there before. Archimedes said if he had a long enough fulcrum and a place to stand he could move the world. Trotsky’s projected revolutionary government left dissenters no fulcrum and no place to stand.

Trotsky never reconsidered or regretted the bloody repression of the years when he and Lenin headed the government. He promoted a cult of Lenin that bore little resemblance to the dictator’s real place in history. He condemned the murders of the Old Bolsheviks by Stalin, but not the imprisonment and many executions of the Social Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks, much less the members of the liberal parties, by his own government. And he clung to the view that the brutal Communist states should be defended against the Western democracies as well as against the fascist states.

George Orwell, who remained a socialist and had a limited sympathy for Trotsky, nevertheless wrote, in 1939:

“Trotsky, in exile, denounces the Russian dictatorship, but he is probably as much responsible for it as any man now living, and there is no certainty that as a dictator he would be preferable to Stalin, though undoubtedly he has a much more interesting mind. The essential act is the rejection of democracy – that is, of the underlying values of democracy; once you have decided upon that, Stalin – or at any rate something like Stalin – is already on the way.”

Though the Trotskyists long supposed that if Stalinism could be somehow eliminated they would then fill the revolutionary vacuum, the unhappy reality was that they were too inextricably tied in history, outlook, and goals to the discredited Soviet Union. When it foundered, interest in the Lenin era and its Trotskyist champions faded as well. For the few who remain, the cult of Lenin and the October Revolution as heroic models stands in fatal opposition to their self-image as champions of socialist democracy.

LENIN AND THE EARLY SOVIET UNION

What truth is there to the view that Lenin was the great emancipator whose work was undone by Stalin the betrayer? Conquest and Gray devote most of their fire to Marxite currents that were sympathetic to the Soviet system in its Stalin and post-Stalin years. But they have little patience for myth making on Lenin’s account.

Conquest writes, “The Bolshevik Revolution brought an atavistic ideocracy, with a narrowly sectarian mind-set, and a total, and indeed self-admitted, amorality of action. And its long-term effects have been overwhelmingly negative. Its real nature was understood by many even at the time. But its myth, especially among the ideas-and-ideals thirsty of the West, still vaguely survived.”

Conquest first dismisses the legend that the October Revolution, unlike the mass outpouring in February 1917, was sought by any significant force in Russian society. “Lenin had great difficulty in getting a majority even of his own Central Committee to support the seizure of power, and reports from its own agents in the city districts spoke in most cases of a lack of enthusiasm for the coming revolution.”

On November 11, 1917, four days after the Bolshevik coup, a meeting of the Central Committee (with Lenin and Trotsky absent), voted unanimously to form a coalition government with the other left parties. On November 18, Kamenev, Rykov, and three other members of the Central Committee resigned, warning that the failure to set up a coalition government would result in “a purely Bolshevik government by means of political terror.” The Bolsheviks never thereafter permitted the people to vote on their regime. In the Constituent Assembly elections in late November the Bolsheviks won only 175 seats out of 703. All the other parties were of the left except for the moderate liberals, the Constitutional Democrats (Cadets), who won only 17 seats. The Bolsheviks forcibly dispersed the only elected legislature in Russian history, thirteen hours after it convened its first session.

In reports to the Bolsheviks at the time, long hidden from the public, factory after factory in St. Petersburg, after the Bolshevik seizure of power, voted solidly for the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. There were many strikes in 1918, which the Bolsheviks crushed mercilessly.

Conquest comments:

“One reads, to this day, in books published by reputable university presses, such things as ‘the Bolshevik Party was a product of idealistic, egalitarian, and socially progressive strands in the Russian intelligentsia and working class.’ Something missing here, you may think – for example fanatical hostility to and finally total suppression of other groups with the same ostensible aims.”

The killings without trial and far from the front in wartime began not under Stalin but under Lenin and Trotsky. “There are now many documents available in which Lenin insists on mass shootings and hangings. And Bertrand Russell, who met him when he was in power, reports that ‘his guffaw at the thought of those massacred made my blood run cold.’”

Conquest gives only a few examples to make his point. For those who would like to look further into repression in the early Soviet years there are many books. I could suggest as places to begin Dmitri Volkogonov’s Lenin: A New Biography (1994) and Alexander N. Yakovlev’s A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia (2002), both based on access to the long-sequestered archives of the Soviet state and its secret police.

The first Soviet secret police organization, the Cheka (All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage), was formed in December 1917, hardly a month into the new power. Volkogonov writes, “The Cheka quickly became virtually the chief element of the state, arousing fear not only among the mass of the population, but also among the Bolsheviks themselves.” The secret police had unlimited powers of arrest and execution. “Tens of thousands of people were shot without trial in the cellars of the Cheka.”

Volkogonov recounts that Revolutionary Tribunals “disposed of thousands of people, often merely for belonging to the ‘exploiting’ class.” There was no appeal and those sentenced were shot within twenty-four hours. The Cheka did the same thing on a vaster scale, including executing Communist Party members suspected of dissenting from its methods. Trials were rare, and when held, Yakovlev reports, the Politburo decided the sentences in advance.

The Cheka was given special authorization to secretly arrest and even execute persons they were certain would be acquitted in any public trial because there was no evidence against them.

In March 1921 a group of Chekists on the Turkestan front dared to write to the Bolshevik Party Central Committee protesting the executions of Chekists by their own organization. “[Chekists] are being shot for various crimes, and none of the Communists working in these proletarian punitive organs has any guarantee that he won’t be shot tomorrow under some heading or other.”

Only Lenin personally had any influence with this ruthless and secretive agency, and he gave it his unstinting support against protests and critics from within his own party.

The Bolsheviks established a system of concentration camps largely to hold various kinds of hostages and to silence the other left parties. Volkogonov writes:

“As early as 1918 the Bolsheviks began organizing concentration camps, and those who were spared the bullet began filling them. On 20 April 1921 the Politburo under Lenin’s chairmanship approved the building of a camp for ten to twenty thousand people in the region of Ukhta in the far north.” Another camp was built in Kholmogory, also in Siberia. In a short time there were 84 of the camps. This system did not begin with Stalin.

“The first deportations to the camps took place during the civil war. An especially large number of women and children were ‘resettled’ from the Don and the Kuban following the savage reprisals against the Cossacks. Thousands of them died, either in camp or on the way there.”

The camps were initially for hostages, first of families of army officers, then of peasants to compel their families to deliver up their grain, and then for the members of the other left and Marxist parties. The camp regimes were not as deadly as later under Stalin, and the numbers incarcerated were far fewer, but their use to imprison tens of thousands for even small deviations from the views of the government, for mere suspicious “class origins,” or to force obedience from family members where no crime had been committed were marks of an inhumanity not anticipated in the works of Marx or in Lenin’s soporifically rosy State and Revolution. To have quoted Marx’s prediction that after the socialist revolution all officials would be subject both to election and recall and that everyone would participate in carrying out the functions of supervision so there would be no bureaucrats was enough to earn a bullet from the Cheka.

The left parties, which had far larger followings than the Bolsheviks at the time of the October Revolution, were driven out of the Soviets by violence, then falsely accused of aiding the counterrevolution, and finally their members exiled, arrested, or executed. In March 1922 in a speech to the 11th Congress of the Communist Party, Lenin instructed the courts (no independent judiciary here!): “For public evidence of Menshevism our revolutionary courts must order executions, or else they are not our courts.”

The Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries were incessantly accused in the Bolshevik press and in show trials of being in league with the White Guards and foreign imperialists. Yakovlev reports that the secret archives show these slanders were lies. The same tactic was used to justify the crushing of the Kronstadt sailors’ uprising in March 1921, where “the government published an announcement headlined ‘A New White Guard Conspiracy!’ It declared that everything that had happened in Kronstadt ‘was undoubtedly prepared by French counterintelligence’ and that the ‘spies have been apprehended.’” The sailors in fact raised only the demands that the Bolsheviks themselves had championed in 1917: for all power to the Soviets, for all socialist parties to have the right to participate, for freedom of the press. These were all now denounced as counterrevolutionary.

A formal investigation of the uprising headed by Ya. Agranov in April immediately afterward concluded that it was impossible to show any links between the Kronstadt uprising and White Guards or foreign governments. More than 2,000 of the sailors were executed; Agranov’s report was kept secret. Fifteen years later, Stalin staged the first of the infamous Moscow Trials of the Old Bolsheviks. The only supplement to Lenin’s playbook was having the victims confess to the false charges.

There is also the myth that the secret police, repressive as they may have been, directed their imprisonments and liquidations against capitalist saboteurs, ultra rightists, military conspirators, and the like. In January 1922 six of the ten subdivisions of the secret police, recently renamed the OGPU, were assigned to infiltrate and repress the socialist and anarchist parties and their suspected sympathizers.

The government made widespread use of hostages, including executing them either in reprisals for acts of resistance or when their family members refused to do what the government demanded of them. In September 1918 the Petrograd secret police shot 500 hostages. The government routinely used children as hostages in large numbers, from the families of army officers, to compel them to serve in the new Red Army, and from peasant families to make them surrender their grain. In 1919 the families, including the children, of an entire army unit, the Eighty-sixth Infantry Regiment, that had gone over to the Whites were shot. Yakovlev adds, “In May 1920 the newspapers told of the execution in Elizavetgrad of the elderly mother and four daughters, ages three to seven, of an officer who had refused to serve the proletarian regime. Arkhangelsk, where the Cheka shot children of twelve to sixteen, was known in 1920 as the ‘city of the dead.’ . . . The fall of 1918 saw the creation of concentration camps whose prisoners at first were largely hostages, including women with infants, taken as relatives of the [peasant] ‘rebels.’ The minutes of the meeting of 27 June 1921 of the commission on the maintenance of child hostages in concentration camps in Tambov province notes a sizable influx of minors, including infants . . . and it speaks of the inadequacy of these camps for long-term support of children and the resultant intestinal and respiratory diseases.”

Lenin personally issued numerous orders for ever broader categories of shootings. In August 1918 he wrote to the party secretary in Saratov, telling him “shoot conspirators and waverers without asking anyone or any idiotic red tape.” In December he ordered Shlyapnikov to “catch and shoot the Astrakhan speculators and bribe-takers” Volkogonov summarizes:

“During the civil war Lenin told his commanders to shoot miscreants for a widening range of offences: for taking part in a conspiracy, resisting arrest, concealing arms, disobedience, backwardness, carelessness and false reports.” Conscious of his reputation as a humanitarian liberator Lenin kept these orders out of all public documents and his speeches. They were recorded in telegrams and written notes marked confidential, filed away in the secret archives of the state, not revealed until after 1989.

Volkogonov records that in early 1922 during a Soviet campaign to seize the valuables of the Russian Orthodox churches, “between fourteen and twenty thousand clergy and active laymen were shot.” For many there were refinements. Yakovlev recounts that Metropolitan Vladimir of Kiev was castrated before being shot. Metropolitan Veniamin of St. Petersburg was frozen alive into a block of ice. One was tied to the wheels of a paddle boat and mangled, another buried alive. Archbishop Vasily was crucified; others were given Communion with molten lead.

Lenin on December 25, 1919, on the eve of the Nikola, the celebration of the relics of St. Nicolai, issued an order: “[T]o put up with ‘Nikola’ would be stupid – the entire Cheka must be put on the alert to see to it that those who do not show up for work because of ‘Nikola’ are shot.”

Annoyed that prostitutes were encouraging disorder among Red Army troops, Lenin on August 9, 1918, sent out a telegram ordering, “impose mass terror immediately, shoot and deport hundreds of prostitutes who have been getting soldiers, former officers, and so on drunk. Not a minute’s delay.”

The Bolsheviks from the outset made enemies of the vast Russian peasantry. Coming to power while promising All Power to the Soviets and Land to the Tiller, the Bolshevik government then nationalized the land. Even in Lenin’s public writings and speeches he insisted that the peasantry, the overwhelming majority of the Russian people, should have no voice in Soviet government policy. But within the distrusted peasantry Lenin decided to exterminate the so-called kulaks, the better off peasants. This layer mostly came into existence only in 1906, when the Stolypin reforms broke up the big landed estates. Kulaks were defined as any farm larger than eight acres per male family member. Between 13 and 16 percent of the farmers met this standard, something around 2 million people.

In August 1918 Lenin called for “Merciless war against these kulaks! Death to them!” The idea that these people were rich was mostly a communist mirage. When Stalin seized their valuables during his forced collectivization a few years later at the beginning of the 1930s the average kulak family had goods worth less than $200.

Armed grain requisitions, nominally of “surplus” grain, began to leave the peasants starving, and for kulak families the government began to issue orders to leave them with no food at all. On the 10th of August 1918 Lenin sent out a telegram to one district leader ordering: “1. Hang (by all means hang, so people will see) no fewer than 100 known kulaks, fat cats, bloodsuckers. 2. Publish their names. 3. Take all their grain. 4. Select hostages in accordance with yesterday’s telegram. Do it so that for hundreds of miles around people will see and tremble.”

In a similar vein he ordered the Executive Committee in Livny: “Essential . . . to confiscate all the grain and property of the rebellious kulaks . . . take hostages from among the rich and hold them until every last bit of grain is removed from their districts.” That is, the district was condemned to die of starvation. He added that in the nearby fight against White Guard Yudenich, reinforcements should be rounded up for the Red Army: “can we not mobilize some 20,000 more Petersburg workers, plus 10,000 or so bourgeois, place some machine guns behind them, shoot several hundred and bring some real mass pressure against Yudenich.”

In Tambov province the peasants were eating nothing but grass, bark and nettles. “Chief Commissar Sergei Kamenev in October 1920 speaks of crowds of hungry peasants in adjacent Voronezh and Saratov provinces pleading with the local authorities to give them at least some of the grain taken at the collection centers. Often, Kamenev writes, ‘these crowds were mowed down by machine guns.’”

In the midst of the dire famine caused by the government grain seizures, which had enveloped thirty-six million people, the Politburo on December 7, 1922, voted to export almost a million tons of grain. The Russian philosopher and one-time Marxist Nicolai Berdyaev commented, “There is something other-worldly in the Bolsheviks, something alien. That is what makes them terrifying.”

In August 1920 the peasants in Tambov and Voronezh provinces finally rebelled. Red Army records document that in June 1921 General Tukhachevsky, later Soviet commander-in-chief, faced with peasants who had sought refuge in a wooded area, ordered poison gas “be made to spread through the forest killing anyone hiding there.” A Politburo decree of June 11, 1921, on the Tambov situation provided that anyone who refused to give their name was “to be shot on the spot without trial,” and “Any family which harboured a bandit [!] is subject to arrest and deportation from the province, their property to be confiscated and the eldest worker in the family to be shot without trial.”

In the late twenties the Romanian author and Soviet sympathizer Panait Istrati traveled around the Soviet Union with Soviet diplomat Christian Rakovsky and revolutionary novelist Victor Serge. Some functionary sought to justify the visible negatives by citing Lenin’s favorite exculpatory proverb about having to break eggs to make omelets. “All right, I can see the broken eggs,” Istrati replied. “Where’s this omelet of yours?”

It is easy to feel self-righteous and blameless when campaigning against the evils of capitalism far from the countries that have done away with it. The great majority of the European and American followers of the Communist parties, pro-Stalin though they were, saw themselves this way. Ultimate aims are not on the table. The battles are for needed reforms, where the Marxists, using the term loosely, share common aims with broader sections of the population that have no desire for a communist future.

Most of the Trotskyists I have known see themselves in the same light: heroic opponents of America’s foreign wars, champions of civil rights, of feminism, and gay liberation, warriors against the power and influence of the very rich, enemies of the “twin capitalist parties.” But there always lurks “the program,” the “solution” to the whole bag of injustices, toward which every partial struggle is supposed to lead, and for which the model is the Russian October Revolution. By and large these militants have not cared to look the real Lenin in the face and confront what it is they advocate. A few have and decided to quietly withhold their approval. Unhappily, at least a few of my Trotskyist comrades have looked, and seeing, shrug their shoulders and say this is the way of great revolutions. And so they wander off into the totalitarian swamp and political irrelevancy.

This is not the place to pursue this further. You get the idea. Both Volkogonov (1928-1995) and Yakovlev (1923-2005) were lifelong Russian Communists. Volkogonov, a colonel general in the Soviet army, was an orthodox Communist in the Brezhnev years. He became a military historian, and was slowly disillusioned. For some years he held the view that the Soviet degeneration dated from Stalin, but his research in the archives finally convinced him that all the essential elements of the totalitarian state began with Lenin. He was fired by Gorbachev for his critical views, but supported perestroika and became Boris Yeltsin’s military advisor.

Yakovlev first became disillusioned while attending Khrushchev’s famous de-Stalinization speech in 1956. He was the first to reveal, in 1989, the secret agreements between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. He was a key advisor to Gorbachev and a principal architect of perestroika. In his last years he chaired Russia’s Presidential Commission for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repression, where he had access for the first time to the secret files of the KGB and other state agencies of repression, on which he based his book.

I have limited this brief excursion to Russians, for their intimacy with the subject. Also worth reading are Jean-Francois Revel’s Last Exit to Utopia: The Survival of Socialism in a Post-Soviet Era, and Francois Furet’s The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century. And for the very bold Marxist ready to rethink their world view there is A. James Gregor’s The Faces of Janus: Marxism and Fascism in the Twentieth Century.

Decentralized property ownership, that is, capitalism, despite its known evils has proven able to give more leverage to people seeking some level of freedom and well being than systems of total state control. The Marxist project rested on the premise that the people would be able to retain control of the state after the state won control over the means of production. Why this would fail should have been evident from the premises of Marxism itself. The capitalists’ disproportionate power over society is because they own the means of production, the most elementary truism of the Marxist canon. In capitalist societies, despite relatively free elections and the right to form organizations and raise funds to influence government, the power of the property owners remains predominant. What, then, happens when the government, which is composed of career functionaries, owns not only the means of production but also all means of communication and controls all channels by which funds can be raised and all forms of political organization? The mere “class origins” of these functionaries should, by Marx’s own understanding, not long outweigh their actual social situation as masters of “capital.” If legal electoral forms do not counteract the advantages capital has in the decentralized West, why should anyone have imagined that mere electoral forms – which were never even permitted anyway – could hold the masters of the state to account when they hold many more of the levers of power than the capitalists ever did?

THE CURRENT CRISIS IS NOT AN ORDINARY RECESSION

The whole reason for this exercise is to try to discourage, as people cast around for some way to dig out of the now long-lasting economic slump, the revival of self-defeating proposals that have already produced almost unimaginable human misery. So what is it we are up against in this latest disaster?

John Gray is far more sympathetic to Marx’s critique of capitalism than to Marx’s theorizing about a communist replacement. “Marx,” he writes, “was closer to reality than generations of mainstream economists. His insights are particularly relevant at a time when the economics profession devotes itself to the mathematical modeling of delusional harmonies.”

He disparages “fundamentalist believers in the market [who] imagine that a deregulated economy would lead to a kind of universal bourgeoisification – a society in which nearly everyone could aspire to a solidly middle-class life. The reality is that for a majority of people in the United States, Britain, and parts of Europe, middle-class life is rapidly ceasing to be a viable option. With their houses and pensions depleted in value and the job market increasingly fragmented and insecure, many who thought they were middle-class are finding themselves in something like the position of Marx’s propertyless proletarians.”

What has been emergent from this process has not been mass socialist movements and nations. For Gray, “free market’s successors are much more likely to be other versions of capitalism – the state capitalism of China, the social-market capitalism that has made Germany the most successful advanced economy, and other varieties of capitalism that are yet to develop.”

I remember when first reading Gray’s Black Mass when it came out in 2007, thinking that his prediction then that the coming century would be marked principally by resource wars was something I hadn’t heard or thought of before. Four years later it seems all too prescient.

Our industrial civilization was made possible by the discovery of finite deposits of fossilized energy. Unlike most mineral resources, which are abundant in the earth’s crust and date from the formation of the planet, coal, oil, and natural gas are the compressed remains of plant and animal matter, created in comparatively more recent geological epochs, and preserved only in a limited number of particularly favorable locations where conditions were uniquely right.

No one in the nineteenth century considered the amount of these materials to be of cardinal importance. Most economists today still do not, assuming without evidence that any rising prices due to scarcity will spark more intense exploration for new deposits and technological innovation to conserve energy and seek new energy sources.

Perhaps this blindness to the ecological foundation of our civilization stems from our religious inheritance, which sees humanity as the God-given master of the earth. But time appears to have run out. World crude oil output has not increased by any significant amount since 2005 – demand has. Every major oil producer is in rapid decline save Saudi Arabia, which still claims it has a small reserve that could be thrown into the world market to slow price rises.

The current world financial crisis, which erupted in 2008, is not a classic Smithian or Marxian crisis of over production. It is not a consequence of the falling rate of profit. This one is unprecedented, a crisis of insufficient natural resources to meet the growing demand of a geometrically expanding world population at prices that do not induce recession.

The mainstream press and the left have repeated endlessly that the economic meltdown was precipitated by greedy marketing of subprime mortgages and their collateralization into worthless mutual funds. That explanation provides an easily understood and conventional villain. If it were the whole story the crash should be fairly short-lived and readily overcome, as were all the previous crashes of the capitalist business cycle except the Great Depression.

A growing number of recent studies are pointing to a more sinister and irremediable cause. James Hamilton in a paper for the Brookings Institute presents results from a computer modeling that indicate the sharp run-up in oil price that began in 2000 and topped out in 2008 was a larger cause of the recession than the more famous housing bubble.

Historically, high oil prices have been the trigger for American recessions, and they are headed to exceptionally high levels now. Chris Nelder and Gregor MacDonald in the October 4, 2011, Harvard Business Review Blog write:

“The connection between oil shocks and recessions has been understood for decades. We have ample historical evidence that when petroleum expenditures reach 5% of GDP, recession typically follows. Annual energy expenditures rose from 6.2% of U.S. GDP in 2002 to a painful 9.8% in 2008, which was immediately followed by an economic crash. And now oil is sending energy expenditures back above 9% of GDP, just as we see fresh indications that the recession persists. This is not a coincidence.”

The explosion of debt after the turn of the millennium was itself not due solely to bankers arbitrary voraciousness, guilty as they were. Oil for the first time in a century reached $10 a barrel in 1980, triggering a recession that year and another in 1981, which drove prices down. It spiked in 1990 to over $30 a barrel, launching an eight month recession that, with conservation efforts, lowered prices for a decade. But a sharp upward spiral hit in 2000 that threatened to wipe out the prosperity of the mid and late 1990s. Banks and consumers responded by prolonging the good times on a wave of debt – maxed-out credit cards, steadily inflating home prices, home equity loans to supplement income, liar loans to buy houses people couldn’t afford.

In 2008 international competition, especially from China and India, for a piece of the stagnant global oil supply drove the price through the roof, briefly hitting $147 a barrel, in the process blowing out the foundation of the debt pyramid. Significantly, even with Europe and the United States deep in recession, sharply reducing the use of gas and oil in all their forms, the price never got below about $55 a barrel, a level it had reached for the first time in history only in 2005, the year world crude oil peaked and hit the plateau it has been stuck on ever since.

In mid-November 2011 the U.S. domestic price was briefly back above $100 while European Brent oil, a more realistic measure of world oil cost, was at $112. (The U.S. price, West Texas Intermediate, is set in Cushing, Oklahoma. Inadequate storage facilities there have produced a local glut, holding down the nominal U.S. price. The Brent price is what is paid on the American Gulf Coast and in California, as well as the rest of the world, and is the more accurate figure.)

Oil doesn’t need to run out to deal a body blow to the world economy. There is still a great deal of oil, but what remains is lower quality, harder to extract, far more expensive than the crude of an earlier day, and can’t be extracted fast enough to increase total supplies. As price goes up the costs of everything dependent on oil, above all transportation, increase, with food prices moving in lock-step.

There is no longer enough crude oil to meet current world demand, the still-flatlined total being maintained by additions of expensive and low grade processed liquids. Nelder and MacDonald write:

“Conventional crude ended its 150-year-long growth trajectory in 2004 and flattened out around 74 million barrels per day. Crude supply did not budge when oil prices tripled from 2004 to 2008, but global demand remained firm, shrugging off a recessionary dip in 2009. All the growth in supply since then was not crude but unconventional liquids, including natural gas liquids, biofuels, refinery gains, synthetic oil from tar sands, and other marginal resources. These liquids are by no means equivalent to crude.”

Demand in Europe and the United States is relatively flat, but is growing rapidly in China and India as those countries seek first-world living standards. Global population reached the seven billion mark this year, as arable land continued its decline, from erosion, over cropping, and exhaustion of underground aquifers. Global warming, still in its earliest stages, has magnified floods and droughts.

Global food prices are closely tied to the price of oil, because of the costs of transport and fertilizer, though they have their own independent drivers, all of which are working against us.

The New York Times summarizes: “The rapid growth in farm output that defined the late 20th century has slowed to the point that it is failing to keep up with the demand for food, driven by population increases and rising affluence in once-poor countries. Consumption of the four staples that supply most human calories — wheat, rice, corn and soybeans — has outstripped production for much of the past decade, drawing once-large stockpiles down to worrisome levels. The imbalance between supply and demand has resulted in two huge spikes in international grain prices since 2007, with some grains more than doubling in cost. (June 4, 2011)

Both capitalism and Communism were founded on a need for perpetual economic growth. For both societies there is a need to provide food, lodging, and employment for an ever expanding population, not to mention expectations of higher living standards, and in the capitalist case there is the additional need to sell products.

The politics of growth as the engine of employment and prosperity is no longer viable. Increasing costs, rising demand, and impending declines in supplies of key energy sources and industrial raw materials promise not just recessions but a decline in the standard of living of world civilizations as a whole, or worse. While the political establishment largely avoids talking about this unpleasant subject, militaries around the world have been alarmed for some time. Their own reports consider seriously the possibility not merely of decline but of collapse of society as we know it. Many show thorough familiarity with the facts of peak oil. One that I thought was particularly interesting, and which has since disappeared from the Internet, was an article by Major Cameron Leckie in the July 2010 issue of the Australian Defense Force Journal urging a drastic simplification of his country’s weapons systems on the premise that a sharp decline in civilization could make parts for their current high tech arsenal unobtainable. He ominously titled his contribution “Lasers or Longbows.”

All the variants of our social systems arose and based their collective livelihoods and expectations on cheap energy and abundant food rolling on into the future. None have contingency plans for steady and unstoppable decline, much less for Gotterdammerung. The first whiff of sulphur even in the wealthy nations has had people casting around for who to blame and rummaging through the inventory of discarded belief systems for something that can save them. The first signs of this in the U.S. date from the oil shock of 1973, and the American defeat in Vietnam two years later. Before that Republicans and Democrats alike held a comfortable trust in the federal government. Afterward, trust in government eroded sharply, the left from the years of opposing the war, the right from the sense of inescapable decline when the Arabs turned off the spigot and the U.S. proved unable to win a long war against the guerrillas of a small Asian nation. The right shifted its Norman Rockwell embrace of Washington to a fascination with the impending Rapture that would let them escape this place. Bible literalist Evangelical Christian sects, hitherto confined to the backwoods, went mainstream, and then succeeded in capturing one of the two major political parties.

The deepening sense of national decline, economic threat, and, for many whites, the vision of an America with a black and brown majority underwrites the bitter partisanship that marks American politics. The risk is the revival of extremist schemas that were tried and failed the first time around.

The Tea Party looks to God. While waiting to be Raptured they remain busy trying to shut out the unwanted immigrants; radically weaken government except where they can use it to pass religious-based legislation to control women’s reproductive lives and restrict gay rights, while amputating much of the rest, creating still more unemployed; roll back taxes used to help the unemployed, the sick, or the elderly;; and free corrupt financial institutions and polluting industries from regulation. Their guts tell them these projects will restore prosperity and American power, and to reject all unpleasant facts that cast doubt, particularly those that come from scientists, academics, and the “lamestream” media. The leadership of the Republican Party professes to find this witches brew convincing.

Liberals and the left are fighting to roll back the extraordinary increases in income and wealth the financial elite pocketed in the last two decades, to protect the frayed social safety net, and to defend jobs, wage levels, and pensions in face of ever more severe federal, state, and local cutbacks. The tax fight can possibly be won, and most serious economists believe that the deficit can ride for a while, that it is more important to provide more stimulus.

What we know about overpopulation, resource depletion, and global warming tell us that sooner or later we will arrive at a second stage of these battles. Ultimately, governments that can’t pay their bills end up like Greece, even the United States. If the future is as it appears, that day is not a possibility but an inevitability, only the date being unknown. That means at some point it will be impossible to sustain our present standard of living, not because America is capitalist but because the historically brief window of plentiful cheap energy and a population small enough to feed itself without that subsidy is over and no change of social system is going to bring it back. Then the job becomes saving what can be saved and finding ways to live where not only growth, but perhaps even gasoline and electricity are no longer options, an age where the U.S. Marines will be armed with longbows.

The Memorable Life of Edith Nesbit

 A Woman of Passion: The Life of E. Nesbit, 1858-1924 by Julia Briggs (New York: New Amsterdam Books, 1987).

 

By Leslie Evans

 

 

Edith Nesbit

Preeminent Edwardian childrens author, prolific novelist and poet, co-founder of the Fabian socialists, friend of George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Annie Besant, Lord Dunsany, and Noel Coward, Edith Nesbit was to the world at large a figure of conventional if progressive sensibilities. In the relative privacy of her home she was the Bohemian duchess, chain-smoking mother to five children, two of them secretly by her ever-philandering husbands live-in mistress, searcher for occult mysteries, lover of George Bernard Shaw ‰ÛÒ and afterward of an ever-younger string of adoring young men. A mesmerizing contrast of apparent acquiescence in the rigid conventionalities of late Victorian and Edwardian England, and quiet moral revolt against them.

 

 I first encountered E. Nesbit, as she signed herself, when I was about twelve. I had been reprimanded by an officious librarian at the old Felipe De Neve branch library in Lafayette Park for trying to take out an adult book and was restricted to the childrens section. I had worked my way through the Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Andersons often creepy tales, and Andrew Langs Blue, Yellow, Green, Orange, and etc. Fairy Books. I much preferred the more contemporary, you-can-get-there-from-here, ones: the Doctor Doolittle series; Freddy the talking pig from Bean Farm in upstate New York; and the Oz books, which the library refused to carry and I had to buy one at a time from a used bookstore on Seventh Street across Alvarado from MacArthur Park.

 

And then there were the two odd books by E. Nesbit, Five Children and It (1902) and The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904). In the first, the five brothers and sisters, in the illustrations the boys in knee britches and the girls in loose old-fashioned dresses, move from London to the countryside in Kent. Exploring a gravel pit they unearth the It, a Psammead, an ugly sand fairy, with a small round furry body and eyes on stalks like a snail, so it can hide in the sand and poke its periscope eyes up for a look. The children call it Sammyadd and find it can grant one wish every day, though the wishes expire each nightfall. The story was quaint, the children speaking in the kind of formal way that one would suppose well brought up Edwardian children would do. And unlike most of the you-can-get-there-from-here books, like Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, or the Oz books, the children dont get to fly off to the magic country for long stays. Instead they are never far from their controlling parents for more than a few hours, forever having to hide what they are up to and living always under the adults thumbs.

 

None of their wishes turn out very well. Riches prove to be a heap of gold coins that adults refuse to cash when presented at stores by children. Becoming beautiful only means being turned away at their homes door when they are not recognized. Yet this is not quite the old sausage-on-the-nose three wishes that go bad, where the last wish must be used to undo the second one. In that classic fable the fault lies with the stupidity of the wishers. In E. Nesbit the children are smart enough; they are just not free enough.

 

In The Phoenix and the Carpet a used rug bought for the childrens nursery turns out to have a large egg wrapped within it. This hatches into an ancient phoenix, a narcissistic and imperious creature. The carpet itself is magic and takes the children on many brief adventures: to a remote island, to India, to Persia where they bring back 199 Persian cats, to France, where they give a treasure to a poor family. The phoenix demands to be taken to a temple in its honor, which it is certain from self-importance must exist. The children in a hilarious scene take the bird to the Phoenix Fire Insurance Company with results you may imagine.

 

Throughout the children are realistic. They quarrel among themselves, perceive the world as real children would. Their homes are middle class, but in straightened circumstances. I found something memorable about the intrusion of magic into this otherwise staid and old-fashioned England.

 

This was the sum of my encounter with E. Nesbit for the next fifty years. Then in the early naughts I "read" four more of her books: The Enchanted Castle, The Magic City, The Magic World short story collection, and one of Nesbits adult works, Man and Maid. I say "read" as much of E. Nesbits work has been digitized and is available for free from the Project Gutenberg text archive and other such sources. I had my computer read these to an MP3 file and listened to them on my iPod. You are probably imagining Robbie the Robot, but in fact computerized voices have improved considerably in the last twenty years. Here is a sample from The Enchanted Castle. The boy Gerald is frightened when the stone dinosaurs in the castle garden come to life. This image is from an experience in Edith Nesbits own childhood when she was taken to the Crystal Palace exhibit in London and crept inside the hollow innards of one of the stone dinosaurs in the courtyard.

 

Becoming curious I next came on a 1965 piece on Nesbit by Gore Vidal. Unstinting in his praise, he declared her, next to Lewis Carroll, "the best of the English fabulists who wrote about children (neither wrote for children)." He comments, following a then-recent critical work on her writing by Noel Streatfeild, that "E. Nesbit did not particularly like children, which may explain why the ones that she created in her books are so entirely human. They are intelligent, vain, aggressive, humorous, witty, cruel, compassionate‰Û_in fact, they are like adults, except for one difference." The difference is that they are utterly powerless and controlled by their adult relatives.

 

Unhappily she was and is little read in the United States. Vidal attributes that to a tradition of narrow utilitarianism of American literary tastes in childrens books then prevailing, which kept even the Oz books out of most public libraries for more than half a century. The vogue for realistic, "practical" literature was still riding high when Vidal penned his essay. By the time the tide shifted and the era of J.K. Rowlings Harry Potter and lesser series such as Philip Pulmans His Dark Materials and Susan Coopers The Dark Is Rising came on the scene, too many years had slipped by for E. Nesbits work to benefit.

 

There have been two full-length biographies, E. Nesbit by Doris Langley Moore (1933), and Julia Briggs excellent and more extensive A Woman of Passion: The Life of E. Nesbit, 1858-1924. Langley Moore presented Nesbit as the long-suffering victim of her womanizing husband, Hubert Bland. Briggs, writing fifty years later, tells us that Edith got her own back, taking lovers as she pleased despite the hostile conventions of Victorian, Edwardian, and Georgian England.

 

Edith was born in South London on August 15, 1858. Her parents, Sarah and John Collis Nesbit, ran a small agricultural college on the property. She was the youngest of the couples four children, two brothers and a sister, as well as an older half-sister from Sarahs first marriage. Her father died when she was four. In 1866 her older sister, Mary, was diagnosed with consumption and her mother entered on a lengthy period of abrupt relocations to try to save the childs life. Edith was often packed off to boarding schools or to stay with distant relatives. In September 1867 the family moved to France to escape Englands damp climate. They stayed at spas in the Pyrenees, returned to England, moved to Dinan in French Brittany, sent Edith and her brothers to schools in Germany, and finally returned to London, where Mary died in November 1871 at the age of nineteen. Mrs. Nesbit then moved the family to the village of Halstead in her home county of Kent. This lasted until 1875, when whatever money they were living on ran out and they moved back to London in very reduced circumstances.

 

Hubert Bland Prevaricates

 

 

Hubert Bland

The story gets more interesting when, in 1877, at nineteen, Edith meets Hubert Bland, a twenty-two-year-old bank clerk. They were engaged the following year. Bland passed himself off as related to landed gentry, but Briggs describes him as "pure Cockney." He lived with his widowed mother on the outskirts of Blackheath. Bland was already a political radical, having a nodding acquaintance with Eleanor Marx, Karl Marxs daughter, and Henry Hyndman, head of the Social Democratic Federation. He was also a cocksman of a high order. In later life Bland claimed to have first been engaged to be married at the age of twelve. At the least, at the time he became engaged to Edith Nesbit he had just gotten his mothers paid companion, Maggie Doran, pregnant. She bore him a son.

 

Ediths poems seem to indicate that she had sex with Bland in the summer of 1879. He was still postponing the promised marriage. In the meantime, Bland kept his engagement to Edith a secret both from his mother and from Maggie Doran. Edith nevertheless moved out of her mothers home and took rooms under the name Mrs. Bland. As for Hubert, he was spending four nights a week with Edith and the other three at his mothers, where he could be with Maggie, neither woman knowing about the other. Hubert continued the arrangement with Maggie long after Edith found out about it, at his mothers home until she died, in 1893, and for five years more elsewhere.

 

Edith, living alone and without aid from Hubert, struggled to make a living, selling her poetry to small magazines. Bland finally married her, seven months pregnant with their first child, Paul, in April 1880. Hubert did not move in with her but continued to live primarily with his mother.

 

Bland started a brush-making business, which quickly failed. Edith added short stories and home-made greeting cards to her output. Their second child, Iris, was born in December 1881. Around that time Edith finally found out about Maggie Doran and her child by Hubert, and Hubert told his mother about his marriage to Edith and of their two children. Hubert began to collaborate with Edith on her short stories.

 

The Fabian Society

 

Fabian socialism, named from the Fabian Society, became in Britain in later years the epitome of democratic, gradualist social reform, instrumental in winning the minimum wage and universal health care. The Fabian Society was founded on January 4, 1884, with a membership of fourteen. Hubert Bland chaired the founding meeting. He, along with Frank Podmore and Frederick Keddell, were chosen as the groups executive committee, with Bland as treasurer. Hubert held both posts until 1911. Podmore proposed the name, for the Roman general Fabius Maximus, nicknamed Cunctator, the delayer, for his strategy of avoiding head-on battles with the Carthaginian invader Hannibal, and by extension the strategy for bringing socialism to Britain in incremental stages. The Fabians played an important part in founding the Labour Party in 1900 and remain influential in the party. A number of Labour prime ministers have been members.

 

Edith was elected to the Fabian Pamphlets Committee, and soon she and Hubert were the co-editors of the societys journal, To-Day. The young George Bernard Shaw joined in September 1884. Other prominent early members included Edward Pease, Eleanor Marx, Annie Besant, suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, H. G. Wells, Oliver Lodge, and the prolific Sydney and Beatrice Webb.

 

Edith had a third child, in January 1885. She named him Fabian.

 

Years later, in 1908, the Fabian Society published a book of Ediths socialist verse under the title Ballads and Lyrics of Socialism. Part of a poem titled "Londons Voices" captures her feelings on the injustice and inequality of her society:

 

Here, in the city, Gold has trampled Good.
Come thou, do battle till this strife shall cease!
I left the mill, the meadows and the trees,
And came to do the little best I could
For these, Gods poor; and, oh, my God, I would
I had a thousand lives to give for these!
What can one hand do gainst a world of wrong?
Yet, when the voice said, ‰Û÷Come! how could I stay?

 

The foe is mighty, and the battle long
(And love is sweet, and there are flowers in May),
And Good seems weak, and Gold is very strong;
But, while these fight, I dare not turn away.

 

George Bernard Shaw, a bit more self-distancing, in an address to the Society in 1892 spoke of its state in 1885:

 

"[W]e denounced the capitalists as thieves . . . and, among ourselves, talked revolution, anarchism . . . and all the rest of it, on the tacit assumption that the object of our campaign, with its watchwords, ‰Û÷Educate, Agitate, Organize, was to bring about a tremendous smash-up of existing society, to be succeeded by complete Socialism. And this meant that we had no true practical understanding either of existing society or Socialism." (The Fabian Society: Its Early History, by G. Bernard Shaw, London: The Fabian Society, 1892)

 

By 1886 the group had grown to sixty-seven members.

 

Shaw and Edith

 

 

 

George Bernard Shaw around 1890

Though they had attended the same socialist meetings since early in 1884, George Bernard Shaw and Edith first seriously noticed each other at a gathering at the home of Karl Marxs daughter Eleanor in March 1885. Edith, in a letter to her friend Ada Breakell that summer described Shaw as "one of the most fascinating men I ever met."

 

Biographer Julia Briggs, who has dug through their diaries, letters, and manuscripts, writes that they had a passionate love affair between June and September 1886. Shaw turned thirty that summer, Edith twenty-eight. They went on long walks in the country, attended concerts and museum exhibits, he took her frequently back to his rooms ‰ÛÓ Shaw, like Bland a few years earlier, still lived with his mother.

 

Their affair was a major life event for Edith. But while it is very likely, it is not certain that it was physically consummated. This stemmed from Shaws ambivalence about sex. Briggs comments that "At this stage of his life, Shaw was constantly playing with the idea of marriage, and proposing to any young women whom he felt confident would refuse him, while fleeing headlong from those who showed any interest in the idea."

 

Further, Shaw believed it was undignified for a man to pursue a woman, although he frequently did so. In later years he was anxious to portray the affair as largely Ediths obsession with him. Their many secret trysts, from his diary plainly at his initiative and expense, belie this.

 

Briggs writes:

 

"Edith had fallen in love for the second time in her life with a philanderer as compulsive, in his own curious way, as Bland, even though his anxieties and inhibitions made him sexually undemanding. The experience was to be a searing one."

 

And:

 

"Ediths passion for Shaw was intense. At one time she proposed leaving Hubert in order to run away with him, as he privately boasted to Doris Langley Moore." This exchange took place in 1931 when Moore interviewed Shaw for her biography of Edith.

 

It would seem that the affair in 1886 was not a fully conventional one. There was something in the acerbic future playwright that was more than shy about sex. When he did finally marry, to Charlotte Payne-Townsend, in 1898, their forty-five-year marriage was never consummated, ostensibly out of her refusal to have children. A 1996 book, Bernard Shaw: The Ascent of the Superman by Sally Peters, proposes that Shaw was a repressed homosexual.

 

Socialism and the Paranormal

 

The Blands, Edith more than Hubert, were interested in psychic phenomena and the esoteric as well as in socialism. This may seem incongruous in light of post-Lenin Marxisms narrow philosophic materialism and rejection of the occult as rank superstition. In late nineteenth century England, however, while there were some hard materialists, socialism and psychic phenomena were two mutually intertwined threads of the avant garde rejection of conventional politics and conventional religion.

 

Briggs is not much interested in this second thread and she refers to it only in passing. In mentioning Edith and Huberts activities in 1885 other than the Fabian she notes their attendance at the Browning and Shelley Societies, but also "societies for psychic research." Briggs quotes a March 1884 letter from Edith to Ada Breakell listing several books she is reading. These include, Edith writes, "an intensely interesting book which Harry [her brother, married to Ada Breakell] would like called Esoteric Buddhism by Sinnett."

 

A. P. Sinnett was a recently converted disciple of the Russian mystic Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the founder of the occult Theosophical Society. Sinnetts book had little to do with any recognized school of Buddhism but was devoted to Blavatskys schema of world evolution from the mythical continents of Lemuria and Atlantis, and the teachings of her claimed Mahatmas or Ascended Masters of Tibet, essentially all-wise spirit guides who live on the Astral Plane and from there influence the course of human history. Sinnett was the recipient of a series of alleged letters from the Mahatmas, the question of their authenticity raising a heated controversy even in circles sympathetic to the idea of spirit communication.

 

These could have been casual interests on Ediths part, but Alex Owen, in The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern, reports that Edith Bland was also an initiate of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the preeminent occult organization of its day, and one requiring a demanding admission process. The Golden Dawn was famous for teaching the practice of magic. Its best-known members were the famed Irish poet William Butler Yeats, Irish socialist actress Florence Farr, Irish revolutionary Maud Gonne, and the infamous "black magician" Aleister Crowley.

 

Alex Owen offers an explanation of the affinity between political radicalism and the occult. The late nineteenth century was an age in which the rapid changes caused by industrialization and urbanism, the expansion and secularization of education, led to widespread questioning of the whole gamut of traditional values. Socialism was the defense of the oppressed poor against the indifference or worse of the dominant Conservative and Liberal parties. Spiritualist mediums, and the more academic and credentialed Society for Psychical Research, proposed and carried out empirical research into the claims of traditional scriptural religion that there was some kind of afterlife. Both currents were looked on in their day as the epitome of modernism.

 

Further, both the socialist organizations and the occult ones welcomed women into positions of leadership which were essentially closed to them in Victorian and Edwardian England. A good example was Anna Bonus Kingsford (1846-1888), only the second English woman to get a medical degree, a militant animal rights advocate and anti-vivisectionist who managed to get through medical school while refusing to dissect a living animal. She was both a prominent womens rights campaigner and at the same time rose to head Madame Blavatskys Theosophical Society, where she claimed to get insights in trance states from nonmaterial beings.

 

Still more famous was Annie Besant (1847-1933), an early leader of the Fabian Society, a close friend of Edith Nesbit, and eventually also president of the Theosophical Society. Besant lost custody of her children in a famous court case because of her advocacy of birth control. In her socialist period she was a principal speaker at the November 13, 1887, rally in Trafalgar Square attacked by troops and remembered as Bloody Sunday. She was a leader of the London matchgirls strike of 1888. The girls worked a fourteen-hour day for pitiful wages. The phosphorus used in making matches was also used in rat poison and caused extensive liver and kidney damage. George Bernard Shaw and Hubert Bland raised money for the match strikers, which they distributed at the factory gates as strike pay.

 

During the 1880s Besant spent much time with Edith Bland and even took the two older children, Paul and Iris, home with her when Edith came down with the measles. Besant also, incidentally, fell in love with George Bernard Shaw. She proposed that he come live with her, but he refused.

 

She was won over to Theosophy in 1890, moved to India, where she claimed to have become a clairvoyant, and rose to head the organization which by then was international in scope. Her new associates were now people like Colonel Henry Steel Olcott and Charles Leadbeater, names to conjure with in the occult fraternity. Olcott had earned his military title in the American Civil War and had served on the official investigating commission into the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

 

Nor was this mixing of socialist politics with the occult just a female proclivity. Two of the central founders of the Fabian Society were Edward Pease and Frank Podmore (1856-1910). Podmores home was also for years the Fabian office. In his The History of the Fabian Society Pease describes how he and Podmore got the idea for the group:

 

"In the autumn of 1883 Thomas Davidson paid a short visit to London and held several little meetings of young people . . . I attended the last of these meetings held in a bare room somewhere in Chelsea, on the invitation of Frank Podmore, whose acquaintance I had made a short time previously. We had become friends through a common interest first in Spiritualism and subsequently in Psychical Research, and it was whilst vainly watching for a ghost in a haunted house at Notting Hill ‰ÛÒ the house was unoccupied: we had obtained the key from the agent, left the door unlatched, and returned late at night in the foolish hope that we might perceive something abnormal ‰ÛÒ that he first discussed with me the teachings of Henry George in ‰Û÷Progress and Poverty, and we found a common interest in social as well as psychical progress."

 

Frank Podmore is remembered as much for his books on psychic phenomena as for his role among the Fabian socialists. These include Phantasms of the Living (1886, coauthored by Frederick Myers and Edmund Gurney); Studies in Psychical Research (1897); Modern Spiritualism (1902); and The Newer Spiritualism (1910).

 

Oliver Lodge, mainly known as a physicist, was a long-time Fabian, author of two Fabian tracts and co-author of a third with Sidney Webb, George Bernard Shaw, and Sidney Ball. At the same time he conducted studies of telepathy in the 1880s and served as president of the Society for Psychical Research from 1901 to 1903.

 

Little Orphan Alices Come to Our House

 

Edith made friends readily and always had an admiring circle of both men and women. Among her women friends the closest included Ada Breakell, who married Ediths brother Harry and moved with him to Australia, and Alice Hoatson. Edith first met Alice in January 1882 when Alice was working as reader for Sylvias Home Journal and Edith visited their offices to try to submit a short story. Alice was six months younger, from Yorkshire. They were temperamentally opposites, Edith outgoing, strong-willed, prone to emotional extremes, overflowing with literary and other projects; Alice quiet, submissive, efficient, and home centered.

 

Alice was ineluctably drawn into the Blands lives. She became Ediths most frequent companion. In 1884 she joined the Fabian Society where she became the organizations assistant secretary. Edith even urged Alice to distract Huberts attention from his latest lover. Alice, who the Blands nicknamed the Mouse ‰ÛÒ they called each other Cat, which tells much ‰ÛÒ succeeded too well. The cat caught the mouse and she was soon pregnant with Huberts child. Edith had for several years urged Alice to come and live with them. She finally did so in late 1886, where she discreetely gave birth to Rosamund that November.

 

Victoria was still on the English throne. Had their domestic situation become public it could have destroyed the Blands still very marginal literary careers, on which their precarious livelihoods depended. Edith and Alice agreed that Edith would claim to be the mother. They maintained this fiction throughout their lives, repeating the ruse thirteen years later when Alice bore Hubert a second child.

 

Of course their close friends knew of the subterfuge. And there was always Maggie Duran, the mother of Huberts other out-of-wedlock child. Even she joined the Fabian Society, in 1890, where that secret slipped out as well.

 

George Bernard Shaws biographer described Hubert, as Shaw viewed him, as "a Tory Democrat from Blackheath, who sported fashionable clothes, wore a monocle, and maintained simultaneously three wives, all of whom bore him children. Two of the wives lived in the same house. The legitimate one was E. Nesbit." (cited by Briggs, p. 108)

 

The disparaging "Tory Democrat" reflected much that was conservative in Hubert Blands outlook despite his socialist politics. Most notably he was firmly opposed to womens suffrage. He is said to have exclaimed, "Votes for women? Votes for children! Votes for dogs!" Edith under pressure from Hubert also opposed womens suffrage, arguing rather tendentiously that it would set back the movement for socialism by flooding elections with votes by Conservative women.

 

Julia Briggs describes the Bland menage of those years:

 

"Alice was socially unassertive, which allowed Edith to shine unchallenged; she was also capable and dependable, quite content to play ‰Û÷the humble satellite to a comet, as she herself put it. She relieved Edith of organizing or undertaking the dull routine household tasks, and dealt more effectively and consistently with the servants, her steady temperament acting as a foil to Ediths volatile nature."

 

Literature and Lovers

 

Edith Nesbit would be past forty before she wrote the childrens classics on which her reputation rests, as well as many adult novels and short story collections. In the penurious eighties she survived by hand painting and writing poems on greeting cards, and publishing an occasional poem or short story in various magazines and newspapers. Briggs writes: "She would allow the butchers and bakers bills to mount up to huge sums, and would then write some verses or stories to pay them off. She liked this functional way of thinking about her work so that each piece of writing was destined to pay off some particular household bill."

 

Hubert never made much of a living. For a few years he had a job with the Hydraulic Power Company, and when he lost that, turned to journalism. He and Edith in the early years collaborated using the pen name Fabian Bland, under which they published a novel, The Prophets Mantle, in 1885.

 

In her own name Edith concentrated on poetry, which she always believed was her true gift. She published three slim volumes of her poems in 1885. Then, in 1886, Longmans published her Lays and Legends. It had been recommended by their reader, prominent author Andrew Lang, who coincidentally is also best remembered for his childrens books, of traditional fairy stories. The poems were praised by the widely popular poet Algernon Swinburne as well as by adventure novelist H. Rider Haggard. Oscar Wilde sent her an encouraging letter.

 

As she neared thirty Edith also began to take lovers, generally younger men from her circle of admirers among the Fabians. The first was Noel Griffith, studying to be an accountant, twenty-three to her twenty-nine.

 

 

 

Richard le Gallienne

In the early nineties she began a long affair with Richard le Gallienne (1866-1947), a slim, elegant, and prolific poet, possibly best remembered for his novel Quest of the Golden Girl. George Bernard Shaw wrote an extremely hostile review of le Galliennes English Poems (1892), probably because many of them were thinly disguised love poems to Edith Bland. At one point Edith wanted to run away with le Gallienne but was persuaded against it by Alice Hoatson. The affair continued after le Gallienne married Mildred Lee in 1891, and was the source of much guilt when Mildred died young in 1894. In 1903 le Gallienne moved to the United States. There his esthete taste and archly traditional romanticism found little resonance and he never achieved the popularity he had in fin de siecle England. Still, I have long enjoyed le Galliennes October Vagabonds, a luminous account of his attempt, accompanied by a French artist, to walk four hundred and thirty miles from upstate New York to Manhattan.

 

Maturity and Success

 

As she aged, Edith drew around her an ever younger group of admiring young men. One of these, Oswald Barron (1868-1939) became her lover and her muse. A Fabian, a columnist for the London Evening News under the pen name the Londoner, Barron was more than anything else a scholar of medieval heraldry and noble genealogies. They wrote poems and short stories together, Barron proving to be an endless font of plot ideas. More than that, he imbued Edith with a sense of the importance of history and of the recollections of childhood. This transformed her writing and in the process won her a mass audience for the first time.

 

Her breakthrough book was The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899), the first of a series of semi-comic novels about the Bastable children. Their names were taken from her coterie of young Fabian men, the hero being Oswald Bastable after Barron, though the childrens personalities were modeled on Ediths brothers and sister. It was an immediate best seller. The self-important Oswald recounts in somewhat inflated style how he and his five brothers and sisters try many different ways to find some treasure after their mother has died and their father has been slipping into penury. There were two sequels, The Wouldbegoods in 1901, her most successful book, and The New Treasure Seekers in 1904. All remain in print a century later, the first of the Bastable books having been three times made into a television series and once into a TV movie.

Hubert’s fortunes also improved. He was now doing book reviews for the Daily Chronicleand a popular column for the Manchester Sunday Chronicle that at its height claimed a million readers. The Blands had lived in numerous houses during their marriage. Now finally prosperous, they rented Well Hall in Eltham, on the border between Kent and London. This was a decayed eighteenth century mansion of thirty rooms. It stood on the grounds of a still earlier house built by Sir Thomas More, Henry VIII’s martyred chancellor, for his daughter. She was said to have brought his severed head there for burial after the king had him executed for opposing Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. The deep moat that had surrounded the original house was still intact in the back grounds when the Blands lived there. Edith did much of her writing in a rowboat on the water.

The old mansion was as dilapidated as the place Tom Hanks buys in the film The Money Pit.The main staircase suddenly collapsed, the gutters failed and the ground floor was flooded. Edith claimed the house was haunted by a ghost that played the piano when no one was in the room, and stood behind her when she was writing, quietly sighing. She began to gain weight, and chain smoked her hand-rolled cigarettes. The household was gregarious and saw many guests, parties, and lectures. Edith was especially fond of parlor games, skits, charades, and musical evenings.

Her initial literary successes were all in naturalistic settings, the fantasy works would come later. In both, however, she refuses to idealize her child characters or their powers. Her biographer writes:

“Over and over again Edith presents her child protagonists in unmanageable confrontation with irate adults whom they are quite unable to cope with. She is realistically aware of the child’s lack of any real power other than the power of imagination . . . . It is her refusal to idealize either the child’s actual – as opposed to imaginative – power, or the nature of the world that children inhabit that constitutes E. Nesbit’s great strength and perhaps her most important contribution to children’s fiction.”

Edith had three living children – Paul, Iris, and Fabian – but afterward she gave birth twice to babies that were still-born. She took these very hard, the blows magnified as Alice Hoatson gave birth in close proximity each time to a healthy child of Hubert’s. The first dead baby was in April 1886 followed by the birth of Alice’s Rosamund in November, when Alice joined the Bland household. This sequence was repeated in 1899, shortly after the move to Well Hall, when Edith bore a second dead child, and Alice gave birth to John Oliver Wentworth Bland. Edith, as she had done with Rosamund, adopted John and presented him to the world as hers while Alice continued to play the role of the spinster Auntie.

The following year Edith’s youngest, Fabian, died, at fifteen, from a botched anesthesia during a routine operation conducted at Well Hall to remove his adenoids. No one had thought to tell him not to eat the night before the surgery and he asphyxiated in his vomit while no one was watching him. The family was devastated.

Edith’s turn to fantasy and magic was linked to the appearance of The Strand magazine in January 1891. Best known as the place where Sherlock Holmes pursued his trade, The Strand built a stable of well-known authors, besides Conan Doyle including Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, E. W. Hornung (Doyle’s brother-in-law, who wrote the Raffles the Gentleman Burglar series), and Max Beerbohm. The magazine strongly preferred fantasy. Edith published her first fantasy book, Five Children and It, serially in The Strand in 1901. The two sequels in the Psammead series, The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Story of the Amulet followed in 1904 and 1906, then her two related time travel books, The House of Arden and Harding’s Luck in 1908 and 1909. All the rest of her fantasy and magic books, such as The Enchanted Castle, The Magic City, and finally Wet Magic, about children who find a mermaid, also appeared first in The Strand. While the children in the Bastable books were modeled on her siblings, the fantasy book children were modeled on her own children. She also wrote eleven novels for adults between 1885 and 1922, none of which gained the audience her children’s fiction did.

G. K. Chesterton’s sister-in-law Ada, a frequent visitor at Well Hall, described Edith in her Bohemian prime:

“Mrs Bland . . . was always surrounded by adoring young men, dazzled by her vitality, amazing talent and the sheer magnificence of her appearance. She was a very tall woman, built on the grand scale, and on festive occasions wore a trailing gown of peacock blue satin with strings of beads and Indian bangles from wrist to elbow. Madame, as she was always called, smoked incessantly, and her long cigarette holder became an indissoluble part of the picture she suggested – a raffish Rossetti, with a long full throat, and dark luxuriant hair, smoothly parted. She was a wonderful woman, large hearted, amazingly unconventional, but with sudden strange reversions to ultra-respectable standards.” (cited by Briggs, p. 233)

The Blands often took in strays in need of support. Edith even welcomed Maggie Doran, the mother of Hubert’s first child, now in ill health, into her home, where she lived until her early death in 1903.

In 1907 Edith founded a short-lived literary journal, The Neolith, printed in hand-done calligraphy on oversized paper. Contributors included H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, G. K. Chesterton, Andrew Lang, and Lord Dunsany. This last, in private life better known as Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany, became one of Edith’s lifelong friends. She and Alice’s son John visited Dunsany and his wife at their ancient Dunsany Castle in Ireland in 1910. Lord Dunsany has long been one of my favorite authors, his ornate and archaic language and bizarre worlds with their own gods unlike the work of any other I can think of.  Dunsany was also a playwright, a financial supporter of Dublin’s famed Abbey Theatre, and a friend of W. B. Yeats and Yeats’ patron, Lady Gregory.

THE H. G. WELLS FIASCO

H. G. Wells

H. G. Wells and his wife Amy Catherine joined the Fabian Society in February 1903, beginning that fall to exchange regular visits with the Blands. For several years the two families were very close. Wells once showed up at Well Hall unannounced and stayed for a week, finishing his novel In the Days of the Comet in the back garden.

Distance set in during 1906 when Wells began a campaign to reorganize the Fabian Society. He demanded that it become more like a political party, adopt an official line in contrast to the wide spectrum of views currently tolerated, run candidates for parliament, and, stickiest of all, get rid of the existing Executive Committee, including Hubert Bland. There was also some suggestion in Wells’ proposals that he wanted an endorsement of free love, which horrified the Edwardian sensibilities of many members.

Bernard Shaw supported the Old Guard against Wells and the thing came to a head in a couple of large meetings in December 1906 where Wells was roundly defeated.

The rift became a chasm when, in 1908, Wells, then forty-one, tried to run away to Paris with Hubert’s beloved daughter Rosamund, twenty years his junior. The eloping couple were betrayed and Hubert caught them on a train at Paddington Station. Hubert Bland, monocle or not, was a large, powerful man and an excellent boxer. He thrashed Wells and carted his wayward daughter home. Wells in the appendix to his 1934 Experiment in Autobiographyclaimed that he was precipitated into adultery with Rosamund to save her from Hubert, saying that “her father’s attentions to her were becoming unfatherly. I conceived a great disapproval of incest, and an urgent desire to put Rosamund beyond its reach in the most effective manner possible, by absorbing her myself.” Such self-sacrifice!

Whatever the truth of Wells’ accusation, he lost the sympathy of the Fabians when the following year he betrayed his wife again, getting Amber Reeves, a young member of the group, pregnant. She managed a hasty marriage with someone else, but Wells persisted in the affair after the marriage. Sidney and Beatrice Webb now broke off their friendship with Wells over his conduct. Wells got even in 1910 with a roman a clef, The New Machiavelli, in which the Webbs do not fare well and the Blands appear very negatively but unmistakably as the Booles.

EDITH AND SHAW LATE IN LIFE

Edith Nesbit and George Bernard Shaw remained close friends for life, though they never were again lovers. As they entered middle age their interests and outlooks began to diverge, without diminishing their mutual affection. Edith, while still retaining her interest in socialism, dropped away from active participation in the Fabian. Around the time she turned fifty she became passionately absorbed by the Baconian controversy. This in its simplest form was the claim that Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was the true author of Shakespeare’s plays. That issue has sputtered on to our own day where a small group of irreconcilable conspiracy theorists still hold that Shakespeare was a village clod while Bacon wrote his plays, if not almost every other major work of Elizabethan England including the Fairy Queen.

For the more esoteric wing of the Baconian movement, the plays were only the appetizer. Just as the true alchemists of the Middle Ages regarded turning lead into gold as little more than a parlor trick on the road to discovering the Philosopher’s Stone and achieving immortality, the occult Baconians hoped through secret ciphers hidden in the plays to unravel the Rosicrucian mysteries of which they believed Bacon to have been a master, and the hidden lore of the Freemasons, in Bacon’s day a feared secret society and not yet the businessmen’s club known for its funny hats and handshakes. Edith Nesbit was more drawn to the search for mystic enlightenment in her ciphering than the question of who really wrote Hamlet.

Edith invested large amounts of time and money, trying  vainly to learn logarithms in hopes of finding secret ciphers hidden in Shakespeare’s plays, buying rare books, and for years supporting an old neer-do-well known as Tanner who was said to be doing his own research on Baconian ciphers. By ciphers the devotees intended coded messages buried in the text to be extracted by discovering the pattern of the code.

Shaw at the same time was evolving in the opposite direction, toward a far harder version of socialism, and then beyond that to an admiration of all of the contemporary absolutist revolutions and their dictators of the far left and far right as superior to mere corrupt capitalist democracy. The worst of this would come in the quarter century in which he outlived her.

In the years of their friendship Shaw limited his advocacy of extremist propositions to selective human breeding according to the tenets of the Eugenics movement. He amalgamated his notion of socialism with calling for government and corporate directed breeding programs aimed at creating a race of Nietzschean supermen. This drew little adverse reaction, as he presented his view – notably in his 1901 play Man and Superman – in witty dialogue wrapped in the popular verbiage of onward and upward evolution, promotion of the Life Force, and as an egalitarian process blind to class differences.

Shaw had no patience for mysticism or the occult, though those beliefs were probably less harmful than the things he did advocate in the world of secular reality. He good naturedly lent Edith money to pursue her Baconian studies, and also his replica set of early editions of Shakespeare for her to test her cipher skills on. Still, he joked with her that he could show from textual comparisons that his own plays had all been written by Sidney Webb.

LAST YEARS

Hubert in 1911 began to lose his eyesight. Soon he was blind. He continued to write his weekly column and do some book reviewing, Alice Hoatson reading the books to him and taking down his dictation. Edith’s creativity began to flag, and in 1913, after the serial publication of Wet Magic, the last of her children’s books, The Strand canceled her contract, leading to a drastic decline in her income. After more than a decade of prodigious literary output Edith fell silent for the next eight years, returning only a few years before her death with two adult novels. Hubert died suddenly, in April 1914.

There followed some years of financial hardship. Edith, Alice, and their children took in paying guests at Well Hall. They set up a roadside stand where they sold vegetables and flowers. For a while they raised chickens and sold the eggs, until an outbreak of disease killed the flock.

Three years after Hubert’s death Edith remarried, not to an intellectual but to Thomas Tucker, known as “the Skipper,” a marine engineer and ferry boat captain. She was defensive about his lower class bearing but they were very happy together. Alice finally left, after thirty-one years, moving to London where she worked as a nurse.

Edith’s health began to fail, as her persistent smoking produced ever more serious attacks of asthma and bronchitis. She and the Skipper had in the end to abandon Well Hall as too expensive to maintain. From the grand house they moved to a pair of brick sheds recently built by the Air Force in the village of St. Mary’s in the Marsh. The Skipper partitioned the open interiors into numerous rooms. In her last year Edith made friends with a new neighbor in the village, the young Noel Coward, who found her enchanting. He had read and collected her books as a child.

Edith died on May 4, 1924, of lung cancer. Alice Hoatson lived long enough to be interviewed by Doris Langley Moore for her 1933 biography of Edith, but to the end maintained the pretence that Rosamund and John were her niece and nephew. Paul, Edith’s first born, always ill at ease with his Bohemian family, worked in finance, married unhappily, and committed suicide at sixty in 1940. Iris became a dressmaker. Rosamund cared for Skipper in his last years and published one novel, in 1934. Of Iris, Rosamund, and John and their later lives, Julia Briggs could discover only the probable decade of their deaths.

Julia Briggs closes her biography with an appreciation of Edith’s work that Noel Coward wrote in 1956:

“I am reading again through all the dear E. Nesbits and they seem to me to be more charming and evocative than ever. It is strange that after half a century I still get so much pleasure from them. Her writing is so light and unforced, her humour is so sure and her narrative quality so strong that the stories, which I know backwards, rivet me as much now as they did when I was a little boy.”

There was a copy of The Enchanted Castle next to his bed seventeen years later when he died.

Trying to Fix L.A.'s Animal Death Row

 

How is our new head of Animal Services doing in her effort to stop the killing?

By Leslie Evans

 

Brenda Barnett

Brenda Barnette was sworn in as head of the Los Angeles Animal Services Department in August 2010. She had a long history of efforts to halt, or at least slow down, the mass government killing of lost and abandoned pets. Most recently she had been CEO of the Seattle Humane Society, where in 2009 they found homes for 6,091 animals and raised the save rate from 77 to 92 percent. Barnette at her swearing in said she would try to match the Seattle numbers in Los Angeles within five years. Before Seattle she had run the Tony La Russa Animal Rescue Foundation and been Development Director of the San Francisco SPCA.

 

Ominously, Barnette was the sixth General Manager in ten years to try to reform the dysfunctional Animal Services Department. By the end of her first year it was already apparent that the various and sundry partisan interests didn't mean to give her much of a honeymoon before starting to look for candidate number seven.

 

I had an unexpected chance to meet her on Saturday, November 24, at the Congress of Neighborhoods at City Hall, the annual gathering and pep rally for the city's 95 volunteer neighborhood councils. The format includes a score of panels, usually on working with city agencies, parliamentary procedure, funding, and such. This year as a first there was a panel headed "Animal Issues." The featured panelist was Brenda Barnette.

 

Unhappily, animal rescue was not much on the minds of the city's neighborhood volunteers. Only ten of the 600 congress attendees showed up. Barnette, whose short tenure was already the target of numerous hostile critics, said her department was working to get animals out of the shelters through partnerships with nonprofit and volunteer animal rescue groups, to expand spay-neuter efforts, and to enforce laws requiring pet owners to license their dogs. "There are a record number of animals coming into the shelters," she said.

 

Figures on the LAAS website show a steady increase as the recession hit and lingers. Total intake of dogs and cats in Los Angeles was 44,786 in 2006-2007, jumping to 50,911 when the recession struck the following year, plateauing at 54-55,000 over the next two years, and climbing again, to 57,498, for the 2010-2011 fiscal year, which ended in July.

 

"We could handle these numbers," Barnette said, "if we could find one adopter in every 300 people." Adoption is one end of the solution. Sterilization is the other. Animal Services, she said, is offering $70 vouchers for spay-neuters to low-income families. Low income is defined as below $29,900 for a single person; $42,700 for a family of four. Applicants need to establish their income with last year's California tax return. The department is also sending spay-neuter vans to low-income communities.

 

"Licensing is key," Barnette told the group. "It gets the animal their shots and neutering, and $7 of the $20 license fee goes to the spay-neuter fund." The license fee is $20 for a neutered dog, but $100 for one that has not been neutered, and the owner of an unneutered dog has to claim to be a breeder.

 

"We need people to call their local shelter to report unneutered dogs, dogs running loose, and people doing breeding. We need citizen calls to tell us about violators."

Animal Services is also working to promote adoptions. This is not only at the shelters, but through off-site adoption events at parks and malls. One currently pending is at the Westside Pavilion at Westwood Blvd. and Pico, a mall where a long-established pet store sells dogs from puppy mills despite many protests from animal rescue groups.

 

Barnette said they are also running a volunteer program at the city's shelters, where volunteers try to persuade pet owners not to abandon their pets, whether it is because of some behavior problem that can be solved or because they can't afford the spay-neuter or license fees. She asked the neighborhood councils to include spay-neuter ads in their newsletters and websites and information about the shelters in their areas.

 

Animal Services, like many other city departments, is suffering from staff cutbacks. Barnette called for volunteers to become Reserve Animal Control Officers. This is an unpaid position, similar to reserve police officers. Applicants go through a rigorous six-month training academy, then are issued the same badge and uniform of regular paid officers. They are empowered to enforce state laws and city ordinances dealing with the care, treatment, licensing, and impounding of animals. They pick up sick, injured, stray, vicious, or unwanted animals and carry out investigations, issue citations, and make arrests.

 

Inevitably Brenda Barnette has become the target of hostile critics. Her plan to reach a 92 percent save rate in five years raised expectations, and when her first year ended with more executions than the year before there came a flood of criticism. The LA Daily News on July 30, 2011, claimed kills had increased by 10.7% in Barnette's first year. This figure was repeated a few days later in the August 3, 2011, Los Angeles Examiner under the headline, "Kill Rate skyrockets at Los Angeles Animal Services."

 

This is fairly dishonest reporting. They get the number by looking at total kills for 2009-2010 compared to 2010-2011. But there were almost 3,000 more dogs and cats left at the shelters in the later year. The skyrocket was from 37% of the intake to 39%, an increase of 2%. Nevertheless, the numbers mean there were 22,435 dead cats and dogs in the most recent year, a horrifying pile of corpses. But to put it in perspective, Los Angeles Animal Services euthanized 29,202 animals in fiscal year 2003-2004, which was almost half (49.4%) of the number of animals impounded. In 2000-2001 the kill rate was 68.7%. And back in 1971, the year that spay-neutering became a city policy, Los Angeles shelters killed an incredible 110,835 dogs and cats. The numbers both of kills and impounds trended downward from the early seventies, reaching 15,009 animals killed in 2007, just before the economy fell off the cliff and the trend reversed.

 

Barnette is pilloried for other faults, where her department is more obviously having problems. Animal Services has refused to collect the obligatory $500 fine from dog owners who don't license their pets, saying the amount is prohibitive for poor families. Barnette has been reprimanded by the City Council for this. Some of her staff have illegally taken and sold 64 dogs, and are accused of falsifying their time cards.

 

A bigger scandal has blown up around Barnette's decision to give the city's Northeast Valley shelter in Mission Hills to a private nonprofit. A September 22, 2011, LA Weekly article excoriates Barnette, claiming "respected nonprofits were edged out when a locally unproven group nabbed a contract to run a city shelter ‰ÛÓ without competitive bidding." The Northeast Valley shelter cost the city $19 million, and is being leased to the Best Friends Animal Society for $1 a year. Other animal welfare organizations have protested the no-bid, unadvertised transaction.

 

Frankly I am not disturbed by this one. The shelter was completed in 2008 but never opened, for lack of operating funds. The arrangement with Best Friends was not a backdoor deal with Animal Services but went before the LA City Council in August 2011, where it was approved by an 11-1 vote. Why Best Friends? Because it would take a large and well-funded organization to reliably operate a major city shelter. Best Friends is one of the largest national animal rescue organizations, famous for its no-kill animal sanctuary in southwestern Utah, known nationally from the National Geographic television series Dog Town. Wikipedia describes Best Friends as "the flagship of the rapidly growing no-kill movement." It runs its own no-kill shelters in several states and its personnel rescued some 6,000 animals in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

 

Other complaints against Barnette concern LAAS' website. Never very functional, the existing website was scrapped on Barnette's orders and a new one mounted. I asked her at the panel why Animal Services is virtually the only major city service where a complaint or service request cannot be filed online. Instead visitors to the website are given the phone numbers of the various shelters, which often means long waits on hold or worse. Evidently not very computer literate, she replied that she thought people could file requests online, as she had seen documents on her desk that seemed to come from the Internet.

 

Complaints abound about the new site, most notably that if you are looking to adopt a pet you are presented the city's entire stock and it is difficult and time consuming to find a way to see what animals are being held at the shelter nearest to you.

 

I took a good look at the site after the panel. If you think about what someone would want from the animal services website some choices seem primary: (1) to adopt a pet, where you would want to see the choices at your nearest shelter first; (2) to see if your lost pet has been impounded; (3) to report animal cruelty, illegal breeding, loose or unneutered dogs; (4) to get your dog(s) licensed; (5) to get information on spay-neuter.

 

These options are to a degree visible in a small plain text menu down the left side, but generally buried deep within the far more prominent official looking top menu system. At the top:

 

1. Adoption choices are citywide, may be from shelters too far away to consider, and too numerous to browse more than a small fraction, giving the animals lower in the arbitrary list of shelters little chance to be seen.

 

2. "Lost Pet" is choice number 7 under General Information, after such headings as "Happy Tails" and "Household Hazards." If you click on Lost Pet it tells you to phone your local shelter, with no offered phone numbers. If you are bolixed by that advice you can read further down the page, where you will find a text link that says "Click here to search for your lost pet." This goes to a list of shelters, and from there to the one (well hidden) place in the website where you can search a particular shelter, with check boxes for dog age, size, color, and sex.

 

3. Street Services, Building and Safety, and other agencies have online service request forms that give several choices for their different services. Animal Services does not have any kind of online service request. It does have a link to report animal cruelty, but the link does not mention any of the issues that Brenda Barnette urged citizens to report, such as unneutered dogs, dog fighting, illegal breeders, etc. And even to find the animal cruelty link you have to start with a heading called Laws and Policies, then go to a page explaining animal cruelty, which then links to a page with a phone number, which then links to a page with each city shelter, explaining that no one may answer the animal cruelty phone. The shelter page has all the shelters in the city, with links that take you to a page where you can get -- a phone number.

 

4. Spay-neuter is fairly well handled but you need to click down into the application form before it explains whether you qualify.

 

5. How to get a dog license is choice 6 under Laws and Policies. More hide and seek.

 

Brenda Barnette's major positive action has been to promote the previously existing "New Hope Placements" partnership with some 150 local animal rescue organizations. While individual adoptions from shelters were down 1,106 for her first year, New Hope adoptions by rescue groups were up 1,299, with 6,980 animals saved by such groups.

 

Yet Barnette seemed to come in for a drubbing even for having kept these thousands of dogs and cats from getting a lethal injection. According to the August 1, 2011, Daily News, City Councilmember Dennis Zine "said that he went to the West Valley Animal Shelter over the weekend hoping to adopt a Labrador for his girlfriend. 'I was told there were plenty of varieties there, but when I was there, it seemed there were only pit bulls and Chihuahuas,' Zine said. 'Both are fine breeds, but not what I was looking for. I was told that all the family friendly breeds had been taken by rescue organizations.'"

 

Excuse me for being incredulous. Councilman Zine seems to be saying that the shelters should have kept the Labs there on the off chance he might show up to take one (and then kill them if he didn't).

 

I would leave it that we are in hard times and these are affecting pet owners and city animal services both. I thought a fair summary of Barnette's tenure came from well-known animal rescue activist Mary Cummins in her February 14, 2011, blog, halfway through Brenda Barnette's first year:

 

"I believe some of the increase in adult cat/dog intake and euth is caused by our horrible economy i.e., job losses, foreclosures, people being forced to move from homes into smaller rentals that don't allow pets, people doubling up in homes and people who can't afford to spay or neuter their pets. Obviously Barnette did not cause our horrible economy. Still, it's a challenge she must face.

 

"I think she's done a great job increasing New Hope adoptions. I don't know if she recruited more New Hope partners or just found a way to get them to take more animals. Whatever the cause, whoever deserves credit, kudos. Kudos to the actual New Hope partners as well. That's the only real improvement by the numbers. Without that improvement, things would be much worse. "

A Romanian Novelist

 

By Leslie Evans

 

Eugen Uricaru (left) with Leslie Evans

 

We sit quietly under the arbor in my backyard. "You are familiar with the Cathars, of course," he says. "Yes," I reply, "French offshoots of the Bulgarian Bogomils, who renounced the material world and its god." This esoteric discussion had been prompted by my giving him a copy of my memoir, Outsider's Reverie, in which he had reached the chapter recounting my youthful fascination with the ancient Gnostics, otherworldly progenitors of the medieval sects of which we were speaking. He seems interested and intrigued, to have found an unexpected commonality.

My guest was Eugen Uricaru, a distinguished Romanian novelist. He and his wife Lucia, a university professor, were staying with us for three weeks to attend their daughter Ioana's PhD graduation at USC. Ioana Uricaru, a rising Romanian filmmaker, has lived with my wife Jennifer and me for the last three years, enlivening our lives with her sharp tongue, encyclopedic knowledge of films, and her finely tuned political sensibilities.

When she discovered that Jennifer and I had both spent much of our lives as Marxist activists Ioana was incredulous. Having grown up in one of the more bizarre and repressive Communist dictatorships she asked, "You did this voluntarily?" Happily her bitter experiences with the Marxist left didn't make a right winger out of her. Ioana actively supported Obama in 2008 and has little use for the Republicans.

Ioana has her own listing in the Internet Movie Database. Photos of her are also fairly widely circulated on the Internet through her film work. She directed one of the stories in Christian Mungiu's 2009 comedy, Tales from the Golden Age, which was entered the Cannes Film Festival, and her short film Stopover was shown in this year's Sundance film festival. Ioana often watches films with us, but laments our indiscriminate tastes, refusing to join us for the many Lifetime and Hallmark films we settle in with, and as for CSI Miami, she dismisses aging red haired lead investigator David Caruso as "Boiled Carrot."

Eugen was born in 1946, making him four years younger than me. White haired and, like me, a bit plump, he apologizes for his poor English, but makes himself understood perfectly well on a wide range of subjects. In his youth he was an ardent Communist. He supported Nicolae Ceausescu when he first became head of the Romanian Communist Party in 1965, as those were years of unusual liberalization. Controls over literature were loosened, overtures were made to the West, Romania was the only country in the world to recognize both Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Ceausescu condemned the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Romania was the first Communist country to join the International Monetary Fund.

Then in 1971 everything went bad. Ceausescu made a state visit to China, still in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, and Kim Il Sung's North Korea. On his return he lurched into totalitarian madness. Eugen Uricaru became an oppositionist, founding the journal Echinox. The years from then until the popular revolution overthrew Ceausescu in 1989 were difficult ones for Eugen and Lucia and their two children. Then came the turnaround. Eugen became the Romanian Cultural Attache in Athens, then Deputy Director of the Academy of Romania in Rome, and finally Secretary of State in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2003-2005. Author of 15 novels, he was elected president of the national Union of Writers, 2001-2005. Today he heads the national copyright organization that protects writers' revenues. On the side he wrote a popular screenplay, translated an opera from the Italian, and has translated works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn from the Russian.

I ask him what he thinks now of politics, in particular of Marxism and the left. "The right wing is sterile," he begins. "They look only to the past, create nothing new, and lack humanity. The left looks to the future, explores new trends and has founts of creativity and compassion. But there is a catch, here. The left in power always becomes right wing. Its strength is as a cultural movement or current. Becoming the government ruins it."

I think about that. At first it seems simplistic. If the left is to abjure governing, then the government will always be in the hands of the right, or at best some kind of centrists. But then I consider further. There is clearly a bifurcation between the left as a movement that champions opposition to racism, greater equality, freedom of speech, full rights for women and gays, and, in contrast, the many governments that proclaim themselves leftist, and that in fact emerged from indisputable Marxist movements, that have more in common with fascism, at least of the Italian variety, than with the platforms leftists support while in opposition. Some kind of terrible rupture has taken place and Eugen Uricaru's formulation captures it fairly well.

I also suddenly understand why this man has an interest in the Cathars, dualists who believed there was a complete incompatibility between love and power; the material world and those who hold power in it are incapable of love, those who love would be irretrievably corrupted if they assumed material power. It's another way of stating what he has said to me about leftism.

"Have any of your novels been translated into English?" I ask. "I would love to read them." "No," he replies, "only into German, Polish, Greek, Hungarian, and Russian. But one was just published in 2009 in French, 'Ils arrivent, les barbares!' 'They are here, the barbarians.' It's about collaborators with the German occupation in Romania during World War I."

I venture that I know a bit of French, and later that day he presents me with a copy.

During their visit they go to Las Vegas ("More vulgar than I could have imagined."), Catalina ("Very charming"), Hollywood ("Not as much there as we would have expected.") and various other sights. Widely traveled in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, this was the first time that either Eugen or Lucia had visited the United States.

The Book

I settle down with my gift, "Ils arrivent, les barbares!" and my ancient battered Cassell's French dictionary. The book is published by Les Editions Noir sur Blanc , which is working on a translation of another of Eugen Uricaru's novels. Ils arrivent, les barbares! can also be bought from Amazon UK. I found myself looking up words on every page, deciphering as much as reading. Ioana joked with me that this was my Rosetta stone, the dimly understood French as the bridge between my monolingual English and the Romanian of the original.

I found myself in a time and place that were previously unknown to me. Romania, a small country easily tossed about by the Great Powers, sat out the first two years of the First World War as a neutral, then, on August 27, 1916, entered the war on the Allied side, hoping to recapture Transylvania, the majority Romanian land to its northwest controlled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A German army led by General August von Mackensen invaded Romania from Bulgaria in the south five days later. Russian support promised to Romania quickly evaporated and the German-Austrian-Turkish invasion rapidly crushed the Romanian army. On December 6 Bucharest, the capital, fell to the Germans. The Romanian army and the royal family were not destroyed but retreated into Moldavia, the Romanian province that made up the country's northeast quadrant. They held out there until the war ended in 1918.

Eugen Uricaru's novel follows the fates of five central characters from November 1916 through the early days after the capture of Bucharest at the year's end. The tale opens in the disordered Bucharest bohemian mansion of Leonidas Soroceanu, an elderly comic actor who was once famous on the Romanian stage. He has brought his young nephew Ermil from his home in the quiet provincial town of Ramnic (today Ramnicu Valcea) to find him a job as a journalist and get him started on a career. Ermil watches out the window as exhausted Romanian soldiers and cartloads of the wounded stream by day after day. Ermil is more than half in love with his cousin Sophie Vasiliu, a few years his elder, who remains behind in Ramnic in her parents' home. She is also, by a different sister, a niece of Uncle Leonidas.

We learn that Leonidas is something of a mystic, interested in Theosophy and the writings of Madame Blavatsky and Rudolf Steiner. In his youth he ran away with a gypsy circus run by a mysterious man who called himself Merlin. There Leonidas fell in love with the beautiful Grazia. He followed the circus throughout Europe doing odd jobs just to be near her. Grazia, however, finally refused to allow him to go with her when the circus took ship for America, and his life has been absorbed with her memory for more than thirty years. We learn late in the book that he thinks he sees Grazia in his niece Sophie and secretly imagines himself as her lover despite the more than forty years difference in their ages.

The story next turns to Romanian light cavalry officer Lieutenant Luca Demian. Sent alone on horseback to field headquarters for orders, on his return he finds his entire unit, a thousand men and horses, machine-gunned to death by German gunners hidden in foliage on a ridge. This shocking scene is the first inkling that the Germans have penetrated this far into Romanian territory. Riding on alone he encounters a mounted German officer. The two fight with sabers and, while Lieutenant Demian kills his foe, he suffers a grave head wound.

Next onstage is Tanase Berzea, a somber former military man in his sixties who has worked for thirty-five years in the cloisters of the central state ministry in Bucharest. Excluded from the inner circles of power, he longs to be named a minister but has been frozen in the subordinate technical administrative position of director of the ministry staff. We meet him as the city is preparing to fall to the Germans. He is called into the prime minister's office, who tells him that secret war contingency plans had from the outbreak of hostilities called for abandoning Bucharest and making a stand on the north bank of the Siret River at the Moldavian border. The royal family and the top government officials are leaving for Moldavia. Berzea is ordered to remain behind, to pack and ship the nation's archives and to destroy what can't be sent. Then, the prime minister tells him, he is to take the responsibility to be the government's representative in Bucharest to the German authorities, but with the exile government retaining complete deniability for any of his actions.

Strangely, Berzea accepts this doomed proposition, and, at least briefly, feels an ecstatic sense of freedom. He thinks himself finally in charge, a real minister at last. He will rally the remaining government functionaries to act as a buffer between the citizens and the German army. He drafts a manifesto proclaiming that Romania is occupied but not destroyed and all state employees should remain at their posts.

Berzea spends two weeks overseeing packing the dusty archives, working on his manifesto, and, after a while, day dreaming about his vacation two years earlier in Constanza, a seaside resort city on the Black Sea. There, while out walking, he met a beautiful young woman, none other than our Sophie Vasiliu, and stranger still, Berzea, like Leonidas Soroceanu, was also in the distant past a lover of Grazia, just before she joined Merlin's circus. And, like Leonidas, he sees Sophie as a virtual reincarnation of Grazia, his attraction half to the living woman and half to the ghost of the past. He and Sophie meet innocently for walks a half dozen times, during which he tries to remember everything he can of his life with Grazia, which he retails to Sophie at great length. In the end, however, he confesses to her that he has been shifting his affections from the long-lost Grazia to the very present Sophie. She acknowledges his interest but that is all.

We now turn to the lovely Sophie Vasiliu back at her parents home in Ramnic. The house is on the outskirts of town, on the edge of a square facing what had been a Romanian army barracks and is now a stores depot for the Germans, including corrals and a slaughterhouse for cattle, sheep, and pigs. One day in crossing the square she is caught in the midst of a herd of horned cattle and risks being gored. She is saved by a German officer on horseback. He is Rolf Timmerman, in civilian life a veterinarian, who imagines himself a great humanist and above such petty things as nationalist hatreds. Timmerman trades on Sophie's obligation to him to pay frequent unwanted visits to her home. He defends his conduct with the argument that he is only collecting food to be sent to the hungry people of Germany. Sophie replies that he is an unwelcome conqueror who is stealing food from hungry Romanians to send out of the country.

Then one afternoon Sophie hears a noise in a shed on her property and finds inside our injured Romanian Lieutenant Luca Demian. She brings him into the house. Then, both fearing his discovery by Timmerman and desperately looking for a doctor to tend his wounds, she hits on the scheme of passing him off as her civilian cousin and persuades Timmerman to use his veterinary skills to treat the patient.

This works well enough while Demian is comatose, but eventually he revives -- and flees. Now the rather dense German figures out that he has been had. He has Sophie and her parents arrested. We see them being taken away by soldiers, who burn their house behind them.

Now there comes a strange interlude in which we follow the adventures of Lieutenant Luca Demian. He determines to return to the fight against the Germans, not by rejoining the Romanian army on the Siret but right in the area around Ramnic. He finds and impresses a half dozen lost Romanian soldiers, shooting one of them dead when his orders are questioned. They take up living in a den of bushes in a swamp, venturing out to steal food and to kill an occasional cart driver moving provisions for the Germans. When they encounter a real German patrol one of his men is killed and two wounded, with devastating impact on the little band's morale.

This leads Demian to undertake an entirely mad mission: he and his squad will capture the village of Gherani and ambush the Germans who come to take it back. Ragged and dirty, but well armed, they march in and take over the town hall. The incredulous mayor, Niculae Branea, just wants them to go away before the Germans find out about it. He regards Demian as a lunatic, while Demian denounces Branea as a traitor. It seems the place is too small for the Germans to bother with. They have never entered the village, instead delegating a Romanian merchant to make regular visits there to requisition supplies, an arrangement that both sides find entirely satisfactory.

Lieutenant Demian dragoons local farmers to dig trenches on the Gherani side of a small river, planning to hide his men and jump up shooting as the Germans cross the bridge to the town. When the collaborator merchant shows up, Demian locks him up in the town hall. Somehow word gets to the Germans and they send a detachment. But instead of walking into the ambush on the bridge they halt on the far side of the river and bombard the town with artillery, leveling the entire place. The luckless Romanian soldiers don't get in so much as a shot. The scene closes as Lieutenant Demian and the now outlawed Mayor Branea make a run for the swamp. At least thus far collaborating has looked the better part of valor.

The last part of the novel focuses on Leonidas Soroceanu, his nephew Ermil, and the minister-collaborator Tanase Berzea. Leonidas takes Ermil to Berzea's office in the capital building. We see Berzea falling further and further under the thumb of the German authorities, who issue daily orders over his signature, requisitioning supplies, making more and more restrictive prohibitions, and finally ordering taking of hostages and reprisals against resistance. The sinister Colonel Hentsch explains to him that it is much easier to maintain order if they have a native front man to screen their rule.

Berzea becomes more and more remote, while his old friend Leonidas seems to be wrapped in a fantasy cloud in which Tanase Berzea is an important figure who can protect them and find a promising position for Ermil on one of the German-censored newspapers. He insists that nothing much has really changed by the occupation and everything will work out well despite the war. As they leave, Leonidas and Ermil enter a nightmarish scene of deserted streets, vandalized houses, and wild dog packs. A madman leads them in circles for hours. They are alone on an empty boulevard when no less than General Mackensen himself passes through in an automobile with a large contingent of horse mounted troops. Called General Death by the Romanians, one of his officers rides to curbside and kicks old Leonidas in the jaw with his steel spur, inflicting a suppurating wound.

Undaunted, Leonidas meets that evening with Berzea, who presses on him a secret personal mission. It seems that neither man knows of the other's past with the captivating Grazia, much less that each imagines they see Grazia returned in Sophie Vasiliu. Leonidas is stunned when Berzea urges him to return to Ramnic and persuade Sophie to move to Bucharest so that Berzea can pursue his courtship. Leonidas, agrees, not revealing that he is her uncle. He secretly plans to press his own suit on the young woman.

Leonidas sets out, but through various mishaps ends up on foot. As he nears Ramnic he is arrested by the Germans, who are looking for hostages to execute in reprisal for the depredations of Luca Demian. The old actor has documents from Berzea stating he is on an official government mission, but these mean little to the occupiers. He is thrown in a dank cellar with a dozen prisoners, including Niculae Branea, the former mayor of Gherani village, a huge powerful man who by now is outspoken in his anger against the German occupation. Called out for an interrogation, Leonidas tries to save his skin by denouncing Branea as a terrorist. The officer in charge finally relents and signs a safe passage for Leonidas, ordering Branea to be shot.

Then, in a tragicomic denouement, as the firing squad takes the Gherani mayor and four others to the execution ground Branea makes a successful run for the forest. The moronic sergeant in charge, feeling his orders require him to produce five bodies, waylays the happy Leonidas and shoots him with the others.

The final chapter takes us back to Leonidas's mansion in Bucharest, where Ermil waits in vain for his uncle's return. Two young women who we have not previously met, Raissa and Myriam, rent a room on the top floor. Ermil out of curiosity and boredom decides to rifle through their things. He is discovered, and after a tense exchange becomes Raissa's lover. Her roommate, and sometime gay lover, Myriam, is a nurse at the nearby German military hospital. Ermil finally decides to ask Raissa to go with him and try to return to Ramnic. As he is waiting to tell her his plan a German ambulance arrives. Myriam has died of typhus and Raissa has the disease. The narrative breaks off at this point.

If with the capture of Gherani we saw the futility of ill-considered resistance, by now the soul-chilling price of collaboration has also been revealed, and the pitfalls of willful ignorance in the mode of Uncle Leonidas.

The novel leaves numerous threads to the reader's imagination. Were Sophie and her parents shot by the Germans after they were led away? What became of Lieutenant Luca Demian and Mayor Niculae Branea? Does Tanase Berzea ever find out what happened to his emissary? To Sophie? To Grazia? Does Ermil find his way to Ramnic, or end with a job on a German-controlled newspaper in the capital? Does Raissa recover, and if so, does she remain with Ermil? The characters strut and fret their hour upon the stage then disappear into the fog of war. Though I have to say that, like Leonidas and Tanase, I would have wished to see Sophie again.

So where does that leave us? First, Ils arrivent, les barbares! was written in 1981, during the depths of Ceausescu's Kim Il Sung period. It has been said of the historical novels of Howard Fast that you can hear in them the tramp of modern armies. This is surely no less true of this work by Eugen Uricaru. In working his way through the possible responses to a foreign occupation, the German one of 1916-18 must certainly bring to mind the Soviet occupation after World War II, and even the Ceausescu dictatorship in its various incarnations, which was the child of the Soviet military investment of the country. The novel brings to mind also the many Chinese dissidents of the 1950s and 1960s who impugned the mad excesses of Mao by writing stories about honest officials who risked their lives to criticize evil emperors of the Tang and Song dynasties.

So how did Eugen Uricaru's characters respond? The Germans of that period, while evil are not the overwhelming evil of the Nazis, as, by and large were not the occupations Romania suffered under Soviet tutelage, bad as they were. Luca Demian met the occupiers head on with a pitiful military force that simply got many innocent people killed. The author I think does not see this as a reasonable course. Sophie rebels in a far smaller way, seeking to save a single victim of the occupation, and becomes in turn a victim of military retaliation.

Tanase Berzea becomes ensnared by good intentions. Seeking to mediate between the victors and the vanquished he is inexorably reduced to a cat's-paw of the cynical Colonel Hentsch, held responsible in the public eye for every privation and execution carried out by the occupation forces over his signature.

Leonidas Soroceanu insulates himself from unpleasantness by wishful thinking, escaping into an airbrushed parallel universe where nothing really bad is going on. When the threat of death finally confronts him he has no moral armor or compass to guide him and in an act of base cowardice tries to direct the executioner's bullets to an innocent man in his place. In an irony of fate the bullet he sought to deflect finds him anyway.

Finally we have Ermil, who essentially has stood aside entirely. He suffers a terrible loss but is not personally harmed. His future is left unknown.

 

Reviewing the courses chosen by his protagonists it would seem that there are not good choices for the victims, though some at least escape being hopelessly morally compromised.

If there are any good Romanian translators out there they should consider contacting Eugen Uricaru with the aim of introducing his work to the English-speaking audience.

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