Untimely Observations

I Didn't Choose Freedom, Freedom Chose Me

When people get to my age (48), we are warned about the wrinkles, the hair loss, and the sleep difficulties, not to mention the price of beer-belly-evasion being eternal vigilance. What we aren’t warned about is a more unfortunate condition still: the embarrassing tendency to drone on in public about events which nine out of every ten hearers are too young to have heard of, let alone to remember.

Sir Harold Nicolson, diarist and George V’s biographer, amazed his readers in 1948 -- upon turning 60 -- by announcing that he was old enough to have seen Tsar Nicholas II, “surrounded by his bodyguard of enormous Cossacks, blessing the [River] Neva.” Similarly, I find myself more and more acquiring a mythic antiquity in young people’s eyes, for no better cause than that I have vivid memories of Nixon’s resignation speech and the Berlin Wall’s collapse. These memories, in turn, set me to thinking about my own undergraduate life, which, unfortunately, is best described in the words by which British poet Philip Larkin summed up his own youth: “a forgotten boredom.”

I should love to possess a Damascene conversion in my résumé, the way David Horowitz metamorphosed from Ramparts head-kicker to shrill neocon without the slightest hint of incongruity, let alone of anything so vulgar as contrition. Sorry, no dice.

Like almost everyone else whom I knew as a Sydney University student – this being the early 1980s -- I was singularly apolitical, having only a generalized aversion to Communism and to Reagan alike. Although I harbored a vague longing for Gough Whitlam’s 1972-1975 Prime Ministry of Australia, I would not have lifted a finger to give Whitlam his old job back.

No great causes convulsed Sydney’s student life. Vietnam was history; few saw portents in Afghanistan; and any non-Communist’s defense of East Timorese rights against Indonesian genocide would have been howled down as “racist,” even if details of this genocide had been generally available then, which they were not. A few hard-core Marxists did float around student groups, but they were likelier to be represented among faculty members than among kids. Even Marxists (generally Eurocommunists – remember Eurocommunists? – rather than Stalinists or Trots) clung to some intellectual standards. They never condoned plagiarism, four-letter words, beating opponents up, or more than the bare minimum of staff-student fornication. The occasional feminist crone could be avoided without too much trouble, outside such obvious madhouses as Film Studies.

All of which proved a pity from a vocational standpoint. After all, the poacher-turned-gamekeeper will always seem much more hip than the gamekeeper who has been a tedious old gamekeeper since the year dot.

Now we have established that as a Radical Son I was a non-starter, the question remains: Why was I a non-starter? Physical courage? That’s a joke if ever I heard one. Moral courage? My amount of that would scarcely have filled a teaspoon. Distaste for being In With The In Crowd? I would have no objection to such a destiny had it involved anything that intellectually interested me.

Only the other day, like Buddha sitting under his bo-tree, I suddenly received Enlightenment. Well, as much like Buddha sitting under his bo-tree as is compatible with wearing a business shirt, a neat pair of trousers, and formal shoes, while checking one’s E-mails.

The reason I could never cut it as a youthful Marxist was so plain, it had never occurred to me before. It amounted to this. Most revolutionaries, and in particular most Marxists -- Trotsky is a rare exception -- are atrocious writers. And even at my dopiest I always valued the ability to write above every other skill, except the ability to read. 

If Marx, Engels, Lenin, Gramsci, Sartre, the wretched Hungarian sex-ed pioneer Georg Lukács, the insufferably pompous twelve-tone-music apologist T. W. Adorno, and the rest of that base crew (with not a skerrick of genuine financial suffering among them) had been half as readable as G. K. Chesterton, or P. G. Wodehouse, or Evelyn Waugh, I might have been tempted to man the barricades. As it was, whenever I encountered the occasional conclave of true Leninist believers splitting hairs with one another in public about Marxian arcana (“Ah, but comrade, you can’t reconcile that with the Labor Theory of Value!” “Where’s the evidence that you’ve read Bukharin’s critique of Hegelian dialectic, man?”), I would simply bury my nose afresh in Orthodoxy, Scoop, or The Inimitable Jeeves.

And in Orwell, of course. Before reading Orwell I had already worked out (not that it needed more than an IQ of about 30 to do so) that there must be some linkage between linguistic corruption and moral corruption; but it took Orwell -- more especially his great essay “Politics and the English Language” -- to explain it. Having read that, I was pretty much proof against anything that Comrade X and Central Committee Member Y could threaten me with. I did not, therefore, choose freedom; if anything, freedom chose me.

To give concrete instances. Here is one of the best-known passages in “Politics and the English Language”:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. ... Political language -- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists -- is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

Here, per contra, is a representative passage from Lukács’s 1923 treatise History and Class Consciousness, which -- pity help us all -- is considered to be the clearest exposition of its author’s Marxian doctrine:

But in the case of the proletariat such a consciousness not only has to overcome these internal (bourgeois) contradictions, but it also conflicts with the course of action to which the economic situation necessarily commits the proletariat (regardless of its own thoughts on the subject). The proletariat must act in a proletarian manner, but its own vulgar Marxist theory blocks its vision of the right course to adopt. The dialectical contradiction between necessary proletarian action and vulgar Marxist (bourgeois) theory becomes more and more acute. As the decisive battle in the class struggle approaches, the power of a true or false theory to accelerate or retard progress grows in proportion. The ‘realm of freedom’, the end of the ‘pre-history of mankind’ means precisely that the power of the objectified, reified relations between men begins to revert to man. The closer this process comes to its goal the more urgent it becomes for the proletariat to understand its own historical mission and the more vigorously and directly proletarian class consciousness will determine each of its actions. For the blind power of the forces at work will only advance ‘automatically’ to their goal of self-annihilation as long as that goal is not within reach. ...

Well, which will you want to peruse?

I shan’t pretend that everything in the need to fight totalitarianism can -- or ever could -- be reduced to purely stylistic factors. All I offer is a variation of what Waugh (in particularly impatient mood) observed of intellectual fraud in general: “It is a matter for thankfulness that the modern … critics are unable or unwilling to compose a pleasurable sentence. It greatly limits the harm they do.”