Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Turning Japanese

Last night's news spent a minute or so on a contribution to the increasingly popular genre of counter factual history by Kiwi military historian Ian McGibbon. McGibbon has pondered the possibility of a Japanese invasion of this country in 1942:

[I]f Japan had not been defeated by America in the crucial Battle of Midway in the Pacific, they may have targeted New Zealand. "I don't think people realise how on a knife edge their security was in June 1942," says McGibbon...

McGibbon contends an invasion force would have hit the lower North Island before seizing Wellington. "I think they could have captured the city itself within days to be honest, once they got inside the port defences," he says.

A Japanese invasion is just one of the scenarios explored in New Zealand's first-ever counter factual history book, What If...

"Sometimes when we say that things are inevitable it's sometimes an excuse for us, for leaders having done nothing or having done poorly," says editor Stephen Levine.

McGibbon notes that the vast majority of New Zealand soldiers were overseas in 1942, fighting under British command as the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. After the string of Japanese victories that followed Pearl Harbour a fear of invasion stimulated the growth of the Home Guard, which soon had many more members than rifles or uniforms. The Guard struggled for support in some parts of the big cities, where the working class remembered the role that volunteer police had played in smashing the general strike of 1913, but it was wildly popular in the countryside, where fear of the Japs prompted the formation of a large and fervent movement called Awake New Zealand, whose leaders demanded the immediate conversion of all industry to the production of armaments and other war-related items and the suspension of remaining civil liberites in the interest of the war effort. On the left of the political spectrum Labour Party rebel John A Lee and his supporters demanded the immediate recall of the Expeditionary Force.

Japanese defeats in the Battle of Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway and the arrival of large numbers of American troops in the second half of 1942 helped ease fears of an attack from the north. The Americans, who were planning to retake the Solomons and nearby island groups, had been persuaded to make New Zealand a base by the Churchill government, which was keen to hold onto the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.

I grew up on a farm that was used by American troops training for action in the Solomons, and as I boy I was regularly told that 'If it wasn't for the Yanks, you'd be speaking Japanese'. When New Zealanders have argued about issues like the visit of American nuke ships and support for Bush's War of Terror the supposed role of the Yanks in saving us from Japan has often been invoked by commentators on the right. McGibbon's argument, then, has a certain lineage, and I look forward to reading it as soon as I get to a copy of What If. I'm not sure, though, how the man can possibly make a plausible case for a Japanese attack on Wellington in the middle of 1942. How could the Japanese have moved enough troops this far south, without a support base in a place like Fiji or New Caledonia? What sense would it make to seize Wellington but not the rest of New Zealand, and thus invite attacks and harrassment from the South Island and the upper North Island? Why would Wellington be a useful base for raids on Australia's ports, as McGibbon apparently claims, when Japan already held parts of New Guinea and was capable of bombing Darwin and sending subs into Sydney harbour?

There is no evidence Japan ever seriously considered conquering either Australia or New Zealand, though one of its admirals did apparently draw up a plan for a diversionary occupation of parts of Queensland. The Japanese were fond of very complex military operations which included diversionary feints as well as full-blooded offensives: a famous example is the occupation of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, which was an attempt to draw American forces north away from the Battle of Midway.

In fact, the Japanese did make at least one attempt at a diversionary attack on a piece of Australia. In January 1943 one of their submarines surfaced near Port Gregory in Western Australia and fired ten shells, in a rather feeble effort to draw attention from the fighting raging on Guadalcanal in the faraway Solomons.

But old myths die hard. A couple of years ago I bought some Japanese invasion money from a dodgy military memorabilia shop in Auckland, and showed it to a couple of friends. Without much help from me, they decided that it was incontrovertible proof of Japanese plans to colonise this green and pleasant land. The small fact that the invasion money was printed in dollars rather than pounds didn't seem to matter.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Gerry vs Giddens

Anthony Giddens, chief academic apologist for the tarnished doctrine of Blairism, has published an opinion piece bemoaning the supposed lack of interest in sociology today. If Giddens wants a reason for any decline in the discipline's status amongst ordinary people, then he need look no further than his own writing, which abandons any attempt at rigorous social analysis in favour of the sort of unctuous platitudes and flashy phrasemongering that will, along with the disaster in Iraq, always be associated with the name Tony Blair.

On the same day that Giddens' piece appeared in the Guardian, a group of sociologists from Auckland University managed to secure a few inches of frontpage space in the New Zealand Herald for an important study of family income levels. The results of the study make sad reading:

[M]edian family income, after adjusting for inflation and family size, was just over $37,000 a year in 1981 - and was still just over $37,000 in 2001...

The measure shows that the median gross income of all families dropped from $37,463 in 1981 to a low of $33,227 in 1991, before recovering slowly to $37,665 in 2001.

One of members of the team which has combed half a dozen censuses for data is my mate Gerry Cotterell, who is also writing a PhD on the New Zealand welfare state. Gerry has no time for the sort of dissimulation which Anthony Giddens has made into an artform, so he didn't mince words when the Herald asked him about the implications of his study:

Cotterell said other measures also showed that real wages had been static or falling over the past 20 years. Benefit levels were cut in the late 1980s and particularly in 1991 and had never recovered in real terms.

"It's kind of stunning," he said. "Income inequality has increased in Western countries. "What's scary in New Zealand is that it hasn't got better under Labour. There are more people in employment, but it's low-paid employment."

In other words, fifteen years of neo-liberal 'reform' of the economy by successive Labour and National governments and seven years of Blairite 'Third Way' tinkering by the Clark Labour government have done nothing to improve the lot of the average Kiwi family. When increases in the cost of living and the introduction of user pays for some public services are factored into the equation it is easy to see that ordinary New Zealanders are actually far worse off than they were a quarter century ago.

The brutal fact of the disastrous failure of capitalism - in New Zealand, and around the world - over the decades since the end of the long postwar boom in the early '70s is not something that Anthony Giddens will ever acknowledge. Rather than talk about anything as indecent as poverty, rising income inequality, and imperialist war driven by a desire to export recessions, he prefers to coin fuzzy phrases like 'social exclusion', 'transformations in personal life', and 'challenges of globalisation'. No wonder fewer and fewer people are listening. Give me Gerry Cotterel any day.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

1,348 days

The war in Iraq has now lasted longer than the US's involvement in World War Two. Today I've been helping the very able Muzzlehatch put the finishing touches on the 34th issue of brief, to which we've given the theme war.

Rather than write a ponderous introduction to an issue which already runs to 182 pages, I've dug up an old leaflet I wrote for the Direct Anti War Action coalition in those hectic weeks before the invasion of Iraq and asked Muzzlehatch to run it after the contents pages. The leaflet one of the tens of thousands of quickly-written and quickly-written pieces of propaganda that any large political campaign throws up - the 'flat ephemeral pamphlets' of Auden's 'Spain' - but it will hopefully lend an edge to the poems, essays, letters, and short stories in brief #34, by reminding us that the catastrophe of the past few years was not inevitable, even if it was forseen by those of us on the left of the anti-war movement.


To Whenuapai workers – in and out of uniform!

We are picketing this airbase to protest the Clark government’s plans to send an RNZ Air force Orion to the Persian Gulf to support Bush’s war for oil in Iraq. Working with the frigate Te Kaha, the Orion will be asked to identify and plot the movements of every ship passing through the only sea access to Iraq. Information collected by the Orion and Te Kaha will be fed to the US aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln. In recent months, the Abraham Lincoln has been involved in the bombing of Iraq and in planning for an invasion. By doing some of Bush’s grubby spying, the Orion and Te Kaha would help US ships and planes to focus on direct aggression against Iraq.
But the Orion can’t take off if there is no one to service, supply, or even fly it. Whether you are a worker wearing a uniform or a worker on civvy street, there are three bloody good reasons why you should join the global anti-war movement and blackballing this plane.

Reason #1: the Iraqi people will suffer terribly from the war the Orion would be supporting. According to a study by Australian doctors, 500,000 lives are at risk from an invasion of Iraq. ‘Collateral damage’ from bombs and missiles, contamination from depleted uranium shells, and disease are all expected to take a toll.

Reason #2: your fellow workers around the world are already suffering the effects of Bush’s War of Terror. Many workers recognise that Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ is a war on workers in the West, as well as a war on the peoples of the Middle East. The warmongers want to take long-term control of the region and boost their flagging profits by making Western labour as well as Middle Eastern oil cheaper. Bush used his war plans as an excuse to attack the West Coast waterside workers when they tried to strike last year, and is trying to use his post-World Trade Centre ‘Patriot Act’ to strip hundreds of thousands of state employees of their right to union membership. In Britain, Bush’s best friend Tony Blair has used the war as an excuse to threaten to ban the right of firefighters to go on strike for higher wages. (Refusing to back down, the firefighters have scheduled more strike actions.)We can trust Helen to pull the same ‘national security’ card out of the pack the moment she fears the prospect of working class militancy.

Reason #3: you will suffer from continued New Zealand support for Bush’s wars.
The Clark government is trying to trade military and political support for the War of Terror for a free trade deal with Bush. According to economic analysts, such a deal would mean the privatisation of the New Zealand health system and water services by U.S. multinationals, the removal of restrictions on Genetic Engineering, and the buying up of the New Zealand countryside by US bosses. This is what New Zealand workers in uniform are being asked to risk their lives for in the Middle East!

Unions representing 130 million workers from Australia to Togo have come out against the latest stage in the endless War of Terror.In Western Australia, 75,000 workers from nine unions have pledged to go on strike the minute any attack on Iraq begins, whether or not it is sanctioned by the UN. In Ireland, mass pickets have forced the US government to stop using the Shannon Air Base to move troops and supplies to the Middle East.In New Zealand, the Council of Trade Unions opposes a war on Iraq and calls on its members to protest. You should protest by blackballing the Orion!
Working class militancy can defeat this military madness!

Oppose Bush’s war – ground the Orion!

Muzzlehatch is planning to put brief #34 online, so I'll let all you stingy buggers know when you can read poems like Richard Taylor's 'The Policemen Has Two Eyes' without shelling out for a copy of the journal...

Spam philosophy

A few days ago I noted the constant appearance in my e mail inbox of what read like a strange sort of spam poetry. Now I'm getting something that looks a little like spam philosophy. To be fair, this piece isn't much more scatterbrained than some of Nietzsche's own writing...

Friedrich Nietzsche After Silence

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Friday, November 24, 2006

Meet the Goths

Here's a blurb for a worthy event. I'll be out of town on launch night, but I'll certainly be getting my white ass up the hill to Newton to check out the exhibition before December the 2nd. Notice that brief regulars and Titus authors Jack Ross and Olivia Macassey are amongst the contributors to Gothic NZ...

The Darker Side of Kiwi Culture
Edited by Misha Kavka, Jennifer Lawn & Mary Paul
Published by Otago University Press

Publication launch and accompanying exhibition of work by
Christopher Braddock, Gavin Hipkins,
Ann Shelton & Yvonne Todd

Wednesday, 29 November, 6pm
Exhibition continues till 2 December



Roger Williams Contemporary / 61 Randolph St Newton Auckland 1010
New Zealand / +64-9-377-2695

Gothic NZ
The Darker Side of Kiwi Culture
Edited by Misha Kavka, Jennifer Lawn, Mary Paul
Gothic NZ: The Darker Side of Kiwi Culture, edited by Misha Kavka, Jennifer Lawn, Mary Paul. Otago University PressKey Points


Contemporary creative writers, intellectuals, photographers, painters and other artists have all contributed to this volume exploring the idea of 'gothic' in New Zealand culture. From Martin Edmond's abandoned houses, to Ian Lochhead's Victorian corrugated iron structures, to Otis Frizzell's tattoos, from Peter Jackson's movie-making to ghost paintings - there's plenty of it. As the editors suggest, gothic is 'endemic to New Zealand's self-representation'.


Rachel Ahmad-Hall, Christopher Braddock, David Craig, Martin Edmond, Elizabeth Hale, Misha Kavka, Ian Lochhead, Olivia Macassey, Jack Ross, Sarah Shieff, Tanya Misery Thompson, Yvonne Todd, Stephen Turner, Ian Wedde

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The great Tolkien debate

continues here.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Although the characters and central episodes of this piece are invented, many of the details in it - the Japanese subs off New Zealand, the logs on the road to Port Waikato, the paranoia about Tainui Maori as a potential Fifth Column - are not. You can find more out about the Home Guard and their plans to resist invasion in the online edition of Nancy Taylor's massive 'official' history of Home Front New Zealand during World War Two.


On an island things are simplified.
There are no borders to cross,
no enemy sentries to watch
through binoculars, or a hunting rifle's sights.
Our Home Guard can spread itself from coast to coast.
On the way to Port Waikato we stop three times
to roll three kauri logs off the gravel lane,
to roll them back.
In the moonlight they look like pillars
of that Greek temple the Germans bombed.
Dave Howell speaks first,
reminds us he's a doctor
as well as a soldier,
that New Zealand is a body
surrounded by disease. Infection can come
through the pores, or larger orifices
like the river flowing silently past this hall
out to the Tasman, where the Jap submarines wait
to surface and launch float planes
or beach themselves like whales.

It's no good to look at the sky too long.
Col Hamblin stared at the sky for an hour
until he saw the wrong type of wings.
The Zero flew low over his farm,
dropping an incedinary on each haystack,
then turned, and headed back toward the ranges,
toward the Maoris, the ones at Taniwha Pa,
who were burning the gorse off behind their marae
and flashing mirrors across the plain.
The buggers had cut a secret airstrip
out of the block of bush behind O'Shanessy's.
Soon that Jap pilot would be eating roast kumara
and pork, the best parts of the pigs from O'Shanessy's,
pigs that were supposed to go to the wharves,
to the Kiwi boys on Crete.

Nobody believed Col,
so he decided to show us
what the Japs could do.
He drank a bottle of still whiskey,
refilled the bottle with his petrol ration,
then locked the dog and rooster inside
and chucked his bomb through the window.
The dog crowed and the rooster barked
and the verandah beams burned down like candles
until the roof collapsed, and Col ran away
toward the ranges, waving his .22.
O'Shanessy and his Maori mates followed
shouting something in Japanese.
It was Dave Howell who found Col
crouched in a tomo, beside the dry waterfall,
two days' march from Taniwha Pa.
In his shirt pocket was a map
drawn on tobbacco paper, showing
an airstrip and a Jap ammo dump.
Dave only needed one shot.
Now we have to be extra careful, he says:
the infection can spread so swiftly.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Weird weather

My mother's on holiday in Australia at the moment, visiting rellies in the country areas of Victoria. Last week she called to report that it was snowing in the beautiful old mining town of Ballarat, which sits a few hundred metres above sea level a couple of hours north of Melbourne. Yesterday I got an e mail from Swan Hill, a little town on the banks of the Murray River, where the barometer had recorded a temperature of one hundred degrees fahrenheit .

Take a look for yourselves, and you'll see that Swan Hill isn't too far from Ballarat:

Is this weird weather evidence for global warming? Dialectics? God warming up to play a decisive role in the upcoming Ashes series? I'm reminded of the opening scene in Peter Weir's supernatural masterpiece The Last Wave, where torrential rain and huge hailstones fall from a burning blue outback sky.

What is meant by “Enhanced Expectations”?

A member of my Waitemata branch of Unite! asked me to circulate this ad:

FORUM on the latest round of WELFARE “REFORMS”.

What is meant by “Enhanced Expectations”?

Have you been subjected to Work Testing for your welfare benefit? Come to the Forum and share your experience.

Are you currently exempt from Work Testing because of age or disability? “Enhanced Expectations” mean that this exemption is likely to be removed in the coming year. You (and your partner) would then be required to prepare a Return to Work plan, submit it to WINZ Case Managers and engage in intensive job search activity. Non compliance could result in a benefit cut of up to 50%.

The Human Rights Commissioner has recently commented on the prevalence of ageism amongst employers. Over 60s will be squeezed between “enhanced expectations” and ageism in the job market.

Subjected to Intensified Pressure, would you accept low wages? Employers, who currently profit from the payment of Youth Rates, would be glad if you do. They are the only ones who welcome the recently announced benefit “reforms”. It will help undermine Union campaigns for long overdue wage increases.

SHARE YOUR EXPERIENCES. AIR YOUR ANXIETIES.Enhance your expectations of the welfare state. ATTEND THE FORUM:


Saturday 25th November 2.00 p.m.

Waitakere Community Resource Centre

Ratanui St, Henderson

(Up driveway opposite new Public Library)

Forum 0rganized by Waitemata Branch of Unite!, the Union for Low-paid, Casualised Workers and Beneficiaries. Ph 836 9104

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Muggletonian beauties

In one of the appendices to Witness Against the Beast, his study of William Blake, EP Thompson describes a meeting in the late 1970s with a fruit farmer from Kent named Philip Noakes. Noakes was the only living member of the Muggletonians, a radical Protestant sect which developed in the heady aftermath of the English Civil War and struggled to survive persecution and ridicule during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Muggletonians were dualists who believed that good and evil battled constantly within the souls of humans. Evil had been placed in the human soul when a snake raped Eve in the garden of Eden; good had been restored, partially at least, when God impregnated the 'virgin' Mary. The Muggletonians were one of the forces of good; the British state and the monarchy were tools of the Devil. Thompson was convinced that some of the strange imagery of Blake's poetry and art could be explained as manifestations of Muggletonian doctrine.

Thompson helped Noakes, who was elderly and in poor health, move the Muggletonians’ priceless three hundred year old archive of antique books and illuminated manuscripts from the storage space of a furniture shop in Kent to the British National Library. His account of his dealings with the recalcitrant believer is both affectionate and wistful. ‘There was not the least bit of the crank or fanatic in his manner’, writes Thompson. Nevertheless, “It was a strange situation...Mr Noakes frequently said ‘We believe’ – and yet he could not point to another believer...Mrs Noakes (while sympathetic) was not herself a believer, and it seemed that Mr Noakes was indeed the last Muggletonian”.

Thompson may have empathised with Philip Noakes' dilemma. In a rapturously received guest lecture to Columbia University students in the revolutionary year of 1968, he had resisted assimilation to the trendy 'new' New Left of the time, preferring to put his tongue in his cheek and declare that 'Along with William Blake I am a representative of that obscure English tradition...known as Muggletonian Marxism'. A decade later, when he was guiding the Muggletonian archive to safety and working in earnest on what became Witness Against the Beast, Thompson really had become a truly isolated figure on the left, clinging to his belief in an English tradition 'socialist humanism' in the face of a certain amount of ridicule from a younger generation of leftists who were more interested in Althusser and guerrilla war in the Third World than William Blake or the Chartists.

If you fancy reviving Muggletonianism, you might want to pay a visit the swanky George Glazer Gallery in New York. They have some 'Muggletonian Celestial Prints' for sale, no doubt at exorbitant prices:

A series of six astronomical engravings in tones of blue, white, yellow, and green, intended to demonstrate that the earth is at the center of the universe, based on planetary charts drawn by Isaac Frost, an artist and scientist associated with a Victorian sect known as the Muggletonians. They were printed by George Baxter, who employed his innovative oil color printing technique that permitted subtle gradations for a glowing effect and engraved by Chubb & Son, London...

Isaac Frost was a scientist and prominent member of the sect in the mid 19th Century who was instrumental in the refinement of the Muggletonian's astronomical theory, as represented on these prints. They were originally published under the title Two Systems of Astronomy, 1846 and were likely circulated only to members of the sect.

The engravings (sorry for their small size here - they're larger on the Glazer site) may not be good astronomy, but they are undeniably beautiful. I wish Edward Thompson had been able to get his hands on them and guide them into a public gallery.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The cruelest game

It doesn't surprise me that cricket is being dropped from the sporting curricula of schools around New Zealand - the game is not a great advertisement for sport, if sport is supposed to be about participation, fun, exercise, and all the other worthy nouns that the Hillary Commission throws at us. Cricket may be the greatest game ever devised, but it can also be a very cruel game. Although ostensibly a team sport, it forces its players to front up alone to be tested by bat and ball, and it can inflict drastic punishments on players for minor errors.

Cricket is particularly cruel to batsmen. A rugby player can drop the ball or miss a tackle, and nine times out of ten have the opportunity to redeem him or herself later in the game. A batsman who makes one very minor mistake - who misjudges the line of a ball fractionally, or plays a pull instead of a hook, or steps a yard too far forward to play a shot, or swings his bat a little too slowly or too quickly - is likely to lose his or her wicket, and spend the rest of the day sitting in the pavilion.

As a teenager I regularly tasted cricket's cruelty. Being congenitally incapable of bowling a length delivery, very slow in the field, and unable to score quickly enough to bat down the order, I was selected as a specialist opening batsman for the Counties youth side. We'd play games that lasted a whole weekend - an eternity, for a teenager - and I'd more than often find myself walking to the crease at a quarter past nine on a Saturday morning, smelling the freshly mown grass around the wicket and apprehensively eyeing the massive fast bowler limbering up at the other end. More than once, I found myself dismissed - leg before wicket, or caught behind, or (horror of horrors) clean bowled - well before half past nine. Trudging back to the makeshift pavilion, trying desperately to avoid the baleful glare of the coach, I would look forward to a Saturday spent sitting on the sideline watching my team mates make runs and (worse) a Sunday spent fielding in unglamorous positions far away from the bat. And I knew that while I was chasing off-drives across the burning turf of Karaka Oval, pursued by the vengeful barks of the coach, my peers were getting stoned at the beach and chatting up gorgeous sixth form girls.

I say all this to explain my profound sympathy for Marcus Trescothick, the talented English opening batsman who has bailed out of his team's tour of Australia due to a 'stress-related condition'. Trescothick cut short a tour of Pakistan for the same reason last year. Read Mark Lawson's thoughtful piece on Trescothick in the Grauniad and weep.

Footnote: Since 'Sportingo' asked, here's a link to another cricket post.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Is there such a thing as a British intellectual?

In my recent posts on Tolkien I've tried to relate Lord of the Rings to wider trends in British intellectual life during the first half of the twentieth century. I thought I'd try to pad out my arguments by posting these notes, which were made a couple of years ago as part of my PhD research. Apologies for their rather stiff and formulaic language...

1. The modern British intelligentsia began to take shape in the mid-nineteenth century. Its emergence was encouraged by the growth of the British empire and state, the expansion of the reading public, and controversy over the nature of the university system.

The intelligentsia drew most of its members from the middle class professions and from the prosperous petty bourgeoisie. Many of its members had nonconformist and Evangelical backgrounds. The ‘reforming’ wing of the aristocracy was represented. Intermarriage and patronage eventually led to the emergence of what Noel Annan has called an ‘intellectual aristocracy’ .

Conflict provided the stimuli for the emergence of a modern British intelligentsia. The British state grew to control the consequences of industrialisation. The foreign service grew as inter-imperialist rivalry led Britain to take direct political control of the territories it exploited economically. The debate over the role of universities was prompted by challenges to the exclusion of non-Anglicans from Oxbridge, challenges which were part of a wider call for the reform of the British elite’s institutions by an emergent industrial capitalist class .

2. British capitalism was stronger than its rivals throughout the nineteenth century. British pre-eminence helped limit social and cultural conflict in British society, and is ultimately responsible for the peculiar nature of the nineteenth century British intelligentsia. To get a sense of this peculiarity, we should note the situation of the intelligentsia in several other European countries.

The rigorous rationalist ideology and prestigious public institutions of the French intelligentsia were the products of the intense struggle the French bourgeoisie had to wage against the feudal aristocracy it replaced. Later, the development of the creed of positivism and the discipline of sociology were a response to the challenges to the bourgeoisie’s rule by an insurgent working class.

In Germany, where the relatively late development of industrial capitalism made a good measure of economic planning and a ‘Bismarkian bureaucracy’ necessary, intellectuals entered the twentieth century as a distinct social stratum with a strong public identity.

In Russia, the creation of an intelligentsia as a distinct social stratum was a necessary condition for the very appearance of industrial capitalism. The backwardness of the Romanov aristocracy and extreme weakness of the Russian bourgeoisie gave Western-educated ‘experts’ a vital role in the country’s crash course in industrialisation. But the backwardness of the aristocracy and the weakness of the bourgeoisie also ensured that Russian intellectuals would come to develop an almost existential sense of isolation and a highly distinctive cultural milieu.

By contrast, the British intelligentsia did not enjoy a great deal of institutional and cultural autonomy – it was informally integrated with the country’s political and economic elites.

The elite of the intelligentsia enjoyed an ‘Old Boys’-style relationship with the British ruling class. Old school ties, friendship and marriage were more important integrating devices than ‘public’ institutions with more or less meritocratic criteria for membership. Dissident fringes excepted, the British intelligentsia was not culturally alienated from its ruling class.

Informal integration and a lack of cultural distance had their political corollary in a ‘high liberalism’ which was characterised by a belief in the progressive nature or progressive potential of British capitalism and imperialism. Britain’s ‘deep-rooted traditionalism’ was held to be at one with its ‘lively progressiveness’. Economic dynamism and social cohesion made gradual social improvements possible. Intellectual influence was a matter of a word in the right ear, not a manifesto. The improvement of the individual and of society both depended on moral education. Divisive ‘sectional’ interests could be undercut by appeals to moral individualism and transcended by appeals to a national community with a single moral conscience.

3. Britain’s nineteenth century pre-eminence was largely a product of its having been the first industrial capitalist nation. But it can be argued that Britain’s advantage began to be a weakness as the nineteenth century drew to a close .

The unification of the United States and Germany in the 1860s and 70s and the opening of Japan at the same time would lead to the creation of economic rivals to Britain. The new industries of Germany and the United States were in many cases more efficient than the old industries of Britain, and external investment became more important to the British economy. By 1870, more British capital was being invested outside than inside the country. The last decades of the nineteenth century saw the rise of London as a world financial centre, but this development also signalled the relative decline of Britain as an industrial power.

Large-scale remodelling of the economic base of Britain and its Empire was made difficult by the antiquated political and ideological superstructure of British society. The British bourgeoisie never waged a serious struggle for power with the old aristocracy or with the industrial working class created in the nineteenth century.

In the late nineteenth century, the problems of British capitalism were reflected in a number of social conflicts. The New Unionism of the 1880s challenged the post-Chartist passivity of the British working class; the issue of Irish Home Rule split the Liberal Party and raised wider questions about imperialism; and there was increasing dissatisfaction, especially amongst the rising middle classes, about the fustiness of a number of Britain’s public institutions.

After the Liberal split the Conservatives rallied around Salisbury, and the 1890s were a decade of aggressive imperialism abroad and union busting at home. But the Tories were unable to achieve political hegemony for their programme, and Asquith’s Liberals won a landslide election victory in 1906.

The nascent Labour Party and its trade union allies hoped for major social reforms, but the new administration proved unable to use the state to cohere British society. Class divisions were highlighted by intense industrial struggles; the Irish issue returned with a vengeance, threatening civil war in Ulster; and women’s suffragettes staged increasingly militant protests against a glaring example of the failure to modernise Britain’s political superstructure.

War in 1914 helped briefly to defuse the Ulster issue, and a mixture of patriotism and the bureaucratic repression practiced by a new cross-party government cooled class conflict for several years. But the respite came at a terrible cost, and the end of the war brought a wave of militant strikes which was really only exhausted by the General Strike of 1926. The spectre of war in Ireland returned after the Easter Rising of 1916.

The end of the war in 1918 also brought home the fact of Britain’s relative decline – anti-Americanism became fashionable in the British elite, as it became clear that US was well on its way to usurping Britain as the pre-eminent imperialist power.

After 1929 the US was unable to keep bankrolling European economies, and Britain followed the rest of West into deep depression. Britons looked anxiously at a continental Europe riven by fascism and communism.

A minority Labour government elected in 1929 collapsed after only two years in power, and both the Labour and Liberal parties split, with a minority of Labour MPs and about half the Liberal MPs joining the Conservatives in a new ‘National Government’ which held power for the rest of the 30s. This government has long been symbolised in the popular imagination by its last leader, Neville Chamberlain.

Chamberlain’s name has become a byword for cowardice and incompetence, yet he was heading for a landslide election win when World War Two broke out in September 1939. Neither the Labour Party and its trade union allies nor the radical left succeeded in advancing a credible alternative to the National Government’s combination of economic austerity at home and appeasement of fascism abroad.

The bold ‘experiments’ of the Soviet Union’s five year plans and the US’s New Deal contrasted starkly with the British bourgeoisie’s tepid response to the Great Depression. No British Roosevelt or Hitler emerged to reorder British capitalism, and the hopes of the New Country poets for ‘an English Lenin’ proved forlorn. Harry Pollitt disappointed Stephen Spender, and Oswald Mosley disappointed Lord Rothermere.

We should say that early twentieth century Britain suffered not from crises but from a malaise. In almost every other important country, events like World War One and the Great Depression led to revolutionary crises and something like civil war. In Britain, though, the opposition faced by the political and economic elites did not seem a proper reflection of the severity of objective conditions. Many Britons were aware of the problems afflicting their society, but few of them were inclined to embrace the radical solutions used overseas to tackle similar difficulties.

4. I’ve given that little historical narrative – a narrative which is of course very simplistic and very derivative – so as to provide a bit of historical backdrop for the patterns of British intellectual life in the early decades of the twentieth century. What I’m particularly interested in is the impact of the malaise on a relatively small but very important minority of British intellectuals.

I want to suggest that this minority was deintegrated from the British economic and political elites. I’ve made a rough and ready distinction between two types of deintegration – between ideological deintegration and institutional deintegration.

Ideological deintegration meant a loss of ideological common ground with Britain’s political and economic elites. Institutional deintegration meant a loss of formal or informal contact with the institutions connected with these elites.

Ideologically deintegrated individuals lost their faith in British society as the grounds for knowledge-claims and value-judgements. British capitalism and imperialism ceased to embody, even potentially or in distorted form, the ‘civilization’ which intellectuals had seen themselves inheriting and defending.

Ideologically deintegrated intellectuals did not give up on the notion of ‘civilization’, but they tended to locate ‘civilisation’ within their own heads, and in the artefacts of the intellectual and high cultural tradition they saw themselves as representing. Intellectuals and not the British empire were the chief guardians of civilization. The territory of civilization had shrunk, and the interests of intellectuals were now the interests of civilization.

When we talk about the old grounds for knowledge-claims and value-judgements disappearing, we are talking about an epistemological change in the thinking of deintegrated intellectuals.

The two types of deintegration did not have to go together. An intellectual might be shunted out of the foreign service or an academic post or be shipped off to the trenches of the First World War, and yet retain his loyalty to the general ideological outlook of Britain’s economic and political elites .

It is certainly true, though, that directly material factors could lead to ideological estrangement amongst intellectuals. Frustration at a career as a teacher in a third-rate public school, instead of in academia; the loss of a publisher due to a general decline in book sales; the threat of obliteration in the First World War, or the new war that loomed over the 30s: all of these could estrange.

But intellectuals can also experience estrangement for more or less ideological reasons. Marx noted, after all, that ideas can become a material force. To see an extreme example of this we might look to nineteenth century Russia, where the contradictions between the post-Enlightenment ideology learnt from the West and the backwardness of the Romanovs’ society led many young men and women to forsake comfortable lives and court imprisonment or death as revolutionaries.

Ideological reasons for the estrangement of British intellectuals could include the contrast between the ethical pronouncements of liberalism and the behaviour of the government elected in 1906, and of Lloyd George’s liberals in the World War One coalition government; or the gap between civilising liberal imperialist rhetoric and the suppression of independence movements; or the helplessness of Whiggish narratives of progress and plenty before the sight of the ghostly mill towns of the 30s; or the National Government’s denying of aid to Republican Spain in the name of the preservation of British civilisation.

5. It would be useful to catalogue some of the different ideological tendencies arising from the deintegration of British intellectuals early in the twentieth century. Before I do that, though, I’d like to suggest what all the tendencies I’ll describe had in common.

Adapting Imre Lakatos’ methodology of scientific research programmes, I’d like to argue that a distinct ‘programme’ emerged amongst (ideologically) deintegrated British intellectuals.

For Lakatos, a ‘research programme’ consists of a ‘hardcore’ and a ‘softcore’ of propositions and/or methodological devices. The ‘hardcore’ contains the indispensable propositions and/or methodological devices that define the programme; the ‘softcore’ consists of dispensable propositions and/or methodological devices used to prevent the programme from being discredited.

Substituting ‘worldview’ for ‘research programme’ – the latter sounds a bit too scientific – I’d like to suggest that at the end of the nineteenth century the vast majority and (more importantly) most of the best and brightest of British intellectuals shared the worldview of the British bourgeoisie. To be sure, the liberalism that characterised the thought of many intellectuals had points of difference with the aggressive conservatism increasingly attractive to their bourgeoisie.

But I’d suggest that conservatism and liberalism constituted different ‘softcore’ justifications for the same ‘hardcore’ beliefs. Liberal and conservative shared a faith in the progressive potential of British capitalism and imperialism, as well as the view that British society furnished the grounds upon which judgements could be made about social, political and aesthetic values. To put it another way, British civilization, however defined, supplied the criteria for its own judgement, and for the judgement of the rest of the world.

Reactionary Tories appealed to the inherent authority of church and King; liberal utilitarians appealed to the happiness of the middle class Briton; Gladstonian liberals appealed to the moral conscience formed by the upstanding Briton. The liberal’s faith in the ability of the middle class Briton to distinguish good from bad was as absolute as the reactionary’s faith in the divine rights of church and King.

Intellectuals who became ideologically deintegrated broke with the worldview I’ve been describing. It is important to understand that their break did not have as a necessary condition any particular political position. It did not necessitate the abandonment of patriotism, or a move to the left, or a move to the right.

The break with the old worldview was fundamentally epistemological. To say this is not to say for even a moment that most British intellectuals were particularly interested in epistemology, let alone liable to base their thinking on the strictures of philosophy.

What I’m suggesting is that when we do what Lakatos calls a ‘rational reconstruction’ of British intellectuals’ thought we can isolate an epistemological position, or rather a change from one epistemological position to another, and use this isolated fact as a sort of portal through which to view and understand the whole intellectual scene.

6. Bloomsbury is perhaps the most famous intellectual institution in modern British history, and it provides a good study of some of the changes we have been discussing.

Any attempt at a close examination of Bloomsbury must face an preliminary objection. Leonard Woolf famously protested that Bloomsbury was characterised by informal ties – ties of friendship, love, and marriage – rather than any public institution or manifestoes. Bloomsburians showed an antipathy, as well, to any overly systematic exposition of their views, of their methodology, and of the social milieu they worked in. Such general reflections as emerged – Keynes’ My Early Beliefs is the outstanding example – were filtered through autobiography and anecdote, and produced for a select audience.

It is not hard to understand why Bloomsburians have often castigated for their cliquishness, but the group’s method of organisation was only the flipside of the old informal integration of the intelligentsia and the bourgeoisie. It was informal deintegration.

In his study of Bloomsbury Raymond Williams emphasises the enormous importance to group members of the notion of ‘space’, and in particular of the notion of the ‘space’ or autonomy of intellectuals.

‘Space’ was at a premium because the Bloomsburians felt that they could no longer morally and intellectually conflate themselves with the mainstream of the British bourgeoisie, as earlier intellectuals had done. They were disillusioned with a ‘civilization’ which sent its young men to die in foreign trenches and kept its best and brightest young women out of the best university colleges.

For the members of Bloomsbury, the ‘space’ of intellectuals constituted the ‘hardcore’ of a new worldview.

It is necessary here to understand the importance of the method of rational intuitionism, which the Bloomsburians appropriated from the philosophy of their hero GE Moore. The significance of the rational intuitionist method came from the way that it made the subjectivity of its user into the grounds for metaphysical, ethical, political and aesthetic judgements.

Viewed dialectically, rational intuitionism represents the degeneration of bourgeois ideology from the high empiricism of nineteenth century positivism and from the late nineteenth century British Hegelianism of Francis Bradley and TH Green.

Along with the ethical-political creed of utilitarianism, so-called ‘Podsnapian positivism’ had reflected a rather gauche enthusiasm for the dynamism and supposedly progressive qualities of mid-nineteenth century competitive capitalism.

British Hegelianism became popular during a period which saw great imperial expansion, the beginning of a transition from industrial to financial power, and increased awareness of the social problems caused by competitive and industrial capitalism. In this context British Hegelianism could serve the ends of both the conservative and liberal wings of the intelligentsia. Statist liberals like TH Green used it to attack methodological individualism and high liberalism. High Anglicans used it to defend the role of the church, the House of Lords and other traditional features of British society.

British Hegelianism and positivism were two distorted halves of the dialectical materialism being developed out of earshot of the British intelligentsia. Without dialectics, the empiricism of the positivists tended towards the crude reproduction of the needs of industrial capitalism. Without the discipline of empiricism, British Hegelianism fell easily into the multiplication of artificial categories and speculative arguments valourising Britain’s outworn political and cultural superstructure.

Bloomsbury’s rational intuitionism is the degenerated successor to both British Hegelianism and Podsnapian positivism. The positivists had always rejected dialectics, regarding the individual as the building block of analysis and theory as the generalisation of particulars. The Hegelians had criticised this procedure as crudely empirical, insisting that phenomena could not observed and described in isolation and only linked to other phenomena later.

Bloomsburian rational intuitionism rejected both the empirical aspect of empiricism and the dialectical aspect of British Hegelianism. The Bloomsburians retained the methodological individualism of the positivists and the neo-Hegelian emphasis on conceptual rather than empirical investigation.

With the tool Moore provided them, Bloomsbury group members did not have to look to the mainstream British bourgeoisie or to the nature of British society for help in making knowledge-claims and value-judgements – they could simply use the intuition honed by their own sophisticated sensibilities.

Because it required such a sophisticated sensibility, the Bloomsbury method was necessarily the preserve of an elite. Because it claimed to be rational and capable of uncovering objective truths, the method could claim a validity that extended beyond any clique or culture.

But how was the essential ‘space’ of civilization to be preserved? Bloomsburians found no single answer to this question. Their divisions reflect wider divisions between different ideological tendencies amongst deintegrated British intellectuals early in the twentieth century.

In his history of Bloomsbury Quentin Bell recalls arguments between Leonard Woolf and Clive Bell over ways to preserve the ‘civilization’ they both so valued. Woolf insisted on the importance of improving the conditions and education of the ‘masses’ so that they could come to develop sophisticated sensibilities and partake of the products of civilization. Civilization could only be protected by being made available to new layers of the population. Bell disagreed, arguing that it might be not only possible but desirable to defend minority civilization by repressing the majority of the population.

Woolf and Bell shared a ‘hardcore’ belief – the equation of intelligentsia, civilization, and moral and aesthetic value – but they disagreed about how to act upon this belief. Their different ‘softcore’ deductions from their shared ‘hardcore’ belief mean that they can be identified with different ideological tendencies amongst ideologically deintegrated British intellectuals.

7. The different ideological tendencies of deintegrated British intellectuals are defined, then, by the different ‘softcore’ features of their common ‘hardcore’. Let us distinguish and describe five such tendencies.

Let us first discuss New Liberalism. New Liberalism was not confined to intellectuals – it found adherants in the mainstream bourgeoisie and in the working class, as a reaction to the failure of Old Liberalism’s prescription of hands-off economic policy, moral education and liberal imperialism to cohere early twentieth century Britain. New Liberals sought to extend the timid advances toward economic planning and a welfare state made by the 1906-1914 Asquith government.

Intellectuals who became New Liberals hoped that an expansion of the state and a degree of economic planning would be able to lessen social divisions allegedly responsible for Britain’s malaise. The state would work ‘for the masses, against the classes’.

Keynes made a landmark statement of the New Liberal creed to the 1926 Liberal Party national conference; three years later, the party ran an election campaign on a platform heavily influenced by New Liberalism. Shortly after the election, though, the Liberals elbowed Keynes and other New Liberals aside, and in 1931 most of the party’s younger MPs joined the Conservative-dominated National Government fronted by McDonald.

In the 1930s New Liberals looked increasingly to the representatives of the working class as possible political partners, and it was the Attlee government that ended up overseeing the implementation of some of the key proposals of Liberal ideologues like Keynes and Beveridge. The accommodation that the New Liberals sought with the working class was intitially pragmatic, and based on a very gloomy analysis of the political situation in the 1930s.

The eventual creation of a de facto Popular Front government in 1940 and its succession by Attlee’s forst majority Labour government coincided with changes in the nature of New Liberal ideology. Increasingly, key New Liberals like Keynes saw their policy proposals as grounded in the wishes (to put it more technically, in the subjectivity) of the majority of the British population, not in the special insights of an intellectual stratum. Keynes’ gradual abandonment of the method of rational intuitionism for a ‘consensus-based’ epistemology was one result of this change. Another was the distinctly middlebrow agenda he pursued as an arts bureaucrat in the 1940s – an agenda that upset some Bloomsbury stalwarts.

It can be argued that Keynes was an exalted but not isolated case, and that the massive expansion of the state bureaucracy and the education system under the wartime and Attlee governments provided a material basis for the reintegration of a large number of intellectuals into a very different British capitalism. The New Fabian Essays of 1951, which famously declared the obsolescence of Marxism and other radical socialisms, symbolised this ideological reintegration of New Liberals. The conservatism of British intellectuals in the 50s was of course widely acknowledged, with the Old New Left and Angry Young Men bemoaning the phenomenon and Cold War ideologues like Daniel Bell applauding it.

8. Lumpen technocrats is a name we can give to members of another tendency amongst deintegrated British intellectuals. Three important groups are subsumed by the label: the white collar workers drawn to the Fabians before the 1940s; scientists who joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1920s and 30s; and many of the intellectuals who clustered around Oswald Mosley after his split from the Labour Party in 1930 .

Each of the groups had some quite distinctive beliefs. The early Fabians embraced an authoritarian statism that went well beyond the views of the New Liberals, incorporating in some versions even the abolition of capitalism. The CPGB’s scientists held to a mechanical materialism similar to that developed by Britain’s working class autodidact Marxists. The New Party clique was attracted by Mosley’s theories of corporatism, which held that a state controlled by a fascist party should force capital and labour to collaborate in a new programme of industrialism, and in the substitution of an imperial autarchy for trade with other imperialist nations and their colonies and semi-colonies.

All of the lumpen technocrats’ programmes had as corollaries a massive expansion in the state bureaucracy, and the placing of more power in the hands of state bureaucrats and technocrats. The lumpen technocrats were frustrated by the inability of the British bourgeoisie to modernise its political superstructure, and sought formal institutional integration into either a modernised British capitalism or a technocratic socialism .

9. Reactionaries is a label which can cover a large number of British intellectuals who were ideologically deintegrated from the British bourgeoisie, but who pinned hopes of an end to their isolation not upon an alliance with the working class or a more ‘rational’ state but rather upon a return to an earlier, semi-mythical society which allegedly offered a better set of social values and a better role for intellectuals.

The reactionaries tended to be creative artists, rather than scientists or bureaucrats. Key reactionaries included Eliot, who empathised with the Anglo-Catholic section of the ruling class and with a vision of a pre-industrial capitalist Britain and Europe; Evelyn Waugh, who espoused a sort of foppish Catholic semi-feudalism; and Wyndham Lewis, whose sympathy for fascism was really a sort of ultra-elitism.

There is no contradiction in the fact that many of the most important modernists, in the United States and Europe as well as Britain, were reactionaries. Faced with crisis in Europe and malaise in Britain, many artists and writers felt they needed to create new forms to contain and transmit the cultural inheritance they valued. Innovation often had conservative motives. ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruin’, wrote Eliot near the end of The Waste Land.

Many of the reactionaries favoured irrational intuition when thinking about social and political as well as aesthetic problems.

The work of TE Hulme provides a bridge between the rational intuitionism popularised by Bloomsbury and the irrational intuitionism of many reactionaries. Hulme rebelled against nineteenth century scientism, but also rejected the notion that intuition could uncover a rational basis for value-judgements and knowledge-claims. He insisted on the necessity of an ‘effort of will’ to create an arbitrary ‘rock’ upon which judgements and knowledge-claims could rest, and from which conceptual systems could map the world. Hulme was a conservative with a radical, relativist epistemology, a symbol of the breakdown of the smug old justifications for the ‘natural order’ of King and country.

The reactionary politics of many of the great modernists embarrassed many of the younger writers of the 30s. In his study of modernist poetry, Stephen Spender tried to argue that the reactionaries’ politics were too quixotic to be taken seriously. What Spender failed to see was that the quixotry of the reactionaries’ politics expressed very well the malaise of the British (and in Yeats’ case the Irish) bourgeoisie. It was the chronic inability of the British bourgeoisie to formulate a strategy for its own renewal that left the door open to the fancies of the reactionaries.

10. Some British intellectuals made Bloomsburian intuition and disinterested contemplation into ends in themselves, and developed a lifestyle and subculture that revolved around aestheticism, radical individualism, and political and moral nihilism. The ‘dandies’ of the teens and early 20s represented a muted, curiously British version of Dadaism – their whims and follies were frequently a direct response to the militarised, bureaucratised madness of the First World War, a conflict they frequently felt guilty for missing.

It is important to see how the dandies of the teens and 20s differed from the circle Oscar Wilde made famous in the 90s. The Wildeans had offered criteria for the beauty they worshipped, and even developed a sort of political programme around the defence and extension of beauty that anticipates the ideas of the likes of Leonard Woolf. The next generation of dandies, on the other hand, made aesthetic judgements on the basis of irrational intuition.

Towards the end of the 20s dandyism developed from a reaction to the last war to a response to the threat of the next one. With the onset of the Depression, the object of beauty-worship frequently became the ‘industrial follies’ common in many areas of Britain .

The rejection of bourgeois ideals of beauty reflected a rejection of bourgeois civilisation, and as the 30s went on the cult of the ruined factory would give way to the cult of the worker.

11. The ideological tendency I call radical liberalism became prominent amongst British intellectuals in the 1930s. We can understand the movement toward radical liberalism by returning to the views of Leonard Woolf. Woolf argued that the only way to preserve the ‘civilization’ that intellectuals possessed was to equip a large swathe of the working classes to partake of that ‘civilization’. Since people who lacked money or decent housing or a decent education could not become civilized, socialistic measures (albeit relatively mild) were required in Britain.

Woolf’s proposals can be related to the arguments put forward a couple of decades later in Forward From Liberalism, a book Stephen Spender published during his flirtation with the Communist Party .

Spender held to the same basic position as Woolf – intellectuals were the guardians of civilization, meaning high culture, and high culture could not survive unless it became accessible to many more people, something which could not occur without the reorganisation of British society. Spender recommended a reorganisation more thorough than the one Woolf had advocated. Spender also differed from Woolf in seeing ‘the people’, and in particular the British working class, as already eager for the fruits of civilization.

For Spender, the liberal democratic discourses initiated by Godwin and Paine had foundered on the rock of capitalist class relations. Liberalism had atrophied because it was not possible to revolutionise the political and cultural superstructure of British society without changing the economic base of that society. The bourgeoisie and many of its intellectual defenders had not unnaturally drawn back from undermining the basis of their own power.

Spender cautions that the workers’ movement may not always be a force for civilization and a potential ally for intellectuals – he explains fascism as a symptom of the disappointment of the hopes of ‘the people’. Spender also warns about the potential for a philistine communism. It is important for intellectuals to intersect with workers, and to show workers the correct use of the cultural resources their coming accession to power will give them. The workers’ movement and the Communist Party represent a sort of Trojan horse which bourgeois intellectuals might advance inside .

There are important differences, then, between Woolf’s and Spender’s arguments. Spender is much readier to reject the bourgeoisie altogether, and to throw his lot in with the workers. But Spender still sees the grounds of civilization as inhering in intellectuals. Only the intersection of intellectuals and the workers’ movement and the establishment of a healthy communist society could expand the epistemological grounds of ‘civilization’ and end the isolation of deintegrated intellectuals.

Spender’s position is taken a step further in the life and work of John Cornford, the first British intellectual to volunteer to fight for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Like Spender, Cornford came from a liberal intellectual dynasty – he was the great-grandson of Charles Darwin and the son of a noted Georgian poet. Unlike Spender, Cornford came to identify completely with the communist party and with the British working class, and reject completely the notion of intellectuals as the guardians of ‘civilization’.

Cornford, who became a communist after reading The Waste Land, came to see the subjectivity of the working class, as allegedly personified in the Communist Party, as the grounds for all his thinking.

It is crucial to understand that Cornford was not a Marxist . He held fast to liberal and radical democratic principles – to the tradition of Godwin and Blake – but came to identify these principles with ‘the people’, and more specifically the working class, represented for him by the Communist Party in its Popular Front period. The history of the working class and ‘the people’ became the history of radical democratic values, and the source of what was best in high culture. Working class ‘experience’ was venerated as a source of value-judgements and knowledge-claims. Cornford passed from deintegration from the British bourgeoisie to an almost complete identification with a different class . How warranted that identification was is a matter for debate.

12. It is possible to identify five stages in the pre-history and history of radical liberalism. In the first stage, which can be said to have lasted from the late twenties until about 1934, many liberal intellectuals became radicalised, but did not identify a real historical agent for the amelioration or resolution of their grievances.

These were the years of The Orators and New Country – years when many intellectuals saw themselves as doomed and damned, sick cells in a diseased class. Apocalyptic imagery filled poems, and hope for the future tended to be associated with strange dreams of a ‘messiah’ or ‘healer’ . When it was considered, the working class tended to be seen not as an ally but as the alien agent of a justice which would have cataclysmic results for bourgeois intellectuals. New Country’s English Lenin was a messianic rather than political figure.

The second stage of radical liberalism had as necessary conditions the intensification of the crises in Europe and the abandonment of ultra-left Third Period Stalinism by the Communist Party and the Comintern . Encouraged by the new politics of the Popular Front, intellectuals began to look to ‘the people’ – an ‘anti-fascist’ or ‘anti-monopolist’ alliance of classes dominated in theory at least by the working class – as an agent of radical liberal politics. To the ideology of radical liberalism was added the strategy of the Popular Front.

This new ‘masses against the classes’ approach was validated by catastrophist forecasts and could be made successful by a heroic exertion of the will. The idealism and anti-sectionalism of Gladstone remained, but the transcendence of class and achievement of the ‘ethical vision’ would be accomplished by the overhaul of British society, not its peaceful evolution. Radical liberal populism was liberalism transformed dialectically by crisis, or the perception of crisis.

The mid-30s were the years of the Left Book Club, Aid for Spain, the rediscovery of a ‘progressive national history’, ‘proletarian literature’ in The Left Review, and the rise of a ‘documentary’ art exemplified by the first half of The Road to Wigan Pier.

The third stage of radical liberalism lasted from roughly late 1938 to early 1940 and saw significant numbers of intellectuals becoming disillusioned with their old political project. Some like Isherwood and Auden detached their radical liberalism from a belief in the potential of ‘the people’. Others like Spender abandoned radical liberalism for ordinary liberalism but retained a sort of degenerated populism . Munich, the failure of the Spanish revolution, the Nazi-Stalin pact, and the impotence of the ‘phoney war’ induced a pessimism which lasted a lifetime for some, but which was lifted for others by the heroism shown at Dunkirk and in the Battle of Britain, and by the Churchill government’s populist rhetoric and broader political base .

For radical liberals, World War Two was a people’s war which promised social transformation as well as victory. The entry of the USSR into the war reinforced the optimistic mood, and the campaign for a second front echoed the Aid for Spain campaign . Tom Wintringham’s home guard manuals, Orwell’s The Lion and the Unicorn, and JB Priestley’s radio talks are some of the key relics of revived radical liberalism.

The fifth stage of radical liberalism saw disillusionment with the failure of the wartime Popular Front and anti-Axis alliance to lead to the achievement of radical liberal goals. It is impossible to give the beginning of this fifth stage anything more than a very rough date. For some like Orwell disillusionment began as early as 1943, as the war began to be won without revolutionary transformation . For others the breaking point was the Teheran or Yalta Conferences, or British intervention in Greece, or Labour’s acceptance of US terms for a new loan soon after being elected, or the ‘left turn’ of the Comintern in 1946-47 .

It can be argued that from the late 40s intellectuals tended to detach liberalism from a populist belief in the agency of the working class and its allies. Radical liberalism adapted itself to the depoliticised 50s and became a sort of quietism; populism adapted itself to the real consciousness of workers and became one or another sort of social democracy. EP Thompson was one of the few post-war British intellectuals who tried to keep the torch of radical liberalism burning.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

'Close your eyes and think of Middle Earth'

My recent post on Tolkien has prompted some discussion on the international Marxmail e list, with several fans of the great man rising to his defence.

Somebody with the austere name of 'DCQ' complains that Tolkien has become a 'sort of punching bag of the left' since he reached the big screen. DCQ points out that Tolkien became disillusioned with run of the mill conservatism, and sometimes styled himself an 'anarcho-monarchist'. But it seems to me that it was precisely Tolkien's unhappiness with both the left and the mainstream British right that drove him towards the impossibilist nostalgia for the Middle Ages that is reflected in Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien was one of a generation of British intellectuals who became disillusioned with the realities of twentieth century life - with the slaughter of the First World War, the chaos and suffering associated with the Great Depression, the ugliness of an industrial economy which had by the 1930s lost any dynamism and glamour it had once possessed - but who could find no viable social group and political movement with which to identify.

Unwilling to throw their lot in with an idealised British working class, in the manner of the young Auden and countless other writers of the inter-war period, and disgusted with the philistinism of a British ruling class that had lost its aristocratic liberal fringe, intellectuals like Tolkien, FR Leavis and Evelyn Waugh looked back longingly to a pre-industrial era where the problems of the twentieth century were absent.

DCQ talks of the philistinism of left-wingers who ply reductionist political analyses of literary texts, but then goes on to argue that Rings must be good, and have at least some progressive qualities, because 'millions of people' read it. Is that not a pretty philistine argument?

I think that the vastly increased audience Rings has won in recent decades is in part a reflection of the contradictory course that history has taken in that time. Over the past thirty years capitalism has struggled to regain the bouyancy it had in the decades immediately after the Second World War, and even in the wealthy countries of the West ordinary people have been made to pay for this failure. Yet despite economic stagnation and decades of falling real incomes, the triumphs of the neo-liberal right in the '80s and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 have helped ensure that an entire generation has grown up without the prospect of a feasible alternative to capitalism.

This curious combination of stagnation and the evaporation of a real alternative to the status quo has meant that a sizeable number of young people, in particular, have begun to hold the sort of attitudes that gave birth to Rings over sixty years ago. Today's disillusioned look about them and hate the world that they see, but can conceive of no feasible alternative to maladies like globalisation, the War of Terror, and environmental degradation. It is not surprising that many of them turn to ideas and cultural movements based on a rejection of modernity in toto. I have encountered many people active on the rather otherwordly primitivist and eco-anarchist fringes of the anti-globalisation and anti-war movements movement who, contra DCQ, regarded Rings as a sort of allegory for their political stance, if not as a full-blooded manifesto.

In another post to Marxmail, Bob Hopson complains about those who 'want to bring Marxism into my entertainment choices' and counterposes Tolkien to a joyless tradition of literary 'realism':

There was an interview with China Mieville (a Marxist scholar and science fiction writer) where he confessed to finding realisitc literature almost unreadable. I sometimes wonder whether realism isn't just a fad of the modern era. And if you can't enjoy fiction without social commentary, there's always Leguin, Butler, etc.

Hopson seems to reduce the term 'realism' to a description of the subject matter of a text. But many literary scholars would argue that it should also relate to the way that a text treats its subject matter. Rings may have a fantastic setting, but its prose style is ultra-traditional, drawing on Norse legend and Chaucer and completely ignoring the innovations that modernist writers like Joyce, Proust, Hemingway and so many others had given to the novel form in the first decades of the twentieth century. To my mind, Rings is a very dour piece of realism when set beside a novel like Joyce's Ulysses, even though Joyce tells his story in twentieth century Dublin rather than a fantastic land of elves and hobbits.

It seems strange, too, that Bob Hopson invokes China Mieville in defence of Tolkien, given Mieville's oft-stated disdain for Tolkien's scribblings. Here's a juicy quote from Mieville's excellent essay against Tolkien, 'Middle Earth meets Middle England':

The hobbits' 'Shire' resembles a small town in the Home Counties, full of forelock-tugging peasants and happy artisans. Though he idealises the rural petty bourgeoisie, Tolkien treats them with enormous condescension...

Tolkien claimed the function of his fantasy was 'consolation'. In other words, it becomes a point of principle that his literature mollycoddles its readers. Tolkien and his admirers (many of them leftists) gave his escapism an emancipatory gloss, claiming that jailers hate escapism. As the great anarchist fantasist Michael Moorcock has pointed out, this is precisely untrue. Jailers love escapism. What they hate is escape.

Tolkien is naive to think he's escaping anything...The myth of an idyllic past is not oppositional to capitalism, but consolation for it. Troubled by the world? Close your eyes and think of Middle Earth.

Katyn (a poem)

Located near Smolensk in western Russia, Katyn forest was the place where Stalin's NKVD executed thousands of captured Polish reserve officers, as well as a number of civilians, in 1940, the year before the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Stalin's government always refused to acknowledge the executions.


The soldier stepped out of the pines, and walked
to the centre of the clearing, and knelt
and dug a hole, a long
shallow hole, with his hands,
and lay down in his hole
and covered himself with dirt
and had a heart attack.
This happened five thousand times, maybe
more, in Katyn forest, in 1940.

At the Cheeky Kumara Cafe
we choose a window table.
Threshers the size of tanks
level a field of wheat,
a field of barley,
and three moths stick to our window.
They are scraps of paper,
scraps of thin yellow paper,
Polish army stationery issue,
scraps from the same page of a letter,
from Leszek Staff's last letter to Gertrude Boll,
written in Smolensk, on May the 5th, 1940,
and torn up by an NKVD intelligence officer
who got hard reading about troop movements
and resistance cells
not a pair of silk lace stockings
slipping off freshly shaven legs
in Krakow Municipal Gardens.
You stir the last of the sugar into my tea.

We know how to dispose of our dead
correctly. Follow that gravel road
over a train track, then up a small hill
until the fields part for a red-rooved chapel
and its flock of stones.
Every name there faces north.
Out the back, behind the water tap,
are plots reserved for the elderly, the infirm.
Red earth foams over the newest graves.

This afternoon the reverend's out
making his rounds,
and relatives are at the races.
Nobody is there to see Leszek Staff
stagger out of the barley, and fall
to his knees, and dig
for four minutes, in the soft red soil,
and lie down comfortably
to die, to be discovered. Outside the cafe
a truck backfires.

Sunday, November 12, 2006


to briefly continue the music thread I thought I’d link to one of the most interesting record labels to have come out of New Zealand: pseudoarcana.

They specialize in the hinterlands of sound, where stray tramps with broken guitars record onto 4-tracks ‘cobbled together out of wire, branches and old tin cans’.

They release a lot of abstract soundscape stuff, and a lot of dirty broken-down rock, here’s a description of a couple of their albums:

·Armpit- 'Frenzy'.
Onehungas white trash
urban hillbilly hip hop god Glen Frenzy remixes NZs dirtiest free-rock band. The resulting album sounds like a cross between CJAs 'Headache' and Simon Wickham Smiths '2 4 Dancin'. Amps are turned on, and turned on, and turned on, and turned on... Tape recorded feedback and hum is cut into small short loops that repeat for infinity before crashing into another loop. VERY minimal, and not for every one but I know that I've sure had some weird experiences through listening to this disk at catostrophic volumes...

Dialing In. -'Cows In Lye'.
Dialing In is the ecstatic roaring psychedelic drone project of Seattle based sound artist Reita Piecuch. Utilising the natural acoustics of a series of reverberant spaces she weaves together super saturated soundscapes by recording in one environment, playing back in another, and then re-recording this recording playing back in yet another environment (etc..).
On 'Cows in Lye' the original sound sources range from loops of field recordings from a trip to India, piano, and the shifting drones of a "Shruti Box" (electronic Tamboura). One track also features a long stream of consciousness vocal performance from avant-crooner 'Herb Diamante'..!
After a trek with recording gear through the caves, cathedrals and bunkers of Seattle these ingredients are transformed into huge and sublimely distorted quasi-melodic dreamscapes. The album lifts off with an ecstatic roar and the intensity doesn't let up until one is released exultant in the green flash of a setting sun...
CD NZ$20

6majik9. -'Weapons and Maps of Western Despondency'.
From out of the twig-clad back-blocks of Queensland and northern New South Wales arrives another ecstatically apocalyptic missive from the musicyourmindwillloveyou collective (home of Brothers of the Occult Sisterhood and Terracid, White Cobra et al...).
6majik9 is obstensibly the 'big band' manifestation of the collectives psychedelic enhanced group mind and features multiple guitrists, flautists, cellists and drummers and an irrepresible (and quite mad...) vocalist cum theremin stroker(!)
Ranging from propulsive driving drum reveries to lilting nuanced drones 'Weapons and Maps' catches the whole chaotic enterprise in charmed and glowing flight.

Psuedoarcana is also one of the most prolific labels I’ve come across, and it’s all done out of the downstairs garage of one guy, Antony Milton, for love, not money. So if you’re going to spend you’re hard earned dollars (or if you’re MAPS your mums allowance) on music, why not give your ears a treat and give it to these guys?

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Against Tolkien

Here's a cleaned-up version of the comments I made - or rather excavated - during the debate I had with Richard Taylor about Lord of the Rings the other day.

As some of you no doubt realise already, I am not a big fan of JRR Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings circus. I agree with Michael Moorcock, who argues in his book Wizardry and Wild Romance that Tolkien's writing was driven by an obsessive fear that the south of England, aka the Shire, with its idealised countryside and countryfolk, was about to be over-run by rough northern blokes (orcs) led by nasty Bolshy intellectuals (evil wizards) and supported by ungrateful natives in other parts of the Empire.

The sad thing is that in the space of a few decades the writing of an embittered old Oxford Don - writing which could originally only be published by a crank religious outfit - has become a myth that thousands of people on the other side of the world have assimilated.

I was driving through the Urewera forests with a friend who had been out of the country for a while, when he turned to me and said 'That's what I love about New Zealand bush - it looks so much like Lord of the Rings'. Tolkien and his faithful fan Peter Jackson have affected the way we look at our country, taking some of us, at least, back to the nineteenth century conception of New Zealand as a 'new Britain' and, in all too many cases, expunging the real history of the New Zealand from the minds of Kiwis who had only just been getting used to the facts of that history. People like my friend are imagining castles full of orcs or elves on mountains that are still covered in the visible remains of pa sites and kainga. They picture epic clashes between the rival armies of Tolkien's world over plains and hills where real, half-forgotten battles were fought only a little more than a century ago. Their imaginations turn puriris into oaks and cabbage trees into pines.

Tolkien comes at the fag end of a British tradition of romantic repulsion against industrialism and its effects on humans and the environment, and his work misses all of the progressive aspects found in earlier incarnations of this tradition. Where Blake in poems like 'London' and William Morris in his utopian novels decry the effects of industrialisation on the working class that the industrial revolution created, Tolkien identifies this class completely with all the negative aspects of industrialism. In doing so, he dehumanises them more surely than any mill owner or coal baron.

Where the likes of Morris wanted to get rid of the ugly aspects of industrial society by empowering workers, Tolkien wants to turn back the clock and thus eliminate the entire working class. In common with reactionary contemporaries like Evelyn Waugh and TS Eliot, he retreats from the modern world into a vision of an idealised Middle Ages society, a society ballasted by a happy peasantry that knows its place. Tolkien is rather like those middle class Western 'primitivists' whose response to the impact of industrialisation on the people of the Third World is to demand that those people leave their dark satanic mills and teeming cities, don grass skirts, pick up spears, and run around in the bush in noble savage mode.

All the failings described above could be forgiven, of course, if Tolkien were a great writer, like his fellow-reactionaries Eliot and Waugh. At least then he would provide us with an unforgettably vivid picture of his own alienation. If a writer has to be a fascist then he or she should at least compensate by being a genius. But Lord of the Rings , with its ponderous, pedantic narrative, cliched characters, and pretentious prose style is no work of genius: Moorcock was right when he described the book as 'Winnie the Pooh posing as an epic'.

Richard and the other defenders of Rings that I've encountered have been remarkably reluctant to contest Moorcock's interpretation of the book. Instead, they've questioned whether it is even appropriate to try to discuss the political meaning of Rings. They insist that Rings is an 'escapist' work, and that attempts to read it politically are bound to lead to miss the 'point' of the book.

But does the fact that Rings is an escapist book, and most of the people who like it read it as an escape, mean we can't analyse it in relation to the real world? Escapist literature gets much of its appeal from the way that it offers fantastic - and fantastically easy - solutions to real-life problems. (In Rings, magic and the intervention of benign advanced beings like the Elves enable the beleagured people of the Shire to best the mighty forces of Evil. In the real world, the social upheaval created by the decline of British capitalism could never be countered so easily. )

And to criticise the escapism of Rings is not to condemn all escapist fantasies. An analogy might be made here with debates on the left over tourism. Some leftists have taken a holier-than-thou attitude toward the mass, cheap tourism of the jet age, ignoring the fact that the people who take these holidays are usually trying to escape the failings of very capitalist system that the left criticises.

Ironically, mass tourism was one of the bugbears of reactionary British intellectuals like Tolkien in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Increased spending power and leisure time and cheaper transport meant that large numbers of workers were able to escape the dreariness of life in mill and coal towns on weekends and Bank Holidays: seaside resorts like Blackpool and Brighton were especially popular. Many intellectual guardians of the old order were disturbed by this new mobility of the working class, just as they were disturbed by mass literacy and the rise of the paperback.

I don't think there is a fundamental difference between nineteenth century holidays in Blackpool and Brighton and twenty-first century holidays in Ibiza and Majorca and Fiji. A balance needs to be struck between a recognition of the negative features of mass tourism and an appreciation of its function as an escape from the pressures of ordinary life for large numbers of working class people.

Tourist destinations can be seen as temporary utopias, which allow the acting out of fantasies and identities which are repressed in 'real' life. In a sense, then, they are no different from William Morris's equally evanescent but far healthier visions of an alternative, utopian society, or the fantasy and science fiction novels of radical left writers like Moorcock, Iain M Banks, China Mieville, and Ken MacLeod. The trouble with Rings is not so much Tolkien's escapism, as the type of society he wants us to escape to!

There's a more fundamental problem which needs to mentioned here. Many of the commenters on this blog have a tendency to try to wall 'art' off from 'life', by insisting that an artist's political opinions and behaviour, and the political context in which their work is received and used, should not interfere with judgements of their work. I can understand that this desire to wall off art and politics might be prompted by a distaste for the conception of art as propaganda, and for simplistic political readings of complex works of art like, say, Eliot's poems. I certainly detest didactic art and simplistic political readings of works of art myself.

The trouble is that if we treat art as basically autonomous from politics we actually accept the schema of the reductionists who want all art to be propaganda. Whether they are Stalinists or right-wing philistines and moralists, they typically divide art into 'self-indulgent' stuff, ie 'weird' or 'difficult' or 'irrelevant' stuff they can't easily reduce to a simple political message, and 'good' or 'conscious' or 'wholesome' stuff, ie simplistic propaganda. They dismiss the supposedly self-indulgent stuff as basically a bourgeois/decadent bohemian luxury with little relevance to the lives of ordinary people in the real world. If we celebrate, say, the poems of Eliot as autonomous works of art unaffected by the life and politics of their author then we are in danger of accepting that Eliot has nothing to say about anything but poetry - we are in danger of saying that reading him is an escape from things like politics into a different world, the world of Literature.

I think that the extremes of art as propaganda and art as escape are both dead ends. What we need to do is relate art to the real world it springs from, without reducing it to a simple reflection of or commentary upon that world. And I don't think my comments here have been too reductionist - if I were only interested in judging people's art by the standards of their politics, then I'd be lumping Eliot in with Tolkien as a bad writer, not defending him as a genius.