✍ Out of Apathy [1960]

por Teoría de la historia

51-QBmytaLLIn a recent issue of “Encounter”, Mr. Anthony Hartley urged hypothetical Aldermaston marcher to explain whether the anti-nuclear campaigners “regard as one of their objectives a break with NATO and the American alliance”. So far as the authors of the essays here under review are concerned, there is no question about it: NATO is condemned not just on military grounds, but -to quote from Mr. Norman Birnbaum’s general foreword-because “Britain’s participation in the Atlantic Alliance is one of the sources of the anti-socialist atmosphere pervading our politics”. At a deeper level, “Natopolis” -Mr. E. P. Thompson’s term for the part of the world organised under U.S. leadership- is discovered to be the breeding-ground of a “Natopolitan” ideology of despairing quietism about politics which forms the counterpart of Stalinist orthodoxy. The problem for socialists who wish to emerge from the “Age of Apathy” is to get “Outside the Whale,”the “Whale” being acceptance of the Cold War as unalterable; and the escape-hatch offered to the socialist Jonah is the realisation that the British have it in their power to save themselves by their exertion, if not the rest of the world by their example. To quote from another contributor to the volume, Mr. Peter Worsley: “Britain is in a unique position in all this. What India has achieved would be as nothing compared to the immense pressure Britain could generate, in alliance with India, Ghana,Yugoslavia (sic) and backed by the uncommitted countries, for world peace and active neutrality. And most of these uncommitted nations are countries which could, under such stimulus, move towards socialism… India, Austria, Israel, Indonesia, Ghana, to name a few… not forming another frozen bloc, but trading and communicating freely, gradually breaking down the existing barriers on both sides”. So bald a summary of the political programme outlined in this essay necessarily fails to do justice to the thinking that underlies the New Left’s concrete specifications for pulling the socialist rabbit out of the neutralist hat. Still, one cannot help noticing that New Zealand and Sweden -both ruled by Labour governments- do not figure in a list which includes the democracies governed by Marshal Tito and President Soekarno: New Zealand doubdess because it has committed the unforgivable sin of linking its defences with the U.S.A.; Sweden perhaps because, although neutral, it has been toying with the idea of acquiring a nuclear carapace. This leads to the reflection that a Socialist government which armed itself with atomic weapons for the purpose of guarding its neutrality would pose an exceedingly tough ideological problem for New Leftists who are also nuclear disarmers. What comes first: breaking free of “Natopolis” or being disarmed? And what if these aims should conflict? The real importance of this collection of essays fortunately is not exhausted by these silly exercises in wishful thinking. Out of Apathy contains no earth-shaking revelations, but it is a respectable contribution to the debate now going on within the Labour movement, and some of the essays do break new ground. Mr. Thompson, when not busy denouncing the Natopolitan corruption of intellectuals who do not agree with him, has something important to say about the political morality of a generation which has at any rate managed to get outside the Stalinist whale; Mr. Alasdair MacIntyre outlines the kind of sophisticated Hegelian neo-Marxism which has for years been debated in France, Italy, and Poland (and in the U.S.A. and West Germany too, though he fails to realise it) but is still new to this country; Mr. Ralph Samuel, Mr. Stuart Hall, and Mr. Kenneth Alexander write trenchantly about corporate capitalism and the limits of the welfare state; and Mr. Worsley, when not haunted by ghosts from the political past, is able to document the growing irrelevance of Conservative imperialism (though his rhetorical antithesis “Renaissance or off-shore island?” begs all the real questions concerning Britain’s status in Europe). Compared with the rather amateurish writings brought together in Declaration and Conviction, this latest symposium of New Left theorising represents a step forward. At least the contributors display a standard of professional competence which was not always evident in the earlier essay collections. Why is it finally not possible to feel that the authors have managed to pull socialist theory and practice together into a new whole? The trouble would seem to lie at the political level. There are elements of a genuinely novel, fruitful, and undogmatic kind of thinking in Mr. MacIntyre’s critique of utilitarianism or in Mr. Thompson’s challenge to the apathetic “realism” which grew out of the political stalemate of the fifties; but these ideas are not pursued to the end because the authors are too impatient to translate their insights into the language of practical politics. “Natopolis” -a grotesque conceit no less surrealist than Orwell’s fantasies, whose effect on the young is deplored by Mr. Thompson- is invoked to render plausible the assertion that at bottom East and West are pretty much alike; a futile attempt is made to re-kindle the emotions of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War (which was not just an anti-Fascist crusade); the illusions of 1945 -which were not shared by everyone- are treated as sacrosanct, and their loss is blamed in unequal parts on Stalin and on the Americans (who appear to be the real culprits). There is no recognition that the Western world may be held together by something besides capitalism and the Bomb. Characteristically, the intensification of the Cold War in 1948 is noted without any mention that Berlin served as the catalyst, and that it was the democratic labour movement which bore the brunt of the Soviet offensive. The spectre which haunts Mr. Thompson is that of Orwell; he is forever trying to render justice to that gloomy stoic, while refusing to follow him into acceptance of the world as unchangeable. But the edge of his argument is blunted by polemical irrelevancies arising from impatience to have done with theorising and get into the arena of Aldermaston marches and other forms of political shadow-boxing. Mr. MacIntyre, too, has his King Charles’ Head; it is -Trotsky! We are urged to decide between “Keynes with his peerage, Trotsky with an icepick in his skull. They are the twin lives between which intellectual choice in our society lies.” Between patrician liberalism and the utopian expectations of 1917 there is a no-man’s land uninhabited by any political formation to which this writer can honestly lend his allegiance. Fortunately, the majority of his colleagues seem less wedded to romanticism; one gathers that, at least for Mr. Hall and Mr. Alexander, there is work to be done in this world which does not involve such hopeless and impossible choices. If intellectual disillusionment with the French Revolution around 1830 or 1840 -one of Mr. Thompson’s themes- be taken as a standard for comparison with the present situation, it is worth noting that by then the more advanced spirits in Europe had shaken off the paralyzing effect of controversy over the respecuve merits of Girondist, Jacobin, and Bonapartist programmes, and got down to the serious business or coping with the newly emerging problems of European society in the industrial age. Possibly we are witnessing a similar process of regrouping, now that disenchantment over the fruits of the Russian Revolution is giving way to a resolve to make the most of whatever opportunities remain. There are signs of such a reorientation in these essays, though nostalgia for the recent past remains strong. The break with Leninist-Stalinist thinking is radical and profound; if there is as yet no new synthesis to take the place of the old one, there is at any rate a challenge to the stale indifference of the fifties, and for this one may be grateful to the authors, and even forgive them their tiresome pose of moral superiority. At least they have managed not to be dull.

[G. L. ARNOLD. “Outside the Whale”, in Encounter (Londres), vol. XV, nº 2, agosto de 1960, pp. 76-77]