February 23, 2006

TOO SMART TO BE SENSIBLE:

AJP Taylor: The historian AJP Taylor was one of the first "telly dons." But over the years, those of us who admired him, as a scholar, stylist and gadfly, have gradually been disabused (Geoffrey Wheatcroft, March 2006, The Prospect)

He was an intensely readable writer, from the attention-grabbing first sentences to the jokes and the epigrams ("If the Germans had succeeded in exterminating their Slav neighbours as the Anglo-Saxons in North America succeeded in exterminating the Indians, the effect would have been what it has been on the Americans: the Germans would have become advocates of brotherly love and international reconciliation"). [...]

The Origins of the Second World War (1961) enraged critics who thought that Taylor had exculpated Hitler by portraying him as an adventurer and improviser with no consistent strategy, as well as "the sounding-board for the German nation." That continued the theme, set out in sometimes glib and vulgar fashion in The Course of German History, that the Germans were a nation of permanent conquerors. What he did get right in The Origins was his own country. From the time Taylor's friend Michael Foot and two confederates published their absurd squib Guilty Men in 1940, a myth had grown up that the evil appeasers had grovelled to Hitler against the wishes of the British people, determined under the brave leadership of the left to resist him. As Taylor showed, the British people were desperate to avoid war, as were almost all the London newspapers and the Labour party.

If you want to conjure up this epigrammatic and wisecracking writer it has to be a sentence or two at a time. The footnotes and asides are almost the best thing about The Struggle for Mastery. Taylor deftly reminds us of one reason why, in the decades before 1914, Britain was as unquestionably pacific as Germany was bellicose: "In England the taxpayers were also the ruling class; economy was of immediate benefit to them. In Germany the ruling class did not pay the taxes; economy brought them no advantage." Or again in English History, the Labour party's shibboleth of "the hungry thirties" is demolished in a few words: it was a time when, in truth, "most English people were enjoying a richer life than any previously known in the history of the world: longer holidays, shorter hours, higher real wages."

And yet there is another side to this. Looking back and re-reading the sparkling prose which delighted me when young, I can’t help feeling that it was indeed designed to appeal to adolescents. As the years went by, I learned more about Taylor and eventually met him. It is not a rare experience to find someone captivating as a public performer but then less so as a private person. This was true of Taylor to an unusual degree, and he was his own prosecuting counsel. A Personal History is one of the most horribly revealing autobiographies ever published. It’s not so much Taylor’s richly comical private life with—or at the hands of—three terrifying wives. What is so lowering is the self-pity and self-deception, the endless catalogue of spite and resentment. Old scores are settled, old enmities picked over, the squabbles of Magdalen common room regurgitated 40 years on. Here the pithy asides aren’t quite so pleasing: “like most Jews he was an elitist”; “like most homosexuals, he was neurotic”; “unscrupulousness—the usual characteristic of a homosexual.” And the nastiest moment in the book may be when he complains that although he did not win a Balliol scholarship 50 years before, he could now console himself with the thought that, “none of the boys who got scholarships at Balliol when I got none has been heard of since.” In his excellent biography of Taylor, Adam Sisman points out an explanation for this: two of those Balliol boys were killed in the 1939-45 war, in which Taylor prudently chose to keep the home fires burning.

Although he never stood for parliament, Taylor was active in politics, from the 1920s, when he ran messages for the TUC in the general strike and briefly joined the Communist party, to the 1950s when he was one of the most prominent figures in CND. He once said that Mill’s phrase about the Conservatives being the stupid party was not unfair since “to be stupid and sensible are not far apart. The Progressive party, radical and socialist, is clever, but silly.” That was a rare glimpse of self-knowledge since Taylor’s own politics were indeed silly.

He certainly has his own small part in the story of the great Soviet illusion. Taylor was more unattractive than most fellow travellers since he was not truly illusioned. He didn’t deny the barbarous nature of Stalin’s regime: he accepted and almost relished it. Many years later, he mentioned his friend Malcolm Muggeridge’s 1934 Winter in Moscow as one of the best of all books about Soviet Russia, but that was not what he had thought at the time. When Muggeridge had begun filing some of the rare truthful accounts of what was happening in the Soviet Union, Taylor rebuked him: “You can’t see clearly enough the ruthlessness and the necessity of the class war.” Private property had been abolished, “and that alone is to my mind worth unending sacrifices,” which were not, of course, made by history lecturers at Manchester, where Taylor was at the time, or any other Englishmen. “The Russian worker has a control over his work, through the factory committees, which no worker ever had before: he can criticise, he can control the management: what he says goes.”

It is easy, more than 70 years later, to condemn this as ignorant drivel, but it went further in Taylor’s case. “There was a danger that the urban socialism would be swamped by a new capitalism coming from the kulaks and that had to be fought, even at the cost of famine,” a bleak verdict on 2m dead. Even in his published writings Taylor exemplifies that “snobbish feeling” or racism of the left, which his contemporary WH Auden looked back on with shame, when appalling crimes in backward Russia were overlooked by intellectuals who would have been horrified by such things in a western country.


Posted by Orrin Judd at February 23, 2006 3:07 PM
Comments

You have done well to bring up that other treason of the intellectuals, for we are seeing it again in our own time.

Those beople hate their own heritage so much that they grovel to Islam just because it is other.

Posted by: Lou Gots at February 23, 2006 3:42 PM

...the Labour party's shibboleth of "the hungry thirties" is demolished in a few words: it was a time when, in truth, "most English people were enjoying a richer life than any previously known in the history of the world: longer holidays, shorter hours, higher real wages."

It's the Democratic Party's shibboleth today, about the US economy, and no more accurate. Socialists and intellectuals have been more or less the same everywhere and in every one of the last ten decades.

Posted by: ZF at February 23, 2006 3:44 PM

Having no heritage any longer they grovel to a superior one.

Posted by: oj at February 23, 2006 3:55 PM

Harry's favorite WWII historian.

Posted by: joe shropshire at February 23, 2006 10:28 PM

Or anyone else who essentially approved of Stalin.

Posted by: oj at February 23, 2006 11:41 PM

OJ:

Do you remember if Harry ever said anything nice about Hobsbawm? I'd be interested in reading that.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at February 23, 2006 11:57 PM

He was usually careful enough not to embrace open Marxists/Socialists, though certainly the most revealing thing he ever said was that Hitler had an advantage over the U.S. because he'd made Germany Socialist.

Posted by: oj at February 24, 2006 12:04 AM

OJ:

I remember hearing him say something along those lines but I'd forgotten how funny it was to hear it!

The thing I found astonishing about Harry -- and I think you noticed it too -- was how his opinions were almost exactly the sort of thing one would hear from a typical well-educated liberal of 65 or 70 years ago.

(Just to reference the above, John Kenneth Galbraith once wrote a celebrated essay in which he argued that Hitler's Keynesian policies greatly improved Germany's economy, which was essentially Harry's position.)

Posted by: Matt Murphy at February 24, 2006 12:16 AM

Well, it isn't much of a leap from praising the Red Army to saying that the street cars in Moscow ran on time.

Harry's yearning for the 1930s was always so strong. I'm surprised he doesn't live in Vermont.

Posted by: jim hamlen at February 24, 2006 2:16 AM

Matt:

The thing about Harry and his ilk is that they are the kind of people they claim to despise, having never critically examined any of the assumptions of the intellectual class. It's not that they're anti-religious in fact, just that they think their own religion and priesthood infallible.

That's what makes Evolutionary Psychology and Just So stories so hilarious is that every single thing can be shoehorned into their dogma somehow.

Posted by: oj at February 24, 2006 8:39 AM

Has anyone here actually read The Origins of WWII? I have read that and The Course of German History.

Regardless of his private life, which until now I had never known or cared to read about, his book on WWII is fascinating. I never felt it reduced Hitler's evil as much as it illuminated the true cravenness of those in Europe who allowed him to dominate.

Posted by: Matt C at February 24, 2006 1:47 PM
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