THE MARXIST REVIEW OF BOOKS
Alan Harding on how a Tory academic has exposed the
illiberal prejudice of the liberal intelligentsia
The fear of the masses
The Intellectuals and the Masses is a great read. John Carey is enthusiastic
in praise and scorn. The text is shot through with insight and humour. And
the Merton professor of English has got something to say. Carey is a lifetime
Oxford don. He has, however, always been out- side the charmed circle of
social connection that is endemic in Oxford life. He is immune from the
precious aestheticism that pervades Oxford English studies.
- The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice among
the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939, John Carey, Faber &
Faber, £14.99 hbk, £5.99 pbk
Alongside his academic position (studies on Dickens, Thackeray and Donne)
he has a reputation for plain speaking amounting to a vendetta against intellectuals.
After all, runs the argument, he is chief book reviewer for the Murdoch
Sunday Times - he must be a philistine! This philistine is so old-fashioned,
they say, that he is still fighting the alliance of High Modernism and High
Society from the corner of a saloon bar.
With this confrontational background it is not surprising that Carey's latest
book met with almost universal hostility in the 'quality' press. Carey has
executed a scathing attack on the attitude of intellectuals to the masses.
- 'Anti-intellectualism has always been available on tap in the saloon
bar, of course, but it is sad to find a professor of English who is so desperately
keen to buy his round.'
- (S Collini, Times Higher Educational Supplement, 17 July 1992)
'The intellectuals could not, of course, actually prevent the masses from
attaining literacy. But they could prevent them reading literature by making
it too difficult for them to understand-and this is what they did. The early
twentieth century saw a determined effort, on the part of the. European
intelligentsia, to exclude the masses from culture. In England this movement
has become known as modernism.' (p16)
This is John Carey's sin: he has exposed the most grotesque prejudices against
the common people held by the leading lights of the literary intelligentsia.
In this book you will read that Flaubert thought that 'the mass, the herd
will always be despicable' (p5), and that this hatred is shared by all of
the sensitive, literary people in various degrees. The contempt for the
masses is not restricted to their numbers, but extended to every aspect
of working class life. Elementary education is despised by TS Eliot and
DH Lawrence for 'lowering our standards' (p15) and producing what Aldous
Huxley called 'the New Stupid' (p18). The growth of the popular press was
denounced by FR Leavis and Evelyn Waugh for the same reasons. Underlying
the detestation of mass literacy and of mass- circulation newspapers is
an opposition to democracy, premised upon the idea that the masses are not
to be trusted with too much knowledge.
Even tinned food became a hallmark of everything cheap and vulgar about
the clerks from Croydon. Carey lists characters in the works of EM Forster,
TS Eliot, John Betjeman, Graham Greene, HG Wells who are all damned to mediocrity
by enjoying a can of 'Deep Sea Salmon' or pineapple chunks. To the sculptor
Eric Gill, Bird's Custard Powder was a blasphemy, while George Orwell wrote
in The Road to Wigan Pier that 'we may find in the long run that
tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine gun' (pp21-22).
I have quoted the reaction of Stefan Collini in the Times Higher Education
Supplement above. In the Independent Jonathan Keates wrote that
this book was 'an apology for the vendetta conducted against our culture...by
the Baroness of Finchley, whose idea of a good book was The Day of the
James Wood, chief literary critic at the Guardian, moved through
spleen - 'This is, in places, a vulgar book that did not have to be so'
- to attempt a critique. Wood takes issue with what he terms Carey's introduction
of moralism into his criticism. 'His reviews, though often intelligent,
have a strange absence of literary argument- moralism does the work instead.'
Here Wood puts his finger on an important discussion and then gets it all
wrong. The problem with Carey's book is not that it is insufficiently literary,
but that it is inadequately social. He does not see the intellectual debate
about the masses as a consequence of wider conflicts in society.
The text which is the touchstone for Carey's critique, and the influence
of which he traces, is the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset's
The Revolt of the Masses. The central tenet of this work is that
order and civilisation are overwhelmed when any concession is made to democracy.
The agent of this unrest are the unlettered masses. The result is that disaster
is loosed upon the world.
This argument started life as the ultramontane reaction to the French Revolution-the
apology for the feudal order. However by the end of the nineteenth century,
as Carey well describes, Gasset's irrational sentiments had a wider influence
in the bourgeois world. However different some of the key writers in Carey's
study are in many respects (contrast. for example TS Eliot and DH Lawrence),
they shared a contempt for democracy and the common man; and they sought
refuge from an unpleasant present in elitism and mythic pasts.
Carey has the seed of a good idea that never germinates. His description
of a literary conspiracy to exclude the majority, although unmediated, is
a fair enough description of an attitude. It is not an analysis. It gives
no context or historical genesis for why these ideas should have become
Behind the loathing is fear of the masses. This motif in bourgeois thought
emerges in the last third of the nineteenth century and becomes more pertinent
in the first half of this century. It is a reaction to the growing sense
that the capitalist system is spinning out of control. The bourgeoisie's
sense of its own historical mission and capacity to sustain economic and
social progress is under- mined by material dislocation, political rivalries
and barbaric military conflict.
The bourgeois order cannot hold itself responsible for these catastrophes
and the despair they induce. The response of the ruling class and its intellectual
elite is to blame the modern world itself and the uncivilised nature of
the working class for the crisis of the capitalist system. Technical innovation
is seen as the explanation for the end of civilisation. The potential agents
of human progress- the working masses-are denounced as the fountainhead
Set in the context of such an outrageous inversion, it is legitimate for
Carey, or anyone else, to hold Lawrence accountable for his reactionary
jottings (though unpleasant opinions do not preclude good writing) and to
draw wider implications. So Carey quotes this letter of Lawrence's to Blanche
Jennings from 1908:
'If I had my way, I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace,
with a military band playing softly, and a Cinematograph working brightly;
then I'd go out in the back streets and main streets and bring them in,
all the sick, the halt, and the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they
would smile me a weary thanks; and the band would softly bubble out the
"Hallelujah Chorus"'. (p12)
Lawrence's enthusiasm for gas chambers is not an eccentric or exceptional
response. The Liberal home secretary, Winston Churchill, argued that a similar
programme should become government policy before the First World War. Such
theories of racial superiority and eugenics were the common sense of the
ruling classes until discredited by the experience of the Holocaust. In
the last decade of our century, however, such ideas are not scorned in the
same way and have more resonance in society than they have had for 50 years.
This is why Carey's book is important and substantially correct, although
I have a number of differences with his conclusions.
Carey leaves James Joyce half aside in his condemnation of the literary
'Can we say, then, that in Ulysses mass man is redeemed?...To a degree,
yes. One effect of Ulysses is to show that mass man matters, that
it is worthwhile to record his personal details on a prodigious scale. And
yet it is also true that Bloom himself would never and could never have
read Ulysses or a book like Ulysses. ' (p20)
Why should we accept the passive assumption that nobody other than intellectuals
will ever read Ulysses. A point well made by Blake Morrison in the
Independent on Sunday: Carey 'does not seem to have noticed ... that,
in an age when crowds clamour to see Picasso exhibitions his idea that ordinary
people can't appreciate modernism carries its own sort of condescension'.
In fact, Carey is more sensible than his comments on Ulysses imply.
He senses the limitations of any analysis which seeks to counterpose a high
art that is impenetrable and a popular art that is about soaps and chocolate
boxes. Artistic reproduction which is challenging to a Leopold Bloom is
not a problem; art as a private language of the practitioners is, since
it makes communication impossible.
Art confined to experts and dross for popular consumption are both the results
of art being a commodity in capitalist society. This situation cannot be
resolved in the aesthetic sphere. Yet it precipitates endless artistic 'crises'
plus absurd debates between exponents of high and popular culture. In the
aesthetic sphere good work and the ability of millions to appreciate it
is not precluded, just difficult.
Carey's perspective is too limited to English modernism. This has the unfortunate
effect of closing the study to the many great modernist authors from dos
Passos to Doblin who celebrate the teeming creativity of modern life as
well as investigating the darker corners of our century.
More importantly, the English setting leads Carey to counterpose the clerk
and the suburb to the elitist project. The real fear was not of the clerk
(who, as Carey points out, was often the social base of jingoist politics),
but of the working class and the city. This is absent from Carey's study.
It is a literary omission but more seriously a social one. It prevents Carey
from establishing a context in which his insights can have a meaning.
In conclusion what are Carey's strengths and weaknesses? The best way to
do Carey justice is to quote the driest of dry put downs of George Steiner
which simultaneously nails the irrationality of the thought expressed.
'So how can the intellectual's preferences be vindicated? How can the natural
aristocrat establish his aristocracy? At this point Steiner, like Huxley,
invites God to step in ....
'Steiner, then, forcibly recruits God as a cultural adjudicator, whose job
is to vouch for those examples of art that intellectuals prize. What art,
if any, God might like, Steiner does not inquire, and has no means of knowing
(though if it is the biblical God he has in mind the divine prejudice against
graven images suggests artistic priorities incompatible with those of Western
intellectuals like Steiner).' (p90)
On the down side, the biggest problem is Carey's inability deal with the
social implications of his own argument except in the narrow sense that
I have indicated. Indeed this is the result of Carey's own commitment to
a more conservative project. His is an old Tory argument: that the nest
yeomen are the defenders of the moral and cultural values of middle England,
while only the chattering classes are interested in social reform. We can
agree with Carey that the clerk and the shopkeeper on the Clapham omnibus
should not be the butt of snobbish jokes. But neither should they be eulogised
as the model to which we should aspire.
The government of Helmut Kohl has just advised an American airbase in Germany
that stocking Hitler's Mein Kampf in the bookshop is against the
law. Only scholarly editions of the book are available to read under the
supervision of a library.
- Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler, Pimlico,
Mein Kampf, just reprinted in English, remains steeped in controversy
because it is widely interpreted as a programme of Hitler's intentions,
and the plan he realised in the Third Reich and the 'final solution'. The
current German government's caution about allowing access to the book is
supported by the argument that Mein Kampf is both a plan for world domination
and a handbook of scientific racism and genocide. Such a book, say the authorities,
ought not be in the hands of the untutored.
Of course one might suspect that American servicemen take a certain glee
in reminding their German hosts of the past, while they in turn are embarrassed
about the book. All the same the interpretation of Mein Kampf as
a programme is shared by such eminent historians as Joachim Fest, Ernst
Nolte and Hugh Trevor-Roper. It is not, however, an interpretation that
the book itself will bear out.
Far from being the master plan of an evil genius, Mein Kampf is a
chaotic ragbag of common or garden racial prejudice and reactionary mysticism.
But for the events that followed, Mein Kampf would have been quickly
relegated to the bargain bins. The interpretation of the book as a programme
suggests that the descent into war and racism that followed was the conscious
plan of one man. In fact, militarism and racial politics were commonplace,
not just in Germany, but throughout the Western world. Today the former
Allies who fought against Germany would rather forget that it was they who
had already carved up the globe and written a racial policy for the colonies,
long before Hitler put pen to paper. Nazism was only a more brutal form
of Western capitalist politics.
Would that Hitler's racism were extraordinary. Many of his prejudices remain
unchallenged today. Hatred of the Slavs, for example, runs through the book.
First Hitler distrusts the left for their undue sympathy for the Slavs (p37),
then he trembles with excitement at the news that the assassins of the Archduke
Ferdinand have been named as Serbs: At last 'the overwhelming majority of
the nation...no longer believed in a peaceful conclusion of the Austro-Serbian
conflict, but hoped for the final settlement' (p148).
Mein Kampf fails to anticipate British opposition to Germany's eastern
expansion because Hitler thought the policy was complementary to British
colonial policy: 'no sacrifice would have been too great to win England's
willingness. We should have renounced colonies and sea-power, and spared
English industry our competition.' (p129) Even where conflict with Britain
seems inevitable, Hitler clings to the solidarity of the Western powers
against the 'fantastic new invention', 'the league of oppressed nations'
(p601). He insists 'that I, as a man of Germanic blood, would, in spite
of everything, rather see India under English rule than any other' (p601).
Indeed, amid the reactionary climate of racial hatred and militarism of
his day, the only extraordinary thing about the book is that Hitler's purple
prose could be confused with a plan of action. Rather than being a cool
and calculating work Mein Kampf gushes with adolescent patriotism, as here
on the outbreak of the 1914-18 war:
'It often seemed to me almost a sin to shout hurrah perhaps without the
inner right to do so; for who had the right to use this word without having
proved it in the place where all playing is at an end and the inexorable
hand of the Goddess of Destiny begins to weigh peoples and men according
to the truth and steadfastness of their convictions? Thus my heart, like
that of a million others, overflowed with proud joy that at last I would
be able to redeem myself from this paralysing feeling.' (p149)
The principal effect of the suppression of Mein Kampf is not to prevent
the resurgence of fascism. Instead the taboo about the book preserves the
myth that fascism was a grotesque aberration from Western political norms.
This reprint only shows that Mein Kampf was characteristic of the racial
thinking and militarism of its day, the effect, and not the cause of those
The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice, Gilbert Adair,
Fourth Estate, £14 99 hbk
In defence of his title, Adair writes: 'quotation is very much the name
of the postmodernist rose'. While punning on James M Cain's Postman, he
name-drops the Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. His opening essay ('The
postmodernist always rings twice') is part-celebration, part-condemnation
of a world where quote and counter-quote have replaced argument and counter-argument.
The remainder of this volume is comprised of previously published articles.
Some subjects require a light touch, but these minor pieces are so flimsy
they need to be bound together in hardback to prevent the slightest breeze
blowing them away.
There is more substance in the opening essay, which characterises 'l'air
du temps' I as a 'transitional period' of 'retrenchment rather than
experiment'. In this context, Adair asserts, 'art...is a private matter'
between, for example, the writer and his individual reader; whereas 'culture...public
and gregarious...might be described as the permanent campaign by which the
arts are promoted'. He concludes that the emphasis on talking about art
('culture'), and the subsequent devaluation of art itself, are negative
side-effects of what Umberto Eco called 'hyper-reality'-the postmodern condition.
Adair's art-culture divide is specious: art has never existed outside society.
Nowadays the frothy gossip surrounding art does seem to have acquired undue
significance, but Adair should consider whether this is due to the relative
lack of substance in contemporary art. If he really wanted to take issue
with the culturati and their preoccupation with surface, he could have posed
a more fundamental question: isn't talking about nothing but art (and consequently
turning everything else into a matter of style) an index of a society without
direction, dynamism, or depth of knowledge?
The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multi-cultural
Society, Arthur M Schlesinger Jr, WW Norton, £10.95 hbk
Arthur Schlesinger comes with many recommendations. According to the dust
jacket, he was a special adviser to president John F Kennedy from 1961-64
(to little avail, I would imagine, after November 1963), taught at Harvard
and has won two Pulitzer prizes. Schlesinger hopes to alert 'the great silent
majority of professors' to the fragmentary dangers implicit in the gospel
of separateness and political correctness. He warns that America's fate
may be like that of the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia unless the 'virus of
tribalism' is checked. The book is impressively written, and, in places,
very well observed. However, calling it 'courageous', as the Publishers'
Weekly does, exaggerates the danger of multi-culturalism at a time when
every other liberal-turned-conservative and his dog has turned on it.
Schlesinger's best points are made in a chapter entitled 'History the weapon'
that recalls many of the points Frank Füredi raised in his recent book
Mythical Past, Elusive Future. Schlesinger attacks 'Afro-centrism',
the promotion of African perspectives, culture and especially history as
'compensatory history'. He notes that Irish Americans, excluded from the
mainstream of American life in the nineteenth century promoted such facts
as that the continental army was 76 per cent Irish, or that Washington's
closest friends were priests and nuns. As the Irish came to be included
in American society these myths disappeared. Thus Afro-centric assertions,
such as the one that Beethoven was black, express frustration at the inferior
position of blacks in American society today.
However, Schlesinger's preoccupation with defending the status quo stops
him from going any further into the problems that beset America. He asserts
that 'the steady movement of American life has been from exclusion to inclusion'.
Why, then, have blacks, who arrived in America long before most other immigrants,
remained outside of the realms of American life, relegated to the ghettoes,
police harassment and attacks, poverty and shorter lives? Schlesinger chooses
to avoid this obvious question.
Despite his perceptive critique of Afro-centrism and constructed history
in general, Schlesinger can only replace the myths he tears down with an
even longer-standing myth, the 'American Creed'. This he says has united
Americans in the past and should do so in the future. But no 'American Creed'
or any other ideological concepts separate from the material promise of
equal participation can mean anything to anyone except the wilfully self-deluding.
In the end, the tone of this book is of somebody desperate to convince himself
of his own argument.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 50, December 1992