December 14, 1990
A peculiarity of our time: it is matter — fashion, finance, technology — that is globally mobile, instantaneously inter national, while the products of the spirit— poetry, fiction, philosophy (the real stuff, not Parisian “theory”) — are comparatively local and slow to migrate. Political criticism is bound to be local and particular as well, though this didn’t prevent American intellectuals a generation ago from eagerly following the polemics of Sartre and Camus, Koestler and Merleau- Ponty. Today few Americans — fewer than ought to, anyway—know the writing of R.W.Johnson and Hans Magnus Enzensberger, two of Europe’s best political critics.
Johnson is a young Oxford historian who’s written books on South Africa, the 20th-century French left, economic recessions since World War II, and the KAL-007 episode. Many though by no means all of the pieces in his new collection, “Heroes and Villains”, reflect those professional concerns, and most of them first appeared in the “London Review of Books”, to my mind the most interesting journal in the English- speaking world. Enzensberger is a German poet and playwright, editor of the journal “Kursbuch” and all-around gadfly of the Federal Republic, very much including the West German left.
Johnson’s style is empirical, direct, dryly witty. Enzensberger’s is ironic, whimsical, meditative. Both are generous with anecdotes, but Johnson’s are almost always historical, Enzensberger’s personal. Enzensberger is a prime specimen of what Russell Jacoby (in “The Last Intellectuals”) usefully labeled the ‘public intellectual” and declared a vanishing species, at least in the United States. Johnson exemplifies a different, though almost equally sparse, category: the literate academic.
There are far more villains than heroes in Johnson’s book. But Reagan, Thatcher, Jean Le Pen, J. Edgar Hoover and the rest of this rogues’ gallery are not merely execrated, they’re explicated. Sneers, fulminations and cheap laughs are scarce; instead we get passages like this one (from a review of Garry Wills’ “Reagan’s America”), which combine historical synthesis with political judgment, dispassionate analysis with passionate criticism:
“It may not, in fact, matter very much who wins the next American presidential election, or indeed the one after that. Maybe we should be thinking, not of 1988 or 1992, but of 1996. America has no real alternative to continuing imperial decline: the big questions are simply how fast and how peacefully…As the American debt grows, the choice will become stark: paying off the debt— or, more realistically, never paying more than the interest on the debt — will require either large tax increases, or a deep recession, or a huge inflations. The American public will vote for inflation, as the least painful solution: somewhere out there in the years to come, there is a giant inflation of almost Weimar proportions waiting to happen. But the banks will hate that, as will virtually all the other business interests (including the arms manufacturers) who are full voting members of the American democracy The people’s candidate, if such there be, will thus find him or herself fighting for inflation against a probably unbeatable combination of the haves. We have seen all this before, of course — in the great Populist crusade of 1896, when William Jennings Bryan unforgettably complained that the American people were being crucified on a cross of gold. The candidate of 1996 is more likely to phrase his lament in terms of ECUs or yen.”
The left’s usual response to Reaganism is rage or condescension. Understandable, but not as useful as Johnson’s sardonic detachment.
Heroes, too, sometimes elicit stock responses. Even before his recent death, reverence for cultural and social theorist Raymond Williams was virtually a reflex among English and American leftists. There was plenty to admire, of course, but also large streaks of vagueness and sentimentality, as well as a not very admirable reluctance to criticize dogmatically militant union leaders and Labour Party activists. Johnson pokes none-too-gentle fun at Saint Raymond, locating him in “the great tradition of British wooziness” and dismissing his political writings as “repetitive, ritualized, empty and downright evasive.” In the same essay he reviews the career of E.P. Thompson and finds that ‘the comparison [with Williams] goes in favor of Thompson on every count,” political, intellectual and stylistic. But Saint Edward does not escape unscathed: Thompson has developed a galloping case of the Michael Foot syndrome, or dementia Footica. This is a malady with a saddening effect on older men of intelligence who spend too much time haranguing large crowds from windswept podiums. The wind gets into their prose, leveling it down but also inflating it, so that their speeches get longer and longer (the hair is similarly affected).” For those familiar with the persons and prose referred to, this passage is astute as well as amusing.
Johnson does have a few heroes of his own: the French politician Pierre Mendés-France, the English historian A.J.P. Taylor and (with some reservations) the Irish writer Conor Cruise O’Brien. What he admires in them is a certain freedom of spirit, an independent. undoctrinaire intelligence, unconstrained by party loyalty, sectarian allegiance or academic decorum. It is just these qualities that Johnson himself displays in the book’s final section, on South Africa, where he grew up and has occasionally returned to teach. Though his opposition to apartheid is not in doubt, his commentary is free of routine indignation and also of the left’s chronic, disabling fear of giving aid and comfort to the ideological enemy. He is equally candid about the ANC’s wisdom and its opportunism, about Inkatha’s legitimacy and its ferocity, about Winnie Mandela’s courage and her fanaticism, about Desmond Tutu’s pettiness and the frightening cruelty of the revolutionary “children” in the townships. Here and throughout his writing Johnson manages to combine unambiguous moral judgment with subtle strategic and historical analysis — one definition of a good political critic.
Some other definition would have to be found, though, to accommodate Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Johnson is a scholar; one can’t help picking up a lot of information while reading him. Enzensberger is a man of letters; facts are not exactly lacking in his essays, but they serve mainly as background or ballast for his abundant, astonishing impressions and jeux d’esprit. For all Johnson’s accessibility and wit, he is unmistakably an expert Enzensberger is, in the best sense, an amateur his observations presuppose no special knowledge or training, only everyday experiences and open eyes.
“Political Crumbs” is the fifth collection by Enzensberger to appear in English (along with several plays and volumes of poetry). It’s not as ambitious and original as “The Consciousness Industry” (1974), which included influential essays on mass culture, the avant-garde, and contemporary fellow travelers or “tourists of the revolution.” Or as funny and poignant as “Europe, Europe” (1989), a series of reports from less-traveled areas of the continent.
Still, there is plenty of vintage Enzensberger in the new collection. “Ungovernability: Notes From the Chancellor’s Office” is a droll but deep parable about complexity and its implications. ‘“The Highest Stage of Underdevelopment” is a mock-theoretical discussion of “really existing [i.e., Soviet-style] socialism” — perhaps the most unfortunate euphemism of our time. “Reluctant Eurocentrism: A Political Picture Puzzle” is a farewell to Third Worldism, the most recent form of a perennial escapist fantasy. “A Plea for the Home Tutor” outlines a radical — to put it mildly — scheme for decentralizing public education.
As the references to “Eurocentrism” and “really existing socialism” suggest, Enzensberger spends much of his time criticizing the critics. Like Orwell, he writes to and for the left with a savage solicitude, a sarcastic solidarity. If he is somewhat less savage than Orwell, it may be because the characteristic failing of the present-day left is an exasperating naiveté rather than, as in Orwell’s time, a deadly dishonesty. The indiscriminate application of categories like “fascism” and “oppression” often passes for a ‘radical” analysis on the German left (and not only there). Enzensberger shows, without slogans, what a genuinely radical and original analysis of power in the Federal Republic might look like:
“It is more difficult to come to grips with the [current] system of social control than with its predecessor. The reason is that it enjoys the passive, and even in part the active, support of the massive majority of our population. This mass basis rests quite simply on the enormous success of the Federal Republic, a success which the Left has from the start denied or perhaps has not even noticed, although like everyone else they experienced it directly. It has made all Germans—even the poor— its participants and accomplices… No one can escape from this success, which is chiefly but not exclusively economic in nature…Consequently repression and control take on quite new features. They no longer need — or no longer exclusively need — to appeal to the unconscious, to resentment, racial hatred or chauvinism in order to divert the anger of the oppressed by projection; instead they direct everyone’s attention to his own self-interest, which may be short-term but nevertheless corresponds to reality.
Despite the apparently floating, unanchored quality of Enzensberger’s essays, they can penetrate pretty deep, as this passage shows. In his impressionistic, sideways fashion, he usually manages to say something important about ideological twists and historical turns, shifts in popular attitudes and behavior, new forms of control and new possibilities of cooperation. And for all their heterogeneity, these insights somehow add up. They are anchored after all: not by a doctrine but by a sensibility, one he shares with “militant journeymen and the bearded prophets, the traveling preachers and the refugees, the generous students and the determined strike leaders of the 19th century” — that is, with “those who brought socialism into the world.” Moral earnestness and imaginative gaiety: there’s another definition of the good political critic. Enzensberger’s kind.
I don’t mean to leave the impression that Johnson and Enzensberger have nothing more in common than their Europeanness and their location somewhere on the left. They share another quality, the most important one for any sort of critic. Integrity, trustworthiness, independence of mind; these are all good enough names for it, though I have always found it hard to characterize this virtue more usefully and precisely.
As it happens, Johnson, in his introduction, succeeds in doing just that. He speaks of Orwell’s “simple detestation of untruth.” It’s not altogether simple, of course, so Johnson elaborates:
“Telling the truth is not just not telling lies about your enemies; it is talking straight to your friends. It means the avoidance of bad faith. What makes this so hard is the politics of solidarity, which applies quite equally on Right and Left. What solidarity politics means is that you have to stay on the same side as this or that group and that therefore you must not say any thing which might embarrass that group or which could possibly be of use to its enemies. Crucially, it means observing certain necessary silences and not being right too soon.”
It is hard, for just those reasons. Or well’s example makes it a little easier. So do Johnson’s and Enzensberger’s.