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Pride and Fall

‘Number one: stay close to the Americans’, said Boris Johnson in his last Commons address as prime minister, echoing Churchill’s verdict on the wreckage of UK statecraft in the Suez Crisis. Anatol Lieven at the Quincy Institute thought Johnson’s advice to his successor superfluous, given the strength of the Atlanticist consensus at Westminster. The Washington Examiner, on the other hand, detected a dig at leadership contender Rishi Sunak for being ‘soft’ on China.

Stay close to the Americans: but at the same time, know your place. ‘Truss learns the hard way that Britain isn’t America’, reads a Financial Times headline after the market turmoil prompted by Kwasi Kwarteng’s unofficial budget last Friday. ‘Britain is in trouble because its elite is so engrossed with the US as to confuse it for their own nation’, argues FT associate editor Janan Ganesh, who goes on to point out the positional differences: sterling isn’t a major reserve currency anymore; UK producers don’t have simple access to a continental market since Brexit; gilts aren’t Treasuries. In these circumstances, Kwarteng’s back-of-an-envelope, rolling programme of debt-financed tax cuts – ‘Reaganism without the dollar’, Ganesh calls it – presumes too much.

The week’s events bring to mind the historian Correlli Barnett’s trenchant commentaries on British decline and lingering great-power reflexes. Tory Britain in the 1950s was an American satellite ‘posturing as an equal’, he argued in The Verdict of Peace (2001). It was a characteristically sharp turn of phrase from Barnett, who died recently at the age of 95. Few public intellectuals in Britain have questioned national shibboleths so trenchantly and doggedly as he did, from a conservative perspective, over a long career of book-publishing and commentary. His obituary in the Guardian described him as controversial – nothing worse than that – while The Times was puzzled by the ferocity of his attacks on the Establishment, since ‘it was not as if life had dealt him a poor hand.’

He was born near Croydon, on the south-eastern approach to London, in 1927. His father, who worked for an American bank, named him after the Baroque composer. Croydon was an early Luftwaffe target in 1940 on account of its aerodrome and Barnett recalled as a schoolboy listening to the drone of enemy bombers, the barrage of anti-aircraft fire, ‘the whistle and crash of nearby bombs that rocked the house’. He took a second in modern history at Oxford, his special subject the theory of war. National Service was spent with the Intelligence Corps in British-mandate Palestine as it conducted sweeps for underground Zionist paramilitaries. There he witnessed the bloody aftermath of the bombing of the British Officers’ Club in Jerusalem (‘the corpses lying on slabs in the morgue, spittle still bubbling out of their mouths’) by the Irgun group of future Likud prime minister Menachem Begin.

Civilian life in the fifties proved anti-climactic: a graduate traineeship at the North Thames Gas Board, then a job in public relations. He recalled ‘stretching a little effort over a long day’, pouring his energies into a novel instead, The Hump Organisation (1957), which charted the progress of an Oxford graduate at a sleepy industrial conglomerate in the Cheshire countryside, in the manner of a Boulting brothers farce. But his true métier became apparent with The Desert Generals (1960), a history of the North African theatre in the Second World War – ‘war in its purest form’, across the arid plains. Barnett took aim at outsize British veneration of Montgomery, hero of Alamein. Strong sales enabled him to quit his desk job for freelance writing, topped up with consultancy work for the BBC.

A second war book, The Swordbearers (1963), sympathetically narrated the experience of four First World War commanders-in-chief – von Moltke, Jellicoe, Pétain and Ludendorff – as they grappled with high command in an era of mass mobilisation. ‘War is the great auditor of institutions’, Barnett observed, a theme to which he would return. In Britain and Her Army (1970) meanwhile, he mounted a ‘hazardously long march’ from Tudor abolition of private armies of retainers to the Wilson government’s 1967 white paper liquidating British deployments east of Suez. ‘A history of the institution that the British have always been reluctant to accept that they needed’, Britain and Her Army regarded colonial retrenchment as imperative but complained that Whitehall appeared to regard troops stationed in western Europe as just ‘a plate-glass window’ to trigger the nuclear alarm, should the Russians attempt to break in. Greater strategic flexibility was called for.

Then came The Collapse of British Power (1972), the opening instalment of his Pride and Fall quartet, a sweeping historical polemic of twentieth-century British decline. Barnett reached back to the post-Napoleonic era to trace Britain’s long descent into a ‘bankrupt American pensioner’ under Lend-Lease in 1941–42. Imperial overstretch and a liberal national culture had blocked the concerted programme of industrial renewal needed to counter Germany’s rise after 1871. Conventional balance-of-power considerations reasserted themselves in 1914 but a laissez-faire governing elite afterwards allowed economic modernisation to lapse, as moralising internationalism reached new heights in the ‘pseudo-religion’ of the League of Nations. England at last recovered the flinty resolve of its best mercantilist days when the Second World War was upon it, but Churchill failed to plan beyond victory, mortgaging the future to a rising American superpower that didn’t reciprocate his misty-eyed infatuation. US loans papered over the dilapidated state of the country’s heavy-industrial base, flattering to deceive about its wartime record, argued volume two, The Audit of War (1986). The UK was ‘not so much a victor in her own right’ in 1945 ‘as simply on the winning side’.

The Lost Victory (1995) homed in on the record of the post-war Attlee government, by and large classical-liberal in outlook, which failed to retool the economy before European and Japanese competitors recovered from wartime devastation. Britain’s large helping of Marshall Aid instead leaked overseas into the Sterling Area and troop deployments as far afield as Burma, Malaya and Hong Kong, while ‘New Jerusalem’ liberals like Beveridge prioritised welfare and housing over the productive economy (a policy of ‘parlours before plant’). The Verdict of Peace (2001), the concluding volume, surveyed the years of resumed Conservative rule between the Korean War and Suez Crisis which cemented a ‘fateful pattern of national overambition coupled with industrial underperformance’. In only four decades since the First World War, the country had blown its position as the most powerful industrial machine in Europe through the hangover of Victorian liberalism, a failure to implement technical educational training, and the pretensions of a world role.

In each volume, the damning judgements flow uninterruptedly for a hundred pages or more without so much as a section break. They rest on realist assumptions about an anarchic state system: ‘small “l” liberalism might be desirable in friend but serves ill as a guide to a nation’s total strategy in a ruthless world of struggle.’ Paul Addison described Barnett in the LRB as ‘probably the only modern British historian whose creed is Bismarckian nationalism’. Barnett certainly benchmarked British inertia against Wilhelmine Germany’s rapid industrialisation, and his anti-liberalism and emphasis on total strategy may have had a Prussian air. All the same, the epithet doesn’t capture the oppositional quality of Barnett’s elite-patriotic politics, for which Gaullist might be a closer fit. He envied France its home-made nuclear deterrent and the greater freedom-of-action this afforded, arguing in The Times in March 1982 against the Thatcher government’s purchase of Trident nuclear missiles from the Pentagon.

The eighties were Barnett’s years of highest public prominence. Keith Joseph and Nigel Lawson, secretaries of state under Thatcher, both cited his various diatribes against welfarism, industrial mismanagement and liberal-arts bias in the state-education system. But the author retained his dissenting cast of mind, deflating Falklands triumphalism with a call to drastically curtail the Royal Navy’s high-seas role and to ‘shed such unprofitable bits of [imperial] pink in good time’. Within the academy, David Edgerton opposed Barnett’s account of industrial archaism within the state-military complex and Jose Harris deflated his claims about the novelty and profligacy of the Beveridge-Attlee welfare state, while the economist-mandarin Sir Alec Cairncross shrugged that bolder government action was unlikely to arrest the spiral of relative economic decline.

A critic of nineties ‘humanitarian interventionism’, Barnett likened Blair to a Victorian proconsul and contrasted his unctuous liberal rhetoric to the worldly self-interest of prime ministers past: Walpole’s policy of non-engagement in the War of the Polish Succession (‘50,000 men slain this year in Europe, and not one Englishman’) and Castlereagh’s scepticism about Holy Alliance plans for carte-blanche counter-revolutionary action. NATO’s 1999 air war against Serbia and semi-permanent occupation of Kosovo was ‘money better spent on our own health service, education and training, and sink housing estates’. The War on Terror which followed exaggerated the threat from ‘a scattering of bedsit plotters with homemade bombs’. Bush and Blair’s grounds for attacking Iraq were obviously spurious and illegal, and their invasion spread death and mutilation far beyond Baathist prisons and execution sites. The US assaults on Fallujah (‘mini-Stalingrads’) were more destructive than Saddam’s 1988 gas attack on Halabja. Like the Afghan occupation, the Iraqi campaign had merely opened up a long Western flank to guerrilla attack. The only thing to be done was withdraw, and avoid further such entanglements with US foreign policy.

Irate at Cameron’s support for Blair’s wars, Barnett demanded in the Tory Spectator magazine in 2006: ‘The Conservatives believe in personal independence, why not national independence in foreign policy?’ The American link had lost its strategic value with the demise of the Soviet Union, he argued, and become ‘potentially dangerous to British interests so long as American policy is run by narrow technocrats with juvenile political understanding like Rumsfeld, and religious zealots like Cheney and Bush who see world affairs as a Manichean conflict between good and evil’. Barnett regarded Russia’s 2008 rout of the Georgian incursion into South Ossetia as a reversion to nineteenth-century Realpolitik rather than a new Cold War, and considered Bush a greater threat to world peace than Putin. What might have been his take on the latter’s invasion of Ukraine – European, but outside NATO? Johnson rushed headlong to sanction Europe’s largest gas exporter without first reopening the UK’s only gas-storage facility, closed in 2017 in blithe assurance of a ready supply on the open market: a penny for your thoughts on that piece of statecraft, Correlli.

British pomp and British realities: the Johnson government announced an ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ on American lines in the 2021 integrated defence review and despatched the nation’s new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, to rattle sabres in the South China Sea, causing consternation in some quarters of Washington. Its sister ship, HMS Prince of Wales, is struggling with technical problems at the moment and can’t travel further from port than the Isle of Wight. At what point, asked Barnett apropos the 1953 coronation, is the line crossed from moral reassurance to flattery of prideful illusions?

Read on: Tom Hazeldine, ‘The Family Firm’, NLR 75.

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Anti-Liberal

A well-known member of the British left once discovered to his surprise that several of his socialist friends, including myself, had all attended the same school. We weren’t, however, public schoolboys in flight from our privileged backgrounds; nor was the school the kind of place where you call the teachers Nick and Maggie and are encouraged to have sex on the floor of the assembly hall. It was a Roman Catholic grammar school in Manchester, run by an obscure order of clerics, and like most Catholic schools in Britain its pupils were almost all descendants of Irish working-class immigrants.

There have been a number of prominent Catholics on the British left, most of them what the church would call ‘lapsed’. To be lapsed is less a matter of ceasing to be a Catholic than a particular way of being one – a fairly honorific way, in fact, which includes such luminaries as Graham Greene and Seamus Heaney. The result is that nobody can ever leave the Catholic church; instead, they are simply shuttled from one category to another, rather as a retired Brigadier is still a Brigadier. The political philosopher Raymond Geuss confesses in his latest book, Not Thinking like a Liberal, that his religious upbringing failed to make him even a bad Catholic; yet bad Catholics are what the lapsed really are, often productively so. They can be heretics in the truth, to use John Milton’s phrase. Geuss may not go along with the church on such minor matters as the existence of God, but he insists that none of his fundamental attitudes have changed since his schooldays, which the clerics who taught him would no doubt be delighted to hear. As a staunch anti-liberal, he remains a bad Catholic to the end.

Catholics who become leftists don’t tend to do so simply by way of reaction to a right-wing, deeply authoritarian set up. Nor is it that they are predisposed by their upbringing to left-wing sects which like the church believe themselves to be the sole proprietors of truth, and which have their own secular version of schisms, heresies and even popes. It is rather that you can move from Catholicism to Marxism without having to pass through liberalism. To be raised a Catholic is to have no feel for liberal individualism. Catholics are not impressed by the sovereign autonomous subject. In fact, like Geuss, they are far too little impressed by it. They think instead in corporate terms, and are instinctively ill at ease with Protestant inwardness and solitude. The more positive side of ritual observances is that what matters is what you do, not some inner angst or ecstasy. Catholics also hold that human existence is an institutional affair, and is thus inherently social. Nor are they rattled by the idea of doctrine, or even of dogma, which they understand in its original sense as meaning whatever is taught. Reason has its limits; but it is not an inherently corrupt facility, as radical Protestantism claims, and within its constraints one must argue and analyse as precisely as possible. Endless open-mindedness is to be admonished rather than admired. The truth will set you free. The late left-wing theologian Herbert McCabe once told an Anglican bishop that the difference between the two of them on a certain issue was not a matter of emphasis, but that he, McCabe, was right and the bishop was wrong. Or, he added, if he is right, then I am wrong. It is an authentically Catholic note.

To be a Catholic in Britain is to grow up aware that you are a semi-outsider, and thus to be slightly wary of social orthodoxy. An Irish heritage is likely to intensify this sense of exclusion. The Catholic church in this country still has a lively sense of a history of persecution, though more as the object of such bigotry than the subject of it. Some Catholics refer to themselves jocularly as Papists, in the same way that gay men and women may call themselves Queer. All this, too, can shift some of its members leftwards, not least because they will have absorbed at school something of the church’s social teaching. This is hardly revolutionary stuff, but it is scarcely pro-capitalist either. On the contrary, a series of papal encyclicals have denounced the unbridled pursuit of profit and the injustices of class-society. It is probably no accident that Bono and Bob Geldof are both Irish ex-Catholics. They would have heard a good deal about overseas missions to the poor in their most impressionable years. Like socialists, Catholics are internationally-minded. There is a sense in which a Catholic from Canada speaks the same language as one from Korea.

Raymond Geuss’s family were not Irish emigrants; his mother was from Pennsylvania and his father from Indiana. Yet he, too, imbibed a suspicion of liberalism from his private Catholic boarding school near Philadelphia (which notably was staffed in large part by Hungarian priests, among them post-1956 refugees), a gut feeling which was later to be philosophically elaborated at Columbia University. Not Thinking like a Liberal interweaves an account of his upbringing as the son of a steelworker and a secretary with pen portraits of three university teachers whose critiques of liberalism helped him theorise his schoolboy intuitions in secular terms. His school, he argues, managed to steer a path between liberalism and authoritarianism. Rather than being obsessed with sex and scholasticism in the usual Catholic manner, it was a civilised milieu in which the names of Sartre, Camus, Nietzsche and Freud were not unknown. My own alma mater was rather less urbane. When I asked for studies of Hobbes, Spinoza, Hume and Kant in the form of Speech Day prizes, I was refused them on the grounds that all four philosophers were on the Vatican’s Index of forbidden books, and was handed instead a work of excruciating tedium by an elderly Irish Jesuit.

It is refreshing to find a portrait of a Catholic school which diverges from the brutal Joycean stereotype; but if the anti-liberalism of the place is typical of such establishments, one doubts that the same is true of its anti-authoritarianism. My own clerical headmaster, a borderline psychopath whose only distinction was to have grown up in the same small Irish town as Henry James’s grandfather, not only thrashed us mercilessly but gave the distinct impression that he would have done the same to the teaching staff if he could have got away with it. During the last hours of his life, his fellow clerics refused to gather around his deathbed to recite the customary prayers for the dying. One suspects that Geuss had it easy.

What he learnt from his religion teacher was that no individual is truly independent and free-standing; that we have no spontaneous access to our inner selves; and that the good is neither available through mere introspection nor reducible to what individuals happen to want. His mentor, in short, was a moral realist, a position perhaps more popular then than it is now. There are, he maintained, moral and religious questions which could not be reduced to matters of taste, choice or opinion, and not all values and opinions were to be tolerated. It was a mistake to think of Christianity as a theory formulated as a book. It was rather a constellation of historical practices, events and institutions in which certain beliefs were embedded, and from which they could not be abstracted. The Protestant fetishism of the word (sola scriptura) overlooked its entrenchment in what Wittgenstein around the same time was calling forms of life. It assumed a false transparency of the sign, in contrast with a more Catholic insistence on semantic obscurity and the inherent pluralism of the interpretative process. Whatever other intellectual crimes may be laid at Catholicism’s door, fundamentalism, which is essentially a mistaken theory of language, isn’t one of them. Even so, Geuss might have noted the irony that the founder of the art of hermeneutics, Friedrich Schleiermacher, was a Protestant theologian.

As a student of political philosophy at Columbia in the 1960s, Geuss encountered three left-wing critics of the liberalism of which his school had taught him to be sceptical. Robert Paul Wolff, author of In Defense of Anarchism, rejected the liberal idea of a single impartial political framework that could be agree upon by divergent interests and values. Having had access to some of the materials from which John Rawls fashioned A Theory of Justice, he published The Poverty of Liberalism, a critique of Rawls’s work avant la lettre, which notes among other things that in Rawls’s view the most egregious inequalities can be defended on the grounds that the poor would be even worse off without them. Sidney Morgenbesser was a teacher whose casual conversation was so brilliant that one would have ‘paid for admission’; but apart from some suggestive aperçus about the relation between reason and commitment, it is hard to extract an extensive account of his thought from Geuss’s biographical jottings. The same is true of his discussion of the now largely unknown Robert Denoon Cumming.

If Geuss were less suspicious of what he calls ‘world views’, he might acknowledge that one at least of them offers a more dialectical assessment of liberalism than he is willing to countenance. Marx’s attitude to the creed is a supreme example of the virtue of granting your antagonist all you can, which in his case means recognising that autonomy, self-realisation, a hostility to autocracy and the like are part of the substance of socialism rather than an alternative to it. Had Geuss approached his subject historically as well as philosophically, grasping the revolutionary élan of liberalism in the Europe of the ancien regimes, he might have come to see that there is more to it than the prejudices of Rawls. He did, after all, go on from Columbia to study Adorno and Heidegger in Germany; and while reading the former confirmed his distaste for the liberal mind, we hear nothing of how reflecting on the latter might have bred a certain respect for it.

What has remained constant in his thought for fifty years, Geuss informs us in a somewhat foolhardy flourish, is a conviction that ‘the tradition which runs from Locke, through J.S. Mill, to Rawls was not the place to look for insight into anything’. To which one might retort with Millian equipoise that the liberal heritage may be politically ineffective but it is by no means intellectually barren. The book doesn’t really argue a case against the doctrines it dismisses in so cavalier a fashion, but this isn’t the point. It is less an intellectual intervention than a loving tribute to a set of thinkers without who the author wouldn’t be who he is. It is more anecdotal than argumentative; but it is also just the kind of book one should write in one’s retirement, when the cut and thrust of argument has faded, the dust gradually clears and you see in a long retrospect who and what really matters to you.

Read on: John Baptiste-Oduor, ‘A Pragmatist Maverick’, NLR 125.

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Incomparable Friend

Who was Harriet Taylor-Mill?1 Since her death in 1858 her reputation has been overshadowed by that of her world-famous second husband, John Stuart Mill. But her standing was controversial during her lifetime, too. Mill himself did his best to bring her contributions out from the penumbra into which Victorian society had cast them, crediting his ‘incomparable friend’ with a central role in his work, both muse and equal co-author. ‘All my published writings were as much her work as mine’, he wrote in the Autobiography. Key sections of the Principles of Political Economy were ‘entirely due to her’ or ‘wholly an exposition of her thoughts, often in words taken from her own lips’, while On Liberty was ‘directly and literally our joint production’. For old friends like Thomas Carlyle, on the other hand, the young Harriet was an ante diem Yoko Ono, ensnaring the innocent Mill with her radical ideas and breaking up the happy circle of Queen’s Place Benthamites, of which he had been a central figure, to drag him off to isolated Blackheath and Provence.

Mill’s description of their joint work has rarely been taken seriously. To some extent this might be because it is hard to think of great works being ‘authored’ by more than one person, and Mill is such a canonical figure. But there also seems to be at least a whiff of misogyny about it: how could Harriet – how could any woman – really have been Mill’s intellectual equal and collaborator? Central to these evaluations has been the question of her socialist and feminist influence. In his 1951 study, John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor: Their Friendship and Subsequent Marriage, Friedrich Hayek set out to rescue the author of On Liberty from her taint, while attributing to her baleful but fortunately short-lived influence all that is ‘socialist’ in Mill’s work.

More recent – and more feminist – scholarship has aimed to recover her as a canonical figure in the history of political and philosophical thought, exploring her contributions as a thinker in her own right, while also trying to understand the nature of her contribution to ‘Mill’s’ work. In 1998, Indiana University Press brought out a Complete Works of Harriet Taylor-Mill, edited by a professor of philosophy at Millikin University, Jo Ellen Jacobs, which claimed for her a much larger share of ‘Mill’s’ work, as well as early writings which include an 1833 Life of William Caxton.

There are many difficulties in assessing Harriet’s actual contribution to political thought. One problem is that we have very little in her hand from the time before she met Mill: a unique style, completely separate to his, is therefore hard to discern (as noted by scholars addressing the question through stylometric techniques.) There are also very few working manuscripts of any of ‘Mill’s’ works, meaning it is hard to discern two ‘hands’ in the writing (if, indeed, that would be an accurate reflection of their modes of collaboration). During her lifetime, Harriet’s only sole-authored publication was the 23-page essay, ‘The Enfranchisement of Women’ (1851). Even here, though, the final copy sent to the printers is in Mill’s hand. We do know her handwriting, however, and can discern something of an individual ‘voice’ in what manuscripts do survive, mostly preserved in the London School of Economics’ Women’s Library. At least some of them pre-date her life with Mill, even though these are mainly letters, poetry and literary reviews, rather than overtly political or philosophical works. It’s worth pausing to look at their context.

Born in London in 1807, Harriet Hardy was married at eighteen to a well-off pharmaceuticals merchant, John Taylor, some twenty years her senior. Both were members of the Unitarian congregation of William Johnson Fox, a radical orator and editor of the reform-minded Monthly Repository, to which Harriet would contribute. She had borne Taylor two sons and was newly pregnant with their daughter, Helen, when she first met Mill at a dinner in 1831. At 24, Mill had already made a name for himself with articles in the Westminster Review and the Examiner. They shared interests in radical politics, particularly in women’s rights. In early exchanges they discussed the nature of marriage and of reforms to it; around this time Harriet was writing fragmentary (though often relatively long) manuscripts dealing with questions around women’s education, character-formation, political obligation, tolerance and the need for freedom and independence in the face of stultifying public opinion. Her writings reveal a deep-rooted utilitarianist commitment, which was also reflected in the radical choices of her personal life.

Though they may not have instantly fallen in love (or at least admitted that fact to each other, or to themselves), within a year Mill was referring to her as ‘she to whom I have dedicated my life’. Matters with Harriet’s husband came to a head in November 1835, when she left him and went to Paris. Mill joined her, but despite their personal happiness, she ultimately decided that she should return to her husband, though determining not to have sex with him (or Mill), and retaining the liberty of seeing Mill, a situation which continued until her husband’s death in 1849. She married Mill in 1851 – ‘adding to the partnership of thought, feeling and writing, which had long existed, a partnership of our entire existence’, as he put it in the Autobiography – but they enjoyed only seven years together. Harriet had suffered from tuberculosis for some years (as had Mill) and in 1858 suffered a final, fatal haemorrhage in Avignon. Mill bought a house near her grave and was eventually buried with her.

After his death in 1873 their manuscripts, and the copyright of many of their published works, were bequeathed to Helen Taylor, Harriet’s youngest child. Through her, they eventually came to form part of the Women’s Library. Helen herself had become a key part of Mill’s life – he refers to her as the second of the prizes he won in the ‘lottery of life’ – and he must have been a significant figure in hers. She helped Mill with his correspondence, shared his keen interest in botany – there are dried flowers still pressed within the pages of her commonplace books held at LSE – and edited several of Mill’s posthumous publications, notably the Three Essays on Religion and Chapters on Socialism, including translating long extracts from French socialist writings which Mill had quoted in the original language.

Helen was herself a campaigner for women’s rights, education and suffrage, successfully standing as a candidate to the London School Board in 1876. In 1885, she sought the nomination as Liberal candidate for Camberwell North (with another woman, Ethel Leach, acting as her election agent): the first woman to seek election to Parliament. Henry George supported her candidature, and the atheist freethinker George Jacob Holyoake was an active worker on her behalf. As it was not legal for a woman to stand for Parliament, her nomination papers were rejected by the returning officer. She died in 1907, after spending her last decades in the house in Avignon. Her dogged navigation of the publishing world – including lengthy bargaining over her share of any profits – was crucial in helping to curate her mother and stepfather’s literary legacies; her own and her father’s, too.

In the LSE’s Women’s Library, then, under the title ‘Mill-Taylor Collection’ there are papers by John Stuart Mill, Harriet Taylor-Mill, Helen Taylor and John Taylor. The same goes for the Mill Library at Somerville, which also holds books that once belonged to Mill’s father, James, which likewise descended to Helen. At LSE, Box 3 in particular has manuscripts by Harriet Taylor-Mill. They cover a wide range of topics, from political theory (freedom, tolerance, rights, obligation) to feminist thought (women’s education, women’s oppression by social structures, the social construction of gender, the nature of marriage), ethics, the arts and religion. There is also correspondence with both her husbands, her children and some of her friends and relations (not all of it friendly), as well as passports, birth and marriage certificates. The manuscripts show Harriet re-writing pieces several times over until she was happy with them (often at the same time as managing a household with three small children). Many of them remained officially unpublished – indeed, often (as far as we can see) unfinished.

Most of the manuscripts in Box 3 were transcribed and published by Jacobs in the Complete Works. In addition, Jacobs included the chapter from Principles of Political Economy, ‘On the Probable Futurity of the Labouring Classes’, as solely authored by Harriet. This, however, is not in line with Mill’s careful account of its composition. Like other pieces – for instance, the series of articles on violence and oppression co-authored in the 1840s and 1850s – it is more plausible to see this chapter as a collaborative endeavour.

Also bulking up Jacob’s edition of the Complete Works is the lengthy Life of William Caxton, dated by her to 1833. As a result, Harriet is often nowadays said to have written a history of printing by the age of 24, on top of her maternal duties. This work was in fact published in 1828 by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, a group dedicated to producing cheap and accessible reading material for working people. The listed author was William Stevenson. Jacobs notes that the much shorter ‘Caxton’ manuscript (113) in Box 3 bears little resemblance to the finished text, but she claims this is proof that Harriet worked on it a great deal before Caxton’s publication. She makes no mention of Stevenson.

Manuscript 113 itself consists of just four sides of paper, roughly equivalent to A4, water-marked 1826. Three sides are covered in John Taylor’s handwriting. One side is about a quarter covered in his hand, and a quarter in Harriet’s (upside down to his), with the remaining half, between the two, being blank. Even a cursory glance at manuscript 113 shows it to be notes for a book review. It opens with general praise for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, ‘one of whose Publications is now under our review’. The Life of William Caxton is described as a work ‘which will be found equally useful & instructive to those whose means have given them better opportunities of acquiring scientific knowledge’ than the average working man (or woman). Caxton is of interest as ‘the first to introduce printing into England’, an innovation intimately connected with ‘advancement … in knowledge … and happiness’.

The review then goes on to quote at length from Caxton, as well as noting longer extracts with reference to page numbers, which align with extant copies of the 1828 Life. For instance, ‘he had it seems etc. down to Westminster Abbey, page 28’: on p. 28 of Life we find:

He [Caxton] seems to have had a veneration for the memory of this poet [Chaucer], and to have formed, with sound judgement and good taste, a most correct and precise estimate of the peculiar merits of his poetry. As a proof of the former, we may mention, that Caxton at his own expense, procured a long epitaph to be written in honour of Chaucer. This was inscribed on a table, hung on a pillar near the poet’s grave in the south aisle of Westminster Abbey.

There can be no doubt that these are notes for a review of an already-published work, not jottings for future publication. Still more to the point, only a few of them are in Harriet’s hand, and many more in her husband’s. Jacobs suggests that this shows co-authorship, with the lion’s share being Harriet’s. It seems at least as plausible that this was a review being written by Taylor, with some involvement by his young wife. Taylor was a founder-member of the Reform Club, and his ‘liberal opinions’ were noted by Mill in his Autobiography. He may well have wanted to bring Stevenson’s biography – and with it, the wider work of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge – to the attention of people rich enough to help further the Society’s aims.  

This is not to undermine the claims for Harriet Taylor-Mill’s writing, her contributions to ‘Mill’s’ works or to political theory, philosophy or economics more broadly. This bare half-page of jotted notes, mainly quotes from the book, tells us nothing about the depth, breadth or originality of her thought, nor about the ways in which she may have contributed to ‘Mill’s’ works in later life. Instead, it is to set the historical record straight, and perhaps add some nuance to our understanding of her first marriage. (Jacobs not only likens Taylor to George Eliot’s Casaubon, but suggests he infected Harriet with syphilis – a charge which is entirely unfounded, the purported evidence for it failing utterly to support the claim.)

It also adds a mote to our understanding of the radical milieus of the 1820s and 30s in which Mill and Harriet moved. Their ideas were forged, nuanced and changed in and by these circles, and it is through them that they met, and formed what was arguably one of the most productive collaborations in the history of political philosophy, culminating in joint work on On Liberty, one of the canonical texts of modern political thought. Harriet’s contribution to that, and to many other of ‘Mill’s’ texts, has been ignored, denigrated or denied pretty much ever since her death. Her manuscripts suggest we should not only recognise her part in them but also – and this includes manuscript 113 – take cognisance of the co-authored nature of many texts in what is traditionally considered a male-dominated canon, buttressed by – and buttressing – the cult of the lone genius in philosophy.

Read on: Alexander Zevin, ‘Gradualism’s Prophet’, NLR 135.


1 To avoid the confusion of so many overlapping Taylors, Mills and Taylor-Mills, in addition to the two Johns (Stuart Mill and Taylor), I take the liberty here of using Harriet Taylor-Mill’s and Helen Taylor’s first names, rather than following formal academic practice. For the same reason, I don’t call the two men ‘John’.

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The Forgotten Fortuyn

Twenty years ago, the lifeless body of right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn was found lying on the tarmac outside a radio studio in the Netherlands. He had been fatally shot by an animal rights activist while on the campaign trail for the 2002 elections. Nine days after his death, his eponymous party, List Pim Fortuyn (LPF), won 26 seats and the second largest share of the vote – a historic breakthrough known as ‘the Fortuyn Revolt’. Over the following years, the LPF succumbed to internal strife, but new right-wing populist leaders such as Geert Wilders and Thierry Baudet would follow in Fortuyn’s footsteps.

This year, on the anniversary of Fortuyn’s death in May, Dutch newspapers were filled with retrospectives, looking back on how the populist revolt had changed Dutch politics. A mini-series on his rise to prominence aired on public television, while publishers printed special editions of his bestselling books. Commentators from across the ideological spectrum remarked on his enduring legacy. ‘Fortuyn’s message is in many respects more urgent than before’, proclaimed the centre-left daily de Volkskrant. Yet many of them seemed curiously unaware of what that message was.

A common refrain was that the Fortuyn Revolt was a nationalist backlash against globalization, a defence of the little man against the aloof technocratic elites. Already back in 2002, pundits were describing Fortuyn’s rise as a fulfilment of John Gray’s prediction in False Dawn (1998) that the neoliberal utopia of a globally integrated market would soon spark nationalist (and fundamentalist) opposition. In 2017, the British journalist David Goodhart wrote of the revolt of the somewheres, the locally rooted ordinary people, against the anywheres, the cosmopolitan urban middle classes. His cited Brexit and ‘the unexpected populist surge in the Netherlands in the early 2000s’ as his primary examples. For Goodhart, it was not the opposition between left and right, but between ‘closed’ and ‘open’, that defined contemporary politics. This has now become a dominant frame for understanding the rise of right-wing populism, in the Netherlands as elsewhere.

The Dutch sociologist Gabriël van den Brink offered a similar analysis in his 2020 book Rough Awakening From a Neoliberal Dream. He argued that the rise of neoliberalism had initiated a process of liberalization and individualization which in turn triggered a communitarian revolt. This ‘rough awakening’ started with Pim Fortuyn, who rallied against the ‘neoliberal enthusiasm of the technocratic elite’. Van de Brink’s book formed part of a larger popular mythology surrounding Fortuyn, casting him as a zealous defender of the losers of globalization. Exactly twenty years after his death, the official biographer of Fortuyn appeared on Dutch television and proclaimed that his subject had always remained a leftist at heart, who ‘relied heavily on social democratic thought’. 

Yet ‘Professor Pim’, as his supporters affectionately called him, was never mealy-mouthed about what he stood for. When asked whether he was a ‘populist’ in the radio interview just before his assassination, Fortuyn replied that he didn’t like to ‘suck up to people’. At the beginning of his election campaign, he claimed that ‘not only our politics, but also many of our citizens are useless. They look too much at what the government can and must do, and far too little at what they themselves can do’. Far from rallying against the neoliberal elite, Fortuyn believed that Dutch elites were not nearly neoliberal enough. His hard-right politics were born out of the neoliberal tide that swept the country in the 1980s and 1990s; yet, in the Dutch collective memory, his strident opposition to immigration and Islam would eventually become so all-defining that it would eclipse his economic agenda.

During Fortuyn’s campaign, though, that economic agenda was front and centre. In his bestselling election manifesto, The Disasters of Eight Years Purple (2002), Fortuyn asserted that the Dutch welfare system ‘had given birth to a monster’. The unemployed were ‘a dead weight in society’ with ‘a big mouth’ which the state could not be expected to feed. Unemployment was a dispositional and psychological problem, which could only be solved by slashing welfare, abolishing rent subsidies and cutting disability benefits. Fortuyn proposed doing away with open-ended contracts and introducing a more flexible labour market inspired by the American model, turning the Dutch worker into an ‘entrepreneur of the self’ and making the Netherlands more competitive on the world market.

‘Why my plea to remove the wonderfully warm blanket of consensus from our little Dutch bed?’ wrote Fortuyn on the opening page of his earlier pamphlet Without Civil Servants (1991). ‘Globalization of culture and economy require a different management of the economy and society, which is enforced by the free movement of people, money and goods.’ Only on the cultural terrain did Fortuyn make a pronounced shift in the mid-nineties, becoming a prominent critic of Islam, multiculturalism and political correctness, who proposed closing the borders for Muslim immigrants. A renewed nationalism, he wrote, was necessary to defend western values and offer an anchor to Dutch citizens alienated by globalization. Fortuyn’s politics were defined by economic openness and cultural closure.

In this Fortuyn was far from exceptional. During the same period, political scientists such as Herbert Kitschelt and Hans-Georg Betz observed that a series of right-wing populist parties with broadly similar positions had emerged across Europe: Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, Jörg Haider’s FPÖ, the Swiss People’s Party, the Norwegian Progress Party and the Danish Fremskrittspartiet. Many of them started out as ‘neoliberal-populist’ parties before shifting focus and developing into anti-immigration policies. In The Radical Right in Western Europe (1997), Kitschelt described the combination of free-market and anti-immigration policies as a ‘winning formula’ which had become increasingly capable of mobilizing large electoral constituencies. Right-wing populism, he argued, first emerged as an offshoot of neoliberalism. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Fortuyn’s work.

Fortuyn began his storied career as a leftist sociology professor at the University of Groningen. He wrote his PhD on postwar socio-economic policy and developed a close relationship with the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA). But at the end of the 1980s he was swept up in the enthusiasm for neoliberal reform. The government had begun privatizing public assets and liberalizing the economy with the help of a small but growing army of private consultants. Fortuyn wanted to get in on the action. His university seconded him to Rotterdam, where he led a committee that authored a report on the market-led renewal of the troubled port city, which had been hit by mass unemployment.

Fortuyn spent this period at the Rotterdam Hilton, with his bill picked up by city hall. In his autobiography, he recalled consorting with his fellow committee members from the private sector, who taught him how to ‘drink the better wines and appreciate the pleasures of salmon and caviar’. After a self-described ‘eureka moment’ in April 1987, he joined a select group of technocrats overseeing the government’s ongoing privatization drive. In the following years, ‘professor Pim’ quickly became a sought-after public speaker in Dutch business circles. He exchanged his jeans and denim jacket for tailored suits and brightly coloured silken ties.

In the early 1980s, the Dutch neoliberal turn was overseen by the Christian Democrats (CDA). The centre-right government led by Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers replaced the Keynesian full-employment policies of yesteryear with austerity and supply-side economics. Lubbers’s cabinet ministers, many of them drawn from the private sector, presented themselves as corporate managers. They promised to run the country like a company, referring to parliament as its ‘board of directors’. The state would be trimmed down to its core activities, with peripheral functions outsourced and sold-off. Deregulation and flexibilization were pushed through along with enforced wage moderation, while the trade unions watched from the sidelines.

By the time of Fortuyn’s conversion, however, the campaign for market-led reform had suffered a serious setback. Tired of austerity and concerned about eroding support, the Christian Democrats tacked left in 1989 and formed a government with the social democrats. Many on the right feared that the momentum for market reform was dissipating. In a much-discussed campaign speech, the Labour Party leader Wim Kok proclaimed that after ten years of neoliberal reform, ‘the pendulum had swung too far’. He criticized the ‘authoritarian governing style’ of the previous decade and promised a restoration of corporatist, consensus politics, with trade unions brought back to the table.

Lubbers was denounced by the right for his betrayal. ‘If only we had a Margaret Thatcher in Dutch politics’, lamented the economist Eduard Bomhoff. Thatcher had fought and defeated the trade unions, while Lubbers mistook consensus for a policy goal. ‘Thatcher’s lessons had been ignored in the Netherlands,’ the journalist Marc Chavannes explained, ‘because we conveniently imagine that she is a mal-coiffed lady in a country full of strange figures who seem to have walked out of a television series.’ ‘How do we get rid of late-corporatist structures’, he went on to ask, ‘which are expressions of a fattened harmony model that threatens the prosperity and well-being of the Dutch people?’

Fortuyn joined the chorus of disappointed free marketeers. In the first half of the 1990s, he published a series of bestselling pamphlets in which he proposed a frontal assault on Dutch consensus politics. Fortuyn complained that Lubbers had squandered a golden opportunity: although he had defied the public sector unions, he had failed to deal them a fatal blow. ‘Needless to say, things would be far better now if Lubbers had opted for the method of amputation rather than the administration of a temporary medicine.’ Fortuyn’s wanted a Dutch ‘Iron Lady’ to deal with the trade unions, suggested firing half of all Dutch civil servants and proposed banning permanent contracts. This neoliberal critique of the corporatist consensus as an obstacle to market reform would soon become a central component of Fortuyn’s populism.

Fortuyn became the first public figure in the Netherlands to provide neoliberalism with a populist appeal, becoming a prominent exponent of what Thomas Frank called ‘market populism’: the idea that ‘markets expressed the popular will more articulately and more mean­ingfully than did mere elections, that ‘markets conferred democratic legiti­macy’; that ‘markets were a friend of the little guy’. In One Market under God (2000), Frank showed how ‘market populism’ spread like wildfire during the New Economy and internet bubble of the 1990s. These same arguments formed the core of Fortuyn’s The Disasters of Eight Years Purple: a heavy-handed critique of the so-called ‘purple’ coalitions of social democrats (PvdA, ‘red’) and right-wing liberals (VVD, ‘blue’) which had governed the country in the second half of the 1990s, and which constituted the Dutch equivalent of the Third Way.

Fortuyn began the manifesto with a comparison between the market and the state. In a market environment, he pointed out, a company is punished if it delivers bad products. The consumer decides. The New Economy would therefore strengthen the influence of the consumer. Thanks to the blessings of information technology, mass products could henceforth be tailored to personal preferences. Mass customization would entail the ‘democratization and individualization of economic life’, while in the workplace traditional hierarchies would give way to horizontal networks.

While the business world had adapted to this new spirit of the age, the public sector was still stuck in the industrial age, with its anonymous, large-scale production processes. ‘The consumer-citizen is only paid lip service to’, Fortuyn complained. ‘There is no democracy, unless one sees democracy as marking a box red once every four years.’ This system was propped up by a tiny elite who were invested in the tripartite polder model: ‘a kind of musyawarah system in which people talk to each other until they more or less agree’. Whereas in his leftist days, Fortuyn’s worldview was based on an opposition between the productive working class and exploitative capital, by now he had developed a new, neoliberal class theory. On one side stood the entrepreneurs large and small, Fortuyn’s productive class; on the other, a parasitic group of politicians, bureaucrats and welfare recipients. Fortuyn advocated the radical dismantling of bureaucracy in favour of the citizen-consumer, who should no longer be patronized but rather allowed to make his or her own choices.

This economic agenda was interwoven with a nostalgic longing for what Fortuyn called ‘the human scale’: smaller schools, regional hospitals, workplaces close to home. As he saw it, this scaling down would go hand-in-hand with modernization. Local hospitals would be overseen by specialists from a central location through the use of digital technology. Working close to home was possible thanks to newly established neighbourhood internet pavilions. Fortuyn’s utopian horizon was a curious amalgam of fifties nostalgia and Zoom prophecies. But this striving for ‘the human scale’ was also a thinly veiled plea for more inequality. Fortuyn complained in The Disasters of Eight Years Purple that, under the present system, he received the same care as his cleaning lady while paying much more taxes. This was equivalent to ‘the insurance company that replaces your crashed and expensively insured Jaguar with a Fiat Uno and says: here you are’. On one occasion, when Fortuyn was admitted to hospital, he used this reasoning to demand his own private room, only to be laughed at by the hospital director.

For Fortuyn, individual customization meant paying true market prices, bringing an end to the ‘artificial’ equality which the government maintained through social subsidies, the minimum wage and sectoral collective bargaining. He saw collective labour agreements as an archaic mechanism by which the government imposed centralized salary scales and conditions of employment. In their place, individual companies and employees should be left to negotiate the value of work – with flexible contracts supplanting the permanent job. This would lower wages and strengthen the competitiveness of the country as a whole. In this, Fortuyn wrote, he followed a time-honoured logic: ‘if a man will not work, he shall not eat.’

Fortuyn saw all this as an inevitability enforced by globalization, yet he was also aware that the removal of economic certainties could lead to unrest. ‘In addition to a great degree of freedom and a very considerable enlargement of choice,’ he asserted in Against the Islamization of our Culture (1997), globalization ‘also caused anxieties among those who can only very partially reap the benefits of this internationalization of the world.’ His nationalist agenda offered them an important form of compensation. The unrest that unfettered capitalism produced in the socio-economic sphere would be addressed in the cultural sphere. Thomas Frank described a similar process in the United States as ‘The Great Backlash’: politicians mobilized the electorate with ‘controversial cultural themes’ which were intertwined with ‘right-wing economic policies’. For Frank, the resultant culture wars had ‘made possible the international consensus on the free market, with all its privatization, deregulation, and anti-union policies’. Fortuyn’s legacy is to have introduced backlash politics to the Netherlands.

Read on: Marco D’Eramo, ‘They, The People’, NLR 103.

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What’s It For?

This year Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory turns fifty-two, and still that forbidding text, with its pages-long paragraphs and elusive, paradoxical argumentation, has not said everything it has to say. In a recent NLR article, Patricia McManus cited the book’s reflections on the relationship between artistic form and judgments of value in her response to Joseph North’s call for a ‘left literary criticism that would also be a radical aesthetic education, one which aimed to cultivate modes of sensibility and subjectivity that could contribute directly to the struggle for a better society’. That Adorno would have anything to contribute to this struggle is far from given. For many readers, with its conceptual vocabulary that is grounded in the German aesthetic tradition and its belief that philosophy should dictate the terms of art, the book may seem to belong far more to the past than the present. And yet it seems that Aesthetic Theory still has some light to shed on the question of what art can and – perhaps more saliently – cannot achieve in a world no less unfree than it was when Adorno left it.

A striking resonance with NLR’s present discussion of literary criticism can be found in Adorno’s call for ‘the study of those alien to art’. This is Aesthetic Theory’s equivalent of the figure of the ‘ordinary reader’, with whom the criticism of the past decade has, according to McManus, been increasingly preoccupied: the individual who, blissfully unaware of signifiers, discourses and the other paraphernalia of literary scholarship, simply reads what they like, and doesn’t read what they don’t. Is such a figure merely a projection, a symptom of the legitimacy crisis gripping the academy, as Rachel Buurma and Laura Heffernan argue? Or, as Rita Felski, Amanda Anderson and Toril Moi have it, could a better understanding of the ways in which readers actually read be the basis for a criticism more fully engaged with the wider world?

Adorno’s position on this question is typically dialectical. This figure is presented not without a tinge of elitist hauteur: ‘Those who have been duped by the culture industry and are eager for its commodities were never familiar with art’. And yet, their lack of familiarity is said to afford them a clarity that the regular opera-goer, museum patron or literary critic lacks. They are ‘able to perceive art’s inadequacy to the present life process of society – though not society’s own untruth – more unobstructedly than do those who still remember what an artwork once was’. The person who squints at a work of modern art and demands, ‘What’s it for?’, has in this sense, a more lucid view of art’s standing today than the critic does – namely, that ‘nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore…not even its right to exist’.

Insofar as such passages meld a condescending lack of familiarity with those outside the academy to the deep self-loathing within it, they seem to bring together the weaknesses of both sides of the ‘ordinary reader’ debate. But Adorno isn’t out to idealize or to denigrate. His figure is, rather, a critical check on the ‘committed’ art and criticism of his time. Against Benjamin, virtually the only critic of Adorno’s lifetime considered worthy of sustained engagement in Aesthetic Theory, Adorno takes as axiomatic that the democratization of art was a failure. Rather than bringing art to the masses, in Adorno’s view the work of art’s mechanical reproduction simply produced a more refined form of mass culture – see the grumblings around the publishing world that ‘literary fiction’ is simply an elitist marketing designation – while the cultural homogenization of the classes destroyed the coherent and identifiable publics for whom the artwork was intended.

This historicization of the relationship between art’s producers and its ‘consumers’ is a minor component of Aesthetic Theory’s critique of a critique engagé. When seen from the perspective of the individual without artistic sensibility, he argues, it becomes clear that the categories of such criticism are fired from a pistol – launched, that is, without any rigorous conceptualization of what an artwork actually is. Brecht’s dictum that literature should be ‘no less intelligent than science’ and should therefore yield knowledge as true and as actionable as the social and even the natural sciences, appears rather more vulnerable when one imagines explaining it to the non-reader. ‘There is no answer that would convince someone who would ask such questions as “Why imitate something?” or “Why tell a story as if it were true when obviously the facts are otherwise and it just distorts reality?”’, Adorno writes. There is a ridiculousness even to the gravest artworks, he argues, the roots of which lie in the archaic character of ‘the mimetic impulse’. The concepts and categories of political criticism, which fold together the seriousness of the social sciences and the moral urgency of the struggle for justice are, therefore, attractive precisely because they place a fig leaf over the artwork – like the evening dress worn by Kafka’s ape in his address to the academy.

For Adorno, therefore, any attempt to derive moral and political education directly from works of literature is bound to stumble on literature’s ‘non-identity’. It is this claim for the autonomy of the work of art – usually paired with the anecdote of Adorno blanching when bare-breasted student demonstrators stormed his lecture hall – that has tended to furnish charges of political quietism, and, more outrageously, conservatism. But one need only set a few sentences of Aesthetic Theory alongside those of the ‘new aestheticism’ that – spearheaded by George Levine’s Aesthetics and Ideology (1994) – invoked Adorno to call for a return to the art object, against its ‘politicization’ by Foucault, Jameson and Said to see the difference. Certainly, insofar as he insists that the artwork, while obviously a fait social, cannot be deduced from its social circumstances, Adorno is at odds with other strains of Marxist criticism. He also resists, at least in my reading, the left-Nietzscheanism of Deleuze and Guattari, whose characterization of artworks as only one kind of ‘assemblage’ on the ‘plane of immanence’ suggests that artistic techniques and effects (no strong distinction is drawn here) are social practices simply because they take place within society.

According to Aesthetic Theory, what distinguishes the artwork from the rest of perceivable reality is that it orders its material according to its own logic. In the case of literature, this is most obvious in the transposition of non-linguistic experiences into language. But it is also manifest in the more granular business of style – something considered unworthy of critical attention in the current historicist paradigm. Adorno, however, asserts that art’s social function derives precisely from its distinction from other commodities, modes of production, services and forms of information. The self-imposed rationality according to which the artwork selects and arranges its constituent elements parodies the rationality of the social world. The artwork attains a critical function not in what it says, but in what it does: ‘It accuses the rationality of social praxis of having become an end in itself and as such the irrational and mad reversal of means into ends’. The horrors of technological rationality gone mad – above all, the Holocaust – are never far from Adorno’s analysis of Beckett and Kafka’s ‘negativity’. But even the lightest verse by Eduard Mörike, he argues, has a political character, simply because its elements appear to have come together of their own volition, free of the cruelty with which the social world makes everything within it identical with itself. A left criticism taking its cues from Aesthetic Theory would not, then, endeavour to bring the artwork closer to the social world. Instead, it would seek to move them farther apart.

Adorno is, to say the least, elusive about what this would entail. Aesthetic Theory is sparing with its oughts, shoulds and musts. One way to understand the book is as attempting to set limits on other conceptions of the work of art. Aesthetic Theory, indeed, often seems to be inveighing against the paradigms of the present. It is difficult not to read Adorno’s claim, for example, that the technologies, social processes and ideologies without which the artwork could not exist are crystallized within it as a defence of aesthetic experience against the Foucauldian episteme. Its resistance to the total politicization of art, meanwhile, could be addressed to the post-George Floyd American academy. It also voices no small ambivalence about the kind of materialism proposed by McManus, which is understandably gaining currency in a climate of widespread unionization drives by graduate student workers in American universities. In Adorno’s terms, a criticism that would take account of the actually existing material conditions – where there is ‘too much to read, too little time’, as McManus writes – would have to reckon with the displacement of these forces within the object of study for it to be something more than a ‘mere’ sociology of the university and publishing world. Such critical models ultimately retain the same obsession with the reality principle that dominates the administered world – with seeking to ‘punish’ art for claiming to be more than it is by making it less.

It would be no small betrayal of Aesthetic Theory’s unwavering negativity to close with an assessment of its ‘positive’ contributions. Nonetheless, in a certain respect it might be said to converge with North’s view in Literary Criticism (2017) that the coming criticism will place particular emphasis on a ‘therapeutic’ – a word I use advisedly in connection with Adorno – ‘rather than a merely diagnostic use of the literary’. Such an emphasis is, paradoxically enough, apparent in Adorno’s insistence on art’s ‘muteness’, that is, on the way that it transforms discursive ideas and concepts into appearances. Even the most discursive artworks have for Adorno more in common with nature, which simply is, than they do with philosophy or politics. ‘Nature’ refers here not just to natural objects, but to everything dominated, mutilated, and repressed by the civilizing process. The work of art becomes a preserve for those aspects of the world destroyed by instrumental reason, offering a negative image of what Jameson, in his own work on Adorno, referred to as ‘a powerful vision of a liberated collective culture’. Adorno therefore shows himself, in this respect, to have more in common with the emancipatory spirit of the sixties than he let on – though in his view, unlike ‘cuisine or pornography’, art achieves this precisely by suspending the immediate sensation of pleasure (‘Anyone who listens to music seeking out the beautiful passages is a dilettante’). A fully realized aesthetics would not, however, champion a regressive anti-rationalism – whose pitfalls fascism proved once and for all – or a sensory hedonism. In keeping with the Frankfurt School’s original programme, it would work in dynamic tandem with psychoanalysis and anthropology, illuminating all that lies in reason’s shadow, and that is needed to rescue reason in its fullest, most capacious sense from its most determined antagonist – itself.

Such a project is considerably more abstract than that sketched out in McManus’s essay, or, for that matter, than anything criticism has attempted since poststructuralism’s iconoclastic moment. But even Adorno’s most abstract considerations are undergirded by an anguished, ethical commitment. Perhaps Aesthetic Theory’s most significant contribution in the present moment is the centrality of suffering to its problems and its categories. For the rescue of aesthetics does not mean discarding criticism’s moral and political commitments. On the contrary, in an era when art has no clear social function, one justification for its continued existence is its ability to ameliorate suffering. Art is the proper vehicle for grasping and expressing suffering because it ‘eludes and rebuffs rational knowledge’. While today’s engaged criticism all too often elides the distinction between the depiction and reality of suffering – a category error Adorno would have blamed on mass culture – an Adornean aesthetics might situate itself among the ethical paradoxes of the therapeutic artwork. The artwork passes the ‘soothing hand of remembrance’ over human anguish, a relief that contains within it no small measure of betrayal. Criticism can give language to these paradoxes, can tease out and transmit consolation. It can tell us, as politics cannot, what can and cannot be said – what can be changed and what has left its scar once and for all.

Read on: Anahid Nersessian, ‘For Love of Beauty?’, NLR 133/134.

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Border-Crosser

By the time Aijaz Ahmad published his now classic, In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (1992), he was 51 years old. He had already drifted through Lahore, Harlem, Cairo, Beirut, Damascus, Anatolia and the Palestinian camps in Jordan, before settling in New Delhi. In the book, Ahmad dissected the antinomies of the new theoretical turn in the Anglo-American academy – its schematic conceptions of the third world, its distancing of culture from political economy and activism, its reluctance to highlight its institutional sites, as well as the class locations and practices of its practitioners. I first encountered the book at the University of Delhi. An engineer at the time, I was mesmerized by its feverish blend of a theorist’s insight and a pamphleteer’s loose wit – equal parts revelatory (‘Determination … means the givenness of a circumstance within which individuals make their choices, their lives, their histories’) and rancorous (‘Ranajit Guha … a typical upper-layer bourgeois’). Enrolling in the English department, I soon discovered that this was precisely the kind of writing that is known to sink your academic career. Good thing Ahmad didn’t really have one when he wrote the book.

A year after In Theory was published, the journal Public Culture assembled a set of critical responses. Marjorie Levinson described it as ‘an ugly book’, dismissing it as ‘harangue, jeremiad, flyting, ethnic cleansing: not to make a mystery of it, jihad’. Peter van der Veer started by declaring that the book reminded him of a visit to Calcutta in 1973, where he was shocked to discover a photograph of Stalin in the house of a communist cadre. References to ‘hardline Indian communism’ and Ahmad’s ‘style of inquisition’ duly followed. Talal Asad tersely suggested that the book was influenced by the European teleology of progress. Partha Chatterjee questioned Ahmad’s grasp of Indian Marxism. Nivedita Menon and the book’s commissioning editor Michael Sprinker offered perceptive rejoinders (the only courteous ones) to Ahmad’s portrayal of Edward Said. Andrew Parker wrote that the book failed to achieve an integral unity; it was more a blend of ‘oil and water than political history and literary theory’. And like many other reviewers, Vivek Dhareshwar highlighted the curious disjunction between Ahmad’s focus on the institutional locations of specific scholars and his reluctance to discuss his own involvement in the metropolitan academy. Invoking Ahmad’s criteria, Dhareshwar countered: ‘Does the work/individual have or provide any links with determinate emancipatory movements?’

Ahmad fled Pakistan for the first time in 1966, at the height of Ayub Khan’s military dictatorship. He had recently finished a masters at the Forman Christian College, Lahore. Two years later, he started teaching at the SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge) Program at the City College of New York. His colleagues there included Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Toni Cade Bambara, David Hernandez and Adrienne Rich. Although the college was located in Harlem, the cultural epicentre of the country’s Black community, only 9 percent of its daytime students were Black or Puerto Rican. SEEK was instituted to counteract the college’s racist admissions policy and course design. But radicalized by the Vietnam War and Black Liberation, the students wanted to open more than just the gates to a public college. Screening radical cinema and publishing political pamphlets, they swiftly turned the campus into a site for revolutionary politics. In December 1968, addressing a multiracial assembly of students and activists, Stokely Carmichael offered a thunderous ‘blueprint for armed struggle against American racism and capitalism’ that drew inspiration from the raging anticolonial struggles in the Global South. A decade earlier, this same struggle had thrust Ahmad into the fold of radical politics. When Israel, the UK and France invaded Egypt in 1956, massive anticolonial demonstrations erupted in Lahore. The 15-year-old Ahmad had joined the demonstrators, and in a burst of youthful impudence, climbed onto the veranda of a British consulate official’s house, picked up a chair and smashed it to pieces.

Living under the high noon of ’68 in Harlem, Ahmad translated the Urdu ghazals of Mirza Ghalib, the last Mughal poet, whose career was dramatically transformed by the failed anticolonial rebellion of 1857. In that apocalyptic summer, the Britishers had hanged around 27,000 people in Delhi alone. With his friends either dead or deprived of their patronage and wealth, Ghalib rushed to publish DastAmbooh, a pro-British diary of the revolt. In his private letters, he bitterly censured the reign of colonial terror, and continued writing poems of intense ‘moral loneliness’. Ahmad’s collaborative translations with Adrienne Rich (a close friend), W.S. Merwin and William Stafford first appeared in Mahfil, a mimeographed magazine published at the University of Chicago. Their experiments created a poetic montage, which valued the play of translating over literal translations. Ahmad juxtaposed his ‘prose versions’ with ‘notes’ (explanation and general vocabulary) for each couplet, which were followed by the poets’ own versions of the original ghazal. In this newfound avant-garde collective, Ahmad listened for the echoes of an insurgent humanism: ‘Poetry happens wherever men suffer and posit their humanity against their suffering. Viet Nam, Harlem, the Delhi of 1857. LeRoi and Ghalib. You hold out your hand and you tell another person what you are going through: that is the final poem’.

At SEEK, Ahmad became the Interim Director, but was summarily replaced by a hostile administration in the summer of 1969. He had refused to support the Dean’s decision not to renew the tenures of ten Black faculty members (the charges against one included writing a pamphlet in support of Black workers at a Ford plant). In the fallout of a campus takeover by students, Ahmad was blacklisted from teaching in New York. He crossed the Hudson and started teaching at Rutgers. His translation project, Ghazals of Ghalib, was published the following year by Columbia University Press. By this time, however, Ahmad was occupied by developments in Pakistan, where a militant upsurge of students and urban workers had overthrown Khan’s dictatorship. The Pakistani left was breathing again. A split in the National Awami League had birthed the Mazdoor Kisan Party, a Maoist organization that soon liberated 200 hectares of agrarian land from feudal landlords in Hashtnagar (Northwest Frontier Province). He took a leave of absence from Rutgers, abandoned his PhD at Columbia and returned to Pakistan. In Nothing Human is Alien to Me (2020), a book-length interview with Vijay Prashad (the best source on his life and work), Ahmad reveals that in Pakistan he worked closely with MKP’s leadership ‘at the underground level’. But details of his political activity remain in short supply.

Recently, the anthropologist Shozab Raza told me that, during his fieldwork, he picked up an elusive trace of Ahmad’s presence in South Punjab. Ahmad makes an unexpected appearance in the personal notebook of Sibghatullah Mazari, a poor tenant and member of MKP. Around May 1972, Afzal Bangash, the party’s co-founder, dispatched Ahmad to Bangla Icha, Sibghatullah’s village, where he taught literary and political writing to young students. Raza added that his clandestine presence in the village was ‘likely part of a larger reconnaissance trip, which also included travelling to Hashtnagar’. Ahmad was also a punctual presence in MKP’s official organ, the Circular, where he translated Amílcar Cabral and Lê Duẩn, among many others. Rejecting the stuffy Urdu translations produced in Moscow, he re-translated Lenin in the diction and syntax found on Pakistani streets. If in Harlem, Ahmad grappled with the politics of poetic innovation, now he stressed the poetics of his political interventions. This came naturally to him. During his college years in Lahore, Ahmad had sharpened his convictions on the whetstone of literary style. Novelist Intizar Hussain and the poet Nasir Kasmi had been among his friends. One day he would study Proust, whose ‘sentences ran to five, ten, fifteen, even twenty clauses’, inconceivable in Urdu; the next day, he would translate Joyce’s Dubliners with its ‘short, pithy sentences, hard as diamonds, impossible to cut’. Youthful enthusiasms now bloomed into a desire for new dialectical idioms.

Ahmad was prolific throughout the 1970s, publishing poems, translations, literary criticism and political analyses in various Urdu magazines – not just in Lahore and Karachi, but also across the border, in Allahabad and Hyderabad. His phenomenal critique of Baloch separatism appeared in Pakistan Forum in 1973. The complementary essays, ‘The Agrarian Question of Baluchistan’ and ‘The National Question of Baluchistan’, offered a sweeping account of the tensions between Balochistan’s linguistic and ethnic history, and the contradictions afflicting its severely impoverished economy (founded on inward and outward flows of migrant labour). Though an uncompromising advocate of the liberation of Bangladesh, Ahmad rejected calls for an ethnolinguistic revision of Pakistan’s national borders. A secession, he emphasized, could not resolve the class contradictions of Baloch society. Instead, it would further empower elite landowning Sardars, who would readily become neo-colonial clients of the US or the Soviet Union. As expected, Ahmad’s contentions enraged Baloch nationalists and their sympathizers, including the journal’s editor Feroz Ahmed, who rushed to rebut his friend in a new book. Cracks also developed in Ahmad’s relationship with MKP. The party saluted the Naxalite insurgency smouldering across the border. But Ahmad became increasingly critical of this Maoist adventure, eventually drawing the ire of the party. Writing to the political theorist Noaman G. Ali, Ahmad revealed that ‘a whole session of MKP, with perhaps 60 or 70 members present, was once called in Faisalabad for (him) to be held answerable for this heresy’.

During this period, Ahmad also travelled widely in the Arab world. Defeat by Israel in the Six Day War and the subsequent decline of Nasserism had spurred a wave of Islamist reaction. In Egypt, Anwar Sadat declared Islam the state religion and Shar’ia ‘the main source of state legislation’. Crisscrossing the peri-urban townships surrounding Cairo and the small-town interiors of Anatolia, Ahmad closely studied the unexpected rise of an Islamist bourgeoisie. In Jordan, he discovered that ‘the (Palestinian) camps were just full of Quranic recitations, full of Islamic cassettes of various sorts’. In Lebanon, his comrades in Palestinian liberation organizations painted similar pictures of Birzeit. Ahmad’s analyses were regularly translated and published in Rose Al-Yusef, the Egyptian political weekly, and As-Safir, the leading daily newspaper in Lebanon. He had already experienced similar tensions in Pakistan, where the MKP had tried to meld Marxism and Islam into a revolutionary program. Tariq Ali memorably described it as ‘the party which begins its private and public meetings with recitations from the Koran and whose manifesto is liberally spiced with quotations from the same!’ But this new shift shared little with revolutionary politics. In 1977, Pakistan also fell to the Islamists. General Zia-ul-Haq implemented martial law, disbanded Parliament and ordered the Islamization of the entire country.

Ahmad fled back to the US. A 90-page essay, ‘Political Islam: A Critique,’ soon appeared in three parts in Pakistan Progressive, as well as a ‘balance sheet’ of the rebellion against General Zia’s coup in Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Struggling to find a political foothold, by the mid-1980s Ahmad resolved to move to India, the country of his birth and home to a still robust national communist movement. But since laws forbade Pakistani citizens to work in India, he gave up his citizenship and acquired a US passport. It was against the backdrop of these transitions that Ahmad wrote the essay which famously rebutted Fredric Jameson’s claim that ‘all third-world literatures are … national allegories’. Rejecting ‘Jameson’s haste in totalizing historical phenomena in terms of binary oppositions’, Ahmad asserted that capitalism imposed an economic unity on the entire world and that national cultures evolved on a shared, but uneven, political terrain. When Ahmad arrived as a fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, a new generation of scholars was starting to scrutinize the explosion of theory in the West. In 1990, Suvir Kaul published ‘The Indian Academic and Resistance to Theory’, a moving essay about his return to the University of Delhi after finishing PhD at Cornell, in which he astutely noted how theorists like Paul De Man and Homi Bhabha ‘co-opt(ed) … the language of resistance into … a purely linguistic, tropological activity,’ and neglected that theories of différance are subject to the “invisible hand” that scripts the global equation of knowledge/power’. Composing In Theory simultaneously, Ahmad explained that this new theoretical turn (which took Marxism as just one critical framework among many) was mediated by the successive eclipse of anticolonial struggles, the New Left and the socialist bloc. Driven by his own itinerant political life, Ahmad decreed that theory must be rigorously held ‘accountable’ by the ‘non-academic political field’.

Just three months after the publication of In Theory, a right-wing Hindu mob demolished the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, sparking a blaze of anti-Muslim pogroms across India. In the early 1950s, the growing threat of the Hindu right had forced Ahmad’s family of farmers to migrate from the present-day Uttar Pradesh to Pakistan (his earliest memories included his uncle hoisting the Indian flag on the morning of independence and imbibing progressive Urdu fiction and poetry in a village that lacked electricity and a school). Four decades later, its rise was complete. As In Theory occasioned fiery debates in the Anglo-American academy, Ahmad’s own career now took a sharp turn. In a series of critical essays, later collected in The Lineages of the Present and On Communalism and Globalization, Ahmad dissected the precipitous decline of Indian democracy. Never afraid of challenging popular consensus, Ahmad resolved that there was no contradiction between liberal institutions and the Hindu right. The BJP had no need to suspend liberal democracy because it had already captured its institutions from the inside – judiciary, universities, media, bureaucracy and military. Legitimized by these same institutions, it could freely orchestrate ‘perpetual low-intensity violence’ against Dalits and Muslims. But the left, Ahmad suggested, could not replicate this strategy. The ‘liberal-democratic state apparatus’ is designed to stabilize the capitalist order. It might allow for limited welfare reforms in individual states like Kerala, but it ‘will never permit the communist Left to implement its programme’ on a national level. ‘Every country gets the fascism it deserves,’ was his grim forecast.

Ahmad’s arrival in India also radically transformed his role as an intellectual. While in Pakistan he had lived underground with MKP and published in small Arabic and Urdu magazines (many of them lost to us), now he became a fellow traveller of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), taught at Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Milia Islamia, and wrote for India’s prominent Anglophone magazines. In Frontline, Ahmad published over 80 essays, including celebrated long-form coverage of the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (collected in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Imperialism of our Times). In Newsclick, he tracked the geopolitical crises of late capitalism: the French bombardment of northern Mali, the fallout of the Crimean referendum, among others. When the BJP came to power in 2014, Ahmad’s visa was not renewed. Aged 75, he was again forced to relocate to the US – now as the Chancellor’s Professor of Comparative Literature at UC Irvine, ironically a wellspring of the same theoretical turn that Ahmad had publicly censured.

When In Theory was first published, Partha Chatterjee had charged Ahmad with ‘dissembling’, querying why the book ‘should conceal so strenuously, in its jacket, preliminary pages and text, the fact that the author has spent the overwhelming part of his career studying and teaching in the ‘metropolitan academy’”. But looking back, what is bothersome is not the alleged suppression of Ahmad’s academic career, but rather that of his career outside the academy. Why do we know so little about the political ebbs and flows of Ahmad’s life? Or more broadly, why do we know so little about the lives of those countless organizers and activists, autodidacts and litterateurs, who live and write in the postcolonial periphery? Why does their work rarely travel to the shores of the metropolitan academy? And who is responsible for this ‘concealing’?

Read on: Aijaz Ahmad, ‘Reconciling Derrida’, NLR I/208.

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Theorist in Exile

I first met Aijaz Ahmad in London in the mid-1990s. We ran into each other by chance. As I was introduced, he immediately said, ‘You have a very unusual name. No one from Uttar Pradesh is called Vinayak’. Only a local would make such a comment. Many men from north India of my father’s and grandfather’s generation had noted the anomaly between my firmly north Indian last name and my first name, which has its roots in western and southern India. Ahmad was the last person I met who made this observation; that generation is now mostly gone. What Ahmad said next was more striking. He explained that Vinayak, one of the names of the elephant-headed god Ganesh, was his favourite Hindu deity: a seeker of knowledge, a remover of obstacles, a consumer of intoxicants. But he lamented that the Hindu right’s appropriation of Ganesh now made it impossible for him to view the deity positively.   

It was fortuitous that Ahmad and I ended up teaching at the same university nearly twenty years later. Ahmad had arrived under adverse circumstances. The election of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014 meant that his Indian visa had not been renewed. His criticism of the Hindu right had finally caught up with him, not to mention his name and Pakistani identity. He could no longer live in the country of his birth. Instead, he had to return to a metropolitan university in the ‘belly of the beast’ – Che Guevara’s phrase that Ahmad often cited. He arrived at University of California, Irvine as the Chancellor’s Professor of Comparative Literature in 2016. I am sure the irony of moving to an institution that was a major site for the ‘theory’ of which he had long been a critic was not lost on him. Nor the fact that he was now living in a city that wholeheartedly embraced the culture of late-capitalism – one that that Slavoj Žižek has described as the strangest place on earth.

Ahmad had experienced displacement at a young age, when his family moved from the north Indian town of Muzaffarnagar to Lahore, Pakistan. The formation of India and Pakistan as newly independent nation-states occurred in a period of great tragedy and violence that Ahmad described as a ‘communal holocaust’. The generation that lived through it never forgot their histories of forced migration. Very few returned. Ahmad, though, was different. He left Pakistan when he found himself in political trouble for questioning General Zia-ul-Haq’s military coup in 1977. But he was not allowed to live in India until he acquired another citizenship; in his case this meant moving to New York and becoming a US passport holder. Ahmad later resided in India for many years on short-term visas. Government policy stipulates that any individual who was once a Pakistani national cannot become Indian again – at least on paper. Living in India also complicated Ahmad’s re-entry into Pakistan; it was no longer possible for him to return for any length of time. The Radcliffe Line arbitrarily drawn on a map as the permanent border between India and Pakistan divided the people of both nations for posterity.

It is not surprising then that alienation is a key theme of Ahmad’s oeuvre. In the 1970s, he was best known for his translations and interpretations of Urdu poetry, especially his work on Mirza Ghalib, considered by some to be the greatest Indian poet of the nineteenth century. There is a personal inflection to his description of Ghalib as a ‘tragic poet’, ‘surrounded by constant carnage’ in a world undone by British domination and the decline of early-modern Mughal courtly culture. Ahmad was acutely sensitive to the historical conjuncture in which Ghalib no longer felt he belonged, describing his life as ‘unbearable’. Equally sympathetic to those forced into exile, he was a fierce protector of the historical legacy of Marx, especially from postcolonial scholars who dismissed him as an Orientalist, a racist, or worse. Ahmed argued that these critics had failed to read Marx’s writings on India (or elsewhere) carefully or systematically enough, countering that his analysis was far more complex and radical than most of the anticolonial leaders of the period. ‘Expecting more from a German refugee who spent much of his pauperized life in nineteenth century London strikes me as somewhat unfair’, he wrote.

The defence of Marx was part of a broader project. As an essayist extraordinaire, he spent several years writing critiques of what was popularly known in the Anglo-American academy as ‘theory’, which were collected in his most famous book, In Theory (1992). For Ahmad, the theoretical formations of postcolonialism, postmodernism and poststructuralism were characterized by a retreat from socialist politics into ‘fashionable’ discursive strategies – their theory not only distanced itself from historical materialism but sought its undoing in the name of dismantling all grand narratives. Ahmad also sharply criticised those postcolonial writers who used ‘exile’ as a metaphor for all ‘Third World’ immigrants irrespective of their circumstances. Some, he argued, were engaged in‘an opportunistic kind of Third Worldism’, whereby wealthy, educated immigrants living in the diaspora for reasons of professional aspiration neglected to distinguish between themselves and those forced to flee their homes for fear of imprisonment, torture or death. Ahmad lamented that this ‘inflationary rhetoric’ had entered the writings of literary theorists who claimed marginality as a strategic subject position in their work.

In Theory received a great deal of attention as a major intervention in Marxist cultural criticism, and for its trenchant critiques of Fredric Jameson, Salman Rushdie and Edward Said. This was softened – or at least that is what Ahmad thought – with a comradely gesture to his interlocutors: ‘Suppression of criticism, I have come to believe, is not the best way of expressing solidarity’. Criticism was ultimately intended to bring them together. In fact, it had the opposite effect. The book provoked a furore, with many condemning its combative tone as well as its insistence on linking Marxist political economy to the study of literary theory. Ahmad regretted that his criticisms were misconstrued as personal attacks, and he emphasised that he celebrated parts of the work of those he criticised. What he found more disappointing was that many of these detractors failed to engage with his central arguments about ‘Third World Literature’ and ‘Three Worlds Theory’ ­– not to mention his essay titled ‘Marx on India’.

In Theory was followed by a second volume of essays, Lineages of the Present (1996). This included an autobiographical introduction in which Ahmad identified himself as an exile and perhaps for the first time publicly discussed his departure from Pakistan, describing the ‘painful cultural price’ of renouncing Urdu as his primary language. He also made clear that the bricolage of essays reflected a personal story about his life: each represented a specific moment of his intellectual and political development. In particular, the collection charts his growing concern with the rise of the Hindu right and the ideology of Hindutva. The demolition of the sixteenth century Babri Masjid by Hindu nationalists in 1992 had been a major turning point. If Mirza Ghalib had experienced the decline of the Mughal Empire, Ahmad witnessed the beginning of its historical erasure. The collection also included literary engagements with Urdu writers, as well as a critical analysis of Derrida’s Spectres of Marx that became the leading Marxist response to deconstruction at the time, alongside a defence of Gramsci from cultural theorists whom Ahmad felt no longer interpreted him as a revolutionary socialist.

The book marked a transition of sorts, as Ahmad’s attention increasingly shifted towards journalism and current affairs. Not surprisingly, Ahmad’s project was expansive: US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Arab Spring, Russian concerns about NATO, Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan, the domestic economy of China, the persecution of Palestinians in Israel, the global financial crisis. The rise of India’s Hindu right though concerned him most intimately. He argued that there were ‘structural connections’ linking the implementation of neo-liberal economic policies in India with what he called the ‘communal fascism’ of Hindu nationalism, and a new, globalized form of imperialism. In the aftermath of the destruction of the Babri Masjid, India witnessed a dramatic increase in violence against Muslims. The Gujarat pogroms of 2002 would establish Modi’s credentials as the next leader of the BJP. Ahmad described the period as reflecting a ‘culture of cruelty’. His work elucidated how the legacy of the communal holocaust of 1947 persisted into the new century.

At Irvine, Ahmad was initially reluctant to discuss the difficulty of leaving India once again. The last time I met him we were on a panel together at a South Asian Studies conference before the Covid breach, where speaker after speaker denounced the idea of ‘South Asia’ as a neo-colonial construction. Many anticipated that Ahmad would maintain his combative position against postcolonial studies as he had done for many years, but instead he opted to share his life-story of multiple migrations and displacements. He described himself as a political exile who could no longer return to India or Pakistan. South Asia meant something to him that others in the room could not know or understand. Now, in an echo of what he had written in the 1970s about Ghalib, his world was disappearing in front of his eyes.

Ahmad never returned ‘home’. He died on March 9, 2022.

Read on: Aijaz Ahmad, ‘A Gift of Memory’, NLR I/237.

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Against Concepts

On November 29, 1944, the last Nazi forces on Albanian territory fell to the National Liberation Army led by Enver Hoxha’s Communist Party, making Albania the first country in Europe to defeat its Fascist occupiers without major outside help. By May 1945, Yugoslavia became the second. Both governments declared their commitment to Soviet-style socialism, and the two grew so close that in 1948 they seemed to be on the point of merging. Yet Yugoslavia unexpectedly fell out with the Soviet Union, leading Albania, loyal to Stalin, to cut all ties with its neighbour. A year later, Greek Communists to the south lost their civil war with British-backed monarchist forces, and across the Adriatic, Italy joined NATO. Albania was surrounded by enemies.

At the time it was Yugoslavia rather than Albania that found itself internationally isolated. But the former would go on to become one of the world’s most outward-looking countries, forging tactical alliances with the Eastern and Western blocs while becoming a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement. Hoxha’s Albania, by contrast, would progressively shed allies, breaking with the Soviet Union in 1960 and with China in the course of the 1970s. While the rest of the nominally Communist world opened up to its bourgeois rivals, Albania proclaimed itself the last true standard-bearer of socialism, beset not only by Western imperialists, but also by Eastern revisionists who had cravenly abandoned the project of Lenin and Stalin.

All of which is to say that by the time Lea Ypi was born there in 1979, Albania was hardly a typical Communist country. By most accounts, it was exceptional in its lack of freedom. While Yugoslav workers and intellectuals were travelling the world, while the Central European masses were enjoying cheap cars, cheap gasoline, and ample vacation time in country houses and spas and on Croatian beaches, and while even non-conformist youths of the Soviet Bloc could enjoy officially sanctioned rock music, Albania’s diplomatic isolation translated domestically into social confinement. The state did what it could to keep Albanians from visiting or learning about the outside world or buying the strange goods produced there – at least until December 1990, when Albanian Communists proved not so out of step with their time after all and followed their regional counterparts in relinquishing their monopoly on power, acknowledging the newly discovered necessity of radical market reforms, and tasting the benefits of privatization for themselves.

For those few anti-communists who paid attention to the differences between Communist-led countries, it was precisely Albania’s exceptional status that would serve as concrete proof of socialism’s general failure, as if the purity of Albania’s communism were evidence of an ugly truth that underlay all fine-sounding attempts to share ownership and mitigate exploitation. Meanwhile, for most of the world’s left, Albania’s retrograde past has always seemed irrelevant to any emancipatory vision of the future. Even for those willing to recognize the positive elements in Eastern Europe’s often-tragic Communist history, Albania seems to hold little worth remembering.

In her recently published memoir, Free, Ypi makes a case for memory – emphasizing that when we look more closely, even the most repressive historical periods become more complicated and more interesting, both more maddening and more inspiring. The repression in Communist-led Albania was real, but so were the people who lived through it, struggled with it, and even found some sense of freedom within its bounds. Ypi shows formally isolated people avidly following world events on Italian radio and Yugoslav television, which inspire them to wide-ranging political reflection. She equally shows us the austere solidarity of people who, while not blessed with much consumer or electoral choice – and in spite of the ever-present risk of misusing their apportioned freedom and ending up in prison ­– were able to find ways of working together to improve their lives. (Although she doesn’t explicitly compare this with the situation in Communist-led Central Europe in this period, one might observe how much less solidarity remained in those societies, where governance relied more on consumption-induced apathy than exhortation to collective work).

As for what came after Albanian Communism, Ypi shows how the scope of everyday political imagination actually narrowed with the onset of parliamentary democracy, when anything smacking of socialism was summarily banished from respectable discourse. She depicts a newly emerging set of freedoms, both exhilarating and perverse, which were accompanied by new forms of domination. If post-communist Eastern Europe offered inspiration to the neoliberal crusade to liberate (read: impose) markets in every corner of the world, Albania’s experience could have also provided leftists with excellent arguments against that crusade, if only they had been paying attention.

Ypi paid attention because she lived through it. Yet she made her academic career writing mostly about other subjects. As a political theorist, currently based at the London School of Economics, she works in the abstract realms of – predominantly Western – European thought. But something happened when she set out to write a book about these ideas in Albania. As she writes in the epilogue, Free ‘was going to be a philosophical book about the overlapping ideas of freedom in the liberal and socialist traditions. But when I started writing…ideas turned into people’. It’s to her credit that in turning her attention to people, Ypi nevertheless doesn’t lose sight of ideas. The result is a memoir that reads like a novel, about a girl – Ypi’s younger self – coming to terms with the thought-world that swirls around her as voiced by her family, friends, teachers, as well as occasional bureaucrats and experts. Ideas become all the more interesting when they lose their purity and analytic consistency – when they don’t just confront one another as rational arguments, but ‘love and fight each other’, as Ypi puts it.

We meet the confident Marxism-Leninism of Ypi’s grade-school teachers, who impress ideas like equality, solidarity and self-determination on young minds decent enough to believe in such things. We meet the cautious progressivism of Ypi’s grandmother, who once rebelled against her upper-class upbringing but found no place in a post-war order that only accepted one form of leftism. We meet the rebellious radicalism of her father, in love with revolutions that have not yet happened but disappointed by those that have already taken place. We meet the increasingly shrill market-liberalism of her mother, who runs with the spirit of history after 1990, until her running takes her to work cleaning bathrooms in Italy. We meet the pragmatic technocratism of an affable Dutch privatization specialist who moves into the neighbourhood in the early 90s and sees the world in categories as inflexible as the orthodox Marxist-Leninists before him.

Free is also a bildungsroman of sorts, a story of how a post-communist left intellectual comes of age – of how, despite society telling her (like so many others) to love the freedom of the market, she could dare to be dissatisfied. It is a compelling narrative, in part because its endpoint is by no means an obvious one. Ypi’s generation in Eastern Europe is, in some respects, a lost one. In a recent interview, Ypi reflected that if she had been just a few years older – enough to develop a visceral dislike for the regime – she would likely have become a right-winger. If she had been a few years younger, she would have entered the new era with little memory of the past, perhaps less committed to fighting the spectres of the fallen enemy, but all the more prone to accept post-communism as the natural state of affairs.

Instead, she finds herself one day in December 1990 as a true-believing eleven-year-old Communist hugging a statue of Stalin, only to flee in horror when she sees its head has been cut off by protesters demanding what she believed the system had already been offering them: ‘freedom’ and democracy’. By the time she reaches the age of rebellion, the new system is firmly in place, and the echo of the protesters’ calls sounds as empty as the bank accounts of the two thirds of Albanians who have been tricked into investing in pyramid schemes. She is too young to see the new order as her own, but too old to regard the old order as if it belonged to another world. The 1980s were too real to ignore; the 1990s too painful to accept.

This task was made harder by the fact that the revolution of 1990 was, in Ypi’s words, ‘a revolution of people against concepts’. Protesters marched not only against the individuals who had oppressed them, but also against the ideas that had cloaked their oppression. They blamed their ruined lives less on the specific way their unique society was organized than on the ideas of ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ as such. And when protesting bore fruit, history in general was supposed to have reached its end, resolving and rendering obsolete the great battles of ideas that had plagued the decades and centuries before.

‘The owl of Minerva had taken flight and, as usual, seemed to have forgotten us’, Ypi writes. Rather than illuminating the passing epoch with its wisdom, as Hegel imagined, the owl not only steered clear of Albania but, I would add, seemed to have fled the earthly scene entirely. What remained of absolute knowledge was expertise – the unquestionable certainty that ‘structural reforms’ would be applied everywhere, while ideas about changing the world in any other way would be banished. The transition to free-market democracy was not understood as an idea among other ideas, to accept or reject, debate or defend. It was simply reality, to be realized more or less perfectly, faster or slower, but preferably as fast as possible: ‘There was no politics left, only policy.’

When I first visited Eastern Europe – Slovakia in 2000 – I felt as if I were entering a realm of collective madness, so effectively had reasoned debate been substituted by conjuration, incantation and denunciation. In educated circles, the word ‘socialism’ was enough to void any proposal, crush any vision; the words ‘Europe’, ‘the West’, and ‘reforms’ were enough to win any argument; and the ‘transition’, the unquestioned reality that shaped all personal effort and public governance, struck me as little more than a figment of a few experts’ imagination. I failed to see how the policies of ‘transition’ – the privatization, mass firings, destruction of infrastructure and cutting of social programmes just when they were needed most – would bring anyone closer to the ideals of prosperity and democracy that were supposed to justify all this transitioning.

Not that collective madness is especially unusual. I suspect that an outsider entering Albania circa 1955 would have been just as dumbfounded by the twisted rationalizations and groundless illusions that were passed off as official truth. Madness is always madness to someone else, and recognizing it takes someone who is alienated enough to reside, at least partially, in an alternative system of rationality. This is how Ypi depicts the dying days of one madness and the birth of another – by presenting each system through the lens of opposing rationalities. The clarity of true believers runs up against the coded criticism of dissidents; pragmatic strategies of survival run up against frustrated outbursts, when people dare for a moment to imagine that everything could be different. Sometimes it seems that the self-contained systems will win out. Albanian Communism has an answer for every one of its problems, until suddenly all its reasoning fails. Shock therapy, then, appears as the perfect metaphor for the subsequent period – because what is shock therapy, in the eyes of an observer who might walk in from the street, but a mad scientist’s cure for madness, a cure as mad as the disease?

Since the supposed necessity of post-communist ‘transition’ still justifies so much policy today, there is obvious value in complicating its narrative and relativizing its claim to truth by telling of the ignored or forgotten suffering it entailed. But what value is there in returning to the days of Communist rule which today’s right continually invokes as a caricature, and which the left would rather forget? In her epilogue, Ypi reproaches Western friends for denying that 1980s Albania had anything to do with real socialism and could have any bearing on their own beliefs. But of all the questions raised in her book, this one may be the least clearly answered. Her sensitivity to the complex motivations that underlie contradictory ideas seems to give way here to a blanket condemnation of the Western left for ignoring the legacy of Eastern socialism. I, for one, raised as a good Western leftist, have no desire to concede the title of ‘socialism’ to the oppressive system into which Ypi was born.

Yet this can’t be an excuse for failing to engage with the past. Even if the system established was not socialist, the movement that brought it about was. It involved people who genuinely believed in socialist ideals, who integrated these ideals into one or another system of ideas, and who made concrete decisions about how to bring them to life. How can we find the right concepts for insisting that Stalinism was not genuine socialism, while recognizing that Stalinists formed a significant part of the movement whose legacy we carry on today? Can we work toward something new by working through the real contradictions, hopes, tragedies and fits of madness of the past?

Ypi seems to suggest that her method of writing about ideas as lived by real people could offer a way forward. Albanian Communism treated people as abstractions. Ypi’s father and grandmother were not permitted to work toward their own conception of socialism; they were condemned by their abstract position as descendants of the bourgeoisie. And then, after 1990, the rejection of nearly all grand ideas left them lost in a reality that they were not licensed to question or debate. Ideas without people were replaced by people without ideas. Can we put them back together?

Read on: Robin Blackburn, ‘Fin de Siecle: Socialism after the Crash’, NLR I/185.

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Tianxia versus Plato

Tianxia is the newest fashionable word. If you don’t know it, you’re out of the loop. If you do, you’re evidently up to date with the latest trends in international political science, even more so if you use the original Chinese ideogram 天下, which literally means ‘all under heaven’. Yet as Ban Wang, editor of an important volume on the subject, admits: ‘despite its popular revival, tianxia has rarely been defined with rigour’. First deployed under the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BC), ‘all under heaven’ initially denoted the entire world, which in theory was subject to the sovereign, or ‘son of heaven’ (天, tian, being the ideogram for heaven). In practice, it was used to indicate the part of the world over which the Chinese sovereign – and subsequently Emperor – exercised supremacy.

One of tianxia’s most authoritative modern advocates, Zhao Tingyang, defines it as follows:

1. It is a monarchical system, including certain aristocratic elements. 2. It is an open network, consisting of a general world government and sub-states. The number of sub-states depends on the diversity of cultures, nations or geographical conditions. The sub-states pertain to a general political system, in the same way that subsets pertain to a greater set. Designed for the whole world, the all-under-heaven system is open to all nations. Any nation can participate, or be associated, if it is at peace with the nations included in the system. 3. The world government is in charge of universal institutions, laws and world order; it is responsible for the common wellbeing of the world, upholding world justice and peace; it arbitrates international conflicts among sub-states […] 4. The sub-states are independent in their domestic economy, culture, social norms and values; that is, independent in almost all forms of life except their political legitimacy and obligations. The sub-states are legitimated when politically recognized by the world government, and obliged to make certain contributions…

In recent decades, Chinese political commentators have used the concept to explain how China avoided the fragmentation into various national states that occurred in Europe after antiquity and escaped the fratricidal wars that marked the first age of intra-European competition (which subsequently embroiled the entire Western world). After all, at the time of the Han and Antonine dynasties (c. 150 AD), the Roman and Chinese Empires were of comparable size in terms of territory and population, and both were unitary entities. The explanation hinges on the distinction between tianxia and the Latin imperium (root of the modern term ‘empire’).

As Salvatore Babones explains, ‘Whereas the Roman imperium connoted an expressly delegated political authority to command obedience, the Chinese tianxia encompassed a moral authority that entitled the state to the obedience of its subjects and suzerains alike. Those suzerains included three classes of external sovereigns’. The first class was formed by states that had adopted Confucianism and the Chinese script (or its variants): Korea, Japan, Vietnam and the Ryukyu Islands. These incorporated polities that were an active element of tianxia. The second comprised those parts of Southeast Asia that recognized – at least formally – Chinese authority and appealed to the Emperor to resolve conflicts: Sulu (modern-day Philippines), the Khmer Empire, Siam (Thailand), Java, and, during the Ming era, the maritime Islamic Sultanates. The third and final class involved the nomadic populations to the north and west: Jurchen, Mongolian, Turkic and Tibetan groups that China sought to neutralize by educating in the customs of Chinese civilization.

The concept of tianxia is therefore invoked to affirm the moral superiority of a Confucian view of geopolitics over the so-called ‘Westphalian’ tradition, which upholds the sovereignty of national states, considered equal juridical entities. According to this perspective, the Chinese were forced to temporarily renounce tianxia to manage incursion by the West and its nation states, but with the failure of the Westphalian dis-order the time has come to revive it. Tingyang repeatedly refers to the West in terms of ‘failed states’ in his Redefining a Philosophy for World Governance (2019).

What’s curious about this Chinese account is that, at least in the texts available to Western audiences, it completely elides the other great pillar of Chinese imperial politics: the principle of ru biao fa li: varyingly translated as ‘decoratively Confucian, substantively Legalist’ or ‘Confucian outside, Legalist inside’, or more freely still: ‘iron fist in velvet glove’. ‘In fact’, as Po-Keung Ip notes, ‘Confucianism as state ideology has been officially endorsed and followed, while Legalism covertly dominated much of the actual practice, thus forming the two-tiered politics characteristic of dynastic China’. Legalists had appeared as early as the Zhou dynasty, with Guan Zhong (720-645 BC) and Hanfeizi (281-233 BC), the latter systematizing the formulations which ‘directly opposed the Confucian ideals, and suggested using the law to impose order, subdue populations to strict discipline, and if necessary, use manipulation to stay in power’. In other words, there appears to be a Machiavellian streak in classical Chinese political theory overlooked by the partisans of tianxia.

And that’s not all: the paradox is that, by claiming the superiority of China over the rest of the world, the recovery of tianxia promotes a nationalist program through critiquing the Western idea of the nation state. Yet these two incongruences – the omission of ru biao fa li and the use of an antinationalist nationalism – have not prevented tianxia from gaining currency in the West, so much so that thinkers such as Bam Wang have begun to introduce the concept of an ‘American tianxia’. Beyond their respective exceptionalisms, a common feature of China and the United States is that territorial conquest does not necessarily form part of their exercise of supremacy.

The concept of American tianxia has been further elaborated by Babones, who believes we live in a post-Westphalian world, where

degrees of sovereignty can be gauged by proximity to American power. Only the United States can be said to exercise full state sovereignty, since only the United States is, practically speaking, immune to all external ‘controlling’ or ‘overriding’ voices originating in other states. Outside this American centre, three broad, hierarchical circles of more or less limited sovereignty exist in the post-Westphalian state system. These might reasonably be called shared sovereignty, partial sovereignty, and compromised sovereignty.

The first circle is constituted by the remaining members of the ‘Five Eyes’ alliance; the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, all of which not only share surveillance, but more generally a common language and culture (it’s no coincidence that these are the only white states of the old Commonwealth). ‘The citizens, companies, non-governmental organizations, and governments of America’s four Anglo-Saxon allies’, Babones continues,

participate directly in American global governance through their participation in a common cultural space of opinion formation, their close integration into the American economy (especially Canada and the UK), and their deep cooperation with the American security services. While these four countries are clearly ‘outside’ the United States itself they are to some extent ‘inside’ the institutions of American global governance.

The second circle includes the states of continental Europe, from NATO members to the developed countries of East Asia. These ‘allies’ of the United States

enjoy varying degrees of partial sovereignty in domestic affairs (subject to currency, investment, and trade openness) while ceding nearly all decision-making over foreign affairs […] They have voluntarily ceded to the United States the authority to make many of the decisions usually associated with sovereign authority – and could in principle seize it back. The fact that the states that govern every single developed country in the world today have chosen to align themselves, formally or (in a few cases) informally, with the American military alliance structure and the broader mechanisms of American global governance suggests that there may not be much sovereign freedom of choice in this decision after all.

‘The remaining states of the world’, on the other hand,

are subjected to compromised sovereignty: they (often loudly) proclaim the right of full legal sovereignty but are often unable to make this right effective. Those states that accept compromised sovereignty suffer peripheralization and economic colonialism. Those that do not accept compromised sovereignty face strong external push-back and internal pressure for regime change.

As we can see, Babones traces a homology between the three concentric circles of classical tianxia and American global hegemony, in a curious ode to the American empire which he even forecasts to last a millennium. Whilst he is at it, Babones might also do well to study the American variation of ru bia fa li, which it seems to pursue with far greater precision.

In all these discussions, however, lies an anomaly that is seldom grasped: Lindsay Cunningham-Cross and William Callaghan observe that, when writing one of the other key volumes to revive the concept of tianxiaAncient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power (2011) – the aim of author Yan Xuetong

was to learn from the experience of ancient China and its political philosophers in order to enrich and improve current understandings of international politics. Yan believes that texts originating from the period prior to China’s unification under the Qin dynasty (221 BC) are particularly useful to scholars today, because interstate relations during that era share many similarities with contemporary international politics. In addition, this period is often viewed as the apex of Chinese philosophy; pre-Qin texts are thus significant because of the sustained influence they have had on politics in the Chinese empire over the past two millennia.

No Westerner would ever think to exhume a concept from the epoch of Homer, or even Heraclitus, and apply it to the governance of the globalized world. When we call the Athens of Pericles a democracy, we do so firmly in the knowledge that this word didn’t carry the same meaning as it does today, twenty-five centuries later. For Chinese political philosophers, however, the contemporary rehabilitation of tianxia (and the quiet omission of ru biao fa li) seems quite straightforward.

This discrepancy leads us to a reflection on the different relationships of China and the West to their respective pasts. The West is currently subjecting its antiquity to a radical critique, a sort of damnatio memoriae due to the slavery, racism and misogyny of our ancestors: classical texts are metaphorically burned, and departments of classical studies are quite literally closing in many American universities (Europe usually follows suit after a couple of decades). The paradox is that this dismantling of our cultural past is made possible precisely thanks to the conceptual tools bequeathed by antiquity to the Renaissance and early modernity, tools which led to the Enlightenment (French and Scottish), and to modern political thought, out of which anti-slavery, antiracism and feminism emerge.

For the Chinese, this voluntary self-destruction of one’s cultural heritage is totally incomprehensible: in fact, it only reinforces the idea of something amiss in Western cultural development. A civilization which lacks respect for its ancestors must be somewhat off course. A curious phenomenon thus arises: the classics of Western thought are today studied more extensively in China than in the West, for it is in these very texts – Plato, Aristotle – that China looks for ways of interpreting Western politics. That is to say, they apply the tianxia recipe to the West (and by ‘the West’, China primarily means the United States).

In this hall of mirrors – what the French call an abîme, an abyss in which we lose ourselves – the great classicist Shadi Bartsch, after studying Mandarin for nearly a decade, has examined how the Chinese view the classics of Western antiquity. In 2019 she published an essay, ‘Plato’s Republic in the People’s Republic of China’, and will release a book next spring entitled Plato Goes to China.

This study of the Western classics is related to the revival of tianxia, for both converge in their demonstration of the inferiority of the Western political tradition. Chinese scholars, Bartch argues in a recent interview,

focus on Thucydides’s writings about classical Athens because Thucydides said what happened to Athens was, at first it was a great democracy. Then demagogues started getting into power, and the demagogues told the people what they wanted to hear as opposed to what they needed to hear. After Pericles’s death, they just catered to the Athenian democracy, with the result that bad decisions were made because they were selfish decisions, and eventually, the Athenian democracy collapsed.

The same will occur to the US, considered (wrongful) heirs to Athenian democracy:

The United States’ democracy is, in fact, very, very young. In fact, it really only dates back to the Voting Act of 1964 if you want to be inclusive. The full democracy is 50 years old, and the Chinese Dynasty has been around for 2,000 years.

It won’t take much for American democracy to go over a cliff. Chinese theorists though aren’t free from contradictions; just as they pass negative judgements on Athens,

they think of themselves as Athens, and they see the US as Sparta. Sparta is getting anxious because Athens is getting stronger. What does Sparta want to do? Sparta wants to squash Athens. They think that the West is very much invested in making sure that China does not become a global power on a par with the West, which I think is inevitable.

But perhaps this reciprocal suspicion, or incomprehension, is never as clear – as in the final example given by Bartsch:

There is a Chinese scholar whose name is He Xin, who argues that there was no Greco-Roman antiquity, that in the Renaissance, the Westerners were so embarrassed about the fact that China had this glorious dynastic past. It was the Middle Kingdom. It had all sorts of innovations in technology and civilization that the West didn’t have at that time, so the West decided to invent classical antiquity so they’d have something to boast about to China. All those texts by Plato and Virgil and Ovid that we’ve been talking about: somebody wrote them in the Middle Ages and then stuck a date on them – 12BC, 400AD – which is a very interesting way of dealing with the Western tradition.

The idea of antiquity never existing – that it is merely a late medieval invention – seems to be the most ingenious solution the problems that continue to torment our past and present.

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Read on: Susan Watkins, ‘America vs China’, NLR 115.

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Theory Daddy

It was a celebration of all the aspects of New York art and culture that Sylvère Lotringer had touched. November 2014: ‘The Return of Schizo-Culture’, staged under the dome at MoMA PS1. It marked the fortieth anniversary of the press Lotringer co-founded: Semiotext(e). Performers ranged from the musician John Zorn to the poet John Giorno.

Lotringer resisted thinking of Semiotext(e) as an avant-garde, but it certainly bears comparison to some of the historic ones. Maybe he reinvented their form or found a way to replace them. Semiotext(e) was certainly more than a publishing house. It was international, inter-generational. It combined workers in many media, who attempted to articulate their time in forms appropriate to it – and whose desires were to change life, or at least endure it.

Like many of the animating figures of the historic avant-gardes, Lotringer’s life was blown off course by war. Born to Jewish immigrants from Poland in Paris in 1938, he was kept hidden in the countryside during the occupation. After, he lived with his family in Israel, before returning to Paris in 1958 where he was active in the Zionist socialist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair. To avoid conscription in France’s war against Algerian liberation he enrolled in the École pratique des hautes études. He wrote a doctoral dissertation on Virginia Woolf under the direction of Lucien Goldmann and Roland Barthes.

Lotringer’s intellectual formation owes something not only to his teachers but also to movement work as a left-wing militant in postwar France. The everyday life of meetings, groups, manifestos, of publications aimed beyond the seminar room. For ten years he wrote interviews and articles ­– mostly on English modernist writers – for Les Lettres Françaises, edited by Louis Aragon, the former surrealist turned communist cultural commissar. Lotringer was never in the party but breathed the air of its extensive cultural milieu. One way of thinking about his life’s work is that he took the praxis of a militant cultural worker and turned it into an art form.

After bouncing around in Turkey, Australia, and Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, Lotringer landed at Columbia University in 1972, where he would teach for more than 30 years. With a handful of others, he started Semiotext(e) as a journal in 1974. The filmmaker Jack Smith thought Hatred of Capitalism would have been a better title. That is what the 2001 anthology was called.

The journal had several landmark issues, notably: Schizo-Culture (1978), Autonomia (1980), Polysexuality (1981) and The German Issue (1982). These featured a mix of theory and literature juxtaposed against arresting visual imagery and art. In 1983, Semiotext(e) launched its famous Foreign Agents book series, with Jean Baudrillard’s Simulations. These small black books, with no preface or blurbs, were central to creating the 1980s passion in the Anglophone world for theory.

Once, when he lamented to me how little he had written, I remarked that he had not written much writing but he had authored several authors. Jean Baudrillard, Paul Virilio and Félix Guattari came to exist as figures in American letters in large part through his efforts. Their reception via Semiotext(e) took a different path to the passage of French philosophy into the High Theory practiced in elite humanities institutions. In Lotringer’s hands, it became low theory, the lingua franca of creative workers, avant-garde artists, and downtown bohemians.

Columbia professor by day, Lotringer was also a figure of nightlife, which is where many of us first encountered his warmth and generosity, his curious yet detached, inscrutable engagement. He was not exactly of the East Village scene. He was usually slightly displaced from it. That too was something of a method, a psychogeographic technique of understanding an ambience of the city from its edges. He was, among other things, a nightlife ethnographer, comfortable among those doing their best to refuse work and daylight but not of them. What was contemporary and original in Semiotext(e) came in part from this double practice of learning from the seminar and the soirée, the enlightened and benighted.

Through day and night, work and play, Lotringer came to see a connection between the way New York artists and Parisian philosophers responded to the failure of the festival of liberation in the late sixties, the global crises of the seventies and the rightward turn of the early eighties. In both milieux he found turns toward the materiality of language, experimental practices in social forms, engagement with media as a deepening presence in everyday life, and a refusal of the politics of representatives and representations.

The 1978 Schizo-Culture issue of the journal came out of a conference of the same name that Lotringer organized with John Rajchman in 1975. It brought together William Burroughs, Kathy Acker and John Cage with Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari and Jean-François Lyotard. The poster for the event was emblazoned with quotes from Deleuze about desire and Foucault on power, which signalled the will to go beyond the Freudo-Marxist dispensations then a commonplace among the New Left.

The Polysexuality issue pushed further into ways of thinking the possibilities of sexual practices as neither utopian nor pathological. Famously, it was typeset in all capitals to slow the reader down, as he, she or they perused the material gathered between the front cover image of a man in erotic congress with his motorcycle and the back cover crime scene photo.

At a time when the Italian Communist Party exercised a certain fascination among left wing intellectuals elsewhere, Autonomia looked beyond it to the Italian far left. It introduced many Anglophone readers to the political and intellectual energies of Mario Tronti, Antonio Negri, Paolo Virno and Franco Berardi. The German Issue likewise looked beyond the increasingly bourgeois-liberal world of postwar critical theory to the margins where the liberal-social democratic pact had little to offer. It put Alexander Kluge next to Ulrike Meinhof. Lotringer extracted both issues at least in part through the kind of street and salon ethnography that yielded his insights into the connections between theory and the avant-gardes in New York.

Meanwhile, the Foreign Agents book series continued to offer intellectual provocations in bite-size chunks. Lotringer was a superb interviewer and made several interview-based books, including Pure War with Paul Virilio, Hannibal Lecter, My Father with Kathy Acker and Germania with Heiner Müller. All remain excellent introductions not just to the signature concepts of these writers but also to their singular intellectual practices.

While it came out in the book series, Still Black, Still Strong (1993) functioned a bit like one of the issues of the journal, although here Lotringer and his collaborators worked as editors in the service of documenting the theory and practice of the Black Panthers. The book includes contributions by Dhoruba Bin Wahad, Assata Shakur and Mumia Abu-Jamal.

In 1990, Lotringer’s partner and collaborator Chris Kraus proposed a second book series as a counterpoint and corrective to the Foreign Agents. Christened Native Agents, these books challenged the apparent universality of the speaking position in what had become by now the genre of theory. The books both anticipated and contributed to the turn towards situated knowledges, in which the author is no longer the universal enunciator of universal difference. The series includes authors such as Eileen Myles, Bob Flanagan, David Wojnarowicz and Situationist International co-founder Michèle Bernstein.

In 2001, Semiotext(e) moved its base of operations from New York to Los Angeles – tracking with the rise of alternate cultural energy there – and switched distributors from Autonomedia to MIT Press. Hedi El Kholti joined as managing editor. Without detracting from the energy and direction that Kraus and El Kholti have brought to Semiotext(e), it is a tribute to Lotringer that Semiotext(e) has been able to grow and adapt and incorporate them. It is now among other things a major publisher of New Narrative authors, including Dodie Bellamy, Kevin Killian and Robert Glück. They came out of a San Francisco scene where mostly gay and lesbian writers grappled with the limits of the novel as form for non-heterosexual, non-bourgeois lives, and with the impact of theory’s decenterings of subjectivity.

Lotringer’s own writing is sometimes overlooked. Despite the singularity of his project, it always involved collaborators, and some of his best writing is his dialogs with other writers. The big book never quite materialized, but fragments of that project exist, such as Mad Like Artaud (2015). That book extends Lotringer’s dialogic practice to the past, presenting Antonin Artaud’s madness as a kind of shared affect with all of those around him and after him, including Lotringer himself.

What I remember from nighttime conversations with Lotringer is that the larger project on which he was trying to work was a reading of Artaud, Simone Weil, Georges Bataille as anticipators of that fascism and commodification that would sweep across all of their lives. He saw them as attempting to divert fascism’s primal energies into rituals of expiation, and failing at the task. Postwar history then appears as the wake of that failure.

One could think of Semiotext(e) as distracting him from writing more than an essay on this project (published as The Miserables). Or, as I prefer to see it, one can think of Semiotext(e) as that book. The press is a kind of meta-writing. It’s a book written through many others, updated and revised as it went along. How prescient it was that Lotringer worked his whole life against the embers of fascism of which commodification is not the liberal extinguisher but the accelerant. It’s a project that seems now even more timely than in the decades of Semiotext(e)’s formation when the figure to rail and rally against was neoliberalism rather than neofascism.

In Kraus’s novel Torpor, a Lotringer-like character’s refrain is: ‘it could be worse.’ It’s the mantra of a survivor. Lotringer was incapable of the optimism that animated much of the postwar left. Rather, he gathered and connected the energies that might avoid the worst. He certainly published and encouraged writers of a more utopian bent, but more out of a sense of their value as components in the struggle to avoid the worst.

Lotringer appears as a character in several other books: I Love Dick and Aliens and Anorexia by Kraus; Great Expectations and My Mother: Demonology by Kathy Acker; Inferno by Eileen Myles. There’s traces of him in more fictionalized form elsewhere as well. He was made to be a character in literature because he was one of those rare people who, for a good many people, drew together a storied era and made it both intelligible and deeply felt. He could have that effect on students, artists, but also people whose lives did not end up centering intellectual or creative labour but needed nevertheless to understand the play of power and desire that shaped the limits and possibilities of their lives.

As I remember it, Lotringer would express a sort of wry ambivalence about the success of the kind of theory he fashioned in the commercial art world. ‘It’s a living’, he might say, and flash that grin. When concepts or modes of writing lost their counter-intuitive force he was inclined to move on. There’s a certain ongoing variation and revision one can find playing out all through the Semiotext(e) list. It wasn’t meant to become, as Deleuze and Guattari might put it, sedentary. It wasn’t meant to have too consistent an identity. Or as Foucault once put it: leave it to the police to see that our papers are in order.

Lotringer taught us certain tactics. To conduct one’s life as a discreet yet visible site of experimentation. To look for the play of concepts between one’s pleasures and one’s struggles. To not settle into too dense a representation of oneself, one’s desires, one’s politics. To find languages adequate to the moment and to find the historical resonances of that moment, perhaps outside narrative arcs one merely inherited, from family, school or party. For those who work and play in certain discrete – and discreet – ways, he remains a model. A kind of genial, encouraging, present yet reserved theory-daddy, I name I call and recall him with love and more than a little irony, camp and otherwise.

Read on: John Willett, ‘Art and Revolution’, NLR 112.