Travels in Nihilon

A few more angry thoughts about the outbreak.

  1. This couldn’t have happened a hundred years ago – the kids would have felt ashamed and if not ashamed then afraid of the consequences. They would have known the shopkeepers back then, and probably many of the makers too.
  2. Luxury in the media has reached disgusting levels. There aren’t good role models. Even the survivalists and self-sufficientists (Tom and Barbara excepted) are inauthentically roly poly. Imagine a population of Ray Mearses and Hugh Fearnley Tits – the countryside would look as if locusts had been through.
  3. Advertising, product placement, game shows. Pernicious forms of aspiration. Having and getting, as a way of being yourself. They fuel the web, the free city papers and commercial television, and they helped to pressure cook what happened last week.
  4. Their parents aren’t able or willing.
  5. You can’t stick two fingers up at the police without committing a crime. There was a huge current of wanting to fuck the police. I’m not sure what else the police stand for in these kids’ minds, but definitely protection of something they don’t have a stake in.
  6. Can’t a sense of entitlement to luxury consumer goods turn into politics?
  7. Ed Miliband is right to worry about those who don’t feel they have a stake in society, but he is wrong to say it’s “ridiculous” to compare looters to bankers. There is plenty to compare about them. And these children grew up under a Labour government that believed in trickle down – the poor patiently waiting to receive the crumbs from the table of the rich.
  8. I feel for the police, like I always do. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t.
  9. Grant Shapps, David Cameron, and all who think like you – are you completely mad?
  10. Definitely the Spirit Level people are right. But it is possible to go too far with equality. If everything comes for free it makes people just as foul.
  11. Protection from the EDL? I’m for a nice big police force and a better IPCC.

Afterthought – another man died of his injuries last night. As well as thieves the arsonists and killers were abroad. I wonder whether they were opportunists waiting for their free run of the city, or whether they also stole, and whether thieves also burned and killed?

More afterthought: reading today’s Observer was a good experience. Peter Beaumont, who usually covers wars in other lands, has a substantial piece in which he talks to Clasford Stirling, one of those men I sometimes hear about who sublimate young rage into football. He says “The confrontation with the police before the looting happened. It was total anger. I’ve never seen young people face to face with the police like that.” And youthworker Alvin Carpio, who “says that … within the groups at the forefront of the trouble – criminal street gangs and local groups of youths who describe themselves as being in “gangs” – a sense of responsibility and loyalty does exist; it is simply misdirected. “There are communities within communities with their own rules”” and that “how for some with few paths available for them to follow, the figure in their community with the big car, the drugs and money appears to offer an alternative.”.

Also in The Observer, epidemiologist Gary Slutkin takes a public health approach to gang violence and rioting as if it were an infection. He questions conventional law enforcement of “community crackdowns, arrests and harsher penalities, heavy-handed suppression techniques, pointing to a (D.C.-based) Justice Policy Institute report (somewhere in their website?) which shows that these tactics have little of their intended effects but create deeper divisions between police and community.

Tracy McVeigh goes to the Hoxton the fashion students don’t visit, to interview nervous underfed kids in cheap, worn clothes who join gangs to defend their patch from the gangs in the next estate, or who have to scurry through the safest route to get a takeaway, and for whom youth clubs are one of a few safe spaces where somebody cares. Fewer than a quarter of those arrested for last week’s violence were under 18.

Tim Adams attends an overnight sitting at Horseferry Road magistrates court and is struck by the bleary eyed banality of the accused and the Dickensian quality of the prosecution. Yes, I’m with him to a certain extent. But he also completely excludes the victims from his reckoning. On the preceding page is a photograph of an 89 year old shop keeper, not very prosperous-looking, who lost everything. What about him? Nobody is much talking about restorative justice, but surely if these looters are so bewildered the morning after, it could work here?

Then I leafed through the Observer Magazine which is a stinky publication full of adverts for the kind of aspirational – i.e. useless, wasteful, environment squandering – products its journalists are now commiserating with people for stealing, and I felt kind of queasy. I get The Observer for the journalists but it makes me cringe in equal measures.

I listened to last year’s RSA debate between the authors of The Spirit Level and some of their critics. In a nutshell the critics query the evidence. They say that raising everybody’s wealth will improve outcomes on a wide range of health and social indices. I thought that the hypothesis that more unequal societies are worse was well defended – and not only in statistical terms. For example – and topically – Richard Wilkinson (one of the authors of The Spirit Level) on the link between inequality and violence,

“Because violence is triggered by disrespect, humiliation, loss of face, being looked down on an in a more unequal society we judge each other more by social status, competition increases and so people get more sensitive to it.”

“A reactionary view of the part played by women in politics”

My previous post about Robert Peston blaming men for the financial crisis put me in mind of the second volume of Arthur Koestler’s autobiography, The Invisible Writing (1969), in particular a passage from the Portrait of the Author as a Comrade chapter (p43 of my Vintage Classics edition) in which Koestler disgustedly blames women for their political lassitude and neglect.

It was very hard to read this because I have always strongly identified with Koestler in his other many failings, and so derived encouragement from what he achieved in spite of them. But I could not identify with what follows. In its self-awareness, it seems like a betrayal of all he purported to stand for.

“The tricoteuses of the French Terror had found their successors in the Valkyries of the Hitler era. I used this opportunity to confess that I have always held a reactionary view of the part played by women in politics. Taking history as a whole, female interference in matters of State seems to add up to a rather nefarious balance.”

For pity’s sake, man, don’t let yourself down any further. He continues:

“The male tyrants of history are on the whole cancelled out by an equal number of reformers…”

This is a good message for Robert Peston. If only Koestler had stopped there:

“…but where are the humanists to compensate for the long series of monsters, from Messalina to Catherine the Great, to Irma Griese of Buchenwald? There are countless books for boys about great men, and no books for girls about great women…”

Role models are very important, for sure. At the Rodchenko and Popova exhibition at Tate Modern, I was struck by the contrast between the self-disclosure of this man and woman passionately involved in the same movement. Rodchenko chronicled himself abundantly; of Popova we know little. I’m not sure why, but maybe it’s related to how, for centuries, society preached selflessness as a female virtue, a principle component of which was not to seek attention for oneself (for other historical female virtues, see Barbara Taylor’s RSA mag piece, to which I linked in my previous. None involves driving through social changes). Under these circumstances, self-esteem among women was surely in short supply. Nevertheless, here is one list of women social reformers which is both substantial and incomplete. And another. How could Koestler be so selectively blind?


“…yet an anthology about the harpies who left their imprint on history would be an international best-seller. I am talking of women who took a direct hand in politics; their indirect influence via their husbands is a different problem altogether – though even here it seems that they have acted on the whole more as catalysts of ambition than as neutralisers of aggression.”

This old canard – that women, like Eve and Lady MacBeth, manipulate men against the wider best interest – is emerging in some of the reactionary responses to Peston’s piece.

And this kind of thinking is, in a nutshell, why Koestler will never be thought of as one of the greats.

“We are all ex-Jews now” – Berlin, Deutscher, Koestler and their Jewish wars

Three of Kind: Isaiah Berlin, Isaac Deutscher and Arthur Koestler and their Jewish Wars

Bernard Wasserstein, University of Chicago
John Klier Memorial Lecture, UCL, 20th February 2008

Berlin, Koestler and Deutscher

Koestler, Deutscher and Berlin, as contemporary Jewish intellectual emigres born at the turn of the 20th Century in Eastern Europe – Hungary, Poland and Latvia respectively – were three of a kind. They were part of a generation of Jewish intellectuals which, between 1945 and 73 formed a cohort of thinkers with as much influence in Jewish culture as the thinkers of the Jewish Enlightenment, or Haskalah.

In other respects, and in a way which might be described as Freud’s ‘narcissism of small differences’, they were not three of a kind. They hated each other vehemently. Deutscher pronounced Koestler to have “less integrity than George Orwell”; Berlin “hated and dispised” Deutscher and blocked his position at the University of Sussex as “morally intolerable”. ‘Jewish Wars’ refers to the fierce public debates they had about the nature of Jewish identity, Israel, Zionism and the lessons to be learned from contemporary Jewish history.

Wasserstein’s well-attended talk was gripping. With its “He wrote… and he responded … then he said …” you could discreetly indulge, if you were that way inclined, a kind of tabloid prurience observable in The Guardian’s addiction to provoking and following fights between Jews and antisemites. But much more than this, in their day Berlin, Deutscher and Koestler were, without ceremony, what ‘Independent Jewish Voices’ self-consciously aspires to today. Learning about the debates fought between these three lays out the range and depth of responses Jewish intellectuals of that time had to Israel, Jewishness and Zionism, and in doing so sheds light on the influence of the Nazi genocide on Jewish intellectual thought in the years following the Holocaust, and helps to account for the activities of Jewish anti-Zionist intellectuals today. I think Wasserstein is onto a very good thing and await his book with impatience.

Berlin, Deutscher and Koestler

Deutscher was brought up in a Zionist family. He was said to be a Jewish prodigy but this has been questioned, as has the fable of the ham and butter sandwich he ate on the grave of the rebbe. He spent his politically active years as a Marxist secularist in the Jewish Labour movement, which he consistently insisted did not have an identity of its own

Koestler was an intellectual nomad of astonishing range – erstwhile Communist, Zionist turned anti-Zionist, ex-Jew, animal rights campaigner, founder of euthanasia charity Exit, endower of a chair in the paranormal at Edinburgh, intrepid Zeppelin explorer and author of three highly-regarded sex manuals. The monostrosities of his personal life are well-documented. Wasserstein, reporting that he preferred dogs to bambinos, tells us that he ‘almost trampled down a poor infant lecturer in a corridor’ – the two-year old Wasserstein himself. But his autobiographies were masterpieces (they are seriously some of the most exciting books I’ve ever read) of “zest, humour and insight”.

Berlin was a liberal individualist who penetrated to the heart of British society, educated at Corpus Christi, Oxford, staff of the Foreign Office and Ministry of Information, radio broadcaster, president of the British Academcy, and long-standing Zionist. Although related to the Lubavitcher rebbe, he described himself as “religiously tone deaf”. It was Berlin who coined the phrase ‘Holocaust’ in an Economist piece in 1946.

Jewish wars

Things first kicked off in the 1950s when Koestler became disaffected with the “Jewish dwarf state” saying that it might well be necessary but that any Jew who was not prepared to move there should resign from the Jewish people. He contended that ongoing attachment to Jewish identity in the diaspora was subject to “unwholesome environmental pressure which at best leads to [neuroses, or something like that] and at worst to Auschwitz”.

Berlin rejected Koestler’s demand that Jews choose between aliyah and apostasy as “petty tyranny”. Koestler wrote a long rejoinder, the only piece of his which the magazine Encounter rejected. Published elsewhere, it contained the statement ‘The liberal in retreat does not ask for freedom of choice, but freedom from choice.” Berlin responded by quoting Moses Hess (if I understood this correctly) that “nobody should be forced into a tidy solution”.

In the 1970s Koestler published The Thirteenth Tribe in which he discredited modern diaspora Jews as a pseudo-nation descended from Turkic peoples. His aim was a sort of cultural irradication of non-Israeli Jewishness from Europe. For many this was redolent of the Holocaust and appalling.

Deutscher rejected this, recalling how three days after the final suppression and liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Bundist Szmul Zygielbojm, a friend of Deutscher, had committed suicide in London, citing a lack of assistance for the insurgents on the part of Western governments, whose Bermuda Conference had come to nothing. From Zygielbojm’s suicide letter:

I cannot continue to live and to be silent while the remnants of Polish Jewry, whose representative I am, are being murdered. My comrades in the Warsaw ghetto fell with arms in their hands in the last heroic battle. I was not permitted to fall like them, together with them, but I belong with them, to their mass grave.

by my death, I wish to give expression to my most profound protest against the inaction in which the world watches and permits the destruction of the Jewish people.

Berlin, in the same 1946 Economist article as the one in which the term ‘holocaust’ was first attached to the genocide of the Jews, said that he would have preferred 6 million to survive and Jewry to perish.

All three despised the Anglo-Jewish bourgeoisie for pusillanimously hiding its Jewishness. Deustcher was particularly loud about Jewish intellectual identity. Each was distinctively non-Jewish in speech; each a stylist of the English language and all retaining their mother tongue – Russian, Polish and Hungarian respectively. None retained or learnt Hebrew or Yiddish – Wasserstein wonders whether this was willful.Nor were they attached to Israel – Deustcher was furious after 1967 and the beginning of the occupation. Berlin couldn’t stand Menachem Begin.

None of these three would exploit the Holocaust for political gain. Koestler, who had sounded the alarm like Cassandra throughout the war, felt the futility of “the old labelled names” – Jewish names – attempting to talk about the Holocaust. (It’s ironic now that talk of the Holocaust is most rapturously received by those who like Finkelstein are revising its memory, or like Pappe are neutralising it through demonising references to Israeli Jews). Deutscher, formerly an anti-nationalist anti-Zionist later described himself as “not a Zionist though I’m not against Zionism now. I have long since renounced my anti-Zionism”. Each resisted and disdained perhaps the most powerful Jewish pressure of their day, the attempts to turn the Holocaust into a spurious premise for Jewish identity. Wasserstein interprets their Jewish wars as identity struggles during a shift in the intellectual cenre of gravity from the collective to individual self-understanding which eclipsed the relatively closed Jewish world. Koestler, Berlin and Deutscher as remnants of a diaspora (did the diaspora in some way cease to exist when Koestler said so, then?) metamorphosed into something else: “we are all ex-Jews now”. The 1965 publication of The God That Failed, edited by Richard Crossland, to which Koestler contributed, set up a struggle between Communists and ex-Communists, with an underlay of struggle between Jews and ex-Jews. It is the exes, observes Wasserstein, who appear to be winning the battle.

UPDATE March 09: You can now obtain Wasserstein’s text in English – 35 pages including references and bibliography – from the Menasseh Ben Israel Instituut. Wasserstein, B. (2009). Isaiah Berlin, Isaac Deutscher and Arthur Koestler: Their Jewish Wars. Menasseh Ben Israel Instituut Studies 11. ISBN 978-90-806570-6-9. Contact the author about the publication in translation.

What is solidarity?

Academic Friends of Israel. Hitherto I never got further than the name – how can you be a ‘friend’ to a state, with the partiality and unconditional approval that implies? In a consumerist way, of the kind Nick Cohen talks of in What’s Left, I haven’t given them much attention. But I met somebody from AFI recently, and accepted his card with Nick Cohen’s words on solidarity in mind.

Solidarity, what’s that? Is it when you throw your lot in with people or groups whose values you do not accept wholesale, in order to achieve a common aim? When Anthony Julius opts to combine efforts with controversial and right-wing Alan Dershowitz on the specific project of opposing the boycott, is that solidarity? When the Neturei Karta demonstrate against Israel alongside Hezbollah, what’s that?

Somebody – a thoroughly decent revolutionary Socialist – told me that some parts of the anti-boycott campaign were too Jewish to have any credibility. Faced with a similar situation, Arthur Koestler, David Cesarani believes, was pragmatic. Jewish to his core, he buried that part of his public identity in order to more credibly – because less apparently self-interested – campaign for a State of Israel. Maybe he believed that solidarity can only happen between ostensibly diverse people, else it assumes a clannish quality. His times were accutely antisemitic – maybe he sought to purify his reputation and avoid suspicion of pulling strings for his clan. Maybe he believed that most people thought that Jews were instrinsic schemers and sought to disassociate himself so he could get on with the job of supplying them with a refuge. At any rate, he was by Cesarani’s account very successful.

On Normblog, Shalom Lappin urges a broadening out of the anti-boycott campaign,

“… to engage the large reservoirs of moderate British opinion in the struggle against this hostility by exposing it for what it is. This requires us to approach fair-minded people with a call to stand against it that they cannot easily set aside. “

He means that Jews alone – and understandably, hitherto it has been Jews or people from Jewish backgrounds who have been most sensitive to and active against the boycott – cannot make the arguments effectively. That is sad, frightening and probably correct.

I’m not one to disassociate myself from right-minded people or groups for reasons of credibility, in the absence of other ethical reasons – particularly when I believe as in this case that to do so is to leave a time bomb still ticking. So that is one step towards solidarity. What would be a real feat would be to get Academic Friends of Israel talking – loudly – about a viable state for Palestinians.

Ordered United We Stand by Alistair Reid.

Oh – and my great uncle? A Church of England minister ūüôā

A letter by Arthur Koestler used by the New Statesman to draw simple comparisons

From the New Statesman archive, 16 August 1947 – Robert Taylor’s commentary observes what he seems to find ironic – that “The argument to explain Jewish terrorism in 1947 could be applied equally to Arab terrorism in Palestine today.” If we take this literally, then he’s right. But – and Arthur Koestler lost half his friends to Stalin and half his family to Hitler so when he describes himself as a ‘sympathiser with terrorists’ I recoil but I at least listen – these are different times and the argument to which Taylor wishes to draw our attention cannot as he suggests be applied wholesale on behalf of Palestinian terrorists.

Firstly, Robert Taylor calls the murderous acts ‘Jewish terrorism’ as if they were sanctioned by Jews as a whole – but this act was perpetrated by the Irgun, an urgently Zionist organisation which was publicly disowned by the Zionist establishment. Secondly, the murdered soldiers who prompted the letter were captured and hanged as a reprisal for the Royal Navy’s interception and detention of the Exodus, a ship which was carrying Jewish refugees who had boarded in Marseilles without papers and illegal immigrants under British Mandate terms in the hope of finding refuge in the Jewish National Home promised in the reneged-upon Balfour Declaration. They were Holocaust survivors – traumatised, severed of their roots, bereaved, dispossessed and desperate. The Navy eventually – inhumanely – returned them to Germany and DP camps. The Labour government’s policy was to block partition and immigration at that time, in its attempts to protect Britains interests in the Arab region. Members of the Irgun were not the only ones to be incensed by the callousness of the British Government with respect to Jewish immigration, particularly since the late ’30s – there or in the other countries it controlled. Thousands or millions might have survived had this policy been otherwise.

When the manner of the soldiers’ deaths became known, there were riots against Jews in Britain, heavily reminiscent of Kristalnacht, which sent Arthur Koestler into a consternation and prompted his advocacy of the Irgun.

The arguments Robert Taylor suggests can be taken from Arthur Koestler’s letter can be summarised as follows:

  • Anyone can be brutalised into becoming a terrorist – all Palestinian terrorists have lost family to genocide

The first part may not be true (Jenny Tonge fell foul of making a similar point), and the second is not the case. Claims of Jewish-perpetrated genocide in the War of Independence which followed the end of the Mandate in 1948 are widely rejected – a number of deplorable village massacres does not amount to ethnic cleansing.

  • Palestinians are denied a homeland to appease Jews

75% of Israelis (according to OneVoice) are in favour of the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. But while Hamas, Hezballah and Ahmedinejad (to name a few names) dispute Israel’s right to exist then there are good reasons for Israel to go slow on this. Unless Robert is implying that the UN persists in recognising the existence of an illegitimate Jewish stated which overlays the legitimate Palestinian state to appease the Jews – that’s another reading to the above but even I find it far-fetched.

  • Partition is “hard luck” on Jews, but don’t worry because they’re used to hard luck – and look, they’re really thriving on it

When Arthur Koestler wrote his letter in 1947, the Jews were not thriving on their hard luck – they had been decimated by the Holocaust. Many people believe that the establishment of Israel was the best thing that happened to Jews in thousands of years. For most Jews (occupied territory settlers aside) the creation of Palestine, which doesn’t on the whole involve partition of territory claimed as Israel’s, but the ceding of the Occupied Territory (and the seriously thorny issue of Jerusalem), is more a matter of security and ongoing existence than of rights to land. And these are times when antisemitism is on the rise (see the Parliamentary Committee on Anti-Semitism report –, and with the ominous suggestion that the homes Jews have found in their countries of residence are only temporary perches.

The fact that this letter is worth revisting notwithstanding, if Robert Taylor wants to draw comparisons, he should not set up straw man arguments. It panders to what is already wrong with public opinion about the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel.

David Cesarani on Arthur Koestler, London Jewish Cultural Centre

Some disappointments tonight Рthrough no fault of David Cesarani Рand a scare.

The scare happened on the way as I walked alongside the heath between Hampstead Heath BR and Golders Green – there’s a very dark stretch where the road sinks between steep banks and the single¬†pavement’s is¬†raised with iron railings on one side and scrubby heath on the other. As I walked along the pavement thinking that it was rather dark and very very quiet,¬†grunting, moaning and breathing began abruptly to my right. I looked round quickly and saw a pervert exhibitionist wanking himself off on the opposite bank. Words failed me once again, and I trotted away towards the lights at the bottom of the hill, half expecting him to run across the road, vault the railings and force me to do something or other.

The disappointments were that David Cesarani had only bought 4¬†copies of¬†The Homeless Mind to sell none of which I could get my hands on, and that¬†hedecided to focus on Arthur Koestler’s Jewishness and Hungarianness rather than some of the other things I’m insterested in. The main point DC makes is that Arthur, while constantly reminded that he was Jewish, chose to suppress this facet of his identity because he judged that it would damage his credibility as a critic of Communism, which many viewed as a Jewish system. I have been reading The Homeless mind in a patchy way to flesh out the existing¬†knowledge I have of AK from his autobiogs, so I don’t know if DC also extended this theory¬†to AK’s Cassandra-like ‘screaming’ about the holocaust. What has been bothering me about AK for a little while now – and DC deals fairly strictly with him –¬†¬†is the discrepancy between his often scrupulous, even¬†self-abasing modesty¬†in his autobiographies, and a) his propaganda work for Willi Muenzenberg (which he explains away as a symptom of the¬†desperate polarised¬†’30s), and¬†the dishonesties and¬†misinterpretations¬†uncovered by DC. Maybe it’s meaningless, but it seems that the stuff poor old Arthur is most preoccupied and guilty about is not the stuff those who later commented felt was¬†the right stuff. How could he be so lucid about his own character, and hold the idea of truthfulness so dear, but at the same time have these blind spots. The last disappointment was that mine was the last hand up and he didn’t have time for that question, but I don’t think it would have been a particularly good question. He was a propagandist, in the end, and can’t be trusted¬†on any level¬†–¬†maybe that started in¬†the Muenzenberg years, maybe it was always there.

Arthur Koestler is so right

when he writes, of the Reichstag Fire Trial:

It had taught me that in the field of propaganda the half-truth was a weapon superior to the truth and that to be on the defensive is to be defeated. It taught me above all that in this field a democracy must always be at a disadvantage against a totalitarian opponent.” (1954, The Invisible Writing. London: Random House. p249).


Arthur Koestler

I read Arrow in the Blue with mounting excitement. Halfway through The Invisible Writing, I feel that he has anticipated my most nagging ideas and made sense of them. We’re of an ilk – same temperament, same values*, same outlook. Which is worrying, because I’m all over the place myself, and he’s not very highly regarded in the area of philosophy. But I should dismiss as fancy the feeling that if I read all his books plus his biogs I’ll see my own future.

(*A big exception – on all levels he betrays women. I think his biographer David Cesarani records that he hit and/or raped his wives. He’s not my hero.)