Saturday, 27 July 2013

Review: David Caute, Isaac and Isaiah

I had my doubts about buying this book. I thought it might be parochial. In the event, the plot structure is clever. David Caute re-creates for us what academic and intellectual life in the US and UK was often like at the height of the Cold War, when Western governments and intelligence agencies channelled funds in friendly directions (Encounter magazine and such like) and Moscow could still rely on loyal support from a small number of able academics and writers, people who had formed their allegiances in the thirties and firmed them up in the War. It was a period when a great deal of the scribbling and teaching done in universities, and often enough broadcast on the radio, was of a more obviously "political"  than "academic" character, and that was true whether it was "Right" or "Left".

Caute works by focussing on the lives and careers of Isaiah Berlin (1909 - 1997) - wealthy, well-connected Oxford professor and Jewish emigrĂ© - and Isaac Deutscher (1907 - 1967) - prolific journalist,Marxist biographer of Stalin and Trotsky and Jewish emigrĂ©. And he particularises it still further to the animosity Berlin felt towards Deutscher, culminating in 1963 when  Berlin blackballed him from an academic appointment at the new University of Sussex - the subject of Caute's closing chapter 22. (At some point around 1969 - 70, I researched that story but I don't now know in what context and all I can recall is a visit to the North London home of Isaac Deutscher's widow,Tamara, and - though I can't put a picture to it - a candid conversation with Isaiah Berlin [ see Footnote] - who I did for sure once meet in his rooms at All Souls).

The book makes depressing reading for anyone who is a recluse. It is about people who did networking on a far grander scale than anyone (Tony Blair excepted) today. People whose address books bulged with contacts, world-wide, and whose correspondence stacked up into archives. In Berlin's case, they inhabited colleges which were the Oxford branches of London's gentlemen's clubs (or vice versa). In both cases, they had access to publications - like the Times Literary Supplement - which published your work anonymously, allowing you to puff up your chums and poop on your enemies. Caute provides numerous examples. No one seems to have heard of the idea of "declaration of interest". (As when I state before continuing: Berlin once in 1967 gave me and a friend a cheque for fifty quid to start a student magazine and told us to spend it on champagne if the idea didn't get off the ground - unfortunately, it did).

Caute's book ends abruptly, without any attempt to sum up. He provides much information which allows us to draw our own conclusions - Berlin comes across as a timid person who habitually trimmed his opinions to the person he was writing or speaking to, no matter if the result was support for opposites. More importantly, Caute does not really assess the work Berlin and Deutscher produced. Is there anything in it which is of enduring value, which stands the test of time?

I can't answer this question in relation to Deutscher for the simple reason that I don't think I have ever read more than a line of his work. I have never read the Biographies of Stalin and Trotsky, because at  the time (1960s - 1970s) I didn't read biographies (and I never met Deutscher so never had to mug up).

I do now read biographies but ones which have been able to access the Archives opened since the fall of the Soviet Union - Sebag-Montefiore on Stalin, for instance.

In relation to Berlin, I guess I  read quite a lot and as a university teacher I assigned the obvious ones, like Two Concepts of Liberty, as reading for student essays. But if you asked me now for a short judgement, I'd probably have to say that they belong as much to the higher journalism, to belles lettres, as to any obviously "academic" study. Perhaps no worse for that. (And as an undergraduate at Oxford, I was one of those who regarded Berlin's lectures in the Examination Schools as a high point of the week).

The remarkable thing about Caute's fairly detailed narrative is that though it chronicles a very recent cultural history - only finally terminated by the collapse of the Soviet Union - it reads like a story of things that happened a long time ago and in another country. I am sure Oxford colleges haven't changed very much, nor the London literary world (even if the Times Literary Supplement no longer gives anonymity to its reviewers). But still ... Only right at the end of this book, when Caute sketches Berlin's distaste for Hannah Arendt, did I feel I was reading something fresh and interesting - and those were the quotations from Arendt which Caute provides.


When I first saw the sub-title of the book, "The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic", I knew it would deal with the "Sussex Affair". I remembered that I had visited Tamara Deutscher and I was also sure (before opening the book) that Berlin had once told me that, yes, he had advised Sussex against appointing Deutscher - explaining that he was a member of an External Committee appointed to mentor (to use a word we would use now) the new University of Sussex. But I cannot recall any meeting with Berlin other than the non-adversarial meeting in 1967. It may be that I raised the Deutscher question then, even though it only got in to the public domain in early 1969 when Black Dwarf edited by Tariq Ali used the story. However, Caute does quote a 1969 letter from Berlin in which he says that prior to the Black Dwarf article, "I knew that there was some rumour among the students ...that I had somehow vetoed Deutscher, but this is perfectly false" ( p 283). So it's possible that I had heard the story in 1967 and asked Berlin about it then, in a context where he was not on the defensive - Phillip Hodson and I were in his rooms asking for his support and money for our magazine!

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Review: Vasily Grossman, An Armenian Sketchbook

I previously wrote about Vasily Grossman's Everything Flows  (see my Post of 9 June 2012), a book I found powerful and moving. The same can be said for this recently (2013) translated work An Armenian Sketchbook first published in an uncensored Russian version Dobro Vam in 1998. The book was written in 1961, submitted for publication in 1962, and appeared in censored versions in 1965 and 1967; Grossman had meanwhile died in 1964. 

The censored passages included all of the very interesting discussion of Nationalism in chapter 4 and the emotional heart of the final chapter (Chapter 12), a long, deeply felt narrative of an Armenian village wedding which culminates for Grossman in a speech by one of the guests ("the collective farm carpenter"), who addresses himself directly to the stranger invited to the wedding:
Martirosyan interpreted [ for me]. The carpenter was talking about the Jews, saying that when he was taken prisoner during the War he had seen all the Jews being taken away somewhere separate. All his Jewish comrades had been killed. He spoke of the compassion and love he felt for the Jewish women and children who had perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. He said how he had read articles of mine about the war, with portrayals of Armenians, and had thought how this man writing about Armenians was from a nation that has also suffered a great deal. He hoped that it would not be long before a son of the much-suffering Armenian nation wrote about the Jews. To this he now raised his glass" (page 191)
As if in reply, Grossman's book heaps praise on the Armenian peasants and workers, with whom he spent much of his time during his 1961 visit, in effect contrasting their wisdom and humanity with the shallowness he finds in officially-approved writers, in literary bureaucrats who he has to meet, and even in the officially-approved Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Vazgen the First:

Vazgen I ...was clearly not a great man. I calmed down [from my excitement at the thought of meeting him] not because he was kind and considerate but because I realised that he was unremarkable. I had already met many people like him (page 157) 
Grossman has rather more interesting things to say about the Armenian Church itself. He classifies it as essentially Pagan, where what matters is the performance of the rites and  the sacrificial slaughter of  the lambs, brought to the porch of churches to be blessed and then taken round the back to have their throats cut (I saw that happen when I visited Armenia in 1997). But if he had listened to Armenian church music, to the singing ( he visited Echmiadzin but it seems not on a Sunday) then I think he would have had to qualify that "Pagan" judgement.

The contrast between the two worlds of rulers and ruled does slip into sentimentality, perhaps Tolstoyan sentimentality. Peasants are as capable of terrible crimes as vicars of Christ. One has the sense that Grossman coming towards the end of his life and completely disillusioned with the Soviet system which he had served - and very successfully (even Stalin read his despatches as a War correspondent) - is looking for somewhere where we can place his hopes. He places his hopes in the People. It's not a dishonourable choice.
Probably I have said much that is clumsy and wrong. But all I have said,clumsy or not, I have said with love (page 194)

Departure of the Tourist Bus from an Armenian Village, 1997
Photo: Trevor Pateman

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Review: John Dickie,Mafia Republic

What is wrong with Italy? At the heart of Europe and the European Union, Italy ranks 72 out of 174 on Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index. Denmark and Finland share joint first place as least corrupt; Afghanistan, North Korea and Somalia are down there at 174.

It may be salutary to list some of the countries ranked less corrupt than Italy, for example: Botswana (ranked 30), Hungary (46), Georgia (51), Turkey (54), Namibia (58), Ghana (64), Romania (66) and South Africa (69). In other words, Italy is more corrupt than some countries in Africa and some countries in what was bad old Eastern Europe.

It gets worse. Towards the end of his book, John Dickie mentions in passing that in 2011 the World Bank ranked Italy 158 out of 183 countries "for the efficiency of its justice system in enforcing contracts". It was below Pakistan, Madagascar and Kosovo and just three places above ... wait for it ... Afghanistan (page 474). Enforcement of contracts includes such simple things as getting a customer to pay for goods supplied. This is a service which any modern state needs to provide; Italy's weak and corrupt state apparatus can't manage it - and that immediately creates a niche market, even today, for criminal organisations to step forward and offer to enforce contracts, for a price.

Dickie's book gives a large part of an answer to the question, What is wrong with Italy? In a review of  the post - World War Two history of Italy's three biggest Mafias - Sicily's Cosa Nostra, the Neapolitan camorra and Calabria's 'ndrangheta he shows them to be much bigger (thousands of people, not hundreds), much more robust and much more violent than one might - from a distance - imagine. He shows how they successfully infiltrated, manipulated and fed off Italy's post-War political parties, particularly the US- and Vatican-backed Democrazia Cristiana (the DC) . He documents how they spread corruption and fear in local and regional government thereby guaranteeing themselves lucrative contracts, particularly in construction and waste management, which littered southern Italy with shoddy housing developments and toxic waste.

He points out that the Vatican, Italy's fourth Mafia, (though he doesn't call it that I think it's an apt description) did not speak out against the other Mafias until 1993 when Pope John Paul II on a visit to Sicily made an unscripted attack on Cosa Nostra's "culture of death" (pp 384 - 85).

Dickie's book is full of short narratives documenting crimes of extraordinary Mafia violence. It is only at the end of his book that the reader realises that this is a little unbalanced insofar as the Mafias had and have other means of enforcing their will: for the first time, he mentions that a tell-tale sign that racketeers are at work is the incidence of a crime identified in Italy as "vandalism followed by arson", which occurs when firms fail to pay up for protection, and continues, "In 2011 , there were 2,246 cases of vandalism followed by arson in Sicily: the highest in any Italian region, and an increase on the preceding years" (page 467)

Dickie also devotes many fascinating pages to documenting the work of anti-Mafia magistrates and police often left unsupported or actively undermined in their work by corrupt senior figures in both the court and police systems and - of course - by corrupt politicians. It went and maybe still goes all the way to the top, with seven-times Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti heading the list (page 214)

It's a long book - 524 pages including the apparatus - but much, much better written than the average academic work: John Dickie is Professor of Italian Studies at University College, London

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Review: Frank Ledwidge, Investment in Blood

I reviewed Frank Ledwidge's previous book Losing Small Wars, about the British defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can find the Review in the June 2012 listing. When I saw this new book I didn't need any recommendation to buy it. Ledwidge is a heavyweight. He brings a background in military intelligence (the UKs military intelligence) to a critical analysis of the UKs disastrous failures in Basra and Helmand.

This time he looks at the costs of Britain's latest Afghan War, modelling himself on Stiglitz and Bilmes' Three Trillion Dollar War (2008), an economist's costing of the US invasion of Iraq. But he goes beyond that in continuing his critique of the political, strategic, and tactical failings of our political and military "policy" in Afghanistan.

Though he does not dwell on it (page 20), the Big New Mistake in the second phase of the Afghan War was the one made by Tony Blair in 2005 when he decided that in a fresh allocation of invading forces' responsibilities, the UK would take on  Helmand province, centre of Afghan opium production then and bigger centre of opium production now: 40% of all Afghan opium output in 2006 and 49% in 2012 (page 180). There were two very good reasons for not taking on Helmand: (1) it's a very big place and we didn't actually have enough troops to occupy it ; (2) the Helmandis have a specific hatred of the British, dating back to the previous Afghan Wars we have launched against them.

But even bigger than this mistake was the overall mistake of giving both political and military backing to Karzai and his gang of war lords and kleptocrats. Official UK aid to Afghanistan does not trickle down much farther than their pockets. We know this. Transparency International ranks 183 countries on its scale of governmental corruption; Afghanistan is down there in position 180, far worse than say Azerbaijan (at 143) where Mr Blair likes to hang out these days. Only North Korea and Somalia (which has recently acquired a  government to corrupt) are behind Afghanistan; Myanamar is equal 180th. (pages 146 - 48)

This known fact about what we are backing in Afghanistan is one reason why the British political class and its compliant civil servants (not many whistleblowers here) are determined to withhold as much information as possible on the costs of our prolonged Afghan adventure. Ledwidge repeatedly has to resort to best guesses, estimates and extrapolations from bits of known evidence. This is true for costs of military hardware and troop deployment; insurance and medical treatment costs associated with deaths, injuries, trauma both now and recurrent in the future; costs to the Afghan economy of our presence; costs of Afghan deaths, injuries and trauma.

It's an honest and unsparing book. There are two things missing.

First, recognition of the fact (stressed by Sherard Cowper-Coles in Cables from Kabul) that Afghanistan has neighbours: not just Pakistan but Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikstan, China and India. This is not a very encouraging list. But these countries have all paid a price for American-led adventurism in Afghanistan. And Pakistan has paid a heavy price for its former Imperial power's occupation of Helmand. Ledwidge does briefly discuss the consequences for British homeland security of the damage we have done in Helmand (pages 208 - 211). This line of thinking is one that urgently needs to be pursued.

Second, a link needs to be made to the analysis offered in David Keen's book Useful Enemies which argues that many wars drag on for years because there are stakeholders who have an interest in their continuation. Ledwidge does mention, more than once (pages 20 - 21 and elsewhere),  the "use them or lose them" remark attributed to General Sir Richard Dannatt when Chief of the General Staff (2007) suggesting that if troops did not deploy from Iraq to Afghanistan then they would be declared redundant in some round of defence cuts.

But it is more than that. There are stakeholders everywhere: Karzai and his chums trousering aid money; the Taliban taking bribes not to attack enemy convoys; drug lords providing income in an economy which cannot be normal while fighting continues; British politicians basically channeling tax money to the arms manufacturers on whom we rely to keep the unemployment figures down; the military trying to defend its turf; Prince Harry needing photo ops ... the list goes on. And now we have Britain's answer to Donald Rumsfeld, our Foreign Secretary William Hague, casting around - almost desperately -  for some new war to lose when the troops become free from Afghanistan. It's not the winning that matters; it's the taking part.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

The State of Publishing?

Reblogged from Private Eye, issue No. 1344 ( 12 - 25 July 2013), available at all good British newsagents price £1.50

Monday, 1 July 2013

Review: Adam Lebor, Tower of Basel

This book is part muck-raking journalism, part serious study and not always easily combined. It's credibility isn't helped by the poor quality of the proof reading - nowadays with so many unemployed graduates competing for work, you just don't expect to have to deal with typos. in the books you read.

It's subject matter is the history of the Bank of International Settlements, the BIS, an extra-territorial organisation physically located in Basel. It was created in 1930 as a bank for central banks and central bankers. The shareholders were the central banks, the number of whom belonging to the organisation has increased over time. It has always been extremely profitable, holding and moving around large sums of money for a very small number of institutional clients - Lebor gives a figure of 140 at some point. It co-ooperates with the Swiss National Bank - for example, using that bank's secure vaults to store the gold it holds on deposit. But Switzerland has no jurisdiction over the Bank and the bank's employees don't pay Swiss taxes. So it enjoys the kind of privileges a foreign embassy would have.

The muck-raking part of the book charts how the Bank developed through the 1930s as an instrument of Third Reich policy, to which the close relationship between Hjalmar Schacht of the Reichsbank and Montagu Norman of the Bank of England was essential. And when War came, though professing itself  "Neutral", the bank - like "neutral" Swiss banks - co-operated in handling looted assets - particularly gold. Even at the time, this became a scandal: there was an outcry when it was discovered that the BIS had transferred the gold deposits held in Basel by the Czech National Bank to the Reichsbank. The BIS said the Czech Bank had asked it to do this - but since Germany had just occupied Czechoslovakia and was pointing the guns, everyone knew that the Czech Bank was acting under duress. The BIS did not regard that as relevant - though the outcry did lead it to take a different line when the Soviets asked for the gold held by the Baltic states. That gold was frozen in Basel until the Soviet Union disintegrated and the Baltic States re-emerged as independent countries.

Perhaps more interesting is the way Lebor documents the way in which some Nazi thinking about post-war Europe - in which they assumed themselves the winners - anticipated the main lines of the integrationist policies which have been pursued since 1950 when the European Coal and Steel Community was created. That thinking was never abandoned: when German bankers and industrialists began (around 1943) to plan for a post-War in which Germany was the loser, they stayed with the integrationist idea as providing the best chance for an export-led reconstruction of German industry.

At the same time, the Americans were thinking along the same lines. The Question was this: How do we stop these European countries from going to war with each other, especially as we seem to get dragged in every time? And the answer was: We create a Federal system, we create a United States of Europe. That idea became even more attractive as the Cold War developed: a United Europe would counter-balance the Soviet bloc.

This very simple American policy is very much alive over half a century later. Only recently, President Obama has told the United Kingdom government that the UK belongs in Europe and that the Americans expect it to remain there. We can expect a concerted push by the USA - and that will include the usual slush funds and dirty tricks - to ensure that in any Referendum, British voters vote to stay in the European Union. Forget it UKIP, the future of the UK has been settled in Washington - as it has been since 1945 (remember Suez?)

What Lebor doesn't do - rather surprisingly - is point out that this convergence of Nazi, post - Nazi and American thinking about the Future of Europe created a very broad coalition in favour of European unity, both economic and political. And because some of it has now been around so long, we easily forget that unity can indeed have real advantages not just for elites in the corridors of the Bank of International Settlements (corridors in which the European Central Bank was planned and created) but for everyone. 

British tourists simply take for granted that they can go and buy as many €uros as they want before they jet off or drive off on holiday, that they can bring back what they want without having to pay import duties, that if they fancy buying a holiday home in Spain they can, and that if they drive down to it from Calais, there are no longer any border controls on the way. They do indeed need to be reminded that It Wasn't Always Like That and if it takes American slush funds to get that idea into their thick heads, all well and good.