The Strange Death of Liberal England (Modern Library Nonfiction #82)

(This is the nineteenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: Vermeer.)

It was a picnic-perfect summer in 1914. The rich flaunted their wealth with all the subtlety of rats leaping onto a pristine wedding dress. The newspapers steered their coverage away from serious events to pursue lurid items about sports and celebrity gossip. A comic double act by the name of Collins & Harlan recorded an absurd ditty called “Aba Daba Honeymoon,” which Thomas Pynchon was to describe fifty years later as “the nadir of all American expression.” Few human souls twirling their canes and parasols in these conditions of unbridled frivolity could have anticipated that an archduke’s assassination in late June would plunge Europe into a gruesome war that would leave twenty million dead, permanently altering notions of honor, bloodshed, and noblesse oblige.

But even a few years before the July Crisis, there were strong signs in England that something was amiss. Politicians demonstrated a cataclysmic failure to read or address the natural trajectory of human progress. Women justly demanded the right to vote and were very willing to starve themselves in prison and burn down many buildings for it. Workers fought violently for fair wages, often locked into stalemates with greedy mining companies. They were intoxicated by a new militant brand of syndicalism from France then popularized by Georges Sorel. The atmosphere was one of increasing upheaval and escalated incoherence, even among the most noble-minded revolutionaries. The influx of gold from Africa inspired both lavish spending and an inflated currency. The liberals in power were supposed to stand up for the working stiffs who couldn’t quite meet the rising prices for boots and food and clothes with their take home pay. And much like today’s Democratic Party in the States, these tepid Parliamentary wafflers past their Fabian prime revealed a commitment to ineptitude over nuts-and-bolts pragmatism. They allowed the Tories to play them like rubes losing easy games of three-card monte. Amidst such madness, England became a place of oblivious tension not dissimilar to the nonstop nonsense that currently plagues both sides of the Atlantic. With the middle and upper classes keeping their heads in the clouds and their spirits saturated in moonbeam dreams and a bubble gum aura, is it any wonder that people were willing to incite war and violence for the most impulsive reasons?

George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England examines this crazed period between 1910 and 1914 with an exacting and quite entertaining poetic eye. Dangerfield, an erudite journalist who parlayed his zingy word-slinging into a teaching career, is somewhat neglected today, but his remarkable knack for knowing when to suggest and when to stick with the facts is worthy of careful study, a summation of the beautifully mordant touch he brought as a historian. He describes, for example, the “dismal, rattling sound” of Liberalism refusing to adjust to the times, and eloquently sends up the out-of-touch movement in a manner that might also apply to today’s neoliberals, who stubbornly refuse to consider the lives and needs of the working class even as they profess to know what’s best for them:

[I]t was just as if some unfortunate miracle had been performed upon its contents, turning them into nothing more than bits of old iron, fragments of intimate crockery, and other relics of a domestic past. What could be the matter? Liberalism was still embodied in a large political party; it enjoyed the support of philosophy and religion; it was intelligible, and it was English. But it was also slow; and it so far transcended politics and economics as to impose itself upon behaviour as well. For a nation which wanted to revive a sluggish blood by running very fast and in any direction, Liberalism was clearly an inconvenient burden.

Dangerfield knew when to let other people hang themselves by their own words. The infamous Margot Asquith, the starry-eyed socialite married to the Prime Minister who led England into World War I, is quoted at length from her letters to Robert Smillie, the brave union organizer who fought on behalf of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain. Asquith, so fundamentally clueless about diplomacy, could not understand why meeting Smillie might be a bad idea given the tense negotiations.

I did feel that Dangerfield was unduly harsh on Sylvia Pankhurst, one of the key organizers behind the suffragette movement. His wry fixation upon Pankhurst’s indomitable commitment — what he styles “the fantastic Eden of militant exaltation” — to starvation and brutality from the police, all in the brave and honorable fight for women, may very well be a product of the 1930s boys’ club mentality, but it seems slightly cheap given how otherwise astute Dangerfield is in heightening just the right personality flaws among other key figures of the time. The Pankhurst family was certainly eccentric, but surely they were deserving of more than just cheap quips, such as the volley Dangerfield lobs as Christabel announces the Pankhurst withdrawal from the WSPU (“She made this long-expected remark quite casually — she might almost have been talking to the little Pomeranian dog which she was nursing.”).

Still, Dangerfield was the master of the interregnum history. His later volume, The Era of Good Feelings, examined the period between Jefferson and Jackson and is almost as good as The Strange Death. One reads the book and sees the model for Christopher Hitchens’s biting erudite style. (The book was a favorite of Hitch’s and frequently cited in his essays.)

But it is clear that Dangerfield’s heart and his mischievous vivacity resided with his homeland rather than the nation he emigrated to later in life. In all of his work, especially the material dwelling on the United Kingdom, Dangerfield knew precisely what years to hit, the pivotal moments that encapsulated specific actions that triggered political movements. As he chronicles the repercussions of the June 14, 1911 strike in Southampton, he is careful to remark upon how “it is impossible not to be surprised at the little physical violence that was done — only a few men killed, in Wales in 1912, and two or three in Dublin in 1913; in England itself not a death. Is this the effect of revolutionary methods, and, if so, do the methods deserve the word?” He then carries on speculating about the pros and cons of peaceful revolution and ties this into the “spiritual death and rebirth” of English character. And we see that Dangerfield isn’t just a smartypants funnyman, but a subtle philosopher who leaves human possibilities open to the reader. He is a welcome reminder that seeing the real doesn’t necessarily emerge when you lock eyes on an alluring Twitch stream or a hypnotic Instagram feed. It comes when you take the time to step away, to focus on the events that are truly important, and to ruminate upon the incredible progress that human beings still remain quite capable of making.

Next Up: John Keegan’s The Face of Battle!

The Bat Segundo Show: Adam Hochschild

Adam Hochschild recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #396. He is most recently the author of To End All Wars.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Conscientiously objecting and objectifying consciousness.

Author: Adam Hochschild

Subjects Discussed: What is considered morally permissible in war, mustard gas, deadly military technology, Ray Bradbury’s “The Flying Machine,” the women’s suffrage movement and World War I, Emmeline Pankhurst and the Women’s Social and Political Union, splits within the Pankhurst Family, Women’s Dreadnaught, James Keir Hardie’s antiwar speeches, attempts to get socialists to agree, the duties of history to remember the losers, parallels between World War I and current wars, Osama bin Laden’s death, Wikileaks and the Czarist Archives, Margaret and Stephen Hobhouse, conscientious objectors, I Appeal Unto Caesar, Edmund Dene Morel’s hard labor sentence, the tendency of wealthy families and connections to carry more weight, Bertrand Russell, jingoistic writers during World War I, John Buchan’s imperialism, Rudyard Kipling, PG Wodehouse’s The Swoop!, the political stances of writers, contributions of famous writers to British propaganda, The 39 Steps, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes and Germany spy conspiracies, responding William Anthony Hays criticism about “stack[ing] the deck by presenting such particularly unappealing characters as foils to the pacifists and liberals he seeks to praise,” attempting to find positive qualities about Douglas Haig (World War I’s worst general), Winston Churchill, Sir John French’s likable qualities, Haig vs. General Eisenhower, the Lansdowne Letter, attempts to understand why the World War I peace movement failed to catch on, relativistic courage, untrained pilots going up against the Red Baron, and the dangers of speaking out what you believe in.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: It’s an unsuccessful story. Should history really be in the business of remembering the losers?

Hochschild: Well, first of all, for me, as a writer, it was a challenge to see if I could write a narratively interesting and emotionally meaningful story about a movement that failed. My last book was about the anti-slavery movement in the British Empire. That was a successful movement. Slavery did come to an end. These people failed to stop the First World War. But I still find them very, very much writing about. Because it takes a special kind of courage and nobility to go against patriotic madness that’s in the air. And very often, a movement like this, it doesn’t succeed the first time. We still haven’t stopped war today. We’re caught up in at least two unnecessary wars, in my view, in the United States right now. I would like to see people who opposed those wars take some inspiration from these earlier folks. Even though they failed.

Correspondent: On the other hand, I wanted to bring up your recent TomDispatch article, in which you draw parallels between our present times and World War I. I’m wondering if it’s an appropriate parallel simply because in World War I, there was considerably more death. Presently, you say, “Well, why aren’t we protesting the war?” Well, we did in 2003. It was the biggest protest in America against the conflict in Iraq.

Hochschild: Yeah.

Correspondent: So I’m wondering if really the parallels should line up or whether we should consider the full scope of any kind of war when considering it. Is there a danger here of parallel relativism? Or what? Maybe you can expand upon this.

Hochschild: Well, I don’t think the parallels to anything are ever exact or anywhere near exact when there’s nearly 100 years in between. But I guess some of the parallels I saw between the First World War and those that we’re in today are several. First, look at how the First World War started. Austria-Hungary was eager to make war on little Serbia next door. They felt the existence of Serbia was a threat. Because there were a lot of restless Serbs within the border of the old Austria-Hungarian Empire. They had actually drawn up invasion plans to invade Serbia and dismember it. Then Archduke Franz Ferdinand gets assassinated by an ethnic Serb, but an Austo-Hungarian citizen. And there’s no evidence that the top officials of Serbia’s government even knew about the assassination plot. But they immediately used this as an excuse to make war on Serbia. I see some resemblance between that and Bush using the September 11th attacks to make war in Iraq, which had nothing to do with those attacks. So when countries are hungering to go to war for one reason or another, they can easily use something as an excuse. That’s one similarity. I think another is that most of the time when a country starts war, they expect it to be over very quickly and easily. Kaiser Wilhelm II, when he sent his troops off to France in 1914, said, “You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees.” And the Germans had this masterplan that they’d worked on for years that very systematically and with great exactitude showed how they were going to subdue France, conquer Paris, and force the French surrender in exactly 42 days. Of course, it didn’t happen that way. But countries always expect it to happen that way. Like when Bush landed on the aircraft carrier in 2003 in front of that big sign MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.

Correspondent: Sure.

Hochschild: Well, I’m still not sure what the mission was in Iraq. But whatever it was, it hasn’t been accomplished.

Correspondent: Well, we just recently had another MISSION ACCOMPLISHED allegedly with Osama bin Laden.

Hochschild: Yeah.

Correspondent: And I’m sure you saw some of the New York Post headlines here. They were really, really grisly. On the other hand, I should point out that there is a fundamental difference between al Qaeda, which is networked all around the world, versus the German nation, which is starving, which is machine gunning the soldiers. And the soldiers on the other side are machine gunning them. And there’s this trench warfare and all that. There’s even a sense of gentlemanly accord in World War I that one doesn’t see in the present conflict. Especially when you also factor in communications. I mean, there’s nothing even close, parallel-wise, to Wikileaks, for example, that you could have in World War I. That’s why I’m unclear as to the parallels. Are the parallels more in the way that governments inform the people and governments persuade the people to become involve in a conflict? Or what?

Hochschild: Well, as I say, the parallels from a hundred years are never completely exact. But there was a sort of Wikileaks episode in World War I, which was this. In 1917, there came the two Russian Revolutions: the February Revolution, when they overthrew the czar, and the October Revolution, when the Bolsheviks seized power in a coup. At that point, the Bolsheviks got into the Czarist Archives and they made public all the secret treaties that Russia, France, and the agreements between Russia, France, and Italy had. That showed how the Allies were planning to divide up the possessions of Germany and its allies once the war was over. And it had tremendous reverberations. In the same way that the Wikileaks material did in recent months. Because it showed that even though the Allies liked the Germans — they were saying they were fighting to defend civilization itself — nonetheless, they’d actually drawn lines on the map as to how they were going to divide up spheres of influence in the Middle East, for example.

Correspondent: Okay. I wanted to shift back to conscientious objectors. The case of Margaret Hobhouse. She’s a well-to-do woman. Her son Stephen is imprisoned as a conscientious objector. This suggests to some degree — this whole incident where she writes a book that is, of course, ghostwritten by Bertrand Russell, I Appeal Unto Caesar — that it takes the rich or the privileged in order to shift things. Because she manages to persuade 26 bishops and 200 other clergyman to sign a statement arguing for more lenient treatment of COs. Similarly, in 1916, some COs are sent to France. They’re fed bread and water. They’re forced to the front line. The No Conscription Fellowship is on the case trying to seek them out. But, of course, because they don’t have this Hobhousian connection, it’s a great difficulty to track these folks down. At the beginning of 1918, there were still more than 1,000 COs behind bars. You have Basil Thomson noticing that pacifism was on the rise. Now this comes after I Appeal Unto Caesar was published. Why was there such a delay between 1916 and 1918 in drawing attention to these maltreated COs? Does it take a book? Does it take a privileged person speaking on behalf of COs to ensure humane treatment for all classes? What of this?

Hochschild: Well, obviously, at all times and places, I think that when the people from wealthy families and so on speak out loudly on behalf of something, their voices carry much more loudly. That’s unfortunately the way the world works. One thing that was interesting to me about the war resisters in Britain was that they came from across the class spectrum. You had people in jail like Stephen Hobhouse, who you mentioned, who was from this very ancient wealthy family filled with connections to lords and bishops and so on. And a very close friend of the family was in the Cabinet — Alfred Milner, who was minister without portfolio on charge of coordinating the war effort. At the same time, there were labor unionists in jail, who didn’t have those powerful connections. And these folks all felt a real sense of solidarity with each other across those class lines.

Correspondent: But was the book really the linchpin? I mean, I don’t want to draw any false correlations here, but I’m curious how this connection to Basil Thomson saying, “Oh, pacifism is on the rise.” Is that more the increased awareness of COs? Or is that more people in grief? Because bodies are coming back. Or they’re not coming back. And they’re getting messages that their loved ones are dead.

Hochschild: Well, actually, the book you mentioned by Margaret Hobhouse, because it was allegedly written by Margaret Hobhouse, who was the wife of a prominent churchman and a big landowner and everything, it had considerable effect. Although in fact Bertrand Russell secretly co-authored it. The book helped bring about the release of several hundred conscientious objectors who were in poor health in one way or another. But that’s about all it did. The government still kept locking up conscientious objectors who refused to do alternative service. It still cracked down with increasing harshness on people who spoke out against the war. Bertrand Russell, despite being himself being the son of an earl; he later inherited the earldom from his brother, was sent to jail for six months in 1918. Edmund Dene Morel, really the country’s leading investigative journalist, spent six months in jail for his antiwar writings. Served hard labor. And it broke his health and he died a few years later.

The Bat Segundo Show #396: Adam Hochschild (Download MP3)

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