I was recently recommended Chronicles of Wasted Time the autobiography of Malcolm Muggeridge. It was a good choice, and not just because its title appropriately described my expectations about reading 500-page books on people’s recommendation. Muggeridge is an obvious reactionary, but one with the personal and historical credentials to pull it off with the utmost class and credibility.
He describes his birth in 1903 to a family of committed British socialists. Their heroes were Karl Marx, George Bernard Shaw, and Fabian leaders Sidney and Beatrice Webb. These last two I had only the slightest familiarity with, but Muggeridge paints a picture of them as the progressive titans of his day, boasting a combination of Chomsky’s intellectual leadership and the Clintons’ network and political acumen. Throughout Muggeridge’s youth, his family would host meetings, sing socialist songs, run for various minor offices on the socialist ticket, and exchange correspondence with intellectual worthies. They even flirt with, though never quite join, an experimental commune being set up in their area, about which Muggeridge has the best stories:
The land was cheap in those days, and they acquired it by purchase; then, to demonstrate their abhorrence of the institution of property, ceremonially burnt the title deeds. It must have been a touching scene – the bonfire, the documents consigned to the flames, their exalted sentiments. Unfortunately, a neighboring farmer heard of their noble gesture and began to encroach on their land. To have resorted to the police, even if it had been practicable, was unthinkable. So after much deliberation, they decided to use physical force to expel the intruder; which they did on the basis of a theory of detached action, whereby it is permissible to infringe a principle for the purpose of a single isolated act without thereby invalidating it. The intruding farmer was, in fact, thrown over the hedge in the presence of the assembled Colonists. There were many such tragi-comic incidents in the years that followed; as well as quarrels, departures, jealousies, betrayals, and domestic upsets. In the end, the Colonists found it necessary to reestablish their title to the land by means of squatters’ rights, and then proceeded to bicker amongst themselves as to who should have which portion.
But he and his family are convinced that all of this is just a momentary hiccup on the road to Glorious Progress. Indeed, his teenage years are marked by a burning excitement at the Russian Revolution:
We called the Metropolitan Mounted Police ‘Cossacks’, rejoiced over early Soviet films like ‘Mother’ and ‘The Battleship Potemkin’, spoke of workers’ control and cadres and agitprop, and I personally decided inwardly that sooner or later I would go to Russia and throw in my lot with the new and better way of life that, I was confident, was coming to pass there.
Against this enthusiasm, he had only a personal tendency which he describes as a deep-set conviction:
…that I was born into a dying, if not already dead, civilization, whose literature was part of the general decomposition; a heap of rubble scavenged by scrawny Eng Lit vultures, and echoing with the hyena cries of Freudians looking for their Marx and Marxists looking for their Freud…a Gaderene descent down which we all must slide, finishing up in the same slough.
By the same token, a strange certainty has possessed me, almost since I can remember, that the Lord Mayor riding in his coach, the Lord Chancellor seated on his Woolsack, Honorable and Right Honorable Members facing one another across the floor of the House of Commons, were somehow the end of a line. That soon there would be no more Lord Mayors, Lord Chancellors, Honorable and Right Honorable Members, the Mother of Parliaments having reached her time of life or menopause, and become incapable of any further procreation…
Doubtless other glories lie ahead. Bigger and better capsules carried to the moon; down in the test tube something stirs; ‘I think, therefore you’re not’ says the computer. We all know, though, in our hearts, that our old homestead is falling down; with death-watch beetles in the rafters, and dry rot in the cellar, and unruly tenants whose only concern is to pull the place to pieces.
This feeling – that everything around him was in a state of permanent decay – was not so far-fetched given that he spent much of his early adulthood in the far-flung territories of the crumbling British Empire. But it soon becomes clear that it’s more than a natural reaction to the political realities of the time. He describes again and again looking on something apparently healthy enough and being overwhelmed with a feeling of impending sickness and decay. He describes T.S. Eliot as “a death-rattle in the throat of a dying civilization”, Shaw as “too encased in his own narcissism, too remote from real life to do more than grimace at it through a long-distance telescope”, and the great reformers and abolitionists of the age as:
…solemn funeral mutes in the long obsequies of western civilization; as they fell by the way, others coming forward to take their places. Now the time has nearly come for the coffin to be actually interred. Then at last their occupation will be gone forever.
I sometimes have patients with very severe depression who tell me that everything they look at is infested by maggots. They won’t eat, because the food is infested with maggots. They won’t hug their children, because their children are infested with maggots. Sleep disgusts them, because the bed is infested with maggots. Et cetera.
And other times, when they have a little more insight, they’ll say something like “Okay, my food isn’t literally infested by maggots, but I get this feeling from it, this overwhelming feeling, such that the feeling would only make sense if the food was infested by maggots. I know deep down it’s not infested by maggots, but it has some metaphysical quality which only things infested by maggots have.”
Poor Malcolm Muggeridge feels this way about everything. One of the most poignant episodes in the book takes place the worst night of the London Blitz, when Muggeridge runs around the burning city, almost euphoric, because finally his inner conviction that everything is on fire and collapsing is reflected in everything really being on fire and collapsing, and nobody can pat his head and patronizingly tell him that it isn’t:
I remember particularly Regent’s Park on a moonlit night, full of the fragrance of the rose gardens; the Nash Terraces, perfectly blacked-out, not a sign of a light anywhere, white stately shapes waiting to be toppled over – as they duly were, crumbling into rubble like melting snow…I felt a terrible joy and exaltation at the sight and smell and taste and sound of all of this destruction; at the lurid sky, the pall of smoke, the faces of bystanders wildly lit in the flames. Goebbels, in one of his broadcasts, accused us of glorying obscenely in London’s demolition. He had a point, but what he failed to understand was that we had destroyed our city already before the Luftwaffe delivered their bombs; what was burning was no more than the dry, residual shell.
The only things that seem to give him any kind of brief reprieve from the maggots are church services, classic literature, quiet domestic life with his wife and 2.4 children, and rural country fields.
And he is convinced, absolutely convinced, that he should be a socialist and go move to the USSR.
This goes approximately as well as you would expect.
After graduating college, which he dislikes because maggots, he gets a couple of jobs at various far-flung British Empire outposts, which he hates. Then, somewhat by coincidence, he ends up in journalism.
His reaction to journalism is an increasing terror that this might be his calling. He is very good at it, takes to it like an old veteran almost immediately, feels in some strange way that he has come home – but the entire enterprise fills him with loathing. He watches in horror how easily the words flow on to the page when his puppet-masters tell him to argue for a particular cause, how fluidly he takes to idioms like “It is surely incumbent upon all of us to…” and “there can be no one here present who does not…”. He writes:
So I began, and the words seemed to come of themselves; like lying as a child, or as a faithless lover; words pouring out of one in a circumstantially false explanation of some suspicious circumstance. The more glib, the greater the guilt…it is painful to me now to reflect the ease with which I got into the way of using this non-language; these drooling non-sentences conveying non-thoughts, propounding non-fears and offering non-hopes. Words are as beautiful as love, and as easily betrayed. I am more penitent for my false words – for the most part, mercifully lost forever in the Media’s great slag-heaps – than for false deeds.
But Malcolm Muggeridge isn’t going to take this lying down! Malcolm Muggeridge has a plan! Malcolm Muggeridge is going to escape this duplicitous charade of lies and petty propaganda. Malcolm Muggeridge is going to move to Stalin’s USSR.
So he does.
He gets a job as The Guardian‘s Russia correspondent and sets off for Moscow with a host of other British intellectuals, heading for what all of them expect is the Promised Land. The mood on their ship is electric; he describes them all singing, sure that they are leaving behind this wretched bourgeois world for the Golden Future:
On their way to the USSR they were in a festive mood; like a cup-tie party on their way to a match, equipped with rattles, coloured scarves and favors. Each of them harboring in his mind some special hope; of meeting Stalin, or alternatively, of falling in with a Komsomolka, sparkling eyed, red scarf and jet black hair, dancing the carmagnole, above all, with very enlightened views on sex, and free and easy ways…oh, to be in Russia, now that Stalin’s there!
His excitement dissipates relatively early; he finds that the Soviet journalistic world fails to live up to his expectations:
Being a correspondent in Moscow, I found, was, in itself, easy enough. The Soviet press was the only source of news; nothing happened or was said until it was reported in the newspapers. So all I had to do was go through the papers, pick out any item that might be interesting to readers of the Guardian, dish it up in a suitable form, get it passed by the censor at the Press Department, and hand it in at the telegraph office for dispatch. One might, if in a conscientious mood, embellish the item a little…sow in a little local colour, blow it up a little, or render it down a little according to the exigencies of the new situation. The original item itself was almost certainly untrue or grotesquely distorted. One’s own deviations, therefore, seemed to matter little, only amounting to further falsifying what was already false.
This bizarre fantasy was very costly and elaborate and earnestly promoted. Something gets published in Pravda; say, that the Soviet Union has a bumper wheat harvest – so many poods per hectare. There is no means of checking; the Press Department men don’t know, and anyone who does is far, far removed from the attentions of foreign journalists. Soviet statistics have always been almost entirely fanciful, though not the less seriously regarded fro that. When the Germans occupied Kiev in the 1939-45 war they got hold of a master Five Year Plan, showing what had really been produced and where. Needless to say, it was quite different from the published figures. This in no way affected credulity about such figures subsequently, as put out in Russia, or even in China.
Hey man, don’t knock China, they’re doing great! Their GDP rose 7% this year! It must be true! The Guardian tells us so!
But getting back to the story…although it is clear to him that the Soviet economy is struggling, every dispatch they are given to send home declares that things are better than ever, that the Workers’ Paradise is even more paradisiacal than previously believed, that the evidence is in and Stalinism is the winner. It doesn’t matter what he makes of this, because anything he writes which deviates from the script is rejected by the censors, who ban him from sending it home. He is reduced to sending secret messages at the bottoms of people’s suitcases, only to find to his horror that even when they successfully reach the Guardian offices back in Britain, his bosses have no interest in publishing them because they offend the prejudices of its progressive readership. Finally, he finds himself a part of the elite fraternity of western journalists on the Soviet beat, who maintain their morale by one-upping each other in how cynical and patronizing they can be towards their Russian hosts and their credulous readers back home:
We used to run a little contest among ourselves to see who could produce the most striking example of credulity among this fine flower of our western intelligentsia. Persuading church dignitaries to feel at home in an anti-God museum was too easy to count. So was taking lawyers into the people´s courts. I got an honourable mention by persuading Lord Marley that the queueing at food shops was permitted by the authorities because it provided a means of inducing the workers to take a rest when otherwise their zeal for completing the five-year plan in record time was such that they would keep at it all the time, but no marks for floating a story that Soviet citizens were being asked to send in human hair – any sort – for making of felt boots. It seemed that this had actually happened.
And he remembers the contempt of these grizzled veterans for the steady stream of Western tourists, intellectuals, and general Stalin fanboys who arrived to gawk over the Glorious New Civilization:
I have never forgotten these visitors, or ceased to marvel at them, at how they have gone on from strength to strength, continuing to lighten our darkness, and to guide, counsel and instruct us. They are unquestionably one of the wonders of the age, and I shall treasure till I die as a blessed memory the spectacle of them travelling with radiant optimism through a famished countryside, wandering in happy bands about squalid, over-crowded towns, listening with unshakeable faith to the fatuous patter of carefully trained and indoctrinated guides, repeating like schoolchildren a multiplication table, the bogus statistics and mindless slogans endlessly intoned on them. There, I would think, an earnest office-holder in some local branch of the League of Nations Union, there a godly Quaker who had once had tea with Gandhi, there an inveigher against the Means Test and the Blasphemy Laws, there a staunch upholder of free speech and human rights, there an indomitable preventer of cruelty to animals, there scarred and worthy veterans of a hundred battles for truth, freedom, and justice – all, all chanting the praises of Stalin and his Dictatorship of the Proletariat. It was as though a vegetarian society had come outwith a passionate plea for cannibalism, or Hitler had been nominated posthumously for the Nobel Peace Prize.
His final break with the rest of the enlightened progressive world comes when he decides to do something that perhaps no other journalist in the entire Soviet Union had dared – to go off the reservation, so to speak, leave Moscow undercover, and see if he can actually get into the regions where rumors say some kind of famine might be happening. The plan goes without a hitch, he passes himself off as a generic middle-class Soviet, and he ends up in Ukraine right in the middle of Stalin’s Great Famine. He describes the scene – famished skeletons begging for crumbs, secret police herding entire towns into railway cars never to be seen again. At great risk to himself, he smuggles notes about the genocide out of the country, only to be met – once again – with total lack of interest. Guardian readers don’t look at the newspapers to hear bad things about the Soviet Union! Guardian readers want to hear about how the Glorious Future is already on its way! He is quickly sidelined in favor of the true stars of Soviet journalism, people like Walter Duranty, the New York Times‘s Russia correspondent, who wrote story after story about how prosperous and happy and well-fed the Soviets were under Stalin, and who later won the Pulitzer Prize for his troubles.
Muggeridge, on the other hand, penurious from lack of interest in his stories, fearing for his safety from the Soviet government, and generally disgusted with everything – even more so than usual for a world infested with maggots – decides to get the hell out of Dodge. He’s had enough of Russia, enough of Communism, enough of that entire part of the world. He’s going somewhere safe, somewhere decent. He’s going somewhere that will renew his crumbling faith in humanity. He’s going to Nazi Germany right as the anti-Jewish pogroms are starting.
Well, to make a long story short, this doesn’t restore his faith in humanity. He hangs out in Berlin for a while, sending his pieces on the Russian famine to all the newspapers he knows, watching more and more rejections come in each day, earning the ire of all of his leftist friends for apparently deserting the cause and turning traitor. Finally, he tells his boss:
“From the way you’ve cut my messages about the Metro-Vickers affair, I realize that you don’t want to know what’s going on in Russia, or let your readers know. If it had been an oppressed minority, or subject people valiantly struggling to be free, that would have been another matter. Then any amount of outspokenness, any amount of honesty.”
I went on to describe the scene in Berlin, and the Nazis beating up Jewish shops, and everyone with his story of murder and folly, and concluded:
“It’s silly to say the Brown Terror is worse than the Red Terror. They’re both horrible. They’re both Terrors. I watched the Nazis march along Unter den Linded and realized – of course, they’re Komsomols, the same people, the same faces. It’s the same show.”
David Ayerst quotes this correspondence in his book on The Guardian, and says it read “like a letter to end all communication”. So it did; I was finished with moderate men of all shades of opinion forever more.
Leaving Nazi Germany for neutral Switzerland, he says he had a pretty good idea even at the time how everything was going to end. And I believe him. By temperament, he expects everything to end in horror and madness and total collapse of civilization, so props to him for choosing the proper time and place for his temperament to be exactly correct. He writes:
All this likewise indubitably belonged to history, and would have to be historically assessed; like the Murder of the Innocents, or the Black Death, or the Battle of Paschendaele. But there was something else; a monumental death-wish, an immense destructive force loosed in the world which was going to sweep over everything and everyone, laying them flat, burning, killing, obliterating, until nothing was left. Those German agronomes in their green uniform suits with feathers in their hats – they had their part to play. So had the paunchy Brown-Shirts, and the matronly blonde maidens painting swastikas on the windows of Jewish shops. So had the credulous armies of the just, listening open-mouthed to Intourist patter, or seeking reassurance from a boozy sandalled Wicksteed. Wise old Shaw, high-minded old Barbusse, the venerable Webbs, Gide the pure in heart and Picasso the impure, down to poor little teachers, crazed clergymen and millionaires, drivelling dons and very special correspondents like Duranty, all resolved, come what might, to believe anything, however preposterous, to overlook anything, however villainous, to approve anything, however obscurantist and brutally authoritarian, in order to be able to preserve intact the confident expectation that one of the most thorough-going, ruthless, and bloody tyrannies ever to exist on Earth could be relied on to champion human freedom, the brotherhood of man, and all the other good liberal causes to which they had dedicated their lives. All resolved, in other words, to abolish themselves and their world, the rest of us with it. Nor have I from that time ever had the faintest expectation that, in earthly terms, anything could be salvaged; that any earthly battle could be won or earthly solution found. It has all just been sleep-walking to the end of the night.
Muggeridge’s description of World War II is actually super hilarious.
I was not expecting this. When you take one of the darkest and most pessimistic writers of the twentieth century and put him in the middle of one of the twentieth century’s greatest horrors, you might expect the result to have at least a touch of grimness about it, or at least not to leave you rolling on the floor laughing. You would be wrong.
Muggeridge, inspired by some force even he did not understand, decided to enlist in the British military when the war broke out. He’s a bit too old by this point to be a front-line infantryman, and his intellect, connections, and experience with foreign countries catch the eye of Military Intelligence. They recruit him as a spy. His first job is counter-intelligence – hanging around in the army, making sure that there aren’t any secret German spies there. Well, there either aren’t any secret German spies, or else they’re at least not saying that they’re secret German spies, so this task turns out to be kind of a combination of boring, useless, and hilarious. He describes a typical day:
I find it difficult to recall what regular duties I had, if any…Our section was supposed to be responsible for securing the Headquarters from the incursions of enemy agents who might pry out its secrets or subvert its personnel. This gave us a free hand to do almost anything and go almost anywhere. If we went drinking in pubs, it was to keep a look-out for suspicious characters; if we pikced up girls, it was to probe their intentions in frequenting the locality.
A fellow-officer told me of how, on a pub-crawl, ostensibly a security reconnaissance, he got drunk, and, as was his way when in such a condition, pretended to be a foreigner, using strange gestures and speaking with an accent. The next day, badly hung over, he was sent a report of the movements of a suspicious foreigner, and told to check up on them. Tracing the suspect’s movements from pub to pub, it slowly dawned on him he was following himself the night before. When he told me of his adventure, to comfort him I said that it was what we were all doing all the time – keeping ourselves under close surveillance. This was what security was all about.
In a similar vein, another FS officer, idly thumbing over the Security List – a top-secret document containing the names of all subjects who were to be at once apprehended if they tried to get into or out of the country – found he was in it.
Graham Greene was a very famous early 20th century author. Like pretty much every other famous early 20th century author, he was a good friend of Malcolm Muggeridge’s. Greene was working in another branch of Intelligence at the time, and they needed someone for a secret mission, and Greene mooted Muggeridge’s name. He found himself plucked out of his cushy job drinking at pubs and tracking himself, and sent to MI6’s secret spy school at Bletchley Park, where he was taught various hilariously impractical skills like how to make invisible ink out of bird poop. He was then sent on a secret mission to Mozambique, so that just in case anything relevant to World War II were to happen in Mozambique, Her Majesty’s Government would have a secret agent in place.
The Mozambique chapters were among the funniest of the entire book. The Germans and Italians, inspired by the same principle, had also sent agents to Mozambique. It was not at all hard to figure out who they were, nor was Muggeridge’s identity particularly hard to figure out. There was only one nice hotel in Mozambique, so Muggeridge, the German spy, and the Italian spy all got rooms there and spent most of the time glaring at each other during communal dinners, or lying on the beach an appropriate distance away from one another, keeping watch.
Sometimes they would engage in hilarious secret plots against each other. Muggeridge, after chancing into a friendship with a member of Mozambique’s small German community, arranged for his friend to tell the German spy that he was only faking friendship with Muggeridge so he could steal his secrets for the good of The Reich. He then proceeded to “rob” Muggeridge’s house (with Muggeridge’s gleeful consent), producing for his German “master” a trove of documents which, when decoded, suggested that the Italian spy was secretly working for the British. This caused a big fight between the German spy and the Italian spy, which given that there wasn’t really much to spy on in Mozambique, was considered a fantastic success for the British cause and raised Muggeridge’s standing as some kind of intelligence prodigy.
Later in the war, Mozambique actually became sort of relevant as troop convoys started sailing by. Muggeridge bribed local officials to keep a watch out, and ended up foiling a very real German plot to do some sort of vague thing involving ships – as a result, when the war started winding down to the point where maintaining a presence in Mozambique was no longer viewed as entirely necessary, he came home and was promoted into the inner circles of intelligence. His new position was under Kim Philby, the head of the Department Of Counter-Intelligence Against The Soviet Union, who turned out to be a really bad choice for this position given that he, LIKE EVERY OTHER PROGRESSIVE INTELLECTUAL IN THE ENTIRE COUNTRY OF BRITAIN, was a secret Soviet spy. But at the time he seemed okay enough, and he sent Muggeridge to France to aid in the Liberation there.
We like to think of the Liberation of France as a nice, happy time, but for Muggeridge it was basically the time when an entire country worth of very angry Frenchmen massacred, pogrommed, lynched, or otherwise descended upon anyone accused of collaborating with the German occupation. Unsurprisingly, everybody turned out to think their personal and political rivals had collaborated with the German occupation, so it was basically the atmosphere of a 17th century Massachusetts witch hunt, only with less restraint.
Muggeridge’s job was, as usual, darkly hilarious – actual spies for the French and British governments usually acted all cooperative toward the German occupation to keep their cover and get a chance of infiltrating enemy ranks; as a result, they were usually First Up Against The Wall When The Liberation Came. Sure, they said “I was just a spy doing it as part of a secret plan,” but of course everybody said that. So Muggeridge had to rush from prison to prison, trying to convince mobs of angry Frenchmen not to execute the people who had just been most instrumental in saving them.
His spy career ended with what seems like maybe the most typical incident in the entire book – somehow P. G. Wodehouse had wandered into Nazi Germany and been stuck in a prison camp there. Then he had wandered out into France, gotten marked as a Collaborator, and was now in serious fear for his life. The British Secret Service picked Muggeridge as their Official Attache For P. G. Wodehouse Related Affairs, showing such exceptional genius in choosing the right man for the job that you would think they would have been able to get AT LEAST ONE ANTI-SOVIET COUNTERINTELLIGENCE AGENT WHO WASN’T A SECRET SOVIET SPY. Anyway, Muggeridge and Wodehouse wander around the cratered, mob-ruled French landscape, having a series of very Wodehousian adventures, until finally the war ends, Wodehouse is deposited safely the United States, and Muggeridge is able to return to Britain.
The book ends with the funeral of Sidney Webb, the early socialist hero his family idolized, who died just after World War II. Muggeridge is invited to the event because his wife is a distant cousin of the Webb family; he has to hold his nose throughout. At the time of his death, Webb is more beloved than ever by a grateful populace. His and his wife’s great works, Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation and The Truth About Soviet Russia, have become Bibles of the Left and part of Stalin’s cult of personality. Their opponents, the sorts who say that maybe Stalin isn’t the reincarnation of Christ, have been summarily dispatched – Muggeridge describes one of his friends from the journalism world, a reporter universally respected for helping expose Nazi atrocities, who made the mistake of trying to do the same with Soviet atrocities:
When Voigt turned the furious indignation with which he had lambasted the Nazi terror on to Stalin’s, his former liberal friends and associates discovered in him a Nazi sympathizer. Another liberal newspaper, the News Chronicle, ran an article about [his publication] headlined HITLER’S FAVORITE READING, with pictures of the Fuhrer and Voigt looking amicably across at one another.
In other words, Webb dies at the height of his career, his lies unexposed. George Bernard Shaw writes a letter to the newspapers suggesting that a man of Webb’s standing deserves a national hero’s funeral, everyone agrees, and he and his wife are interred in Westminster Abbey before a crowd of dignitaries including the Prime Minister (despite their own atheism and specific demands not to be placed in a church).
Muggeridge watches the whole sordid spectacle – the Dean of the Cathedral singing the praises of an unrepentant atheist “whose crowning achievement had been to commend to his fellow-countrymen and the whole world as a new civilization a system of servitude more far-reaching and comprehensive than any hitherto known” and ends his book very abruptly, saying only that “Another way has to be found and explored.”
And then he dies before writing any more volumes of his autobiography, let alone telling us what the other way is.
He quotes very approvingly, as the heart of his philosophy, a passage by his friend Hugh Kingsmill:
What is divine in man is elusive and impalpable, and he is easily tempted to embody it in a concrete form – a church, a country, a social system, a leader – so that he may realize it with less effort and serve it with more profit. Yet the attempt to externalize the kingdom of heaven in a temporal shape must end in disaster. It cannot be created by charters or constitutions nor established by arms. Those who seek for it alone will reach it together, and those who seek it in company will perish by themselves.
And indeed, he writes a lot about how the whole problem started when people started being utopian and getting it into their heads to fix things on earth, rather than seek for “treasure in heaven”.
Some atheists I know write a lot about how religious people think you should hate the world because it’s awful and only some future world, ie Heaven, can be any good. Some religious people I know write a lot about how that’s total poppycock. Certainly G. K. Chesterton would have said something about how the world being sinful and full of flaws is not a reason to hate it, but precisely why we should love it, and Leah Libresco would say something about how hating the world is Gnosticism and Gnosticism is a heresy.
But I think Muggeridge might be pretty close to the atheist straw man on this point, with the key exception that religion isn’t what made him hate the world. He started off hating the world, and religion and mysticism offered him something not to hate, some way to say “Okay, but there’s some divinity buried in all this mess”. He is brilliant, he is compassionate, he is a great writer, it’s impossible to read his autobiography without loving him – but that he hates the world is hard to deny. I write sometimes about how beliefs that we consider abominable can sometimes be therapeutic mental crutches for people with the right cast of mind, and Muggeridge certainly found the idea of the world as a vale of suffering that would soon melt away to be oddly comforting in times of distress.
On the other hand, I’m not sure what to make of his opposition to trying to fix things here on Earth. He clearly hated Stalinism. When he hated Stalinism, he reacted by trying to make there be less Stalinism, which seems like a very reasonable thing to do. But the Communists hated capitalism. They reacted by trying to make there be less capitalism. Other than Muggeridge being right about the object-level issue and the Communists being wrong, it’s hard to see what the difference in principle is between them. The best I can do – and I worry I’m doing great violence to his intellectual uniqueness by rounding him off to my own ways of thinking – is to view him as suggesting some sort of precautionary principle, like that before you make a change you should be sure it’s something that has worked before (like non-Stalinism) and not a totally new idea (like Stalinism). But I am pretty sure if I suggested that to him he would roll his eyes and tell me that I’m such a modern and I don’t get it at all.
@slatestarcodex "But if we stop dumping raw sewage into…" "YOU'RE SO UTOPIAN!" "I just thoug-" "STOP TRYING TO IMMANENTIZE THE ESCHATON!"
— Scott Alexander (@slatestarcodex) June 25, 2013
@slatestarcodex One day we shall bring forth a new species of man free from utopian desires and cleansed of belief in human perfectibility.
— Scott Alexander (@slatestarcodex) June 25, 2013
The one thing I can be really sure of is that Muggeridge doesn’t want us to get stuck again in the same position we were in during the 30s and 40s where we totally ignored Stalin’s crimes due to our own political biases. Okay. I respect that. It was really eye-opening seeing exactly how brainwashed the entire European, British, and American Left were, and the whole situation gave me a lot more understanding of how overwhelmingly the Question of Communism dominated intellectual and political life in the first half of the century.
I was born in the 80s, at the very tail end of the Cold War, when we’d all had the decency to put all the Communists in one country and all the capitalists in another and make them express their differences like civilized men – ie by pointing thousands of hair-trigger nuclear missiles at one another. In the early days of Communism, we just didn’t know. Would Russia go Communist? Would Germany? Would France? Would everywhere? Muggeridge talks about how one of Britain’s main concerns in post-Liberation France was that the entire country would just move en masse to Communism as soon as the Nazis were out, which somehow or other mysteriously failed to happen EVEN THOUGH EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THE WESTERN AGENTS SENT TO PREVENT THAT WAS SECRETLY WORKING FOR THE SOVIETS.
And then the Cold War started, and this very gradually settled down to an equilibrium where okay, a lot of the Western intelligentsia stayed Communist, but at least they had the decency to realize that it was unpopular and the Revolution probably wasn’t literally going to happen next week.
By coincidence, just last week I read about the sad death of historian Robert Conquest, the man who was able to succeed where Muggeridge failed and drag Britain and America kicking and screaming into admitting Stalin wasn’t such a great guy. Conquest had one great advantage over Muggeridge, which was that he wrote in 1968 when, far from being our allies in a world war, the Soviets were technically our Cold War enemies and we were sort of okay with hearing bad things about them. But even then, he faced an extraordinary uphill battle. The most famous legend about him involved the second edition of his book, which came out right around the time the Soviet Union fell and its indisputable records of Stalin’s famines and purges became public knowledge. He supposedly asked to have the new version titled I TOLD YOU SO, YOU FUCKING FOOLS.
This part of our intellectual history is kind of forgotten. Who hears about Sidney and Beatrice Webb nowadays? Who hears about Walter Duranty? Yet these people during their times were absolute titans, “thought leaders” in the modern terminology – as per Muggeridge, Duranty “came to be accepted as the great Russian expert in America, and played a major part in shaping President Roosevelt’s policies vis-a-vis the USSR”. We hear a lot about our moral failures in terms of not stopping the Holocaust, but our quarter-century complicity with and even adulation of Stalinism seems like one of those facts that just fell by the wayside.
A lot of people think that I’m too easy on crackpots, or too fond of contrarians, or too interested in protecting witches, or whatever. But hearing all of these stories about the universal progressive Western adulation of Stalin is really scary. It’s way too easy for the darkest and most primal parts of my brain to map neatly onto the modern modalities of rejecting and punishing disagreement. “Really? You think this random journalist who isn’t even a trained Kremlinologist knows more than expert consensus?” “Killing millions of people, oh God, you’re one of those conspiracy losers.” “It’s obvious you’re just a privileged white guy who’s already decided to believe anything that reflects negatively on Slavs and foreigners.” “Although we respect free speech, that doesn’t extend to pro-Nazi propaganda and worker’s-paradise denialism.” Part of my respect for contrarians is that contrarianism is this incredibly fragile and precious art which needs to be kept alive for the times it is needed – rare times, times that hopefully won’t come up in our lifetimes, but times that, when they do come, desperately need a core of people willing to stand up to the establishment. Cultivating contrarianism is a lot like owning a gun – you get a heck of a lot of opportunities to shoot yourself in the foot, but also very occasionally one opportunity to save your life.
But then, on the other hand, here’s Muggeridge again:
Solzhenitsyn has provided the perfect parable on this theme with his description of Mrs. Roosevelt’s conducted visit to a labor camp where he was doing time. The estimable lady, who spawned the moral platitudes of the contemporary liberal wisdom as effortlessly and plenteously as the most prolific salmon, was easily persuaded that the camp in question was a humanely conducted institution for curing the criminally inclined. A truly wicked woman would have been ashamed to be so callous and so gullible.
Really? Gullible how? I’m sure the Soviets were moderately competent in making sure Roosevelt didn’t see anything too untoward. So what was she supposed to do?
I think of those people who say the US government is setting up FEMA interment camps as we speak to imprison dissenters against the New World Order. They provide some things that look sort of like evidence – photos (which turn out to be of random prisons or, in one case, an Amtrak station), documents (which turn out to be out of context references to setting up FEMA refugee camps for people displaced by disasters), et cetera. The people talking about this are total loons.
But Type 1 errors trade off against Type 2 errors. Make absolutely sure you’re the sort of person who never misses a Stalinist gulag, and you become the type of person who’s easy prey for the FEMA internment camp theory. Make absolutely sure you don’t believe in FEMA internment camps, and you’re liable to miss a Stalinist gulag as soon as the Soviet government gets Duranty to print “Oh, don’t worry, that’s just an Amtrak station”. Use the heuristic of “just trust expert consensus, experts always know what they’re talking about”, and you are now one of the tens of thousands of grateful readers who helped make Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation into a best-seller.
What I’m saying is – there is no royal road. This is why I think learning rationality and the art of sifting through evidence is so important.
As for Muggeridge? I’m not sure he has much to teach there. Yes, he deserves the thanks of a grateful civilization for being a lone voice in the wilderness warning us about Stalin. But after that, as per his Wikipedia page, he was a lone voice in the wilderness warning us about contraception. After that, he became a lone voice in the wilderness warning us about marijuana. After that, he became a lone voice in the wilderness warning us about blasphemy in The Life Of Brian.
I am glad there are all types of people in the world. I am glad that there are crotchety, contrarian, cynical old reporters who constantly feel like everything is hurling off the precipice into Hell, because when things are actually hurling off the precipice into Hell, these people are the first to notice. In the same way, I am glad that there are dedicated survivalists who stockpile canned food in underground shelters in case of the nuclear apocalypse, because if there is ever an actual nuclear apocalypse, these people will survive and rebuild the human race.
But I am not digging a bomb shelter myself, and I am pretty sure I cannot bring myself to be quite as cynical as Malcolm Muggeridge.