Books, TV and Films, September 2021

3 September

As I become more and more disillusioned with day-to-day politics — whether it is the rigidity and staleness of politicians constantly reciting ‘the party line’ or the rise of political lying as an art form and the failure of both parliament and the media to hold proven liars to account — I find myself drawn back to the more civilised world of political philosophy, political theories and ideologies, and underlying values. I very much regret not working hard enough at a unit of my degree called Modern Ideologies. Political Philosophy: A Beginners’ Guide for Students and Politicians by Adam Swift is the sort of introductory text I wish had been available back then (I am reading the second edition, published in 2006).

The book itself is split into five parts, each tackling a key idea or line of thought in political philosophy. No surprises that liberty and equality are in there. Democracy was added for the expanded second edition. Community is also there — interesting, as it means such different things to different thinkers. Also interesting is that the book opens with a discussion of social justice — a term that was very much in vogue during the Blair years, inherited from John Smith. (Blair also briefly flirted with the idea of communitarianism, before he became prime minister in 1997, in the search for that holy grail beloved of frontline politicians, a Big Idea.)

I have always assumed that social justice was a convenient way for New Labour to avoid having to use (or reject) the terms ‘socialism’ and ‘equality’, though — as Swift shows us — a conception of social justice as ‘justice as entitlement’ in the manner set out by the philosopher Robert Nozick is very far from what Blair, Smith et al were talking about. As you would expect, Swift is very clear that this book is about ideas and values, not particular policies as such. His references to the cut and thrust of party politics are relatively infrequent. Where it does crop up, he is often critical of politicians, though in an excellent concluding chapter he makes clear that the lot of a political philosopher is very different from that of a politician, and he warns us to guard against lapsing into caricature.

Politicians operate in an environment that imposes constraints far more demanding than those faced by philosophers. The competitive and confrontational nature of electoral politics means that any admission of ignorance, change of mind, or acknowledgement that one’s opponents might have got something right, will be seized on as incompetence, a ‘U-turn’ or evidence of weakness. The need to win votes, and to present one’s party as the representative of the country as a whole, makes it dangerous to concede that one is prepared to make anybody worse off than they might otherwise be. Moreover, politicians are expected to come up with concrete policies, not just abstract ideas. Policies that will work, if they are implemented, and that have the popular appeal to stand a chance of being implemented.

Adam Swift, Political Philosophy: A Beginners’ Guide for Students and Politicians, page 226

Good points, well made.

10 September

I think I have more biographies of Karl Marx than of any other individual from history or politics. A World to Win: The Life and Works of Karl Marx by Sven-Eric Liedman, first published in 2015, brings the total to five. Correction: I have six biographies of Hitler (if you count Ian Kershaw’s two volumes, Hubris and Nemesis, as separate books). As regards Hitler, that will probably be as far as it goes. Kershaw’s Hitler is surely definitive, even though both volumes are now more than 20 years old, so unless a historian I really like chooses to pick up the baton or some extraordinary new evidence about Hitler comes to light (more Hitler diaries?!), I can’t see the point of buying anything else. Much better to spend time re-reading Kershaw or (a book I keep meaning to return to) Alan Bullock’s Parallel Lives — or even, the first major history book I ever read, Bullock’s classic Hitler: A Study in Tyranny.

Minor trivia point about the excellent Denial, the film of the 2000 libel trial involving Deborah Lipstadt, who was sued by the historian David Irving for calling him a Holocaust denier. In the scene showing defence team researchers visiting Irving’s home to consult his diaries at some point in the two years before the trial began, both volumes of Kershaw’s Hitler biography are clearly visible. However, the second volume wasn’t published until the year 2000 so would not have been out at the time of their visit.

Anyway, biographies about Marx are different. Marx himself wrote so much and in such depth and there are so many differing interpretations of what he wrote that every well-written biography of him offers something new. Much of the Liedman book focuses on Marx’s ideas and, for the most part, I found his exposition highly illuminating. In particular, he offers the clearest explanation I have yet read of ‘sublation’, a concept that is central to Marx’s thinking.

Liedman himself goes out of his way to justify writing another Marx biography — especially as the English translation appeared just a couple of years after Gareth Stedman Jones’ heavyweight biography. In his preface for the 2018 Verso English translation, Liedman says that Stedman Jones’ book is too narrowly focused and that, in his comprehensive account of Marx’s sources of inspiration, Stedman Jones’ writing is so detailed “that Marx’s own writing is actually overshadowed”.

I am not sure that Liedman always avoids that selfsame trap himself. He is a distinguished academic in the field of the history of ideas and science and, in his attempt to guide us through Marx’s ideas in the context of the nineteenth century, Liedman sometimes takes elaborate detours, particularly into the overgrown maze of GWF Hegel’s philosophy. This — and some of the later discussion of economic theory — is not always easy to grasp, but I guess it comes with the territory.

Of the books with which I am familiar, he has little time for Francis Wheen’s typically irreverent 1999 book — the final three chapters, for example, are entitled The Shaggy Dog, The Rogue Elephant and The Shaven Porcupine — and makes little mention of David McLellan, who I think of as Britain’s foremost writer on Marx but whose standard biography is now nearly fifty years old. On the other hand he has a lot to say about the 2013 book by Jonathan Sperber, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life — most of it not particularly complimentary. I thoroughly enjoyed the Sperber book.

My main takeaway from the Liedman book is that what Marx actually wrote is very different from what became codified after his death as Marxism and even more so from the Marxism-Leninism dictated from Moscow and elsewhere after 1917. He reminds us that many of the terms (and associated ideas) we instinctively think of as central to Marxism — ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and ‘dialectical materialism’, for example — were either used infrequently by Marx or indeed not at all. Towards the end of his life, when a new French workers’ party started to refer to themselves as ‘Marxists’, Marx himself said: “What is certain is that I am not a Marxist.” The reason? He believed that they were downplaying the importance of reformism (the role of parliament and trade unions) in the struggle for change. And for those who think of Marx as a highly dogmatic thinker, his favourite motto (so he told his daughters) was ‘Question everything’.

The writing itself is very readable, though Verso still don’t appear to have increased the copy-editing budget. It is a bit head-spinning at times to read about the nuances in meaning of certain German words when translated into English in a book that was presumably originally written in Swedish. The overall English translation creaks a little in places. I am not sure ‘brilliant’ is the best choice of word in this sentence about the fortunes of the German Social Democratic Party:

In 1890, the party was more organised than any other political party up to that point, and its election results were brilliant.

Sven-Eric Liedman, A World to Win: The Life and Works of Karl Marx, page 572

A sentence like this, too, seems clumsy:

Even those who lived outside direct Soviet influence were forced to constantly declare whether they accepted or deviated from accepted Marxism.

Sven-Eric Liedman, A World to Win: The Life and Works of Karl Marx, page 612

22 September

Series eight — and, I think, the last — of the excellent drama prequel Endeavour. We have arrived at 1971, just 16 years before the first appearance of John Thaw in the original Inspector Morse series. The individual plotlines are sometimes a bit too convoluted, perhaps, but the acting has been excellent throughout and the characters well drawn — Detective Inspector Thursday, Joan Thursday and, my, how I have grown to love Chief Superintendent Bright over the years. And it has been fascinating to follow how the series writers have attempt to evolve the characters of Morse and Jim Strange. [Apologies if anyone objects to the use of ‘evolve’ as a transitive verb.]

Morse now lives in his 1987 house and drives a Jaguar, though not yet a red one. He is on good terms with fellow sergeant Strange, who by 1987 is a chief superintendent and, more to the point, Morse’s boss, though Morse clearly does not regard him as his intellectual equal. Strange was using ‘Matey’ from the off, and he is now initiated into the Masons. More of a problem (for the writers) is his weight. Sean Rigby was presumably originally cast in the role back in 2013 partly because of his size. However, between series seven and eight Rigby has shed the pounds and with it the waistline; I guess you can’t write ‘No losing weight’ into a contract.

DS Strange is now courting Joan — term deliberately chosen — to whom Morse once proposed. I have the final episode, Terminus, yet to watch. I fear things will not end well. After all, though he certainly has his moments, Morse is not yet the fully paid-up curmudgeon that Thaw portrayed so magnificently all those years ago.

30 September

I am enjoying The Body in the Library, the second Miss Marple novel, published in 1942. My interest was piqued by the recent news that 12 distinguished female writers, including the wonderful Kate Mosse, are to publish an authorised collection of Marple stories. The Body in the Library is certainly more satisfying than any of the Poirot novels I have so far read (click here for The Mysterious Affair at Styles, here for Peril at End House and here for a couple of lines about Hercule Poirot’s Christmas). Perhaps it is because I come to Miss Marple with more or less a blank slate; more likely it is that Christie was writing better novels by this time (the first Poirot novel had appeared more than 20 years earlier).

I have never watched Miss Marple on film or TV and I have certainly never read any of the books before. It’s Agatha Christie and it’s the 1940s (though you wouldn’t know from the book that there was a war on) so certain things come with the territory — principally the overriding importance of status and class. As usual, there is the familiar backdrop of maids, manservants, cooks, large houses and the rest, and everything plot-related revolves around wills and inheritances.

I have a five-novel Miss Marple omnibus — the individual novels (again, like their Poirot equivalents) seemingly randomly selected. The Body in the Library is not, alas, the very first Marple book (that’s The Murder in the Vicarage), though there was a gap of 12 years between the two and I read on Wikipedia that the earlier iteration of Marple “is a gleeful gossip and not an especially nice woman. The citizens of St Mary Mead like her but are often tired by her nosy nature and how she seems to expect the worst of everyone.”

First impressions. St Mary Mead appears to be a village inhabited largely by spinsters, a suitably old-fashioned word defined by Lexico as ‘an unmarried woman, typically an older woman beyond the usual age for marriage’. The entry goes on that it is now “a derogatory term, referring or alluding to a stereotype of an older woman who is unmarried, childless, prissy, and repressed.”

It is striking how little Miss Marple actually features in the first half of the book. All the detective work is done by, well, detectives. How extraordinary. Marple’s USP appears to be the ability to read character, largely due to an encyclopaedic knowledge of the inhabitants of the village, past and present, which enables her to draw analogies with the behaviour of the various suspects in the case at hand.

When asked about her methods, she herself explains:

The truth is, you see, that most people — and I don’t exclude policemen — are far too trusting for this wicked world. They believe what is told them. I never do. I’m afraid I always like to prove a thing for myself.

Agatha Christie, The Body in the Library, Chapter XXII

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