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Book Review 217: Politicians, Socialism and Historians

October 26, 2011 - Harry Eagar
POLITICIANS, SOCIALISM AND HISTORIANS, by A.J.P. Taylor. 259 pages. Stein and Day. $15.95

I owe a lot to Alan Taylor. I was schooled in, and accepted, the Roman Catholic authoritarian tradition, but after leaving high school I read “War by Time-table” and discovered that it was all right to think for yourself.

Since then I have read many of Taylor's books, and tough going some of them were, notably “The Course of German History” (known in the Ivy League, I have been told, as the Curse of German History). But “Politicians, Socialism and Historians” is pure fun, a collection of journalism, mostly book reviews for leftist papers, dating from the early '50s to the early '80s.

Writing book reviews for popular periodicals encourages brevity, and Taylor was already the most economical of writers. This book reads much longer than its 250 pages.

There is much to think about. Taylor was the original talking head, on call to opine about all and sundry events for the BBC. It is easy to see how his strong opinions, expressed with cutting clarity, became popular. (I never saw him on television, but the same force comes through on the page.)

The difference between Taylor and the current talking heads is that he knew what he was talking about.

Not that he was always correct in his judgments. He often said that history is useless to foretell outcomes, which is wrong; but he ignored his own view and cheerfully but pessimistically foretold that one day deterrence would fail to deter and by the year 2000, humanity would consist of “a few thousand maimed human beings . . . living near starvation, in caves.”

All the same, he thought “the present is the finest age to live in.”

This refusal to believe in progress made Taylor a strange kind of socialist, but I have always had a hard time taking English socialism seriously, with its middle class functionaries capping electoral careers by allowing their ridiculous queen to wave her magic wand and turn them into barons.

Not that Taylor was in danger of being found on an honors list. Like his friend Beaverbrook, he liked to think of himself as a cat that walked by himself.

He attributed this to his Lancashire, radical, chapel upbringing, the son of a leftist, though – like John Edwards in North Carolina who likes to call himself the son of a millworker but was the son of the boss – his father owned the cotton mill.

In the General Strike of 1926, Taylor left Oxford to drive a car for the strikers, because he had a car and could drive, which few miners could do. But the communists did nothing, which caused him to scorn them ever after.

His upbringing shows in his loving reviews of the lives of the 19th century radicals. But his section on 20th century socialism, though intimately informed, is of mere curiosity value.

He didn't think much of American policy – I do not agree with Taylor about everything, but I do about this – and correctly identified the baleful influence of idiot anticommunists as the source of the failures.

He makes two points that are obviously right but would then and still be greeted with horror and incredulity by almost every American:

First, that containment as preached by George Kennan was delusional, since postwar Russia was “a frightened power desperately on the defensive.”

Second, that “Soviet overlordship (of eastern Europe), with all its faults, has been infinitely preferable to Nazi domination.” Well, perhaps not infinitely preferable, but certainly preferable in any realistic sense.

For all his quirky leftism, Taylor the historian is closest in outlook to the great conservative historian Hugh Thomas. Both were meliorists, although Taylor missed the mark badly when he predicted, in 1957, that “the time is coming when the average reader of the Daily Mirror will get more than the average reader of The Times. Who will care then if the readers of The Times go on imagining that they are the Top People.”

In the subsequent half century, the readers of the Mirror were screwed and the Times was taken over by an upstart from Down Under.

The Top People no longer read newspapers at all, but they have done very well for themselves, while nearly ruining England.

Taylor was much more perceptive when he wrote in 1966 that “all experience teaches that, if an elite run affairs, they do so in their own interests, and this is perhaps truer of businessmen than of any other so-called elite.”

He could have dropped the perhaps.


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