In the first of his three essays on the EU, Perry Anderson honours my work with a 19,000-word review, for which I am most grateful (LRB, 17 December 2020). There are some factual inaccuracies, not least in the biographical details he cites in support of his broader thesis about my books and the EU. For example, he states that I joined the VVD, now led by Mark Rutte, during my university years in Groningen (1991-99), though I was not active in any political party in those years. (My VVD party membership lasted from 2004 till 2010, when I quit over Rutte’s coalition agreement with Geert Wilders.) He has me in Paris meeting my mentor Marcel Gauchet in 1993, yet I met Gauchet only in 1999. He writes that I contacted ‘a conservative friend’ for a Brussels internship; in fact I had not met the man before.
Leaving aside these errors of fact, as well as other points of disagreement, I will focus on three of Anderson’s substantial points, concerning foundations, democracy and biography. Anderson enjoys the classic Hobbes-to-Rousseau puzzle that faces any new political order, and which I investigate in my book The Passage to Europe: how can a state arise from a condition of nature? A ballot box cannot establish itself, so one day someone must boldly claim to speak ‘on behalf of’ a people, a country. This is the case for the EU, a latecomer, as it was for England, in the mists of time, or for the founders of the United States. Eventually, arbitrariness, bluff and power struggles at the moment of inception are washed away by Whig historians to create a portrait of a great nation with venerable institutions. By highlighting the at times implausible interplay between events, personalities and institutional devices at breakthrough moments, The Passage to Europe gives short shrift to the Brussels variant of such a sanitised narrative (an annoyed Jacques Delors once called it ‘a dangerous book’). Anderson knows this well enough but, putting my term ‘coup’ centre-stage, he continually veers between praising my ‘candid realism’ and accusing me of condoning this ‘action taken suddenly, by stealth, catching its victims unawares’. He professes indignation in his second essay over the EU Court of Justice’s federal power grab, and in the third over the well-known fact that ‘the Danes were forced into holding a second referendum’ on the Maastricht Treaty (LRB, 7 and 21 January). But comparable judgments or ploys in UK or US history pass without protest. (After its resounding ‘No’ vote against the 1787 constitution, poor Rhode Island had to hold a second referendum.) It is as if Anderson wants to have his coup and scorn it too.
In all my work I argue that the exercise of power requires public accountability and visibility. Anderson and I share a dislike of the Brussels pretence that the EU merely solves problems and works for the good without exercising power. He chooses not to see this crucial common ground between us.
Democracy is clearly the EU’s weak spot, as has been pointed out ever since 1952. Regrettably, when Anderson addresses democracy in Europe, the polemicist in him takes over. In The Passage to Europe, it is not I who wishes a public ‘into existence’; rather the book is in large part a history of the attempts by Brussels and EU member states to create such a joint public, debacles included. They wished it, I tell it. In Alarums & Excursions (2019) the focus shifts to more recent movements of resistance, critique and electoral exasperation with the Brussels consensus machine, which proved profoundly inadequate when faced with recent crises surrounding the euro or migration. My harsh words for the European Parliament are not born of contempt but of frustration at its failure to represent plurality. Although Anderson claims otherwise, I explicitly call for ‘polemical opposition’ and for Europe to make room for it, citing the examples of Varoufakis’s dissident economic voice, as well as that of the nationalist Viktor Orbán in the migrant crisis.
How to explain this blunt oversight in an otherwise careful essay? Projection, I’d say. In Anderson’s well-honed biographical reductionism, certain facts are not allowed to get in the way of the story. He claims that understanding The Passage to Europe requires ‘a sense of where van Middelaar comes from’. Yet he is writing about somebody he has never met, from a background he ignores, and from a country he appears to know only from a couple of books and the tales of his young Dutch acquaintances.
The promising author of Lineages of the Absolutist State (1974), who later took up character assassination, identifies three mortal sins. Being on the right is the first of them. Seen from his corner, that means condemning 99 souls in every hundred. Assuredly, I will burn in Anderson’s Hell, but it will be in the circle of political liberals, not that of (neo)conservatives or neoliberals; in other words, with those who (against Edmund Burke) embrace the revolution of 1789 yet also (against Stalin and Trotsky) reject the revolution of 1917, while not forgetting that democratic freedoms require a state.
Vanity is the second mortal sin in Anderson’s eyes, especially when compounded by a lack of self-reflection. Against this charge, I cannot say a great deal. Denial would in itself be an act of vanity. So let me invite Anderson for lunch, and he can judge for himself.
Proximity to power is the third. Yes, I wanted to see it. I saw it, I learned and I left – twice. In 2006 I quit a job in The Hague (to write a book), in 2015 a job in Brussels (to write another). Anderson hypes my current unpaid and part-time role of ‘special adviser’ to a Commission vice-president as a key position in the Brussels power game. His aversion to political power goes so deep that projection takes over entirely. The grandson of Brigadier-General Sir Francis James Anderson, commander of the Queen Victoria’s Own Madras Sappers and Miners (1905-9), himself duly Eton and Oxford-educated, Anderson seems puzzled that, at the age of 27, I did not know how to fix a tie, but pushes ahead regardless. He mentions I was born in Eindhoven, ‘the company town of Philips in Brabant’, intimating that I might be some rich industrialist’s scion, ready from birth to work in the service of oppression. Both my late mother, the thirteenth child of poor farmers, and my father, second son of slightly less poor farmers who ended up a defrocked priest and spent the 1970s and 1980s spicing up his sermons with Latin American liberation theology, would be surprised.
I sought a locus of power to get to know the forces of history and to escape a moralist, provincial (he got that right) and somewhat naive upbringing. In this light, the post-9/11 neoconservative youth poetry that Anderson digs up (and incorrectly translates) as exhibit A is an act of belated intellectual adolescence, perhaps not unlike the one he experienced himself when choosing Che Guevara over Harold Wilson. Obviously I no longer agree with everything I wrote at the age of 28. I genuinely hope the same applies to Anderson. More to the point, political thinking risks becoming a game of erudition and self-congratulation when cut off from the messy affairs of state. From an armchair the world seems so pleasantly pliable: there are great stories to be told and theories to be spun, irrespective of the counterforces at play or the facts of the matter.
It is striking that in the second and third parts of the Anderson triptych, historical thinking disappears and GDP bean-counting comes in. There are no longer any traces of Machiavelli or Naudé, no signs of peace and war or of geopolitical pressure on or among the states and peoples of Europe, no hint either that their Union might actually change. (Its capacity to change under the pressure of events is the key thesis of my own work, but Anderson fails to mention this, preferring to stick to the received Tory view of a narrow, legalistic bureaucracy.) In his concluding essay, Anderson calls Hobbes to the rescue, but lacks the courage to go for the full Wolfgang Streeck conversion – from disappointed pro-European Marxist to anti-EU sovereigntist – and endorse Brexit. He emerges as a Red Whig and meek Brexiter. But he remains a formidable author. I hope to have the pleasure of meeting him.
Luuk van Middelaar
Perry Anderson writes: The letters objecting to my account of the European Union offer a range of criticisms, none without an intelligible rationale.
Ian Lee, director-general of operational policy at the Ministry of Defence, who led British planning and execution of the war on Iraq and accompanied Geoff Hoon on a mission to persuade Ankara to allow US and UK forces to attack the country from Turkish bases in the north, suggests that whatever unilateral initiative Bonn may have taken, Brussels played no part in the break-up of Yugoslavia (Letters, 4 February). The reality is that the fait accompli, of German recognition of Slovene and Croat secession on 23 December 1991, was followed within just three weeks by the European Community.
Selim Yenel, a veteran Turkish diplomat, ambassador to the EU for six years, protests that his country’s agreement to stop refugees entering the Union was purchased, not with money, but with assurances that in exchange its path to accession would be smoothed, putting ‘its relationship with the EU back on track’ – promises that regrettably came to nothing (Letters, 18 February). Omitted from his version, diplomatie oblige, is any reference to the levels of repression in Turkey that made the prospects of accession to the Union so remote that cash was the one reward on which Erdoğan could count. He simply notes, with commendable honesty, that ‘the ethics and legality of the agreement can be debated.’
Johan Enegren, once attached to the Council of Ministers in Brussels, points out that decisions of the European Court of Justice are not impervious to pressure from the Council, Parliament and Commission, for in 2018 the court upheld a directive undoing the effect of its Laval decision of 2007, allowing workers hired in one state to be paid for labour in another at wages lower than permitted by local law. He is quite right. That the court will adjust its sails to the political wind is amply shown, as I noted, by its tortuous justification of successive breaches in the Treaty of Maastricht.
Simon Sweeney, active in the Bologna Process to promote compatibility between standards in higher education across Europe, takes assertions of Richard Tuck as if they were mine, and forgets that the Fiscal Compact of 2012, a more stringent instrument than the Stability and Growth Pact of 1997, invigilates the budgetary rectitude of member states with a new set of controls.
Luuk van Middelaar sets out to engage more fully with what I’ve written. After correcting me on a few dates in his early career, he defends himself on three substantial issues. The first he terms the foundations of the EU. These, he concedes, involved a certain amount of ‘arbitrariness, bluff and power struggles’, later washed out as the birth of a great polity endowed with venerable institutions. His own version made short work of any such sanitised narrative, and it is captious of me to praise him for doing so while criticising his encomia of the coups on which the ‘passage to Europe’ has rested. After all, wasn’t the US federation brought into being in just the same way? The analogy, however, does not hold, for the historical reasons I set out. Not that ratification of the American constitution was an immaculate conception: the adhesion of voters wasn’t always obtained without a certain dose of chicanery and intimidation.
Even so, it would be difficult to downgrade democracy to no more than a ‘weak spot’ in the process – van Middelaar’s description of its part in the development of European integration. His salve, he explains, has been to call on Europe to make room for ‘polemical opposition’ of the kind offered by Varoufakis on economic questions and Orbán on issues of migration. But what does he actually say about them? ‘With a negotiating style consisting of economic lessons, game theory and blackmail by means of the Putin connection’, Varoufakis ‘alienated’ his country’s ‘best friends’, and incapable of understanding that eighteen democracies outnumbered one, was inevitably isolated ‘amid the Eurozone’s finance ministers’. As for Orbán, he might dig in his heels over immigration, only to find his regime condemned by an overwhelming majority in the European Parliament for flouting the rule of law. Approval of ‘polemical’ adversaries can only be nominal when their opposition is so futile. Wisely, van Middelaar doesn’t let the contrast between Westminster and Brussels, about which I wrote, affect his vision of the EU, whereas Michael Sonenscher is disturbed by talk of it. Better to see them simply as different species of the same genus, such that ‘while we have been living in the United Kingdom, we have also been living in the European Union for a long, long time.’ Since the Union has only existed since November 1993, and Britain left it a year ago, the aeon Sonenscher describes must be metaphysical rather than historical.
Third, van Middelaar has me guilty of a biological reductionism that amounts to downright ‘character assassination’. It’s difficult to know how seriously he takes this charge, so slender are his grounds for it. To mention that Eindhoven, where he was born, is the seat of the multinational Philips concern is to insinuate that he comes from a wealthy family? No, just a way of identifying the town for Anglophone readers who might not otherwise have heard of it, as Volkswagen could serve as a familiar marker for a native of Wolfsburg. Worse, I cite jubilant praise of colonialism he published in 2001, in a paean to the bombing of Afghanistan as the pathway to its liberty and prosperity – ‘youth poetry’, expression of a ‘belated intellectual adolescence’ – when it should be obvious he no longer agrees with everything he wrote at the age of 28. To which it might be said: if the automatic cult of youth the French call jeunisme is absurd enough, to go to the other extreme is even more far-fetched: Tocqueville, whom van Middelaar rightly admires, was writing Democracy in America at the same age – should we pardon him for doing so? To his credit, van Middelaar says he has changed his mind since then. But did he leave any written trace of the conversion ? Opposition to the war in Iraq?
He concludes with a colourful flourish, drawing on religious strands still active in Dutch culture. I would convict him of three ‘mortal sins’, for which he would burn in ‘Anderson’s Hell’: politics of the right, vanity, proximity to power. Of these it is enough to say that, far from comminating thinkers of the right, I have on the contrary respected and taken them seriously: Hayek, Strauss, Fukuyama, not to speak of Ankersmit, van Middelaar’s own mentor, among them. Nor is vanity a term that occurs in my text. As for proximity to power, it is neither a moral fault, nor treated as such. Simply, more often than not, it exacts an intellectual price. On a lighter note, van Middelaar ends by teasing me in one breath with sharing ‘the received Tory view’ of the EU as a narrow, legalistic bureaucracy, and in the next with surfacing as a timorous ‘Red Whig’. Tease for tease: it’s no reproach to lack enough familiarity with Blighty to know the difference between this pair of epithets. Over a glass of wine, the Bildungslücke is easily remedied.
Thomas Meaney recounts the story of Nasser’s meeting with Castro in Harlem in September 1960, as told by Simon Hall (LRB, 4 February). Mohamed Hassanain Heikal, Egypt’s pre-eminent journalist in the 1950s and 1960s, and one of Nasser’s key advisers, gave a different account of the visit:
Castro brought Nasser a present, a wooden box lined with crocodile leather. When Nasser opened it, he said: ‘I thought it would be cigars.’ And Castro apologised, saying: ‘I didn’t know you smoked cigars but I will make sure you are sent some. Perhaps I made a mistake in giving you crocodile leather because you have plenty of crocodiles in Egypt.’
‘Yes,’ said Nasser, ‘we have got exactly …’ – he looked at the ceiling – ‘… exactly four.’
Castro looked at him, startled: ‘How do you know how many there are?’
‘Because,’ said the president, ‘they are all in the zoo.’
Thomas Meaney writes that Albert Korda’s famous photograph of Che Guevara was taken as Guevara provided medical assistance at the scene of the explosion that sank the French freighter La Coubre in Havana harbour. In fact it was taken at a memorial service for the victims.
Meaney also writes that Norman Mailer proposed to the White House that Ernest Hemingway be sent as a cultural emissary to Cuba to ease tensions ‘in the lead-up to the Cuban Missile Crisis’. Given that the missile crisis unfolded in October 1962, and that Hemingway committed suicide in July 1961, the likely benefits of such a mission would have been beyond even Mailer’s broad imagination.
Lorna Finlayson’s Diary of a child liberationist struck a chord with me (LRB, 18 February). I was a teacher at the pioneering Small School in Devon, which opened in 1982 and was closed in 2017. Pupils aged from eleven to sixteen were offered a broad, balanced programme of academic, creative and practical activities. Qualified teachers and skilled people from the community collaborated: pottery was taught by the local potter, woodwork by the local carpenter, art by a local artist. The older children went for work experience in local businesses and on farms. We used the village playing fields for games, we bought vegetables in the village shops for lunch (and grew our own), which the children took turns to cook. The school was permeable to the community: it provided rehearsal space for local music and drama groups; adults were allowed to join in lessons; staff and pupils worked on restoring woodland and footpaths. Several old students returned to teach classes. The staff and students were on first-name terms; no uniforms, of course; one school inspector congratulated us on having created ‘an informal yet orderly community’. So I agree with Finlayson that it is possible to imagine ‘things being done differently’. Perhaps the disruption of the pandemic will force us to re-evaluate the ‘custodial’ versus the ‘educational’ function of schools and come up with something better suited to the future patterns of work and learning that may emerge.
Robert Henderson writes about Lenin’s seating preferences in the British Museum reading room (Letters, 4 February). As it happens, an Icelander, Jón Stefánsson, was researching in the reading room at the same time as Lenin. His memoir, Úti í heimi (‘Out in the World’), was published in 1949. My rough translation:
Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (i.e. Lenin), 1870-1924, sat, in the first years of the 20th century, sometimes next to me in the British Museum reading room. I recognised him from pictures in the papers. He had a high, convex forehead, almost completely bald, with traces of ruddy hair, and was fully bearded. He spoke to no one and no one dared speak to him. He arrived every day before the reading room opened and always sat in the same seat, L13. I often sat at L14. He worked all day until closing time. When he went out to eat, he put all his papers in a bag and took it with him. He left his books behind to keep the seat. Once he dropped a page of writing on the floor. I picked it up and handed it to him. He said: ‘Thanks.’ His pronunciation of the ‘th’ in ‘thanks’ was as if he were German and, indeed, he called himself Richter when he applied for a ticket to the reading room. That is what Ellis, the head of the reading room told me.
University of Iceland, Reykjavík
Marina Warner writes that St Laurence, who was burned to death on a gridiron, is the ‘patron saint of cooks – and, less obviously, comedians’ (LRB, 4 February). I imagine the association with both professions arises from a story which has Laurence, in the midst of his torments, still capable of coolly advising his executioners: ‘I’m done on that side. You can turn me over now.’
Between April 1964 and March 1966 I was a lieutenant at Fort McClellan, Alabama, known among other things as ‘the home of the Chemical Corps’. My senior officer and I often talked about his early army days at Camp Detrick, Maryland, which Mike Jay refers to as the headquarters of the US Army Biological Warfare Laboratories (LRB, 4 February). He told me once of an LSD experiment they had conducted. The ‘volunteer’ was told to step into the next room ‘through that open door’. He did and bounced back, moderately injured. It was a solid wall.
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