Revisiting Michael Roberts' call for a good, progressive, leftist, liberal rhetoric

Michael Roberts
A while back, during the EU Referendum last year, I posted a piece in which I quoted a short piece by the English poet, literary critic and mathematician and mountaineer Michael Roberts (1902-1948).

It's a review he wrote in 1935 for The Listener about Leonard Woolf's book, Quack, Quack!, which was reprinted in Michael Roberts—selected poems and prose edited by Frederick Grubb (Carcanet Press, Manchester 1980, p. 109).

It strikes me that his words still speak to the left's continued failure in this country (and elsewhere) to provide a rhetorically powerful and progressive vision for society in the face of the awful words and dreadful and increasingly nationalist vision being offered up by those on the right of British politics.

Make of it what you will.


MR WOOLF is a passionate champion of reason—too passionate and too bitter to be the perfect exponent of the quiet methods of discussion which he advocates. Civilisation, he says, is a precarious thing, imposed upon the community by a few people, mostly belonging to the comparatively wealthy class. But, he argues, most people remain savages at heart, and a time comes when, if continuity is to be preserved, the advantages of civilisation—the wealth as well as the orderly civilised habits—must be shared by all. At that time, many of the ruling group prefer to destroy their civilisation rather than to share it. Reason is then attacked as a degenerate weakness, and all that is primitive and savage in man is revived. The primitive fear of the stranger is encouraged, ‘national’ sentiment is fostered, the truth about political events is stifled, the individual is subjugated to the tribe, and each man, instead of thinking earnestly about the problems of his age, salutes a tribal leader whose oracular pronouncements are regarded with superstitious awe. Against all this, and against similar but less developed tendencies in England, Mr Woolf believes in the civilised patriotism of a Pericles, in reason, in government by free discussion, and in the gradual abolition of all class distinctions. These are chill ideas for most people, especially when treated unrhetorically: they call to the future, not the deeply rooted past, there is a greater appeal in the resonant claptrap of the new dictators. Mr Woolf is acute, bitter, and amusing: he quotes some fine nonsense from his enemies, and his exposure of the dangers which they offer to what most of us consider a civilised and decent life deserves to be widely read, but there is a deep pessimism about his writing, a sense of weariness and futility, spurred for a moment into protest. He knows that it is useless to demonstrate that Mussolini’s speeches are empty of constructive thought, yet he can think of no other approach to the problem. He gibes at the mummification of Lenin’s body, yet he ignores the practical achievements of Bolshevism and Fascismo. A fascist would call him the typical ‘anaemic’, ‘futile’, ‘degenerate’ pacifist intellectual whose liberalism has broken down before the overpowering confidence of Fascism and Communism. There is some truth in this, but Mr Woolf does not look for the flaw in himself and his own doctrines. He attacks Carlyle, Spengler, Bergson and Keyserling, for their varying betrayals of the intellectual-liberal position. He mocks at intuitions and absolute beliefs, they are all quackery, but he does not see the limitations of reason. Reason can show us how a thing can best be done, but it cannot modify or co-ordinate our basic inclinations, as religion and poetry attempt to do, and as the politician needs to do. We need some criteria of right and wrong, beauty and ugliness, as well as of truth and falsity, and we need to persuade others to accept those criteria. The problem is not to destroy all rhetoric but to teach people to distinguish between good rhetoric and bad, good poetry and bad. The liberal-rationalist assumes that he can get on without rhetoric or poetic use of language at all, and that every relation of power between individuals is bad: consequently he speaks only to people like himself, and the field is left to the quacks with their false rhetoric, their sentimental poetry and their bullying use of the power of personality.
          Mr Woolf prints some amusing comparative photographs of Mussolini, Hitler, and the Hawaiian War God, Kukailimoku. The similarities of expression are very striking, and there is certainly a case for arguing that the psychological effects of the faces are, and are intended to be, the same, but heaven help us all if this method of argument is to become general.


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