Monday, September 21, 2009

Fluctuating reputations: Laski and Joad

Prominent public intellectuals, some of them at least, have the capacity to generate whole climates of opinion. At least they seem to do so, for one could argue contrariwise that intellectuals merely ride the waves instead of launching them. Probably it is something of both.

We have just passed through a Francotropic period, Our latest fin-de-siècle era was graced by such eminentos as Claude Lévi-Strauss and Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida. Of these, only Lévi-Strauss has enduring value for me, though of course anthropologists and others have singled out certain abitrary and implausible features of his thinking. Still, C.-L.-S. seems to have a fertility and staying power that the others--mostly played out and found out--now clearly lack. The French themselves seem to acknowledge this distinction, as Lévi-Strauss is the only one of the four to hve been admitted into the pantheon of French letters, Gallimard's Pléiade series.

In the mid-20th century we looked not to France but to Britain. Educated people were fascinated by a kind of intellectual tennis foursome--a two-versus-two duel. On the progressive side stood George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells. They were opposed by the conservative thinkers G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Today no one sees this “battle of the titans” as having any relevance. Ezra Pound, one of the first doubters, called Shaw an “aesthetic pygmy.” That jibe probably goes too far, and all four can command at least a few readers now.

Matters are very different for two British intellectuals who once stood very high in public esteem, Harold Laski and C. E. M. Joad.

Harold Joseph Laski (1893-1950) was an English political theorist and journalist, who occupied a strategic post at the London School of Economics. Never one to hide his light under a bushel, he turned out of mass of books, and was active on the lecture circuit of American universities. At the age of 23 he brashly initiated a correspondence with the noted US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was then 75. Their 19-year old epistolary relationship yielded two volumes of correspondence, published in 1953.

Laski served as a member of the executive committee of the Fabian Society (1922-36), and in 1936 he joined the Executive Committee of the Labour Party. In 1945-46 he was chairman of the Labour Party.

In keeping with his Fabian background, Laski espoused a moderate (some would say revisionist) version of Marxism. Having taught a generation of future Indian leaders, he had a major impact on the politics and formation of India. To his credit, he was steady in his unremitting advocacy of Indian independence. One Indian prime minister exclaimed that '”there is a vacant chair at every cabinet meeting in India reserved for the ghost of Professor Harold Laski.”

It has been a different story in Britain and America. Having risen so high, why did Laski fall so low? He had hitched his wagon to a star: the British Labour Party. When it rose to power in 1945 there was widespread hope that the democratic-socialist principles espoused by Labour would be adopted everywhere.

In Britain Laski's reputation suffered through an affair that remains murky. On June 16, 1945, responding to a questioner at a political rally, Laski averred that, if necessary, socialism might have to be achieved by violence. After this off-the-cuff observation was quoted in the Daily Express, Laski angrily denied that he had made the remark, and proceded to sue the newspaper for libel. Sir Patrick Hastings, the counsel for the defence, took the jury through Laski's writings, arguing that even if he had not uttered the exact words the paper ascribed to him, they were generally consistent with his views. Hastings also implied that there was something "un-English" about being an intellectual, as Laski clearly was. There were distinct anti-Semitic overtones. Harold Laski lost his libel case and was ordered to pay all court costs.

Even so, his reputation remained high in the United States. Yet as Labour and the British model together lost their international cachet, so ultimately did Laski’s fame decline.

In addition he probably wrote too much too fast. George Orwell homed in on a section from Laski’s book, "Essay in Freedom of Expression," as an example of "especially bad" writing. Overall, his work has an air of assurance--often amounting to smugness--that, in view of the fragility of the policies he was advocating, ultimately came to seem false and self-serving.

Laski’s perpetual earnestness could be wearying. Not so, the roguish C. E. M. Joad.

Cyril Edwin Mitchinson Joad (1891-1963) was an English philosopher and broadcasting personality. In his day he was famous for his appearance on the The Brains Trust, an extremely popular BBC Radio wartime discussion program. He ranked as an early media celebrity, until his fame and fortune collapsed in the Train Ticket Scandal of 1948.

Born in Durham and raised in Southampton, he received a very strict Christian upbringing. At Balliol College, Oxford, he honed his skills as a popular philosopher and debater. Swept along by the currents of the time he became a Syndicalist, a Guild Socialist, and then a Fabian.

Joad joined the Board of Trade in 1914, aiming to infuse the civil service with a socialist ethos. In the months leading up to World War I he displayed an ardent pacifism at the risk of unpopularity, a fate which also attended George Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell at that time.

After Joad's separation from his wife Mary, he moved to Hampstead in London, where he lived with a student teacher named Marjorie Thomson. She was the first of his many mistresses, all of whom were introduced as “Mrs Joad.” He characterized sexual desire as "a buzzing bluebottle that needed to be swatted promptly before it distracted a man of intellect from higher things."

Imbued with the liberal ideas of Bloomsbury, the era in which he lived offered many opportunities to obtain sexual release, In this it contrasted, he believed, with the previous epoch. "Conscience was the barmaid of the Victorian soul. Recognizing that human beings were fallible and that their failings, though regrettable, must be humored, conscience would permit, rather ungraciously perhaps, the indulgence of a number of carefully selected desires." Joad's desires were not so carefully selected.

A misogynist, he held that female minds lacked objectivity, and made it clear that he had no interest in talking to women who would not go to bed with him. By mid-life Joad was "short and rotund, with bright little eyes, round, rosy cheeks, and a stiff, bristly beard." As a kind of test, he elected to wear shabby clothing: anyone who was put off by his slovenliness he deemed too petty to merit acquaintance.

In 1930 he left the Civil Service to become of Head of the Department of Philosophy and Psychology at Birkbeck College, University of London, which specialized in educating “nontraditional” students. Joad's two works of popularization, “Guide to Modern Thought “(1933) and “Guide to Philosophy” (1936), made him well-known to the educated public at large.

He continued his own nontraditional lifestyle. In 1925 he was expelled from the Fabian Society because of his sexual escapades at its summer school and did not rejoin until 1943.

Joad was also interested in the supernatural and partnered Harry Price on a number of ghost-hunting expeditions. He traveled to the Harz Mountains in Germany to help Price to try to prove that the “Blocksberg Tryst” would turn a male goat into a handsome prince. At home he organized rambles and rode recklessly through the countryside. He also had a passion for hunting.

A tireless lecturer, his popularity grew and grew. Ever in quest of the limelight, after the outbreak of World War II (1939) he implored the Ministry of Information to make use of him. His wish was granted, for in January 1940 Joad joined a wartime discussion program called The Brains Trust. At a time of great hunger for information and entertainment, the BBC radio production caught on immediately, attracting millions of listeners. His fund of anecdotes and mild humor served him in great stead. The program’s topics ranged from sublime to the ridiculous--from "What is the meaning of life?" to "How can a fly land upside-down on the ceiling?" Ever the popular philosopher, Joad nearly always responded to a question with the catchphrase "It all depends on what you mean by …" Improbably enough, the public generally considered him the greatest British philosopher of the day.

After the War he began to discard his religious skepticism and to turn to the Church of England, as evidenced by his book "The Recovery of Belief." He also started to entertain doubts about socialism. Stlll, his career was more successful than ever before: he had become a household name. But he also had made many enemies, and they were to have the last laugh.

In his hubris Joad even boasted in print that “I cheat the railway company whenever I can.” In April 1948 he was convicted of travellng on a Waterloo-Exeter train without a valid ticket. Because of his celebrity, this contretemps made frontpage headlines in the national newspapers. While the amount was trifling, the fine of £2 effaced all hopes of a peerage and triggered his dismissal from the BBC. This disaster had a serious effect on his health, and he became confined to his bed in Hampstead. His fame and broadcasting career were over.

Joad had had quite a run. He had the temerity to publish a book attacking Americans without having visited the country. He also alleged that the philosophy of logical positivism, which had made his own efforts in the field seem puny and dated, had helped to promote Nazism. In fact, the leading logical positivists had to flee the Continent because of their principled stand against fascism.

During his lifetime, C. E. M. Joad published more than 75 books. He was widely quoted. He may be said to have paved the way for such contemporary popularizing philosophers as Martha Nussbaum and Peter Singer. His journey from Christianity to unbelief and back again to Christianity has been followed by many others.

NOTE. Even today the notion persists that there is something un-English about being an intellectual. It could be argued that, because of the mistaken belief that they have no adequate homegrown exemplars, educated Anglophones gravitate to French gurus by way of compensation. With Emile Zola, many believe, the French actually invented the category. At all events, the notion of the absence of intellectuals on English soil has been refuted in a weighty volume by Stefan Collini, "Absent Minds: Intellectuals In Britain" (Oxford, 2006). This book is a bit of a hard slog, but I recommend it.



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