Western economies are failing – but capitalism isn’t the problem

Real wages have barely increased for more than a decade. Banks have had to be bailed out, and many still exist on a form of state life support. Growth has stalled, taxes are at 70-year highs, yet governments are still bankrupt. Unless you happen to be part of a tiny plutocracy made up mostly of tech entrepreneurs and financiers, there has rarely been a point, at least since the nadir of the mid-1970s, when the economic system seemed beset by quite so many challenges as it is today. The left has smartly stepped into the intellectual space that has been created with a series of well-timed polemics, which, while they

What does Christian atheism mean?

Two opposed camps can only have a fruitful debate if they agree on what it is they disagree about. A militant atheist such as Richard Dawkins is right to call out scientific ignorance in some religious settings. But at a deeper level his argument fails, because the deity he rejects is a blown-up thing, not the Creator conceived in classical tradition. Similar considerations apply to Slavoj Žižek’s Christian Atheism. When the claim that religion is no more than pious fantasy forms your starting point as well as your conclusion, then reason becomes the first casualty. This approach is as circular as beginning a book on socialism by asserting that all

Must we now despise colonial architecture too?

Here’s a thing. A disturbing book about disturbing cities. And it’s full of loaded questions. Like Hezbollah, the publisher uses the silhouette of an automatic weapon as its logo. This is a trigger warning. Jonathan Swift wrote: All poets and philosphers who find  Some favourite system to their minds  In every way to make it fit  Will force all Nature to submit. So I give you Owen Hatherley, an architectural critic of the left, adept in the predictable tropes of Guardian-sprache, who exists in a world, as he often tells us, defined by concepts of colonial domination, exploitation and ocean-going misery. As Lionel Trilling observed, leftish people are always glum

History must at least be readable if we’re to learn anything from it

Richard Cohen was once one of our foremost book editors as well as being an Olympic sabre champion. Since moving to New York 20 years ago he has turned author himself, writing books on Tolstoy, the sun and his own sport of swordsmanship. Now he focuses his attention on historians. His aim, he tells us at the outset of this superb survey from Herodotus to Mary Beard, is to discover the opinions, biases and open prejudices of those who chronicled the past and thus shaped the way we view it. Making History is very much a compendium of his own tastes and enthusiasms, and cheerfully omits such masters as Clarendon

My short, bitter-sweet marriage to the radical historian Raphael Samuel

In a telling moment early on in A Radical Romance, Alison Light admits that she once identified with the character of Jo March, the tomboy in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Jo, it will be recalled, is the sister who marries a professor, years older than her, a German immigrant called Friedrich Bhaer, who is tender and warm and encourages her writing. In many ways it’s a model modern partnership. Light found her own professor in the shape of Raphael Samuel. In 1987 she married him, following a whirlwind courtship. He was in his early fifties, from a Jewish communist family that traced its roots back to Russia and Eastern

Don’t call Corbynistas ‘cultural Marxists’

Suella Braverman, the Conservative MP for Fareham, said yesterday that the radical left is increasingly hostile to open debate and is now obsessed with ‘snuffing out’ freedom of speech. And how did the radical left respond to her comments? By trying to snuff out her freedom of speech. It was almost too perfect: a politician says lefties are easily offended and determined to shut down opinions they don’t like, and lefties respond by stamping their feet and saying, ‘I’m offended! Shut her down!’ Self-awareness isn’t the new left’s strong suit. The Corbynista left’s main beef with Braverman’s comments, which she made during a discussion about Brexit organised by the Bruges Group, is

Getting it in the neck

‘What!’, railed Voltaire in his Dictionnaire Philosophique of 1764. ‘Is it in our 18th century that vampires still exist?’ Hadn’t his Enlightenment rationalism seen off such sub-religious voodoo? Well no, mon frère, it hadn’t. In fact, here we are, a quarter of a millennium on, and those vampires are still with us. Films, rock concerts, novels, TV shows, they’re full of fangs and dripping with blood. We’re suckers for those suckers — so much so that even academia is getting in on the act. As Nick Groom, an English professor at Exeter university says in his densely researched new book: ‘Vampires are good to think with.’ Well, there’s certainly a

High life | 4 October 2018

To London for much too brief a visit: a marriage, lunch with Commodore Tim Hoare, and a look-see for a house. Yes, I am returning to live in London, but under one condition. It’s called Corbyn, and if he comes in, I’ll stay away. It’s rather cowardly, I know, but I did live in London during the closed shops of the early 1970s. I experienced the joys of the three-day week, the uncollected rubbish, the hospitals without electricity, and the unions exercising power over the government until a certain Margaret Thatcher put a stop to it. I find it hard to understand how people can root for Labour when the

What happened to communism?

I remember the autumn day in 1990 when they came to cart away the large hammer and sickle outside my Moscow block of flats. It was about the size of a cow and made out of a gritty grey metal alloy which had, like almost everything in the USSR, never looked new or clean. Once, these objects had been all over the city. Now they were vanishing. Nobody else seemed especially interested in its departure, probably because there were — more excitingly — eggs on sale down the street. A few weeks later, I would watch the Soviet Army’s last Revolution Day parade trundle through Red Square. A few months

The French far left’s common cause with Islamism

The French have an expression to describe far-left citizens who identity more with Islam than the Republic: ‘Islamo-Gauchiste’, a term coined by the French philosopher Pierre-André Taguieff, who explained in 2017 that many on the far-left regard jihadism as: “…a legitimate social revolt…they look at jihadists through a distorting lens of victimhood. This compassionate approach sees Islamic terrorists only as lost children, abandoned or rejected by unwelcoming and hostile countries, victims of ‘institutional’ or ‘systematic’ racism”. The symbiosis between the Western far-left and Islamism has been ongoing for decades, and stems from the left’s realisation of their failure to win the hearts and minds of the white working-class. In his book ‘Radicalisation’,

We need ideology in politics

‘Studying history at Balliol,’ writes Chris Patten, ‘I knew that the one thing which made me uneasy was a grand theory or over-arching generalisation.’ The remark comes from a Lord Patten’s latest book, First Confession. Henry Keswick wrote an unpleasant review in this magazine, and I’ve spent some time recently discouraging mutual friends from bothering to protest (‘Leave it, Jono, he isn’t worth it’). To hear Patten himself talking about this honest, engaging and very personal memoir, I went recently to see him in a packed opera house at the Buxton Festival. I count Chris, who as director of the Conservative Research Department in 1977 gave me my first job

Masonic bodge

Left-wing groupie Paul Mason has written a costume drama about the suppression of the Paris commune in 1871. We meet Louise Michel and her all-female gang of arsonists as they’re carted off to jail for setting fire to the Tuileries. After a harsh stint in the cells, they’re shipped out to the French colony of New Caledonia, in the eastern Pacific, where they live in an open prison. Things aren’t too bad. They mingle with the natives, enjoy the local hooch, and sing comradely songs about ‘spilling the blood impure’. Escape is on the agenda. A committee of anarchists is said to be making swift progress across the ocean in

How Lenin manipulated the Russian Revolution to his own ends

The centenary of the Russian Revolution has arrived right on time, just as the liberal democratic world is getting a taste of what it’s like to feel political gravity give way. In 2017, Lenin lives. ‘In many ways he was a thoroughly modern phenomenon,’ writes Victor Sebestyen in Lenin the Dictator, the kind of demagogue familiar to us in western democracies, as well as in dictatorships. In his quest for power, he promised people anything and everything. He offered simple solutions to complex problems. He lied unashamedly. He identified a scapegoat he could later label ‘enemies of the people’. He justified himself on the basis that winning meant everything…. Lenin

The man and the moment

The centenary of the Russian Revolution has arrived right on time, just as the liberal democratic world is getting a taste of what it’s like to feel political gravity give way. In 2017, Lenin lives. ‘In many ways he was a thoroughly modern phenomenon,’ writes Victor Sebestyen in Lenin the Dictator, the kind of demagogue familiar to us in western democracies, as well as in dictatorships. In his quest for power, he promised people anything and everything. He offered simple solutions to complex problems. He lied unashamedly. He identified a scapegoat he could later label ‘enemies of the people’. He justified himself on the basis that winning meant everything…. Lenin

Kenneth Clark was much better at opening people’s eyes to great art than Marxist John Berger

It is one of those interesting quirks of postwar cultural history that John Berger, who has died at the age of 90, could have presented Civilisation. Millions of viewers who saw that unsurpassed – unsurpassable – series when its 13 programmes were screened in 1969, or who have seen it in the years since, associate Civilisation with Kenneth Clark – Lord Clark of Civilisation, as he came to be known. But Berger might easily have got the nod. It was Clark himself who suggested to Michael Gill, Civilisation‘s producer, that he might find a more congenial ally in Berger, who, of course, three years later presented Ways of Seeing as a counter-argument to

Real life | 10 November 2016

A wonderful email has arrived from Airbnb entitled ‘Discrimination and Belonging — What It Means For You’. Having tried to make sense of it, I feel it can mean only one thing with any certainty. And that is that the Airbnb party is over. The web business started by a whizz kid in his New York apartment is about to feed itself to the ravening equality agenda wolves. Sadly, the once proud Airbnb corporation has decided to launch ‘a comprehensive effort to fight bias and inequality in the Airbnb community’. With abject hand-wringing, it says it wants to make sure that any householder joining its site to host tourists in

The Marx Memorial Library

There’s a small corner of Clerkenwell where the communist dream never died. The Marx Memorial Library has been in its big, classical 1738 building — originally a school for children of Welsh artisans living in poverty — for 83 years. The library was set up in 1933, the 50th anniversary of Karl Marx’s death. British Marxism and communism have faded, but the library still has a brigade of staunch supporters. Jeremy Corbyn, whose constituency is just up the road in Islington, is a regular visitor. To tour the library is to return to the 1930s when communism was at its height — when Philby, Burgess, Maclean and Blunt were full of gleaming-eyed optimism about the

Revolution was in the air

The Penguin History of Europe reaches its seventh volume (out of nine) with Richard J. Evans’s thorough and wide-ranging work on the 99 years from 1815 to 1914. It comes between two formidable books by formidable scholars: his fellow Cambridge historian Tim Blanning took the story from the close of the Thirty Years’ War to Waterloo, and the Hitler authority Ian Kershaw covered 1914 to 1949. Each of those volumes is much as one would expect of the author: Blanning’s shows his background as a polymath, and his expertise in the histories of more than one major European power; Kershaw’s puts the rise of the Third Reich and its consequences

Strange sightings in Essex

I suspect some readers might be too cool for this lovely book, partly because, despite its gothic horror set-up, it sets out unashamedly to lift the spirits; and partly because historical novels are sometimes derided as escapist, as if they’re only a fallback for authors who can’t keep up with, say, immigration or the internet. It takes place over a single year in the 1890s, in an Essex village where — if the rumours are to be believed — a monstrous sea creature skulks in the estuary, blamed for horrors from disembowelled livestock to a man’s corpse washing up on the marsh, his neck snapped. Up from London amid this

Profit and loss | 9 June 2016

Bertolt Brecht took The Threepenny Opera  from an 18th-century script by John Gay and relocated it to Victorian London. This National Theatre version wants to straddle the contemporary and the antique. Mack the Knife, an Afghan war veteran who murders strangers, contracts a bigamous marriage with Polly Peachum, the daughter of a cross-dressing mastermind who runs begging gangs across east London. This laborious set-up takes an hour to establish and the drama gets started only when Polly’s mum vows to rub out Mack at a knocking-shop. A wise dramatist would have placed this threat in the opening scene. But Brecht isn’t a wise dramatist; he’s a preachy one and his