|PR 2/ 2003 VOLUME LXX NUMBER 2|
In the late fifties and well into the sixties visitors came from everywhere to London because of what was being seen as a renaissance of democratic socialism. The collapse of communism in Europe, given impetus by the Twentieth Congress and the Soviet invasion of Hungary, not to mention the foul odors that increasingly came from behind the Iron Curtain, meant that generally the Left was in trouble. But westwardlook!the land was bright: over there in Britain was a new dawn, partly because of the Aldermaston Marches, which attracted people with horizons and ideas much wider than the simple "Ban the Bomb!" and partly because of the New Leftwhich already had its periodical, New Left Review was young, noisy, energetic, irreverent about the schisms of the past.
William Phillips came partly from curiosity and, I think too, from a hope that at last there would be a genuinely democratic socialist party. People were asking if the New Left could develop into a political party of a sane, wholesome, non-dogmatic kind. I met William at Wayland Youngs house in Bayswater, invited there so he could meet a representative of the new thinking: me. Wayland at that stage in his life was a romantic socialist, a generous soul far from the viperish or peevish intrigues of the Left. To see me as a representative showed how innocent he was. But more than once I was summoned to Bayswater or recommended to some visitor hungry for political enlightenment whom I was bound to disappoint, because I had been so relieved to throw off the whole murky bundle of tricks which was communism that I had perhaps gone to an extreme reaction: a plague on all your houses, leave me alone.
That Wayland had become this focus was ironical enough. He was so visible because the newspapers liked to photograph him marching from Aldermaston with his lovely wife and at least some of his children. It is not only Brits who dearly love a Lord: Wayland would be Lord Kennet. Foreigners have always been intrigued by the way aristocrats in England so easily espouse the extreme left wing. There used to be a joke on the Left that the Communist Party could never get one of its own into the House of Commons, but there were always C.P. members in the House of Lords.
On that first evening, sauntering back into central London along Bayswater, I was struck by the detailed and well-informed cross-questioning I was getting, by a man who knew the history of socialist Britain as well as he did the story of the labor movement in America. Here was a real politico, as I had known them for years now, and the best did their homework, as William was doing. There were ironies. The old joke about the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant atheist applied by analogy: William had been a Trot, and I a Stalinist, when I was. For years I had been impatient with all this, believing that if Trotsky had won the battle for power he would have been as ruthless as Stalin; that pickaxe, with a slight turn of history, could well have landed in Stalins brain. But the New Left youngsters were all Trots, in an inspirational warm-hearted way. I was able to tell William that their hearts were in the right place, but I doubt whether he could have approved of what must have seemed to him amateurishness: the rigorous analytical phases of New Left Review were still ahead.
Years later, in New York, when the Soviet Union was no more, I asked William if he had ever thought like this: Suppose the Left everywhere had never paid allegiance to the Soviet Union, had said, "That struggle has nothing to do with us"then certain things could not have happened. The Lefts support of the Soviet Union meant concentrationthat above allon failure, on lying, on the defense of mass murder, meant, inevitably the corruption of itself, because of always having to swear that bad was good, lies the truth, failure success. A left wing independent of all that would have meant a healthy Left, instead of one mortally wounded and corrupted. Yes, said William, he had indeed pursued these ideas, but surely I must agree with him that this was unhistorical thinking? Yes, yes, I admitted, true, but just suppose. . . . The fact that we could have that conversation at all shows how far we had traveled from those days when William came to London, telephoned me, and we met for a meal, or I took him to a meeting he thought might be interesting, or I invited some real representative of the New Left who could satisfy Williams expert questioning.
I was also in a false position because I had read and admired Partisan Review for years, but for its stories, poems, and criticism, not for its politics, which struck me as sound and fury in a teacup. Over there in the States there was this minute Communist Party and an even smaller Trotskyist Party. And so what? The vast power of America would absorb these like little fleabites. How wrong I wasboth had influences far beyond their formal boundaries. But what I wanted to talk about was literature, and I questioned William about the writers and poets. So there we were, agreeably strolling about London, mildly at cross purposes, and mostly I was listening to this urbane, clever, well-informed man, the editor of a magazine as influential in the arts as in politics. I have often been told by this or that writer how much he owed to Williams advice and help. And it is my belief that this is how William will be remembered. The politics, as happens so often, will seem increasingly like noisy sophistries, but the writers and poets he published and helped will be his real monument.
There arent many people like William now, so well-read, well-informed, with such a range of interests. These days savants dont come so well-rounded, many sided.
When I took to visiting New York, meeting William and Edith Kurzweil was always a high point: conversations were an antidote to whatever enthusiasm or fad was sweeping America. This was particularly true through the effluvias of political correctness. William was all his life at an acute angle to current conventional thinking, in minority positions, always the acerbic and level-headed critic, but never was he more at odds with his time than during political correctness.
I visited William in the hospital in 1987 and found him in a room so stuffy, noisy, and hot youd think it was impossible to retain a clear thought in your head, but he was alert and wanted to know what was going on in Southern Africa, in the Labour Party in Britain. Who were the new writers? Was it true the young were not interested in politics? How about feminism? What did I think about . . . ?