15 December 2010

‘Useful idiots’ or what? A reply to Jonathan Mirsky

Comments & Replies

A letter published under the heading ‘Mirsky is mistaken’ in the Spectator on 11 December 2010.

Sir: I can assure Jonathan Mirsky that I never thrilled to the sound of the Cultural Revolution (Books, 20 November). Nor did I ever scour the latest issue of Peking News for the correct line on the Gang of Four, or go to the People’s Republic to gaze enraptured into the eye of Mao or Chou En-lai.  Mirsky has long since apologized for the illusions of his youth, but he still shouldn’t have used my book Passport to Peking as the scraper with which to clean his encrusted shoes.

There is very little, he implies, that makes one ‘useful idiot’ worth differentiating from any other.   Yet the consequences of trying to grasp history through a dismissive slogan are all too evident in Mirsky’s review. In a few paragraphs, he manages to put my words into the mouth of Barbara Castle, to mistake Cedric Dover’s account of Germany’s biological museums in the first years of Nazi government, and to turn poor Hugh Casson, of all people, into a Communist apologist of the most reprehensible kind.    

The British mission of 1954 certainly had its fantasists, yet it was also a genuine and in many cases critically informed attempt to reduce international tension.  As for the ‘comedy’ to which Dr. Mirsky objects, much of this was indeed ‘desperate’, as I declared, but it was part of the experience of those English travellers. I prefer to take my guidance from Hans Magnus Enzensberger, who has also worried about the way in which everyday life persists, with its routines, petty vanities and laughter, even in the very worst of situations.  This may appear ‘scandalous’, as Enzensberger concludes in The Silences of Hammerstein, but it ‘is not to be addressed by swiftly pronounced moral judgements’.  

Patrick Wright

Fulbourn, near Cambridge


A few paragraphs of the review to which this letter responds can be read here»

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