Missed lessons from the world of yesterday
More and more, Theresa May seems to be metamorphosing into Salvador Allende, barricaded in an office, with gunfire and screaming outside, mercenaries climbing the walls, turning on a microphone to address the people and reassure them that he would never resign. He of course died later that day. But in her own febrile broadcast last Sunday, the PM was more optimistic. As she put it, the coming weeks and months would require ‘cross-party talks’ and ‘compromise’. But that would be okay because – ignore that strafing gunfire, that’s nothing – ‘on Brexit, I think there are some things that we can agree on.’ And at the top of her list was ‘ending free movement.’
Not all that surprising. I once went to a meeting in Glasgow where John McDonnell (current Shadow Chancellor) said that, in his old book group, there was only ever one book to read. Creepy in one way, confirming in another, his remark stood out to me and has recurred at odd moments throughout this calamitous ‘process’. Clearly, he meant Das Capital. Because the other one starts, ‘Workers of the world, unite!’ And his policy has always been something like the opposite: to him foreign workers are a menace to the workers who live here already; they are the luckless victims of cynical economic exploitation, and their admittance will result in lower wages – a ‘race to the bottom.’
I disagree. And I was about to tell him so to his face. But there was free pizza at this event and, distracted from my activism, I spent the next half hour quietly munching and making muffled orgiastic noises. So, he got away. But if I had had less of an appetite, I would have recommended him another book – Stefan Zweig’s autobiography, The World of Yesterday. I doubt that he would have taken me up on it. But this is the work par excellence that memorialises Europe as it used to be, just briefly, in the golden sunset of monarchical excess before the cataclysm of the First World War brought it all crashing down.
Zweig was perhaps less nostalgic about the grand days of Hapsburg Vienna than his modern readers (of whom there are far too few). He writes revealingly about the sexual repression and mannered hypocrisy that made up the social foundations of all that learning and culture. And he had already written Beware of Pity, his masterpiece, a novel where the young lieutenant of a provincial Austrian garrison finds himself snared in it.
When he describes his schooling, Zweig keeps using the word ‘dismal’. Vienna was too traditional and too austere for children: of his teachers he says, tellingly, ‘I have forgotten all their names and faces.’ But he found himself in a class of young art lovers who read everything in print and kept tabs on everything that hadn’t been printed yet: art made them socially mobile; art gave them new ideas about themselves and their city; more than that, art came from all over Europe and made the lovers of art into something else entirely: Europeans.
Joan Acocella gets it right in his introduction to Beware of Pity: Zweig ‘saw himself as a citizen not of any one country, but of Europe as a whole.’ As a poor young student-writer, he went from one country and one culture to another, making friends in odd places, making use of all that he found in Berlin, in Paris, in London, to enhance his own artistic expression. Sometimes his position at the heart of European culture and politics and society becomes breathtaking: one of his friends was invited to go on the sealed-train with Lenin; when he moved to Salzburg he became neighbours with the unknown painter Adolf Hitler; when he wrote to Mussolini requesting the release of a political prisoner, he received a letter praising his novels and offering to commute the sentence at once. He was friends with Rainer Maria Rilke, Sigmund Freud, and Theodor Herzl (the founder of modern Zionism). And he translated everyone from Joyce to Keats, wrote biographies of everyone from Dickens to Mary Queen of Scots.
Clive James, himself no slouch, writes in Cultural Amnesia that ‘Zweig’s accumulated historical and cultural studies remain a body of achievement almost too impressive to take in.’ All this is to say that in the proudest left tradition, he was an internationalist. And he remained an internationalist through two world wars. His chapter on ‘The Fight For International Fraternity’ may well include some elements of self-mythology but his efforts to built solidarity were impressive enough and always premised on a love of humanity rather than love of the nation, or the party, or the leader. And that tendency was not always a common or popular one, especially among intellectuals.
In other words, and to get back to my point, his life was a celebration of free movement, a celebration that was only interrupted when the absurd monarchies of the old world came together to destroy themselves in a pissing contest that, he recalls, ‘no one wanted, not the people, not the government.’ All his life thereafter he was able to move, as the old passport says, without let or hindrance, and to do so, importantly, for its own sake. His life was ruined when his old neighbour decided to go mad and chase him into exile: as he writes (and he’s writing in 1942, remember), ‘The more truly European someone’s way of life was in Europe, the harder he was hit by the shattering of the continent.’ If that last sentence seems to have an odd past-tense finality about it, then it contains a heartbreaking premonition: he died in a suicide pact with his wife Lotte Altmann a few months after writing it. The World of Yesterday is often read as a long suicide note.
I would have told all this to John McDonnell. I would have asked, as security personnel dragged me away, why the left has so casually abandoned the right of free movement, as if it was not in fact a right but some unhelpful loophole that could only be exploited by foreign workers. And what, in any case, would be the problem with that? (I would have added, as they tossed me into the street.) After all, as Clive James elsewhere says, ‘Europe is a mental achievement.’ And free movement has always been foundational to that: it allows for all the other achievements of the mind, from the scientific to the artistic to the commercial and even the political.
It is no surprise that the current government should, in the dying days of its abysmal failure to ‘achieve Brexit’, turn more and more to the composition of empty statements and meaningless speeches. But unless our supposedly principled opposition can offer some actually principled opposition, we will soon have thrown away something exceedingly precious, a right, a principle, but also an identity.