Thursday, 16 February 2012

Malcolm Muggeridge and "The Great Liberal Death Wish"

I was re-reading Malcolm Muggeridge’s splendidly splenetic essay, “The Great Liberal Death Wish” the other day when I wondered – not for the first time – why he isn’t more of a hero of mine. After all, he’s a prominent member of that group of great 20th Century left-wing journalists who decided to take a stand against their comrades on key issues (others include George Orwell, Christopher Hitchens and Nick Cohen: bless ‘em all!).

In Muggeridge’s case, he chose to blow the whistle on Soviet Communism when he was a Guardian correspondent in the 1930s, thereby displaying genuine moral courage. (The Right is far more forgiving of free-thinkers, presumably because the Right is all about liberty.)

Later, Muggeridge further outraged leftist opinion by claiming that Eleanor Roosevelt was a far more dangerous figure than Stalin or Hitler, because they’d been discredited, while her particularly ruinous brand of Liberalism had become Holy Writ. And when he “found Jesus” in the 1960s, he again swam against the tide by publicising his conversion relentlessly (and sometimes embarrassingly – remember Lord Longford and the ”Festival of Light”?) And I enjoyed his tussle with the Python team over Life of Brian – the thing for which, I suspect, he is now best remembered here. His reputation – the fate of so many prominent journalists – has withered rapidly since his death in 1990, and he was always taken slightly more seriously in America.

On the whole, then, Muggeridge was very much A Good Thing. But it was his determined pessimism, his conviction that the world was going to hell in a Liberal, materialistic hand-cart and that the West had no answers which began to seem a bit smug and cul-de-sac-ish towards the end. You can only go in for so much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the wilderness before others begin to wonder if you aren’t enjoying your misery a little too much, and whether, in the end, it isn't all a bit of a pose.

Hypocrisy was a charge often levelled at Muggeridge. He claimed to despise fame and celebrity, but it was obvious he loved being famous. He had been wildly licentious for most of his life – drinking, smoking, fornicating and using profane language at every opportunity (he habitually terminated Punch editorial conferences with “Right, let’s all fuck off, then”) – but, when he got religion of a decidedly puritan sort, he immediately decided – like a lot of converts – that the world in general needed to renounce everything that he’d renounced (for instance, it was apparently impossible to get a decent drink while staying at his cottage in Robertsbridge).

I remember towards the end of his life hearing him say that, when he got up in the morning, he enjoyed nothing more than breakfasting on an apple (he ended up as a vegetarian) while reading passages by his favourite writers pouring scorn on the folly of human ambition. Well, okay, Malc, I remember thinking, fine for you, maybe, but that may not exactly be much use to the vast mass of humanity: after all, most people have to get up and struggle to make a living and support a family and that sort of thing – munching a Cox’s Orange Pippin while considering the futility of human endeavour might strike 99% of us as a wee bit of a luxury. We all need solace, and, while many of us no doubt seek it in self-defeating ways, lofty disdain is only one amongst many valid approaches. I’m not keen on unscrupulous optimism, mind you  – but I’ve never seen why we should invariably treat apocalyptic doom-mongering as wisdom. It's just too easy!

Muggeridge’s hatred of materialism (which I sympathise with – I’ve never been that big on the accumulation of self-validating physical possessions) ultimately led to political ossification. He remained a self-professed left-winger to the end, which seems surprising in view of many of his attitudes. But I guess that was partly because of his anti-materialism – we all know that if you want people to have less of everything, socialism’s the way to go. This also blinded the old boy to the significance of Ronald Reagan and Mrs Thatcher (whom he dismissed, rather oddly, as “the old fool” – she was thirty years’ younger than him): their aim was to make their countries and their people richer, and that was anathema to a grumpy oldster who had discovered the joy of giving things up. He may also have imagined that the increase in self-reliance which these great conservatives championed might make people less reliant on religion for answers (and he may have been right).

R. Emmett Tyrrell summed up one’s doubts about Muggeridge nicely in an excellent piece about his friend in the American Spectator (you can download the whole thing if you click here and then on the first item, "St Mugg"):
The underlying theme of all Malcolm's gossip and of most of his
writing was that the West was finished. Again he was playing on that
enduring ingredient of the late twentieth-century Zeitgeist,
Weltschmerz, that so frequently fetched the literary-leaning herd. I
had begun to have misgivings. His grim predictions never arrived on
time or, for that matter, at all. As a false prophet he ranked about
even with the environmentalists, say, Dr. Paul Ehrlich, vaticinator of
so many famines and cataclysms yet to arrive. Every time I visited
Robertsbridge I left high in anticipation of imminent catastrophe for
the West, but no catastrophe ensued. As the disappointments
accumulated, I began to feel used. Still Malcolm went right along
prophesying doom. His hearing weakened. His eyesight dimmed. The woeful
predictions grew tedious. I lost patience.

Nevertheless, Muggeridge wrote some wonderful stuff. I’ll end with a few observations from the version (he wrote many) of “The Great Liberal Death Wish” published in The Portable Conservative Reader, edited by Russell Kirk:
Previous civilisations have been overthrown from without by the incursion of barbarian hordes: ours has dreamed up its own dissolution in the minds of its own intellectual elite. It has carefully nurtured its own barbarians… 
Thus, in [Guardian] editorials, it was a basic principle that our enemies were always in the right and our friends in the wrong. If, for instance, a British soldier was killed anywhere, it was an unfortunate consequence of the brutal and crooked policies the poor fellow was required to implement; if, on the other hand, a British soldier killed someone, the victim was automatically a blessed martyr, to be mourned, and possibly made the subject of a demonstration, by all decent liberal people. 
…education is a stupendous fraud perpetrated by the liberal mind on a bemused public…
Oh, dammit, St Mugg gets into my Heroes section after all.


  1. very nice - just discovered The Great Liberal Death Wish and Mr. Muggeridge!

  2. I can remember Simon Taylor doing a very creditable, if brief, impersonation of Muggeridge which consisted of his saying "The Question Why?" and pulling a face.