False retvrns

Morgan Jones

To mark Remembrance Sunday last year, Mary Harrington wrote a profoundly strange article about the meaning of the First World War. It appeared in the Daily Mail, and, in longer form, in Unherd, of which Mary Harrington is an editor (all quotes unless specified are taken from the longer version of the piece). Harrington is not a household name; she is, however, one of the most articulate and interesting voices in what is broadly termed ‘post-liberalism’ (although this is a label Harrington has been sceptical of, saying it doesn’t ‘really make sense, because all politics is post-liberal’. I would argue if you think all politics are post-liberal, you are probably more post-liberal than most).

Unherd lists the work of J.D. Vance and John Millbank, among others, on its ‘Post-liberal reading list’, and the critiques of contemporary culture offered by Harrington and her fellow travellers (that we need more social obligation, not less; that identity politics can have an ambivalent or outright negative impact on the way we navigate the world) are ones that may not be immediately off-putting to Renewal readers. However from these starting positions, post-liberalism’s conclusions reveal specific agendas. Harrington’s article on remembrance is interesting in that it presents a strident series of arguments and historical assertions which tell us precisely nothing about the First World War but a great deal about the author’s political perspectives and the darker implications of post-liberal thought.

Harrington, in a nutshell, contends that Remembrance Sunday and all that accompanies it is not just about remembering the First World War but about our ‘ongoing, monumental collective effort of forgetting’. What are we forgetting? The glory of Europe’s pre-war culture, of course. ‘From the perspective of grand historical narratives’, she writes, ‘the poppy marks the end of the world of 19th century power politics’.  When it comes to the Great War, ‘very little survives now of the original reasons to mourn, and none of the original mourners. But we go on remembering every year. Because even if there’s no longer anyone alive who feels the real-world loss of those ten million who lost their lives, we still feel the shock of the catastrophe that ended Europe as the heart of world civilisation’.

Harrington has clearly read Anna Neima’s recent book on interwar utopians; Harrington outlines that the likes of the Elmhirsts (founders of Dartington Hall, a school and hub for alternative living that was dubbed the ‘village school of the Bloomsbury set’) and other elites sought new ways of living and ordering the world in the wake of the horrors of the Great War. Such elites, Harrington argues, were at the fore of our collective decision ‘to evacuate our civilisation of everything suspected of having caused that cataclysm’; ‘this meant evacuating our civilisation of, well, everything’. One of the things that this turn from traditions and methods of living perceived to have led to the war heralded was, Harrington says, ‘the end of institutional Christendom’. This narrative, with ‘elites’ pushing modernity and suppressing the fact that ‘the West did in fact once have an astonishing, vivid, remarkable culture’, has the ring of ‘Cultural Marxism’ narratives, with, as a friend observed, the Elmhirsts and their ilk playing the role normally ascribed to the Frankfurt School. ‘Everyone blamed that catastrophe on nationalism, religion and realpolitik. Elites tried to abolish all those things for good’, Harrington writes. The Elmhirsts were elites, certainly, and the projects that they and those like them created were influential. But if they were as influential as Harrington suggests they were I would probably be writing this in Esperanto.

Harrington’s article is interesting; it presents an interesting synthesis of narratives, and reveals an interesting attitude to remembrance. This does not, of course, mean that it is good or indeed right. Similarly, Mary Harrington is clearly a smart and often insightful person (which is why I read what she writes and in this case find it worthwhile to spend hours picking it over). But again; insightful is not the same as right.

I have long suspected that post-liberalism is just conservatism that ‘posts’, and a particularly nasty conservatism at that. There is a lot to bear out this suspicion in Harrington’s article, from her discussions of ‘Reactionary Architecture Twitter’ to the fact that she evidences the claim that ‘popular sentiment today holds that the Great War was fought for democracy’ by linking to a tweet from, honestly, just some guy. I’m Very Online myself, but Harrington is I would guess more so; her article has the oddly sinewed connections typical of the writing of people who spend a great deal of time on the internet, connections that can be illuminating and counterintuitive and also sometimes just nonsensical. Ultimately, however, this is not a way to do sincere historical analysis. When all you have is posting, everything starts to look like culture war, and this is not a war that Harrington is fighting alone. In the Daily Mail, Harrington’s article was headlined ‘it’s not just the fallen we remember but also the values that sadly we no longer feel allowed to celebrate’; these arguments run along the same tracks as those made by far-right French presidential candidate Eric Zemmour in his recent interview in the Spectator. ‘These people want above all to make the French and all westerners feel guilty, ashamed of their history, so that they amputate themselves, destroy themselves, abandon their culture, their civilization, simply so that they no longer feel guilty’, Zemmour says of people who advance ‘wokeism’. The question ‘what parts of our history, exactly, are being suppressed’ has a similar ring to ‘what, exactly, is it you feel you cannot say’; the answers often speak for themselves.

Of course, the past is always partly about the future; this is true even for professional historians. However, Mary Harrington is patently not a historian, and the fact that she has drawn her idea of the past to suit her politics is evident. You can see the joins; where an argument made by, for example, Niall Ferguson, might have a clear political weighting applied to historical facts, Harrington’s is all weighting. In the chamber of the House of Commons last year, Dawn Butler was upbraided by the Deputy Speaker Eleanor Laing for accusing the government of ‘lying’. Later she was permitted to say that the government was ‘re-writing history’. There is a space between definitions and semantics where shades of meaning lurk, between those two terms that mean much the same thing. There are things in Harrington’s article that I consider borderline a-historical (that we can see pre-and post- war as neatly delineating cultural modes, for example), but re-writing history is a much more interesting act than simply lying. Those who do it may not be being honest about the past, but they are being honest about their politics; Harrington’s Cultural Marxism meets Victorian Values narrative tells us nothing about the past, but a great deal about how the world is imagined by a certain section of the right.

Remembrance is culturally loaded; this much is undeniable. Red poppy, white poppy, no poppy at all; Kipling’s ‘If’, or Wilfred Owen. However, there is something faintly shark-jumping about asserting that remembrance is not simply a site of culture war, but that what we are remembering is the loss of that culture war itself. The line from Harrington’s article that has played in my head since I first read it is this: ‘Even if there’s no longer anyone alive who feels the real-world loss of those ten million’. I am 26, which is not that old. My great grandmother’s first husband was killed in the First World War. Family legend dictates that my great grandfather – also a veteran of the war – wanted to marry her, but she initially refused him, feeling that with so few men having survived, he should marry someone younger, not a widow with children. He said if he couldn’t marry her, he wouldn’t marry anyone, and so they were wed, and had a daughter, who had a daughter, who had me, and here I sit, writing this. This is all to say that these people seem very real to me – are very real to me – and that remembrance to me is about them, and people like them. Clarissa Eden died a few weeks ago: the past is very close. I spend almost no time thinking about 19th century power politics, and I certainly don’t mourn them (I have the right to vote and all my own teeth: I am fine with leaving the 19th century behind). Conversely I think often of my great grandparents, or of Henry Lumley, and the injured young men like him whose images have been so abused by our culture. Even if this past were not as close as it demonstrably is, it is our responsibility to make and maintain those links with the concerns, humanity and reality of the people who came before us. It is not difficult to feel that the loss of these people was real, and reducing this loss to a cultural mechanism, something that we should primarily think about as a driver of great political moment, is wrong. Using the past as a marker of contemporary moral positions, Harrington profoundly underestimates its weight; to read Testament of Youth or to visit Commonwealth war graves is not to speculate on history from above, to push figures around some mental game of Risk and long for Retvrn, but to bear witness to lives that might have been ours.

Morgan Jones is a contributing editor for Renewal