Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Victor Serge, Harry Mount and Robert Caro.

Memoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge

Victor Serge stood out amongst the revolutionaries in the early years of the Soviet Union because of his rejection of the violent methods employed by its leaders. He wrote his memoirs in 1942 and died in 1947. This first full edition of the book in English was a long time coming, but has been welcomed with enthusiasm. John Gray, writing in the New Statesman this week, describes Serge’s tale as an “extraordinary story”, carefully depicting the changing nature of politics in the USSR. Whilst not centering the book on his own story, “the strand that links everything together is Serge himself - a courageous and generous man who was loyal to his vision of how revolution could usher in a new era in human history”.

Nicholas Lezard, writing in the Guardian, agreed. He wrote of Serge: “This is a man of great courage, then, and utter decency. If there is a note in those words which reminds one of Orwell, bear in mind that Orwell didn't have to labour under the constant fear of the state murdering him, or his wife, or his child.” As well as a huge personal respect for the author, Lezard also has huge amounts of respect for the book itself as “essential, above all, as a denouncement of oppression, an eye-witness account, written in heat and at speed, but with the talent of the true writer, of what it was like to be at the heart of the machine – and to stand up to it”. Gray identified weaknesses in Serge’s understanding, where he was “consistently deluded about how the revolution would develop”, and unable to accept that “Mass terror was a condition of [the Soviet Union’s]survival”. Taking that into account, Lorna Scott Fox in the London Review of Books still described Memoirs of a Revolutionary as a “classic” account, showing a “heroism” in his stance. In Lezard’s words, “anyone who cares about justice and freedom of speech should have a copy”.

How England Made the English: From Hedgerows to Heathrow by Harry Mount

Harry Mount took on a formidable task in attempting to explain how exactly English society has come to be. Looking at the impact of geographical location, foliage and even soil type, he takes the reader through a comprehensive attempt to understand why exactly England looks as it does and the English act as they do. Alexandra Harris, writing in the Guardian, argues that even if Mount doesn't completely succeed in that task, his book does at least make the reader think: “If more people look around them in England this summer and notice what the kerbstones and window-frames are made of, then that can be no bad thing.” However, the cost of this new light on the mundane has been the crippling focus on fact and figures. Peter Wilby, writing for the New Statesman, argued that the tone is “discursive, understated and oddly flat; at times, as the author details soils and the genesis of place names, one has the sense of reading a GCSE textbook.” Harris agrees, lamenting Mount’s narrowly empirical focus on such an otherwise interesting subject: “why reduce it all to a relentless list of facts and figures?”

Clive Aslet, writing in the Telegraph, offers Mount little solace. Aslet welcomes Mount's defence of England’s “particularity”, which, he claims, has been eroded in recent years. It’s a conservative slant which Wilby claims may well be one of the most interesting parts of the book, leaving the reader “wiser and better informed on a range of other topics, not least the mood of One Nation Tories.” The cost of focus on this particularity is a recurrent theme: it falls into stereotypes, claims Aslet, an issue which Harris agues adds to the blandness of the book.

In conclusion, Harris asked: “Does all this get us any closer to understanding Englishness? Not really, though that's a lot to ask”. Wilby wrote:“I wasn’t sure that, beyond banalities about the weather, I was much clearer about how England made the English – How the English Made England might have been just as good a title”.


The Years of Lyndon Johnson Volume IV: the Passage of Power by Robert A Caro.

Almost 40 years ago, when Robert Caro agreed to write a biography of Lyndon Johnson, it was expected that the series would be made up of three books covering all of Johnson’s time in office. Two and a half million words later, this fourth volume is expected to be the penultimate. It has become a series which, Tom Carson argues in GQ, has a Harry Potter-like following amongst an audience of “people deformed by Washingtonitis”.

It is a following which Lord Andrew Adonis, writing in the New Statesman this week, believes was hard-won. This most recent volume contains “one central insight: that Johnson’s legacy, good and bad, was determined by both moves and decisions made within a matter of days of John F Kennedy’s assassination on 22 November 1963.” Caro’s latest volume moves beyond a simple biography to an analysis of not just Johnson’s time in office but the nature of office. Adonis argued that “in telling the tale [of Johnson], Caro not only re-creates one of the giants of modern politics, he tells a giant tale about power and about life itself”. Thispraise is echoed by the Economist, identifying not only Caro’s ability to look at the structure of politics but also the judgments made by individuals: “Mr Caro’s strength as a biographer is his ability to probe Johnson’s mind and motivations”. Caro manages to guide the reader through Johnson’s leadership skills, his civil rights successes and the reasons for his poorer choices.

The final volume of this series will deal with Johnson’s eventual downfall, Vietnam and the emergence of what the Economist refers to as the President’s “darker side”. It argues  that “Mr Caro’s many fans eagerly await” the final volume. This series may have prompted a Harry Potter-style frenzy, but this has been justified on all counts.

Lyndon Johnson with his cabinet in 1967 (Photo: Getty Images)
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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution