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The Liberal Republic

No man is an island: This argument for a progressive politics based on "liberal republicanism" is me

The think tank Demos celebrates its 16th birthday with this pamphlet on “liberal republicanism”. Richard Reeves and Philip Collins argue that “the good society is one composed of independent, capable people charting their own course”. In support, they cite the 19th-century liberals Leonard Hobhouse and Thomas Green, and in doing so signal a broader intent: both Hobhouse and Green were involved in debates between social liberalism and ethical socialism that forged the spirit of the modern left. The pamphlet is an invitation to the centre left to travel back in time to its origins in radical liberalism and socialism, and to redefine progressive politics.

This comes at a crucial moment for the left, both inside and outside the Labour Party. Much has been made of the opportunity presented by the self-destruction of neoliberal capitalism. Yet the left is struggling to make an impact. If a new progressive politics is to emerge, a return to philosophical first principles is essential.

Reeves and Collins are confident that the future lies in the historical legacy of liberalism, though they acknowledge that the conditions for a self-directed life do not emerge out of thin air. Independence requires what Amartya Sen calls “capabilities” – financial resources, education, skills and health. Liberalism asks that individuals become the authors of their own lives, “but republicanism demands that we are also co-authors of our collective lives”.

But what is the nature of this co-authorship? How do we achieve a good society? Here Reeves and Collins are less convincing. The devolution of power they endorse is limited to a transfer from the bureaucracy to the people. They do not think that wealth inequality threatens political equality. Unlike social liberals, they do not recognise the interdependency of individuals. So, what holds their liberal social order together? Friedrich von Hayek argued that it was the economic relations of the market. Reeves and Collins offer no alternative explanation. At the heart of their political philosophy is the absence of society.

Reeves and Collins write that the “beginning of a liberal politics is the individual”, but their liberalism ignores the ways in which individuals are products of complex social, cultural and economic relations. They argue that the failures and tragedies in people’s lives belong to each alone. But individuals do not decide the inequalities that determine their longevity, or the statistical likelihood of their succumbing to poverty, poor housing, unemployment, murder, prison, disease, mental illness, obesity and educational failure. Such problems are socially produced and are not the responsibility of individuals alone.

Reeves and Collins share neither the social liberalism of Hobhouse and Green, nor their belief in the interdependency of individuals. Their liberalism slips its social moorings and shades into moral coercion: individuals must make themselves as independent as possible from the state, must free themselves from all conditions of dependency, and must follow that “most human attribute”, the ability to choose.

The authors’ advocacy of welfare reform, for example, is defined by the problem of recipients who are “unable to do without state handouts”. They echo the utilitarian liberalism of Jeremy Bentham, a man whom John Stuart Mill described as having no sympathy. There is a callousness in Benthamite and economic liberalism, and it is present in The Liberal Republic. Nothing holds this social order together except the moral imperative to gain maximum personal autonomy.

Ethical socialism also begins with the individual although, besides liberty, it values equality, because it recognises that there exists a common humanity despite people’s differences. It is based on a mutual recognition that the freedom of each individual depends on the freedom of all.

In the past three decades, what the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur calls “ethical intention” in public life has given way to the pursuit of individual self-interest. The business elite have become a law unto themselves, while the political elite are divorced from the people. Enterprise culture, the flexible labour market and welfare reform have all generated anxiety and isolation, rather than the “independence” valued by liberals such as Reeves and Collins. The values of kindness, care and generosity are out of keeping with the dominant market culture. And the liberal individualism of The Liberal Republic is no remedy for this.

Reeves and Collins have little to say about the defining issue of the economy, at a time when unemployment and inequality are increasing, the value of pensions is collapsing and there is a chronic housing shortage. There is food and water insecurity, and oil production will peak in the next few years. And looming over all these problems is the threat of global warming.

Two institutions have dominated the life of this country for the past 30 years: the state and the market. How shall we reform both in order to confront the huge systemic problems we face and create sustainable, equitable economic development? The progressive future belongs to those who can find credible answers to such questions, and who are able to strike a balance between self-realisation and social solidarity. This politics will emerge from the long-standing argument between social liberalism and socialism. Unfortunately, The Liberal Republic places itself outside what will be an epoch-defining debate.

Jon Cruddas is MP for Dagenham
Jonathan Rutherford is professor of cultural studies at Middlesex University
A longer version of this review will be published in Soundings in July

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Iran

Jens Schlueter/Getty Images
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The House by the Lake is a history of Germany told in a single house

History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely - in ordinary houses.

Recent years have brought a number of popular stories, told about Jews who lost their patrimony during the Nazi period: Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare With Amber Eyes, for example, which focused on a group of netsuke – small Japanese figurines – that was all that remained of his family’s once-vast art collection, and the film Woman in Gold, which tells the story of the descendants of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who successfully sued to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s portrait of her.

It is no coincidence that these stories are emerging just at the historical moment when the last survivors of the Holocaust are dying. The actual victims of the Holocaust suffered too much to be plausibly recompensed; there is no way to tell their lives ­except as stories of irrecoverable loss. It is only for the second and third generations that the restoration of lost property can seem like a form of making whole, or a viable way of reconnecting with a familial past. There is, however, always something a little uncomfortable about such stories, because they seem to suggest that regaining a painting, or a piece of real estate, does something to heal a historical rupture that in reality can never be closed.

The House by the Lake starts out seeming like another one of these stories. In 2013 Thomas Harding travelled from London to the outskirts of Berlin in order to visit a house that had been built by his paternal great-grandfather, a German-Jewish doctor named Alfred Alexander. What he finds is a shambles: “Climbing through, my way illuminated by my iPhone, I was confronted by mounds of dirty clothes and soiled cushions, walls covered in graffiti and crawling with mould, smashed appliances and fragments of furniture, rotting floorboards and empty beer bottles.” The house had been used by squatters as a drug den for years and it was now scheduled for demolition by the local authority. Here is a perfect symbol of a lost estate and the reader half expects Harding triumphantly to restore the house and reclaim it for his family.

Yet The House by the Lake has a more complex and ambiguous story to tell. For one thing, Harding makes clear that his relatives want nothing to do with the house, or with Germany in general. Harding comes from a family of German Jews who emigrated to Britain in the 1930s, starting new lives with a new name (originally they were called Hirschowitz). Understandably, they have no sentimental feelings about the country that drove them out and no interest in rekindling a connection with it. But Harding is an exception. His last book, Hanns and Rudolf, was also an excavation of the family’s past, in which he showed how his great-uncle Hanns Alexander fought in the British army during the Second World War and ended up arresting Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz.

Rather than let the house disappear, he sets about recovering its story, in an attempt to convince the German authorities to let it stand as a structure of historical value. In doing so, he broadens his subject from Jewish dispossession to the history of 20th-century Germany, as seen through the lens of a single modest building.

Alfred Alexander built the house in 1927 as a summer home for his family. He was a fashionable Berlin doctor, whose patients included Albert Einstein and Marlene Diet­rich, and he joined a number of successful professionals in building second homes in the village of Groß Glienicke, just west of the capital. The village had a long history – it was founded in the 13th century – but the exponential growth of modern Berlin had disrupted its traditions.

The land that Dr Alexander leased to build his house on was part of an estate owned by Otto von Wollank, who sounds like a stern Junker but was a Berlin real-estate developer who bought the estate (and then his title) in the early 20th century. Already Harding shows that the history of Groß Glienicke is bound up with social changes in modern Germany and in particular those in Berlin, whose population exploded in the years before the First World War. This made it more profitable for the von Wollanks to parcel off their land to city-dwellers than to farm it, as its owners had done since time immemorial.

The house that Alfred Alexander built was a modest one: a one-storey wooden structure with nine small rooms and, because it was intended to be used only in the summer, no insulation or central heating. It was a place for leading the simple life, for rowing and swimming and playing tennis, and the children – including Elsie, who later became the grandmother of Thomas Harding – loved to spend time there.

Groß Glienicke was, however, no ­refuge from rising anti-Semitism: Robert von Schultz, the Alexanders’ landlord and Otto von Wollank’s son-in-law, was a leader in the Stahlhelm, the right-wing paramilitary organisation, and a vocal hater of Jews. After 1933, when Hitler seized power, things became much worse, though the Alexanders attempted to continue living a normal life. Harding quotes a diary entry that the teenage Elsie made in April that year: “Thousands of Jewish employees, doctors, lawyers have been impoverished in the space of a few hours . . . People who during the war fought and bled for their German fatherland . . . now they stand on the brink of the abyss.”

Fortunately, the abyss did not swallow up the Alexander family. By 1936, all its members had escaped to Britain. At first, they tried to keep legal possession of the Groß Glienicke house, renting it out to a tenant named Will Meisel, a successful songwriter and music publisher. (The company he founded, Edition Meisel, still flourishes today.) But Meisel, like so many ordinary Germans under Hitler, was not above profiting from the dispossession of Jews. When the Alexanders’ citizenship was revoked by the Nazi state and their house confiscated, Meisel bought it from the tax office at a bargain price, much as he had previously bought up music publishers abandoned by their Jewish owners. After the war, evidence of this profiteering delayed – but did not prevent – Meisel’s efforts to be “denazified” by the ­Allied occupying powers.

Meisel won the house by the lake thanks to one political upheaval and lost it thanks to another. The postwar partition of Berlin left Groß Glienicke just outside the city limits; as a result, Meisel’s business in West Berlin was in a different country from his lake house in East Germany. This turned him into another absentee landlord, like the Alexanders before him. Indeed, there is an odd symmetry to what happened next. Just as the Nazis had taken the house from its Jewish owners to give it to an Aryan, now the communists took the house from its capitalist owner and gave it to the workers.

Because of the housing shortage in postwar Germany, the small summer house now had to serve as the year-round residence for two Groß Glienicke families, the Fuhrmanns and the Kühnes. This required a series of alterations that destroyed much of the house’s original character – a typical eastern bloc triumph of the utilitarian over the aesthetic.

In tracing this next phase of the house, Harding shows what life in East Germany was like for some of its typical citizens. Wolfgang Kühne, a bus driver, was recruited by the Stasi (his code name was “Ignition Key”) but was soon booted out for failure to do any actual spying. His son Bernd was a promising athlete who unwittingly participated in the state’s doping programme, before an accident destroyed his sporting career. At the same time, the family benefited from the guaranteed food, jobs and housing offered by the state – perks that Wolfgang would miss after reunification brought capitalism back to Groß Glienicke.

The institution of East German life that the Kühnes could never ignore, however, was the Berlin Wall. Because Groß Glienicker Lake was legally part of West Berlin, a section of the wall ran between the house and the lake shore – a three-metre-high ­concrete monolith that was literally in the Kühnes’ backyard. They couldn’t have guests over, since they lived in a restricted border zone, which required a special pass to enter. Occasionally, Harding writes, the young Bernd and his classmates would make a game of tossing sticks over the wall, trying to set off the alarm tripwires.

This emblem of tyranny was just another fact of life for those living in its shadow. And that is, perhaps, the most important lesson of Harding’s book. History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely. This is why an ordinary house can serve so effectively as a symbol of the German experience.

Today, the Alexander Haus, as it is known, is a designated landmark and Harding hopes to turn it into a museum, a fitting new incarnation for our own age of memorialisation. Whether it will be the last stage in the house by the lake’s career is something only time will tell.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His latest book is “Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander” (Other Press)

The House by the Lake: a Story of Germany by Thomas Harding is published by William Heinemann (£20, 442pp)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis