Vol. 12 No. 9 · 10 May 1990

Letters to an Editor – written by his contributor, A.J.P. Taylor, to Kingsley Martin of the ‘New Statesman’ at various times from 1951 to 1964

3426 words

Dear Kingsley,

Many thanks for your letter. Far from resenting it, I appreciate very deeply the friendship that it implies. Of course the problem of writing for the Sunday Pic has exercised my mind. But I ask myself: ought I to be content with teaching ten or fifteen undergraduates in Magdalen, or even with writing for the fairly limited readers of the New Statesman and the Manchester Guardian? If Phil gives me the chance of addressing five million people, ought I to take fright at the shade of Joad and turn it down? It is a difficult job that takes me a long time to learn; and I daresay I shall make lots of mistakes before I get better. But I surely ought to try. For my own part, I’m content if once every two months or so I can get in a piece advocating a more independent foreign policy and appeasement with Russia, but especially with China.

I’ve written some lousy articles for the Sunday Pic, but curiously enough I don’t think my article on the drink laws one of them. I’m quite unashamed of it. I sincerely think that we should have the same liquor laws that they have in France – drink available to all at all times. I’d like to see a persistent campaign by the Left to prove that Socialists stand for liberty in personal matters – more drinking, more gambling, easier divorce, no identity cards, no passports, and so on. They all go together. If we protest when young people cannot go to Berlin, we ought to protest just as much when young people cannot go into a public house. Some people think Communism is poison, and some think drink is. They are both wrong. I wrote that piece not on Phil’s prompting, but because I am ashamed every time I go into a public house for a drink and have to tell my young sons (one of whom likes cider and wine, and the other does not) that they must stand outside in the rain.

As to my academic reputation, it has gone down the drain long ago; and it has done me more harm to write for the New Statesman than for the Sunday Pic, simply because academic people read the one and not the other. I’ve just been passed over for a Chair at Oxford in favour of a nonentity who has never written anything, not even academic. Hugh Trevor-Roper was passed over too, so I am in good company; and he was passed over for the same reason – he writes for the New Statesman.

You say that serious papers will want me less. But no serious paper wants me at all as a political writer. I haven’t written a leader for the Manchester Guardian since 1945; and I would not like to reckon when I last wrote anything for the first half of the New Statesman. You and the MG employ me as a reviewer because I am the best person to review the sort of books that you send me. Look at the Books in General I have just written for you on Tocqueville in America and ask yourself whether it is inferior to what I should have written before I had contact with the Sunday Pic. I certainly took a lot of trouble with it. I’ll make a bargain with you. If ever you can honestly say that my reviewing for the New Statesman is losing its quality, I’ll either change my style in the Sunday Pic or end my contract with Phil. All the same, thanks for the warning.

                           Yours ever,


Dear Kingsley,

You are quite right about Aberdeen, and I was careless about him. I ought to have made his view clearer, and so incidentally ought Temperley at the end of his book on the Crimea. I think on the whole that I am right about Bright. He had a good case but made too much of it: rightly accusing the British government, leaning over backwards to excuse the Russian.

Chamberlain ought to have regretted what he did. But he didn’t. He was an obstinate and narrow-minded man who, when things went wrong, always put the blame on others – Baldwin, Hitler, anyone but himself. In my book on the origins of the Second World War, I slipped towards the same mistake as Bright, and gave the impression of excusing Hitler. I didn’t mean to. All I wanted to say was that he planned much less and improvised much more than people made out at the time. The accumulated evidence for his failure to prepare for war is staggering. He bluffed everyone, including himself. I shall try to make this clear some time in a new preface.

On your book, we now know more about how Palmerston briefed the press, often writing the leaders himself. He wasn’t merely supported by public opinion. He made the public opinion which supported him. Unfortunately I can’t remember where this can be found.



Dear Kingsley,

I’m sorry you don’t like my piece on Djilas. I took a great deal of trouble over it and worried for days until I got it right. So much for your suggestion that I don’t think twice. On the contrary, this piece cost me more time than anything I have done this year. I am not sure from your letter whether you want me to modify the piece or whether you proposed to scrap it. I have assumed the former, though there will be no hard feelings if I am wrong. I shall be in town on Monday but rather pressed for time. However I shall ring you in the afternoon to see whether we can settle things, or I could even meet a little hastily in the early evening.

Meanwhile, as commentary on my changes and in answer to your letter. Para. 1. Djilas is not in jail for writing this book, but for expressing long ago views which have now gone into this book. That he has stayed alive to write it is in its way a tribute to Yugoslav slovenliness if not tolerance. In Russia he would have been rubbed out, or at any rate cut off from all external contacts, five years ago. But the point is not worth insisting on.

Para. 2. I have already changed in proof the sentence you queried. I meant (and have now said) that the book made us thank god that we were not as other men are: e.g. its being published in the Daily Telegraph. But I feel about the book as I did about 1984: this book is not about a distant tyranny, but mutatis mutandis it is about us. Djilas does not emphasise merely the brutality and bloodthirstiness of Communism. He concentrates on these evils: a. bureaucracy; b. planning good for people; c. conformity of thought. As I read the book, I said to myself: My God, this is a picture of where we are going or very nearly where we have got to. Of course we started from a free country, but we get to resemble a Communist country more and more, just as they get to resemble us. I’d say Orwell’s guess was probably about right, we are twenty-five years or so from looking just like them. You say we should ‘concentrate on the things that prevent us going the same way’. Nothing prevents us from going the same way except constant kicking. And not humbugging ourselves. For instance, you go on that we have been able to make a hell of a row about phone-tapping. Yes, and what good has it done? Phone-tapping still goes on, and is given official approval by the Labour Front Bench.

I suppose the difference between us is this. You think (or appear to think from your letter) that there is some innate virtue in the British character, the British constitution, or the British climate, which makes it impossible for us to develop the evils of Communism. I believe that (brutality apart, which is not an issue between us) Tom O’Brien, Hugh Gaitskell, Georges Barnes, Lord Bridges, would behave as Communist bosses do if they got the chance. At any rate, it seems to me that for the English lover of liberty the main enemy is here, just as for the Russian it is in Russia. One should dislike one’s own Establishment most and first.

The crack about the BBC can go, though it is merely a deduction from a letter of yours. The only point you found to criticise in my London Diary was that I had attacked the BBC. Naturally I assumed you looked on its pretensions with favour. I don’t believe you can read your own paper if you think you have consistently attacked the BBC for twenty-five years. On the contrary, you defended it against commercial television and refused to publish a letter of mine challenging your arguments. You attack some of the things the BBC does. I attack its existence.

A final personal point. You have every right as Editor to criticise and to reject what I write. I hold firmly to the view that the Editor is always right – he knows how things read and what gets across to the reader. What you are not entitled to do is to invent motives for me and to lecture me on my carelessness or hastiness. I do not write to shock, and I never have – particularly in writing about a book. I try to tell the reader what is in the book and my reactions to it. In this case I was deeply disappointed in the book which I thought clumsy and empty. What is more, I thought it described the general diseases of the modern world, not merely Communism. This I said with no intention of shocking.

If you go on repeating that I write to shock, I shall return the compliment and accuse you of cold feet in not publishing what I write.



Dear Kingsley,

You know very well that I use the term ‘pro-German’ in private correspondence as a convenient, and abusive, bit of shorthand. There is a real issue between us, and I should be prepared to debate it in your columns – not by letter, but by article. If you will write formally your views, as expressed in your letter, I will compose an answer; and we can go on as long as you like. But it is pointless to indulge further in snippets of letters, where I have made my points and where I am exposed, if you will forgive me, to libellous statements.

The issue between us is this. We are so agreed on the evil and danger of the German Right that we do not need to mention it. I should also agree that the German Left, both Socialist and Liberal, had genuinely democratic ideals and that they made some show against Nazi barbarism. Your question whether we should have done any better is, in my opinion, a red herring. Owing to the achievements of our forefathers, we cannot get landed in such a position. Freedom is our heritage and I think every English generation has done something to defend and broaden that freedom. Lack of this heritage may not be a fault of the Germans, but it is a fact, and one which has more and more evil results in every generation. Therefore German liberals, to achieve anything, would have to fight much harder than we need. The basic issue is whether the German Left were good Europeans – ready to live and let live in Europe. I say that the historical record is against them. The Frankfurt Left of 1848 (including Marx and Engels) demanded the inclusion of Bohemia in Germany and the suppression of the Czechs; and they refused to allow Polish national rights in Posnania. The Social Democrats opposed the treaty of Versailles in 1919 mainly owing to the Polish frontier, which was, if anything, unfair to the Poles. They, and still more the Communists, campaigned against Versailles and demanded (as your honest Austrian admits) equality of armaments for Germany. But, owing to Germany’s incomparable industrial resources, German equality of armaments involves German domination of Europe. In exactly the same way the Austrian Social Democrats demanded (and still advocate) the Anschluss, which, by encircling Czechoslovakia, means the end of independence for the national states of Central Europe. Certainly the German and Austrian Social Democrats hoped to attain their ends by peaceful means (as Stresemann did). This does not alter the fact that their end was a Germany predominant in Europe. You, with your puritan conscience, confuse the issue by thinking in terms of right and wrong. To me the virtues of the German Left are irrelevant. The only question is that of German predominance in Europe, which they favour as much as anyone of the Right. Therefore I say that they cannot be relied upon to protect us from a new war. For, in fact, Europe will never accept German predominance peacefully; and so Germany is led, as after Stresemann, to abandon peaceful means. The logic of attacking Versailles is to support Hitler, and that is what most Germans did. Hitler could have justified his attack on the Czechs simply by quoting Engels, and his attack on the Poles by quoting what Scheidemann said in 1919, as he could find all the arguments for the Anschluss in the writings of Otto Bauer. In fact, anyone who is in favour of a united Germany is led by an inevitable and fatal logic to desire first a peaceful and then a warlike German mastery of Europe. The only Germans we could trust are those who repudiate German unity and advocate federal states, as Eisner did in 1919; and I find very few of these among the refugees. I do not denigrate the refugees. I only insist that we cannot trust them for our purpose, and that for their own purpose they are mistaken – they ought to advocate the dissolution of the Reich, if they really desire liberty in Germany. But I would not impose dissolution. I would impose total disarmament for good (relying on allied strength and unity, not on the good intentions of the German Left), and then watch what happens when the Germans have to solve their internal problems by other means than external aggression. In my opinion, the Germans themselves will break up the Reich as soon as it ceases to be an instrument of war and conquest.

These are, I think, reasonable views based on history and not on immediate prejudice. It is possible to have a discussion on them with English people, but not with Germans who simply do not understand that the Reich is a machine of conquest and nothing else, nor with ex-ILPers like Smith who spend their time denigrating their own country.

If, as I suppose, the ‘record of the conversation’ which you mention is from a Mr Campbell Johnston I may say, for your amusement, that the only time in my life that I met Mr Campbell Johnston was one afternoon when I went to make certain proposals to a lady who became my wife. You can imagine that I did not welcome Mr Campbell Johnston’s presence and that I said the most wild and provocative things in order to drive him from the room. I well remember the feeling of desperation as I uttered one absurd and outrageous statement after another and found him still obtusely there, until at last I was reduced to personal offensiveness. Like the German Left, I began with peaceful persuasion, but ended up with the full Hitlerite practice; and after all these years would still willingly consign him to the concentration camp.



Dear Kingsley,

You really want me to do a research job on the New Statesman files throughout the Thirties. Not a bad assignment, and I might do it when I have a little time. Meanwhile, I record my impression that Conor Cruise O’Brien made a powerful case against the mag’s consistency when he reviewed Hyams’s book. You yourself point the contrast between your emotional pacifism and collective security, and you can’t really escape this by claiming that one appeared in the Diary and the other in the leading articles. Readers judge a paper as a whole without noting closely which are leaders and which signed pieces.

In any case, why worry? No one was consistent in the Thirties. The thing was impossible, given the tangles inherited from the past. Churchill was not consistent. Apart from being sometimes soft towards Mussolini (right up to 1943), he sometimes said that Hitler could not be beaten without America and Russia (right), sometimes that he could be beaten by Great Britain and France (wrong). I think the Manchester Guardian came nearest to consistency, as Bassett, for instance, has shown over the Manchurian affair. Its reward was to be denounced for warmongering by among others Gilbert Murray.

Collective security was not a policy. It was a phrase which could become a policy only if its implications were accepted. These, I think, were two, and it was over these that the NS&N dithered. The first was armaments. If collective security means resisting the aggressor, then the resisters must be the stronger, and the only consistent ones were those who demanded rearmament on the largest scale. In this sense Dalton was consistent and Attlee was not. (Personal note: I was always against collective security and for a long time against rearmament also. When Germany reoccupied the Rhineland, I became anti-German and from that moment held that large rearmament was the only thing that mattered. Big arms, incidentally, were also the only way of getting a Soviet alliance. Stalin would not go with us unless he thought our side would win and would win easily.) The NS & N was inconsistent, I think, in not demanding unlimited rearmament while it championed collective security.

The second implication of collective security was resistance to treaty revision. Collective security was a league of the possessors, and you could not operate it except on the basis of the status quo. Hence you had to be prepared to keep three million Germans in Czechoslovakia by force and to resist change over Danzig or the corridor. You can’t pick and choose in collective security – that’s another reason why I was against it. You have to drop all thought of justice and fair play. Resistance at all points is the only logical line. Here again the NS&N could not shake off its earlier belief that the settlement of 1919 was unjust and ought to be revised.

Finally, if you really believe in collective security, you have to take the lead, not make it conditional on action by others. Hence you are not entitled to say: no action unless Russia acts too. Waiting on others was Hoare’s line in 1935 and look where that led. In any case, I think Cripps and the Socialist League were more consistent in saying that you could not have any effective policy from the National Government. But consistency of this kind did not do any good. The truth is that there was no real answer, except to wait for America and Russia to bring Hitler down. This is what we did in the end after a series of muddles and false hopes. Perhaps my beloved Old Man [elsewhere ‘Max’ – i.e. Lord Beaverbrook] was right when he said: re-arm and keep out of Europe. At any rate, he got his way.

Max’s papers are buried at present in fireproof city vaults, and I can’t get at them until a new building is ready behind Fleet Street. So I am rather at a loose end, writing little books and looking forward to writing his Life later. I shan’t treat him as important, only as interesting. Of course I loved him, and whatever he did was perfect in my eyes. But I don’t think this will spoil my book. I’m still a bit dazed at losing him. Every day I think of things which would have made him laugh and then mourn that he is not here to share the fun.

I’m going away until 19 April. Give me a ring any time after that, and I’ll be delighted to have dinner at your club.

                            Much love,


Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences