Vol. 45 No. 14 · 13 July 2023

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Kings Grew Pale

Neal Ascherson writes that the ‘last formal slaves in Europe, the forty thousand or so Roma “gypsy slaves” who were still the private property of individuals, were liberated in July 1848 when the revolution reached Moldavia and Wallachia’ (LRB, 1 June). But it was only in Wallachia that a revolutionary government took power and attempted to emancipate enslaved Roma. There were considerable difficulties. Each liberated Roma had to appear before a commission to receive a billet of freedom, and former slaveowners had to present themselves to the same panel to collect financial compensation for their loss of ‘property’. With only one three-man commission operating from Bucharest (a second was later established in Craiova), implementation was slow, and officials were uncertain about when the Roma became formally ‘free’: was it with the Islaz Proclamation, which announced their manumission; was it when they received their billet of freedom; or was it when their former owner received compensation?

State employees expressed anxieties about the effects of emancipation, fearing that liberated Roma would ‘wander’ across the principality and destabilise the social order, while many slaveowners attempted to undermine the process, filing police complaints accusing the liberated Roma of theft. When police investigated these accusations, they found that the supposedly stolen items consisted of the clothes on the Roma’s backs and other personal effects.

The revolutionary attempt at emancipation proved temporary. Roma slavery was reintroduced after the joint Ottoman-Russian occupation of the principality at the end of September 1848, and it was only in February 1856 that Wallachia finally abolished slavery, a few months after Moldavia in December 1855. In both principalities, as in the British Empire after 1837, former slaveowners, not the enslaved, received financial compensation.

James Morris
University College London

Free Speech on Campus

Amia Srinivasan provides a comprehensive and subtle account of the likely vicissitudes of free speech in UK universities after the passing of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act (LRB, 29 June). As she shows, there aren’t any issues around free speech in universities that couldn’t have been addressed through existing university statutes and codes of practice. She also considers the government’s imposition of a ‘Prevent duty’ in 2015, pointing out that the ‘extremism’ to be curbed here is lawful speech. Policy Exchange, which ‘manufactured’ both policies, has been silent about the conflicts between the mandates of the new Act and Prevent.

Student surveys show that the number concerned about free speech in higher education has increased, but it falls considerably when the focus is their own university. A recent survey by the Higher Education Policy Institute shows that a high proportion of students believe they are able to express their views freely. A small number disagree, disproportionately from Asian backgrounds. This indicates, perhaps, the impact Prevent has had on them with regard, for example, to supposed Islamism.

The government believes that the ‘cancellation’ of some views has a chilling effect on free expression, but suggests that there is no corresponding chilling effect from Prevent and its monitoring of external speakers. Surveys show this not to be the case. While Christian evangelical or conservative students may feel cautious about expressing their views, those views are not classed as problematic under Prevent. Muslim students, though, have already experienced the operation of the Prevent duty at school. Next year’s intake will have experienced Prevent, the promotion of ‘fundamental British values’ and the pathologising of normative Islamic values since primary school.

As with the delivery of so much government policy, the new education bill has been passed into law without any indication how its mandate for academic freedom will be reconciled with the Prevent duty. The Office for Students is currently drafting guidelines. The recent Shawcross Review of Prevent recommended an intensification of its use in higher education, increased disruption of problematic events and the formal designation of Muslim-led civil society organisations as extremist.

John Holmwood
Brighton, East Sussex


Terry Eagleton is the latest of many distinguished Marxians to commemorate the ‘celebrated opening’ of The Communist Manifesto (LRB, 29 June). But this most memorialised sentence, ‘A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism,’ is given too much credit, its lack of originality overlooked. Moses Hess came up with the striking phrase ‘das Gespenst des Kommunismus’, ‘the spectre of communism’, in a piece for the Deutsche-Brüsseler-Zeitung on ‘The Consequences of a Revolution of the Proletariat’, published on 7 November 1847. The phrase was borrowed word for word by Marx, who was well aware of Hess’s contributions to the DBZ.

Lorenz von Stein is conventionally seen as the main influence on the opening of The Communist Manifesto, but his description in 1842 of communism as a ‘dark, threatening spectre’ isn’t a verbatim inspiration. Not that Hess or Stein were pioneers in the use of the word ‘spectre’ in this context. As early as 1831, the English playwright, poet and exile Thomas Lovell Beddoes wrote a sketch for the Bayerisches Volksblatt entitled ‘Die Gespenster’ (‘The Spectres’) in which he too described the ‘Spectre of Revolution’ as ‘threatening’. Engels himself, in the Schweizerischer Republikaner of 23 May 1843, wrote of the ‘spectre of Chartism’, and in a letter to Marx of 23 October 1846 described ‘a superstitious ghostly-fear [Gespensterfurcht] of “bread-and-butter communism”’. In 1847 both Karl Biedermann and the anonymous author of Der Pauperismus und die Volksschule (‘Pauperism and the Elementary School’) used the phrase ‘spectre of communism’, though probably not to the knowledge of Marx or Engels. Helen Macfarlane, the Scottish Chartist who in 1850 issued the first English language translation of the Manifesto, is widely derided for her rendering of ‘ein Gespenst’ as ‘a frightful hobgoblin’. It was at least a variation on the spectre.

David Ireland
London N1

Unlikely Destination

Bill Hayton notes that Peter Kropotkin, having escaped St Petersburg in 1876, ended up in Hull (Letters, 18 May). When Alexander Kerensky, leader of the provisional government toppled by the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution of 1917, fled Russia he left behind his wife, Olga, and his two sons, Oleg and Gleb. The three were subsequently arrested by the Bolsheviks and spent time in prison before escaping via Estonia to England. Olga ended up in Southport, where she stayed until her death in 1975.

Keith Denny
Ottawa, Ontario

Whose comet?

Tobias Gregory quotes James Thomson’s 1727 paean to Isaac Newton: ‘He, first of men, with awful wing pursued/The comet through the long elliptic curve’ (LRB, 18 May). Gregory reads this as a reference to Halley’s comet, but I think it unlikely. Halley did indeed use Newton’s laws to predict the return of the comet named after him, but its reappearance wasn’t confirmed until Christmas Day 1758, well after Thomson’s poem and sixteen years after Halley’s death. The comet in Thomson’s poem is more likely to have been Kirch’s comet, discovered in 1680 and used by Newton to confirm Kepler’s laws of celestial motion.

Andrew Dobson

What’s the Use?

I enjoyed Philip Kitcher’s presumably intentionally comic portrayal of himself as a rebel bravely taking on the empire of academic philosophy (Letters, 1 June). I’m sympathetic to his claim that philosophy once occupied a place of engagement, influence and provocation in public thought and culture, but several of the philosophers he cites as examples were purveyors of the kind of philosophy he now decries. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, for all its influence on Goethe, isn’t exactly free from arid technicality and reliance on the a priori. Perhaps we should conclude not that philosophy lost its way, but that the public did. Or, to borrow a phrase from US politics: the people have spoken, the bastards.

Anil Gomes
Trinity College, Oxford

What We Call Human

James Butler quotes Italo Calvino from a lecture in 1976: ‘What we ask of writers is that they guarantee the survival of what we call human’ (LRB, 15 June). I met Calvino once, at Musica nel Chiostro, the summer opera festival at Batignano in Tuscany. We discussed Stephen Oliver’s opera Beauty and the Beast. Calvino looked at me with a doleful smile and said: ‘Noi siamo tutti bestie.’ We’re all beasts. That’s another way of putting it.

Nicholas Jose
Adelaide, South Australia

The Sieges of Namur

Ferdinand Mount writes that the two sieges of Namur in the 1690s were marked by the novelty that the ‘government encouraged public interest in and support for the war. The sieges were a media circus. It was the birth of war tourism’ (LRB, 15 June). Namur was also where Uncle Toby, in Tristram Shandy, received his wound, the precise nature of which was of such interest to the Widow Wadman.

Nick Wray
Coldingham, Borders

Voter ID

The introduction of voter ID, discussed by James Meek, provides an excellent opportunity to get rid of the pernicious practice of numbering ballot papers (LRB, 4 May). My mother came to Britain from Australia, where voting is compulsory and personation isn’t an issue. She was so outraged to be given a numbered ballot paper when voting in the UK general election of 1950 that the policeman on duty had to be summoned to reassure her that voting was indeed secret.

Margaret Faull
Wakefield, West Yorkshire

Carnation Revolution

In his survey of the Cold War proxy battles in Africa, Kevin Okoth writes that ‘anti-colonial activists in Portugal’s African colonies rejoiced’ after the Carnation Revolution of 1974 and that the new government in Lisbon ‘pushed for a rapid transfer of power to the liberation movement in the colonies’ (LRB, 15 June). This gets the causality the wrong way round. It was the never-ending wars in Africa and the injunction by Salazar’s successor, Caetano, that the army was to fight until defeat that provoked the Movimento das Forçes Armadas to overthrow Portugal’s fascist regime. And the MFA was more than ‘an organisation of low-ranking officers’. The armed forces reached deep into civil society in Portugal – a quarter of the military-age population was in uniform – so a structure for change was already in place, which isn’t usually the case in a military coup.

Bruce J. Watson

Pronoun Trouble

David Book observes that ‘tha’ is already in use in some English regions as a gender-neutral pronoun, although in the vocative, as in ‘Has tha lost tha sense, lass (or lad)?’ (Letters, 15 June). This has the same form for the possessive. I would advocate the alternative regionalism ‘un’, as in ‘Give un a push or un’ll not get in,’ which is already third-person and could stand for ‘unspecified’. It would work like the royal ‘one’: ‘Un’s rather particular about un’s form of address.’ ‘S/he’ never worked because you couldn’t say it.

Tom Westcott
Oxshott, Surrey

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