David Caute

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Richard Crossman

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[In The Fellow-Travellers] which is stuffed full of interesting anecdotes and character sketches, [Mr Caute] has tried, first, to give a chronological narrative of the phases through which the fellow-traveller movement passed between 1917 and 1956, when he thinks it faded away, and, secondly, by an examination of the fantastic gallimaufry of personalities involved, to discover what are the essential common characteristics of the fellow-traveller. Alas, by seeking to combine the methods of the historian with those of the social psychologist, he has produced a book which is both over-long and extremely confused. The narrative is interrupted by such long analytical digressions that it is difficult to follow. Each chapter contains one or two full-length biographies of the famous, while the character sketches of the lesser fry are frequently chopped off and presented fragmentarily at different points in the story.

Mr Caute has cast his net widely and fished up an astonishing haul of human types….

After studying his haul carefully, Mr Caute reaches the conclusion that the essential characteristic of the species is a common belief in the perfectibility of man, and a faith that the Russian Revolution marked an epoch in the progress towards true democracy (or, in Christian terms, towards the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth). 'In its more serious intellectual aspects,' he writes, 'the phenomenon of fellow-travelling can best be understood as a postscript to the Enlightenment. It signified a return to the 18th-century vision of a rational, educated and scientific society based on the maximisation of resources.' Mr Caute accuses the fellow-travellers of displaying philosophical naivety in failing 'to recognise that formulas such as Bentham's "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" had an ethical rather than a rational basis.' He also rebukes them for accepting democracy as suitable for their own countries while recommending Communist revolution in backward territories. Those who regard these liberties and rights, he observes, 'as inalienable from the dignity and well-being of the individual surely put themselves in an untenable position when they recommend crash courses and military discipline in quarters of the globe further afield'.

I fear that I share this view which Mr Caute so severely reprimands—but so did Karl Marx, who recognised that the British social system might achieve the classless society without suffering a dictatorship of the proletariat. However, I have quoted this passage not because I want to argue with the author but in order to point out how futile it is to fit all the fellow-travellers into a single philosophical formula. (p. 120)

In his concluding chapters Mr Caute turns his attention to the American witch-hunts of the Cold War. In this period, as he quite fairly points out, it was the anti-communist liberals (many of them ex-fellow-travellers of the Left) who became fellow-travellers of the Right in its crusade. Under Senator McCarthy's lash, the United States, he concludes, reverted to the political standards of the 18th century, whereas Britain emerged from the Cold War with her tradition of liberal tolerance intact. If anyone else had written this, I would have instinctively repudiated it as an old-fashioned piece of Blimpish complacency. The British Establishment can be proud of this pat on the back from an author who elsewhere shows a keen dislike for élites. (p. 121)

Richard Crossman, "A Transfer of Loyalties" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1973; reprinted by permission of The Literary Estate of Richard Crossman), in The Listener, Vol. 89, No. 2287, January 25, 1973, pp. 120-21.

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