In June, Conor Cruise O’Brien devoted his column in the Observer to a discussion of the issue of Granta that featured the work of Milan Kundera and Salman Rushdie. Dr O’Brien’s column was a curious achievement. And a mystifying one. It somehow succeeded in making Granta an accomplice in its own kidnapping: it managed to praise Granta while using the writings that were published in it to support an argument that, to me at least, sounded pretty wrong-headed.

Dr O’Brien’s column continued an argument that he had begun four weeks earlier. Dr O’Brien has, of course, many passions, and the one to which he seems especially dedicated is disabusing wimpy liberals of their soft notions. In this particular exercise, he addressed the wimpy liberal’s notion of black Africa: that it was once a pretty good place, but, since the whites arrived, it’s become a real mess – so much of a mess that black leaders are still unable to clean it up. It’s a fair prevalent idea, and Dr O’Brien offers a number of strong antiotes to fortify intellectual softies against it. So, for instance, we learn that pre-colonial Africa was ‘more oppressive than European rule’ and, to particularize the point, that the ‘Matabele rule over the Shona’ was as bad as the white domination that followed it in the shape of a country that came to be known, for a while anyway, as Rhodesia. Even the practice of selling Blacks around the world was not really a European thing: ‘Liverpool did well out of the slave trade, but so did Kumasi.’ Dr O’Brien’s argument presupposes real intellectual muscle, and if you’re not feeling strong – ready to takes off your weedy spectacles, throw out your chest and resolve never to be a wimp again – you will not be made uneasy by all the different senses that tend to crowd into his use of the word imperialism: tribal rule, for instance, that is, as economic domination based on racism and the exploitation of labour and natural resources. And if you’re feeling really strong, you’ll Dr O’Brien’s conclusion with glee: ‘The racism previously inculcated and practised by European countries was obviously demoralizing to Africans in its day. But the form of demoralization which Africa is currently importing from the West is something more insidious: flattery.’ (My italics.) By ‘flattery’, Dr O’Brien means, I believe, the gooey liberal blandishments we offer tyrannical black leaders to excuse their tyranny (‘Don’t worry, Idi,’ I remember reading so often in the press, ‘we made you do it’).

There are, predictably, a lot of wimps in the world, and invariably not all of them are strong enough to throw off their spectacles. And so they protested. And this is where Granta gets involved. Granta appears to have supported Dr O’Brien’s argument by publishing two writers: Salman Rushdie, one of the wimpy liberals, it seems, and Milan Kundera, one of the tough guys.

Salman Rushdie suffers from a malady – its symptoms are evident in his polemic on the vogue in Raj films, ‘Outside the Whale’ – to which so many writers and intellectuals in or from former colonial territories are susceptible: ‘The Collective Self-Pity of Former Subject Peoples’ or what Dr O’Brien, in his inimitable way, calls COSEPIOFOSUPE. And the antidote, again revealing a strong grounding in history, is simple: Rushdie should just stop wailing so much in public – O’Brien cites John O’Leary’s ‘No man should cry in public, even to save his country’ – because the complaint is no longer justified. There is no point insulting the old masters – ‘most of whom are, in any case, dead.’

In contrast, there are the likes of Milan Kundera. And while Dr O’Brien acknowledges that Kundera insists that his work not be read as a denunciation of a regime, the temptation is obviously too great. ‘Kundera has more to wail about,’ Dr O’Brien observes, ‘than just televised versions of a vanished Raj. His own country, Czechoslovakia – from which he is an exile – is ruled today by a form of Raj which is very much alive, not to say kicking.’

There are some good reasons why Kundera resents his work being read as a political denunciation. The popularity in the United States, especially among the ‘Neo-Conservatives’, of writing by dissident émigrés seldom derives from an appreciation of its literary merit. Analogously, Ronald Reagan (whose first act as President was to fire the entire nation’s air-traffic controllers because they went on strike) and Margaret Thatcher (whose first legislation was to curb the powers of the trade unions) did not lament the fate of Solidarity so loudly because of their love of workers’ militancy. Their lament expressed not sympathy but vindication: the fight for freedom does not occur in the West; the fight for freedom means we hate communism.

Elsewhere Conor Cruise O’Brien is hardly an uncritical apologist for the West, but what he writes here is a typical example of the strange spasm that occurs somewhere in the mind when it is exposed to evidence of a totalitarian – and especially a communist – regime. An otherwise healthy facility of perception collapses into a kind of tunnel vision that reduces the world to simple, comprehensive terms. Dictatorships, totalitarianism, censorship, communism – you find the words in Eastern and Central Europe, China and Africa – mean unfree. And it’s the sense of this unfree that defines and validates what we have come to understand in the West by free: what we have come to understand by the words free society, free press and free trade. Over there you have something to wail about. Here wailing is indulgent and shameless public display. But it’s not impossible that the real sense of this word free is a little more complicated. Some of the complication is evident in the very newspaper in which Dr O’Brien’s column appeared.

Since 1981, the Observer, or at least eighty percent of it, has been owned by the Lonrho Group. The Lonrho Group’s chief executive, whose unacceptable face was duly celebrated by Edward Heath eleven years ago, is Tiny Rowland. Unlike Conor Cruise O’Brien – who regards black Africa as a continent of dictators – Tiny has said that he loves black Africa, believes in the independent countries, and promises, moreover, to help them ‘achieve their full economic potential.’ This isn’t quite as generous as it may initially seem as, ultimately, a great deal of this economic potential goes straight back to Tiny Rowland. A list of the African businesses owned by Tiny includes those that grow tea, sugar and wattle; those that sell records, Mercedes cars, Pepsi and Coca-Cola; those that make lipstick, sleeping pills and African beer; and those that retrieve from the earth great chunks of platinum, coal, copper and gold. He also, like so many of the wealthy in Britain, tends to own newspapers. And while Tiny’s African businesses account for only thirty percent of his company’s turnover, they makes up for it by being seventy percent of its profits.

Tiny’s love for black Africa is of the forgiving sort, able to overlook differences even ideological ones. So, for instance, at a time when the British Parliament was investigating him for breaking sanction against Rhodesia, the Rhodesian government was investigating him for relations with the guerrilla movements. And while Ian Smith was praising Tiny’s talent, it was said that Tiny was offering money to an ostracized man name Mugabe (immediately refused). Because Tiny basically just wants everyone to be happy: why, when there is so much suffering in the world, would anyone want to irritate friends?

Some idea of the strength of these friendships was perhaps evident in a recent tiff Tiny had with his editor at the Observer, Donald Trelford, who, after interviews with Mugabe and his government ministers in Zimbabwe (some arranged by Tiny himself), returned to London with a story that wasn’t about the Prime Minister at all but about the brutalities performed by the Fourth Brigade. This obviously upset Tiny, as is evident in Donald Trelford’s recollection of their chat just before his story went to the printer’s. ‘I hear you’re trying to destroy my business in Zimbabwe,’ Tin is said to have inquired. ‘If you damage my Zimbabwe interest, I may sell my newspapers because I won’t be able to afford to keep them. You should think about the consequences.  Some people might conclude that friendship, in Tiny’s world, comes before freedom.

Inevitable, however, Tiny’s love for black Africa, like so many affairs of the heart, is complicated by the occasional infidelity. And one of them is in South Africa, where Tiny owns a number of mines. One such mine is called Western Platinum, and it’s located in one of the Black ‘home countries’, in Bophuthatswana.

What do you think it would be like if you were a black man, loved by Tiny, and had to work in his mine? For a start, you wouldn’t come with your family either, because Western Platinum allows only three percent of its workers to live with their wives. Instead you would sleep in one room with twenty new friends, with whom you would share one stove to cook your food. It’s reasonable that you would expect to be paid the national average for a black mine – lower of course than the average for a coloured one, lower still than the average for an Indian, and about a tenth of what the white miner would get (but there aren’t many of them anyway) – because this would allow you to earn ‘the lowest possible amount’ on which a person ‘can live under humanely decent conditions in the short run.’ You probably wouldn’t know the quote, which comes from a British publication, Wages and Conditions of African Workers Employed by British Firms in South Africa, or what it refers to, which is the Poverty Datum Level. But you would know that there’s not a lot you could buy with the money (a few things like two pairs of cotton underpants and a jumper every year, or a pound and a half of meat and six ounces of beans every month). But unfortunately, Tiny’s love won’t extend quite this far. In fact, over the last ten years, Tiny’s companies have had an embarrassing tendency to pay below the Poverty Datum Line. If, for instance, you have been working in one of Tiny’s mines three years ago, you might have been represented in the figures published in the 1982 edition of Wages and the Conditions of African Workers, when ‘the lowest possible amount’ on which a human being could ‘live under humanely decent conditions in the short run’ was established to be about forty pounds a month. You would then have been one of Tiny’s 2,479 black miners who earned only twenty-six pounds a month – and fourteen pounds of this you would have given back to Tiny to pay for your food and lodging.

‘Fair makes your blood boil,’ Conor Cruise O’Brien said of Salman Rushdie. So it does. And he also said a number of other things, like ‘The racism previously inculcated and practised by European countries was obviously demoralising to Africans in its day.’ And all this, and so much more, was said in a newspaper owned by a man who only six weeks before was unanimously censured by its independent Board of Directors for trying to influence the paper’s coverage of Africa: the same man wose exploitation of labour reinforces the practices of apartheid and whose businesses, in effect, support the regime of South Africa. In the West, there are many difference senses to the word freedom – and one if unpardonable licence.

One hundred years ago, Britain was sustained by an economy that was easy to name: colonial imperialism. What name describes it today? And how much does our definition of it derive from what it is not – communism? ‘The fact is,’ Nadine Gordimer has said,

black South Africans and whites like myself no longer
believe in the ability of Western capitalism to bring about
social justice where we live. . . . Whatever Western
democracies have done for themselves, they have failed and
are failing, in their great power and influence to do for us.

Gordimer’s comments are from a lecture entitled ‘Living in the Interregnum’. By ‘Interregnum’, she refers to the period between the end of South Africa’s regime and what sill replace it. But the interregnum has a larger context, beyond the particulars of South Africa. It sets the idealism and dreams of socialism against the barbarities of El Salvador and the curbing of Solidarity, the Russian tanks in Prague and the prisons of South Africa and Latin America. The ways of Western capitalism are not humane; but if Western capitalism cannot bring about social justice, what will?  ‘Communism,’ Gordimer says, ‘has turned out not to be just or humane either; has failed, even more cruelly than capitalism. Does this mean we have to tell the poor and the dispossessed of the world there is nothing to be done…?’ What will follow the interregnum?


In August, Conor Cruise O’Brien’s regular column in the Observer was discontinued, not, according to the Editor, because of ‘outside pressure’. Dr O’Brien’s view is different; his last column was devoted to the idea of ESP: ‘editor subordinate to proprietor’. He was not, of course, crying in public.

On the Orwell Trail
Paris or Prague?