A defence of polemics

From “Time Out: 1000 Books to Change Your Life” is in the shops now


WRITERS SEEKING lasting fame are much more likely to find it if they produce romance, children’s stories, heist capers, sword and sorcery fantasies…any form imaginable, as long as it is not polemic. Nothing brings home the futility of political writing more forcefully than going through an old newspaper and reading the fulminations of 25 years ago. The savaged politicians are retired or dead, the scandals that provoked the writer’s scorn forgotten. In the British press, editors praise polemical journalists for producing ‘good rants’ – a backhanded compliment if ever there was one. Polemicists themselves often agree with their editors and dismiss their craft as the hasty channelling of emotion which would have been better spent elsewhere. In 1944, a weary George Orwell looked back with regret and wrote that ‘in a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties. As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer.’

Yet a few pamphlets live on long after the battles of their age are over. The survive for two reasons. First, because future generations realise that on one big point, if not every detail, the polemicist was right. Scoring in a debate is not enough, though, if a second condition isn’t met: the polemicist must touch of contemporary concerns. However vital they were, no one except historians will read the fights about monetarism in the Thatcher years. Everyone has an interest in the battles of tradition against change, faith against free thought and women’s rights against male power because they define the future as well as the past.

The greatest polemics in English, Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution and Tom Paine’s counterblast, The Rights of Man, are great because they define the struggle between conservatism and change. Burke saw how the revolution would lead to a new tyranny and wrote in 1790 that ‘the republic of Paris will endeavour, indeed, to complete the debauchery of the army, and illegally to perpetuate the assembly, without resort to its constituents, as the means of continuing its despotism.’ That was prescient. The Reign of Terror didn’t begin until September 1793. At the time, Paine replied with a bewilderment shared by many, and condemned Burke’s ‘outrageous abuse on the French Revolution, and the principles of Liberty.’ Burke did not seem so outrageous three years later when Robespierre ordered Paine’s imprisonment. Meanwhile Paine’s argument in favour of democratic republics remains the best defence and means of attack against every form of tyrannical government of that time and since. English radicals of the 1790s loved it, but the aristocratic rulers of Britain had never encountered such an articulate assault and tried Paine in absentia for seditious libel.

The history of successful feminist polemics from Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman to Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch is one of abuse – revoltingly violent abuse in Wollstonecraft’s case – followed by partial and belated acceptance. George Orwell’s condemnations of the indifference of the Thirties Left to the victims of communism in The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia were more unpopular still. Now it is next to impossible to write about the Thirties without mentioning him. Christopher Hitchens’ comparable attack on modern liberal-Left apologetics for Islamism in Love, Poverty and War and other essays has made former friends hate him. I think his work is a modern example of polemic at its best and that it will last, maybe along with Robert Hughes’s assault on political correctness in Culture of Complaint and Naomi Klein’s condemnations of corporate power in No Logo.

If I am right, all three will eventually have to convince even those who are politically predisposed to dislike them that they had a case. The great polemicists jump this bar with ease. A modern conservative can read Tom Paine and recognise that he was fighting for the best freedoms of our world, while deploring his belief that it is a simple matter to dispense with the past. Left wingers have every reason to raise their eyebrows at Burke’s saccharine laments for the age of chivalry, but can see that he understood how revolution in the name of liberty can beat a path to tyranny that has been trodden many times since. By contrast, I can’t imagine anyone now choosing to read What is to be Done? and Lenin’s other polemics before the Russian Revolution. Lenin was a powerful writer, but his ideas about tiny groups of militants seizing power in the name of the working class led to three of the most murderous regimes in history, and among their millions of victims was Lenin’s future readership.

The tension between believing you are right and fearing that the world will not listen prompts the anger that fills great as well as dreadful polemics. But it also produces a respect for argument that those who dismiss all polemic as mere ranting fail to see. If you can feel a need to make unpopular case – and there is no point in being a political writer if you can’t – you must use your talent to win over a sceptical audience. You must acknowledge doubts and counter arguments, and above all, you must write clearly. For this reason, and despite being intellectuals themselves, the great polemicists of the English tradition from Swift onwards have tended to be anti-academic. Burke loathed the ‘sophists, economists and calculators’ of the Enlightenment. Robert Hughes denounced the ‘kind of wooze, unbolstered by proof or evidence, patched together out of vaguely “radical” apercus,’ which poured out of the postmodern cultural studies departments of American universities in the Eighties. Whether they are from the Left or Right, good polemicists are the enemies of obscurantism. They crave to be understood, and suspect that those who place unnecessary obstacles in front of the reader are protecting an established interest from scrutiny.

Is that so terrible? Is that mere raving? It can be. The bluff newspaper writer who comforts rather than confronts his readers’ prejudices always claims to be a plain-speaking man of the people. But in better circumstances, polemical clarity isn’t philistinism or affectation but a recognition that the unfamiliar is hard to grasp and must be explained with patience if readers’ assumptions are to be overcome. Great polemicists have a guilty secret. They rant when they have to but they can also be terribly reasonable people.