No, we won't go quietly

The Penguin Book of 20th-Century Protest
December 25, 1998

With the end of the 20th century - uniquely prosperous, uniquely barbaric - approaching, with the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the arrest of General Pinochet once again focusing everyone's thoughts on the morality of power, it is a good time to publish an anthology of 20th-century protest. Brian MacArthur has ably selected almost 200 examples based on "the guiding principle" that they were "successful protests (whether for good or ill) about profound issues".

He prefaces the book with three epigraphs, from Lloyd George, Shaw and Martin Niemoller, the German pastor who stood up to the Nazis and survived.The essence of Niemoller's comment has passed into everyday reference, but it is good to be reminded of the original. "When Hitler attacked the Jews I was not a Jew, therefore, I was not concerned. And when Hitler attacked the Catholics, I was not a Catholic and therefore I was not concerned. And when Hitler attacked the unions and the industrialists, I was not a member of the unions and I was not concerned. Then Hitler attacked me and the Protestant church - and there was nobody left to be concerned."

In 1973, near the end of The Gulag Archipelago, in "Our muzzled freedom", Alexander Solzhenitsyn stated the same idea in particularly chilling terms.He was speaking about Soviet Russia under Stalin, but we instinctively recognise in his words the same shameful possibilities in our own lives. "The mildest and, at the same time, most widespread form of betrayal was not to do anything bad directly, but just not to notice the doomed person next to one, not to help him, to turn away one's face, to shrink back. They had arrested a neighbour, your comrade at work, or even your close friend. You kept silence. You acted as if you had not noticed. (For you could not afford to lose your current job!) And then it was announced at work, at the general meeting, that the person who had disappeared the day before was an inveterate enemy of the people. And you, who had bent your back beside him for 20 years at the same desk, now by your noble silence (or even by your condemning speech!), had to show how hostile you were to his crimes."

It might have been a dispiriting experience to read page after page of protest against the iniquities of the century - not just the endless wars and genocide, also the endless poverty and racism - but in this book it is not so. This is partly because the editor mixes in other issues - feminism,the arts, the legalisation of marijuana - and chooses protesters of real literary power. More important, though, is the sheer fascination of past passions. The protests from the first world war still leap off the page, from Keith Murdoch's private attack on the incompetent British commanders at Gallipoli, which led directly to the evacuation of the troops, to the Daily Herald's biting satirical restaurant review, "Starving at the Ritz", and the excoriating diary of Evadne Price, a young woman ambulance driver, which reveals the gulf of incomprehension, even in 1918, between a London drawing room and the French front - and which leaves one amazed at how those at home remained so wilfully ignorant of their sons' shattering military experiences.

Education is another strong theme, as might be expected from the founding editor of The THES. "The selection has obviously been influenced by my own experience of 60 years of the century as the son of parents who left school at 14 but who, if they had been born 30 years later, would have gone to university." We get extracts from R. H. Tawney, William Beveridge, Edward Murrow and Kingsley Amis's famous 1960 article ("More will mean worse"). "The delusion that there are thousands of young people about who are capable of benefiting from university training, but have somehow failed to find their way there, is, of course, a necessary component of the expansionist case. It means one can confidently mention a thing called quality and say it will be maintained. University graduates, however, are like poems or bottles of hock, and unlike cars or tins of salmon, in that you cannot decide to have more good ones. All you can decide to have is more." Here, the editor, rarely judgemental, cannot refrain: "Amis was not,as had been dubbed, an angry young man but an old fogey with distinctly right-wing views. By the 1990s I (he) was even more convinced he had been right."

This is a varied, informative and, above all, readable anthology. It is, naturally, a personal selection. Another editor would, no doubt, have made a different choice. MacArthur also feels constrained not to repeat the material in his Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century Speeches. Thus we get Enoch Powell on the Mau Mau (a stirring plea for justice for Africans), and not the notorious "Rivers of blood" speech (in the earlier book).

Nevertheless, the selection does seem light on environmental protest (the Greenpeace protest against McDonald's had to be dropped "for fear of another libel action"). I think Tom Lehrer's 1965 song "Pollution" deserved a place, despite being a song. And what about E. P. Thompson, either for his work in the peace movement or for his scathing attack on "the poverty of theory"? Finally, I regret that Edwin Montagu's 1920 speech to the House of Commons about Indian "racial humiliation" gets in, as does Gandhi's celebrated speech to the British judge on "Non-violence", but not Rabindranath Tagore's trenchant letter to the viceroy, repudiating his knighthood after the 1919 Amritsar massacre. Tagore was the first Indian with the courage to protest publicly, more than a year before Gandhi, the wily politician, saw fit to do so. His great letter was a turning-point in the Indian struggle for freedom.

Andrew Robinson is literary editor, The THES.

The Penguin Book of 20th-Century Protest

Editor - Brian MacArthur
ISBN - 0 670 87052 8
Publisher - Viking
Price - £20.00
Pages - 440

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