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Class Consciousness | The Nation

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Class Consciousness

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It's been said, not very convincingly, that Mitford's Communism was an act of rebellion against her family's privilege, and specifically against the fascism embraced by her sisters Unity (who put a bullet in her head when England declared war on Germany, botched the act and lingered on until 1948) and Diana (who married the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley and was, with him, imprisoned briefly in England during World War II). It's clear Mitford took no pleasure in her lifelong estrangement from Diana (through their sister Deborah, the Duchess of Devonshire, she sent a message of condolence on Mosley's death), and again and again she expresses pain over Unity's self-inflicted incapacitation. Of course Mitford was reacting against her family's embrace of fascism, but to assume that's all she was doing, to assume the development of anyone's political consciousness is simply an act of rebellion, seems a juvenile reduction of political awareness to shopworn Freudianism.

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Charles Taylor
Charles Taylor is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York.

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It has also been said, more convincingly than Mitford allowed, that her Communism was the other side of the coin of her sisters' fascism. She wasn't a nutter, like those two sisters. But she did share something of their blind faith. Caroline Blackwood wrote of a 1980s interview with Diana (Lady Mosley), "She was so beguiling that she made one forget that she had spent her life yearning for a Europe united by a repressive Fascist leadership." The breezy casualness of Decca and the autobiographies invites you to overlook that Mitford spent much of her life excusing and falsifying the repressiveness of the ideology she espoused.

Sussman quotes Treuhaft as saying, "When Decca makes up her mind, she never changes it." They find this admirable. Both Hons and Rebels and A Fine Old Conflict were written about twenty years after the events they describe. And in both Mitford clings to what history has proved nonsense. Just as in her view Communists were the only ones to stand up for civil rights, so they were the only ones to fight fascism. Apparently neither Homage to Catalonia nor the Hitler-Stalin pact penetrated her consciousness. In 1960 Mitford is still approvingly quoting her first husband, Esmond Romilly, as saying that Winston Churchill (his uncle) was interested in fighting Germany and Italy only because of the threat they posed to British imperialism. Even forty-six years ago, who was damn fool enough to think that the British Communist Party did more than Churchill to fight fascism? Which is not to deny the role Communists played in the history of opposition to fascism. But to paint Communism as the sole opponent is another of Mitford's self-aggrandizing delusions.

Most devastatingly for Mitford's reputation, Decca appeared in the same month as the fiftieth anniversary of the Hungarian uprising against the Soviets, an event on which she was unwaveringly appalling. In A Fine Old Conflict Mitford recounts a 1955 trip she and Treuhaft took to Hungary, where they puzzle over a waiter asking them to smuggle out a letter to his brother in America. "But why?" wonder these red Candides. "Is there some problem about mailing letters out?" And, good soldiers that they are, they decide the waiter is probably a counterrevolutionary spy and decline. Mitford nevertheless records the incident in a piece she writes for People's World (surprise! it's cut). A year after the trip, and a few weeks after the Soviets crush the Hungarian uprising, Mitford writes to her mother-in-law expressing support for the invasion--which even the CPUSA had condemned. "I fear that the bloodshed and disruption would have been far worse if [Soviet troops] hadn't come in" and "I think they had no alternative [emphasis added] but to try and restore order and to preserve a socialist system in Hungary against what looks like a fascist coup."

Twenty-one years later, in A Fine Old Conflict, after it was known that thousands were killed in Budapest and elsewhere in Hungary by the Soviets, after the Hungarian invasion inspired mass defections from Western Communist parties, Mitford is still taking this same line. Only this time, miraculously, she's able to summon support from friends of her mother-in-law, Holocaust survivors and anti-Communists who welcomed the Soviets because they prevented a return to an anti-Semitic fascist state. Sure, there were "legitimate grievances against Stalinist repression," but they were being manipulated by the CIA and by counterrevolutionaries. As for the Hungarians the State Department brought into the United States? Obviously, "grasping neo-Fascist types." But even if some were, what about the jubilant faces of the gun-bearing rebels we see in the photo on the cover of Michael Korda's new memoir, Journey to a Revolution, radiating, as Greil Marcus wrote of the young Parisians of May 1968, "joy in discovering for what drama one's setting is the setting"? What of the thousands of Hungarians who fled the country? Were they all neo-Fascists? What about the Czechs twelve years later? Or the Eastern Europeans twenty-one years after that? Of them, there is not a word to be found in Decca. Nor is there any mention of the Hungarian dead except by implication in Mitford's claim that what she so Decca-delicately calls the "intervention" prevented further bloodshed. Twelve Days, Victor Sebestyen's new history of the uprising, recounts this joke going around Hungary in the fall of '56: "The Russians say they have come as our friends. Imagine if they said they were our enemies."

It was not Hungary that caused Mitford to leave the party, nor Khrushchev's revelations earlier in 1956 about Stalin's crimes. It was, as Sussman writes approvingly, "not primarily over some issue of high principle but because it had become dull...boring. Rather like London's debutante circuit."

And that, as well as anything, sums up the sense of entitlement, the "dedicated alienation from truth," in Robert Warshow's phrase, that is the essence of Mitford's political consciousness. It is not to ignore or excuse the hounding both she and Treuhaft suffered at the hands of HUAC thugs--they were spied upon, had their passports confiscated, were driven from jobs. Mitford's wryness about that, the way she treats those spying on her as ludicrous, is for the most part admirably lacking in self-pity. (She regards the funeral industry representatives she debates with the same withering amusement, an attitude that, as much as the facts she had to hand, probably rallied the public to her side.)

And no one should discount the terrible losses Mitford suffered: two children, an infant girl born to her and Romilly, and later her and Treuhaft's 10-year-old son, Nicholas, who was killed by a bus. In World War II she lost not only Romilly but her brother Tom and, in a sense, most of her family. She was understandably estranged from Unity and Diana, and after running away with Romilly she never saw her father again. There's no doubt that she suffered for sticking to her principles.

But if, as Sussman quotes Mitford as saying, "The whole point of letters is to reveal the writer & her various opinions & let the chips fall where they may," then Decca has to be judged on those principles--not by Mitford's tenacity in sticking to them but by what she chose to ignore by doing so. And it's not just the quality (or lack) of thought that is trivializing here; it's the language, the twee tone ("Darling Dinkydonk") that feels as much like heavy lifting as the forced heartiness does (Mitford never laughs; she roars). It's the vision of culture as entirely utilitarian, subservient to the struggle (Paul Robeson's performance as Othello is about the only cultural reference here, apart from confessions of a fondness for pop songs and an admiration for Lolita). It's not the length of Decca that's exhausting; it's that voice, affecting lightness and straining for political dedication, and failing miserably on both counts. "I don't strive for 'substance, depth & scope' as you put it," Mitford writes to one correspondent. Here's the proof.

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