The Disappearance of Émile Zola by Michael Rosen

This text is a fascinating blend of the personal and the political. This readable study of the role Émile Zola played in the Dreyfus Case is a powerful reminder of the reactionary nature of all forms of anti-Semitism. Michael Rosen depicts Zola with admiration, but there is an honesty about his colourful portrait. After all, the great author was something of a bigamist, and he was prone to being preoccupied with his personal comfort.

Rosen has a real stake in the story. As a Jewish writer and as a socialist, he is grateful for the political intervention of J’Accuse. Zola was not the only brave person to speak up for Dreyfus, but he was one of the major victims of the affair. Zola felt compelled to flee to England, a country where he did not feel at home. His hatred of English cuisine was just one of his discontents.

The Dreyfus Case was sometimes used by English people to attack the French. But anti-Semitism was found on both sides of the Channel. In contrast, Zola believed in France, just not the France which buried some of its traditions to use Dreyfus as a scapegoat. Zola was an artist who often relied on realism, but like any other progressive thinker he could be appalled by the reactionary present.

Zola understood something that many anti-Semites never will. He was aware that there was no sinister international conspiracy. He also attacked the capitalism of his age in the strongest possible terms:

‘”There were really no Jew questions- at all; there was only a Capitalist question- a question of money heaped up in the hands of a certain number of gluttons and thereby poisoning and rotting the world.”‘


Sylvia Pankhurst by Mary Davis

This brilliant text illuminates a life of struggle. Lenin treated Sylvia Pankhurst with respect, while the campaigner spent decades in the fight against sexism, imperialism and racism. Pankhurst was eccentric and prone to alienate others, but her sincerity, vision and passion cannot be questioned. While the Pankhurst name is commonly associated with the suffragettes, Mary Davis reveals how one of the family retained her radicalism after the franchise victory had been attained.

Pankhurst may be attacked for inconsistency. However, in such turbulent economic times sticking to a party line would have brought its own difficulties. Those who adhered to the principles of the Labour Party were betrayed by Ramsay MacDonald and others, while those enthused by the Russian revolution were swept into compromising positions by the complexities of international socialism. For a feminist, the political problems of the period were compounded by patriarchy.

Pankhurst was quick to warn people about the terrible dangers of fascism. An early critic of Mussolini, she did not think the new type of dictatorship was similar to other forms of undemocratic rule. She wrote:

“Fascism…is essentially a manifestation of capitalism having felt danger and revenging itself for having been made to fear for its existence.”

Last Man Standing by Jack Straw

Political memoirs can be turgid and dishonest. But they can shed some light on important aspects of modern history. Jack Straw was so surprised to be made Foreign Secretary he swore, yet he presided over the Foreign Office during a crucial period in the evolution of the European project. At the time, Tony Blair was keen on the politics of joining the euro, but the Cabinet was unconvinced by the economic case.

Straw was given the job on the understanding that he would agree with Blair on the euro. However, he secretly had faith in Gordon Brown’s ability to retain the pound by virtue of the rigorous economic tests. This duplicity enabled him to represent British interests at the European level while retaining a deep scepticism towards the processes of the European Union.  Understanding the lack of sincere enthusiasm for the European ideal within parts of New Labour is central to appreciating the causes of the referendum defeat in 2016. It is foolish to blame Jeremy Corbyn for a campaign that could not rely on the support of senior Labour figures like Frank Field.

Straw’s antipathy to “more Europe” was illustrated by his tribal hostility to the Liberal Democrats. He was determined to prevent a coalition between the Liberal Democrats and Labour in 2010. Completely unconcerned about the potential impact of Tory-led austerity on the working class, he:

“sent Gordon a detailed note setting out my view that a coalition with the Lib Dems would be doomed- on grounds of legitimacy, stability and the management of the economy and public finances. I took issue with the fanciful notion of a ‘progressive alliance’ saying that I thought it ‘arrogant nonsense’.”


Ken by Andrew Hosken

Political biographies which are written while politicians are still active are almost bound to disappoint. This is partly because sources will tend to distort their comments with a view to influencing short-term outcomes. At the same time, the author of the text will find it hard to keep up as fresh events impact upon their perception of the subject.

Andrew Hosken found it difficult to negotiate the political circles around the former Mayor of London because critics and allies had a lot at stake as the book was researched. The uneven depiction of Ken Livingstone which resulted failed to illuminate much about the character of the eccentric politician. At present, Livingstone is seldom praised for the innovative congestion charge. Instead, he is typically condemned for alleged anti-Semitism.  Hosken’s work can be seen as a premature intervention because it could not shed much light on what would become the most controversial aspect of the evolving ideology of Livingstone. Nevertheless, Hosken indicated that Livingstone had already established a track record of referring to Nazi Germany in a tasteless and unnecessary fashion.

Politics has become increasingly strange since Hosken completed his book. Clumsy Livingstone is widely viewed as a total liability to the Labour Party, while the overtly racist President Trump is happily leading the ‘free world’ to further conflict. Livingstone might never salvage his battered reputation after repeated blunders, but even his many critics once feared him as:

“one of the best political operators in the country.”

The biographies of political biographers

When reading a political biography, one may be tempted to wonder about the personal life of the biographer. While the biographer often passes judgement on the public and the private aspects of their subject, they must believe that they will be assessed on the quality of their work alone. If their bias is blatant against someone or their associates, one could think that a brief look at their background may be in order.

Andrew Hosken composed a text about Ken Livingstone. It took quite a dim view of both the far left and the hard left. Moreover, it was unnecessarily scathing about several of the personalities involved in the development of municipal socialism. In short, Mr Hosken seemed to have an Establishment perspective as a future review may underline.

Mr Hosken has worked a lot for the BBC. The late father of the journalist was also a senior BBC employee. Further, another of his relatives served the corporation. These media networks often used to channel liberal values. Mr Hosken lacked any sympathy for democratic socialism and was prepared to write it off prematurely, decades before the first Corbyn surge of 2015:

“Foot and Healey had managed to throw back the barbarians at the gate by the narrowest of margins, despite the Left’s formidable control of most of the Labour constituency parties…But neither Benn nor anyone else on the left, particularly Ken Livingstone, ever again posed as serious a threat to the party ‘establishment.'”

Call Me Dave by Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott

One test of a text is how long it resonates with readers. This biography is already outmoded. The EU referendum result and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn have made the poll-based predictions of Michael Ashcroft seem absurd. At the same time, the gossipy tone makes the book a difficult read for those who want to take an interest in the evolving political economy of the UK.

Notwithstanding these huge problems, the authors do shed some light on the formation of the coalition between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. It underlines how cordial the relations were between the neoliberal politicians in question. Further, it exposes how Cameron lied to his own party about the position of the Labour Party on electoral reform as negotiations unfolded.

These minor revelations continue to matter because the Liberal Democrats depict themselves as a pro-European party. When they had a sniff of power they effectively jettisoned their commitment to the EU, signing up to severe cuts on the pretext that the UK was in a similar position to Greece in economic terms. The coalition failed to establish really positive relationships with their European partners. According to an aide of Mrs Merkel, David Cameron was unable to sustain her full respect:

“Allies will help each other when they can, but each must do their own homework before coming to the table in Brussels or elsewhere.”

T.S. Eliot: a Short Biography by John Worthen

This odd book about an odd man employed an eccentric technique to generate a thought-provoking biography. John Worthen leaned heavily on the diaries of Virginia Woolf to defend the reputation of her celebrated friend. Her antipathy to the wife of T.S. Eliot means that the great poet has a really sympathetic portrayal.

Relying too much on the brilliant Woolf as a witness has its risks. Her own instability means that she may not have been the most consistent judge of character. And her literary elitism could have led her to a bias towards the conservative American. Further, she might well have been afraid, jealous or resentful of others who occupied the sick role she shared.

Fortunately, Worthen was aware of the limitations of his effort. Like Eliot, he knew that “No one can be understood.” As a result, those who appreciate poetry can turn back to fragments of the poems:

“And I…must borrow every changing shape

To find expression- dance dance

Dance like a dancing bear,

Whistle like a parrot, chatter like an ape;

Let us take the air, in a tobacco trance.”