Elie Kedourie (1926-92) taught politics and history at the London School of Economics for most of his life. He had, indeed, studied there as an undergraduate, having left his native Baghdad as part of the post-1948 Jewish exodus from Arab lands. After a brief period in Oxford, he returned to the LSE in 1953 and stayed until his retirement.
Kedourie was essentially a scholar, but contingently a guru or pundit. Although his ideal life would have been spent conversing with students in scholarly obscurity, his moral convictions, sense of public responsibility, and the fact that his academic interests closely bordered hot issues of the day, particularly the Middle East, drew him into wider concerns. That he transformed our understanding of nationalism is widely understood, though also disputed. Less recognised is the clear-headedness that he brought to public affairs.
A central feature of Kedourie’s grasp of human reality lay in his relentless attention to the fact that human beings act in terms of the beliefs they hold. Those beliefs are uncertain, tinged with urgency, and constantly in flux. This made him critical of those who thought they had found some determining structure, revealing the way things were going. He had as little time for French Annales history as for Marxism. He rejected these views for the simple logical reason that no one could – or ever did – manage to explain the precise steps leading from analysis to the -actual decisions studied by the historian. -Kedourie could hardly conceal his derision in dealing with historical actors who thought that their decisions merely responded to the inevitable processes of history.
He was in no doubt, for example, that the idea of national self-determination, launched upon the world by Woodrow Wilson after 1918, was not only absurd, but also destructive and immoral. It was destructive because, the world not being composed of distinct nations, the idea that all nations had the right to self-determination could only lead to violence and discord in domestic politics. The Wilson doctrine was, for Kedourie, also immoral because it purported to justify the overturning of settlements that had been long in place, and achieved only with great difficulty. It was a doctrine that claimed the right to subordinate existing moral and legal commitments to the capricious and uncertain operations of power and will.
The politics of the Middle East, at the centre of Kedourie’s scholarly interests, could hardly fail to provide him with endless mat-erial for sardonic observation on human folly. The romantic fantasies of Lawrence of Arabia and the confident cynicism of civil servants in European chancelleries were similarly implicated in the emergence of unstable and -dangerously despotic states ruled by some currently dominant elite. Such elites were quick to pick up the fashionable ideological talk they encountered among Western intellectuals, and no less skilled in exhibiting the political ruthlessness necessary to exploit the collapse of feeble traditional structures, such as those of Ottoman rule.
We have since been living with make–believe states mimicking European institutions such as parliaments and elections, states no less rickety because they are skilled at supplementing oriental despotism with elements of European bureaucratic efficiency.
“They are talking of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard as if they were Prussian Grenadiers,” he remarked to Andrew Mango in 1991, not long before “the elite Republican Guard” (as it featured in the press at the time) broke and ran, along with the rest of the Iraqi army.
It was not that Kedourie’s strictures derided the Islamic tradition, for which as a scholar he had considerable respect, but he was very clear that any such project as bringing democracy to the Arab Middle East was trying to make water run uphill. He was in many moods a man half amused and half outraged by -human illusions. Kedourie’s respect for what human beings had created turned his conservative attitude to political structures into a scholarly discovery procedure: fully to understand why some set of institutions had come to prevail in a culture. It was also an antidote to the radical fantasy of treating human beings as raw materials for some improving project.
Being scholarly, however, did not make him into one of Robert Conquest’s “scholarly idiots”, who thought academic balance excluded outrage at enormity. In the hilarious and profound title essay of The Crossman Confessions and Other Essays, for example, Kedourie notes dryly that the Labour politician RHS Crossman “admired Attlee’s decision to withdraw from India ‘despite the fact that it cost a million lives'”.
Kedourie rightly thought that academics had no business telling statesmen what to do, which was one reason for his scathing judgement on Arnold Toynbee in the title essay of The Chatham House Version. But his scepticism about fashionable opinion, and realism about the inescapability and limits of power in politics are too little remembered. It is not merely that he understood as few others ever have a region that still baffles us, but also that the lucidity and economy of his style make him an enduring pleasure to read.