The Final Edition

“Karl Kraus II” (1925) by Oskar Kokoschka: The dark red volumes of “Die Fackel”, which Kraus edited and largely wrote, are as fresh today as when they were first published in Vienna from 1899 to 1936

Writers may be born, but editors are their midwives. If I did not absorb the art of editing with my mother’s milk, I certainly ingested it with the smell of my father’s study: the adult odour of tobacco, dust and the sweat of his brow. This inner sanctum was the smallest bedroom in the house, but it had the best view of our garden: a vision of Eden to me, coming as I did from a London only just emerging from the Great Smog.

In those days small children were obliged to have a “rest” after lunch — an opportunity, I suppose, for the adults to take a break from our attentions. We children, of course, experienced being sent to bed in the middle of the day as a kind of incarceration; and, being bored, we were naughty. On one occasion, I was engaged in my favourite habit of drumming my bare feet against the window beside the bed, when the pane of glass broke. My ankles were gashed, the blood gushed out, and I needed stitches. They made me rest elsewhere after that, but my younger brother, who replaced me in the study, went one better. He liked playing with matches. One day, a box was carelessly-but for a little boy, conveniently-left out on my father’s desk. He lit the matches, one by one, throwing them into the wastepaper basket. Not surprisingly (except to him) it caught fire. Panicking, he stuffed it under the bed. That also caught fire; he called for help, but the room was in flames. The boy was rescued, the house evacuated, the fire brigade called. But by the time their hoses had doused what had become quite a conflagration, the book-lined sanctuary had become a burnt-out shell. Thereafter, children were banished from the study, on pain of a paternal wrath. (A Victorian caricature of “Mr Gladstone indignant” hung on the wall-an image as terrible to me as Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son.) While in awe of my father-then Editor of the New Statesman-I also loved, admired and sought to emulate him, and even surpass his achievements. And so it was that my destiny was determined: I too would have to become an editor, if only in order to return to the lost paradise of the editor’s study.

Much of my career has indeed, as it happens, consisted of editorial work for newspapers and magazines: in the 1990s, literary editor and comment editor of The Times; then associate editor of the Daily Telegraph; and, for the last five years, Editor of Standpoint, which I founded in 2008. Throughout, I have been lucky enough to write not only for my own papers, but for others too numerous to mention and on both sides of the Atlantic. (Only the best-paid editors can afford not to be freelance writers too.) Ephemeral as the achievements of a journalist may be, compared to those of a novelist or an academic, they are nothing to be ashamed of. However much the press may be vilified by those who have reason to fear it, the most striking difference between free countries and the rest is still the power of a free press. I am proud to have founded a periodical of my own: something that not even my father has done. I have been able to combine my trade with my passions sufficiently to enjoy a rich and satisfying intellectual life. Whether such deserts were in fact deserved, or not, I can count myself fortunate. 

With all these bookish benedictions, however, the archetypal room of one’s own has eluded me. All writers and editors, I suspect, aspire to create a den for themselves in which their work can take place in undisturbed solitude. Writers may flourish in a cork-lined catacomb like Proust’s study in Paris, or a velveted vault like Lord Burlington’s at Chiswick, or a drudge’s garret like Dr Johnson’s at his house in Gough Street. A periodical may likewise thrive in offices of infinite variety, but an old townhouse is hard to beat. This essay has partly been written at the Standpoint office in Manchester Square, a fine Georgian corner of Marylebone that symbolises the values the magazine exists to   uphold. Even its name has echoes of free trade. But the basement office is open-plan: the Editor sits in a book-lined corner, rather than a study. 

There I keep most of my old periodicals — a chaotic and eclectic cabinet of curiosities that scarcely qualifies for the connotations of a “collection”, acquired over several decades as relics, partly of past enthusiasms, partly of mere antiquarianism, partly of the incessant imperative to write. They are the detritus of the mind, dismissively designated as “ephemera” by booksellers, the titles on their yellowing spines embodying the work in progress of this time, of that place. Here are just a few of them: Commerce (Paris 1925, edited by Paul Valéry, with Ortega y Gasset, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Boris Pasternak and Ossip Mandelstam); Der Querschnitt (1928, with an evocative George Grosz sketch on the cover); The Listener (January 1942, with a long illustrated cover story on “How Islam Looks at Britain”); Encounter (including the 100th issue of January 1962 with a cover by Henry Moore); The Arts (1947, with a surrealist cover by Edward Bawden); The Windmill (1946, with an article on François Mauriac by Graham Greene, intended for La France Libre — the journal of the Free French in London, edited by Raymond Aron, of which I once possessed a nearly complete run, but gave to the historian of wartime France, Professor Julian Jackson, who has made better use of them); Adam (1950, edited by Miron Grindea, with the text of The Inspector by Wolf Mankowitz); and The New Review (including the April 1975 number with the complete text of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land). 

At home I have most of the older, rarer and more fragile journals in bound volumes. Pride of place is taken by the Philosophisches Journal, edited by Friedrich Immanuel Niethammer during the first flowering of German Idealism in the aftermath of the French Revolution. There one may find contributions by, among others, “Maimon in Berlin”— Salomon Maimon, that is, who as a Jew could not hold a professorial chair but was permitted by Niethammer to belong to his Gesellschaft Teutscher Gelehrten (Society of German Scholars), which included Schiller, Schelling, Humboldt, Hegel and Fichte. The presence of Maimon in this elect company was less an indication of broadmindedness among German academics of the day than a tribute to Kant, the grand old man of German philosophy who, despite his own anti-Semitic prejudices, was delighted by Maimon’s critique of his Critique of Pure Reason and remarked that only this Jew had really understood him. The Journal is a remarkable testament of the impact of the French Enlightenment on German thought, for better and for worse. One volume has an unsigned review of Fichte’s Contributions to the Correction of the Public’s Judgement Concerning the French Revolution of 1793 — an impassioned apologia, later repudiated by the author, for the revolution at the very moment when the Terror was consuming its own children. The review runs to 40 pages, but does not find space to mention the footnote for which the book is remembered today. In this, perhaps the most notorious footnote in history, Fichte turned on the Jews, coining the fateful, fatal phrase “a state within a state” created by this stateless diaspora, and concluding with what was presumably a ghoulish joke: “I see no way of granting [the Jews] civil rights, unless it be by chopping off all their heads one night and replacing them with new ones in which there would be not a single Jewish idea. And I see no way to protect ourselves from the Jews, unless by conquering their promised land for them and sending them all there.” How did the anonymous reviewer miss the hideous significance of these words from the pen of the leading German philosopher after Kant, which gave birth to a lethal lexicon of secular anti-Semitism that is still in circulation today?

These volumes (which I bought at Oxfam) were once a Christmas present, inscribed in German to “Miss Donalda McFie, as a small token of quite special estimation and in memory of the winter of 1894-95” by a certain Dr M. Bendines of Zurich. Unlike her fictional contemporary Cecily Cardew in The Importance of Being Earnest, who tells her governess Miss Prism that “I look quite plain after my German lesson”, Miss McFie was evidently sufficiently in command of the language to enjoy reading philosophy in the original German. All that would come to an end in 1914, when German ceased to be, as Lady Bracknell called it, “a thoroughly respectable language”. The intellectual constellation of the Philosophisches Journal vanished into the fog and smoke of war, from which it had not fully emerged by the time of my first encounters with German culture in the 1970s.

In the noxious atmosphere of the Great War, the heirs of Salomon Maimon —  the many German Jewish philosophers who did their patriotic duty, such as Edith Stein who nursed wounded soldiers and thereby developed her theory of empathy — ceased to be welcome among the heirs of Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Martin Heidegger, for instance, took care not to go near the trenches by persuading army doctors that he had a heart condition, thereby escaping the untimely deaths of such contemporaries as the philosopher Emil Lask, the Hölderlin editor Norbert von Hellingrath, the painter Franz Marc and the poet Georg Trakl. After the war he cultivated a colossal reputation with a style of philosophising that took it as axiomatic that the purpose of life was death. This martial metaphysician affected his own paramilitary mode of dress, as if he were a veteran, even though his only experience of war was gleaned second-hand from the writings of Ernst Jünger, the highly decorated dandy who preferred insects to people. Heidegger was eager to exclude his Jewish rivals from the academy but did not scruple to seduce his Jewish student, Hannah Arendt. Having been appointed Rector of Freiburg in 1933, Heidegger did his damnedest to conscript the German universities into the Nazi Volksgemeinschaft. It was this Nazi “folk community”, defined by race and ruled by fate, which constituted the real “state within a state”. 

Karl Krauss II’ (1925) by Oskar Kokoschka: The dark red volumes of ‘Die Fackel’, which Kraus edited and largely wrote, are as fresh today as when they were first published in Vienna from 1899 to 1936

And it did not entirely cease to exist after 1945. The last embers still glowed in 1974, when I first spent time in Germany as a schoolboy. Heidegger, Ernst Jünger and Carl Schmitt, three of the leading intellectuals of the Third Reich, were still alive and their books were undergoing a renaissance. In 1979-80, I spent time in West Berlin at the Free University, where I heard lectures on fascism by Ernst Nolte, who had been Heidegger’s student and had helped to conceal him from the invading French army in 1945. Nolte was a cold fish and his then much admired Der Faschismus in seiner Epoche (translated as Three Faces of Fascism) revealed more than a hint of sympathy for its subject. In the Noltean narrative, demagogues such as Charles Maurras of the Action Française, Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler were the inevitable response of a bourgeois society that perceived Lenin’s Bolshevism and Stalin’s Terror as an existential threat. French anti-Semitic nationalism, Italian Fascism and German National Socialism were elevated on to an abstract, philosophical plane; Auschwitz was seldom mentioned. It did not surprise me when Nolte later unmasked himself as the most sinister of all the revisionist historians. One of his more outrageous canards claimed that a letter from the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann to Neville Chamberlain in 1939 amounted to a “Jewish declaration of war” against Germany, that justified Hitler in “interning” the Jews of Europe, and the Einsatzgruppen of the SS in carrying out “counter-insurgency” measures against the Jews of the Soviet Union. It is no surprise that Nolte’s study of his master, Heidegger, is admiring to the point of hagiography.

Much more important for me than Nolte were the seminars of Jacob Taubes, a Viennese Jew and a Holocaust survivor who built a brilliant career on his doctoral dissertation, Occidental Eschatology, but never published another book in his lifetime. My encounter with Taubes took place in Jerusalem in 1977 at the flat of two philosophers at the Hebrew University, Avishai and Edna Margalit, to whom I was introduced by the writer Naomi Shepherd, then the New Statesman‘s Jerusalem correspondent and a family friend. (The NS was then still broadly supportive of Israel.) Taubes was in his mid-fifties; his theatrical manner and multilingual eloquence effortlessly impressed a youth of 18. “Come to Berlin and join my seminar,” he insisted. Three years later, I did. Half scholar, half seer, he was not the charlatan or “wunderrabbi” satirised by his detractors, but he was invariably attended by attractive women less than half his age. A man of the Left who had been married to Margarete von Brentano, a feminist academic of illustrious lineage, Taubes was nevertheless fascinated by Carl Schmitt, the father of “political theology” who had created the theory that legitimised the Third Reich in its early years. The two corresponded and even met. Schmitt, who was not radical enough for the Nazis, was nevertheless so compromised by association that his career was all but eclipsed after 1945, only to re-emerge in his nineties as the most fashionable political thinker of the transatlantic Left — not least thanks to Taubes.

I still have a few volumes from the 1920s of Hochland, the monthly for which Schmitt wrote during the Weimar Republic, and which under its editor Karl Muth was perhaps the finest Catholic journal in any country. Though it was rewarded for its open-minded stance by being placed on the Index by the Vatican authorities, all the leading German-speaking Catholic theologians wrote for it, including Max Scheler and Romano Guardini, who inspired John Paul II and Benedict XVI respectively. Even though Carl Schmitt later joined the Nazis, most of Hochland‘s contributors were vehemently anti-Nazi, and it was criticised by Heidegger for flirting with Catholic modernism. It is remarkable that Muth was able to preserve Hochland‘s independence until as late as 1941, when the Nazis closed it down. The Church’s resistance to Hitler was vitiated by the timidity of Pius XII, but even more by the anti-Judaism that permeated Catholic theology. Yet John Connolly has shown in his brilliant study From Enemies to Brothers how Catholic attitudes to Jews were transformed between the Holocaust and the Second Vatican Council, largely thanks to Jewish and Protestant intellectuals who had converted to Catholicism. Hochland was the organ of these Judaeo-Christian circles — a magazine that had tried to defend a catholic (not necessarily Catholic) view of Western civilisation in the teeth of barbarism. Hochland failed, just as the German intelligentsia in general failed, but it paved the way for Catholic repentance after centuries of persecution of the Jews.

By 1987, I was back in Germany, this time as the Telegraph‘s newly appointed Bonn correspondent. I covered the death of Rudolf Hess, in the aftermath of which numerous Nazis, old and young, re-emerged. As an inexperienced correspondent, I was indebted to this canker of cranks and creeps, because their antics were an inexhaustible source of stories. My editor, Max Hastings, had brusquely dispatched me to John Le Carré’s “small town in Germany” with the parting shot: “German politics is boring. Nothing ever seems to happen there of interest to our readers. So you have three months to prove that we need a bureau in Bonn. If you can’t, you’ll be out of a job.” Hess’s suicide in Spandau Prison saved my job. So I had a ringside seat for the final years of the Cold War. 

One Bonn acquaintance was Johannes Gross, the editor of the business magazine Capital and star columnist on the arch-conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Having interviewed prime ministers and chancellors for years as a television presenter, Gross exuded the sovereign self-confidence that is required to preserve intellectual integrity in the bear-pit of politics. At his favourite restaurant, much frequented by politicians, he confided in me that he too had been a disciple of Carl Schmitt, who had in his view been the only serious political thinker in the Federal Republic. The fact that Schmitt had been ready to throw in his lot with Hitler did not trouble Gross. Had not Virgil glorified Augustus, Dante the Ghibellines, Shakespeare the Tudors, Milton Cromwell, Hazlitt Napoleon? Many of the greatest writers and thinkers in Europe had flirted with fascism, after all, and Schmitt’s willingness to use anti-Semitic rhetoric was pure opportunism. Had not his oldest Jewish friend, Georg Eisler, who had broken with Schmitt in 1933, reconnected with him in old age? If a Jew could forgive the old man’s betrayal, who were we to judge him? Gross had come to know Schmitt through a mutual friend, Rüdiger Altmann, with whom he had edited the Christian Democrat student magazine Civis in the 1950s. Reinhard Mehring’s recent biography of Schmitt makes it clear that many Christian Democratic intellectuals were in contact with Schmitt almost as soon as he was released from Allied detention in 1947. Like Heidegger, Schmitt exercised a subterranean influence on the intellectual life of postwar Germany, long before he was taken up by Taubes and, partly through him, by American academics. One friend played a unique role in his rehabilitation, though: in the very last photograph of Schmitt on his 95th birthday, the only non-family member visible is Johannes Gross. I am still not sure what to think about the fact that both Taubes and Gross treated Schmitt with a respect that bordered on hero-worship. Both are now dead, and I am proud to have known them. But I am troubled by their spiritual affinity with a man whose cynicism makes Machiavelli look like Mother Teresa.

For 30 years, I have been accumulating periodicals, especially German ones. Some, such as the complete runs of Akzente (the most important West German literary magazine after 1945) and the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung (the journal of the Frankfurt School), are reprints. From 1904-05 I have four ornate volumes of Die Neue Rundschau, which include stories by Hermann Hesse, poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, and Thomas Mann’s only play Fiorenza (about Savonarola and Lorenzo the Magnificent: it flopped, and Mann decided the theatre was unworthy of his talents). Martin Buber’s Der Jude, of which I have the first volume (launched, incredibly, in 1916), was a pioneering organ both of Zionism and of German-Jewish culture; among the contributors was Kafka. 

But the dark-red volumes of Die Fackel (“The Torch”) are as fresh today as when it was first published in Vienna from 1899 to 1936, edited and largely written by Karl Kraus. The editorial chair does not do justice to the grandeur, even megalomania, of his conception. Nobody has approximated more closely to the Platonic ideal of the periodical editor. Kraus not only saw himself as the self-appointed guardian of the German language, but invested that language with profound moral significance. For Kraus, execrable prose offended not only against aesthetic sensibilities, but against the ethical foundations of civilisation. The first commandment of Kraus was never to exploit language to deceive or delude people for an ulterior purpose. The abuse of language was sacrilege, the true sin against the Holy Ghost. The cultivation of linguistic excellence required him not only to set an example in his own writing and public speaking, but the merciless pursuit of those who debased the language. It followed from this that the role of editor was quasi-sacerdotal. The editor was a kind of censor, but the traditional form of censorship (which of course still existed) was unacceptable, because coercive. Kraus, like the God of Abraham, wanted his mainly Viennese, mainly Jewish audience to obey him, even to the point of sacrificing their most precious possession — not their sons but their culture, with all its insincerity and vulgarity — but only if they did so freely. His only means of enforcing his will upon the world was mockery: to mock those who did not merely find themselves in this world, as he did, but were also of this world, as (in his own eyes, at least) he was not. But Kraus had good reason to be obsessed with the German language and those who sought to abuse it. Like all Jews, he was vulnerable to the anti-Semitism which usually simmered just below the surface, but which manifested itself in throwaway remarks, newspaper articles, official documents and countless other forms. What all had in common was language. Not surprisingly, it was the assimilated Jews who were most sensitive to these nuances and insinuations. For Freud, language was a window onto the unconscious; for Wittgenstein, it was the alpha and omega of philosophy. But for Kraus, language was the canary in the mine, the early warning system of impending catastrophe.

As the youngest son of a Bohemian Jewish paper manufacturing family, Karl decided early on that he would not go into the family business. Fortunately, apart from a brief flirtation with the theatre, his literary vocation was never in doubt. His father, Jacob, indulged him; three of his brothers became industrialists. Unique as Karl Kraus was as a literary phenomenon, his family shared the common fate of European Jewry. According to Wer Einmal War, the gigantic genealogy of the entire Jewish upper middle class in Vienna compiled by Georg Gaugusch, many of the Kraus family died in concentration camps, including at least two of Karl’s siblings and four of his nephews and nieces. Despite his diminutive stature and deformed left shoulder, he had a strikingly handsome, expressive, cerebral face. Kraus was a highbrow in every sense. As an editor he was also a perfectionist — so much so that he eventually decided to dispense with contributors altogether. From 1899 until 1911, Die Fackel had a select group of writers that included the architect Adolf Loos, and it was there that Loos published the words that became programmatic for modernism in all its forms: “Ornament is crime.” But Kraus came to find contributors, however eminent, more trouble than they were worth. So, for that matter, were advertisers, publishers and everybody else who tried to solicit space in his magazine. He wanted nothing from anybody. Henceforth, he would write the whole thing himself. From 1911 to 1936, Kraus was the sole contributor. When he died, Die Fackel died with him. He held the world to account, because he alone had the chutzpah to hold court and serve as judge and jury on a society destined for perdition.

Despite this relentless animus against a world his parents had seen as a veritable paradise, for the sake of which they had renounced their own language, Yiddish, Kraus had another side to his character. Though he never married, he loved beautiful, intelligent and promiscuous women — above all, the independently wealthy and sophisticated Baroness Sidonie Nadherny von Borutin. Until the war wrecked everything, he had hoped to marry her, but his plans were frustrated in part by Rilke. Egged on by his wife Clara, a sculptress who disapproved of Kraus, Rilke wrote a letter in February 1914 to Sidonie, who treated the great poet as a sage, warning against marriage to a man so essentially “alien” and urging her to keep her distance — the strong implication being that Kraus, as a Jew, was no match for an aristocrat like her. Sidonie seems to have heeded Rilke’s warning; like most people of her background, she was not above casually anti-Semitic remarks herself. Yet she comes across as a woman who knew how to make friends of her lovers, who gave Kraus the run of her castle, Schloss Janowitz, while he was writing, and who inspired him like no other. His letters and poems to her testify to the truth of her diary entry (written in English) in 1918: “There was goodbye for ever between K.K. & me — he who loves me as no man ever did.” In reality they never did say goodbye, and he remained “a true friend” to the end. Her letters to him are lost, but she kept his “wonderful love letters” to her. According to Kraus’s biographer Edward Timms, after her death in English exile, Sidonie’s remains were reinterred at Janowitz (now Janovice in the Czech Republic), where Kraus had written his own testament. Just before he died, Kraus wrote to Sidonie in May 1936, to say that the “global stupidity” — he meant the failure to stop the rise of Hitler, which by now acutely threatened Austria — had made all work impossible, apart from adapting Shakespeare. I have a copy of Kraus’s Nachdichtung of the Sonnets-less a translation than an adaptation into German by a man who knew very little English but nurtured a deep love of Shakespeare. Kraus’s Shakespeare is a prophet and a lawgiver — exactly like Kraus himself. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 67 ends: “O, him she stores, to show what wealth she had / In days long since, before these last so bad.” Kraus turns a personal reflection into a political one: “In schlechter Zeit bewahrt sie ihn als Bild / von jenem Reichtum, der sie einst erfüllt.” (“In these bad times she keeps him as an image / of the wealth she once possessed in full.”) “She” here is Europe in the throes of death, clutching Shakespeare as a talisman of the civilisation of which Kraus is the last defender.

Kraus is less defined by his loves than by his hatreds — like many editors, he saw himself vindicated only when he aroused vehement resistance. Most of his enemies were, like him, Jewish: “I admit that I give the Jews a hard time,” he wrote, “making no secret of my wish, which borders on fanaticism, that not only the laws of the language but also the laws of the criminal code should be obeyed.” 

Chief among his innumerable bêtes noires was indeed another Jew, but also one of Germany’s greatest writers: Heine, whom Kraus held responsible for the decline of the German language, and who became the butt of some of his cruellest gibes: “Heinrich Heine so loosened the corsets of the German language that today every little salesman can fondle her breasts.” There is a slight implication of anti-Semitism here, but it is more explicit in the following passage: “Heine was a Moses who struck the rock of the German language with his rod. But speed is not magic. The water did not flow from the rock; rather, he had brought it along in his other hand — and it was really eau de Cologne.” 

The irony here is that it was Heine who had created the German essay form — the Feuilleton — of which Kraus would become the greatest exponent of his day. Heine was the German Hazlitt, in the sense that both modernised the idiom of literature, writing in a fluent, conversational prose that instantly made everybody else seem old-fashioned. It was Heine who, emerging as he did just after the greatest age of German literature and living through a period of romanticism, revolution and reaction, saw the need to do something new: make the Germans laugh at themselves. Whatever Heine wrote — letters, lyric or narrative verse, travelogues, memoirs, literary or philosophical history and criticism — irony, self-awareness and satire were never far away. (This is just as true of Kraus, who was in many ways the Heine of his day.)

These qualities are ubiquitous, for example, in Heine’s Vermischte Schriften (“Assorted Writings”), a first edition of which is one of my treasured possessions. I found it in a bookshop in the Portuguese town of Cascais, near the resort of Estoril. What was this rare German book doing there? I concluded that it had been left behind by one of the many intrepid refugees from the Nazis who had made the perilous crossing of the Pyrenees and found themselves waiting long weeks and months in Estoril for the ship that would take them to transatlantic safety. My Heine volume had perhaps once graced the library of some poor wretch who had trodden the same path as Walter Benjamin, driven like Heine himself into Parisian exile, only to be hounded to a desolate death on the Spanish border. 

Heine was one of the contributors to a short-lived journal that briefly crossed my path in New York, where its owner had evidently made good his escape from Hitler’s Europe: the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher (“German-French Annals”) edited in Paris by Dr Karl Marx, not yet famous but already enjoying a local notoriety, and his fellow exile Arnold Ruge. Only one volume of this annual ever appeared, in 1844, but it includes Marx’s first substantial publication: Zur Judenfrage (“On the Jewish Question”). Scholars disagree about the originality of this work, but it is significant both as the first outline of the “materialist” philosophy of history, and as a radical new departure in the history of anti-Judaism. I found the annual in the rare books department of the Strand Bookstore, but the staff there had no idea what it was. It had no price, but they promised to give me one when they had checked it out. After nearly an hour I was still waiting, and the young assistant informed me that she had been unable to locate a single copy of this obscure volume in any library, so would I mind if they emailed me later with a price? My heart sank. Later that day, my fears were confirmed: the price was well over a thousand dollars — still a bargain, given the rarity of this periodical and the world-historical importance of its contents, but beyond my means. It later sold for far more. 

I would have shelved the periodical that got away alongside the rest of my modest collection of early Marxist literature, which includes several volumes of the original MEGA, the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe, edited in Moscow in the 1920s and early 1930s by David Riazanov. This formidable scholar, a close ally of Trotsky, produced excellent, unexpurgated editions of the works and correspondence of Marx and Engels, handsomely bound in navy blue cloth with titles picked out in bold gold capitals. I have before me his edition of Die Deutsche Ideologie (“The German Ideology”), which was published in full for the first time in 1932 — but with Riazanov’s name missing from the title page. 

By the kind of black magic familiar to readers of the novel Mikhail Bulgakov was then writing, The Master and Margharita, Riazanov had just been dismissed from the Marx-Engels Institute (of which he was the founder) on evidence extracted under torture from an employee by the secret police. Riazanov disappeared from Moscow, first into internal exile, then altogether; but even Stalin could not erase his achievement in bringing hitherto unpublished MSS by the Communist patriarchs to light, above all The German Ideology

Its publication began the rediscovery of the “early Marx” which would galvanise the Left in the 1960s. Nothing else in the Marxist corpus expresses so succinctly the core of the “materialist conception of history”, especially the first section, headed “Feuerbach“. The manuscript is in Marx’s hand and is adorned with doodles of heroic revolutionaries. It is full of aphorisms, for which he later lost the knack: “Consciousness does not determine life; rather, life determines consciousness.” Or: “In every epoch the ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas.” One passage, quoted in the introduction by Riazanov’s successor Adoratski, reads ironically today: “The revolution is not only necessary because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but because only in a revolution can the overthrowing class be enabled to clean off the old filth and to lay the foundations of a new society.”

 Adoratski comments that the Soviet proletariat is following Marx’s injunction, but the “filth” turned out to include tens of millions of the best and brightest who perished on Stalin’s orders, including Riazanov himself, who was executed on trumped-up charges in 1938. Marx’s German Ideology is intended to open its readers’ eyes to the “illusions of the ideologists”, and Stalin, who saw the threat to himself implied by this notion, ensured that only 5,000 copies were printed, most of which would have been sent abroad. Editors, being dangerous to tyrants, are always in danger themselves.

One thought torments me: will the periodical survive? Online archives will soon make every book or journal of any significance instantly accessible, albeit at a price. So private libraries like mine may be redundant. But without their physical, tactile reality, who will bother to read them? And who will found new weeklies, monthlies, quarterlies or other periodicals in defiance of the public expectation of instant gratification? 

My own magazine was indeed such an act of defiance, but Standpoint could not have flourished as a purely commercial venture. People balk at a few pounds a copy who do not mind paying thousands for phone or computer services. The defining characteristic of a periodical is the period that its editor requires to put it together. Time, in this case, really is of the essence. But readers accustomed to the internet won’t wait for a magazine. They want the intellectual equivalent of fast food. 

As the ultimate deadline looms for the final edition of the only printed periodical left, the last Editor on earth sinks into a reverie, from which she is aroused by a vision of editorial judgment. From the great coffee house in the sky, a convocation of the editors of the past are looking down on the present predicament of the periodical.

“This will never do,” says Francis Jeffrey, of the Edinburgh Review

“You said that about Wordsworth’s ‘Excursion’,” replies Marian Evans, of the Westminster Review. “You were wrong then and you are wrong now. The periodical gave me the confidence to write, without which I could never have become the novelist George Eliot. And it will continue to provide the stage for every budding writer.”

“With great respect, Miss Evans, you are hopelessly out of date,” Cyril Connolly of Horizon observes breezily and wheezily from inside a cloud of smoke. “Nobody down there under 40 reads much of anything any more. It’s not the pram in the hall any more that is the enemy of promise — it’s the computer in the child’s bedroom.”

“Is that so?” The sharp rejoinder from the quiet American in clericals commands attention. “Judaism and Christianity are religions of the book,” comments Father Richard John Neuhaus of First Things. “People will read if and when they are given something worth reading, regardless of technology. But most magazines are simply dull. Until our colleagues still on earth retake the public square by writing about the great moral and spiritual questions of our, or any, time, readers will remain on strike.” 

At this the bewigged gentlemen in the corner looked up. “Dull, sir? Do you mean dull as Gray was dull? He was dull in a new way, and that made many people think him great,” declares Dr Johnson, editor and sole contributor of The Idler

“One man’s dull digest is another’s delight,” Richard Steele agrees. “At The Tatler I used to say: ‘It is to be noted that when any part of this paper appears dull there is a design in it.’ Anyone who avers that brevity is the soul of wit probably has neither, and certainly has little acquaintance with English letters.” 

“Design to be dull? Did you mean that you and Addison deliberately denied good writers room in your gazette? By God, I wish I had lived a century before and you had been able to ask me to write for you!” The spirit of the age now makes his presence felt. Taking a swig from a glass of ambrosia, William Hazlitt gets unsteadily to his feet. “In my day I believed that we lived in retrospect and doted on past achievements. The spirit of the 21st century by no means dotes on the past. In fact, you seem hardly aware of those who came before you. Not only are journalists like us all but forgotten: who but those who are paid to do so reads even the poets of my day — Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats? Who reads Coleridge, who talked on forever, but who you wished to talk on forever? Who reads Burke, whose style was forked and playful as the lightning? I used to hate reading new books, but today you read little else for pleasure — if you read books at all. I used to say that women judge of books as they do of fashions, but now such a fixation on novelty is found equally in both sexes. You do not know what you are missing by ignoring the great writers of the past. Writing is the most difficult of arts, and it cannot be learnt without reading: not widely, necessarily, but deeply. There are 20 or 30 volumes that I have read over and over again, and these are the only ones that I have any desire ever to read at all. But how many of these authors would ever have come to my attention had they not first been published and reviewed in periodicals? I myself would never have been heard of at all but for the editors who commissioned me. These unsung midwives who brought us into the world: where are they now?”

The vision fades. The last Editor picks up her pen and returns to the proofs piled up on her desk. In the margin of the last page she writes, in tiny red letters: “That’s enough editors. Ed.” After a moment, she crosses it out.

The Editor’s decision is final — but the Editor herself is provisional. Her survival depends on the readership. For bloggers, the unedited, open-ended anarchy of the web may beckon enticingly: a return to the chaos before creation.  For the rest of us, though, the editorial process is a blessing. We require periodicals, or something like them, to help us to decide what, and especially whom, to read. Readers and writers alike must hope and pray that the final edition will never be the last.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"