John Mulgan: A Modern Greek Tragedy

Review of Vincent O’Sullivan’s

Long Journey to the Border: A Life of John Mulgan

Penguin Books 2003

John Mulgan


John Mulgan has a big name in New Zealand. He is portrayed in the literary culture and even the popular culture as a national hero. His reputation is larger than life because of the ‘mystery’ of his death, an irony given that he must have viewed his suicide without sentimentality.

His only novel ‘Man Alone’ has been a set text in schools and universities for decades. Its hero, Johnson, stands for basic values such as toughness, self-reliance, and the independence of the ‘common man’ of action and few words. That title is taken from Hemingway’s To Have and To Have Not: “a man alone ain’t got no fucking chance”. For Mulgan it means that human freedom and democracy has to be grounded in the individual self-reliance and resilience of agricultural communities resistant to modern ‘fascism of the right or of the left’.

For that reason Mulgan has been adopted as the role model of the left liberal intelligentsia in New Zealand and is emblematic of the post-World War 2 Keynesian compromise which attempted to balance the rights of private property with the interest of the greater community. Mulgan is portrayed by his biographers as the intellectual who best steered between the twin evils of extreme capitalism and state socialism (Paul Day and James McNeish), and who probably paid the ultimate price for this act of personal heroism with his own life.

In my view Mulgan’s personal heroism is not in question. But heroism is not an adequate explanation of Mulgan’s real significance. What if his task was made humanly impossible because he could not personally transcend the contradiction, starkly posed by depression and world wars, without taking sides between capitalist barbarism or degenerated socialism? In that case, his heroic attempt to try to resolve this dilemma by defending democracy as a solitary intellectual makes Mulgan a hopeless case. He becomes a ‘Man Alone’ separated from the community of his choice and his life becomes a modern Greek tragedy.

Vincent O’Sullivan’s recent biography ‘Journey…’ is a wonderfully illuminating picture of Mulgan’s life. It is true to Mulgan since it interprets his life as Mulgan himself might have. It does not step outside Mulgan’s ideological frame of the solitary intellectual. It accepts, as Mulgan did, the centrality of the defence of democracy against fascism and against Stalinism. It defines Mulgan’s importance as the voice of the maturing, independent, and increasingly self-conscious intelligentsia in NZ that sees itself as inseparable from the generation of British, US, and European intellectuals who faced up to the existential questions of war and peace, democracy and fascism, capitalism and socialism.

What I want to argue in this essay is that taking Mulgan’s own standpoint to reflect on his life cannot fully account for his significance. I will argue that Mulgan was trapped by his fidelity to a belief in the sovereign individual, and like many intellectuals of that period who gave their lives in one or other cause (most risked their lives by thinking) he became a victim of that very belief – itself an ideology masking the true nature of the bourgeois self as alienated, self-defeating and powerless. To make this argument however, it is necessary to step outside the liberal frame of O’Sullivan’s biography and adopt a critical Marxist theory of the intelligentsia.

My Approach

I want to use arguments derived from the dead Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci and the very much alive Spanish ‘Althusserian’, Juan Carlos Rodriguez. Gramsci’s influence on Western Marxism and the rise of ‘cultural studies’ today is really too important to ignore when locating prominent intellectuals within modern capitalist society. Rodriguez is a more acquired taste derived from Gramsci by way of Althusser and heavy on the theory of ideological production. These approaches share the Marxist assumption that writers are intellectuals who serve to reproduce the key ideas that meet the material interests of the ruling classes –traditional intellectuals – in competition with intellectuals thrown up by the challenge of the revolutionary classes from below – organic intellectuals.

(Note that I accept that Mulgan didn’t kill himself for personal reasons, including illness or depression, but out of despair. Yet this concept remains psychologically or culturally reductionist unless unpacked in the full glare of the critical Marxist method.)

My method differs from the standard method of a biography like O’Sullivan’s Long Journey to the Border, which for all its strengths, must deal with the individual in a social setting where the impact of deeply rooted class forces on the individual become truncated as personality, psychology, beliefs, national cultures, experience etc. Gramsci argues that it is the role of traditional intellectuals to obscure these deeper causes by (most effectively I would say, unconsciously) de-historicising or naturalising them.

Mulgan as ‘would-be’ intellectual

According to O’Sullivan, Mulgan’s intellectual formation was virtually complete by 1932. The ‘road to Damascus’ episode of the Queen St Riots saw Mulgan reject his role as a student ‘police special’ and consciously take the side of the ‘common man’. (That his class loyalties were challenged by a former army officer, and now unemployed farmer driven off his land by the depression, is very significant). His earlier ‘benign and complacent’ liberalism owing much to his father, became a more mature and ‘questioning’ liberalism which avoided ‘extremes’ of the right and left. Further developments under fire are ‘fine tuning’ of, and vindication of, his essential liberalism.

This is a fair conclusion as far as it goes. But it does not investigate the limits posed by liberalism on Mulgan’s ability to take theory seriously or to test his beliefs in practice. I would argue that Mulgan’s commitment to liberalism disarmed him intellectually in the face of the momentous events of the Great Depression and World War II and left him bereft of any realistic principles facing the task of the rebuilding of post-war society. In the last two chapters of Report on Experience as he approaches the end of his life, Mulgan returns, almost by default, to the familiar English liberal themes of the ‘common man’, respect for tradition, defense of democracy from fascism, the resilience of the English in war and so on.

What I look for and do not find in O’Sullivan’s book is any account of why Mulgan kept true to English liberalism from his ‘Road to Damascus experience’ in 1932 to the final Report… on his experience of the civil war in Greece in 1945. To account for this fidelity to liberalism it is necessary to understand the hegemonic role of the traditional intellectual in reproducing the class terms of liberalism – that is, the inverted ideology of the rights of man that represent the class interests of the English bourgeoisie. It is my belief that Mulgan embodied a contradiction between his emotional and instinctive identification with the ordinary producing classes –the ‘common man’ (Johnson) – and the social role of the ‘would-be’ intellectual transmitting and defending the ideal of the alienated bourgeois subject.

While this gave him great authority and success in translating bourgeois principles into commonly held values it also meant he internalised an insoluble contradiction. The traditional intellectual’s role is to translate bourgeois ideology into the language of the ‘common man’ as natural and just. Such are the ‘four freedoms’ of liberty, equality, fraternity and … property rights. [145-146 Report]. English liberalism defends itself well against all aberrations that challenge natural justice –the ‘extremes’ O’Sullivan talks of fascism of the right an left. It is practical, moderate, and capable of dealing with the excesses of ‘freedom’ such as war profiteering. In Report the main theme is that war is just (it brings out the best in humanity: life, love and solidarity) when it is not about profits or power.

Mulgan’s war does not bring freedom from these extremes; it brings despair about the future. The price of reconciling the contradiction of capitalism with the life of ‘common man’ is not to take up the fight for socialism in the future, but to a retreat into the past ideal of rural life found in the Greek villages destroyed by the Nazis and civil war. Transcendence, not possible in this life, is found in the death of the ‘would-be’ intellectual. Why didn’t Mulgan take his positive concrete experience of the ‘common man’ and translate it into the theory and practice of the revolutionary socialist party? Why didn’t he penetrate the surface manifestations of Stalinism as ‘would-be’ socialism? The answer, I would suggest is in the immunising effects of the English humanism he adopts in his evolution as a traditional intellectual.

The class terms of English liberalism

Mulgan outgrows NZ provincialism (his father’s a ‘Better Brit’) and adopts an English humanism (a better Angle?). It is important to emphasise the ‘England’ rather than the ‘Britain’. Despite Mulgan’s Irish antecedents, his intellectual provenance eschews the tougher strands of the Scottish Enlightenment and Irish nationalism. The English Enlightenment is a bloodless affair because the English revolution was driven by balance sheets and not ideologues. English intellectuals tended to draw their pay from both semi-feudal and capitalist classes and the results are chronic compromise, and gradualist trial and error evolution. This makes English liberalism both resilient and insidious.

Typically the English ‘lefts’ commitment to socialism is therefore empiricist and social imperialist. It’s thought is ultimately shaped by the belief in Britain’s ‘progressive’ historic role as the workshop of the world – the first modern imperialism – now in decline. But Britain’s errors seldom led to trials. English empiricism worked well in Britain’s ascendancy, and its hollowed-out sheltered workshop cushioned its decline from the threat of a full blooded socialism. That’s why English intellectuals never need venture outside gradualist, evolutionary versions of enlightenment humanism including Fabian socialism and Stalinist fellow-traveling.

Mulgan adopted English empiricism when the empire was already in decline. He took its class terms of reference. Its origins were in the class compromise between feudalism and capitalism in which the old social relations coexisted alongside the new. For Mulgan this accounted for the survival of the English gentleman and the amateur approach to war. This incomplete bourgeois revolution was entrenched by the spoils of imperialism that bought off the labour aristocracy aligning it politically to the bourgeoisie under the British flag. Thus the riches of empire enabled British empiricism to project itself as an enlightenment of class compromise rather than class revolution.

Other NZ expatriates like Bertram and Milner rejected English empiricism and went over to Stalinist (or Maoist) socialism. This was a pragmatic adaptation of NZ ‘state socialism’ (more properly statism) of the 1930s applied on a grand scale in USSR and China. It is a form of frontier pragmatism typical of white settler states (especially archetypal US pragmatism) where in order to catch up with Britain the colonial state had to break (more or less) from imperialism and act as the main agent of economic development. Substituting mass equality for individual liberty in NZ from the 1890s already created an proto-fascist state according to Willis Airey. Bill Sutch was a fan of ‘state socialism’ in NZ and the USSR. Rewi Alley took his ‘number 8 socialism’ off the dairy farm to China. The difference between dairy cooperatives and mass soviets was just a question of scale.

Johnson, the chief protagonist of Man Alone, embodies this dilemma in part; or rather the underlying contradiction. The positive part of this is his commitment to the social forms of the pre-capitalist peasant community on the land. He identifies with Maori society. One suspects that for Mulgan the reason Johnson goes to Spain is not high minded ideals but an instinct for solidarity with the peasant collectives. “What he hated in fascism was its contempt for individual freedom. Milner noted too that unlike himself and regardless of his wide reading, Mulgan had no deep interest in theory, or in what bright promises were held out for another day: ‘Mulgan’s mind was by nature and style of living empirical. He was distrustful of generalised schemes of thinking.’” (Journey..., 159)

His loyalty is to the pre-capitalist peasantry, not the landlords, church or intelligentsia. He does not articulate his beliefs in words but in actions. The negative part of the dilemma is that he resolutely rejects Enlightenment modernity not just its ‘extremes’ of fascism of right and left. Johnson is instinctively suspicious of any attempt to ‘intellectualise’ modernity as humanist full stop. It leads to the ‘fascism of the left’. Mulgan denounced the “ideological control and maneuvering of the International Brigade by Andre Marty and the Communist hierarchs” during the Spanish civil war. (Journey…, 159)

The ‘Johnson’ side of Mulgan comes out more fully in Greece. Here the ‘theory of communism’ is revealed in ‘fact’ to him be a ‘fascism of the left’. Individual freedom is sacrificed to follow orders and by barbaric torture. The heroes of the resistance are not the communist partisans, nor the Greek nationalists, but the ordinary peasant villagers. Again Mulgan identifies with the simple strengths of self-reliant rural life that has survived for millennia. In Greece the lack of development of modern capitalism is evident. There is almost no aristocracy or proletariat only petty bourgeois. For that reason, modernity and humanity cannot follow the dogma of Marxist theory in Greece. Communism in Greece will have to take the form of peasant cooperatives.

These observations provide the class ‘bearings’ to locate Mulgan’s ‘would be’ intellectual authority. He embodies the contradiction between common man and bourgeois intellectual personally. His instincts are pre-capitalist in his love of nature and for working the land. But he is also an English humanist intellectual. He looks to the enlightenment as the continuation of the freedom of the peasant collective translated into modern times as bourgeois democracy. And Mulgan defends bourgeois democracy against what he sees as the twin extremes of right and left fascism. He rejects the utopia of a communist future that suppresses individual freedoms as evenhandedly as he rejected the fascism of the right. He sees these fascisms as equal. The Greek Stalinists did not forgive the Polish boys forced to fight for the Nazis to protect their families at home, when they defected to the partisans.

Stalinism equals Communism

Why did Mulgan stick to the already historically bankrupt English humanism under the impact of depression and imperialist war? To many intellectuals of this period it was part of the problem and not the solution to the crisis facing humanity. Other New Zealanders like Bertram and Milner sided with Stalinism for better or worse. Mulgan was highly critical of British imperialism, its complicity with the rise of German fascism, and its role in Greece, yet could not take this leap.

Why did Mulgan equate Stalinism with socialism? Was this bad faith? While swimming against the stream, Trotskyists certainly recognised that Stalinism was a parasitic growth on an otherwise healthy workers state. Moreover, Stalinism may have been homegrown but it was a bacillus introduced by the reactionary attacks on the soviet states by Western bourgeois democracy. We know that Mulgan read Trotsky but obviously did not agree that the left-fascist Stalinist state machine was superimposed on top of workers property rights which could be rescued by overthrowing the Stalinists.

Was Mulgan even aware of the left critiques of Stalinism? The Moscow Trials and the Dewey Commission? Mulgan says he read Trotsky (Report...p 46 ) but I can find nothing more on what, when and then what. He got copies of Tomorrow sent over from New Zealand. From about 1936 ‘Colonel Pharazyn’ was writing in the left liberal periodical Tomorrow about the Moscow Trials and taking a pro-Trotsky line. Perhaps the explanation is that Mulgan’s identification with the masses was emotional and romantic but not real. He did not recognise the masses historic significance except to write about it in idealist (in both senses) terms.

I would suggest that Mulgan was unable to pose these questions (or possibly arrive at a serious answers) because his adopted English liberalism was part of the problem not the solution. It was the English success in class compromise stretching back to the civil war that betrayed the 1917 revolution and prepared the ground for Stalinism. The General Strike of 1926 was aborted by the unholy alliance of the TUC and Stalin’s state machine. Fascism itself was the consequence of the treachery of German social democracy in the 1920s. The ‘fascist twins’ of the 1930s were the progeny of the financial mergers of the English and German ruling classes. That is why in the end, Mulgan could not see through the false ‘facts’ of fascist twinning in Greece to the historic struggle between revolution and counter-revolution.

The final test of his historic ambivalence was working with the resistance in Greece. While he had used his natural authority to protect the troops from incompetent officers in North Africa, in Greece his heroic caste of character was not enough. The historic class forces set in motion as the Greek partisans fought among themselves to fill the vacuum left by the Nazi invaders left him bereft of any social compass with which to orient himself.

Mulgan was the main character in his own Report on Experience. He was driven by forces beyond his control only because they were beyond his comprehension. Had Mulgan understood that the partisan struggle was a local expression of a global revolution in which the cast of actors were the Greek ‘Johnsons’ pitted against a counter-revolutionary band of landlords, Yalta generals and politicians, and murderous Stalinists, he might have demanded a greater historic role for himself as a leader of that revolution. But that would have meant shifting his emotional loyalty from the rudimentary mechanical solidarity of the peasant community, to that of Gramsci’s Modern Prince – the Revolutionary Party –and abandoning his hegemonic role. In the event he could not defend his admiring view of Lenin’s ‘openness and pragmatism’ from the onslaught of Stalinism. He could not transcend the limits of English humanism and break out of the contradiction he personally embodied. Like countless thousands of others trapped in an ideological system where the limits of bourgeois morality are given by an alienated subjectivity, he took the only other way out.

While O’Sullivan shares much of Mulgan’s standard frame he cannot ask the all important questions and so they remain unanswered. Interestingly, the title Long Journey to the Border echoes the path of another intellectual who could not escape the trap of alienated bourgeois subjectivity, Walter Benjamin, who killed himself within hours of crossing the border of Fascist Spain to find freedom in the USA.

O’Sullivan shares a story about Mulgan and Theodore Adorno deep in conversation on a train from Paris to London at the outbreak of war. Adorno later writes to Benjamin about the ‘Marxist’ he talked to on the train (Journey…, 172). This is an interesting comment coming from a famous Marxist, who himself wrote off the working class as the agency of revolution, to another who could not bring himself to join the Communist Party. Adorno successfully went into exile in the U.S.A. while Benjamin never escaped Europe.

It seems that Benjamin did not know that his freedom was near and killed himself in ignorance of this fact. But it is an ideologically induced ignorance rooted in the alienation of the individual who cannot find his way to class solidarity because it appears to be blocked by the Stalinist party. It is tempting to say this of Mulgan too, but that in his case his alienation left him trapped inside a historically bankrupt English humanism. Unlike Johnson who was not actually a Man Alone, and ‘who could not be killed’, Mulgan was both. He was unable to find a way back to his beloved community, or forward to the promised land, on the long journey to the border.

Report on Experience, OUP paperback, Auckland, 1984.

[This review first appeared in Brief, 33, 2006, 122-127]