Book Review from the August 1936 issue of the Socialist Standard
"I Am A Heretic," by "Vanoc II." (Peter Davies, 6/-.)
"Vanoc II' might easily be regarded among his contemporaries as the Iconoclast of Fleet Street, so ruthlessly has he written of all traditional bourgeois thought and custom. "I am a Heretic” comprises some of the many contributions which Vanoc made to the Sunday Referee, and those who read them at the time of their publication in that journal will, we think, readily read them again in their more permanent form. Vanoc wields a powerful pen and knows how to “get there” with a pungent broadside, and is ever-ready to “spike the enemy's guns” by the mere turn of the phrase.
It takes an able writer or debater who will first allow his opponents their points in controversy and then proceed to reveal that they possess nothing worth having. This Vanoc does to a nicety. When writing “ In Praise of Courage ” as this is expressed in military terms, he says:
“The men who fought and died on all sides and in all causes during the years 1914-1918 were brave. The front officers and men of all armies displayed bravery. This fact is not open to doubt. Nor is there any reason to suppose that bravery of the same kind will be lacking in a new war. . . .”
“If history teaches us anything,” says Vanoc, “it is that military courage is one of the commonest attributes of men. In war, the enemy is just as brave as the friend; every soldier is aware of that fact. There were, it is true, cowardly Germans; but there were also cowardly British. But there was enough courage on both sides to ensure a record slaughter.”
Vanoc then contraposes this aspect of courage and calls attention to its purpose. “If history has shown the mass of men at all periods to be the possessors of military bravery, it also proves that they have been woefully deficient in civil courage. There have been millions of military heroes for one civil hero.”
The underlying reason for this, Vanoc understands well enough.
* * * *
In a chapter on “An English Reformer,” Vanoc cites the case of William Wilberforce as an example of religious hypocrisy, consciously determined or otherwise, which raves against the effects of class exploitation, but persists in bolstering up the system of class rule.
“Wilberforce,” says Vanoc, “brought every argument that sentiment could sharpen and eloquence ennoble against slavery; but all his arguments were not so much a condemnation of slavery as a refutation of his own Christian ethic. When, for instance, he appealed for mercy for negro slaves,, he vindicated the fundamental social principle of Christianity—namely, the principle of inequality. For mercy between equals is an insult.”
“Even at the time when Wilberforce was denouncing the treatment of enslaved negroes, tens of thousands of his own countrymen were living in conditions that swine would have spurned." Here Vanoc strikes a note well worth understanding, when he says, that “sentimentalists who strike heroic attitudes are seldom capable of co-relating phenomena.” Possibly this may, to some extent, explain why Wilberforce “chaffered with his own conscience to the extent of acquiescing in the infamous Act of Parliament which brazenly acknowledged the right of slave traders to carry on business, provided that cargoes of slaves were limited by the tonnage of ships.”
* * * *
In Karl Marx Vanoc sees one of the best-hated figures in history, and he asks: “Why do they hate this man who has been dead for fifty years? His very beard inspires invective, and bright defenders of capitalism have even probed into his digestive processes in order to discover the origin of the class war.” And why not? Marx himself experienced his enemies' hatred, and in some measure thoroughly enjoyed it.
The men who see the way the game of human exploitation is played and who, in addition, expose the rules of the game, must inevitably arouse the ire of those who live by the sweat of the other fellow's brow. Perhaps the subtle wisdom of Oscar Wilde’s words has a special significance here, namely, that it is not the choice of one's friends that matter so much, it is the choice of one's enemies that is important. In the sense of laying bare the foundations upon which capitalism and all class societies rest, Marx chose his enemies well.
“The driving forces behind Marx's pen,” says Vanoc, “were vision and logic—the rarest of all human qualities, the sign-manuals of creative greatness. Marx shares with the great poets the power to see, with the great scientists the ability to analyse and compare, and with the great musicians the courage to orchestrate his ideas to a passionately human theme.”
Here we may say that this is no mere idealistic hero-worship. Vanoc will readily concede that specific material conditions must form the basis of all social theory, but—and a big “but” it is— Marx saw what millions of others merely felt. and Marx let them know it.
* * * *
On the subject of the so-called crisis in the world of science, Vanoc is just as comfortably at home with the bourgeois scientists and their mysticism as he is in other fields of thought. “It is true,” he says, “that natural occurrences and our perceptions of them are two quite different things, just as the movements of mercury in a thermometer are something quite different from the heat phenomenon which calls them forth. But, as we have seen, this does not do away with the fact that causal connections exist between the two series of occurrences, and through this our sense-perceptions become good instruments for exploring the true nature of the world.” This is from a discourse on “The Dance of the Atoms,” which is exceedingly well done.
It may seem a far cry from all this to the institution of Christmas, but Socialists will appreciate the fact of ideological forces being conditioned by deeply-laid economic facts. Vanoc has a dialogue with Father Christmas, and the venerable old patriarch of Christian tradition is disrobed, dewhiskered and debunked. Old Man Christmas descends from the chimney into Vanoc's study on Christmas Eve. After a slight altercation, Vanoc offers the other a drink, which is readily accepted, but “without a splash.” “Good luck!” says Father Christmas.
Vanoc II: “Good luck! I suppose I can wish a fraud good luck without doing more damage?”
Father Christmas: “Why, of course you can. And you've no need to rub it in about being frauds. What am I among so many? As a business man—”
Vanoc II: “I've always admired you as such. As a business man you're the slickest thing in the calendar. The hot-cross-bun racket is good, but—”
Father Christmas: “No, no! It's too serious. There's not enough in it. Apart from selling the 'Bread of Life' itself, I think I can pride myself on being the most successful merchant of the mysteries. I can give you exact statistics—”
Vanoc II: “ Don't! They depress me.”
Father Christmas: “There you go again! Always the Puritan!”
Vanoc II: “Not at all. I was thinking ”
Father Christmas: “No need to think about me and my works. We're just child's play. If it happens, incidentally, to be good business, I say, ‘Thank God !' ”
Vanoc II: “No doubt. But again you're putting the cart before the horse. For it isn't child's play that happens to be good business, but good business that happens to be child's play.”
And so on is old Daddy Christmas exposed as a mere retailer of commodities, the cash nexus being the underlying reality by which the passage down, the chimney is facilitated. This is why Vanoc compels Christmas to admit that he visits some households more than others, and some not at all.
We have no hesitation in recommending Vanoc's book, even though he sometimes skates on the thin ice of “Bolshevism,” as he went chasing after the blood of Mussolini and Hitler.
Vanoc not only says good things, but says them with telling effect. In this sense, may we say “more power to his elbow”?