Paul Anderson, review of Political Crumbs by Hans Magnus Enzensberger (Verso, £9.95), Tribune, 19 October 1990

Hans Magnus Enzensberger, the German poet, playwright and essayist, has enjoyed a cult repu­tation among the British libertarian left since the sixties, but in the past couple of years there has been a surge of interest in his work. Last year Radius, Hutchinson’s radical imprint, published Europe, Europe, Enzensberger’s extraordinary book of impressions of the continent, having already republished Dreamers of the Absolute, a collection of his sixties writings, in 1988. Now Verso brings us a volume of essays from the late seventies and early eighties.
The book is stuffed with gems. Enzensberger’s intellectual range is breathtaking, and he is an inveterate controversialist, with an unerring eye for cant and absurdity. He also writes with unusual pre­cision and clarity, and his translator, Martin Chalm­ers, has rendered his work into English of a fluency rare in translations of political writing.
There are two essays in particular that stand out for their sharpness and continuing relevance. “Reluctant Eurocentrism: A Political Picture Puzzle” starts off as a ruminative piece on the history of anthropology and turns into a devastating critique of the “Third World-ism” still commonplace among Left intellectuals in Europe and North America. This attitude, Enzensberger rightly believes, has its roots in a yearning for the exotic. It takes no account of the aspirations of people in the so-called Third World (who desperately want to consume like us); and, through being adopted by European-educated Third World political leaders, has been the ideological underpinning for the Third World’s most disastrous authoritarian political experiments. “It is time to take leave of such dreams,” Enzensberger concludes. “It was always an illusion that liberation could be delegated to faraway others; today this self-deception has become a threadbare evasion. An exotic alterna­tive to industrial civilisation no longer exists. We are encircled and beseiged by our own imitations.” Quite so, and it’s doubly refreshing to hear this sentiment coming from the left.
“The Highest Stage of Underdevelopment: A Hypothesis About Really Existing Socialism” manages in 17 pages to say more about the reality of life in the countries of the “socialist bloc” than many book-length studies. The title is an accurate evocation of its contents. Enzensberger presents us with a series of vignettes of bureaucratic sclerosis, material short­ages, official mendacity and popular apathy, and asks whether he is describing conditions in a “socialist” country or the Third World. Of course, it is impossible to say, which leads Enzensberger into a telling ac­count of the ways that Leninist party-states have engendered economic and social collapse.
The theme running through this piece, as through the rest of the book, is the necessarily self-defeating nature of attempts to control society bureaucratically. Despite the pretentious of technocrats, politicians and intellectuals everywhere, it is the creativity of ordi­nary people that keeps the world going round. A simple argument, perhaps, but it is one that is not heard often enough these days, and Enzensberger advances it with exemplary wit, sophistication and force. This is an outstanding book, the most stimulat­ing political read I have had in ages.
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