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What Disraeli Can Teach Us

Benjamin Disraeli (Jewish Encounters)Benjamin Disraeli (Jewish Encounters) by Adam Kirsch

Reviewed by Geoffrey Wheatcroft
New York Review of Books

1.

In one of his best essays, Isaiah Berlin compared two astonishing contemporaries, both of them "famous, influential, exceptionally gifted." Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) and Karl Marx (1818-1883) were men of letters who hoped to become men of action, both addressed the great question of class conflict but from totally different angles, and both did so by way of identifying with classes to which they did not belong. They were both Jews.

Of the two stories, Disraeli's is plainly the more extraordinary for what he accomplished during his lifetime: Marx did not die "triumphant and full of victory," as Disraeli appeared to one who was with him at the end. Born the son of Isaac D'Israeli, a delightful man of independent means and scholarly tastes who passed his days compiling his Curiosities of Literature, Benjamin grew up in London, where his life was changed -- and history also -- almost by chance. Isaac's parents were Jewish merchants who had come to England from Leghorn. None too pious anyway, Isaac had a sharp little row with the Bevis Marks Synagogue to which he was nominally attached, refusing both to serve as an official and to pay the fine assessed for refusing to serve; in 1817 he had his children baptized into the Church of England.

Conversion may have been the entrance ticket to European civilization, in Heine's sarcastic phrase, but that wasn't Isaac's intention -- and the consequences were quite unforeseen, as Adam Kirsch relates in his fascinating and altogether original Benjamin Disraeli. The Enlightenment had admired England as the home of limited government and religious tolerance, and yet the country in which Disraeli was born was ruled by a corrupt oligarchical Parliament in which only members of the Established Church could sit. Jews were excluded on the basis of religion (as were Roman Catholics), but not of race, and several men of Jewish origin, including Sir Manesseh Lopez and the political economist David Ricardo, had sat as MPs. And although England was being transformed by explosive industrial capitalism, whose effects Marx would one day be shown by his friend Friedrich Engels in Manchester, it was still dominated politically and socially by a land-owning elite.

While Isaac sent his younger boys to Winchester, the ancient public school (itself an indication of how social barriers in England could be surmounted), Benjamin's education was rudimentary, and he never acquired the command of Latin and Greek that was then the mark of a gentleman. After dropping the apostrophe from his surname, he tried to become a lawyer and then turned to publicizing South American mines in which he had invested, writing a pamphlet that Kirsch nicely calls "a more dignified nineteenth-century equivalent of stock promotion spam." He thereby lost a great deal of money he didn't have, and then more when a newspaper he helped launch quickly sank.

At just twenty-one, he published Vivian Grey, his first novel, only to reap much indignation in the press and elsewhere when its author turned out not to be, as he had implied, a well-born young man who knew the beau monde from the inside. Disraeli left morosely to cruise the Mediterranean as far as Jerusalem, before returning home to write more novels and to stand unsuccessfully for Parliament, once, twice, and thrice before he was at last elected the member for Maidstone in 1837, having by now acquired some influential friends who helped him. If baptism had made Disraeli eligible, his financial woes had made election essential, since an MP couldn't be arrested for debt.

At first he presented himself as a Radical, or reformer opposed to the Whig oligarchy, but he then aligned himself with the Tories, and when they returned to power in 1841 he begged office from the prime minister, Sir Robert Peel. But that grave statesman was not likely to promote "a dandy, a debtor, an adulterer, an eccentric genius, and a Jew," as Kirsch puts it, not to say a man whose maiden speech in the Commons had been shouted down and who was the object of savage bigotry: for the ever-unfunny Punch he was still a "Jewboy."

Men make their history but under circumstances they inherit rather than choose, Marx said, and Disraeli illustrated those famous words shortly before they were written. The landed oligarchy had been conducting a spirited fighting retreat to preserve its privileges and power. After England emerged victorious from the Napoleonic wars, Parliament passed the protectionist Corn Laws, which guaranteed the price of grain and therefore the livelihood of landowners. A religious concession was made with Catholic emancipation in 1829, then a political concession with the 1832 Reform Bill, which very tentatively began the extension of the franchise. That left one more battle, when Richard Cobden and John Bright, tribunes of the commercial bourgeoisie, campaigned for free trade and the repeal of the Corn Laws.

In 1846 Peel was converted to repeal, but that conversion gave Disraeli his opportunity. He denounced Peel for treacherously changing his position and allied himself with the "Young England" group of romantic reactionaries, whose quaint medieval revivalism he toyed with. Since Disraeli could provide the brilliance and bitter wit they quite lacked, he now became a leader of the very "gentlemen of England" who had sneered at him not long before. And yet, although Disraeli's scornful invective helped destroy Peel, it also helped split the Tories. The Corn Laws were repealed, Disraeli dropped the subject (he never reintroduced protection when he came to power), and for the politically fluid next twenty years, alliances of Whigs and "Peelites" mostly held power, while the Tories sulked on the opposition benches.

When the Tories did form two short-lived governments, with Lord Derby as prime minister, Disraeli had established such a strong position in the Commons that Derby, despite private reservations about him, had no choice but to make him chancellor of the exchequer. As Kirsch observes, his personal finances weren't much of a recommendation, but then the same could be said of Lloyd George and Churchill, two later chancellors -- and the two prime ministers who match Disraeli as colorful buccaneers. In 1866 Derby was prime minister again, but early in 1868 he resigned. Twenty years earlier Disraeli had led the Tory squires, perplexed as they were not to be following one of their own. Now, in his own phrase, he reached the top of the greasy pole when he became prime minister of England -- and once again it was half accident and half circumstance. Disraeli remained deeply distrusted by some Tories, but they had no one better. John Bright put it very well when he said that Disraeli's ascent had been "a great triumph of intellect and courage and patience and unscrupulousness, employed in the service of a party full of prejudices and selfishness and wanting in brains."

Disraeli's first term as prime minister was short; the Tories lost the general election at the end of 1868. After William Gladstone's first government, Disraeli returned to Downing Street from 1874 to 1880 and, by shrewd diplomacy, bestrode the international stage at the Congress of Berlin in 1878, the most important "summit meeting" between the Congress of Vienna of 1814–1815 and the Great War, which redrew political boundaries in the Balkans after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878. "Der alte Jude, das ist der Mann," Bismarck said with grudging respect, while Disraeli proclaimed "peace with honour," words Neville Chamberlain unhappily repeated sixty years later. And so, in his seventy-seventh year, the grandson of obscure immigrants died Earl of Beaconsfield, Knight of the Garter, and the idol of the very people who had once reviled him.

Plenty of books on Disraeli appeared well before the official, not to say monumental, six-volume Life by W.F. Monypenny and G.E. Buckle, and many have since. In 1966, Robert Blake's classic biography boldly went where none had gone before, detailing Disraeli's early amorous adventures (his letters on the subject were still barely printable even in the swinging Sixties) and financial recklessness. Stanley Weintraub's biography had important new material, and Young Disraeli by Jane Ridley is also excellent. Now Kirsch's book joins the list, as illuminating as it is enjoyable.

But then it's hard to go wrong with his subject. The company of some great men of the past remains oppressive even now, but "Dizzy" has always been fun. That was part of his secret. Weintraub showed what Blake had neglected: the degree of venomous hatred that he incurred. The young officers in Gibraltar who derided "that damned bumptious Jew boy" were speaking for many of their class, as Lady Palmerston was nearly forty years later when she said, "We are all dreadfully disgusted at the prospect of having a Jew for our Prime Minister." Disraeli countered this rather superbly, through irony and hauteur, by constructing a persona which was also a defense, by exaggerating rather then downplaying his singularity and unlikeliness.

Even so, his triumph could never have been achieved without charm. He amused men and he attracted women. In later years he exercised this attraction platonically on two countesses, Lady Bradford and Lady Chesterfield, and of course on Queen Victoria: she who had once called him "the detest-able Mr. D'Israeli" ended by adoring him, while he made a romantic if implausible cult of "Gloriana." Earlier the charm had been used to more practical effect on well-born mistresses, to the great benefit of his career. In the early 1830s, the ravishing Henrietta Sykes introduced him to Lord Lyndhurst, her other lover, who used his considerable influence to promote Disraeli's career. Dizzy also practiced his beguiling manner on Lady Londonderry, an even more important ally in an age when the patronage of the mighty was essential for a would-be politician without rank or wealth looking for a parliamentary seat, just as he would later rely on other grand supporters to provide him with the money he needed to buy a modest country estate.

And the charm works to this day. Disraeli's novels are scarcely great literature but they are still readable, which is more than can be said for Gladstone's voluminous works on theology, or for most prime ministerial memoirs. Dizzy remains "current and quotable." Romantic fantasy in the books is enlivened by epigrammatic paradox-mongering -- "There is moderation even in excess"; "'I rather like bad wine,' said Mr. Mountchesney; 'one gets so bored with good wine'" -- of a kind that provides a link from Byron to Wilde.

His command of language had been the making of him, when the fox-hunting squireens needed his savage tongue and his bravado. Disraeli accomplished his breathtaking personal feat by playing at very long odds for very high stakes. If he was sometimes silly or insincere, he could be brave, not to say foolhardy, whether challenging Daniel O'Connell to a duel or insisting in ferocious speeches during the Corn Law debates that he had never sought any favor from Peel. On the Treasury Bench, Peel sat with Disraeli's abject letter of 1841 begging him for office in his pocket, and it is a mystery to this day why he didn't produce it and ruin his tormentor.

And so Dizzy remains a difficult hero for those who claim his inheritance. The Primrose League was founded in his memory as a Conservative national society; it was a hilarious example of invented tradition, with elaborate rituals and titles, although also with a very large membership. A famous if fatuous passage in his 1845 novel Sybil makes the discovery that there are "two nations -- THE RICH AND THE POOR": hence the "One Nation" group of Tories formed in the 1950s, and the internal opposition to Margaret Thatcher, personified by Ian Gilmour, which attacked her free-market policies in the name of Disraelian or One Nation Conservatism.

Not that those labels were entirely wrong. When Disraeli became prime minister, the Liberals, born of an uneasy marriage between Whigs and Radicals, were still wedded to commercial laissez-faire and governmental nonintervention generally. On the other side, High Tories such as Lord Salisbury were profoundly hostile to democracy. In 1867 Disraeli helped push through the Second Reform Bill, greatly widening the electorate, and Salisbury resigned from the government in outrage. As usual, Disraeli was maneuvering and calculating. He hoped to "dish the Whigs," and so he did. He had intuitively stumbled on the truth that with the mass franchise populist parties of right as well as left could flourish: it was classical bourgeois liberalism that was doomed by male suffrage.

Then Disraeli's 1874-1880 government introduced important social reforms, from housing to food safety to the famous 1875 Public Health Act, even if he made one grave miscalculation in placing trade unions outside legal regulation; he told Lady Chesterfield that this would "gain and retain for the Conservatives the lasting affection of the working classes," and it took more than a hundred years before another formidable Tory outsider challenged the power of the unions in the 1980s. Bismarck said that in England progressive parties take power to introduce reactionary measures while reactionary parties take power to introduce progressive measures, and Disraeli's "Tory democracy" followed this rule (as did Bismarck himself when he pioneered the German welfare state in order to dish the Social Democrats).

Did Disraeli stumble upon other truths? Taking the road to the East, Kirsch says, Disraeli was captivated when he set foot in the homeland of the Jews. The hero of his 1833 novel The Wondrous Tale of Alroy represents a previously undreamed-of possibility: "that a Jew could claim political power as a Jew...it was this dream -- which had not yet been named Zionism -- that drew Disraeli to the East"; and Kirsch sees the novel as "a significant proto-Zionist text." Sixty years before Theodor Herzl's The Jewish State, Kirsch writes, "Disraeli was already dreaming about a Jewish homeland in Palestine." These are ambitious claims, and we are in deep waters.

2.

That essay on Disraeli and Marx was written by a committed Zionist: if the Jews were "united by no more than a common religion, or common suffering," or were like any other group sharing common convictions, Isaiah Berlin wrote, "there would not have been enough vitality, not enough desire to live a common life, to have made colonization of Palestine, and ultimately the state of Israel, possible." Berlin knew that Zionism was as much a psychological and emotional as a political project. It meant for him above all an affirmation of Jewish pride, and a rejection of the self-effacement and self-contempt he abhorred.

Touching on the notorious ultranationalism of the outsider, Berlin writes of the

effort to escape from the weakness and humiliation of a depressed or wounded social group by identifying oneself with some other group or movement that is free from the defects of one's original condition.

He saw both Disraeli and Marx doing this, in Marx's case by identifying with the proletariat. When Disraeli associated himself with the grand Conservative politician Lord George Bentinck and Young England in leading the protectionist defense of the Corn Laws, there was plainly another form of identification -- and one which to many seemed thoroughly specious. Kirsch detects dark undertones in contemporary criticism of Disraeli. Were not the opportunism and insincerity so often attributed to him "Jewish characteristics," Kirsch asks, thus giving a respectable veneer to anti-Semitism?

But not all of Disraeli's critics were bigots. As Kirsch acknowledges, Disraeli was actually born and bred in circumstances most Englishmen at the time could only envy. Some years after his death, the Duke of Argyll -- one of the last Whigs, and a man who had made his maiden parliamentary speech against legal restrictions on Jews -- wrote that it was nonsense to speak of Disraeli as rising from nowhere by sheer genius: "The only impediments in his way were, not any want of external advantages, but his own often grotesque and unintelligible opinions." Although Disraeli persuaded Salisbury to return to his Cabinet in 1874, Salisbury's private view of Disraeli was memorably expressed by his daughter Lady Gwendolen Cecil in her great Life of her father:

He was always making use of convictions that he did not share, pursuing objects which he could not avow, manoeuvring his party into alliances which, though unobjectionable from his own standpoint, were discreditable and indefensible from theirs. It was an atmosphere of pervading falseness, which involved his party as well as himself....

The first of those sentences is not an unfair summary of Disraeli's conduct on several occasions from the 1830s to the 1860s.

There is a helpful coinage from John Freeman, a Labour MP who resigned from the Attlee government alongside Aneurin Bevan and Harold Wilson in 1951 before he became editor of the New Statesman and British ambassador to Washington. Looking back at his old comrade Wilson, who aroused very much the same kind of suspicion as Dizzy, he said, "If there were a word 'aprincipled,' as there is 'amoral,' it would describe Wilson perfectly." It wouldn't do badly for Dizzy -- and he came close to admitting as much. When he was young he was looking for a party, and fashioned his opinions to suit; when he made his name destroying Peel he was a hired hitman -- or a professional playing for the cricket team, as one Tory put it. His character Vivian Grey "has all of his creator's charm, arrogance, and vaulting ambition, without any ballast of scruple or political principle," Kirsch says; but even now not everyone would say that scruple and principle were Disraeli's salient attributes: in that very book he revealingly has the hero ask, "Think you not, that intellect is as much a purchasable article as fine parks and fair castles?"

One can admire Disraeli for his humor and sheer guts without taking him too seriously too often. Kirsch's own careful reading of his books only reminds us that they are largely no more than entertaining hokum. Disraeli was writing in an age famous for didactic fiction, by Dickens, John Henry Newman, and Mrs. Gaskell (not to mention Felicia Skene's novel of 1849 with one of the great titles, The Inheritance of Evil; or, The Consequence of Marrying a Deceased Wife's Sister), and by those standards, Dizzy can seem a frivolous mountebank. Even his splendid creations Tadpole and Taper, the time-serving placemen in Coningsby for whom politics means quarterly incomes and principle means nothing at all, have an air of self-knowledge.

When was Dizzy really in earnest? He devised a version of his own family history -- noble Hebrews who had once found refuge under "the lion of St. Mark" -- which Cecil Roth many years ago demolished as complete invention. He proposed a version of English history -- the Crown "taken prisoner" by an oligarchy of Whig nobles at the time of the Glorious Revolution -- which is more claptrap. Might not his version of "the Jews and Jewishness" also have drawn on fantasy? He addressed the subject in his novels, and also in a lengthy and bizarre excursus about the Jews in his life of George Bentinck, including an ingenious and curious defense to the age-old charge of "Christ-killers": "If the Jews had not prevailed upon the Romans to crucify our Lord, what would have become of the Atonement?"

Some of his other musings are not much better than that. His insistence that "race is all; there is no other truth" could sound painfully like Count Gobineau and other contemporary exponents of racist and anti-Semitic doctrine. In three novels his character Sidonia is the mysterious Jewish mastermind at the center of a web of international intrigue. On one view this is no more than a mix of malarkey and wish-fulfillment, but with a few twists it could be turned into an anti-Semitic tract, "The Protocols of the Elders of Sidonia."

Not all of what Dizzy says is silly or sinister, and he isn't a bad tutelary hero for the neocons. His assertion that the Jews "are a living and most striking evidence of the falsity of that pernicious doctrine of modern times, the natural equality of man" may be a little strong for public use, but to say that "the persecution of the Jewish race" had deprived society "of an important conservative element and added to the destructive party an influential ally" is, while obviously overbroad, a genuine insight still relevant today.

Where Berlin quite rightly thought it anachronistic to call Disraeli a Zionist, Kirsch suggests that he belongs to the "prehistory of Zionism." Even then, looking harder, perhaps what Disraeli and Herzl have in common is that they were both luftmenschen. Dizzy invented a good deal, but when Herzl put forward the idea of political Zionism and a Jewish state it was also a fine example of invented ideology, which had no distinct roots in Jewish tradition and was ardently opposed by Orthodox Jews. No doubt Disraeli daydreamed about the Jews as he did about much else, but so did others who are trickier for Zionists to assimilate. Lord Shaftesbury, the Tory philanthropist, was a true proto-Zionist: he wrote to Palmerston in 1840 about the "revival of zeal on behalf of God's chosen people," who would soon "return to their inheritance in the Land of Promise."

And yet Shaftesbury was a fervent evangelical Christian, from a line which has passed down to the many Americans who today believe that Israel's true purpose is to impel the Second Coming. They include someone like Sarah Palin's Alaskan pastor Ed Kalnins, for whom conflict in the Middle East is a prelude to Armageddon, the conversion -- or alternatively annihilation -- of the Jews, and the End Times:

Scripture specifically mentions oil instability as a sign of the Rapture.... The contractions of the fulfilment of prophecies are getting tighter and tighter.

Not only has there never been any straightforward equation between Zionism and philo-Semitism, sometimes the opposite has been true: as Kirsch ruefully notes, Shaftesbury's fondness for God's chosen people did not extend to his own country, where he opposed Jewish emancipation. Nor was there, incidentally, an equation between being Jewish and hostility toward Islam and the Ottoman Empire. Kirsch seems surprised by Disraeli's Turkish sympathies, but the Anglo-Jewish community was then strongly Turkophile, partly on the reckoning that even the sultan was better than the tsar. That helps explain the controversy of 1876, when Gladstone denounced the "Bulgarian horrors" in a famous pamphlet and advocated what would now be called humanitarian intervention against Turkey. But Disraeli refused to intervene, as well as characteristically saying in private that Gladstone's pamphlet was "of all the Bulgarian horrors, the greatest."

Whatever else Dizzy's "Jewish Orientalism" may have been, it was not the same thing as a yearning to lead the Jewish people. At the time, the thrones of newer and smaller countries were being offered promiscuously to sundry candidates. When Lord Stanley, son of the prime minister under whom Disraeli served, was asked to become king of Greece, he said in genuine perplexity, "Don't they know I am to be Earl of Derby?" Mightn't Dizzy have thought it was better to be Earl of Beaconsfield than "king of the Jews"? He may not have ruled a Jewish state, but he had in a literal sense "claimed power as a Jew," by becoming the leader of the greatest power on earth without disguising his origins.

It was his father, Isaac D'Israeli, who had said in his 1833 book The Genius of Judaism that the Jews should be emancipated and their children brought up as "the youth of Europe, and not of Palestine," and his son would have agreed. After all, Disraeli's career was a tribute to his country as well as to himself. Kirsch says that there has been no Jewish prime minister since Disraeli, but that still makes him one more than in some other countries. Barry Goldwater used to say that he didn't think the Americans were ready for a president with a Jewish name, and he could have been right.

What Disraeli did instinctively perceive was something that eluded the greater mind of Marx. Everyone now acknowledges that Marx underestimated the appeal of nationalism. He was never more wrong than when he claimed that the proletariat has no fatherland; as Fritz Stern has said, too often that's all the poor do have. But there was more to it. As it happens, Kirsch has written recently in these pages about Karl Kraus.

In 1898 Kraus published Eine Krone für Zion, an attack on Herzl and his project written with more than Disraelian ferocity by an assimilated Jew who, like many at the time, regarded Zionism with horror. He predicted wrongly that the Jews would not return to their Promised Land, since "another Red Sea, Social Democracy, will bar their way."

But not long after that Kraus saw a deeper truth which Disraeli had also glimpsed. The occasion was the 1900 Vienna municipal elections, when the masses should have been following their objective interests -- "should" in the Marxian subjunctive sense -- and voting for their class party, the Social Democrats. Many of them were not doing so, however, but were supporting parties based on creed rather than class, Georg Ritter von Schönerer's Pan-German Nationalists and Karl Lueger's Christian Socials (whose shared plank, needless to say, was anti-Semitism). This perplexed the "adherents of the Marxist creed," Kraus wrote, "which sees any victory of ideological factors over economic interest as anomalous." And yet those Marxists "might learn from looking around European politics that such exceptions are practically the rule."

There in a flash you can see the story of the next hundred years and an answer to those who to this day cannot understand why men will kill and be killed in the name of faith, to those innocent Americans baffled by what's the matter with Kansas or who claim that all conflicts will end because the "world is flat" or who merely share the persistent belief that rational interests will triumph. But it was not reason that inspired the Crusades or the Jesuits, Disraeli wrote in Coningsby, and it was not reason that created the French Revolution. "Man is only truly great when he acts from passions; never irresistible but when he appeals to the imagination." For that matter, was it not passion and imagination at least as much as reason that created a Jewish state? Maybe Dizzy still has something to teach.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft's books include The Controversy of Zion, which won a National Jewish Book Award in 1996, The Strange Death of Tory England, and Yo, Blair!

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Benjamin Disraeli (Jewish Encounters) Used Hardcover $5.50



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