Disappointment at learning that the ‘wrong’ Dylan, Bob, not Thomas, had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature this year was only partially mitigated by the reminder that being dead disqualifies one from winning a Nobel Prize. Dylan Thomas has been dead for 63 years and in his turbulent lifetime never courted Establishment recognition.’Llareggub’ was what he expected and that’s what he got.
Establishment recognition is a heady treat that recipients are well advised to imbibe with caution. The credibility of the British gong system and, in particular, membership of the House of Lords, is at an all-time low following misuse by successive governments to reward party donors and pack the second chamber with party hacks. Can it still be deemed “an honour” to receive such taudry awards? The Nobel Prizes for Chemistry, Literature, Physics, and Physiology/ Medicine were first awarded in 1901 and remain hugely prestigious. Less so is the Nobel Prize for Peace – awarded to Barack Obama in 2009 for no obvious achievement than that he had won the US Presidential Election eight months previously. The so-called Nobel Prize for Economics was the creation of the Swedish Central Bank in 1968 and is awarded to whichever bourgeois economist can come up with the least implausible justification for sticking with free market economics.
Notwithstanding the award to Bob Dylan, the Nobel Prize for Literature, while inevitably more contentious than awards for science, has until now retained its credibility. The award in 2005 to Harold Pinter cannot, for example, be faulted. Another worthy award, albeit one given very little coverage or endorsement in the UK media, was that to Svetlana Alexievich in 2015. She writes in Russian, which could conceivably explain this lack of interest, but a more likely explanation is that her interviews with citizens of the former Soviet Union are far too sympathetic for the tastes of our newspaper owners; and, although she does not whitewash the shortcomings in the former USSR, neither does she portray a system that was all bad. The current edition of the London Review of Books contains a detailed and largely positive review of her book Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets and may encourage sales of the book.
Another sympathetic look at the shortcomings of the USSR is Landscapes of Communism by Owen Hatherley (Penguin, 2015). This book looks at the built environment of the former socialist states and China and refrains from rubbishing them out of hand. Mr Hatherley, coincidentally, also writes for the London Review of Books. While it would be pleasant to dwell only on the successes of communism, glorying in the October Revolution, the Long March etc, it’s vital to understand what went wrong in the first attempts to build socialism. Superficial analysis that focusses on the flawed personality of the leader or conflates socialist states with totalitarianism won’t achieve this. We need honest and thoughtful analysis so that we don’t make the same mistakes next time.