I realize that over the years I have dedicated very little space to Malcolm Muggeridge. This paucity is perhaps due to sheer irresolution when faced with the depth and volume of his insights. Where to begin? For the moment I can think of nothing better than some excerpts from the first volume of his memoir, Chronicles of Wasted Time (1973).
A key motif is the author’s disillusionment with utopian idealism. It reaches its nadir during an extended stay in Russia as a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian in 1932. Commenting in retrospect
Never in human history… have there been so many actual and potential liberators as in the last half century, and so little liberation; so many and so loud shouts for freedom, and so much enslavement.
Muggeridge was finely attuned to cant. His irreverence toward public figures, left or right, whom he deemed insincere, was a hallmark of his career. He once referred to George Bernard Shaw as “that absurd vain rich old man.” Apparently the socialist playwright resented the imputation of greed: “He wanted to make a lot of money without being considered rich.”
The English journalist quickly discovered the limits of progressive tolerance. Many of his attempted criticisms of Stalinism and revelations about the horrors of the Ukrainian famine were suppressed by the leftist press and he had to seek other outlets. George Orwell faced similar experiences. As Muggeridge notes, “we often discussed how difficult it is, in an ideologically polarised society like ours, to take up any position without being automatically assumed to hold all the views and attitudes associated with it….” To be critical of the Soviet Union was to be a “fascist.”
Undoubtedly the most interesting part of any autobiographical work is not the author’s theorizing, but his experiences with people and places. Muggeridge’s observations are often caustic; yet he is not without genuine affection for individuals he considers kind or unpretentious. He offers poignant vignettes of aging radicals gathered in Russian salons for food and drink—provisions particularly valued in a system of terrible privation—nostalgically recalling their youthful pre-revolutionary existence. But it would never enter into their heads to denounce the cause that, in the end, would claim most of their lives in Stalin’s purges. People, it seems, are willing to “believe lies, not because they are plausibly presented, but because they want to believe them.”
The elimination of all misery and distress is the great utopian hope. By contrast, Muggeridge explains how the shared suffering of his wife’s near fatal illness while abroad brought them closer than any of the pleasures they had together. “Learning from experience means… learning from suffering; the only school-master.” Muggeridge also became jaded by modern society’s sensual obsessions: “Sex is the only mysticism offered by materialism…. Sex pure and undefiled; without the burden of procreation, or even, ultimately, of love or identity. “