The great ideologies dispossessed my father. It was democracy that let him live and die in safety and contentment, by Daniel Finkelstein
A little more than a week ago my father lifted his arms and did something that he had done countless times before, blessed his children as he ushered in the Sabbath. But he was doing it for the last time. When he had finished, his hands fell to his side. He died the next day, with the blessing as his final act.
He had known for several weeks that his illness was terminal, and each day he grew more tired. But through it all his mind remained as sharp as ever, which is to say very sharp. And so each night in those precious days before his death, I sat by his bedside and we talked, sometimes about his extraordinary life, sometimes about a task that still needed doing (updating, for instance, some references in the book he had been writing about Polish Jewry) and sometimes about the future of capitalism.
I didn’t find these odd topics, even though he was so ill. My father cited “conversation” as his chief hobby, along with “not gardening”, and took both seriously. Yet with him, the small talk was never small.
Throughout my life we would discuss philosophy and argue about politics over breakfast. At dinner we might talk about problems of physics and maths, with a long discussion about how many cans of drink might be fitted into a fridge of a given volume. Both my parents, I recall from one Friday night meal, felt very strongly that it is insufficiently appreciated that a centimetre is not a proper SI measurement. The day after a debate on some ethical question I would often get a call, my father having sought clarification from a scriptural source or from one of his many reference books.
And all of this seemed so natural that it is only in writing it down now that it occurs to me it might seem a little eccentric to others. Oh, well.
Anyway, all this is to say that considering the future of capitalism counted as light chit-chat. Our latest discussions began because I had been reading some articles by journalists and commentators whom I respected, which argued that the Left had been correct about capitalism all along. Capitalism, they said, had proved to be a conspiracy of the elite against the masses. Karl Marx’s prediction that it was inherently unstable had been right.
I wanted to know what my Dad thought because, as far as I could see, this argument contradicted the experience of his life.
In response he began, as he often did, by telling me a story. It was one that I knew — the one about the cocoa and the bones — but one that I wanted to hear again, just one more time. In 1941, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, my grandfather had been released from the Starobelsk prison camp, where he had been serving a sentence of eight years’ hard labour for having been, the communists judged, a “socially dangerous element”.
Leaving Starobelsk, my grandfather had joined the Polish Army Corps, had traced his family to the remote Siberian outpost where they had been exiled, and had managed to send them a little money.
After almost two years of starvation, my father and his mother rejoiced that they had some cash, and, their deportation order having been lifted, the right to spend it. My grandmother decided to go to the finest restaurant in the whole of Semipalatinsk.
In they went, a waiter took my grandmother’s coat and they sat down, each with a large and fancy-looking menu card. Yet as they requested items, they were told that unfortunately, today, this or that was off the menu. Eventually my grandmother was forced to ask: “Well, what do you have?” Just bones and cocoa, came the reply.
My father never had much time for complaints that “consumerism” was undermining the moral fabric of society. He thought it odd that people would regard it as a bad thing to produce items to buy and sell and to make a profit from them. He also thought that a gloomy view of Britain, and Britons totally lacked perspective. The idea that ordinary people did not benefit from capitalism seemed to him too obviously absurd to require refutation.
However, the main benefit of capitalism was not, to him, money. Beyond the ability to purchase books and the occasional Indian takeaway, he was not motivated by accumulating wealth. He left an inexpensive Casio watch which, as a measurement scientist, he liked because it told the time accurately. What he really appreciated about liberal capitalist democracy is that it left him in peace. In peace and freedom.
A fellow detainee in my grandfather’s prison had tried to persuade him not to leave when he was released. They could stay safely in the camp, he said, and drink the meths in the hospital. On behalf of his family, my grandfather chose freedom instead. And though it brought many trials and years without land to call home, my father never doubted its virtue.
The great sweeping ideologies had been a failure. They had driven him from his home and from his life, killed his relatives, dispossessed his family. My Dad took a rather dim view of those extolling Marx’s powers of analysis, which he found, to say the least, wanting. He supported capitalism for the small things that it brought — the suburbs, the rule of law, Brent Cross Shopping Centre. He was safe here. His family was safe here. The vast majority of British people are safe here.
In those last days, we discussed, too, how his life showed that it was, in any case, silly to think of Britain as some sort of free-market anarchy. My father had been on national assistance when he first came here, had spent years in the coal mines working for a nationalised industry and had then spent the bulk of his career as a university professor.
Unlike those of us born here, my father became British on purpose, as a conscious act, one that he had thought about deeply. He never thought Britain’s leaders corrupt, or that the country was going to the dogs, or that our society was collapsing, undermined by its moral decay. He lived here proud of a nation that let him live, let him learn, let him teach, let him practise his religion. And ultimately let him die in bed, loved by his family.
This article was published in The Times on 7 September, 2011