The Age of Extremes, Camp Alton, and the Mopish, Flapjaw Writers at RALPH
Responses to Eric Habsbawm,
Memories of Camp Alton, and
Some Thoughts on the Many Flapjaw Writers at RALPH



I know Eric Hobsbawm's work well, having read The Age of Anxiety and snippets of his other writing. I share your enthusiasm for him, but with certain qualifications. In a way, Hobsbawm is exactly my kind of historian, because he writes so well, and also because I share his fascination with the huge melodrama of the Soviet Union. However, he still views Communism as a tragic hero, and I think this is deeply, perniciously misleading. It misses a crucial principle.

Hobs was for many years a major intellectual ornament of the British CP. He finally bailed out, but very very late: perhaps after the invasion of Czechoslovakia, or I think even later. He is one of those people who refused to see that the Bolshevik seizure of power was a disaster almost from the start, rather than a tragedy.

Bertrand Russell saw it right away, after a visit to the Soviet Union in 1920, and said so then, without mincing words ("The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism", 1920). As he put it some years later:

    The dangers of irresponsible power came to be generally recognized during the 18th and 19th centuries, but those who have been dazzled by the outward success of the Soviet Union have forgotten all that was painfully learnt during the days of absolute monarchy, and have gone back to what was worst in the Middle Ages under the curious delusion that they were in the vanguard of progress.

Hobsbawm spent many years in the category of those True Believers who knew the truth but kept mum. Some of this is still evident in the elegiac tone (more than the content) of his discussion of the Soviet Union. But the facts, after all, are these: after 80 years, and tens of millions of victims, the Russians are right where they could have been in 1917. And while the Communist state was mowing down its victims, Hobsbawm & Co. were keeping mum in order, they claimed, to safeguard the future development of a better form of Socialism there. (I am very well acquainted with intelligent, well-intentioned Soviet apologists of this kind; the appeal to the future was their invariable response to mere, disagreeable facts in 1920, or 1930, or 1937, or 1956, or etc. etc. etc. )

Well, the future has arrived. All the terror, the concentration camps and mass deportations, and all the lies, and all the keeping mum on the Left, were in aid of what actually exists now: the shambles of the former Soviet Union with its present brigand capitalist structures. (Even the "outward success" that Lord Russell referred to many years ago was mostly fake propaganda, plus a bit of heavy industrial development, rather less than was accomplished by imperial Japan). What the philosopher understood, and Hobsbawm did not, is that the present is always in the process of creating the future. The dishonesty and the subordination of everything to considerations of power that characterized the actual behaviour (as opposed to the blather) of Lenin & Co. is precisely what created their future.

I have grown more sensitive to these issues myself because of Yugoslavia. I used to belong to that narrow part of the spectrum called the "anti-Stalinist Left." We did not mince words about the Soviet Union but some of us felt at least a little nagging sentimentality about one or another Communist experiment somewhere else. Some favored Cuba. Some favored Yugolavia --- at least back in Tito's time. Even those of us who were critical of the police state in, say, Yugoslavia, tended to give it the benefit of certain doubts. Well, that case didn't turn out too happily either, did it?

It all follows from the same basic principle. The disintegration of Yugoslavia into communal massacre was engineered by figures poured right in the Tito version of the Soviet mold. Slobo Milosovic is a career apparatchik of the Serbian League of Communists, and operates through a network of similar apparatchiks. Franjo Tudjman in Croatia is a veteran Communist military commander, a former general in the Yugoslav National Army. Power is all they think about ---just as the Bolsheviks eliminated the constitutent assembly in 1918, and subordinated the Soviets and every autonomous organization to Bolsehvik Party rule, in order to keep power. Correspondingly, Milosovic and Tudjman have deliberately stoked up a new nazism in their two territories in order to keep power. If Power is the primary value, then there is nothing one will shrink from in its interest.

Hobsbawm even seems on the verge of understanding about Power --- as when he notes that "all the Bolsheviks achieved was power" --- but then the larger implications elude him. He ought to spend some time with Quakers.

--- Dr. Phage

Go to readings from
The Age of Extremes


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Dear Ralph,

I read with interest your article "Beautiful Summer at Camp Alton." I have often heard my Father, Norm Lumian, reminisce fondly of the Camp.

I have printed out a copy and mailed it to my Dad (no, he's not on the Internet).

Before retiring, Dad lived and taught in Orange County, California --- which, I gather, is not far from you. As a recovered polio victim, he took to running to regain his strength and has never quit. He has run dozens of marathons.

Despite a Harvard Masters degree, when Dad first came to teach in California, he was required to coach a sport. He chose cross country and track and field. He had many winning teams but quit shortly after gaining tenure, believing that the growing competition in college sports were distracting from education. Ironically, a few years later the AAU stripped him of his amateur status, because as a coach he'd received payment!

Dad now is retired and lives in Eugene, Oregon. He favorably compares the weather, people and the pace to New Hampshire where he went to undergraduate school. He loves it there.

Unfortunately Dad suffers from post-polio syndrome. Its a debilitating disease. He now participates (he can't enter -- he's not an amateur!) in the wheel chair section!

I guess that you just can't keep a good Camp Alton-er down!

--- Dave Lumian

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Dear Dave,

What a wonderful world it is, and how marvelous that the internet helps us to remain connected in it. I'm glad you read my reminiscences of Camp Alton. Here is the amazing part.

As a polio "victim" (I hate the word victim and the helplessness that it implies), I was assigned an individual tutor to teach me to swim. The first tutor I had was a catastrophe --- he held my head underwater when I wouldn't put it in voluntarily, creating a lifelong inability to open my eyes under water.

Then I got...Norm Lumian.

He is one of my fondest memories of Camp Alton. He taught me to swim and to love the water. I remember him as dark-skinned, good looking, patient, and kind. When we both thought I was ready for my "dock swim" a quarter-mile swim in deep water which was a prerequisite to being permitted to go out in a rowboat, Norm was the counselor who rowed the boat to accompany me.

When we reached the quarter-mile point, I was exhausted and prepared to climb into the rowboat with Norm. But he said, "Nothing doing. If you got this far, you can turn around and swim back, and then you will have passed your "canoe" (a half-mile swim entitling one to go out in a canoe).

When I protested that I couldn't swim another stroke, Norm said, "Well, you'll have to catch me to get in the boat," and he proceeded to row back to the starting point. Of course, I followed, having no choice but drowning. I remember bursting into my bunk an hour later, beaming with pride: "I passed my canoe!"

I also remember "Lumdum," as he was affectionately called, participating in Camp Alton Wrestling, a parody of TV wrestling during which the counselors, dressed in various disguises as heroes or villains, wrestled each other on mattresses in a show for the entire camp. I forget what his wrestling name was, but all of the campers, myself included, believed that these were menacing or brave larger-than-life characters, and all of us were able to temporarily suspend the knowledge that these were merely our 18-year old counselors.

I had no idea that Norm had polio. What year did he get it? I am sorry to hear that your father has post-polio syndrome. Sometimes, when I ride my bike up a hill (I'm 59 now), and my legs feel like they will never make it, I fear that I, too, am getting post-polio syndrome. Sometimes I get up the hill by remembering how Norm Lumian helped me to pass my "canoe" when I felt I couldn't swim another stroke.

Please send him my best regards.

--- Michael Ingall
(Alton '49-'53)

Go to
Beautiful Summer at Camp Alton

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Dear Mr. Doister,

This issue's reviewers, Lark and Allsworthy, both use "flapjaw" in their pieces. Allsworthy speaks of "flapjaw mopery."

They should reread their Strunk and White. Or is it White and Strunk? 


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Dear HG1932:

Thank you for your concerned letter.

Please be advised that all our writers work closely together, all under the same roof as it were. They often report that they are so closely intertwined in thoughts and writings (and yes, even their feelings) --- that they sometimes believe they are but one person.

One of the books that has come to us this week is an old edition of the venerable American Slang, Robert L. Chapman, Editor.

We, the staff at RALPH, have spent a merry week browsing this compilation, and discovering words or phrases that we find most appealing.

For instance, Carlos Amantea tells us that he was smitten by the definition of a common cheapskate as a bogpocket. He also found amusement in the timeless old phrase for intercourse, the bush patrol. A. W. MacColl was delighted to see that nougat means "a fool," and that a traditional phrase for Jesus in the Hobo Jungles of the 30s was Jerusalem Slim.

I myself have fallen in love with the old phrase for "virgin" --- canned goods, and, too, with the turn-of-the-century appellation for detective, namely, shoe-fly. That both Lark and Allsworthy (the latter better known as A. W. Allworthy) found flapjaw funny and appropriate is neither strange nor unusual. I believe we don't need to call up the Grammar Police (it's Strunk and White, by-the-bye, not the other way around) --- just because they both happened to find something risible.

For indeed, friend, we would ourselves be a couple of mopish flapjaws if we faulted the two of them for their union of wit --- much less their intellectual intimacy, right?

--- R. R. Doister

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