Sir Alfred Sherman, R.I.P.  My dear friend and long-time associate Sir Alfred Sherman, who died in London on August 26, started his long political life as a Stalinist and ended it as one of the few “paleo” thinkers in today’s Britain.  He will be remembered as the man who first invented “Thatcherism” and then explained it to Margaret Thatcher in the 1970’s.  To those who knew him, however, Sir Alfred will always be the brilliant polymath and consummate homo politicus who did not suffer fools gladly and who never minced his words.  In the early 1980’s, he gave an interview to a Russian journalist in which he was quoted as saying, “As for the lumpen, coloured people and the Irish, let’s face it, the only way to hold them in check is to have enough well armed and properly trained police.”  To his shocked critics, Sherman dryly replied that the quotation missed the word “proletariat” after “lumpen” and denied using the phrase “well armed.”

Born in 1919 to immigrants from Russia, he joined the Young Communist League in his first year at Chelsea Polytechnic; as he later explained, “to be a Jew in 1930s Britain was to be alienated.  The world proletariat offered us a home.”  Within months, he was a machine gunner with the Major Attlee battalion of the International Brigades in Spain; he then fought at Ebro in 1938 and spent several months as Franco’s prisoner at San Pedro de Cardenas before being repatriated to Britain.

During World War II, Sherman served with the British Army as a field security officer in the Middle East, became fluent in Hebrew and Arabic, and embarked on a lifelong study of Islam.  After the war, he continued his studies at the London School of Economics and became president of the Communist Party student cell.

In that capacity, he visited Yugoslavia, at that time one of Moscow’s staunchest allies, and, upon his return, prepared a favorable report.  As he was about to deliver it to his comrades in the summer of 1948, news came of Stalin’s break with Tito.  The Party asked Sherman to rewrite his report accordingly.  He refused and was duly expelled for “Titoist deviationism.”  Sherman promptly left for Belgrade and offered his services to Tito’s authorities in their dispute with Moscow.  He assumed his talents as an intellectual would be of value, but, to his surprise, he was sent to a “Voluntary Youth Brigade” to build a railway in Bosnia.

In the early 1950’s, Sherman—by that time, an ex-communist but still a man of the left—returned to Belgrade as a correspondent for the Observer.  Unlike most of his Western colleagues (then and now), he was fluent in Serbo-Croatian (as it was at that time) and possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of the history, culture, and politics of the South Slavs.  He developed a lifelong affinity for the Serbs, comparable in depth and passion to that of Dame Rebecca West.  That affinity was rekindled in the 1990’s, when Sherman became a leading critic of Western policy in the Balkans.

After a few years in Israel, during which he advised the government on economic affairs, Sherman returned to London.  Thoroughly disillusioned with socialism in all its forms, he joined the staff of the Daily Telegraph in 1965, rising to become the Tory flagship’s lead writer (1977-86).  In 1974, he cofounded, with the late Sir Keith Joseph, the conservative Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), becoming its first director.  (He was ousted from the CPS in 1984 after he fell out of favor with the Tory leadership.)  The CPS served as Margaret Thatcher’s launching pad, gradually transforming her from the untried party leader of 1974 into a prime-minister-in-waiting.  More than any other man, Sherman provided her with the strategy for capturing the leadership of the party and winning the historic general election of 1979.

Sherman’s star shone briefly after Mrs. Thatcher became prime minister.  In her memoirs, she pays tribute to his “brilliance,” the “force and clarity of his mind,” his “breadth of reading and his skills as a ruthless polemicist.”  She credits him with a central role in her achievements, both as leader of the opposition and after she became prime minister.  As the Telegraph’s obituarist has noted, Sherman’s mastery of Marxist dialectic made him a formidable logician: “[A]t his best he could be witty, educated and shrewd on economic matters, but he could also be breathtakingly naive, never losing the instinctive fanaticism” of an old Party man.  This “instinctive fanaticism”—or, more accurately, his unwillingness to make compromises with the establishmentarian consensus—never made him clubbable in the world of British politics.

By 1982, the latent strains in his relationship with Mrs. Thatcher became fully apparent.  She complained that he was dismissive of the obstacles she was encountering in dismantling the legacy of decades of socialism, while he berated her for betraying the promise of her early years.  (In the 90’s, Sherman mused that “Lady Thatcher is great theatre as long as someone else is writing her lines.”)  After his exclusion from her inner circle, she continued to regard him with “exasperated affection” and rewarded him with a knighthood in 1983.  In July 2005, they were reunited at a reception marking the publication of Sherman’s last book—which bore a revealing title: Paradoxes of Power: Reflections on the Thatcher Interlude.

In the last decade and a half of his life, Sherman was tireless in exposing the stupidity and malevolence of Western policy in the Balkans.  His view that such policy has come as a result of Western crisis, not of Balkan tragedies, stemmed directly from his key insight that Washington’s drive for hegemony is based on a new cultural paradigm, materialistic and antitraditional.  This megalomania is a form of madness, he argued in an editorial on three years before the Iraq invasion: “The power and prestige of America is in the hands of people who will not resist the temptation to invent new missions, lay down new embargoes, throw new bombs, and fabricate new courts.  This is the opportunity they sense, and we must ask what ambitions they will declare next . . . Instead of rediscovering the virtues of traditionally defined, enlightened self-interest in the aftermath of its hands down cold war victory, America’s foreign policy elites are more intoxicated than ever by their own concoction of benevolent global hegemony and indispensable power.”

The project is coming to grief, as Sherman knew it would, but, since his advice often took the form of a recommendation to prefer pain today to disaster tomorrow, he found few patrons or disciples.  As Michael Stenton has noted, wilting patrons found the message too clear, and possible disciples were skeptical of the typical Sherman claim that the wickedness of the world does not much change.

May he rest in peace.