Lindsay Anderson’s If’is a surreal fantasy, but there really was a revolt at the school I attended. It failed of course, and the ringleaders, much older than I, were expelled. Years later I met one of them when he was editing an anarchist newspaper. One of his accomplices had joined a revolutionary faction. I explored that possibility. It happened that a leading theoretician taught at my local university. So at sixteen I received my first lesson in revolutionary theory.
I mentioned Trotsky, but was told that the New Left was not to be dismissed as Trotskyist. There were those who despised all the Bolsheviks as charlatans, not Socialists at all but ‘state capitalists’.
I was given a pamphlet: A Critique of Bureaucratic Collectivism. What dismayed me more than the obscurantist pedantry was the dependence on theoretical correctness rather than the common sense of history. They were doctrinal purists in a world of pragmatic necessity. Ideals were not tempered by experience. That struck me as a chilling prospect, and I attended no more of that faction’s meetings.
But I did learn something. I learned not to accuse all the far left of being adherents of Trotsky. Stalin’s most enduring victory, it seems to me, is his success in vilifying his most civilized and humane opponent.
The failure of Stalinism was, surely to everyone, a given. The Soviet Union, despite its early promise, was self-evidently obsolete.
After Stalin there came the Thaw, but the damage was done and could not be undone. As for those who had placed their faith in Mao, well, they were fooling themselves. Pablo Neruda simply could not bear the Cultural Revolution. It was, he said, too similar to the Stalin years, a time he thought had passed.
Left Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder was a pamphlet that really did interest me. Lenin wrote clearly, sensibly and intelligently. His early death was an incalculable loss. But there were living models of Socialism, like Julius Nyrere’s Tanzania and Allende’s Chile. In Europe there was the widely-respected Yugoslavia guided by Tito. Also there was, of course, Cuba, exemplifying the success of idealism even on the Soviet model. Guevara’s essay New Socialist Man and the Arusha Declaration, set alongside Debray’s Revolution in the Revolution, were the required readings of how radical governance might be determined not by daydreams but by commitment to achievable trajectories.
The perspective had to be international. Most commentary in the West looked parochial by comparison with the real world of the shanty towns. Apartheid engaged Western interest, but in essentially Western terms. Cry Freedom is more a story of a white liberal than of a black radical.
It was said of those who murdered Steve Biko that they were ‘strangling their own grandchildren.’ They were not the only ones dazzled by the arrogations of power. Social Democracy was able to deliver a benign prosperity without satisfying the hunger of the world for universal justice and peace. The USA was entangled in almost perpetual wars of aggression even as the speeches sought to echo the rhetoric of Jefferson and Lincoln. In Europe, Spain and Portugal were guided to democracy by the timely interventions of Communists whose role was as under-reported then as it was to be in the surrender of the Afrikaner Rijk.
With the end of the Soviet Union came many revaluations, not least of which was for some the sense of cultural loss. A highly literate and generally cultivated society which produced great writing, music, ballet, theatre and film was replaced by something culturally diminished and even less generous in social attitudes.
The collapse of the Soviet Union remains broadly unexplained in its suddenness, its thoroughness and irreversibility. Where there might have been a regeneration of a more authentic radical spirit in the West, there was a hurried and undignified retreat into Eighteenth Century Rationalism and/or Nineteenth Century Liberalism. The Twentieth Century was dismissed as an aberration. A generous instinct was disappearing from public thinking. The values of the co-operative, the communal and the experimental were replaced by competition, conformity and caution. Money was going to set us free. Not to have money became a moral failing. Social justice was offered by means of personal opportunity rather than by redistribution and public ownership.
The false promises were seen to betray many. ‘Helping people into work’ was the mantra. The meaning was clear: work, however unsuitable, unsatisfying and ill-paid, replaces the caring and nurturing of a progressive society. The workhouse opens its doors again. It was not only the old and the sick who were betrayed. Many educated young felt the keen edge of that betrayal when their hopes of a more rewarding life sank into personal debt and work that fails to harness their capabilities. Western materialist society does not want knowledge-based initiative. It needs – and demands – compliant capability.
This always has been the case. Formal structures of hierarchy and an informal culture of deference ensured that the mass of society was to a degree accepting. Occasional moderate Socialist governments acted as a safety valve, although there have been brief periods when a more thorough radicalism seriously challenged the equilibrium. Today an intelligentsia has grown alongside the proliferation of technocrats. The latter have an investment in existing conditions [subject to marginal improvements]. The former can see the necessity of root change. The intelligentsia’s investment is in a proposed future that will differ in fundamentals from the currency of existing conditions.
Discontent among the uninformed tends toward unreasoned emotion. The educated dissentient is able and willing to identify the nature of a problem and articulate an indictment of the problem’s source. The thinking dissentients form a vanguard the world over. It is their energy which is the dynamic of change. The filtering of concern through official channels dilutes and diminishes radical resolutions of urgent problems. An unstable situation requires not a steady hand but a clenched fist.
The evident inadequacy of populism is its mimicry and mockery of democracy. Reducing complex problems to over-simplified plebiscites is a way of manufacturing a consensus wherein even the vocabulary of opposition is pre-determined by the power structure. The aim is to establish a polity one cannot argue against.
The thinking dissentient will have none of that.
Lacking property, stable income and prospects, the dissentient has nothing to lose in challenging the orthodoxy. The challenge is made the more incisive by its informed clarity of thought, its awareness of moral choice, and its adherence to a speculative logic that countermands irresolute compromise.
Dissentience and radical alternatives no longer command respect. They no longer have a voice in the councils of social influence. In serious media, in academe, in literature generally and the arts generally the alternative possibilities are muted. If they are not silenced they are heard in silence. There is nowhere near the required level of accessible debate essential to a civilized liberality of culture.
Established opinion maintains what it hopes will seem a dignified reticence. In the event it looks like arrogant disdain by not responding to legitimate critical examination. A sense of frustration sours into anger that festers in the substructure of general feeling. The unthinking reaction is a retreat into romantic nationalism and philistine individualism.
The response of the informed is to seek a viable communitarian idealism. In both cases there is some clutching at straws. But the disenchantment is strong enough for hitherto unimaginable candidates to present themselves as serious contenders. ‘Anything is better than this,’ is the emotional engine.
The rational left knows that desperate gambits will not succeed. But reason and moderation have been hijacked by time-serving careerists who have abandoned principle after principle until only the rhetoric of progress remains to support all those hardworking clichÃ©s.
We hear the counter-arguments as a tired litany of disparagement. The accusations are familiar: misogyny, racism [especially antisemitism], links to terrorism and so on. Although the indiscriminate misuse [a terror tactic] of the word ‘psychopath’ has fallen from favour what remains is the implication that anything outside a narrow consensus is evil. What possible rational motive could there be to oppose the epitome of all that is obviously sensible and good? Hmm, well’.
An alternative democracy emerges as a force. It was always there, but as a support rather than a challenge to the formal structures of governance. Directed reading, informed discussion and a network of understandings worked in the currency of thinking minds. It was never majority experience, but it was crucial to the progressive dynamic of society. Society once offered the generous spaces where a generation could experiment with a range of personal and social possibilities. The subsequent withdrawal of generosity and the narrowing of vision is from a dried-up husk of selfish malevolence that mocks the values it claims to sustain.
Democracy lies elsewhere than in the shuttered confines of the City of Westminster. The national voice is best spoken in the network of discussion and publication that serves as the undercurrent of change. The political elite and its attendant media need to be told there is a growing awareness that they are losing touch. The question is not whether they feel able to acknowledge and absorb modish attitudes, but whether they understand the roots of discontent and the ideals of regeneration.
The problem cannot be reduced to accountancy. Nor can it be channelled into received notions of race, gender and class. It transcends these because it is in essence a question of society as a network of many things, a web of ideas and feelings. These are often in conflict. The task of cohesion and harmonising is a fresh challenge to every generation. It is not solved by slogans and wishful-thinking, nor by institutional procedures which fail to connect with living experience. In place of ignorance, fear, obstructive negation and sheer indolence, there is a social construct waiting its time. The task of radically articulate energy is to argue for this as a serious alternative to the hunting of spectral scapegoats.
There will not be the sudden emergence of a revivalist spirit with social evangelists attracting large crowds. The change comes when the media are seen – oh so subtly – to change their stance from cynical arrogance to ackowledged respect. Little by little discarded ideals are taken from the shelf and dusted down. There are those who will fear for their salaries. Many more will hope for a sense of security that once was our birthright.
The choice is not between being a party of government or of being a social movement. The choice is between convention tempered by conscience or an agency of fundamental and lasting change. Socialism is simply a word unless it has a vision in heart and mind. Community is simply a word unless it is realizable. Change is simply a word unless it offers a challenging dynamic. To become the natural party of governance there has to be an active presence within the social fabric. Everything else is an infantile disorder that should be treated as such.
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This post was written by Geoffrey Heptonstall