Full transcript | Jon Cruddas | LJMU Roscoe Lecture | Liverpool | 3 March 2011
"England's socialism is conservative. It is a love of home, of place and of the local."
I would like to thank Lord Alton for the invitation to give this lecture this evening.
It is a great pleasure and an honour to be with you in these wonderful surroundings.
To start with, a couple of brief clarifications. I am not going to spend the lecture saying over and over again The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist. I will just call it 'The Book'. And I will call him Noonan after his mother's name rather than Tressell - taken from the painters table he used.
Why is this for me both a pleasure and an honour?
An honour because of this city, the history of The Book, and the centenary of the man; of Noonan and what he stood for.
A pleasure because it allows me to speak of a lost language; of socialism. As a Labour MP that is something I very rarely do.
Now in terms of this city. I have always respected the passions it generates. Driven by pride in its own history. A sense of belonging and attachment. I have been following from afar the centenary events here for Noonan. It shines a light on the warmth and humanity of this community and its sense of tradition. I salute you for this.
Because Tradition is the word I want to return to again and again this evening.
I was recently listening to a son of this city - Archbishop Vinent Nichols. He reminded me of a famous quote from GK Chesterton: that 'Tradition is the democracy of the dead'.
It is about 'giving votes to our ancestors'. Of honouring those that went before- repecting their struggles and sacrifices. He wrote this in 1908 a couple of years before Noonan's death.
This book is about a political tradition; about socialism's 'democracy of the dead'.
To me without a sense of tradition and history there can be no resistance. Yet people 'on the left' tend to scorn tradition. Tradition is 'conservative' or 'nostalgic' or 'sentimental'. I believe Labour is in trouble today because of this lack of tradition.
I am getting ahead of myself.
So lets start again.
Think first about Noonan's death. He died in Walton in a Paupers Grave buried with twelve others. Undiscovered till 1970.
This simple fact is like the book - an allegory - it tells a deeper story of struggle and resistance. The Paupers Grave was for the destitute; for those dispossessed.
Early capitalism was ferocious and dehumanising. The processes that created the basis of capitalism- the free market in labour and land- enclosed the common lands and brutalised the peasantry. The only resistance was the security found when people joined together and fought for the retrieval of dignity and status.
The Paupers Grave was one of the most fearful fates of dispossession. It became a site of profound struggle. It was the Co-operative Society by the practices of mutuality and reciprocity that reclaimed the dignity of the person at their death through the socialisation- or the sharing- of funeral rights.
The Paupers Grave stands as a symbol of the 'double movement' of capitalism. On the one hand, capitalism destroys traditions, families, communities, cultures and yet, on the other, this destruction creates alliances, solidarity and resistance to everything becoming a commoditiy - our land, labour and relationships. It was this process of resistance to what people lost- to their dispossession - that I will call socialism.
Not a technical description, or a philosophical one buried in abstract books, but one that is built on personal relationships and depicts a struggle to defend people from their losses- land, labour, culture through a political voice. It is one that resists malign change. It recognises that life is not just about progress and uprooting; but of resistance and of conserving things.
By maintaining Noonan's tradition you in Liverpool are democratising the dead and their struggles -captured in the physical existence of a Paupers Grave in Walton. Now, In terms of This Book: We all have our own personal stories. When I think of this book I immediately think of labourers working in a small town on the south coast - home to me - and home to the book- specifically English and parochial.
The depiction of the working class is the hallmark of the book.
Not of a towering, traditional working class of docks, car plants or pits- or dare I say it of Liverpool- or where I am in East London.
But of a more generic working class experience- fragmented and localised - small scale, non unionised, often not 'class conscious'. Fractured; Ordinary. English.
Straight away however, I will now contradict myself.
Because my two main personal memories built around this book are in no way English.
The first relates to my mother; a Donegal housewife who devoted her life to bringing up her 5 kids. Coincidentally this xmas she gave me The Book.
I never knew she had read it. She had. A long long time ago.
Now when we talk politics we talk in terms of family and loss, belonging, kinship, respect, duty and obligation; our worries about the modern world. Fears for the future. Injustice.
We don't talk about a science of 'socialism', or labels, theories or 'isms'. Rather the politics involves a sentiment; about relationships, the dignity of the person and of looking out for each other; of solidarity. It is of a common life that we share.
We would never talk of 'progressive politics' or what it is to be 'radical'. Her politics are about family, faith, community; of home, belonging and of diaspora. It is emotional, warm, passionate, romantic even. Never aloof nor technocratic, rational nor scientific.
My other personal memory is from some 30 years ago. As a young man I was an activist in the Australian Builders Labourers Union. One day my Scottish local union officer slung me a dog eared version of The Book. He suggested I read and learn. With the arrogance of youth I slung it back; fast cash and a good time were for me; not books.
For him the book captured his life's work; his commitment to a struggle. I now know that I disrespected him and also the traditions he sought to introduce me to.
My point is this- to me The Book is English and parochial. To others, even in my own family, it is a universal tale of humanity, resistance and dispossession. It is of course both.
The Book has become a collective memory through which we share personal stories and testimonies; anecdotes and tales. Of different 'socialisms' shared as the book is passed on.
The Book is parochial- and yet universal. It has a meaning beyond the text. Its existence - and the way we share it through generations - is part of our common life and identity; a sentiment that we share.
The question is: why does it have this hold on us?
It is part of a global class experience yet totally ordinary and specific and familiar. Owned by the common people.
A story of a small town, ordinary men, ordinary lives.
Painful experience, loss of honour, loss of dignity, loss of a meaningful life.
And the struggle to make what is wrong right.
To make good, to be human, to love, to gain respect.
That is The Book.
Like the Paupers Grave, it is an allegory - it tells a deeper story - of a search for meaning and identity; a common belonging.
This I think accounts for its visceral power. The raw connection people make to it.
I would suggest then the story of This Book and its author- of Noonan- has this hold over us for a number essential reasons.
First, because of the importance of the ordinary; of the parochial as the cornerstone of life. It is simple.
Second, because of the importance of the specifically English struggles of working people.
Often seen as an anathema to the 'left' but more fool them.
Third, its importance lies in the search for a politics of virtue. Our effort to do right - to live decent lives.
Fourth, it dramatises the struggle against dispossession in its three core forms- from the land, from the franchise and from our own labour. The everyday struggles against the very essence of capitalism. As was then as is now.
This man, the story of The Book and The Book itself combine as one; Dave Harker has written a brilliant book on this.
In a profound way- it shines a light on what Labour has become today; on what it has lost.
its passion driven by a creed, built on a common life we share.
it has removed itself from today's resistance to dispossession due to its lack of history.
The book suggests Labour embark on a journey of self-discovery- to find its soul.
And the journey begins in a return to the past. To how and when, in Noonan's time, Labour was created. Memory and tradition gives us our identity. They anchor us in the world.
There is no better place to begin that journey than here in Liverpool where Noonan came in his quest for a better life in Canada. Where he died, buried in a paupers grave in Walton Cemetery.
Consider some parts of Noonan's story.
Born in Dublin as Robert Noonan or Croaker. Illegitimate. Emigrated to South Africa, returned to England in 1901 with his daughter Kathleen. Settles in Hastings making a living by signwriting and house painting. So both international and parochial.
He understood himself a proud skilled artisan, a product of a self improving culture. But the capitalist work process and the value theory underpinning it destroying the dignity of that labour and any possibilities of virtuous human creativity. Of what it is to be a 'free englishman'. He contracts TB and dies aged 41
Consider some of the political crosswinds of that period.
The creation of the Independent Labour Party leading to the Labour Representation Committee then the Labour Party at the time Noonan writes The Book.
Yet what went before was more significant. Marx, Engels and the science of socialism on the one hand. On the other the right wing neo-classical economic revolution separating economic value from human labour. And of Blatchford and The Clarion - the largest extra parliamentary socialist movement in British history.
'New Unionism' alongside radical land reform. Fabianism and the romantics; the Webbs and William Morris - and Ruskin. A unique period of fundamental political and economic change.
Consider some of the elements of the story itself
A parochial story, anchored in everyday, working class culture. Definitely not a politically conscious working class; a culture which propped up the system- sport, drinking and smoking, even celebrity publications. Bit like today actually. Very funny.
Yet raw. Brutal. It is disorganised and dehumanised.
Yet it is built on the value of craftsmanship.
'The cave' they build is capitalism underpinned through their botched work; the dignity and creativity of their labour destroyed as through destitution they sell it cheap.
Noonan's fury at the workers collusion borders on contempt.
He tilts to a scientific Marxism - a progressive socialism. Owen's story of the 'money trick' explains Marx's value theory.
Yet Noonan was also drawn to William Morris, the conservative radical. People want: 'more grub, more clothes, more leisure, more pleasure and better homes... to go for country walks, or bicycle rides, to go out fishing or to go to the seaside, and bathe and lie on the beach'. That is the politics of the 'Clarionettes'. Of virtue. Both Morris and Blatchford managed to express loss in contrast to the science of the left. They drew on the Romanticism that has been an essential part of English socialism.
In this way the book lays down the classic dividing line in left politics : between one that values tradition and preservation on the one hand, and on the other a 'progressive' politics that looked to the future and desires to uproot the past. A socialism of modernism and rationality.
Over the next 100 years this tussle was to be won by successive variations of 'radicals'; and 'progressives'. Sure there were 'romantic' figures- Hardie, Lansbury, Bevan and Foot, maybe Kinnock- yet often isolated and vulnerable. Exceptions.
The Book is so important because it contains so many 'socialisms'. To me primarily The book is an aspirational socialist story of personal struggle and redemption. The dignity of the person and of their labour. It is English, angry and contemporary. The search to help people achieve self realisation through living a virtuous life.
It works its way through different generations. Think of a very different kind of Englishman. Think of the historian E. P Thompson. Author of the The Making of the English Working Class.
Thompson has been accused of being unthinking in his Englishness.
Yet unashamedly - and just like Noonan - he was preoccupied with the customs and the traditions which informed the experiences of the common English people in their resistance to the injustices of emerging capitalism.
It is Thompson who like Blatchford and Morris comes closest to offering a politics of loss and yearning.
In the 1960s Thompson faced a general hostility from a left intellectual elite that favoured abstract theory, structuralism and subsequently cosmopolitanism over his virtue politics.
He lost out.
The gap between the labour movement and intellectuals widened as they removed themselves from the everyday, parochial world of the class they studied.
Thompson responding to his critics: 'It is mere English. It has no articulate spokesmen- they are all kneeling in the presence of other, more sophisticated, voices'.
Thompson mourned the loss of what the academic Mike Kenny, describes as the abandonment of the English idiom, the radical heritage of the nation, and 'the vision of a radical politics that should sink roots into local soil'.
Ordinary people who struggle to frame history. Thompson writes, just like Noonan, about the parochial and the cross currents that buffet men and women: of subsistence and necessity on the one hand and on the other the search for self fulfilment.
What it is to really live and flourish? What is it to be a free born Englishman?
Now, it is the left that claim ownership of Noonan, but what does it mean today to be left wing? Can the Labour Party of today rightfully claim allegiance to Noonan and his work?
Today the Labour Party sits listlessly in the middle of a grave crisis of identity. Since its very inception in Noonan's time, Labour has faced three fundamental crises: 1931, 1981 and today.
What is Labour actually for?
Labour lacks identity. We have all heard people say 'Labour lost touch', 'I don't know what it stands for', 'it doesn't speak for me anymore' etc- there is a deep loss there and often an anger and resentment.
Just last week a report was issued by the Searchlight Educational Trust called Fear and Hope: A New Politics of Identity. It paints a disturbing picture of loss, alienation and insecurity in England especially amongst many traditional labour supporters.
What can we learn from Noonan, The Book, from history itself ; from the very idea of tradition so as to restore a sentiment to Labour today?
Now these are ambitious questions so lets row back a bit.
The Book speaks of that socialism we have lost and that is why we connect with it in such a romantic way- with its humanity, warmth, generosity and humour.
It speaks of a lost socialist tradition which questions the idea of progress, with its abstractions and self righteousness.
In contrast to this lost tradition, think of what it means to be a 'radical' or a 'progressive today'.
The progressive politician builds on the notion of moving forward; advancing to achieve altered social structures of an improved form.
Progressives are radical in that they want change at the root and a departure from tradition.
Literally radical is from the latin to uproot.
Labour today claims to be progressive and radical.
The Coalition of Cameron and Clegg is also radical and progressive. All the political parties are 'radical', 'progressive' and indeed 'liberal'.
All these 'Progressives' harbour a contempt for those they see as being fearful of change.
Those who look to the past are derided as nostalgic- they are enemies of progress- traditional and sentimental.
But think about what Nostalgia actually means.
Nostalgia links the greek for pain- algos- with that of home - nostos.
In other words homesickness.
A loss of home
A loss of belonging
A grieving for a way of life that has passed
A sense of being uprooted.
And think about what Tradition actually means.
Tradition is the passing on of beliefs and customs from the past.
Such traditionalism is not resistant to change, only to uncontrollable forces that impose change on people, and which pull up the roots of ways of life and destroy them.
This clear demarcation between progressive and radical on the one hand and of nostalgia, sentiment and tradition on the other has defined the modernity of the left.
We see everything through the binary terms of forward or back, future or past, new or old, and eventually good or bad. The good 'Progressive Tradition' has always won and the bad 'Romantic Tradition' one always lost.
New Labour's was all about the 'radical new' rather than the past.
The project was always defined as one of 'modernisation'.
A modernisation that embraced the uncontrollable forces of globalisation. By the end it embraced a dystopian, destructive neo liberalism.
It cut loose from the traditions and history of Labour.
'Leave the past to those who live in it' said Tony Blair. But what about the victims of change? Who speaks for them?
Alastair Bonnett of Newcastle University in a brilliant new book, 'Left in the Past: Radicalism and the Politics of Nostalgia' writes that 'throughout the last century nostalgia was cast as the antithesis of radicalism. Emotions of yearning and loss were portrayed as embarrassing defects on the bright body of movement associated with the new and the youthful'.
Feelings of loss, a lack of belonging, uprootedness hinder our progress.
For many on the left they have become reactionary.
Nostalgia is the denial of progress through its attachment to place and identity.
Yet people such as EP Thompson - sought to differ. He rejected this worldview in favour of human experience and his belief in the virtues of the common people. Of course Thompson has consistently been deemed as 'nostalgic' and very much a 'romantic' .
Is today's 'Progressivism' rooted in people's daily lives?
Does it avoid the past where the memories that create and sustain community reside?
Is it not out ahead of the people cajoling and leading the simple folk to their future? But why is this 'class' they purport to lead often seen as either a feckless mob or romanticised and heroic? Why is it never seen as complex. Unlike that in The Book.
So in contrast to this embrace of modernisation,
What of those who do not wish to be uprooted; who seek alliances and relations against the destruction of their communities or their ways of life?
Who fight out of attachment to place and shared experience and identity.
Think of John Clare and his poetry of the enclosures.
His poem 'On Leaving the Cottage of my Birth', and this one, 'Enclosure':
' Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene;
No fence of ownership crept in between'
'Enclosure came, and trampled on the grave
Of labour's rights, and left the poor a slave'
Are the conservers, the lovers of place, home and landscape, simply the enemies of the righteous progressive and the radical? Accusing them of nostalgia silences the victims- those who resist are deemed conservative and sentimental.
Now consider another individual, romantic Marxist- who has written brilliant pieces about Noonan and the Book: Raymond Williams.
A couple of months before his death in 1988 he responsed to the charge of a sentimental attachment to his own family and history. He said this:
'history is a record of defeat, invasion, victimisation, oppression. When one sees what was done to the people who are physically my ancestors, one feels it to be almost incredible. Its the infinite resilience, even deviousness, with which people have managed to persist and the striking diversity of the beliefs in which they've expressed their autonomy. That is why we must speak for hope.'
Explicitly confronting the charge of nostalgia he says:
'When I see that childhood coming at the end of millennia of much brutal and thoroughgoing exploitation, I can see it as a fortunate time: an ingrained and indestructible yet also changing embodiment of the possibilities of common life'.
Noonan, Thompson and Williams. They all share a 'radical nostalgia'; a belief in the dignity of labour, of solidarity and a common life we share.
Take this argument further. Alastair Bonnett writes that no one sneers at our own personal nostalgias.
Our homes and personal things 'speak not only of a shared humanity but also of a shared vulnerability, an emotional range that includes love, loss and loyalty. It is conversely the spaces that fail to convey nostalgia that 'offend': the blank wall, the empty desk, absence of signs and depth and connection'.
Did not New Labour became that blank 'progressive' wall, that empty 'radical' desk?
People today yearn for respect, belonging, identity, tradition.
They yearn to fight against their insecurity. But how do you resist when all the political parties are progressive, radical and liberal?
Milan Kundera wrote: 'the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting'
Have we forgotten the Banking crisis of two years ago?
Who is now paying the price? In this City?
The little guy, the young mother, the public servant, our children, young students, those on welfare, charities, voluntary groups?
A different type of socialism grows out of the past.
It's roots lie in the experiences of those who went before. In tradition- the democracy of the dead. In Noonan and those who pass on dog eared copies of the book to ignorant kids like me thirty years ago.
Remembering is itself a political struggle over who owns the past. Over who commands our island.
Yet it is not just New Labour at fault.
Think of Marx who said 'the traditions of the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living'.
He said that capitalism turned all that was sacred profane and he approved.
When he said 'all that is solid melts into air', he celebrated.
Capitalism must destroy in order to create the conditions for its own destruction.
Sure the Modern progressives are not Marxists.
But like Marx they are a product of Enlightenment rationality and industrial modernity.
And like most of Marx they side with progress at the expense of human relationships, the ordinary and the parochial.
They do not understand that if you destroy a people's culture you destroy them.
Arguably, we are living now though the most destructive period of capitalism since the 1930s. Is this progress?
By the end New Labour actually looked at the future in a sentimental way. People in this country do not; they are fearful for their jobs, their kids their communities.
Labour embraced modernity and progress.
It had no story to tell regarding capitalism. Change without a cause.
A superficial politics of 'what works'. No tradition.
So try this: why not a conservative socialism for England
What about our struggles against neo liberalism and modern day dispossession?
Those forces that resist everything becoming a commodity, that value the land, that believe in family life, that take pride in their country and our traditions- are they to be perceived as 'old' as conservative as anachronistic, as 'unprogressive'?
Such people are accused of living in the past - romantics.
But the process of modern dispossession is connected to a loss of collective memory.
In that we have stopped telling ourselves stories about the political struggles that won our union rights, won our democracy, won the factory acts, the welfare state, the national health service, our childrens education.
And as we have lost those traditions we have lost our resistance when a government comes along determined to take them back.
I believe this current Government to be the most radical government since the second world war. Who are systematically destroying the hard won victories of previous generations. They are altering the essential fabric of this country.
Over the next years we must redemocratise the dead to preserve what they fought for- the products of their resistance.
A 'radical nostalgia' can create a popular culture that is less open to manipulation.
What The Book teaches me, what Owen's sermons to his exasperated but also fascinated workmates illustrates, is that England's socialism is conservative. It is a love of home, of place and of the local.
It springs from a palpable sense of loss and alienation.
It is a revolt against change imposed from above.
It is a resistance to the uncontrollable forces of capitalism. It is a struggle for liberty and democracy.
It is a yearning to feel part of a community, to have that sense of belonging that brings with it esteem and meaning in life.
England's history of the dispossession of the people is played out today in an uncontrollable capitalism.
In the arrogance of the banks which are a law to themselves.
In corporate and media power.
In the selling off of parts of our English common life to the highest bidder- forests, waterways, ports, the post office, the BBC.
Played out with a political gerrymandering; a modern shrinkage of the franchise.
And played out in the intensification of working poverty and in a punitive system of welfare reform that punishes the poor and destroys the safety nets won by previous generations.
The future for Labour lies in the past. Labour is not new. It should be - to quote Dylan Thomas- 'parochial' and 'magical'
It needs to recover the value of the ordinary.
The importance of the specifically English struggles of working people.
The importance of the ethical and the politics of virtue.
The Book teaches me that what we need today is the courage and the self -belief of our ancestors- reflected in this book's journey.
Their story is our story today played out in real time.
Let's take our place in history side by side with the Luddite Cropper, the Match Girls of Bryant and May the destitute man lying in a Paupers Grave in Walton. By democratising their deaths.
It should not a choice but an obligation.