A 1928 caricature of Robert Lynd.
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Robert Lynd: In Defence of Pink

In this article, first published in the New Statesman in 1936, Irish essayist Robert Lynd responds to an attack on the colour pink by G K Chesterton, saying “as a lover of pink I cannot let this pass without a protest”.

This article by the Irish essayist Robert Lynd (or “Y Y” as he was known in the NS) first appeared in the magazine in June 1936, as a response to an essay by G K Chesterton.

In his new book of essays, As I Was Saying, Mr G. K. Chesterton makes the admirable suggestion that, now that so many people have begun to express their political opinions by wearing coloured shirts, shirts of various shades ought also to be manufactured. This would provide a means of self-expression for those who are only “Rather Nazi or Not Quite Communist.” The Rather Nazi “might express his doubts by having his new brown shirt fade faintly into the old field-grey.” Having made this very sensible proposal, however, Mr. Chesterton makes an exception as regards pink, He would allow no pink shirts to be put on the market. A pink shirt to him, it is clear, is as a red rag to a bull. He denounces pink in such terms as no colour surely has ever been denounced before. “Pink,” he says, “seems to me the essentially false and negative colour; because it is the dilution of something that is rich and glowing or nothing... Pink suggests nothing but the horrible and blasphemous idea of wine with too much water in it. Pink is the withering of the rose and the fading of the fire; pink is mere anaemia in the blood of the universe.

As a lover of pink I cannot let this pass without a protest. Pink is a colour that mankind, or the English-speaking part of it, instinctively chose as a symbol of perfection. We speak not only of “the pink of perfection” but of “the pink of fashion,” or “the pink of elegance.” Many a soldier, writing from the Front, kept up the spirits of his wife and children by signing his letter: “Yours in the pink.” Mr Chesterton, if he had been censor, would presumably have crossed this out and substituted: “Yours in the blues.” Then there is the pink of the huntsman – a misnomer, perhaps, but this merely proves how deeply men of heroic mould reverence the colour. And how could any one fail to reverence the colour in a world in which year after year spring announces her arrival in the pink of the almond blossom, and summer her arrival in the pink of the wild rose. “Pink,” says Mr Chesterton “is the withering of the rose.” On the contrary, it is the colour of the true, the original, rose – the rose that bloomed in the Garden of Eden. The rose did not turn red till after Adam sinned. Pink, again, is the loveliest colour of the carnation: deeper shades are vulgar in comparison with it. In the years in which I sued often to be still awake at dawn, what an entrancing spectacle were the pink clouds in the eastern sky! And what child is there who has not been entranced by the echo of that colour in the lustrous hollows of shells? It is no wonder that parents choose pink and blue as the two perfect colours with which to decorate the cradles of their adored infants – bows of pink ribbon for a girl, bows of blue for a boy. There is no colour in nature to surpass it. Even in the matter of wine, pink calls up the image not of watered claret, but of that charming-looking, if not so charming-tasting, wine, vin rosé. Pink the colour of anaemia in the blood? Why, it is the colour of health among the so-called white races, who, as has often been pointed out, are really the pink races – at least, the one that has painted the map pink is.

I can honestly say that, in my opinion, the best thing that could happen to the world would be that it should become pinker and pinker. I should feel much happier about Nature herself if I felt that she was gradually turning pink in tooth and claw. If we much have revolutions, I should prefer pink revolutions to red revolutions. As a child, I was afraid of the Scarlet Woman: if I could have thought of her as the Pink Woman, I should have rather liked her. I certainly prefer people whose sins are pink to those whose sins are scarlet. There is too much red in the world. I do not know whether any nation at present flies a pink flag, but I have a notion that pink will be the colour of the international flag when the war-drum throbs no longer. Mr Chesterton may not join in the chorus, but how rapturously the rest of us, from Tokio to Vancouver, will sing – nay, roar – our anthem, “Keep the pink flag flying.”

Mr. Chesterton’s hatred of pink, I imagine, is largely the result of his having been born in a country that has worked extremism out of its system. The beauties of moderation are conspicuous only in a world of immoderate man. The moderate man is apt to congratulate himself on his moderation – to become smug.  And, when one meets a man who is not only moderate but smug, one cannot help wishing that he would get rid of his moderation as a means of getting rid of his smugness. (As a matter of fact, smugness is not confined to the moderate: it is equally common among the extremists, the heretics, and the unconventional.) Still, there is something very revolting in the smugness of a man who is both moderate and successful, and moderate men have an unpleasant way of being successful. At the same time, consider what a world we should be living in if the majority of people had not learned the art of being moderate. The temperate man may at times seem dull, but how infinitely boring, in nine cases out of ten, is the drunkard! A happy marriage of give-and-take may seem flat, but the more passionate life of a wife-beater or a husband-slapper is in the end even more tedious. Immoderate people are exciting to read about, but who would send his son to be educated by one of them? We do not glorify immoderate bank-managers or immoderate doctors. In nearly all our relations in life, we like people to be pink. We say of So-and-So: “He’s a white man,” but what we usually mean is: “He’s a pink man” – a man pinker than ourselves, and so to be trusted.

It is obviously, however, in political rather than in moral matters that Mr. Chesterton abhors pinkness. “There is,” he says, “a merely pink humanitarianism which I dislike even more than the Red Communism. It is not so honest: it is not so genuinely angry or so justly angry; and it is ultimately every bit as negative and destructive of the strong colours of and definite shapes of any great historical culture. It will not weaken civilisation the less because it is too watery to burn in the night: for you cannot set fire to a town with pink torches or pink artillery. This cold and colourless sentimentalism none the less threatens the world like a slow and crawling Deluge.” As a pink humanitarian I read these words with a lively concern. I have grown pinker and pinker with the years, but I had always thought until now that, little good though I could do, I was at least – in political maters – harmless. I have never blinded myself to the fact that in politics I am a wobbling sentimentalist, but, as I have never had a vote except in a strong Tory constituency, I have comforted myself with the reflection that I could do no injury to my fellows. At times, I have even become self-satisfied – smug, if you prefer it – in my pinkness. I have said to myself: “If only everybody were as pink as I, all this nonsense in the world would end in a week. If only everybody wobbled like me, how well everybody would get on together!” Many people, when they see a statesman wobbling, lose confidence in him. That is the moment at which I, on the contrary, renew my trust in him. I like to see a Conservative statesman and a bit of a Liberal, a Liberal statesman a bit of a Conservative, and a Socialist statesman a bit of both. I should trust Mussolini and Hitler more if they occasionally wobbled. It is their death-like rigidity that appals me. Oh, for a few pink corpuscles flowing through their veins! How much better a time the Abyssinians and the Jews would have!

Possibly, my love of a blending, a moderation, of colours is due to the fact that I grew up in a country in which the political colours were, in Mr. Chesterton’s phrase, “rich and glowing.” In the Ireland of my youth, orange was not permitted to be blended with green, and green was not perceptively diluted with orange. At the same time, there were visionaries who looked forward to the day on which these colours would be miraculously interfused. I am not a painter and do not know what the result is when green is mixed with orange, but I should not be surprised to learn that it was pink. The Irish Free State has not gone so far as to fly a pink flag, but it has at least abandoned the pure green flag, and made room for a strip orange united to the green by a white band of peace. This is surely an example of pinkness in politics – which is disquieting, perhaps, to Mr. Chesterton, but it is inspiriting to me. It is a symbol of compromise, and compromise seems to me the third most beautiful thing that ever came out of the mind of man. If I love pink, it is probably because it is the colour of compromise and the colour of hope. It is not for nothing that Nature brings in spring with the almond blossom and summer with the wild rose. Here Nature is our schoolmaster, bidding us to dilute our angry red if we would enter into a world of sunshine. That is why my whole political philosophy may be summed up in the phrase: “Strike me pink.” And, in my dreams of the future of the world, my profoundest hopes might be expressed in the phrase: “Strike all the world pink!”

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Corbynism isn’t a social movement and Labour shouldn’t be one

The leader's supporters have confused party with movement and party with public. 

The second Labour leadership contest in 12 months is at its heart a clash of mandates. Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters justify his leadership with repeated reference to "grassroots democracy" and his backing among members, whether in votes, polls or turnout at meetings. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) majority justify their disengagement from the leadership by highlighting their relationship with the electorate: the programme they were elected on, Corbyn's record unpopularity and the extreme unlikelihood of winning a general election under his leadership.

However, the moral legitimacy and strategic orientation underpinning Corbynite claims derives in large part from the notion that they are a "social movement" that reaches beyond parliament. To an extent, this is mirrored by some in the PLP, who differentiate themselves by reference to exclusively or primarily being a parliamentary party.

The problem is that Corbynism is not a social movement and neither wing adequately understands the relationship between parties and movements. The coordinated action of "people all round the country" does not necessarily make something a movement. Existing explanations of social movements (ecological, labour, feminist, LGBT etc) tend to emphasise broad-based and diverse coalitions of activists focused largely on social transformation goals in civil society and only then directed towards state actors/actions. As Matt Bolton notes, "The relation between activist groups and the state is not mediated by any electoral mechanism". Most movements are long-term in character, though others may be more ephemeral such as Occupy.

In contrast, statements from the Corbyn leadership and from Momentum emphasise more limited party and state-directed goals. These primarily focus on building a mass party and holding parliamentary representatives to account. Labour now has a mass membership, but is no more a mass party than when there was a similar expanded membership in the early Blair years.

A mass party brings together members and activists with deep roots in communities and movements that enable it to understand social conditions and changes. That degree of embeddedness may allow the party to build electoral blocs that articulate and aggregate interests and identities in a governing project that can win and then exercise power. That is different from the dominant conceptions of both sides in the clash of mandates debate. Most of the PLP majority come from a tradition where the party is little more than an electoral machine, where members have occasional walk-on parts and where the public is seen mainly through the prism of focus groups and mass media. The result is a hollowed out and professionalised politics without a transformative agenda that reinforces the roader crisis of representation.

In contrast, Corbynism conflates and confuses the functions of party and movements. The former becomes the"‘voice" of the latter – a kind of social movement aggregator and/or megaphone for any group "in struggle". But this fails to understand the complex nature of building a popular coalition, where those interests and identities may diverge and even clash sharply. Furthermore, the vast majority of voters are not active in parties or social movements and their views will be unlikely to be heard on the picket line or party rally. Democratic (as distinct from vanguardist) parties have to engage in trade-offs, identification of priorities and tactical manoeuvers that are a sharp contrast to ‘"support anyone/all demands in struggle". Even genuine insurgent parties such as Podemos and Syriza, with roots in movements, inevitably struggle to manage these tensions when faced with the prospect or practice of governing.

The Corbynite confusion is not new. We saw it at the height of the Bennite wave in the 1980s and particularly in Ken Livingstone’s vision of Labour as a rainbow coalition. Here, a prospective electoral coalition was envisaged from combining the demands of various movements, filtered through their supposed organisational expression in black sections, women's sections and so on. In practice, activist voices tend to substitute for the actual experiences and concerns of the various groups. This kind of vanguardist politics takes a different form today, partly as result of changed social and political conditions, but also because of the changing means of communication and organising.

Rather than a social movement, Corbynism should be understood as a network, with a variety of horizontal and vertical characteristics. The former consists of a large and loose association of supporters who function largely as an army of clickivists who aggressively defend the goals of the project and the authenticity of the leader, while consigning those who dissent to some beyond the pale category (Blairite, Red Tory, traitor etc). Abuse is not an inherent feature of those attacks, but the ideological and personality-driven character of the project tends to encourage it. Indeed, the leader-focused nature of Corbynism "testifies precisely to the lack, the weakness, of the "social movement" of which he is the supposed avatar".

The speed and reach of such forms of networking are facilitated by the growth of social media. Such efforts have been conceptualised and popularised by Paul Mason, who has transferred his belief that the agency of social change in a "postcapitalist" world is the ‘educated networked individual’ to the distinctive nature of Corbyn party/movement hybrid. Something different is clearly happening with such networking, but as has been widely observed, the effectiveness of horizontal organising to effect lasting political change has been exaggerated and the tendency to act as self-referential cultural echo chambers vastly under-estimated.

As for the vertical, this is represented by the core team around the offices of Corbyn and John McDonnell and through the factional organisation of Momentum. Their focus is party building, albeit dressed up in the language of social movement. Circumstances have combined to offer the hard left a unique opportunity to capture a social democratic party machine. There is a genuine though mistaken belief that institutional capture will lead to a broader institutional transformation. This does not mean that Momentum should be characterised as a "mob" or a plaything of Trot entrists. Momentum brings together a large number of committed activists understandably fed up with the narrow and timid nature of Labour in particular and politics in general. Some of their party building can help revitalise Labour at local level, though at the moment there is little evidence of substantive participation in campaigns on the ground.

In a recent Guardian piece, Ellie Mae O’Hagan takes critics of Corbynism to task: "There are not enough delusional Leninists in Britain to make up the entirety of Corbyn’s support – these are only ordinary British voters who want radical solutions to a growing number of crises". The first observation is certainly true, but the second is deeply misguided, though all-too typical. As the MP Richard Burden aptly notes, "We stop thinking about how we connect with 'the people' and start to think of ourselves as 'the people'. And as we do that, we get into the politics of the echo chamber where the voices we hear are those we want to hear".

It is sometimes said that Corbyn and co are not interested in winning elections. I don’t think that is true. The problem is that their double confusion between party and movement and party and public means that they don’t know how to. Instead of winning over the electorate, they will carry on accumulating members, waiting for some illusory tipping point where mass party becomes mass appeal. In the wake of a decisive general election defeat – for that it is what is overwhelmingly likely to happen - they will have the party, but Labour as a national electoral alternative and agent of potential social transformation will be finished for the foreseeable future.  

This piece originally appeared in Renewal.

Paul Thompson is Professor of Employment Studies at the University of Stirling and was a founding editor of Renewal.