Married to the cause

The first National Women’s Liberation Conference was a thunderous affair. Forty years on, Clancy Sig

When I made a decision to get married (or, to be more precise, find a wife), I had no one in particular in mind. I put the problem as analytically as possible to friends who I hoped knew me better than I knew myself. At last, the feminist scholar Catherine Hall suggested that, to avoid wasting more time, I should focus on a woman suitable to my political history, and it logically followed that the first stop should be the next weekend's debut National Women's Liberation Conference at Ruskin College in Oxford. So, on a cold and drizzly late February day in 1970, off I went.
“Women in labour keep capitalism in power. Down with penile servitude!" ran graffiti on the college walls.

I have never been so excited or scared as during that thunderous, exuberant, foot-stamping meeting at Ruskin - not even when I was caught in a New Orleans police shoot-out or swarmed by drunken Everton supporters while wearing Liverpool colours. Although some later observers claimed that a fair number of men were sprinkled among the 500 or so women, I doubt there were more than a few. Perhaps I miscounted because, like me, they were trying to make themselves invisible.

Many of the women at the conference, drawn from Marxist history workshops and local discussion groups, had that certain look I was scouting: middle-class, straight, a kind of academic intensity, long hair, ankle-length velvet coats, sometimes over crocheted miniskirts, faces flushed with exaltation and obstinate assurance. I listened to their demands from floor and platform - for equal pay, abortion on demand, community-controlled nurseries - with only half an ear, because I had to stay alert for my wife-to-be.

My mother, a flame-haired union organiser and single mother in the American Midwest, had habituated me to smart, militant women with a mouth on them, as had snarly, defiant movie queens of my youth such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck. But the buzz at Ruskin - and then at the Oxford Union, where the conference was moved to accommodate a large crowd - was so awesome, it almost knocked me down. It was like being at the Finland Station in 1917 when Lenin's train chugged in to kick-start the October Revolution.

Trouble and strife

I'd had this feeling before, riding along with the brave young hearts of the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee in rural south-west Georgia on their dangerous midnight voter registration drives, and later while I worked for Malcolm X's Black Power movement in Detroit. In the most intense and transforming moments of the civil rights struggle, with the front-line fighters risking their lives to break the colour line, you felt yourself losing aspects of your whiteness - ironically, at the same time as angry members of the movement were demanding that "whitey" be banished.

So it sounded eerily familiar when women at the conference insisted that any males present, especially journalists, should be kicked out. My bacon was saved when Mary Holland, a former colleague of mine on the Observer, successfully argued to keep us few men.

Happily, in the face of scornful denunciations of the male patriarchy from the platform, and despite the palpable rage that ran like an electric current through the hall, I met very little personal hostility down on the floor. Some women even seemed to take pity on me: "You poor lad." They seemed to know instinctively what it was like to be shoved aside and made fun of at meetings.

Two things happened as a result of the Ruskin conference - many women who had considered themselves mad came away feeling sane, perhaps for the first time in their lives; and I found a wife-to-be. I was slouched in my chair, a nervous spy in not entirely friendly territory, guiltily examining my macho, male psyche so at odds with the atmosphere in the hall, when this stunning brunette smiled - actually smiled! - at me. "Don't take it personally," she said in a deep, rich voice. "I wish we were as tough as we talk." My heart swelled.

Thus, I became a camp follower of women's liberation, a reprobate drawing energy from other people freeing themselves from my bondage. Entering a serious relationship with a smart, fully committed feminist who had her sense of humour intact was an adventure in acclimatisation and self-censorship. Watch where your eyes stray, guard your mouth. Because my parents had had a passionate and turbulent relationship that ended badly, I was determined to make a better job of it. With this secret proviso to myself: under no circumstances would I, could I, make myself over into a "liberated man". Some of the post-Ruskin "new men" I would run into, lovers and husbands trying their best, struck me as enfeebled by guilt. And the one meeting of a men's support group I attended in a gloomy Camden Town Hall was so grimly depressed that it reminded me of a back ward in an asylum I'd once worked in. Being a "new man" did not come naturally to me.

Because I didn't possess XX chromosomes, by definition I couldn't be an equal partner in an all-women's movement. This was a loss - along with my unfortunate XY male chromosomes, I'd inherited an activist's instinct. But it was also a relief as, selfishly, I needed all my time to write. On the other hand, I could not not participate. So I did the next best thing: pry and peek in the best private-eye tradition. When Jill held male-excluded, consciousness-raising meetings at her place (where I'd moved in), I would place an empty water tumbler to my ear and press it against the wall to pick up gossip through the plaster.

Mixed in with the discussions of how to help the cleaning women's campaign for higher wages and plans to disrupt the oncoming Miss World contest was exuberant chat about orgasms and penises. My ears burned when, amid whoops of laughter, they exchanged Chaucerian tales of their men's sexual shortcomings in some anatomical detail. How I envied the women's free and easy sisterhood - most men in my experience didn't do this.

Eavesdropping on women can be devastating to a healthy male ego. Their sexual sniping hurt less (though it stung) than their blithe ignoring of men. Although there was much talk about the male patriarchy, they simply weren't all that interested in us as men.

I was lucky because Jill had a coolly ironic view of the women's movement while also being intensely committed to it. Even so, I had to tread cautiously. Some of her friends took such a hard line that one of them angrily slapped her face because she had chosen to live with a man. Self-defence karate tested my nerve to the max. One night at a north London gym, another guy and I watched from the sideline as "our" women, in sports bras and shorts, violently threw each other around, practising kung fu-style kicks and parries, part of their assertiveness training.

Jill, kicking high and punching the air, was glowing with exertion and exhilaration. The man and I grinned nervously at each other. Session over, the women streamed into the locker room to change, and my new friend and I started to leave. But his girlfriend, stripping naked, just laughed: "Don't be such fogeys, you two. Stay." We didn't know where to look . . .

Ugly beauty

A lot of the women I met through Jill and the women's movement were tough, difficult and, like my mum, sassy. But such is the moth's love of the flame that I was enchanted - in the original sense - by their uprising power and sheer joie de vivre. It was fun being around them, absorbing their positive vibes, borrowing their energy.

Best of all, Jill and her friends demanded nothing of me. I was nearly invisible, and at that early stage of the "second wave" there wasn't much of a party line. It took getting used to, this being ignored and looked through as if I wasn't there. But then came a surprise: if nobody cared what a man felt or thought, not really, I was free to concentrate on what they thought, and this turned out to be liberating.

I made plenty of missteps, of course. Jill hated it when I mentioned her attractiveness. "You still don't get it, Clancy. Being called 'beautiful' is just another put-down." The flour bombs and rotten fruit hurled at the stage during the Miss World contest at the Royal Albert Hall in London were only weeks away.

Today, I live in a different time on a different planet called Los Angeles. Most of the women I meet, and often those for whom I work, are skilled professionals who are the spiritual daughters and granddaughters of the Ruskin College revolution and its American counterparts - if only they knew it. They take coolly, forgetfully, for granted what the women in that draughty old hall in February 1970 spoke up for, some for the very first time in their lives. But I remember. Did my shallow immersion in the women's movement change me? No, not much. Did it change my outlook? Fundamentally.

Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist.

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A nervous breakdown in the body politic

Are we too complacent in thinking that the toxic brew of paranoia and populism that brought Hitler to power will never be repeated?

The conventional wisdom holds that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”, in Edmund Burke’s familiar phrase; but this is at best a half-truth. Studying the biography of a moral monster triumphantly unleashed on the political and international stage points us to another perspective, no less important. What is necessary for the triumph of evil is that the ground should have been thoroughly prepared by countless small or not-so-small acts of petty malice, unthinking prejudice and collusion. Burke’s axiom, though it represents a powerful challenge to apathy, risks crediting evil with too much of a life of its own: out there, there are evil agencies, hostile to “us”, and we (good men and women) must mobilise to resist.

No doubt; but mobilising intelligently demands being willing to ask what habits and assumptions, as well as what chances and conditions, have made possible the risk of evil triumphing. And that leads us into deep waters, to a recognition of how what we tolerate or ignore or underestimate opens the way for disaster, the ways in which we are at least half-consciously complicit. If this is not to be the silly we-are-all-guilty response that has rightly been so much mocked, nor an absolution for the direct agents of great horrors, it needs a careful and unsparing scrutiny of the processes by which cultures become corruptible, vulnerable to the agendas of damaged and obsessional individuals.

This can be uncomfortable. It raises the awkward issue of what philosophers have learned to call “moral luck” – the fact that some people with immense potential for evil don’t actualise it, because the circumstances don’t present them with the chance, and that some others who might have spent their lives in blameless normality end up supervising transports to Auschwitz. Or, to take a sharply contemporary example, that one Muslim youth from a disturbed or challenging background becomes a suicide bomber but another from exactly the same background doesn’t. It is as though there were a sort of diabolical mirror image for the biblical Parable of the Sower: some seeds grow and some don’t, depending on the ground they fall on, or what chance external stimulus touches them at critical moments.

If what interests us is simply how to assign individuals rapidly and definitively to the categories of sheep and goats, saved and damned, this is offensively frustrating. But if we recognise that evil is in important respects a shared enterprise, we may be prompted to look harder at those patterns of behaviour and interaction that – in the worst cases – give permission to those who are most capable of extreme destructiveness, and to examine our personal, political and social life in the light of this.

***

It would be possible to argue that the anti-Semitism of a lot of German culture – as of European Christian culture overall – was never (at least in the modern period) genocidal and obsessed with absolute racial purity; limited but real possibilities of integration were taken for granted, converts to Christianity were not disadvantaged merely because of their race, and so on. Yet the truth is that this cultural hinterland offered a foothold to the mania of Adolf Hitler; that it gave him just enough of the permission he needed to identify his society’s problems with this clearly definable “alien” presence. In his new book, Hitler: the Ascent, Volker Ullrich compellingly tells us once again that no one could have been under any illusion about Hitler’s general intentions towards the Jews from his very first appearance as a political figure, even if the detailed planning of genocide (lucidly traced in the late David Cesarani’s recent, encyclopaedic Final Solution) took some time to solidify. Yet so much of the German public heard Hitler’s language as the slightly exaggerated version of a familiar trope and felt able to treat it as at worst an embarrassing overstatement of a common, even a common-sense, view. One of the most disturbing things about this story is the failure of so many (inside and outside Germany) to grasp that Hitler meant what he said; and this failure in turn reinforced the delusion of those who thought they could use and then sideline Hitler.

To say that Hitler “meant what he said”, however, can be misleading. It is one of the repeated and focal themes in Ullrich’s book that Hitler was a brazen, almost compulsive liar – or, perhaps better, a compulsive and inventive actor, devising a huge range of dramatic roles for himself: frustrated artist, creative patron, philosopher-king (there is a fine chapter on the intellectual and artistic circle he assembled frequently at his Berchtesgaden residence), workers’ friend, martyr for his people (he constantly insinuated that he believed himself doomed to a tragic and premature death), military or economic messiah and a good deal else besides. His notorious outbursts of hysterical rage seem to have been skilfully orchestrated as instruments of intimidation (though this did not exactly indicate that he was otherwise predictable). Ullrich devotes a fair measure of attention to the literal staging of National Socialism, the architectural gigantism of Albert Speer which gave the Führer the sophisticated theatre he craved. In all sorts of ways, Hitler’s regime was a profoundly theatrical exercise, from the great public displays at Nuremberg and the replanning of Berlin to the various private fantasies enacted by him and his close associates (Göring above all), and from the emotional roller coaster he created for his circle to the dangerously accelerated rate of military-industrial expansion with which he concealed the void at the centre of the German economy.

Theatre both presupposes and creates a public. In the anxiety and despair of post-Versailles Germany, there was a ready audience for the high drama of Nazism, including its scapegoating of demonic enemies within and without. And in turn, the shrill pitch of Hitler’s quasi-liturgies normalised a whole set of bizarre and fantastic constructions of reality. A N Wilson’s challenging novel Winnie and Wolf, a fantasia on Hitler’s relations with Winifred Wagner, culminates in a scene at the end of the war where refugees and destitute citizens in Bayreuth raid the wardrobe of the opera house and wander the streets dressed in moth-eaten costumes; it is an unforgettable metaphor for one of the effects of Hitlerian theatre. Ullrich leaves his readers contemplating the picture of a vast collective drama centred on a personality that was not – as some biographers have suggested – something of a cipher, but that of a fantasist on a grand scale, endowed with a huge literal and metaphorical budget for staging his work.

All of this prompts questions about how it is that apparently sophisticated political systems succumb to corporate nervous breakdowns. It is anything but an academic question in a contemporary world where theatrical politics, tribal scapegoating and variegated confusions about the rule of law are increasingly in evidence. On this last point, it is still shocking to realise how rapidly post-Versailles Germany came to regard violent public conflict between heavily armed militias as almost routine, and this is an important background to the embittered negotiations later on around the relation between Hitler’s Sturmabteilung and the official organs of state coercion. Ullrich’s insightful account of a de facto civil war in Bavaria in the early 1920s makes it mercilessly plain that any pretensions to a state monopoly of coercion in Germany in this period were empty.

Yet the idea of such a state monopoly is in fact essential to anything that could be called a legitimate democracy. In effect, the polity of the Third Reich “privatised” coer­cion: again and again in Ullrich’s book, in the struggles for power before 1933, we see Nazi politicians successfully bidding for control of the mechanisms of public order in the German regions, and more or less franchising public order to their own agencies. A classical democratic political philosophy would argue that the state alone has the right to use force because the state is the guarantor of every community’s and every individual’s access to redress for injury or injustice. If state coercion becomes a tool for any one element in the social complex, it loses legitimacy. It is bound up with the rule of law, which is about something more than mere majority consent. One way of reading the rise of Hitler and National Socialism is as the steady and consistent normalising of illegitimate or partisan force, undermining any concept of an independent guarantee of lawfulness in society. It is the deliberate dissolution of the idea of a Rechtsstaat, a law-governed state order that can be recognised by citizens as organised for their common and individual good. Rule by decree, the common pattern of Nazi governmental practice, worked in harness with law enforcement by a force that was essentially a toxic hybrid, combining what was left of an independent police operation with a highly organised party militia system.

So, one of the general imperatives with which Hitler’s story might leave us is the need to keep a clear sense of what the proper work of the state involves. Arguments about the ideal “size” of the state are often spectacularly indifferent to the basic question of what the irreducible functions of state authority are – and so to the question of what cannot be franchised or delegated to non-state actors (it is extraordinary that we have in the UK apparently accepted without much debate the idea that prison security can be sold off to private interests). This is not the same as saying that privatisation in general leads to fascism; the issues around the limits to state direction of an economy are complex. However, a refusal to ask some fundamental questions about the limits of “franchising” corrodes the idea of real democratic legitimacy – the legitimacy that arises from an assurance to every citizen that, whatever their convictions or their purchasing power, the state is there to secure their access to justice. And, connected with this, there are issues about how we legislate: what are the proper processes of scrutiny for legislation, and how is populist and short-view legislation avoided? The Third Reich offers a masterclass in executive tyranny, and we need not only robust and intelligent counter-models, but a clear political theory to make sense of and defend those models.

***

Theatre has always been an aspect of the political. But there are different kinds of theatre. In ancient Athens, the annual Dionysia festival included the performance of tragedies that forced members of the audience to acknowledge the fragility of the political order and encouraged them to meditate on the divine interventions that set a boundary to vendetta and strife. Classical tragedy is, as political theatre, the exact opposite of Hitlerian drama, which repeatedly asserted the solid power of the Reich, the overcoming of weakness and division by the sheer, innate force of popular will as expressed through the Führer.

Contemporary political theatre is not – outside the more nakedly totalitarian states – a matter of Albert Speer-like spectacle and affirmation of a quasi-divine leader; but it is increasingly the product of a populist-oriented market, the parading of celebrities for popular approval, with limited possibilities for deep public discussion of policies advanced, and an assumption that politicians will be, above all, performers. It is not – to warn once again against cliché and exaggeration – that celebrity culture in politics is a short route to fascism. But a political theatre that never deals with the fragility of the context in which law and civility operate, that never admits the internal flaws and conflicts of a society, and never allows some corporate opening-up to the possibilities of reconciliation and reparation, is one that exploits, rather than resolves our anxieties. And, as such, it makes us politically weaker, more confused and fragmented.

The extraordinary mixture of farce and menace in Donald Trump’s campaign is a potent distillation of all this: a political theatre, divorced from realism, patience and human solidarity, bringing to the surface the buried poisons of a whole system and threatening its entire viability and rationality. But it is an extreme version of the way in which modern technology-and-image-driven communication intensifies the risks that beset the ideals of legitimate democracy.

And – think of Trump once again – one of the most seductively available tricks of such a theatre is the rhetoric of what could be called triumphant victimhood: we are menaced by such and such a group (Jews, mig­rants, Muslims, Freemasons, international business, Zionism, Marxism . . .), which has exerted its vast but covert influence to destroy us; but our native strength has brought us through and, given clear leadership, will soon, once and for all, guarantee our safety from these nightmare aliens.

***

This is a rhetoric that depends on ideas of collective guilt or collective malignity: plots ascribed to the agency of some dangerous minority are brandished in order to tarnish the name of entire communities. The dark legacy of much popular Christian language about collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus could be translated without much difficulty into talk about the responsibility of Jews for the violence and poverty afflicting Germans in the 1920s. (Shadows of the same myths still affect the way in which – as recent reports suggest – sinister, vague talk about Zionism and assumptions of a collective Jewish guilt for the actions of various Israeli politicians can become part of a climate that condones anti-Semitic bullying, or text messages saying “Hitler had a point”, on university campuses.)

Granted that there is no shortage of other candidates for demonic otherness in Europe and the United States (witness Trump’s language about Muslims and Mexicans), the specific and abiding lesson of Nazi anti-Semitism is the twofold recognition of the ease with which actually disadvantaged communities can be cast in the role of all-powerful subverters, and the way in which the path to violent exclusion of one kind or another can be prepared by cultures of casual bigotry and collective anxiety or self-pity, dramatised by high-temperature styles of media communication.

Marie Luise Knott’s recent short book Unlearning With Hannah Arendt (2014) revisits the controversy over Arendt’s notorious characterisation of the mindset of Nazism as “the banality of evil”, and brilliantly shows how her point is to do with the erosion in Hitlerian Germany of the capacity to think, to understand one’s agency as answerable to more than public pressure and fashion, to hold to notions of honour and dignity independent of status, convention or influence – but also, ultimately, the erosion of a sense of the ridiculous. The victory of public cliché and stereotype is, in Arendt’s terms, a protection against reality, “against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence”, as she memorably wrote in The Life of the Mind. Hitler was committed to the destruction of anything that challenged the simple self-identity and self-justification of the race and the nation; hence, as Ullrich shows in an acutely argued chapter of Hitler: a Biography, the Führer’s venom against the churches, despite their (generally) embarrassingly lukewarm resistance to the horrors of the Reich. The problem was that the churches’ rationale entailed just that accountability to more than power and political self-identity that Nazi philosophy treated as absolute. They had grounds for thinking Nazism not only evil, but absurd. Perhaps, then, one of the more unexpected questions we are left with by a study of political nightmare such as Ullrich’s excellent book is how we find the resources for identifying the absurd as well as for clarifying the grounds of law and honour.

The threats now faced by “developed” democracy are not those of the 1920s and 1930s; whatever rough beasts are on their way are unlikely to have the exact features of Hitler’s distinctive blend of criminality and melodrama. But this does not mean that we shouldn’t be looking as hard as we can at the lessons to be learned from the collapse of political legality, the collective panics and myths, the acceptance of delusional and violent public theatre that characterised Hitler’s Germany. For evil to triumph, what is necessary is for societies to stop thinking, to stop developing an eye for the absurd as well as the corrupt in language and action, public or private.

Hitler: a Biography – Volume I: Ascent by Volker Ullrich is published by the Bodley Head

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism