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20 March 2016

The world of yesterday

Nostalgia and the socialist dream.

By Jeremy Seabrook

Most of us who grew up in the Fifties and Sixties imagined that “nostalgia” was a chronic malaise of the right. We witnessed the end of empire and observed colonials returning from the imperial moment, archaic personages, with their waxed moustaches and silky parasols. They lamented long, leisurely days on well-watered lawns under the jacaranda trees or in the Civil Lines, drinking tea and eating pastries that Indian or East African cooks had been instructed to make according to Victorian recipes; polo grounds and parades; the king’s birthday and carriages at eleven after a recital at Government House.

They were faintly tragic figures, living out their last days in quiet rage, writing letters full of spleen to the Daily Telegraph from retirement in Cheltenham or Harrogate. Stately and dignified, they told stories of the disaster that independence had brought to the unhappy people of Nigeria or Pakistan, because they had never been ready for self-government and were without traditions of democracy or liberty; and their “childlike” mentality had led them to place their trust in dictators and military leaders.

They were objects then of mockery and scorn, but their antiquated views seemed still more out of place when they commented on a Britain that had changed beyond recognition during their years of duty overseas. They were appalled to find that their char lived better than they did, that all respect for age and experience had been forfeited and that it was no longer a moral disgrace to be an “unmarried mother”, as those affected were no longer packed off to seaside mother-and-baby homes where the child would be discreetly taken from them soon after birth, but returned home, shamelessly flaunting their disgrace.

They wondered what had happened to the youth of Britain, slouching through the streets with long hair and in fancy dress. Their remedy for the country’s decline was a good dose of unemployment or another war. The welfare state was no doubt responsible for the loss of that manly virtue and proud independence which they recalled as the principal features of the country they loved. Moreover, their displacement as a ruling elite was made even more bitter by the presence of so many uppity West Indians and south Asians who would formerly have fought to become their servants in the lands they had deserted.

It was easy to caricature their sense of displacement then. But their yearning for a Britain that had vanished during their absence now appears more poignant: not only because there has been a restoration of the values the passing of which they deplored, but because the generation that ousted them and cast them aside is now also on the defensive, and falling into a different kind of nostalgia from the kind that consoled them in the days after empire.

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The radicals of the Sixties vehemently repudiated the idea of nostalgia, in those days of their ascendancy. It was sternly prohibited as defeatist, because it contested the serene ideology of progress, in which the future that eventually unfolded would bring to its culmination the power of the working class, the masses, the have-nots, the poor majority of the world. They were on a journey, the onward march of which was irresistible. They could not bear reactionaries or faint-hearts, cowards who flinched and traitors who sneered.

Yet today the left is subject to a disorientation similar to the sort that ejected an earlier generation in the mid-20th century from its position at the heart of politics and society. And this shift is just as hard to come to terms with; it is difficult to deny a desire to unwind the years in which the dream was spoiled and to start afresh: in other words, to give way to nostalgia.

Now it is our turn to be ridiculed and laughed at for the same passage of time for which we had so little sympathy in the past. Of course, the focus of regret is different, but the feelings are identical: the same sense of disbelief that the world can have changed in the way it has, and left us stranded, by-passed, just as happened to the choleric colonels and elderly memsahibs of empire more than half a century ago.

In those days – the Sixties, that golden era of radicals, alternatives and liberationists of all kinds – it was our delight, our mission, indeed, to shock the stuffy inheritors of power and position. With what delight we laughed at their pompous language about the moral fibre of the country, featherbedding the working class, undermining the heritage of the nation. We attempted to follow a long practice and “épater les bourgeois”. But now the tables are turned: the power to shock lies with the bourgeois; and we, the serious, puritanical, moral radicals, are duly shocked by the prejudice, intolerance and greed that increasingly dominate political discussion.

Perhaps it is because even the democratic left assumed a borrowed lustre from the revelations (or prophesies) of Marx that we thought we knew everything. Books of revelation are always dangerous, even to those who do not wholly subscribe to but remain influenced by their truths. We had constructed, in anticipation, our future society of justice and plenty on the emancipation of the working class, and that future appeared unmistakably “progressive”; but our visions have been disconfirmed just as violently as were the world-view and convictions of the old upholders of imperial supremacy.

With the erasure of the industrial base that created the very working class, and the emergence from the debris of a different sensibility, we are at a loss. The left, which knew everything, has been bewildered by the loss of certainty; and many who claim a wavering commitment to the left no longer feel secure since the melting away of the great ghost armies of labour, at whose head they were supposed to have marched triumphantly into an egalitarian and abundant future of peace and plenty.

Of course, efforts have been made by the landless left, evictees of history, to reclaim this lost territory, the country of the future overrun by ideologies thought to have been laid to rest. Distinctions have been made between the 1 Per Cent, who have prospered so flagrantly even in the recession, and the 99 Per Cent, who have seen their incomes stagnate or fall. Yet this is a savourless kind of conflict: who is going to seek a quarrel against a percentage when all the bloated plutocrats and their filthy lucre have vanished, and the working class has been not only demobilised from its sometime destiny, but altered fundamentally in its disposition and psyche?

Nostalgia has been made flesh, as it were, in the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, a man of admirable modesty and restraint who appears to embody a different kind of politics – even though the alternative for which he stands has been betrayed by history, that capricious breaker of promises and treacherous friend of those who invoked it as an ally. The eager and youthful supporters of Corbyn, however passionate, are not a reincarnation of the foot-soldiery of labour, but, rather, phantoms like those of the ghost-dance religion, which was to have resuscitated all the dead Native Americans whose bare breasts were supposed to repel the bullets at Wounded Knee in December 1890.

We should, perhaps, if we want to understand our position, examine a little more closely the fate of those who dwindled away in genteel seaside resorts and country towns after their retreat from the high places of empire. They are our kinspeople, although they were certainly not regarded as such at the time of our own youth and vigour in the Sixties; only in the waning light of our experience do they appear objects of commiseration and sympathy.

Naturally, nothing remains still. And in the churnings of the age, those who, with such triumphal self-satisfaction, have revitalised the sacred laws of political economy will find in due season that these are no more effective in a world from which an organised working class has been eliminated than they were in the early industrial era. They, in their turn, will fall, and be relegated to upper chambers, there to write their eventless memoirs, to sit on sunny lawns and regret that they were unable to prevail; even after they had, with such pain and effort, dismantled industry and reduced the welfare state to a shadow of what it once was.

Others will rise. New generations will scorn and curse them, perhaps for their failure to engage adequately with a wasting planet and the threat that their version of plenty poses to human survival. That is a meagre comfort to us in the exile which, in a reversal of the usual order of things, has come to us – and yet we are taunted now with our faded visions of a lapsed socialism, prey to gloomy nostalgias for worlds that might have been. 

Jeremy Seabrook’s most recent book is “The Song of the Shirt”, published by Navayana in New Delhi and C Hurst & Co in the UK

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This article appears in the 05 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue