Some time in the 1980s, I was banned from joining the Labour Party at a time when other people were leaving it in droves. This was a peculiarly ignominious experience, like fighting tooth and nail to scramble on board the Titanic, or finding oneself dressed as a Viking at a party where everyone else is in evening dress. It was not even as though I wanted to join the Labour Party. I had been instructed to do so by a far-left organisation of which I was then a member, and which had warrened the local party from end to end like a revolutionary rabbit.
The group to which I belonged had, like most such set-ups, broken away from an even more puristic one. The main policy of this original group had been one of strenuous non-intervention; it abstained from political activity with all the scrupulous attention to detail with which other groups picketed and demonstrated. Its members, exhausting themselves with their principled inertia, would chase up and down the ranks of other people’s marches, handing out leaflets to explain why they were not taking part in this revisionist, centrist, class- collaborationist venture.
It was not always easy to distinguish this group from a Daily Telegraph readers’ circle, as its chief theoretical case seemed to be a virulent contempt for the working class. Under capitalist influence, the working class had grown warped and arthritic and, though it remained the instrument of world revolution, it was to be trusted no further than you could throw it. The question arose as to whether one was allowed to lie to the working class – an academic question, to be sure, because the group had exceedingly few working-class members to be lied to in the first place. Some comrades supported the notion of the “revolutionary lie”, while others insisted that you must tell the proletariat the truth, but, as it were, the “dialectical” truth.
The truth was not, as the bourgeois ideologists imagined, a matter of facts, states of affairs, statistics and other dismal reifications; it was rather a dynamic, convictive, constantly evolving affair, so that what was true from one class-viewpoint was false from another, and what was true here and now was not necessarily true “tendentially”, in terms of underlying historical trends. Thus it was “true”, in a static, reified sense of the term, that the whole membership of the organisation could have fitted with ease into a public lavatory; but in terms of underlying dynamics the group was many thousands strong. It was “true”, in the boring, trivial sense of the word, that almost all its members were teachers, students, social workers, eccentric upper-class renegades, socially autistic types searching forlornly for human contact, or closet psychopaths eagerly anticipating a spot of revolutionary violence; but dialectically speaking, they were doughty dockers and brawny boilermakers to a man. The general idea was that even when they were wrong they were right, a doctrine that a traditional Roman Catholic would have no trouble in grasping.
Dialectics, in fact, was a compulsory topic of study, and new members had to take lessons in it. Young men and women zealous to smash the bosses found themselves instead attending seminars where a senior comrade used a blackboard to demonstrate the mysteries of the dialectic. Instead of learning about exploitation, they were required to take notes on the negation of the negation, or the dialectical transformation of quantity into quality. They had come to create the future and ended up in an algebra class.
Most of the group’s energies were directed not to the conflict with world capitalism, but to the rather more urgent war against other left-wing organisations. For the revolution to come about, it was first necessary to smash the petty-bourgeois illusions of those who believed in strikes, picket lines, anti-nuclear demos, mass protests, the defence of jobs, pay levels, working conditions, hospitals and nursery schools, and other such reformist distractions from the historical matter in hand. In elegantly dialectical fashion, all attempts to build socialism were in fact efforts to undermine it, so that the single most productive revolutionary act was to stay at home and listen to The Archers.
The group reserved its high dialectical disdain most of all for those fellow revolutionaries who clung to the “labourist betrayal” theory of why we were in such a mess. This was the claim that, politically speaking, the working classes were champing at the bit and raring to go, but were being held back by the squalid betrayals of their Stalinist, reformist or “fake leftist” leaders. Because the group held that the working class, while being philosophically speaking the solution to the riddle of history, were empirically speaking a disreputable bunch of scroungers and layabouts who could do with a smart kick in the pants and a stiff spell of National Service, it indignantly rejected this more charitable theory of their apparent lack of revolutionary ardour.
Neither theory of chronic working-class apathy was actually necessary, as there is in fact no such animal. It is true that there is a scarcity of animated debates over the Asiatic mode of production in Halifax pubs, and that enthusiasts for the doctrine of base and superstructure are far outnumbered by devotees of alien abduction. But there are plenty of heated political debates among working men and women in the pubs and streets in the north of the island where I live. Too many, some might claim. When politics intersects with everyday life, as it does for both good and ill in Northern Ireland, then grocers and fishermen will discuss it even more intensely than football. Indeed, a group of fishermen I know in Northern Ireland keep trying valiantly to stop discussing politics, as you might try to stop drinking Drambuie or taking sugar in your tea, but find themselves simply unable to give it up. If this is not a problem in Cumbria or Canterbury, it is a comment on the politics, not the people. Try driving a motorway through somebody’s back garden, and they are likely to become a political activist over-night. Those who organise to keep out refugees, or demand the right to defend their private property with cruise missiles, may be reprehensible, but they are not apathetic. Would that they were more so.
Radical politics may not be a thankless affair, but it is an exceedingly modest proposal. Bertolt Brecht once remarked that it was capitalism, not communism, which was radical, and his colleague Walter Benjamin added wisely that revolution was not a runaway train but the application of the emergency brake. It is capitalism which is out of control, and socialism which seeks to restrain it. It is capitalism, as Marx recognised, which is revolutionary to its roots, like one extravagant thrust of Faustian desire, and socialism which recalls us to our humble roots as labouring, socialising, materially limited creatures.
It is a sign of just how bad things are that even the modest proposal that everyone on the planet should get fresh water and enough to eat is fighting talk. One can imagine launching revolutions in the name of some exorbitant utopian ideal, but to disrupt people’s lives in such a spectacular way simply so that everyone may be guaranteed a supply of fresh vegetables seems oddly bathetic. Only extremists could argue against it, just as only extremists could endorse a global capitalist system which is said to have paid Michael Jordan more for advertising Nike shoes in 1992 than it paid to the entire south-east Asian industry that produced them. Revolutionaries are those realist, moderate types who recognise that to put such things to rights would require a thoroughgoing transformation. Anyone who imagines otherwise is an idle utopianist, though they are more commonly known as liberals and pragmatists. A student of mine once rather piously informed me that she “wasn’t a revolutionary”. Rather than starting with Hegel, I thought simply of asking her if she had read the newspapers.
There are still left-wing apocalypticists who predict the imminent arrival of socialism, just as in the US you can find evangelical preachers who are seriously addressing the question of which TV camera placements around the globe would best record the Second Coming. But it is less easy these days for the left as a whole to believe it has history in its pocket. And this brings certain benefits. Just as eras of insurgency by the left yield insights that might otherwise be obscured – Walter Benjamin once plaintively remarked that his prose style would have been less opaque had there been a German revolution – so the same is true of periods of defeat.
Being on the political up breeds vices of purism, arrogance, overhastiness and tunnel vision; you can afford to cast off the ideologically impure and look a gift horse brazenly in the mouth. The defeated are wiser than that, if also more prone to jadedness and melancholia. They are also more wryly alert to the limits of the political, which any effective politics has to be; there are occasions when what is needed is less a vote than a double vodka or a blast of Beethoven’s Ninth. But it is possible to fetishise failure, too, not least for a radical politics that is all about maintaining a pact with the defeated. How can such a pact come to power without ironic self-betrayal?
The group to which I belonged had broken away from the more sectarian one and, though it retained some traces of purism, it was in general a far less priggish outfit. It is true that, simply to be heard and understood by one’s comrades, one had to use certain quaintly formulaic expressions. You did not form a consensus, an opinion or a bus queue but struggled to build towards it. The ruling class did not just perpetrate iniquities, it did so “over and over again”, while comrades did not express opinions about the weather but “took up positions” on the question, or at least “struggled” to do so. One comrade, who worked in a local bookshop where he had led a fight for higher wages, told me that this rather genteel agitation by a few elderly semi-academics “had some of the major features of the Permanent Revolution as described by Trotsky”.
It is easy to scoff at how seriously such minuscule bodies take themselves. But it is an instance of the moral principle that, in certain situations, you simply have to do the right thing whatever the consequences. Because this is an exceedingly rare principle in political life, it should be cherished for its novelty value alone. You must picket the sweatshop even though you haven’t the faintest chance of closing it down, call for the overthrow of apartheid in your editorial even though you know that only 200 people will ever read it. Consequences are important, but they are not everything: one would not refrain from tending an injured earthquake victim just because one knew that in ten minutes’ time the building would cave in on him altogether.
We spent a good deal of time leafleting at the local car plant. I would rise as the dawn seeped through my curtains, collect a comrade, now a distinguished Indian economist, and drive us both down to the factory to distribute leaflets as the early morning shift arrived. Having thus sought to unfold the solution to the riddle of history, my colleague would go off to attend to his baby daughter, while I would go off to give a tutorial on Dickens or T S Eliot. At least we were not petty bourgeois enough to go back to bed, but I admired the gruellingly hard work of other group members, and felt the lack of such dedication in myself.
Some comrades not only argued over politics, but ate, drank and slept them. Particularly slept. At one point, the venereal infections were circulating almost as rapidly as theories of neocolonialism. Erection and insurrection became giddyingly confused, and the organisation was like a cross between a commune and a harem. It provided a kind of cross-class dating service, by which weedy Glaswegian workers could hook up with frisky young women from Cheltenham Ladies’ College with meticulously roughened-up accents. Paunchy, balding shop stewards found themselves as glamorous as rock stars in the eyes of young women fresh from convent school and anxious to compensate for their class crimes. Middle-class men competing with working-class colleagues for sexual favours would obediently back off, acknowledging the historical priority of the proletariat. Other members were simply too hard-pressed with political work to have sex at all, or even to exchange erotic glances. The occasional couple snatched time from organising jumble sales to have a baby.
It was babies, in fact, which almost split the group down the middle. Members regularly babysat for those comrades who had children, but this was an ad hoc sort of business. Then some women formally proposed that baby- sitting should become a compulsory duty for everyone. The leadership greeted the proposal with dismay: it was difficult enough recruiting a militant young car worker without telling him that he would have to take time off from smashing the bosses to sterilise bottles and warm up milk. But the women’s motion carried the day, and a group which used to snigger at the use of the unisex word “firefighter” had made a mildly historic turn.
They would perhaps have sniggered less had their classical etymology been up to scratch. The word proletarius, in the ancient world, meant those who were too poor to serve the state by property, and who served it by manufacturing labour-power instead. Their role was to produce children; and because the historical burden of this task has fallen more on women than on men, it is no mere modish gesture to claim that the proletariat is a woman. If that was so in antiquity, it is equally true today. The geographer David Harvey speaks of the appositional forces of today’s political world as the “feminised proletariat”. Those dreary old bickerings between feminists and socialists still have their point; but they are being made progressively redundant by advanced capitalism itself.
I arrived at Oxford in 1969 to find student militancy in full swing. As I had free telephone facilities in college, unshaven students in trench coats would burst into my room during a tutorial on George Eliot and ask if they could phone Cuba or Mozambique. They would mutter a few coded, garbled words down the phone, then dash enigmatically out again. I gave a seminar by candlelight in the student-occupied Schools building on the High Street, the university proctors having craftily cut off the electricity supply. There were codes, signals, combat jackets, passwords, pseudonyms, all the panoply of a guerrilla army deployed to the end of obtaining a central students’ union with snooker facilities. Students agitated for reform to the English literature syllabus to chants of “Remember Che!”. I arrived at a radical Danish university to deliver a political lecture only to be met by two rather shamefaced-looking academics, one of them clutching a small tape recorder. They explained to me, their eyes shyly lowered, that their students regarded lectures as a form of violence, but that if I would consent to speak into the tape recorder, they would bear my recorded reflections away to the student body, who would then take a vote on whether they should listen to them or whether tape-recording was a form of technological oppression.
The student movement, then, had its minor absurdities. But it also played a vital part in ending a bloody war in south-east Asia, and in democratising an academia that was criminally complicit in that violence. Better a wariness of tape recorders than the smugness of a later generation of brutally self-interested young fogeys who knew from the age of 18 precisely which desk at the Treasury they intended to occupy. In the Thatcherite years, reading a university subject such as English, which brought with it no obvious entry to the world of stockbroking, became an implicitly political option. But the intellectual climate had shifted drastically: 20-year-olds who only a few years previously had moved in a milieu in which radicalism, even if they did not endorse it themselves, made as much sense as Darwinism or having a polio inoculation now gazed wonderingly on academics rumoured to be Marxists with the curiosity of someone encountering his very first coprophiliac. For the first time in several decades, a student generation had nothing of political interest to remember. Adrift and amnesiac, they were trapped inside their own experience like a goldfish in its bowl.
Yet it is not that the capitalist system has softened up. On the contrary, it has become more pervasive, aggressive and triumphalist than ever. And this, precisely, is what has changed. It is a question of business as usual, only more so. In that sense, socialism has been defeated rather than invalidated. In a curious paradox, what makes it more relevant than ever is exactly its powerlessness – a sign that the system it opposes is dangerously out of control.
In the end, the gulf between radicals and conservatives runs deeper than politics. A radical is one who cannot overcome her astonishment that there are people in the world who believe, by and large, that this is it. Hard though it is to swallow, these liberal or conservative types imagine that what we see now is pretty much all we will ever get. The error of the ultra-leftist, by contrast, is to fantasise that after the revolution everything will be different – that we shall abolish paper napkins as well as private property, transform toothbrushes along with the NHS. This is a delusion; but at least it keeps open the possibility of a future as spectacularly different from the present as the remote past. It is no wonder that capitalism seeks to erase the past, because the past speaks of difference, and thus of the future.
Marx famously observed that history tends to repeat itself; and of nothing is this truer than announcements of the end of history. Such obituary notices have been issued a good many times, from the New Testament to Hegel. An expulsion order was served on history by the so-called end-of-ideology movement in the 1950s. With Vietnam, Black Power and the student movement just around the corner, it proved a singularly inept prophecy. Because such a pronouncement has been repeated in our own time, we should recall that, as Oscar Wilde might have remarked, to be wrong about the end of history once is misfortunate, whereas to be wrong about it twice is sheer carelessness.
Terry Eagleton is professor of cultural theory at Manchester University. This essay is an edited extract from The Gatekeeper: a memoir, published this month by Allen Lane (£9.99)