A Tradition We Must Renounce

A short while ago I came across a note in a socialist historians’ journal from a sixties student ‘radical’ reflecting on student politics then. It helped me to crystallize why I loathe everything about that tradition, whose pale embers are still all about us.

Here is a representative selection from that letter:

We protested; … we burnt an effigy of a British passport … We held discussion groups and Marxist theory classes … Many of the women at those meetings later made national contributions to the women’s movement and equal opportunity. … our generation carries a light .. for radicalism.

The actual – as opposed to the rhetorical – way in which sixties’ radicals related to workers was as manipulative and patronizing as that of the despised Fabians. They mouthed phrases about workers’ power, but this was never about real workers; it was about the tame pets of their own imaginations. Sixties’ student radicals were proud to be ‘vanguardists’. It was they who told people what they “really were” and where their interests “really lay” Sixties’ radicalism emerged out of what was once known as the ‘New Left’. Its most active groups – such as the Socialist Workers’ Party and The International Marxist Group – regarded themselves as having recovered the revolutionary dynamic of Lenin, which they held to have been subverted by Stalin. Yet New Leftism was crippled in theory and in practice by its willed amnesia regarding the origins of Lenin’s own politics. It is well known that for the first half of his political career Lenin was a committed follower of the Second International; like its other members, he acknowledged Karl Kautsky as the world’s leading marxist theoretician. At the outbreak of war in 1914 Kautsky, along with the bulk of his German Social Democratic Party, supported the German state. Lenin, in a famous pamphlet, denounced him as ‘the renegade Kautsky’. But what Lenin never attempted was to comprehend the deeper roots of this ‘renegacy’ in the philosophy of ‘Second International Marxism’. Neither was this task undertaken by the renascent Trotskyist groups of the New Left. Several scholarly studies have demonstrated the continuity between Lenin’s political theory and that of Kautsky. This fact was never taken seriously by the ‘New Left’. Just as Lenin never theorised the ‘renegacy’ of Kautsky in other than conjunctural and contingent terms, so his Trotskyist successors failed to comprehend the catastrophe which overcame ‘the workers’ state’.

The reason for this is simple: The background to the emergence of sixties’ radicalism was the failure of the orthodox Communist Parties to come to terms with their own past and current subservience to the USSR. But in all essentials the New Left and sixties’ radicalism continued the political, cultural and theoretical dynamics of the old Communist Parties.

The psychological motivation of this dynamic is captured in a devastatingly revealing comment on her comrades by a character in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook: ‘The Communist Party is largely composed of people who aren’t really political at all, but have a powerful sense of service’. In other words, they were ‘do-gooders’. They ached, they bursted to help others – but this was to be always on their own terms. Thus, it is not surprising that a remarkable number of sixties’ radicals have converted themselves from amateur pseudo-revolutionaries into professional psycho-therapists. The intellectual shift was as painless as the emotional. For philosophical radicals whose apprenticeship was in defending the mumbo-jumbo of Chairman Mao’s ‘dialectical materialism’ it was easy to become promoters of the charlatanry of psycho-analysis.

The moral economy of this dynamic is characterised in an essay by R.A.D. Grant on Edmund Burke. Grant discusses the prescience of Burke’s portrayal of ‘the revolutionary and his radical fellow-traveler’:

restless hyperactivity, as though to sit still were to concede one’s insignificance; the hidden scorn for those one pretends to act for; … the bogus humanitarianism; the exploitation of genuine distress; … the clamour .. for the most truckling appeasement of one’s country’s known and professed enemies.
(Conservative Thinkers, ed. Roger Scruton)

The letter quoted at the beginning could have been written to illustrate the theses of Lessing and of Burke/Grant. As evidence for the moral superiority of sixties’ students over present-day ones we are assured that many of the author’s contemporaries have made ‘national contributions to the women’s movement and equal opportunity’. What in fact this means is that they landed themselves overpaid “jobs” in Labour councils as members of the race ‘n’ gender Thought Police, terrorising and bemusing their own workers with nonsensical courses about ‘racist body-language’ and the like.

Sixties’ radicalism – despite its own claims to novelty – was, in essence, a late flowering of that ‘Second International Marxism’ which its own major theoreticians rightly despised. This tradition has oscillated between a bleeding-heart do-goodery and a callous endorsement of atrocity.

It has whinged on about ‘defending the Welfare State’. Yet it should be utterly obvious to any marxist that the ‘Welfare State’ was not established from moral concern, but as a buffer against the perceived threat of revolution. When that threat receded, so the Welfare State was wound down; that is all there is to it. It makes sense to defend the Welfare State from the standpoint of Labourism or Liberalism or even one-nation Conservatism. It is nonsense to do so as a marxist, except in the limited and tactical sense of it being a ‘transitional demand’.

Yet on the other hand these ‘radicals’ supported any terrorism which was deemed expedient. They vied amongst themselves to kow-tow before the nationalist gangsters of the IRA and the ANC; they applauded the overthrow of the Shah of Iran by the Moslem barbarian Khomenei. The only principle which has guided the ‘foreign policy’ of The Left has been the absurd dictum that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. Thus, during the Iran-Iraq War The Left supported Iran because the West favoured Iraq. The invasion of Kuwait – by a marvelous dialectical legerdemain – inverted this. Overnight, there appeared calls for ‘Victory to Iraq’. One of the bitterest scenes in political satire is the occasion in Nineteen Eighty Four when, in the middle of a political rally, the position of Oceania regarding Eurasia and Eastasia is inverted. Nothing has been learnt from this.

The contempt with which the groups of the New Left hold actual workers is shown very clearly in their attitude towards Northern Ireland. They supported Republicanism because they regarded ‘national liberation’ movements as a necessary step towards socialism, even should a nationalist movement be bourgeois. They never seriously addressed the fact that the majority of Northern Ireland’s population wish to remain part of the UK. Either they dismissed the Protestant working class as a ‘labour aristocracy’; or they blithely asserted that in the event of British disengagement the Protestant working class would come to realise its commonality of interests with the Catholic working class.

This contempt was brought home to me a few years ago at a meeting of a film club organised by left-Labourists and unrepentant Stalinists. It was introduced by Liz Curtis, an English middle-class Provo groupie of the kind who is detested and despised by Unionist working people. One of the movies shown dealt with the economic situation of Catholic workers. She was asked what she thought would be the response of a Protestant worker to this movie. Her response was amazement that such a question could have been asked in a meeting which advertised itself as a socialist film club. It was clear that the question had never occurred to her, and that she thought it utterly irrelevant. Most of the audience expressed annoyance that Protestant workers should even be considered

The reader of this may well assume that I am an ex-marxist who has taken the low road of political renegacy and traveled to the Right. This is not so. I am a communist who has been driven to the conclusion that the tradition of Leninism and its offshoots has been a grotesque and tragic conflation of the ‘revolutionary’ with the ‘radical’. Indeed, one of the linguistic ironies of sixties’ Leftism is that it so casually called itself ‘radical’ – forgetting that this was the appellation favoured by privileged dissidents in Nineteenth Century England. Such dissidents had no wish to dissolve the bases of the social order which had bred them. They enjoyed the privileges of their class, whilst frolicking in a game of radicalism – which never went to the roots.

The Left is picnicking in the ruins of its own past. It is not part of any solution, it is part of the problem. It is such because it has never taken seriously the analysis which is the core of the communist project: that wage-labour is a form of forced labour and that production for exchange necessarily cripples human life. For anyone who identifies with this project, then the politics which harks back to Lenin, and with it the ‘radicalism’ of the sixties, is a tradition which – to ironically allude to an essay of Lenin’s – must be renounced.


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