Friday, 28 October 2011

Occupy Has Nothing to Say? I Blame the Parents

 Socialism, or at least its 20th Century version, collapsed for two main reasons: because it couldn’t find a political form which demonstrated at least much personal freedom and democracy as the Western liberal democracies it opposed, and because it failed to deliver economic progress at the same speed or to the same apparent degree of efficiency as capitalism. 

Like everyone else of a certain age I watched this collapse on prime time TV in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It had a profound effect on me. I was, after all, a card carrying Communist at the time – a historical materialist stranded on what appeared to be the wrong side of history.  

It very quickly became clear that there was no ‘easy intellectual retreat’, as it were, to social democracy. Generations of refugees from Marxist parties had made that journey before The Fall, comforting themselves they were still pursuing the aims of socialism but by defensible, democratic means.

Actually, a very large slice of the Marxist tradition had, by the 1980s, made a serious attempt to make this shift within its own intellectual framework anyway. Classical Trotskyism had its own (to me, always unconvincing) version of this which ran broadly along the lines of laying stake to the heritage of a purified and re-claimed ‘democratic’ Leninism; the libertarian Marxists had a more root and branch version, and my own tradition, that of Eurocommunism, somehow accepted the theoretical inapplicability of much of Leninist political theory in the West ( I mean, what else was all that bigging up of Gramsci about?) whilst still maintaining an institutional allegiance to the broad hope encapsulated in the ‘moment’ of 1917. All three, were, in their different ways, quite keen on refusing the supposed gap between ‘politics’ and ‘economics’ of course, and laying stress on the economic and workplace democratic element to a vision of socialism – something they held in common with ‘advanced’ social democracy, at least in Bennite/Livingstonian form. 

Yet none of these positions – not social democracy, not Trotskyism, not libertarian Marxism, not, most of all, Eurocommunism - survived the Fall in any meaningful sense. Sure, there are fragments of each of these traditions still knocking about the margins of the political scene - but the intellectual ‘oomph’ has gone from all of them. I don’t think this is because people looked at their political solutions to the evident lack of freedom in the Soviet bloc and rejected them.

I think this is down, in large part anyway, to none of them actually having a set of economic answers to the critique capitalism posed in 1989-1991: why aren’t you as rich as us ? It was the question that those glossy shop windows in West Berlin in 1989 shouted in the face of the newly arrived Ossi, still grasping the newly hewn piece of The Wall. It stubbornly remains as a question, even though most versions of leftism now have a critique of growth for its own sake and at least a Greenish tinge. The left lacks an economic policy, or even a vision of what a socialist economy might look like.
Given that the centrepiece of Marx’s own intellectual life was subtitled ‘a Critique of Political Economy’, there is a howling historical irony here. Capitalism is now in deep trouble – systemic trouble. So, to put it mildly, it is not immediately obvious to the average Greek that capitalism will make them richer - and fears of the same nature abound throughout the once triumphant West. But no one has any non capitalist economic language with which to discuss alternatives.

& that's down to my generation, not the predominantly young people who constitute the new foot soldiers of the Occupy movement. Good on 'em I say: they may not be practicing socialist politics as I understand it - in fact, it seems more like a usurping of the old religious tradition of 'bearing witness'. But they are practicing anti-capitalist politics, and perhaps such is the poverty of radical inheritance my generation of leftists have handed down to them that is all they can possibly do. But I'm very glad they're doing it.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Once More With Feeling?

I wrote last week about my dismay at finding my children didn't know the words to the Red Flag; Rab said he used the tune as a lullaby to his kids when they were small. & this set me thinking about the role of emotionally charged symbols - be they musical or flags or whatever - in the passing on of political and moral perspectives. 

Let me share another anecdote.

This summer I went to the funeral of a man I hadn't seen for the best part of 20 years. He had been General Secretary of the old Communist Party of Great Britain and, in the 1980s, I was a lowly rank and file member in the same branch as him. I simply wanted to pay my respects. 

There was a fair crowd at the funeral. A lot of faces I half recognised and one or two much missed friends. We were all much older than my mind's eye recalled us being, some very much older it seemed to me. A certain amount of shuffling around went on as, first, the forty somethings gave up their seats in the overcrowded hall for the sixty somethings, and then the sixty somethings gave up their seats for the eighty somethings. Most funerals are like that I suppose.

Anyway, we had the speech from the Son-who-is-a-Professor on his father's personal and political life; we had the (rather beautiful) acappella Burns ballad from the Grandson-who-is-the folk-singer ; and we had the warm appreciation from the (non Communist) woman who had worked with him on pensioners’ campaigns after he retired. I braced myself for the final moments, certain that I was going to find it unbearably sad to hear these gathered extinct volcanoes of British Marxism warble uncertainly through the Internationale for one last time. Somehow the sound of their ageing larynxes were going to confirm the passing away of my youthful hopes of socialism.

But Gordon, or his family, had thought of that. We didn’t end on the Internationale,nor on The Red Flag  or Bandiera Rossa . We ended on Louis Armstrong’s ‘What a Wonderful World'. An expression of hope and confidence in our fellow human beings’ capacity for wonder now and in the future, not a ritualistic reminder of a past world fought for and lost by the greyheads in the hall. It's taken me a few months to fully appreciate what a good decision this was.

Those old songs - like the Red Flag and the Internationale - are for teaching the children so they don't die and so the kids have an imaginative window into how the generations that came before them saw the world.  

The sentiments they were meant to contain need to be passed on in other ways as well though. & any tradition which is  something more than merely a tradition will find new ways of capturing the here and now and a contemporary sense of the  socialist possibilities pregnant in the future. Because, for all the fact that music or flags and banners can't represent a politics in its entirety, we do need to be moved and reassured and warmed at an emotional level - but by a vision of hope for the future, in words and images and melodies that speak to where we're going, not where we've been .   

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Name That Tune

So I walk into the kitchen and there is young Ms. McMenamin, aged 12, doing some nonsense free-form rapping about squirrels or whatever. It was the tune that caught my attention: dum-dum-de-dum/dum-dum-de-dum/de-dum-de-dum-de-dum-de-dum.
I asked her if she knew what the tune was called, and she searched her memory and came up with a rather hesitant,"..  something about trees?".

"Well... sort of", I say:" ... but there are other words as well". A veil of blankness descends.  I called her 14 year old brother and asked him the same question only to get the same blank response. Now this depresses me, as he is by far and away the most politically aware kid of his age that I know. He wrote to Searchlight magazine asking to do his work experience next year FFS. But, no, he didn't know the words to that tune either.

Of course, my kids are not on their own: I see that whole conference halls full of people who might be expected to know the words need laminated cards to remind them. But when I was 12 or 14 everybody knew them. & I mean everybody, not just those who identified with the words in any way.

 I find it desperately sad to see something slipping away from popular cultural memory. It's not that I think either the words or the tune itself are that wonderful per se, but the idea that they're losing their status as widespread cultural reference points,  something almost like a nursery rhyme, obscurely upsets me. Even when one gets to the stage of doubting , even distrusting, any simplistic identification with 'flags and banners' of any kind, including musical ones, one has to be able to know which 'flags and banners' one is distrusting, or making ironic reference to, or whatever. 

So the kids are on a programme of 'repeat after me till you get it word perfect'. The rest of you can make do with this.